Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Scientific Problem with Panpsychism & String Theory - With Lee Smolin (1)

[The words “string theory” are used in the following. One of Lee Smolin's main arguments is that there are many string theories. Not surprisingly, some/many string theorists dispute that.]


Lee Smolin's book book, The Problem With Physics, is relied upon in all the parts of this piece . It's relied upon because Smolin's views parallel (at least in part) my own on panpsychism. However, I certainly wouldn't have relied on Smolin's book if it weren't for his strong and detailed emphasis on string theory. It's this emphasis on string theory which ties in strongly with my own positions against panpsychism.

I personally don't have a firm position on string theory. I certainly don't adopt Smolin's strictly scientific positions on it. That's primarily because any position (at least of a scientific nature) on string theory must – almost of necessity - involve complex mathematics. Yet I'm neither a mathematician nor a physicist. Indeed I'm not even an “amateur expert” on string theory. However, it's also the case that nothing said in the following depends on my knowing the complex mathematics required for string theory. Everything I say should stand without such scientific and mathematical knowledge. Despite saying that, I'm well aware of the possible objections – from string theory acolytes - to my position. Smolin himself brings up such objections. He writes:

Some string theorists prefer to believe that string theory is too arcane to be understood by human beings.... One recent posting on a physics blog laid this out beautifully: 'We can't expect a dog to understand quantum mechanics, and it may be that we are reaching the limit of what humans can understand about string theory. Maybe there are advanced civilizations out there to whom we appear as dogs do to us, and maybe they have figured out string theory well enough to have moved to a better theory...'...”

The Czech string theorist (or perhaps I should say physicist), Luboš Motl, even comes close to saying all this (in his review of The Problem With Physics) about Smolin himself. He writes:

Because these statements [of Smolin] are of mathematical nature, we are sure that Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.”

Thus if some string theorists believe that Smolin is an (mathematical) “outsider”, then you can be sure that they think the same about everyone else on the outside. As Smolin puts it:

The views of outsiders must be disregarded because outsiders are not skilled enough in the tools of the trade to evaluate evidence and pass , of judgment.” (287)

This insider-outsider situation is also, of course, the case with philosophers; as well as with all other specialists (or professionals). And in both the case of string theorists and philosophers (perhaps also panpsychists), there's much justification for this insider-outsider mismatch.

Despite that, string theorists still find themselves in an extremely neat and convenient position. That position is expressed by William Poundstone in his book, Labyrinths of Reason. (Poundstone puts the quandary into the mouth of Sherlock Holmes.) Thus:

'I subscribe to several esoteric journals to ease the tedium of the apiarist's life. I was reading in one of them that William Shanks, a mathematician of our fair island, has recently computed pi to 707 decimal places. It took him twenty years. His result filled a whole page with quite senseless, random numbers. Should anyone doubt Mr. Shank's result, he would have to budget an equal amount of time and duplicate his work. In that case also, verifying the answer would be precisely as difficult as coming up with the answer in the first place – the very antithesis of an obvious solution.'....”

Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a layperson when it comes to higher mathematics. However, even within mathematics and mathematical physics, some such professionals are essentially laypersons when it comes to the domain of string theory. Indeed, if we split string theory up into its many sections, then some string theorists will be (almost) laypersons when it comes to the work of other string theorists.

Of course what's been said is also partly true of all physics. That is, the entirety of physics includes mathematics which laypersons won't understand. Nonetheless, such areas of physics don't – one can argue – suffer from the same problems which string theory faces (i.e., the problems discussed in this piece).

Having said all the above, and also having read The Problem With Physics, I'm still not entirely sure what Lee Smolin's final stance on string theory actually is. Obviously it's true that he has very big problems with it. (E.g., the fact that it offers no predictions; has no experimental input; has no precise mathematical formula which is systematic and works for all string theories; has an unhealthy academic hegemony; etc.) Though, despite that, Smolin also seems to argue that string theory may well still be true/correct/accurate. He definitely does say – in accordance with his Feyerbendian theoretical pluralism (see later) – that string theory has both a value and an important role to play in physics. Indeed he spends much time making precisely that point.

Smolin also stresses his string-theory credentials. For example, he writes:

.... there have been periods when I avidly believed in string theory and devoted myself to solving its key problems. While I didn't solve them, I wrote eighteen papers in the subject...”

More relevantly to this piece, Smolin says:

Nor am I for anything except science, or against anything except that which threatens science.”

