Notes on consciousness. (X) Why I am not a panpsychist - Reading notes on Philip Goff’s “Galileo’s error”.

I recently read Philip Goff’s book, “Galileo’s error”, where he advocates for the panpsychist view that consciousness is a widespread element of reality, so that atoms are very slightly conscious (note that we should talk of panpsychisms as there are certainly variations on this theme). The book is well written and does a good job at explaining the issues with the different brands of materialism and dualism. It also pushed me to refine some concepts and revisit some issues, which is good.

However, I was not convinced by his proposal. To me, it seems that it boils down to another “what else?” argument: materialism is flawed, dualism is false, therefore panpsychism is true. This cannot be a reasonable response to the fallacious “what else?” argument of materialists: if you are not a materialist, then you are a dualist.

The argument in a few words (certainly a bit caricatured) is that consciousness cannot be reduced to the physical properties of matter, and therefore it must be an additional fundamental property of matter, in some way what atoms are “made of”. Then comes the so-called “combination problem”, which is to understand how atoms get together to form a single conscious entity, a problem that Goff admits is unsolved. This is a strikingly reductionist account of consciousness: if we are conscious, it must be because parts of us are conscious.

As mentioned above, there are different panpsychisms. Integrated Information Theory (IIT), for example, considers consciousness as a property of certain kinds of systems, not a property of atoms. What they have in common, however, is that they postulate consciousness beyond life (of course, some materialist accounts also do). Towards the end of the book, Goff speculates on the ethical issues raised by the possibility that plants might be conscious, and so is it ok to have a vegan diet? But on his account, atoms are also conscious so maybe nuclear fission makes atoms suffer? Maybe nuclear fusion feels like love to atoms and the sun is a sort of gigantic hippie paradise? Who knows.

The fundamental problem I see with the argumentation is that “being conscious” is used as a sort of empty placeholder. The theory is meant to explain subjective perspective, but never asks what a subject might be. Free will is presented as one of the difficult things to explain, but the proposal offers no account of agency. And if atoms are conscious, do they have emotions? But what is an emotion? It seems to me that a theory of consciousness should try to address at least some basic aspects of the phenomenon to explain, beyond the mere fact that it exists.

These questions about subjects and agency are addressed in particular in some corners of theoretical biology, which try to develop the concept of a living organism. Typically, theories of life describe a living organism as a set of processes whose operation ensures their own continued existence; some form of organizational closure that resists entropic decay (see e.g. Varela & Maturana; Kauffman; Rosen; more recently Moreno, Mossio, Montevil, to name a few). The concept of organism is what allows developing derived concepts such as agency, autonomy, but also some aspects of perception and emotion (namely the valence of emotion).

Goff proposes that free will is not action free from determinism, but action that has reasons. But reasons imply goals, and goals imply autonomous agents, concepts that panpsychism, whether Goff’s or IIT’s version, offers no account of. No amount of integrated information (“Phi”) provides any goal to the system, and so this theoretical construct cannot account for either free will or emotion.

I will now discuss a few more specific points made in the book.


The hard problem is harder than you might think

Everything starts with the “hard problem” of consciousness, a problem that has been discussed by many thinkers, the most well-known arguments being probably those of Chalmers and Nagel. Basically, the problem is that experience is not something that can be derived deductively from the properties of matter. There is no logical reasoning that would start with a mechanistic description of a material system, and that would end up with “therefore, this system feels pain”. Of course, there could be a “therefore” that means: whenever a material system has some property P, it feels pain, but this would be an empirical relation (e.g. the “neural correlates of consciousness”), not a logical relation. Basically, you cannot deduce pain from Newton laws.

In the book, the author takes it as a flaw of reductive materialism, the idea that consciousness is a state of matter. It certainly is a flaw of materialism, but it is much worse than that.

In his famous paper (What is it like to be a bat?), Nagel hits the more general problem: experience is something that you live, not something that you describe. Of course, you could try to describe an experience, but understanding the words is not the same thing as having the experience. Philosophers like to speak of the redness of red, but I find this a rather poor choice. Everyone (with some exceptions) has the feeling of red whenever something with the right spectral properties is presented, so it is easy to conflate objective properties of objects with subjective experience.

But consider taste, for example. Taste is interesting because not everyone has the same tastes, meaning that people can have different experiences for the same stuff, and taste can change over time. There is no need to try to imagine the ultrasonic world of bats. Consider for example coriander. Many people hate coriander, and this has been linked to some genetic variant in olfactory receptor genes. Now try to describe the taste of coriander to someone who does not like it. I personally would have no idea where to start; someone might find words to describe it, but we can be sure that the person would be essentially clueless about how it might taste. One might say that the taste of coriander is the taste caused by the activation of the corresponding olfactory receptor; one might describe the odorant molecules, and so on: none of that conveys the taste. There is just no alternative to actually experiencing an experience.

