Philip Goff is a philosophy professor at Durham University. He says he spends most of his time trying to work out the ultimate nature of reality. His new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe, is published by Oxford University Press.
John Hawkins (JH): On Mind Chat, your YouTube channel and podcast devoted to consciousness queries, you claim that while most people think consciousness only exists in the brains of complex biological organisms, your view is that consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. Please explain this idea.
Philip Goff (PG): I spend a lot of my time wrestling with the mind-body problem – the ancient philosophical challenge of understanding how consciousness and the physical world fit together. There are various positions you can take over this: you can argue that the physical world is fundamental and that consciousness emerges from physical processes in the brain – this is the physicalist position. Or you can go the other way and start with consciousness, and then try to make sense of physical reality emerging from underlying facts about consciousness – this is the panpsychist position. Another influential position is dualism, according to which both consciousness and the physical world are fundamental but radically distinct, e.g. maybe consciousness is in the soul outside of the body and the brain.
One crucial point to note is that you are not going to be able to work out which of these is correct with an experiment. These positions are all empirically equivalent, which means that for any scientific data, each of these theories will simply interpret that data in their own terms. Seen in this light, the mind-body problem is not fundamentally a scientific question, although scientific questions may be relevant to it. Rather, we have just got to try and assess each of these philosophical options on their own terms, see if we can evaluate them, and see which looks to be the most plausible.
The mind-body problem is not fundamentally a scientific question, although scientific questions may be relevant to it.
Physicalism, for example, aspires to explain consciousness in terms of physical processes in the brain. We can ask how well physicalists have done at that explanatory project. My belief is that despite many decades of time and effort being put into this project, it has gone precisely nowhere. It’s not just that we don’t have the full story; rather, we haven’t managed to explain a single experience in terms of underlying neural activity. And in addition to this failed attempt to make actual progress, I think there are pretty good philosophical arguments that undermine the very coherence of the project.
The panpsychist, on the other hand, tries to do it the other way around: we start with facts about consciousness and try and explain the emergence of physical reality in terms of these facts. Just as with physicalism, we can ask how well that explanatory project has gone. And, in contrast to the abject failures of physicalism, I think that philosophers have already worked out how this could be done. The mysteries have been solved. Panpsychism not fit with our current cultural paradigm, but it delivers the goods.
The person who solved all the mysteries was Bertrand Russell, who I think should be thought of as the ‘Darwin of consciousness’! His central insight in the 1920s was that physics is purely mathematical, and as such doesn’t really care what fundamental reality is like, so long as it has the right mathematical structure. That leaves philosophers freedom to postulate a realm of basic conscious entities at the fundamental level, interacting in the right ways to yield the mathematical structures physics identifies. You can’t get consciousness from physics but you can get physics from consciousness. We know it can be done!
JH: My impression is that your new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe, follows smoothly, even systematically, from your two previous books, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017) and Galileo’s Error (2019). Do you agree with this assessment?
PG: While there are certainly a number of continuing themes, nonetheless I think the new book is a fairly radical departure from my previous books. In fact, it isn’t a book I would have imagined writing about five years ago. It’s been quite a journey!
It is easy to get stuck in dichotomies of thought: Are you into US capitalism or Soviet communism (as though there were no options in between…)? Similarly, my previous work was focused on the dichotomy of whether consciousness is something supernatural or just physical processing in the brain (again, assuming these are the only options). The dichotomy I have been especially in recently is: Are you a believer in the God of traditional Western religion or are you a secular atheist who thinks we just live in a meaningless, purposeless universe? Are you with Team Dawkins or Team Vatican? I was raised Catholic, but decided when I was 14 that I didn’t believe in God and upset my grandmother by not getting confirmed. And I’ve been living very happily in the secular world for a long time. But I have slowly come to believe that both of these worldviews are inadequate; both have things they cannot explain about reality. So, this new book really is trying to argue for the inadequacies of these dichotomous worldviews and to explore the much-neglected middle ground.
JH: In Galileo’s Error, you claimed that Galileo is inadvertently responsible for gifting the world the mind-body problem, and is thereby partly responsible for what seems the absurd proposition that consciousness is an epiphenomenon – not really real – a kind of ghost in the machine. This seems confusing. Can you shed some light?
