Philip Goff Round Up

Two things happened last week that made it essential I pick-up my Philip Goff thread.

    • Firstly there were a number of on-line philosophers – who should know better – reacting to Goff’s taboo-breaking promotion of pan-psychicism. Pigliucci, Churchland, Baggini, etc, (all people I otherwise respect) and more to the point their on-line hangers on, got quite hostile, to the point of misrepresenting and dismissively ridiculing what Goff is actually saying. A few of us responded in his defence –many tweets here. (Similar happened last year when Bernardo Kastrup was promoting his idealism.)
    • Secondly, having signed-off from considering Goff, I found myself at a meeting of North-East Humanists where Goff was the speaker on his topic of pan-psychism. An excellent talk and subsequent discussions, that reinforced how close I am to agreeing with Goff in my own position.

So, …

[Holding Posts for now:

Contemplating formatting the consolidated review for wider publication, beyond the blog. IStillOU]





8 thoughts on “Philip Goff Round Up”

  1. I’m on a short waiting list for Goff’s Galileo’s Error, so I hope to chime in soon.

    Raymond Tallis has a more or less sympathetic review in the current Philosophy Now (also available online).

  2. For starters. here’s the review I added to the public library database:

    This book advocates a philosophical position called panpsychism, which holds that experience is a fundamental element of nature. In practical terms, this means that in some very primitive way the fundamental components of the universe (say, electrons or atoms or molecules) have experiences. This is not a new idea, but in philosophical circles at least, it has enjoyed a recent surge of interest.

    To most people, the idea sounds crazy. Obviously, we have experiences, and electrons do not. But if this is true, how are our experiences related to the electrons or atoms or molecules that compose us? In chapters entitled “Is There a Ghost in the Machine?” and “Can Physical Science Explain Consciousness?”, Goff tries to prove the logical incoherence of dualism and materialism, the two mainstream answers to this problem. In the chapter “How to Solve the Problem of Consciousness,” he argues that panpsychism at least offers a logically coherent approach, while reminding us that relativity and quantum mechanics also sound intuitively crazy to the uninitiated. He freely admits that panpsychism brings with it a “combination problem” (how do microexperiences combine into unified experience?), and explores some proposed answers.

    These core chapters on the problem of consciousness are bracketed by an introductory chapter identifying “Galileo’s error,” the idea that to understand nature we must ignore qualitative experience and focus only on quantitative analysis, and a concluding chapter exploring the implications of panpsychism for environmentalism, free will, ethics, spirituality, and what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” For some, these aspects may resonate more than the problem of consciousness, but in this book they are not given the same careful attention.

    Goff’s arguments are made clearly, with helpful analogies, and his writing is lively and entertaining. References to other thinkers such as Dennett or Churchland are present, but the focus is on general discussion more than the detailed contributions of others.

    For your blog, I’d like to contribute to the ongoing discussion, but I’m having trouble pulling it into focus. Part of the problem is that your responses are closely tied to your understanding of Dennett’s positions on consciousness and panpsychism, and I haven’t read much Dennett. Like many (perhaps most), I associate Dennett with a hard materialist position linked to hard-nosed atheism (and therefore I don’t seek him out). I understand that you have a different view of him, but based on light Internet research, I have difficulty finding support for it. A search for “Dennett panpsychism” turns up a YouTube video posted in 2017 in which he ridicules the position. It also turns up a blog post by Tam Hunt, arguing that Dennett is logically obliged to accept panpsychism, but either doesn’t know it or won’t admit it.

    I share your concern that the discussion around panpsychism is clouded by linguistic issues or differences of terminology. In particular I think Goff’s focus on “consciousness” is unfortunate, however helpful it may be in justifying panpsychism. To quote Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, Chapter IX, 2), “conscious discrimination itself is a variable factor only present in the more elaborate examples of occasions of experience. The basis of experience is emotional. Stated more generally, the basic fact is the rise of an affective tone originating from things whose relevance is given.”

    When Goff quotes Eddington regarding the hypothetical math problem, “An elephant slides down a grassy hill-side,” he comes close to this point, but misses it. He is focussed on the abstraction of the quantitative and the loss of the qualitative, with the substitution of “pointer readings” for conscious experience; but Eddington’s main thrust is that “the poetry fades out of the problem.” In other words, what is lost is the significance of the elephant, the grass, the hillside on a human scale. It is this factor – “concern,” in Whitehead’s lexicon — that defines fundamental experience. The concern may not be conscious; indeed, consciousness of our own concerns often involves their transition from the unconscious, which is a whole other world entirely ignored in discussions of consciousness. Goff touches on it briefly when he talks of the relationship between experience without memory, but again, he misses the queue that we should be talking about something more primitive than “consciousness” in our discussions of panpsychism.

    Some have proposed “experience” as a better alternative, and Whitehead himself resorts to this word, beginning with “occasions of experience” and moving from there to “prehensions.” In Adventures of Ideas, Chapter XI, Section, 4 he isolates three factors in a prehension: an occasion of experience; a datum that amounts to its object; and an affective tone which amounts to its “subjective form.”

