Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?

I look at all these “alternate” views of reality as attempts to “repeal and replace,” like what the Republicans tried to do with Obama Care. Anything that works to repeal dualism and materialism, even though it doesn’t quite replace it with a 100% accurate view, is worth a look. There is a lot to commend panpsychism. Let me know what you think.

One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error : Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness , philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

[ An edited transcript of the interview follows .]

Can you explain, in simple terms, what you mean by panpsychism?

In our standard view of things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence consciousness exists only in a tiny part of the universe and only in very recent history. According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. This doesn’t mean that literally everything is conscious. The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts.

It might be important to clarify what I mean by “consciousness,” as that word is actually quite ambiguous. Some people use it to mean something quite sophisticated, such as self-awareness or the capacity to reflect on one’s own existence. This is something we might be reluctant to ascribe to many nonhuman animals, never mind fundamental particles. But when I use the word consciousness, I simply mean experience : pleasure, pain, visual or auditory experience, et cetera.

Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so; mice less so again. As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. Perhaps, at some point, the light switches off, and consciousness disappears. But it’s at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness fading while never quite turning off carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature. That’s what panpsychists believe.

You write that you come to this idea as a way of solving a problem in the way consciousness is studied. What, in your mind, is the problem?

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I think it is not so much to replace dualism and materialism with something else but to acknowledge that they address only part of our experience. As he writes in the article, they only address the quantifiable aspect of it.

Aside from that, the vast majority of people take thoughts to be reality. Mostly they don’t even take their own thoughts but those of scientists, philosophers others that represent some kind of “authority”. Nevertheless, science, philosophy or any mental model are no more than thoughts that people are having. Thoughts arise and vanish within that inner space that we know from our own direct mediation experience. I think we give our theories too much credit when all they do is provide us with a way to expect a certain experience.

Men didn’t think that men could ever fly until someone held on to the idea that it is possible and gradually our thinking around this changed. I mean, it was possible all the time but men couldn’t do it until they could “wrap their mind around it”.

Isn’t it similar to the difference between dreaming and lucid dreaming? The moment you realize that you are actually dreaming, you are able to do things in your dream that you couldn’t do before.

We keep thinking that the brain creates consciousness and we keep thinking it and run into problems and we think it again and suddenly we go, “Wait a minute, maybe consciousness is there first?”” and lo and behold, our whole world shifts and suddenly things start to make sense.

I think the ultimate power is in understanding that we are free to hold any thoughts we wish to hold disregardless of what scientists or philosophers suggest as the truth or as proven facts. I think it is not that we have to observe something first before we can assume it but that we can assume something because we are free to do so and then experience the ramifications of that assumption.

For me the most important sentence in this article is “At the end of the day, you should judge a view not by its cultural associations but by its explanatory power.” The idea that the brain creates consciousness has been chewed out and lost its flavor. Boring, uninteresting, going nowhere. Let’s assume something else.

Panpsychism holds that consciousness -pervades- the universe. To me “pervade” suggests that consciousness and that which it pervades are separate and this does not feel right to me. For this reason, I am tempted to even take it one step further and say that consciousness is the source of everything.

I would say, let’s “repeal and replace” with what “appeals and elates”.

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I agree.

When I try to wrap my head around the concept of panpsychism I keep running into the human-centric perspectives of what consciousness is. Mary-Jane Rubenstein speaks of this at the end of this cool interview and that resonates with me:

I think we need to break free from our tendencies to equate all of these concepts to humans. What if consciousness is merely awareness…or the ability to interact with another entity? In that perspective there would be “conscious” interaction all over the place at the quantum level.

As for pervading the universe…one of the excellent interviewees spoke of an underlying essence that is pervasive to everything. I like that and I spend a lot of time pondering it. Perhaps the answer to the question of pervasive consciousness lies in finding the connection to that underlying essence. And perhaps that connection is within us waiting to come alive as we further evolve. I think it is and I think our nocturnal meditations are bringing us tantalizingly closer and closer to that transcendent understanding.

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Oh my, what a rich and COMPLEX set of topics here. So much to say, and topics that have been debated for thousands of years, and continues to do so. This is one reason I favor integral approaches, which have room for many different ways of looking at mind and reality. I get into this a bit at the end of my interview with Evan Thompson, and a bit with the one I did with Stephen LaBerge. And also somewhat with Ken Wilber, and our chat about “ontic plasticity.” Have you listened to those?

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I have listened to all of those interviews. You always seem to drill down into veins of rich ore during these interviews, Andrew. These wide ranging yet complementary perspectives on reality and consciousness further my quest for a deeper understanding of who we are, where we have come from…and where we are going.

I have questions…and I know that the answers are within me. The more light that I can focus from these excellent Night Club sessions…the closer I get to finding those answers.

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I believe that our consciousness and understanding are always evolving, faster if we are open to it. There are many factors including culture and karma in the mix. Every once in a while, we reach plateaus with some sense of awareness, maybe an aha moment or two, and then we move on from that plateau to the next one through daytime experiences, dreams and stories. And so on . . .

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If consciousness means experience pure and simple (and experience is constrained to contact/recognition/reaction to physical phenomena), how does that “repeal and replace” the materialist view? Also, how does panpsychism account for cause and effect int he individual mindstream?

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good questions, which I will address live on this Sunday’s questionar (https://community.nightclub.andrewholecek.com/t/upcoming-webinar-37-members-q-a-session-on-sunday-sept-27th-at-2pm-mt-4pm-et/2847). A number of things need to be dealt with here, way too much to type in. For example: consciousness does not mean experience pure and simple, consciousness is by definition dualistic (as opposed to nondual awareness), it is already heavily tainted; and experience is not always constrained by physical phenomena (you experience dreams, but they are not physical). Panpsychism (which I do not endorse) is but one attempt to solve the problem of duality, on the other end is idealism in its many forms, which is also problematic. More on Sunday, thanks for seeding a discussion.

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The “Hard Problem of Consciousness” asks how matter (the brain) can create consciousness. It has yet to be solved.

A number of deep thinkers like Donald Hoffman, Rupert Spira, Deepak Chopra and others make a very convincing case for turning that question on its head. They propose that consciousness creates matter and, well…everything. Consciosness, in this model, is fundamental.

Rupert Spira, when asked how consciousness could create matter, spoke of how our minds are microcosms of what he calls infinite consciousness and when we dream our minds create the feeling of solidity. He further postulated that what we call the waking state can be seen as a “dream of consciousness” and the solidity that I feel during the day is a result of 68 years of…reification of the dream of consciousness that I am in.

That resonates strongly with me.

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