I have just read "Why" by Philip Goff. He proposes that matter consists of conscious entities. Physics based on mathematics tells us what matter does, not what it is. This has implications for the origin of the universe and its development. It also impacts on our understanding of human consciousness. There is the potential for the development of universal values, the first of which is existence itself. But is this a coherent model of reality?

(To clarify, in my view, consciousness at the fundamental level is awareness, for example quantum entanglement yields paired particles with mutual awareness. Humans are self-conscious, as are parrots, for example, since they pass the mirror test. Other life forms are sentient.)

The intent of the question is to explore how this idea hangs together - or not.

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    You can reasonably postulate it because it does not seem to be derivable from current properties of matter.
    – Minsky
    Jan 10 at 14:02
  • I think it would be helpful to explain what this means. Are you asking if a quark could write a symphony? Do protons contemplate the infinite? Does a lemon have self-awareness? These are three very different questions but all would fall under matter consisting of conscious entities.
    – philosodad
    Jan 10 at 18:23
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    I cannot help. Our actual discussion about Goff’s universal consciousness, invoking panpsychism and the trinity, reminds me of feeding birds: After someone disseminates some breadcrumbs, birds are rushing over immediately to peck the pieces. - Why not waiting to hear Goff’s arguments and to see which philosophical problem can be solved by this hypothesis? - Because I also pecked Goff’s breadcrumbs, I do not exempt myself from the bird analogy :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 10 at 20:27
  • This is a decent debate between Goff and Carroll. Jan 11 at 1:46

5 Answers 5


Is consciousness universal?

Given the rest of your question, universal here presumably means that every bit of matter is conscious. This is committing the same fallacies as the Trinity. Allow me to explain. The idea of the Trinity (in the Christian doctrine) is that the Trinity is one person, God, made of three persons, God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit. The problem starts when we remember that a person is something which is supposed (in the Christian doctrine) to possess free will. Ah. How does it work? The Trinity has free will and wants to go visit the Eiffel Tower. However, God the Father also has free will and wants to visit the Taj Mahal. Jesus Christ also has free will and wants to visit Jerusalem once more, while God the Holy Spirit just wants to stay put.

With the idea that every bit of matter possess consciousness, we end up with a similarly overegged pudding where there would be an infinite number of consciousness layers for every bit of matter, a sort of Meinongian inflation.

I have just read "Why" by Philip Goff. He proposes that matter consists of conscious entities. Physics based on mathematics tells us what matter does, not what it is.

The crucial point about the brain is that it is a cognitive system. And, this is the only system we actually know that it is conscious. A sandwich presumably is not a cognitive system, and if it possessed consciousness, it would be so thin as to be virtually non-existent. I would say that it is not even measurable, if by that we mean that it could not even answer the question of whether it is conscious.

This has implications for the origin of the universe and its development.

Only if we first established what physical relation there would be between matter and consciousness, which is precisely what we seem unable to do.

It also impacts on our understanding of human consciousness.

I doubt that very much. The subject has been discussed to death for the last 3,000 years and we are barely wiser than Plato. The current literature is systematically confused, as you are yourself, between the informational contents of the mind and the subjective experience of these contents. The former can clearly be reproduced by machine, the latter is as elusive today as it ever was. Confusing these two very different aspects can only lead to the wrong conclusion.

There is the potential for the development of universal values,

This would concern the informational contents of our mind. And I was under the impression that humanity didn't wait for Philip Goff to try and develop universal values. The irony here is that it is precisely the self-interest of each conscious blob of matter who is a legitimate member of humanity which denies the application of those universal values to anyone but themselves.

the first of which is existence itself.

Existence a universal value?! Kant for one would have strongly objected. You really need to exist before you could even think about developing universal values.

  • Plus one for some robust common sense. Jan 11 at 8:50
  • I understand the problems with trinity. But what if consciousness is universal and that which we call self is an isolated portion of that consciousness? Full disclosure I am at this time convinced that is indicated by both anecdotal evidence and research. Would that not mean that the separate entity ('self' and 'others') is the illusion? Apr 8 at 16:09
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    @JOHNSWOODGADGETS To reconcile "universal" and "isolated portions", we can speculate that consciousness is analogous to space, i.e., it is everywhere by definition. If consciousness is indeed knowledge of the informational contents of space, then we can understand the sense of self as an awareness of the information contained specifically in brains (as cognitive systems). Self, then, is not illusion, just a fact about the topology of information in space. Apr 8 at 16:31
  • I concede the brain processes information gathered from the senses and then instructs the self to respond. My problem with it being simply topographical (although that is a valid point) is the myriad of different responses to identical stimuli. I realize previous experience will effect the response, but I myself respond differently to identical stimuli. Thoughts, feelings, and strategies come from nowhere. I do wonder where exactly that 'nowhere' actually is. How is it possible for any thought or action to be arbitrary? And yet indications are that they are very often just that. Apr 8 at 16:57

Universality of consciousness is a typical position of panpsychism. According to the IEP encyclopedia

Panpsychism is the view that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality.

