The irony of Philip Goff's arguments


Over the past few days, panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff and I have exchanged essays criticizing each other's metaphysical positions. See my latest response here. Since these exchanges, shorter discussions have taken place on Twitter, some of which made me realize how ironic philosophical discussions can be.

I've met Philip for the first time in Shanghai, in 2017, when he was still an idealist-leaning cosmopsychist, who subscribed to the view that there is only one cosmic subject. Since then, he became a constitutive panpsychist who adheres to the view that only microscopic particles are conscious, our ordinary subjectivity being somehow constituted by some kind of combination of microscopic little subjects in our brain.

As I pointed out in my criticism, the notion of subject combination is not only physically incoherent ('particles' are just metaphors for field excitations), but also logically incoherent (there is no discernible sense in stating that two fundamentally private fields of experience can combine to form a single derivative one that subsumes the originals).

To defend his view, Philip repeatedly postulated the possible existence of new, entirely speculative "psycho-physical laws of nature" to try and account for the magic of subject combination. This basically means that, instead of explaining subject combination, he simply labels it a brute fact of nature: it just happens; it doesn't need to be explained (i.e. reduced to something else) because it is fundamental. Methinks this is a copout, but alright.

The first irony here is that someone who seems to reason but shoving every problem into the reduction base (microscopic consciousness, laws of combination, everything of any relevance), and thus fails to offer any explanation whatsoever, now charges me of failing to provide a... well, explanation for how dissociation occurs.

Let me explain. If you start, as I do, from a universal subject, you need to make sense of how that one subject becomes many seemingly separate ones, such as you and me. We call it the 'subject decomposition' problem, and it entails a challenge opposite to that of subject combination. I solve the decomposition problem by appealing to the empirically-established psychiatric phenomenon of dissociation, which is just that: a seeming decomposition of one mind into many separate alter personalities.

But such a powerful appeal to an empirical fact is not sufficient for Philip. He says that I have to conceptually explain how, exactly, dissociation unfolds and does what we know it does (i.e. create the appearance of subject decomposition). Otherwise, according to him, my reference to dissociation has no value for defending the notion that there is just one universal subject, of which we are dissociated alters.

Let us take stock of this. The first point of irony I already mentioned: someone who seems to reason by avoiding explanations now demands a conceptual explanation for an empirically-established phenomenon, before he can accept said phenomenon. Make no mistake, reasoning by shoving things into the reduction base not only fails to provide any explanation, it seeks to forever preempt the need for one; it is the very antithesis of explanation.

Now, the second point of irony is this: when philosophers demand an explicit conceptual explanation for some postulated phenomenon, the point of making such a demand is, by and large, to evaluate the plausibility of the phenomenon actually occurring in nature, as opposed to being merely a theoretical invention.

This way, when we demand from physicalists a conceptual explanation for how arrangements of matter can give rise to consciousness, we want to evaluate whether this plausibly happens in nature or not. When we demand from constitutive panpsychists an explicit explanation for how subject combination takes place, we want to judge whether the occurrence of subject combination in nature is plausible.

But if we can already point, empirically, to actual occurrences of the phenomenon in question, the bulk of the value of a conceptual explanation melts away; for if the point is to know whether it is plausible that the phenomenon occurs, we already have the answer. Of course, it is still nice to have a conceptual explanation so we get intellectual closure, but the questions of plausibility and existence are already settled.

There is no empirical demonstration that matter generates consciousness; only that they are correlated. So we need an explicit conceptual explanation for this physicalist notion, so as to evaluate its plausibility. Alas, there is no such explanation. There are only conceptual demonstrations that the phenomenon is impossible already in principle.

There is no empirical demonstration of subject combination occurring in nature (have you ever met two people who merged together and became one single mind?). So we need an explicit conceptual explanation for this combination, so as to evaluate its plausibility. Alas, there is no such explanation. There are only conceptual demonstrations that subject combination is an incoherent notion.

