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Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff

Raymond Tallis questions an argument for panpsychism.

Philip Goff, consciousness researcher at Durham University, is one of the most fearless of contemporary philosophers. His latest book Galileo’s Error: A New Science of Consciousness is a defence of panpsychism – a philosophical position that until recently was dismissed as simply crazy.

As Goff defines it, panpsychism is the view that “consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality,” such that everything has consciousness, even down to electrons and quarks. This does not mean that all the arrangements of fundamental particles – socks and clouds and pebbles – are conscious. Nor does it claim that this universally present consciousness is necessarily remotely similar to human consciousness, with thoughts and emotions and the like. “If electrons have experience” – which Goff believes – “it is of some unimaginably simple form.”

The case Goff presents for panpsychism is to a considerable extent based on the failure of alternatives – dualism and materialism – to explain consciousness. He devotes excellent chapters to demolishing these views.

According to dualism, there are immaterial minds and there are physical things. Because minds are not located or extended in space, we cannot see minds by peering into brains. This idea, famously mocked by Gilbert Ryle as the notion that we are ‘ghosts in machines’, has many problems. One of the most striking is that it cannot account for the central role the mind seems to play in our ability to do things. How could an immaterial entity influence the behaviour of a material object such as a brain? If a non-physical mind were intervening in the brain, there would be all kinds of things going on for which we would have no neuroscientific explanation. Such anomalous activity is not observed, so there is no such intervention, Goff argues.

Materialism fails because there is nothing in the brain as objectively (neuroscientifically) observed that is remotely like subjective experience. Here Goff’s critique mobilizes some of the well-known thought experiments in recent philosophy. Among them is Frank Jackson’s story of Mary the genius neuroscientist. For reasons that are not made clear, she has spent her entire life in a black-and-white room, where she has mysteriously acquired complete objective knowledge (whatever that may mean) of the science of colour. When she is liberated from the room into the outside world, she acquires something new: awareness of colours. This is often (incorrectly) described as additional ‘knowledge’, although it is in fact experience. The point however is upheld: experience is not reducible to or captured by objective knowledge. More specifically, what neuroscientists observe in the brain and nervous system does not get anywhere near subjective, qualitative experience. More generally, science-based materialism does not account for, or accommodate, consciousness – least of all the consciousness that is manifest in the ‘what it is like to be’ of a conscious subject.

The elusiveness of experience has persuaded some materialist philosophers to deny that experience is real. They argue that consciousness is an illusion. But this claim does not withstand a second’s thought; for in order to fall victim to the illusion of consciousness, one would have to be conscious of it.

Panpsychists step into the explanatory gap left by the failure of both dualism and materialism to make sense of the relationship between the mind and the brain. They correctly recognize that this is not just a little local difficulty to be resolved as brain science advances. What is needed is a radical rethink of the place of consciousness in the order of things.

Goff draws on arguments put forward by the physicist Arthur Eddington, developing ideas advanced by Bertrand Russell, to the effect that the physical sciences tell us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the ‘stuff’ that makes up the world. They describe only the manner in which bits of the stuff interact with each other. We know what they do, but not what they are. There is, however, a place where the veil of scientific appearance is torn; namely our own brains. We know from first hand experience that brains are conscious. Indeed, consciousness is the only fundamental feature of which we can be certain. If brains are representative of the stuff of the world, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that such stuff has consciousness as one of its fundamental features. (Indeed, Goff holds that the physical properties of particles – mass, charge, spin etc – are themselves forms of consciousness.)

Goff defends this extraordinary extrapolation from brains to the entire universe on the grounds of simplicity of explanation – grounds that, after all, drive science. It is more economical to propose that matter has one kind of intrinsic nature rather than two. But the suggestion that everything in the universe is like the brain raises an obvious question: what it is about the brain that makes it seem to be uniquely associated with subjective consciousness? Why do you and I have viewpoints underpinning integrated worlds, while socks and clouds and pebbles apparently do not?

One manifestation of this puzzle is the so-called ‘combination problem’: “How do you get from little conscious things… to big conscious things, like human brains?” Here we seem to have replaced one explanatory gap with another at least as wide. In the hope of making the combination problem a topic for ‘a new science of consciousness’, Goff translates it into the question of how a disunified brain, made of trillions of conscious particles, becomes a unified brain with a single consciousness. He hints that quantum entanglement might provide a model for such unification, but is not able to indicate what is or might be distinctive about the brain that it uniquely makes use of such entanglement. So long as this ‘emergentist’ model lacks details, it is only a promissory note. Worse problems arise out of the fact that observation – that is, observation by a conscious, macroscopic subject – is required to confer definite values on the quantum elements that go into the making of the brain, and which are supposed to help solve the combination problem.

Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans 1640
Ed. Put upright. No more errors please!

The final chapter of Galileo’s Error, ‘Consciousness and the Meaning of Life’, is laudably ambitious and wide-ranging, and I cannot do it justice here. However, some of its arguments sit ill with Goff’s fundamental thesis. Goff argues that if we become panpsychists we might be motivated to treat the planet with more respect. Perhaps we would not be so eager to chop down the trees if we believed that they had sophisticated mental lives. This seems unlikely, given that awareness of their mental lives does not inhibit most of us from chopping down livestock. Goff cites research purportedly demonstrating that seedlings are capable of Pavlovian conditioning, and that trees ‘communicate’ with each other via fungi, and are even committed to egalitarianism. This is a spectacular over-interpretation of the scientific findings. But, more importantly, appealing to objective, quantitative science to demonstrate the presence of consciousness is at odds with the very thesis on which his argument hinges; namely that such science does not reveal the intrinsic nature of things. To think so is to fall victim to the very Galilean error that provides the title of his book; namely the error of privileging quantitative measurements over direct qualitative experience.

Goff sees panpsychism as a road to re-enchantment of a scientifically disenchanted world. Because it recognizes the urgency of this problem and even suggests a solution to it, this lucid, reader-friendly book is highly recommended. You may, like me, disagree with its conclusion, but the journey offered by Galileo’s Error – enriched by many autobiographical asides – is exhilarating and deeply thought-provoking. I am glad to have read it; and so, too, will be any open-minded seeker after metaphysical truth.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2019

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God and Science is published in November.

Galileo’s Error, Philip Goff, 2019, $26.95 hb, 256 pages, ISBN: 9781524747961

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