This is a lightly edited pre-publication version of a paper due to come out in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies later this year. It’s a commentary on the book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, by Philip Goff. Galileo’s Error is an excellent introduction to the problem of consciousness and the appeal of panpsychism as a solution. Fans of Galileo should not be worried by the titled: far from being anti-Galileo, it could just as easily have been called ‘Galileo’s Genius’. The point is that Galileo’s move to locate perceived qualities in the experiences of observers, rather than in the objects observed, was simultaneously an incredibly fertile and productive move, because it enabled a purely mathematical conception of the physical world that has been enormously fruitful, and also something that planted the seed of the modern problem of consciousness by effectively excluding experience itself from scientific explanation.
This isn’t a review of Galileo’s Error – there’s a good video overview of the book’s themese at the above link, and I would absolutely recommend reading the book itself. Rather, this is my meditation of some of the issues that I’ve seen brought up in public discussions of the book, in particular around the relationship between panpsychism and science.
Is Panpsychism at Odds with Science?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Science is great, but it has limits. We should accept its contributions but recognise those limits, the things it can’t tell us, the mysteries it can’t address, the questions it will never answer. For those things, we should look beyond science, to… and usually at this point, whoever is speaking will insert their favoured idea, product, or organisation. Often the idea, product, or organisation in question is somewhere on the spectrum from harmless nonsense to harmful nonsense. So it could be understandable for someone seeing Philip Goff give a similar-sounding spiel (“Galileo was great, but let me tell you about his Error…”) to be immediately suspicious. Combining this with a self-confessedly weird pitch – electrons are conscious! – seems to warrant even more suspicion, and so does the vague affinity sometimes claimed (either by critics or defenders) between panpsychism and various other -isms often viewed with suspicion, like ‘animism’ or ‘pantheism’. It could be enough to make one feel that the whole idea has “the faintly sickening odour of something cooked up in the metaphysical laboratory.” (Nagel 1986, p.49)1
And recently there’s been no shortage of people ostentatiously holding their noses: panpsychism is “a philosophically motivated pseudoscience” according to Barry Smith, “the consequence of knowing next to no science” according to Patricia Churchland, a “crazy hypothesis [with] not a shred of evidence supporting it” according to Jerry Coyne, and “one of several major steps backwards taken by philosophers over recent years” according to Dan Kaufman. Anecdotally, I’ve been disappointed by people I know throwing panpsychism in with belief in literal deities, reliance on healing crystals, and opposition to vaccines: the low point was someone challenging me to explain what differentiates panpsychism from the reactionary conspiracy theory Q-anon. While Goff’s excellent book is a remarkable achievement in bringing complex philosophical ideas to a wider audience, more exposure for panpsychism is likely to mean more of this kind of suspicion.
I think this suspicion is misplaced, but I do have a little sympathy: in a world where the internet connects us with a million charlatans every day, we have to reject most things out of hand, and one could do worse than treating “Science is great, but…” as a red flag. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that unscientific beliefs nearly overthrew US democracy, hamstrung responses to a global pandemic, and are in the process of rendering the earth uninhabitable for humans. A cultural shift towards refusing to give unscientific-sounding ideas the benefit of the doubt would probably be a net good right about now.
One of the striking things about many of the attacks on panpsychism is how endlessly they recycle objections that Goff has already patiently dismantled, both in this book and, often, in direct conversations with people like Churchland. I don’t think I would add much value by just repeating his points, but perhaps there’s value in spending a bit of time identifying and criticising the things that are unacceptably unscientific, rather than just explaining why panpsychism isn’t. So in this paper I want to focus on that – on analysing what sort of views a scientific outlook should rule out, and how panpsychism does and doesn’t relate to them.
Section 1: ‘Being Scientific’ as Accepting Current Science
We can distinguish a few ways for a view to try and be ‘scientific’. The first and simplest is compatibility with science, specifically regarding the world’s causal structure. Panpsychists of Goff’s variety are very interested in certain things science can’t tell us, but what it certainly can tell us is what causes what, and when, where, and how. A basic requirement for a worldview to be scientific is that it treat science as the final authority on this: if the best available science says that A can only cause B under X conditions, then A can only cause B under X conditions. That means, in particular, ruling out phenomena like telepathy, psychokinesis, ESP, spoonbending, precognition, past life regression, and communication with the dead, since all of these would require causal mechanisms sharply different from any of the gravitational, nuclear, and electromagnetic ones recognised by current science. Of course there may turn out to be technological ways to produce phenomena like this – radiotransmitting neural implants that effect a sort of telepathy, for instance – but we’ll have to devise them first, and in the meantime we should confidently reject parapsychology.
