Further reply to Philip Goff

As many of you know, a much-anticipated debate between Philip Goff and me has taken place a couple of weeks ago during the How the Light Gets In philosophy festival, which had its first online-only edition this year. The video below captures the first part of that debate, and I invite you to watch it—it's just under an hour—before continuing this read. The below will still make sense even if you haven't watched the video, but you will get more nuance and motivation if you have.

I believe the points raised during Philip's opening presentation—which he, surprisingly to me, dedicated almost entirely to a criticism of my position, as opposed to a defense of his—were appropriately addressed by me during the event itself, and require no further commentary. There are two other points, however, which came up later in the debate and deserve some more elaboration.

The first point

The first is a criticism I failed to understand during the debate, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Only after having watched the video above did I grasp the equivalence Philip was trying to draw between the key problem underlying mainstream physicalism and the key problem that, according to him, plagues my approach: in neither case—he claims—does an appeal to evolutionary advantages actually explains the mechanisms underlying an evolved trait.

Under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness itself is regarded as an evolved trait and, therefore, physicalists argue that it arose because of the accompanying survival advantages (there are none, as I explained here and further elaborated upon here, but never mind). However, physicalists don't explain how phenomenal consciousness supposedly arises from physicality, regardless of how evolutionarily advantageous it may have been. Therefore, it is not enough for physicalists to appeal to evolution; they must make sense of the underlying mechanisms. I agree with that.

Philip is implying that to argue that some qualities can modulate other qualities suffers from a problem equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This, of course, is nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.

In my case, the evolved trait is the qualitative transition between transpersonal experiential states 'out there' and the qualities of perception 'in here.' Indeed, I claim that the objective world—as it is in itself—is not constituted by the qualities of perception, but instead by endogenous experiential states more akin to feelings and thoughts than colors and flavors. I maintain that we experience colors and flavors when interacting with the world—instead of thoughts and feelings—because it has been evolutionarily advantageous for us to gather information about the world at a glance, in the form of the screen of perception. Philip then claims that my appeal to evolution suffers from the same or equivalent shortcoming as the physicalists' appeal when trying to account for phenomenal consciousness.

This is blatantly untrue; so much so that I couldn't register—during the debate—that this was what Philip was getting at; I held him in too high regard to even contemplate this possibility. Indeed, Philip is equating the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities (such as color and flavor) arise from other, different qualities (such as transpersonal thoughts and feelings) to the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities arise from quantities. In other words, he is saying that the modulation of perceptual qualities by transpersonal ones suffers from something equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This is, of course, nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.

We witness the modulation of qualities by other, different qualities every day: our thoughts constantly modulate our feelings, and the other way around. Thoughts feel completely different than feelings, so there is an obvious qualitative transition taking place when this modulation occurs. Yet, we know that it does occur; all the time. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that transpersonal states qualitatively different from colors and flavors could give rise to the colors and flavors on our screen of perception, through some form of modulation.

Notice that this is fundamentally distinct from the 'hard problem': the latter is characterized by the impossibility to find anything in mere quantities—think of mass, charge, momentum, spin, frequency, amplitude, geometric relationships, etc.—in terms of which we could, at least in principle, deduce the qualities of experience. But in my case we go from qualities to (different) qualities. In our own personal minds, the qualities of the thoughts induced by certain feelings are certainly deducible from the feelings: for instance, the feeling of fear will lead to conservative, pessimistic thought processes and accompanying decision making. Similarly, the qualities of personal perception (such as, say, pleasant warmth and white hues) could, at least in principle, be deduced from the transpersonal phenomenal states they are associated with (such as e.g. peaceful feelings of kindness). There is no fundamental barrier of deducibility as in the hard problem.

To ask how the qualities of perception arise from the transpersonal phenomenal states constituting the objective world is to ask how our sensory organs formed; for, according to analytic idealism, our sensory organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the associated modulation processes. Therefore, the question is philosophically trivial.

