Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism

Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism
Philip Goff and Axel Moran, Editors

Journal of Consciousness Studies, Special Issue
Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2022
328 pp. Paper, £19.95
ISBN: 9781788360876.

Reviewed by: 
Dr Michael Punt
March 2023

Just under three decades ago, (1994, to be exact) a conference was held in Tucson Arizona with the title Toward a Science of Consciousness (TSC). It was initiated by Stuart Hameroff (anesthesiology, psychology, neuroscience), Alfred Kasniak (psychology, neurology, psychiatry), and Alwyn Scott (mathematics/engineering, neuroscience). As with a number of similar meetings at the time, its broad concerns not only reflected the organisers concerns but also embraced quantum physics, Altered states of consciousness, cultural anthropology, meditation practices, and Buddhism. David Chalmers, then a post-doc at Washington University, quickly became the missing philosopher in this mix. On the back of the licence that Toward a Science of Consciousness and similar meetings (e.g., ASSC) liberated and sanctioned, scientists, artists, historians, philosophers, spiritualists, enthusiasts, and any number of fascinatingly strange people found an arena in which the things that they thought about consciousness but never dared utter were given a respectful hearing and for the most part treated seriously. Seriously, it should be said, only if the basic academic standards of evidence and argument could bear fairly demanding scrutiny. The papers and panels may have had strange and unanswerable questions as titles, but the rigour and quality of the arguments had to satisfy the organisers and team of associate directors each with their own disciplinary focus (including filmmaker and anthropologist, Jim Laukes to whom I am grateful for this detail). Although in the past 28 years an extraordinary archive of ideas about consciousness has been generated by TSC and elsewhere, there seems to have been little headway in explaining it in a way that is satisfactory to most people. The intellectual focus has survived, in part, because it has become an exemplary nexus of research that allows for a productive friction between researchers who only partially understand each other’s language as they struggle with, among other things, ‘the [tortuous] hard problem’. This problem is one of the driving conundrums in consciousness studies: How can we reconcile how we experience the world with what we objectively can claim to know about it. In the past three decades the imperative to explain it has given way to a more modest ambition of how we might critically discuss consciousness from various perspectives in a unified way. This is what Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism does best.

Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism has this pedigree, not least because it is published in a special issue of The Journal of Consciousness Studies, also nearly three decades old and governed by the same distributed curriculum. It proceeds from the proposition that consciousness is a property rather like gravity that pervades every aspect of reality and which most humans are only aware of as a constituent part of their own being. This may like sound left field science fiction, but the version of panpsychism that this book tests are laid out in Philip Goff’s arguments in Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a new Science of Consciousness. Editors Goff and Moran are to be commended for taking only a single side to condense this argument into a clear and sober introduction to panpsychism and the problem that it tackles. What follows is a collection of 17 papers that address panpsychism from the perspectives of science, philosophy, and theology. A final contribution from Goff responding to the discussion in the papers completes the arc of the collection.

Each contribution is preceded by a short abstract which, for the most part, provides an elegant synthesis of what follows. Papers vary considerably in style, length, and the assumptions that it makes about the knowledge base of the reader. Some may provide challenges outside of the comfort zone, but even this with lines of mathematical formulae are clearly trying to keep the discussion within the reach of an interested non specialist reader. This is especially the case in Goff’s final summary and response to the attention that his argument has been given in the essays which has a modest clarity that carries its authority lightly. There are many objections to panpsychism, and these are not avoided or diminished but embraced as opportunities to revisit the debates of the past decades to seek clarity and reduce ambiguity. Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays in Panpsychism is possibly best approached by reading the introduction and Goff’s responses first, then all the abstracts before tackling the sequence that the editors have settled for or using the abstracts to construct a pathway through what is on offer, much as one would in a large conference with multiple streams, following some presentations fully and sampling others. What it misses from the live conference is the poster sessions, new people, informal and unrehearsed conversations over coffee and the semi-focused hub-hub. From the panpsychism point of view the advantage of the book over a conference, however, is that its objective reality can be revisited and the experience of the reader and the books ‘own’ conscious experience.

Panpsychism turns out to be a startlingly old idea that has had many different iterations and names for the same broad claim that although it may evade our objective modes of understanding consciousness is everywhere. As Goff puts it:

“The unique thing about consciousness science is that we have a fundamental explanation that does not come from public observation and experiments but from the immediate awareness each of us has of the qualities of our experience (as well as the fact that we are experiencing those qualities). Introspection is fallible in all sorts of ways. However, the basic concept we use to articulate that we experience and that our experience involves qualities, are not subject to scientific revisionism in the same way that concepts of time, space, and solidity are. Why not? Because we know that we have experience and that our experience involves qualities, with a greater certainty than we know any empirical fact.” (p.292)

This could be a gauntlet thrown down to dispute that there could even be a science of consciousness, but this is not the style of the argument, and the difficult problem still exists for the panpsychists. As he says 16 pages later:

“My basic assumption […] is that reality is intelligible. We have to start with some basic, unexplained facts, but there should in principle be an intelligible story as to how non-fundamental facts emerge from fundamental facts.” (p.308)

This may sound like clinging to the best of all possible worlds, but what this should prepare the reader for is that, notwithstanding the careful editing, peer review, and creativity of the arguments in the book, the question mark in the title is misleading because nobody seriously expects the rich and varied collection of essays to offer a singular answer. This is not in any sense a failure of the collection but in truth its most enduring virtue (even for those not interested in consciousness). Its indeterminacy brings us up to date with a thirty-year arc that shows no signs of losing its fascination despite its repetition.

Aside from the “consciousness specialists” - whatever that might mean – the collection can serve as an entry into the quality and reach of debates about consciousness and a taste of the creative energy the topic inspires. What is also remarkable is that the concept of panpsychicism is managed in as a testing chess game, or for the more active, an intellectual “climbing wall” to work out complex and demanding moves which can (arguably) strengthen connections between normally disconnected ideas. At the very least it is a masterclass in wrangling intellectuals and getting the best from them outside of the constraints of disciplinary silos.