Philosopher of science Peter Vickers puts forward his take on the recent IAI News standoff between panpsychism and idealism.
It is absolutely accepted that the philosopher should have a great respect for science, as an epistemological endeavour. On the face of it, both science and philosophy search for truth: scientists ask ‘big’ questions such as “Where did human beings ultimately come from?”, and philosophers similarly ask ‘big’ questions such as “What is the relationship between the mind and the brain?”. But whereas scientists sometimes actually reach truth (human beings evolved from more primitive mammals, which themselves evolved from amphibians, etc.), philosophers seemingly never do, and are doomed to forever go round in circles.
Looking back at the history of philosophy, it is usual to speak of ‘fashions’; for example, when we ask about the relationship between mind and matter, there was a time when dualism was in fashion, a time when idealism was in fashion, and another time when physicalism was in fashion. More recently, panpsychism is enjoying a great deal of attention. But it would be bold indeed to claim that philosophers are on the way to definitively solving the mind-matter problem, in the way scientists have definitively solved a huge number of epistemological problems. Of course, some Kuhnians would try to push back, saying that science is punctuated by revolutions. But this is a fallacy: only radicals on the fringe think the evolutionary theory of mankind’s origins will one day be overturned in a Kuhnian revolution. Similarly, scientists really do know where stars come from, how viruses and bacteria cause illness, and a hundred other things. (Open questions concerning the details remain, naturally.)
In light of this thought, what should we make of the recent debate between Philip Goff and Bernado Kastrup, concerning the mind-matter problem and the nature of consciousness? Two solutions are offered: panpsychism (‘mind is everywhere’), and idealism (‘everything is mind’). Even before we look at the arguments, it seems clear that these can only be suggestions, or hypotheses. What we find is that the two authors sometimes state explicitly that we ought to believe in their favoured proposal. But given that these are philosophical proposals this seems like an exaggeration. Whilst it might be agreed that – considered in isolation – there are some quite persuasive philosophical arguments for Goff’s panpsychism, or Kastrup’s idealism, we must always bear in mind that the very nature of the evidence for these proposals is the kind of evidence that, historically, has never been able to definitely establish something as a ‘fact’. Consider, for example, arguments for panpsychism appealing to ‘simplicity’.
Two solutions are offered: panpsychism and idealism. Even before we look at the arguments, it seems clear that these can only be suggestions.
This isn’t to say that there is an absolutely clear dividing line between what might be called ‘philosophical evidence’, and scientific evidence; scientists, in addition to experiments and observations, also make use of arguments akin to philosophical arguments, for example. Sometimes they even appeal to ‘simplicity’. So we should think of a spectrum, running from ‘fully scientific’ evidence on the one extreme, through to ‘fully philosophical’ evidence on the other extreme, with a substantial grey area in the middle. The crucial point is this: 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. And that makes it ill-suited to settling a dispute.
This is one problem with debates concerning the mind-matter problem and the nature of consciousness: sometimes protagonists overstate the strength of the evidence in favour of their own proposal. However, this is a relatively benign indiscretion. The critical thinker can carefully distinguish between arguments and rhetoric, ignoring a protagonist’s own, personal, and inevitably biased judgement of the overall weight of evidence. And the best scholars will try hard to be appropriately modest, epistemically speaking. A good example is Goff’s statement that, “There’s a good chance that none of the theories currently being proposed are correct.”
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. In the extreme case, the philosopher asks us to take seriously a proposal which contradicts scientific consensus. This is rare, and is very much frowned upon in academic circles. 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. Goff’s panpsychism asks us to take seriously the idea that “a revolution is coming”, where science is turned on its head, and human consciousness can be explained by the fact that microscopic material things quite generally have some kind of very basic, ‘primitive’ consciousness. 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.
Goff and Kastrup would no doubt insist that their proposals are not really in tension with established scientific ‘facts’. For example, Kastrup might argue – invoking the spirit of Bishop George Berkeley – that everything scientists say about protons, neutrons, and electrons is still true; it’s just that really these are truths concerning aspects of mentality, or consciousness. So, Kastrup would agree that electrons have a negative charge, but how we unpack and interpret that fact is now thoroughly re-imagined. Indeed, Kastrup often plays the science card, insisting that his proposal takes scientific results more seriously than most, and that this is a significant virtue of his idealism in comparison with other philosophies of mind. For example, in a debate with Goff he argues that “analytic idealism is not only consistent with both microphysics and neuroscience, it even helps to make sense of a number of their observations”, and he claims that it is more consistent with science than Goff’s panpsychism. He stresses that his idealism is especially sensitive to “concrete, verifiable, empirical facts, such as dissociation” (original emphasis).
This is one problem with debates concerning the mind-matter problem and the nature of consciousness: sometimes protagonists overstate the strength of the evidence in favour of their own proposal.
Elsewhere, however, Kastrup's presentation of the science seems significantly biased towards his idealism. At the very least the presentation is not neutral. In a 2019 Scientific American article he favours one particular interpretation of quantum mechanics – Relational Quantum Mechanics – and even states that this particular interpretation has recently been ‘verified’ by physicists. The truth is, this interpretation remains a minority interpretation, and it is not the case that it has been experimentally supported in a way other interpretations of quantum mechanics have not been. In another article Kastrup (together with his co-authors) 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.
To what extent is Goff’s panpsychism in tension with scientific consensus? As with Kastrup, Goff would agree that everything scientists say about protons, neutrons, and electrons is true. After all, physics ultimately focuses on what matter does, as Goff has repeatedly stressed. The ‘quantum spin’ of the electron is to be cashed out in terms of the behaviour of electrons in certain experiments, such as Stern-Gerlach experiments. The intrinsic nature of spin is something physics is silent on, and necessarily so – the methods of physics can never penetrate to such ontological depths. If physics is silent on it, the philosopher can say just about anything about it whilst remaining consistent with physics. Goff makes use of this to develop panpsychism, along with its central payoff: the promise of a genuine solution to the hard problem of consciousness. If some incredibly primitive form of consciousness is an intrinsic feature of matter generally (including elementary particles), then the hard problem of consciousness suddenly looks considerably less hard: complex human consciousness exists because the matter brains are composed of is itself primitively conscious, in its intrinsic nature.
On our request, the original post of this article on 01 Dec has been amended by the author to clarify his interpretation of Bernardo Kastrup’s presentation of some of the scientific ideas referred to within the article. We will be inviting Philip Goff and Bernardo Kastrup to reply here.
We have also changed our original subtitle of “Can radical theories of mind be considered scientific?” to the current one from Peter Vickers.