As such, I insisted on answering Philip's challenge in terms of evolution because I failed to see the mistake he was making. Once you understand that there is no ontological jump from quality to quality—just as there isn't one from quantity to quantity—all that is left to do is to explain how the associated mechanisms of modulation arose. This is entirely equivalent to explaining how our eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin formed, for—according to my analytic idealism—our sense organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the modulation mechanisms. And, of course, evolutionary biology has excellent explanations for this, all of which I can and do import verbatim into analytic idealism.

Let me belabor this for clarity: to explain how the qualitative transition from transpersonal thoughts and feelings 'out there' to personal perception 'in here' arose is to explain how our sense organs formed. Philip's entire point is philosophically trivial; it has nothing remotely to do with the hard problem. Not every problem that needs an answer is a hard problem in the sense of the... well, 'hard problem.'

The second point

While I remain genuinely surprised at the comparison Philip attempted to draw in his first point, I understand the motivation behind it. Regarding the second point, however, his motivation eludes me: Why insist so vehemently and emotionally that, under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal states, in and of themselves, are still somehow causally-efficacious? Does Philip, as a panpsychist, not understand that the putative causal inefficacy of phenomenal states is precisely a key implication of mainstream physicalism? Isn't a well-known motivation for panpsychism precisely to find a place for phenomenal states in the causal nexus, as discussed e.g. by Gregg Rosenberg in his thesis and part II of his book, A Place for Consciousness? Isn't the putative causal-inefficacy of phenomenal consciousness an implication of mainstream physicalism that has been openly discussed for decades in philosophy? One so uncomfortable it has spawned ridiculous attempts to avoid it through mere word-games?

I feel embarrassed to have to produce citations and quotes to argue for something quite well known in philosophy. Be that as it may, in his 2016 paper Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism, for instance, David Chalmers recapitulates the mainstream physicalist argument that, because the physical world is putatively causally-closed, phenomenal states must be physical states. In other words, because they have no causal efficacy, phenomenal states cannot exist as phenomenal states; instead, all the qualities they entail must be reducible to the quantities of physics.

In less technical words that you, I and the average educated person on the streets can understand, this means that phenomenal states aren't causally-efficacious in and of themselves; whatever causal efficacy they are said to have comes from the physicality they are putatively reducible to, not from their phenomenal character. Allow me to quote relatively extensively from Chalmers' paper:

...many materialists think that the conceivability argument against materialism (and for dualism) is countered by the causal argument against dualism (and for materialism). This argument runs as follows:
(1) Phenomenal properties are causally relevant to physical events.
(2) Every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms.
(3) If every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms, every property causally relevant to the physical is itself grounded in physical properties.
(4) If phenomenal properties are grounded in physical properties, materialism is true.
(5) Materialism is true.
Here we can say that a property is causally relevant to an event when instantiations of that property are invoked in a correct causal explanation of that event. For example, the high temperatures in Victoria were causally relevant to the Victorian bushfires. A full causal explanation of an event is one that characterizes sufficient causes of the event: causes that guarantee that the event will occur, at least given background laws of nature. Premise (1) is supported by intuitive observation. My being in pain seems to cause my arm to move. If things are as they seem here, then the pain will also be causally relevant to the motion of various particles in my body. Premise (2) follows from a widely held view about the character of physics: physics is causally closed, in that there are no gaps in physical explanations of physical events. Premise (3) is a rejection of a certain sort of overdetermination. Given a full microphysical causal explanation of physical events, other causal explanations are possible only when the factors involved in the latter are grounded in the factors involved in the former (as when we explain the motion of a billiard ball both in terms of another ball and in terms of the particles that make it up). Any putative causal explanation that was not grounded in this way would involve causal overdetermination by independent events. Systematic overdetermination of this sort is widely rejected. Premise (4) is true by definition.

This should make it clear even for academic philosophers.

I surely understand that not all formulations of physicalism will bite this bullet; after all, in the hand-waving conceptual world of academic philosophy one can argue for anything with a straight face, as long as the argument is buried in enough conceptual abstraction to hide its self-evident absurdity. But to suggest—as Philip did repeatedly and emphatically—that I was naively plucking a fallacy out of thin air is both bad form and silly. Why do that? The point here wasn't even the one in contention, just something I touched on en passant while trying to address one of Philip's criticisms of my position.

