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The Hardening of Consciousness

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images/Artists Rights Society, New York
Jean Cocteau: The Ram, mid-twentieth century

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. In our last conversation, you accused the status quo of being an orthodoxy that does not bear examination and that borders on a religious faith upheld by a collective act of wishful thinking. Can you justify these accusations?

Riccardo Manzotti: To understand the present impasse in this debate, we’ll have to focus on the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years, David Chalmers.

Parks: Okay: Australian philosopher, born 1966, presently at NYU, who in 1996 came out with the famous, endlessly quoted definition of consciousness as “the hard problem.” I’d have thought you would be thanking him for bringing the issue to the fore.

Manzotti: Perhaps. Though, as Galen Strawson has exhaustively shown in a fine article in the Times Literary Supplement in 2015, consciousness was never not to the fore. What matters for us, though, is that in his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (1997), Chalmers laid out the terms of the consciousness debate in a way that simultaneously excited everyone while more or less guaranteeing that no progress would be made.

Parks: Quite an achievement. To be honest, I can’t recall ever hearing anything negative about Chalmers’s work. I had the impression that he was universally appreciated for his broad understanding of the issues and commendably affable willingness to consider different approaches. Please tell us exactly what his position is.

Manzotti: I’m afraid that’s not something I or anyone else can easily do. There is no “exact” position, which is precisely why he does not excite much criticism or real debate. Over the last twenty years Chalmers has dabbled with panpsychism, dualism, emergentism, physicalism, Russellian monism, and even computationalism.

Parks: That’s a lot of isms. But there must be something specific that you object to. You can’t complain if someone offers an overview of various lines of thought.

Manzotti: Let me reply with a few words from the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions, which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions, which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know that they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.” Essentially, when Chalmers so dramatically announced “the hard problem,” insisting that we had no solution to the question of consciousness, he simultaneously assumed that the constraints governing any enquiry into it were already well defined and unassailable.

Parks: Well, there must be constraints, surely.

Manzotti: Of course. But when you’re making no progress it’s important to go back and examine them from time to time. After that famous 1996 conference Chalmers was given huge credit by the intellectual community. But instead of moving us forward, he has kept us in a stalemate.

Parks: So what are these rules, assumptions, or constraints that Chalmers subscribes to?

Manzotti: I’ll name three, though they’re all connected.

1) Consciousness is invisible to scientific instrumentation; hence,
2) Consciousness is a special phenomenon governed by its own special laws; hence,
3) It will take a great deal of time and money to fathom these special laws, but if you trust us scientists we will get there in the end.

Parks: Come on! Your third point can’t possibly be a part of a philosophical debate.

Manzotti: I didn’t say debate, I said assumptions. Point three is a consequence of points one and two and extremely attractive to any scientific community on the lookout for funding.

Parks: So, within these constraints—an assumption of the invisibility of consciousness to scientific instruments and its consequent special status in nature—and accepting that he has no “exact position,” what are Chalmers’s crucial ideas?

Manzotti: The idea that conditions everything else is that we can and must distinguish between consciousness and the physical world.

Parks: Please spell this out clearly. I feel we’ve arrived at something important.

Manzotti: Chalmers, and the status quo in general, split the world in two: consciousness is invisible to observation and measurement, it is qualitative; the physical world, on the other hand (which includes the brain itself), is measurable, observable, and quantitative.  Chalmers called the invisible part the “phenomenal mind” and the visible, or measurable, the “cognitive mind.”

Parks: I don’t quite get this. He’s split the world but both sides of the split are “mind”?

Manzotti: By the “phenomenal mind” he means our consciousness, our experience, our feelings, and so on. By the cognitive mind he means our interaction with the world, the functional machinery of the brain. A ball comes toward me and my hand reaches to catch it, for example. The brain does what it needs to. That’s cognitive. But my awareness of the ball-catching experience, which is my conscious experience, is phenomenal.

Parks: Chalmers separated the two.

