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The Universe Knows Right from Wrong

A proponent of panpsychism argues moral truth is inherent in consciousness.

Most of us, most of the time, think and act as though there are facts about good and bad, right and wrong. We think the predatory…By Philip Goff

Most of us, most of the time, think and act as though there are facts about good and bad, right and wrong. We think the predatory behavior of Jeffrey Epstein was abhorrent, and that the political actions of Mahatma Gandhi were admirable. Moreover, we don’t generally take these facts to be mere records of our subjective preferences or of cultural norms. I happen to like watching Doctor Who, but if that’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine with me. But if you think Epstein’s behavior was pretty cool, I’m going to think there’s something objectively wrong with your preferences. And to the extent that our society has become more opposed to violence and oppression in certain respects, we tend to think that this not just a change in our norms but a change to better norms.

Some philosophers deny that there can be facts about values. I used to be one of them. But I’ve come to appreciate how claims about objective value infiltrate every aspect of rational thought and action, and because of this I no longer consider the denial of objective value to be a rationally sustainable position.

HEAVEN AND EARTH: The philosophical debate about the nature of morality, dating back to ancient Greece, is reflected in Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens. Plato, pointing heavenward, saw goodness as an entity beyond space and time. Aristotle, his palm facing down, grounded moral value in the essential nature of organisms.serato / Shutterstock

Consider the value claims we make in relation to evidence. We say that beliefs should be shaped by evidence and rational argument. This is in itself a claim of objective value; we are saying that someone who ignores evidence is failing to act as they ought. Indeed, the very act of believing involves taking yourself to have good reasons for the belief in question. Because of this, philosophers who argue against objective value, such as Bart Streumer from the University of Groningen, cannot consistently believe their own view. As Streumer concedes, if he believed his own view, he would believe that there are such things as good and bad reasons for belief, which is exactly what his view denies. In other words, the very engagement with rational argument and evidence presupposes facts about value.

For these reasons and others, I believe that we need to take the reality of objective value as a basic data-point that any overall theory of reality needs to accommodate. But how on earth could there be facts about value? What determines that kindness is good as opposed to bad, or that torturing for fun is bad as opposed to good? This is the philosophical quest for the ground of moral truth.

For a while now I’ve been articulating and defending panpsychism: the view that consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. I’ve been defending this view on the grounds that it offers the best solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Panpsychism also offers a solution to the even harder problem of how to ground objective truths about value.

Platonic Dilemma

Philosophers searching for the ground of moral truth face a dilemma: Should we seek the basis of morality in a supernatural realm, or in the contingent world of space and time? The ancient Greek philosopher Plato took the former option, postulating “the Good”—or goodness itself—as an entity beyond space and time. Platonism about ethics is still a popular option, but its advocates face a deep problem accounting for moral knowledge. 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.

If you think Jeffrey Epstein’s behavior was cool, I’m going to think there’s something objectively wrong with your preferences.

Plato’s student Aristotle tried to bring Platonism down to earth, and grounded moral value in the essential nature of organisms. Aristotle believed that organisms have an essentially goal-directed, or teleological nature, and that this grounds what is objectively good or bad for the organism. 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.

Reflecting on these difficulties gives us a couple of constraints that any foundational moral theory must satisfy. It has to be able to account for our knowledge of moral truths and it has to be able to account for the necessity of moral truths. Platonist views struggle with the former, non-Platonist views struggle with the latter. The task I set myself is to construct a theory able to satisfy both of these constraints, and to avoid the dilemma which has plagued so many foundational moral theories.

Two Conceptions of Reality

These challenges are rooted in a conception of reality which we have gotten so used to that we’re not even aware that there’s an alternative. I call it the “collection view” of reality. It’s the view that reality is just a collection of all the things that exist. If you destroyed each particular thing that exists, you’d end up with literally nothing. In the collection view, reality isn’t really an entity in its own right, it’s just a label we give to the collection of things that happen to exist.

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There’s another conception of reality which I call the “container view.” This is the view that reality is an entity in its own right; it’s the container of everything that exists. I don’t mean “contain” in a spatial sense, given that one of the things “contained” is space (or spacetime) itself. The idea is that all things are forms or manifestations of Reality itself. (I am capitalizing the first letter of “Reality” to indicate the container view).

According to general relativity, space—or rather spacetime—is an entity in its own right, with its own distinctive nature. If we take away all the matter, we’d still have spacetime. Indeed, on the view known as “super-substantivalism,” material objects are not distinct from spacetime but are rather identical with massy regions of spacetime. The container view is a bit like this but applied to Reality. It says that if you took away everything that exists—including spacetime—you’d still have Reality, and that everything that exists is a manifestation of Reality.

Some philosophers deny that there can be facts about values. I used to be one of them.

A more homely analogy is that of the relationship between a statue and the clay it’s made of. When you melt the clay, you destroy the statue but you don’t destroy the clay from which the statue is formed. Similarly, on the container view, if you were to entirely annihilate the physical universe—perhaps by bringing together all the matter with all the anti-matter—you wouldn’t destroy Reality, of which the universe is a manifestation. This analogy, like any, has limited application. Different statues are made of different clay; on the container view in contrast, everything that does, or could, exist is a manifestation of the same Reality.

