A series of conversations between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks
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.
Parks: That means that you’re giving dream experiences the same status as ordinary waking experiences. They are both the result of the same processes of causation.
Manzotti: Absolutely. And that’s how it is, isn’t it? When you dream, it’s real. You are the objects of your experience.
Manzotti: Each body brings into existence a world of relative objects, that are, nevertheless, external physical objects. Not things that emerge from your brain, or representations that well up in there. When the body stops working and dies, that world of experience, your consciousness, which is external to your body, ceases to exist as well. But not, of course, the whirlwind it was selected from.
Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.
Parks: So I am the apple.
Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd, because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head. So we have to have this consciousness apple. However, if experience and apple are one and the same, there is no longer any need to talk of a consciousness separate from it. The apple is more than enough.
Riccardo Manzotti: I lick a strawberry ice cream and a chocolate ice cream. The action, licking, is the same, the sensory motor contingency, that is the affordance that the two ice creams present to the mouth, is the same, but the taste quite different. There simply isn’t a different action, a different engagement of the body with the environment, to match every different experience we have.
Riccardo Manzotti: We must distinguish between internalism as an approach to the problem of consciousness (the idea that it is entirely produced in the head) and neuroscience as a discipline. The neuroscientists have made huge progress in mapping out the brain and analyzing the nitty-gritty of what goes on there, but the way they describe their experiments by way of a computer analogy—in particular of information processing and memory storage—can give the mistaken impression that they’re getting nearer to understanding what consciousness is.
Riccardo Manzotti: Science tells us there’s no color in the world. It occurs only in our brains. But, when scientists look inside the brain to see what’s going on, they find only billions of neurons exchanging electrical impulses and releasing chemical substances. There is no yellow banana in the head, just the grey stuff.
Riccardo Manzotti: For most people “consciousness” will have various meanings and include awareness, self-awareness, thinking in language. But for philosophers and neuroscientists the crucial meaning is that of feeling something, having a feeling you might say, or an experience. It’s all very problematic. The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is. That’s why we’re talking about it as a problem.