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.

518 thoughts on “A dubious argument for panpsychism

  1. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    No, what he’s saying is what he wrote:

    “No room” means “no room”, Charlie — including by emergence.And since by Segall’s lights “scientific materialism” leaves no room for life or consciousness, he thinks it needs to be replaced with something that does leave room for them:namely Whitehead’s philosophy.

    Segall denies that emergence can account for life and consciousness in a physicalist framework.Hence my statement:

    CharlieM:

    That’s the fallacy of division, as others have pointed out.It ignores an obvious alternative:that aggregates can be alive, or conscious, even if their constituents are neither.

    Exactly right. Good post. Charlie should spend a little time reading people other than rank cranks.

  2. Kantian Naturalist: Your thinking is a textbook example of the fallacy of division. This is not a matter of opinion.

    1. Water is wet.
    2. Water is composed of H20 molecules.
    3. Therefore, each H20 molecule is wet.

    is fallacious, and for the exact same reason, so is.

    1. Some configurations of matter are alive and conscious.
    2. Matter is composed of subatomic particles [or whatever we posit at the level of ‘fundamental physics’]
    3. Therefore, each subatomic particle is alive and conscious.

    Firstly, it is not my thinking. I am relaying Segall’s understanding of Whitehead’s thinking.

    And secondly the example you give above may very well be a fallacy of division, but it bears no resemblance to Whitehead’s thinking. He explains in detail his reasoning as to the way he understands certain entities to be organisms in their own right and it does not entail, “we see living organisms all around us and therefore subatomic particles are organisms”.

    Here are a couple of passages from Segall which you may want to read and hear in context to get an idea of what he has to say about Whitehead.
    In Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager Segall writes:

    Contrary to the reductive computational or cognitivist theory of experience, wherein formal symbolic representations of atomistic sensory inputs (so-called) allow an internal picture of the world to be constructed as a basis for action (as so-called output), Dreyfus and Taylor built on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and MerleauPonty to argue for a gestalt view of experience wherein reflective, representational, or conceptually attentive consciousness is always already embedded within and emergent from skillful embodied coping in everyday social situations. Here, Dreyfus and Taylor could have drawn upon the embodied or enactive approach of Francisco Varela et al. (1992; see also Evan Thompson, 2007). A complex holistic understanding of the world, an immediate grasp of its bodily affordances and social meanings, is not an internal representation inferentially constructed out of simple sensory inputs. As Whitehead (1979) remarked after critiquing the mediational view (though he did not call it that), “A young man does not initiate his experience by dancing with impressions of sensation, and then proceed to conjecture a partner” (pp. 315-316). The man is first of all in contact with his dancing partner, and only afterwards (if he is of an especially scientific bent) formulates skeptical epistemic conjectures about his partner’s status as a collection of colorful shapes projected upon his retina (Whitehead’s construal is unpacked in the next section in terms of his distinction between two modes of experience: presentational immediacy and causal efficacy)…

    From a Whiteheadian point of view, bringing forth a robustly realist cosmological scheme no longer held captive by the mediational frame first requires overcoming the bifurcation of nature. This entails re-imagining experience as decidedly not just an epiphenomenal ghost caged within skulls or hidden beneath skin, nor even as a mysterious interspace that emerges between human subjects and objective constraints. It is necessary, rather, to develop a more generic conception of experience as intrinsic to and pervasive throughout the micro- and macro-processes composing the physical world. It is not enough to pose the question of whether a third preconceptual experiential space might be carved out between the space of natural causes and the space of human reasons and then punt the ontological football by declaring that we always implicitly “live” the answer to this question without being able to explicitly think it (Dreyfus & Taylor, 2015, p. 125). If this were an adequate answer to the question they posed, Dreyfus and Taylor would have had little need to spend 168 carefully argued pages attempting to make the inexplicable explicit. Surely not prosaic philosophy but poetry would have been the more appropriate medium in this case. Even after forgiving this shortcoming in their argument, a further issue remains: upon what realistic or ontological (i.e., non-phenomenological) basis can they establish their preconceptual interspace? Part of their way around the aporia of mediational dualism requires presupposing human agency (intentions, purposes, aims, desires, optimizations, balancings, and so forth), but such agency is precisely what is forbidden by the antiteleological understanding of the space of causes claimed by modern scientific materialism. Either everything—including organic life and human consciousness—is explainable in terms of physical causes as scientific materialists currently conceive them, or the mechanistic
    world picture of scientific materialism is mistaken. Dreyfus and Taylor (2015) are unwilling to challenge the “solidly established” (p. 68) Galilean-Newtonian conception of nature, even while they show no restraint demolishing the mediational stance that provided this conception with its philosophical justification.

