Panpsychism – not even wrong. Or is it?

I had an interesting exchange with philosopher Philip Goff on Twitter (@Philip_Goff ) recently, prompted by his article: “Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true”, published in Aeon. There he lays out a series of arguments that he claims make it likely that all pieces of matter possess some degree of consciousness.

According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.”

The idea is that consciousness may be not solely a property of highly complex systems, such as ourselves, but a fundamental property of every piece of matter in the universe, like mass. Some bits of matter would have more of it than others, but all – down to the level of elementary particles like electrons and quarks – would have some kind of subjective experience. I’d like to say there’s more to it than that, that it involves a whole fleshed out framework that explains all manner of phenomena in a new way, but actually that’s pretty much it.

It’s easy to make fun of panpsychism – so let’s begin. On the face of it, such claims are absurd. However, the idea has been around for millennia, with many prominent supporters – Plato, Spinoza, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, for example – and it is experiencing a recent resurgence of sorts. But if you look more deeply, you can see, or at least I will argue, that panpsychism has so little real content that it’s questionable whether it rises even to the level of a hypothesis, never mind a theory.

It is instructive, however, to follow the logic of the arguments put forward, if only for illustrating what I contend is exactly the wrong way to think about consciousness – as an elemental property of bits of matter, as opposed to an emergent property of an organised dynamic system that is made of bits of matter.

Strangely, most of the arguments that Goff offers in support of panpsychism centre more on broad issues in the philosophy of science, than on any advantages of the idea itself as an explanatory framework. He begins by saying that we should not reject panpsychism out of hand just because it is counter-intuitive. Fair enough. As he points out, some other theories are counter-intuitive, like special relativity or wave-particle duality. I would certainly accept that, though I definitely would not include the idea that we are descended from apes in that list. However, the fact that some scientific theories are counter-intuitive does not make it a general selling point in favour of plausibility.

More specifically, Goff lays out three premises:

1. Physical science tells us nothing about the “intrinsic nature” of matter, and hence there's a gap in our picture of physical reality that must be filled by broader theorising. By this he means that physics defines the properties of things by their dispositions – by what they do, rather than what they are.

This assertion is fine with me, as far as it goes, though it’s basically just an expression of our ignorance – never a strong starting point for an argument. More crucially, the term “intrinsic nature” is doing a lot of heavy lifting for something that is left so vague here. It’s not really clear what it means, nor is it clear that it’s actually a thing. As we’ll see below, there’s also some sleight of hand involved as we go from thinking of the intrinsic nature of elementary particles to the intrinsic nature of organised systems of matter. Should we expect those things to be in any way commensurate? Using the same term simply makes the assumption that we should. (That assumption, however, is also the conclusion – this is the first circular argument).

2. The only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, the stuff in the brains, has a consciousness-involving nature.

Here we can see the easy slide from the microscopic to the macroscopic – from elements of matter to organised systems of matter. If we simply use the term “intrinsic nature” to refer to both, and we simply refer to human beings as “matter”, without reference to the crucial fact that it is organised matter, then this move almost makes sense – it implies there is no reason to think there is anything qualitatively different at the two extremes of complexity. (Again, that is both an assumption and a conclusion).

3. The simplest theory consistent with that data is panpsychism. That is, if we know some of the matter in the universe has an intrinsic nature that entails consciousness, then it is parsimonious to assume that all matter does – at least more parsimonious than assuming some does and some doesn’t and then having to explain the difference.

There is an appeal here to Occam’s Razor – the well accepted scientific principle that if you have two theories that both explain something, the simpler one is usually better. (Both more heuristically useful and more likely to be correct). The key to wielding this razor, however, is that the two theories in question actually explain something. A simple statement that just declares consciousness to be a fundamental property of all matter does not explain anything. It’s merely a cop-out. It does not advance our understanding in any way. It does not constitute a theory at all, never mind one that explains what needs explaining.

As H. L. Mencken almost said: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Again, you can see in premise 3 another circular argument. The fact that only some matter (i.e., that constituting human beings, and probably many other kinds of animals) has the property of consciousness is exactly the thing we are trying to explain. Simply saying everything is conscious to some extent – that it is an intrinsic property of bits of matter, like mass – assumes the thing the theory is trying to conclude.

