Jerry Coyne, Philip Goff, and Panpsychism

So, before leaving for his trip Jerry Coyne finished reading Philip Goff’s book on panpsychism. He starts his post for the second time with this:

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness.

This puzzled me both times, although it fits in with Coyne’s curmudgeonly approach to these things. The issue is that if Coyne is going to be even remotely honest with himself, he’s going to have to admit that he doesn’t really know (or at least didn’t really know) much about panpsychism. And yet he strongly criticized it. The Courtier’s Reply, if it has any validity at all, is not to be used in a situation where you can legitimately be criticized for not understanding what you’re criticizing. It only has use in cases where you do have at least a decent understanding of an issue and are being faced by people directing you to more and more esoteric examinations by saying that those are the real discussions. At some point, you are justified in saying that you don’t feel the need to examine each and every possible defense of the position, especially if your problems with it are fundamental. But Coyne had clearly not examined panpsychism in any detail before he criticized it. He might have been able to escape by arguing that it seems fishy to him and he isn’t interested in the topic, if only he hadn’t criticized it so strongly. I could make an excuse that panpsychism seems fishy to me and I don’t have the time to examine it, but that doesn’t really work for him especially, again, since he criticized it so strongly. And even if they worked, all that that would get us is to the point where the defenders of the position would have to give us a really good argument to make it seem worth our while to examine it. It wouldn’t allow us to conclude that there’s nothing in those defenses and that the position isn’t valid.

At any rate, after skimming Coyne’s comments on it, I have decided to pick up the book and read it to see what Goff is saying here. It is quite possible that it will arrive by the time this post gets posted (I’m a couple of days ahead), but I almost certainly won’t have finished it by then. The main reason is that while Coyne has posted some images from the book and talked about it, Jerry Coyne is indeed one of the people who has inspired my general policy of making sure that I read the source post any time I’m reading and/or about to comment on a post by someone else, along with P.Z. Myers. While Myers has a strong tendency to completely misread most of the things he comments on, Coyne has a tendency to interpret pieces based on what Coyne believes rather than on what the person writing the piece believes, which can lead to huge distortions in what they’re saying. Since I’m not as well-informed on panpsychism as I am on other views when it comes to consciousness, this seems like a good opportunity to see what’s going on here.

But to fill out this post, let me comment on some things that I know about panpsychism.

One of the constant questions around this discussion is why we’d even entertain the idea of panpsychism, and demands for empirical evidence providing it true, and if that evidence can’t be provided somewhat dismissive comments about why philosophers take it even remotely seriously. The reason, it seems to me, is the argument that the other alternatives have serious issues with them and panpsychism actually avoids those problems. The main issue for dualist theories is, of course, how the non-physical can causally interact with the physical, which is not an issue for panpsychist views. Of course, it’s not an issue for materialist views either, but they run into the issue of how we can put a bunch of things that are non-conscious together and somehow get consciousness out of it. Many have pointed out the issue with life and how we can put a number of inanimate things together, and so we once posited a sort of essence that living things had that we now no longer believe in. So we don’t need to have consciousness permeate all things in order to make things conscious. The issue here, though, is with artificial consciousness. When it comes to life, even materialists are pretty willing to say that if something isn’t made of the right stuff, then it can’t come alive when you stick all that stuff together. For example, if someone made an artificial dog that looked and moved like a dog but was made out of entirely synthetic and artificial materials, we’d all pretty much concede that it’s not really alive. However, if it acted like it was in pain, materialists, at least, are not so willing to claim that because it isn’t made of neurons it can’t really be in pain. And even those that would say that would find that they don’t really have a good motivation for saying that other than to preserve their own view, and would even come under fire from other materialists for saying that. So while we’re willing to say that in order to really count as life you may well have to be organic, we aren’t quite willing to say that for consciousness yet. And what this reveals is that despite the claims, we don’t, in fact, know how to put inanimate things together to get life. We just know that you can do that with some things and get what we clearly define as life. That’s not an answer that can deter a panpsychist.

The panpsychist solution is essentially this: if all things have some portion of consciousness in them, then when we combine those things in the right way, then we can get the unified experience of consciousness that we humans seem to possess. And this then could be done for any combination of things hooked up in the right way. There have been shots taken at Goff about what it would mean for, say, a rock to be conscious, and Goff in some of the quotes seems to be trying to talk about the consciousness of things like atoms, but panpsychism does not require these things to have any meaningful consciousness whatsoever. It is entirely consistent to say that we only get the sort of consciousness that we experience if we hook a number of these things up in the right way, like they are in human brains. And materialists can’t argue too strongly against that idea, since it’s essentially Dennett’s argument from functionality, arguing that the experience of consciousness we have is nothing more than what emerges when we stick the various functionalities of consciousness together, and functionalities don’t really seem to be the sorts of things that can produce a completely new sort of thing just by being brought together. Things can, and materialists who rely on referencing the brain are going to have to argue that combining neurons does just that, while not being able to explain why neurons can do that and nothing else seems to.

So, its biggest advantage, at least according to panpsychists, is that it can explain all of the empirical evidence without having the issues of the other potential explanations. This is also why demands for extra empirical evidence are misguided, as if the other explanations are ludicrous it has more than sufficient empirical evidence in its favour, and it’s hard to see what empirical evidence there could be that couldn’t be equally subsumed under the other theories. Again, this doesn’t make it right — remember, I’m not a supporter of panpsychism — but demanding that it show what empirical evidence could support it really seems to be begging the question, as there doesn’t seem to be any existing or possible empirical evidence that can’t fit under it, and it doesn’t have the issues of the other theories.

That being said, in thinking about this if all we want is one that doesn’t have those issues, it really seems like a neutral monism is the right answer here. That one posits that the idea that we have physical and mental stuff is misguided, and all we have is one kind of stuff that can have mental and physical properties. So how that neutral stuff causally interacts with that neutral stuff is answered — it’s the same stuff, so it’s obvious — and since things can have mental properties we can explain why some things end up conscious (er, roughly, but about as well as the other explanations do). And it avoids the problem panpsychism has of having to claim that everything has some consciousness in it, since the things that don’t seem to have any mental properties just wouldn’t have them, and the things that seem to easily would. Of course, the main problem with this and panpsychism is that these moves don’t seem all that revealing, as we are solving the problems by redefining the problem away rather than meeting them head-on. This is of course always a tempting move, but not one that can stand up to any kind of close examination.

Anyway, the book is on its way, and I’ll see what Goff might mean here when I get it.

One Response to “Jerry Coyne, Philip Goff, and Panpsychism”

  1. Dhay Says:

    > The reason, it seems to me, is the argument that the other alternatives have serious issues with them and panpsychism actually avoids those problems.

    Philip Goff seems to think so, too: “To my mind, the problems panpsychism faces just look to be more tractable than the problems materialism faces.”

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