Dear Philip Goff,
I am intrigued by your support of panpsychism and would love to run some things past you.
I enjoyed your exchange with Massimo Pigliucci on Collate, although I could sense your frustration that some of his key objections seemed to be based on what you felt were misunderstandings or misinterpretations of your position and arguments. However, his prime complaint is that panpsychism is not empirically verifiable from a third-person, objective perspective. This is something you freely admit, and the crux of your divergence is that you nonetheless consider it a worthwhile idea to pursue, not just for its internal coherence but for the relative simplicity with which it offers a uniting description of both perceived and measurable realities. Professor Pigliucci, on the other hand, thinks that panpsychism’s empirical reliance on first-person experience alone renders it inherently unscientific, that its attempt to more fully explain the richness of experience takes it beyond the remit of scientific enquiry, and also somehow that attempting to describe and explain an experience is equatable to having that experience.
I hope this serves as a reasonable, if abridged, summary of that discussion. It appears that beyond the semantic confusions, the two of you are operating in subtly different paradigms of enquiry. That’s fine, but having established that, it would be nice to get to the real meat of panpsychism itself, so I’m not here to drag out that line of discussion on the boundaries of scientific knowledge. I’d like instead to bring up the so-called ‘combination problem’ within panpsychism, which is regarded as a key challenge to its response to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, the problem of explaining how and why we have phenomenal experiences.
As David Chalmers put it, the combination problem ‘is roughly the question: how do the experiences of fundamental physical entities such as quarks and photons combine to yield the familiar sort of human conscious experience that we know and love?’ As William James noted more than a century ago, if experiences do not aggregate into further experiences, and minds do not aggregate into further minds, a panpsychic view that contends that experiences of micro-physical entities (like particles) combine to generate macro-experiences (like the conscious experience of an individual human) encounters an explanatory stumbling block.
It’s important to note for other readers that there are several competing schools within panpsychism, as well as off-shoots such as panprotopsychism, but most of them, including the Russellian panpsychism you espouse, are subject to a combination problem in some form. More radical, ‘emergent’ panpsychist avenues can avoid the problem, but bring new problems of their own. David Chalmers has also subdivided the problem into subject, quality and structure combination problems, but the key issue at stake arguably remains the ‘subject-summing problem’ of how a number of distinct subjects can become a single, conscious mind, how consciousness at the level of fundamental physics could possibly become the consciousness of a human or nonhuman mind.
Your own thought experiment involving the ‘micro-experiential zombie’ demonstrates the inconceivability of subject summing when we make key assumptions. Notably, we assume that for fact X at the micro level to ground fact Y at the macro level, X must necessitate Y; in other words, facts (true propositions) about micro-level entities, such as particles making up a human, should account entirely for the existence of that human’s consciousness at the macro level. In your micro-experiential zombie worlds, it nonetheless seems possible for facts about micro-level entities to obtain in the absence of any macro-level consciousness. This means, as you put it, that ‘physical facts plus micro-experience do not a priori entail o-experience’. You conclude therefore that panpsychism cannot solve the hard problem of consciousness unless it also agrees to one of a series of other conditions, such as hidden aspects of micro-experience, extra laws of nature, or micro-experiential properties that come together and somehow change into macro-conscious (o-) experience.
I first came across the metaphysical concept of monism, the notion that all things in existence are really one single thing or that the universe is comprised of one fundamental kind of thing, during a stint at a Sufi community some years ago. I later learned that Bertrand Russell, a philosopher whose writings I greatly enjoy, had arrived at a form of monism in which that fundamental kind of thing is consciousness. For the Sufi community, it was the One, God, or divine essence, but labels aside, the positions are substantively similar, despite being arrived at by very different roads.