Now, you might counter by saying that I am the one making circular assumptions – if I simply insist that only certain complex systems are conscious, then of course I rule out panpsychism before giving it a chance. So, let’s see if it actually has anything to recommend it – does it explain anything or predict anything that would make us want to take it seriously?

Goff claims (here) that panpsychism “solves the hard problem of consciousness” – the mystery of how mere physical matter can give rise to subjective experience. This would be pretty remarkable, if true, given that is one of the deepest mysteries left for science to even begin to resolve. The “solution”, however, is simply to assert that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. There’s no real reason to think that is the case – certainly no evidence that it is. Nothing follows from the assertion. It makes no predictions, testable or otherwise. It doesn’t explain the nature of subjective experience that a rock may be having or how that property comes to be. The hard problem remains just as hard – harder even, as now we have to ask it about electrons and photons too.  

Indeed, you can make exactly the same series of arguments with respect to “life” instead of “consciousness”, highlighting the absurdity not just of the claim, but of the logic:

1.     We don’t understand the intrinsic nature of matter.
2.     Some forms of matter are alive.
3.     It is therefore parsimonious to conclude that all forms of matter are a bit alive.

Again, that’s a simple statement, but it’s not a simple theory, because it’s not a theory at all.

If you would counter that “life” is too nebulous a concept for this comparison to be apt, I would argue that though the boundary between living and non-living is fuzzy at certain points, if you think about the boundary between living and dead, that makes it pretty clear that being alive is a real, definable property of some things, under some conditions, and not others.

More broadly, the comparison with life highlights a huge unstated premise – the hidden assumption – that underlies this chain of logic. It is that the properties of organised, complex, dynamic systems derive solely from the properties of their components (or at least may do so). Though Goff refers to the theory as “non-reductive”, I can’t think of anything more reductive than claiming that the most crucial property of what may be the most complex system we know of – the human brain – inheres in its simplest components.

The answer to the mystery of consciousness – and it remains very much a mystery – surely lies in a nonreductive physicalism that recognises that complex, even seemingly miraculous properties (like conscisousness, or life itself), can and do emerge from the dynamic interactions of matter when it is organised in certain highly complex ways, not from the bits of matter themselves. In this view, consciousness is a property of a process (or of many interacting processes), not of a substance.

So, after due consideration (maybe more than it is due), I will stick by my assessment, that panpsychism is not even wrong. But I remain willing to be convinced that it is.


  1. Excellent, thoughtful response.

    And it's not really fair to say that Panpsychism "solves" the HP, because the HP is only a problem for materialists--those who presume (and it is a presumption, as you explain) that energy/matter (quantum fields) is insentient. So the HP is to explain in detail how sentience emerges from insentience. If one presumes that sentience is fundamental, then there is no HP.

    The comparison between conscious experience and life is seductive but ultimately unfruitful. The processes that constitute can be explained and discussed in empirical, objective terms. We can explain, illustrate, and define the physical quantum, chemical, and biological processes which constitute the processes of life.

    Not so with conscious experience. There are exactly zero explanations and/or models that can begin to explain, illustrate, and define physical processes that have a causal relationship with conscious experience. When we attempt to explain conscious experience as being caused by physical processes or emerging from physical processes we run into all kinds of intractable problems such as overdetermination, mental causation, strong emergence, dualism, and the myth of double transduction.

    And there's nothing wrong with presuming that the answer "surely lies in a nonreductive physicalism that recognises that complex, even seemingly miraculous properties (like conscisousness, or life itself), can and do emerge from the dynamic interactions of matter when it is organised in certain highly complex ways."

    But it may be time to look elsewhere. Many do believe for good reason that seeking a causal, physical explanation for the existence of conscious experience is a red herring.

    “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.” ~ Bertrand Russell

    The largest stumbling block is a failure to understand the nature of perception and its implication for understanding the mind body problem. It certainly seems as if the brain and consciousness experience are two separate things. However, if I may:

    “The conscious observer, when he seems to himself to be observing his brain, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of himself upon himself.”

    1. Well, if you say sentience is fundamental you may have gotten rid (not solved) the "hard problem" but you've created a new one - how could sentience be fundamental to everything? That seems a harder one to me because there really is no good handle on even how to think about approaching it.

