By John Kendall Hawkins
“The glitter is in everything.”
-An old friend from way back when
Who’s to say what consciousness is? Nobody knows. Only a few good wo/men seem to give a shit at any given moment. The poet T.S. Eliot famously noted that humankind cannot stand too much reality and that we are distracted from distraction by distraction. As Jack Nicholson once growled at us, like a Gitmo poster boy, tortured souls sandwiched between our knocking knees, “You can’t handle the truth.” And now with the glaring prospect of four more years of Trump ahead of us — violence guaranteed — understanding consciousness seems to be the last thing on most people’s minds. We long ago lost our sense of conscience; consciousness could not be far behind. And yet.
In Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff invites the reader along on a dialectical journey from the first constellations of science toward a future of interpenetrating consciousnesses, from the ‘discovery’ of gravity to the still-mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. It’s not an exhaustive journey, either in method or intention, but it’s an enjoyable day trip through philosophical jungle — a tour down the Amazon that includes the oohs-and-ahhs of piranha-baiting, views of well-fed boas, ‘happy-shiny’ shamans waving from a deforested shore. Goff’s examples are exemplary: We creep up on Susan from behind; we meet Mary black-and-white; we see things done with Okham’s razor; we see the shit scared out of Philosophical Zombies (but not really), and, glimpse the creepy mind-computer merge ahead.
Ultimately, as the book title suggests (and cutting to the chase), Phillip Goff wants us to consider how Galileo, “the father of modern science,” created The Consciousness Problem when he separated quantitative information from qualitative, leaving the latter out of scientific inquiry, and resulting in a mind-body dualism we are still wrestling with today. Panpsychism is Goff’s proposed scientific solution.
Goff begins Galileo’s Error by asking the reader to go on a guided meditation with him. “As you read this page, you are having a visual experience of black letters against a white background,” he writes, “You can probably hear background noises: traffic, distant conversation, or the faint hum of a computer….” You could be Descartes meditating on his Cogito. In fact, your guide informs you as you listen to your environs, “[T]here is one thing I know for certain: I exist as a conscious being.” But Goff is leading us not to René, but to Galileo Galilei, “the father of modern science.”
According to Goff, looking up at the stars, Galileo had an epiphany — not about what he saw, but how he understood: “[T]he universe, which stands continually open to our gaze…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.” Galileo thought that there was a mathematical language embedded in the cosmos that could only be seen once qualitative phenomena were removed from the quantitative. Thus, in his observations, he removed sensory data derived from the five senses, and was left with a set of quantitative data — Size, Shape, Location, Motion — that became the basis for a new paradigm called science, which went beyond the limits of philosophical reasoning to the development of the scientific method.
The subjective world of sensory experience that makes up the mental phenomena of mind could not be accounted for in an objective fashion, and are “forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding,” writes Goff, and he adds that this lock-out is how “Galileo created the problem of consciousness.” This mind-body dualism, which has been with us now for hundreds of years, accepts that “reality is made up of two very different kinds of thing: immaterial minds on the one hand and physical things on the other.”
To understand this, Goff asks us to creep up behind Susan, sitting in a chair, with the top of her skull sawed off, for our scientific convenience. We’re looking at her brain. Can we see her consciousness, her experiences at work, her sensory conjurings? No, we can’t, but somewhere, somehow in that brain, consciousness is at work. Goff writes,
For the dualist, the relationship between Susan and her physical body is a bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. Just as the drone pilot controls the drone and receives information about the world from it, so Susan controls (to an extent) her body and receives information from its eyes and ears.
Raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable with the drone pilot analogy.
As opposed to a reality composed of separate physical and “immaterial” properties, these days we’re inclined to see everything included under the rubric of physical causes and effects only — including mental phenomena. In fact, if you go insane you’ll discover that the psychiatrist has no interest in your sob story at all — it’s all seen as symptoms and chemical imbalance, and you won’t leave the doctor’s office without a mandated prescription. (All those years of medical school down the drain, you’ll “think,” when they could’ve just brought in an astrologer and handed them a script pad.) De-institutionalization: a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Goff rages against the machinery of materialism throughout Galileo’s Error. But after he’s cooled down some, he offers up another female volunteer in his narrative — this time it’s Mary Black-and-White — to explain the limitations of materialism. Picture Mary, he says, locked away in a black-and-white room her entire life, no peeky-boo windows looking out onto external reality. Everything she knows about color is from something read, and she’s well-read. “If materialism is true and neuroscience is able to give us a complete theory of the nature of color experience, then what pre-liberation Mary has learned is the complete and final theory of color experience.”
One thinks of the Allegory of Plato’s Cave; and Chance the gardener from Being There. Goff writes, that no matter how much theory Mary’s been imbued with, she’s missing one thing that doesn’t happen until she leaves her room: experience, the experience of color. Consequently, Goff asserts,
It follows that a neuroscientific theory of color experience is necessarily incomplete. It leaves out the subjective qualities involved in color experience, those qualities we are directly aware of when we see colors.
Consciousness involves the subjective experience of phenomena — a kind of epiphenomena, or je ne sais quoi experience you can’t measure. He adds, “Neuroscience cannot teach the blind/color-blind what it’s like to have color experience.” Which reminds me of one of my favorite blind-leading-the-blind enlightenment stories: Raymond Carver’s, “Cathedral.”