    In Romantic Science in Schelling and Whitehead Segall says:

    …for him (Whitehead) spacetime is not really real what for him is really real are organisms experiencing each other and what the physicist articulates as space-time is a mathematical generization of the forms of relationship that are possible in our particular universe. So what’s primary is the organism and spacetime is an abstraction from the way they relate to one another.

  3. keiths: No, what he’s saying is what he wrote:

    Such a picture of ultimate reality [“scientific materialism”] leaves no room for life or consciousness.

    “No room” means “no room”, Charlie — including by emergence. And since by Segall’s lights “scientific materialism” leaves no room for life or consciousness, he thinks it needs to be replaced with something that does leave room for them: namely Whitehead’s philosophy.

    What he is saying is that the materialistic proposition of mind emerging from matter is incoherent.
    In Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology Segall writes:

    The philosophy of organism avoids having to invoke incoherent accounts of the emergence of mind from matter, or value from vacuity, by recognizing that conscious human experience is only a special case of a more general, or cosmic, mode of experience. For Whitehead, to exist at all is already to experience, and to experience is to value: Realization is…in itself the attainment of value…Aesthetic attainment is interwoven [with] the texture of realization. While the orthodox materialistic natural philosophy begins by assuming the two independently existing substances, mind and matter–where material objects are modified by external relations of locomotion, and mental subjects are modified by internal (or private) cogitations representative of external (or public) objects–Whitehead’s philosophy of organism begins with “the analysis of process as the realization of events disposed in an interlocked community.”…

    Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that

    it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by nonliving and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.

    Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos. Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux

    So you are correct in that he believes Whitehead’s philosophy to be closer to reality than philosophy based on scientific materialism.

  4. CharlieM: And secondly the example you give above may very well be a fallacy of division, but it bears no resemblance to Whitehead’s thinking.

    It bears perfect resemblance to what you posted above, which was a classic example. I may even use it in a classroom some day.

  5. keiths: Do you really not see that parallel processing is still information processing?

    I would prefer to say that brains implement the response we call experience or qualia. I don’t think “gives rise to” has any useful meaning.

    The current implementations of parallel processing are rather limited in application. I don’t see that they are on the path to AI. Where that path lies, I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

    Emergence is a useful term when applied to the behavior of systems. I don’t see that it explains anything. It is just an observed phenomenon. It isn’t explanatory in the sense of being part of a recipe. It’s just an after-the-fact oh-wow response.

    Look, you can call anything anything you want, but you aren’t explaining anything and aren’t pointing the way toward progress in understanding mental phenomena.

    What I am trying to point out is that there is a well known and observable difference in the architecture of brains when compared to digital computers. I have cited a well known experiment in which a digital computing chip “hijacked” an analog effect in the behavior of a particular chip and was able to perform a task in an unexpected way. I think this is similar to the way brains work.

    Brains do not store representations. They respond. I hesitate to say “holistically” because that word conjures up bad medicine and other quackery, but they do. Brains are able to respond to objects like bicycles in ways that are difficult to emulate in electronic computers. Neurons are simply not fast enough to compute the points or pixels involved in discriminating a bicycle from say, a picture of a bicycle. I don’t think there are enough particles in the universe to emulate a human brain using conventional architectures.

