Philip Goff and Philip Pullman Talk Materialism, Panpsychism, and Philosophical Zombies
A Philosopher and a Novelist Go Deep
The following conversation between Philip Goff and Philip Pullman was chaired by Nigel Warburton, on the occasion of Goff’s new book, Galileo’s Error, available now from Pantheon.
Nigel Warburton: We’re talking about consciousness, and just to begin, Philip Goff, could you say how you got interested in consciousness? It’s obviously become a big thing in your life, since you’ve just written a book about it.
Philip Goff: I think I’ve been obsessed with the problem of consciousness as far back as I can remember, really. I think what draws you in is that there is a kind of paradox of consciousness. On the one hand, consciousness is the thing that is most familiar; nothing is more evident than the reality of one’s own feelings and experiences. On the other hand, consciousness is the thing that’s proven most difficult to integrate into our scientific story of the world. Despite lots of progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complicated electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner, subjective world of colors, and sounds, and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness.
Some people think that there is a deep problem here, but that we just need to do more neuroscience and we will eventually crack it. But I’m inclined to think the problem is deeper than that. The core problem of for me is that physical science works with a purely quantitative vocabulary, whereas consciousness is an essentially qualitative phenomenon, just in the sense that it involves qualities—the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint. You can’t capture these kinds of qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science. And so, as long as your description of the brain is framed in the purely quantitative vocabulary of neuroscience, you are always going to leave out these qualities, and hence leave out an essential component of consciousness itself.
NW: It’s interesting you say that, because lots of neuroscientists think they are on their way to giving an account of exactly the thing you think cannot be accounted for by science. How can you judge that that’s wrong?
PG: Neuroscience is absolutely crucial for signs of consciousness; you are not going to make progress on consciousness without neuroscience. But what neuroscience gives us, I believe, are correlations between activity in the brain and conscious experience. You can scan someone’s brain and ask them what they’re feeling and experiencing, and you can discover that a certain kind of activity of hypothalamus is always accompanied by a feeling of hunger: that the two always go together. And neuroscientists have developed a rich and very important body of correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. But that in itself is not a theory of consciousness. What we ultimately want from a theory of consciousness is an explanation of those correlations: why is it, that when you have this kind of activity in the hypothalamus you have a feeling of hunger? And I think just doing more neuroscience, just gathering more correlations, isn’t going to answer that question.
NW: Okay, so the other Philip, how did you get interested in consciousness?
Philip Pullman: Well in a sense I always have. One of the first things I remember doing is that thing when you look at your finger and then you let your eyes drift, and you see two different images, each of which is transparent. That puzzled me for a very long time: Why am I seeing that? Why does it look like that? Why doesn’t anyone talk about that? It’s so interesting. But the moment I started actually working it out a bit more consistently than I was doing as a small child was when I started writing my first novel, which was the day after I finished my final exams at Oxford, where I was studying English. You might think I would have come across this particular problem before in the essays I should have written and the lectures I should have gone to, but somehow it passed me by.
Anyway, I found myself faced with a problem which the filmmaker and playwright David Mamet has very well put in the question (which he says every filmmaker has to answer): Where do I put the camera? Where am I telling this story from? Where is this eye located that’s looking not only at what the characters are doing but also into their minds and telling us what they are thinking?Literature is all about consciousness and the first-person perspective.
Then I remember thinking, hang on, I can’t do this as a person. I can’t describe the activities of any of you and then tell the reader really what you are thinking; that’s not possible for a human being. So, whoever is doing this storytelling is not, whatever he or she is, human. And over the 50 years since then, I’ve kind of anthropomorphized, if that is the right word, this strange, floating consciousness into what I call a “sprite.” It’s the sprite who tells the story, it’s the sprite who is the camera, who can go anywhere, see anything. This used to be called the position of “the omniscient narrator,” and it used to be the way we could tell a story. “Once upon a time there was a farmer who had two sons,” for example; that’s obviously something from a folk tale, seen by an eye looking at it from the outside.
Then, in the sort of 18th century, early 19th century, when the modern novel first got going, the telling voice began to do different things. Jane Austen, for example, began to float around between this character and that – telling us what she’s thinking, telling us what he’s thinking – and that became the way of telling stories for quite a long time. That’s the point where I came in, and wondered what it was that was doing the seeing. What kind of consciousness was this?
NW: Interesting you chose a sprite, rather than God. Omniscience is usually the quality of God.
