Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness – Philip Goff

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Philip Goff is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham. He is also an unabashed apologist for panpsychism. In his rousing and compelling book, “Galileo’s Error”, he makes a measured and reasoned plea for upholding the virtues of panpsychism as a rational ally for plumbing the mysteries and myths associated with the complex and abstruse subject of consciousness. The subject of consciousness has been a duel between two warring factions whose respective logic are placed on two extreme ends of a philosophical continuum. On one end of the spectrum stand the dualists. Following in the footsteps of the indomitable philosopher Rene Descartes, the dualists posit that the mind and body are distinct and separable. The dualists dispute the notion that the mind is synonymous with the brain. The other end of the continuum is inhabited by the materialists. Cocking a snook at the dualists, the materialists are firm in their conviction that mind, and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist. As Goff highlights in his book, the most vociferous and popular proponents of materialism are known by the now famous moniker of  “The Four Horsemen”. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett constitute the contemporaneous torch bearers for the philosophy of materialism.

Panpsychism attempts to take a more altruistic and reductionist view on the subject of consciousness. As Goff writes, “Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of physical reality….They [panpsychists] believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of conscious particles results in something that is conscious in its own right. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious.”

Panpsychism also suffuses an element of altruism and innate benevolence in individuals towards the very ecosystem that surrounds them. This is due to the singularly unique fact of attributing the feature of consciousness in a ubiquitous fashion to both animate beings as well inanimate objects. Goff attempts to corroborate the munificence of panpsychism by taking recourse to various empirical references. Suzanne Simard, of the University of British Columbia, injected trees with isotope traces, and revealed a complex web of communication between trees, which she had dubbed the “Wood-Wide Web.” “Communication happens via mycorrhiza structures, which connect trees to other trees via fungi. The trees and the fungi enjoy a quid pro quo relationship: the trees deliver carbon to the fungi and the fungi reciprocate by delivering nutrients to the trees. A dense web of connections is formed in this way, with the busiest trees at the center connected to hundreds of other trees.” Another example is that of Monica Gagliano, a research associate professor at the University of Western Australia in Perth, who remarkably demonstrated that pea plants can be subject to conditioned learning.

Goff liberally relies on the articulations and theories pioneered by the physicist Arthur Eddington, and embellished by the brilliant Mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Both Eddington and Russell opined that there was nothing in the Physical Sciences that illuminated the intrinsic nature of the ‘stuff’ constituting the world. The physical sciences only elaborate manner in which stuff interact with each other. But they are woefully inadequate in explaining what they are. For example, an electron is described in extraordinary depth with respect to its properties, qualities and interactions with other elements. But what exactly is the essence permeating and defining an electron is beyond the remit of the physical sciences.  Consciousness, however, is the only fundamental feature that accords an element of certainty.

The title of Goff’s book itself derives from a fascinating proposition put forward by the Italian Physicist Galileo. Galileo placed the language of mathematics at the highest observational pedestal when distinguishing material properties from their sensory qualities. In this brilliant man’s imagination, all material objects inhabiting the world can be identified with the following characteristics, only: Size, Shape, Location and Motion. But what about the sensory qualities then? Doesn’t the audacious stripping away of the sensory qualities from the purely physical attributes create an obvious gap when it comes to fathoming the import and gravity of material objects? For example, taking the example of a lemon, what explains the yellowness of the lemon, its smell and the sour taste. Galileo had a ready answer to this conundrum, informs Goff. The solution was – the soul. “For Galileo, the lemon itself isn’t really yellow; rather yellowness exists in the soul of the person perceiving the lemon. Likewise, neither the sour taste nor the citrus smell are really in the lemon; rather they’re in the soul of the person tasting or smelling the lemon.”

But this formulation, on a plain and simple reading, reeks of escapism. Excising the sensory qualities only because they are not amenable to the same degree of explanation or elaboration as is the preserve of the material properties, poses more difficulties than providing solutions. “However, Galileo’s philosophy of nature has also bequeathed us deep difficulties. So long as we follow Galileo in thinking (A) that natural science is essentially quantitative and (B) that the qualitative cannot be explained in terms of the quantitative, then consciousness, as an essentially qualitative phenomenon, will be forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding. Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

In the year 1994, philosopher David Chalmers, was amongst the participants who had gathered at the first Science and Consciousness’ conference in Tucson. Chalmers stunned his audience by proposing that instead of addressing ‘easy’ problems, such as what happens in the brain when we learn, remember or recognise, there was an urgent need to concentrate on what he termed was ‘The Hard Problem.’ Chalmers asked, “why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” What links a purely physical object such as the human brain with the invisible but perceivable consciousness? Panpsychism, argues that consciousness pervades everything. As Sheldrake once opined, “Panpsychism is not a new idea. Most people used to believe in it, and many still do. All over the world, traditional people saw the world around them as alive and, in some sense, conscious or aware: the planets, stars, the earth, plants and animals all had spirits or souls.” Goff confidently claims that “in twenty years’ time the idea that panpsychism can quickly be dismissed as ‘crazy’ will seem, well, crazy.”  

“Galileo’s Error” is at once simple and complex. While the notions of dualism, materialism and panpsychism are explained in a smooth, flowing and easy to rasp manner, thinks become extremely dense and heavy when they venture into the realm of the ‘Gedankenexperiment’. Esoteric and convoluted concepts such as Quantum entanglement, Superposition etc pose formidable challenges to the unsuspected and the uninitiated. In fact, one of the most alluring aspects of Goff’s book, is the reference to a plethora of thought experiments. Thus the reader is dazzled by the “what it is like to be a bat” argument of Thomas Nagel, “The Black-and-White Mary experiment by Frank Jackson that has at its nub a genius neuroscientist Mary, who knows everything there is to know about color but grows up in an entirely black-and-white environment, the Chinese room argument of John Searle, the Theory of Relativity propounded by Einstein, and of course The Hard Problem of David Chalmers.

“Galileo’s Error” a quest inducing work of consequential proportions.