Posts tagged ‘Goff’

Following up on his post about the simplicity argument for panpsychism, Philip Goff went on to defend  the idea that physical things must have an intrinsic nature. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he attacks the idea that they don’t have intrinsic natures.  Those who think that listing the causal properties of a thing exhausts what we can say about its physical nature are causal structuralists, he says, committed to the view that everything reduces to dispositions; dispositions to burn, to attract, or to break, for example.

But when we come to characterise these dispositions, we find we can only do it in terms of other dispositions. A disposition to burn may involve dispositions to glow, get hot, generate ash, and so on. So we get involved in an endless circularity. Some might argue that this is OK, that we can cope with a network of mutual definitions that is, in the end, self-supporting; Goff says this is as unsatisfactory as making our living by taking in each other’s washing.

There’s a problem there, certainly. I think a bit more work is needed to nail down the idea that to reject intrinsic natures is necessarily to embrace causal structuralism, but no doubt Goff has done that in his fuller treatment. A more serious gap, it seems to me, is an explanation of how intrinsic natures get us out of this bind.

It seems to me that in practice we do not take the scholarly approach of identifying a thing through its definition; more usually we just show people. What is fire? This, we say, displaying a lit match. Goff gives an amusing example of three boxes containing a Splurge, a Blurge, and a Kurge, each defined in terms of the next in an inescapable circle. But wouldn’t you open the box?

We could perhaps argue that recognising the Splurge is just grasping its intrinsic nature. But actually we would recognise it by sight, which depends on its causal properties; its disposition to reflect light, if you like. Those causal properties cannot have anything to do with its intrinsic nature, which seems to drop out of the explanation; in fact its intrinsic nature could logically change without affecting the causal properties at all.

This apparently radical uselessness of intrinsic properties, like the similar ineffectual nature of qualia, is what causes me the greatest difficulty with a perspective that would otherwise have some appeal.

Philip Goff gives a brief but persuasive new look at his case for panpsychism (the belief that experience, or consciousness in some form, is in everything) in a recent post on the OUPblog site. In the past, he says, explanations have generally been ‘brain first’. Here’s this physical object, the brain – and we understand physical objects well enough  – the challenge is to explain how this scrutable piece of biological tissue on the one hand gives rise to this evanescent miracle, consciousness, on the other. That way of looking at it, suggests Goff, turns out to be the wrong way round.  We don’t really understand the real nature of matter at all: what we understand is that supposedly mysterious consciousness. So what we ought to do is start there and work towards a better understanding of matter.

This undoubtedly appeals to a frustration many philosophers must have felt. People at large tend to take it for granted that what we really know about is the physical external world around us, described in no-nonsense terms (with real equations!) by science. Phenomenology and all that stuff about what we perceive is an airy-fairy add-on.  In fact, of course, it’s rather the other way round. The only thing we know directly, and so, perhaps, with certainty, is our own experience; the external world and the theories of science all finally rest on that first-person foundation. Science is about observation and observation is ultimately a matter of sensory experience.

Goff notes that physics gives us no account of the intrinsic nature of matter, only its observable and causal properties. We know things, as it were, only from the outside. But in the case of our own experience, uniquely, we know it from the inside, and have direct acquaintance with its essential nature. When we experience redness we experience it unmasked; in physics it hides behind a confusing array of wavelengths, reflectances, and other highly abstract and ambiguous concepts, divorced from experience by many layers of reasoning. Is there not an argument for the hypothesis that the intrinsic nature of matter is the same as the intrinsic nature of the only thing whose intrinsic nature we know -our own experience? Perhaps after all we should consider supposing that even electrons have some tiny spark of awareness.

In fact Goff sees two arguments. One is that there simply seems no other reasonable way of accounting for consciousness. We can’t see where it could have come from, so let’s assume it has always been everywhere. Goff doesn’t like this case and thinks it is particularly prone to the compositional difficulties often urged against panpsychism; how do these micro-consciousness stack up in larger entities, and how in particular do they relate to the kind of consciousness we seem to have in our brain? Goff prefers to rest on simplicity; panpsychism is just the most parsimonious explanation. Instead of having two, or multiple kinds of intrinsic natures, we assume that there’s just one. He realises that some may see this as a weak argument far short of proof, but parsimony is a strong and legitimate criterion for judging between theories; indeed, it’s indispensable.

