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The Purpose of the Universe

Philosopher Philip Goff's Quest For Truth


Adam Jacobs: I figured we’d tackle a very light and easy topic for today which is, you know, does the universe have meaning? which you cover very fascinatingly in your new book which is called “Why?” I see it behind you right now and in front of me.

Panpsychism, which I understand is also an old idea that seems to be making a strong comeback at the moment.

My question for you is why now?

What's going on in the world that is pushing this idea back to the surface?

Philip Goff: It's a very good question to start with and thank you for your kind words on my book.

I guess it's maybe been the last 10 or 15 years that panpsychism in academic philosophy and even to some extent in neuroscience has been becoming a more respectable issue that's published on and taught to undergraduates and so on.

Still a minority view, but very much something that's on the table in a way it was sort of laughed at insofar as it was thought of at all previously.

Adam Jacobs: So why is that?

I mean, I think maybe if you take a slightly broader look on the history of our thought on consciousness, it's actually been a rapid change in recent decades.

I mean, for a lot of the 20th century,

People Approach Consciousness by kind of pretending it didn't exist.

We had the behaviorist movement who thought the only suitable subject matter for a science of mind was behavior because it's behavior that you can observe and quantify and measure.

And that dominated for a lot of the 20th century.

Towards the end of the 20th century, in the 1990s, there's a change and people start to see that consciousness is a serious scientific issue, that solving the so-called hard problem of consciousness came to be thought, that the taboo disappeared, came to be thought as a serious issue that we could do some serious science on.

For too long, people thought of it as just another scientific problem and, you know, we just need to do a bit more neuroscience and we'll crack it.

What I think people have seen more recently is that they've come to see the philosophical underpinnings of the problem.

In my last book, “Galileo's Error”, I tried to trace the foundations of the problem back to their origins in the philosophical foundations of the Scientific Revolution in the way Galileo, the father of modern science, designed the scientific paradigm we've been operating with for the last 400 years.

So I think this is really something that's been baked into our philosophical assumptions for a very long time.

Adam Jacobs: So that for me that opens up like all these different avenues that I'd like to consider and I'm going to try to narrow it down.

So I think your average person when they first hear about panpsychism or consider that everything has consciousness it's a very beautiful idea on one level but exactly how far can we extend it. For instance, would we say that a styrofoam cup has consciousness which seems completely inert?

Let's start with that.

In your understanding of what the term means, can my cup, can my computer, my phone, are these conscious entities or not?

Philip Goff: Actually, panpsychists don't necessarily think literally everything is conscious despite the meaning of the word.

Pan, everything, psyche, mind, that's what the word would suggest.

But at least contemporary panpsychists, for them the basic commitment is that the fundamental building blocks of the physical universe. Perhaps Fundamental Particles like Electrons and Quarks have some incredibly rudimentary form of experience and the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow built up from these more basic forms of consciousness at the level of fundamental physics.

So that's the basic commitment that let's say for the sake of simplicity fundamental particles are conscious but it doesn't follow that every random combination of particles itself has its own unified conscious experience.

So panpsychists don't necessarily think this Batman cup I'm drinking from has consciousness, but they may very well think the smallest things it's made up of have some kind of very simple conscious experience.

Adam Jacobs: And when you say conscious, do you mean an awareness of itself or just some sort of awareness that's hard for us to relate to, you know, given our rather large amount of consciousness comparatively?

Philip Goff: It's something more like the latter. Yes often I find people use the word consciousness to mean something quite sophisticated like awareness of your own existence and that's something maybe rabbits don't have, never mind fundamental particles the way scientists and philosophers tend to use the word consciousness just means any kind of subjective experience.

Your consciousness is just what it's like to be you.

So, you know, you're having a visual experience of the room around you, an auditory experience of my voice speaking to you, maybe the feel of the chair beneath your body.

This is all part of what it's like to be you right now.

Now, what it's like to be a human being is incredibly rich and complex, the result of millions of years of evolution.

But consciousness comes in all shapes and sizes.

What it's like to be a rabbit is significantly simpler.

What it's like to be a snail, simpler still.

And as we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of subjective experience.

For the panpsychist this continues right down to the basic building blocks of matter which have on this view incredibly almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect the incredibly simple nature.

Adam Jacobs: So let me let me read you a quote from “Particles Do Not Exist” by physicist Paul Davies.

“We find that the particle concept is nebulous and ideally it should be abandoned completely. John Gribbin agrees and writes, what we call those objects particles for want of a better name, what they really are we do not know. The particle concept is simply a crutch ordinary mortals can use to help them towards an understanding of mathematical laws.”

