Changing How the World Thinks

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The universal mind

Idealism vs panpsychism


At HowTheLightGetsIn Online 2020 Philip Goff, Bernardo Kastrup and Sophie Grace Chappell debated the fundamental nature of reality. In his recent IAI news article, Philip defends panpsychism against the criticisms outlined in that discussion, and presents his own arguments against analytic idealism. Here, Bernardo responds.

Even in the preliminaries of Philip’s essay there appears to be a contradiction. He claims, whereas “panpsychists think that the physical world is fundamental, idealists think that there is a more fundamental reality underlying the physical world.” Fair enough. But then he immediately adds: “[panpsychists] believe that fundamental physical properties are forms of consciousness” (emphasis added).

HTLGIPhilosopherheader5 Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global Read more If physical properties are forms of consciousness, they are reducible to consciousness and aren’t fundamental. What does Philip mean, then, when he claims that the physical world is fundamental?

Philip cites an earlier essay to make sense of this seeming contradiction. But in that essay we find his claim repeated:

"If physics doesn’t tell us what fields and particles are, then this opens up the possibility that they might be forms of consciousness. This approach, known as panpsychism, allows us to hold that both physical matter and consciousness are fundamental. This is because, according to panpsychism, particles and fields simply are forms of consciousness. (emphasis added)"

In what sense are particles and fields physically fundamental if they are forms of consciousness? How is this not an idealist view, according to Philip’s own definition? If matter is what consciousness does, then matter isn’t fundamental, only consciousness is; Matter doesn’t have standalone existence, but is merely a behavior; a behavior of consciousness.

If physical properties are forms of consciousness, they are reducible to consciousness and aren’t fundamental.

The only point where Philip seems to depart from idealism is his insistence that the inner structure of subjectivity is the inner structure of physical entities. In other words, according to Philip, the building blocks of physical entities are also the building blocks of subjectivity: our ordinary human consciousness is somehow constituted by a combination of the putative subjectivities of the myriad elementary particles making up our nervous system.

HTLGIPhilosopherheader5 Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global Read more But this, too, is a point where Philip seems to contradict himself. According to him, panpsychism “offers us a way to combine what we know about ourselves from the inside and what science tells us about our bodies and brains from the outside” (emphasis added).

What do we know about ourselves from the inside? It is that we are conscious as a whole. There is something it feels like to be Bernardo Kastrup, but nothing—as far as I know about myself from the inside—it feels like to be a single neuron in Bernardo’s brain, let alone a single electron. If what Philip wants is to honor what we know about ourselves from the inside, he may have to abandon constitutive panpsychism.

Be that as it may, Philip is legitimately interested in combining introspective first-person insight and objective scientific observations. For him, failure to achieve this combination is grounds for rejecting mainstream physicalism and dualism. He assumes then that panpsychism is all that is left.

But if we are to conclude anything from a process of elimination, we must not forget a few other alternatives. Before looking for ways to accommodate incoherencies in panpsychism, we should at least consider analytic idealism, the very metaphysics Philip is criticizing. Presumably, however, he thinks the latter contradicts “what science tells us about ourselves from the outside.”

But does it, really? No, it just doesn’t. Unless we presuppose physicalism—which would beg the question—the fact that a human body, as displayed on the screen of perception, is constituted by myriad subatomic particles doesn’t entail or imply that our subjectivity is constituted by myriad micro-subjectivities. After all, the structure of the contents of perception is not necessarily the structure of the perceiver.

When we talk to a friend via a video call, we appear pixelated on the screen of our friend’s smartphone. But our friend won’t conclude that we ourselves are made of little rectangular blocks. The pixelation is a property of the screen, not of the person represented on the screen; it is an artifact of representation, not the structure of being.

Similarly, that we appear on the screen of perception as a body made of microscopic parts doesn’t imply that our subjectivity is itself made of microscopic building blocks. All we can conclude is that representations on the screen of perception are ‘pixelated,’ not that the represented subjects are themselves made of micro-subjects.