That quote gets to the heart of the matter. Smolin believes that string theory is, in many ways, unscientific; or, at the least, non-scientific (see later). This is where philosophy comes in. That is, in order to claim that x is non-scientific, one has to advance philosophical arguments in order to justify that claim.

To sum up Smolin's positions on string theory, it can be said that his two main (scientific) claims are the following:

i) String theory makes no testable predictions.
ii) String theory has no accepted or systematic mathematical formulation. (This claim is far less relevant to this piece.)

Thus it's of course ironic that in the review of The Trouble With Physics mentioned earlier, Luboš Motl also turns on Smolin's claim that string theory is non-scientific by saying that "the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations”.

Despite Motl's hyperbolic statement, and as previously said, Smolin also says that string theory may still be at least partly true/correct/accurate without thereby also abiding by (all of?) science's rules... That's if science has any rules! I make this point because there's an entire chapter (called 'What is science?') in Smolin's book which is devoted to Paul Feyerabend . This American/Austrian “anarchist philosopher” rejected the very existence of a “scientific method”. He also argued that it would be counterproductive for science even if it the scientific method did exist. And Smolin seems to at least partly endorse Feyerabend's position. This, at least prima facie, seems to work against Smolin's strong position on string theory's non-scientific nature. Indeed, when speaking against string theory, he does so by saying that it goes against the scientific method. (Incidentally, Motl too says that Smolin is both "anti-scientific" and "against the scientific method".) For example, this is Smolin on Fotini Markopoulou's results on quantum gravity. He writes:

... it shows promise of leading to unique predictions, which will either be in agreement with experiment or not. Most important, this obviates the need to revise the scientific method.... Science done the old-fashioned way is moving ahead.”

Of course it may simply be the case that Smolin accepts Feyerabend's theoretical pluralism (or theoretical “anarchism”) and rejects his positions on the scientific method itself.

Unscientific or Non-scientific?

The relevant - and obvious - point here is that panpsychism is a philosophical theory; whereas string theory is part of science. Nonetheless, some of the philosophical (i.e., not scientific) problems which both face are very similar.

In any case, panpsychist philosophers don't claim that panpsychism is a science or even that it's scientific.

Indeed philosophy itself isn't a science. And that must mean that panpsychism isn't a science.

However, many panpsychists (as do various “analytic metaphysicians”) claim that panpsychism must still be beholden to science. Alternatively, they say that it shouldn't (directly) contradict anything in science. (David Chalmers, for example, classes himself as a “naturalist” - actually, he calls his position “naturalistic dualism”!) Indeed because panpsychism deals with “intrinsic natures”, then - almost by definition - it can be said that it can't contradict anything in physics.

All this parallels – at least to some extent - the Wittgensteinian claim that science and religion don't contradict each other because they're dealing with different phenomena. (Alternatively, Wittgensteinians claim that science and religion sometimes deal with the same phenomena; though in different ways.) Thus science and religion are – in the language of Steven Jay Gould - “non-overlapping magisteriama”. (There will be more on the overlapping-worlds idea later.) This may also mean that panpsychism and physics are non-overlapping worlds. And, if that's the case, then how they they contradict one another?

The other point which has to be made is that the scientific criticisms of panpsychism can also be applied to many other philosophical theories. Indeed the entirety of metaphysics can be said - and has been said - to be suspect from a scientific point of view (at least according to some scientists). Thus panpsychism's relationship with science is far from being unique.

Yet philosophy can indeed be unscientific rather than simply non-scientific. So is panpsychism unscientific or non-scientific? What about string theory? Is it – at least partly - unscientific or is it non-scientific?

A simple - and perhaps naive - example of this problem relates to the question as to what is and what isn't observable. If what can be observed – or can be in observed “in principle” (as it's often put) – is ignored or rejected, then that would be an unscientific position to take. However, even within science many things are unobservable (e.g., quarks, protons, the iron core at the center of the earth, distant galaxies, fields and forces, etc.). Some things are even unobservable in principle (e.g., the past, numbers, laws, universals, perhaps other minds, etc.). That clearly has relevance to both string theory and panpsychism.

Indeed in terms of most/all of the claims of metaphysics (even those claims about things which are observable): they're still primarily about things which aren't observable.

