Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

I think this one showed the limitations of Sean’s philosophical knowledge. The NOUS podcast features an interviewer who has a deeper understanding of philosophy. The Goff and Frankish podcasts presents an informative contrast:: Goff’s monism/panpsychism versus Frankish’s explanation of Dennett’s illusionism. The LeDoux is also good.

The nature of laws of physics has come up at PS; Sean gets his Humean intuitions challenged by Ned Hall. That transcript is worth reading if the topic interests you.

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In my admittedly cynical opinion, all you really need for that conversation is a decent BS detector. What does it mean when someone says that a photon is conscious? From the Coyne blog:

Panpsychism seems to be comfort food that we consume if we find materialism too stark and meaningless. It also leads to some rather absurd morality.


Wow, that site looks like pure gold. Thanks for the reco!

The issue of where to draw the line arises for physicalists too. If we owe moral treatment to a being that experiences pain, for example, what does it take to have the relevant experience? Does it take neurons? Brains? A certain degree of complexity? What about different substrates – will we owe moral consideration to general artificial intelligence. If so, why and when?

You don’t have to rely on Goff’s metaphysics to justify panpsychism; the Integrated Information Theory of Koch and Tononi (both neuroscientists) also has panpsychist implications.

Now I happen to think Frankish is right and Goff is wrong. But I also think that being intellectually responsible and honest involves understanding serious but opposing beliefs. Further, understanding requires taking a charitable attitude and, ideally, steel-manning the opposing camp’s arguments.

In this case, I disagree with Goff’s fundamental principle that armchair metaphysical arguments take precedence over what science tells us about the world. If science only speaks to behavioural/functional properties, then our metaphysics should be limited to those. There is a lot of interesting philosophy that does precisely that (well, interesting to me).


If you enjoy podcasts where the interviewer has a deep enough understanding of the topic to engage seriously and productively with the interviewee, I also recommend:

Manifold Podcast
Lex Fridman on AI and its implications
Ezra Klein on political, social, moral topics
Tyler Cowen (Conversations with Tyler) on many topics but from an economist interviewer’s perspective
New Books Network on just about anything. I ignore the vast majority, but it depends on your tastes

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I absolutely agree, but we don’t have to include what seems to be the completely unneeded idea that photons are somehow conscious.

One of the ways I approach this idea is to view digestion in the same way I view consciousness. Digestion is something our digestive tract and associated organs do in the same way our brain does consciousness. Digestion is a very complex process that can’t be reduced to any single chemical reaction or cell in the body. Instead, digestion is an emergent process caused by the interactions of many cells, chemical reactions, and environmental cues. We could also ask how much digestion is present in any other system, and I would predict that we could also describe it in terms of integrated information theory, just as consciousness is. At its heart, digestion is about simple chemical reactions, so we could ask how weak acids digest rocks, meaning that water has some form of digestion. We could create pandigestism. But why?

I think we are also dealing with a lot of subjectivity and human bias. We think consciousness is an important part of nature because it is important to us. That’s a lot of bias. Next, we humans are strongly biased towards categorization whereas nature has no need for labels and groups. Consciousness is a concept humans have invented, as is the box we would put things in under the heading of consciousness.

I also agree with Sean Carroll when he asks how panpsychism adds anything to our knowledge of how nature works. Do we have some deeper understanding of how photons work if we assume they are conscious?


I don’t think that is enough to undermine the hard problem of consciousness.

I think the Frankish interview provides a good summary the issue from a philosophical viewpoint. His Aeon articles and his Twitter are also what I consider to be better ways of engaging with the hard problem. (But the podcast gives a better explanation for alternatives to Frankish’s view; that view is just Dennett but explained better, IMHO).

That may be true for many people, but not for philosophers’s arguments. Look into the knowledge argument on the zombie argument on SEP or IEP if the philosophy interests you.

I agree with you in the end that consciousness is natural and consistent with physics (though not reducible to it in any sense) but I take a different path for getting to that conclusion.

Well, it is consciousness, not photons, that Goff thinks we have to explain. Then he infers implications for photons (not that they deserve moral treatment, however!). Now you could ask whether panspychism adds anything to our understanding of consciousness. But in asking that question, you have to avoid framing an answer which assumes that understanding implies scientific understanding only since that would beg the question.

