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The missing subject: a critique of Philip Goff’s panpsychism

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Rev. Joshua Farris makes the case that, once we accept that experiential qualities are irreducible to physicality, we become logically committed to subjectivity itself as the fundamental substance at the foundation of reality, distinct from physicality, and in terms of which we can account for physicality. Notice that Rev. Farris uses the term ‘naturalism’ in a manner distinct from our own usage. For us, ‘naturalism’ means simply that nature behaves spontaneously, according to its own intrinsic regularities, as opposed to deliberate planning or external intervention. In this sense, naturalism and idealism are entirely compatible. In Rev. Farris’ usage, however, ‘naturalism’ refers to the physical, or material, phase of reality as determining its intrinsic structure. Neither definition is incorrect; they are simply different. But it is important to understand what is meant in each case.

To accept experiential qualities as fundamental aspects of an otherwise physical reality, as proposed by panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff, isn’t enough. We need more. We need subjects of qualities, and it’s dubious that panpsychism can fit the bill.

In one place, Goff makes the rather odd claim that “The main objection made to panpsychism is that it is ‘crazy’ and ‘just obviously wrong’.”[1] He proceeds to claim that we know something of the intrinsic nature of matter: “In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it—the stuff in brains—involves experience.”[2] Goff is convinced that his version of panpsychism steers a via media between physicalism and substance dualism. It takes seriously the nature of conscious experience like substance dualism, but without the sort of bifurcation of mind and body of substance dualism. It posits qualities as the intrinsic nature of matter and the latter, in turn, as the explanation for everything else. Yet, Goff also claims that his view is distinct from any version of idealism (whether it be theistic or involving a cosmic mind undergirding Nature).[3]

It is to the subject of qualities that I believe we must turn to as we reflect on the nature of the world; not just the qualities of life, but the subject of those qualities—something I and others contend is a challenge for panpsychists.

 

The historical progression of panpsychism

Defenders of panpsychism often trace their view back to Bertrand Russell, who affirms a form of monism concerning the physical and the phenomenal. Prior to Russell, there are traces of panpsychism in Leibniz as well—although Leibniz’s panpsychism is a form of idealism, entailing that minds furnish a fundamental structural role to the physical. Indeed, Leibniz departs in important ways from contemporary panpsychism.

The sort of view intimated by Russell differs significantly from Leibniz’s idealism in that it does not posit something as undergirding matter, but that matter itself is imbued with qualities, mind-lets, or mind-like properties at the fundamental level. This position on matter and consciousness, however, has only come to prominence in the last 20 years or so. It wasn’t until David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel that it made its way back into contemporary academic discussions.

 

The historical overlap between panpsychism and naturalism

Arguably, it is not coincidental that the historical rise of panpsychism overlaps with the conceptual desire to maintain naturalism as the framework for understanding the world. Those naturalists that take the mind seriously, do so because they realize that a physicalist ontology is unable to account for qualities, or ‘qualia,’ as philosophers put it. A quality is the felt experience of what it is like to, e.g., taste strawberry ice cream, smell the ocean air, or experience the beauty of a pink sky as evening turns to night. Felt experience is lost in a naturalist’s world; one that, as Goff argues, is the result of Galileo’s worldview, which attempted to understand the world in terms of quantities without qualities. It is here that panpsychism has an advantage over physicalist naturalism: at least we are able to re-introduce qualities where they are otherwise excised and unaccounted for. For the naturalist, it might be their last hope.

Even naturalist Annaka Harris (wife of the famous new atheist Sam Harris) recognizes the conceptual overlap between panpsychism and its historical origins with physicalists. Toward the end of her book, Consciousness, she offers little more than the common promissory note that there may still be hope for physicalism to make sense of consciousness. But she also realizes that it may turn out that something like Nagel’s or Goff’s panpsychism may rescue the naturalist by saving consciousness. She says: “while theoretical physicists can happily propose ideas such as the predictions of string theory—from ten (or more) dimensions of space to the vast landscape of possible universes—and still have their work get a fair hearing, it is considered a risk to one’s reputation to suggest that consciousness might exist outside the brain.”[4] This is a fascinating concession from Harris, and suggestively points the way forward for the naturalist. Nonetheless, is it sufficient?

