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Monday, 11 September 2017

Against Philip Goff's (Panpsychist) “Phenomenal Bonding” (1)

[i]t is natural to suppose that my mind, the subject of my consciousness, is not a microscopic entity”.

It can be assumed here that Goff must also believe that a rejection of a microscopic mind is some kind of intuitive take (by laypersons) on our own minds. However, perhaps most people don't believe that their minds are either microscopic or macroscopic entities. I say that because Goff himself has a problem with the fact that some philosophers take intuitions seriously. This must surely mean that Goff doesn't care that much about what it's "natural to suppose". So when Goff continues by saying that his

mind is a macroscopic entity which derives its nature from the microscopic entities which compose it”.

that may also be problematic. The problem may be one of terminology.

Thinking that the mind is a whole (or a single entity) isn't the same as thinking that it's macroscopic... or microscopic for that matter. If Goff were talking about the brain and its parts, there'd be no problem. However, he's talking about the mind or consciousness. After all, the little minds/subjects of the brain are supposed to make up a Big Mind/Subject/Consciousness. Thus, all the way down, Goff is talking about the physical also being phenomenal (or experiential). Or, as Goff himself puts it, the Big Mind/Subject is

ultimately [constituted by] the entities that fundamental physics talks about, which the panpsychist takes to be conscious subjects”.

So this isn't about small non-phenomenal brain-parts ganging up together to create a phenomenal Big Mind/Subject. It's about small physical and phenomenal brain-parts doing so. More scientifically (or not), this is about the possibility that

little subjects, such as electrons and quarks, come together to produce big conscious subjects, such as human brains”.

It's certainly true that “little” atoms, electrons, quarks, etc. (or little bits of the brain) “come together” together to constitute a big brain. However, do “little subjects” come together to produce “big conscious subjects”? Goff himself says that “it’s hard to make sense of this kind of combination”.

Phenomenal Bonding

Goff uses the term “phenomenal bonding” to account for all the above. It's defined in very simple terms when Philip Goff writes:

If we identify the phenomenal bonding relation with the spatial relation it follows that, for any group of material objects, the members of that group, being spatially related, determine a conscious subject.”

Put simply, if all these little minds/subjects are part of the same brain (therefore they're all “spatially related”), then it makes sense to say that they can “sum together” (not Goff's own words) to form a Big Mind.

Goff goes further than that when he states the following:

Particles form a conscious subject when and only when they form organisms (or a subset of organisms, or the brains/central nervous systems of organisms...”

However, spatial relatedness can't be enough. After all, this cup in front of me is spatially related to my arm. Does my arm and that cup make up a single object? Not according to non-metaphysicians. In the case of the brain (as well as central nervous system), however, things are different. For one, my arm isn't always attached to the cup; whereas little minds/subjects may always be part of the same package – i.e., the brain and, perhaps, the central nervous system. However, as stated elsewhere, spatial relatedness - even in the very same package - doesn't show us how little minds/subjects sum together to form (or constitute) a Big Mind/Subject. We need to know how little minds/subjects “bond” and how that sum constitutes a Big Mind/Subject. Goff, of course, recognises this problem. He writes:

The nature of organisms and car engines are accounted for in terms of their parts, but those parts constitute the organism/engine only when related in the right way. The same is surely true of the explicability of subjects in terms of other subjects.”

At first glance, the relatedness of small minds must partly be a scientific – or neuroscientific – problem. That is, little minds are related to each other within the brain and central nervous system. After all, it's neural networks, neurons, microtubules, molecules, biochemicals, atoms, electrons, quarks, etc. which are said to have “phenomenal properties” - these things are scientifically legitimate entities. The claim that such entities also have phenomenal properties, however, isn't scientifically legitimate. Yet these phenomenal properties are supposed to be embedded in the neural networks, neurons, microtubules, molecules, biochemicals, atoms, electrons, quarks, etc. which are indeed scientific entities. Thus it's clear that these entities are indeed physically related. (If sometimes in peculiar ways; at least according to those who emphasise the quantum mechanical aspects of the brain.)