Perhaps a quote from the English philosopher C.D. Broad will help here. (As found in his paper, 'Philosophy', in Inquiry I.) Thus:

We must distinguish between being non-scientific and being un-scientific. What I have admitted is that philosophy is a subject which is almost certainly of its very nature non-scientific. We must not jump from this purely negative statement to the conclusion that it has the positive defect of being unscientific. The latter term can be properly used only when a subject, which is capable of scientific treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method.” 

Very controversially, it must be said here that Broad might well have had telekinesis, mind-reading and even backwards causation in mind when he wrote the above. That alone shows us how problematic the distinction between x being unscientific and x being non-scientific is. That is, that distinction may simply allow too much even when it comes to what's non-scientific: never mind what's unscientific.

In any case, if we forget telekinesis and mind-reading, it's feasible that both string theory and panpsychism can be non-scientific without also being unscientific. However, there's an obvious difference. As stated, string theory is a science and panpsychism isn't. Thus if string theory is either non-scientific or unscientific, then that's a problem. Panpsychism, on the other hand, is only problematic if it's unscientific. Thus if we say that panpsychism is non-scientific (to quote Broad again), “[w]e must not jump from this purely negative statement to the conclusion that it has the positive defect of being unscientific”. The same can't also be said of string theory.

The last statement from Broad is very helpful in this context. Let me re-quote it:

The latter term ['unscientific'] can be properly used only when a subject, which is capable of scientific treatment, is treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method.” 

That means that if panpsychism deals with a subject “which is capable of scientific treatment” (and which “is [also] treated in a way which ignores or conflicts with the principles of scientific method”), then we may have a philosophical problem. (We certainly do if we're naturalists.) The point here is that panpsychists will simply claim that panpsychism – or at least most/all of the claims from panpsychists – have nothing whatsoever to do “with the principles of scientific method”. Philosophers may again claim – in the Wittgensteinian sense - that panpsychism and science are non-overlapping worlds. That claim, however, may be both too convenient and simply false. After all, take the following:

i) If physics states that there are no “intrinsic natures” (certainly if it claims that micro-entities don't have “phenomenal properties”),
ii) then panpsychism does indeed “conflict with the principles” of physics.

The problem is, however, that some/many panpsychists claim that physics simply “ignores” intrinsic natures. That is, it has no position on them. As the philosopher Philip Goff puts it:

This [panpsychist] argument presses us to the conclusion that there must be more to physical entities than what they do: physical things must also have an ‘intrinsic nature’...”

And elsewhere he says:

... given that physics is restricted to telling us only about the behaviour of physical entities – electrons, quarks and indeed spacetime itself – it leaves us completely in the dark about their intrinsic nature. Physics tells us what matter does, but not what it is.”

Some physicists, on the other hand, will simply claim that intrinsic natures don't exist. Thus we can conclude by saying that physics as a whole – as stated - doesn't have a universal or systematic position on intrinsic natures (or on “micro-minds”).

This also means that if science/physics has no problem with panpsychism (or even accepts the fruitfulness of research into it), then that would also fit in well with Smolin's Feyerabendian theoretical pluralism.

So what about string theory and the non-scientific/unscientific bifurcation?

We can say that because of the current state of play, many of the claims and theories of string theory aren't (to use Broad's words again) “capable of scientific treatment”. (Though not only for reasons of the experimental limitations brought about by deficiencies of contemporary technology.) Nonetheless, that doesn't necessarily also mean that string theory also “conflicts with the principles of science”. Of course it can now be said that if string theory's claims aren't capable of scientific treatment, then how can they also be scientific? Though this, of course, would also render very many 19th and 20th century theories (in physics) and statements (from physicists) non-scientific. That is, many claims and theories were made before the evidence or experiments were in. Does that mean that such claims or theories were non-scientific or even unscientific? If the experiments and evidence came to be available, then surely we can't say that such claims and theories were unscientific. Thus they were non-scientific, rather than unscientific. Indeed perhaps they weren't even non-scientific: they might have simply been (as it were) protoscientific.


To follow: 'Maths and Reality', 'Experiments and Predictions', 'What is a Theory?', 'The Aesthetics of Theory-Choice'.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Philip Goff on Big/Little Minds, “Composition” and Emergence (3)

Philip Goff doesn't use the words “strong emergence” or “weak emergence” in his paper, 'The Phenomenal Bonding Solution to the Combination Problem'. Nonetheless, that distinction is at the heart of at least some sections of his paper.

The basic question is whether or not a Big Mind/Subject is more than the mere sum of “its” (that word implies weak emergence only) little minds/subjects. That is, does something additional happen when little minds/subjects are added (or “summed”) together to “constitute” (that word, again, implies weak emergence only) a Big Mind/Subject?

