What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

In recent years more and more philosophers seem to have embraced panpsychism—the view that consciousness pervades the universe and so is present, in however simple a form, in every little speck of matter. It’s a view that’s hard to wrap your mind around, so I’m glad I got to have a conversation with Galen Strawson, a noted philosopher who is one of its most articulate proponents (and who, as a bonus, is charmingly offbeat). I interviewed Galen on the Wright Show (available on both meaningoflife.tv and as an audio podcast) more than a year ago. Below is an extended excerpt.

From physicalism to consciousness as illusion—or the only real thing

WRIGHT: There’s a view that I think people are hearing more and more about called "panpsychism," and the idea there is that consciousness … pervades reality. There's some kind of consciousness over there where my curtains are—only a little tiny bit, maybe, but  there's some. 

And it's a view that you subscribe to, I think—but then you throw in a twist and add the word “physicalist”… So you have, I think, a pretty distinctive view. And I want to approach it by, first of all, getting clear on what you mean by "physicalism." 

Now, am I right in thinking that that has come to be the term that philosophers use for what might have also been called at one time "materialism"? People hear "materialism" and they think of the idea that all there is is physical stuff, right? But now philosophers use the word "physicalism" for that. Is that right?

STRAWSON: Yes. I think it is right. I certainly use it in that way. Some philosophers mean more by physicalism than that. They tend also to mean something like "physics will tell us everything there is to tell about reality." And that's a mistake, in my view.

Yeah, I was just thinking about that today: … that science gives us everything we need to manipulate reality, but not all we need to understand reality.

Correct. 

You agree? 

Yes, I do. And, you know, I think of myself as a very passionate and committed naturalist. So it's not as if I have any odd agenda. I'm also an atheist, so I don't believe in any kind of god, and I don't have any sort of new age type of aspirations. 

I think that I'm forced into the position I hold precisely because I wanted to have an entirely naturalistic attitude to reality. 

Right. Now, a thing about physicalism is that, when you really start thinking about it, it's harder to define than you might think. … When you first hear it, you think "Well, okay—so it's all physical stuff, you could reach out and touch it, it's there, there's nothing spooky, there are no supernatural forces." But then you realize that … the deeper physics penetrates reality, the more you wonder in what sense there is physical stuff there, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?

Yes, it does, if you mean that the old picture of little tiny grainy bits of stuff—I mean, that was wiped out a hundred years ago. There aren't any such things, it seems.



Yeah, we think of atoms as these physical things, but they turn out to consist of these other things, which consist of these other things, and it's not clear that there's anything at the bottom, other than, in certain sense, math, right? …

Well, yeah. But even there, I think you have to be careful not to have an over-substantive, over-solid picture of what that is. There just seem to be patterns in fields—like the electromagnetic field—and that's really all there is. There are no grainy little bits, even at the very bottom. 

And in fact, one thing quantum physics tells us is that, once you get down to the level of the electron, things start getting pretty weird. And there are times when ... it's maybe both a particle and a wave, which seems contradictory—or it may be neither until you measure it, or maybe a probability wave until you measure it—when you get down to the smaller so-called particles, things get really weird. 

Yes.

And so ... the question of whether electrons actually exist in any intuitively clear sense is kind of an open question, right?

Yes. I think a lot of people think that we shouldn't even think of them as things. They're just vibratory patterns in fields.

I mean, in light of this... Mightn't it make you reluctant to even use terms like "materialism" or "physicalism"? 

No, because … it’s very much the physicists themselves who were saying these sorts of things. ... [Bertrand] Russell, one of my heroes, said a hundred years ago that, I'm quoting, "physics has become as ghostly as anything in the spiritual seance." 

I mean, I was thinking that maybe what you mean if you say you're a materialist, is that you think [that] everything in the universe complies with laws. Is that [right]?

Yeah, except ... That's the trouble with talking to a philosopher: I have so many troubles with so many words. I don't think of stuff as complying with laws, I think of laws as not, in no way, separate from the stuff itself. 