PP: Ah, but the ‘omniscient’ narrator never is omniscient, because he or she doesn’t know everything—they just know a lot. The word really should have been “multiscient.” Here’s an example of the value of serendipity and the value of Chambers dictionary. When I first used “multiscient,” I wanted to look it up to see if it had been defined anywhere, whether it was official as a word you could use in scrabble; and it is. But on the way to discovering that, I came across this definition in Chambers dictionary: “Mullet: A haircut which is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round.” This is why I say Chambers is the one dictionary for me.
PG: Yes, I think literature is all about consciousness in a sense, and the first-person perspective. Part of what I try to do in my work is think about how these worlds relate. How does the world of the first-person perspective of consciousness, which we know probably best though literature (you’re probably better, Philip, at communicating the reality of consciousness than I am), how does that world of the first-person perspective relate to and connect with the third-person world of the information we learn from science about quantitative, objective facts? How does all that fit together in a single, unified world view?
Connecting with fiction, one way of avoiding this problem entirely is to say that consciousness doesn’t exist. And I wanted to ask you about this. Philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Keith Frankish have argued that actually the brain the brain tricks us into thinking we are conscious but we’re not really; it’s just a sort of fiction. Consciousness is an illusion. I’ve engaged a lot with these philosophers, sometimes called ‘illusionists’, who think that consciousness is just an illusion or a magic trick. In connection with this, I’ve just finished The Secret Commonwealth, and I was intrigued by this character Simon Talbot, who is this sort of cold, rationalist who Lyra is enamored with for a while. And one of the things he defends is the startling thesis that maybe demons are an illusion, that they are a psychological projection. So I was curious to ask whether this character has any basis in these illusionist philosophers like Daniel Dennett.We are always adjusting our stories about ourselves, recasting what we’ve said and saying it better.
PP: Well, there may be points at which the one resembles the other, but I certainly wasn’t modeling my character Simon Talbot on Dennett in particular. There are two philosophers in the story, who have slightly different takes on it, but neither of them believes in demons. To explain for anyone who hasn’t read any of my books: the daemon is an aspect of the character’s personality or nature, which has the form of an animal, and manifests outside of the person. So we all go through life in Lyra’s world accompanied by a daemon who has the power to change shape when you are a child, and then remains fixed when you are a grownup. That’s what the demon is. I’ve always found it a very good metaphor for all sorts of things: states of mind, alienation from yourself, that kind of thing. But no, I wasn’t modeling my philosopher on anyone in particular—partly because I find philosophy rather hard to read.
PG: Me too. Philosophers don’t do enough to reach out.
PP: So my method is to read like a butterfly, and write like a bee.
NW: It’s interesting what you were saying about the sprite, because the sprite is, in a sense, the storyteller in that model, and we were talking a bit earlier, before we came in here, about the role of narration in our self-understanding, and how consciousness is in part us telling ourselves stories about what is happening, what might have happened, what has happened—how that all fits together.
PP: Yes indeed, we are always all doing that. The French phrase, “l’esprit de l’escalier” refers to the answer to a witty proposition—or whatever it is—that we think of on the way home, and that we should have thought of at the time. We are always adjusting our stories about ourselves and recasting what we’ve said and saying it better. We’ve come, I think, in recent years especially, to mistrust memory in a way, because it’s been shown how people who claim that this or that has happened – witnesses in court cases or whatever – must be mistaken because the evidence goes the other way.
Memory is a malleable thing. I haven’t written my memoirs yet but when I do I shall treat it exactly like a work of fiction, in that I’ll arrange it in such a way that it makes better sense as a story. It might be that none of it is true but no one will know and it won’t matter, because what I’ll be doing is making a story rather than giving evidence in a court case. Those two examples of telling a story are so different. If you’re giving evidence in a court case as witness, your duty is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But that sometimes makes a very poor story if you’re writing something that you hope people will buy and read.
NW: Biographers don’t tell the whole truth, even if they’ve got access to amazing data. They have to tell a story. You always have to decide when to bring something in, what to omit, how to link different parts of somebody’s life together. It’s not straightforward, you can’t just begin on day one and go on to the death of the person.
PP: And different biographers tell different stories about the same subject.
NW: Absolutely, so even in an apparently factual story where the facts aren’t controversial, you are putting it in a form, you are giving a narrative arc, you are making sense of things in the light of what has happened and what might have happened.
