Consciousness and the World

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Herbert List: Spirit of Lycabettus XIII, Athens, Mount Lycabettus, 1937

We are all used to thinking of ourselves as a single entity that enjoys a certain continuity from birth to death, if not beyond. We confidently say, “Ten years ago, I did this; next week, I will do that.” But what exactly is this entity? Traditional Christianity posits a non-material soul housed in a material body. At the beginning of the scientific age, Descartes formalized this concept with an idea that came to be known as dualism: the soul in the skull was spiritual and interfaced with the material world of the body through the pineal gland between brain and spinal cord. Modern materialism jettisoned this idea, yet struggles to replace it; even the most serious philosophical and neuroscience publications often lapse into an implicit dualism, where, for example, the word “mental” is opposed to “material” without our being quite sure what we mean by the two, or where consciousness and, with it, the self are understood as “supervening” on vast quantities of “information” moved back and forth in the brain. It is very much as if the brain were made equivalent with the self, and information afforded some non-material, “mental” existence. “You are your brain,” claims the neuroscientist David Eagleman.

—Tim Parks

This is the fifteenth, and final, conversation in a series of dialogues on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.

Tim Parks: Riccardo, in these conversations you have been elaborating a radically externalist theory of consciousness; rather than representations in some inner theater of the brain, experience is understood as united with the world that comes into contact with our bodies, allowing no separation between subject and object. In this view, nothing is stored in the head, nothing is “mental.” Simply, we are our experience, and it is all out there. But if we are no more, no less, than our experience, what about the self? How can I be someone, if I don’t have a self in my head?

Riccardo Manzotti: If you had a self, the self would not be you, right? But let me ask you, have you ever seen, or in any way observed, or, even better, pinned down someone’s self? Or your own self? Of course not. No one has.

Parks: I observe behavior I’m familiar with in people I know, alongside facial expressions and gestures I’ve seen a thousand times. I know when a friend is acting himself, or herself, as they say. Similarly, I know my own way of living and thinking, all too well.

Manzotti: That makes more sense. Let’s focus on a concrete example. Yesterday evening, I was watching my two boys preparing for a party. One is eleven and the other is eighteen. They were arguing as usual, the younger accusing the older of wearing his pants in a stupid way, sagging off his butt. I must say I rather agreed with him, but no doubt my eldest is aping his friends’ way of dressing. It’s a fashion. So, was I seeing the boys’ “selves”?

Parks: A thing doesn’t have to be visible to exist. We know a dark hole is there because of its gravitational pull on the area around it, not because we can see it. Having met your kids a couple of times, I can only say they both radiate very distinct and attractive identities.

Manzotti: From selves to black holes! But yes, there are cases where certain goings-on require us to posit a physical entity we cannot see; in those cases, we make a hypothesis and set to work with all our scientific instruments to pin this entity down. But does this behavior of my children really require me to suppose there’s an invisible “self” around that we should start looking for? Aren’t there any number of entirely visible causes to look at before positing something invisible?

Parks: Like what? And remember, it’s not just the behavior, but the awareness and sense of purposefulness that accompanies it. Or are you just going to say what Daniel Dennett said about “intentional stance”—his term for selfhood, I think—that it is only in the eye of the beholder? A descriptive tool?

Manzotti: Not exactly, no. The notion of an internal self is akin to that of the hypothetical center of mass they use for calculations in mechanics. It’s a form of shorthand. It doesn’t exist as such. But the cause of the ongoing behavior pattern, as you put it, coupled with awareness, etc.–the person even, if you like–certainly does.

Parks: So, what is it, physically, scientifically?

Manzotti: You could say that, at any moment, a person is the collection of all those objects that are presently active thanks to a particular body. Or, again, it is the world that exists, now, relative to a certain body, an immensely complex amalgam of things spread in space and time, but all, at one moment or another, perfectly available to the senses.


Parks: I’m losing you now. How can I possibly think of a person in this way?

Manzotti: Let’s get back to the example we began with: my boys arguing over the way one of them wears his pants. We’ve agreed in previous conversations that since there is nothing in the head but neurons and chemicals, the brain can’t constitute our experience; the only thing identical with a person’s experience is experience itself, which is outside our nervous system. When I see an apple, my experience is the apple I see and I am my experience. This is why objects of whatever kind—cars, songs, other people, pets, food—are so important to us; they constitute our experience.

Parks: And so, your boys?