Indeed, as I’ve elaborated upon more extensively in a Scientific American essay, our sensory apparatus has evolved to present our environment to us not as it is in itself, but instead in a coded and truncated form as a ‘dashboard of dials.’ The physical world is the dials.

Once this is clarified, analytic idealism is entirely consistent with the observations of neuroscience: brain function is part of what our conscious inner life looks like when observed from across a dissociative boundary. Therefore, there must be tight correlations between patterns of brain activity and conscious inner life, for the former is simply the extrinsic appearance of the latter; a pixelated appearance.

Although Philip repeatedly suggests that analytic idealism isn’t as consistent with science as panpsychism, I argue the opposite is true. As discussed at length in an earlier essay of mine, panpsychism assumes that elementary subatomic particles are discrete, spatially-bound entities. It is on this basis that Philip tentatively explains the fact that we all have seemingly separate minds: my brain is made of a different set of subatomic particles than yours; and since consciousness is putatively bound to these different sets, we can’t read each other’s thoughts.

There must be tight correlations between patterns of brain activity and conscious inner life, for the former is simply the extrinsic appearance of the latter.

However, we know from Quantum Field Theory (QFT) that ‘particles’ are just metaphors for field excitations. The building blocks of nature are spatially unbound quantum fields, perhaps even a single field. As such, if Philip wants to attribute consciousness to the building blocks of nature, he will necessarily contradict the notion that consciousness is fundamentally bound or localized in space, and therefore fail to account for the seemingly private character of personal subjectivity.

Philip responds to this contention by distinguishing two forms of panpsychism: micropsychism (i.e. the notion that the fundamental conscious subjects are particles) from cosmopsychism (the notion that there is only one fundamental conscious subject, the universe as a whole), and then claiming only the former is vulnerable to criticisms of a particle ontology.

In other words, panpsychism survives my criticism because it also admits of a single, spatially unbound cosmic subject. But in what sense, then, would it oppose analytic idealism? As discussed above, since Philip maintains that “There is only one world, and it’s made of consciousness,” the only part of his argument that contradicts my position is the notion that the structure of consciousness is the same as the structure of the physical world. If Philip abandons this notion by adopting a cosmic subject, he will abandon his key contention against analytic idealism.

The only alternative is for him to argue that I am wrong in stating that, according to modern physics, there are only fields, not literal particles:

"Whilst many physicists do prefer to think in terms of fields, there are empirically adequate particle-based interpretations of physics. But in any case, the point is moot as a panpsychist does not have to commit to particles."

The point is certainly not mute insofar as Philip is ostensibly attempting to criticize analytic idealism. One can’t criticize it by agreeing with it.

Philip does claim that there are “particle-based interpretations” of QFT, and cites a paper defending that position. The question then boils down to whether that one paper is strong enough to overcome and change a consensus that has been built up in physics over several decades.

Indeed, there are extremely compelling reasons for us to think of ‘particles’ as local patterns of excitation of underlying quantum fields. For instance, it allows us to make sense of (a) the experimentally confirmed, anomalous magnetic dipole moment of electrons and muons; (b) the particle interactions that ultimately give rise to the dynamics of the world around ourselves; (c) the behavior of superfluids and superconductors; and – in a classical limit – even (d) the origin of Maxwell’s equations. More generally, it allows us to (e) reconcile quantum mechanics with special relativity, both of which we know are true and thus must be reconcilable. The explanatory power of thinking of particles as field excitations is formidable, even overwhelming. If Philip’s defense of panpsychism depends on denying it, he has a daunting challenge to face; one that requires more than a passing citation.

Philip contends that my criticisms of panpsychism are applicable only to a reductionist formulation, and calls for an argument against non-reductionist panpsychism.

I am happy to oblige: a known weakness of panpsychism is the fact that, instead of offering a new explanation, it merely postulates more properties as brute facts of nature. Namely, it postulates consciousness as a fundamental property of matter, simply adding to the existing reduction base of physicalism, without explaining either consciousness or something else in terms of consciousness. It simply says, “consciousness is there,” at a microscopic level.