But let me try to answer your question more directly. … My materialism amounts to thinking there's only one kind of stuff, and, indeed, that physics says a lot of true things about it. …

One of the real keys is you think there's only one kind of stuff. You're a monist, in the language of philosophy—there’s only one kind of stuff—you’re not a dualist, as, for example, famously, Descartes, who thought that there was physical stuff on the one hand, and then there was immaterial mental stuff on the other hand. You think there's only one kind of stuff. 

And you are not a dualist. 

I am not a dualist.

On the other hand, you do take consciousness seriously. 

Yeah. More than that. It's … the only thing. Perhaps each of us knows for certain that he or she exists—fine—but the only other general thing we know for certain is that consciousness exists.

And what's so weird about philosophy in America and in the UK ... at the moment is that some people actually deny that consciousness exists. And they deny it because they define themselves as physicalists. And some of them think that, if you are a physicalist, you cannot be a realist about consciousness. And that's precisely what I want to reject. 

Now, ironically, some of them not only deny that consciousness exists, they also deny that they're denying the consciousness exist. 

They do. And they do that by really, in effect, redefining it. So they will say that consciousness is just … being able to operate effectively in an environment, or something. It's a functional property. And I would say in return: no, that just leaves out everything that matters about consciousness. 

In fact, you can build a robot, which we can assume not to have consciousness and it can operate effectively, but precisely it isn't conscious. …

Do you think we should name some names here?

Uh, sure. 

Okay, go ahead. I think I can guess.

My arch-enemy—I mean, my friend, but my arch-enemy in this particular respect—is Dan Dennett. He sort of leads the tribe of those who, in my view, deny the existence of consciousness all day. They will not agree that that is what they do.

Right. I accused him of that in a footnote, of basically having a view that is tantamount to denying that consciousness exists. And I got, like... He was not happy with me. 

Yes. Funnily enough, I've just read a long piece by someone called Keith Frankish. It's called Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness, and he's very much in the same camp. He does actually come out and say that he's denying the existence of consciousness. 

The only other person I know who's done it recently is, interestingly again, Jay Garfield, who's a Buddhist scholar. Jay Garfield and another man, a Buddhist scholar called Mark Siderits seem to think that it's actually part of the Buddhist position. 

But for me, that can't be right, because what matters most, in one respect, in Buddhism is compassion for suffering, and you can't have suffering if there isn't consciousness. 

Right. Why would you care about the wellbeing of a sentient beings if it weren't like anything to be a sentient being?

Exactly. You just used that famous phrase—“something it's like to be”—that was made famous by Thomas Nagel in his paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

Right. And this is what I always say to people who seem to be acting as if consciousness doesn't exist, or even isn't a challenging thing — … I say, well, is it like something to be you? I've never heard anybody say “no." And I say, well, is it like something to be that wall? And they tend to say "no".

Now, here they're different from you, maybe—we’ll get into that—but, in any event, ... the criterion for conscious being that it's like something to be you is, I think, a clarifying thing. …

The question that arises when you encounter the views of people like Dan Dennett and Keith Frankish is: why are they saying this? What is motivating them to deny something that seems obviously to exist? And the answer is: because they define themselves as materialists or physicalists, and they think that, if you think that everything's physical, you cannot think that there is phenomenal qualitative consciousness. 

That's meant to be the kind of twist in my saying I'm a physicalist. I'm saying: I agree with you, Dan and Keith, that everything is physical, but I don't think that rules out the reality of consciousness.

And then there's one more: … please don't think that physics gives us any reason to think that consciousness isn't as real as we ordinarily take it to be, because physics is just a matter of equations and it doesn't tell us about the ultimate intrinsic nature of matter. It leaves that open. So the way is open for being an outright realist about consciousness and a physicalist.

So I reject this very starting point, which is commitment to physicalism and the belief that that gives some reason to be somehow less than realist about consciousness—that’s the dialectic of it all.

I mean, I do appreciate the challenge they may see in reconciling what we think of as physicalism or materialism with a belief that consciousness is real... 

