Jerry Coyne vs. Panpsychism

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has commented on panpsychism (and Philip Goff) before, but I’ll limit my response to his most recent post on the subject, linked here:

He repeatedly calls panpsychism “woo,” a smear which is intended to scare off rationalists and skeptics. I strongly object to his characterization. Panpsychism is not woo — it’s a naturalistic, monistic, epistemically thoughtful branch of physicalism. But don’t take it from me, take it from Keith Frankish, outspoken materialist and opponent of panpsychism. “[Panpsychism] might sound like New-Age mysticism, but some hard-nosed analytic philosophers have suggested it might be how things are, and it’s now a hot topic in philosophy of mind.” I suppose if my fellow panpsychists want to convince other skeptical, scientifically-oriented people, we shouldn’t actively repel them with a pseudo-sciencey sounding label. Annaka Harris, in her book Conscious, invites readers to try to come up with a better name. Some have taken up Russellian Monism, since there is a panpsychist branch of Bertrand Russell’s neutral monism, discussed in his The Analysis of Matter.

Coyne points out that “neuroscientists have pretty much accepted that consciousness is a product of the brain, for we can alter consciousness or eliminate it or even split it by various brain manipulations or psychological tricks,” before adding, “we’re starting to understand the neural correlates of consciousness.”

His first point presents absolutely no problem for panpsychism. It’s quite possible that Coyne doesn’t understand the view he’s criticizing. I would say this is further supported by his woo accusation, since materialist philosophers more familiar with panpsychism do not dismiss the position as mere woo. Of course, as Coyne observes, complex brains generate our particular version of consciousness, but it doesn’t follow that brains are the only possible way consciousness can manifest in the universe. Panpsychists also think human consciousness is the product of the brain — they’re monists. There are nothing but atoms up there in your skull.

Coyne goes on to discuss the Hard Problem of consciousness, the question of how non-conscious matter is supposed to give rise to experience. Many have argued that this would be an example of strong emergence. If the what-it-is-like-ness of consciousness isn’t there at the bottom, it never would’ve emerged — it would be an example of strong or radical emergence, getting something from nothing. Coyne admits that “maybe science will never be able to answer the question,” but he adds, “it doesn’t mean that we need to invoke the numinous.” The numinous? Is that what we’re invoking? In my Four Premises episode, inspired by Thomas Nagel’s essay Panpsychism, I argue that panpsychism follows from a handful of fairly unobjectionable premises: material composition, realism, nonreductionism, and nonemergence. Each premise is more plausible than its rejection, and together, they seem to imply panpsychism. But according to Coyne, I’m simply a woo merchant invoking “the numinous.”

“In the end, Goff fails in his task of explaining how panpsychism solves the hard problem of consciousness; he just avoids the problem by asserting that everything is conscious. Consciousness is simply an inherent quality of all matter. But the hard problem remains. From where does that consciousness arise?”

Panpsychists have not avoided the Hard Problem by asserting that matter is consciousness-involving — they’ve answered it. They’ve closed the explanatory gap. I’m simply at a loss here. On panpsychism, there is no leap from non-experiential matter to experiential matter. That leap is the Hard Problem — how matter for which it’s not like anything to be magics itself into matter for which it is like something to be. No leap, no strong emergence, no Hard Problem.

“Ignorance is no crime,” to quote Richard Dawkins, but Coyne should really spend some time listening to panpsychists if he’s going to keep bashing them on his blog. I would recommend Galen Strawson here or here or here.

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Existential Comics summarizes my feelings nicely, as usual

*As a disclaimer, I should probably mention that I like Jerry Coyne. I loved his book Why Evolution is True and I’ve used his work in nearly every episode I’ve made on the subject of evolution for Counter Apologetics.

**Here’s Philip Goff’s reply to Coyne:


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