A dubious argument for panpsychism

At Aeon, philosopher Philip Goff argues for panpsychism:

Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true

It’s a short essay that only takes a couple of minutes to read.

Goff’s argument is pretty weak, in my opinion, and it boils down to an appeal to Occam’s Razor:

I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism…

In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience… The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.

…the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen.

Panpsychism is crazy. But it is also highly likely to be true.

I think Goff is misapplying Occam’s Razor here, but I’ll save my detailed criticisms for the comment thread.

656 Replies to “A dubious argument for panpsychism”

  1. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    footnotes2plato,

    You say there is no evidence of purpose in physics. I would agree that there is nothing like deliberative decision-making of the sort we believe human beings are capable of. However, right at the base of physics in what Eddington called “the supreme law among the laws of nature”–namely, entropy–we see that energy displays a clear directionality and thus a form of teleology toward greater global disorder…

    Actually, the Second Law is statistical, not fundamental. And if mere directionality is all you require in order to diagnose teleology, then even a rock tumbling downhill will trigger your teleology detector. That’s pretty weak tea, and certainly not something we need teleology in order to explain.

    The idea that special arrangements of fundamentally purposeless, inert, insentient particles could give rise to even non-conscious feeling, experience, or an inward perspective on the world (i.e., something it is like to be a thing) strikes me as nothing short of a miracle.

    Consciousness is a mystery, but invoking sentient particles doesn’t solve the problem. As I commented above:

    Positing that particles have a rudimentary consciousness does nothing to establish how their individual consciousnesses unite — or even that they unite — to produce the consciousness associated with a human brain.

    footnotes2plato:

    The idea that such arrangements could give rise to living creatures with conscious intelligence capable of understanding the fundamental nature of the universe strikes me as absolutely absurd.

    Personal incredulity, by itself, isn’t worth much. What you need is an argument.

    Here’s an approach: Can you name an essential biological process that wouldn’t work under standard physicalist assumptions, but does work because it depends on matter being somehow sentient or purposeful?

    If you’re correct, there must be some such process. What is it, and why specifically would it fail to operate if standard non-experiential, non-telic physicalism were true?

  2. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    footnotes2plato, to walto:

    This is not an argument that because we are conscious, there must be mini-consciousness in the elements composing us.

    You sure seem to be arguing along those lines when you say things like this:

    The idea that special arrangements of fundamentally purposeless, inert, insentient particles could give rise to even non-conscious feeling, experience, or an inward perspective on the world (i.e., something it is like to be a thing) strikes me as nothing short of a miracle.

  3. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    IMO materialistic thinkers tend to confuse the map with the landscape. As the educator Martin Wagenschein put it in relation to the teaching of physics, it gives us a picture, “as sharp and correct as the shadow that a flowering tree throws on a wall,” but considering the essence of nature: “We circle around a mystery. Physics teaching should not favor an a priori impression that the core of this secret could ever be attained through physics.”

    Here is what he said in context:

    Let’s listen to what a group of nine-year-old boys in the laboratory school of the University of Tübingen. They have a teacher who tells them little (he doesn’t talk them into anything) and has taught them to talk with one another and to stick to the point, to say everything they think, but also to think about what they say. For hours they discuss why the sound of a distant jack hammer or of a drum lags so much behind the sighting of the movement. They check the skin of the drum with their eyes, fingers and tongues, they make their observations and say (according to the tape), “it hops and trembles, it trembles and tickles, it almost burns” (on the tongue). At last they conclude: arriving later is due to the air. Air “carries” the sound to us, and that takes time. And how does it “carry”? Their conclusion after a long conversation and experiments: when I beat against the drum skin, it wobbles and the air is pushed away. The air wobbles back and forth, and that air pushes the other air, and the air next to it, and so on. That way it wobbles through the air until it reaches my ear.

    At a later point, these children will learn to record the wobbling at a place between drum and ear by means of a mechanical sound receiver. The results, then, will be something like the “air pressure curve.” What have they, and we, gained through such a curve? The answer may be obvious, but strangely enough I have not found it in any textbook, namely: we have gained exactly what remains of the sound for someone who cannot hear.

    Now if a teacher would say about this curve, “you see, the sound is in reality nothing but this vibration in the air,” it would be absurd. Because why should the ear be singled out to be less relevant to record the reality of sound than the other, less appropriate senses? I’m not saying that teachers actually put such a “nothing but” expression in words. But what I miss is textbooks expressly denying this. The “nothing but” attitude seems to be in the air, it is between the lines. It is as if it were being learned along the way.