I mean, "consciousness" is a noun. So if you think of it as a kind of a stuff… I know you may disagree, but the intuitive notion would certainly be that …, if it refers to a kind of stuff, … it's not physical stuff. It may be totally determined by the physical stuff in your brain. It may entirely correlate with the physical movements in your brain, but ... you can see the appeal of the idea that the consciousness per se is not physical, right?

I can, but I'd say that's a mistake. 

Here, the problem is the word "physical" is getting used in two ways. 

One of them ties the word "physical" closely to the kind of thing that physics tells us about. And the other just uses it as a word for whatever is out there, whatever is nature. 

And if you want to find people who define themselves as physicalists and think that consciousness is wholly physical—look at some of the great physicists of the last century. Heisenberg and Schrödinger and probably Einstein as well—though don't quote me on that—and perhaps Planck also. Certainly, Whitehead. All those people thought that everything was physical, but they thought that physics—the theory of physics—simply didn't have anything to say about the ultimate intrinsic nature of things.

So that left room for them to say that consciousness too is physical, although, of course, it isn't like a stone that you kick, or... 

So physics tells us how to manipulate the fundamental stuff of reality. It doesn't tell us what the fundamental stuff of reality is. 

It tells us quite a lot of things. It tells us that, in my brain, there are eight-ish things—that’s oxygen—and there are seven-ish things—they are nitrogen atoms. It does lots of stuff with numbers and structures and relations. But it doesn't tell us about the nature of the stuff that it is describing in all those mathematical ways.

In my view, the only thing we know for sure about it is that sometimes it manifests as the kind of conscious [experience] we're having right now. …

Galen’s version of panpsychism

[So] your view is that [physical stuff] … always manifests in that way, even when it's not part of your brain. 

Yeah. [Let's] try to set it out as an argument. 

Step one is: one thing we know for sure is that consciousness is real. 

Step two—this is an assumption, technically— [is] I believe there's only one kind of stuff and I call it "physical stuff." 

So, I'm a physicalist and I know that consciousness is real. I have to say that consciousness is physical. That's step three. 

Then there's a move that some people question, which is related to something called "radical emergence.” … Here's consciousness. I know what it is, I know what it's like. I don't think that you could arrange mere non-conscious physical stuff in such a way that that stuff would spring into existence. That would be what we call “radical emergence”—it would be like getting ... concrete things out of abstract things.

And since I don't believe in radical emergence—the springing out of consciousness from something utterly non-conscious—I have to think that it's up there at the bottom already. That's the motivation for panpsychism. ...

Now, you could question that second step—the step that says we couldn't get it from the utterly unconscious—and some people do... 

In fact, I think a common view is that certain configurations of matter—notably those that maybe qualify as information processing—that that may be the threshold when physical stuff starts manifesting as consciousness.

Now, there are issues with that. One question is: well, isn't the physical world, in some sense, always an information processing system? You can wrestle with that. 

But certainly a common view is that, no, the physical stuff, the raw material itself in its most primitive form does not manifest as sentience or consciousness; but there's a threshold it can pass—a lot of people say it involves information processing, or some people would say “particularly sophisticated information processing”—but that's a key thing that you find implausible, that there's just some threshold.

That's correct. And the truth is that there is no strong argument for that. It comes down to what we call intuition.

I mean, I can then bolster it. I can say to people who say "physical reality in its fundamental nature is wholly non-conscious, but consciousness arises when things get complicated in a certain way”—I can then say, what is your evidence for the existence of wholly non-conscious stuff? Why are you positing it? 

And other people will say, "Oh, it's much more theoretically expensive or profligate to think that there's consciousness at the bottom of things," but that's just... That begs the question. It's just an assumption. 

You have to admit, it's kind of... 

I realize Thomas Nagel said, it's really hard to say what it's like to be a bat, and yet we think it is like something to be a bat—that said, if you ask, what is it like to be those curtains… Isn't it kind of challenging to imagine that it's like anything at all to be my curtains?

I don't think there is anything that's like to be curtains. 

Oh, okay. So in what sense is there consciousness associated with my curtain? 

