Consciousness: Who’s at the Wheel?

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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? Is it possible that a chain of physical events in our bodies and brains must cause us to act in the way we do, whatever our experience of the process may be?

In my conversations with the philosopher Riccardo Manzotti, we have explored his Mind-Object Identity Theory, a hypothesis that shifts the physical location of consciousness away from the brain and its neurons. Rather than representations in the head, Riccardo suggests that our experience is made up of the very world we perceive. But if this is the case, if subject and object are one in experience, does this not make it all the more difficult to explain our impression of free will? Isn’t it precisely our moment-by-moment awareness of making decisions that proves that we are separate and sovereign subjects moving in a world of objects that remain quite distinct from us and over which we have an obvious mastery?

—Tim Parks

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

Tim Parks: Riccardo, how is it that we can constantly decide to do this rather than that, or just to look at this rather than that, if as you suggest, mind and object of perception are one?

Riccardo Manzotti: The question is: When we choose to do something, could we in fact have done otherwise?

Parks: We certainly have that impression. For example, I am quite sure I could have answered differently to your question.

Manzotti: But could you really? If the universe was rewound a moment, given your thoughts, feelings, and circumstances, would you do anything different? And why would you, if you, whatever you are, were exactly the same? Surely if you did something different, then you would be different; the thoughts, feelings, etc. wouldn’t be the same. So maybe the really pertinent question is, When we choose to do something, what are we, what is the thing that is the cause of our actions?

Parks: Well, mainstream science tells us that essentially we are our brains. Didn’t Francis Crick say that we are nothing but our neurons and their activity? In his book The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman claims that, “Who you are depends on what your neurons are up to, moment by moment.”

Manzotti: Right. Crick and many other neuroscientists are convinced that we are our neurons and that these neurons, which are of course physical things, somehow make our choices. The problem is that when we use modern microscopes to look at our neurons, we don’t find any evidence of this. All we see is a passage of electrical charges and complex chemical changes. Some people no doubt take consolation from the idea that they can blame their gray matter for their sins, as in the past they liked to blame the devil or fate. Eagleman, in the book you mentioned, describes with some satisfaction how a man went on a shooting spree, killing thirteen people, as a direct consequence, he claims, of a small brain tumor “the size of a nickel,” which pressed on his amygdala and upset all the neurons there. In this scenario, then, we attribute moral blame to a bunch of cells. But this is hard to square with our actual experience of living and acting in the world. We don’t feel an identity with our neurons and we do feel we are responsible for what we do. So, again, the question is, What are we?

Parks: I notice that when I say I have a strong instinctive impression of something, you call my experience into question. But when a neuroscientist says we are our neurons you appeal to instinct and experience to deny it.

Manzotti: Our experience offers a starting point. We have this or that impression, okay, so let’s test it scientifically. Crick has neither experience nor science on his side when he claims we are our neurons. Our experience does not offer evidence that this is the case, and despite years of research, it has not been demonstrated.


Parks: I’m sure neuroscientists would disagree with you. For example, didn’t Benjamin Libet demonstrate as long ago as the 1980s that our brains anticipate our conscious experience of deciding to do something? When we press a button for example, there is neural activity tending in that direction as much as a second or two before we can report “deciding to press it.”

Manzotti: Absolutely. In fact, recent research by Patrick Haggard and, independently, by John-Dylan Haynes, has confirmed Libet’s findings. Well before we are aware of our conscious will, the neurons are busy in that direction. When John suddenly decides to kiss Mary, his brain was actually ahead of the game.

Parks: But surely this confirms the neuroscientist’s claim that we are our neurons, since the neurons are calling the shots.

Manzotti: Not at all. You’re leaving something rather large out of the equation. In the case of pressing the button, for example, you’ve forgotten the button. In the case of John’s kiss, you’ve forgotten Mary’s lips. You are speaking as if the brain were entirely separate from what is outside our bodies. I hope we’ve established in our previous conversations that the objects that become our experience are not “absolute” but “relative”; they are as we know them because our body with the causal structure of its perceptive system carves them out thus from the mass of atoms and photons round about. The object, whether it be a button we are about to press or a mouth we are about to kiss, is relative to our body and only as such is our experience. We are identical with that experience, not with our bodies or brains.

