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

Review by Peter Reason, 7 November 2019

This is a book about the philosophical perspective of panpsychism, written by a leading academic advocate. Panpsychism is an awkward word, not part of everyday vocabulary. It quite simply refers to the view that mind (or sentience, or consciousness) is a fundamental aspect of matter; and, in tandem, that matter is a fundamental aspect of consciousness. Panpsychism offers an alternative worldview to dualism on the one hand, which holds that mind and matter are two separate aspects of reality; and materialism on the other, which holds that there is nothing other than the stuff of the world as described by physical sciences.

This might seem to address a rather obscure philosophical issue and be of little interest to everyday readers. Far from it. As Philip Pullman writes on the front cover, ‘Suddenly the universe appears in a new and much more revealing aspect’. In a world dominated by a narrowly materialist and scientific worldview, this is an important contribution. Written for a general readership rather than for a primarily academic audience, Philip Goff’s book is very clearly written, making complex ideas maybe not easy, but accessible.

The problem of the origin of consciousness is a hot subject among neuroscientists and philosophers. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers has contrasted the ‘easy’ problem of explaining the link between consciousness and behaviour to the ‘hard’ problem of explaining why the activity of the brain gives rise to what we call ‘experience’—why there is any consciousness at all in a material world. Goff sidesteps both problems by showing that the origin of the problem of consciousness has its roots in Galileo Galilei’s foundational articulation of the scientific worldview. But as I will argue later in this review, the significance of panpsychism goes beyond the problem of consciousness to offer us a crucial perspective on the climate emergency and ecological catastrophe of our times.

The title of the book arises from the invention of modern science by Galileo in 1623. In his celebrated phrasing, he told us that nature is a book open to our gaze, so long as we understood that it is ‘written in the language of mathematics’. In doing this, Galileo bracketed off the material properties of the world from the sensory. Material properties—size, shape, location, motion, which came to be described as ‘primary’—can indeed be described mathematically (at least in their external effects). But sensory qualities—the colours, tastes, smells of experience, the redness of a tomato and the spiciness of the paprika, which came to be described as ‘secondary’—can scarcely be communicated from one person to another, certainly not mathematically. Goff points out that this re-imagining of nature was essentially a philosophical move: it has no empirical basis, and so no ‘scientific’ justification.

But sensory qualities didn’t go away. Goff’s point is that Galileo had no intention of including these in his mathematical science. Rather, he saw them as existing in the soul: ‘Just as beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, so colours, smells, tastes and sounds only exist in the conscious soul of the human being’. Galileo, Goff maintains, took a dualist view, and ‘only ever intended to provide us with a partial description of reality’. However, this has been overlooked in the scientific worldview that has come to dominate our modern sense of reality. In consequence, philosophers and scientists now seek a scientific explanation of the sensory as well as the material world, puzzling how, in the material world described by physics, consciousness arises. Essentially, Galileo’s philosophy of nature created the problem of consciousness that now preoccupies so many academics.

Goff suggests three possible solutions to this problem. One is to accept Galileo’s dualism that there are immaterial minds beyond materialistic understanding. Even though this doesn’t necessarily imply a transcendent spirit, Goff’s view is that ‘We shouldn’t believe in immaterial minds unless we really have to’. The second solution is to hold to the materialist view and argue that, in time, consciousness will be explained in terms of the chemistry of the brain, or indeed explained away altogether as illusion. But Goff’s view is that this ignores the fundamental evidence presented by our experience as conscious beings: ‘Contemporary materialism is not a solution but a stubborn refusal to face up to the problem’. The third solution is panpsychism, which holds that consciousness is a ‘fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world’.

Goff, as a philosopher, very properly says it is ‘too early’ to be sure which of these solutions will solve the problem of consciousness, but one can be pretty sure that most of his money is on panpsychism. While I will not attempt to review in detail his chapters on dualism—’Is there a ghost in the machine?’—and materialism—’Can physical science explain consciousness?’—they are masterly presentations of the debate for those of us who are not professional philosophers.

The panpsychist view holds that consciousness in some form is part and parcel of the physical world, that simple forms of consciousness exist as fundamental aspect of matter. ‘We know that consciousness is real and so we have to account for it somehow. What panpsychism offers us is a way of integrating consciousness into our scientific picture of the world…’  Goff asserts that there ‘seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in very simple forms’; and argues that complex consciousness of human and animal brains can be explained as evolving from the simple consciousness inherent in matter.

This perspective can seem strange—some would say ridiculous—to the modern perspective, imbued as we are in a material worldview. However, Goff points out that physics actually tells us less than we think it does. He takes us back to the ideas of the physicist Arthur Eddington and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Writing in the 1930s, they argued that modern physics has been so enormously successful because it tells us what matter does; but it fails to tell us anything about what matter is, to account for the nature of matter. Mass, distance, force, all give names to properties of matter, but say nothing about what these properties actually are. In the nineteenth century it was still possible to conceive of atoms as tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other, but the strange worlds of relativity and quantum dynamics have put paid to this. This is ‘Galileo’s error’ of the title: mathematical models do not ‘open our gaze’ to the intrinsic nature of matter.

This leads us toward a broader conception of science that doesn’t confuse the practical utility of prediction and control with the ontological question of a complete theory of reality. Goff writes, ‘Here is the idea. Physics characterizes mass and charge “from the outside” (in terms of what they do) but “from the inside” (in terms of their intrinsic nature) mass and charge are incredibly simple forms of consciousness’. This perspective turns the problem of consciousness upside down: it isn’t that neurosciences have to explain how consciousness arises in the material interactions of the brain; it rather sees consciousness as actually that bit of reality we have direct access to and really can understand. The rest (matter) is mystery!

