Move over Panpsychism: we now have Cosmopsychism!

It seems that my old friend Professor Goff of Durham University has reappeared. Last time I came across him it was in ‘Philosophy Now’ in 2017. He was promoting the theory of panpsychism as an answer to his difficulty in explaining consciousness. The idea of panpsychism is that awareness, consciousness, is inherent in every aspect of matter, even though normally we only recognise it in the animal kingdom. However, he says that because atomic particles have consciousness, we too can have consciousness. No evidence is provided or explanation given as to how this may work. It’s a ‘just so’ story.

Our human version of consciousness means that we are aware of ourselves, and of ourselves in relation to our surroundings. Sub-atomic particles have physical properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. But it seems that now we have to add to them ‘awareness’. That they interact with other particles in predetermined ways is of course not disputed, but that’s not awareness.

Panpsychists though argue that it’s a question of degree. And so, as we find it difficult even to imagine having the awareness of a mouse or a spider, we will find it yet more difficult to understand the awareness enjoyed by a subatomic particle. This, they say, leaves open the possibility that it has awareness in some way.

But unless we want to be in Humpty Dumpty land, ‘consciousness’ cannot completely change meaning as it shrinks. If panpsychism is the best explanation currently available, I think I shall get out my self-aware Ouija board to see what’s next in line to ‘explain’ consciousness.

But Dr Goff has moved on. To accompany his latest book 'The Purpose of the Universe' (£14.99), a summary of his latest philosophical theory – cosmopsychism - appears in ‘Aeon’, an online magazine. It publishes articles on a very wide range of matters.

Dr Goff is himself an atheist but is concerned by the meaningless of our lives in the absence of a God able to give us that meaning. In order to cheer himself up, he has further analysed an old idea – that our universe is one which is fine-tuned to permit life, and so us, to exist.

This is normally taken to mean either that God created it in that way or that it is a matter of pure chance that we live in such a universe. The improbability of our living in such a universe is explained by the simple fact that we are, by definition, here to witness it.

He though takes the view that the universe itself has a sense of purpose, at least part of which is to bring life into existence. The universe is moulded so as to have beings in it which can consciously experience purpose. As he puts it: “the fine-tuning argument supports something much more generic [than god], some kind of cosmic purpose or goal-directedness towards life.”

Now I have to confess that I have struggled to see exactly what this all means and how the underlying logic differs from the approach taken to support the concept of panpsychism – that we simply assert that everything, from the smallest sub-particle to the biggest black hole has awareness and, now, purpose as well.

In order to support such an idea, he gives us his views on the alternatives. He tells us that the god hypothesis doesn’t make sense in his opinion because of the existence of human suffering which surely a god would prevent.

And in respect of a naturally occurring universe which supports life he says that ‘a conservative estimation’ of the odds against its existence, simply by chance, are not just very high, but absolutely astronomical (literally).

So then for beings to exist and have purpose we are left with this concept of the universe as having its own goals, including that of adapting itself to bring life into being.

Obviously there is another alternative – the concept of the multiverse - that, according to string theory, we just happen to live in one of the infinite number of universes which exists and which is propitious for life. In this way, the improbability difficulty is disposed of. However, although previously a proponent of the multiverse he has now changed his mind and - just like Sheldon in ‘Big Bang Theory’ - rejects the multiverse theory. Instead, he (not Sheldon) now thinks that “overall the best theory of cosmic purpose is cosmopsychism, the view that the universe is itself a conscious mind with its own goals.” So then, perhaps not unlike a ‘god’?

And it is here that I find even more confusion. Although looking to the Cosmos for ‘meaning’, by which I presume he means purpose, Prof Goff thinks that human life can be very meaningful even if there is no Cosmic purpose, “so long as we engage in meaningful activities, such as kindness, creativity and the pursuit of knowledge”. Quite how football hooligans come into the equation, I’m not sure, but they certainly have purpose in their rather nasty and brutish lives.

But, he goes on: “if there is cosmic purpose, then life is potentially more meaningful”. He says: “We want our lives to make a difference. If we can contribute, even in some tiny way, to the good purposes of the whole of reality, this is about as big a difference as we can imagine making.”

I’m not quite sure why he says that. In my daily life, I don’t think that I care very much about working for the good of the whole of reality or even how I would know I was doing that. I’m afraid that my very limited vision starts with me and then works outward to encompass the good of those around me on whom I depend for my living a reasonably happy social life. I have activities which I enjoy and others which I don’t enjoy very much, but which are necessary to maintain my life and lifestyle. And so my rather simple vision of a meaningful life is easily set out.

But if Professor Goff’s Cosmos is directing our path, then surely it would be sensible to try to work out what it has in mind. We cannot ask it directly, but we could perhaps infer its purpose from what actually goes on in the world. If so, then it would appear not to be one involving much by way of altruism. Looking at the natural world we see that intense competition for survival is at the forefront. It is the foundation of evolution. So then, is competition the overriding cosmic purpose?

Of course, like a number of other species we also use cooperation, a limited version of altruism, the better to survive. But the Cosmos is not really a more cuddly alternative to the standard version of a loving God who somehow allows immense suffering. Cruelty is apparently integral to the modus operandi of the Cosmos.

But there’s another problem: although we don’t know if we’re the first or only intelligent beings in the universe, we do know that hominids, in our bit of it, have only been around for the last 200,000 or so years of the 13 billion years for which the universe has existed. So it’s taken rather a long time for the Cosmos to achieve its purpose.

Worse still, however, our intelligence has told us about a couple of forthcoming difficulties. Firstly, our observations tell us that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Secondly we know about entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Together, these mean that as time goes on, regardless of what we try to do to stop it, the energy in the universe will necessarily be spread out thinner and thinner. Matter, which is essentially a concentration of energy, and key to our intelligence and self-awareness, will therefore gradually cease to exist. There will be wisps of cosmic dust gently spreading out over an infinite time into the infinity of space.

So then is that the Cosmic purpose? Our being brought into existence only to become aware that we are headed for the coldness of ultimate annihilation? It doesn’t sound very different to the fate of the universe without Professor Goff’s Cosmic purpose...

PS     My good friend Thomas Jeffries has added the following thought on the matter in the comments section of the magazine Aeon:

If we’re looking at highly improbable events, then my own existence – not that of mankind, but that of my own life - has a vanishingly small probability. How can I put it with ‘délicatesse’? The average quantity of sperm delivered on any one occasion is of the order of 250 million spermatozoa. They will be subtly different from each other and so would have produced a different version of ‘me’. Then there is the matter of which ovum is fertilised. And if fathered on a different day of the week, the conditions during my embryonic development, and so the epigenetic influences, would also have been different. Which all means that I am very much the exception.

I do not argue from that, however, that there is any purpose in ‘me’ being alive, rather than any close or distant copy of me. It’s just that I’m here to tell the tale and the other possible versions of me are not and never will be.

You could argue that the odds against my existence are not as high as those conservatively estimated by Dr Goff as being against the existence of our universe, but size, as so often, is not relevant here. If you argue from extreme improbability, then the degree of the extremity of that improbability is not a factor. It’s all a part of the same continuum.

Cosmopsychism? More like mysticism wrapped up in philosophical jargon.
Unsurprisingly, I completly agree with him.

19 November 2023

Paul Buckingham

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