OK, so given that, and we know there's all kinds of discussion in the science world, you know, about the nature of particles and the nature of reality.

But if we go with that and we say, no, you know, we don't really know that there's these things called particles.

Maybe there are excitations of various fields.

You know, the more we sort of reduce the concept to me, I'm not an expert in either philosophy or in science, but where it takes me is to more of a unified, what I'd call a whole or a oneness, which is a consciousness. But if particles don't exist and they don't make up objects, including living things, then how do those things get their consciousness?

Philip Goff That's an excellent question, Adam.

It's funny you should mention Paul Davies.

I'm a huge fan of Paul Davies.

He's such an original thinker and a very interesting philosopher as well as a physicist.

Actually, I just had an email from him today inviting me to a conference.

He runs these very interesting interdisciplinary conferences.

I don't know whether I'll be able to get over to the US.

Yeah so well when I talk about panpsychism at least initially I tend to talk about particles and as I've just been talking to you but I mean actually what I said was the fundamental building blocks of reality let's think of them as particles but actually you're quite right many theoretical physicists are not inclined to think our world is made up of little billiard ball particles and are perhaps more inclined to think that the universe is made up of universe-wide fields, and particles are just local excitations in those fields.

Look, it's a question for physics what the fundamental building blocks of the physical universe are, whatever they are, the panpsychist view is that they are associated with basic forms of consciousness.

So if you have the fields view and you combine that with panpsychism, then you get something maybe closer to what's called cosmopsychism.

That's an idea I explored actually in my first book, which was very much aimed at an academic audience.

Just came out in paperback, actually.

That's a more sort of challenging book really aimed at a sort of graduate students in philosophy, consciousness, and fundamental reality.

But it's also something I explore in a more accessible way in my new book, “Why?”

Adam Jacobs: and you're sympathetic towards it? Do you hold that it's a coherent view?

Philip Goff: It's certainly coherent I mean I'm somewhat agnostic on which particular form of panpsychism we all should be and you know these early days I think it's really early days on consciousness in some ways we're not even at first base so I think we should be open-minded but it's attractive as I say, because it perhaps fits with a field-based picture of reality that seems more appealing to many theoretical physicists.

I've argued in a number of places it helps with thinking about the philosophical challenges of panpsychism, but also what I'm addressing in this recent book is things like the Fine-Tuning of Physics for life and how we can address that.

What I suggest in the book is that cosmopsychism, as well as being an attractive theory of consciousness, can perhaps help us understand how the universe might be fine-tuned for the existence of life.

Because if, well,

Actually, should I go there about that?

Adam Jacobs: Well, I was going to ask you a question about it, actually.

We're definitely we're on the same page and I think we draw the same conclusions in some ways from fine-tuning. I think we agree that fine-tuning has some kind of meaning, some kind of purpose, some kind of setup that the chances of the parameters being as specific as they are either you have to appeal to a multiverse, and in your book, you talk about the problems associated with that and people are I think generally aware that it's attractive as a solution but there are a lot of problems with it..

Therefore, if this is the only universe and there still is a fine-tuning of the constants of nature, there's a problem, so to speak, which is, that it seems as though the universe is programmed, so to speak, to produce life.

The question then becomes, how?

How is such a thing possible?

And I agree with you that I think what it points us to is some kind of system you know some kind of consciousness um that brought it about. You're explicitly not empathetic to what you call an Omni God in the book (I'm not sure why it's Omni as opposed to just God. I guess maybe because you can do a lowercase god and it just means like one of many is that right?)

Philip Goff: Yeah I suppose the omni characteristics omnipotence omniscience omnibenevolence I suppose yes to distinguish it from other conceptions of god.

Adam Jacobs: Okay so in your estimation (and maybe you could just explain for the audience) you agree that fine-tuning needs to be accounted for. What accounts for it if not for a creator of some sort

Philip Goff: So I think we're somewhat on the same page there.

I do think just in our standard ways of thinking about evidence, the fine-tuning does point to some kind of goal-directedness, some kind of directedness towards life in the very early universe.

And I actually think we're kind of in denial about this for cultural reasons because it doesn't fit with the picture of science we've got used to.

You know, it's like in the 16th century when people couldn't handle the evidence that we weren't in the center of the universe because it didn't fit.

And these days, scientists laugh at them.

Oh, those stupid religious people.

Why didn't they just follow the evidence?

But I think every generation absorbs a worldview they can't see beyond.

And I think that's stopping us from thinking clearly about fine-tuning.

I think in the West, we're often trained to be alert to religious biases, biases you might have from a religious upbringing.