What we mean by 'phenomenal states' is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious. According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not.

Let us be clear: phenomenal states are defined as qualitative states. This, in fact, is why the expression 'phenomenal state' is at all useful: if these states were exhaustively describable in terms of quantities, such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., we wouldn't need to speak of 'phenomenal states' to begin with. That we in fact do shows that what we mean by them is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious.

According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not, and it baffles me that Philip denied this. Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism. I emphasize the word 'mainstream'—as I did during the debate—to exclude... well, non-mainstream formulations. Under mainstream physicalism, all qualities are epiphenomenal (side-)effects of brain activity. What is causally efficacious is merely the mass, charge, momentum, geometric relationships, etc., of the elementary particles making up our brain, body and the world at large.

Now, to say that qualities are causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism because they are defined as being identical to quantities is a silly word-game, as I believe every reasonable person will immediately see. Unfortunately, these silly language games are played left and right in academic philosophy, as if they solved anything, did anything, or even meant anything. We know what phenomenal states are; we define matter exhaustively in terms of quantities. To equate qualities to matter is thus to ignore the former; to pretend that they don't exist. Unfortunately for eliminativists and illusionists, the rest of us, sane human beings, know they do.

Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism.

Many academic philosophers love to indulge in these tortuous conceptual games that achieve lift off from the firm ground of reality and end up in some other galaxy. This is no news. But I confess to feeling disappointed at Philip, an academic philosopher I thought would see through this nonsense. I regret that so much energy and time was wasted, during the debate, arguing this silly point; it took the audience's attention away from the substance of the point I was trying to make, and I never got a chance to return to it.

Final comments

Anticipating something that will become clearer after the second part of the debate is published, I also regret that Philip has failed to defend his panpsychism against most—perhaps all—of the criticisms I leveraged against it. For instance, my point about there being no separate elementary particles according to physics—only spatially unbound fields—went wholly unanswered. His very opening statement focused almost exclusively on attacking analytic idealism, as opposed to defending panpsychism. His emotional focus on something at best ancillary to the points in contention—namely, what physicalism does or does not entail or imply—also distracted attention away from substance. All in all, a disappointing experience for me. My debates with Suzan Blackmore and Peter Atkins were, surprisingly, a lot more productive, which you will see for yourself once those are made public (in a few months, I guess and hope).


  1. Damn you are good. For what it is worth I have been promoting as best I understand your view of reality because I now share it. Seeing consciousness as being fundamental was the part that was missing for my world view to come together. Your work was the source of that "ah ha" moment. Because of the tremendous difficult in trying to explain to people without technological, scientific or academic backgrounds in philosophy I've adopted the approach you use in "More than Allegory" and I'm amazed how many people are reporting back to me that it has shifted their perception completely. Thanks again

  2. I was also stunned how Mr. Goff was denying of a certain crucial assumption of physicalism; that’s at best, all conscious phenomena are epiphenomena, side products of material beings... If not, why would someone call himself a physicalist in the first place? I was stunned even more when he insisted on this.

    Another issue in Goff’s defense of his pansychism is his starting main point to defend his theory (putting all theoretical effort to save what physics says as if physics knows what it says, as if physics as an episteme that is not in crisis. The good old physicists liked to put philosophy in front of them, but after WW2 it more and more converged to playing solely with equations and experiments. Such as in that famous statement falsely attributed to Feynman, “Shut up and calculate”. It may not be what really Feynman said but it surely captures the mindset of an average physicist. Unfortunately. Saving the discourse is not good enough, we should try to see what the core problem is there and deal with it. It does not seem to me, the best way to found a philosophical theory is not just to explain all what Science “says”, as science is naturally fragmented and due to change by its very epistemic definition. Your (i.e., the philosopher’s) duty would rather be to point out possible foundational problems in the current sciences.

  3. Well done Bernardo for maintaining your composure here. very disappointing to see how this began with an attack on your approach. The very fact that Phillip hasn't 'read the literature' around what he terms 'strange psychology' (!) shows that lack of interdisciplinary approach that is vital when we are trying to understand the nature of reality and what we are. There may well be a 'metaphysical story' that underpins and could easily validate your approach (I'm hearing lots of it in my own research currently!), but when academics insist on staying in their boxes and playing it safe, its always going to be missed.

