Galileo’s Error

Anil Seth Twitter

Finally made substantial progress with Philip Goff’s recent offering on the subject of consciousness, and as someone equally intrigued by the advancements of science and their implications for both neuroscience and the efforts to develop a science of consciousness, I must admit that I find myself in agreement with many of Goff’s assertions, even though I’m not quite completely convinced by all of his arguments. His review of the variety of approaches to understanding the nature of human consciousness and his fairly even-handed treatment of views which differ from his own is especially encouraging, since this approach is less evident in other treatments of the subject.

Justus Sustermans Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the most interesting general starting points in Goff’s approach is when he pointed out Galileo’s idea to separate our subjective experience of objects from the objects themselves: “Just as beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, so colors, smells, tastes, and sounds exist only in the conscious soul of a human being as she experiences the world. In other words, Galileo transformed the sensory qualities from features of things in the world—such as lemons—into forms of consciousness in the souls of human beings.”

This “error” led to the scientific revolution where mathematics could describe the phenomenal world like never before. Galileo also was able to deduce through reasoning alone that objects, no matter how much they weigh, fall at the same rate, by revealing the contradiction in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Goff takes great pains to point out the value of philosophy in this way:

“It is sometimes claimed that the scientific revolution, and the great progress which followed it, have rendered philosophy impotent as a tool for understanding the natural world. And yet the father of the scientific revolution is in fact the great vindicator of the philosophical method. Galileo is one of the few philosophers to have produced a philosophical argument which nobody has ever disputed; and with this argument he transformed our understanding of the physical world.”

As we know, Galileo’s idea that all objects fall at the same rate was demonstrated by Apollo astronaut, David Scott, who dropped a hammer and a feather during his mission on the moon, and they both hit the surface at the same time. While waking consciousness is made coherent by our ability to remember each moment as it happens and becomes the next moment, our dreaming consciousness, while often remembered, as explained by Goff, may not follow logically in the same way:

“Even in the dreams we do remember when we wake up, what is experienced from moment to moment is often not so tightly bound together by memory. One moment we’re back in high school being taught French by Miss Clarke, and the next moment we’re on top of a mountain without noticing anything has changed. Memory is still recording the dream (if it weren’t we wouldn’t be able to remember it upon waking), but it is not binding moment-to-moment experience into a coherent whole as it does in waking life.”

After reading through this section of the book, I awoke suddenly twice that night from two elaborate dreams: Many of the exact details of the first dream escape me, but realizing that it was quite elaborate in its details surprised me upon waking. Briefly recalling such details after having a dream of such length, made me wish I had gotten up and written it down.

In this dream, I was a teacher or an instructor for a relief agency in a third world area and responsible for helping a large community build relationships for local cooperation between groups. I remember answering questions in a group setting, as well as having one-on-one conversations with individuals in a teacher/student situation. I was definitely enjoying the process and feeling a sense of accomplishment in serving this community. Upon waking, I was surprised at the level of detail within the dream, and how long it seemed to go on. There was barely a hint of light evident in the windows, so it must have been near dawn…

The second dream involved an elaborate journey through a large city. My GPS located the vehicle I drove into the city, and after my activity in town was accomplished, the signal on the GPS screen showed the way back to the car, which took me over a much more elaborate return path, including several buildings, an indoor mall location, a large concrete structure which I had to climb down, and past street vendors with colorful framed images displayed. As I approached the destination, the screen of the GPS showed a network of red boxes connected by red lines. I was frustrated and anxious that I was having so much trouble locating my car, right before I was awakened by someone grabbing my toes.

As the room slowly brightened with the morning light, I was reminded of Emerson…

“I see the spectacle of morning…from daybreak to sunrise with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of clouds float like fishes in a sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”

Emerson belonged to the Transcendentalist Movement which expressed the values of “idealism, nonconformity, self-reliance, free thought, and the divinity of nature.” I often find myself in accord with these values in spite of experiences with a fair amount of resistance or push-back from others I have encountered along the way.

Like Carl Jung, who described “a curious resistance” and “an almost total unwillingness to understand,” his choice of psychiatry when he was preparing for his future career, my own experiences with conversations regarding subjective experience as an indication of a non-physical component to human consciousness, which clearly invokes free thought and the divinity of nature, often met with a similar “unwillingness,” even to suppose that such elements exist at all.