      By contrast, I would say that your last sentence sums up a very good working model for how subjective experience arises. It is one that relies on a certain architecture of the brain - hierarchical and recursive - and on the fact that it's job is to model things. First, things out in the world and also the organism's own internal states, but second, third, fourth, fifth... eventually it's modeling its own workings. Seems like a very plausible jumping off point for a nonreductive but still physical explanation of consciousness.

      Also, things like mental causation and strong emergence may not be as problematic as you think, as discussed here:

      So, to say we have no idea at all of how consciousness might work is a drastic overstatement - there may still be some philosophical hurdles to get over but there is a flourishing scientific literature on consciousness that is making real progress.

    2. >> Well, if you say sentience is fundamental you may have gotten rid (not solved) the "hard problem" but you've created a new one - how could sentience be fundamental to everything? That seems a harder one to me because there really is no good handle on even how to think about approaching it.

      You're not wrong about that. Which is one reason the mind body problem may continue to be a problem for a very long time.

      One clue may be that modeling/representation and consciousness are two marks of mind (humans and we assume the minds of many other organisms). While we have a very good handle on the role representation plays in perception, we haven't a clue what role consciousness might play. In fact, we know that consciousness is neither necessary of sufficient for perception.

      This leads to an interesting question: although we, as humans, know consciousness and representation to be marks of our minds, we know that consciousness and representation are distinct phenomena. We can have representation sans consciousness.

      Can we have consciousness sans representation!? What would consciousness even be in the absence of a representational structure? As you say, how does one even get a handle on something like that?

      But there are (weak) clues that non-representational (or perhaps non-experiential) consciousness may indeed exist.

      >> By contrast, I would say that your last sentence sums up a very good working model for how subjective experience arises. It is one that relies on a certain architecture of the brain - hierarchical and recursive - and on the fact that it's job is to model things. First, things out in the world and also the organism's own internal states, but second, third, fourth, fifth... eventually it's modeling its own workings. Seems like a very plausible jumping off point for a nonreductive but still physical explanation of consciousness.

      In sticking with the vein of thought above, one might say that the architecture of the brain and nervous system as a whole provides the structural/representational mark of the human mind. But unfortunately, it's not easy to see how even complex hierarchies and recursions among purely material entities could cause consciousness to exist whereas hitherto it did not. That is, it's not easy to see how conscious could be a purely material process weakly emerging from other equally material processes.

      Strong emergence, like panpsychism, is a departure from the HP because we are then no longer discussing materialism but rather a new ontological substrate--conscious experience--that has erupted into a previously wholly material world.

      As you correctly note, panpsychism, so far as we know, is completely, empirically unprovable and untestable. Not unlike the problem of other minds; the problem of proving that other humans and animals besides oneself possess conscious experience. Another indicator, perhaps, that that the mind body problem is a special kind of problem.

  2. Panpsychism is a magic word. I suspect that unconscious images of pan flutes and satyrs float through our mind within milliseconds of using the term, before the word is even done being said. One typically earns the appellation panpsychist the instant one steps out of the mind of our sacred species, peace be upon it, with an assertion about a variable or more of consciousness not being modeled by science adequately today. Bang: you embrace magic; you work a dogma; you have lazy fealty to a deity of many genders and no PO Box.

    Panpsychists like me are the embarrassed Trump voters who lied when they were asked who they were going to vote for. We actually outnumber you already– but so what? It's still embarrassing. Why can't people wander over and guess that something as poorly defined as consciousness can be in both spoons and humans, cockroaches and trees? The aspect of consciousness seemingly mandated by quantum mechanics has to do with an ability to observe and report events. That's a highly constrained notion. And, since the spoon and the boulder do a fine job of storing and delivering information in certain contexts, at least in informational models– whammo!– you didn't even get out of information theory and you're probably turning panpsychic already. You can trade aura spectrums with other panpsychists through the app now, and get hella yoga gear discounts, but yeah, your reputation went out with the Wednesday garbage.

    One reason why we forbid panpsychism effulgently is our long fealty to consciousness as particularly human. We simply can't imagine ourselves getting even 1% of the way over to pan-whatevers from cogito ergo sum. The irony of worrying about panpsychosis is that even consciousness in great apes and whales and dogs struggles to get a place at the table currently, so anxious are we to jog around basic notions of cognition, inheritance, the unconscious, perception, and agency to endless locution on subjectivity and logical positivist whatnot and the illusory will. Animals and plants having consciousness is prominent in Nietzsche and many feminists and phenomenologists– boo! hiss! All the more reason to ban it- cogito ergo that's so freaking stoopid.

