‘Not’ the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour 2020 #2 – Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff

The Wellcome Book Prize is on hiatus this year – we really hope it’ll return in 2021 as this unique prize, which celebrates literature with health, illness and medicine themes, always includes exciting books. The accompanying blog tour and (unofficial) shadowing panel have been highlights of the awards/blogging year for Shiny Ed Annabel, who has participated for the past few years.

As the prize isn’t happening, the convenor of the shadowing panel, Rebecca Foster of the blog BookishBeck, and a regular Shiny reviewer, got permission to run a ‘Not the Wellcome Prize Blog Tour’ this year. Shiny New Books is delighted to take part and revisit two books, which would have been eligible, that we reviewed earlier this year.

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

Review by Peter Reason

Galileos error philip goff ebury

This is a book about the philosophical perspective of panpsychism, written by a leading academic advocate. Panpsychism 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. Goff offers panpsychism as an alternative worldview to dualism, which holds that mind and matter are two separate aspects of reality; and materialism, which holds that there is nothing other than the stuff of the world as described by physical sciences.

The book is focused around the problem of consciousness. David Chalmers has contrasted the ‘easy’ problem of explaining the link between consciousness and behaviour to the ‘hard’ problem of explaining 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.

In his celebrated phrasing, Galileo 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, ‘primary’, 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, secondary’, qualities—the colours, tastes, smells of experience, the redness of a tomato and the spiciness of the paprika—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. 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 took a dualist view and ‘only ever intended to provide us with a partial description of reality’. 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. The second solution is to hold to the materialist view that, in time, consciousness will be explained in terms of the chemistry of the brain, or indeed explained away altogether as illusion. The third solution, which Goff argues for, is panpsychism, which holds that consciousness is a ‘fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world’.

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.

Goff 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’. 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!

The final chapter moves beyond the issue of consciousness and places panpsychism in the context of the climate crisis and what he calls a ‘naturalized spirituality’.  Panpsychism directly 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. It is unfortunate 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. Tying panpsychism so firmly to the problem of consciousness does it a disservice. I would follow panpsychic philosopher Freya Mathews and argue that panpsychism provides the metaphysical grounding that will allow us to live as true participants of life on Earth.

Written clearly and elegantly for a general readership rather than an academic audience, Philip Goff’s book makes complex ideas maybe not easy, but accessible. 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.

This is a shortened version of Peter’s original review posted back in November 2019. Read his longform review here.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason

Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error (Rider, 2020). 978-1846046018, 250pp., hardback. .

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