Philip Goff: Mind is Everywhere

"Violette Heymann," by Odilon Redon, 1910 (Public Domain)

Whereas materialists suppose mind to be the product of electrical activity within the brain, dualists are enticed by the idea of the brain as a receiver. These views are often presented in false dichotomy, reflecting the western preoccupation with the existence of the soul. Panpsychism questions whether the brain is truly unique in possessing subjective experience, and whether mind might be more fundamental to the universe than matter. Philip Goff makes the case for panpsychism at Philosophy Now:

According to early 21st century Western common sense, the mental doesn’t take up very much of the universe. Most folk assume that it exists only in the biological realm, specifically, in creatures with brains and nervous systems. Panpsychists deny this bit of common sense, believing that mentality is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe. Mind is everywhere (which is what ‘panpsychism’ translates as).

There have been panpsychists in Western philosophy since at least the pre-Socratics of the 7th century BC, and the view achieved a certain dominance in the 19th century. Panpsychism fared less well in the 20th century, being almost universally dismissed by Western philosophers as absurd, if it was ever thought about at all.

However, this dismissal was arguably part and parcel of the anti-metaphysics scientism of the period: the attempt to show that any questions which cannot be answered by scientific investigation are either trivial or meaningless. This project failed, and metaphysics is back in a big way in academic philosophy. At the same time, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the physicalist approaches to consciousness which dominated the late 20th century, and a sense that a radically new approach is called for. In this climate panpsychism is increasingly being taken up as a serious option, both for explaining consciousness and for providing a satisfactory account of the natural world.

The Essence of Panpsychism

Panpsychism is sometimes caricatured as the view that fundamental physical entities such as electrons have thoughts; that electrons are, say, driven by existential angst. However, panpsychism as defended in contemporary philosophy is the view that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous, where to be conscious is simply to have subjective experience of some kind. This doesn’t necessarily imply anything as sophisticated as thoughts.

Of course in human beings consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in some extremely basic forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experiences a horse has are much less complex than those of a human being, and the experiences a chicken has are much less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no subjective experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba, and bacteria. For the panpsychist, this fading-whilst-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities – perhaps electrons and quarks – possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, which reflects their extremely simple nature.

Reasons To Believe Panpsychism I: Solving The Hard Problem Of Consciousness

Panpsychism offers the hope of an extremely elegant and unified picture of the world. In contrast to substance dualism (the view that the universe consists of two kinds of substance, matter and mind), panpsychism does not involve minds popping into existence as certain forms of complex life emerge, or else a soul descending from an immaterial realm at the moment of conception. Rather, it claims that human beings are nothing more than complex arrangements of components that are already present in basic matter. The only way in which panpsychism differs from physicalism is that the basic components of the material world also involve very basic forms of consciousness, from which the more complex conscious experience of humans and other animals derives.

Physicalists believe that consciousness can be fully accounted for in terms of physical entities and processes. But many scientists and philosophers agree that at present we have not the faintest idea how to make sense of experience being generated from material activity such as the firings of neurons. This is the difficulty David Chalmers famously called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Physical mechanisms are well-suited for the explanation of physical behaviour; but it’s hard to make sense of a mechanistic explanation of subjective experience. No matter how complex the mechanism, it seems conceivable that it might have functioned in the absence of any experience at all, which seems to imply that mechanistic explanations shed no explanatory light on the existence of experience.

[Read on at Philosophy Now]