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Is the Universe conscious? A panpsychism Q&A with philosopher Philip Goff

We need a hypothesis that accounts for both the fine-tuning of physics for life but also the arbitrariness and gratuitous suffering we find in the world.
An image of a spiral galaxy in space.
Key Takeaways
  • Is the Universe simply a collection of inert material bits that go along their business following the laws of physics? Or is there more to it?
  • If it’s just particles interacting with particles via the fundamental forces of nature, how do we explain consciousness? And if it’s more than just mass, charge, and spin at the fundamental level, where does consciousness fit in?
  • These are some of the questions that philosopher Philip Goff bravely address in his new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe.

Today, I am hosting the British philosopher Philip Goff, a professor at Durham University in England. He is a strong proponent of panpsychism, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as, “The doctrine or belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness.”

Goff just published a new book this week, Why? The Purpose of the Universe, where he masterfully presents his defense of this worldview, connecting it with a much needed way of addressing not only the challenging nature of consciousness but also our search for meaning beyond a strictly material reality. It’s a fascinating conversation that invites many more questions. The following is a Q&A.

I’d like to start with a biographical question to situate the readers. Can you tell us how you got involved with philosophy and, in particular, the kinds of questions you work on?

I’ve been obsessed with philosophy for as long as I can remember. My parents tell me that when I was four, I asked, “Why are we here?” We had recently moved house, so I might have just been confused about the location.

I’ve always been interested in how the different stories we tell about reality fit together. How does free will fit together with near deterministic physics? How do “right” and “wrong” fit together with the value-less facts of natural science? How do feelings and experience fit together with the electrochemical signaling of the brain?

Can you define “panpsychism” to the readers? Are there different schools?

Panpsychism is the theory that consciousness goes down to the fundamental building of matter. Fundamental particles or fields have incredibly rudimentary forms of consciousness, and the complex consciousness of the human and animal brain is somehow built up from these more basic forms of consciousness.

Panpsychism has a long history, with both Western and Eastern philosophers. Leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, were panpsychists, and it had something of a heyday in the 19th century. It was not popular in the latter half of the 20th century, but in the last 10 or 15 years, there has been a new wave of interest in panpsychism in academic philosophy, and even to some extent in neuroscience. For its proponents, it offers an attractive middle way between the extravagant belief in the soul on the one hand, and the reductionist “there’s only brain chemistry” view, which I think ultimately denies the reality of consciousness itself.

At some point in the book, you address the issue of fine-tuning, that the constants that determine the strength of the fundamental forces of nature and other physical properties of matter appear to be selected to ultimately allow for life to emerge in the Universe. Tweak the strong force coupling constants and you won’t have stars. Without stars there is no life — no us, no purpose. Physicists try to get around this by assuming the existence of unified theories that preselect those values, for example, the multiverse in string theory. (In fact, one colleague even claimed that if you don’t want God, you had better have the multiverse!) How do you respond to this? Another possibility is that the whole fine-tuning debate is a straw man argument. Who says physics should be able to derive the values of the fundamental constants of nature? (See my book A Tear at the Edge of Creation for an expanded critique of unification and fine-tuning.) It may very well be that these values are simply part of the alphabet of physics, measured quantities we use to build our descriptions of natural phenomena. In other words, maybe we are asking physics to do something it’s not cut out to do. And when we do that, we end up needing to add purpose to physics, which is not a necessary part of it.

This isn’t controversial physics. But I think as a society, we are in denial about its evidential implications, because it doesn’t fit with the picture of the Universe we have gotten used to. It’s a bit like in the 16th century when we started to get evidence that we weren’t in the center of the universe, and people struggled with it because it didn’t fit with the picture of reality they had gotten used to.