  4. Hi Bernardo,

    Love your work. I describe myself as an idealist.

    I likewise found it a little difficult to understand why Philip compared the difficulties of explaining phenomenal consciousness from materialism to that of explaining perceptual experience from other types of mental processes. One is an impassable chasm, the other highly feasible step. But I think he had a point that you still have some work to do.

    I have struggled to understand what evolution actually means in a mental world. Certainly one can adopt the perspective of the third person and view it all in terms of the physical interactions as described in standard biology. But viewing things from the perspective of mental activity is harder.

    I've been excited to go back to some of your work surround Markov blankets and Friston's work. Understanding the dynamics of mental activity described by the Fokker Planck equation offers a potentially intriguing insight into the dynamics across a dissociative boundary. We know that the equations of evolution drop out of the FP dynamics and maybe somewhere in there is the answer to the question that Philip and I struggle with.

    I'm not sure what form an explanation would actually take though. How does one describe the transition from one form of mental activity to another?

    1. By talking about the transition from electromagnetic fields out there to brain signals through the sensory apparatus. That kind of talk IS the description in question.

  5. I haven´t seen this debate yet, but I saw Goff´s discussion with Richard Brown, and was also a bit disappointed; whereas Kastrup´s discussion with Brown was really interesting, and went deeper than most of the discussions on Idealism.

  6. This all was great.

    The identity between phenomenal and physical seems plausible when thinking in terms of information. The structure of qualia could be isomorphic to a structure of neural activity.

    What would you say to Sophie's idea of enlarging materialism by considering mind states matter?

    1. It's a silly linguistic game that means precisely nothing.

    2. I arrived at idealism by elimination and believe it can't be constructed. Handling the long tail objections of non-mainstream physicalism may be necessary. I admit the two points of brain state isomorphism and enlarging materialism are curve balls that I need to address, and I found them the most interesting part of the debate.

      D&G enlarged materialism in A Thousand Plateaus. What a strange book.

      Someone who thinks bolting on consciousness to physicalism via panpsychism is a good idea is someone who's never written software.

      Phil mentioned his panpsychic waywardness was due to wanting matter to explain regularities in phenomenality. There is an explanatory gap from excitations of consciousness to phenomenal regularities. I bridge that personally by seeing idealism as simulation theory without a simulator. I wonder if information-theory interpretations of physics would bridge that gap analytically.

    3. A physics of internal experience, i.e. enlarging materialism, is possible and may be pragmatically fruitful, but materialism cannot be enlarged to cover everything. Ultimately awareness is, and isn't matter. Consciousness could be selectively attached to "internal matter" a la panpsychism, but this is a funky dualism.

    4. Peter Sjöstedt-H (panpsychist) says mental causation is mainstream physicalism, not epiphenomenalism. It's common sense, intuitive, and gives evolution purchase. The structure of qualia can be isomorphic to brain states and be casually efficacious, but brain states aren't identical to consciousness. Clearly a qualium cannot magically emerge from an arrangement of matter. Mental causation needs engagement, hopefully better than I did here. :)

      The asymptotic nature of materialism's "truth" is hilarious and sympathetic. It has an immense body of useful knowledge that's continually approaching an impossible gap to qualities. What a supertanker to turn 180.

    5. If your paraphrasing is accurate, Peter is confusing mainstream physicalism (a well-defined -- if untenable -- philosophical position) with __colloquial__ materialism (a popular misunderstanding of mainstream physicalism).

  7. Philip's objection that your view required the postulation of some additional structure behind physical reality, seems to me to be best gotten at with the question: What is behind this screen of perception that you say that elementary physical qualities actually is? Or in other words, what are the pixels of this screen showing us a pixelated representation of?

    Did I correctly understand that your answer to this to be "the phenonemal qualities themselves?" So the materialist reality of, say the moon, is just a screen for displaying our actual experience of the moon, how it "looks" to us, how it makes us feel perhaps?