A Conscious Universe?

Caspar Henderson

Have you ever sensed that the very world around you is aware, even conscious? If so, you are very far from being along in having felt this. Intuitions and feelings of this kind seem to be widespread across different cultures, and common even in the supposedly disenchanted West. There is even a chance you are right.

One way of interpreting these kind of experiences is in terms of ‘panpsychism.’  This is the belief that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the material world.   Far-out as it may sound, panpsychism is taken seriously by some philosophers, scientists, and others recognised and celebrated for their intellect and achievements.

On 16 October I attended a public discussion between two such people, chaired by a third who is sceptical.  The first was the novelist Philip Pullman, who has recently published The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume of a trilogy collectively titled The Book of Dust. (The trilogy follows the acclaimed bestsellers of the 1990s, His Dark Materials, which are shortly to appear in a version on BBC television. See this rip-roaring trailer). The second was Philip Goff, a philosopher at the University of Durham and author of Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017) and, now, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, which Pullman has welcomed as “a splendid introduction to [a] fascinating idea.”  The sceptical chair was Nigel Warburton, the host of Philosophy Bites, a podcast that has had over 34 million downloads.

This discussion was held to mark the publication of Goff’s new book in which he argues that so long as we follow Galileo in thinking that natural science is essentially quantitive — that is, fundamentally a matter of expression in mathematical relationships — then the essentially qualitative phenomenon of consciousness will forever be locked out of the arena of scientific understanding.  For Goff and some others, a panpsychist methodology offers a way around this impasse.

A case for panpsychism (as Goff notes in his essays for Aeon Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true and Is the Universe a conscious mind?) can be traced back to Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington, the physicist who in 1919 conducted the first experimental proof of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity when he showed that light from distant stars was bent in space time around an eclipsed sun. Reflecting on the limitations of physics in The Nature of the Physical World (1928), Eddington argued that the only thing we really know about the nature of matter is that some of it has consciousness:

We are acquainted with an external world because its fibres run into our own consciousness; it is only our own ends of the fibres that we actually know; from those ends, we more or less successfully reconstruct the rest, as a palaeontologist reconstructs an extinct monster from its footprint.

We have no direct access to the nature of matter outside of brains, but the most reasonable speculation, according to Eddington, is that it is continuous with the nature of matter inside of brains. Given that we have no direct insight into the nature of atoms, it is rather ‘silly’ to declare that atoms have a nature entirely removed from mentality, and then to wonder where mentality comes from.

Pullman came at the issue from the perspective of a storyteller and novelist, with William Blake as a guide. Early in the conversation he cited lines from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93): “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”, and from Europe: A Prophecy (1794) “I’ll sing to you to this soft lute, and show you all alive/The World, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”  In his new trilogy, ‘Dust’, with a capital D, has something to do with the essence of consciousness, and is at the heart of story. What exactly it is, however,  Pullman says he doesn’t yet know because he hasn’t yet written the third book! The conversation was relaxed, friendly, and wide-ranging, with Pullman, at 72, the elder by nigh-on forty years, and Goffman a child of the era in which His Dark Materials captured the imaginations of millions.

For Pullman — and, I think, many others — panpsychism appeals because it seems to promise a re-enchantment of Max Weber’s disenchanted world. Goff writes about this, touchingly, in the final brief chapter of his new book, ‘consciousness and the meaning of life’.  Re-enchantment sounds appealing, and I am among those who have taken an interest. While writing a book titled A New Map of Wonders I strove to engage more deeply with the question of whether it is true. Almost to my surprise, I came to the conclusion, at least for now, that I am not persuaded.  As things stand, I share the view briefly expressed by Nigel Warburton as chair on 12 October that panpsychism appears to have explanatory power without actually doing so. I think that, as things stand, consciousness as we know it — and in particular the complex forms of it that we value most greatly in humans, other so-called ‘higher’ animals, and perhaps elsewhere  — is a more likely an emergent phenomenon, unlike the parts and processes from which it is made, and novel. [1] Of course, I may well be quite wrong about this and, not having yet read all of Galileo’s Error, may change my mind.  Among the points on which I do definitely agree, in what I have read so far in the book, is that some crucial scientific developments have involved radically reimagining nature.

The pursuit of a better understanding of consciousness is a beautiful endeavour, and, I think, vital to a new, and better, story about our place and responsibilities in the world.  It is also likely to also give us a better understanding of what matter is as well as what it does. But the really vital question is what we do, in relation with others, with what we call consciousness.  I also think, for now, that a world in which consciousness somehow emerges from a non-conscious substrate can be no less wonderful, and that what is unknowing can also be magnificent, and worthy of care. 

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

See also: Consciousness: co-extensive with emergence?

Note [1] For another view on emergence read or listen to What is emergence and why does it matter? by Daniel Schmactenberger

Image: detail from ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun‘ by William Blake (between 1805 and 1810). Public domain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s