But I think there can also be secular biases, a bias that arises from a certain established view of what science is supposed to be like.

And I think something like that is going on. It took me a long time to sort of have the courage in a way to stand in front of my peers talking about cosmic purpose, you know, that's how these things work, don't they?

It stops change when it's very, very hard to...

Adam Jacobs: In the world of philosophy, that's controversial?

Philip Goff: Well, I mean...

Yeah, I mean, I think there's probably a sort of secular bias.

I mean, I'd say in my philosophical tradition and analytic philosophy, as it's called, probably most people are atheists.

Well, I mean, there's a respected, healthy philosophy of religious minority.

Mostly Christians.

A few very good Jewish philosophers.

One or two very good Muslim philosophers recently emerged.

But I guess people coming out of traditional Abrahamic faiths.

I suppose what I was doing that's in this book, sort of neither of those.

It's like so there isn't sort of an accepted category.

I don’t go for the Traditional God either because of the familiar problem of evil, the difficulties reconciling a loving God who can do anything with the terrible suffering we find in the world.

So this is the task in my new book really, how to explain both the fine-tuning and suffering.

So I have this picture like the atheist struggles with fine-tuning, the theist struggles with suffering.

Can we have a hypothesis that easily Accommodates both?

And I consider a range of hypotheses without settling on one for sure.

Broadly speaking, three hypotheses.

So one is a sort of non-standard god or designer, maybe a bad god, an amoral god, the simulation hypothesis that we're in a computer simulation, or actually my favorite non-standard designer hypothesis

is a designer of limited abilities maybe who's just made the best universe they can so I consider options like that but it's not obvious to me

I'm a bit unsure about this but it's not obvious you do need a conscious mind to underpin cosmic purpose.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel has explored the idea of teleological laws. So teleology is from the Greek telos for purpose so laws of nature with purposes built into them.

So maybe it could just be a fundamental directedness of the universe towards life without any deeper explanation.

So that's sort of the second hypothesis I consider, kind of taking it as a brute fact.

And then the third option is,

What We've Already Discussed and connects most with my other work on panpsychism.

The third hypothesis is cosmopsychism, the view that the universe is conscious and has its own goals.

I think this offers an attractive theory of consciousness, but also a very parsimonious theory of fine-tuning. You know, why postulate a supernatural conscious being outside the universe if you've already got a conscious universe and you can just think the universe sort of fine-tuned itself?

So that's my favorite hypothesis, although I take all of those options seriously and explore them.

Adam Jacobs: You mentioned in the book Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos which in 2012 was like this explosive controversy because he dared to question some of the orthodoxies around materialism and being an atheist himself and like you pointed out before there was like this knee-jerk reaction against it.

Although I think he really broke the ice you know at that time by making it sort of acceptable to reconsider some of these ideas you know he was relatively early as he was as he is for a lot of things but so in describing your rejection of the Omni God concept which is probably the best and oldest theological conundrum—the problem of evil

You have a phrase called “the cosmic sin intuition” which I haven't heard before but I like and you describe that as “it would be immoral for an all-powerful being to deliberately create a universe like ours.”

And that has to sit heavily, I think, on people.

You do point out also that the universe is confusing.

You know, at the same time, we've got acne and Mozart, we've got love and we've got, you know, brain surgery. There's this melange of great things and horrific things, and it's very confusing to be a human being and to live in this dimension.

So your point is definitely well taken when you say like, hey, couldn't the Omni God have done a better job than this?

So, I wanted to ask if I have a few questions on this.

You say it would be “immoral for an all-powerful being to deliberately create a universe like ours.”

Let's start with this.

What does immoral mean?

For a light question.

Philip Goff: Right, big question.

Just briefly on Thomas Nagel and then I will answer.

I'm not being a politician dodging the question.

What is interesting actually, Thomas Nagel, such a respected establishment philosopher, got absolutely hammered in reviews—very unfairly, saying he's lost the plot and I think what's interesting is my book 11 years later when it was published has got a much warmer reception now I that's not because I'm a better philosopher (I'm a worse philosopher than Thomas Nagel) but I just think that shows uh you know a greater openness to these ideas and we're seeing cultural change as it's happening.

But anyway yes what does immoral mean well. I guess we quickly get into primitives here this is morally wrong something that should not be done um and I'm you know I'm happy to be I'm a moral objectivist I think I've been I talk about this a little bit in the first chapter of the book. My first book was an academic book my second book was aimed at a general audience and this book's trying to do both so each chapter has a more accessible bit and then a “digging deeper” bit of the first chapter where I talk about moral objectivism.

