This running series of brief dispatches by New York Review writers will document the coronavirus outbreak with regular updates from around the world.
MILAN, ITALY—March 8. We started with the best intentions. We had gotten over the irritation of seeing all the things that enrich life in Milan closed down. The restaurants, concert halls, theaters, cafés. My gym. Her yoga. We rather appreciated a new feeling of community on the streets, here on the edge of town. A new awareness, in particular among the various ethnic groups. It boded well. We knew that the special problem with this illness is that some 5 to 10 percent of those with symptoms will need an extended stay in intensive care, and that places are scarce.… Seguir leyendo »
You glance at the headlines, just before going to bed on a Saturday evening, to discover your town has been put in lockdown. Or is about to be. It’s not clear. Apparently, the order hasn’t been signed yet. Social media shows people rushing to the station, mainly for the last trains south. This is Milan, economic dynamo of Italy, the only city in the country that has grown stronger and richer through the long years of stagnation since the financial crisis of 2008. An enormous number of people who work here are from the south. If the city is shutting down for the coronavirus, they want to be home.… Seguir leyendo »
Things can change. In the 37 years that I have been living in Italy, I have watched nine World Cup tournaments. The Italian team was always there. In 1982 and 2006 it won. In 1994, in the United States, it lost the final on penalties to Brazil. In 1990, as host, it crashed out in the semifinals to Argentina. True, on other occasions it failed abjectly in the group stages. True, some years it left qualification for the competition to the very last game. But no one doubted it would win that game. No one doubted that a country that invests so much money and emotional energy in soccer, a country with so much flair, talent and sheer devilish cunning, would come good when it counts.… Seguir leyendo »
We all love a prize, and a scandal, and a chance to shake our heads when the great and good fall into disgrace. So for the past few weeks, the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, has offered excellent entertainment.
Instead of wondering whether this year’s prize would finally go to Philip Roth, we instead had the excitement of asking whether it would be awarded at all. On Friday, we got the answer: The Academy will postpone the 2018 prize until next year. The real comedy, however, is that it has taken accusations of sexual abuse — directed not at a member of the academy, but at the husband of a member — to call the prize into question.… Seguir leyendo »
“This is a non-election,” a professor of philosophy tells me in a bar in Milan. “I will not vote.”
“Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.”
The Italians go to the polls on March 4, and from outside, it might look as though there are major, exciting, and, above all, dangerous developments in the offing: the return of the octogenarian Silvio Berlusconi, the rapid rise of anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the ever more aggressive rhetoric of the xenophobic Northern League. Yet the perception among most Italians is that the political system is simply too dysfunctional and blocked for much to happen at all.… Seguir leyendo »
We are all used to thinking of ourselves as a single entity that enjoys a certain continuity from birth to death, if not beyond. We confidently say, “Ten years ago, I did this; next week, I will do that.” But what exactly is this entity? Traditional Christianity posits a non-material soul housed in a material body. At the beginning of the scientific age, Descartes formalized this concept with an idea that came to be known as dualism: the soul in the skull was spiritual and interfaced with the material world of the body through the pineal gland between brain and spinal cord.… Seguir leyendo »
Words, words, words. With the advent of the stream of consciousness in twentieth-century literature, it has come to seem that the self is very much a thing made of words, a verbal construction forever narrating itself and reconstituting itself in language. In line with the dominant, internalist view of consciousness, it is assumed that this all takes place in the brain—specifically, two parts known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the left hemisphere. So, direct perception of sights and sounds in the world outside the body are very quickly ordered and colored by language inside our heads. “Once a thing is conceived in the mind,” wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, “the words to express it soon present themselves.”… Seguir leyendo »
“I think therefore I am.” Descartes declared thinking the ultimate reality, the only way to be sure of one’s existence. He located that thinking in the mind and believed it was immaterial, made of spirit, communicating with the physical body through the pineal gland at the top of the spine. Times have changed, and scientists now look for explanations of the experience of thinking in the billions of neurons in the brain with their trillions of electrical connections and chemical processes. Yet the location of thought remains firmly in the head. Challenging this, Riccardo Manzotti has suggested that our experience actually lies outside our bodies, one with the objects of our perception.… Seguir leyendo »
What is “an object” in the end? And what is “the world” that these objects make up?
When we talk about consciousness, we rarely discuss ordinary physics, which we assume science has long since understood: objects are composed of atoms; they exist entirely separate from ourselves, and can be measured and manipulated in all kind of ways. It’s also clear, however, that this idea of the physical world works only if we suppose that consciousness—our experience of that world—is distinct and apart from it; objects exist first outside us, then in a secondary, shadowy way as representations inside our brains. This is the so-called internalist view.… Seguir leyendo »
How much of our current worldview, our social organization, our collective psychology, or simply our attitude to life, depends on how we understand consciousness? The dominant view, which assumes that all our conscious experience is an internal, largely concocted representation of an unknowable outside world, underwrites a number of assumptions: perhaps most importantly, that the human subject is radically split from the object, hence quite autonomous; and again that, unable to perceive the world “as it is,” we need science to give us any solid facts we may have.