Manzotti: That was the central idea. Doing so, he made Thomas Nagel’s claim that it would be possible to know every detail of the physical world while still not knowing what it is like to be conscious into a dogma. The same divide has been echoed in one way or another by most philosophers and scientists. Ned Block contrasted “access consciousness” with “phenomenal consciousness.” Stevan Harnad distinguished between functioning and feeling. So, just as consciousness was placed in the spotlight, it was also removed from the reach of science. Consciousness and cognition emerged as two separate fields of inquiry; you could happily look at one while ignoring the other.

Parks: Isn’t this pretty much the same divide made by Galileo and Descartes? I mean Galileo’s claim that “tastes, smells, colors exist only in the sensitive body” while “quantities, numbers, and relations” exist in the physical world.

Manzotti: Of course, and Chalmers on a number of occasions has espoused dualist positions, the idea that the world is divided into separate “realms of reality.”

Parks: Example?

Manzotti: Well, in his 2014 TED Talk, which you can find online, he says: “Right now you have a movie playing inside your head. It’s an amazing movie, with 3D, smell, taste, touch, a sense of body, pain, hunger, emotions, memories, and a constant voice-over narrative. At the heart of this movie is you, experiencing this, directly. This movie is your stream of consciousness, experience of the mind and the world.”

Parks: The world is going on in our heads, not out there.

Manzotti: Right. This is Cartesianism in modern terms. We even have a mysterious “you” watching the movie, a sort of updated homunculus, the little guy inside enjoying the show.

Parks: Not exactly. He says, “at the heart of the movie is you, experiencing it directly.”

Manzotti: If you are experiencing the movie then you are separate from it, and the only way to experience movies is to watch them. And what you are watching, notice, is not the world, but a film. This is Descartes’s theater or Plato’s shadows in the cave all over again. But it’s hardly worth trying to nail Chalmers down on this; there are no silver screens in the brain and no little folk lapping up the action. What matters is the consequence of this approach: the philosopher is happy to have cordoned off a realm that scientists can’t touch—consciousness. The scientist is happy that with consciousness removed from the scene he can do his neuroscience without being obliged to find evidence for the philosopher’s claims. Meanwhile, the layman is flattered by the notion of a mental inner world to which he alone has access, as if our every waking moment wasn’t largely governed by the world our bodies move in. Everyone is happy, but no progress can be made.

Parks: Does Chalmers have no defense against your objections?

Manzotti: Originally, he put forward something he calls “the dual aspect theory of information.” According to this view, information has a double nature (an idea that has been recently revamped by Giulio Tononi). On the one hand, it is a sequence of bits without qualities, the on/off setting of elements arranged in sequences that we’re all familiar with. On the other, it can metamorphose, in our brains, into colors, smells, sounds, feelings and so on—the rich nature of our lives. So again he contrasts a causally effective realm that science can know and a phenomenal mental realm it can’t.

Parks: So how does this double nature of information come about?

Manzotti: The theory doesn’t say.

Parks: There must be a hypothesis.

Manzotti: The idea is that if you have enough bits, vast quantities of information, such as might be produced by the 85 billion neurons in the brain with their trillions of connections, and if you organize them in a particular way, then a critical point will be reached at which the transformation occurs: bits become qualia, which is to say experience, colors, smells, and so on.

Parks: Why would that happen?

Manzotti: The theory doesn’t say.

Parks: I suppose the point is that our computers are filled with images and music that have rich qualities created from bits. So why not our brains?

Manzotti: Tim, you disappoint me. We discussed this in an earlier dialogue. Computers are ingenious devices that exploit electronic states to control other devices—screens and loudspeakers—that make images and sounds. There are no images or sounds literally inside your computer, the way there are coins in your pocket. Information does not exist as a physical substance. It is a word we use, a form of shorthand if you like, to describe a process that allows a message to go from sender to receiver. However, in this theory, information, understood as the multiplication and arrangement of bits, at a certain point metamorphoses into conscious experience.

Parks: Rather as if information suddenly became a form of soul or self.

Manzotti: No comment.