 

Naturalist panpsychism

Just what is naturalist panpsychism? In short, it is naturalism with qualities; naturalism with what Nagel calls ‘subjective appearances.’[5] Nagel reflects on this move when he considers the insufficiency of physicalism, whereby physics is the only—or best—way of knowing the world. He states:

The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.

But in order to get qualities, there is the question of whether qualities can exist like physical particles, as part of the bedrock of a naturalist world. In other words, qualities of this sort would exist as a foundational feature or property of the natural world, without any additional reality undergirding them.[6] This seems problematic: qualities need what philosophers call a ‘substance’ (i.e., a substrate with standalone existence), such as a mind or subject of experience. Indeed, it seems incoherent to speak of qualitative experiences without a subject that experiences those qualities as modes of its mind.

 

We need a wholly distinct substance

A substance has been traditionally defined as a thing that is countable or able to exist independently of other things. In the language of philosopher Ralph Weir, “they exist by themselves.” Since qualities don’t exist by themselves, they need a substance of which they can be the qualities. This is where defenders of substance dualism have an advantage over the naturalist panpsychism of Goff. Substance dualism is the view that there are two distinct sides of being, as put in the language of the dualist Uwe Meixner. And these two sides are properties—with property-bearers—including the phenomenal and the physical. According to the advocate of substance dualism, there is a distinct type of particular necessary to make sense, and instantiate the fact, of phenomenal qualities. While Goff, in his post-Galilean way, is keen to preserve qualities, it is not clear how he can do so. Qualities themselves aren’t enough. They must exist in something that owns them, bears them, and conceivably knows them.

This doesn’t necessarily require a Cartesian substance dualism, although that is one option. As E. J. Lowe has so famously put it, the thing having the phenomenal qualities presumes a fact about the substance in those qualitative states that is quite distinct from physical parts. Lowe highlights the particularity necessary to make sense of personal identity:

[P]art of what makes an experience of mine numerically distinct from a qualitatively indistinguishable experience of yours is the very fact that it is mine as opposed to yours.[7]

The fact of your existence as an experiencing thing is required, it seems, for qualities. In other words, you can’t just add qualities to your system and leave it at that, precisely because doing so entails a distinct type of substance for those qualities. But if this is the case, Goff isn’t really offering a via media between physicalism and substance dualism; either his view leads to substance dualism or some form of idealism.

 

You can’t just add qualities to your system

Goff argues that his version of panpsychism is distinct from, e.g., analytic idealism: “The main difference is that whilst panpsychists think that the physical world is fundamental, idealists think that there is a more fundamental reality underlying the physical world.” But at least in the analytic idealist framework the individual consciousnesses of people—which are obviously contingent, as individual consciousnesses come into existence at particular times—are explained by a distinct type of substance and are grounded in some necessary and ultimate reality. As Ralph Weir has clearly shown, this understanding of nature doesn’t entail the muddy middle of panpsychism.

One of the crucial lines of argument Goff uses to defend his panpsychism leverages the conceivability of so-called ‘zombie twins.’ A ‘zombie-twin’ is taken to be a complete physical duplicate of a person, but without being a phenomenal duplicate; i.e., your zombie twin is unconscious from within, despite being physically indistinguishable from you from without. Commonly used as an objection to the view that humans are solely physical, the conceivability of zombie twins—and, therefore, their metaphysical possibility—seems to defeat physicalism: if your purely physical zombie twin is metaphysically possible, then there is something extra, distinct from physicality, that renders you conscious. For Goff, this ‘extra’ is the qualities that constitute the intrinsic nature of matter.