    The upshot of my assertion is that the question of how atoms in brains give rise to personal experience and qualia is that these phenomena are the behavior of brains, and the behavior is extremely dependent on an architecture that we don’t fully understand and cannot yet emulate.

    Does “behavior of brains” explain anything?

    No, but it would be a useful term if we find a way to emulate that behavior.

  6. Let me try another approach. Consider an analog computer that “computes” trig functions. A slide rule can implement this, but so can an electronic device.

    I would prefer not to say that the device processes information or computes. There may be some sense in which it does, but I would prefer to say that an electronic analog computer responds. It embodies the relation between input and output. There is a lag time, but the output tracks the input without anything resembling data processing or computation.

    Now let us consider the possibility of a digitally configurable analog computer. One which many configurations can be stored and recalled. I would argue that there is no representation of the input stimulus or the output response. I may just not be thinking about “representation” correctly, but what I mean is that responses are not stored in bit images.

  7. My metaphor for what brains do when responding to stimuli is sympathetic resonance. Neural circuits are triggered by resonance with stimuli. I don’t think it is useful to call this data processing, because I think the analogy with what electronic computers do is unhelpful.

    One consequence of this metaphor is it implies there is no physical difference between learning that is inherited via biological evolution, and learning that is acquired via experience.

  8. petrushka,

    You’ve been all over the map in this thread, evincing deep confusion about representation, information processing, and the hard problem. Now you’re even arguing that parallel processing isn’t information processing!

    Your personal confusion doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the concepts that cognitive scientists and neuroscientists employ. It’s just a sign that you’re confused.

  9. CharlieM,

    What he [Segall] is saying is that the materialistic proposition of mind emerging from matter is incoherent.

    I would like to see him support that claim. Hence my statement:

    I would love to see Segall’s demonstration that physicalism precludes life and consciousness.

    Nothing of Segall’s that you have quoted actually attempts such a demonstration. It’s just assertion.

  10. keiths:
    CharlieM,

    What he [Segall] is saying is that the materialistic proposition of mind emerging from matter is incoherent.

    I would like to see him support that claim.Hence my statement:

    I would love to see Segall’s demonstration that physicalism precludes life and consciousness.

    Nothing of Segall’s that you have quoted actually attempts such a demonstration.It’s just assertion.

    No, it comes from thinking about the relationships between mind and matter, perceiving and forming concepts.

    I would like to think that you agree, epistemoloically speaking, the conscious mind is primal. We arrive at concepts such as “subject” and “object” through thinking. We are taught to think of ourselves as somehow apart from nature observing external objects, that reality consists of entities in motion and qualia are just subjective representations lodged somewhere inside of our brains. But this leads to the thought that even our brains are just objects among other objects, in other words thought of in terms of qualia. This is what Barfield terms “onlooker consciousness” This is just a way of looking at things from a relatively recent Western civilization position. It was not always so and it will in all probability change in the future.

    As he writes in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays:

    To renounce the heterogeneity of observed from observer involves, if it is taken seriously, abandoning the whole “onlooker” stance, upon which both the pursuit of science and modern language-use in general are based; it means advancing to awareness of another relation altogether between mind and matter. If we had actually made the advance, we should have become naturally, unforcedly, and unremittingly aware that the mind cannot refer to a natural object without at the same time referring to its own activity. And this in turn would require an equally unforced awareness not only that scientific discovery is always a discovery about language, but also that it is always a discovery about the self which uses language.

    According to Barfield the future will belong to “final participation”

    IMO the modern Western outlook is a necessary stage to free humanity from dependence on external authority whether it be religion, science or whatever. But with freedom comes the feeling of stepping into an abyss where consciousness and self become illusions produced by matter in motion. To reach final participation it is up to each individual to take the plunge and move forward. So far I’ve only been able to dip the tipof my toe.