By claiming that panpsychists can merely “postulate basic principles of nature to bridge the gap from more fundamental to less fundamental forms of consciousness,” Philip is compounding the problem: not only is micro-level consciousness added to the reduction base, the organizing principles by virtue of which these micro-level subjects allegedly combine to form our ordinary consciousness are also brute facts, dispensing with explanation.

This is exceedingly unsatisfactory: whatever the panpsychist can’t make sense of – be it properties or organizing principles – is simply labeled a ‘brute fact of nature’ and presto, we have an ontology that circumvents all problems.

Philip then turns to a more explicit criticism of analytic idealism, most of which regrettably ignores the substance of an earlier response. He sets the ground for his criticism by making a distinction that seems vague and rather obscure:

"For the analytic idealist the universal mind is a reality which underlies the physical world, whereas for the cosmopsychist the universal mind is the physical universe."

The problem is, again, a lack of clarity regarding what Philip means by ‘physical.’ For the analytic idealist, consciousness is indeed what ‘underlies’ what we call the ‘physical world’ in the sense that the latter is simply an appearance—a representation—of the former. As such, for the analytic idealist the ‘physical world’ ultimately is consciousness; there is nothing more to it but consciousness. It is thus not clear to me in what sense Philip thinks analytic idealism is different from his rather vague characterization of cosmopsychism.

A known weakness of panpsychism is the fact that, instead of offering a new explanation, it merely postulates more properties as brute facts of nature.

Philip proceeds to criticize my use of the psychiatric condition called ‘dissociation’ as an explanatory basis for making sense of how one universal consciousness becomes seemingly separate minds, such as you and me:

"My objection was that disassociation doesn’t entail the existence of a new subject in any sense. … In other words, disassociation doesn’t entail that there is more than one mind."

As Philip understands and acknowledges, I do not contend that dissociation creates truly new, separate subjects. I maintain that there is only one true subject—universal consciousness itself—and that private minds are illusory in the same way that the distinct alter personalities of a patient of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are also illusory, or that our dream avatars are illusory (our dream avatars, too, are dissociated, in the sense that they think of themselves as separate from the mind that conjures up the rest of the dream). But Philip contends that dissociation can’t explain even this illusion of separateness.

The refutation of this contention is as decisive as it is straightforward: DID patients do have the illusion of being multiple separate minds. Unless he is prepared to argue that these patients are lying (which others in fact did up until the moment when neuroimaging proved that DID is real, such as in this and this paper), Philip must accept this empirical reality.

Indeed, unlike the “psycho-physical laws of nature” Philip speculatively postulates to rather precariously accommodate the incoherencies of panpsychism, dissociation is an empirical reality that shows subject decomposition happening.

Now, what Philip might argue is that we haven’t yet been able to fully conceptualize how, exactly, dissociation creates the illusion of multiple, disjoint co-consciousnesses in a single mind. I think we’ve made good progress in that direction, but am nonetheless happy to acknowledge that more progress would be welcome. However, conceptual difficulties don’t take precedence over empirical facts. We know that dissociation does exactly what Philip claims that it can’t do. Unlike many other explanatory tools in philosophy of mind, dissociation isn’t merely a theoretical abstraction or a thought experiment, but a fact.

Consider, for instance, how a DID patient can take on multiple dissociated perspectives within the same dream, in a way entirely analogous to how we all seem to inhabit the same shared world as separate subjects. Deirdre Barrett cites one such case in Dreams and Dissociative Disorders, in which a DID patient’s alter personalities recall the same dream from different perspectives. (Barrett 1994, page 171)

As I’ve recently discussed elsewhere, much of the conceptual difficulties some seem to have with dissociation may arise from an inability to explicitly conceive of it as a mental phenomenon. And this inability may be related to one’s own experiential history and capacity for introspection. But one’s inability to explicitly conceive of the inner mechanisms of a phenomenon doesn’t mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist or can’t do what we know, empirically, that it in fact does.

Philip seems to briefly acknowledge this:

"Perhaps in real world cases, dissociation does lead to new subjects; but, again, that doesn’t show that disassociation alone accounts for the emergence of those new subjects (as opposed to, say, underlying psycho-physical laws of nature)."