Yeah, that's something that people like to laugh about, and I'm happy to laugh with them. I don't think there's anything that's like to be a table or a chair.

What I do think is … that the weave of energy stuff that they're made of—[that] consciousness resides in that. 

To think that the stuff of which it's made involves consciousness … doesn't entail that every piece of every particular clumping of it also is a subject of consciousness. That's no more plausible than thinking that a football team is a subject of consciousness because it's made of subjects of consciousness. 

But then, you are skeptical of a threshold where, on one side of it, the configuration of physical stuff doesn't manifest as consciousness, and on the other side, it does—but you do acknowledge that there's a threshold, on one side [of which] it doesn't manifest as, you know, "like something to be it", and on the other side, it does manifest as "like something to be it". 

Well, yeah. Perhaps I can put it like this. Let's assume something that I take not to be true.

Let's assume that there really are little fundamental particles. Then, about the table I would say: all of them, each of them is conscious, but the thing they constitute clumped together is not. It's not itself a subject of consciousness, but everything it's made of is. 

So it's not as if I've got patches of the world that don't involve consciousness. The key move is that the table as a whole is not a separate, extra subject of consciousness. 

Well, right, because the table as a whole is just a man-made... It's, in a certain sense, a perceptual construct. 

Well, that's... Correct, yes. But, you see, I can say: "Oh, everything's made of consciousness, but not  every patch of it is itself a subject of consciousness." That's perfectly coherent.

Right. But, leave aside the whole table, you also don't think that it’s like something to be the little tiniest bits of it, right? 

If I thought there really were little bits at the very bottom of things, I'd probably have to say that.

Oh, but you don't think there are little bits. 

Here, it's helpful to engage in a bit of … lay physics—the kind of physics that people who read popular books about it know. 

So, what is the electron made of? Well, in some sense, it's just energy. I think of it as a sort of “bzzzz"—you know, just a little buzzing thing of energy. 

And ... what is the intrinsic nature of that, above the things we know it does, the effect it has on other things? It's consciousness. That’s the suggestion. 

The point is simply that it's a very elegant and parsimonious theory, because we haven't  postulated any non-experiential stuff at all. And again, the only thing we know absolutely for certain is that there is consciousness. So why are we going out there and postulating that there's something utterly non-conscious, and then creating for ourselves a huge theoretical problem about how we get consciousness out of the non-conscious? 

Taxonomy of panpsychism

Let's pause and go a little more through your … taxonomy of positions.

You distinguish between two kinds of panpsychism: a kind of a weak form, and a kind of a strong form. … The generic description—and I'm reading, really, from your own writing—is that panpsychism is the view that mind or consciousness is present in all of reality. That's literally "pan" meaning “all," and "psyche" meaning "mind" or "consciousness." 

Now, what you call a weaker form is basically the only form I had heard about. It's, I think, the more commonly expressed, and you quote the Oxford English Dictionary saying that it's the view that "there is an element of consciousness in all matter." So it's almost like, there's an  interior to all matter; there's this kind of subjective side you don't see to all matter.

You actually hold, as people may gather, to a stronger form. You write, "In its strongest form, pure panpsychism is a view that mind is all there is to reality, mind is the stuff of reality, the stuff being of reality. [Arthur] Eddington puts it plainly … : "The stuff of the world is mind stuff." So this is pure panpsychism. 

Now, you go on to clarify that, when you say "mind is all there is to reality," this isn't Berkeley's kind of idealism where you're saying the buildings I see out there may not exist, they're only ideas. The buildings are out there, it's just that—well, go ahead, finish my sentence. 

It's just that what? 

Well, no, this view has nothing to do with Berkeley and idealism. So the buildings are out there. 

I suppose it's simplest, for purposes of exposition right now, to say: let's suppose there are these little bits. So I'm saying, all these different bits, what are they? They're kind of buzzings, like energetic buzzings, and each of them is a consciousness buzzing—and the building is built of that. 

And this building is not in any sense an idea in someone's mind, as in Berkeley’s scheme. It's really out there. And if all biologically evolved life was wiped out, it’d still be there.