How can the container view help ground moral truth? If we follow Aristotle in grounding moral truth in the goal-directed nature of human beings, then we fail to account for the necessity of moral truths. I propose we ground moral truth in the goal-directed nature of Reality itself. Pleasure is good and suffering is bad because Reality is essentially directed toward the former and away from the latter. Aristotle held that our nature as rational animals means that it is objectively good for us when we act rationally and objectively bad for us when we fail to do so. My proposal is that the inherently directed nature of Reality entails that it’s objectively good for Reality when it manifests as pleasure and objectively bad for Reality when it manifests as pain. And given that all things (whether actual or merely possible) are manifestations of Reality, all things participate in the goal-directed nature of Reality.

Reality as Consciousness

This view can be seen as a middle way between the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition. The ground of moral truth is immanent in the natural world. But Reality is also transcendent, to the extent that it is not tied to any specific manifestation; our universe is just one possible manifestation of Reality. This doesn’t in itself explain moral knowledge. The ground of morality is brought closer to us, but we still don’t have an account of how I come to know about its goal-directed nature through moral intuition. My kidneys are pretty close to me, but intuition provides me with no insight into their nature.

This is where panpsychism can help. 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.

Foundational theories of morality have been locked in a perennial tug of war. Panpsychism offers a compromise.

Many philosophers have argued that a conscious subject necessarily has a certain kind of pre-reflexive awareness of the contents of its consciousness: If something is in pain, then it’s aware of its pain. This pre-reflexive awareness is known as “acquaintance.” If the goal-directed nature of Reality is present within each particular conscious mind, it follows that any conscious mind is acquainted with the goal-directed nature of Reality.

Wouldn’t it follow that all conscious organisms, including slugs and bugs, have moral knowledge? Not necessarily. Acquaintance is one thing, conceptual thought is another. While all conscious beings are acquainted with their consciousness, not all conscious beings are able to reflectively attend to their experience and form acquaintance-based concepts of it. In his detailed discussion of acquaintance, the philosopher David Chalmers proposes that creatures who are able to form reflective concepts of their experience are afforded a particular kind of acquaintance-based knowledge of their conscious experience. Building on Chalmers’ account, we could say that creatures with the cognitive sophistication to think that pleasure is good may be afforded acquaintance-based knowledge of the truth of that proposition, rooted in their direct acquaintance with the source of its truth. This explanation of moral knowledge fits well with a plausible theory of our knowledge of consciousness, providing a unified account of both moral and experiential knowledge.

If everyone is acquainted with the ground of moral truth, why is there moral disagreement? In fact, there is a striking level of cross-cultural agreement regarding value. It is broadly agreed that (all things being equal) pleasure is good and pain is bad, and that (all things being equal) knowledge is good and ignorance bad. Of course, there is also divergence in moral views, and it’s a challenge for any believer in objective value to explain this.

I cannot fully address this challenge here. But as a partial solution, I would point out two important differences between intuition-based knowledge in mathematics and logic and intuition-based knowledge in ethics. Firstly, the propositions of ethics are much harder to frame with precision than the truths of logic and mathematics. Secondly, in contrast to the case of ethics and logic, there are many strong emotional motivations for wanting certain moral claims to be true regardless of whether they are. We can easily see how the desire for vengeance may motivate someone to believe that revenge is morally appropriate, or the desire for wealth may motivate someone to believe that inequalities are justified, whether or not these moral claims are true. Both of these considerations can help explain how there could be moral error and disagreement even if the ground of ethical truth is, so to speak, right under our noses.

But Is It True?

It might be nice to think that the universe has an inherent moral direction, but do we have any evidence that it does? And if we lack good evidence for these claims, surely respect for Occam’s razor ought to stop us from accepting them? This objection, though, is jam-packed with value-claims: It claims what we “ought” to believe and references “good” evidence. The very challenge pre-supposes the reality of value.

Moreover, Occam’s razor doesn’t tell us to believe the simplest theory, but rather to believe the simplest theory consistent with the data. The reality of objective value is a non-negotiable data-point and we are entitled to make whatever postulations are required to account for it. The demand for evidence of objective value is equivalent to asking for evidence that there is an external world (i.e., we’re not in the Matrix) or that other people have consciousness (i.e., my wife is not a philosophical zombie). These are all things which cannot be proved by rational enquiry, but which must be presupposed in order for rational enquiry to take place.

In accounting for the data, we should try to postulate as few entities as we can. The problem is that ethical truths are necessarily true, and you can’t account for necessary truths without in some way going beyond the contingent states of the physical world. Foundational theories of morality have been locked in a perennial tug of war between the supernaturalism of Plato and the naturalism of his opponents. Panpsychism offers a compromise between these warring factions: an ultimate foundation of value and existence which is not locked away in some heavenly realm but is the very medium of existence itself.


Philip Goff is a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University. His work is focused on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview, and he defends panpsychism on the grounds that it avoids the difficulties faced by the more traditional options of materialism and dualism. He has published an academic book on this topic—Consciousness and Fundamental Reality—as well as a book aimed at a general audience—Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. Goff has published over 40 articles in academic journals, and also writes for newspapers and magazines, such as The Guardian, Aeon, the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement and Philosophy Now. @philip_goff

Philip Goff’s Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness is due out in paperback in the US on Oct. 6. Preorder here.

Lead image: Triff / Shutterstock

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