But there are robust empirical occurrences of one mind believing itself to be many; we call it dissociation. That the corresponding belief is an illusion isn't a problem either; on the contrary: the illusion is precisely what we need to account for the fact that you and I believe to be different, separate subjects.

Therefore, unlike physicalism and constitutive panpsychism, each of which faces an arguably insoluble problem—namely, the hard problem of consciousness and the subject combination problem, respectively—analytic idealism faces nothing of the kind: we know empirically that subject decomposition occurs. There is no question about its plausibility, even if there were no conceptual models at all to explain how it works.

And as it happens, there actually is a tentative conceptual explanation for subject decomposition based on the notion of inferential isolation. Is it sufficient to make complete sense of dissociation? Probably not, as I suspect a better theory of time is required to achieve that goal (Bernard Carr, time for you to help out here my friend, if you already have something publishable). But it is certainly already way better than any attempt to make conceptual sense of subject combination.

Does the arguable incompleteness of my conceptual model of dissociation impair analytic idealism in any significant way? Of course not. For whether we can make complete conceptual sense of dissociation or not, we know that it occurs and does exactly what it needs to do to substantiate analytic idealism. The value of the conceptual model would be mainly to allow us to evaluate the plausibility of subject decomposition happening. But we already know it happens, whether we can conceptualize it fully or not.

Therefore, that Philip acknowledges dissociation as an empirical fact but then turns around and says, "in the absence of an explanation [for dissociation, Kastrup's] critique of panpsychism as not providing such an explanation seems to me to have no force" sounds dangerously close to sophism to me. Philip is comparing (a) the mere failure to provide a complete conceptual model for an empirically-established fact to (b) the veritable appeal to magic entailed by the entirely speculative and arguably incoherent notion of subject combination. There is just no basis for comparison here.

The job of philosophers in metaphysics is largely to provide speculative conceptual models. So I understand Philip's intuitive attachment to these speculations. But I also see two problems with it: first, the risk of losing touch with empirical reality, which must always come first. We cannot replace reality with speculative conceptual models and live just in our heads. Or perhaps we can, but it certainly wouldn't help us achieve anything useful.

Second, if exaggerated emphasis is nonetheless placed on conceptual models over empirical reality, then one should at least be consistent in such a peculiar choice: Philip cannot demand any conceptual models from me (let alone complete ones) when he, himself, not only fails to provide such models, but shoves the relevant issues into the reduction base as if doing so represented progress. If you talk the talk, walk the walk.

The bottom line is this: while Philip is busy adding consciousness and wholly-speculative "psycho-physical laws" of subject combination to the reduction base of physicalism, and thereby providing not even partial explanations for anything, I am busy leveraging an empirically-established phenomenon to substantiate my views, as well as providing at least partial conceptual models for how it works.

I have lost a great deal of intellectual respect for Philip's positions and arguments. Therefore, I have little motivation to continue the engagement with him. But since I had already committed to a debate in a podcast later in the summer, I will go ahead with that.

Ironically, the only hope that something new may emerge in that debate is the fact that Philip, in his latest response to me, is giving multiple signs that he may, after all, return to the notion of one cosmic subject (plus some postulates of new fundamental laws of nature). Since he was a cosmopsychist just a couple of years ago, then a constitutive panpsychist for the duration of one book, and now seemingly something else already again, who knows what his position will be by the time we debate?


PS: Some readers are getting confused with the terminology. There is no subject combination at the end of dissociation under analytic idealism, because there was only one subject all along (the multiplicity of subjects is illusory). What happens at the end of dissociation is merely the end of an illusion, not a combination of subjects. When you wake up from a dream, or a DID patient is cured, no subjects combine because everything was going on in only one true subject to begin with. We only talk of combination when supposedly true, fundamental micro-subjects allegedly form a non-fundamental macro-subject, as in constitutive panpsychism.
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45 comments:

  1. I would summarise this as:

    If there is no evidence for something and no conception of how it would be possible, then you’re not in a good place (materialism);

    If there is a conception of how something might be possible, then that is a good reason to look for empirical evidence - but you might not find it as conception doesn’t entail empirical reality (panpsychism);

    If you have empirical evidence for something then that is the best possible reason to work on a formulation of how that is possible if we want to fully understand it - conception adds to our understanding of what is already the case empirically (idealism).

