Panpsychism

This is a review of Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error: Foun­da­tions for a New Sci­ence of Con­scious­ness. I was intrigued by the idea that we could con­sid­er con­scious­ness to be a sort of uni­ver­sal fab­ric that com­prised even sub-atom­ic par­ti­cles. But, alas, I think Goff’s idea is not well sup­port­ed by his argu­ment. Pansy­chism is vul­ner­a­ble to David Hume’s dev­as­ta­tion of the medi­ae­val notion of ‘sub­stance’: an ‘intrin­sic stuff’ that the school­men thought lurked beneath the empir­i­cal qual­i­ties of mat­ter and the expe­ri­ences of the ‘soul’.

Cov­er

In this engag­ing book, Goff first shows that con­scious­ness remains a mys­tery; most expla­na­tions fail when close­ly exam­ined. That includes naive mate­ri­al­ism (the claim that con­scious­ness is noth­ing more than neu­ro-chem­i­cal events in the brain) and mind-body dual­ism that pos­tu­lates a “ghost in the machine”. So Goff tries to bring back an old idea that uni­fies mind and body: panpsy­chism. This is the claim that the world that we have reluc­tant­ly con­clud­ed is an immis­ci­ble com­bi­na­tion of mat­ter and mind could be, in real­i­ty, a con­tin­u­um filled by a sub­stance called ‘con­scious­ness’ that is ‘intrin­sic’ to both mat­ter and mind.

Why does Goff think we need a can­di­date for the ‘intrin­sic’ stuff of the world? Because, he claims, mod­ern sci­ence fails to tell us any­thing about the true nature of mat­ter (or of expe­ri­ence). Since the Galilean rev­o­lu­tion, he says, sci­ence has focussed only on what mat­ter does using math­e­mat­i­cal descrip­tions. It does not tell us what mat­ter is. This is because Galileo changed the nature of sci­en­tif­ic enquiry. “Physics since Galileo”, accord­ing to Goff, “has been a pure­ly math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ence. There is noth­ing beyond the equa­tions…” (p 125).

This is a divert­ing claim, no doubt, but utter­ly mad. It sug­gests, for exam­ple, that the CERN col­lid­er project is noth­ing but a mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar, mil­lion-per­son-day ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor. In fact, as a few hours of research will con­firm, the great­est advances of 20th cen­tu­ry physics (not to men­tion New­ton) — such as the ideas of Bohr, Born, Schrödinger, Ein­stein — came not from math­e­mat­ics but from intu­ition, reflec­tion, imag­i­na­tion and spec­u­la­tion that formed hypothe­ses math­e­ma­tised only lat­er (a good brief his­to­ry is Phillip Ball’s Beyond Wierd). Ein­stein was not good at math: he teased his dis­cov­er­ies out of imag­in­ing him­self rid­ing on a light wave and in a celes­tial ele­va­tor (see Wal­ter Isaacson’s Ein­stein for an account of the devel­op­ment of his think­ing). Arthur Edding­ton, whose ideas Goff lat­er appro­pri­ates, famous­ly con­firmed Einstein’s ideas of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty by show­ing it explained facts about the phys­i­cal uni­verse (grav­i­ta­tion­al lens­ing) not that it formed a sys­tem of equa­tions.

But Goff is unim­pressed. The sci­en­tif­ic account of the nature of mat­ter, he tells us sev­er­al times, is an emp­ty cir­cu­lar def­i­n­i­tion of force and mass: each term defined by ref­er­ence to the oth­er.

This claim — that the physi­cists’ account of mat­ter is emp­ty because cir­cu­lar — is key in the book, because Goff uses it to moti­vate his sub­sti­tu­tion of panpsy­chic for phys­i­cal expla­na­tions of the ‘intrin­sic nature’ of things. But it is just wrong, as far as I (not a physi­cist) know. Wikipedia will tell you — using the same terms as your intro­duc­to­ry high-school physics text — that force is a vec­tor (direc­tion + mag­ni­tude) descrip­tion of a push or a pull. Mass (an adjec­tive, not a noun) is a qual­i­ty of mat­ter (objects with mass and vol­ume) that describes an object’s resis­tance to a net force. Then the phys­i­cal field (elec­tro­mag­net­ic and grav­i­ta­tion­al) also con­tains mass­less pho­tons and neu­tri­nos that are near­ly so. I’ve tried, but I can’t find any trou­bling cir­cu­lar­i­ty in this con­cep­tu­al frame­work. Mass is defined by its reac­tion to force. But force is not defined in terms of its rela­tion to mat­ter.

