Last week on IAI News, Peter Vickers gave his own view on the debate between Philip Goff and Bernardo Kastrup concerning panpsychism and idealism, questioning the role of scientific evidence in this metaphysical debate. But his arguments miss the point of the endeavor and rely on a majoritarian view of scientific truth, argues Bernardo Kastrup.
The thrust of Vickers' piece, “Panpsychism, idealism and science,” is an argument about whether theories of mind such as panpsychism and idealism can be considered scientific. He suggests they cannot. The very question, however, already betrays some conceptual confusion regarding the definitional differences between science and philosophy, particularly metaphysics: insofar as a theory of mind is a metaphysics, of course it is not scientific; by definition. It can therefore be argued that the very motivation for his piece is a straw man.
Science studies nature's behavior, insofar as it can be ascertained through empirical experimentation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, although certainly informed by science, makes tentative statements about what nature is. Theories of mind like panpsychism and idealism are metaphysical theories, in that they maintain that mind is a fundamental part of what nature is.
One could argue that, because of its speculative character, we should refrain from metaphysics altogether and focus solely on what science can ascertain about nature's behavior. This is perfectly fine, but it implies that we have to abandon mainstream physicalism as well, for physicalism is a metaphysics; it makes statements about what nature is—namely, entities outside and independent of mind, which can be exhaustively described purely in terms of quantities. Vickers seems to lose sight of this when he says that panpsychism and idealism
can only be suggestions, or hypotheses. What we find is that the two authors [me and Philip Goff] sometimes state explicitly that we ought to believe in their favoured proposal. But given that these are philosophical proposals this seems like an exaggeration.
I don’t recall calling for belief, as that would be rather out of character for me unless I were to be speaking in a religious context (I have commented extensively on religion, though that tends to be clearly demarcated from my analytical work). By and large, I prefer to talk in terms of living according to the most plausible metaphysical hypothesis, which is an exercise in reason, not belief.
Metaphysics, although certainly informed by science, makes tentative statements about what nature is.
Be that as it may, Vickers’ point again applies to physicalism as well. Defending a belief in physicalism should also be considered an exaggeration, a non-scientific speculation, if Vickers’ argument is to remain internally consistent.
To avoid this rather semantic issue, the panpsychist and idealist arguments can be formulated as follows: insofar as it is okay to believe in physicalism, we have better reasons to believe in idealism or panpsychism instead.
Vickers also denies that there can be empirical, scientific evidence indicative of idealism and contradictory to physicalism:
when one tries to place the evidence put forward for panpsychism and idealism on this spectrum, it certainly comes much closer to the ‘fully philosophical’ end of the spectrum.
I think this is demonstrably untrue, as the body of my work bears witness to. I have gone to great lengths to catalog and articulate, precisely and explicitly, why the latest results in several different areas of scientific inquiry seem to favor analytic idealism. Science can and does inform metaphysics, even though metaphysics is not science. If Vickers disagrees with the empirical, evidentiary aspects of my work, I invite him to criticize them specifically. As it is now, Vickers' criticism is too vague and generic to award a refutation; I wouldn’t know what to refute.
There is a second, more serious indiscretion, though. This is when the philosopher asks us to take seriously a proposal that goes strongly against established scientific opinion.
This is the first of a series of rather questionable assertions in Vickers’ piece. Every major advancement in the entire history of science has come in the form of “a proposal that goes strongly against established scientific opinion.” Without such proposals, there would have been no Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, to mention only two prominent and recent examples.
A couple of centuries before Relativity and the quantum revolution, Sir Isaac Newton was ridiculed—for decades, no less—for proposing that gravity was an invisible force that acted at a distance. The proposal of that eminent natural philosopher went very strongly against established scientific opinion, which considered invisible forces acting at a distance as pure woo-woo. Thankfully, however, science—at least when done properly—is not about opinions, but about evidence.
More common is a situation where we are asked to take seriously a proposal that is in tension with a strong scientific consensus (it doesn’t actually contradict the relevant scientific claims, but it sits next to them rather awkwardly). On the face of it, the proposals of both Goff and Kastrup are cases in point.
Vickers often uses ambiguous characterizations that render his intended meaning rather unclear, at least to me. If my proposals “don’t actually contradict the relevant scientific claims,” should I be happy about it and move on, despite their “sitting next to those claims rather awkwardly”? What does it mean for a proposal to “sit awkwardly next” to scientific claims, when it doesn’t actually contradict them? What is he talking about here?
Whatever the case, my argument for analytic idealism does not go against any scientific position, for analytic idealism is—again—a metaphysics, an ontology, not a scientific theory. It may well go against philosophical opinions or prejudices some scientists may personally hold, but that is irrelevant for the same reason that the food preferences of the judge are irrelevant to the merits of the legal case.
