Today, I welcome the British philosopher Philip Goff, professor at the University of Durham in England. He is a strong supporter of panpsychism, which the New American Oxford Dictionary is defined as follows: “The doctrine or belief that everything material, no matter how small, has an element of individual consciousness. »
Goff just released a new book this week, For what? The purpose of the universe, where he masterfully presents his defense of this worldview, linking it to an indispensable way of approaching not only the difficult nature of consciousness, but also our search for meaning beyond a strictly material reality. It’s a fascinating conversation that provokes many more questions. The following is a question and answer session.
I would like to start with a biographical question to situate readers. Can you tell us how you got into philosophy and, in particular, what types of questions you work with?
I have been obsessed with philosophy for as long as I can remember. My parents tell me that when I was four years old, I asked, “Why are we here?” We had recently moved, so maybe I was just confused about the location.
I’ve always been interested in how the different stories we tell about reality fit together. How does free will relate to quasi-deterministic physics? How do “good” and “evil” relate to the valueless facts of the natural sciences? How do feelings and experience relate to electrochemical signaling in the brain?
Can you define “panpsychism” for readers? Are there different schools?
Panpsychism is the theory that consciousness reaches down to the fundamental construct of matter. Fundamental particles or fields have incredibly rudimentary forms of consciousness, and the complex consciousness of the human and animal brain is somehow constructed from these more fundamental forms of consciousness.
Panpsychism has a long history, among both Western and Eastern philosophers. Major Enlightenment thinkers, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, were panpsychists, and this movement peaked in the 19th century. It was not popular in the second half of the 20th century, but in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a new wave of interest in panpsychism in academic philosophy, and even to some extent in neuroscience. For its proponents, it offers a happy medium between the extravagant belief in the soul on the one hand, and the reductionist view that “there is only brain chemistry”, which I think ultimately denies takes into account the reality of consciousness itself.
At one point in the book you address the issue of fine-tuning, that the constants that determine the strength of the fundamental forces of nature and other physical properties of matter appear to be selected to ultimately allow life to occur. emerge in the Universe. Adjust the strong force coupling constants and you won’t get any stars. Without stars, there is no life – no us, no purpose. Physicists attempt to get around this problem by assuming the existence of unified theories that preselect these values, for example the multiverse in string theory. (In fact, a colleague even claimed that if you don’t want God, you’re better off having the multiverse!) How do you respond to this? Another possibility is that the whole focus debate is a straw man argument. Who said that physics should be able to deduce the values of the fundamental constants of nature? (See my book A tear at the edge of creation for an expanded critique of unification and fine-tuning.) It may well be that these values are simply part of the alphabet of physics, measured quantities that we use to construct our descriptions of natural phenomena. In other words, we may be asking physics to do something it is not designed to do. And when we do that, we end up having to make sense of physics, which is not a necessary part of it.
This is not controversial physics. But I think as a society we deny its evidentiary implications, because it doesn’t fit the picture of the Universe that we’re used to. It’s a bit like in the 16th century when we started getting proof that we weren’t at the center of the universe, and people had a hard time understanding it because it didn’t fit with the image of the reality to which they had become accustomed.
Ultimately, we are faced with a choice. Either it is simply an incredible coincidence that the numbers in our physics are good for life – an option too improbable to be taken seriously – or the relevant numbers in our physics are as they are. because these are the right numbers for life; in other words, there is a kind of orientation to life at the fundamental level. It’s weird, and not the way we expected science to work out. But we must follow the evidence where it leads, without being influenced by our cultural biases.
For many, there is a third option: the multiverse. And for a long time, I thought the multiverse was the best explanation for fine-tuning. But for a long time I was persuaded by probability philosophers that inferring fine-tuning to a multiverse was misleading. reverse gambler’s error.
Imagine we walk into a casino and in the first small room we see someone having incredible luck. I turn to you and say, “Wow, there must be a lot of people playing at the casino tonight. ” You’re baffled, so I explain, “Well, if there are thousands of people in the casino tonight, it’s not that surprising that someone would have incredible luck, and that’s exactly what we observed. » Everyone agrees that this is an error – the reverse gambler’s fallacy – because our observational evidence concerns the good fortune of a particular individual, and the number of people elsewhere in the casino has no affect the likelihood that that particular person will play well.
This erroneous reasoning is indistinguishable from that of the multiverse theorist. Our observational evidence is that this universe is refined, and the number of other universes that exist has no bearing on the likelihood of this happening. this universe is refined. Of course, there is much more to say about the anthropogenic selection effect and the putative scientific arguments for the multiverse, and I cover all of that in the book.
The emergence of life is, along with consciousness and the origin of the universe, one of the three ultimate mysteries. We don’t know how to begin to think about purposeless matter that suddenly self-organizes to become useful, what I once called “intentional matter.” Is this where you see the need for panpsychism? To explain these three mysteries? If so, did purpose exist before the Big Bang? What would it mean if that were the case? Are we back to the root cause problem?
(Editor’s Note: Due to time constraints, Dr. Goff did not answer this question. But we’re leaving it here for everyone to think about!)
Can you explain what you mean by pan-agentialism, an idea that seemingly goes beyond panpsychism? Part of this conversation recalls the philosophical novel Star Makerby Olaf Stapledon, where the Universe is intentionally a vast experience as life takes on different expressions across a multitude of worlds.
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Pan-agentialism is the view that not only consciousness but also rational action extends to the fundamental elements of reality. Obviously particles can’t deliberate or do probabilistic reasoning, but I think we can make sense of the idea that they respond rationally to incredibly basic desires.
I propose this as a solution to the profound and under-explored challenge of accounting for the evolution of consciousness. Rapid advances in AI and robotics have made it clear that one can have incredibly complex behavior without any sort of inner experience. So why hasn’t natural selection done survival mechanisms — that is to say, extremely complex biological robots that follow the characteristics of their environment and react with behavior conducive to survival without being aware of it? I believe we need something like panagentialism to address this challenge.
Finally, I wanted to talk about teleological cosmopsychism, which you propose as being the only explanation of cosmic purpose with an advantage over others. If the Universe is intended to have self-aware life as the ultimate expression of its own consciousness, why did it take so long (at least 10 billion years, if Earth is the main example) to achieve this? Is the cosmic goal dependent on the laws of physics? For what? Also, how would you consider the existence of other intelligences in the Universe?
The hypothesis that the Universe is conscious is not as extravagant as one might think. Physics is just a mathematical structure, and there must be something underlying that structure, something that “breathes fire into the equations,” as Stephen Hawking said. I argue that the hypothesis that it is a conscious mind that “breathes fire into the equations” is as parsimonious as any other proposition, and has the advantage of explaining fine-tuning. As for why it took so long, it is not an all-powerful God but rather an entity that pursues certain goals within significant limits – those recorded by the laws of physics.
We need a hypothesis that accounts for both the goal-directedness evidenced in the development of physics for life, but also the arbitrariness and gratuitous suffering we find in the world. Cosmopsychism seems strange, but it takes into account the data.