Parks: I’m sorry, I know we’ve spent a great deal of time establishing your notion of the identity between object and experience, but I don’t see how this can explain how action is initiated. You can’t tell me the button decides to be pressed, or not pressed, if it comes to that. As for Mary, she may very well give John a slap on the face when he moves in for the kiss.

Manzotti: Let’s take a simpler example, since for the moment we have no idea what pressing that button might lead to, while kissing of course implies another body and another brain.

Parks: I’m all for simple examples. 

Manzotti: Ok. When I see an attractive new car and decide to buy it, what is the cause of my action? Couldn’t it be the car itself? Why should I introduce an intermediate entity between the car and what my body does? Why not imagine instead a perfectly natural causal chain?

Parks: I really can’t see the purchase of a car as simple. This is a big ticket item. It’s a nightmare for me when I have to buy a car. I lose sleep weighing up all the pros and cons.

Manzotti: One doesn’t buy a car every day. You’re right. Many factors are involved. Your journey to work. Your budget. The kind of roads you use. But all these things are external to your body and, as we said, exist relative to it. Together they make up the composite relative object that is your experience, the car. So why shouldn’t it be this car experience, rather than your neurons, that determines your decision? After all, you can’t decide to buy the car if it doesn’t first exist, if it isn’t in some way part of your experience—part of you—even if only through magazines or hearsay.

More generally, what could we mean by the pronoun I if not the thing that is the cause of the actions my body initiates? As it happens, neuroscientists agree that I must be the thing that is the cause of my action. And they locate that thing, that cause, in the brain, the neurons. But neurons are not the beginning of the causal chain. Their activity is caused by something else: the external world. If we trace any neural activity back, dendrite by dendrite, synapse by synapse, sooner or later we come out of the brain through our sense organs and inevitably find ourselves outside the body, in the world, where our experience is. And we are our experience.

Parks: Well, it’s easy to accept that any object I’m attracted to must have some part in my decision to buy it, or grab it. But aren’t we merely repeating Steve Jobs’s truism that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them?

Manzotti: No. We’re going a step further. We’re saying people don’t know what they are until you show it to them. Once we are shown the iPhone, say, once our body with its sense apparatus carves out that fantastic object, we are changed. We become the object our senses allow to exist, in this case the phone. So it is with all our goals. Showing people things is very powerful. Hence the world of advertising!


Parks: Still, people make different decisions, don’t they? While half the world was lining up to grab an iPhone, I was holding off. I deliberately chose not to buy. Surely that’s because my brain was calling the shots, not the object, which you claim is one with experience. And, to go back to Libet, as I recall, he remarked that the brain could always change its position at the last second or millisecond. It can change course. So a decision is being made. The neurons are busy.

Manzotti: What would that late minute change of neural activity be caused by? John’s on the brink of kissing Mary when he catches a glimpse of Mary’s husband coming out of the bank. Bad news. Or maybe he holds back because something in his unique past is still affecting his actions right now, some cautionary tale he heard when he was a child. For me this past experience is, again, an object, a piece of the external world made possible thanks to your body. So one piece of world contradicts another. About to buy the world’s most exciting car, I am suddenly aware of my latest bank statement. It is still causally active in my head, part of my immediate experience. In your case, something in your past resisted the iPhone. It had nothing to do with your brain calling the shots. You are the cause of your actions and inactions; but that “you” is not an invisible ghost in your brain but the relative world your body has brought into being.

Parks: I guess your point is that we always do what we want at that instant of doing, perhaps despite other pressures, other experiences, that in another moment might dominate. And if we didn’t want it, we wouldn’t do it.

Manzotti: Right, but let’s not imagine this exempts us from our responsibilities. Rather, it reveals what we really are. We are the causes of the things we do, and our actions are the effects of the things we are. We are that collection of experiences/objects that, given the prevailing circumstances, do what we do. If we lie, we are liars. If we fight, we are fighters. If we love, we are lovers. The cause is defined by its effects. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

Parks: Matthew 3:16! My biblical childhood is still causally active it seems.