PP: I imagine it’s something akin to what a painter might be doing – I mean a realistic, representative painter – when they see a landscape: moving that tree to the left a little bit, raising the mountains. They are adjusting in their medium – in the form they are at home in – what they see to make something that might look better.
PG: I think there is a lot of truth in that, that we are the stories we tell about ourselves. But I think one can take that too far. Not if you’re writing a novel, but in terms of thinking about what consciousness is and how it fits in to reality. The illusionists we were just talking about say that it’s all a fiction. But I think there is an undeniable reality here. The reality of feeling pain, seeing red or feeling emotions; this is a cold, hard reality. I agree with Descartes that it’s the one thing we can’t really deny. So we have to find some way of fitting it in to our overall picture of the world. That’s the challenge, I think.
PP: To be fair to the people that you are attacking, they are not going to deny that you feel pain, that your experiences feel real to you.Consciousness is an essentially qualitative phenomenon and you can’t capture it in a purely quantitative language like mathematics.
PG: I don’t know. Keith Frankish comes closest to saying that consciousness, in the way we ordinarily think about it, just does not exist. It’s funny, he’s such a warm, empathetic character—he’s a very good friend of mine – and yet he thinks, in some sense, that no one has ever felt pain.
NW: In ‘some sense’. That’s important.
PP: Does that way of thinking imply that other people must be zombies, or might be zombies?
PG: I think Philip is talking about philosophical “zombies,” these imaginary creatures who behave like us in all ways but they have no consciousness. So if you stick a knife in them they scream and run away, but they don’t actually feel pain. Or if they’re crossing a road, they will look both ways and wait for the traffic to stop but they don’t actually have any visual experiences. They are just complicated mechanisms that are set up to behave as if they have experience but they don’t really. These creatures are put to various philosophical aims. You were saying, Nigel, does Dennett really mean it when he says consciousness doesn’t exist? A direct quote from Dennett is that “we are all zombies.” We think we have feelings and a subjective inner life but it’s just a clever trick.
PP: It sounds not far off psychopathology. I suppose the usual definition of a psychopath is someone who has no empathy for other people, who acts as if they have no understanding of or sympathy for other people’s feelings. Doesn’t the zombie idea stem from that or lead to that?
PG: It’s a good question. How do people end up thinking these very strange things? I think one reason is that people look to the great success of physical science in explaining more and more of our universe, and they think: “This has to be the complete story, it’s really worked, it’s really getting us somewhere.” But actually, what I try to press in the work is that the reason it’s been so successful is that it was always aimed at a quite narrow, specific task – from Galileo onwards – of constructing mathematical models to capture the behavior of matter, the quantitative features of matter. And that’s gone really well and has produced extraordinary technology. But it was always aimed at a very limited task, and that’s why it’s been so successful.
PP: And this is what I like so much about your book, because it points to that moment when Galileo decided that the things he would investigate were things you could investigate by means of mathematics, and everything else he decided to leave out. I find that a very fascinating take on it.
PG: Yeah, so Galileo wanted the new science to be mathematical, to have a purely mathematical vocabulary. But actually, he well understood that you can’t capture consciousness in these terms. Consciousness is an essentially qualitative phenomenon and you can’t capture it in a purely quantitative language like mathematics. So Galileo said, “If we want a mathematical science, we have to take consciousness out of the domain of science. Once we’ve done that, we can capture everything in mathematics.” People say, “Physical science has gone really well, and so it will surely one day explain consciousness.” The irony is that it’s gone really well precisely because it was designed to exclude consciousness.
PP: Yes, and the difficulty is you then have dualism and the problem of mind and body being separate things. The thing I like about panpsychism, which is your field of expertise, is that at a single stroke, it seems to do what Copernicus and Kepler did with the Ptolemaic universe. Before we had telescopes, and before we knew very much about the physical world, we’d see the planets going across the sky and imagine, quite reasonably, that they were going around the earth, and that the earth was the center of everything. As time passed, and observations became more accurate and more of them came in, people began to notice that the planets weren’t going regularly: some of them would stop, or go slower, or speed up a bit. They had to find an explanation for this, so they thought of the epicycles, which were little loops on the big circles that they describe when they are going around the earth. And eventually more and more observations came in and even that wasn’t sufficient, and so they had epicycles on epicycles and it became tremendously complicated. This is the state of things that I think we have today with consciousness and physical science: the explanations get more and more complicated, and more and more unreasonable. With one stroke panpsychism does away with that. It banishes the epicycles and explains so much about consciousness. For me, it was like the sun coming out.
