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 has just been published. (November 2017)
Parks: You mean, essentially, that we are objects, and objects “take place,” rather than act.
Manzotti: We are part of the physical world, hence objects. What else could we be—immaterial souls? As for identity, we are what we are because we are identical with a portion of the world that has come together over the years in a certain way. The traditional separation of subject and object that underpins all standard thinking on consciousness and identity lies at the heart of our troubles as individuals and as a society.
Parks: So, nothing is stored in the head.
Manzotti: All the objects we encounter, the objects we call experience, continue to be active in our bodies and brains, continue to be our experience. It is the nature of our fantastically complex brains that they allow these encounters to go on, and to go on going on. The encounters are not “stored” and are certainly not static. They are continuing to happen. They are us.
Manzotti: There is no such a thing as a thought that lies between your body and the Coliseum, or the photo you saw of it, or the article you read about it, no need for some sort of immaterial thinking magic to connect your actions with the external world. Simply, there is your body and there is the external thing your body has been in contact with. Of course, there’s also a lot of neural machinery that allows the world to produce effects through the body, but the experiences we call thoughts are no more, no less, than the external object as it affects the body. Let’s try an experiment. Think of something, right now. Anything.
Manzotti: Perhaps it’s time to ditch the word “consciousness” and simply talk about experience….Your body is such a thing and when your body is there, an apple is there, too. Not an apple reproduced like a photo in your head. An apple there on the table, in relation with your body.
Parks: So, anything the body experiences as an effect—which is to say, anything it experiences—is an object?
Manzotti: In declaring consciousness the “hard problem,” something extraordinary, and separating it from the rest of the physical world, Chalmers and others cast the debate in an anti-Copernican frame, preserving the notion that human consciousness exists in a special and, it is always implied, superior realm. The collective hubris that derives from this is all too evident and damaging.
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.
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.
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.