Riccardo Manzotti has a PhD in Robotics and degrees in The Philosophy of Mind and Computer Science. He teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University, Milan (Italy), and has been a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at MIT. He has specialized in AI, artificial vision, perception, and, most of all, the issue of consciousness. After working in the field of artificial vision, he focused his research on the nature of phenomenal experience, how it emerges from physical processes and how it is related to objected perceived. His book The Spread Mind will be published fall 2017 by OR Books.


A Test for Consciousness?

Parks: You can’t prove, scientifically, this idea of experience being buffered or delayed in neural eddies. Manzotti: At this stage, no. Neuroscientists can’t disprove it, or prove that the experience is “generated” in the head. But let’s remember, we do science by forming a hypothesis, making predictions in line with that hypothesis, and inventing experiments that prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Consciousness: Who’s at the Wheel?

Poster advertising Vite Aspro, a French painkiller, 1964

Parks: Where does that leave the concept of free will? Manzotti: We often confuse freedom with arbitrariness, as though freedom were tantamount to doing something in a random way. But we are only really free, or rather we savor our freedom, when what we do is the necessary expression of what we are.

The Body and Us

Long Island City, 1969

Parks: It seems to me you’re still avoiding my main question. If I am the world I experience, what is this sense I have of being a subject separate from the world? How can I be both subject and object? Manzotti: What you call a subject is nothing but a particular combination of objects that are relative to another object, your body. Being a subject means no more than being experience, i.e. a collection of objects, relative to your body. You ask how, if this is the case, the feeling of “subjectivity” can arise. My answer is: thanks to two misconceptions.

Dreaming Outside Our Heads

Nicola Bealing: Deep Water, 2011

Parks: That means that you’re giving dream experiences the same status as ordinary waking experiences. They are both the result of the same processes of causation. Manzotti: Absolutely. And that’s how it is, isn’t it? When you dream, it’s real. You are the objects of your experience.

The Mind in the Whirlwind

Bari, Apulia, Italy, 1950

Manzotti: Each body brings into existence a world of relative objects, that are, nevertheless, external physical objects. Not things that emerge from your brain, or representations that well up in there. When the body stops working and dies, that world of experience, your consciousness, which is external to your body, ceases to exist as well. But not, of course, the whirlwind it was selected from. Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.

Am I the Apple?

René Magritte: La carte postale (The Postcard), 1960

Parks: So I am the apple. Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd, because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head. So we have to have this consciousness apple. However, if experience and apple are one and the same, there is no longer any need to talk of a consciousness separate from it. The apple is more than enough.

The Ice Cream Problem

Wayne Thiebaud: Four Ice Cream Cones, 1964

Riccardo Manzotti: I lick a strawberry ice cream and a chocolate ice cream. The action, licking, is the same, the sensory motor contingency, that is the affordance that the two ice creams present to the mouth, is the same, but the taste quite different. There simply isn’t a different action, a different engagement of the body with the environment, to match every different experience we have.

Does Information Smell?

John Constable's drawing of a mouse with a piece of cheese, inscribed

Riccardo Manzotti: We must distinguish between internalism as an approach to the problem of consciousness (the idea that it is entirely produced in the head) and neuroscience as a discipline. The neuroscientists have made huge progress in mapping out the brain and analyzing the nitty-gritty of what goes on there, but the way they describe their experiments by way of a computer analogy—in particular of information processing and memory storage—can give the mistaken impression that they’re getting nearer to understanding what consciousness is.