Now I’m on record as suggesting that things out there have one property that falls outside all physical theories – namely reality.  Am I not tempted to throw in my lot with Goff and suggest that as a further simplification we could say that reality just consists in having an intrinsic nature, ie having experience?  Not really.

Let’s go back a bit. Do we really understand our conscious experience?  We have to remember that consciousness seems to have two faces. To use Ned Block’s terms, there is access or a-consciousness; the sort that is involved in governing our behaviour, making decisions, deciding what to say, and other relatively effable processes. Then there is phenomenal or p-consciousness, pure experience, the having of qualia. It seems clear it is p-consciousness that Goff, and I think all panpsychists, are taking about. No-one supposes electrons or rocks are making rational decisions, only having some kind of experience. The problem is that though we do seem to have direct acquaintance with that sort of consciousness, we haven’t succeeded in saying anything much about it. In fact it seems that nothing we say about it can have been caused by it, because in itself it lacks causal powers. Now in one way this is exactly what Goff would expect; these difficulties are just those that come up when talking about qualia anyway, so in a back-handed sort of way we could even say they support his case. But if we’re looking for good explanations, the bucket is coming up dry; no wonder we’re tempted to go back and talk some more about the relatively tractable brain-first perspective.

In addition there are reasons to hesitate over the very idea that physical things have an intrinsic nature. Either this nature affects observable properties or it doesn’t. If it does, then we can use its effects to learn about it and discuss it; to naturalise it, in fact, and bring it within the pale of science. If it doesn’t – how can we talk about it? It might change radically or disappear and return, and we should never know. Goff rests his case on parsimony; we might counter that by observing that a theory that fills the cosmos with experiencing entities looks profligate in some respects. Isn’t there a better strategy anyway? Goff wants to simplify by assuming that apparently dead matter is in fact inwardly experiential like us: but why not go the other way and believe that we actually are as dead matter seems to be; lacking in qualic, phenomenal experience? Why not conclude that a-consciousness is all we’ve got, and that the semblance of p-consciousness is a delusion, as sceptics have argued? We can certainly debate on many other grounds whether that view is correct, but it seems hard to deny that dispensing with phenomenal experience altogether must be the most parsimonious take on the subject.

So I’m not convinced, but I think that within the natural constraints of a blog post, Goff does make a lucid and attractive presentation of his case.

(In another  post, Goff brings further arguments to defend the idea of intrinsic natures. We’ll have a look at those, though as I ought to have said in the first place, one should really read his book to get the full view.)

frankish-illusionConsciousness – it’s all been a terrible mistake. In a really cracking issue of the JCS (possibly the best I’ve read) Keith Frankish sets out and defends the thesis of illusionism, with a splendid array of responses from supporters and others.

How can consciousness be an illusion? Surely an illusion is itself a conscious state – a deceptive one – so that the reality of consciousness is a precondition of anything being an illusion? Illusionism, of course, is not talking about the practical, content-bearing kind of consciousness, but about phenomenal consciousness, qualia, the subjective side, what it is like to see something. Illusionism denies that our experiences have the phenomenal aspect they seem to have; it is in essence a sceptical case about phenomenal experience. It aims to replace the question of what phenomenal experience is, with the question of why people have the illusion of phenomenal experience.

In one way I wonder whether it isn’t better to stick with raw scepticism than frame the whole thing in terms of an illusion. There is a danger that the illusion itself becomes a new topic and inadvertently builds the confusion further. One reason the whole issue is so difficult is that it’s hard to see one’s way through the dense thicket of clarifications thrown up by philosophers, all demanding to be addressed and straightened out. There’s something to be said for the bracing elegance of the two-word formulation of scepticism offered by Dennett (who provides a robustly supportive response to illusionism here, as being the default case) – ‘What qualia?’. Perhaps we should just listen to the ‘tales of the qualophiles’ – there is something it is like, Mary knows something new, I could have a zombie twin – and just say a plain ‘no’ to all of them. If we do that, the champions of phenomenal experience have nothing to offer; all they can do is, as Pete Mandik puts it here, gesture towards phenomenal properties. (My imagination whimpers in fear at being asked to construe the space in which one might gesture towards phenomenal qualities, let alone the ineffable limb with which the movement might be performed; it insists that we fall back on Mandik’s other description; that phenomenalists can only invite an act of inner ostension.)