I am only giving a quick overview of the argument here, which Goff covers really clearly. He also addresses the philosophical problems of the panpsychic perspective, like the ‘combination problem’—how do you get from the simple consciousness of particles to the complex consciousness of the brain.

The final chapter, Consciousness and the Meaning of Life, addresses some of the most important issues in the book, although, I would argue, they are sadly underdeveloped. Here Goff moves beyond the issue of consciousness and places panpsychism in the context of the climate crisis and what he calls a ‘naturalized spirituality’. 

Goff introduces the chapter by pointing out to us that his book is a study in ontology, ‘the study of Reality in its most general form’. He reminds us that he has shown that physics has not been in the business of doing ontology, and that while we can never know the true nature of reality ‘panpsychism is the most probable hypothesis’. From there he takes us on a helpful tour of the nature of scepticism, the impossibility of arriving at absolute truths, and our understanding of climate change, drawing in particular on David Hume. ‘How does this help with climate change scepticism?’ he asks: ‘Paradoxically, the cure for excessive doubt is doubt of a more radical kind. Conspiracy theories thrive in an environment in which certainty is expected, because this expectation sets up a demand that can never be met.’ We learn a lot from Goff’s writing about how philosophers, at their best, think.

He then turns to ask how our philosophical worldview—formally materialist but permeated with ‘closet dualism’ that assumes the existence of separate consciousness—may be partly responsible for our failure to address climate change. Here he makes the argument that our taken-for-granted dualism creates a sense of separation from the wider natural world; and that this dualism implies that nature has no value in and of itself. These are not new arguments, they can be found in the environmental literature going back to Rachel Carson, who said in 19641 ‘But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.’ They nevertheless need repeating as they are at the root of the ecological emergency.

Panpsychism direct challenges the view that humans are separate from nature; and the related view that nature has no value in itself, other than its utility to humans. Goff writes, Panpsychism has the potential to transform our relationship with the natural world.

If panpsychism is true, the rain forest is teeming with consciousness. As conscious entities, trees have value in their own right: chopping down a tree becomes an action of immediate moral significance. Moreover, on the panpsychist worldview, humans have a deep affinity with the natural world: we are conscious creatures embedded in a world of consciousness.

This is a truly important statement. Panpsychism offers a lifegiving alternative to the strange combination of materialism and dualism that has evolved from Galileo’s science, and which has such destructive consequences for our world. One can see why Pullman responds to the book as revealing a new view of the universe. But I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that this comes too little and too late in the book. The problem of the origin of consciousness, while fascinating, is trivial compared to the existential question of the future of life on Earth. Moreover, as Goff hints, it can also contain a hidden anthropocentrism: it implies the question, ‘where did our wonderful consciousness come from in this world of dead matter?’

Tying panpsychism so firmly to the problem of consciousness does it a disservice. I would argue that panpsychism can make a far greater contribution to our difficult and distressing times, which is to help us address the pressing climate emergency and ecological catastrophe. I write as activists associated with Extinction Rebellion are attempting to bring London and sixty other cities worldwide to a standstill to draw attention to the climate emergency; and as schoolchildren strike on Fridays for Future. One of their slogans, quite rightly, is ‘Listen to the Scientists’. But as Goff as so appropriately argued, materialist science only gives us a partial view of reality. We need to step out of the materialist—and anthropocentric—mindset that has created the emergency we have created. Panpsychism provides the metaphysical groundings for a worldview that will allow us to live as true participants of life on Earth.

This point is developed by other panpsychist philosophers. Australian panpsychist Freya Mathews2 argues that to see the world as ‘teeming with consciousness’ is ‘to undergo an ethical reorientation that is, from a western perspective, revolutionary’. It is more than that nature is no longer just ‘brute matter’ or to be valued as ‘resource’. It is more than seeing nature as an entity that we should not harm, that deserves our care and respect. For in a fully articulated panpsychic worldview, Mathews argues, we must go beyond ‘fitting into nature’ and become once again part of the community of life on Earth, ‘actively replenishing it, actively reconstituting the biosphere in everything we do.’ In this way, just like other creatures in the community of life, in seeking our own good and pursuing our own desires, we also serve other beings and life on Earth as a whole. It’s not that Goff doesn’t address these issues; my beef is that he passes over them far too cursorily.

I enjoyed and learned a lot from this book, but I am left with some reservations. I would like to see Goff’s version placed more clearly in relation to other articulations of panpsychism—there is only one footnote to reference the rich history and current debates in the field. I would like him to have much more fully developed the implications of a panpsychic perspective for the climate emergency and ecological catastrophe, and indeed to its wider question of the nature of the cosmos and the meaning of human life—implications that Philip Pullman has picked up on and emphasized in his cover puff. Indeed, given his ability to present philosophical issues to a general audience so clearly, I hope Goff’s publishers are urging him to write a second book exploring in appropriate depth the issues he touches on in his final chapter.

However, beyond these reservations, I highly recommend this book. This is a clear introduction to the panpsychic perspective on the problem of consciousness, and a first step in bringing the wider significance of panpsychism to a general readership. With the clarity and elegance of his writing, Philip Goff is doing us a great service.

References:

  • 1Rachel Carson, comments at a CBS interview 1964. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/story-silent-spring
  • 2Mathews, Freya. ‘Panpsychism.’ In Interreligious Philosophical Dialogues: Volume 1 edited by Graham Oppy and NN Trakakis, 45-71: Routledge, 2017

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.htmlHis writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu  and on Twitter @peterreason.

Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error (Rider, 2019). 978-1846046018, 192 pp., paperback.

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