It should go without saying that panpsychists agree with all this (Goff certainly does). But I have sometimes encountered the idea, both from friends of panpsychism and from its enemies, that it might somehow make space for parapsychology in a way that materialism doesn’t. After all, if the spoon in my hand is just consciousness – if, as on some versions of the view, it and I are just two permutations of the same cosmic consciousness – then shouldn’t it make sense for this consciousness to be able to speak directly to that consciousness? No. Unromantic as it may seem, the cosmic consciousness seems to be rigidly and inflexibly committed to certain laws of action, which dictate that we can bend the spoon only by applying the familiar sorts of forces, for instance by means of those permutations of the cosmic mind that we customarily call our ‘hands’. After all, it’s not as if we need panpsychism in order to unsettle our everyday view of spoons: we already know spoon is just an accretion of ripples in the universal quantum wavefunction, like us. But alas, grasping that truth will not help us bend it, except by means of those ripples in the universal quantum wavefunction that we customarily call our ‘hands’.
Section 2: ‘Being Scientific’ as Accepting Likely Future Science
Here is a second, slightly more aggressive, way in which a worldview might try to be ‘scientific’. It might aim for compatibility, not just with presently established science, but with where science looks like it’s going. That is, it might try to pre-emptively incorporate the most ambitious, complete, way for present science to advance – as opposed to exploiting whatever ‘gaps’ and uncertainties may exist at present. There is obviously more room for controversy about what this demands: different philosophical assumptions will predict different future advances. Indeed, the central dispute between Goff and critics like Churchland is whether a particular gap – the explanatory gap between objective and subjective descriptions – should be expected to close with more scientific work. But it is crucial that panpsychists have well-understood arguments for the special status of this gap: they’re not just observing that we don’t have an answer yet, not just exploiting whatever gaps happen to exist.
As Goff notes (p.162), I defend a version of panpsychism committed to micro-reductionism: a complete account of the facts about the smallest components of nature, and their relations to one another, will determine all the facts about the larger components: the ‘bottom level’ fully determines all the higher levels.2 This is largely because, while I accept that micro-reductionism hasn’t been (and perhaps can’t be) decisively established (as Goff discusses over pp.162-164), it seems to me the direction science is going, and to that extent a micro-reductionist philosophy seems to me more attractive than an emergentist one which posits a ‘patchwork world’.3 On this score I think I aim for a more aggressive stance than Goff does: while he is agnostic about micro-reductionism, I strongly suspect that whatever gaps currently exist in our scientific reductions – of neuroscience to biochemstriy, of biochemistry to particle physics, etc. – reflect our own current limitations, not facts about reality. Hence where I see a way of being more vigorously and pre-emptively scientific, he sees “dogmas which are simply accepted as part of the zeitgeist”(p.163). (As a matter of intellectual psychology, I suspect it’s not a coincidence that I’m a compatibilist about free will and determinism, and Goff is more sympathetic to incompatibilism.)
Section 3: An Interlude on Observational Equivalence
One upshot of (at least some forms of) panpsychism being an aggressively scientific view, in the two senses just discussed, is that panpsychism and materialism are robustly observationally equivalent: no current observations discriminate between them, nor will any foreseeable future observations. This claim of observational equivalence has provoked incredulity from some critics (Churchland calls it “probably the stupidest thing I have ever read.”), while others regard it as correct, but fatally undermining panpsychism by rendering it unfalsifiable and therefore nonsensical (I’ve not yet seen a good response to the natural rejoinder that this standard implies the exact same verdict for materialism). I think the claim of observational equivalence is basically correct, and indeed central to properly understanding the dispute between panpsychism and its rivals, but in full strictness it requires two important qualifications.
