Philip Goff: Panpsychic Ponderments

​Philip Goff is the author of Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, which traces the problem of consciousness back to the foundations of the scientific revolution, in Galileo’s decision to set consciousness outside of the domain of science.

In his biographical introduction at Durham University in the UK, where he lectures in philosophy, he writes:

I argue that the traditional approaches of materialism (consciousness can be explained in terms of physical processes in the brain) and dualism (consciousness is separate from the body and brain) face insuperable difficulties. On the basis of this I defend a form of panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. It sounds a bit crazy, but I try to show that it avoids the difficulties faced by its rivals.

I reviewed Galileo’s Error back in December 2020. He’s working on a new book. The following interview took place by Zoom on Tuesday May 3, 2022.

John Hawkins: I’m really interested in your work. I reviewed your recent book, Galileo’s Error. I come from a phenomenology background myself, so I’m sort of noodled in on the concept of the interpenetrability of all things, and how we’re all sort of mixed in together as atoms, if nothing else, and how we extend into each other as forms of consciousness. That kind of stuff is really poetic. It’s an old notion, newly imagined.  So, before we get to what you are working on right now, how about we start off with Galileo’s Error?

Philip Goff: Yeah, so with Galileo’s Error, I guess the main aim was to trace the problem of consciousness back to its intellectual foundations at the start of the scientific revolution. I think this challenge of explaining how brains produced consciousness is now accepted as a deep puzzle.  It was kind of written into the way science was designed in the 17th century, largely by the father of modern science, Galileo. He wanted science to be purely quantitative, purely mathematical. But he appreciated that in order to achieve that, we need to take consciousness out of the story, because consciousness involves these qualities that can’t be captured in mathematical language.

That was a good move because he got his mathematical physics. But what we’ve forgotten is that that whole project was premised on this picture of nature that puts consciousness outside of the domain of science. So that’s Galileo’s error. I think we need to rethink that picture of science bequeathed to us by Galileo.

So my new book has continuities. The positive story in Galileo’s error was panpsychism as a way of rethinking the scientific approach given to us by Galileo. And there are elements of panpsychism in my new book, but it’s fundamentally a quite different book. I’m exploring various forms of middle ground between God and atheism. So, you know, I think people get stuck in these kinds of dichotomies of thought, you know.

John Hawkins: Mind, body.

Philip Goff: Yeah.

Dualism, materialism, communism or capitalism. Richard Dawkins or traditional religion. And I mean, I was raised Catholic, but sort of, I guess since I was about 14, I saw myself more the sort of atheist secular side. But I guess over a long period of time, I’ve just come to think both of these pictures of reality have big problems. And so I’m exploring various options in between. I’m exploring the position that there is some kind of teleology or goal-based activity at the fundamental level of the universe, but not understanding that in terms of the traditional God, one form of which is Cosmos. Like isn’t the universe conscious itself? So in that way, it’s continuous with Galileo’s Error. But I’m also exploring other possibilities.

John Hawkins:  I was getting ready to write an article on panpsychism for Philosophy Now. The editor welcomed my article but warned that he was no fan of panpsychism. But, you know, critics are laughing away at panpsychism mostly because, I think, the word itself conjures up things that aren’t contemporary. The word suggests psychic, you know, suggesting the cosmos is psychic somehow.  People might look at you and ask: Do you mean that we can read the mind of the universe or —

Philip Goff: — Yeah. There are problems with the name. Annaka Harris is sympathetic to people who have problems with ‘panpsychism’ and thinks we need to change the name. I think we’re kind of stuck with it now, although I think there’s less misunderstanding than there used to be. It’s now gone from being a view that was left out, insofar as it was thought of at all, to being taken very seriously, certainly in academic philosophy, in the kind of Anglophone tradition, and also in to an extent in neuroscience, because of the development of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which is a serious contender for the neuroscientific theory of consciousness, and also has panpsychism implications, at least to the extent that it implies that consciousness is more widespread than we ordinarily take it to be.

