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Consciousness: Just Two Guys Talking

In fact it seems to me quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. That this is the beginning of the rest of the future, now, and that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing.

– My Dinner with Andre (1981) by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory

Consciousness comes in all kinds of flavors — political, ecological, historical, psychological, etc. Even an awareness of unconsciousness can be a kind of consciousness, such as when we refer to, say, the archetypal realm of the Collective Unconscious, which is a kind of consciousness of gene-level symbolism. In fact, a good place for understanding what consciousness is may start with what it isn’t — unconsciousness. I guess it depends on what your definition of isn’t isn’t.

A few years ago I was in a coma for a week. I was an Isn’t — and yet I was. (Kinda like that catchy Donovan song.) While the functions of my biology were artificially maintained by machines, my brain activity had flat-lined. My consciousness slowly returned, and I came out of a void, without emotions, doing my best imitation of Lazarus. What did I bring back with me — Light at the end of questioning tunnels? Myopic insight into the realms of the beyond? Nothing. I brought back nothing. A week had been cut from my life, no memories, no resonances, no nothing. If that was death, then there is no Inferno, Purgatorio, or Beatrice. However, I regained full “consciousness,” as far as I am aware.

So, consciousness requires you to be awake and aware, and then you go from there. The world opens up before you and you read it, experience it, with your agenda, your style, your orientation, within the context of the circumstances that govern your milieu. Consciousness. How would you approach the question? Well, I tried taking the online Jung Typology Type test — that proved to be uncannily accurate, in some respects. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of what consciousness is, but it does provide some insight into what filters you might use in your approach, and puts you in the starting “subjective” position to relate to the “objective” world. The ol’ In/Out of experience.

Arguably, an understanding of consciousness has never been more important to humanity as we creep further into what may be the final frontier: artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called Singularity. Certainly it’s a frontier that Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks are fully cognizant of as they work their way, two guys talking, through Dialogues on Consciousness. In the preamble to their opening chapter, Parks writes, “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 the mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread.” Manzotti and Parks make it clear rather quickly: This is not your father’s Consciousness.

The authors both live and work in Milan, and while they come from distinctly different backgrounds, they share a fascination with consciousness.. Riccardo Manzotti teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University. He has a PhD in Robotics and specializes in AI, perception, and consciousness. Dialogues on Consciousness is a follow-up to his study of 2017, The Spread Mind, in which he lays out his philosophy of externalism — a belief that the mind is not just the brain or functions of the brain. Tim Parks is a prize-winning novelist and essayist. He has also put out a non-fiction meditation on consciousness, Out of Mind: On the Trial of Consciousness.

As I followed their dialogue in the book, I was reminded of the pair, Wallace Shawn (Parks) and Andre Gregory (Manzotti) from My Dinner with Andre. The dinner pair’s discussion anticipates many of the issues that trouble humanity today — especially the effects of science and technology. It’s a great philosophical film, part of the Criterion Collection (so you know it’s been vetted), and you can well imagine how the two might actually have sat down for dinner one time and wrote the screenplay while eating knishes and noshes in Soho.

While Manzotti and Parks provide plenty of food-for-thought in Dialogues on Consciousness, their discussion is not saturated in existential angst and ennui the way it is for Shawn and Gregory. It’s more of a straight-up cerebral set of conversations about the mind. However, it is a scripted exercise in which each chapter of the book represents a “session” for the day. It’s a cumulative process, each of the 15 days, or chapters, building on the last. Parks acts mostly as a kind of good-natured set-up guy for Manzotti’s project on Externalism. Their dialogues have the feel of having been recorded in a university department office, a coffee plunger between them.

For the most part, except for Manzotti’s Externalism, most of the philosophy discussed (and/or referenced) is familiar ground to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Thus, there are mentions of Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ Cogito, Bishop Berkeley’s If A Tree Falls in the Forest problem, B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, et alis. Later, when sufficient dialogical momentum has built more modern philosophers are introduced. Manzotti has a particular hair across his ass for Australian philosopher David Chalmers and his ‘internalism’ — a position that sees all operations of the mind as processes of neurons and brain chemicals.