Manzotti: Hah! What a memory! But notice the element of necessity. You cannot not remember that biblical reference, you are simply obliged to produce that fruit, being who you are, the evangelical clergyman’s son. And notice that this kind of “determinism” is not disturbing to you, because you do indeed identify with the person who had the biblical education and produces the reference. But if I tell you your neurons decided to remember that, then you worry that you are a puppet in the hands of something alien, some strange gray matter, because you don’t identify with your neurons. And rightly so, however important they may be! You are your experience, by which I mean the world as made possible by your body.

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. Someone choosing to come out as gay doesn’t do it lightly. They do it because they feel they have to. They have reached a point where there is no alternative. Yet, it is in this necessity to come out that freedom is achieved. Freedom is to be one and the same with oneself, with the accumulation of one’s world of experience. This is what we mean by identity.

Parks: We still have the issue that Libet raised, that neural activity anticipates conscious decision.

Manzotti: Libet’s work, and indeed all of neuroscience, fits perfectly with the model I’m suggesting. Imagine an action as a dam bursting and leading to a new object, a flood. Obviously, the cause of that flood is not uniquely the dam breaking, but the heavy rain, or perhaps years of erosion and poor maintenance, that came before it. In the brain our neurons are affected by all kinds of external causes over time. Hence many separate experiences are building up a readiness to act. But it’s only when the dam bursts, or the body acts, that the cumulative effect results in us making a decision. At that point what we do seals what we are.

Parks: As always you are moving experience outside the head. So here, you are seeing the experience of decision making, which I presume you don’t deny, not as a negotiation or even conflict between “warring networks of neurons,” as Eagleman describes it, but as a coming together of different external objects/experiences pushing us in different ways.

Manzotti: No, not quite! Those objects experiences are not pushing us, they are us. They are pushing our body. It is the relative car that is your experience, not an absolute car, that finally moves the hand to the wallet. It is the world relative to our body, our perceptive faculties and accumulated experience, that is the cause of our action. The situation is complex and can’t just be described as external factors determining our action.

Parks: I see what you’re saying: my experience, which is none other than the accumulation of all the objects my body has encountered, eventually determines my actions. But I’m not altogether convinced. And my problem is this: not only do I have the impression of making decisions, cogitating, not just acting, but I also believe that I “organize” experience. That I see the world in a certain way. I hold a system of political opinions, of aesthetic preferences, and so on. So I feel that rather than being a world of objects coming together over time to determine an action, I have an inner world that determines how I organize the outer world. I don’t just act as consequence; I decide how to act, coherently.

Manzotti: Let me offer an analogy to suggest the fallacy behind your conception. We’ll stay with cars. When you drive you turn the steering wheel and, thanks to a complex yet easily understandable coupling of cogs and drive shafts, the vehicle’s front wheels turn accordingly. Is there anything mysterious between the steering wheel and the two wheels that turn? No. Just a chain of cause and effect such that given the turn of the driving wheel the front wheels have to turn.

Okay, now imagine an infinitely more complex object, a human body. The world acts on the body, but before the body is going to translate that cause into an effect, an action, a simply enormous, though of course necessarily finite, number of causal events may take place, inside the body and outside. What’s more, unlike the car, which is a fixed object when it comes out of the factory, your wonderful body can change in response to the world, it is teleologically open—so that, to give the simplest example, when you see a face a second time, the experience is different from the first time, because the first experience is still causally active in your brain, hence we have the sensation of recognition. So with this fantastically complex object, the body, we cannot conceive the whole causal chain that precedes an action (this was a favorite observation of Spinoza’s) and hence we cannot predict what action will be taken. As a result of this conceptual impossibility, we slip into the habit of inventing an intermediate entity, the self, to which we attribute a causal power. We say that I, or my self, caused this to happen. But as David Hume said, we never meet or see a self; we meet ideas, or, as I would say, objects. The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action, is a shortcut, an invention, a convenient narrative to explain our complex experience.

Parks: Enough. Rather than saying I can agree with this, I’m going to wait a day or two and see what causal effect your arguments have on my now tired brain. But, to be predictable, I want to close with a challenge. You have constantly claimed that the internalist view that consciousness is neural activity has not been scientifically demonstrated. Well, can you demonstrate your externalist view of consciousness, scientifically? Are there experiments that would prove your position?

Manzotti: Indeed there are. And since, as we have seen, I am a person who loves challenges, at least of this kind, for our next conversation I will devise some experiments, which, if undertaken, will prove or disprove my hypothesis.

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