NW: I saw a few puzzled faces at the word “panpsychism.” So maybe, Philip Goff, you could gloss “panpsychism” for us. Now, you did mention earlier that you are curious about how some people came to believe such exotic things as that consciousness doesn’t exist, but to me it seems pretty exotic to believe in panpsychism.
PG: Maybe I could just build up to the kind of panpsychism I defend. It’s rooted in very important work from the 1920s by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington, who was incidentally the first scientist to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity. I’m inclined to think these guys did in the 1920s for the science of consciousness what Darwin did in the 19th century for the science of life. And it’s a tragedy of history that it was forgotten about for so long, but it’s recently been rediscovered in academic philosophy and is causing a great deal of excitement, and part of the reason I wrote this book was to try and get these ideas out to a broader audience.
The core of the idea, the starting point of Russell and Eddington, is that physical science doesn’t actually tell us what matter is. That seems at first like a bizarre claim; if you read a physics textbook you seem to learn all of these incredible things about the nature of space and time and matter. But what Russell and Eddington realized is that physical science, despite its richness, is confined to telling us about the behavior of matter, about what it does. Physics tells us, for example, that matter has mass and charge, and these properties are characterized entirely in terms of behavior. Charge is a matter of attraction and repulsion; mass is defined in terms of gravitational attraction and resistance to acceleration. This is all about behavior. Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about what philosophers like to call the intrinsic nature of matter: what matter is in and of itself. So, it turns out that there is actually this huge hole in our scientific story of the world. The proposal of Russell and Eddington is to put consciousness in that hole. We are looking for a place for consciousness in our scientific story; we’ve got this hole; why not stick consciousness in this hole?
The result is a kind of panpsychism, which is the ancient view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality. But this is a kind of panpsychism that is stripped of any mystical connotations (or at least it could be). The view is that there is just matter—fields, particles—nothing supernatural or spiritual, but matter can be described from two perspectives: physical science describes it, as it were, from the outside, in terms of its behavior, but matter from the inside, in terms of its intrinsic nature, is constituted in forms of consciousness. So, this is a beautifully, simple, elegant way of integrating consciousness into our scientific story into the world.
If I could just say one more thing on this—I discovered an intriguing connection to Philip’s work. I’m a huge fan of Philip Pullman’s work, but I didn’t realize there was a connection with my own work until we hooked up on twitter (of all things) and began to email. I then looked back at His Dark Materials and I found this fantastic line from The Subtle Knife, which actually perfectly captures, I think, the view I’ve just been describing. So, this is a conversation with the scientist Mary talking to Dust particles, or “shadows” as she calls them. She asks them: “Are you what we would call ‘spirit’?”. And the particles reply (I won’t go in to how they’re communicating…), “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one.” And I think that perfectly captures the view I’ve been describing.
PP: Well I’m very flattered to hear you say that. The story of His Dark Materials is in, part, an investigation by me of this whole problem: the nature of us, the nature of what we are, how we come to perceive things. A lot of exciting things were going on while I was writing it 25 years ago. One was the nature of dark matter, this mysterious thing in the universe which must exist for galaxies to behave gravitationally in the way that they do, but nobody knows what it is. I was praying all the way through (praying to whom? I don’t know), hoping that they wouldn’t discover what it was before I finished the book. And they haven’t yet, so I’ve been lucky so far.
But it seemed to me, as I was developing the world of this book…I say “developing” and not “creating” because it feels like unfolding something, or discovering something, that’s already there. This is one of the mysterious things about creativity; it really does feel like discovery rather than invention, as if it’s there in some way already…Anyway, in the world of the story there is an entity, which they call “Dust”, and it seems to have various properties, which some people are investigating, but other people are afraid of because it seems to deny what their holy book tells them. And I thought of it rather like dark matter: something we don’t know yet but we know is there.
There must be a field—in fact the Higgs field came into it as well, giving me another metaphor (Now I don’t want to say the function of the physical sciences is the production of metaphors for subsequent development in the arts, but I can’t deny they’re very useful). The Higgs Boson, which was discovered recently, is a particle which is associated with a field, and it’s what gives mass to things: the mass of things is conveyed in some way (which I don’t understand) by the Higgs boson, which is an expression of the Higgs field. I’m thinking of Dust in the same way, but with regard to consciousness. I have a scientist called “Rusakov”, who discovers the Rusakov field, which permeates everything, and the particle associated with this is Dust. And it has something to do with consciousness, though I don’t know exactly what it is yet, because I haven’t written the last part of the last book. But I will, and I will continue my investigations. That’s my picture of it anyway.
