On panpsychism, an exchange

I recently ended a fascinating discussion with philosopher Philip Goff, on the topic of the science and philosophy of panpsychism. (You can find the 8 letters we exchanged here.) Panpsychism is the notion that consciousness, somehow, is elemental in the universe, i.e., it is a basic property of matter.

As Goff readily admitted, there is no, and there cannot be any, empirical evidence in support of his theory. Indeed, if there were, we would already know that the theory is false, as explained by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder here.

You would think that would be the end of the discussion, but Goff subscribes to what I suggest is an outmoded approach to metaphysics, believing that simply producing logically coherent accounts of things one actually advances knowledge and understanding.

My opinion is that that way of doing metaphysics died with Descartes (not coincidentally, that’s also when modern science got started — Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo). A far better way to conceive of the whole project of metaphysics nowadays is as being in the business of making unified sense of the highly fractured picture of the world emerging from the special sciences, since scientists themselves are simply, by necessity, too close to their subject matter to be able to afford a bird’s eye view of things (see here for an example).

In the end, my sense is that what Goff and others (for instance, most famously, David Chalmers) are doing got the best response from David Hume back in the 18th century:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1777)

Interview on Skepticism, Science, Pseudoscience, Cultural Evolution, Stoicism, and more!

Here is part one of a very wide-ranging interview I did with Scott Jacobsen over at In-Sight, covering my interests in scientific skepticism, the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem, biological vs cultural evolution, and of course, Stoicism. Here is the beginning (continue reading part I, part II is here, Part III here; Part IV here):

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Of course, you are a very prominent skeptic and new stoic, and so on. Let us maybe, do a brief touching on early life and education to provide a context of what you are doing today. What were some early pivotal moments in terms of becoming more skeptical?

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: Those are different questions. My attitude and interest toward science started very early, as far as I can remember. I was a kid, my family tells me, when I decided to become a scientist.

I wanted to become an astronomer and then switched to a biologist, which is what, in fact, I ended up doing. It is hard to tell where, exactly, that came from [Laughing] because I was so young. I was watching the Apollo 11 landing.

I am sure that had an impact on a five-year-old. My adoptive grandfather fostered this interest through buying me books on science, and eventually my first telescope. It helped in providing a nurturing environment.

The interest in skepticism came later. That is connected to a very specific episode in my life. After my post-doc at Brown University, I took my first academic position as a full-time faculty at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Knoxville is in the middle of the Bible belt.

I was surrounded by creationists.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: My neighbours were creationists. Some of my students were creationists. One of them, in particular, told his fellow students not to listen to what I was saying because, otherwise, they would end up in hell.

This brought to my attention the idea of science and pseudoscience, and attitudes such as creationism. I started doing some outreach. I organized one of the first Darwin Days at the University of Tennessee In 1997 with Douglas Joel Futuyma as a guest speaker.

He later became one of my colleagues at Stony Brook. As I started doing outreach, I was approached by a local skeptic group in Knoxville. They said, “Hey, there are a lot of other people out here trying to do the same thing. Maybe, you want to do stuff together.”

That is how it started. It is still going. I started writing for the Skeptical Inquirer. I wrote two books on the topic. One, specifically on creationism, called Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science. Another one called Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.

The Daily Stoic on How to Be a Stoic

The Daily Stoic, the site started and maintained by Ryan Holiday, author, among other things, of The Ego is the Enemy, has recently featured by book, How to Be a Stoic. The article begins:

“Imagine how much easier life would be if we could learn to regard everything bad that happens to us as an act of nature. To keep our cool in the heat of an argument. To not shy away from a challenge, or to let our ego get the best of us.

Throughout history, Roman emperors, prisoners of war, entrepreneurs and many others have moved through life with a sort of steadiness—an unshakable perspective. The commonality amongst them is the diligent practice of the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism. 

In Massimo Pigluicci’s How To Be A Stoicreaders are given a clear, concise, and creative breakdown of how to become their best selves. Organized as a discussion between the author and the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus, How To Be A Stoic entertains while it educates, covering everything from how to control our desires, to overcoming the fear and anxiety that cripples society today.”

Read the rest here, including 3 takeaways from my book, 3 favorite examples, and the 12 best quotes.


Welcome on Green Road SignWelcome to my personal page and blog. Here you will find updated lists of my books, my public outreach articles, my technical papers, and related materials.

I will also publish occasional updates on my podcasts and more substantive blog posts, as well as announcements of public activity such as appearances to conferences, solo talks, and so forth.

To get us started, here is my main blog, Figs in Winter (118 articles and counting), devoted to practical philosophy. And here is my almost daily podcast, Stoic Meditations (343 episodes and counting). Plenty to read and listen to.

Thanks for checking the page out, I hope you’ll keep returning for more!