So you then go on to define pan-experientialism as the strongest version of pure panpsychism, I guess—which was itself the strongest form of panpsychism—you say, according to the pan-experientialist version, "consciousness, or experience, or experiencing, or experientiality is all there is to reality." 

That sounds a lot like your definition of pure panpsychism, [which] was the view that mind is all there is to reality. So what is the distinction between the two? 

Well, ... "mind" is an abstract noun, in a way. So really, I wanted to make it, as it were, live. So it's actual "consciousness-ing", it's actual "experience-ing" is all there is.

One way of addressing that would be thinking about Berkeley. [He] thinks that there are these immaterial souls. He'd call them “mind," but they wouldn't necessarily have to be experiencing all the time.

There’s just conscious process. Put it like that. It's not a very important distinction. 

Okay. You realize how this could lead someone to asking: "But wait a second, then aren't you saying it is like something to be everything?" If you're saying "experiencing or experientiality is all there is to reality”—right?—and you're saying those curtains are real, then wouldn't it seem as if there has to be experience in the curtains and not just experience of the curtains?

Yeah. Again, it would be all the little bits. 

So there may be something that's like to be the little bits of my curtain. 

Yeah, if I accepted the view that reality was ultimately made of little bits, I would have to say that. 

Here's one way to put it: this kind of panpsychism performs a kind of global replace on everything that physics talks about. 

Most people, [when] they think of an electron, they're happy with the idea that it's just kind of an energy process. And then they think it's a non-conscious energy process. And I just replace that with: no, it's a conscious energy process.

The energy process is experiencing. So I don't touch anything in physics. I simply replace the picture of energy that most people have with the idea that this energy is somehow experiencing. That's it. 

Okay. Let me, by way of maybe clarifying the landscape here... Tell me if this is right: if you go back to the weak form of panpsychism, the idea that there's just an element of consciousness in all matter—so in other words, consciousness is kind of a function, or almost an emanation of matter... 

(Makes a gesture)

Not emanation?

It's "function" I didn't like, but I see what you mean. 

Yeah, okay. If you read it that way, that is consistent with the view of human consciousness as epiphenomenal, right? ... 

The idea is that the relationship of my consciousness to my brain is kind of like the relationship of the shadow of my hand to the hand. The shadow doesn't do anything, it just mirrors the actual action of my hand. Similarly, consciousness just mirrors the physical stuff. 

One soft view of panpsychism is consistent with this epiphenomenal view of human consciousness, right?

It also avoids what I call the radical emergence problem, because it says at least: okay, it isn't all consciousness at the bottom, but at least there is consciousness out there, down there. And so you don't need radical emergence to get human consciousness.

Right. 

But I should just say in passing: I do think that epiphenomenalism—that’s the view that consciousness is real, but it has no effect in the world—is actually incoherent and fails anyway. So...

Why do you think it's incoherent? … It ultimately leads to the mystery of why consciousness is here if it doesn't do anything, but... 

I find, actually, that a lot of people implicitly hold it. In other words, they don't really think about consciousness, but they have a very ... scientific view of the world, and a kind of epiphenomenalism is implied in the way they talk. 

So I think it's kind of an appealing view. Why do you think it's incoherent? 

I think it's incoherent because nothing can be, as I say, concretely real—part of the actual stuff of the universe—without having effects or being affected by things.

It's just an a priori intuition: you can't be such that, if you are really real, that you could be subtracted from reality and it’d make no difference. 

That nothing would change. Well, of course, something would change if consciousness were subtracted, because then it wouldn't be like anything to be us, and morality would collapse because it wouldn't matter how you treated us. 

Yeah. So I didn't put it very well. I mean, having effect on other things. 

You might think this is too quick, but one little argument for why it's false is that here we are talking about consciousness. Right? They're having effects right now.

How panpsychism fits with the theory of evolution

I have a pet theory that I probably won't wind up boring you with today, but one thing that figures into it is the possibility that consciousness, until you get to a point where you have speech and introspection and talk about it—until that point—it has no causal role. 

