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 😉
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 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.