Intelligent Design

A thoughtful critique of Philip Goff’s panpsychism

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Reader Umar Nasser of Rational Religion responds to panpsychist Philip Goff, whose contention is that “Panpsychism is not in conflict with physics.” Nasser has read Goff’s book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, and focuses his comments on that:


“I enjoyed this book. It basically seeks to introduce, develop and advance the major issues in the debates over consciousness today. The book has a number of strengths:

  • Super easy to read – all well explained
  • Very well structured
  • Gives a reasonably fair critique of each of the views (see more below)
  • Last chapter on wider spiritual/cultural implications wasn’t necessary but a good touch in the end.

So basically, if you want a good introduction to these topics that’s easy to read, get this book. I’m putting that as the TLDR cos I don’t want my personal criticisms of Goff’s thesis to obscure the fact that this is generally good and was clear enough to critique! A rare talent amongst philosophers 🙂

I’ll now get into specific criticism of Goffs’ case. His thesis is essentially the following.

1) Consciousness is a primary fact of our personal realities
2) Materialism can’t explain it
3) Dualism can but it has issues
4) Panpsychism can explain it, and explains it better than dualism.

I think he falls down on (3) & (4). In fact, I was quite disappointed at his treatment of dualism. I felt like he listed some objections against it but didn’t really seek to give counter-objections, as it might hold up too well as compared to his preferred option of panpsychism.

But first while I think he makes a decent case for some kind of panpsychism, his specific suggestion – that matter IS consciousness – doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. Accepting this would be to accept that consciousness-as-matter can be measured quantitatively – it being a few microns across, having extension and other physical characteristics. However this misses the whole point of consciousness – that it is qualitative and experiential. Goff isn’t unaware of this, so it’s strange he tries to physicalise consciousness in this way – while at the same criticising the physicalists for doing something similar.

Next we can come on to his lacklustre criticisms of dualism. His main objection is that neuroscience can’t find evidence of mind-brain interaction. This seems a bit absurd — the typical dualist claim is that the mind/soul causes physical events in the brain, and vice versa — meaning that dualism can account for every datum in neuroscience. As for evidence specifically for the mind/soul producing changes in the brain, this is hardly wanting. We have ample evidence of directed agency causing brain changes. This is most vividly recorded in studies on how psychological therapies cause brain changes through neuroplasticity — obvious examples being CBT and OCD (see Jeffrey Schwartz for the latter). The neuroplasticity seen in stroke rehabilitation is another example, where stroke doctors note that motivation and emotional support is hugely important in the road to brain recovery. That is — the ‘will’ affects the brain.

(The materialist may say that this is the brain acting upon itself, but since they really don’t acknowledge consciousness anyway, they don’t have a leg to stand on).

Part of the issue was that Goff critiqued Cartesian Dualism very specifically, with biology seen as an inhabited machine — not something many dualists today (including most of the world’s religious dualists) would subscribe to at all. Religious dualists typically see the soul and the body as mutually interacting and shaping each other — hence all the religious teachings on how to wash, what to eat, the physical motions of prayer etc… the idea is that the body affects the soul, and the soul the body. Descartes was in a very specific tradition and had very idiosyncratic views about the body of humans and animals as being machines. It’s a bit of a strawman to critique his views alone, which is essentially what Goff did.

The next issue I had was that I think Goff is a bit optimistic about the ‘combination problem’ being solved. How the different atoms of a living being suddenly link up their mini-conscious states and produce a unified whole, a self with agency that no longer depends on the specific substrate that produced it, is extraordinary. Goff believes that this problem will be solved through inter-disciplinary efforts in empirical science. This is strange given that this is not something which empirical science will really shed much light on, given its physically inaccessible and obscure nature. Our tools, which are physical, are not going to be enough. After all, the same issue has bedevilled materialists for 500 years, and their promises are wearing thin.

Personally, I think that panpsychism is true, but that you can’t automatically get living conscious agency from individual, mildly conscious atoms. You have to posit the emergence of a new ‘substance’, ie: a soul. Which means that I think substance dualism is a radically emergent phenomenon in a panpsychist universe.

As to how this happens? Like with every transformation in nature, I think that one has to rely on a fundamental conscious entity, or should I say…

The Fundamental Conscious Agency 😉

Happy reading!”


You may also wish to read: At Mind Matters News: Philosopher: Panpsychism is not in conflict with physics at all. 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.

Umar Nasser

Umar Nasser is a junior doctor who writes on atheism, religion and society. He is a co-founder of Rational Religion. A public speaker on religion in the contemporary world, Umar has coordinated anti-radicalisation event campaigns across UK universities. He was once a street magician, but has since decided that there are more than enough tricksters in the world.

15 Replies to “A thoughtful critique of Philip Goff’s panpsychism

  1. 1
    Dick says:

    Re: “[Goff’s} main objection is that neuroscience can’t find evidence of mind-brain interaction. ”

    Philosopher J.P. Moreland says somewhere that the Interaction Problem is the most overrated problem in all of philosophy. That may be an exaggeration but it seems about right to me.

  2. 2
    Origenes says:

    How the different atoms of a living being suddenly link up their mini-conscious states and produce a unified whole, a self with agency that no longer depends on the specific substrate that produced it, is extraordinary.

    Hypothetical mini-conscious states of atoms which link up by some hypothetical unknown process to produce the “I” ….
    And these same people reject dualism because of the Interaction Problem.