Having made that point, it may well be the case that I'm barking up the wrong tree in this piece. This is why.

In a seminar entitled 'On Non-Compositional Panpsychism', Philip Goff claims that the “mind is multiply located”. This, at first glance, seems to create a problem for much of what's been said above. However, Goff (in the seminar) doesn't really provide much detail for his position. And even if there are arguments in its favour, they may not make much of a difference to what's been said both above and below.

Again, prima facie, if the mind is multiply located and “wholly present many times in the brain” (as Goff also says), then that does indeed seem to create problems for the arguments expressed in the following.

However, what do Goff's claims mean? Surely if the mind is multiply located, then that seems to go against claims about “little subjects”. It also seems to rule out any point of “bonding”. That is, if the mind is multiply located (as well as wholly present many times), then there doesn't seem to be a strong requirement for either little mind/subjects or for their bonding.

Indeed this may be the reason why Goff prefers the word “composition” to “combination” (as in “the combination problem”). That is, does the word “combination” imply strong emergence; whereas the word “composition” doesn't?

Strong Emergence?

One interesting virtue of panpsychism – at least on some readings - is that it doesn't appear to require any form of emergence. That is, according to panpsychism, consciousness (or experience) doesn't suddenly emerge from the physical: it's there from the beginning (i.e., in the very small parts of the brain). Yet, on the other hand, when it comes to the “combination problem”, new aspects of consciousness/experience (strongly) are said to... emerge... from these little pockets of experience. (This will be discussed later.)

How does that rejection of what's called strong emergence actually work?

Take x.

x is simply the sum of a, b, c...

Thus x doesn't emerge from its parts in any “strong” sense.

In terms of the brain and consciousness/experience/mind. The latter doesn't emerge from the former. Instead we have this:

x = a, b, c... (x's parts)

Are the brain and consciousness one and the same thing? Or, less radically, are the brain and consciousness one and the same thing under two (to use Frege's term) “modes of presentation”?

This is how Goff puts this position:

[M]y mind is a macroscopic entity which derives its nature from the microscopic entities which compose it, ultimately from the entities that fundamental physics talks about, which the panpsychist takes to be conscious subjects.”

Thus here we have loads of little “entities” making up a big x. Again, x doesn't emerge from these little entities. It equals (or is) these little entities. That is, if consciousness/mind is found even at the micro-scale; then mind/consciousness can't be separate from the brain – it is simply the “combination” (or "composition") of all these phenomenal brainparts. That is,

the combination of phenomenal little subjects/minds = the Big Subject/Mind


Consciousness/the mind doesn't emerge from the brain's various - and many! - phenomenal/experiential brainparts. It is those various – and many – phenomenal/experiential brainparts.

Less schematically, little pockets of phenomenal experience (metaphorically) get together to create a big subject of experience/consciousness. Yet even though we have a sum, composition or a combination, there's still no emergence of any kind. Or as Goff puts it:

Somehow little subjects, such as electrons and quarks, come together to produce big conscious subjects, such as human brains.”

Again, although the Big Subject/Mind is the combination (sum or composition) of little subjects/minds, there's still no emergence of the former from the latter.

Though not so quick!

The problem is that Goff does cite an example of strong emergence.

He does so when he gives the example of “little subjects” actually “seeing” (individually) all the “colours of the spectrum”. Then, when they these little subjects are taken together (as a single Big Subject), Goff postulates that they may bring about “a visual experience as of seeing white”. In other words, we have little minds/subjects experiencing the various colours of the spectrum summing together to produce a Big Mind/Subject which experiences the colour white. A Big Subject's experience of white is, therefore, over and above the many and varied experiences of all the little minds/subjects which constitute or “compose” (to use Goff''s term) it. Surely this is an example of strong emergence.

Thus, in all the above respects, Goff's panpsychism (at least at it impinges on the mind or consciousness) can be a taken as a kind of monism (as well being related to Donald Davidson's “anomalous monism”). More controversially, however, it can also be see as a new version of the identity theory of mind. (These links between Goff's panpsychism and other theories of mind will need to be discussed elsewhere.)