    By taking this more basic approach, we may be able to make progress on the “combination problem.”Maybe it’s just me, but in principle this does not seem to be such an impenetrable issue. Suppose that a free electron is a nexus of experience, in the sense that it expresses a response to other electrons (constituting what we call electromagnetism). This electron can come into a relationship with a proton. The combined entity then has certain propensities of its own, not shared by the individual electron or proton, wherein it expresses responses to other hydrogen atoms. Each level of combination produces new “concerns,” or attitudes, or dispositions, or “affects,” appropriate to that level. These are observable. The advantage over standard materialist scientific accounts is that we are positioned to explain, eventually, the “affects” or concerns themselves, as they ultimately manifest to us as individual beings.

    In this respect I was intrigued by the discussion of the Russell-Eddington synthesis, of which I was unaware. The suggestion that nature has an inner and an outer aspect, and that our access to the inner aspect is through our own embodiment, strikes me as potentially fruitful.

  3. I’d be interested in that Dennett video posted in 2017 – a link – and to know when it was recorded. He’s recorded in 2014 as saying he leans towards pan-proto-psychism (as I do). But I only defend him because others choose to attack him – it’s not germane to why materialism is untenable to anyone who takes consciousness seriously. One thing Dennett is absolutely clear on is that the source of everything is disembodied information. Information is proto-everything, consciousness included. (He maybe ridicules the idea that inanimate objects are conscious – but as I say, like me he’s criticising the idealists and panpsychists for using the word that way.) Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Russell-Eddington – agreed. (Smolin’s “views” very much reflect the inside-outside views position.) Also agree combinatorial problem – isn’t. (The solution is called evolution, Dennett again.)

    You mean this one from the famous 2014 Arizona conference? – that was the year he indicated he’d changed his mind – but context is everything he was “defending against” the Chalmers angle that year – several other mentions in the blog. As I say he’s not ridiculing panpsychism he’s ridiculing anyone saying an inanimate object “is conscious”.

    My position (quite independent of anything Dennett says) is that – metaphysically – everything is made of “experiencable stuff” (which I am happy to call information). An “inside” view is always subjective (by definition) – the “outside” view (which orthodox science treats as material) is in fact simply behavioural.

    Summary here: (and in the slide-deck linked half-way down).

  4. Here’s the link to the YouTube video I found:

    The attribution is to a “lecture at the University of Edinburgh as part of the Designed Mind 2017 Conference. 09/11/2017”. In this clip, just as in the clip you linked above, Dennett speaks of “pan-niftyism.” In both, he is ridiculing panpsychism because it adds nothing to the debate. (You could say he sees it as what Wittgenstein called “a wheel that does no work.”) In this clip, he says it’s a throw-away idea, “So I throw it away.”

    In “Goff’s Radcial Dennett,” you provided a link to a 2017 New Yorker article, “The Science of the Soul.” It’s paywalled, but I have a New Yorker gift subscription, and I’m working on getting the online access password from the person who gave me the gift subscription. Will I find a positive statement there that Dennett now accepts panpsychism?

  5. At last I’m able to read the New Yorker article. It contains this paragraph:

    After the introduction and summarizing part was over, Chalmers, carrying a can of Palm Belgian ale, walked to the front of the room and began his remarks. Neurobiological explanations of consciousness focus on brain functions, he said. But, “when it comes to explaining consciousness, one needs to explain more than the functions. There are introspective data—data about what it’s like to be a conscious subject, what it’s like experiencing now and hearing now, what it’s like to have an emotion or to hear music.” He continued, “There are some people, like Dan Dennett, who think that all we need to explain is the functions. . . . Many people find that this is not taking consciousness seriously.” Lately, he said, he had been gravitating toward “pan-proto-psychism”—the idea that consciousness might be “a fundamental property of the universe” upon which the brain somehow draws. It was a strange idea, but, then, consciousness was strange.

    I may have misunderstood, but in “Goff’s Radical Dennett” it seems like you’re attributing the statement about pan-proto-psychism to Dennett. The way I read the article, it’s actually Chalmers who said this. This is clearer from the subsequent paragraphs:

    Andy Clark was the first to respond. “You didn’t actually give us any positives for pan-psychism,” he said. “It was kind of the counsel of despair.”

    Jesse Prinz, a blue-haired philosopher from CUNY, seemed almost enraged. “Positing dualism leads to no further insights and discoveries!” he said.

    Calmly, nursing his beer, Chalmers responded to his critics. . .

  6. To be clear, I’m not bothered over whether Dennett is a panpsychist or not. I don’t know much about him, feel a vague aversion based on what I do know (probably because of his association with the Four Horsemen, who annoy me for their triumphalism), and don’t feel an urge to learn more, if I can avoid him.

    I gather you like Dennett, which is fine by me. I don’t care for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance either, having read it when it first came out, but many people seem to enjoy it. What does interest me is panpsychism, and any connections it might have with quantum physics. Also I share your annoyance with scientism, your awareness of the social and political dimensions of science as a human practice, and your interest in the value of subjectivity. And I owe you thanks for the pointers to Goff and Smolin, and many other interesting links here.

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