NW: This is fascinating, and obviously you’ve got an amazing imagination. But he [pointing to Philip Goff] actually believes this stuff, and that’s quite different.
PG: But do you (Philip Pullman)? I’m actually curious how sympathetic you are to this. I get the feeling you are a little bit sympathetic to it. I love the way, in relation to my book, you described it as this new “Copernican revolution”; that’s the skill of a novelist, that wonderfully poetic way of putting it. And that really captures for me the appeal of it. When I was a philosophy undergraduate, in the dying embers of the 20th century, we were taught there were only two options on consciousness: either you were a materialist – you thought consciousness could be explained away in terms of the chemistry of the brain or was an illusion of some kind – or you were a dualist and believed that consciousness is non-physical, outside of the workings of the body and brain. And I came to feel that both of these views were pretty hopeless. So I actually left philosophy. I wrote my end of degree dissertation saying that the problem of consciousness is irresolvable, and I went off and did something else. But then everything changed when I discovering this middle way, which sounds kind of wacky but which avoids the deep difficulties of the two more conventional options.
PP: Is there an analogy, do you think, with the contradiction between Newtonian physics and quantum physics? Einstein, developing Newton, describes the cosmic in terms of spacetime, gravitation and so on, but for some strange reason, which I have never understood, this is not compatible with the tiny world in which quantum mechanics operates. They’re both true, but they’re true on different scales. Could the views you’ve just described both be true but on different scales, or in different dimensions?
PG: Yes, that’s a really nice way of putting it. We’ve got these two things that we know are real: our experience (obviously that has to be real) but also the rich, objective information we get from physical science, and they don’t seem to fit together.
Some people think, “We just need to do more science, and we’ll crack it”. But often that’s a very simplistic view of science, as though it’s just a matter of doing the experiment and getting the data. But actually, some of our biggest leaps in science have involved reimagining the universe. Einstein developing special relativity wasn’t so much doing experiments; he was sitting wondering what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, and working out what would follow if you did. Also, we have that wonderful reimagining from thinking of space and time as different things, as we always had done, to thinking of there being one fundamental thing: spacetime. There are all sorts of similar radical re-imaginings in the history of science that were done from the comfort of an armchair. My hunch is that making progress on consciousness is not only going to involve experimental data but also reimagining the universe, and this panpsychist framework seems to me a way of doing that.
NW: One of the delightful things in the book for me, for me, was where you start to imagine what it would be like to be a panpsychist in relation to the ethics, in relation to the environment, in terms of how we think about trees once we think they’re conscious at some level, and in terms of how we think about other people.
PG: I’m not a novelist—I’m a philosopher. And I think as scientists and philosophers, we should be thinking not about the view we’d like to be true but about the view that is most likely to be true. I do think a strong case can be made for the probable truth of panpsychism as the best explanation we have of how consciousness fits into our scientific story. But I also think it is a picture of the world that is maybe slightly more consonant with our mental and spiritual well-being.
The materialist view is pretty bleak: you have an essentially mechanistic view of nature and then the cold immensity of empty space, whereas in the panpsychist worldview we are conscious creatures in a conscious universe. This is a worldview in which we can, perhaps, feel a little bit more at home, a little bit more comfortable in our skin.
PP: I completely agree with that; I think that is a very true observation. I come to it also through poetry. William Blake is my guiding star in many things, and I like to quote him whenever the chance arises. At one point he says, “How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five.” And elsewhere he talks about a world where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy. He was clearly very sympathetic to the idea that matter itself, the stuff we can feel and see around us, is conscious in some strange way. So before Bertrand Russell and Eddington, William Blake was on the same track, I think.
PG: Right, very interesting.
NW: It’s not necessarily comforting, though. There are couple of hundred people look at us; that’s slightly unnerving. What if the bookcases and the water’s looking at me as well? Everything is looking at me! If I’m a bit neurotic, it could really turn me over the edge.
PG: There’s a common misapprehension here. The panpsychist doesn’t necessarily think absolutely everything is conscious. The basis of the view is that the basic constituents of reality—maybe electrons and quarks, maybe fields – have some kind of unimaginably simple experience. It’s not like the electron is sitting there feeling existential angst. You only get the kind of rich—
PP: French electrons do that.