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  2. “Have you ever met two people who merged together and became one single mind?”

    If decomposition of mind can happen, then so can combination. I tend to think it is two sides of the very same coin.

    I suspect two people (e.g., spouses) are close enough (after many dense mutual engagements in space-time) possibly can become a subject, when they gather. For instance, they share common memories; say when the husband forgets, the wife reminds him. I believe this’s why, death of one becomes unbearable to the other, as he / she loses the very mind they composed.

    Or think about some conjoined Siamese twins, who can cycle together, although they have 2 separate brains – they act as if they have 1.

    I have read your texts lately but have not read yet Goff’s; so may be his point on this issue does not exactly correspond to what I tried to say here.

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    1. The notions of 'subject combination' and 'subject decomposition' have formal definitions in philosophy, and I am using them according to such definitions. The definitions have little to do with what you are saying. Subject combination is formally defined as when two FUNDAMENTAL micro-subjects somehow form a higher-level subject. This doesn't happen at the end of dissociation because the dissociated subjects weren't fundamental to begin with, but merely illusory. I added this postscriptum to the essay to avoid this kind of confusion:
      There is no subject combination at the end of dissociation under analytic idealism, because there was only one subject all along (the multiplicity of subjects is illusory). What happens at the end of dissociation is merely the end of an illusion, not a combination of subjects. When you wake up from a dream, or a DID patient is cured, no subjects combine because everything was going on in only one true subject to begin with. We only talk of combination when supposedly true, fundamental micro-subjects allegedly form a non-fundamental macro-subject, as in constitutive panpsychism.

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    2. Thanks. I see now what you mean and what demarcates yours from Goff's stance on this account.

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    3. Some time passed and I gave a re-thought on this thanks your discussion with Goff.

      My main concern is on your definition of fundamental and your empirical support.

      I tend to think now, the Siamese twin example I’d given above is indeed quite something to do what you say. (Note also that numerous tons of social neuroscience studies lately show the emergence of a new “subject” with interactions of normal persons.)

      In these cases: 2 “subjects” and (tens of participant in other studies) cooperate and behave as if they are 1 subject. Crucially in neural level, their brains couple and behave as if they are one emergent sole network. If we assume top down approach of yours, then the fundamental subject should be the one that emerges with the cooperation of these twins. However, intuitively, the fundamental one is the persons and the constructed one is due to interaction of them.

      I wonder what makes you think that the person with DID should be regarded as “fundamental” and why “dissociated alters” are not fundamental but illusory? Hence, I am not sure the empirical case of DID clearly supports decomposition rather than combination. As social neuroscience “empirical” cases is in conflict with that as long as you assume a person to be a necessarily fundamental; and in the end, it seems to me neither direction (from-One-to-multiple OR from-multiple-to-one) is “empirically” supported.

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  3. I’m trying to relate this to my self as an illusory separate subject. Of course, there is something that it is like to be me. All my experiences are quite real to me (after all, non-real experience is an oxymoron) as the separate subject; however, it’s completely plausible, even likely, that their apparent reality (my interpretations thereof) are illusory - off the mark, as it were - relative to “absolute” reality (e.g. the apparent solidity of a chair). Question: do you agree that illusory separate subjects experiences are “real” in the sense I describe? And if so, is there any inherent problems/difficulties in attributing meaning to an existence that is illusory?

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    1. Surely illusions are real _as experiences_. There is something it feels like to have an illusion, so it is real as that experience. As for meaning, yes, it is preserved, for illusions tell a whole lot about the mind that conjures them up.

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    2. Bernardo: “The mind that conjures them up.”

      There’s plenty to plunder there. I assume mental conjuring is an activity of both the one mind as well as the many derivative illusory separate minds, which perhaps relates to @psychedral’s notion of layers referred to in his twitter response.

