Penguin Random House UK, 2019
Reviewed by Norman E. Gough, S. Staffordshire, UK
The author is neither the Phillip Goff of GGFA fame nor the Mayor of Auckland. It is Philip Goff, son of Marie and Tony Goff, who is a British philosopher and Associate Professor at Durham University, UK.1 From the start, in a brave act of self-preservation, he reassures us that ‘philosopher’ is not a dying breed and that anyone can sit in an armchair and dream useful thought experiments to test our pet theories about the meaning of life. Indeed, he argues with some conviction that although the main requirement of science is that theories must be capable of being tested by experiment, many of the most important ideas in science have come about through philosophical contemplation. And science fiction writers have given us plenty of food for thought.
This book examines the most difficult of all subjects: what is the basis of consciousness and by the term ‘mind’ are we referring to something in the brain or something separate from our bodies? This distinction gives rise to two competing ideas: materialism and dualism. To say that a lot has been written about this is an understatement – our libraries are full of texts that have gathered dust in the last few decades during which we have developed increasingly sophisticated instruments to examine the brain. But the underlying question persists and Goff explains why the scientific method has not come up with a solution. He promotes a concept called panpsychism,2 the origin of which he attributes to Bertrand Russell and Sir Arthur Eddington, and his support of this approach is both refreshing and enlightening.
As a control system engineer it is not surprising that I view the brain as a complex hierarchical control system, in which the highest level assimilates vast amounts of information from the lower levels and processes high-order thought processes. For me ‘mind’ is nothing more that the processing of this information. It appears that I am an emergent panpsychist in Goff’s terms. The evolution of the brain supports the historical development of the different layers as well as the notion that the highest levels are essential for self-awareness and self-preservation. I was gratified to discover that my ideas correlate closely with those of Prof. Antonio diMasio.3 On the basis that the best way to test systems is to examine fault conditions, diMasio was ideally placed to do this through his research on patients in mental institutions. So I am disappointed to note that he does not appear in Goff’s list of references.
I should concede that unless you are interested in why bananas appear to be yellow or why philosophical zombies do exist, you will probably not rush out to purchase this book. However, like Bertrand Russel and Steven Hawking, the author has the gift of being able to explain difficult concepts in plain language, so there is no reason to be put off reading it in the belief that it will be too difficult to follow. Do not expect too much: Although millions read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I doubt that many would wish to be tested on their understanding of space-time and black holes! So if you do tackle Goff’s book, you will be rewarded with a clear account of the subject, but you cannot expect to find a definitive answer to the problem of consciousness.
As for Galileo, not only was he persecuted for heresy and buried in an obscure tomb until 1737, it now seems that he was in “error” in separating qualities from quantities that are measurable. This seems harsh, as he intentionally separated the two to make great progress on the basis for the mathematical theory of science. Thus, I am rather hoping that when Phillip Goff writes his next book, he may relent and entitle it: Galileo Was Right After All.
2Philip Goff, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, Oxford University Press, 2017.
3Antonio diMasio, The Feeling of What Happens, Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt Inc., 2000, now available on-line at https://archive.org/details/feelingofwhathap00dama_0.