As I awaited the fullness of the morning light to brighten in the room, Emerson’s words echoed in my mind, stirring memories of my own struggles with coming to terms with a number of extraordinary experiences in my life. Reflecting on them now, in my maturity, they seem more clearly to embody the transcendentalist values, and re-enforce my resolve to pursue the path I have actively explored these many years. Reading Philip Goff’s book, “Galileo’s Error,” has also provided additional encouragement to persist in my explorations.

5 thoughts on “Galileo’s Error

  1. Or perhaps we are all guilty of confirmation bias? Certainly I find Daniel Dennett and his crew absurd. Certainly also I find the idea of consciousness being an inbuilt part of the material universe attractive. Whether I am using reason or wishful thinking I am not entirely clear. I am clear however that my honest belief is we humans have no inkling yet as to the true nature of the universe and reality. However much we might think otherwise and great as our scientific achievements to date undoubtedly are.

    1. Part of the appeal of Goff’s book is his thoughtful approach to a variety of opposing or different views currently being pursued on the subject of consciousness. He discusses these alternate theories with reasonable fairness and acknowledges the shortcomings of his own. None of the current mainstream ideas are fully proven or widely accepted and I am also interested to read about these other views.

      According to a recent article
      in Psychology Today:

      “Several studies have obtained results that challenge the common beliefs about confirmation bias. These studies showed that most people actually are thoughtful enough to prefer genuinely diagnostic tests (of new information) when given that option (Kunda, 1999; Trope & Bassok, 1982; Devine et al., 1990).”

      The general conclusion Goff seems to support most clearly is that the materialistic or reductionist approaches have the greater challenge to prove their case, since the nature of the subjective experience of consciousness must be answered by whatever theory is proposed.

      There is a robust and innovative range of ideas discussed in the book, and once we eliminate both ends of the extreme views, what remains is a truly fascinating puzzle.

      1. “None of the current mainstream ideas are fully proven”
        Quite, although it is comical how hard the absolute materialists fight against ideas such as panpyschism – they are threatened and affronted by it. The thoughtful approach to opposing or different views sounds very attractive – it is such a muddied field so full of jargon, such an approach is welcome.

        Interesting quote on conformation bias. Yes, I have no doubt that if panpyschism were proved wrong I would accept the conclusion without hesitation, painful as that might be.

        I fear we will not have any definitive answers in our life time. I am sure I have mentioned it before but you may find of interest. Many articles (particularly in their lineage section) which I have read with pleasure over the past couple of years. I think they describe themselves as dual aspect monists or something!

      2. It’s expected to some degree to encounter resistance to theories which are either counter-intuitive or which fly in the face of a scientific assertion by those who advocate it, but the field clearly is muddled currently, and even on the Qualia Research Institute site there is a fair amount of jargon which would only be marginally accessible to the lay person or to someone who is simply curious about the subject. Neuroscience is not for the faint of heart especially either, and even with the reasonably familiar background in the science of the brain that I’ve accumulated to date, I find myself continuously researching terminology as I read.

        I have to say, in fairness to the people doing the work at the QRI, there is an abundance of fascinating material to review on that site, and plenty of food for thought, but I can’t help thinking that even the people doing that work seem to be investigating the MECHANISMS and PROCESSES which allow us to access the phenomenon of consciousness, as opposed to “solving” its mysteries. All of this work is essential to our understanding and is laudable and worthwhile, I just keep wondering how knowing about the principles of physics and identifying the “nodes” and “network structures” and “architecture” associated with conscious experience will provide everything “necessary and sufficient” to explain consciousness in a comprehensive sense. They state early on that within the three main tasks, they are proposing “eight sub-problems whose solutions would, in aggregate, constitute a complete theory of consciousness.”

        It is presumptuous at best to make such a claim, but you have to admire their confidence, and we do have to start somewhere, so it’s a good beginning and we’ll see how it works out in the meantime.

        Dual aspect theory, supported by Jung and Pauli “has a very specific further feature, namely that different aspects may (be) complementary in a quantum physical sense. That is, the Pauli-Jung conjecture implies that with regard to mental and physical states there may be incompatible descriptions of different parts that emerge from the whole…This stands in close analogy to quantum physics, where complementary properties cannot be determined jointly with accuracy.”

        In other words, who knows what’s going to happen when we get into the thick of it!

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