Raiders of the lost purpose (3): Philip Goff’s neo-animism

The most recent, and probably most imaginative of the significant contributions to the philosophical debate on whether contemporary science confirms, or at least points to some kind of strongly teleological cosmology, is Philip Goff’s book Why? The Purpose of the Universe. In this book’s arguments, the author builds both upon the ideas about cosmological ‘fine-tuning’ we have been reviewing in the last couple of entries, but more importantly, he takes the chance to advance in a wildly speculative fashion in his own metaphysical project of mind everywhere (as I have described here the doctrine of panpsychism, of which Goff is one of the most relevant contemporary proposers). I shall leave the arguments around fine-tuning and against the multiverse hypothesis for the next entry, and will concentrate on this other turn of the debate.

Photo: Greg Rakozy / Unsplash

Panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is not an emergent property of some extremely complex biological systems, but a basic property of all matter (whether contained in our brains or not), is a relatively popular position within philosophy of mind, as a kind of parsimonious ‘solution’ to the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (by the way, the article on panpsychism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I have just linked is authored by Goff himself). As I explained in the entry on the topic mentioned in the previous paragraph, I think panpsychism has much less explanatory power than its supporters think: it doesn’t explain why we are unconscious of most of our brain (and by the way, our non-brain physiological) activity, it doesn’t explain why conscious experiences are ‘integrated’ in singular experiences and subjects, and (perhaps more fatally for the prospects of panpsychism being explanatory at all) it also fails to account for the obvious fact that sensory ‘qualia’ (say, a colour and an odour, or a sound and a sense of merriment) are so immensely different from each other in a qualitative sense, if all qualia are build upon the same ‘consciousness elements’ of the physical particles or fields. Undeterred by these and other types of dificulties of the panpsychism that Goff had defended in previous works, in his new book he chooses instead not tempering it, but transforming it into something more outlandish still: what he calls ‘pan-agentialism’, i.e., “the view that the roots of agency are present at the fundamental level of physical reality”:

According to pan-agentialism, matter is inherently disposed to respond rationally to the reality that is presented to it. Particles simply follow their conscious inclinations. This is rational behaviour -it’s rational to do what you feel like doing- but of an incredibly simple form (…) My proposal is that the very same capacity for rational responsiveness possessed by the tiger is also possessed by the particle.

To make a long story short, Goff proceeds from his old (mere) panpsychism to this kind of New Age animism mainly in order to make it plausible the idea that the cosmos itself, and not only each elementary particle by its own, may have goals and wants, may ‘feel like doing’ whatever it does: if agency, or at least proto-agency, happens to be a universal property of all matter and energy, then the idea that the universe is a kind of agent wouldn’t sound so preposterous (though preposterous it sounds):

We need to identify the cosmic fine-tuner with the [universal] wave function itself (…) The wave function is a conscious entity that is aware of the complete future consequences of the options available to it, and acts by choosing the best one. During the Planck Epoch, the best option available to the wave function was to put itself in a state whereby the universe would become life-permitting (…) On teleological cosmopsychism we start rational matter, as particles and the wave function are themselves rationally responsive material entities. The wave function then fine-tuned itself in order to allow matter to reach a greater realization of its rational nature.

Goff devotes a big part of the book to show that the thesis that the cosmos is a kind of conscious living being is more consistent with the deep desire for “everything to have a meaning” than the more common idea of the meaning of the world depending on the existence of an omnipotent and absolutely transcendent God, for, since nothing allows us to assume that the universe is infinitely powerful, the fact that the world seems very often to ‘reach the good’ in a rather ‘botched’ way (e.g., allowing too much seemingly unnecessary suffering), stops being a lethal criticism. ‘Cosmodicy’ would be a much less necessary philosophical hobby than traditional theodicy. Cosmopsychism would hence be, or so is Goff’s hope, a much more swallowable thesis than ordinary theism for people who find the idea of leaving in a meaningless universe deeply perturbing. The author is honest in making it clear since the beginning of the book that it is his existential discomfort with the nihilism implied by the negation of objective moral values what most intensely motivates his looking for a view of the universe in which values have an objective existence, not depending on our own capricious whims. But of course to this it can be answered that, if you don’t feel perturbed at all by the lack of ‘absolute meaning’ of the universe, and are happy accepting that moral values are just a contingent creation of certain human cultures, with no gram of additional transcendence needed for their more or less efficient working in our vanishingly small province of the universe, then you will also not feel the least need for a phantasmagorical view of “the universal wave-function engineering itself to arrange a life-permitting cosmos”, and will hence discount in one go most of the apparent reasonableness the cosmopsychist’s arguments might have.

Goff’s views have, nevertheless, much deeper problems than their mere lack of plausibility once you apply the eminently sound methodological rule of not leaving your moral feelings to guide your ideas about what scientific explanations are more probably right. I can here only offer a very summaristic description of the most important troubles cosmophyschism and pan-agentialism have. The most important problem of all, in Goff’s argument for teleology, is that both his preferred explanation of ‘why the laws of the universe are the ones they are’ (“because they are good”), and of ‘why an agent does what it does’ (“because it feels like doing it”), are just pseudo-explanations, that just may contribute in some people to ease the subjective desire for an explanation (“I need to know why!!!”), but that in absolutely no way provide what a scientific explanation has to provide. They are mere verbal placebos, like Molière’s virtus dormitiva. More on this in the next entry.

One second difficulty concerns the image of the whole cosmos (or the ‘universal wave-function’) as an agent engaged in voluntary decision-making. Goff contrasts at some point the proto-agency of an elementary particle with the more fully-fledged agency of an animal like a tiger, whose infinitely much more complex behaviour depends on the complexity of its biological constitution (and on the way natural selection has made it to evolve, by the way). Taking this contrast in mind, one may legitimately guess what is what in the case of the whole universe in the Planck Epoch would play the causal role that the complexity of the tiger’s nervous system plays in its efficiently chasing a pray, for example. Why it is that the cosmos doesn’t need something like a brain in order to know the infinitely complex mathematical details that would have to be taken into account for comparing the possible consequences of alternative physical laws and then choosing the most promising ones for the evolution of life (or of stalactites)?

One third problem (a much less serious one from an epistemological point of view, I recognise) concerns the supposed moral virtues of Goff’s approach. Even if we admitted the audacious postulation of a universe with a mind of its own, it seems there is absolutely no way of penetrating in which ones the goals of that mind may have been (besides the more or less trivial claim that ‘it should have had in mind the creation of a world more or less like the one we know’), and more particularly, there is no way in which we might reasonably argue that certain specific human values, no matter how cherished they are by some of us, should be more or less intensely tuned to the cosmos’ goals. Perhaps there are objective values, but there is no reason why our historically chaotic webs of beliefs about values are expected to fit upon them even remotely. Goff describes the (for him) terribly sad predicament of someone who fails to see a meaning in life, but, wouldn’t be more sad, and even more ridiculous, the predicament of someone who devotes his life to a meaning that, once he can join the Universal Mind, It confesses to him that the real meaning of life had actually nothing to do at all with those crazy ideas? Perhaps in the end it had been better to remain a little bit sceptic about such metaphysical issues.


Goff, Ph. (2020), Galileo’s error. Foundations for a new theory of consciousness. Vintage.

Goff, Ph. (2023), Why? The purpose of the universe. Oxford University Press.

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