In his Nautilus article ‘The Universe Knows Right from Wrong’, Philipp Goff argues that panpsychism – the metaphysical thesis that the intrinsic properties of reality are properties of consciousness or ‘feels’ (or proto-phenomena, proto-feels) provides a metaphysical ground for objective truth about value. He argues that panpsychism affords an explanation for our ability to discern objective norms that is superior to Platonic and Aristotelian competitors.
Firstly, Platonism requires transcendent norms or norm grounding properties with no instantiation in space-time. As Goff puts it:
“How is it that we creatures in space and time are able to access transcendent moral entities and gain moral knowledge? Plato thought that before birth we resided in the world of “the Forms,” together with numbers, universals, and goodness itself. It would be nice not to have to go to these lengths to explain our moral knowledge.”
While Platonism seems ill-adapted to explain our ability to access objective norms, it is better placed to explain their necessity, since a Platonic moral order need not depend on how our universe is configured and which physical laws or constants hold in it. The same, according to Goff, cannot be said for the other live candidate for accounting for the objectivity of value facts: namely, Aristotelianism. Aristotelianism grounds moral properties in the goal-directed natures of living beings. It is because animals are organized to seek pleasure and avoid pain that hedonic principles that pleasure is a good and pain is bad obtain for them.
A problem with the Aristotelian view I address in Ch6 of Posthuman Life is not so much its commitment to objective teleology as to intrinsic teleology: a teleology hinging on the essential natures of the items which bear the relevant purposes or norm grounding properties. One can postulate an objective teleology without essences that is massively contextual; contingent on the ways in which living entities are arranged in relation to other entities and their environment at a juncture in natural or bio-technological history (Roden 2014, 131-36).
However, both essentialist and anti-essentialist accounts of objective teleology have the drawback, for Goff, of failing to account for the necessity of moral laws:
“Aristotelian approaches to ethics are also still popular. But the problem for neo-Aristotelians, or indeed anyone who tries to ground moral truth in the natural world, is that moral truths, like mathematical truths, are necessarily true, which means that it’s impossible for them to be false. No matter how the universe had turned out, two plus two would equal four and it would have been wrong to torture people for fun. We cannot account for necessary truths in terms of things that could have been different. To take Aristotle’s view: We might have evolved to have natures directed toward cruelty. In such a counterfactual scenario, we would have moral grounds for cruelty, which runs counter to our deepest moral convictions. Any view which tries to ground moral truth in things that might have been different is going to face a similar problem. There will be some counterfactual scenario in which the putative ground of morality is absent or points us toward evil rather than the good.”
How, does panpsychism incorporate necessity while retaining immanence and thus an explanation of our ability to access moral knowledge?
Well, we have to assume that conscious states are intrinsically goal directed. Goff uses the examples of pleasure and pain here. Pleasure is objectively and intrinsically good. Pain is objectively and intrinsically bad. Thus both provide a metaphysical ground for normative hedonism. As it stands this doesn’t explain how other kinds of norms that Goff cites are immanent in consciousness – e.g. epistemic norms. But we can allow pleasure and pain to serve as proof of concept for now.
How do we build necessity into this picture. To move rather summarily, Goff argues for a container view of reality (according to which reality is independent of its contingent manifestations) as opposed to a collection view (according to which reality just is the contingent ways it manifests). Thus if reality is pure consciousness then there can be phenomenological laws applying with necessity across all its manifestations (e.g. pain is necessarily nasty):
“On a non-panpsychist form of the container view, Reality is a general form of being, which can manifest as either mental or non-mental entities. On a panpsychist version of the container view, Reality can be thought of as pure, undifferentiated consciousness, while particular manifestations of Reality are specific forms of that pure and undifferentiated consciousness.
The mere fact that I am a manifestation of Reality doesn’t entail that I have cognitive access to the essential nature of Reality. But if Reality is itself a very general form of consciousness, and my consciousness is a specific form of that general form of consciousness, it follows that Reality is present within my consciousness. This allows us to begin to make sense of how I might have intuitive access to the goal-directed nature of Reality.”
I think this a pretty ingenious move to reconcile access and immanence, on the one hand, with necessity, on the other. And while I’ve never espoused panpsychism, preferring more deflationary and reductive accounts of consciousness, I’m going to run with this view for the purposes of argument and speculation. My issue here is not whether the theory is metaphysically adequate, but whether it is epistemically adequate to the access problem.
I think the issue can be couched neatly in terms of my Dark Phenomenology Thesis: namely, the view that having a conscious state does not heap epistemic entitlements upon its possessor (Roden 2013). Evan Thomson summarises my view fairly and concisely here:
“David Roden argues that phenomenology should be retained only as a descriptive, empirical method for providing data about experience. This method must be recognized as limited, because it cannot penetrate “dark phenomena” that are not available to introspection or reflective intuition, such as very fine-grained perceptual discriminations of shades of colour that cannot be held in memory, or the deep structure of temporal experience”.
Even supposing Goff’s container panpsychism, there’s no reason to think that because consciousness is present in us that we are any more able to discern its underlying, invariant nature than we can discern the nature of nucleons from the fact that nucleons are present within our constituent atoms. There may be – of phenomenological necessity – no limits to the complexity and refinement of our phenomenological states in the noumenal depths of Goff’s undifferentiated consciousness. This may extend also to their dispositional properties or powers. Merely having a particular structure of awareness need tell us little about its essential possibilities, or what other kinds of consciousness may be out there in the possibility space of nonhuman, alien or posthuman phenomenology.
I think this possibility of a dark phenomenal reality is replete with the kinds of possibilities that appeal to decadent souls such as myself. For example, hedonism might be false and superficial (as Nietzsche regularly jibed) but because the intrinsic normativity of the ultimate undifferentiated consciousness is different from the ones it only appears to have in its finite manifestations. Perhaps the universe wants to suffer and extinguish itself, while torturing the creatures that compose it in ever more refined ways (as in Thomas Ligotti’s story ‘Nethescurial’ and Roden 2020a) – that at least seems consistent with the dynamic that abounds in human, if not cosmic, history. I think also here of the poetic world conjured by Katy Mongeau in her collection Apostasy, which I’ve reviewed here. As I write:
“The two poems in this collection celebrate a world corrupt in every leaf, every body rotting, and delectating over it. The narrator of the titular first poem writes ‘I am cross/and locking eyes with evil/learning how even the lamb may be wicked’ A sublime viciousness bites her back like a snake or celebrates her lover burning alive in a field where the flowers are ‘reeking of the come that makes them’ The line between masochism and sadism becoming irrelevant when every skin is ripe with the desire for, or to become, meat and lovers wake roasted from dreams of being hitched to burning horses.”
Why isn’t Mongeau’s poetic world-as-torture-garden a more reliable indicator of the inherent teleology of a fundamentally demonic undifferentiated consciousness than the claims of the orthodox hedonist? If we accept the dark phenomenology thesis, there are no obvious grounds for preferring the latter. Why, in other words, isn’t Goff’s position a philosophical apologia for pandemonism?
Roden, D., 2013. Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 72, pp.169-188.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden, David. 2019. ‘Subtractive-Catastrophic Xenophilia,’ Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 1-2 (Summer – Winter 2019): 40-46.
Roden, D. 2020a. ‘Sub Rosa’. Plutonics XIII: A Journal for Non-Standard Theory, pp. 43-47.
Roden, d. 2020b. ‘Posthuman: Critical, Speculative, Biomorphic, in Mads Rosendhal Thomsen and Joseph Wamburg (eds)The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism, Bloomsbury Academic: London, pp. 81-94.