(Goff may wish to object that a “push or a pull” can be under­stood only in terms of a rela­tion­ship to some mate­r­i­al object and so the def­i­n­i­tion is ‘ulti­mate­ly’ cir­cu­lar. To this objec­tion I would say, as he says on p.88 of his book, that you have to draw a line under skep­ti­cal nit-pick­ing some­where. With­out push­ing a line or pulling ideas out of the air, I sug­gest the ideas of a ‘push’ or a ‘pull’ are sim­ple, intu­itive and intel­li­gi­bly inde­pen­dent of con­text.)

Does this mean that in our cur­rent under­stand­ing, all mat­ter resolves to just some dis­po­si­tion of force and resis­tance? Well, yes! E=mc^2 real­ly is our cur­rent under­stand­ing of the cash val­ue of mat­ter. It is a high­ly suc­cess­ful the­o­ry, but is it unsat­is­fac­to­ry as Goff claims? Maybe; your sat­is­fac­tion may depend on what you hoped for. Goff wants mat­ter to have some ‘intrin­sic nature’ — not just a trans­ac­tion­al val­ue — because he finds that tidi­er and more sat­is­fy­ing. Accord­ing­ly, he plumps for the same idea that David Hume tore apart in his Trea­tise on Human Under­stand­ing. He says that every­thing, mind and mat­ter, may com­prise a mys­te­ri­ous (pri­vate, ‘you’ll know it when you’ve got it’) and uni­ver­sal ‘sub­stance’ that he calls ‘con­scious­ness’ (what­ev­er that is).

With a sort of endear­ing enthu­si­asm, Goff even sum­maris­es this pecu­liar argu­ment for us with­out the least embar­rass­ment, on p. 132:

Prob­lem 1: We need a place for con­scious­ness.
Prob­lem 2: We have a huge hole at the cen­ter of our sci­en­tif­ic sto­ry.
Solu­tion: Plug the hole with con­scious­ness.

Goff’s idea that the world com­pris­es con­scious enti­ties has a cou­ple of heavy­weight uncles: Bertrand Rus­sell and Arthur Edding­ton. Russell’s Analy­sis of Mat­ter and Eddington’s Gif­ford Lec­tures deserve the recon­sid­er­a­tion he gives them. Some con­tem­po­rary physi­cists (e.g. Lee Smolin) are skirt­ing the same idea about mat­ter that Rus­sell advanced: that ‘events’ are the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter of the quan­tum uni­verse.

But I think we’re bet­ter advised to recon­sid­er David Hume’s Trea­tise on Human Nature. Despite his deplorable lack of quan­tum cred., Hume’s is a more robust and par­si­mo­nious approach to this same prob­lem of mat­ter and mind, prompt­ed by his rejec­tion of Descartes and the ide­al­ist philoso­phers. Philip Goff claims (p. 134) that panpsy­chism is the sim­plest ontol­ogy: “To deny panpsy­chism one would need a rea­son for sup­pos­ing that mat­ter has two kinds of intrin­sic nature [for objects inside and out­side brains] rather than just one.” But Hume replies: we can make it even sim­pler by assum­ing no ‘intrin­sic nature’ at all?

