The Body and Us

Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
Long Island City, 1969

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. And we are the world we experience. Or to put it another way, your experience is you.

Both approaches have enormous implications for a theory of mind. The internalist view tends to align with traditional ideas of the self as an entity located or centered in the head. Though this subject, or self, is obviously dependent on the body for its existence, the internalist model nevertheless holds out the hope that, once mapped and fully understood, the brain could be copied, or its hugely complex electronic and chemical patterning downloaded onto some other “hardware” that would then make the subject, the self, immortal. In short, the dominant internalist position, though differing from the Christian and Cartesian position in being entirely materialist, nevertheless allows us to go on thinking of ourselves as at least potentially separate from the world around us where all is in flux.  

But what about the Mind-Object Theory?

—Tim Parks

Tim Parks: Riccardo, if I accept that when I see an apple, my experience simply is the apple, and is external to my body, then we have eliminated the traditional distinction between subject and object and with it the possibility of any experience that is not the material world, any interior “mental” existence that could be separated from it. So where is, or what is, the “I,” the subject? And how are we to think now about the relationship between body, brain, experience, and self?

Riccardo Manzotti: Let’s go back to basics. It’s one thing to say, as I certainly do, that you can’t exist without your body and quite another to say that you are your body. The two claims are different, but traditional materialism has tended to conflate them, probably because their enemy was the Cartesian and Christian notion of the immaterial soul. To combat that anti-scientific, religious position, they insisted that the self must, like anything else, be material; and being material, that it had to be the body.

Parks: Or more specifically, the brain. Since most people would accept that you could lose a part of your body—an arm, a leg—without ceasing to be yourself. Whereas you couldn’t lose your head.

Manzotti: Of course. You can even have a face transplant these days and still remain the same person. The result is, yes, that since for the scientist whatever exists is material of some kind, the subject, the self, has to be material and the brain has always been considered the prime candidate. Hence the absolute determination, over the last century or so, to locate consciousness and the self—some command center we could call the subject—in the brain.

Parks: And you’re saying that this is a false assumption. It is possible to look for a material self, without identifying it with the brain.

Manzotti: Absolutely. The alternative to both the material brain and the immaterial spirit is staring us in the face; I mean the external object, all the things, the very physical things, out there in the world that form our experience. Of course very often, the body itself is, as it were, part of the world we experience. The sight of our hands, the feel of our fingers, our face in the mirror, the sensations of walking, running, or simply sitting or breathing. But it’s only a part. When we experience our hand holding a tennis racket, both racket and hand are equally our experience and equally us

Parks: You’re going too fast for me. What I was trying to ask is this: Assuming we accept your notion that we are the very world we experience, all the different things we see and hear and smell and feel—how can you construct from this reality the feeling of subjectivity we know in every moment, the impression we have of acting and choosing and planning? How can you explain the way we identify ourselves with our bodies, and above all our faces? We have a sense of ourselves. Why aren’t we simply a scatter of apples and tables and laptops and trees, walls, doors, floor tiles—of all the things around us?

Manzotti: Now you’re going too fast. Let’s stay with the body a moment. Of course it’s absolutely central. There would be no experience without it. Yet we are not our bodies. We are something else. Think about it. We do not experience being neurons and blood vessels. We do not experience being bowels and internal organs. Science teaches us that we are made of such stuff, and constantly invites us to contemplate models of our skeletons and innards and so on, and to identify with them. Yet for thousands of years people never thought of themselves like that at all. Because actually our lives are made up of external events, people, objects, landscapes, and of course the body’s interaction with these things. What was Homer’s experience made of? Chariots, walls, towns, spears, wounds, armors, seas, ships, sails, sacrifices. What was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experience made of? Fast cars, designer clothes, expensive houses, pink cocktails, jazz. As regards their bodies, Homer and Fitzgerald were made of the same stuff, neurons and cells. But their experiences, hence their minds, have little in common.

Parks: Well, beautiful women. Fine literature.

Manzotti: Of course. But you take my point. The body’s perceptual apparatus, eyes, ears, nervous system, selects which object becomes your experience, carves out a world that is you, but it does not concoct this object in the neurons in the brain. The object is out there. Your experience is out there and you with it. The body is a selector and a facilitator, not a host or a container.

Parks: It’s true I may not experience my neurons, as such, or the cells in my bowels. But I know when I have a stomachache, a headache, and so on. Hunger is an experience. Satiety is an experience. Not all my experience is out there.

Manzotti: As we have said, your body is an object too. So of course you perceive it. Your eyes are engaged and affected by light reflecting on the skin of your hands or legs, and you see them. But it’s your hands you see, not your eyes.

When you clap your hands you hear their percussion, but you don’t hear your ears. And when you feel your bowels, because you’ve eaten too much, perhaps, that’s because they’re producing an affect elsewhere in your nervous system. They are causally present.

This is always the case with experience of the body. One part of the body perceives another part, but not itself. Notice that we never feel the brain, because there is nothing beyond it, as it were, in the nervous system, that might allow the brain to become manifest to us as an object. No anesthesia is required for the brain itself when a surgeon operates on it, because the brain doesn’t feel pain. It allows other objects to exist and become part of our world, within the body and without, but isn’t experienced itself.

So the body is part of your experience, just as things in the world outside are part of your experience. And both are you. For perception, there is no “magic threshold,” as the philosopher Teed Rockwell put it, between the body and the world. The only thing that makes the body “more important” is that without it there would be no experience at all. And of course it is there all the time. And we protect it as best we can, for obvious reasons.

