Panpsychism is the view that conscious awareness pervades the physical world, down to the level of basic particles. In recent years, philosopher Philip Goff has become an influential proponent of the view, defending it in his books and . He builds on ideas developed by contemporary philosophers like David Chalmers and Galen Strawson, who in turn were influenced by early twentieth-century thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington (though Russell, it should be noted, was not himself a panpsychist).
Goff’s views are bound to be of special interest to many of the regular readers of this blog, given that a critique of the conception of matter associated with Galileo and other early modern proponents of the mechanical world picture is central to his position. The problematic nature of this conception of matter has, of course, been a longstanding theme of my own work. Naturally, then, I think that Goff’s publicizing of what he calls “Galileo’s error” is an important contribution. But unfortunately, what Goff wants to put in place of that error is, in my view, not much of an improvement. Certainly his argument for panpsychism from the rejection of Galileo’s mistake is a gigantic non sequitur.
The limits of physics
Let’s begin with what Goff gets right. Common sense takes ordinary physical objects to have both (a) size, shape, motion, etc. and (b) color, sound, heat, cold, etc. Early modern philosophers and scientists characterized features of type (a) as “primary qualities” and features of type (b) as “secondary qualities,” and argued that the latter are not genuine features of matter as it is in itself, but reflect only the way conscious awareness presents matter to us. What exists in mind-independent reality is nothing more than colorless, soundless, tasteless, odorless, etc. particles in motion. Color, sound, taste, odor, etc. exist only in the mind’s experiences of that reality.
That’s the short version of the story, anyway. There are various complications. For example, on Locke’s version of the distinction, it is not quite right to say that secondary qualities don’t exist in mind-independent reality. In fact, both primary and secondary qualities are really there in physical objects. The difference is that the experiences that primary qualities generate in us really “resemble” the qualities themselves, whereas the experiences that secondary qualities generate in us do not resemble the qualities themselves. On Locke’s view, there really is something in an apple that resembles the shape you see in it, but there is nothing really there in the apple that resembles the color you see in it.
Influenced by this Lockean way of making the distinction, later philosophers would say that whether colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like really exist in mind-independent reality depends on what we mean by those terms. If by “color” you mean a surface’s tendency to absorb light of some wavelengths while reflecting others, then you can say that color really exists in physical objects. But if by “color” you mean what common sense means by it – the perceived look of red, or blue, or whatever – then the claim is that there is nothing like that in physical objects themselves, but only in our experiences of them. Color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them are claimed to exist only as the “qualia” of conscious awareness, to use what has become the standard jargon.
The basic idea is clear enough however these details are worked out. Now, the reason Galileo and the other proponents of the mechanical world picture took this view, as Goff emphasizes, is that they wanted to develop an entirely mathematized conception of nature, and while primary qualities were thought to fit comfortably into this picture, secondary qualities do not. They are irreducibly qualitative rather than quantitative, so that attempts to analyze them in purely quantitative terms always inevitably leave something out. The solution was to hold that they just aren’t really part of the natural world in the first place, but (again) only part of the mind’s perception of that world. Problem solved!
Well, not really. In fact, this move is itself problematic in several respects. One of them is that drawing a sharp distinction between primary and secondary qualities turns out to be much more difficult than it at first appears, as Berkeley famously showed. The Aristotelian philosopher, who defends common sense, would say that this is a good reason to think that secondary qualities are, after all, as objective as primary qualities. Berkeley, of course, drew the opposite conclusion that none of these qualities are really objectively out there. And he made of this claim, in turn, the basis of an argument for idealism or the denial of matter’s very existence.
The more common approach, however, was to try to make some version of the primary/secondary quality distinction work, and this went hand in hand with a Cartesian sort of dualism rather than idealism. As early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche pointed out, dualism was in fact an inevitable consequence of the primary/secondary quality distinction. For if color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them don’t exist in matter, then they don’t exist in the brain or the rest of the body (since those are material). And if they do nevertheless exist in the mind, then we have the dualist conclusion that the mind is not identical with the brain or with any other material thing.
The very conception of matter that modern materialism has committed itself to is therefore radically incompatible with materialism. And that is why materialists have had such a difficult time answering objections like Chalmers’ “zombie argument,” Jackson’s “knowledge argument,” and Nagel’s “bat argument,” and solving the “hard problem of consciousness” that such arguments pose for them. Attempting to develop a materialist account of consciousness while at the same time presupposing the conception of matter inherited from Galileo and Co. is like trying to square the circle. It is a fool’s errand, born of conceptual confusion and neglect of intellectual history.
