Goff himself, in the podcast below, repeatedly states that he’s “heartened” by the increasing (but still minority) view among philosophers that panpsychism is the way to go in explaining consciousness. And others, like physicist Lee Smolin, authors Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman, and philosopher Stephen Law, have endorsed Goff’s new trade book, though this doesn’t mean they all endorse panpsychism. ...Before the discovery of DNA, people wondered whether life could be reduced to chemistry. We do not know whether consciousness can be similarly reduced.
Sean, of course, is a physicist, cosmologist, and author, who knows a lot about philosophy. Debating him is Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University and perhaps the most vociferous advocate of panpsychism (he has a new book about it). Sean states from the outset that he doesn’t accept panpsychism, and that materialism (his view of the world) is perfectly capable of explaining consciousness, though it’s a hard problem and will take a long time to understand. ...
A brief view of the controversy. Goff avers that materialism won’t help us understand consciousness because all it produces are correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. That, he says, is useless because it doesn’t enable us to get at the heart of consciousness: subjective experience or “qualia”. As he says, “How can you capture in an equation the spiciness of paprika?” ...
In response to Goff’s statement that we need to know what consciousness really is, Carroll answers he doesn’t really care about the “intrinsic nature of subjective experience”. If you have consciousness and know how it’s produced from neurons and the brain, that’s all there is to know.
As I said, the heart of the disagreement starts about 71 minutes in, when Goff argues that yes, everything is conscious: even the mass, spin, and charge of physical particles like electrons are forms of consciousness: a “limited form of conscious experience.” But that’s about as far as he goes in defining consciousness of inanimate objects. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”. Goff also declares that panpsychism is completely congruent with what physics tell us about the Universe.
SciAm also has an article on panpsychism.
It is funny to see these guys argue about who is being more materialist.
Coyne and Carroll do not even believe in free will, so they must have a very limited view of consciousness. What is consciousness, if not the ability to come to your own conclusions about yourself and the world? If they don't believe in that, they I say they don't believe in consciousness.
I am not sure it makes sense to say that electrons have a tiny bit of consciousness, but I am not sure it is any crazier than someone thinking a century ago that a single DNA molecule could contain the mystery of life, in coded form.
I hate to see mainstream science popularizers promoting their personal speculations as if they were scientific facts.
Jerry Coyne argues:
Like Massimo, I’m perplexed, because when you ask Goff to tell us in what sense electrons are “conscious”, he just redefines their properties — spin, mass, charge, and so on — as consciousness. But if you pull that trick, then explaining human consciousness just becomes a purely physical problem, given Goff’s addendum that when you bundle enough conscious atoms and molecules and neurons together, you get a human brain. In other words, why isn’t consciousness then an epiphenomenon of the collection of molecules that make up the brain?No, the electron is not completely characterized by mass, charge, and spin.
Further, Goff seems to think there is some “intrinsic nature” of matter that isn’t given by its behavior and observable properties. But to a physicist, the described properties of an electron completely characterize an electron for any purpose that we want. And if you call those properties “consciousness” and say that when there are enough conscious particles in a lump you get “higher” humanlike consciousness, then you’re saying nothing beyond describing neuroscientists are already trying to do. There are no essences beyond what we can observe. Or, if there are, Goff can’t tell us what they are, though he strains mightily to do so.
To see why, just read this new SciAm article on double-slit and triple-slit experiments. As it explains, photons and electrons give interference patterns that cannot be understood from just the quantum numbers of the particles. Indeed, the patterns disappear if you put detectors in the slits.
Quantum mechanics uses wave functions to predict these interference patterns, and the wave function have info that goes far beyond the quantum numbers. Because the theory is so successful, many are tempted to say that the wave function completely characterizes the electron. But we don't know that. The wave function is not observable, and we are almost never sure that we even have the right wave function.
Textbooks sometimes say that the electron is completely characterized by mass, charge, and spin, because there is a quantum theory of identical particles. All electrons are identical in the sense that if you have a lot of them in a system, there is a symmetry that applies to them. The symmetry has experimental consequences, so we are very confident about it. I am not disputing that.
But the wave function encodes other info, such as position, momentum, and entanglement with other particles. The wave function successfully predicts experiments, but physicists commonly complain that it is not telling us the whole story.
So based on current physics, it is possible that an electron has some infinitesimal consciousness.
A philosopher law professor suggests that panpsychism is the most preposterous of currently fashionable philosophical views. He links to a poll comparing it to other supposedly-preposterous views, like free will. I am sure that philosophers have much more preposterous views than these!
Update: Here are the poll results:
Rank order the philosophical views, below, from the MOST to the LEAST preposterous.
1. External world skepticism
2. Realism about possible worlds
4. Libertarianism about free will
5. Grounding is a real and unitary relation
6. Non-naturalist moral realism