In his further furtive assault on the human body (ostensibly in defense of the mind), Goff introduces the concept of the Philosophical Zombie. He writes, “If you stick a knife in a philosophical zombie, it’ll scream and try to get away, but it doesn’t actually feel pain” because “A philosophical zombie is just a complicated mechanism set up to behave like an ordinary human being.” But his essential point is a logical one. Goff writes, “It can be logically demonstrated that if zombies are even possible—not actual, merely logically possible—then materialism cannot possibly be true.” Goff even proposes a six-step, if-then, Zombie Argument.
He’s not done there though. Goff conjures up a barroom scene where he has a shitfaced materialist feeling the blues and staggered by a thought,
I pushed my way out of the bar and stood in the cold rain with my eyes closed. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I’d already accepted that if materialism was true, then I was a zombie. But I knew I wasn’t a zombie; I was a thinking, feeling human being. I could no longer live in denial of my consciousness. I became something of a closet dualist.
The reader cringes to see a philosopher lean towards the politically incorrect.
All that loving on the legacies of Descartes, Newton and Galileo that takes place early in the journey, followed by jumping the materialist behind the tavern and beating the living snot out of him and unbalancing his chemicals, is all meant to lead us to the Shangri-La of panpsychism. And for Goff it seems almost akin to a religious experience. Goff riffs, “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…Panpsychism offers a way of ‘re-enchanting’ the universe….” It turns out that Goff was in the closet too. He comes clean: “In panpsychism I found intellectual peace; I could live comfortably in my own skin.”
For Goff consciousness goes to the core of the meaning of life — literally. Citing Thomas Nagel’s 1972 article, “Panpsychism,” Goff calls it the “third way” between dualism and materialism. On the surface, it smells of rancid pantheism, but with a privileged consciousness taking the place of a murdered God in the cathedral.
But, Goff, however enthusiastically he waxes, like a reborn sinner, about the joy of panpsychism and the many rivers in one to cross, wants to bring in the authority of science. First he cites Stephen Hawking, who has insisted that humans will one day come up with a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything — even he seems to have doubted that it would be fully “satisfying,” as Goff puts it. Hawking noted: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” For Goff, consciousness is the heavy breather.
Goff pushes quantum mechanics. In it he sees an integral place for consciousness. But more specifically a pilot seat for observation. Explaining the concept of superpositioning, Goff cites the example Schrödinger’s cat, put in a box, with a vial of poison and radioactive material. If the material decays, the vial will smash, and the cat will die. But, notes Goff,
If the radioactive substance doesn’t decay, the cat will be saved. While the box is closed and the system unobserved, Schrödinger’s equation rules the roost, with the result that the radioactive substance exists in a superposition of both decaying and not decaying, from which it follows that the cat is in a superposition of being both alive and dead.
But when the box is opened, and the cat’s observed, it will be either dead or living.
This is conceptually weird, this on-and-off at the same time stuff, but it’s the promise that quantum computing holds, and it is, says Goff, scientifically sound, and goes to the heart of particle physics. Picture the famous rabbitduck illusion, where both the duck and rabbit are present together before you, but only one of them can be seen at any given moment. Imagine a computing system that could be on and off like that at the same time. But it’s the observational aspect of this phenomenon that Goff is keened to.
However, the more you delve into this, the stranger it gets — even in Freud’s Uncanny sense — as though, extrapolated to Reality, you could come to believe you were in two places at once. While some of this thinking leads toward multiverses, and the like, there’s an area Goff concentrates on that is most eerie of all: Integrated Information Theory (IIT). According to Goff, “The theory tells us that, in any physical system, consciousness is present at the level at which there is the most integrated information.” The system needn’t be human. At the same time, Goff is not articulating that everything in the universe has a form of consciousness. It depends on the level of integration.
There are levels, leading to a ‘maximum of integration’. Goff explains that a single neuron is highly integrated, but not as integrated as the brain it belongs to, which contains a forest of neurons. Further, and from a different perspective,
A human society has a great deal of integrated information, due to its complex social connections. However, a society is not a maximum of integration, as it is surpassed from below: people make up societies, and their brains have significantly more integrated information than does the society as a whole.
That’s all fine and dandy, that leaves room for people to go all shape-shifting Shangri-La when they discover the beam-me-up-Scotty joys of panpsychic integration — “consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter” — but then the other shoe drops on a phenomenological turd.
Goff considers the current human-machine trajectory of the Internet, and it can get scary in a hurry, depending on whether or not you welcome the coming Singularity or regard its arrival as akin to having Freddie Krueger over for a dinner of pulled pork, the pig not happy in the sty. Goff anticipates:
IIT predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
And you thought today’s Internet activity was out of control, full of fakery, dark web secrets, overcommercialization. Imagine absorption in that unenlightened Mind-set. Maybe it wouldn’t be so ducky down the rabbit hole after all.
But that worry aside, Goff suggests several times in his book that we are on the verge of something, a new paradigm, that we are waiting for a “Newton of consciousness” to come along to affirm the scientific validity of panpsychism, and the age-old mind-body problem will be resolved once and for all. But more than that, maybe we should be invoking Copernicus, rather than Newton, coming to terms, spiritually and scientifically, that as Earth is not the center of the solar system, human consciousness is not the center of the universe: consciousness abounds. The universe is not all about me.
Let us now return to trashing Trump: The Shitter is in everything.