      I’m obviously an amateur here, so feel free to brush me off with a few pertinent articles/references, but mental conjuring begs many many questions regarding the underlying nature of mind/thought. What is known and/or conjectured about the origins or nature of mental activity? Is there volition in this activity? Self-aware at any level?

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  4. Have you ever read anything by Anthony Peake?

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    1. Any one of his several books especially relevant to this discussion?

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  5. Could a case be made for a kind of "soft combination," not necessarily fundamental since ultimately there is one subject, but effectively a kind of recombination of alters into a higher-order unity? I'm thinking here specifically of the evolutionary transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms, during which (if we ascribe consciousness to beings at this level) a kind of unified awareness emerged out of smaller constituents?

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    1. There is a lot of discussion about this in the literature. In a well-known 2014, Sam Coleman argues that subject combination is even incoherent altogether. His argument is compelling, and I side with him on this. I think cells are like subatomic particles: 'pixels' of the screen of perception, artifacts of representation, not the structure of subjectivity.

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  6. Hi Bernardo, I have question about how you integrate the attainment of samādhi into your philosophy, or for that matter Schopenhauer's.

    I take it as given that a state of samādhi - a blissful state of undifferentiated mind without subject/object duality - can be achieved through meditation practice. Once the state of samādhi comes to its natural end, you return to your ordinary dualistic and far less satisfactory state of existence. Now, assuming that you agree that such states of samādhi are possible, I don't understand how you account for them within your idealistic model.

    It seems to me that according to your idealistic philosophy, with its "dissociative boundary" metaphor, there would be no mechanism by which you would return to an ordinary state of existence after a samādhi experience. In other words, I cannot see how in your philosophy there is any difference between death - when presumably, perhaps given certain conditions, the dissociative boundary is forever transcended - and the attainment of samādhi in this life. And if there is no difference, then in neither case would you expect to return to a normal state.

    Does your philosophy give a satisfactory account of how samādhi is possible?

    Thank you.

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  7. Wouldn’t attaining a undifferentiated state as you describe it by a matter of temporarily (through some mechanisms/processes) dissolving the subject’s dissociated boundary?

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    1. Correcting a few typos: Wouldn’t attaining an undifferentiated state as you describe be a matter of temporarily dissolving the subject’s dissociative boundary through mental mechanisms/processes?

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    2. Right. But what then re-establishes the dissociative boundary? In a mind-only paradigm there is no obvious reason, so far as I can see, why the dissolution of the dissociative boundary would be reversed. In other words, you would need a mechanism to restore it. That something might be certain material phenomena that in some way are still associated with the mind in samādhi. These material phenomena would draw the mind back once it emerges from samādhi. It is not clear, however, what that mechanism would be in a mind only world.
      I do not mean to imply that Bernardo’s philosophy is wrong. My point is merely that any valid philosophy must account for all empirical facts.

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    3. Why wouldn't the same mechanisms (forces?) that established the dissociative boundary initially also work to restore it once (temporarily/artificially) dissolved via deep meditative methods?

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    4. Once the dissociated personality merges with the mind at large, there would be nothing to go back to. There might be further dissociations, but they would not exist in any continuity with the previous one.

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    5. My recollection from "Idea," is that the model is not yet developed in sufficient detail to definitively address whether a dissociated boundary fully (largely?) dissolved as a result of a deep meditative state could be restored with a (largely) complete sense of continuity. In fact, Kastrup's debate with Goff (the root of this blog) broke down b/c Goff insisted that Kastrup must have a conceptual framework to explain how separate subjects (i.e. dissociative boundaries) form in the first place. Citing the overwhelming empirical evidence for the existence of DID, Kastrup argued that a conceptual framework would be nice to have, but certainly not critical for his model. So if there is no conceptual understanding of the mechanisms/processes that lead to an initial dissociation, why would we presume that an established dissociation dissolved through mental meditation would be, as it were, a Humpty Dumpty (i.e. that it could not be re-assembled pretty much as it was before the fall). I'm imagining that the deep trance-like state, in effect, pulls back the dissociative curtains, as it were, allowing the mediator's separateness to dissolve into the Oneness, but when the meditator is pulled back from the trance (through whatever mechanisms/processes), the curtains close again, and separateness is pretty much as it was before. Granted, this is all my imagination, as I don't believe the model is sufficiently developed conceptually to explain this in any detail. Perhaps there's no need on the basis of the empirical evidence that Samadhi does occur - numerous serious meditators have reported this experience, so clearly it does occur in "nature"...even if we can't describe the underlying processes/mechanisms.