You might say, in the history of evolution it has a kind of latent causality—it’s there as a property that doesn't influence things, and then when a species gets to our level, it manifests itself as influential. That's at least a coherent position. 

That's an important, interesting view. ... 

It's a famous problem in the theory of evolution about why we don't seem to be able to give any evolutionary explanation of consciousness—say, take pain as a standard example. We didn't need to actually feel pain, all we needed is a certain instinctive aversive reaction. That would do the work just as well.

Panpsychism, weak or strong, has an immediate answer to that. It says: sure, but it just so happens that the stuff that things were made out, it was already conscious. So you don't need any evolutionary explanation, it completely solves that problem.

In a sense, yeah. Well, what I just said, I think, is no less a solution. I'm not sure “solution” is the word. I mean, it's still a mystery why this stuff is here. ... 

What you're emphasizing with the panpsychist view is that, look, don't think of consciousness as something that kind of evolved, the way our hands evolved, and therefore should have that kind of function.

Yeah, it's a little complicated. 

I do think that all the specific sensory modalities we have—the eagle's eye or the dog's nose—they’re all products of biological evolution. 

But the fact about evolution is that evolution needs something to work on. So just as it found bodily shape and worked on that and gave us opposable thumbs and wonderful things like that, so too it found consciousness and worked on that and worked it up into vision and hearing and all these wonderfully adaptive forms. 

But I don't need to explain how it got to be at all. It's just that it was already part of the material that the evolution found.

Right. Because you are viewing sentience—even before animals start talking about it, if you just look at chimpanzees—you are viewing sentience as playing a causal role. 

Yeah, but it does it in a way that doesn't put it in any sort of competition or conflict with … the kind of causality that neurophysiology and physics will display.

What evolution does … [is] it takes purely physical stuff and molds it into a form in which it … operates effectively. 

It just so happens that the stuff it worked on was already, as it were, consciousness-involving. So that's why we have consciousness and we're not, as they say zombies—that is, creatures that seem to be as behaviorally sophisticated as we are, but don't actually have any inner life. And that's one of the problems for evolution: why aren't we zombies in that special philosophical sense of zombie?

Yeah, it's a challenge. 

Just to use where we are to put a kind of a punctuation on something we said earlier: one reason epiphenomenalism is not coherent to you is that you think that part of the definition of being real is to be part of the causal flow of things.

I really do think that's perhaps the best general definition. I haven't argued for that, but that seems to be a fundamental idea, from which it follows that epiphenomenalism couldn't be true. 

The laws of physics

So you adhere, again, to this strong form of panpsychism, according to which ... experience is all there is, it is the fundamental stuff. But it also manifests as a kind of energy, which you think is the fundamental stuff of scientific analysis. 

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. 

I like to quote Stephen Hawking at this point, who says: what does physics do, what is scientific analysis? He says something like "physics is just a series of equations." 

And then he goes on to say, what is it that breathes life into these equations? In a sense, what makes them true? And physics doesn't answer that question. That's where I say, well, the best hypothesis is it somehow is consciousness.

So how does consciousness being fundamental, bedrock stuff—in what sense does that breathe life into the equations? 

No, it's just a theory about what the ultimate stuff is. I … meant “breathe life” in the sense that it makes it the case that the equations, which are just bits of abstract math, actually apply. 

An interesting thing about scientific laws is that we say the universe complies with them. 

I don't.

We don't know what enforces the compliance. 

See, that's the language you used earlier, which I completely reject. Terrible, terrible. I call it “separatism," it's a terrible picture. It is matter sitting around, God made that, and now he thinks, "Hmm, what laws will I make it obey?" And then he clunks on the laws on top... 

It's constitutive of the very being or nature of the matter. You don't need to add laws. It's just the nature of the stuff. They behave as they do. 

I have to say, one of the people who is really good about this is Neiztche. Brilliant, quite brilliant.

Yeah. Other people have lauded him. 

But ... what I was going to say was, is for you consciousness, in a certain sense, a version of the answer to the question "What enforces the laws of physics?" I don't mean "enforces" like walks around enforcing compliance—it is the  animating stuff, it is the reason the physical laws are realized. 