Eric Schwitzgebel relies on something like this gesturing in his espousal of definition by example as a means of getting the innocent conception of phenomenal experience he wants without embracing the dubious aspects. Mandik amusingly and cogently assails the scepticism of the illusionist case from an even more radical scepticism – meta-illusionism. Sceptics argue that phenomenalism can’t be specified meaningfully (we just circle around a small group of phrases and words that provide a set of synonyms with no definition outside the loop) , but if that’s true how do we even start talking about it? Whereof we cannot speak…

Introspection is certainly the name of the game, and Susan Blackmore has a nifty argument here; perhaps it’s the very act of introspecting that creates the phenomenal qualities? Her delusionism tells us we are wrong to think that there is a continuous stream of conscious experience going on in the absence of introspection, but stops short of outright scepticism about the phenomenal. I’m not sure. William James told us that introspection must be retrospection – we can only mentally examine the thought we just had, not the one we are having now – and it seems odd to me to think that a remembered state could be given a phenomenal aspect after the fact. Easier, surely, to consider that the whole business is consistently illusory?

Philip Goff is perhaps the toughest critic of illusionism; if we weren’t in the grip of scientism, he says, we should have no difficulty in seeing that the causal role of brain activity also has a categorical nature which is the inward, phenomenal aspect. If this view is incoherent or untenable in any way, we’re owed a decent argument as to why.

Myself I think Frankish is broadly on the right track. He sets out three ways we might approach phenomenal experience. One is to accept its reality and look for an explanation that significantly modifies our understanding of the world. Second, we look for an explanation that reconciles it with our current understanding, finding explanations within the world of physics of which we already have a general understanding. Third, we dismiss it as an illusion. I think we could add ‘approach zero’: we accept the reality of phenomenal experience and just regard it as inexplicable. This sounds like mysterianism – but mysterians think the world itself makes sense; we just don’t have the brains to see it. Option zero says there is actual irreducible mystery in the real world. This conclusion is surely thoroughly repugnant to most philosophers, who aspire to clear answers even if they don’t achieve them; but I think it is hard to avoid unless we take the sceptical route. Phenomenal experience is on most mainstream accounts something over and above the physical account just by definition. A physical explanation is automatically ruled out; even if good candidates are put forward, we can always retreat and say that they explain some aspects of experience, but not the ineffable one we are after. I submit that in fact this same strategy of retreat means that there cannot be any satisfactory rational account of phenomenal experience, because it can always be asserted that something ineffable is missing.

I say philosophers will find this repugnant, but I can sense some amiable theologians sidling up to me. Those light-weight would-be scientists can’t deal with mystery and the ineffable, they say, but hey, come with us for a bit…

Regular readers may possibly remember that I think that the phenomenal aspect of experience is actually just its reality; that the particularity or haecceity of real experience is puzzling to those who think that theory must accommodate everything. That reality is itself mysterious in some sense, though: not easily accounted for and not susceptible to satisfactory explanation either by induction or deduction. It may be that to understand that in full we have to give up on these more advanced mental tools and fall back on the basic faculty of recognition, the basis of all our thinking in my view and the capacity of which both deduction and induction are specialised forms. That implies that we might have to stop applying logic and science and just contemplate reality; I suppose that might mean in turn that meditation and the mystic tradition of some religions is not exactly a rejection of philosophy as understood in the West, but a legitimate extension of the same enquiry.

Yeah, but no; I may be irredeemably Western and wedded to scientism, but rightly or wrongly, meditation doesn’t scratch my epistemic itch. Illusionism may not offer quite the right answer, but for me it is definitely asking the right questions.

eyesPhilip Goff tells us that panpsychism is an appealingly simple view. I do think he has captured an important point, and one which makes a real contribution to panpsychism’s otherwise puzzling ability to attract adherents. But although the argument is clear and well-constructed I could hardly agree less.

Even his opening sentence has me shaking my head…

Common sense tells us that only living things have consciousness.

Hm; I’m not altogether sure such questions are really even within the scope of common sense, but popular culture seems to tell us that people are generally happy to assume that robots may be conscious. In fact, I suspect that only our scientific education stops us attributing agency to the weather, stones that trip us up, and almost anything that moves. It isn’t only Basil Fawlty that shouts at his car!