Why should we postulate new psycho-physical laws of nature, adding yet more ‘stuff’ to the reduction base and making the ontology less parsimonious, if the thing we know to exist in nature is already sufficient to explain what we need to explain? DID, as we know it to exist, already does precisely what we need it to do in order to leverage it as an explanation for the seeming decomposition of the universal subject. Why do we need anything else?

"Bernardo points to real-world cases of disassociation and suggests that they do seem to involve distinct subjects within the one person. But that fact is compatible with many theories of consciousness."

Of course dissociation is compatible with other theories of consciousness, for any plausible theory of consciousness must be compatible with all empirical facts. But this is not the point, is it? My claim is that analytic idealism is the best choice not due to dissociation per se, but due to its overall conceptual parsimony, internal logical consistency, empirical adequacy and explanatory power. It is an ontology whose merits must be evaluated as a whole. Dissociation is an important part of it insofar as it solves the subject decomposition problem, but it is not—at least not singlehandedly—what makes analytic idealism the best metaphysical option.

Philip then argues:

"The second explanatory gap … is that the transition from universal mind to organism mind involves a move from thoughts to sensory qualities. … It’s hard to see how there could be an intelligible transition from abstract thoughts to the rich qualities of sensory experience...  Bernardo tries to account for this transition by giving an evolutionary account of the survival pressures that necessitate compressing complex thoughts into simpler sensory qualities…but giving an evolutionary account of the adaptive value of the emergence of sensory consciousness isn’t the same thing as giving an account of how the emergence actually happens."

Indeed. Arguing that it was evolutionarily advantageous for something to have arisen doesn’t provide us with a positive account of how it works. I concur. However, I did account for the how, and even explicitly answered this very criticism of Philip in an earlier essay.

Under analytic idealism, there are only mental processes in nature. But there are two perspectives into a particular mental process: an intrinsic view and an extrinsic appearance. The intrinsic view is the direct first-person experience of the mental process. The extrinsic appearance is how the mental process presents itself to observation from across a dissociative boundary. The phenomena of perception are the extrinsic appearance of mental processes unfolding beyond our own dissociative boundary. Both perspectives are experiential, but they are qualitatively different.

Disassociation doesn't entail that there is more than one mind.

For obvious reasons, we can only have a direct first-person perspective into our own endogenous mental processes, such as our personal thoughts and emotions. Everything else is only available to us in the form of extrinsic appearances – that is, the qualities of perception. Therefore, if we need to explain how transpersonal mental states out there are translated into the qualities of perception, we need to adopt the perspective of extrinsic appearances, for we do not have first-person access to anything transpersonal.

Now, in the language of extrinsic appearances, to explain how transpersonal mental states are translated into the qualities of perception is to explain how our sense organs operate. When I explain that the eye works by registering the impact of photons on cone and rod cells in our retina as electric impulses, I am explaining how a qualitative transition happens from transpersonal mental states to personal perceptual states; I am explaining it in terms of the extrinsic appearance of the translation process – that is, the operation of the eye. And I have no other perspective to explain it from.

Therefore, when Philip asks me to explain how the qualities of the world out there, as it is in itself, turn into the qualities of perception, I must answer by repeating what science says about how our sense organs work; for the operation of our sense organs is the extrinsic appearance of the quality-translation process. If one truly understands and internalizes analytic idealism, one will realize that this isn’t merely an admission of the limits of human explanation, but instead a fully satisfying answer to Philip’s question.

In my earlier reply to Philip, I argued that the associations between different mental qualities that underly the process of perception are something mind does spontaneously, and therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that they underly the process of perception. In the West we can deduce, for instance, that the quality of peacefulness is associated with the quality of whiteness, even though these are completely different qualities. Philip objects to this by pointing out that cultural associations between qualities cannot be deduced a priori.

I understand the spirit of Philip’s objection, but he seems to have missed the point. The walls of many hospitals and dentist offices, for instance, are painted white because architects and interior designers deduced an association between whiteness and calmness. Whether this deduction is a priori or not is immaterial, because what matters is this: painting the walls white somehow does have the desired effect; people somehow do feel calmer when surrounded by white as opposed to, say, red. This demonstrates a spontaneous qualitative transition precisely of the kind needed to account for perceptual qualities. There are myriad other natural, spontaneous associations of the same kind.