Ultimately, we face a choice. Either it’s just an incredible fluke that the numbers in our physics are right for life — an option too improbable to take seriously — or the relevant numbers in our physics are as they are because they are the right numbers for life; in other words, that there is some kind of directedness toward life at the fundamental level. That’s weird, and not how we expected science to turn out. But we should follow the evidence where it leads, without being influenced by our cultural prejudices.

For many, there is a third option: the multiverse. And for a long time, I thought the multiverse was the best explanation of fine-tuning. But over a long period of time, I was persuaded by philosophers of probability that the inference from fine-tuning to a multiverse commits the inverse gambler’s fallacy.

Imagine we walk into a casino and in the first small room we see someone having an incredible run of luck. I turn to you and say, “Wow, there must be lots of people playing in the casino tonight.” You’re baffled, so I explain, “Well, if there are thousands of people in the casino tonight, it’s not so surprising that someone will have an incredible run of luck, and that’s just what we’ve observed.” Everyone agrees that’s a fallacy — the inverse gambler’s fallacy — as our observational evidence concerns the good fortune of a particular individual, and the number of people elsewhere in the casino has no bearing on how likely it is that this particular person will play well.

This flawed reasoning is indiscernible from that of the multiverse theorist. Our observational evidence is that this universe is fine-tuned, and the number of other universes that are out there has no bearing on how likely it is that this universe is fine-tuned. Of course, there’s a lot more to say about the anthropic selection effect, and the alleged scientific case for the multiverse, and I go into all this in the book.

The emergence of life is, next to consciousness and the origin of the universe, one of the ultimate three mysteries. We don’t know how to begin to think about purposeless matter suddenly self-organizing to become purposeful, what I once called “matter with intentionality.” Is this where you situate the need for panpsychism? As an explanation for these three mysteries? If so, is purpose something existing before the Big Bang? What would that mean if this is the case? Are we back to the First Cause problem?

(Editor’s Note: Due to time limitations, Dr. Goff didn’t answer this question. But we are leaving it here for everyone to ponder!)

Can you explain what you mean by pan-agentialism, an idea that reaches, it appears, beyond panpsychism? Some of this conversation brings to mind the philosophical novel Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon, where the Universe is a large experiment on purpose as life takes different expressions across a multitude of worlds.

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Pan-agentialism is the view that not only consciousness but also rational agency goes right down to the fundamental building blocks of reality. Obviously, particles can’t deliberate or do probabilistic reasoning, but I think we can make sense of the idea that they are responding rationally to incredibly basic desires.

I propose this as a solution to the deep and under-explored challenge of accounting for the evolution of consciousness. Rapid progress in AI and robotics has made it clear that you could have incredibly complex behavior without any kind of inner experience. So why didn’t natural selection make survival mechanisms — that is, extremely complicated biological robots which track features of their environment and respond with behavior conducive to survival without being conscious? I believe we need something like pan-agentialism to address this challenge.

Finally, I wanted to talk about teleological cosmopsychism, which you propose to be the one explanation for cosmic purpose with an edge over others. If the Universe has as its purpose the goal of having self-aware life as the ultimate expression of its own consciousness, why did it take so long (at least 10 billion years, if Earth is the main example) for it to do so? Is cosmic purpose self-contingent on the dictates of the laws of physics? Why? Also, how would you consider the existence of other intelligences in the Universe?

The Universe being conscious is not as extravagant a hypothesis as you might think. Physics is just mathematical structure, and there must be something that underlies that structure, something that “breathes fire into the equations,” as Stephen Hawking put it. I argue that the hypothesis that it’s a conscious mind that “breathes fire into the equations” is as parsimonious as any other proposal, and it has the advantage of explaining fine-tuning. As for why it took so long, this isn’t an omnipotent God but rather an entity that pursues certain goals under significant limitations — those recorded by the laws of physics.

We need a hypothesis that accounts for both the goal-directedness evidenced in the fine-tuning of physics for life, but also the arbitrariness and gratuitous suffering we find in the world. Cosmopsychism sounds weird, but it accounts for the data.


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