Weak and Strong Emergence

It's certainly true that Goff is well aware of the problems which phenomenal combinatorialism faces. He states the problems in various places. For example, Goff writes:

Small objects with certain shapes, e.g. Lego bricks, can constitute a larger object with a different shape, e.g. a Lego tower. But it is difficult to see how, say, seven subjects of experience, each of which has a visual experience as of seeing one of the colours of the spectrum, could constitute a distinct subject of experience having a visual experience as of seeing white…”

Thus four matchsticks put in random places – even if close together - won't constitute a square shape. However, they can be arranged to make a square shape. Nonetheless, the square shape is entirely a product of the four matchsticks. There's no strong emergence here.

Goff concedes that when it comes to little pockets of experience and Big Minds/Subjects, we have something different. Though, again, is it strong emergence?

Goff's own scenario (as already stated) is about the sum of the little-minds' experiences creating an entirely different experience – that of a Big Mind/Subject. Thus each little subject/mind is like a little matchstick. Taken on its own, each little matchstick can't constitute a square. Taken together with three other little matchsticks, they can constitute a square. Similarly (or nearly so!) with little pockets of experience. Taken individually they “see” different “colours of the spectrum”. Taken together (at least in theory) they may bring about “a visual experience as of seeing white”. However, as hinted at above, these examples aren't of a kind. A matchstick square is nothing over and above the individual four matchsticks which constitute the square. In Goff's case, we have little minds/subjects experiencing various colours of the spectrum summing together to produce a Big Mind/Subject which experiences the colour white.

There is a spectrum of colour. However, would it follow from this that even if little minds/subjects did experience the individual colours of the spectrum individually, that their sum would necessarily - or even hypothetically - bring about a Big Mind/Subject which experiences the colour white?

Goff himself seems to make a distinction between weak and strong emergence when he cites his own Lego example. He writes:

Take the case of seven Lego cubes placed on top of each other to make a rectangular tower. The mere existence of those bricks, each having a specific shape and location, necessitates the existence of the tower having the shape and location it has.”

More technically:

The existence of a group of spatial objects, O1….On, with certain shapes and locations, can necessitate the existence of a spatial object with a shape and location different to the shape and location of each of O1….On.”

Firstly Goff puts this position without mentioning consciousness or anything else directed related to this issue. He says that

the defining characteristic of constitution being that constituted states of affairs are nothing over and above the states of affairs which constitute them”.

That is a statement of weak emergence. Clearly, at a prima facie level, weak emergence won't do the job panpsychists want it to do. A Big Mind/Subject is something more than a mere sum of little minds/subjects (or of tiny pockets of experience).

Then Goff puts that weak emergence position as it may related to consciousness. He writes:

Constitutive panpsychism – O-phenomenal facts are constituted by, and hence are nothing over above, the micro-phenomenal facts.”

Here again, that position doesn't do the job panpsychists want it to do.

Thus Goff puts the strong-emergence position as it directly relates to panpsychism and consciousness. He writes:

Intelligible emergentist panpsychism – O-phenomenal facts are intelligibly produced by, but are something over and above, the microlevel facts.”

Clearly now we need to account for that strong emergence. (Of course philosophers attempt to account for strong emergence in all the other cases outside of consciousness.)

Here, instead of the usual problem of the sum of the brain's purely physical parts accounting for mentality/consciousness, we have a similar problem of the sum of the brain's little minds/subjects accounting for the very same thing.

Goff explains this in terms of what he calls “bonding”. This means that not only have we to explain the bonding of little minds/subjects: we also need to explain how the sum of little minds/subjects can create a Big Mind/Subject which is over and above that sum. (See my 'Against Philip Goff's (Panpsychist) “Phenomenal Bonding”'.)

In any case, at least that sum of little minds/subjects only includes those entities which exist within the brain. And that's why Goff has a problem with what he calls “unrestricted phenomenal composition”. He writes:

According to unrestricted phenomenal composition, for any group of subjects, say, the particles forming your nose, my teeth and the planet Venus, those subjects are related by the phenomenal bonding relation and hence produce a further subject.”

Goff doesn't accept such examples of unrestricted phenomenal composition; just as I believe that the fusion (or simple juxtaposition/joining) of my backside, the coffee cup I'm holding at present, and the moon above me, don't together constitute yet another bone fide object. Goff writes:

Obviously, some form of restricted phenomenal composition, according to which some but not all subjects are such that they bear the phenomenal bonding relation to each other, will be more in keeping with pre-theoretical common sense.”