Yet, an entirely analogous argument can be used in defense of substance dualism, for we can also coherently conceive of a ‘ghost twin’: an entity identical to you as far as your conscious inner life is concerned, but devoid of any physical property. Insofar as the conceivability of a ghost twin entails its metaphysical possibility, there may be a substance in nature distinct from physicality, and therefore substance dualism may be true. Nonetheless, Goff rejects dualism.

Goff’s rejection here, despite the equivalence between the ‘ghost twin’ and the ‘zombie twin’ arguments (the latter embraced by Goff), is based on a rather technical and questionable dodge: the notion that mere individual identity can lead to non-logical differences across qualitative duplicates. Ralph Weir discusses the problems with this notion:

[I]t is implausible that mere identity can make non-logical differences to what is possible for qualitative duplicates. If it is possible for your zombie twin to exist with only its physical properties and no consciousness, then the same is true of that part or aspect of reality that your zombie twin duplicates. And if it is possible for your ghost twin to exist with only its phenomenal properties and no body, then the same is true of that part or aspect of reality that your ghost twin duplicates. The zombie argument is therefore safe from objections that require that mere identity can make non-logical differences to what is possible for qualitative duplicates. But so is the disembodiment argument for mental substances.[8]

The important challenge to Goff is that, if there is a metaphysical possibility for zombie twins—i.e., your physical duplicate without phenomenal consciousness—then your analogous ghost twin is a metaphysical possibility too. Goff’s commitment to qualities commits him to substance dualism, or—at a minimum—a wholly distinct substance of a phenomenal nature that accounts for physical bodies in terms of phenomenal qualities; in other words, some version of idealism that causally or structurally couches the reality of physical bodies in a mind or minds.

 

Theistic panpsychism

There is a smaller contingency of panpsychists defending theism, which underwrites panpsychism with a value-full system. This, however, is a departure from the historical rationale leading someone like Goff to posit qualities in an otherwise naturalist system. It is an odd departure given the recent historical reasons that gave rise to panpsychism. But then again, if panpsychism is just a retrieval of some version of substance dualism or idealism (e.g., Leibniz’s idealism), then it should not be considered a historical outgrowth of naturalist physicalism.

 

Theism: qualities aren’t brute but grounded in sufficient reason

In recent analytic theistic literature, one can notice a growing prevalence of the view that contingent, individual consciousnesses are grounded in some ultimate and necessary reality. Indeed, there is a growing body of literature contending that not only is naturalism insufficient as an explanation for consciousness, but that theism supplies the missing ground. This is certainly a move in the right direction, for as Joshua Rasmussen states,

Instead of positing mindless units beyond all experience, I propose that a first-person, personal reality is fundamental to all other realities. This mind-first picture is simpler and has greater explanatory power than the mindlessness-first picture, or so I argue. The mind-first picture also provides resources for solving the many construction problems, explaining nature and formations of matter, and explaining how there can be any being like us. For these reasons, I arrived at this theory of your ultimate origin: your origin is not based in impersonal, mindless stuff but in the ‘stuff’ of a personal foundation.[9]

Geoffrey Madell makes an argument for a substance that defies any conditioned analysis that can be borrowed from a naturalist or physicalist frame, and points us in the direction of some higher-order cause or ultimate explanation quite apart from the contingency of the physical and emergent consciousnesses:

There is, however, no denying that many people will see grounds for rejecting outright the account of the self which seems to be emerging from what I have said, and that for a fundamental reason. To suggest, as I appear to have done, that there are no criteria for identity of the self over time, and no criteria which have to be satisfied for a state of consciousness to be mine at any one time, leaves one with a sort of free floating ‘I’. On one hand, every attempt to establish criteria for the identity of the self, to tie it logically to some such condition as the continuity of the body or of psychological continuity, or its identity to the notion of origin, seems to break down. But to accept this is to give credence to the idea of the self as an entity which, purely as a matter of chance, alights on a certain set of properties in history but might equally have alighted on any other set. This presents a dilemma of awesome proportions, and we must eventually confront it.[10]

