Here’s an IAI discussion between Philip Goff, Susan Blackmore, and Nicholas Humphrey, chaired by Barry Smith. There are some interesting points made, though overall it may have been too ambitious to try to get a real insight into three radically different views on the broad subject of phenomenal consciousness in a single short discussion. I think Goff’s panpsychism gets the lion’s share of attention and comes over most clearly. In part this is perhaps because Goff is good at encapsulating his ideas briefly; in part it may be because of the noticeable bias in all philosophical discussion towards the weirdest idea getting most discussion (it’s more fun and more people want to contradict it); it may be partly just a matter of Goff being asked first and so getting more time.

He positions panpsychism (the view, approximately, that consciousness is everywhere) attractively as the alternative to the old Scylla and Charybdis of dualism on oone hand and over-enthusiastic materialist reductionism on the other. He dodges some of the worst of the combination problem by saying that his version on panpsychism doesn’t say that every arbitrary object – like a chair has to be consciousness, only that there is a general, very simple form of awareness in stuff geneerally – maybe at the level of elementary particles. Responding to the suggestion that panpsychism is the preference for theft over honest toil (just assume consciousness) he rightly says that not all explanations have to be reductive explanations, but makes a comparison I think is dodgy by saying that James Clerk Maxwell, after all, did not reduce electromagnetism to mass or other known physical entities. No, but didn’t Maxwell reduce light, electricity, and magnetism to one phenomenon? (He also provided elegant equations, which I think no-one is about to do for consciousness (Yes, Tononi, put your hand down, we’ll talk about that another time)).

Susan Blackwell is a pretty thorough sceptic: there really is no such thing as subjective consciousness. If we meditate, she says, we may get to a point where we understand this intuitively, but alas, it is hard to explain so convincingly in formal theoretical terms. Maybe that’s just what we should expect though.

Humphrey is also a sceptic, but of a more cautious kind: he doesn’t want to say that there is no such thing as consciousness, but he agrees it is a kind of illusion and prefers to describe it as a work of art (thereby, I suppose, avoiding objections along the lines that consciousness can’t be an illusion because the having of illusions presupposes the having of consciousness by definition). He positions himself as less of a sceptic in some ways than the other two, however: they, he says, hold that consciousness cannot be observed through behaviour: but if not, what are we even doing talking about it?


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