Cognitive Science · Consciousness · The Human Mind and Brain

The Challenge of Consciousness

This post is about an article in the New York Review of books called The Challenge of Consciousness.  The article is a dialogue between Tim Parks and Riccardo Manzotti.  This article is actually just the first in a series of eight articles in which Parks and Manzotti discuss the elusive nature of human consciousness.

Here is a link to this first article.  And here is a link to the whole series of articles.  Unfortunately you need to be a subscriber to the NYRB to read the entire articles; if you are not a member you will get just the teaser.   If you don’t want to subscribe to NYRB, I’m hoping my summaries will be helpful.

However NYRB is a great place to read about cutting edge ideas in philosophy, history, science, literature and the arts, but unfortunately it is pretty expensive, $80.00 or so a year.  Every year I debate about keeping up my subscription and sometimes decide it just isn’t worth it.  But every year I end up re-subscribing after deciding I just have to read some great article or another.  What I do now is subscribe to just the online version, about $70.00 and skip the hard-copy version.  The good thing about this is that it gives you the NYRB archive all the way back to 1967.

Anyway, on with my discussion of the consciousness article.

Tim Parks is a regular contributor to the NYRB.  He is a well know British translator, novelist and writer of nonfiction, who has lived for the last 40 years or so in Italy.  He is Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan.

Riccardo Manzotti is an Italian scientist and philosopher who has a PhD in Robotics and also has degrees in the Philosophy of Mind and Computer Science.  He teaches psychology of Perception at IULM University in Milan Italy and has been a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at MIT.  He specializes in artificial intelligence, artificial vision, perception, robotics and consciousness.

For the last several years Parks and Manzotti have been talking almost daily about human consciousness. I assume they got to know each other at IULM University in Milan.   So they decided to condense some of their conversations about consciousness and publish them in the NYRB.  Parks says these articles attempt to set out the standard positions on consciousness and to suggest some alternatives.  In this first article of the series, Parks says their first problem will be one of definition.

Human consciousness is a hot idea right now.  As Parks says, “Hardly a day goes by without some in-depth article wondering whether computers can be conscious, whether our universe is some kind of simulation, whether mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread. Many of us are not even sure what we believe in this department, or whether what we believe would bear much scrutiny from philosophers or neuroscientists.”

Confusion about the idea of consciousness partially originated with Rene Descartes who, in the 17th century, decided that consciousness was not a physical thing.  He divided humans into Mind and Body and said these two things were totally separate.  And for the last several hundred years philosophers and scientists have been arguing about the mind-body problem and no one, to date has managed to shed much light on it.

The discussion has mostly revolved around the problem of how does the brain, a physical, material thing, create ideas, feelings, consciousness, and mind which are not physical, material things.  Descarte and many other thinkers just relegated mind to the the spiritual world and to God.  But this doesn’t fly with modern scientists who are dedicated materialists.  To date, there have been hundreds, probably thousands, of attempts to explain how brains end up being mind.   But no one has really come up with a satisfactory answer.

So, exactly how is it that atoms and molecules and neurons, all operating according to the natural laws of the universe end up creating non-material things like ideas and love and joy and despair and beauty and hope and truth?  And then there is the whole problem of free will and determinism.  If we are totally composed of atoms and molecules and neurons and such material stuff, all of which have to be following natural laws, then are not our lives and destinies totally determined by these natural laws?  Where is free will in all this?  Many scientists have decided that free will is just an illusion.   But this seems to be an impossible idea and no one, even the most dedicated materialists or scientist really live this way.  Every one seems to believe in free will even if they say they don’t.

This knotty mess is where Parks and Mazottin begin their discussion.

Manzotti says all of us have our own definitions of what consciousness is.  Basically we think of it as awareness.  But, he says “for philosophers and neuroscientists, the crucial meaning is that of “feeling something,”  having a feeling you might say, or an experience. “An easy way to think about it would be pain. Instinctively we all agree that feeling a pain is something. It’s an experience.”  He says that the technical term for consciousness is “Phenomenal Experience.”

Parks says that a lot of people think consciousness is something like a movie playing in your head.  Mazotti  says that this explanation assumes we know a lot more about consciousness than we really do.  Actually, at this point in time, scientists really and truly just don’t know what consciousness is.  That’s why we are talking about it as a problem.

Manzotti  says “What we do know is that the way we experience reality, I mean that we feel the things that happen to us, does not really match up with our current scientific picture of the physical world.”  And this is the essential idea of this first article: that our feeling of consciousness just doesn’t match our current scientific picture of the world and thus something is not right here.  The rest of this article is an exploration of what this means.

Manzotti points out that there is nothing special about how neurons work.  With  respect to consciousness, they are just like any other cell.  And what cells do is pretty wonderful but how do we get from this to consciousness?  He says, “All of that [stuff that cells do] is wonderful but far removed from the fact that I experience a light blue color when I watch the morning sky. That is, it’s not easy to see how the physical activity of the neurons explains my experience of the sky, let alone a process like thinking.”

Manzotti asks, why do we need to “experience” the world.  Why instead don’t we just interact with external occurrences, the way a flower opens in the sun, or water freezes in the cold.  Very strangely, we also have an experience of the occurrence.  And even more strangely, that experience is usually described as an experience of something else, of something that is not me.

