Panpsychism, Illusionism, Mysterianism

Modern science struggles to make sense of consciousness. What would a coherent materialist / physicalist model of phenomenal consciousness look like? How can our current scientific methods explain how we come to have inner subjective experiences? Philosophers such as Philip Goff argue that science as currently practiced is not cut out for the task (PDF warning). It deals with extrinsic behaviours, not intrinsic experiences. In this post, I’ll follow Goff in defining physicalism as basically naturalism + physics-centrism, and I’ll use the terms physicalism and materialism interchangeably. But see this article if you want to learn about the differing histories of the two terms and why they are often conflated nowadays.

In upcoming posts, I’ll lay out some of the detailed arguments against physicalist models of consciousness. But for now, we’ll just state that many philosophers recognize that physicalism struggles to make sense of consciousness. See this excellent (and concise) article by Peter Sjöstedt-H on why he is not a physicalist. So if someone believes that physicalist accounts of consciousness are not coherent, what are the options?

  1. Panpsychism. Panpsychism essentially means “mind everywhere.” Here is Goff’s definition: “Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world.” People often use the term panpsychism to mean a particular form of bottom-up panpsychism, where there is an experiential aspect that is present at even the smallest levels of reality (e.g. there may be some very basic kind of experiential aspect for an electron), and that complex entities such as humans have a consciousness that is somehow an aggregate of these low-level experiential aspects. Explaining precisely how this happens is called the combination problem. But it’s important to realize this is only one form of panpsychism. When someone criticizes panpsychism, be sure to ask which panpsychism they are talking about. There are also top-down forms of panpsychism, such as cosmopsychism and idealism. For example, there could be a single consciousness at the level of the cosmos that somehow disaggregates into individual consciousnesses. Explaining precisely how this happens is called the de-combination problem.
  2. Illusionism. The illusionist says that current science struggles to make sense of phenomenal consciousness because phenomenal consciousness does not exist. This is the position of philosophers such as Keith Frankish and Daniel Dennett, and I’ve covered it previously here and here. I don’t find their arguments convincing, but the point here is that Frankish and Goff both recognize the difficulties facing physicalist theories of phenomenal consciousness, though they go in very different directions from there.
  3. Mysterianism. A mysterian says that we are simply not equipped to understand consciousness, just as a cat is not equipped to do calculus. This view is associated with philosophers such as Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel. In this view, the hard problem of consciousness might seem trivial to a superintelligent being of some sort, but it will remain intractable for us.
  4. Dualism. There are different forms of dualism, with substance dualism perhaps being the easiest to understand. Substance dualists posit that mind and matter are different kinds of stuff. This puts it in contrast with monisms such as materialism (everything is matter) and idealism (everything is mind). Regarding the mind-body problem, the challenge for dualists is to explain how the mind could affect the body if they are separate, distinct things. Property dualists, on the other hand, say that there is only one kind of stuff — matter — but that it has both physical and mental properties. Substance dualism is less popular in philosphical circles these days, though it has advocates such as Richard Swinburne. Given the substance dualist aspect of many religions, it is also perhaps the most common “folk philosophical” view on the mind-body problem. Property dualism is associated with philosophers such as David Chalmers

There may be other options as well, but these seem to be the predominant strategies of people who recognize the challenges faced by physicalism in accounting for consciousness. Here’s a nice Twitter exchange between Goff, Frankish, and others that exemplifies what they agree on and where they split.

I’ve posted about illusionism recently, and will be posting more about panpsychism in the very near future, particularly as I review new and upcoming books by Annaka Harris, Philip Goff, and Donald Hoffman. I’ll also try to write more about mysterianism and dualism in the near future.