    On the complaint about a lack of falsifiability in the recent neurobanter article: yes, a problem. Falsifiability isn't a requirement for truth or usability, though; there are fundamental limits to some kinds of observation that we may have stumbled into, like our physicist friends have. Of course, panpsychism should chase around after falsification opportunities like anyone else. There is no dictum that falsification is incompatible with panpsychism in the future.

    What concerns me most– enough to flop over at the moment to firm panpsychist, from within the physicalist smudge where I usually denote myself– is an attitude and approach to doing science I find deceptively unhealthy. From Michelle Boulous Walker:

    "Typically combative readings in much contemporary philosophical work function to close down possibilities for thought by containing what is being read in simple statements that reduce the complexity and ambiguity at play. Opposing or criticizing a text all too often becomes an excuse to read poorly (or unethically), glossing over inconvenient ambiguities, that may impede a neat and tidy resolution."

    We can't let ourselves be fooled into thinking people's answers are more important than the quality and inventiveness of their questions. If we make that mistake, we'll find ourselves setting up and breaking down straw men all day for a living, instead of being useful.

    1. I don't think my analysis of Goff's arguments here involves any straw men - they are literal quotes of his premises, with some probing into the underlying, unstated assumptions.

      I also don't agree that panpsychism suffers from the position of human exceptionalism. I am certainly perfectly willing to extend consciousness to all kinds of creatures, at differing levels (including differing levels in humans as they develop, for example). I just see no reason to extend it to spoons, without stripping out any real meaning of the word.

      If the argument rests on the idea of things having an "intrinsic nature" that physical science cannot tell us anything about - due to the fact that that nature creates no dispositions (the only thing we can access through physical science), then, ultimately, it makes no difference to anything what that intrinsic nature is. Literally, by that definition, it affects nothing and can never affect anything.

      So, if people want to say spoons have an intrinsic nature that involves consciousness to some degree, well, off they go - there are no implications of that idea, if it is premised as argued. But, if so, then there is no justification to call it a scientific theory or claim it lays the foundation for a "scientific program of research".

    2. I should apologize, should've started by distinguishing your points with some others on panpsychism– I got to this essay by a tweet that was thrilled about a 'slapdown' of panpsychism. Also, my point on straw men is a general one, that it often ends up what's happening with philosophers are overly competitive and do dismissive analysis; in some situations of amorphous, confusing ideas or levels of analysis, it isn't an efficient overall attitude because of the tendency to clamber over instead of through. I do think you have a little of that going on, but just mostly in your #2 and some follow-on. I liked your points 1 and 3 completely. I don't like the not even wrong framing, in that spirit, because it isn't a struggle to keep the ball in play, though it's a reasonable effort at evaluation "standing". I thought the comparison to life itself is partially useful, but not as a coda-and-out analysis (the underlying assumptions and definitions are both easier and not parallel).

      A narrow sense of consciousness– few talk about gradients and differentials, let alone emergence aspects– can't be conflated with an "'intrinsic nature' that physical science cannot tell us anything about." I shan't let it :0) As said, nothing about panpsychism implies unfalsifiability on its face. Three perhaps lousy ideas along these lines are a notion parallel to that of virtual matter, of emergence of straitened form(s) of consciousness, rather by way of thinking about matter as process, or the way virtual matter shows up contingently; more straightforwardly, consciousness (in the observer sense) simply as a considered dimension of a certain set of problems in the somewhat well-known space of physics; or certain patterns dictated by particular aspects of consciousness that dictate relatively universal behaviors. I don't see these are a priori unfalsifiable.

      I like your (healthy, rather rare) pointing out of the easy elision between macro/organized and micro analysis, which I did just the last paragraph; much stupidity gets travailed-over that way. But, again, I have to defend this gruel: what frustrates me is the easy sense that we've said something definitive often, when consciousness can't be put in a box well enough to assume we're answering a point. Similarly, we know a spoon isn't a cockroach, but we don't know the difference, as in we don't know if the difference in consciousness is one of shading (you inferred a shading idea with human-to-bug), type/definitional (my favorite), or a simple yes/no one. Neither of those examples have to be leading to a circular argument; the notion it's circular rests on inflexible definition unduly, by my lights.