So the problem is much deeper than a flaw of materialism: the problem is that experience is not something that can be explained, whatever the number of words, it is something that is lived. Postulating the existence of an extra non-physical law, which says for example that the universe is made of consciousness, or that certain systems are conscious, will not solve this problem. We might want to postulate the existence of coriander taste as an extra law of nature, it would still not explain what it feels like to taste coriander. Thus, if panpsychism pretends to explain the quality of experience, then it commits the exact same error as reductive materialism. This should make us highly skeptical of claims such as “the quality of experience is specified by the informational relationships [the complex] generates” (Balduzzi & Tononi, 2009) - all the more that it reduces experience to its epistemic value while neglecting the hedonic value (see below).

Of course, this does not mean that nothing interesting can be said about experience, including its relation with matter. But panpsychism is not at all necessary for that. For example, sensorimotor theories of perception have something to say about the structure of experience, for example about the spatialization of pain (see my short series on that). Thus, panpsychism does not solve the hard problem. It does not dissolve it either: the problem still exists even if you consider that materialism is flawed, because it is not an issue with materialist explanations but with explanations in general.

Before I move on to the next topic, I would like to point out that there are certain ways to communicate experiences, but those are not descriptive. More accurately, there are ways to induce experiences in people. These are art, poetry, or guided meditation. A musical experience is not the end point of a logical reasoning. Guided meditation practices, or poetry, use words to put you into certain states of mind, but the words are only there to guide you (“imagine you are a mountain”), they do not constitute the experience.


The case against dualism

In his book, Goff also rejects dualism, but I found the argument rather peculiar. He claims that the main objection against dualism is empirical: we understand a lot about how the brain works, so surely we would have noticed if there were an intervention by some kind of mental entity - some scientific law would be broken, basically. This is a peculiar argument because virtually all scientific findings in neuroscience are of a statistical nature, so there is no way we would notice an intervention rather than categorize it as a random event. Our understanding of the brain is not that extensive.

But we can take the argument as a thought experiment. Suppose we have perfect understanding of the physical working of the brain, so we could for example predict the evolution of brain states from the current state. We could know before the subject herself what she is going to talk about, or the voluntary movements she is going to make. In other words, we would know perfectly how the “philosophical zombie” works. This knowledge is precisely the premises of the hard problem: we have a perfect mechanistic understanding of physiology and behavior, but none of this understanding implies that the person is conscious, or explains the taste of coriander.

If it is the case that we can have this kind of understanding (even as a theoretical possibility), then indeed dualism is false, at least the kind of dualism that supposedly explains free will and agency (as Penfield or Eccles thought).

But it also implies that there cannot be any empirical support for any panpsychist theory, since all the empirical data are already supposedly accounted for by a physicalist account. Therefore, I find it odd that Goff supports the empirical argument against dualism and at the same time claims that there is empirical support for IIT. By his own argument, that cannot be the case. If we have a physicalist account of whatever a person might say or do in different circumstances, then this will include any kind of empirical evidence that we might think of. All the empirical evidence would already be accounted for, and therefore could not count as evidence for the panpsychist theory.

To claim otherwise is to believe that consciousness is required to do certain things, such as speaking of what one sees. But this is contradictory with the claim that a physicalist framework can explain behavior but not consciousness. This is to give a causal role to consciousness, above the causal role of physical processes, and that is precisely Goff’s objection against dualism.


The epistemic and the hedonic

To end these notes, I would like to come back to the remark I made at the beginning, that a theory of consciousness should try to address at least some basic aspects of the phenomenon to explain, and not just acknowledge that it exists.

Ned Block pointed out that there are two aspects of consciousness that need to be accounted for: access consciousness, i.e. its functional aspects, and phenomenal consciousness or “what it is like”, the latter being notoriously more complicated than the former.

I would like to rephrase it as follows. Experience typically comes in at least two dimensions, an epistemic and a hedonic dimension. For example, consider toothache. That experience is informative: it aches somewhere, and perhaps you notice that it aches when you drink something cold and so on. But pain is not just information: it is also something you would like to get rid of. It has a hedonic value, namely a bad one.

Both IIT and global workspace theory focus on the epistemic aspect, but fail to account for the hedonic aspect (for the epistemic aspect as well, but at least they try). This might come from the failure to include life into the picture. For a living organism, there is some sense in saying that an event or an act is good or bad for the organism, according to whether it helps or threatens the organism’s self-maintenance. In contrast, there is no sense in saying that some event is good or bad for a photodiode. The photodiode has been built by some (other) conscious entity to perform a certain function, and so only that external entity can assess whether some transformation of the system is good or bad, according to whether it continues to perform the ascribed function.

Of course, none of this explains why an organism feels bad, rather than just acts accordingly, but it is certainly an aspect of the phenomenon that things that are bad for the organism also tend to feel bad. Without an organism, some autonomous entity for which “bad” can mean something, it seems difficult to theorize about the hedonic aspect of experience. This makes me skeptical of claims that entities that are not living organisms (atoms, photodiodes and so on) are conscious.