Once ridiculed, panpsychism – the idea that all matter has some degree of consciousness – has gone mainstream. Philip Goff, one of the main defenders of panpsychism, now turns his attention towards another taboo question: does the universe as a whole have a purpose? In this interview, Ricky Williamson asks Goff how to make sense of fine-tuning, and what role psychedelics and mystical experience might have in coming to view the universe as a conscious mind.
You are most well-known for your arguments against physicalism - the idea that unconscious matter has combined in some way, namely in brains, to create consciousness - and your arguments in favour of panpsychism - the idea that matter itself has some spark of consciousness within it. You are now moving beyond discussing consciousness towards discussing topics ranging from cosmological fine-tuning, cosmopsychism (the idea the universe is a conscious mind) and whether the universe has a teleology, a purpose. Are these topics all related to your rejection of physicalism, or do you see these as separate areas of inquiry?
The fine-tuning is an empirical, rather than philosophical, data-point. It’s not how we expected science to turn out. But it’s there, at least in our current best theories, and so we need to deal with it. I suppose my prior commitment to panpsychism allows me options on dealing with fine-tuning that others might find harder to swallow, such as the idea that the universe is a conscious mind with its own purposes. But, actually, I would argue that this hypothesis is not as extravagant as you might initially think. Physics is confined to telling us the mathematical structure of reality; as Hawking put it, physics doesn’t tell us what ‘breathes fire into the equations, and makes a universe for them to describe.’ There must be something underneath the math. The idea that it’s a conscious mind sounds a bit weird, but it’s no less parsimonious than any other proposal.
At the upcoming HowTheLightGetsIn festival you will be debating 'The Mystery of Emergence' with physicist Suchitra Sebastian and philosopher Hilary Lawson, a debate exploring whether saying that something - like consciousness - 'emerged' has any explanatory power or whether emergence is something akin to a hand wave. What are you most looking forward to about that debate?
The word ‘emergence’ is a very slippery one. The problem is that philosophers and scientists tend to use it in very different ways. Scientists tend to use it to refer to phenomena that are strictly speaking new, but are in principle explicable in terms of the underlying physics. Water is emergent in this sense, just because its wetness isn’t shared with the atoms that make it up. Philosophers, on the other hand, use ‘emergence’ to mean some radically novel feature of reality that pops up in a totally unexpected way when matter reaches a certain level of complexity. It’s controversial whether anything is ‘emergent’ in this sense, but consciousness and free will are the most discussed candidates. It’s useful to distinguish these two notions by calling the first ‘weak emergence’ and the second ‘strong emergence.’
I used to assume physicists only believed in weak emergence. But actually I’ve found that many condensed matter physicists – including a couple of Nobel prize winners – think that the exotic quantum phenomena they focus on are not, even in principle, reducible to the basic equations of physics. Given that Suchitra Sebastian is herself a condensed matter physicist, I’m really keen to hear her views on emergence. In fact, I wish it was happening sooner, because I’m debating the physicist Sean Carroll next week, who thinks physics gives us strong reason to doubt the existence of strong emergence.
I’ve enjoyed Hilary Lawson’s presentation of anti-realism in earlier HowTheLightGetsIn sessions, and I’m curious to see how this interacts with the question of emergence. I’m guessing that there may be less pressure to be reductionist about everything if you’re an anti-realist, but I’ll have to wait and see.
If consciousness does turn out to be strongly emergent, this could really help to break the current impasse in the science of consciousness. Because it would mean that we can in principle identify consciousness ‘from the outside,’ by identifying the neural states whose behaviour can’t be predicted from the underlying chemistry and physics. The consciousness chapter of my new book ‘Why?’ explores how this might help us make progress.
In your upcoming book 'Why?: The Purpose of the Universe', you argue that the universe has a purpose, and it seems a lot rides on your ideas around cosmological fine-tuning. If the strength of gravity was slightly different, or the mass of an electron, life could not have arisen in our universe - it appears to us then the universe is fine-tuned for life. I think most people dismissed the problem of cosmological fine-tuning when they dismissed the idea of God. Why the focus on fine-tuning? And why is fine-tuning not explained by the idea of a multiverse, where you'd expect one of many (many) multiverses to be able to support life?