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    6. What is different about the process you outline and the effects of psychoactive chemicals? Death is a very specific process which you are right, is the process of crossing a boundary which one cannot return from.

      Any form of meditation and the effects of certain substances on individuals are not death but are temporary states which is why Kastrup refers to this as a weakening of the boundary. I have the audiobook of his 'Idea of the World' title and this is explained quite rigourously.

      So the good news is that regardless of how powerful or profound your meditation is, it is not by definition, death. So you can still have both.

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    7. Whew, would mind citing the chapter (and section, if possible) in which this distinction between death and temporary states of dissolution via mediation and drugs are explained? I’d be quite interested to re-visit that topic. Many thanks, David

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    8. Hey David, so my original comment was actually in response to
      Ajahn's initial comment about samādhi but I think with the way my comment was uploaded after moderation it looks like I was responding to you 😬

      I am however very happy to share that it's in Part IV, Chapter 12: What Neuroimaging of the Psychadelic State Tells Us About the Mind-Body Problem in the Idea of the World... As I said I have the audiobook but I don't see why it wouldn't be in the same place in the physical copy or ebook.

      Also Kastrup seems to make a bigger distinction for drugs and their effects on brain activity and the implications of this on our understanding of transcendental experience rather than meditation in the passage of the book I've directed you towards.

      To answer your question more directly, if you'd like a more concise synthesis of his ideas on this I'd actually suggest a post he published here on his website from some years back the title is 'Consciousness and memory'.

      I don't know if you've read it but I'd look there first for the Kastrup take on this for both yourself and Ajahn actually.
      Keep well!

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  8. Bernardo, I admire your patience. I've been following this discussion for some time now and feel you put more interest and energy in debating for the sake of truth seeking than Philip. Since I discovered you and your metaphysics I haven't found any more convincing experience-based one about the nature of reality. Yes, there are some areas that still lack some conceptual explanation like dissociation but the experience is there regardless we can find a model for it or not. More relevant questions for me relate to the behaviour and powers of mind at large, how close or far is mind-at-large from the omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God, and what's mind at large's will and what's its relation to God's unconditional love and if they are metaphors for the same thing. To be honest, I struggle much more with the idea of a blind will than with dissociation and is certainly much more interesting idea to debate (at least for me). For example, could it be that dissociation and free will go hand-in-hand, and that dissociation is the ultimate expression of the blind will of mind at large or unconditional loving God? I'd like to see more debates around these more difficult questions.

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  9. Hi Bernardo, I have just listened to your interview with Jeffrey Mishlove in which you seem sympathetic to the reality of certain para-psychological phenomena such as micro-pk. My question is: (a) how well do you think your metaphysical position supports reports of exceptional macro pk such as those from individuals like, DD Home and St. Joseph of Copertino for example, who seem able to control "objective reality" through individual will or mind to some extent and (b) will you be looking at parapsychological phenomena, in relation to your metaphysics, in more detail in the future? Thanks.

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  10. How do transpersonal states impinge on my endogenous states directly if certain transpersonal states are blocking, thus interfering and preventing the impingement of other states. (Ex: the excitations of my mind impinging on pre existing states of MAL preventing the ability for other transpersonal states to interfere directly with my alter) I assume your answer would be evolutionary, which would make sense, but I wonder if you have a more concrete answer

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  11. Ok bot is the undividable mind not also something we dont find in the empericsl world?

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  12. I'm a fan of Goff's. I think he's a really bright guy who's willing to change his mind and who has a really bright future as a philosopher. He's also a compelling speaker and a great evangelist for taking the Hard Problem seriously.