Goff believes that all the relevant little minds/subjects must belong to the same brain. (Or, as Goff puts it, “the brains/central nervous systems of organisms”.) There are of course innumerable other little minds/subjects in the panpsychist's universe (e.g, in a thermostat or deep with a sea of a distant planet) which aren't at all relevant when it comes to the constitution/composition of the Big Minds of individual human beings.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Philip Goff's Panpsychist Conceivability-to-Possibility Argument (2)

The following piece is a response to Philip Goff's paper, 'The Phenomenal Bonding Solution to the Combination Problem'.

conceive: to develop an idea; to form in the mind; to plan; to devise; to originate; to understand (someone).

conception: the act of conceiving.
The state of being conceived.
The power or faculty of apprehending of forming an idea in the mind; the power of recalling a past sensation or perception; the ability to form mental abstractions.
An image, idea, or notion formed in the mind; a concept, plan or design.


Philip Goff writes:

Just because we are unable to form a transparent conception of the phenomenal bonding relation does not mean we cannot form a conception of it. We can think of it as ‘the relation such that when subjects stand in it they produce a further subject’ and we can suppose that there is such a thing.”

First of all, when we form a "conception" of a “little subject”, what does that conception amount to or involve?

Alternatively, what if we have no genuine conception of little subjects?

This would mean, by inference, that we can't form a conception of how they can “stand in a relation” so as to “produce a further subject”.

Nonetheless, perhaps all this boils down to how Goff himself defines - or interprets - the word conception.

Goff does give us a clue. He writes:

We may even be able to identify it with some relation we can observe in the world, or some relation that features in physics.”

Surely nothing “in the world” can possibly match up to little minds/subjects and their bonding together; as Goff seems to acknowledge when he concludes by saying that

[n]one of the relations that appear in perception or in physics are conceived of as phenomenal bonding relations”.

That, presumably, is why such a conception isn't what Goff calls “transparent”; though it is... something else...

The Conceivability-to-Possibility Argument

In all Goff's musings about little minds/subjects, their bonding, and their being part of a Big Mind/Subject, David Chalmers' idea of conceivability-leading-to-metaphysical-possibility plays a very important role.

For example, Goff states that

most panpsychists are motivated by an opposition to physicalism, commonly grounded in conceivability arguments”.

Goff expresses his view about the importance of conceivability (leading to possibility) in this way:

If P is conceivably true, then P is possibly true.”

This is expressed in possible-worlds jargon thus:

If P is conceivably true (upon ideal reflection), then there is a possible world W, such that P is true at W considered as actual.”

Or, less technically, Goff also says that

Chalmers holds that every conceivably true proposition corresponds in this way to some genuine possibility”.

All the above seems to assume that there is a determinate and precise meaning of the words “conceivably" and "conceivably true”. Goff must be aware of this because he also says that

conceivability entails possibility when you completely understand what you’re conceiving of”.

However, in the case of little minds/subjects taken in-and-of-themselves (as well as small minds/subjects constituting or "composing" a Big Mind), is there any genuine “understanding of what you're conceiving of”? (In other “thought experiments”, this principle may well be useful and even accurate/true – such as with David Chalmers' zombies!)

Clearly, as Goff acknowledges, the

crucial difference between Lego combination and subject combination arises when we try to move from conceivability to possibility”.

Since Goff often speaks against any reliance on intuitions or on commonsense (if not in this paper); perhaps the same can be also said about conceivability. After all, people may reject panpsychism - or some of its individual claims - because they can't even conceive how it could be true. This may not matter, however, because Goff or Chalmers may simply say that we can - or could - conceive how it/they could be true.

Goff puts the case for conceivability-leading-to-possibility more explicitly and less technically when he states the following:

We could not coherently conceive of the seven bricks being piled on top of one another in the way that they are in the absence of the tower. In contrast, it is eminently possible to conceive of our seven subjects of experience experiencing the colours of the spectrum, existing in the absence of a subject of experience having an experience of white.

Thus, on the surface, it appears that the conceivability-to-possibility argument doesn't work for “seven subjects of experience”; though it clearly does work for Goff's seven Lego bricks constituting a tower (i.e., even before the tower is actually experienced or seen). However, we could go further. We can question the very conceivability of seven subjects of experience in the first place; never mind their making a super-subject. In other words, what does it mean to conceive of “seven subjects of experience experiencing the colours of the spectrum”? How would Goff - or anyone else - conceive of such a thing? Can Goff - or anyone else - describe that act of conceiving and then describe its content?

