Philip Goff would have us believe, or at least be open to the possibility, that all matter possesses some sort of consciousness: “an electron,” he suggests, “has an inner life.” Such a belief is called “panpsychism,” and Goff claims it makes perfect, albeit not common, sense:
Common sense tells us that only living things have an inner life.1 Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common sense. According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.
Since all things material are assemblages of electrons, if electrons possess consciousness (which is what Goff means when he says that electrons “have…experience”) then all things material must experience, in some way, their own existence: they must, that is, be conscious.
Goff invokes a pair of scientific luminaries (who themselves did not advocate for panpsychism) in defense of his claim:
There is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism. The argument relies on a claim that has been defended by Bertrand Russell, Arthur Eddington and many others, namely that physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does…it is one thing to know the behaviour of an electron and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is, in and of itself. Physical science gives us rich information about the behaviour of matter but leaves us completely in the dark about its intrinsic nature. 2
The only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience. We now face a theoretical choice. We either suppose that the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles involves experience or we suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature.
The “comments” section following Goff’s article is fascinating, as readers dispute the nature of consciousness (which some call an illusion), epistemology, and reality itself. The prevailing view seems to be that consciousness is a mysteriously “emergent property” of living brains, but a substantial minority of readers finds “emergent property” to be a dodge: how can consciousness emerge from a collection of non-conscious electrons?
Why does any of this matter? Well, for one thing, Goff’s article allows me to write this morning about something other than our so-called “President’s” speech to Congress last night. Moreover, the argument over panpsychism leads to an intriguing conjecture: if intelligent consciousness somehow arises from a particular assemblage of unintelligent and non-conscious particles, could the process work in reverse as well? That is, if we put together a certain number of conscious, intelligent entities, under certain specified circumstances, would the resulting assemblage forfeit its intelligence? Is stupidity an emergent property as well? If so, then we have an explanation for politics, political parties, and the numerous standing ovations at last night’s so-called “Presidential” address.
1 Goff has a concise rebuttal: “Why should we take common sense to be a good guide to how things really are?” Common sense, it seems, is simultaneously overrated and uncommon.