What is the nature of consciousness? Is it objective and alive, down to the very fundamentally atomic level? Or, is there, really, anything called reality at all? These and more are the subject of discussion in this scintillating book.
Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. Philip Goff. 235 pages. Rs 431.30. Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Panpsychism is the philosophical notion that says that consciousness forms an integral component of existence at the very fundamental level.
There are panpsychists and then there are panpsychists.
One can consider Baruch Spinoza a panpsychist and he was a monist.
Then, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a dualist, was also a panpsychist.
Once considered as outdated, there is today a renewed interest in panpsychism.
David Chalmers, in 2013, proposed what he calls ‘panprotopsychism’, where the very fundamental particles are considered as ‘protoconscious’. This also has its own problem.
In his book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (Penguin 2020), Philip Goff, who teaches philosophy at Durham University, takes us through an odyssey into the philosophical universe of panpsychism, explaining experiments and thought experiments that show the reader the reason for the renewed interest in panpsychism.
He also does not fail to tell us the formidable challenges panpsychism still faces.
However, will the problem of consciousness itself naturally disappear as science progresses, as in the case of the ‘problem’ of life?
Neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so.
If we take up ‘the challenge of mapping correlations between what goes on in the brain and what is experienced by the person’ then the mystery of consciousness may vanish on its own.
Goff is not sure. He says:
Perhaps, Seth is right that as we learn more about the brain, we will eventually stop worrying where consciousness came from (although there is no sign of this happening yet). But it could equally be that the “Darwin of consciousness” will come along and solve the problem of consciousness in a satisfying way.Goff, Philip. Galileo’s Error (p. 8). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Can scientists tell us ultimately that consciousness itself may be an illusion? “We would never, and should never, accept such claims,” says he. Instead, he proposes this:
When we neglect the role of deep thought in science, we close off options. It is quite possible that progress on our scientific understanding of consciousness will be made not only through observation of the brain — important as that is — but also through radically re-imagining mind and brain, dreaming up new possibilities not so far entertained by our theories.(p.13)
Goff takes the famous thought-experiment — Mary lives in a totally black and white box and has experienced only black and white all her life. But she has an exceptional comprehensive knowledge of all the colours and colour vision.
Now, when she experiences actual colour vision, what happens?
Is there something new added on through the experience of colour vision to her knowledge of colour experience, even if she had all the neuro-psychological knowledge of colour vision?
Conceived by Australian philosopher Frank Jackson in 1982 and called ‘knowledge argument’, this has been unsettling for materialists.
Though Jackson himself lost his faith in what he wanted to imply through this thought experiment, and became a materialist, the ‘knowledge argument’ still creates serious debates in the field of consciousness studies.
If materialism is true, then for Mary, in her black-and-white realm, having ‘a complete and final theory of color experience, ... it shouldn’t be possible for her to learn about some new essential features of color experiences.’
But when she sees colours in real world stepping out of the black and white realm, she does learn ‘about what it’s like to have color experiences.’ (pp.73-4)
He also narrates his interaction with Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett on board a ship in the Arctic, which was essentially a sailing conference on consciousness arranged by by Dmitry Volkov, the co-founder of the Center for Consciousness Studies.
After narrating his interaction with Dennett, he points out what stand a materialist philosopher like Daniel Dennett takes on the above thought-experiment:
Like his fellow materialist Patricia Churchland, Dennett has little time for thought experiments, unless they are thought experiments intended to debunk the confused and over-simplistic intuitions that he believes drive most philosophical theories. As you might imagine, he is not prepared to learn lessons about consciousness from the far-fetched tale of Black and White Mary.(p.78)
Here, he cites the paper on the knowledge argument written by Knut Nordby, ‘an expert in color vision who has achromatopsia: a rare condition in which, due to the absence of retinal cones, one is unable to perceive any colors, apart from black and white and shades of gray.’
This is almost as close as one can get to the outlandish Mary thought experiment.
