IDEAS AFTERNOON

Panpsychism and the Nature of Consciousness

What is consciousness? Why does it even exist? It has long been treated as the byproduct of biological complexity. The more complicated the brain, the more self-aware. Other thinkers have seen consciousness as totally distinct from the body -- dualism. But maybe consciousness, like space and time, mass and energy, is just a basic characteristic of the universe. Maybe it’s a fundamental property of matter. Welcome to the concept of “panpsychism”.
Consciousness has been a preoccupation with philosophers for centuries: is it simply a byproduct of our complex brains? Or is it, as a growing number of neuroscientists and other researchers believe, a fundamental part of the physical universe, like space and time? (Pixabay)
Listen to the full episode53:59

What is consciousness? Why does it even exist? It has long been treated as the byproduct of biological complexity. The more complicated the brain, the more self-aware. Other thinkers have seen consciousness as totally distinct from the body — dualism.  But maybe consciousness, like space and time, mass and energy, is just a basic characteristic of the universe. Maybe it's a fundamental property of matter. Welcome to the concept of "panpsychism". 

It's a radical-sounding idea and it could prove vital for us in radically rethinking how we think about reality itself.

It's been said that the only thing we know for certain is our own experience. But how do we account for this most subjective phenomenon within the science of consciousness? How can science with its objective metrics even begin to engage with the felt nature of the inner subjective life? 

In this episode, IDEAS  producer Naheed Mustafa tries to untangle some of these questions with Philip Goff, a professor of philosophy at Durham University in the UK. He's a proponent of an emerging theory intended to shed light on the problem of consciousness — a theory called "panpsychism".

Philip Goff teaches philosophy at the University of Durham, UK. 2:29

Years ago when Philip Goff wrote his final paper as an undergraduate, he had concluded that the question of consciousness was unresolvable. Neither of the prevailing ways of thinking about consciousness appealed to him and he left the question behind with a deep sense of frustration. But it was a question that never quite left him. His quest eventually led him to long-neglected work by Bertrand Rusell and Arthur Eddington from the 1920s which set Goff on the road to panpsychism. 

"I think the central project with consciousness is to find a place for it. We know it exists. We know it's real. Nothing is more evident than the reality of your own feelings of pain or pleasure, for example. So we we have to find a place for it in our scientific picture of the world. People talk about the grand unified theory that science is aiming for but if you have a grand unified theory that can account for all the data of observation and experiment but it can't account for consciousness, that theory cannot be true because you've missed something. We know that consciousness is real. So this is the challenge. It's about having a consistent picture of reality, one that is compatible with everything science tells us. 

"The problem with dualism is there's a challenge there as to whether it is compatible with everything science tells us. It's incredibly hard to see how you can account for consciousness in a purely materialistic worldview. And certainly we've had very little success so far trying to do it." 

Further reading:

  • Consciousness and Fundamental Reality by Philip Goff, published by Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers, published by Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Thinking About Qualia by Martine Nida-Rumelin, published by Oxford University Press, USA, pending.
  • The Analysis of Matter by Bertrand Russell, published by Routledge, 2001.
  • Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel, published by Cambridge University Press, 1991.


**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa and is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 airs Thursday, October 25; Part 3 airs Thursday, December 13. 

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