For example, can we conceive of seven subjects/minds which (who?) experience various colours? Can little minds/subjects experience various colours? For a start, they can't have sensory receptors - so how can they experience the colours of the spectrum? More clearly, how can anything experience colours without sensory receptors? And thus how can micro-subjects (at the atomic or even subatomic scale) experience colours at all? Nonetheless, if we do indeed conceive of such things, then what is it, exactly, that we're conceiving of?

This may mean that the conceivability-to-possibility argument may not get off the ground (at least in this case) because nothing is really conceived of in the first place. Alternatively, that which is conceived of is, basically, ridiculous.

Having said all that, Goff does offer some logical and metaphysical arguments as to why phenomenal bonding is a “metaphysical possibility”.

Goff also goes much further than this logical principle. Not only is the argument that the conceiving of x is a reason for believing that x is metaphysically possible, Goff also argues that it may be the case that “metaphysical possibility is just a special kind of conceivability”. Note the use of the “is of identity” here. We're told that metaphysical possibility is conceivability. Thus it's not just that our conceiving of x may - or does - give us one reason to believe that x is possible. The very conceiving of x seems to bring about the metaphysical possibility of x.

There are three responses to that conclusion. One, Goff's grammar is incorrect. Two, I've simply misinterpreted Goff's position. Three, his philosophical position is false.
Three Conceivings?

A Round Square 

The idea of conceiving of little subjects/minds - and then their bonding together to form a Big Subject/Mind - can be questioned.

However, let's firstly take a more extreme example:

i) If we can conceive that there is a round square, then it's metaphysically possible that there is a round square.

ii) We can't conceive of a round square. Therefore round squares are metaphysically impossible.

So what about this? -

i) If we can conceive of little minds/subjects and their bonding together to form a Big Mind/Subject, then such things are metaphysically possible.

ii) If we can't conceive of such things, then they are impossible.

It was argued above that we can't conceive of such things; regardless of their metaphysically possibility. In other words:

There's no “radical separation” between our conceivings of little minds/subjects (as well as their phenomenal bonding) and their metaphysical possibility because we don't conceive of such things in the first place.

In other cases, the move form conceivings to metaphysical possibility may well be legitimate. Alternatively, every move from conceivability to metaphysical possibility may be somewhat suspect.1

A Million-sided Object

Let's go into more detail about the nature of conceiving with Goff's very own example of a million-sided object.

In one sense it can be said that we can indeed conceive of such a thing. Or, more helpfully, if I ask someone this question:

What do you conceive of when you conceive of a million-side object?

that person can reply by saying:

I conceive of an object which has a million sides.

But what does that mean? What is he conceiving of? Is he simply saying the following? -

i) A million-sided object has a million sides.
ii) Therefore I have conceived of a million-sided object.

Is there any more to it than that? Doesn't he simply (analytically) know that if something has a million sides, then he's conceived of an object having a million sides? Though is that really a case of his conceiving of a million-sided object or is it a statement of a tautology?

For a start, no one can picture or imagine a million-sided object. So that's ruled out. What's left? Again, the words “conceiving a million-sided object” seem vacuous. Yet Goff says that “the concept million-sided object is transparent”. That is,

it is a priori (for someone possessing the concept, and in virtue of possessing the concept) what it is for something to have a million sides”.

Goff's quote above is simply a rerun of what's already been said. That is:

What is it to conceive of something which has a million sides? It's to conceive of a million-sided object.

Here again, one simply restates the description of a fictional/possible object.

Nonetheless, perhaps my position is too psychological in nature (i.e., too dependent on our contingent mental states and their content); whereas Goff's position is strictly logical. Alternatively, perhaps Goff's position is strictly mathematical/geometrical (therefore abstract) in nature.

Thus, perhaps it's an entirely logical and/or metaphysical point to say that

the concept million-sided object is conceivable and transparent.

Then again, what does that claim amount to? 

Indeed how different is conceiving of a million-sided object to conceiving of a round square?

However, it's certainly the case that a round square isn't in the same logical space as a million-sided object.

What would be easier to say is that a million-sided object could – or even does - exist (if abstractly); though it still can't be conceived of. It this case we can cite René Descartes' example of a chiliagon. (I suspect that Goff had this in mind!) This is a million-sided polygon. It's classed as a “well-defined concept” that, nonetheless, can't be imagined or visualised. Indeed, even if massive in size, it would be visually indistinguishable from a circle. Thus I would also say that a chiliagon can't be conceived of either - even if we have a concept of it. Thought that, again, depends on what's meant by the words “conceived of”. In any case, I would call a million-sided polygon a mathematical/geometrical abstract object; not a concrete object. In other words, it couldn't be found or even made. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop it from being a well-defined concept.

