Fee, Φ, Foe, Fum.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the SoulPhi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phi attempts much, and achieves most, but not all, of what it attempts. It is a masterful work. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was extraordinarily heavy – the paper is very thick, and there are a tremendous number of beautiful images and illustrations in every chapter.

Tononi’s approach here could be viewed as derived from a combination of Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. For the first, our protagonist (Galileo) is led by a guide (in our case a great thinker rather than Virgil) to meet various people through history and on a quest to identify the je ne sais quoi that is consciousness. For the second, after each of the encounters, the author includes his own notes (à la the GEB dialogues) describing the relative success or failure of the chapter in a metatextual context, as well as identifying the accompanying illustrations.

Tononi’s prose is lyric – far more than any writing about neuroscience has any call to be – and bears re-reading. His central thesis is that phi (Φ) is a measure of irreducible organized consciousness, and that a substrate such as a brain is required for consciousness (of high Φ at least) to exist. He begins by examining many possible ways brains can fail, some more tortured and hellish than others, and showing their effects on the consciousness of the individual (and perhaps unwittingly on the people around them).
He does a masterful job unravelling the challenge posed by the question “can a camera be conscious?” and shows that while only a single neural complex may be necessary to fire to recognize that it is “dark”, “darkness” can only be understood in relation to being not-anything else: not hot, not round, not pointy, not red, not salty – and that this unstated exclusion is the difference between the person in a dark room and a photodiode.

There are missteps: there is a chapter where Tononi admits his inspiration was Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and that chapter is as disturbing as the Kafka, although mercifully shorter. I think that Tononi could have gotten to the same points regarding the nature of pleasure and pain without resorting to horror and evil, but perhaps he tried and failed. I am not sure whether the book would have been better without that chapter, but it certainly would have been prettier.

The great fault to my mind is that for a book which includes the word “soul” in the title, they are inadequately treated – they seem little more than little more than more personable versions of the consciousness in Tononi’s view. He sees them as evanescent, brilliantly illuminating during life, and then winking out in a breath with the destruction of their host. This is disappointing to me: I would have hoped that there would be a greater distinction – perhaps that the soul is the part which would live on after the substrate has been vanquished. Or, to put it in Tononi’s terms, if there is a God, because by definition He does not cease to exist, then all of those Φ would continue in His sight. Tononi does not make that argument, but it would not have been out of place coming from one of several characters (not in the least Galileo).

The fault and the misstep do not make this book anything less than a masterpiece. I first got it from the library, and will buy a copy so that I can re-read it at leisure. I could not recommend this more highly.

View all my reviews


About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

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