Posts tagged ‘OUP’

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.)