Why materialists are wrong and the Jedi right, and how panpsychism might revolutionize science.
by Philip Goff
How can we explain the ongoing mass appeal of Star Wars? Of course they are great action films, and of course the sci-fi elements of aliens, lightsabers and intergalactic travel spark our imagination. But what really distinguishes Star Wars from its rivals are its mythical themes. We have the perennial fight between good and evil, the saga of the David versus Goliath fight between the plucky rebels and the powerful evil empire. And most unusually for a sci-fi action film we have a prominent role for religion. Indeed, if our official records are to be believed, the mystical religion of the Jedi has moved from myth to reality: 390,127 people in England and Wales declared their religion to be Jedi in the 2001 National Census, making the Jedi religion the fourth largest reported religion (in 2011 it slipped down to seventh place, but of course that was before the latest series of Star Wars films, so who knows what we will find in 2021).
The religious focus is even more prominent in The Last Jedi. This is not a religion based on belief in a personal God, but in an impersonal reality known as “The Force”. As Luke Skywalker trains Rey in the Jedi ways, he explains that The Force is an energy that runs between all things, a balance that holds the universe together. In the West we tend to associate religion with the hope for personal survival beyond the grave. But the Jedi religion seems closer to the Buddhist belief in Anatta, or “no self”. As Luke explains to Rey, it is vanity to imagine that one has a unique soul – a special “light” – that distinguishes you from the rest of the universe. The hope of the Jedi when her time comes is to be absorbed back into The Force from whence she came.
It is natural to think that such mystical beliefs have been shown to be false by modern science. In the 19th century, vitalism – the belief that life is a special kind of force in its own right – was a quite common position among scientists. But modern cellular biochemistry has no place for the mysterious forces of the vitalist. And in contemporary physics there are only four basic forces governing our universe – electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and gravity. There seems little prospect of The Force of the Jedi being added to this list any time soon.
In spite of all this, one of the great scientists of the twentieth century – Arthur Eddington – argued that a position remarkably similar to Jedi theology was not only perfectly consistent with modern science, but actually something we might have to reason to believe. Eddington is best known for being the first to offer observational confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In May 1919 he conducted a series of observations of a solar eclipse from the island of Principe off the West Coast of Africa. As the moon covered the sun, Eddington photographed stars visible around its covered edge. On the basis of this he was able to demonstrate that, precisely as Einstein’s theory had predicted, the light from these stars had been bent by the spacetime curvature caused by the mass of the sun.
A decade later, Eddington wrote a book in which, as well as explaining relativity and other developments in recent physics, he defended panpsychism: the view that all matter is infused with consciousness. Like the Jedi knights, Eddington was convinced that there was a spiritual force underlying the workings of the physical universe. In words we can imagine Luke – or Obi Wan before him – using in his Jedi training classes, Eddington put it as follows:
…our minds are not apart from the world; and the feelings that we have of gladness and melancholy and our yet deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of our particular consciousness…the harmony and beauty of the face of Nature is at root one with the gladness that transfigures the face of man…
How on earth did Eddington reconcile his cold-blooded scientific beliefs with these Jedi-esque mystical convictions? Eddington’s starting point was that physics tells us a lot less than we think about the nature of matter. In the public mind, physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of space, time and matter. We are not there yet of course; for one thing, our best theory of the very big – general relativity – is inconsistent with our best theory of the very small – quantum mechanics. But it is standardly assumed that one day these challenges will be overcome and physicists will proudly present an eager public with the Grand Unified Theory of everything: a complete story of the fundamental nature of the universe.
This is not how Eddington saw physics. Building on the work of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Eddington argued that, for all its virtues, physics tells us precisely nothing about the nature of the physical reality. Consider Newton’s theory of universal gravitation:
The variables m1 and m2 stand for the masses of two objects whose gravitational attraction we want to work out; F is the force of gravitational attraction between those two masses, G is the gravitational constant (a number we know from observation); and r is the distance between m1 and m2. Notice that this equation doesn’t provide us with definitions of what “mass”, “force” and “distance” are. This is not something peculiar to Newton’s law; the same is true of the more complex equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. The subject matter of physics are the basic properties of the physics world: mass, charge, spin, distance, force. But the equations of physics do not explain what these properties are. They simply name them in order to assert equations between them.
If physics does not tell us what the nature of physical properties is, then what else gives us this information? Eddington believed that physics is a tool for prediction. Even if we don’t know what “mass” and “force” really are, we are able to recognise them in the world. They show up as readings on our instruments, or otherwise impact on our senses. And by using the equations of physics, such as Newton’s law of gravity, we can predict what’s going to happen with great precision. It is this predictive capacity that has enabled us to manipulate the natural world in extraordinary ways, leading to the technological revolution that has transformed our planet. But it is simply not the job of physics to tell us what the stuff of the universe essentially is. As Stephen Hawking put it, physics doesn’t tell us what “breathes fire into the equations”.
Given that physics tell us nothing of the nature of physical reality, is there anything we do know about it? Are there any clues as to what is going on “under the bonnet” of the engine of the universe? Eddington argued that the only thing we really know about the nature of matter is that some of it has consciousness; we know this because we are directly aware of the consciousness of our own brains:
We are acquainted with an external world because its fibres run into our own consciousness; it is only our own fibres that we actually know; from these ends we more or less successfully reconstruct the rest, as a palaeontologist reconstructs an extinct monster from its footprint.
We have no direct access to the nature of matter outside of brains. But the most reasonable speculation, according to Eddington, is that the nature of matter outside of brains is continuous with the nature of matter inside of brains. Given that we have no direct insight into the intrinsic nature of field and particles, it is rather “silly”, argued Eddington, to declare that they have a nature entirely removed from mentality and then to wonder where mentality comes from. On this basis, Eddington concluded that the most simple and parsimonious view consistent with our direct and observational knowledge is some form of panpsychism, according to which the underlying nature the stuff of the physical world is, as Eddington put it, mind stuff.
These ideas of Russell and Eddington from the 1920s have recently been rediscovered in academic philosophy and are causing a great deal of excitement. For decades philosophers and scientists have struggled to understand how physical matter produces consciousness: the subjective inner world of feelings, sensations and experiences. Many are now persuaded that, in broad brushstrokes, Russell and Eddington had the answer. In Eddington’s version, physical science describes matter “from the outside”, providing mathematical models that allow us to predict its behaviour, but in its underlying nature matter is constituted of consciousness. It is consciousness that breathes fire into the equations. The attraction of this view is its capacity to reconcile the reality of consciousness with our scientific understanding of the universe.
It will take time for these ideas to move from the closed world of academic philosophy to the broader scientific community and the general public. My recent book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality aims to help in this process by bringing together and critically evaluating the huge wealth of recent literature on this topic. Intellectual fashions change and I am convinced that the days when views like panpsychism are dismissed as anti-scientific nonsense are coming to an end. What impact this will ultimately have on the Jedi religion is unclear. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next census.