But, you know, basically, I think of it as an alternative research program for explaining consciousness, rather than we’ve spent decades now trying to explain consciousness in terms of utterly non-conscious processes in the brain. The panpsychic wants instead to try and explain complicated consciousness in terms of simpler forms of consciousness, and then those simpler forms of consciousness are then postulated to exist as basic elements of matter.

John Hawkins: The simpler forms of consciousness we talk about often are things like — an example might be people who claim to be able to talk with plants and trees, that kind of thing. There’s consciousness that exists in those plants; it’s just not human consciousness.

John Hawkins: And then the other thing is we’re sort of at the cusp of the A.I. merge. I think we’ve already passed the threshold. We’ve never been at a point in history where we are remaking ourselves as human beings, starting with consciousness, which is the great gift that humans have and advances the claim we have over other animals in the world. And we’re explaining more and more things by neuroscience. And it seems we’re getting back to that duality again that you were describing, rather than the more humanistic approach needed at a crucial time in our evolution.  We should really be thinking more of a holistic approach, I think.

Philip Goff: Yeah. I mean, on the first point, yeah, I am inclined to think plants and trees are conscious, but it doesn’t mean that they have the consciousness of a human being. You know, consciousness comes in all shapes and sizes  —  as humans, animals, bedbugs, squirrels. I think plants and animals have a very different alien kind of consciousness relative to us. The conscious life of a plant is probably in a much slower frame of reference. For one thing, if you speed up images of plants, it starts to look like something like a kind of mental life. More we could relate to. And it also doesn’t imply any kind of telepathic connection.

You know, I think it’s an empirical question, whether there is telepathy or psychic phenomena. People like Rupert Sheldrake, a good friend of mine, thinks there is empirical evidence that the world is denying. And, you know, that’s more outside my area of expertise. The philosophical concept, the problem of consciousness understood as a philosophical problem, and how we can change science to address that. And whether or not the psychic phenomena is a question for other scientists to fight about. Maybe panpsychism is a theory of reality a little more consonant with such phenomena, but it certainly doesn’t imply it. And lots of lots of the people defending panpsychism are kind of hardcore atheist who don’t believe in anything like that at all.

I think there are a lot of unaddressed questions in our current approach. One is the relationship between thought and consciousness.  Often in AI, some kind of functionalist interpretation of thought and understanding is assumed. And by functionalist, I mean to do with information processing or the behavior of the system and its parts, the kind of thing that you connect to the Turing test where a system is said to have thought and understanding if it passes the Turing test.

Interestingly, if you look back at Turing’s paper, he starts where he defined what became known as the Turing Test. He says, Would such a system have thought? And he says, Well, that question is very vague. What we need to do is make it more precise. And he kind of defines thought. He offers a new definition of thought as passing the Turing test. But I’m inclined to think there’s another, perhaps more common sense notion of thought and understanding as a conscious phenomenon. And this is something I focus on a lot in my new book —

John Hawkins: Does the new book have a working title?

Philip Goff: The working title is The Purpose of Existence: Between God and Atheism. But if you ask people for examples of consciousness, they tend to say things like sensations, colors, sounds, you know, seeing red hair, feeling pain. But I’m inclined to think consciousness is permeated. And as a fan of phenomenology, you might be sympathetic to this. Consciousness is permeated with meaning and understanding. If I look around me, I don’t just see colors and shapes. I see houses, people, a bird, you know, I see another human being. This is part of the character of my experience. How these two conceptions of understanding connect to each other, understanding as a functional matter of information processing, and understanding as a conscious phenomenon. We’re not really at first base thinking about it yet, and I think once we really get serious about this, it’s going to involve radically rethinking how we think about AI. How we think about artificial thought and consciousness.

John Hawkins: Quick question. I have a theory on AI’s. We’re looking for a Lucy jump, you know, how we can get machines to think like humans. I myself fear that, you know, we should be worried, because we might get machines starting to pull a Garry Kasparov and turn on us and tell us what we’re going to be thinking of. But the other thing is, what if we rounded up all of the psychopaths in the world and just reprogrammed them?

Philip Goff: Right.

John Hawkins: Well, they have machine thinking already. A psychopath. You know, they’re sort of locked into the Machine and see Deus in the Mirror.