PG: You only get rich, human experience after millions of years of evolution. So the basic constituents of reality are consciousness but it doesn’t follow that every combination of particles is conscious; it doesn’t follow that the table is conscious, for example.
NW: Well, it does mean it’s conscious at some level, doesn’t it?
PG: The things that make it up are conscious but the table as a whole does not necessarily have its own experience.
PP: Fundamental particles have mass, but they have very little mass. We haven’t mentioned emergence. What do you think about the idea that consciousness is a property that emerges with increasing complexity? Whereas, the electrons, and even the molecules that constitute my brain, don’t have very much consciousness themselves, when they’re all tangled together and talking to each other, consciousness emerges from that. Does that make any sense?
PG: It’s a nice story, but how does it happen? People use “emergence” as another word for “at this point a miracle happens.” I suppose my core problem with that view, going back to where we started, is that physical science works with a purely quantitative description of what’s going on in the brain, whereas consciousness is an essentially quality-involving phenomenon. How do you bridge that gap between the purely quantitative and the qualitative? Nobody has ever made the slightest progress, in my view, in making sense of that. So when people talk about emergence, I’d want to know: “How are you bridging that gap?” That to me is the core of the challenge.
PP: I saw a very good example of emergence, in the sense of something you hadn’t expected coming together from a lot of simple things, in the Modern Art Museum in Oxford a few years ago. They had an exhibition of sculpture by Sol LeWitt, who makes sculptures out of square, white, painted rods, put together in cubes and then accumulated. And what you saw when you walked around this mass of stuck together, white, hollow cubes, were all sorts of unexpected things. When you looked through them from one angle you saw an equilateral triangle. It made you think: Where did that come from? The only angles he’d put into it were 90 degree angles. That was a picture for me of emergence, of a kind I hadn’t seen before. Something unexpected emerging from simple things.
PG: On the topic of emergence, although I’m a panpsychist and so in some sense I think that experience is there all the way down – but only in very simple forms – I do think human experiences, distinctively human traits, are emergent: they evolve over millions of years. Whereas Dust, as you describe it, is associated with something quite specifically human: loss of innocence, or self-consciousness. So, are you maybe sympathetic to the view that something distinctively human is fundamental to the universe?
PP: Not to the universe; that couldn’t be possible if we believe the universe jumped into being with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, or whatever it was. But yes, I do think there is something distinctive about human beings, which is our ability to reflect on our own experience. I might believe that glass of water is conscious, well maybe it is, but it’s not doing much reflecting. As far as we know (maybe it’s in conversation with your glass!).
But, yes, in the stories I’ve written, clearly human self-consciousness, human awareness, came into being 30, 40 thousand years ago, something like that. Our knowledge of that is based, of course, on the discovering the remains of art: cave paintings, the carvings on stones, that sort of thing. That seems to be a time when people were becoming interested in other things than where the next meal was. So yeah, I do think the sort of consciousness we display now, and we display every day, emerges from something that was less conscious.
NW: That’s still a problem for a panpsychist, isn’t it? You have lots of little bits of vaguely conscious stuff, and then suddenly you’ve got this thing that can reflect on what matter is, on whether it’s conscious or not.
PP: Well, maybe not suddenly. Maybe it emerged gradually.
NW: But it’s the same kind of difficulty a materialist has, in a way, it’s just expressed in different terms.
PG: Yes, a lot of people press that, and try to say there’s no progress here at all.
NW: Ok, I’ll press that.
PG: Look, all these views have problems; it’s early days in the science of consciousness. I suppose it just seems to me that the challenges facing a panpsychist research program look to be more tractable than the problems facing, say, a materialist. The core of materialism, as I’ve already labored, is that you have this huge, explanatory gap between the purely quantitative objective properties, and the qualitative subjective properties, and I don’t think we’ve made any progress on this. Whereas the explanatory gap for the panpsychist is: how do you get from very simple forms of consciousness to very complex forms of consciousness? And whilst nobody has a completely satisfactory account of that – although there are already a number of intriguing proposals—it seems to be something we can make progress on.
PP: It just makes sense to me.
PG: You think it’s true?
PP: Yeah. But I should add that I’m prepared to believe anything that will help me tell a story.
Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff is now available from Pantheon. Copyright © 2019 by Philip Goff.