Goff and Chalmers think they have strong arguments that it is not science is not the best or at least a complete way to understand consciousness.

Could you elaborate on that? Specifically, why could it not be the case that “consciousness” is a fundamental aspect of the physical world, just one we cannot yet detect or measure thru our current scientific technology, as earlier scientists could not detect or measure the weak nuclear force?

The opposing position to that would be that the phenomenal aspect of consciousness, the “what it is to be like” aspect, is qualitatively different from a process like digestion, which can be reduced to the chemical process that it entails.

We can reduce consciousness down to the chemical activity within brain cells and in the nervous system in the very same way we can reduce digestion down to the chemistry in the cells of the digestive system. Almost every function of any biological organism can be framed in the very same light, such as pansecretionism for the transfer of proteins across a cellular membrane, or any movement of energy or particles from inside to outside of a system (e.g. geysers). If there is a qualitative difference it is a difference based on subjectivity as far as I can see.


That’s exactly what it is based on. However, it is pretty difficult to avoid concluding that our subjective experience of the colour red is a real phenomenon. And this is what cannot, as yet, be satisfactorily accounted for by chemical processes.


That sounds like a form a panpsychism, though not Goff’s (since he is referring to a qualitative aspect of reality which is unavailable to scientific measurement). Is that what you mean?

The arguments I am referring to are the usual ones: explanatory gap (what is it like to be a bat, ie subjectivity), knowledge argument (Mary the color scientist), zombie arguments (conceivable versus possible arguments). They all point to some kind of gap. Goff’s argument is not one of the usual ones, but I suppose you could call it a gap in scientific applicability which consciousness reveals.

Of course, many philosophers have replies to those arguments. But there is far from a consensus on whether any replies work. In the end, I think you either stay agnostic or pick a side that is consistent your worldview.

Given that lack of resolution, I can understand why many people see no value in the philosophical arguments. I suppose it comes down to intellectual taste. For me, there is also the fact that I am retired.

Being difficult to avoid as part of everyday thinking does not make a conclusion true! It’s also difficult to avoid the conclusion that tables are solid, especially if you run into one in a dark room.

But why is that conclusion difficult to avoid? Chalmers (who else?) calls that the meta problem of consciousness. He has a long paper on the issue. As usual for Chalmers, it is tightly argued and well worth reading if these issues interest you.

Yes. Not saying I agree with it, just describing the position as I understand it.

The role of philosophy in these questions is a question I am also trying to resolve. In that podcase Frankish half-jokingly suggests a moratorium on psychological experiments so people can just sit back and try make sense of the experiments that have already been done. He then says perhaps that is the role for philosophers to take on. That makes sense to me. Philosophers are, or should be, the experts on using logic and on considering all possibilities that could exist, no matter how improbable they may be to our intuition and common sense.

At least some of the philosophical models of the mind seem, to me, to be potentially testable thru science, and panpsychism appears to be one of these.

No disagreement from me. Still, there is a difference between arguing that even if the existence of something seems very convincing that does not mean it does exist, to actually demonstrating that it does not exist.

Thanks for the link to the Chalmers paper.

There is certainly a biological barrier between empirical facts and the output of our brain. I don’t see why this process couldn’t be accounted for through chemical processes, which is exactly why scientists are studying the brain out in terms of neurochemistry. There are many things in nature that are very complex and lack a complete physical description, but I don’t see why our ignorance should be taken as a sign of something other than physical processes. If someone is able to come up with a way to test for an immaterial or non-physical consciousness then we should definitely put it to use, but until then our best tools and best evidence lean towards the material and physical.

OK, I’ve listened to podcast with Frankish and read his article in Aeon. Interesting stuff, and well in line with many of my own thoughts on the subject.

I’m still not sure how satisfactorily he addresses the “hard problem” and other such issues.

At one point he suggests a thought experiment: You are given the choice between two drugs before you undergo a surgical procedure for which you will be conscious. One removes the subjective experience (qualia) of pain. IOW, you will still be showing all the behaviour associated with pain: You will be screaming and pleading and thrashing about, trying to avoid the painful stimulus, while your heart rate and respirations increase and your body shows all the usual response to pain. However, you will not actually experience pain itself.