Philip Goff: So you mean take human psychopaths and reprogram them?

John Hawkins: What I’m saying, I mean, the parallels are there between what you’re trying to get out of a machine thinking so that it becomes like human thinking. And we already have humans who think like machines. You know, it’s going to be absurd. With the psychopaths the only thing missing would be empathy. I think that’s the missing key: the empathy compound.

Philip Goff: That’s a really interesting thought. I’ll have to reflect more on it, I guess. I mean, I guess I’m inclined to think, yeah, even though psychopaths might have, machine-like, tendencies of thought in some respects, I guess I’m still inclined to think they’re conscious and have a conscious understanding of reality. So to that extent, I think they’re probably very different from machines.

I’ve had a good few debates with the physicist Sean Carroll on and were actually on my podcast, Mind Chat. We’re having a rematch on whether we know that there is no strong emergence in the brain, that is to say, causal happenings in the brain, causal dynamics that can’t be reduced to underlying chemistry and physics.  Sean thinks that the success of physics gives us very strong reason to think it is all ultimately fixed by physics, and that’s the end of it.

I mean, the experiments we’ve done to test the standard model of particle physics, for example, we’ve never done them in a living system of any kind. So I think we’ve just got absolutely no idea whether those models would apply to a complicated living organism. And I’m inclined to think on philosophical grounds, partly to do with wrestling, think about how to understand conscious understanding that there probably is strong emergence in the brain. And actually would help move forward consciousness, science.

There’s notorious difficulties in how we work out which kinds of brain activity go along with consciousness. There are all sorts of proposals and very little consensus. But if consciousness was associated with new causal dynamics, new causal goings on that were not explicable in terms of underlying chemistry and physics, that would be a real strong empirical pointer of consciousness. So I think that’s one exciting thing that scientists like Kevin Mitchell, who’s not at all sympathetic to panpsychism, but are [still] exploring that possibility. And I think that it’s some of the most exciting cutting edge of consciousness science. Yeah.

John Hawkins: We touched before on phenomenology and the interpenetrability of all things. I was re-reading some Merleau-Ponty a while back, after some 30 years at this stage. Merleau-Ponty worked a lot with art and its representation.

There’s a quote I quite value:

Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.

That’s from his “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of Perception.

Philip Goff: Yeah. That’s a really beautiful quote. I mean. Yeah. There’s this divide in 20th century philosophy between the analytic school and the continental school. I have been very much in the analytic school. But one thing I would certainly compliment the continental school with, that Merleau-Ponty is from, is having a more accurate and attentive description of human consciousness. As I say, analytic philosophers tend to think it’s all about colors and pain and brute sensations, whereas phenomenology is, like Husserl, much more attentive to the subtleties and nuances in the way in which understanding and our conception of reality, what things are and mean, permeate conscious experience. And people like Dan Zahavi who’ve tried to bring those insights into analytic philosophy.

But yeah, I guess I’m probably a bit sort of old school though. I’m inclined to think that consciousness is in the head rather than a semi-conscious experience of you. It’s not a matter, in my view, of a sort of relationship and engaged relationship with you. It’s ultimately in my head and my reasons for thinking that are, you know, it doesn’t feel like it is, it feels like I’m in more intimate, direct contact with you. And I look at you, I feel like it doesn’t feel like the experience is in my head. But I suppose I find it hard and this is a familiar philosophical point that makes sense of hallucination.

If consciousness is not in the head, if it is a relationship with the environment, what do we say about cases where you hallucinate a pink elephant and there isn’t really a pink elephant there? It seems like we have to say that’s in the head. But then if that’s in the head, and it’s qualitatively just like a non hallucinatory experience, then I think clients have to think probably it’s in their head as well, the non hallucinatory experience.

But, I mean, in the final chapter of Galileo’s Error, I’m open to taking very seriously mystical experiences. I guess some people assume that there must be some kind of delusion or something because they don’t fit with our standard scientific theory of things. But our standard, as William James pointed out, our scientific picture of things is based on mundane experience that could lead us astray. We could be in the matrix, it could all be a dream. But we think it’s rationally acceptable to trust ordinary experience. Well, if we say it’s not okay for the mystic to trust the mystical experience, there’s a sort of double standard there. And often the mystical experience of the person having it seems more real than everyday experience. So I do take those experiences seriously and I’ve tried to make some kind of sense of them in a psychic framework.