At the time, I had already begun actively exploring the nature of consciousness, and was poking at the notion that consciousness might be a fifth fundamental force grounded in undetectable physical matter, a kind of materialist panpsychism. In exploring the physics to support that metaphysical avenue, I also became interested in hyperdimensionality, which is a topic it might be nice to run past you in respect to panpsychism in another letter. But what began to fascinate me most of all were the experiences recounted to me by members of the Sufi community of meditative states of ‘higher consciousness’, in which they claimed to have experienced a profound sense of connection and union with all things in existence, a deep peace and a dissolution of their individual selves into the universe itself.
Experiences like these are clearly not confined to meditation, and states with the same descriptions have been encountered by users of certain hallucinogenic drugs as well as those in near-death conditions. They can be seen as chemically-induced delusions of the brain, perhaps adaptations that allow us better to deal with death, or alternatively as mind-altering experiences of the kind that allow people some perspective on an underlying reality beyond what is normally subjectively available. If the latter happened to be true, it would provide a very interesting case for panpsychism in terms of the way a macro-consciousness might relate to an even wider macro-consciousness. It opens the possibility that one approach to the combination problem could be to begin by asserting something like this:
1) All micro-entities are at all times fundamentally components of a universal macro-entity.
2) The essence (facts) of that universal macro-entity is (are) contained in potential form in all micro-entities.
3) The manifestation of a particular assemblage of those facts (a given level or set of properties of consciousness) out of the full potential range of universal facts into discrete-seeming macro-entities is dependent on the particular construction of macro-entities.
While this does not yet in itself address the nature of the combination of micro-entities, it does present a challenge to the assumption that the expressed facts of the consciousness of a macro-entity must equal the expressed facts of its component micro-entities. On one level, it also collapses the very idea of subject-summing in on itself in asserting that however given micro-entities are arranged and combined, they are and always were intrinsically part of a macro-entity at the universal level, so their ‘summing’ is not really a union of discretely individual entities but more of an internal reconstitution of components.
When it comes to the specific question of why certain assemblages of particles in biological matter give rise to the forms of consciousness that we experience, there are perhaps some clues to work with in the physical phenomena studied in neuroscience. However, it seems beyond the reasonable remit of this initial letter to do any sort of justice to that particular frontier. Instead, I want to stick here with the metaphysics, and I’m interested in your thoughts on some very old monist writings that I think point to some cool metaphysical possibilities.
A central object of study for the Sufi community was a text called the Fusus-al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) by a thirteenth century scholar and mystic called Ibn Arabi. Much of it makes for an interesting read, and I could draw attention to several claims, but I want now to share a couple of passages in particular:
‘When we witness, He [Allah/the One] witnesses Himself. We are certainly numerous as individuals and species, yet we are based on a single reality which unites us… Know that universal matters which have no existence in themselves are without a doubt intelligible and known in the mind. They are hidden and continue in their invisible existence. These universal matters have jurisdiction and effect on everything which has an individual existence. Indeed, they are the same thing and nothing else, i.e., the sources of existent individual things, and they continue to be intelligible in themselves. They are manifest in respect of the sources of existent things just as they are hidden in respect of their intelligibility. Each individual existent thing depends on these universal matters which cannot be dislodged from the intellect, nor would their existence be possible in the source once they ceased to be intelligible, whether that individual existent is in-time or out-of-time. The relationship of that which is in-time or out-of-time to this universal intelligible matter is the same. This universal matter only has jurisdiction in individual existent things according to what the realities of these individual existent things demand of it. It is like the relationship of knowledge to the knower, and life to the living…
It is known that these universal matters, even if they are intelligible, lack a source, although they still have an authority. When they are determined, since they are ascribed to an individual existent thing, they accept the principle in the existent sources and do not accept distinction or fragmenting, for that is impossible for them. They themselves are in everything described by them, as humanity is in every person of this particular species, without distinction or the numbering which affects individuals; and it continues to be intelligible.’
I’m going to resist any specific analysis here, and also make no claim as to the validity or provenance of these concepts. But purely as a set of ideas, there are some intriguing possibilities for the panpsychist to unfold, are there not? I’m interested in your initial thoughts.