      I must admit that the common characterization of panpsychism as bluntly "consciousness is in everything" makes my skin crawl. Which is perhaps why I see your ending point conflating virtually all panpsychists I've read with physicalists: "seemingly miraculous" "non-reductive" and the assumptive dualism of (lowly) matter vs process-is-everything are used as a long alternative vehicle. But you've slung so many diaphanous ideas there that you're abutting with anything I can claim to be panpsychism, at least any I'd be interested in taking seriously. It sounds like just another way of saying I believe in the scientific method, with an implication that panpsychists don't, and that 'I'm gonna stick with falsifiable ideas, thanks.' Perhaps we can make this argument, and keep a distinction, but you're not doing it by my lights.

    3. Sorry Scott, but you lost me a couple times in there. I would say that the characterisation of panpsychism that I present here is entirely and very directly based on the articles by Goff and subsequent Twitter conversations with him. I think I have represented his views fairly (much of it is direct quotes) and not constructed any straw men in the process.

    4. Thanks for the patience, Kevin. I get that you're engaging tightly with Goff's argument; I'm also muddying the waters, because I'm not a fan of much of his points. I'm frustrated with your implication of an adequate review when Strawson, Kristof Koch, other information people, and many/various intelligent apologists have better and more constrained things to say on the subject.

      I'll close with a bit of a further point, so our distinction and my alien nature in this argument are highlighted better. I'm much less interested in the details of the argument than the process of the argument. As usual, metaphysics and phenomenology don't get a vote with physicalists because vague or complicated, because unprovable and/or why bother. I feel arguments like yours on aspects of consciousness, especially when they rest on standing ('not even wrong'), are missing a balance or backstop; nothing wrong with the arguments I liked of yours, just no attempt, by definition, to get at the subject from the thousand-and-one perspectives outside physics and the cognitive sciences. This metaphysical argument used to be optional, before quantum physics made it mandatory. In a way, it's quite a fundamental argument: how does one allow phenomenological thinking- evaluative discussion outside the scientific process, more or less– to enter into analysis usefully, without opening the door to stupidity? Part of the answer is that one must simply try in the case of complex questions, and put up with the riffraff– that we make autistic-style errors when we don't. Obviously, that's not a successful argument with many– it is the age of Sam Harris, after all– but there's a trail of tears in the history of science, leeches and junk DNA and behaviorism, because of air-tight logic devoid of story. Science can become not just wrong, but a deadly tool.

      So here's the I'm-an-alien part of my argument, then: consciousness is a reverent subject, potentially more so than any other. Wading in with 400 words to address an overly broad characterization is less than useless. We're talking about a confusing subject that is potentially integral to causation, perception, and all living behavior; we're also having the conversation in a world where Hoffman's interface theory of reality appears likely to be valid, and where intuitive notions of spacetime are routinely violated. By all means, argue away; but don't assume that physicalists can or should hermetically seal themselves away from all the partial, specialized panpsychic discussions out there regarding consciousness, by using arguments about no there being there, circularity, and dispositions. We should know by now that the many answers needed for the mystery of consciousness are going to look very odd on the other side of the story, with likely more than a few shibboleths of science philosophy removed hurriedly from the building.

    5. Thanks Scott. I am perfectly happy to engage with metaphysics - I think scientists should, especially for a subject like consciousness. I was not dismissing the entire enterprise out of hand. I was dismissing the particular conclusion of panpsychism, based on my analysis of the arguments put forward to support it (as described by Goff). I will admit to having an initial bias that the position is absurd - on further engagement with the supposed arguments for it, that viewpoint was upheld. I may be wrong, of course - I'm just presenting my own thoughts on the matter. I'd like to say time will tell, but under the formulation of 'intrinsic nature' proposed by Goff (under which this nature has no effect on the dispositions of anything), time will not tell.

  3. Conscious beings are efficacious and that is how we can know where they exist. They are able to sense their environment and interact with it in a dynamic flexible goal oriented way. They interact with their immediate surroundings in their own characteristic manner. They are self movers but require the use of energy to move. Where would we find such fundamental mental beings, monads or natural individuals? I use science to speculate as to the answer to that question and arrive at some surprising conclusions. The fundamental subjective beings exist at the level of elementary particles and animals with nervous systems but also at two intermediate levels within the living Earth. I conclude that on planet Earth there is a four level hierarchy of natural mentality.



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