Panpsychism has a long history in philosophy, and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the doctrine that mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe.” In other words, everything has a mind, with some philosophers, like Philip Goff, claiming that objects like electrons and rocks have “an inner life”. . “feelings, sensations, and experiences.”
Goff, an associate professor of philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, puts forth his arguments for panpsychism in a new piece in Aeon magazine, “Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.” His arguments for panpsychism—the existence of mind in matter—has three prongs:
- We know nothing about the intrinsic nature of “inanimate” matter, so it could have mind.
- The assumption that matter has mind is more parsimonious than assuming it doesn’t, and that’s for the next reason:
- The “continuity argument” used by some philosophers. As Goff says of matter, “some of it—the stuff in brains—involves experience.” If the matter in brains can produce mind and consciousness, then the continuity of matter between electrons, rocks, and brains means that it’s more parsimonious to assume that electrons and rocks have minds than to assume they don’t. In other words, this is the assumption that such a continuity means that no real “emergent” properties can distinguish a rock from a mammal.
Just to show you I’m not distorting his argument, this is what Goff says. First he gives his conception of panpsychism:
Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common sense. 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.
Then he defends its ubiquity:
I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism. The argument relies on a claim that has been defended by Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and many others, namely that physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does. The job of physics is to provide us with mathematical models that allow us to predict with great accuracy how matter will behave. This is incredibly useful information; it allows us to manipulate the world in extraordinary ways, leading to the technological advancements that have transformed our society beyond recognition. But it is one thing to know the behaviour of an electron and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is, in and of itself. Physical science gives us rich information about the behaviour of matter but leaves us completely in the dark about its intrinsic nature.
In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience. We now face a theoretical choice. We either suppose that the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles involves experience or we suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. On the former supposition, the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things. The latter supposition leads us to complexity, discontinuity and mystery. The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.
In the public mind, physics is on its way to giving us a complete picture of the nature of space, time and matter. While in this mindset, panpsychism seems improbable, as physics does not attribute experience to fundamental particles. But once we realise that physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about, and indeed that the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that at least some material things have experiences, the issue looks very different. All we get from physics is this big black-and-white abstract structure, which we must somehow colour in with intrinsic nature. We know how to colour in one bit of it: the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen.
The fulcrum of this argument is that the continuity argument holds across all matter, so if animal brains be conscious and have feelings, their constituent atoms and molecules (and all matter) must as well. This is a denial of emergent properties, but I find it ill-informed. In fact, I’m astounded that this theory has any purchase at all, or that philosophers have taken it seriously.
First, there is no evidence that any non-evolved objects have minds that have conscious experiences and sensations—at least in the sense we do. Just because we don’t know what a rock or an electron “experiences,” the absence of evidence that it has any experience at all—which includes the absence of sense organs, nerves, or any way to get “qualia”—means that we needn’t even consider the idea. And no rocks have been able to convey to us that they have a mind. If there is no way to test Goff’s hypothesis, then it’s nonscientific, no matter how much philosophical lucubration underlies it.
But the continuity argument seems to me flawed. Mind is an emergent property, but so are many aspects of life that distinguish it from non-life: metabolism, hereditary material, directed movement, an “intentional stance”, and so on. Yes, all of these properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms. But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms. Mind is one of these, as is metabolism. If you’re going to use the continuity argument for mind, you must use it for all the biological properties of organisms, and that means that “panpsychism” must also be “panmetabolism”: electrons and rocks must be able to produce what they need to exist from matter taken in and then changed by a system of enzymes coded by the hereditary material.
The fact of evolution means that inanimate matter will at some point develop new properties that aren’t present in the precursors. Mind is only one of these. As I said, these properties are consistent with the molecular constituents of organisms, but evolution tells us that they need not be present in the molecular constituents of organisms.
Now I am not a philosopher (though I have published one philosophy paper in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal, which is more than creationists can say about biology!), but I’m truly puzzled at the arguments for and apparent popularity of panpsychism, which apparently has found an exponent in the philosopher Tom Nagel. Perhaps some readers with more insight can explain its popularity. But I would like either evidence or a way to test the idea of panpsychism.
So, if you wish, tell me that electrons and rocks have experiences and an “inner life”, just like human minds. I will then ask you for the evidence from nature, and a philosophical argument is not evidence. If you respond with “well, it could be possible” (Alvin Plantinga’s argument for God), I will say that anything is possible in theory, but if you assert panpsychism without real evidence from nature, then I can dismiss it without evidence. That is, I need not take it seriously until you produce an observation supporting panpsychism or a way to test the idea.
Why was this published? Aeon, it seems, has a penchant for trying to harmonize science and religion, at least according to John Boy in his article “Cyberculture and the integration of science and religion“, where he considers the two sites Aeon and Nautilus:
I chose these two publications not because I think these publications are “the most exciting and productive” examples of such work — they may or may not be — but because they appear to make interesting case studies of work being done to bring together digital media and religion. The two publications, Aeon and Nautilus, are, as I mentioned, science publications, but both are set up in a way that ensures religion is among their chief areas of interest. [JAC: Nautilus is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation, as well as by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute: what a dog’s breakfast!]
. . . the cases of Aeon and Nautilus indicate that the countercultural, new-age dream of integrating science and religion is also being made a reality by cybercultural productions. The grasping search for viable business models — and the seemingly boundless availability of startup funds for tech ventures — is enabling inventiveness not just in the form but also in the content of digital publications. As such, they appear, at least for the time being, to have the capacity to break down old epistemological conflict narratives.
It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude. Some, for instance, consider the “mind of the universe” to be God—that God is a mind that pervades the entire Universe.
That, at least, could be one explanation for the penchant for magazines like Aeon, or philosophers like Nagel with a teleological bent, to argue for panpsychism.