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Philosopher: Panpsychism Is Not in Conflict With Physics at All

Responding to criticism from physicists Sabine Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll, Philip Goff points out that panpsychism is not a dualist perspective

At IAI.tv, University of Durham philosophy prof Philip Goff tells us that “The world of academic philosophy has been rocked by the conversion of one of the most influential materialists of the last thirty years, Michael Tye, to a form of panpsychism (panprotopsychism) in his latest book. And the main annual UK philosophy conference held a plenary panel on panpsychism this year for the first time in its history.” That’s part of a pattern in which philosophy and science are warming to panpsychism, the belief that either all entities or all living entities participate in consciousness.

More on Michael Tye

Dr. Goff, author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, offers some thoughts on what panpsychism is and isn’t:

Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. It is the view that the basic building blocks of the physical universe – perhaps fundamental particles – have incredibly simple forms of experience, and that the very sophisticated experience of the human or animal brain is rooted in, derived from, more rudimentary forms of experience at the level of basic physics.

Philip Goff, “What physicists get wrong about consciousness” at [publication](27 October 2021)

He responds to two recent critics, well known in physics: Sabine Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll.

Hossenfelder dismisses panpsychism because, she argues, it clashes with the Standard Model of physics. Carroll dismisses it because it clashes with Core Theory (the Standard Model + the weak limit of General Relativity).

But, Goff argues:

Hossenfelder simply misunderstands panpsychism. She interprets panpsychism as a form of dualism: there are the physical properties of the particles (mass, spin, charge) and then, in addition, certain non-physical consciousness properties. But panpsychists are not dualists. According to panpsychism, an electron doesn’t have two kinds of property: physical and non-physical. Rather, it’s physical properties (mass, spin, charge) are forms of consciousness. Consciousness is the ultimate nature of the physical.

Philip Goff, “What physicists get wrong about consciousness” at [publication](27 October 2021)

Goff’s central point is that physics offers a purely mathematical description of reality. As with any purely mathematical description, there are questions it cannot address:

If you’re doing physics, it doesn’t feel like you’re studying networks of conscious entities. But that’s because when you’re doing physics you’re just interested in mathematical structure, not in what, if anything, underlies that mathematical structure. The latter question is one for philosophers.

Philip Goff, “What physicists get wrong about consciousness” at [publication](27 October 2021)

From his perspective, panpsychism is a philosophical interpretation of physics. It conflicts with interpretations like that of Max Tegmark, who argues that, at bottom, reality is “purely mathematical” and that of dualists like Angus Menuge who argues that reality has both physical and non-physical elements. Goff sees panpsychism as simpler than dualism.

Okay but, for science, why not just accept materialism, pure and simple? Because, as analytical philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the one thing we are each most certain of is our own consciousness. Materialism, pressed for an answer, insists that consciousness is an illusion that “science will get to the bottom of.”

But what then? Remember Egnor ’s Principle: If your hypothesis is that your mind is an illusion, then you do not have a hypothesis.

The panpsychists want to have a hypothesis. They want to include consciousness as a real fact in nature while avoiding dualism. Assuming that every entity participates in consciousness in some way, however minimal (with the human mind as the most complex development), enables them to affirm the reality of the mind without adopting an explicitly immaterial approach to it.

The growth in the respectability of panpsychism stems largely from the inability of materialism to adequately address key questions about consciousness.

Note: On November 2, 2021, Goff, along with University of Sheffield philosopher Keith Frankish, will debate these questions with materialist physicist Sean Carroll at MindChat on YouTube.


You may also wish to read more about how panpsychism is gaining a firmer foothold in science: Scientific American explores panpsychism… respectfully. This is a major change. At one time, a science mag would merely ridicule the idea of a conscious universe. Make no mistake, panpsychism—as Goff elucidates it—is a purely naturalist view (“nothing supernatural or spiritual”). But, unlike the village atheist, he goes on to ask, but then what IS nature? Matter is all there is? But what IS matter? It turns out, no one really knows.

Why would a neuroscientist choose panpsychism over materialism? It seems to have come down to a choice between “nothing is conscious” and “everything is conscious.”

How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.

Theoretical physicist slams panpsychism Electrons cannot be conscious Sabine Hossenfelder’s view because they cannot change their behavior. Hossenfelder’s impatience is understandable but she underestimates the seriousness of the problem serious thinkers about consciousness confront. There is a reason that some scientists believe that the universe is conscious: It would be more logically coherent to say that you think the universe is conscious than to say that your own consciousness is an illusion. With the first idea, you may be wrong. With the second idea, you are not anything.

and

Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems. A recent article at New Scientist treats panpsychism as a serious idea in science. That’s thanks to the growing popularity of neuroscientist Giulio Tonioni’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which offers the opportunity for mathematical modeling, along with the implication that inanimate matter and/or the universe may be conscious. If IIT continues to gain a sympathetic hearing, panpsychism could become, over time, a part of normal science.


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Philosopher: Panpsychism Is Not in Conflict With Physics at All