    Richard Carrier has had a glimpse. In his book,
    Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism
    tells of how he had “powerful mystical visions” and:

    The most fantastic experience I had was like that times ten. It happened at sea, well past midnight on the flight deck of a cutter, in international waters two hundred miles from the nearest land. Sleep deprivation affected my consciousness like a New Age shaman. I had not slept in over 36 hours, thanks to a common misfurtune of overlapping duty schedules and emergency rescue operations. For hours we had been practicing helicopter landing and refuelling drills and at long last the chopper was away and everything was calm. The ship was rocking slowly in a gentle, black sea, and I was alone beneath the starriest of skies that most people have never seen. I fell so deeply into the clear, total immersion in the real that I left my body, and my soul expanded to the size of the universe, so that I could at one thought perceive, almost ‘feel’, everything that existed in perfect and total clarity. It was like a Vulcan Mind Meld with God.

    Naturally, words cannot do justice to something like this. It cannot really be described, only experienced, or hinted at. What did I see? A beautiful, vast, harmonious and wonderful universe all at peace with the Tao. There was plenty of life scattered like tiny seeds everywhere, but no supernatural beings, no gods or demons or souls floating about, no heaven or hell. Just a perfect, complete universe, with no need for anything more. The experience was absolutely real to me. There was nothing about it that would suggest it was a dream or a mere flight of imagination. And it was magnificent.

    Goethe in his poem “Nature” says: “Each thing she makes has its own being, each of her manifestations is an isolated idea, and yet they are all one.” His “gentle empiricism” is an attempt at final participation.

    People may think it as just an illusion or a figure of speech when others talk about expanding the mind or being at one with the cosmos, but in so doing they are denying the experience of others.

  11. CharlieM: I would like to think that you agree, epistemoloically speaking, the conscious mind is primal. We arrive at concepts such as “subject” and “object” through thinking. We are taught to think of ourselves as somehow apart from nature observing external objects, that reality consists of entities in motion and qualia are just subjective representations lodged somewhere inside of our brains.

    For what it’s worth I think that is pretty much all wrong.

    I don’t think that the conscious mind is even epistemologically basic — if it were, why did it take so long for a philosopher like Descartes to come along and say so? What is epistemologically basic, if indeed anything is, is our embodied being in the world who encounter a variety of things that are friendly or dangerous, able to satisfy our needs or thwart them, useful or useless, and (in our social environments) opportunities and obstacles for cooperation or competition.

    Except in very rare cases, we don’t invent concepts whole-cloth through reflection: our experience of the world, like the experience of many animals, is itself conceptually structured. What distinguishes us may be our capacity to become aware of concepts as concepts, and surely language plays a crucial role here.

    For that matter, the subject/object distinction emerges among specific philosophers to solve specific problems that have complex causal origins. There’s nothing like it in Buddhist philosophy, or Aztec philosophy, or (for that matter) in ancient Greek philosophy. It congeals in the historical arc from Descartes to Kant as they are trying to reconcile Christian ethics, bourgeois capitalism, liberal democracy, and mechanistic physics.

    There’s nothing deep, essential, or necessary to this distinction as part of “the evolution of human consciousness”, which is really just a transposition of Neoplatonic mysticism onto Western intellectual history.

  12. CharlieM: People may think it as just an illusion or a figure of speech when others talk about expanding the mind or being at one with the cosmos, but in so doing they are denying the experience of others.

    If people are just expressing how their experience seems to them, that’s one thing; if they are making assertions about how things are, that’s quite another.

  13. walto:
    Barfield and Goethe.

    Oy.

    Goethe is a very interesting philosophical poet and philosophical scientist. He’s not to be dismissed. There’s a lot of really interesting philosophy of biology and philosophy of science going on there. He’s not rigorous or systematic, but those aren’t the only intellectual virtues. Goethe’s influence on later German philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Husserl is vast and complicated.

Leave a Reply