Monday, 14 October 2019

John Horgan and Philip Goff on Panpsychism & Geocentrism

Philosopher Philip Goff and science writer/journalist John Horgan disagree about panpsychism

In a blog post ('The New Copernican Revolution: A Response to John Horgan'), Philip Goff lays out the philosophical problems he has with John Horgan's stance on panpsychism. It mainly concerns what Horgan sees as panpsychism's “geocentrism”; though it does touch on the nature of evidence (i.e., when it comes to both metaphysical and scientific theories).

The Pleasing Theory of Panpsychism

Firstly, Goff offers broad reasons for why he accepts panpsychism. Put simply, Goff believes that

panpsychism offers the best account of how consciousness fits into a scientific worldview”.

I take it that because panpsychism is seen as being more “parsimonious”, “elegant” and “simple” (words Goff often uses) than its rivals, then that means that it's likely to be true. (This is precisely what string theorists believe about string theory.) Yet physicists and other scientists (such as Lee Smolin and Roger Penrose) have argued that simplicity, elegance, etc. alone don't always lead us in the right direction. They may offer a certain psychological neatness. However, beyond that, there’s an indefinite number of neat, elegant and parsimonious metaphysical theories which can explain the same data. The problem is that few of them seem to abide by the various scientific strictures. Thus, ultimately, often “anything goes” when aesthetics and metaphysics enter the game together.

Goff also argues that

rival accounts of materialism and dualism face serious problems (some empirical, some conceptual) that panpsychism avoids”.

That’s true. However, we can now say that that panpsychism faces serious problems (some empirical, some conceptual) that rival accounts avoid.


Firstly, John Horgan accuses panpsychists of “neo-geocentrism”. And then Philip Goff accuses John Horgan of geocentrism.

According to both Goff and Horgan, geocentrism is

the attempt to drag us back to the pre-Copernican view that reality revolves us human beings”.

So let John Horgan himself put what he takes to be the geocentrist position:

[R]ecently prominent scientists and philosophers have been propagating ideas that restore us—more specifically, our minds, or consciousness - to the center of things. I call this perspective neo-geocentrism.”

He then tells us about the theorists he sees as being geocentric:

Neo-geocentric thinking has always lurked at the fringes of science, but it is becoming more mainstream. That was apparent at ‘Sages & Scientists,’ convened in September by holistic-health mogul Deepak Chopra. The meeting called for ‘a new science’ that “can accept consciousness as fundamental and not just something generated by the brain.

Neo-geocentric thinking was also rampant at consciousness powwows I attended in Tucson, Arizona, last spring and at New York University last fall, where tenured professors from major institutions proposed that consciousness matters at least as much as matter.”

There’s a distinction to be made here between the following:

i) Seeing consciousness as being “fundamental” to our own conceptions of the universe/reality.


ii) Seeing consciousness as being fundamental to the universe/reality simpliciter.

Thus it’s almost a truism to say that consciousness is fundamental to our individual and collective conceptions of reality/the universe because we observe and think about that reality through consciousness and the mind. However, this doesn’t mean that consciousness has a superior pride of place in the universe regardless of the individual or collective minds of human beings.

So in these senses, “consciousness matters” to us “at least as much as matter”. Again, that’s simply because we don’t have Thomas Nagel’s “view from Nowhere” when it comes to the universe/reality.

As for different kinds of “centrism. There will be properties that are specific to human beings; just as there are properties which are specific to ants or limestone rocks. So that doesn't necessarily mean that John Horgan also believes that “reality revolves around human beings”. In fact, what does that mean?

Goff then quotes Horgan (taken from his 'The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism' at Scientific American) thus:

“'As far as we know, consciousness is property of only one weird type of matter that evolved relatively recently here on Earth: brains.’”

I just take that as a statement of fact. Or, perhaps more correctly, a statement of what Horgan takes to be a fact. After all, he does precede that statement with the words “as far as we know”. So why designate this claim as “geocentrism”?

Goff then goes into greater detail about what he thinks “non-panpsychists” believe. He writes:

“For non-panpsychists, consciousness – the source of all that is of value in existence – is to be found on the planet alone, and only in its very recent history. In the immensity of the cosmos, we are uniquely special and privileged.”

There are many “non-panpsychists” who don't believe that. They realise that in our vast universe there will be many oases of consciousness or mind (depending on how these words are defined). In fact such non-panpsychists frequently tell is that we’re not “uniquely special and privileged”.

Goff then puts the panpsychist position. He writes:

“Panpsychists, in contrast, propose a new Copernican revolution, according to which there’s nothing special about human consciousness...”

Again, this view dates back a long time – all the way back to Aristarchus of Samos in the 4th century BC. Then we had “Kant’s aliens”, etc.