Kastrup’s idealism is even more revolutionary, and would no doubt be repugnant to the vast majority of practicing scientists: for Kastrup, the electron itself is an immaterial idea, an aspect of mind. It all sounds very unscientific, and even ‘new age’. New Agers sometimes argue that the Earth is conscious, for example.
If this were a recognizable characterization of scientists’ views, such emotional reactions and associations would nonetheless be irrelevant. But I am more hopeful than Vickers seems to be regarding the ability of the scientific community to operate objectively, based on reason and evidence.
Indeed, my hope is an educated one: unlike Vickers, I have been a professional scientist for many years and know the community fairly well, having worked in places like CERN and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the Casimir Effect of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). Even during my high-tech years, I have continued to move in advanced science circles, as my job entailed creating new technologies based on the latest scientific developments. To this day, in my philosophy role, I collaborate closely with well over a dozen active scientists and contribute regularly to science magazines such as Scientific American, which publishes my material because, apparently, it isn’t “repugnant” at all to their readership.
Mind you, my proposals are unscientific in the sense that they do not constitute a scientific theory. But they are not unscientific in the sense that—as acknowledged by Vickers himself—they “don’t contradict the relevant scientific claims.” Scientists, by and large, understand this; they are not just a bunch of prejudiced fanatics.
As for the allusion to the “new age,” I shall interpret Vickers charitably and not construe it as a hardly-disguised, adolescent schoolyard jab.
Vickers then proceeds to claim that my
presentation of the science seems significantly biased towards his [my] idealism. At the very least the presentation is not neutral.
Of course my presentation is biased towards idealism, for that is the case I set out to make! I am not trying to prove the Riemannian hypothesis or solve the Münchhausen trilemma. I am arguing for idealism. So I talk about evidence pertinent to idealism. This shouldn’t be concerning or surprising to anyone, should it?
My argument for analytic idealism does not go against any scientific position, for analytic idealism is—again—a metaphysics, not a scientific theory
Now, if Vickers’ suggestion here is that I am misrepresenting the evidence or deliberately misleading my readers, then we have a very different issue in our hands. I would then challenge him to point out, explicitly and precisely, the instances in which I allegedly carry out such misrepresentation. I would take such an accusation very seriously—were it to be made—as it would constitute a challenge to my integrity as a scholar and public intellectual.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not misrepresent any scientific evidence. I have gone out of my way to word my summaries and characterizations of the evidence in a fair and objective manner. I do choose the evidence I work with based on its relevance to… well, my work. But I present this evidence objectively, accurately and precisely. The burden is on my critics to point out precisely where this allegedly isn’t the case. Vague insinuations are not constructive.
Now consider this passage:
In a 2019 Scientific American article he [Kastrup] favours one particular interpretation of quantum mechanics – Relational Quantum Mechanics – and even states that this particular interpretation has recently been ‘verified’ by physicists.
Yes indeed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In the article Vickers refers to, I made a technical assessment based on the newest laboratory evidence that had just been published in the technical literature, argued my case openly and precisely, with substance and appropriate technical references, and then presented it to the scientific community for their evaluation. Is this a sign of misrepresentation or just standard scientific best-practice?
I stand by the technical assessment Vickers is alluding to here fully. The principal, defining and utterly non-trivial tenet of relational quantum mechanics—namely, that the physical world is relative to observation—has been directly confirmed by a recent experiment. I fail to understand why Vickers seems to see a problem with my pointing this out. Should I pretend not to be acquainted with the latest developments in a field relevant to my work?
Vigorously advancing new and potentially polemical views through fresh argument and newly available data, just as I’ve attempted to do in this case, is precisely the manner in which science makes progress. As a matter of fact, it is the normal and healthy way of doing science, as any actual scientist will know.
But Vickers insists:
The truth is, this interpretation remains a minority interpretation, and it is wholly misleading to suggest that it has been experimentally supported in a way other interpretations of quantum mechanics have not been.
What matters here are the relevant and verifiable facts, not arbitrary proclamations of truth. As Vickers should know, there is absolutely nothing inaccurate or misleading in my argumentation, at least for those who understand the technical issues in contention. There are many interpretations (fourteen significant ones, in my last count) and no consensus about them in quantum mechanics. As such, all interpretations are minority views. It is perfectly acceptable to argue for one or another interpretation. Physicists do it all the time, as do all good academics.
Indeed, arguing for one’s preferred interpretation is core to the field of foundations of physics. It’s what a lot of those folks do. Chris Fuchs dedicates his career to arguing for an interpretation called ‘QBism’. Carlo Rovelli is publicly associated with the relational interpretation, even though lately he has been focusing on loop quantum gravity. Henry Stapp—a living legend of quantum theory who should command the most profound respect from us all, and with whom I have had the distinguished honor of co-authoring a Scientific American article—defends an idealist version of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation. The list goes on. The debate that ensues is how the field progresses. If Vickers thinks that defending a particular interpretation is misleading and constitutes a distortion of science, then the daily scientific practice in foundations of physics is guilty of both. Vickers’ contentions betray a surprising lack of familiarity with how basic science is actually done.