    The teacher can, and should at this point, only pronounce the true state of affairs, namely that people in physics have decided to concern themselves only with the mechanical aspect, which is the air pressure curve. Hence “physical acoustics” only contains what remains of sound, and of music, for someone who is deaf.

    And of course teachers should also make conscious what has prompted this decision to proceed in this way: air pressure can be measured, but the immediate experience of sound cannot. In this way the teacher can prepare the students for a fundamental insight, which is that physics is a self-limiting science, an intelligently renouncing science.

    Above all, two things should be taken into consideration. In reducing ourselves to what can be measured, we cannot bypass the senses. We estimate and measure with hands and eyes, and the whole body; we measure distance, time span, and muscle force. Secondly, we must be clear about the fact that reducing the sound we hear to the air pressure curve is a one-way street. There is no way we can ever fully convey to someone who doesn’t hear what a tone, a singing voice, or a gong sounds like. We can only give an indication in words.

    When the teacher teaching acoustics allows the nine-year-olds to critically ponder the “wobbling” of the air in the way described above, and sticks to this way of teaching, he can keep them open for what they will later learn or read about modern physics, which is the following.

    Physics is, according to the opinion of leading modern researchers, only one – albeit also the most powerful – of possible views of nature. It is not free from assumptions, but limits itself right from the start to what can be measured with yardstick, scale, and clock, insofar as we can bring the data thus measured into relationship with one another and coordinate them in mathematical structures. This results in a specific “picture of nature,” or, as we could also say, a mindscape. [ii]

    According to comparisons stemming from physicists themselves, physics gives us a picture of the surrounding sensory phenomena in the same way in which a map pictures a landscape, a score a symphony, or a shadow an object. In doing so, it gives a picture that is as sharp and correct as the shadow that a flowering tree throws on a wall. But of course the tree itself cannot want to be its shadow. Some of its structure and geometry remain, but color, smell, three-dimensionality, and the rustling of its leaves are missing.

    The human being, who partakes in nature after all, really cannot be expected to define the question about the “essence” of natural appearances by rational means, let alone find the answer. It is clear that we are only able to delineate the answer depending on one particular aspect chosen from a variety; and every aspect, physics included, imposes limitations as well. We circle around a mystery. Physics teaching should not favor an a priori impression that the core of this secret could ever be attained through physics. Bertrand Russell clearly states to what little degree physics can be ontology, can break through to the essence of things. He says, “What we know about the physical world … is much more abstract than was formerly supposed … Of the laws of these occurrences we know something – just so much as can be expressed in mathematical formulae – but of their nature we know nothing.”

    Goethe’s “gentle empiricism” is a way of studying nature that relies more on exact observation than on mathematics. His investigations were an attempt to remain within the phenomena and not to get lost in abstractions. In reality the plant for instance is a living energitic, dynamic entity and not a static, dead object.

    There is a polarity which can be seen when we think of the world around us in terms of the old system of elements, earth, water, air, and fire; or to put it in more modern terms, solid, liquid, gaseous, and heat energy. A lump of coal is solid and static unless acted upon by an external force. The chemical energy is locked within it and in order to release this energy it must ascend through the elementary states. On the other hand a flame is dynamic, ethereal and energetic. This is the polarity between gross matter and spirit. Living, organisms are in reality observed to be closer to the spiritual pole than the material pole. And I would say that this is also true for stars and galaxies.

  4. walto walto
    Ignored
    says:

    keiths: The idea that special arrangements of fundamentally purposeless, inert, insentient particles could give rise to even non-conscious feeling, experience, or an inward perspective on the world (i.e., something it is like to be a thing) strikes me as nothing short of a miracle.

    It’s a little bit of a word game, I think. He says atoms aren’t exactly conscious, they just have experiences. As I indicated above, I don’t see that makes a ton of difference to anything. Same folks will line up on each side of the debate.

  5. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I’m rather curious about the alternatives.

    The consciousness that is not made of matter, but which interacts so strongly with physical brains that it goes away when the brain is disrupted or damaged.

    I suspect someone’s concept of matter is made of straw men.

    If they only had a brain.

  6. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka,

    Hi petrushka

    Do you agree that there are various levels of consciousness?

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