Now, another lesson, and one especially emphasized by Russell and Eddington, is that the methodology that modern physics has inherited from Galileo and Co. guarantees that physics tells us far less about the material world than meets the eye. In particular, what physics reveals is only the abstract mathematical structure of physical reality, but not the intrinsic nature of the entities that flesh out that abstract structure.
Since these are all themes I have been going on about myself for many years, I am, with this much, highly sympathetic. A defense of the structural realist interpretation of modern physics and critique of the mechanical world picture are major themes of my most recent book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science. These are important parts of the broader case I make there for a neo-Aristotelian philosophy of nature. Goff does not take them in that direction, but he does a real service by making better known the nature and implications of the conceptual revolution the mechanical philosophy set in motion.
After this point, however, Goff’s argument starts to fly off the rails. His next move is to borrow a further idea from Eddington and Russell, who held that introspection of one’s own conscious experiences does reveal the intrinsic nature of at least one physical object, namely the brain. That is to say, when you look within and encounter qualia – the way red looks, the way heat feels, the way a musical note sounds, and so on – what you are directly aware of are the entities that “flesh out” the abstract causal structure of the brain revealed by science.
Now, if qualia are the intrinsic properties of at least this one physical object, and we know nothing from physics about the intrinsic properties of any other part of physical reality, then, Goff proposes, we can speculate that qualia are also the intrinsic properties of all other physical reality. Physics, he says, leaves a “huge hole” in our picture of nature that we can “plug” with qualia (Goff, Galileo’s Error, p. 132). But since qualia are the defining features of conscious experience, it follows that conscious experience exists throughout the material world.
To be sure, Goff is keen to emphasize that the conscious awareness associated with, say, an electron is bound to be radically unlike, and more primitive than, ours. He also notes that a panpsychist need not attribute conscious awareness to all everyday physical objects (such as a pair of socks) but only to the more elementary bits of matter of which they are composed. Still, he is attributing something like sentience to physical reality well beyond the animal realm, indeed well beyond the realm of living things.
But this line of argument is fallacious, and the bizarre solution panpsychism proposes to the problem of how to fit consciousness into the natural world is completely unnecessary. For one thing, it is hard to imagine a more stark example of the fallacy of hasty generalization than Goff’s inference from what (he claims) brains are like to a conclusion about what matter in general is like. Suppose we allow for the sake of argument that introspection of qualia involves direct awareness of the intrinsic properties of the matter that makes up brains. Brains are an extremely small part of the matter that makes up even just the Earth, let alone the rest of the universe (from which, as far as we know, they are entirely absent). They are also the most complex things in the universe. Why suppose that all matter, and especially the most elementary matter, is plausibly modeled on them? Surely the prima facie far more plausible bet would be that most matter is radically unlike brains.
A second problem is that Goff’s argument takes for granted that what contemporary philosophers call “qualia” really are features of conscious experience rather than of the external objects that conscious experience is experience of. And that assumption is open to challenge. After all, common sense would take it to be obvious that when we learn what an apple tastes like or looks like, what we are learning is something about the apple itself, not about our experience of the apple. And the Aristotelian conception of nature that the mechanical world picture displaced would have agreed.
The point is not that what seems obvious to common sense must be correct, but rather that it shouldn’t simply be taken for granted that contemporary philosophers’ habit of talking about the way an apple tastes, the way red looks, the way heat feels, etc. as if these were features of the mind (and thus as if they were “qualia”) – as opposed to features of mind-independent reality – reflects an accurate carving up of the conceptual territory. Goff himself emphasizes that Galileo’s treatment of these qualities as mind-dependent was motivated by his project of developing a purely mathematical conception of nature; that this was a philosophical thesis rather than one that has been established by science; and that it created the very problem of consciousness that Goff thinks panpsychism solves. Why not solve it instead by simply not following Galileo in making the conceptual move that created the problem? Goff says that “Galileo took the sensory qualities out of the physical world” and that panpsychism is “a way of putting them back” (Goff, Galileo’s Error, p. 138). Why not instead merely refrain from taking them out in the first place?
Or, if we’re going to speak of putting them back after Galileo took them out, why not put them back in the specific places he took them from? Why instead put them into every other bit of matter, including unobservable particles, when that is not where they came from? For example, Galileo (and the mechanical philosophy more generally) hold that the redness you see when you look at an apple is not in the apple itself, but only in your mind. Goff tells us that, in order to solve the problems this sort of view raises, we should say that the redness you see is in your brain, and that something analogous to it is in electrons and other particles. Why not just say instead that it really is in the apple after all, and leave it at that? Goff’s “solution” is analogous to trying to rectify the injustice caused by a theft by giving the stolen money back to everyone except the person it was taken from!