Manzotti: Giulio, my older son, is eighteen. For years and years, every waking moment, inescapably, his body has been in contact with the world that has become his experience and that continues to produce effects by means of his body and brain.

Parks: That’s an expression you keep using; what exactly do you mean by it?

Manzotti: You hear a song yesterday, and you sing it today. You watch an ad for a brand of sunglasses and, six weeks later, you buy them. You remember your mother’s voice from twenty years ago. You dance a step your friend taught you in your teens. You…

Parks: Enough, I’ve got it. These were all originally objects in the world, experiences my body is still experiencing.

Manzotti: Think of the body as a kind of hyperactive proxy that allows objects in the world to manifest themselves, much the way your phone allows a friend’s voice to be heard. The cause of the voice is not in the phone, but the phone is necessary for the voice to be there.

Parks: Except the body would have to be a proxy and go on being a proxy for any number of things at the same time.

Manzotti: Right. A whole world speaks through your body and that world is consciousness, the consciousness you think of as yourself.

Parks: Back to Giulio.

Manzotti: Okay. Giulio’s multitudinous experiences include his little brother, Emilio, his school friends who wear their jeans sagging ridiculously low, the jeans themselves, of course, and his own body, which is a constant object of his own experience. If we want to use the word self, we could say that rather than some ghostly entity imprisoned inside Giulio, self is a shorthand for all these things acting together through his body. It is his life.

Parks: I appreciate your desire to avoid the mystification that lurks behind words like self and soul. But this description seems hopelessly incomplete. If I am nothing other than the myriad objects of my experience, why would I be different from anyone else who has come into contact with the same objects, more or less? Why would we have this powerful sense of distinction between different people, and this awareness of a continuity of behavior in our own lives? How can we have character, or even temperament, in your vision of the world? It seems to me it’s this awareness of individuality that leads people to posit the existence of an internal entity, self or soul.

Manzotti: First, each of us has a distinctive body that comes into the world in distinctive circumstances setting us up for a unique set of experiences—foremost, of course, of the body itself, which is not only the agent of experience, but also the prime object constituting experience, libido, appetite, pain, pleasure, illness, and so on; then, of all the other objects relative to that particular body, including parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, physical and social environment, school, etc. Then, day by day, we are constantly performing, repeating, and subtly altering areas of our experience—language, learned behavior, and so on—while all our past experience conditions each new experience.

As a result, the apple I grab is different from the apple you grab—even if, from an eating perspective, there is just one apple—because my apple is relative to my body and experience, and yours is so to yours. If you were blind, your apple would lack color. The poem you read is relative to your life experience; the poem I read is relative to mine. Maybe my moon (or the moon that is me, at that moment) is pretty much the same as your moon, visually, but who knows what past moons and experiences make the two quite different? If we look at life this way, it is actually far easier to explain distinctions between people than if we posit some soul or self already there at birth.


Parks: So, both Giulio and Emilio, thanks to their bodies and brains, bring into existence a world of relative objects, experience, and habitual patterns of juggling those objects and having them interact with new objects. And that is what you call the self? Have I got it?

Manzotti: Right. Though I prefer the word “person,” or just “life.” In any event, this amalgam of experience is relative to the body, but not inside it and not identical with it. Above all, it’s not “mental,” and it’s not a fixed entity. It has a certain continuity, or inertia, but it is also open to change.

Parks: Help me with the “not mental” side. Let’s say that as the two boys argue about these sagging pants, Giulio is thinking, “Emilio is only saying this to please Dad.” And you are thinking, “How can I show my agreement with Emilio without seeming a boring old conservative?” And Emilio is thinking, “I’m going to be really embarrassed turning up at this party with my brother wearing his pants down to the floor.” And at the same time, all three of you are looking at the pants and one another in the mirror of the wardrobe. Don’t we have an awful lot of mental stuff going on here? Then, at a certain point, Giulio turns to Emilio and says, “You’re just jealous!” What was it that decided him to do that? What orchestrates this amalgam of experience as you’ve called it? Don’t we have to posit some unifying entity to explain this?

Manzotti: Nice drama. Let’s observe two things: first, communication; then, the action that you say demands a “mental self.” The common notion of communication supposes that people exchange packets of symbols—words, gestures—that their inner selves then interpret by associating each symbol with the correct meaning. This view is a myth. Curious as it may seem, our current models of communication are derived from the work of mathematicians like Claude Shannon and Alan Turing who, during World War II, were involved in such things as deciphering coded messages between enemy submarines and their naval commanders. People do not communicate like navy submarines.