    But sometimes, with regards to certain very specific issues, he seems inexplicably obtuse. This is definitely one of those times...

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  13. Bernardo in the OP: "Therefore, unlike physicalism and constitutive panpsychism, each of which faces an arguably insoluble problem—namely, the hard problem of consciousness and the subject combination problem, respectively, analytic idealism faces nothing of the kind: we know empirically that subject decomposition occurs."

    We know empirically that people *believe* they are separate, bodily delimited subjects and that, as you point out, disassociation occurs in certain sorts of brain-based psychopathology. Do we have any empirical evidence for the existence of the one subject of analytic idealism which we are under the illusion of being separate from, I wonder?

    Saw your online debate with Crane and Blackmore, and agree that panpsychism is a non-starter and that physicalism hasn't cracked the hard problem. I've got a paper in JCS that you might find of interest since we have at least that much in common, https://naturalism.org/sites/naturalism.org/files/Locating%20Consciousness_0.pdf

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  14. So the one whole consciousness of which we are, in a manner of speaking, delusional fragments, is akin to the Kantian unknowable "thing in itself"? And we can speculate wildly that the meaning and drive of reality is that "thing in itself" coming to awareness through disassociation?

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  15. Bernado writes:

    "There is no empirical demonstration of subject combination occurring in nature (have you ever met two people who merged together and became one single mind?)."

    We know from experiments with split-brain individuals that different minds exist in each hemisphere of the brain. However, when the corpus callosum is intact, we subjectively experience one mind.

    Does this constitute a refutation of Bernado's assertion and evidence for combination?

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    1. If anything, it shows that you can dissociate the original ONE mind into two...

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  16. I listened to the arguments and for me Bernardo's arguments seem to hold water. However, it appears that you use mind and consciousness as interchangeable, is my understanding correct?

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    1. Yes, as per the Western philosophical tradition.

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    2. Would you agree that the Eastern tradition most often views mind as more limited than consciousness. Mind is considered to be the cluster of thoughts, sensations, feeling, and perceptions that arise, come, and go in consciousness which is ever present and unchanging, immutable, etc. I.e. the objects of mind are the currents, whirlpools, waves in the ocean, but they are not the ocean itself.

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  17. "There is no empirical demonstration of subject combination occurring in nature (have you ever met two people who merged together and became one single mind?). "

    What about scientists finding different minds in each hemisphere of the brain when studying individuals who have had the corpus callosum severed. Yet when the connection between the hemispheres is intact we perceive one mind. Is this an example of combination?

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    1. The jury is still out on this, but if the split does lead to two minds where first there was only one, then this is obviously an instance of _decomposition_ happening when the corpus callosum is severed, not of combination.

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    2. I'm saying that if the two hemispheres of the brain have different minds then when they are connected with the corpus callosum and one mind is perceived, then this would be an instance of combination.

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  18. But there are robust empirical occurrences of brains generating minds; we call it withdrawing anesthetics. That the corresponding belief in minds without brains is an illusion isn't a problem either; on the contrary: the illusion is precisely what we need to account for the fact that you and I believe we are separate from brains.

    Therefore, unlike idealism and decomposing cosmopsychism, each of which faces an arguably insoluble problem—namely, pretending matter isn't real and the subject decomposition problem, respectively—analytic physicalism faces nothing of the kind: we know empirically that brains generate minds. There is no question about its plausibility, even if there were no conceptual models at all to explain how it works. We already know it happens, whether we can conceptualize it fully or not.

    See what I did there? I turned your question-begging on its head.

    By the way, maybe you should ask psychiatrists whether dissociation = decomposition. It's an empirical matter for psychologists, right, so who better to ask?

    Pity you lose a great deal of respect for someone when he thinks something different than you. Maybe a person like that changes views from time to time to avoid becoming wedded for all time to merely a theoretical invention.

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    1. And you probably think your comment was pretty smart... :-) Oh the irony.

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  19. Not particularly. Just smarter than your dressed-up assertions.

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  20. Not particularly. Just smarter than stringing together a series of assertions.

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