I mean, I get it. I get what you're saying. I just don’t want to say that. 

Suppose we go back to the traditional view, in which the ultimate nature of the physical world is non-conscious—that’s already animated, it's already energetic and animated, and it has a certain character.

It has the character that, if you like, was dictated at the Big Bang—if we accept the story of the Big Bang—something banged into existence, something with a certain nature, given which it could not but behave as it does. So all that—all the animating—can be had without the panpsychism.

I'm just saying here's a view about the nature of the stuff that it's not non-conscious, it's already somehow consciousness-involving. 

And  I should say just now that I haven't really positively committed myself to this view. I just think that, on classical grounds of theoretical elegance, parsimony, and simplicity, and so on, it's the most plausible view. That's my official position. 

Okay. Let me ask you if maybe ... this is a chain of logic that either has led you to your view or could lead to it … : you don't like the idea that there's some threshold that's crossed where all of a sudden matter achieves some configuration that infuses it with consciousness. That seems a little weird. 

And so, ... if you don't want there to be any threshold, you are almost inexorably led to some kind of panpsychism, right? 

That's right. 

So at that point, if no threshold means you are led to a panpsychism, you have to choose between kind of soft or weak panpsychism and the stronger version, and you don't like the soft version because, when you look at it in the context of human consciousness, it kind of amounts to epiphenomenalism, right? 

Which you don't like for other reasons. 

(Laughs.) Yeah. A lot of things I don't like.

Right. So, you're left with, kind of almost logically, a strong form of panpsychism.

If you permit, I'd like to read out a brief quotation from William James, which I brought up on the screen here, because he makes this point very clearly about discontinuity. 

So he says, "The fact is that discontinuity comes in if a new nature comes in at all. The quantity of the latter is quite immaterial." He's talking about consciousness arising from non-consciousness, and he says: "The girl in Midshipman Easy could not excuse the illegitimacy of her child by saying, 'it was a very small one.' And Consciousness, however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution."

So there's the case. He said it in 1890. I have nothing really to add. 

Yeah. I can imagine rebuttals, but it's a good question. 

I mean, but then the problem is... conceiving what strong panpsychism is like—it’s just so radically at odds with our intuition, right?

Well, our intuitions have been trained a certain way. That's where the argument about what physics doesn't talk about—I call it "the silence of physics," that's a term that Russell used, "physics is completely silent.” 

So when you see that, you realize that it was just a prejudice or presupposition or assumption that the ultimate nature of stuff was not experiential. It has no scientific or theoretical warrant at all.

It's just, we stub our toes on things and we think, that's the physical, that's non-conscious. But it's about as bad as thinking that we know what solidity is just by stubbing our toes. In fact, it's electric charge. It's utterly different from what we might intuitively imagine. 

And it's the same move. You're right about the intuition, but the intuition has no warrant. That's the point.

Well, I have to admit there's no intuitively compelling view of consciousness that doesn't run into serious problems. And then the problem with the other kind is that they're not intuitively apprehensible.

Let me try it on you. I say, why do you think that there is any non-experiential, non-conscious stuff at all? Where's your evidence? Show me some evidence. And I answer: there is zero evidence.

Well, but there is the problem of: if you don't mean it's like something to be the thing that is conscious, then what do you mean? If you're not saying that it's like something to be a rock, but you're saying it's conscious, what does it mean to say it's conscious? 

No, I do mean that. There's something that's like to be…

A rock. 

No, not the rock.

Not the rock, but the little stuff. Yeah. What is it like? Tell us!

Oh, it's sort of like this: "Bzzzzz!"

(Laughs.) It's a very dull, kind of undifferentiated sentience.

Yeah. 

Though, I mean, I'm sometimes—you know, this is sort of material for my enemies—I’m sometimes attracted by the idea that there's an affect right at the bottom, and this kind of... Attraction and repulsion, as we say.

