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.

Madness and the Demise of Common Sense

painting by untitled blue on flickr – Acrylic on 4 Canvas: 125x90cm

On a recent errand to acquire a bottle of aspirin from the neighborhood drug store, (never actually having set foot in the place previously,) as I walked through the door, I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to check the sign out front again to make sure I entered the right building! What I assumed was a place to buy medicine and health care products now appeared to be a Wal-Mart. Looking around briefly, I was tempted to ask directions to the pharmacy. Refusing to be intimidated, I walked past the lawn chairs, gift wrapping, housewares, videos, toys, and food, eventually ending up in the part of the store where one could find over-the-counter medicine. After a minute or two of further searching, I ended up in the aisle containing aspirin.

Easily forty feet long, what looked like a row in an aspirin warehouse contained hundreds of boxes of analgesics, with innumerable varieties of additives designed for every contingency of illness, except perhaps for the anxiety produced by too many choices.

Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Finding a particular brand, if you knew which one you wanted, was only marginally easier than deciding on a brand if you didn’t know. Cost-conscious consumers would have it a little easier, only having to choose amongst the generic versions of every brand name, knocking the search down by half. At that point you need only narrow your selection to small, medium, or large bottle; liquid or gel-tabs; chewable or time-release capsules; coated or plain. If you read labels you may have to spend the night! Of course, this is possible since the store is open twenty-four hours a day. What led to this madness? How did we get diverted from the relative simplicity of life a hundred years ago, to the virtually limitless chaos of modern life?

Common sense, long ago revered as the most important form of everyday reasoning, seems to have all but vanished from modern life in the 21st century. So diverse are we that finding something in common with even most of us may be unreachable. Ask people what is meant by common sense, and you will inevitably get no consensus. In a very unscientific survey of a dozen diverse men and women in different departments of my own workplace produced twelve remarkably different responses. Here are the results of my short survey:

1. What ought to be obvious and sensible to a majority of individuals.
2. The innate ability to reason and find the easiest and most efficient way.
3. What you know instinctively to be the right way to do something.
4. Going along with the norms of society.
5. The ability to think without external guidelines.
6. Knowing right from wrong.
7. The golden rule. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t do to yourself.
8. Popular opinion
9. The ability to handle life situations and react in a logical, thoughtful process.
10. Native intelligence.
11. Levelheadedness.
12. The understanding of logic.

Unable to find agreement among my contemporaries, I sought out some definitions from established sources. Webster’s dictionary defined it as “sound practical judgment not based on reasoning or special knowledge.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “Genius dressed in its working clothes,” and “the shortest line between two points.” In an essay for the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes related a criticism of an old gentleman, responding to a statement Holmes had made, which the gentleman said made him sound, “like a transcendentalist,” and proclaimed that “for his part, common sense was good enough for him.” Holmes then replied, “Precisely so, my dear sir, common sense as you understand it.”

Perhaps the most famous pamphlet in American history was the one entitled, “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776 and written by Thomas Paine advocating a “Declaration for Independence,” by the American colonies. In it, Paine asserted that “the more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.” He summed up his view on common sense in this way:

“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

It was a very different world in which Mr. Paine announced his essential description of common sense, and who actually qualified as”wise and able men” is unknown. However, even a brief examination of life in the colonial era shows how the word “common” applied. Life in colonial America was difficult. Many people lost their lives while attempting to adapt to frontier conditions. Compared to our modern standards of scheduled working hours, vacations, and leisure time, the colonist’s lives were bleak and tedious. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not restrict their work to any set number of hours. The needs of simply existing required constant effort. The family unit was paramount, spending time with each other in a way that is virtually unknown today. Most people had so much in common, that “sensible” almost always translated into “self-evident.” These days, we appear to have so little in common that what could be called common before, not longer seems possible.

Recent quantum leaps in the availability of information technology have resulted in an overwhelming volume of possible avenues to explore, presenting an entirely new problem to challenge the survival skills of modern humans. With this landslide of technology, we seem find ourselves slowly being buried under the weight of every new development, and its accompanying library of information. Take a look at any computer or science magazine these days and you will notice a great deal of shouting going on about the latest technological leap. Wizardry that makes Merlin’s magic pale by comparison is now routine. Our mass media is replete with spectacular showcases of special effects and futuristic fanfares designed to dazzle and delight, and anything that does not contain these elements, regardless of its significance, seems to end up somewhere between invisible and absent.

State-of-the-art technologies in the real world, such as those responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, satellite communications, and the many breakthroughs of modern medical science have long term, permanent, and profound consequences for all of humanity. Already, in the short time it has taken to develop these bodies of knowledge, we have been faced with serious moral and ethical questions. As the pace accelerates, so too does the necessity to search deeper within ourselves for the wisdom to create appropriate responses to them. As we expand our horizons, we expand our understanding, and acquire the raw materials for enlightened social change. We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them. Before we plunge headlong into the new and spectacular, we need to be better prepared for the challenges they will present.

Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be. Buying a bottle of aspirin, by comparison, should not require quite as much work. We must find a way to shift our concentration from consumerism and razzle-dazzle, to the urgency to prepare like the great ballerina, for the most important performance in history–our future survival as human beings.