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review 2020-06-23 22:26
Inconclusive
Galileo's Error - Philip Goff

Galileo determined that the natural world can be measured with math. Certain qualities, however, are unmeasurable because they are derived from the soul rather than from nature. Sensory qualities like “yellow” can’t be measured like size, weight, or movement. Aside from unmeasurable sensory qualities and similar information, Galileo’s method describes nature quite well. But the method creates an error: “Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

 

It took a while to notice the problem. It didn’t trouble René Descartes at all that Galileo’s method couldn’t address unmeasurable qualities. For Descartes, matter was one thing while mind was another. While a bodily action might follow a mental intention, both body and mind, being distinct, can exist without the other.

 

Today Descartes’ dualism has fallen out of fashion. Materialists argue that it’s the brain that generates consciousness, nothing more. Some, such as Daniel Dennett, argue that consciousness is a brain-generated illusion.

 

Goff describes several arguments that refute the materialist view of consciousness. Of these, I’m most convinced by David Chalmers’s argument that materialism fails to address the “Hard Question of Consciousness.” Connecting the brain with its outward actions answers easy questions. Such examination can never explain why we experience life as we do. Nobody questions their own experience, but materialists encounter Galileo’s soul derived qualities when they attempt to explain it.

 

Goff explores one possibility that might save dualism. It involves quantum physics. By far the strangest aspect of quantum mechanics is that observation seems to make a difference to how the universe behaves.” If an observation is necessary, what else but a mind could perform that function?

 

The argument is complicated and involves Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. The cat does just fine when nobody is looking. It’s both alive and dead. But once an observation is made the cat becomes either living or dead. Weird as it sounds, physics has yet to solve this contradiction.

 

Goff does not defend dualism for long. Instead he moves on to panpsychism, a view that holds that consciousness is somehow an inherent quality of nature. The problem with panpsychism however is that it fails to provide a mechanism for how the simple consciousness of, say, atomic particles, combine to create the complex consciousness of a human being.

 

Every approach to philosophy of mind has problems, Goff explains. However he believes that panpsychism offers the best explanatory approach. While his arguments are inconclusive his explanations are clear and readable. That’s good. Philosophical arguments can be tough for non-philosophers to digest. I have only one criticism. In explaining how the observation problem in physics might save dualism, Goff misses an opportunity to investigate how the observation problem might strengthen the argument for panpsychism.

 

Goff’s book is a good introduction to philosophy of mind. Annaka Harris provides another good introduction in her book “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” Despite its shorter length, her book covers the same territory and throws in meditation as well. I won’t say more now about her book now but hope to provide a more complete review later.

 

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text 2020-03-04 16:41
Oops
Galileo's Error - Philip Goff

(currently reading -- one third read)

 

Consciousness sounds simple, yet it’s not. Where does it come from? What does it consist of? Answering the first question, most say that the brain creates consciousness. But then they fail to explain how this occurs.

 

Galileo was a brilliant thinker. He gave us modern science by showing how math could be used to describe physical reality. However, he excluded unmeasurable qualities such as an object’s color. Qualities such as “yellow” are gleaned from the soul rather than derived from the mundane. Galileo’s error was in excluding unmeasurable qualities from his description of reality. Materialism.

 

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant just having a body proved nothing. Only thinking mattered. In Descartes’ world there’s no connection between mind and body. Dualism.

 

A third possibility exists. Panpsychism. But that’s for a future chapter.

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review 2019-01-08 00:00
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain - Antonio R. Damasio I have already read Damasio's 2003 book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, and while it was interesting to read this book, published in 1994, it does not add to what the later book contained, the later book travels further and I preferred the more philosphical style of the more recent book. The strength of this particular book is its painstaking accumulation of evidence, which for some readers will be what they most desire, but for others will appear dry [though in fairness, his clinical case studies are fascinating and more than slightly disturbing]. I have long felt that Damasio's account of the embodied nature of our minds, his materialist account of human consciousness, is superior to any other that I have read, and for this I recommend going straight to Looking for Spinoza.
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review 2018-12-22 09:36
Life Is but a Dream: "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain" by António R. Damásio
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain - Antonio R. Damasio



(Original Review, 1994-11-17)




Dave Chalmers did a great job of making consciousness popular but his own view was 400 years out of date. Descartes is the real rigorous physicist here - he was after all one of the people who devised physics. What he meant by the soul and God being 'spirit' is that they caused matter to move. Matter for Descartes was just the inert occupancy of a space (extension). So physics consisted of the interaction of spirit and matter. We now call spirit 'force' or 'energy' and Descartes was quite right because thinking is all about electromagnetic fluxes - which in themselves do not occupy space or have mass. His mistake was to think that there had to be one special spirit unit. Leibniz sorted that out in 1714.

