I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK (3rd oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge). I spend most of my time trying to work out the ultimate nature of reality. Below are some of the big themes of my research. I also spend a lot time arguing on Twitter and on my podcast Mind Chat (which I co-host with Keith Frankish, a philosopher who has the polar opposite philosophical view to me), or rambling on Substack. You can pre-order my new book 'Why? The Purpose of the Universe,' here.
Panpsychism £1000 Essay Prize
A project I run is holding a panpsychism essay prize. Find out more here.
Consciousness and Panpsychism
Most people think consciousness only exists in the brains of complex biological organisms. I defend panpsychism, the view that the physical world is made up of very simple forms of consciousness. I argue that panpsychism is best solution to the mind-body problem, the ancient challenge of trying to work out how consciousness and the physical world fit together. On this topic, I've published one academic book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (Oxford University Press), one book aimed at a general audience, Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, and one co-edited collection of essays by scientists (including Carlo Rovelli, Sean Carroll, Lee Smolin, Annaka Harris, Christof Koch, and Anil Seth), philosophers, and spiritual thinkers, Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays on Panpsychism. Here's something I recently wrote on ChatGPT and I.
The Purpose of the Universe
My new book Why? The Purpose of the Universe will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. You can pre-order here. I don't believe in the Omni-God (the all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, creator that Christians, Muslims and Jews believe in) because I don't think a perfectly good being who could do anything would create a universe with so much suffering. But I also think there are things traditional atheists can't explain, such as the fine-tuning of physics for life and the mystery of psycho-physical harmony (see below). Overall, I think the evidence points to a universe with a purpose, but one that is not driven by an Omni-God. I explore a variety of hypothesis for making sense of cosmic purpose without God: a non-standard designer (e.g., a bad designer, a limited designer, or maybe just an ordinary person in the next universe up), teleological laws (laws of nature with purposes built into them), or cosmopsychism (the view that the universe itself is conscious). I also argue that living in hope of cosmic purpose is a deeply meaningful way of engaging with the world.
The Mystery of Psycho-Physical Harmony
The mystery of psycho-physical harmony is a philosophical problem that is just starting to be talking about, but which I believe will change the world. It's a subtle problem – harder to grasp than the more familiar 'hard problem of consciousness' –but it also has much more radical implications. The challenge is essentially explaining why consciousness and behaviour pair together in a rationally appropriate way, e.g., why pain leads organisms to avoid what's hurting them. This is such an obvious fact of life that it's hard to see why it needs explaining (maybe fish don't think the existence of water needs explaining, because they're swimming in it all the time...). But if, as 60% of philosophers believe, there's no logical connection between consciousness and behaviour, then it does need explaining. And if you think natural selection explains it, then you haven't understood the problem, as any evolutionary explanation of why we are conscious in the way we are already assumes a solution to this problem.
I used to think that morality was subjective, rooted in our emotions and preferences. But during my graduate study, my professors made me realise how pervasive objective value-claims are, e.g., we tend to think you ought to believe what the evidence supports, whether you want to or not. Ultimately, in philosophy I think you just have to start with what seems most evident. And the truth of certain objective value claims, e.g. 'there are better ways to live than pursuing fame for its own sake', seem to me more evident than the reality of the external world. On that basis, it seems to me rational to believe in objective value.
Science is great, but I reject scientism, the view that the only way to find about reality is through doing experiments. Whilst experiments are of course crucial, there are other kinds of 'data' we need to input into our theorising about reality: (1) the reality of consciousness (we know about consciousness not from experiments but from our immediate awareness of our feelings and experiences), (2) the existence of mathematical entities (such as numbers and geometrical structures, which we know about through rational intuition), (3) the reality of value (which we also know about through rational intuition). The task of philosophy, in my view, is one of synthesis: working out the simplest theory of reality able to accommodate all of these kinds of data, both scientific and philosophical. I touched on these themes in this discussion with Carlo Rovelli, George Ellis, and Shami Chakrabarti.
Religion and Politics
I also write about religion and politics. In terms of religion, I identify as a practicing agnostic: I don't know if Christianity is true (it was a long time ago!), but by engaging with it as a possibility, I connect to my community and to something beyond myself (I've written on this here). In terms of politics, I've argued against the idea that taxation is theft (here) and in favour of Universal Rent (here).