Theism has been a hot topic in philosophy in recent years, and many academics now say there are very good arguments for the existence of God on the table. 

They’re often debated on Premier Unbelievable, but it’s not often we get a brand new one. But that’s the topic of our recent debate on ‘psychophysical harmony’. While it is a little tricky to get your head around, it’s worth it and provides a fascinating discussion. 

The proponent of the argument for theism, Dustin Crummett, is an affiliate instructor at the University of Washington Tacoma. The more atheistic counter-argument is put forward by Philip Goff, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. However the latter’s position is a lot closer to theism than standard atheistic materialism. Goff believes: “I’m convinced it’s going to change the world”.

Here we outline their discussion and break down the various new terms. 


What is ‘psychophysical harmony’?

It is a fancy word for something that Goff acknowledges is ‘obvious’, ‘mundane’ and ‘boring’. He defines it as “the way in which organisms tend to respond rationally to their conscious experiences” (which is called experiential rationality). He gives an example: “organisms tend to avoid things that make them feel pain and pursue things that make them feel pleasure.”

Come again? Isn’t this just obvious? 

Goff admits: “when this was first explained to me, I thought ‘this is BS, this is just nonsense’… you have to think very carefully about it to see what the point is.”

This sounds like it could be explained by evolutionary processes such as natural selection? 

On the surface, yes. Natural selection is the Darwinian process of ‘survival of the fittest,’ which means that genes advantageous to an organism – the heritable traits that lead it to reproduce and survive - will logically be those that end up being passed down the generations, because only those who survive will reproduce and raise their young. 

Genes that cause us to experience pleasure for behaviour that helps us to survive and reproduce (e.g. sex, eating food) and those that cause us to have pain and/or avoid things that could kill us (e.g. fire, snakes) will be the ones that survive in any species. On the surface, this might appear to make sense of the problem of ‘psychophysical harmony’ – the rationality of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.


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What’s the problem then? 

Goff describes the inherent logical problem in the debate. The evolutionary argument presumes that the organism responding to pain or pleasure will respond to it in a rational way, and that this rationality is the result of natural selection. Yet, then we would be trying to explain our rationality using natural selection - by presupposing that we are rational. “Any evolutionary story about why we have the conscious experiences we do presupposes experiential rationality, and if it presupposes it, it can’t explain it,” says Goff. “There’s a kind of subtle rationality here that natural selection can’t explain, and if natural selection can’t explain it, we need to look elsewhere.”

Goff says he thinks this hasn’t been explored by many philosophers because it does seem obvious at first – it needs careful thought to realise the difficulties. 

Both speakers discuss this thought experiment to try and help us to understand the problem: could alien beings exist who seek pain and avoid pleasure? If so, why is the world more rational like ours is, rather than the alternatives? 

What has this got to do with arguments for the existence of God?

Crummett says the few philosophers who have studied this admit there is no good explanation  – but they assume atheism. “Of course, if you believed in a benevolent God, then you would have an explanation: ‘maybe he wants us to be able to respond rationally to things’” says Crummett. 

He recently published a paper with Professor of Philosophy Brian Cutter at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana USA, on this topic. They define “psychophysical harmony” as the striking coincidence that mind (or phenomenology) correlates with body (matter) in advantageous ways. 

The paper’s abstract summarises: “We argue that psychophysical harmony is strong evidence for theism (or, at least, strong evidence against atheism in its standard naturalistic form).”

Is the theist trying to argue that evolution isn’t real? 

No. Crummett says that using evolution as the explanation is “not totally misguided” as it is the “proximate explanation’ – i.e. on the surface, it seems to be so. “It is true that beings for whom sexual reproduction was very painful, they would die out - they would be selected against. So it’s not that evolution is irrelevant.”

He reiterates Goff’s point, that there is an assumption underlying these evolutionary explanations – that organisms will respond rationally. It is impossible that this can be explained by evolution, because evolution presupposes this rational response. It seems very unlikely that this lucky coincidence could happen by chance. This is the problem that is being discussed, for which one good explanation is an omnipotent God. 

How does the existence of God explain psychophysical harmony? 

Crummett’s academic paper proposes that the reason this harmony between our mind and body exists is because God wanted it that way. In other words, God “wanted us to be able to have valuable experiences to exercise meaningful agency to understand the world,” he explains. 