Humans always think they’re at the end of history. Before the scientific revolution in the 16th century, people thought Aristotle had basically got everything sorted, including that the Earth was in the centre of the universe. They thought they had it all figured out! And as the evidence against this Earth-centred model of the universe began to mount, people struggled to accept that this version of reality no longer explained the data. Today, popular science programs regularly scoff at our ancestors’ foolish inability to follow the evidence where it leads. But every generation absorbs a worldview they struggle to see beyond. I believe we’re in the same situation now with respect to fine-tuning. People are ignoring the evidential implications because it doesn’t fit with the picture of the universe we’ve got used to.
I used to go for the multiverse explanation myself. But I became convinced by philosophers of probability that the attempt to explain fine-tuning in terms of a multiverse commits the ‘inverse gambler’s fallacy.’ Suppose you and I go to a casino tonight, and the first person we see is some guy having an incredible run of luck, winning time after time. I turn to you and say, ‘Wow, there must be lots of people playing in the casino tonight.’ Naturally you’re baffled by my comment and request clarification on how I reached that conclusion, to which I reply, ‘Well, if there were few people in the casino, it’d be highly improbable that someone in the casino would have an incredible run of luck. But if there are a huge number of people in the casino, it’s not so improbable that, by chance, someone would win big.’ Now, everyone agrees that this is a fallacious inference: We’ve only observed this one guy, and the number of people elsewhere in the casino has no bearing on whether the one guy we’ve observed will roll well. I think the multiverse theorist is making exactly the same flawed inference. All we’ve observed is this one universe. And whether or not there are other universes out there has no bearing on whether the one universe we’ve observed is fine-tuned.
But isn’t this where the anthropic principle comes in? We could have walked into the casino and observed somebody rolling badly, but we couldn’t have existed in a universe that wasn’t compatible with the existence of life.
Yes, that’s the argument people give. But we can just adjust the example to create an artificial anthropic effect. Suppose there’s a sniper hiding in the gallery of the casino, waiting to shoot us dead as we walk in the door unless somebody in the first room is having an incredible run of luck. In that scenario, we couldn’t have observed a room in which nobody is rolling well, as we would have been killed before we’d had a chance to observe anything. So now it’s just like the real world case of fine-tuning, in which we couldn’t have observed a universe that wasn’t fine-tuning. But that doesn’t change the flawed nature of the inference. It’s still fallacious to infer a busy casino from one person rolling well, just as it’s fallacious to infer many universes from a single universe fine-tuned for life.
For these reasons, I’ve been dragging kicking and screaming to the conclusion that fine-tuning points to cosmic purpose, to some kind of goal-directedness at the fundamental level of reality.
For these reasons, I’ve been dragging kicking and screaming to the conclusion that fine-tuning points to cosmic purpose, to some kind of goal-directedness at the fundamental level of reality. I don’t feel comfortable with this; I still feel silly talking about ‘cosmic purpose,’ and wish I didn’t have to. But I don’t think we should let these cultural feelings stop us following the evidence where it leads. At the end of the day, it’s just too improbable that the right numbers for life came up just by chance.
If the universe has a purpose then, what is it? And does this provide an antidote to the quiet nihilism of our age?
What’s the purpose of the universe? You’ll have to buy the book to find out! Only joking. On the basis of fine-tuning, and the improbable emergence of conscious understanding – something else I discuss in the book – I think we can say that the purpose includes the emergence of living, self-conscious agents. It’s possible that that’s it. But it seems improbable that the time we find ourselves in happens to be the endpoint and final fulfilment of reality. It’s more likely that the purpose of existence is still unfolding, and that new forms of existence will emerge, as unfathomable to us as our existence is to worms.
You argue the universe may be a conscious mind. Is this different to the idea of God? Or is this God in different packaging? And if so, how do you counter things like the problem of evil, or the lack of empirical evidence for God?
It’s certainly not the ‘omni-God,’ i.e. an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good creator. I think the argument from evil and suffering against the omni-God is one of the most compelling philosophical arguments there is. Cosmopsychism improves on the traditional idea of God in two ways. Firstly, it’s a much more parsimonious hypothesis, because you’re not committing to anything supernatural. But more importantly, the problem of evil is avoided altogether because this isn’t an all-powerful conscious mind. On the view I develop, the laws of physics track the limited capacities of the universe. Theists can’t explain evil and suffering; atheists can’t explain fine-tuning. Only cosmopsychism can accommodate both of these data-points. It sounds a bit weird, but it’s actually the simplest theory that can explain all of the data.