Now see, that's thing: you say that the idea of a threshold is implausible to you, but there is a pretty distinct threshold with the emergence of life, ... that very thing which does seem to be associated with sentience, which is that living systems are attracted to things that are nourishing or conducive to their survival and reproduction, and they are aversive to things that are bad for them. And that seems to be the origin of organic affect at least—you have good feelings about food and stuff, and bad feelings about toxins and predators. 

Yeah. So that's easy. Evolution finds a consciousness base and tunes it in a way that makes it serve those functions.

Now, you could say that affect is what makes the molecules of a rock stick together. They have a positive feeling about each other. 

I wasn't really...

It's not totally crazy. You know, some physical things repel each other, and some things attract each other. Look, if you're  going to buy into panpsychism, I almost think you might as well go here. I mean, seriously—it seems to make the whole thing more comprehensively coherent. 

Yeah. Okay. Sure. ...

Other panpsychists

So, do you have allies? 

Uh... Yeah. Probably some people who think I didn't go far enough. 

For example, there's my student—ex-student, I should say—Philip Goff, who now teaches at the Central European University, who's just published a book called Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. He goes for something called “cosmopsychism”... 

As you probably know, given the kinds of interviews you do, there are quite a lot of highly distinguished cosmologists nowadays who think that really the universe is a single thing in some really deep sense. A simple version of that is something Steven Weinberg said 20 years ago: that, according to string theory, particles are really rips in space-time, and space-time is the only thing there is.

So, in that view, there's only one thing, and it's, as it were, consciousnessing away, and we're just little pockets of it. This is very like Spinoza, I should also say. So, that's an ally. 

As you probably also know, Dave Chalmers has been flirting heavily with something like this...

David flirts with a lot of things.

Well, one of the things most interesting to me is that a hundred years ago, I think, ... discussion about the mind-body problem was much better. And this was a very widely accepted view. 

The father of Wilfrid Sellars, R.W. Sellars said that panpsychism has to be considered as a version of naturalism. 

There was Whitehead, who was very influential in the States. 

There's Eddington. 

Russell is definitely open to the view. 

There are two very interesting American philosophers from that time called C.A. Strong and Durant Drake, who were also panpsychists of the same general kind.

Do you know, is David Chalmers flirting with the soft form or the strong form of panpsychism? 

Actually, I think his current preference is for something he calls "pan-proto-psychism." ... As I understand it, it tries to adjust the standard conception of physicalism: it says, the physical has properties that aren't accounted for in physics, which means that it's essentially well predisposed towards giving rise to consciousness, but it isn't actually already conscious.

But to me, that seems like just a variant on the common view that evolution produced consciousness, and there was something about matter, which meant that, when evolution took place, consciousness arose.

Nagel wrote a famous, valuable paper in the seventies, and then in his book Mind and Comsos... Again, he's not going to commit to it, but he's certainly a friend of the general movement. 

And the other person, I think, who's been very insightful about this is Rebecca Goldstein—partly in her fiction, but also in her more formal books. 

She's a Spinoza fan. 

Yes, that's true. But I think she kind of got it, long ago. And then funnily enough, she's actually thanked in Nagel's 1979 paper, so...

Yeah. She was a student of his at Princeton. 

Yes. …

No other names are coming to mind, but I think it's kind of big in Germany, too. There may be reasons in their history for that. 

Personal implications

So does this influence your life? 

Um, no. 

I mean, aside from leading to academic disputes, does it influence the way you go about looking at the world? 

No, but when it really dawned on me that we don't know the nature of the physical in such a way that we have good reason to think it's wholly non-conscious… That shook me up. It happened in the nineties. It sort of changed  my life...

Wait, you mean you realized there's no way of knowing that the so-called inanimate reality is not conscious?

Just a deep, deep ignorance of the ultimate nature of stuff. ...

So this was like a big epiphany? There was kind of a threshold there for you, where  panpsychism per se was suddenly appealing?

It wasn't even that at that point.

It was just the real experience of not knowing. Knowing only about the consciousness. Wanting to be a physicalist, committing to physicalism, and realizing the only thing I know for sure about it is what I know when I have conscious experience. 


Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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