PG: It’s a somewhat provocative title, not least because I’m actually a huge fan of Galileo! I think he understood these things better than many people do now. But, essentially, Galileo wanted science, or at least our most basic science, to be purely mathematical. This is something we tend to take for granted these days, but it was a radical innovation at the time to insist that we describe the universe purely with the language of mathematics. But Galileo understood quite well that conscious experience can’t be fully explained in these terms because conscious experience involves qualities – the smell of coffee, the taste of mint, the redness of a sunset, and so on – that can’t be captured in the purely quantitative language of mathematics. An equation can’t capture that deep red you experience as you watch a setting sun. For Galileo, then, if we want science to be purely mathematical, we have to take consciousness out so that everything we’re left with can be captured in the language of mathematics.
For Galileo, if we want science to be purely mathematical, we have to take consciousness out so that everything we’re left with can be captured in the language of mathematics.
That was a really good move as it gave science a more focused project. And in fact this project has gone so well, has produced such incredible technologies, that we are now in a period of history where people believe that what science offers is the complete truth, the complete answer to all significant problems! The irony is that it has gone so well because it was designed to exclude consciousness, so if we want to bring consciousness fully back into the scientific story, we need to rethink that dualistic paradigm that Galileo bequeathed to us.
JH: In an amazing recent development, a strand of panpsychist thinking, “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT), has been getting worked over in the back alleys of academia by those who refuse to take it seriously as scientific inquiry. An article in Nature a few weeks ago that dismisses IIT as “pseudoscience” begins, “A letter, signed by 124 scholars and posted online last week, has caused an uproar in the consciousness-research community.” Only Anil Seth defended IIT against the onslaught, calling it a legitimate, if flawed, scientific pursuit. Given that you have expressed sympathies with IIT in the past, what is your take on this high profile backlash against it?
PG: In addition to Anil Seth, David Chalmers and Erik Hoel (an American neurophilosopher) have come out in defence of IIT. It has certainly created a robust debate! I think it’s really crucial to distinguish the science and the philosophy of consciousness. There’s a scientific project whose task is to track what we call the neural correlates of consciousness, i.e., which kinds of brain activity go along with which kinds of experience. It’s a big challenge because you can’t observe consciousness – you can’t look inside someone’s brain and see their feelings and experiences. But if we’re dealing with another human being, we can ask them what they’re feeling and try to correlate the brain activity we can observe with the consciousness we can’t. That’s a very important task, but it’s different from the philosophical theories. Scientific theories are trying to tell us which kinds of brain activity go along with conscious experience, while the philosopher is asking questions like, “Why does brain activity go along with consciousness at all? Why are the physical world and consciousness correlated together in the first place?”
The scientific and philosophical questions are distinct and can be mixed and matched in different ways. You could be a dualist integrated information theorist, you could be a panpsychist global workspace theorist, and so on. These are separate enterprises. The Scientific American letter was attacking IIT as a scientific theory of consciousness. It wasn’t attacking the work I do, which is in the philosophy of consciousness. In fact, one of the things that wasn’t explicitly said but might be in the background is a worry that integrated information theory justifies itself in part not just by appeal to experiments (although it does appeal to experiments) but also to philosophical considerations. Perhaps the letter writers are worried that funders aren’t going to take consciousness science seriously as a proper science if it’s actually a hybrid of science and philosophy. I can appreciate that worry, but we cannot pretend that dealing with consciousness is a purely scientific issue. Philosophy is important, and we need to move on from this scientistic idea that the only way we can answer questions about the nature of reality is through experiments. I wrote up my full view on this in The Conversation.
Philosophy is important, and we need to move on from this scientistic idea that the only way we can answer questions about the nature of reality is through experiments.
JH: How is panpsychism different from say pantheism? Can particle worship take the place of God? Will we begin to swoon over mathematical “elegance”?