First, it is not quite true that panpsychism and materialism predict all the same observations; they differ on one crucial observational prediction, though which one it is depends on the observer. From my perspective, they differ in their predictions about whether or not I am subjectively conscious: panpsychism predicts that I should be, while materialism gives no basis for predicting this. At least, that is my take on what the respective theories predict: obviously there is no shortage of debate about this. But if panpsychists are right in their arguments – in particular, right that their theory explains human consciousness and materialism does not – then the upshot is that, so to speak, if I lived in a panpsychist world, I should expect to be conscious, and if I lived in a physicalist world, I should have no definite expectation on that score (or even expect not to be). Since I am conscious, that’s a data-point in favour of panpsychism.
Of course, you can’t observe whether a prediction that I should be conscious is borne out; from your perspective, the key observation is whether you are subjectively conscious, and in general each of us can observe that we ourselves are conscious, as panpsychism predicts. This is an odd sort of prediction; there is no single observation that can be predicted and evaluated by the scientific establishment collectively, but only a mass of individual observations that each individual scientist has already made before they even look at a textbook. I don’t think this observational difference between panpsychism and materialism is therefore unimportant, but it cannot be denied that it is atypical. If we confine ourselves to more standard, shareable, ‘public’ observations, panpsychism and materialism are observationally equivalent; they differ observationally only when we recognise this important but atypical set of observations.4
There is a second difference between panpsychism and materialism that relates to observation, but is not well captured in any summary of ‘observable evidence’. Just now I said that ‘each of us’ can observe that we’re conscious. Who does that cover? Who, that is, counts as an observer? This is a big question, that risks dropping out of view if we just ask ‘what is observable?’, and skim past the question ‘to who?’. In the words of MC Hammer, “when you measure, include the measurer”. Admittedly, neither panpsychism nor materialism directly provide a complete answer to this question. But panpsychism does suggest that insofar as consciousness is one key requirement for being an observer, everything in the universe fulfils that requirement, and so is perhaps one step of the way towards observerhood.
Section 4: ‘Being Scientific’ as Adding No New Elements to the Scientific Picture
A third sense in which we might want our philosophy to be scientific is that, as well as treating science as the authority on the world’s causal structure, we shouldn’t add any new structure, even if we stipulate that it has no direct causal impact. Of course panpsychists like Goff are in some sense ‘adding’ something to the physical picture, namely consciousness (and lots of it!). But this isn’t posited as something additional: it’s posited as what – without realising it – we were talking about all along. There are electrons, they move in space, they have negative charge and a little bit of mass: the panpsychist doesn’t add anything to this picture, they just propose that the things already in this picture – objects like electrons, relational structures like space, properties like charge and mass – are in fact forms of consciousness. This isn’t adding, it’s interpreting. And it rests on recognising that the physical picture itself is just under-specified: it tells us how this thing called an ‘electron’ behaves, and how these properties called ‘charge’ affect that behaviour, but never says (never could say) what any of this is in and of itself.
Goff talks about this idea at length, under the heading of ‘simplicity’ or ‘Ockham’s razor’, and I think he does an excellent job of explaining why simplicity-based reasoning is an important, indispensable, part of any scientific worldview, and why it tells in favour of panpsychism or materialism and against dualism. I think it’s useful to belabour the point a little, because this concern not to add anything unnecessary tells not only against dualism, but also against virtually any sort of individual afterlife, and, I think, against belief in any number of gods – at least if they are understood as intelligent agents who knowingly pursue goals.5 That is, part of the scientific spirit that drives panpsychism is a thorough-going opposition to anthropomorphism in our understanding of the universe and its non-human parts.
Panpsychism’s opposition to anthropomorphism is, I suspect, sometimes a bit confusing. If we hear ‘X is conscious’, we naturally assume that a certain basic sort of intelligence goes along with this – desiring things, representing one’s surroundings, choosing to do things that satisfy those desires in light of those representations, etc. If we hold onto that link between consciousness and intelligence, then attributing consciousness more widely will imply attributing intelligence more widely, including to things whose behaviour and internal structure don’t fit such a structure. And that would violate Ockam’s razor: attributing intelligence to, say, a rock, would mean positing a sort of complexity – the specific content of its representations, the specific things it desires, the mechanisms by which the one influences the other, and so on – that had no correspondence to anything scientifically determinable about its structure or behaviour.