John Hawkins: Yeah, I know that sounds good, but it’s also an aspect of language and its importance in developing what’s going to be considered consciousness or not. You know, you think of Noam Chomsky and his idea that we develop language for ourselves, first for thinking, and then later for the negotiation of reality between other people who also think, you know, and that kind of stuff. And that makes sense to me. But some people see language as primarily social rather than ego-bound.

I read an article not too long ago whose title is a proposition: “An Ancient Virus May Be Responsible for Human Consciousness.” How intriguing. And scary. The authors cite a Cell magazine study about Arc genes.  Evolved consciousness seems to be what humans have over other animals in the queendom — it allows for language and for a negotiated reality (often). This is intriguing and scary. What if we’re like the product of a coronavirus thing that came from outer  space and whacked us upside the head at some point in history and all of a sudden we’re thinking creatures, with inner space, you know? If a virus caused consciousness, how would this affect your panpsychism vision thang?

Philip Goff: Yeah. It’s absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t come across that until you sent it to me. It’s an absolutely fascinating proposal. I mean, there is a deep mystery. I think if you’re not a scientist, there’s a deep mystery where consciousness came from. And one aspect of that is giving an evolutionary account of it, because the philosopher David Chalmers has popularized this idea of zombies that behave just like human beings, but they have no consciousness. I think the zombie seems totally coherent and if that, if the idea does make sense, one interest, one reason to take to think about this is that it raises the question, why aren’t we zombies? Because it seems like zombies would survive just as well as us. Evolution is only interested in behavior. Evolutionary doesn’t give a doesn’t care. It’s going to swerve. It doesn’t care what you’re in a subjective experience. It just wants you to behave in a way that will be good for survival. So it seems like evolution doesn’t really have much reason to give us consciousness. So yeah, maybe if it could be made sense as some kind of accidental virus type issue. That’s an interesting proposal, although of course, if you’re a pacifist, the answer is consciousness was always there in very primitive forms. And then what evolution does is mold it into more complex forms. And indeed, early on after Darwin, people like William James saw the connection, the deep affinity between a Darwinian and a psychic explanation.

John Hawkins: I am fascinated by the arrival of AIs. Talk of them is everywhere in the news today. The singularity may well be here already. But I was intrigued when I read in GE your explanation of Integrated Information Theory (IIT).  One passage that struck me was:

IIT predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.

This gave me a chill. In the context of the hivemind we’re already ensconced in, it is a dystopic vision that recalls some reading I did years ago — Donald Verene’s The Technological Society — which was grim and saw me drinking more afterward. Is there a silver lining to this IIT business of yours?

Philip Goff: It should be appreciated that we’d have to be pretty permanently much plugged in to the internet to get the level of integration required for this. One thing I like about IIT is that it’s partly based on what can be known about consciousness ‘from the inside’. I don’t entirely agree with all of their conclusions, but one thing I think they get right is that there are sharp cut off points between systems that are conscious and systems that aren’t. This contrasts, for example, with clouds. There is no sharp boundary that distinguishes the cloud from the sky around it. But when it comes to consciousness, something either has experience or it doesn’t. To my knowledge, IIT is the only theory able to account for this.

John Hawkins: Finally, you claim that we may be on the threshold of a new paradigm and merely wait now for the arrival of a “Newton of consciousness.” Please explain.

Philip Goff: I think maybe Darwin is a better analogy. He came up with the ‘big idea’ of natural selection, which allowed us to understand how in principle complex organisms could emerge through natural processes. It then took a century to get to DNA, and there’s still a long way to go. I think the ‘Darwin of consciousness’ was Bertrand Russell (although there was plenty of precedent to the idea), but it’ll take a century at least to fill in the details. What’s so exciting is to see philosophers and scientists coming together to lay the foundations for this radical new approach to consciousness.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.