Thursday, 24 May 2018

Consciousness and Fundamental Reality

This blog post is by Philip A. Goff.

I am currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, although from next year I will take up a post at the University of Durham. My main area of interest is the problem of consciousness, the challenge of understanding how consciousness fits into our scientific picture of the world. In fact, I think that the problem has been already been solved.

I believe that Bertrand Russell’s 1927 book The Analysis of Matter did for consciousness studies what Darwin’s Origin of the Species did for the life sciences. Tragically, Russell’s novel contribution to philosophy of mind was pretty much forgotten about for much of the twentieth century, although it has recently been rediscovered leading to the view that has become known as ‘Russellian monism’.

The starting point of Russellian monism is that physical science tells you a lot less than you think about the nature of matter. In the public mind, physical science is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of space, time and matter. However, it turns out upon reflection – at least according to Russellian monism – that physical science is confined to telling us about how matter is disposed to behave and is silent on the features of matter that underlie its behavioural dispositions, generally referred to as its ‘categorical properties’.

To put it simply, physics tells us what matter does not what it is. Physicalists have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to explain consciousness in terms of the dispositional properties of physical science. But according to Russellian monism, consciousness is to be explained in terms of the categorical properties of the brain. In this way, Russellian monists can explain the perennial failure of physical science to explain consciousness, without turning to the dualist view that consciousness is beyond the physical realm. The result is an elegant middle way between physicalism and dualism, which retains the attractions of each whilst avoiding their problems.

In my recently published book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality, I bring together and critically evaluate much of the wealth of recent literature that has been published on Russellian monism, before defending a distinctive form of the view. Russellian monism is more of a general framework than a completed theory, and it will take decades of interdisciplinary work to fill in the details.

To set things in motion, I have, since finishing my academic book, spent a lot of time trying to reach out to a broader audience: scientists as well as the general public. I have published a number of popular articles and encyclopedia pieces on the topic, and I am currently writing a book aimed at a general audience, Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness, which will be published in August 2019 (Rider in UK, Pantheon in US).


  1. Hi Philip, it's long been clear to me that physicalism/scientific materialism can not account for consciousness. We need another model. But dualism makes no sense either. And ontological idealism (Bernardo Kastrup's position) seems to beg as many questions as it answers. With respect to Bernardo though, I think he's mapped out his position cogently (includes a rebuttal of panpsychism of course) and he claims his new book will make it even clearer. I look forward to your new book too as I think you're both outliers on the consciousness conundrum worthy of serious consideration. The history of science and philosophy is well marked by minds such as yours :) Kind regards, Steve

  2. If physicalism and dualism have fallen to logic, what's left? Is Popper's three world hypothesis still standing and is it influential? Is Popper's theory a form of neutral monism?

  3. And this so-called theory of fundamental reality and consciousness leads to not one single falsifiable fact about reality or consciousness. Why is that I wonder? More mind wankery irrelevant to the observable universe from so-called philosophers.
    People who persist in pursuing "philosophy", understand the following:
    1) If you claim a theory applies to the natural world you need to produce falsifiable observations so it can be confirmed that your theory isn't just mental masturbation - see Feser, Bentley Hart and now Goff - not one falsifiable fact between them among the thousands and thousands of pages these cranks claim apply to the observable universe.

    2) Mathematical proofs are credible and relatively easily checked, because the concepts are *precise*. That is why Mathematical knowledge can build up on previous Mathematical knowledge. Of course, mathematical proofs are strictly speaking social proofs, but it is the precision of the concepts which is at the core of Maths' credibility, leading to its proven success. "Philosophical arguments" which claim to be a natural-language version of mathematical proof are often nonsense because natural language concepts are too vague, so the plausible-looking "logical steps" from premise to conclusion usually don't even stand up to a cursory examination of what the terms in the premise might mean. (Philosophy *has* proved by pure logic that Socrates is mortal - I'll give the philosophers that. Though Socrates is already dead.)

    3) The scientific method although empirical and its results provisional has clearly brought us deep knowledge about observations of the natural world. The theory of quantum mechanics is presumably a coarse description of whatever it is that is being observing, but it is precise enough to allow the design of semiconductors observed to work. The same for General Relativity and GPS. The current scientific theories may be superceded by more precise theories but the innumerable observations of quantum and relativistic effects will remain and GPS and silicon chips will continue to work (until they don't). The problem for philosophy is you cannot talk about ontology of the natural world unless you are an expert on quantum field theory because this is the most precise description we have of how "fundamental reality" presents itself to us, and any ontology telling us what an electron *is* had better imply that the electron presents itself to us as a disturbance in a particular quantum field because that is "observed" empirically on my computer alone quadrillions of times a second - however confident you are in your "logic", you *will* need to address observations giving the same result sextillions of times. The same for consciousness - minds are always found together with brains, so you need to be an expert on neuroscience before you can start talking about consciousness. The problem for philosophy is the scientific method has taken us far, far beyond what could be dreamed up sitting in a chair thinking - to the point where it's not even known what QM means - but its effects are observed.

    The people who might in the future tell us anything about fundamental reality will be quantum physicists or their descendants, and about consciousness, neuroscientists. Philip Goff is not going to get anywhere with non-expert knowledge in both fields. He might as well try to determine the existence of the Higg's field by watching colliding snooker balls, or try to determine the origin of consciousness just by observing daily human behaviour.

    These points are all very obvious and have been made many times, but the cranks like Feser, Bentley Hart and now Philip Goff do insist on churning out this crap.

  4. Thanks Steve!

    @Germaine: I think Popper's view faces all the same problems dualism faces: it's essentially dualism + a third Platonistic realm. The middle way arises from the Russell-Eddington insight that physical science doesn't really tell us the nature of matter, it confines itself to telling us what it does. So this opens up the possibility that consciousness is physical science cannot account for it. There are more articles on this 'middle way' on my website if you're interested:


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