“If that’s true, then it makes it much more likely than it would be otherwise, because God can bring that about being omnipotent, and so we suggest that this is, in Bayesian terms… a very strong evidence for theism.” 

Are there other ways of explaining psychophysical harmony? 

Yes. Goff’s argument is what he calls a “middle way” between atheistic materialism and Christian theism. However, he agrees with Crummett that psychophysical harmony “does seem to show a very serious problem for kind of the standard purposeless scientific materialist view that is supposed to be the received view.”

So what is Goff’s explanation? 

He says: “the explanation I prefer doesn’t postulate anything supernatural,” he says. “The idea is just that matter itself is inherently rational.” This is dubbed ‘panagentialism’ which is a form of ‘panpsychism’, or the “view that consciousness goes all the way down to the building blocks of reality.”

Goff says that if simple atoms, particles etc have a simple consciousness or rationality, then “with that in place, all we need is natural selection to explain psychophysical harmony, because now natural selection has a motivation to give me conscious understanding of the world - to give me the right desires - because I’m going to respond rationally to that understanding and those desires and survive.”

He says that panpsychism isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christian theism – even though he doesn’t adopt the latter himself. 


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What are the problems with this ‘middle way’? 

Crummett doesn’t agree with panagentialism, but he says that even if it could be proved, its problems would still lead to another argument for God. “There might still need to be enough fortunate coincidences that it might still be some evidence for theism.”

He goes on to point out problems with Goff’s panpsychism, such as, if atoms and particles have little minds, how do they combine to produce more significant consciousness, such as that of human beings? He points out that Goff himself uses the term “god-ish” for explanations. 

Goff acknowledges that “the full story” of his panagentialism is not explained as yet. Goff also admitted that he feels “silly” defending it, but that he thinks he is following the evidence where it leads. “I annoy people on Twitter by saying Bertrand Russell would have believed in cosmic purpose because of the evidence of fine-tuning, because he followed the evidence where it where it leads, and the certain kinds of evidence like the fine tuning of physics for life wasn’t there when he was alive.”

Why can’t Goff just admit that God is a better explanation then? 

He says he can’t personally accept the existence of God because of the problem of evil. He also believes that a theistic explanation for psychophysical harmony is too complicated. “If you go for something ‘god-ish’ but not God, you can have cake and eat it, and I suppose that’s where I am at the moment,” he admits.

He does however admit that the so-called ‘fine tuning’ argument for God’s existence is persuasive – but for him, the problem of suffering outweighs it. 

This debate sounds familiar. Are you sure it’s new? 

It is related to a better known philosophical discussion, which is popular within theism vs atheism circles, the problem of consciousness. This is the complicated question of whether the mystery of awareness can be explained by just a physical universe (physicalism), or whether consciousness is different from the physical body and brain (dualism). The argument for theism from consciousness is regularly discussed on Premier Unbelievable, such as in this debate between former neuropsychologist Sharon Dirckx and Goff himself

Goff’s own webpage states that both physicalism and dualism ‘face insuperable difficulties’. He continues: “On the basis of this I defend a form of panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. It sounds a bit crazy, but I try to show that it avoids the difficulties faced by its rivals.”

Crummett also points out certain parallels between his argument and the ‘fine-tuning’ argument in his academic paper.

Why is this a niche philosophical debate at the moment, if its implications are so profound? 

“One of the reasons maybe we haven’t so much picked up on this issue is that in some sense our standard scientific view treats us as mechanisms,” said Goff. “if that’s how you’re thinking of us, then this there isn’t a problem here, you just need natural selection to make these complicated survival mechanisms. 

“But once you put consciousness back in the story, a whole new set of problems emerge, and I think we’re really not even at first base wrestling with these problems. Psychophysical harmony is just one aspect of that.”

Where can I learn more? 

Crummett’s paper requires understanding of academic philosophy, but clearly outlines the arguments for God’s existence from psychophysical harmony. 

Philip Goff’s recent book “Why? The purpose of the universe” explains his position.  

Goff debated veteran Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne on the purpose of the universe on Unbelievable. 


Heather Tomlinson is a freelance Christian journalist. You can find her work at and on X (twitter) @heathertomli.