Parks: What research is being done to verify this hypothesis?

Manzotti: The idea is to develop more and more complex computers with numbers and arrangements of connections similar to those of the brain, until consciousness “emerges.” But no one will take the risk of making a clear prediction that could be tested, so it’s hard to say at what point the approach could ever be proved wrong. When nothing happens, you just keep adding more computing power.

Parks: Time and money… But what about the brain itself? I know that Chalmers has done a lot of work on the philosophical aspects of the neural correlates of consciousness, the neural activity that corresponds to our various experiences.

Manzotti: Sure. Underpinning the double aspect theory of information, we have the assumption, subscribed to by many, that neurons “produce” consciousness.

Parks: Tell me more about this.

Manzotti: That’s it. There isn’t any more. It’s an assumption.

Parks: Oh, come on. The wonderful maps of the brain, the correlation between these particular neurons and this particular aspect of experience. It’s a sophisticated enterprise.

Manzotti: No one has more admiration than myself for the extraordinary research done to explore the brain and its immensely complex activities. Extremely sophisticated tools have been developed and used with great ingenuity and patience. However, the essential underlying idea here is simply that neurons produce consciousness. It’s as crude as that. We are simply asking the brain to do what the soul once did. Of course, what neuroscience has actually shown is how neurons consume chemicals, absorb other chemicals and release them, produce and fire off electrical charges, and so on. In many situations such activities occur in strict relation to certain experiences we have. But then, so do the activities of many other cells in the body. And so do the external things we experience.

Parks: So advocates of this idea have no understanding as to why electricity and chemicals should have or produce the qualities of experience?

Manzotti: None at all.

Parks: A dualist water-into-wine situation again.

Manzotti: Not exactly. Water is a real liquid, wine is a real liquid. You kind of figure there might be some trick to do this. The relation between neuronal activity and, say, the sound of a violin seems a tougher proposition altogether.

Parks: Essentially, then, in Chalmers’s framework consciousness remains a step beyond physical reality and as a result awareness, selfhood, individual experience, whatever, are all quite separate from the world.

Manzotti: An ordinary man, uncontaminated by this debate, will very likely suppose that his experience is part of the world, in that it is affected at every moment by the world—his body, the environment—and affects the world in turn when he responds to it. But many scientists and philosophers have tried to show that in fact consciousness is, as they say, epiphenomenal, meaning its presence or absence is immaterial to the physical world and to what our body does.

Parks: I suppose that’s why philosophers came up with the conundrum they call “the philosophical zombie,” the idea that there could be people, beings, who behave exactly as we do but lack consciousness. They function, but they don’t feel.

Manzotti: Yes. Chalmers himself put the zombie at the center of the debate. Because once you accept that such a thing is logically possible, you accept the split between experience and the physical world, which become incommensurable. Consciousness isn’t necessary to describe human behavior nor can you get at it from outside in any way, so no progress in understanding what it is can ever be made.

Parks: But if consciousness isn’t strictly necessary and doesn’t connect with the world, why would it have developed, in evolutionary terms? Why would natural selection have taken us that way?

Manzotti: Quite.  

Parks: As you said earlier, though, Chalmers has considered many other approaches.

Manzotti: He has been very open. Yet, just as when a writer establishes a powerful new style that others follow, each with their different agendas, so the options Chalmers has considered – panpsychism, for example, or Russellian monism – have all been drawn into the characteristic Chalmeresque zeitgeist.

Parks: Can you, in closing, offer some summary of what is at stake here, some urgent reason why this debate must be moved on?

Manzotti: Man has always liked to think of himself as being at the center of the universe, a special being. Any science that suggests he isn’t has always been resisted, from Copernicus’s demonstration that the earth moved around the sun, and on through all those discoveries that eroded Man’s claim to special status: evolution, genetics, and so on. 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. We should get it straight once for all: there are no hard problems in nature, only natural problems. And we are part of nature.

This post has been corrected. There are approximately 85 billion neurons in the human brain, not three billion.