 

 

 

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

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review 2017-03-06 15:48
A footnote to Descartes’s biography finds her voice
The Words in My Hand - Guinevere Glasfurd,Two Roads

Thanks to Net Galley and to John Murray Press Two Roads for offering me a free ARC of this novel that I voluntarily review.

This novel, that could be classed as historical fiction, tells the (at least in part imagined) story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid who was serving at a house where René Descartes stayed in Amsterdam, and who bore him a daughter. In the author’s note, at the end of the book, Glasfurd explains in detail the true facts known about Helena (she existed and indeed bore Descartes a girl, Francine, and she got married later and had a boy), shares her sources and her intention when writing the book.

The story, narrated in the first person from Helena’s point of view, is beautifully written. We get a clear sense of the historical period, of Holland at the time, especially what it would be like for a young girl of a poor family, who is sent to the capital as she needs to make a living for herself. She is presented as a curious girl, who’s taken an interest in reading and writing, practically teaching herself to do it, and how she ends up as a maid at a bookseller’s home. She’s fascinated by paper (a very expensive and luxurious commodity at the time), ink, by books and maps. She’s only ever traced the outline of the letters on her own hand (therefore the title: The Words in My Hand) but eventually, after experimenting on making her own ink using beetroot, she does learn to write using a quill and proper ink. She also teaches another servant girl how to write, broadening her horizons and giving her a better chance in life.

Coming into contact with Descartes, the Monsieur (as she calls him all through the book, because there is always a certain distance between them), revolutionises her world, not only because of the relationship with him (she’s very young at the time, and he’s many years her senior, so one wonders what that would be considered nowadays) but because of the way he examines and sees the world. The author uses their conversations and Helena’s curiosity, as ways to expose some of Descartes ideas, exemplifying them in lyrical and at the same time understandable ways. Swallows, eels’ hearts, the refraction of light, a flame, snowflakes, anything and everything catches Descartes attention and he feels the need to study it and explain it.

Helena is a complex character. She’s presented as a young woman living through difficult circumstances who tries to live her own life and make her way, rather than just depend on the generosity of a man she doesn’t fully understand (and who perhaps didn’t understand himself that well, either). But she’s not a modern heroine, doing things that would have been impossible during that historical period. Whilst she is shown as curious, skilled, and determined, she is hindered by gender and class (publishing books, even something as simple as an illustrated alphabet for children is not possible for a woman), and also by her personal feelings. She suffers for her mistakes and she lives a limited existence at times, being subject to insult and abuse (as she would have likely been given her circumstances). Despite all that, Glasfurd presents Helen as an artist, a woman who can describe, draw and appreciate things around her, who wants to ensure her daughter gets an education, and who loves Descartes (however difficult that might be at times).

I’ve read a few books recently that try to recover female figures that might have been the great women behind great men but have been ignored or obscured by official history. In some cases, the authors seem to be at pains to paint a negative picture of the man in question. This is not the case here. We only see Descartes through Helena’s eyes (also through some overheard comments and conversations he has with others and through some of his letters) and at times his actions are difficult to understand, but within his constraints he is portrayed as a man of contradictions but with a good heart, who cared for those around him but was, perhaps, more interested in his studies and science than in everyday matters and the life of those closest to him. He is weary of the consequences and risks of publicly exposing his relationship with Helena and his daughter but does not abandon them either. He is a man who struggles and cannot easily fit in the society of his time.

A beautifully observed and written book, about the love of science, writing, nature, and the human side of a historical figure that remains fascinating to this day. This fictionalisation provides a good introduction to some of Descartes ideas and is a great way of remembering another woman whose place in history has only been a footnote until now. A great read especially recommended to those who love historical fiction and who are intrigued by Descartes and XVII century Holland.

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