Panpsychism, Philip Goff, and Jack Preston King — Further Thoughts

This is a revival of a conversation I was having a few months ago with Jack on Medium. Usually he and I agree about pretty much everything in relation to the big questions about life and the universe. He had recommended to me Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error¹, which advocates panpsychism as the philosophical position which best explains the universe. So when I followed this up with my analysis of it, I was very surprised when Jack said that he completely disagreed with my interpretation, and thought that we had been reading a different book.

Here I’ll describe our major point of difference in very simple terms. (For more detail see my article here, and his interpretation here.) I think that Goff’s panpsychism is a kind of philosophical ruse; since materialism is incapable of solving the Hard Problem of consciousness, he says that we have to assume that matter is in some sense conscious, that consciousness must be a fundamental attribute of matter. It is therefore a kind of get-out clause for materialism. (The clue is in the subtitle Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness — science, as we know, attempts to explain life in terms of matter, avoiding anything that can be called supernatural.)

For me therefore, Goff’s panpsychism is merely moving the goalposts and creating a new problem and questions. Do we really believe that cars, computers, and refrigerators are conscious of what they are doing? If we do, then we have to explain that, which may be as difficult as the original Hard Problem. Both Jack and I agree that mind or consciousness is the fundamental reality of the universe, and matter as we perceive it is a manifestation of this consciousness (this is a position which is often called Idealism). To my surprise, Jack said that this is what Goff was advocating in his book. I can find no evidence for this; it seems to me that Goff’s starting point is matter, and that he is trying to find a satisfactory way of explaining it.

So why am I reviving this debate now? Jack has been reading Bernardo Kastrup’s book Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics². Kastrup is an Idealist, and highly critical of panpsychism. So I’m wondering whether Jack has in any way changed his mind, having been introduced to Kastrup’s way of thinking. I’ve recently been reading one of his earlier books Why Materialism is Baloney³. In it he seems to agree with my interpretation of Goff’s panpsychism: “To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property — namely, circumscribed, individualized consciousness — which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it — namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature” (p 19). “The only possible reason to believe in panpsychism is to make materialism work” (p 20).

Jack’s argument to counter mine was that Goff was distinguishing between two types of panpsychism, a classical version (i.e one of the type that Kastrup is criticising), and his own version (i.e. something more in line with Idealism). I could find no evidence for this in Goff’s text, and thought that Jack was reading into it his own belief-system. I’m hoping that Jack will feel in the mood to offer any further thoughts he may have in the light of Kastrup’s ideas. Of course, helpful observations from anyone else would be welcome.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Rider, 2019

2. iFF books, 2021

3. iFF books, 2014

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