Goff suggests that the main argument against panpsychism (approximately the view that everything everywhere is conscious: I skip here various caveats and clarifications which don’t affect the main argument) is just that it is ‘crazy’ – that it conflicts with common sense. He goes on to rebut this by pointing out that relativity and Darwinism both conflict with common sense too. This seems dangerously close to the classic George Spiggott argument so memorably refuted in the 1967 film Bedazzled;

Stanley Moon: You’re a nutcase! You’re a bleedin’ nutcase!
George Spiggott: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
Stanley Moon: They said it of a lot of nutcases too.
George Spiggott: You’re not as stupid as you look, are you, Mr. Moon?

But really we’re fighting a straw man; the main argument against panpsychism is surely not a mere appeal to common sense. (Who are these philosophers who stick to common sense and how do they get any work done?) One of the candidates for the main counter-argument must surely be the difficulty of saying exactly which of the teeming multi-layered dynasties of entities in the universe we deem to be conscious, whether composite entities qualify, and if so, how on Earth that works. Another main line of hostile argument must be the problem of explaining how these ubiquitous consciousnesses relate to the ordinary kind that appears to operate in brains. Perhaps the biggest objection of all is to panpsychism’s staggering ontological profligacy. William of Occam told us to use as few angels as possible; panpsychism stations one in every particle of the cosmos.

How could such a massive commitment represent simplicity? The thing is, Goff isn’t starting from nothing; he already has another metaphysical commitment. He believes that things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties. Science, on this view, is all about a world that often, rather mysteriously, gets called the ‘external’ world. It tells us about the objectively measurable properties of things, but nothing at all about the things in themselves. No doubt Goff has reasons for thinking this that he has set out elsewhere, probably in the book of which he helpfully provides an interesting chapter.

But whatever his grounds may be, I think this view is itself hopeless. For one thing, if these intrinsic natures have no physical impact, nothing we ever say or write can have been caused by them. That seems worrying. Ah, but here I’m inadvertently beginning to make Goff’s case for him, because what else is there that never causes any of the things we say about it? Qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the sort Goff is clearly after. Now if we’ve got two things with this slippery acausal quality, might it not be a handy simplification if they were the same thing? This is very much the kind of simplification that Goff wants to suggest. We know or assume that everything has its own intrinsic nature. In one case, ourselves, we know what that intrinsic nature is like; it’s conscious experience. So is it not the simplest way if we suppose that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of everything? Voila.

There’s no denying that that does make some sense. We do indeed get simplicity of a sort – but only at a price. Once we’ve taken on the huge commitment of intrinsic natures, and once we’ve also taken on the commitment of ineffable interior qualia, then it looks like good sense to combine the two commitments into, as it were, one easy payment. But it’s far better to avoid these onerous commitments in the first place.

Let me suggest that for one thing, believing in intrinsic natures poisons the essential concept of identity. Leibniz tells us that the identity of a thing resides in its properties; if all the properties of A are the same as all the properties of B, then A is B. But if everything has an unobservable inner nature as well as its observable properties, its identity is forever unknowable and there can never be certainty that this dagger I see before me is actually the same as the identical-looking one I saw in the same place a moment ago. Its inward nature might have changed.

Moreover, even if we take on both intrinsic natures and ineffable qualia, there are several good reasons to think the two must be different. If we are to put aside my fear that my dagger may have furtively changed its intrinsic nature, it must surely be that the intrinsic nature of a thing generally stays the same – but consciousness constantly changes? In fact, consciousness goes away regularly every night; does our intrinsic nature disappear too? Do sleeping people somehow not have an intrinsic nature – or if they have one, doesn’t it persist when they wake, alongside and evidently distinct from their consciousness? Or consider what consciousness is like: consciousness is consciousness of things; qualia are qualia of red, or middle C, or the smell of bacon; how can entities with no sensory organs have them? Is there a quale of nothing? There might be answers, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy ones.

There’s another problem lurking in wait, too, I think. Goff, I think, assumes that we all exist and have intrinsic natures, but he cannot have any good reason to think so, because intrinsic natures leave no evidence. We who believe that the identity of things is founded in their observable properties have empirical grounds to believe that there are many conscious entities out there. For him the observable physics must be strictly irrelevant. He has immediate knowledge only of one intrinsic nature, his own, which he takes to be his consciousness;  the most parsimonious conclusion to draw from there is not that the universe is full of intrinsic natures and consciousnesses of a similar kind, but that there is precisely one; Goff, the single consciousness that underpins everything. He seems to me, in other words, to have no defence against some kind of solipsism; simplicity makes it most likely that he lives in his own dream, or at best in a world populated by some kind of zombies.

Crazy? Well, it’s a little strange…