BY PHILIP GOFF & KEITH FRANKISH
We spoke to philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish about their popular new online show, Mind Chat, in which they interview scientists and philosophers on the mystery of consciousness.
Philip Goff is a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. In his 2019 book, Galileo’s Error, he defends panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental feature of all physical matter. In other words, Philip argues consciousness is not limited to beings with brains and nervous systems, but in fact pervades the universe.
Keith Frankish is a philosopher and writer, Honorary Reader at the University of Sheffield, UK, Visiting Research Fellow with The Open University, UK, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Crete. In his 2017 volume, Illusionism: As a Theory of Consciousness, Keith defends and presents responses to illusionism, the view that our whole concept of consciousness is deeply flawed and, ultimately, illusory. In other words, Keith argues that the consciousness Philip thinks exists everywhere actually does not exist at all (or, at least, core aspects of it don’t).
Philip and Keith host Mind Chat from their very different perspectives on consciousness, inviting leading scientists and philosophers to debate with them in an engaging and friendly way in pursuit of truth.
We caught up with Philip and Keith about the consciousness debate and their motivations behind Mind Chat.
Philip: In our standard way of thinking about things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence exists only in a tiny part of the universe, and only in very recent history (cosmically speaking). According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it.
Keith: I think that philosophers have a distorted view of what consciousness is. They think it involves being aware of special mental qualities (so-called phenomenal properties or qualia), which are directly presented to us in a private mental world. In their view, seeing a red apple doesn’t just involve being sensitive to the redness of the apple itself and reacting to it in complex ways; it also involves being aware of a private mental redness. I think that’s a fundamental mistake. I think that phenomenal properties are a sort of illusion and that consciousness in that phenomenal sense doesn’t exist.
Philip and I have the same ultimate goal — understanding consciousness — and though we disagree deeply, we respect each other’s work and learn from each other. We think that’s a good example to set.
Philip: Nothing is more evident than the reality of one’s own feelings and experiences. If I’m in pain, the reality of that feeling of pain is just totally undeniable. And by attending to my experiences, I understand something of their nature: I grasp the character of the colors, sounds, smells and tastes that populate my waking experience. I can’t think of a more solid foundation upon which to build our theory of reality!
Keith: I think its starting point is wrong. We know when we’re in pain, of course, and we know that pain is bad, but we don’t necessarily know what pain is. It’s tempting to think that there’s a mental essence of pain that is known to us directly and is distinct from the complex reactions that are being triggered in us. But I think that’s a trick created by our brains — our brain’s way of helping us keep track of how things are affecting us. We should focus on understanding how the trick is done and why it’s so compelling, rather than accepting that this essence is real and puzzling about how it fits into our picture of the world. (I’d add, though, that if it were real, then the case for panpsychism would be quite strong. It’s an elegant way of accommodating phenomenal consciousness.)
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Philip: We wanted something that was in depth, but accessible to people with no background in the philosophy and/or science of consciousness. There’s huge interest in these issues, but too often people feel alienated by the technical language that often frames these discussions.
Keith: We also wanted to show that people with very different views can get along with each other and work together, provided there is good faith and openness on both sides. Philip and I have the same ultimate goal — understanding consciousness — and though we disagree deeply, we respect each other’s work and learn from each other. We think that’s a good example to set.
Philip: Everything is so specialized these days. I’m jealous of people in the 17th century, when you could be up to date with the latest science, philosophy, and mathematics, without too much difficulty. Especially when it comes to the hard problem of consciousness, this isn’t something that’s going to be tackled just by one field. We’re going to need philosophers and scientists working in tandem if we’re going to make progress.
Keith: I’d add that it’s important for philosophers themselves to communicate with a wider audience. If they talk only to each other, they can become bogged down in technical issues and lose sight of the bigger picture and why it matters. And most importantly, of course, there’s huge popular interest in philosophy, especially in philosophy of mind, and it’s only right that those of us who’ve been lucky enough to spend time working in the field should share our knowledge and ideas with others who are interested.
Philip: René Descartes. I think his core insight that the mind is better known than the body was spot on. Although he messed things up when he started to prove the existence of God, and then prove the existence of the external world on that basis (because God wouldn’t deceive us). He was also a damn good sword fighter.
Keith: I’d invite Descartes too! It’s true that his dualist view of the mind has been an inspiration for the view of consciousness I reject — the view that sees it as a private mental world distinct from the physical one. But Descartes was also a scientist, and he believed that much of our everyday behavior can be explained in terms of physical processes in our nervous systems. He just couldn’t see how intellectual activities, such as intelligent language use, could be explained in that way, and that was one reason why he thought we must have immaterial souls as well as brains. But of course that reflected the limited scientific knowledge of his time, and I’d love to know what he would say if he knew something of modern cognitive science. He might even be an illusionist! (Can we get him? Does anyone know a medium who’s in touch with him?)
Philip: Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos is a radical challenge to the current scientific orthodoxy. It got slated in many reviews, but I think that’s just because he’s daring to commit heresy. I don’t agree with all his arguments, but I think he’s right that a revolution is on its way.
Keith: Daniel Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained. It’s a groundbreaking book, the first thorough presentation of an illusionist view of consciousness. Some people find it frustrating because it doesn’t explain consciousness in the sense they expect — the phenomenal sense. But that’s not what Dennett’s trying to do. He’s trying to show that there is another, better way of thinking of consciousness, which doesn’t entangle us in all the problems of the traditional view. If you read it carefully and with an open mind, it may radically change the way you think about what it is to be conscious.
To learn more about the mystery of consciousness, watch Philip & Keith’s first episode of Mind Chat, featuring the philosopher Tim O’Connor and his dualist theory of consciousness, and subscribe to future episodes. You can also find an audio-only version of Mind Chat on Spotify and other podcast platforms.
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