Parks: You’re telling me we don’t exchange messages?

Manzotti: Of course, we send things back and forth. But communication is not an exchange of messages to be decoded. Communication is sharing. It is the activity through which different people—by which I don’t mean people’s bodies, remember, but their experiences—become composed of the same stuff.

Parks: So, as you all look in the mirror, contemplating one another and Giulio’s sagging pants, you are communicating.

Manzotti: Absolutely. We are our experience and those sagging pants are shared between us. But people do this all the time when they point things out to each other. Look at this, look at that. A seaplane landing on a lake. A strange orange spider. Or listen to this, a new song by a favorite band. Touch this, smell that. This is communication. The airplane or spider, relative to our bodies, becomes our shared experience. Likewise the TV, the radio, the new Star Wars film.

Parks: But we could communicate these things in words, speaking or writing.

Manzotti: If someone were blind from birth, no amount of words, or bundles of bits in a computer processor, could convey the orange of the orange spider. Communication is shared experience, being literally made of the same world relative to our bodies. With words, we share the experience of words and their appeal to previous experience. “Orange spider” in words will activate a previous experience of orange, but not maybe the exact hue we share when we look together.

Parks: But is it communication even when you disagree? About the pants, I mean. Doesn’t that suggest the experience isn’t entirely shared, in the sense of being the same for each?

Manzotti: The new object, as I said, is relative to me, my life, my experience. Maybe I had a bad experience with a spider as a child, so my body doesn’t react to the orange spider as yours did. Maybe I have a long experience of jeans worn in a certain way and don’t have friends I’m eager to impress who wear theirs sagging to their knees. Still, this is communication. We share the same world and declare our difference by our different, sometimes contrary, responses. That response can then modify the other’s experience. I see the sagging pants and laugh, and maybe Giulio now experiences the pants differently. I jump seeing the spider, and maybe you now experience it differently. A critic pours scorn on a book you like and you begin to see it through his eyes and have your doubts. The book you now see is a new book relative to you. So, as well as sharing, communication is change, experience is accumulated, shifted. Which is why, as well as continuity of identity, we also have discontinuity.

Parks: What about decisions? I decide to focus my eyes on this, rather than that. To listen to my friends, rather than to my father. To suddenly say to my brother, “You’re just jealous.” How does that fit in?

Manzotti: We can’t stop acting and being, moment by moment, and the amalgam of experience that we are reacts constantly to the new experience of the moment. Emilio laughs at the sagging pants; Giulio reacts with the old card of accusing the younger boy of jealousy. There are any number of stories going on at once, worlds manifesting themselves through the proxy our bodies offer.

Parks: It seems you always see action as reaction, you always explain decisions in terms of the influence of the relative objects, experiences, constituted by our body’s meeting with the world. But doesn’t this seriously diminish us? Who are we, finally? Who am I? Who are you? Just a bundle of reactions?

Manzotti: We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference. Why not ask “What are we? What am I?”

Tim: You mean, essentially, that we are objects, and objects “take place,” rather than act.

Riccardo: 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. Convinced that we are separate from the world, we feel we have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, and we yearn to return, maybe after death. But however useful the subject-object divide may be for all kinds of practical matters, it is plain wrong.

Tim: So, a subject is never in relation with anything but what that subject is?

Riccardo: I would say something like “Thou shall have no other relations but identity,” and, no, I’m not starting a new religion; it’s just the most elementary fact of physical reality. In nature, everything is what it is and only what it is. A rock is a rock. A planet is a planet. A neuron is a neuron. A brain is a brain. A brain cannot “partake of” a spider. A spider is a spider. My experiencing a spider cannot be a relation between a mysterious self and an extraneous spider. My experiencing a spider is an identity between the spider and what I am, experience. I am the spider; it’s the only thing that has the right properties to be my experience.

Parks: The spider and simultaneously all the other object-experiences of your life. So, identity is constantly expanding.

Manzotti: Western thought has always sought to describe consciousness as identical with something, whether that be ideas, in the idealist view, or neural activity, according to the contemporary materialist position. When I propose an identity between consciousness and the world, I am following the same explanatory strategy scientists and philosophers have always adopted. I have simply settled on a new candidate for identity: not ideas, not neurons, but the world itself.

Parks: Then consciousness has always been, as they say, hidden in plain sight.

Manzotti: Exactly. We are the world that surrounds our body and the body itself as known; we are the objects we see, hear, smell, taste, touch. The rest is hot air.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in