PG: I think there’s a bit of a split in the panpsychist research community, analogous perhaps to the split in the early psychoanalytic community between followers of Jung and followers of Freud. Jungians were into spiritual archetypes, the collective unconscious, and so on, while followers of Freud wanted psychoanalysis to move on from what they perceived as superstitious nonsense and become a serious science. Analogously, there are some panpsychists, like David Chalmers, Luke Roelofs, and Angela Mendelovici, who are sympathetic to panpsychism, but have no time for any spiritual transcendent reality. For others, though, who are inclined in that direction for independent reasons, there might be a consonance between panpsychism and some kind of transcendent reality.
I do think panpsychism is a picture of the world that is better than most for our mental and spiritual health! We are conscious creatures in a conscious universe. But I wouldn’t want to overplay this angle. Particles may have some kind of consciousness, but it’s of a very, very simple and rudimentary form. It’s not something we’d want to worship, make friends with, or consider as a moral agent. On the other hand, if you’re bringing in cosmic purpose, that becomes closer to a religious conception of reality and has more dramatic implications for human meaning and purpose. In fact, I am inclined to think that a paradigm shift is on the cards. There are two things that our current paradigm can’t account for: the first is consciousness, as our scientific paradigm was designed by Galileo to ignore consciousness; and the second is purpose in the universe, as we have become convinced that science has demonstrated we live in a meaningless, purposeless universe.
I do think panpsychism is a picture of the world that is better than most for our mental and spiritual health!
In my view, the evidence against both of these paradigms has changed and it’s time for our culture to catch up with it. It’s a bit like the 16th century. We started getting evidence that we’re not in the centre of the universe and people struggled to accept that because it didn’t fit with the picture of reality they’d got used to. It’s common nowadays to scoff at our anti-Copernican ancestors: Oh, those stupid religious people who couldn’t follow the evidence. But I think every generation absorbs a worldview they can’t see beyond. And that’s very much what’s going on now in relation to questions surrounding consciousness and meaning in a scientific world – we’re in denial about these ideas because it doesn’t fit with the picture of reality we’ve got used to.
My view is that you can have a perfectly meaningful life without cosmic purpose, through meaningful activities, such as kindness, creativity, or the pursuit of knowledge. But life can be potentially more meaningful if there’s cosmic purpose. We want our lives to make a difference. If you can contribute in some small way to the purposes of the whole of reality, that’s about as big a difference as you can imagine making.
In Why?, I discuss how belief in cosmic purpose – or “cosmic purposivism” as I call it – connects to spiritual practice, spiritual communities, and to political struggle. I’m not trying to give you the final answers, to claim that cosmic purposivism is the only way to live a meaningful life. But I want to open people up to this option that’s distinct from the two more familiar options of secular atheism versus traditional Western religion. I’ve certainly found cosmic purposivism to be a deeply meaningful way of living, connecting up what I’m doing to some greater purpose. If nothing else, it keeps my ego in check! The aim of the final chapter of the book is just to lay this out as a possible option that people might want to think about. I often describe Why? as a middle way between God and atheism. My atheist friends disagree with this, and tell me it’s just a non-standard form of atheism, but my religious friends tell me it’s just a non-standard form of theism!
In some sense, my view is similar to the Carl Sagan idea that “we are star stuff” and that we can find inspiration in that. But I think that the view I defend in Why? is a bit more radical than Sagan’s. Sagan wasn’t departing from the current conventional scientific story; rather, he was just advocating having religious-like attitudes, such as awe and wonder, towards the universe as science conceives of it. This is a bit like the view of “naturalistic pantheists” who just accept the current conventional scientific story of the universe but claim to hold religious attitudes towards the universe so conceived. I’m saying more than that. I am saying there is a purpose that goes beyond humanity.
I think it can be rational to live in hope of cosmic purpose, even if it’s unfolding in ways we don’t yet fully understand.
I think William James was right that it can be rational to hope beyond the evidence. For example, you might think if you just go off the evidence, it doesn’t look likely we’re going to be able to deal with climate breakdown. But it can be rational to hope that humanity will rise to the challenge and to find meaning and motivation in that hope. Likewise, I think it can be rational to live in hope of cosmic purpose, even if it’s unfolding in ways we don’t yet fully understand.
John Hawkins is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of New England (Australia). His dissertation examines the future of human consciousness in the Age of AI. In addition, he is a freelance journalist and poet.