Hume applies the ‘Occam’s razor’ approach that Goff endors­es ear­li­er in his (excel­lent and enter­tain­ing) treat­ment of dual­ism and mate­ri­al­ism. Hume will have no more enti­ties in the world (of mat­ter or mind) than nec­es­sary and observ­able. Specif­i­cal­ly no mys­te­ri­ous and intrin­sic “sub­stance” unde­tectably under­ly­ing the impres­sions we have of the world in which the ‘acci­dents’ of expe­ri­ence — colour, tex­ture, tem­per­a­ture etc. — inhere. We know noth­ing of the world, says Hume, but these impres­sions; con­scious­ness (thought, soul), too, is noth­ing more than a train of these impres­sions with­out any ‘intrin­sic’ con­scious sub­stance in which they inhere. (I take it Hume would sup­port the idea that con­scious­ness is an illu­sion emerg­ing from our expe­ri­ence of this train of impres­sions).

I don’t pre­tend to catch Philip Goff in any con­tra­dic­tions and I enjoyed his sum­ma­ry of the phi­los­o­phy of mind in the first chap­ters of this book. I share his dis­ap­point­ment (as do many physi­cists) about the unsat­is­fac­to­ry weird­ness of cur­rent quan­tum field the­o­ry and the stul­ti­fy­ing recent con­fir­ma­tion of the ‘stan­dard mod­el’ of par­ti­cle physics. I hope for much bet­ter ideas in the future and agree that they’re unlike­ly to emerge from sim­ply more beau­ti­ful math. But I’m less per­suad­ed by Goff’s meta­physics than by Hume’s more mod­est and more testable claims. Even after read­ing his book, I see no alter­na­tive to mate­ri­al­ism and I’m not un-com­fort­able with an expla­na­tion of con­scious expe­ri­ence that explains it as an ‘illu­sion’ emerg­ing from phys­i­cal process­es in the brain.

In the last chap­ter of his book, mod­est­ly titled: Con­scious­ness and the Mean­ing of Life, Goff lever­ages his dis­missal of mind-body dual­ism — now seen to be con­gru­ent with blink­ered Galilean sci­ence — to attack glob­al-warm­ing skep­ti­cism for refus­ing to accept the appar­ent con­sen­sus of the same phys­i­cal sci­ence. He ref­er­ences with approval Nao­mi Klein’s exco­ri­a­tion of Fran­cis Bacon (!) for “con­vinc­ing Britain’s elites to aban­don, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giv­ing moth­er to whom we owe respect and rev­er­ence…” He wor­ries with Max Weber that “the mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic world­view… seems to present us with an immense uni­verse entire­ly devoid of mean­ing… “ and that eco­nom­ic glob­al­iza­tion has “erod­ed many tra­di­tion­al forms of life; inter­na­tion­al chain stores have con­quered the cen­ters of com­mu­ni­ties; adver­tis­ing now fills all cor­ners of pub­lic space. Where local beau­ty is pre­served, it is only as a quaint muse­um piece for globe-trot­ting tourists.”

But I can’t see how panpsy­chism sup­ports any of these fash­ion­able opin­ions. So I’d like to con­clude by allow­ing David Hume to deliv­er a qui­etus to that quaint idea (from An Abstract of A Trea­tise on Human Nature)

…the soul, as far as we can con­ceive it, is noth­ing but a sys­tem or train of dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions, those of heat and cold, love and anger, thoughts and sen­sa­tions; all unit­ed togeth­er, but with­out any per­fect sim­plic­i­ty or iden­ti­ty. Des Cartes main­tained that thought was the essence of the mind; not this thought or that thought, but thought in gen­er­al. This seems to be absolute­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble, since every thing, that exists, is par­tic­u­lar: And there­fore it must be our sev­er­al par­tic­u­lar per­cep­tions, that com­pose the mind. I say, com­pose the mind, not belong to it. The mind is not a sub­stance, in which the per­cep­tions inhere…”

We have no idea of sub­stance of any kind, since we have no idea but what is derived from some impres­sion, and we have no impres­sion of any sub­stance either mate­r­i­al or spir­i­tu­al. We know noth­ing but par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ties and per­cep­tions. As our idea of any body, a peach, for instance, is only that of a par­tic­u­lar taste, colour, fig­ure, size, con­sis­tence, &c. So our idea of any mind is only that of par­tic­u­lar per­cep­tions, with­out the notion of any thing we call sub­stance, either sim­ple or com­pound.”

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