The second drug will remove all these behavioural and physiological responses, but you will continue to experience the pain of the procedure.

It is not clear what he intended to illustrate with this experiment. Obviously, I think, most people would choose the first drug (even thought the surgeon would probably prefer you take the second one. However, his point seemed to be that this illustrates the incoherence of trying to separate the qualia of the experience from the behavioural/physiological aspects. I don’t see how that is the case at all.

An analogy that I think illustrates his position (similar to one he uses in the article, as derived from Dennett): Imagine a role playing game run on a computer. The game is the result of complex computational processes occurring in the hardware and software of the computer itself. In order for us to play the game, this is translated into images on the display monitor, which is a drastically simplified graphic representation of these computational processes that allows us to interact with the computer and play the game.

The computational processes represent access consciousness, the totality of brain processes that are going on at any given time in response to stimuli from the external world and our own bodies, most of which is below our level of awareness.

The images on the monitor represents phenomenal consciousness, the subjective qualities that we experience as qualia. It is this that Frankish considers to be an illusion. I am with him so far. But, then, consider the situation in which the computer is running, but no one is watching the monitor. It seems to me we no longer have a model the reflects phenomenal consciousness, because there is no subject who is aware of the images that are being presented on the monitor. IOW, it seems so me Frankish simply moves the explanatory gap up one level, and still leaves open the question of whether one can account for phenomenal consciousness without accounting for the existence of the subject, the “I” who is experiencing it. He does attempt to do so in the Aeon article, but I can’t say I find his account very satisfying:

My answer is that the subject is the person as a whole, the autonomous evolved organism composed of interacting biological subsystems. ‘We’ are aware of something if information about it reaches enough of our neural subsystems for us to be able to think and act flexibly with respect to it – to use it, remember it, tell others about it and so on. Think of a large organisation composed of many departments, each responsible for one function but sharing information with each other. If enough departments possess and use a certain piece of information, then the organisation as a whole can be said to be aware of it. The same goes for biological organisms such as us. If enough mental systems receive and use representations of a certain property, then the organism itself can be said to be aware of the property. And if the representations are illusory, then the organism is under an illusion. It is tempting to suppose that there is a boss system, a self, to which all other mental systems report, and that we are aware of something only if the boss system gets to know about it. But I would argue that this boss system is itself an illusion. That is another story, however.

OK, but that still leaves unanswered the question of how brain processes give rise to the sort of subjective sensations we experience.

In addition, to what you say in the rest of this paragraph, philosophers can help explain scientific concepts in the sense of working out the implications of terms used in different scientific theories. That analysis can be across time, between contemporary theories in one science, between sciences, and between scientific and everyday usage. For examples, see the entries in SEP on fitness, biological information, space, time.

For neuroscience and psychology, philosophers have been especially concerned with understanding scientific use of the concept of representation. SEP on mental representation is a good start if that interests you.

I agree with Frankish that philosophy must be consistent with best science, but I also think it can prompt new science: Einstein talked that way about his work; the ongoing work in interpreting QM has a heavy philosophical involvement, and of course trying to understand consciousness remained primarily a philosophical activity until recently.

I think there are version of panpsychism such as IIT that may be open to scientific investigation as you describe.

But others are not, or at least they would required entirely new concepts of science. I think Goff’s view of needing to add qualities to science somehow would fit into this latter category.

This question could be understood in two ways.
The first is the explanatory gap: how can brain tissue give rise to our subjective experience, the implication being incredulity of thinking brains could so do. Frankish would of course deny this type of gap . He agrees with Chalmers’s characterization of this so-called meta problem as being some aspect of human psychology for cognitive science to investigate, in order to understand why we have such intuitions.

Second, the question could be understood as a scientific question: what brain processes/states are scientifically identified with phenomenal experiences (identified in the same sense that water has been identified with H2O). If you mean this, then I think Frankish agrees with you, and I think that is what he meant by the philosophical pause to see how science progresses.

If you do read the Chalmers paper, then Frankish has a analysis and illusionist reply in a Powerpoint presentation; it includes some helpful diagrams. I cannot find the link to where I obtained it, but I can email it to you (or Message it on board if Messaging allows attachments). Frankish also has a published reply to in the Journal of Consciousness Studies according to his web site, but that journal is only available in hard copy, I think.

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