Even if the qualitative link between peacefulness and whiteness is cultural, the point still stands, for culture doesn’t emerge in a vacuum: it is the compound result of interacting minds. The origin of the association was mind all along. Moreover, the association naturally arose in so many minds that it became enshrined in a culture. That other cultures have come to enshrine different associations doesn’t refute my point either, for I am not claiming that the associations are absolute; I am claiming solely that they are something mind naturally, spontaneously does. Empirically speaking, this is an undeniable fact.

To deny the deducibility of qualitative associations is to deny, for instance, the effectiveness of the usage—cultural or otherwise—of symbols: for whatever reason, we’ve come to associate fire with passion, solid stones with timelessness, etc., and appealing to these associations is effective. Mind spontaneously associates different qualities, and once the associations are in place, the entailed links are also naturally deducible by mind.

In whatever context—cultural, habitual, genetic—mind has not only a natural ability, but also a natural disposition, to associate different qualities together and, therefore, allow for the deduction of one quality from another. As a matter of fact, this kind of association has been the earliest form of thinking in our species, most higher-level mental faculties having arisen from it.

But what is the role of qualities in the causal nexus? Philip correctly points out that, in my view, if “physicalism is true, qualities have no role to play in the causal story of the universe.” In response he argues that if physicalism is true “the qualities of consciousness are identical with certain physical brain properties” and, therefore, are causally efficacious.

The answer is straightforward: under mainstream physicalism, qualities aren't causally-efficacious in and of themselves; whatever causal efficacy they are said to have comes necessarily from the physicality they are putatively reducible to, not from their qualitative character.

Philip's argument is so focused on abstract conceptual models that it implicitly puts these models above concrete, verifiable, empirical facts.

In simpler words, the alleged causal efficacy of qualities arises from an arbitrary, merely linguistic equation: if qualities are said to be physical, then of course they ‘are’ causally efficacious; but only insofar as they said to be physical. By the same token, if I say that sand is water, I can argue that sand causes wetness; but only insofar as I say it is water. Is this linguistic game important when it comes to whether sand can actually make you wet?

A quality is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers. For instance, what it feels like to see red is more than what can be conveyed by telling a congenitally blind person the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism. And the answer is, quite unambiguously, ‘No.’ As a matter of fact, this is one of the best-known implications of mainstream physicalism.

Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities—experiential states, in-and-of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious. Under mainstream physicalism, all qualities are epiphenomenal (side-)effects of brain activity. What is causally efficacious is merely the mass, charge, momentum, geometric relationships, etc., of the elementary particles making up our brain, body and the world at large.

Wrapping up my response now, it strikes me that attempts to defend panpsychism against analytic idealism on the basis of compatibility with science have a certain irony. For it is panpsychism that is physically incoherent, whereas analytic idealism is not only consistent with both microphysics and neuroscience, it even helps to make sense of a number of their observations.

Philip’s defense entails blurring what the term ‘panpsychism’ means to the point of making it a subset of analytic idealism. Indeed, the panpsychism that survives the criticisms is analytic idealism minus dissociation, which then fails to account for private subjectivity.

Moreover, Philip’s argument is so focused on abstract conceptual models that it implicitly puts these models above concrete, verifiable, empirical facts, such as dissociation. Not only that, he argues for entirely speculative conceptual entities—such as “basic laws of nature to bridge the gap” between alleged micro-subjects and ourselves—seemingly without regard for the conceptual inflation they entail. Indeed, Philip’s argument comes perilously close to simply throwing everything we can’t make sense of into the reduction base. This won’t do, for adding entities to the reduction base doesn’t explain anything; it just gives up on explanation.


See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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William Riley 30 July 2020

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Jeffrey Anderson 12 July 2020

Physicalism is the belief system of Artificial Intelligence..... we must cling to notions of inner consciousness and unpredictability like all life itself depends on it does!