Fortunately, attributing intelligence to rocks is not what panpsychism is about: it’s about holding onto the link between intelligence and observable behaviour, while revising the link between consciousness and intelligence. Scientific observation and study is still the best and only way to determine what sort of intelligence any natural system (a rock, a river, a plant, an insect, a frog) has, what sort of information it can absorb and process, what its cognitive capacities are. But at present, any account of a system’s degree and forms of intelligence tends to provoke the further, awkward, question: is it intelligent enough to be conscious? Are its cognitive capacities ‘advanced enough’, do they cross the magic threshold for there to be some subjective experience accompanying them? Panpsychism’s impact is here: it dismisses this question by throwing out the whole idea of a magic threshold, a boundary between the conscious and the non-conscious. It replaces it with the very different question, ‘what sorts of consciousness accompany these cognitive or informational processes, whatever they are?’ This is the same question we already have to ask about every system which we decide is conscious, and it’s often a profoundly difficult question, especially as we get further and further from humanlike minds. Panpsychism doesn’t by itself answer this question: it just tell us that we can ask this question about every system we study, and thereby dissolves the binary question ‘conscious or not?’
Section 5: An Interlude on ‘Animism’
Some readers might take the last two paragraphs to constitute a rejection of something called ‘animism’, thought of as ascribing human-like minds to all sorts of natural things. If that’s what you associate with the term ‘animism’, then sure, panpsychism is opposed to animism. But I prefer not to use that term to express this point, because it is so entangled with a long history of contentious meanings: originally a term in the anthropology of religion, often used to caricature non-European beliefs, and given multiple contradictory definitions by different authors with different aims. To the extent that the term has currency now, it is often in the context of what is sometimes called ‘the new animism’ (see, e.g., Bird-David 1999, Rose 1996, 2003, Harvey 2006), and in this context it seems to express an orientation, a stance taken towards natural things, more than it expresses any truth-claim about their nature. That is, ‘animism’ in this context is about approaching forests, rivers, mountains, animal populations, and so on, in a spirit of respect, with the goal of learning from them, finding out what they need, and providing it while taking what we need in turn. As a way of approaching things, this is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, nor conflict or agree with any given scientific theory or discovery. It contrasts not with doctrines, like panpsychism or materialism, but with rival approaches, like the exploitative instrumental approach that treats anything non-human as a resource to be owned and used.
But a practical approach can still benefit from theoretical underpinnings. As Freya Mathews, a panpsychist environmental philosopher, writes: “…animism does leave certain philosophical questions unaddressed: which things count as alive, in the animist sense? […] In any case, what is it about animate things that entitles them to be treated with respect [?]” (2020, p.133) To put it another way: the stance of approaching something with respect presupposes that it has some sort of needs, and that we have some way of determining what they are. Maybe these needs belong to it as a whole, or derive from interests of its parts or members, or inhere in its relationships to other things; maybe on some fundamental level these different options aren’t as distinct as we tend to think. But what sort of needs a system is capable of having, and what its actual needs are, and how we can find out about them, are all questions that demand philosophical attention.
I think Mathews and Goff are right that panpsychism has a lot to offer as a theoretical underpinning for the relational orientation that the new animists speak of: the belief that everything in nature is some form of consciousness pairs very nicely with the attempt to approach everything in nature with some form of respect.6 But I also think the relationship between theory and practice here is a fairly loose relationship: a materialist cosmology could potentially pair just as neatly with animism, insofar as it tells us that human and non-human parts of nature are fundamentally the same kind of thing, just intricate arrangements of matter that, for a fleeting moment, becomes aware of itself (cf. Goff p.189-190).7 So, perhaps, could a form of naturalistic dualism that saw the glimmer of an immaterial mind in bears and birds and beetles, or even in trees and rivers. The only view which is really deeply unsuited to this task is the sort of anthropocentric dualism which radically distinguishes human beings from all nonhuman life. Ironically, this sort of dualism has little following in academic philosophy but enormous reach in major world religions.
Section 6: Towards a Monist United Front
The fact that panpsychism and materialism are both well-suited to provide a metaphysical backing to an respectful, ‘animistic’, orientation towards natural things, in a way that anthropocentric dualism is not, points towards an important difference between the context of academic philosophy and that of wider society. In academic philosophy of mind, materialism is the hegemonic view; everything else is defined by its departures from materialist orthodoxy. In this context, it’s natural to group panpsychists, dualists, and other non-materialists together, united by their status as rebels against the system.
