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.”


NASA.gov

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.