In addition, even if “phenomenal properties” exist all the way down, human consciousness may still be special and/or unique. This brings in, of course, the “combination problem”. That is, a human consciousness may be the combined result of myriad little minds/subjects; though that combination (or “subject summing”) is still something entirely different from its various phenomenal parts.

Again, even if someone accepts that phenomenal properties exist all the way down (i.e., to rocks and atoms), it may still be the case that human consciousness is indeed special. However, the word “special” is loaded because everything in the universe – from a type of rock to an ant - is special and unique in some (or even many) ways.

Unobservable Consciousness

Goff’s next argument is simple.

He argues that “non-panpsychists” stress the important fact that we can’t observe the consciousness (or phenomenal properties) of, say, a rock or an electron. Goff then says that we can’t observe the consciousness of another human being either. As far as it goes, Goff is correct.

Goff sets out his argument in the following manner:

“But given that consciousness is unobservable, we wouldn’t expect to observe consciousness in particles, whether it was there or not. Nor can we observe consciousness in brains. We know about consciousness not through observation and experiment but through the immediate awareness each of us has of her or his own conscious experience.”

We assume other human beings are conscious even if we can't “observe” their consciousness. And because they share so much with us, we then assume (though for many good reasons) that they must be like us in terms of consciousness or mind too. Yet that doesn't apply to rocks or atoms. Sure, there's also much that is unobservable in psychology and physics; though that doesn't mean we should embrace the unobservable phenomenal properties of atoms or rocks. These cases are hugely dissimilar.

It's also speculative and controversial position to lump unobservable Little Subjects in with such things as quarks, electrons, etc. There are very different standards applied to the unobservables of physics and the unobservables of metaphysics. For one, quarks or electrons aren't observable; though the effects of their interactions certainly are. Can the same be said of the phenomenal properties of a carbon atom or a rock?

In the proceeding post in his blog ('Can Panpsychism be Tested and Does It Matter?') Goff again tackles some of the same issues; specifically the nature of observability in scientific and metaphysical theories. For example, he writes:

You can’t look inside an electron to see if it has experiences, but neither can you look inside a brain and see a person’s feelings and experiences. We know about consciousness not because of any observation or experiment, but because each of us is immediately aware of her or his own experiences.”

This was touched upon earlier in that it was accepted that we don’t literally observe consciousness in other human beings. Still, as with the “other minds” argument, we do observe the behavioural and linguistic expressions of consciousness. (Note: zombie and sceptical arguments still apply here.) Not only that: as Goff himself has put it, “consciousness is a datum in its own right”. Yet none of this can be applied to rocks or electrons. The cases are hugely dissimilar.

Absence of Evidence

Goff seems to accept the following (his word) “slogan”:

More accurately, Goff says this slogan is “sometimes” true and sometimes false. And he’s logically correct to say so.

After all, the possibility of conscious electrons is yet another example of what is logically possible; alongside a tree with arms, zombies, a mile-high unicycle” (David Chalmers' example), etc. And Goff, like David Chalmers, gets much mileage out of the logically possible.

In the case of panpsychism, the logically possible has provided Goff with the means to construct an entire metaphysical position – i.e. panpsychism.

In this specific case of absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, we can say that Goff believes the following:

The lack of evidence for conscious electrons

is not the same as evidence that

Electrons don’t have consciousness.

And, again, Goff cites the fact that consciousness is unobservable in terms of other human beings too. So, to follow through, the absence of evidence when it comes to the consciousness of another human being is not also evidence of a lack of consciousness when it comes to that other human being.

Despite that, Goff is also correct to argue that the absence-of evidence slogan is precisely the reason why Daniel Dennett believes that “humans are just complicated mechanisms”.

So, in these respects, Goff’s closing words are correct. Thus:

“As Descartes appreciated over 300 years ago, the existence of our consciousness is known with greater certainty than anything else. The reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right, over and above the data of observation and experiment.”

Are Panpsychists Closet Theists?

In passing, Goff mentions the fact that many people (not only John Horgan) believe that “that panpsychism has something to do with theism”. Goff disputes that charge and says (in parenthesis) that in his experience

most panpsychists are atheists just looking for the best scientific account of consciousness”.

Goff must surely realise that this is only true of the professional analytic philosophers who’ve embraced panpsychism. (That’s if it’s even true of them.) Outside this very small domain, virtually all panpsychists have religious or spiritual motivations - which they freely and often express. Sure, analytic philosophers may not concern themselves with people who aren't fellow professional analytic philosophers; though I firmly believe that most people get their panpsychism from people who aren’t analytic philosophers.

Goff could also claim ad hominem. That is, he can argue that the motivations or religious beliefs of panpsychists are irrelevant when it comes to the arguments Goff himself and other panpsychists offer us. That’s partly true. However, discovering the motivations of panpsychists and context of panpsychism can also help us understand the arguments themselves.

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