But that doesn’t reflect the wider culture. It’s hard to know what is the most widely accepted metaphysics of conscious, or even if most people have a coherent position on the question, but dualism – or at least, ideas about past lives, the afterlife, and so on, that seem to require dualism – is plausibly the most widespread actual belief. And, as Goff and Papineau suggest (Goff 2019, pp.188-190, Papineau 2020), many people’s lip service to materialism covers up an unconscious dualism. More generally, respect for empirical science, not just as a social institution over there in the universities but as a disciplining factor for one’s own most heartfelt beliefs, is less widespread than we might hope. In this context, grouping panpsychism together with dualism, against materialism, seems to me a mistake. Much better would be, so to speak, a ‘Monist United Front’: despite their differences in the seminar room, panpsychists and materialists should be largely in agreement on most worldly matters. They can agree on the importance of following scientific consensus on empirical questions. And they can agree that metaphysically, there’s just us, and other things made of the same stuff as us. Nothing outside the world, and no deep divides or sharp boundaries within it.
One of the great virtues of Galileo’s Error is to bring contemporary panpsychist ideas to a wider audience. And one part of that value is that for some people, panpsychism may offer a more satisfying and appealing environmental philosophy than materialism does. My hope would be that this needn’t be a point of conflict between panpsychists and materialists; the broader culture is so full of both outright science denialism and explicit or implicit dualism that the points of agreement between panpsychists and materialists are more important than their points of disagreement. This is especially so in environmental matters, where respect for scientific consensus and recognition of fundamental kinship between humans and nature are so desperately needed.
1 That this is said by someone in the course of offering an argument for panpsychism is, of course, somewhat ironic.
2 This goes in reverse too: a full account of the largest thing, the cosmos itself, would determine every fact about its smaller portions. Micro-reductionism, thus understood, isn’t opposed to holistic views of the universe as ultimately just one big thing, including the mysticism-influenced form of holism that Goff discusses over pp.205-211. It just says that it’s the same universe whether we think of it as one big thing or as trillions of little things: the forms of our description will change, but the reality described doesn’t.
3 It is worth noting here that quantum entanglement, far from being an inexplicable anomaly for the micro-reductionist perspective, is deducible from the laws operating the micro-level: from a full account of two particles and the way they interact, one can predict that they will become entangled, and how this entanglement will affect the behaviour of each.
4 Isn’t it part of the scientific method to distrust private observations, to only trust what can be publicly shared? Perhaps in the sense that I should be wary of trusting your private observations (more precisely, your reports of them to me), but it makes no sense for me to distrust my own private observations until they have been publicly validated – after all, how would I learn that they had been publicly validated, except via some perception of my own?
5 This sort of scientific spirit may still be compatible with a sort of impersonal pantheism, something like what Einstein expresses by saying “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (Isaacson 2008, pp.388-389)
6 Mathews makes this claim in much of her work, see especially her 2003 and 2020, Goff on pp.188-195; cf. Skrbina 2005, Vetlesen 2019.
7 For this reason I am a little wary of Mathews’ claim that “the environmental crisis… is the result of an anthropocentric outlook that permeates the Western tradition” (2020, p.131, italics added; cf. Goff’s quotation of Naomi Klein on pp.188-189, about the “corrosive separation between mind and body… from which both the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution sprang”, italics also added). I suspect that anthropocentric theories are more a result than a cause of environmentally destructive practices, whose ultimate origin lies more with the practical advantages that various individuals and societies were able to get from them.
Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology.” Current Anthropology, 40s: 67-91.
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Mathews, Freya. 2003. For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Mathews, Freya. 2020. “Living Cosmos Panpsychism.” In William Seager (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism, Routledge: 131-143.
Harvey, Graham. 2006. “Animals, Animists, and Academics.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 41 (1): 9-19.
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Papineau, David. 2020. “The Problem of Consciousness.” In Uriah Kriegel (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Consciousness, Oxford University Press: 24-36.
Rose, Deborah Bird. 1996. Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.
Rose, Deborah Bird. 2003. “Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: Attentive Interactions in the Sentient World.” Environmental Humanities, 3: 93-109.
Skrbina, David. 2005. Panpsychism in the West. MIT Press.
Vetlesen, Arne. 2019. Cosmologies of the Anthropocene: Panpsychism, Animism, and the Limits of Posthumanism. Taylor & Francis.