  3. 3
    Fasteddious says:

    It seems to me that the key problem for dualism is the “how?” aspect; how does a non-material spirit or soul interact in a causative way with non-spiritual matter? Materialism does not have that problem, but fails to account for consciousness, free-will, and other important aspects of life. Panpsychism probably has the same problem of bridging the spiritual – material divide. Clearly there is some way that spirit can affect matter, since we all make decisions and implement them physically, but the core mechanism remains unclear.
    Psychics, spiritualists and paranormal proponents have dabbled in this for centuries, without much widely-credited success. Various theories ascribing spiritual control of quantum level events have been proposed, but there is little formal evidence. There must be some way to scientifically test and possibly demonstrate the connection and effect. For example, could the mind have some influence on nearby quantum states of matter? E.g. perhaps collapsing entangled particles?
    Just thinking out loud here, but if our spirits can indeed affect our physical behaviour, then there must be a mechanism of some sort that produces a detectable physical effect. Whether this is a fifth force ignored by physics (which tries to keep the human aspect out of the experiment and so misses it), something more subtle affecting wave function collapse probabilities, or something entirely different, it is surely worth while investigating it. Any suggestions?

  4. 4
    William J Murray says:

    It’s as if 100 years of quantum physics had not already decisively proved that there is no such thing as matter or energy external of our experiences. Materialism is dead. Dualism is dead. Idealism is all that is left, and the only ontological perspective that the evidence supports. There are no “atoms” out there somewhere.

    The word “spirit” only confuses the issue. Our existence is entirely mental (which includes consciousness.) Even if there was an external world of matter and energy “out there” somewhere, independent of experience, we have no ability to access it, even in principle, because we experience everything in mind/consciousness.

  5. 5
    Origenes says:

    WJM @4

    Even if there was an external world of matter and energy “out there” somewhere, independent of experience, we have no ability to access it, even in principle, because we experience everything in mind/consciousness.

    You do not have access to my conscious self-awareness, and vice versa, in a similar way as we do not have acces to an external world of matter and energy. Yet, you don’t reject the existence of my conscious self-awareness; like you do a material external world. Why is that?

  6. 6
    jerry says:

    like you do a material external world.

    Murray doesn’t believe in anything he says.

    For example, he lives in Texas. Last time I looked that’s in the external world. Yesterday he witnessed babies refusing certain foods. That’s in the external world especially food. He has also published books on Amazon.

    Anybody who responds to him as if he is serious is playing his game.

  7. 7
    chuckdarwin says:

    For once (a breakthrough, of sorts) I’m inclined to agree with Jerry–to a degree. I don’t know if Murray is serious or pulling our collective legs. I do know that his philosophy of radical Idealism seems pretty archaic. I also know that quantum mechanics does not, per se, necessarily support Murray’s idealism. See e.g. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327594187_Quantum_Mechanics_and_Consciousness_No_Evidence_for_Idealism

  8. 8
    jerry says:

    For once (a breakthrough, of sorts) I’m inclined to agree with Jerry–to a degree

    Where have you disagreed with what I said or speculated on?

    You never answer the comments I make. Step up and be on record if you disagree.

    By the way, I always look for contradiction and refutation. It’s a way of learning. That’s my main reason for commenting here, learning.

  9. 9
    chuckdarwin says:

    #8 Jerry
    Unlike you, I can’t say whether Murray actually believes what he posts or not. For all we know he may be completely serious. He seems like he’s serious. Or he may be having one over on us. Who knows?

  10. 10
    William J Murray says:

    Origenes @5 asks,

    You do not have access to my conscious self-awareness, and vice versa, in a similar way as we do not have acces to an external world of matter and energy. Yet, you don’t reject the existence of my conscious self-awareness; like you do a material external world. Why is that?

    There’s a difference between why I personally believe the things I do and how I choose those beliefs, and what arguments I make here, and how I support assertions I make in this forum, such as with evidence. Personally I don’t reject the existence of other such beings because I don’t find it enjoyable to do so.

    That said: where is the evidence that I am not interacting with other conscious, self-aware beings? As far as I know, there is no such evidence, while – as I said – there is 100+ years of conclusive evidence that I am not interacting with matter and energy that exist independently of my mental experience.

  11. 11
    William J Murray says:

    Chuckdarwin,

    To my knowledge, there are currently two groups of scientists pursuing scientific idealism or mental reality theories. One is Quantum Gravity Research, which has produced a really enjoyable video explanation of their theory and can be found here:
    https://quantumgravityresearch.org/portfolio/what-is-reality-movie/

    The other group is The Essentia Foundation, which can be found here:
    https://www.essentiafoundation.org/ It is headed by Bernardo Kastrup, a well-respected author of peer-reviewed papers in the journals of many scientific and professional disciplines.

    There are scientists in many fields that are advancing idealism or mental reality theories of one sort or another, and they are quite serious, such as Robert Lanza with Biocentrism, and The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman. Kastrup’s book is called The Idea of The World.

    Why is it so hard to believe that I take it seriously, when so many highly credible and respectable people in many fields of scientific research obviously take it seriously?

  12. 12
    jerry says:

    Unlike you, I can’t say whether Murray actually believes what he posts or not.

    Why is it so hard to believe that I take it seriously, when so many highly credible and respectable people in many fields of scientific research obviously take it seriously

    When Murray constantly uses external world examples to make a point, it leads one to believe that this is all a game. There are literally hundreds maybe a thousand examples in past comments

  13. 13
    jerry says:

    #8 Jerry

    You refer to a comment I made but in the referred comment I said nothing about what you responded to.

    Again, step up and be on record for something instead of finding some irrelevant nitpick to point out.

  14. 14
    chuckdarwin says:

    WJM
    I was responding mostly to Jerry’s comment at (6). If you say you take Idealism seriously, then I take that at face value. You hopefully know your mind better than I do. LOL
    I will look at your links….

  15. 15
    Origenes says:

    WJM @10

    Personally I don’t reject the existence of other such beings because I don’t find it enjoyable to do so.

    If you hold that other people exist, but not an independent external world, how do you explain that all people experience the same world?

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