Solving the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God with Michael Shermer and Philip Goff

by Scott Barry Kaufman, September 20, 2018

Today we have Michael Shermer and Philip Goff on the podcast. Michael is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia. Goff conducts philosophy and consciousness research at Durham University in the UK. His main research focus is trying to explain how the brain produces consciousness. His first book, which was published by Oxford University Press, is called Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. Goff is currently working on a book on consciousness aimed at a general audience called “Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness” which will be published in August 2019.

In this episode we cover the following topics:

  • Is reasoning the ultimate route to truth?
  • What if human rational faculties can’t comprehend the ultimates realities of existence?
  • Will the hard problem of consciousness ever be solved?
  • Panpsychism as a scientific alternative for explaining consciousness
  • The latest neuroscience of consciousness and its implications for understanding the hard problem of consciousness
  • The insights that can be gleaned through understanding subjective experience
  • Will we ever discover if free will exists?
  • To what extent can our understanding of cognitive neuroscience and genetics can elucidate the extent of our free will?
  • The possibility for “free won’t”
  • Can science ever solve the mystery of the existence of God?
  • How can the science of consciousness, free-will, and God help alleviate fundamental existential concerns of humanity?


Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God?

Philosopher David Chalmers Thinks We Might Be Living in a Simulated Reality

4 Responses to “Solving the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God with Michael Shermer and Philip Goff”

  1. Physicalism, based on pure informationality – numbers, quantitative states and language – is insufficient to explain consciousness, but a materialism (greater than physicalism) that is based on experientiality – qualitative states and language – in addition to informationality, may be what’s needed.

  2. Rose Walker says:

    Loved the idea that Galileo removed consciousness from physical science, making the the task simplified.

    ABA (applied behavioral analysis) is a weak attempt to quantify and change behavior based on the even more simplistic idea that autistics lack free will. It “works”, in the same way that the Spanish Inquisition “worked”. You all are speaking theoretically about free will, when it has real world consequences.

    Personally, I think we are born with brain architecture that determines the our type and parameters of thought. The simplest ones go to scientists. They have to reduce complex problems down narrowly enough to quantify “behaviors”.

  3. Billy says:

    In my mind, consciousness makes sense to be an emergent property of communication (not just language, but this is the most complex form at the moment). It certainly makes sense to me, that in order to convey information successfully, there has to be an in depth knowledge both of “self” and of “other”. This would be supported by the literature showing certain prefrontal neural networks incorporating information from multiple other neural networks as being important for the experience of consciousness. It also explains mirror neurons and similarly complex networks that model “other’s behaviour”.

    By viewing consciousness in this way, I think we can begin to approach some of the issues we have in conceptualising it. A lot of the problem we have is that we are bound by the constraints of the property itself. We get lost in a word that describes a process that defines the process we are using to define the word! With limited tools to communicate complex information received by our senses and our responses, we also rely on context to communicate. We can communicate our subjective view by relying on our conceptualisation of the “other” receiving the information, using accepted, shared concepts. We use the word “red”, because we can agree with others that they see the same objects around us that are that “colour”, as is the way with all words. Language is interconnected, referential agreements, but definitely does not mean everything is covered! It also does not mean that we can’t find other differences in how we personally define red, but that depends on the process of being conscious to examine and communicate.

    The arising of this “consciousness” property of communication is a by-product of the evolutionary group success arising from the sharing of survival and reproductive information, it is not consciousness in itself. We have to be able to ask the “why” and “how” of what happens to ourselves, simply because we may want to impart this information to another, and the reproductive success of this has shaped our brain’s architecture to take it further and further. Of course, the most complex form of communication humans have developed is language, and through the process of it’s own evolution it too has become ever more complex, and this has been reflected in our consciousness by rationality – an ability to formulate how “self” understands reality, in reference to how an “other” understands reality, to gain further insight. Whether this is a result of neuronal architecture, language, and/or an inherent property is interesting, but not necessary to understanding the concept. It appears useful though, as I’m trying my best at it!

    This avoids any black and white definition of what is conscious, and what is not conscious, but it certainly helps to shape our understanding. This does not mean that someone who cannot communicate is not conscious (most of their brain architecture is centred around this concept), as it does not reflect their desire (or need) to communicate / be understood / gain understanding, nor does it mean we have to treat anything less conscious in any particular way. Understanding consciousness is not a moral question in it’s abstract form.

    We often equate consciousness to recallable memory, and I think the above concept provides a framework for this (note this is different from rote memory). It is only when you have processed experiential information in a form that you can communicate it, that it becomes a “conscious thought” and is added to recallable memory. It would explain why “flow states” are so fascinating, especially in regards to their recollection (I know myself from extensive whitewater kayaking) – our communicative functions for the current experience, or consciousness, is an unnecessary part of the task we are fully immersed in, and we do not need to gain further insight from the task itself from others. We are not “held back” by our consciousness. It’s why video learning is so useful for top athletes, they have no memory of the action, and have to consciously engage in practice to alter the response.

    Some drugs perhaps work in the opposite direction (hallucinogens), applying this communicative attention of the brain to internal neural functioning. You become “conscious” of the background noise and deficits in your neural processing that in general usage are not necessary / useful to communicate, the usual references, checks and balances, for information sharing are interfered with, whilst not being switched off. Suddenly we are “aware” of the true depth of our own processing and, as many artists do, they try to communicate this (successful artists find the best way to do this in a format we can share).

    It is not just “I think, therefore I am,” but “I think because I want you to know”. Simply the act of thinking / stating it, implies a listener who could gain understanding from the statement.

    Thanks for this episode. Clearly it was “thought provoking” for me, and hopefully I’ve articulated my thoughts in a way that can be appreciated 😉

  4. Kein says:

    Highly stimulating podcast even though the subject matter is obviously too vast to squeeze into a single hour. It is fascinating that scientists and philosophers are having to consider non-traditional paradigms to account for the deepest mysteries of the Universe. However, an appeal to God seems to me a retrogressive step. We tend to put insoluble problems into a black box that we label “God.” Darwin took some stuff out of this black box but now, it seems that God is one way to justify the fine tuning of the Universe for intelligent life. This explains nothing and only begs further questions such as what is God, when and how did they arise? Besides, the Western conception of God is too culturally tied to the Judeo-Christian tradition of a personal, omnipotent, omniscience, infinite, all-good entity to be a useful, non-preconceived notion. Hence, Philip Goff’s idea that the existence of evil weakens the argument for God is simply part of this cultural take all or nothing trap. If he is right, all it proves is that the Judeo-Christian God does not exist. But what about other ways to define God?

    If there is something awesome out there, why don’t we use a more neutral term like “ultimate reality” instead? I do not believe that it is beyond the reach of science and philosophy to detect the existence of this ultimate reality and even to elucidate its attributes. One example is that of near-death experiences, briefly alluded to at the start of the podcast. The phenomenon can be studied; it’s just that the are differing explanations for it. Will we ever be able to arrive at the truth and nothing but the truth? Unfortunately, I am not so hopeful that all will be revealed with time and effort. It could well be that a degree of doubt is purposefully built into the laws of reality so as to give the right shape to the human journey.

Join the Discussion

SBK Events View All