Parks: Yet if I want I can close my eyes and shut out the whole lot. And I don’t feel I exist any less than when my eyes are open. Rather the contrary. In fact, in a dark well-insulated room with no smells, no noise, I will feel more myself than ever, freed from external input. Free to think about what I want. In this sense, surely I can be separate from the world. A subject outside the world.

Manzotti: Hold on. In that dark, silent room your immediate experience is darkness and silence, exactly what your surroundings are. Perhaps certain bodily sensations come to the fore. For example, in the pitch dark one often becomes very aware of the need to balance the body, since all reference points are gone. Or in the silence and stillness you experience your breathing, or even your heartbeat. But these experiences are all physical. If your thoughts now move away from the immediate world around you, they will go to previous experiences, people and objects and even debates, like this one, that again are all part of an external reality. Which is merely to say that when our engagement with our surroundings is less urgent, when we don’t have to interact with the objects around us, we are prone to perceive our past in various combinations, something we talked about in our last exchange on dreams. But the point I am trying to make is that at every single moment, you have to be something, an experience identical with an object, where, by object, I mean something, anything, whether immediate or distant, in time or space, that is causally affecting your body. An argument you had with your son last night. The smell of a food you ate on holiday. Whatever. And you are that something, the thing that has the property of your experience.

Parks: You’re right of course that when one opens one’s eyes one simply can’t avoid seeing things. Right now I have to see the university office we’re sitting in. Nevertheless there’s a constant process of focus, of selection, isn’t there? I, me, am active in the composition of that experience. I decide what to look at.

Manzotti: Of course. This is true of all experience. When you go to a party, you don’t experience the whole event. You choose who to talk to, who not to talk to.

Parks: I wish! I always seem to be getting stuck with people I don’t want to talk to at all!

Manzotti: Well, you can’t decide who’s going to be at the party, who’ll bump into you, or who will be talking to the woman you’re interested in when you try to say hello. But that’s not what I’m talking about. When I say “you choose” I’m simply referring to the fact that your body, with its perceptive apparatus, singles out a subset of the people present, a sub party in the whole party. That sub-party is your party. So your body is the conduit that determines which objects in the world are you. Nobody experiences the whole party, or the whole world. Since experience comes from having a body, it can only involve the objects that enter into a causal relationship with that body.

Parks: I get that. But it seems to me you’re still avoiding my main question. If I am the world I experience—my party if you like—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.

Parks: So let’s hear them!

Manzotti: First, precisely because the interaction of body and the surrounding world creates a relative world that is unique to that body and to no other, we each experience a world that is different from what others experience. Our world, not theirs. I am near-sighted, you far-sighted. I am on this side of the room, you on that. And so on. We then suppose that the differences between our experiences mean that those experiences are “subjective” and constitute a private and internal realm. In fact, of course, our worlds are not different from the world as a whole in the sense of being concocted in our minds, or woven out of an immaterial mental fabric, regardless of an external reality; they are simply the result of the intersection of this unique material body with these unique material circumstances. And, in fact, when our physical faculties and circumstances overlap, mine and yours, so does our experience. All those whose eyesight permits them to get a driver’s license stop at red traffic lights. All those with standard auditory apparatus hear the difference between treble and bass. Etc.

Parks: It’s not so much that we’re separate from the world, then, as separate, or distinct, from the world of others and other possible worlds. Aware of looking at this, rather than that.

Manzotti: Right. It’s the body that is separate from its surroundings, not us. But let me get to the second equally crucial misconception; our tendency to confuse the body with the “person,” or the self, when very obviously the self is not the body. The body gets sunburned, the self does not. When we are tiny children our parents point at our bodies and exclaim: “What a lovely cuddly dear baby, you are”—at least Italian mothers do!—and of course we believe them. We must be the thing their fingers are pointing at. This identification is then corroborated by what Daniel Dennett famously called “the center of perceptual gravity.” Most of our sensory organs are located where our head is: eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are all there, not to mention the fact that from the tactile perspective, the tongue and lips are hugely important. So we feel we must be located where our bodies, and particularly our heads, are. But in scientific terms this doesn’t imply anything. Then there is the whole social aspect; identifying the person with the body is good for tax collectors, police, and statisticians of all kinds, but it hardly amounts to a metaphysical or scientific statement.

Parks: So the combination of an early identity of self and body in childhood, together with an awareness that my experience is unique to me, creates, you claim, the illusion that the self is the body, or, since we never see the self, a privileged private space internal to the body, or the head. Whereas, in your view, the self is an ever-expanding accumulation of experiences made up of those external objects, thousands upon thousands of them, relative to our bodies, either immediately present or still causally active on us despite now being in the past or distant from us?

Manzotti: Yes. The self is just as physical as the body, and equally important. It exerts its influence through the causal conduit that the body offers; it is that particular world that the body both brings into existence and reacts to. The body is the fulcrum, if you like, but the external object, your experience, all your experience, over the years, is the lever, the self. The lever is only a lever because the fulcrum allows it to be so. But the fulcrum is only a fulcrum because there is the lever.

Parks: I’m a little lost with fulcrums and levers, though I think I’ve got your central idea. And yet… you still haven’t answered my earlier objection. Surely if I can choose what to focus on—your face, or the wall behind you—then I am neither you nor the wall, but a choosing, discriminating subject separate from both. You have to settle that issue for me: my choice, which guarantees my status as subject, rather than just another object in a deterministic chain of cause and effect.

Manzotti: Tim, we will exercise our free will by leaving free will to a dialogue of its own! Next time.

This is the eighth in a series of conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.