Near the end of your book you bring up meditation, psychedelics, William James and mystical experience. Topics close to my heart. You say in your upcoming book 'Why?' that, "in the mystical experience one seems to directly encounter a life or living presence that exists in all things. Some call it ‘God’ or ‘Brahman.’" For my money, the mystical experience is evidence for a conscious universe or God - not God with a white beard, but the God of mysticism. Why do you think the mystical experience isn’t usually counted as evidence for God? What do you think is the value of having the mystical experience? And how do you think the increased commonality of psychedelically-induced mystical experiences, due to psychedelic decriminalisation, might change our culture?
I prefer to use William James’ term ‘the “More”’, as the G word has too much baggage. All knowledge is rooted in a decision to trust experiences. Mystical experience could be delusions. But then so could ordinary sensory experiences, e.g. we might be living in the Matrix. In either case, I can’t get outside of my conscious mind to check whether my experiences correspond to reality. I think James was right that we apply a double standard when we say that it’s okay to trust our ordinary sensory experiences but it’s not okay to trust mystical experiences. Indeed, people who’ve had mystical experiences claim that it seems more real than their ordinary sensory experiences. You could say, ‘Well I don’t trust my ordinary sensory experiences, I trust science.’ But we can only do science by using our senses to check the results of experiments, and so the justification is circular. The whole thing doesn’t get off the ground unless you just decide to trust that your experiences are putting you in touch with reality, and if it’s rational to do that with ordinary sensory experiences, then it’s rational to do that with mystical experiences too.
I’m convinced Brexit wouldn’t have happened if psychedelics were de-criminalised.
It makes no sense that psychedelics are illegal. They’ve been used for spiritual advancement for centuries if not millennia. There are of course psychological dangers posed by psychedelics; suddenly having your conditioned understanding of reality torn away can be incredibly frightening, and can lead to intense panic. But there are also concrete benefits, with recent studies showing that psychedelics have extraordinary potential to cure people of a wide range of debilitating mental health problems. We need to reclaim our right to this powerful tool for spiritual advancement.
It's not just about personal spiritual improvement. I’m convinced Brexit wouldn’t have happened if psychedelics were de-criminalised. And sometimes I wonder whether a mass encounter with the living presence in all things, brought about through widespread, safe and legal use of psilocybin, might be the only way to combat the ongoing commodification of nature which is launching us headlong into climate catastrophe. I explore in the book how political struggle and spiritual advancement can go hand in hand.
You end the upcoming book on a refreshingly optimistic note saying, "We have every reason to feel optimistic about the future." Returning to where we started, why do you think that a rejection of a physicalist metaphysics might result in a happier, more prosperous future? And what do you see as our main reasons for optimism overall, amid the problems the world and humanity face?
There’s only so long we can keep ignoring the evidence for cosmic purpose, or keep pretending we’re mechanisms. Physical science is confined to describing the behaviour of matter. And so physicalism only makes sense if you think being conscious is just a matter of how you behave, or how the bits of your brain behave. But that’s just not what we mean by ‘consciousness.’ When I say my wife’s in pain, I’m not just making a claim about her behaviour or the behaviour of her inner parts. I’m making a claim about how she feels. This is not that difficult to see if you’re not in the grip of an ideological conviction that physicalism has to be true.
In terms of implications for human existence, some religious philosophers, e.g. William Lane Craig, have argued that without cosmic purpose, human life is utterly pointless. Craig even goes so far as to say that killing and loving are morally equivalent if we live in a purposeless universe. At the other extreme, some humanists think that cosmic purpose would be utterly irrelevant to the meaning of our lives. I take a middle way between these two extremes. I think we can have meaningful lives without cosmic purpose, through creativity, learning, and kindness. But I think our lives can have more meaning if there’s cosmic purpose. We want our lives to make a difference. If I can contribute, even in some small way, to the good purposes of the whole of reality, that’s about as big a difference as you can imagine making.
We’re going through a scary, uncertain, time. Nothing has filled the vacuum left by the decline of traditional religion. And in terms of politics, nothing has come along to replace the neo-liberal paradigm which was so decisively refuted by the financial crisis of 2008. My hope is that cosmic purpose may point the way to a new optimism in human potential, a faith based not on dogmatic certainties but on a humble and open exploration of an unfolding purpose we don’t yet fully understand.
Philip Goff's new book 'Why?: The Purpose of the Universe' is coming out November 9th 2023.