Understanding how brains produce consciousness is one of the great scientific challenges of our age. Some philosophers argue that consciousness is something “extra,” beyond the physical workings of the brain. Others think that if we persist in our standard scientific methods, our questions about consciousness will eventually be answered. And some even suggest that the mystery is so deep, it will never be solved. Decades have been spent trying to explain consciousness from within our current scientific paradigm, but little progress has been made.
Philip Goff is a philosopher who teaches at Durham University. He is the author of the seminal academic text Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, and Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness which breaks down some of the most important aspects of consciousness research for the broader audience. He has published more than forty academic papers. His writing has also appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, and he has guest-edited an issue of Philosophy Now.
In his new book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, Philip offers an exciting alternative that could pave the way forward to a new understanding of consciousness. Rooted in an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science and based on the early twentieth-century work of Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell, Goff makes the case for panpsychism, a theory which posits that consciousness is not confined to biological entities but is a fundamental feature of all physical matter—from subatomic particles to the human brain.
In this interview, I speak to Philip Goff about how our understanding of consciousness, and who we are, is being transformed.
Q: Why are we fascinated by consciousness?
[Philip Goff]: Nothing is more mundane and familiar than one’s own feelings and experiences, you know one’s pleasure, pain. These are just the mundane stuff of everyday experience. There are a number of phenomena that trouble philosophers, because it’s hard to fit them into our standard scientific story of the universe, so free will is one case much discussed, how we fit human agency into a world that’s deterministic or at least a world where everything is determined by the level of fundamental physics as many people believe. Or facts about value – right and wrong, good and bad, how do we mesh them with the cold-blooded facts of natural science?
Consciousness is the most troubling because it’s so hard to deny its existence. With all these other tricky, troubling phenomena, it’s at least an option to say maybe it, maybe it doesn’t exist, maybe we’re not really free in the way we think we are. Maybe value is really our subjective feelings projected onto the world and philosophers defend those options, but with consciousness, it’s seems hard to make sense of the idea that nobody’s ever felt pain. Nobody’s ever seen colour. At once something that’s so hard to fit into our standard scientific story of the universe, it’s what David Chalmers (an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the areas of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language) famously called the hard problem of consciousness. It’s hard to make sense of how electrochemical signalling in the brain, could somehow give rise, to an inner world of colours and sounds and smells and tastes, so it’s so hard to fit in and yet it almost doesn’t seem an option to just say it doesn’t exist. So we’re stuck with it.
Q: What did we previously think consciousness was?
[Philip Goff]: Historically, probably dualism is the most popular view about consciousness. The view that consciousness is non-physical outside of the physical workings of the body and the brain, or it’s maybe in the soul as distinct from inanimate matte. Although I don’t think this necessarily resulted in a kind of human exceptionalism, because I think historically people were very happy to attribute souls not just to human beings, but to animals and even natural phenomena like lakes and oceans and mountains, the thunder and lightning.
When we get to the Scientific Revolution and we get this idea of nature as a mechanism that we start to think, Oh, maybe it’s only human beings that have souls or eventually the souls don’t exist at all. And that’s so we start to get the puzzle. It’s come to the fore, because as we’ve developed an approach to science that has worked so well in many contexts, we want to apply that approach here.
There are certain reasons why it’s a little bit less straightforward dealing with consciousness than it is dealing with other kinds of natural phenomena that we study through science.
Q: What are the consequences of ‘solving’ consciousness?
[Philip Goff]: Consciousness is at the root of human identity. Fundamentally, we relate to each other as beings with feelings and experiences.
Consciousness is at the root of everything that really matters in life from deep emotions, subtle thoughts, these are the things that make life worth living. I argue that our current scientific worldview can’t account for the reality of consciousness, is incompatible with the reality of consciousness. We seem to be in a strange period of history where our official world view, our official picture of the universe denies the reality of the thing that’s most evident and the thing that gives life value. I think people do feel this at an intuitive level, and it can lead to a deep sense of alienation, a sense that we don’t fit into the world somehow. I do think that maybe this is one aspect, when Max Weber talks about the’ disenchantment of nature.’ This matters at a human level, as well as being a profound challenge for contemporary science.
Q: How did Galileo, and the advent of the scientific method, impact our relationship with consciousness?