Adam Jacobs: I think…let's put it like this, in the absence of an objective right and wrong I don't know if there is any such thing as right and wrong unless we have some standard to measure it by it just becomes very subjective and it's just one opinion versus another and we see that playing out in the world all the time one group of people hold this position and one holds this. I think it's wrong to kill all these people you think it's not you know and then we have a problem.

So sometimes, I think it feels like, (although I credit you for considering all these different options very openly, and I appreciate that).

But sometimes I feel like it's a failure of imagination to think about how we could have a purely good universe, but not in the way that we might have anticipated from our perspective.

Because I'll kind of give you two examples.

Are you a great Game of Thrones fan?

Philip Goff: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Okay, so I looked on YouTube.

Okay, so Jon Snow, in discussing with the sorceress Melisandre, they are talking about why her Red God, you know, would do seemingly these terrible things.

She says he does some good things.

He says he also does terrible things.

And Jon says, “what kind of God would do something like that?”

And she looks at him and says, “the one we've got”, you know, meaning it's not that there's not a God, it's that either we don't understand what it's doing, or in other words, sometimes it seems like a non-sequitur to me, like, okay, there's evil, therefore there's no God.

And you do say this, actually, you say maybe there's an evil God, you know, or maybe there's an amoral God.

But why do people leap automatically from there's evil, therefore no God, especially if you consider the fine-tuning and other factors that contribute to our understanding of reality.

Why wouldn't it be just simply a better thing to say, to say, well, “The Universe points to some kind of creative consciousness. I can't necessarily put my finger on exactly what it is, but it does these things. And sometimes I like those things and sometimes I don't like those things.

Philip Goff: Yeah, that's very interesting. And, you know, there are no certainties in this. I'm certainly not saying there's definitely no God. And, you know, one possibility, one possibility is that we've just got morality wrong in some way we're confused about morality and you know I argue on twitter a lot. They sometimes say to me, “oh you know who who are you to decide what morality should constrain god?”

And I suppose my answer to that is, yeah, look, if God exists and God is perfectly good, then of course, who am I to say? God must have some reason for doing what God does. And, you know, we get the beautiful book of Job, you know, the beautiful, well, who are we to understand what Happens at the Creation of the Universe and so on.

We're in an uncertain situation when we're trying to work out if God does exist and all we can do is start with our own understanding of morality.

Where else are we going to start?

That's all we have.

And so, you know, I talk a lot about this position, which is very popular and very interesting. Skeptical theism that which says that, you know, nobody's ever come up with a good reason why God does what God does. But we shouldn't expect to know God's reasons, you know? And I guess I guess my response is, look, you just got to do that. Do the best you can.

And I think, our best understanding of morality which is what we've got to work with does support in my view something like the cosmic sin intuition it's not like it's not a certainty yeah but it does seem as best we can resonate with things as best we can make sense of things morally it would not be morally right to create a universe like this if you could do something better.

And so and therefore our best understanding of morality leads to thinking god doesn't exist. When I was teaching religion actually and I found myself just so impressed by arguments on both sides but then I realized actually that these aren't contradicting, right?

The fine-tuning argument, I don't think is ever, it's not specifically evidence for God or the Omni-God, it's evidence for some kind of purpose or goal-directedness and you can make sense of that, I hope, in the ways I've pointed to without getting into the difficulties of…I guess I don't see the motivation to try and make sense of God if there are these other ways of making sense of cosmic purpose I suppose that's where I'm coming from.

Adam Jacobs: I understand that.

It seems like much of philosophical debate seems to come down on what resonates with you, whether this particular argument finds favor in your eyes or not, for whatever experience and reasons and life you've lived.

Can I give you one last quick... So I know you're a father and you have young kids?

Yeah, seven and three.

So you're in the throes of like, you know, those years of diapers and wake up in the middle of the night, and those things make you so close to them.

It doesn't go away, of course, it just morphs over time. My kids are older. When my oldest son was one he started vomiting for no reason all the time (like full stomach terrible). We end up you know one doctor another doctor we end up at Columbia Presbyterian with the world's greatest gastroenterologist and he says we have to do an upper endoscopy and he was only one and a half at the time and I won't go into the whole process of how terrible it is to get him ready for that they can't eat they can't drink for hours and hours it's like so he's going “baba baba" we're like you know and we're like so we had to wheel him into the room where they're doing the procedure lights blinking and you know doctors with masks and my wife they say to my wife and I hold him down.

And so that was the worst, one of the worst moments I ever had, right where they're putting the mask on him.

