An Extract from Episode 25, Philip Goff and David Papineau Debate: 'Can Science Explain Consciousness?' (Part III)

Transcribed by Emily Rose Ogland

(04:30) Mr. Horton: The first question from Twitter comes from @consciousnessplus, or Adrian Nelson, the author of Origin of Consciousness: How the Search to Understand the Nature of Consciousness is Leading to a New View of Reality. He poses the question, ‘what are the ethical implications of panpsychism?’

Goff: Yes, I think that’s a very interesting question, and it’s not something that I’ve thought a great deal about. Panpsychism, actually, has had a kind of ethical impact on my life, but only in one regard – and it might be thought of as quite a surprising one. I think it stops me from being vegetarian. I think if I wasn’t a panpsychist, I’d probably be a vegetarian. I saw recently a really good mock documentary – what’s it called… by the comedian Simon Amstell? Have you seen this David?

Papineau: No, I haven’t.

Goff: It’s set in the future where everyone has become vegan; they’ve all realized what a horrible thing it is to abuse animals. They are looking back into the past, about how that happened, and there are even self-help groups for people who can’t bear the guilt that they used to eat cheese and stuff. Anyway, it was very good. At one point he says, “At this time, humans realise that it was wrong to eat something with an inner life.” The problem for me is that I am very very confident that plants have an inner life – they are conscious. But you’ve got to eat something – it’s hard to know where to draw the line. So, quite seriously, I think that if I just thought animals were conscious and plants weren’t, then that seems like a good dividing line, and I’d probably be vegetarian or vegan. But because there isn’t that dividing line, it’s hard to know… so, I worry about animal suffering, and I take that into consideration, but I suppose I can’t draw a line between what I think is ethically permissible to kill and not. But maybe that’s a slightly disappointing answer. I know my fellow panpsychist, Hedda Hassel Mørch, thinks that there is some really important positiveethical implications of panpsychism, i.e., it will help us relate to the world in better terms. But I don’t quite see that myself. I mean, if physicalism were to work, then we’d be sort of continuous with nature – but I don’t think physicalism works… although, panpsychism has the same implication that we are all sort of continuous with nature. But that’s a really interesting question, and I’d like to think more about it. 

Mr. Horton: Can I just quickly add one thing before David speaks – wouldn’t most people say that you have to prioritize the forms of consciousness that can experience pain? I think the biggest issue, on an environmental basis, would be that you might say that the trees and everything needs protection, but even that would be contingent on the fact that if they are protected, then other types of consciousness that can experience pain would be worse off. 

Goff: Yeah, well, who’s to say that trees can’t feel pain? I was telling this to another panpsychist of sorts,Miri Albahari, of the Hindi and Buddhist tradition. She has a book called, Analytical Buddhism: The Two Tiered Illusion of Self, and she shares my view that plants are conscious. She said to watch The Secret Life of Plants, which I haven’t watched yet, but it shows sort of sped up plants, and once you see them sped up, it gives you little doubt that they are conscious. So, it’s not obvious to me that trees don’t feel pain, actually.

Papineau: But I think you probably would agree that we need to think about which beings are suffering –

Goff: Yeah.

Papineau: – and maybe even plants suffer too. Presumably, you are going to think that maybe viruses or electrons don’t suffer, but putting that to one side, let’s just think about animal welfare and suffering. I think that it’s an important issue, obviously, and I think that panpsychism is helpful in this way. Andy, you posed it as, ‘don’t we want to find out whether animals are consciously in pain?’ And I worry that the emphasis on consciouslythere is not being helpful. Animal protection laws, especially in respect to research,  are quite strict about what you can do to mammals (and octopuses, which have been allowed in,) but they allow the researchers free reign when it comes to arthropods, other molluscs, apart from the cephalopods, and so on. Many people think that the issue here is ‘are they conscious?’ and they spend a lot of time trying to find a way to answer that question. But, from my somewhat panpsychist point of view, I feel that that’s a red herring. Instead, I think that you should consider what’s going on in these animals: let’s study bees to see how they react to various circumstances, how flexible their behaviour is, what they seem to find valuable, what they are attracted to, and what dissuades them from things. Then, on that basis, we should ask ‘are they suffering? Is this treatment making them suffer?’ – not‘are they conscious? Do they get across the line dividing the non-conscious from the conscious?’ I think that agonizing about whether they are conscious or not is a red herring that can sometimes allow people – look at Descartes, for example – to feel like they can justify things which clearly are unjustifiable.

Goff: Right, so maybe there are sort of positive and negative implications for animal welfare. On the one hand, it might make us feel more sympathetic to bees, but on the other hand, it doesn’t give an obvious dividing line between the things you can eat and the things you can’t.

Papineau: Well, so I’m with you; I’m not against eating rather sophisticated beings, provided that they don’t suffer during their lives and that they are killed painlessly, and perhaps we should think about their relationships to their offspring as well. There is quite a lot to take into account, and while I don’t rule out killing animals for food, I dorule out their suffering unnecessarily.