It might be replied that to reject Galileo’s move in this way would conflict with the findings of modern physics. But again, as Goff himself emphasizes, the move is at bottom philosophical rather than scientific in nature. To be sure, scientific considerations (about the physics of light, the neuroscience of vision, etc.) are relevant. But they do not by themselves establish the correctness of the mechanical philosophy’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities, because the scientific evidence is susceptible of different philosophical interpretations. Nor could Goff object that reversion to something like the conception of color, sound, etc. that prevailed before the rise of the mechanical philosophy would be too radical a departure from philosophical orthodoxy. For he acknowledges that panpsychism represents a radical departure from it, and argues that such a departure is necessary in order to solve the problem posed by Galileo’s conceptual revolution.
Moreover, some mainstream contemporary philosophers would, for reasons independent of debates about either panpsychism or Aristotelianism, defend the “naïve realist” view about qualities that was overthrown by Galileo and the mechanical philosophy. I have defended it as well. (See pp. 340-51 of Aristotle’s Revenge, which includes a discussion of the relevant contemporary literature.) Goff not only reasons fallaciously to the conclusion that conscious experience pervades inorganic reality, but reasons from assumptions about the nature of color, sound, heat, cold, etc. that his own critique of the mechanical philosophy should have led him to question.
A further problem is that the suggestion that there is something analogous to consciousness in fundamental physical particles and other inorganic entities is simply prima facie implausible, and not just because it sounds bizarre. As Aristotelians argue (see Aristotle’s Revenge, pp. 393-95), sensation is closely tied to appetite and locomotion, so that the absence of the latter from plants tells strongly in favor of the absence of sensation from them as well. What is true of plants is a fortiori true of electrons and other particles too, to which it is even more implausible to attribute appetite or locomotion. There are simply no good empirical grounds for attributing anything like sentience to the inorganic realm, any more that there are for attributing it to plants.
The attribution also turns out to be completely pointless, given other things Goff says. Consider that the panpsychist’s attribution to basic physical particles of something analogous to consciousness is alleged to make it more intelligible how the brain could be conscious. For if matter is already conscious “all the way down,” as it were, then there should be no surprise that the complex organ that is the brain is conscious too. We need simply to work out how the more elementary forms of consciousness that exist at lower levels of physical reality add up to the more sophisticated form with which we are familiar from our own everyday experience. This is known as the “combination problem,” and while Goff thinks there are promising approaches to solving it, he acknowledges that panpsychists have not yet done so.
You might suppose, then, that Goff is committed to a kind of reductionism according to which higher-level features of the natural world are intelligible only if reducible to lower-level features, where Goff differs from materialist reductionists only in positing the existence of consciousness at lower levels as well as at higher levels. But in fact, Goff explicitly rejects this reductionist assumption, citing in support the work of contemporary critics of reductionism like Nancy Cartwright. Goff allows that physical objects can have properties that are irreducible to the sum of the properties of their parts. But then, what is the point of positing consciousness at the level of basic particles as part of an explanation of how animals and human beings are conscious? Why not instead merely take the consciousness that exists at the level of an organism as a whole to be one of those properties irreducible to the sum of the organism’s parts? That is exactly what the traditional Aristotelian position does.
Goff says that there must be something that fleshes out the abstract structure described by physics, and alleges that “there doesn’t seem to be a candidate for being the intrinsic nature of matter other than consciousness” (Galileo’s Error, p. 133). But in fact there is no great mystery here in need of some exotic solution. We need only to see what is in front of our nose, which, as Orwell famously said, requires a constant struggle. The concrete reality that fleshes out the abstract structure described by physics is nothing other than the world of ordinary objects revealed to us in everyday experience. Physics is an abstraction from that, just as the representation of a person’s face in a pen and ink sketch is an abstraction from all the rich concrete detail to be found in the actual, flesh-and-blood face. No one thinks that the existence of pen and ink drawings raises some deep metaphysical puzzle about what fleshes out the two-dimensional black-and-white representation, and neither is there any deep metaphysical mystery about what fleshes out the abstract structure described by physics. The bizarre panpsychist solution is no more called for in the latter case than in the former.
Does that mean there is nothing more to be said about the intrinsic nature of matter beyond what common sense would say about it? Not at all, and Aristotelianism provides a detailed account what more there is to be said about it. It is to be found in the hylemorphist analysis of material substances as compounds of substantial form and prime matter, possessing causal powers and teleology, and so on. Again, for the details see Aristotle’s Revenge (as well as its predecessor Scholastic Metaphysics, and the work of other contemporary Aristotelians like David Oderberg). Goff is right that a radical solution is needed to the problems opened up by Galileo’s error. But it is to be found, not in panpsychism (which ultimately amounts to yet a further riff on Galileo’s error), but in a return to the classical philosophical wisdom that the early moderns abandoned.