And I remember thinking to myself, right at that moment, I said, “we're trying to help you.” Even though he's in mortal terror. He must have felt betrayed by these people who have helped him for the last 18 months. And it was like this paradigm shift moment for me where I was just like, of course, like, if there's this Omni God, right, and we're going through, quote-unquote, suffering, maybe it is, maybe it could be, that from our very limited perspective, it's the same thing, you know, that the Omni God could be saying, “I'm doing this for you, and I wish you could understand, but you won't be able to until you grow up, you know, so to speak until your consciousness expands to the point where you can absorb what's taking place”, but none of it is actually bad.

It just seems that way.

So that's something I think about when I confront the problem of evil, which I admit, again, is a very, very difficult problem, but I figured I'd mention it father to father and see if it resonated.

Yeah, I mean, that's...

Philip Goff: It sounds close to this skeptical theist position which I do think is perhaps the most attractive response and I mean it takes the problem very seriously. But I suppose, yeah, and it could be. It could be a possibility. I think if God does exist, then something like that has to be true, I think.

You know it seems to be more plausible than I mean another person I deal with in the book is Richard Swinburne—a very distinguished Christian philosopher who I debated recently because he reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement and then we debated it on the Unbelievable channel and he thinks he does know what God's reasons are what God's reasons could be and I find that I mean he's a brilliant philosopher and his solution's ingenious but I prefer the solution that, you know, there's just something beyond human understanding here.

All we can ever do as human beings in our limited epistemological situation is work with the understanding we have. The analogy I give in the book which I was quite proud of actually is to dark matter you know yeah what is it 80% of the universe is this stuff we don't know about and you know it could be that if you could if you fully understood the dark matter.

Oh, well, okay, we can't do science, right? Because we don't know about 80% of the universe. You know, we just, work with what we have and we do the best we can.

So likewise, it could be that, you know, God's morality is so much higher than mine.

And from God's perspective, you know, it's all different.

And I'm just, I just have no grasp of that any more than worms can do mathematics.

But we have quite a good understanding of morality, and we just have to work with that the best we can.

And I think working with that the best we can has doubt on the idea that there's an all-powerful, loving being behind the universe, but it's all very fallible and uncertain.

Adam Jacobs: Fair enough.

I have time. I have four minutes and one question remaining.

Towards the end of the book, you advocate meditation and art as ways of exploring the deep recesses of consciousness, I suppose. And you also mentioned psychedelics. Are you a proponent of all of these things? Do you recommend that people explore them? And what is your feeling about what they can do for people?

Philip Goff: Psychedelics are obviously big risks, so I wouldn't recommend just going out and wilfully doing psychedelics. It can be incredibly scary. On the other hand, I think it doesn't make sense that these things are illegal. They are not physically addictive or don't seem to be physically harmful.

So I think there are real benefits from careful decriminalization and carefully supported use of psychedelics. I think you know but we know for centuries if not millennia they have been used as a spiritual tool, so yeah I think there is a place for psychedelics I put forward an exploratory final chapter but I have this Theory of Spiritual Advancement, which is something about breaking through our conditioned ways of seeing reality, the way we project onto reality our culturally specific history and ways of seeing the world.

And it seems as though that's the way the world really is.

But when you have great art, I talk about the Beatles as a fellow Liverpudlian, when you have meditation when you carefully attend your experience in a very radical way when you take psychedelics but all of these things can help us break through in more or less subtle ways our conditioned ways of seeing the world and get through to what this seems to be for people who go far with this something beneath it— something William James called “The More” I kind of like that expression to be sort of neutral on how we're thinking of this.

Of course, some would call it God, but for people who've seriously meditated or had mystical experiences or broken through in some way, there does seem to be some kind of Higher Reality beneath it all.

And I think we can all, in subtle ways, through creativity, through simple living, kind of try to open ourselves up a little bit more to the more, however we understand that.

Adam Jacobs: I love that.

Thank you so much for this conversation which was so fun and enlightening. The last thing I just wanted to say is that I really like the way you bring philosophy with a fun and light-hearted young vibe. I think you're doing a lot for the world of philosophy and as I said I recommend people follow you on Twitter and buy your books and check out what you have to say.

It's very exciting what you're doing and I wish you a lot of continued success.

Philip Goff: Oh, thank you very much, Adam.

Yeah, I've really enjoyed these last four or five years sort of reaching out beyond academia.

And I'm glad you said younger. When Google, for some reason, says I'm 60, I can't work out why that is or how to change it.

But I'm significantly younger than 60.

Adam Jacobs: You look good.

Philip Goff: But yeah, thank you very much. This has been a really stimulating conversation.

Adam Jacobs: My pleasure. I hope to talk to you again. And have a great day.

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