Philip Goff on a New Approach to the Science of Consciousness

Consciousness is one of the deepest and most perplexing unresolved mysteries of the universe and it would take a fool to believe that we already have a conclusive explanation or that we even know what an explanation would look like. If we’re honest, we can’t even be sure the problem is soluble at all, or whether it is best addressed through better neuroscience or through a conceptual reimagining of the universe.

So the place I start when rating books like this is in regard to whether or not the author seems to understand the inherent complexity of the topic. Consciousness is simply not the place for dogmatism, and a little humility goes a long way. Fortunately, philosopher Philip Goff is anything but dogmatic, and presents his ideas carefully and thoroughly without any pretentiousness. As you might expect, someone who has been studying the topic for 20 years knows enough about it to not be overconfident in his or her beliefs.

Unlike other authors with last names beginning with Harris, Goff gives a fair evaluation and critique to the competing positions and philosophers who would tend to disagree with him. The intellectual history of and literature on consciousness is vast and complex and frankly most books on the topic don’t do it justice. Make no mistake, this is a book for a popular audience and only so much can be covered in a couple hundred pages, but Goff does a commendable job of presenting the major arguments and counterarguments for each approach to the understanding of consciousness.

Goff’s hypothesis is compelling; first, he notes how physical science has been unsuccessful in its attempt to explain consciousness because Galileo, the father of physical science, placed consciousness (and its associated qualitative characteristics based on experiences and feelings) beyond the reach of physical science. As Galileo wrote in 1632:

“Philosophy [natural philosophy or science] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.”

Galileo effectively removed subjective experience and sensory qualities (essentially, consciousness) from the study of science. The universe was to be understood quantitatively, with qualitative aspects like senses and emotions and feeling relegated to human curiosities that have no impact on our true understanding of the cosmos. It is no surprise then that more and better neuroscience is getting us nowhere closer to an understanding of qualitative experience (of which consciousness consists) when it is founded on a mathematical basis that only considers quantity, magnitude, and cause-and-effect relationships.

As Goff points out, nobody wants to be a dualist unless they really have to—because it introduces added complexity and brings up the further problem of how an immaterial mind can possibly interact with the physical brain. But a simple aversion to dualism does not automatically make materialism the default correct answer.

If we have trouble understanding the interaction between an immaterial mind and a physical brain, we have even greater difficulty imagining how an arrangement of neurons can experience the sensation of being in pain. If neuroscience has not solved the problem yet, it seems implausible that more of the same will get us anywhere closer, as Goff maintains.

At the heart of materialism lies a deep contradiction. Materialism cannot account for subjective experience, because, as we saw, physical science removed subjective experience from its realm of investigation. The only recourse is for the materialist to deny that subjective experience exists at all.

In response to the idea that subjective experience is an illusion, philosopher Galen Strawson calls this “the silliest claim ever made.” Strawson further points out that the trouble with asserting that consciousness is an illusion “is that any such illusion is already and necessarily an instance of the thing said to be an illusion.” Materialists want to make the claim that my subjective experience is an illusion, yet that illusion must itself be subjectively experienced.

So what’s the solution? We don’t want to be dualists, but the contradictions of materialism seem to force us into that position. But belief in an immaterial mind seems little better than believing in magic, and offers no explanation for the mind’s interaction with the brain. Is there a third way?

It turns out there is, and it was originally championed, to my surprise, by Betrand Russell in his book The Analysis of Matter. The philosophy goes by the name of panpsychism, and asserts that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter, present in varying degrees based on the complexity of the life form. This is an interesting position as it seems to avoid the problems of dualism by locating consciousness within the brain, while also avoiding the problem of materialism by not denying the existence of subjective experience.

Goff provides one of the best and clearest accounts of the panpsychist position I’ve seen, and his examples of promising lines of research are fascinating and compelling. However, it’s hard to get too excited yet…

Here’s my main problem with panpsychism: I’m having difficulty seeing how it is not merely a different form of dualism in disguise.

If consciousness is inherent in matter, then this means that, in addition to whatever physical properties it may have, it also has immaterial properties, for that is what consciousness is. Unless Goff is maintaining that the physical world is an illusion, and that only consciousness exists—which I don’t think he is—then there is still a DUAL aspect to reality. Only now, dualism is not confined exclusively to brains—it’s present everywhere!

This is a kind of out-of-control dualism with all the same problems. Whether you say that an immaterial mind interacts WITH matter or an immaterial consciousness is inherent IN matter doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

You still can’t account for how consciousness interacts with the physical world. Are conscious experiences happening in parallel with physical processes or can one cause changes in the other? The panpsychist has no better answer than the dualist, to my mind.

This is why I’m skeptical that the problem can ever be resolved. It’s not that it’s too difficult; it’s that the answer seems to lie in the solution to a paradox that our minds are not wired to handle. Further, if we can never experience different degrees of consciousness, then how can we verify or falsify whether or not they exist? And if we can’t, then in what sense can panpsychism count as a solution?

In any case, I won’t fault the author for failing to conclusively solve the most perplexing philosophical issue in the history of the subject—or for pursuing new lines of inquiry. While I’m not yet convinced that we can solve the problem of consciousness, I’m glad to see we’re not giving up on the attempt. Who knows where it will one day lead.