Here is the relevant part from Nordby’s paper that Goff quotes in his book:
… One way for me to attempt to visualise the special quality of experiencing colour is to liken colour to the musical quality of tones, or chroma. Whereas colours have brightness and hue … tones have loudness, pitch, timbre and chroma…. Although the “chroma metaphor” may convey the idea of a special sensory property solely as an abstract thought exercise, it can never depict the actual experience of colours. Colours, like tones and tastes, are firsthand sensory experiences, and no amount of acquired theoretical knowledge can create this experience.
Then, relating his own experience with the Mary experiment, Nordby says:
I believe that Mary will be able to sense and discriminate color hues but will not be able to name them on the basis of her knowledge.(pp. 81-2)
At this juncture, let it be pointed out that this particular aspect of the ‘thought experiment’ premise was well known to Saiva Siddhantins in India for a long time. Siddhantins take the famous parable of blind men feeling the elephant and change it thus, explains Dr. K. Sivaraman:
The ‘Saiva Siddhanta’ understanding and use of this parable, consistent with its acknowledgement of ultimate reality as the condition which renders possible the being and the knowing of what is, is more positive and less positivistic. The real elephant can be known only by seeing it and so one who is “blind” simply does not know, even if he touches all its parts.K.Sivaraman in Modern Indian Responses to Religious Pluralism (Ed. Harold Coward),SUNY Press, 1987, p.159
Particularly interesting is the take Goff has on the famous Benjamin Libet experiment.
In this amazing experiment, it was discovered that there is an average gap of 300 milliseconds between the brain initiating an action and the person doing the action actually consciously taking the decision to do that action.
The experiment has since the 1970s generated enormous debates in consciousness studies and as to whether free will is an illusion. Pointing out that Libet’s early findings have been validated by even later experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which have shown that ‘the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of the prefrontal and parietal cortex up to ten seconds before it enters awareness’, he gives an interpretation to this discovery thus:
At best, Libet’s experiments prove that the conscious mind is unable to initiate a completely random and meaningless action. But such an action would not be a case of free choice anyway — not in any sense that we care about — and so this result does nothing to undermine the case for genuine freedom.Goff, (pp. 201-202)
To him, irrespective of whether free will is an illusion or not, panpsychism stands:
The materialist assumes that everything that happens in the physical world has a prior cause, which either determines precisely what will happen or — in the case of quantum indeterminacy — determines the objective probability of what will happen. But for the panpsychist, a different model is possible. It could be that past events pressure physical entities in the present to behave in a certain way but that it is always up to present physical entities whether or not to accept that pressure.(p.203)
With panpsychism, how do we then judge non-human animals and also the inanimate realm? Here again, Goff makes the following speculation:
As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, behavior may be more and more predictable...It could be that the animal chose the behavior in response to its inclinations, even if — in the absence of rational deliberation — it was inevitable that the animal would follow its strongest inclinations. It seems to me coherent to suppose that this model also holds in the subatomic realm. Clearly, particles don’t rationally deliberate, and hence don’t “choose” in the sense that human beings “choose.” But it could be that they act through responsiveness to inclinations, inclinations produced in them by prior states of affairs. Like infants and some nonhuman animals, it may be inevitable that particles will follow their inclinations, which accounts for their predictability.(p.204)
When one reads these lines of Goff, it is hard not to be reminded of what neuroscientist Donald Hoffman writes in his ‘Case against reality’, dealing almost with a similar situation:
When we shift our gaze from humans to a bonobo or a chimpanzee, we find that the icon of each tells us far less about the conscious world that hides behind it. But as we shift our gaze again, from a chimp to a cat, then to a mouse, an ant, a bacterium, virus, rock, molecule, atom, and quark, each successive icon that appears in our interface tells us less and less about the efflorescence of consciousness behind the icon —again, ‘behind’ in the same sense that a file lies “behind” its desktop icon. With a bacterium, the poverty of our icon makes us suspect that there is, in fact, no such conscious world. With rocks, molecules, atoms, and quarks, our suspicion turns to near certainty. We have been taken in. We have mistaken the limits of our interface for an insight into reality. We have finite capacities of perception and memory. But we are embedded in an infinite network of conscious agents whose complexity exceeds our finite capacities.
One should remember that Donald Hoffman considers himself not a panpsychist, which he considers a dualist, but subscribes to what he calls ‘conscious realism’ which he considers as ‘non-physicalist monism’.