  1. Mind as we know it from humans presupposes the capability of information processing, in particular constructing high-level perceptions from sense stimuli. Moreover, mind is the capability to assess the input information and to make corresponding decisions. The minimal presupposition for the human mind is the nervous system of the organism.

  2. Currently neuroscience investigates the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC), see e.g., Christof Koch ‘s book Consciousness.

    Apparently the nervous system including the human brain is a highly complex system, possibly the most complex system we know. It took evolution millions of years to develop this system of information processing and decision making.

  3. If Goff “proposes that matter consists of conscious entities” I would like to learn about some of his arguments. I do not know a convincing argument to support his claim. But there are some obvious arguments against his claim, e.g., non-animate objects do not show a behaviour which could be interpreted as the result of conscious information processing.

    I would also like to learn which scientific problems can be solved by making the hypothesis of panpsychism.

  4. Hence - because you read Goff’s book - could you please indicate some arguments from his book which you find convincing. This could give your question some more context.


This is one proposed answer to the signature conundrum of modern Western philosophy, the "mind/body problem." The mental and the physical appear to be quite different, but they also appear to be closely intertwined? Why, and how?

  • One classic approach is called dualism. Associated most closely with Descartes (but arguably implied in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition), it accepts mind and body as two separate, fundamental building blocks of the universe. This, however, is unsatisfying to many people--it more describes our intuitions than explains why the universe would be composed that way.
  • The most dominant current viewpoint is called physical monism, or physicalism. It holds that fundamentally, everything is matter, and that things like consciousness are just patterns of matter. The unsolved conundrum of physicalism is to explain how something like consciousness can arise from a purely physical universe.
  • A competing viewpoint (currently deeply unpopular, but perhaps on the verge of a revival) is ideal monism or idealism which holds that fundamentally, the universe is mental, and that physical objects are built inside of a mental space. The unsolved conundrum for idealism is to explain why there would be the appearance of a physical universe at all. It's not hard to hypothesize that the universe could be a hallucination in the mind of God. But why? And what would be the point and the origin of the specific physical rules that seem to govern our existence?

Goff's approach (which is not unique to him) is to hypothesize that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are neither purely material, nor purely mental, but have aspects of both. Just like the electron is said to have a "dual" nature--it is neither a wave, nor a particle, but can behave as either, situationally--so too, in the panpsychic universe, it would be said to also have a mental aspect, one that we wouldn't see evidence of until a great many such particles were assembled in certain complex patterns, such as a brain, or (arguably) an artificially intelligent supercomputer.

The appeal of this is that it superficially appears to address both the how question of physicalism, and the why question of idealism. But at this point, it's purely speculative, and divorced from real-world concerns. Unless, and until, proponents can demonstrate that it has superior explanatory AND predictive value for real-world problems, it is unlikely to gain widespread acceptance (it would need to be able to outcompete other hypotheses).

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    Answering the question 'why' is always a trap, but concerning ideal monism, the only thing a universal consciousness could not experience would be a variable or unique perspective. If I were that consciousness, I might make an effort to experience more. I might isolate portions of myself, temporarily put them in a physical world for the purpose of having unique experience from that isolated perspective. As consciousness is universal, I would of course experience that perspective. I would play an elaborate game of solitaire, using isolated portions of myself as... Dice. Apr 8 at 16:24

It depends on what you mean. If you mean consciousness of the sort experienced by humans, then there are all kinds of reasons to object to the idea. To pick one at random, that sort of consciousness seems to be a process that requires energy to sustain it, and there is no evidence of corresponding energy consumption by inanimate matter such as rocks, etc. If you mean some form of primitive building block of consciousness, that might be vacuously true, since consciousness seems to be dependent on electrical activity, and the basic components of that, namely electrical charges and fields, do seem to be everywhere. If by consciousness you mean some form of experience, then again it can be vacuously true that electrons, say, experience forces, but that is simply a play on words. Goff isn't even close to a definition of what he means by universal consciousness that is capable of being unambiguously understood, let alone tested.

  • If I defined consciousness as an awareness of space time, demonstrated by variable response to identical stimuli would that definition hold up in the face of Goff's general premise? I read his book, and based on it I am surprised he did not define it specifically. Apr 8 at 16:14

A recent ten-year study failed to locate consciousness within the brain. Occam's razor indicates that if you cannot find something after an extended search in a particular area, it is most likely because it is not in that area. Consciousness as a concept is so elusive and yet so ubiquitous I have come to suspect it is indeed universal, and that which we call self is an isolated portion of that universal consciousness. Isolated by the biological form for reasons unknown. I believe that is the case based on descriptions of their conscious state by those experiencing the NDE. While descriptions vary, it is commonly described as radical changes in consciousness as the biological form fails. Often included is a sense of disembodiment, which if accepted at face value supports my submission. Dissipation of conscious is not described, so it is unlikely that consciousness itself fails simply because the biological form fails. I also submit that all religions are attempts to model or describe a universal consciousness.

  • Descartes believed the soul resides in the pineal gland...
    – Rushi
    Apr 8 at 15:22

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