Manzotti asks, “How is this possible since, if we leave aside quantum mechanics (for the moment), our traditional view of nature tells us that an object is what it is and nothing more? William James put this very clearly when he asked, How can the room I am sitting in be simultaneously out there and, as it were, inside my head, my experience? We still have no answer to that question.”

And then Parks asks Manzotti a question that puts the whole problem of consciousness in a nutshell.  “So another way we could look at this would be to say that the fact of consciousness points to a flaw in our explanation of reality. Or at least amounts to a big challenge as to how we understand reality?”

Manzotti answers.   “Right. Once we have defined and placed all the pieces of the physical jigsaw—chemistry, physics, evolution, general relativity, quantum mechanics, DNA, evolution, Higgs Boson, the lot—there is still something that does not add up—namely the fact that we don’t simply do things, we also experience the world around us. Consciousness.  What David Chalmers famously called the hard problem.”

Manzotti says that this is what we should really be talking about, not nonsense like movies in our heads.  The real problem is why doesn’t our behavior simple happen, taking its course the way planets follow their orbits.  He says we just don’t know, just like cosmologists really don’t have any idea what dark matter is.

Parks asks if consciousness is a thing, or what?  He says we have to rule out spirits and souls right?  Manzotti says of course we have to do this.  “To speak of spirits and souls would amount to an admission of defeat, at least for a scientist or philosopher.”

Monzotti says that we really don’t even know what physical reality actually is.  He says this is a point Bertrand Russel made very strongly back in the 1920’s.  Russell used the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle to explain this.  He says Russell asked us to “Imagine a huge puzzle in which everything must fit together with everything else. When there’s something that doesn’t seem to match up, we turn it this way and that to see if we can make it fit somehow, but if it won’t, we have to assume that we’ve put the other pieces together wrongly, we’ve got a false picture.”

Manzotti says, “That’s how science proceeds. So we have moments of revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Newton—when all the pieces have to be rearranged.”  He says that is where we are now at with consciousness.  And that we should now proceed in the way  science always works.  If we have puzzle pieces left over, maybe we need to reject the current theory of reality and start over again.  Something is just wrong here.  Things are not fitting and we have to figure out why.  Manzotti says that if we don’t do this, we risk having to accept a dualistic vision of the world, like Descartes suggested, and that just isn’t acceptable.

And so Parks asks, should we be asking if consciousness is actually a physical thing, how could this possibly be?  If this is true, what do we do with a word like “mental?”

Manzotti, says that this is a really good question.  He says that the word mental is very comforting to us.  It makes us feel that we are special, that we are above animals, above nature even.   He says, unfortunately, we have no scientific justification for this at all.  He says that, “Freud described this as human narcissism, the desire to believe ourselves at once at the center of the universe, yet in some way superior to and even separate from the nature around us.”

Manzotti says, how very convenient this all is, that, “when you can’t explain something, to say, well, that means we’re special, we’re not like the rest of the natural world. But science works on the assumption that nature is one and that all phenomena must fit in the same system and obey the same laws; hence the fact that we experience the world—i.e., consciousness—must be a natural phenomenon which, like all other natural phenomena, is physical, I mean made of matter and energy.

And then Parks says, that this brings us to the dominant view of what consciousness is today, the idea of “Internalism.”

Manzotti says yes, and explains that internalizm is the idea that  whatever consciousness is, it must be something that happens inside our heads.  He says that “It’s fairly obvious why we might think this. We tend to feel that we are located where our senses are; hence people suppose that consciousness is somewhere behind our eyes and between our ears. This not to mention the many social reasons for identifying with our bodies in general and our faces in particular, which are crucial to social interaction. And since of course we can’t see consciousness in another person, but only manifestations of it—smiles, grimaces—we assume it is hidden inside the head, that is, in the brain.”

Manzotti, says that this all seemed logical in the past.  But now that we know much more about the brain, it no longer seems so logical.  Manzotti clearly thinks the idea of internalizm is false.  But, he agrees, we need to fully understand what this idea is about.

Manzotti goes on to say that the internalists  and “neuroscientists have certainly found a huge number of correlates of consciousness; that is, for all kinds of sensory experiences they have established which parts of the brain are active, and the nature of that activity. This is of enormous interest and scientifically very sound.”

But Manzotti says, “a correlate of consciousness is not consciousness. When scientists look for AIDS or DNA, they look for the thing itself, not a mere correlate. This is a problem: how to get from the neural correlate—the fact that there’s neural activity when I experience something—to the thing itself, the experience? As Bertrand Russell almost facetiously put it, when one licks chocolate ice-cream nothing in the brain tastes like chocolate. Of course an experience also has correlates outside the brain: the sensory organs—eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebuds—not to mention the object itself that we experience, light, soundwaves, that chocolate ice-cream, whatever. Why privilege the correlates in the brain in our attempt to locate consciousness? Why…”

At this point Parks says, OK, OK, enough for now.  We have to continue this next time.

And so part I of this discussion ends.

I plan on continuing to report on Parks’ and Manzotti’s discussion of consciousness in the near future.

Below are a couple of other sources for understanding consciousness:


John Searle’s critique of the book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch

Daniel Dennett’s book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.  

The Portland Head Light, near Portland Maine at sunset.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography










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