Michael Bitbol highlights this:

Why do I live now, in this special period of history? Why am I me, born in this family, in this place of the world? I was taught that there were many other possibilities: being any person, at any time, or even just not being at all. And yet here I am, in front of you. Me, not you, here, not there, now, not then…What is the reason, if any, of this inescapable singularity? Does the fact that we all live through this mystery alleviate it in any way?[11]

The deeper problem seems to be naturalism, as Farris points out:

This rather obvious truth is so plain that you might think there’s no need to say it. What we long for is the person. Persons are valuable to us. In fact, persons are most cherished above  all other things that we regard as valuable. Sure, there are pets that we love and hold as valuable. We value food, our jobs, our homes, and our cars. We like having things, but if we are honest, it’s persons that we prize more highly than anything else in the world.[12]

While no one would actually claim that technology or science could get in the way of that which is most highly cherished, we are seeing and hearing of developments that promise the possibility to accommodate all of our needs and wants through artificial means. The prospect of constructing individuals that we can interact with that appear to be flesh and blood persons is certainly something that is not outside the imaginative social consciousness of contemporary society… While this might seem a bit far-fetched to some it hits at the heart of what we care about most and what is at stake in the science-engaged theological conversations today.[13]

What these authors make clear is that a naturalist view of subjects is insufficient to account for qualities in the world. What is needed is both a distinct type of substance and a necessary ground for explaining conscious subjects. Theistic panpsychism is better equipped to handle these facts than the sort advanced by Goff, yet it isn’t an alternative to the traditional options (idealism and substance dualism); instead, theistic panpsychism is just a form of idealism. At the end of the day, we need a substance for qualities, which points us in the direction of some ultimate explanation for contingent consciousnesses. Some version of theism supplies that explanation in a way that Goff’s panpsychism does not.

 

References

[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/panpsychism-is-crazy-but-its-also-most-probably-true

[2] https://aeon.co/ideas/panpsychism-is-crazy-but-its-also-most-probably-true

[3] He is not committed to either reductive or non-reductive panpsychism (the latter being the view that there are differing levels of the mind governed by layers of natural laws). And, while, he leans in the direction of non-reductive panpsychism, he is not convinced that we have sufficient knowledge of Nature to make determinate that hierarchical minds could not be reduced to the underlying qualities or mind-lets.

[4] Annaka Harris, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (New York: Harper, 2019), 81.

[5] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[6] Philip Goff, “A Conscious Universe: Panpsychism vs. Idealism,” Institute of Art and Ideas. https://iai.tv/aarticles/conscious-universe-panscyhism-idealism-goff-kastrup-auid-1584?_auid=2020; This is precisely the version Goff endorses when distinguishing it from the ‘analytic idealism’ of Bernardo Kastrup. Goff attempts to avoid theism as well as an ontological idealism that undergirds the natural world. The natural world just is conscious at the most foundational ontological level along with physical particles.

[7] E. J. Lowe, “The Probable Simplicity of Personal Identity.” In Personal Identity: Complex or Simple? edited by Georg Gasser and Matthias Stefan, 137-155 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 149.

[8] Ralph S. Weir, “Can a Post-Galilean Science of Consciousness Avoid Substance Dualism?”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 28, No. 9–10, 2021, pp. 212–28, see p. 221. [DOI: 10.53765/20512201.28.9.212]

[9] Joshua Rasmussen, Who Are You, Really? (Downers Grove: IVP, 2023), 268-269).

[10]  Madell, Essence of the Self, 10–11.

[11]  Michel Bitbol, as quoted in Nicholas Humphrey, Soul Dust (London: Quercus, 2011), 151–152.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] Ibid., 8.

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