This is a series by Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks on consciousness.

Herbert List/Magnum Photos. Herbert List: Spirit of Lycabettus XIII, Athens, Mount Lycabettus, 1937

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 »

Consciousness: Where Are Words?

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 »

The Pizza Thought Experiment

“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 »

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan/Scala/Art Resource, NY/ARS, NY Giorgio Morandi: Metaphysical Still Life, 1918

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 »

The Hardening of Consciousness

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

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 »

Michelson-Gale-Pearson experiment/Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images

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 »

Raymond Savignac/Bridgeman Images/ARS. Poster advertising Vite Aspro, a French painkiller, 1964

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 »

Long Island City, 1969. Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

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 »

Winslow Homer: Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, 1905–1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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 »

Bari, Apulia, Italy, 1950

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 »

Riccardo Manzotti’s metaphysical switchboard

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 Ice Cream Problem

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 »

John Constable’s drawing of a mouse with a piece of cheese, inscribed “Jack,” 1824

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 »

Julián López Escobar, Seville, Spain, 2002

There are no colors out there in the world, Galileo tells us. They only exist in our heads. In the first of our dialogues about the mind, Riccardo Manzotti and I established that by “consciousness” we mean the feeling that accompanies our being alive, the fact that we experience the world rather than simply interacting with it mechanically. We also touched on the problem that traditional science cannot explain this fact and does not include it in its account of reality. That said, there is a dominant understanding of where consciousness happens: in the brain. This “internalist,” or inside-the-head, approach shares Galileo’s view that color, smell, and sound do not exist in the outside world but only in the brain.…  Seguir leyendo »

Virna Haffer: Inside the Mind of Man, circa 1935-1942

Is it possible to put some order into our thoughts about consciousness, memory, perception, and the like? Hardly a day goes by without some in-depth article wondering whether computers can be conscious, whether our universe is some kind of simulation, whether mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread. Many of us are not even sure what we believe in this department, or whether what we believe would bear much scrutiny from philosophers or neuroscientists.

For a number of years I have been talking about these matters almost daily with Riccardo Manzotti, the philosopher, psychologist, and robotics engineer.…  Seguir leyendo »