Let me try to be as clear and explicit as possible in addressing Vickers’ assertions: yes, recent experimental work has indeed conferred onto the relational interpretation a remarkable, arguably unexpected, non-trivial degree of experimental confirmation. Yes, this is significant; the relational interpretation scored some fat brownie points there. Yes, I have proudly pointed that out and continue to do so. And no, there is nothing misleading or conspiratorial about it. This should be clear to all scientists as well as philosophers.
If Vickers thinks that defending a particular interpretation is misleading and constitutes a distortion of science, then the daily scientific practice in foundations of physics is guilty of both.
Finally, take the following passage, in which Vickers does not hold back::
In another article Kastrup (together with collaborators) once again presents the science in a potentially misleading way. The authors reference some recent scientific experiments and write, “these experiments indicate that the everyday world we perceive does not exist until observed”. But the experimental results are fully compatible with the three most popular interpretations of quantum mechanics (GRW, Bohm, and Everett), all of which account for quantum phenomena via the assumption that the everyday world does exist prior to being observed. As the article proceeds, a serious potential to mislead persists, in particular when it is stated that, “QM seems to imply that the world is essentially mental”, and “According to QM, the world exists only as a cloud of simultaneous, overlapping possibilities”. These statements are incorrect, or at least very much biased. To the vast majority of relevant thinkers, QM does not imply that the world is essentially mental; that is just one (minority) view.
The entire passage above is meant to show that I, alongside some living legends in the world of quantum theory, have been misleading people. But if we look carefully at what Vickers is actually doing, something else proves to be the case: (a) he quotes the concluding assertions of one of our articles, the culmination of an involved and careful line of argument; but (b) he ignores the entire technical build-up that led to those concluding assertions in the first place—in other words, he quotes out of context, failing to at least mention precisely the argumentation that would have revealed his accusations to be wholly unfounded; and then (c) having done this, he incorrectly portrays our conclusions as claims of consensus in physics—which would indeed be misleading, although it’s hard to imagine that the editors of Scientific American would let something like that happen—instead of the conclusions of our own argument line. No one who reads the article carefully would possibly mistake it that way, for if our positions were consensus we wouldn’t have needed to write our article in the first place; and neither would Scientific American bother to publish old, consensus news, would they? So now I ask you: who is being misleading here?
I stand by the claims in that Scientific American article fully. I consider it a diligent and well-informed piece of work. Criticizing it properly demands more than lifting quotes out of context, misrepresenting its very intent and proclaiming mere opinions. It is an eminently technical article so valid criticisms should address the technical issues in contention.
With this, only one thing remains to be addressed in Vickers’ assessment of my work. He repeatedly suggests that the opinion of the majority in science is a reliable indicator of truth and legitimacy, against which my work should be judged for accuracy and neutrality. Here are two passages from his piece (the emphasis is mine):
Kastrup’s idealism is even more revolutionary, and would no doubt be repugnant to the vast majority of practicing scientists
To the vast majority of relevant thinkers, QM does not imply that the world is essentially mental; that is just one (minority) view.
Again, I have never claimed that my views are those of the majority or represent a broad consensus (my whole behavior is an implicit acknowledgment of the precise opposite). The idea that I have done this is at best a straw man and at worst a hallucination. I am not busy with this kind of thing. Instead, I am busy with constructing solid arguments to underpin my views, so to show that they are more plausible, coherent, parsimonious and empirically adequate than the alternatives, regardless of how many other people happen to be onboard with them.
In his preoccupation with whether the positions I defend are those of the majority or the minority, Vickers misses the sole point of relevance: they are my positions, my work, my output, my views. And I hope that their merit will be evaluated based on the quality of the arguments and evidence I put forward. It is not misleading to focus my work on articulating my views as best as I can, is it?
Indeed, Vickers’ entire case now seems to rest on this one question. Is it valid to think of the majority’s opinion in science as a suitable reference against which to judge the very honesty of my work? For him, if the position I am defending is not the majority’s view, then my defending it is deceptive and misleading. The logic here is not clear, but it seems unavoidable to conclude that this is what he thinks.
Needless to say, the entire history of science demonstrates unambiguously that, if anything, the majority’s opinion is an indicator precisely of what is not true or reliable; for the majority’s view has been consistently contradicted and refuted at each significant advancement in the development of science.
If Vickers’ peculiar and perplexing view of how legitimate science should be done had been adopted early on, science would have been in stasis since the late 16th century. For no significant advancements since then have come about without an overturning of the majority’s opinion. Vickers’ repeated appeals to majorities are incomprehensible.
To wrap things up, what I find most conspicuous in Vickers' piece is precisely what it does not do: it does not contribute anything positively to the debate it purports to address. Moreover, it fails to justify his criticism of my work in any objective manner.
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