PHI. A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Giulio Tononi
A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul is a fascinating book for any reader interested in the so-called “mind-body problem”, i.e. the relation between matter — the neurological edifice which is the brain — and consciousness. Some of us have never thought about how matter generates thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, all the impalpable sensations philosophers call “qualia”. There is a gap between neuronal activity and feeling. Author Giulio Tononi creates a fictional Galileo who, in a kind of reverie, makes contact with scientists and philosophers of his time and of future times. His encounters include the “French Dreamer” (Descartes), “Frick”, (Francis Crick), “Alturi” (Alan Turing), and many others. These encounters take him step by step and not without contradictions to an ultimate understanding of the emergence of consciousness. Tononi’s definition of integrated information as the source of “qualia” is appealing, and the readers learn a great deal about the history of theory and about the structure of the brain. Voyage opens up all kinds of questions as to what it is to be human, with an autobiographical consciousness (to use Antonio Dalmasio’s terminology), and what it is to be merely animal with their own kind of “qualia”.
Together with stunning photographs of Renaissance paintings, sculpture and modern brain scans, Dr. Tononi’s poetically evocative language is a balm for both mind and, I daresay, soul.
2 responses to “The best book I read in 2013”
I would like to read this book. Scientists and philosophers currently appear to be on the cusp of discovering how the brain works, and the relation between the physical/chemical operation of the brain and personality. There is also the idea of perhaps a continuity of degrees or types of consciousness, varying among humans, other animals, and even plants or other components of the natural world. It is so fascinating, and this book seems like it would provide a journey through ideas that relate to this emerging understanding of the nature of existence. Or perhaps it is really a matter of rediscovering something that is/was known by other cultures. I am curious to find out what this fictional Galileo learns.
I would love to know your opinion after you read it!
There is another book in the same vein that I liked: “Consciousness, The Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist” by Christof Koch. He is the chief scientist in the Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science here in Seattle. I like his idea of consciousness depending on some kind of panpsychism rather than laws of psychophysical emergence (a more materialistic view, I think, proposed by Tononi). But you are right, it could be a matter of rediscovering some knowledge inherent to all humans, but somehow buried in the antipodes of the mind…