Four Matchsticks and Four Little Subjects

It's certainly true that Goff is well aware of the problems which phenomenal combinatorialism faces. He states the problems in various places. For example, Goff writes:

Small objects with certain shapes, e.g. Lego bricks, can constitute a larger object with a different shape, e.g. a Lego tower. But it is difficult to see how, say, seven subjects of experience, each of which has a visual experience as of seeing one of the colours of the spectrum, could constitute a distinct subject of experience having a visual experience as of seeing white…”

Thus four matchsticks put in random places – even if close together - won't constitute a square shape. However, they can be arranged to make a square shape. Nonetheless, the square shape is entirely a product of the four matchsticks. There's no “strong emergence” here.

Goff concedes that when it comes to little pockets of experience and Big Minds/Subjects, we have something different. Though is it strong emergence?

Goff's own scenario is about the sum of the little minds' experiences creating an entirely different experience – that of a Big Mind/Subject. Thus each little mind/subject is like a little matchstick. Taken on its own, each little matchstick can't constitute a square. Taken together with three other little matchsticks, they can constitute a square. Similarly (or fairly so!) with little pockets of experience. Taken individually they “see” different “colours of the spectrum”. Taken together (at least in theory) they may bring about “a visual experience as of seeing white”. However, as hinted at above, these examples aren't of a kind (i.e., they don't belong to the same logical space). A matchstick square is nothing over and above the individual four matchsticks which constitute the square. In Goff's case, we have little minds/subjects experiencing various colours of the spectrum summing together to produce a Big Mind/Subject which experiences the colour white. A Big Subject's experience of white is, therefore, over and above the experiences of all the little minds/subjects. It's an example of strong emergence.... Or is it?

There is a spectrum of colour. However, would - or could - it follow from this that if little minds/subjects experienced the individual colours of the spectrum individually that their sum would bring about a Big Mind/Subject which experiences the colour white?

A More Technical Argument

Goff also puts his position in a more technical way by expressing the following argument; which he rejects:

[The metaphysical isolation of subjects] implies that there is no state of affairs of the form <subject of experience S1 exists with phenomenal character x, and subject of experience S2 exists with phenomenal character y> which necessitates <subject of experience S3 exists with phenomenal character z>.”

This is a position against cases of “phenomenal bonding” which can be seen to bring about states which are strongly emergent . It rejects any causal or even conceptual relation between different “subjects of experience”. More correctly, S1 and S2 can't “necessitate” S3. Or, at the least, the phenomenal realities of S1 and S2 can't necessitate the phenomenal reality of S3.

Despite that, it still can be said that the different phenomenal reality of S3 can't be ruled out a priori. At the same time, it seems to lack any empirical or scientific credibility. It is, in fact, a case of metaphysical speculation, as Goff would admit. In addition, whereas the first position says that “there is no state of affairs” as to S1 and S2 necessitating S3, Goff also argues that this scenario “does not imply that there is not some state of affairs” of S1 and S2 having R to S3. Or in Goff's own words:

[MIS] does not imply that there is not some state of affairs of the form <subject of experience S1 with phenomenal character x bears relationship R to subject of experience S2 with phenomenal character y> which necessitates <subject of experience S3 exists with phenomenal character z>.”

This hinges on the (possibly false) move from

S1 and S2 necessitating S3

to the (possibly correct) move that is

S1 bearing relationship R to S2 and then, in turn, both S1 and S2 necessitating S3.


i) S1 doesn't necessitate S2.
ii) S2 doesn't necessitate S3.
iii) However, S1 standing in relation R to S2 may necessitate S3.

I really don't know what's going on here. Prima facie, it's hard to see why there can't be a necessitating relation between S1 and S2, yet, on the other hand, when S1 and S2 are taken together (via relation R),  S1 and S2 can indeed necessitate S3.


In a seminar entitled 'Phillip Goff on Non-Compositional Panpsychism', Philip Goff claims that the “mind is multiply located”. This, at first glance, seems to create a problem for much of what's been said above. However, Goff (in the seminar) doesn't really provide much detail for this position. And even if there are arguments in its favour, they may not make much of a difference.

Again, prima facie, if the mind is multiply located and “wholly present many times in the brain” (as Goff also says), then this does seem to create problems for the positions enunciated above. Though what do Goff's claims mean? Surely if the mind is multiply located, then that seems to go against claims about “little subjects”. It also seems to rule out any (strong) point of “bonding”. If the mind is multiply located (as well as wholly present many times), then there doesn't seem to be a (strong) requirement for either little subjects or their bonding.

To follow: 'Emergence' and 'Little Subjects?' See also my 'Philip Goff's Panpsychist Conceivability-to-Possibility Argument'.

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