Tim Parks: Riccardo, today I want to take time out from the further development of your hypothesis—that conscious experience is identical with that part of reality that our bodies are able, as it were, to pick up—to focus on the present state of the consciousness debate.… Seguir leyendo »
Will we ever really know what, or even where, consciousness is? Is there any way to get at it scientifically, conclusively? Week by week we hear claims from neuroscientists that would appear to confirm the prevailing “internalist” view of consciousness. If the brain creates a representation in our heads of the world around us through the firing of neurons, the argument goes, then we can identify neural activity that corresponds to particular aspects of consciousness. They tell us that if this part of the brain is damaged it will affect our eyesight. If that part suffers, we will have difficulty moving through space.… Seguir leyendo »
For any materialist vision of consciousness, the crucial stumbling block is the question of free will. A modern, enlightened person tends to feel that he or she has rejected a mystical, immaterial conception of the eternal soul in exchange for a strictly scientific understanding of consciousness and selfhood—as something created by the billions of neurons in our brains with their trillions of synapses and complex chemical and electrical processes. But the fact of our being entirely material, hence subject to the laws of cause and effect, introduces the concern that our lives might be altogether determined. Is it possible that our experience of decision-making—the impression we have of making choices, indeed of having choices to make, sometimes hard ones—is entirely illusory?… Seguir leyendo »
Why do we read writers who are profoundly pessimistic? And what sense are we to make of their work in our ordinary, hopefully not uncheerful lives?
I am not speaking about the sort of pessimism concerned with the consequences of our electing this or that president, or failing to respond to world famine or global warming, but what in Italy came to be called il pessimismo cosmico. The term was coined in response to the work of the nineteenth-century poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi, who at the ripe old age of twenty-one decided that “all is nothing, solid nothing” and he, in the midst of nothing, “nothing myself.”… Seguir leyendo »
What is the function of the body in consciousness? Am I my body, or my brain, or a part of my brain? Could I ever exist separately from my body, my consciousness downloaded in a computer, for example, or received into heaven?
So far my dialogues with Riccardo Manzotti have presented two sharply contrasting accounts of consciousness. The standard “internalist” view assumes that conscious perceptions are representations generated by the brain’s neurons in response to input from the world without. The radical externalist view—the Mind-Object Theory—put forward by Riccardo suggests that our experience, or perception, is the object perceived. There is no internal representation; body and brain are simply the conditions that allow the world as we know it to manifest itself as it does.… Seguir leyendo »
Sooner or later any theory of consciousness must address this question: How can it be that during sleep, but very occasionally in waking moments too, we have experiences that have nothing to do with the world immediately around our bodies?
The dominant, “internalist” account of consciousness—based on the assumption that consciousness is generated by neural activity in the brain—has no difficulty in responding to this question. Indeed it’s one of the curiosities of internalism that it is most confident when describing those areas of experience about which we are least certain. The internalists say, If I can have the experience of climbing a snowy mountain on a bright day when I am fast asleep in a dark room, this must mean that the brain can generate experience without contact with external reality.… Seguir leyendo »
Is a translator effectively the co-author of a text and if so should he or she be paid a royalty as authors are?
After presenting a book of mine, or rather, its German translation, in Berlin, I found myself in a bar discussing this question with two experienced translators, Ulrike Becker and Ruth Keen. Rather than the nature of a translator’s co-authorship itself, our discussion was kicked off by the fact that very few translators actually receive major benefits from royalties—even in Germany, where publishers are obliged to grant them. Over a long career, Ruth just once received a handsome €10,000-plus when a book about Napoleon’s march on Moscow unexpectedly took off.… Seguir leyendo »
In our last conversation about consciousness, Riccardo Manzotti and I arrived at a crux. Having found both brain- and action-based explanations of conscious experience unconvincing, Riccardo set out a radical alternative: our experience of the world (light, color, sound, smell, touch) is not a “movie in the head” provided by our neurons, nor the interaction between our bodies and our environment, but nothing other than the object itself. When I see an apple in front of me, I am the apple. Every perception is nothing more, nothing less, than the object perceived, hence every experience requires an external object to which it corresponds.… Seguir leyendo »
How is it that we experience the world? How is it possible that the environment we live in, the objects we use and see, touch and taste, hear and smell, are both patently out there and simultaneously, it seems, in our heads? After four long conversations, considering the positions of philosophers and neuroscientists, those who assume that experience is an amalgam of neuron-generated representations in the brain and those who have looked for it in our interaction with the environment, Riccardo Manzotti and I are no nearer to establishing what consciousness is or where it resides. Today, then, we have set ourselves a simple task: to review all the ways philosophers have supposed a subject might relate to and become conscious of an object, setting aside once and for all those hypotheses that have clearly failed and asking, is there one approach which has not yet been given due attention?… Seguir leyendo »
The average human brain weighs in at something under three pounds and has a volume of 1,250 cubic centimeters (76 cubic inches). Despite the complexity of its architecture and the daunting interconnectedness of its 85 billion neurons, the goings-on in this small space have now been pretty well documented. We know what faculties are impaired when each part of the brain is injured, which neural activity, more or less, correlates with which behavior. Yet, as we discussed in our earlier dialogues, all these impressive results have not brought us any closer to accounting for consciousness or even establishing where exactly it “happens.”… Seguir leyendo »
In our first two dialogues, we presented the standard, or “internalist” version of how our conscious experience of the world comes about: very bluntly, it assumes that the brain receives “inputs” from the sense organs—eyes, ears, nose, etc.—and transforms them into the physical phenomenon we know as consciousness, perhaps the single most important phenomenon of our lives. We also pointed out, particularly with reference to color perception, how difficult it has been for scientists to demonstrate how, or even whether, this really happens. Neuroscientists can correlate activity in the brain with specific kinds of experience, but they cannot say this activity is the experience.… Seguir leyendo »