[Philip Goff]: The scientific method can’t deal with consciousness. Our current scientific approach.. .. divide it into two warring factions. People who say consciousness is so magical and mysterious will never explain it. Other people say, ‘No, we just need to plug away with our standard ways of investigating the brain and we’ll crack it.’ I would defend a sort of middle way between those options. We can have confidence that science will one day deal with consciousness. In order to do that, we need to rethink what science is.
As you alluded to, our current scientific paradigm was designed by Galileo to exclude consciousness. This goes back to the 17th century, 1623 – Galileo declared that from that point onwards, mathematics was going to be the language of science. It was quite a bold and novel innovation at the time to insist that all of what Galileo called natural philosophy, what we now call physical science was going to be conducted in a purely mathematical, purely quantitative vocabulary. Galileo appreciated that, you can’t capture the qualities we find in our experience in that manner. You can’t capture in an equation that deep red you experience as you watched the setting sun. You can’t capture the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, these qualities in the purely quantitative language of mathematics.
Galileo got round this by proposing a radical new theory of reality, according to which the qualities aren’t really part of the physical world, that is the domain of science. Rather, they are in the consciousness of the observer. And that’s understood to be outside of the domain of science. Looking at a red tomato, the redness, that red quality isn’t, for Galileo, is not really on the surface of the tomato. It’s in the consciousness of the person looking at it. And the benefit of that, if you strip the tomato of its qualities, then all that remains of the tomato – its size, its shape, its location, its motion can be captured in mathematical geometry.
Galileo strips the physical world of its qualities so that we can exhaustively describe it in purely quantitative mathematics.
This was the start of mathematical physics and it depended on this separation of reality into two domains, – the quantitative physical world, the physical world of the purely mathematical properties and the qualitative domain of consciousness.
That whole project was premised on the idea that this was to be a partial description of reality. One which put consciousness outside of the domain of science. If we now want a science of consciousness, we need to find a way of bringing consciousness back into the domain of science. We need to find a way of bringing back together these two domains that Galileo separated. And that is really the challenge as I see it.
Q: Do we have ‘equity of consideration’ for the study of consciousness in science?
[Philip Goff]: For much of the 20th century, consciousness was a real taboo topic. It was seen as not a proper subject matter for serious science. You couldn’t get a job if you worked on consciousness. That taboo remains even till this day. A lot has changed since the 1990s, but especially in the US when I talk to many neuroscientists and I want to work on consciousness, they talk about how difficult it is to get funding because there is still a taboo. Is this serious science?
There’s good reason for that, because this is very different to the normal phenomena we investigate scientifically. The one thing I’m most passionate to press is that consciousness is not publicly observable. You can’t look inside somebody’s head and ‘see’ their feelings and experiences.
Science is used to dealing with things that can’t be observed, like fundamental particles or quantum wave functions or even other universes some physicists entertain the idea of. In all those cases, we postulate things we can’t observe in order to explain what we can observe. The fundamental task is to explain publicly observable data of experiments and observations, the objective facts of science.
The people in the latter half of the 20th century, for that reason, thought Oh, it’s weird, it’s spooky, forget about it. Now people are starting to take it seriously scientifically.
There is a robust and well-developed experimental science of consciousness. I can ask you what you’re feeling. If I scan your brain…stimulate bits of your brain and ask you how it felt – then we can start to correlate certain kinds of brain activity with certain kinds of conscious experience. This is the task of trying to map out what’s called the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC), which kinds of brain activity go along with which kinds of experience.
We ultimately want an explanation of why certain kinds of brain activity go along with certain kinds of conscious experience. Why should brain activity go along with conscious experience at all? Why shouldn’t we just be complicated mechanisms without any kind of inner life or inner experience? Because consciousness is not publicly observable, that’s a question you can just answer with an experiment. So that kind of makes people nervous and think, what are we funding here? But that’s just that’s just the reality of consciousness, that it’s not publicly observable.
Q: How much of a revolution in our understanding of consciousness is panpsychism?
[Philip Goff]: I had a public discussion with the novelist Philip Pullman in the Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, who wrote the His Dark Materials series, and he put it that way that…panpsychism does introduce a new Copernican revolution that human consciousness is not something cosmically special, we are not the only physical entity that has an inner qualitative dimension as well as the external quantitative aspects of our nature. Human consciousness for the panpsychist is just a highly evolved form of what exists throughout the universe.