The question is, are Goff's little subjects/minds in the least bit analogous to a million-sided polygon?

And even if the words “having a well-defined concept” and “conceiving of” were seen as virtual synonyms, it's still the case that both the layperson and the expert would need to conceive of (or have a well-defined concept of) the following; which is severely truncated. To quote:

"A regular megagon is represented by Schlafi symbol {1000000} and can be constructed as a truncated 500000-gon, t{500000}, a twice-truncated 250000-gon, tt{250000}, a thrice-truncated 125000-gon, ttt{125000), or a four-fold-truncated 62500-gon, tttt{62500}, a five-fold-truncated 31250-gon, ttttt{31250}, or a six-fold-truncated 15625-gon, tttttt{15625}.

A regular megagon has an interior angle of 179.99964°. The are of a regular megagon with sides of length a is given by

The perimeter of a regular megagon inscribed in the unit circle is:


Thus it seems that we've moved a very long way from Goff's little subjects/minds and their bonding together.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

So what if we use Chomsky's famous grammatical sentence? -

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

All the predicates and their concepts (in the quote above) are “transparent” (as Goff puts it) when taken individually. We can also say that the sentence itself is grammatically correct and it may even be logically correct. It's also, of course, empirically, scientifically and even metaphysically false. Nonetheless, we can understand the words within that statement. Can we also conceive of that statement being true? Or, more accurately, can we conceive of a situation in which colorless green ideas sleep furiously?

Here it seems that grammatical (or even logical) correctness runs free of conceivability. In other words, perhaps we don't - and can't - actually conceive of colorless green ideas sleeping furiously. Thus is the same conclusion true of conceiving of a million-sided object? More relevantly, is the same conclusion also true of conceiving of little minds/subjects and their bonding to make a Big Mind/Subject?

However, and as already stated, Goff believes that “the concept million-sided object is transparent”. Moreover,

when one conceives of a million-sided object one completely understands, or is in principle able to reason one’s way to a complete understanding of, the situation being conceived of”.

Goff goes further when he says that

it is a priori for the conceiver what it is for the state of affairs they are conceiving of [i.e., a million-sided object] to obtain”.

Thus we reach the important conclusion which Goff has been leading up to all along. Namely,

that we can move from the conceivability (upon ideal reflection) of the states of affairs so conceived, to its genuine possibility”.

And it's from here that Goff moves to talk about little minds/subjects and their bonding together to form a Big Mind/Subject.

Goff Against Conceivable Possibilities?

Goff himself expresses the position that conceivability may not always give us metaphysical possibility. That is, even if we do allow various moves from conceivability to metaphysical possibility, sometimes what we think is metaphysically possible still remains unbelievable. Or as Goff himself puts it:

When metaphysical possibility is so radically divorced from conceptual coherence.... I start to lose my grip on what metaphysical possibility is supposed to be.”

However, it also seems that metaphysical possibility has moved beyond conceivability here – or at least beyond “conceptual coherence”. Thus that may mean that the move from conceivability to metaphysical possibility is sometimes illegitimate anyway. That is, a specific conceiving may not warrant the metaphysical possibility which is derived from it. To stress that point, Goff also says that

a radical separation between what is conceivable and what is possible has the potential to make our knowledge of possibility problematic”.

Though doesn't David Chalmers provide a tight link between conceivability and metaphysical possibility? If that's the case, then how can there ever be a “radical separation” between the two? Thus if that link were to be broken, would that be due to the fact that some conceivings aren't really genuine conceivings at all? (This is what I think is the case when it comes to little minds and their bonding.) Either that, or some links between conceivings and possibilities aren't tight enough. Alternatively, perhaps some moves from conceivings to possibilities are completely bogus from the start.



1 It's the case that Chalmers and Goff's conceivings are related to Descartes' notion of “clear and distinct ideas”. However, Descartes' various moves from his conceivings to metaphysical possibilities have been rejected by many philosophers; though some philosophers - such as James Van Cleve (in his 'Foundationalism, Epistemic Principles, and the Cartesian Circle') – haven't rejected them.

To follow: 'Emergence' and 'Little Subjects?'. See also my 'Against Philip Goff's (Panpsychist) Phenomenal Bonding'.