The so-called ‘mystic’ or non-dual experiences which are ‘distinct’ and ‘cross-culturally pervasive’ naturally provide a fertile ground for what Goff calls earlier in the book ‘post-Galilean paradigm’ for science:
The nature of these experiences is, perhaps, most fully articulated in the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, which traces its roots back to the first millennium BCE but was most prominently defended by the eighth-century scholar Adi Shankara. In ordinary states of consciousness, there is a distinction between the subject and the object of the experience, that is to say between the thing which has the experience (e.g., me or you) and the things which are experienced (e.g., pleasures, pains, sensations, etc.). But in the mystical experience, this division apparently collapses and the mystic enjoys a state of formless consciousness.(p.206)
Here, Dr. Goff is influenced by Miri Albahari, an ‘analytical Buddhist’ and a faculty at the University of Western Australia. A very interesting and significant part of the book is where Goff connects Advaitic experience with what Sam Harris and Steve Pinker emphasise as ‘objective moral truth’.
Contrasting between the Christian theistic approach to objective moral truth, which is philosophically deficient, Goff offers the Advaitic alternative for the ‘objective moral truth’:
The Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, has forcefully pressed this point on Harris, arguing that the only solution is to postulate a God whose commands can serve as the grounds of objective moral truth. This theory has the disadvantage of being both profligate and unsatisfying. For, we now have the question: What makes it the case that God’s commands have moral force? The view of the mystics, in contrast, does provide a satisfying account of the objectivity of ethics. Selfish conduct is rooted in the belief that we are wholly separate and distinct individuals. But according to the mystics, this belief in the total separateness of people is false. According to the testimony of mystics, it is this realization that results in the boundless compassion of the enlightened.(pp. 212-213).
Incidentally, both Swami Vivekananda and Dr. B R Ambedkar had made the same argument for social and individual ethics from a non-dualist point of view. At his lecture The spirit and influence of Vedanta delivered at the Twentieth Century Club in Boston on 28 March 1896, Swami Vivekananda explained the ethical implications of the Upanishadic conception of the Self as follows:
Behind everything the same divinity is existing and out of this comes the basis of morality. Do not injure another. Love everyone as your own self, because the whole universe is one. In injuring another, I am injuring myself; in loving another, I am loving myself. There are moments when every man feels that he is one with the universe, and he rushes forth to express it, whether he knows it or not. This expression of oneness is what we call love and sympathy, and it is the basis of all our ethics and morality. This is summed up in the Vedantic philosophy by the celebrated aphorism, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That).
To move on to our author, of course, the purpose of Goff is not advocating Advaita as such but to build upon it a framework:
If we were to adopt the panpsychist interpretation of the mystical hypothesis, we could secure these advantages with zero cost, as this theory commits us to nothing beyond the physical universe we all believe in anyway. I am still hesitant about endorsing this view. Its implications have profound significance for the meaning of human life. While I have access to the datum that motivates panpsychism, namely conscious experience, I do not have access to the putative evidence that would make it rational for me to accept the mystical worldview.(p. 214).
But with a caution typical of a rigorous academic, he does make it clear to which side his own sympathies belong:
If it’s okay for us to trust our sensory experiences, how could it be irrational for mystics to do the same with respect to their mystical experiences? To accuse the mystic of irrationality would be to employ a double standard. The appropriate attitude to mystical experiences, for those who haven’t had them, is probably one of agnosticism, the withholding of belief either that mystical experiences provide genuine insight into the nature of reality, or that they are delusions. Having said that, I can’t help being excited by the possibility that, in a panpsychist worldview, the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony. Perhaps, it’s okay to hope. And to keep meditating.(pp. 215-216)
On the whole, the book is a feast for the philosophy-oriented. They provide us a great insight into the philosophical debates and dialogues that are happening in the academia and how they, in turn, interact and influence science as well as the values of society and individual.
For Hindus, who have a rich heritage of diverse Darshana-systems and a vast repository of mystic experiences through millennia, the book shows how we can benefit humanity by creating frameworks and epistemological tools out of that Sanatana treasure chest.