Over time, we do start to appreciate that more and more things are conscious, there used to be the orthodoxy that fish weren’t conscious, birds weren’t conscious, even that babies weren’t conscious, which is why we didn’t mind, we didn’t tend to give them pain relief if we needed to do certain things to them. The overwhelming consensus now is that fish, birds, certainly babies are conscious now.
One philosopher, Peter Carruthers, is sceptical of baby consciousness, but I would say that’s a minority view. There is that trajectory and that is the basis of the Panpsychist position. The word literally means ‘everything has mind’, pan meaning everything, psyche meaning mind. But the way it’s standardly understood now is, as the view that the fundamental building blocks of reality have some kind of very simple, conscious experience. Human experience is incredibly rich and sophisticated with deep emotions, subtle thoughts, complicated visual and auditory experiences. Consciousness comes in all shapes and sizes.
The consciousness of a horse is maybe simpler than that of a human being, consciousness of a mouse maybe simpler still. We move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. For the panpsychist that continues right down to the basic building blocks of matter, which on this view have incredibly simple forms of experience to reflect the incredibly simple nature.
Q: Could consciousness be viewed as a ‘fundamental force’ of nature, perhaps even hypothetically?
[Philip Goff]: In academic philosophy the motivation for the return of interest to panpsychism was a rediscovery of really interesting work, by Bertrand Russell in the 1920s. Russell was essentially just thinking really hard about the fact that physics is purely mathematical. This is something we kind of take for granted, but goes back to Galileo. What can we infer from the fact that the description of reality we’re getting from physics is just purely mathematical? Scientists are often really just interested in getting on with the experiments and getting the results. And that’s fair enough. That’s the job. But as a philosopher, you’re interested in, well what is the nature of reality? Russell was saying, what does the fact that physics is mathematical tell us about the ultimate nature of reality? Our universe is a base, kind of made up of mathematics, made up of numbers and functions and vectors, because these are the things we get in physics. So maybe that’s what reality is made up of.
This is the position, for example, defended by the physicist Max Tegmark, but another option, which is what the Panpsychist takes, is to say well, maybe there’s something underlying the mathematical structures. Physics identifies. Maybe some think that those mathematical structures are the mathematical structures of, there’s this great line from Stephen Hawking at the last page of a brief history of time. He said that even a final theory of physics will be just a bunch of equations and won’t tell us what breathes fire into the equations. For the sake of the panpsychist. The idea is what we have at the fundamental level are very simple, conscious entities, with very simple kinds of experience and that is all there is to their nature, these very simple kinds of experience and because they have very simple experiences, they behave in very simple, predictable ways, and through their interactions, they realise certain patterns and mathematical structures.
The thought is those mathematical structures are the mathematical structures identified by physics. It’s consciousness that’s breathing fire into the equations. Through this kind of approach, we can get physics out of consciousness, and this kind of turns the hard problem of consciousness on its head.
Normally you think of the hard problem of consciousness, we start with matter, ultimately matter as it’s understood by physics, and you try to get consciousness out of that. I don’t think that can be done as Galileo appreciated, because you can’t get from the purely quantitative language of physical science to the qualities we find in consciousness; the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. You cant get consciousness out of matter, but it turns out to be pretty easy to do it the other way around, to get matter out of consciousness because, as Russell realised, physics is purely mathematical. As long as we’ve got conscious entities that through their interactions bring about the right kind of mathematical structures, the right patterns, you can get physics out of consciousness.
That’s really the basics of the case for Panpsychism. You can’t get consciousness out of physics, but you can get physics out of consciousness.
Q: How should we think of the relationship of consciousness to time?
[Philip Goff]: There was recently a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness studies of 19 essays responding to my book Galileo, not just by philosophers, but by scientists as well. Lee Smolin, the physicist, in his contribution, shares my view that Galileo took consciousness outside of the domain of science, but he also worried that time was taken out of the domain of science, and we now have this sometimes called four dimensional picture of time in physics, where it’s just reality is understood as sometimes called the block universe. Time doesn’t really flow, time is just another dimension like space.
We just have this four dimensional block running from the start of time to the end of time. To take a theological metaphor from the gods eye perspective, time doesn’t really flow. Now is just where you are in time. .
Lee Smolin is very keen to reclaim not just the reality of consciousness, but the reality of time He has speculative work, hoping that the radical rethink of physics we need to do to bring our best theory of the very big, namely general relativity together with our best theory of the very small, namely quantum mechanics will make a place for consciousness and time as fundamental features of that story.
He uses that as a constraint in his theorising about the future trajectory of physics. Barry Dainton the philosopher has written interesting recent work on the relationship between time and consciousness, but also wondering how a Panpsychist thinks about photons, given that so photons, particles of light. Einstein spent a lot of his time wondering what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. Barry Dainton in a panpsychist perspective has sort of picked this up, he is a philosophy professor at Liverpool University, and thought for a panpsychist, what is it like to be an electron? The reason this was interesting to Einstein, that it’s interesting from a Panpsychist perspective is that light travels at the speed of light and so according to special relativity, at that speed time essentially doesn’t pass.
There is a thought that consciousness seems to essentially involve the passage of time. Whereas if you’re a photon and time does not pass, can we make sense of that kind of experience?
Another philosopher, Helen Yetter-Chapell, has explored the view maybe physicists are right, and this connects.
Maybe the physicists are right, that in the physical world, outside of our experience, time doesn’t really flow. But if the world is made up of experience, including our temporal experience, and that does involve a certain kind of flow, then maybe that way we get back the passage of time.
What’s so exciting about what’s happening recently is we’re starting to see scientists and philosophers coming together to explore this new conceptual space. And there’s lots of unexplored areas of connection, such as the connection between time and consciousness.
Q: Do you think there’s a connection between consciousness and the sense of meaning?
[Philip Goff]: I do discuss this a little bit in the final chapter of my book Galileo’s Error. The first four chapters are the sort of cold blooded, scientific and philosophical case for the view, because I always think, first and foremost we should be interested not in the view we’d like to be true, but in the view most likely to be true. We are also human beings and we want to think about what our theory of reality means for human existence and the meaning of purpose in human existence.
This is something I touch on in the final chapter, and I’ve also just started a new book on the purpose of existence and meaning and purpose, so I hope to explore these questions in much more detail.
Everything that is important in human life comes from consciousness…people have an intuitive sense that they know their feelings and experiences exist, and yet our official world view tells us this just purely quantitative story of electrochemical signalling in the brain and at an intuitive level that doesn’t seem to be the same thing as feelings and experiences. I think that intuition can be robustly developed, but at a much more speculative level, if the fundamental nature of reality is in some way mental, that does open up the possibility that there is some kind of directedness or purposiveness, what is called teleology, a kind of direction in nature, because if the universe is just a mechanism, then mechanisms don’t have any purpose, unless it’s the purpose that the person who constructed the mechanism put into it.
If the universe is a sort of conscious mind, albeit of a very alien kind, that opens up the possibility that it may have in some sense certain aims, a certain kind of directedness.
I’ve written, explored in a more speculative way whether this could help with the surprising discovery of recent decades that the laws of physics are fine tuned for the possibility of life, that is to say, for life to be physically possible certain numbers in physics, like the strength of gravity, the mass of an electron, the cosmological constant, which determines the rate of expansion of the universe. We have discovered that for life to be possible, those numbers had to fall in a very narrow range. For example, if the cosmological constant had been a bit bigger or a little bit smaller, we would have had no structural complexity at all.
If the strong nuclear force that binds the constituents of the nucleus of the atom together, if that had been slightly stronger or slightly weaker there would have been no chemical reactions and no chemical complexity.
This is a puzzling fact that how is it we won the cosmic lottery. How is it our universe ended up with exactly the right numbers to allow for the possibility of life. Some people explain this in terms of God. Gods fix the numbers. Others postulate a multiverse. Maybe there are loads of universes with different numbers in their physics so that statistically you’re going to get one that happens to fluke the right numbers. This is all very speculative, but so I’ve explored the possibility if you have, at the fundamental level, a conscious universe, that it could potentially, because it has consciousness, have a certain kind of directness, maybe it in some sense fine-tuned itself. Maybe in some sense has the kind of directness towards life and hence there is a sort of inherent purpose or teleology at the fundamental level.
I hasten to add that’s a step beyond the basic Panpsychist position. There are many panpsychists like Lucro Lofts or David Chalmers who are completely secular, atheistic philosophers or scientists who don’t believe in any kind of transcendent reality. They think we need to rethink our scientific approach somewhat to deal with that. If you do think there are grounds for thinking, there is some meaning or purpose in reality that goes beyond what we get from the conventional scientific story, then I think a panpsychist point of view does open up new resources for trying to make sense of that and that’s what I’m hoping to explore in future work.