What’s inside the mind? What’s outside? What is the difference, if any, between subjects and objects? These are the familiar questions raised in Dialogues on Consciousness. Manzotti and Parks want to wake up the sleeper cells of dogmatism that may have been snoring since the undergraduate years, in order to accompany the pair as they discuss Externalism. It can get hairy (remember Woody Allen’s Love and Death?), but the pair expect that the reader possesses the skills necessary to understand.

Despite millenia of moonful ponderings by the best minds evolution has flowered, Riccardo Manzotti is not ready to accept that an understanding of consciousness is a given. “For most people ‘consciousness’ will have various meanings and include awareness, self-awareness, thinking in language,” he tells Parks in the opening chapter, “but for philosophers and neuroscientists the crucial meaning is that of feeling something, having a feeling you might say, or an experience.” It is this ‘experience’ — the relationship between the subject and an object — that is key to understanding Manzotti’s thesis, and he feels it is far from a settled project. “The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is,” he posits.

As Manzotti sees it, scientists are snobby and regard fellow humans as “trapped … watching shadows on the wall, while reality is outside, beyond [their] grasp,” a la Plato’s Cave. So that, in the latter day version, when some nerdy Socrates returns from the “real” world to the Cave to announce — “Multiverses are everywhere! Come see!” — one feminist looks up from her read of the Guardian and groans; the male next to her goes back to gazing at his porn; all the others, but one, are glued to El Camino, and that one hands Socrates a vial of hemlock, saying,”Fuck off.” Socrates eschews (gesundheit) the vial, and traipses, like some 3D Ezekiel, back to the coggy wheels of reality.

The elitism suggested by the Allegory persisted all the way to Descartes and his Cogito — the notion that there’s an In and Out of experience. As the two put it:

Parks: It really does seem impossible to think about consciousness without falling back at some point into this Cartesian view, the real world out there and a representation of it in the head.

Manzotti: You can see why everyone is willing to give so much credit to the neuroscientists, or just scientists in general, hoping they will come up with something that will solve the dilemma, some as yet unknown aspect of the material world that will explain why consciousness is indeed in the head, but has nevertheless managed to remain invisible up to now.

But Manzotti rejects such Internalism, and doesn’t believe science will ever crack the nut of consciousness.

There’s an operational or even mechanistic aspect of the Internalist argument than seems to offend Manzotti. You can see this most clearly in the so-called Computer Model of the human mind that likens the processes of the brain to the functions of a computer. We are processors with long (hard drive) and short-term memory (RAM). We ‘keyboard’ our experiences and watch the results of old and new data come together on the monitor of our minds. As Manzotti puts it, “Words like ‘input,’ ‘output,’ ‘code,’ ‘encoding,’ and ‘decoding’ abound. It all sounds so familiar, as if we knew exactly what was going on.” But Manzotti senses dangerous implications (and applications) as we move forward into AI with our mechanistic assumptions about human consciousness.

As mentioned earlier, the Internalist views of Australian philosopher David Chalmers are especially irksome to Manzotti. He is, says Manzotti, “the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years.” And not in a helpful way. For Chalmers, it’s all a movie-house-in-the-mind (neurons supplying the popcorn) — and there is no out there. But it’s hard to pin Chalmers’ views down with precision. Seethes Manzotti, “Chalmers has dabbled with panpsychism, dualism, emergentism, physicalism, Russellian monism, and even computationalism.” (“That’s a lot of -isms,” chimes Parks.) In essence, Chalmers seems to be all over the place.

But it’s Chalmers’ presumptuousness that seems to drive Manzotti up around the bend. His own Mind-Object externalism is diametrically opposed to what Chalmers stands for:

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.

Chalmers seems almost arrogant — does he think he’s the only one who can crack the Hard Problem? Bring it over, Manzotti seems to say to Chalmers.

So, if Manzotti rejects Internalism, including the movie house model and the neurons-and-brain-chemistry model, while at the same time he rejects that there’s an external world that is removed from the experience of consciousness, then what does he argue? For Manzotti, it’s pretty easy, and can be summed up: When I see an apple on a table, I am the apple. In short, there’s not an internal subject observing an external object. Rather, in the moment of perception they merge and are one. Manzotti provides further explication here.

Even Parks, who has a background in Consciousness himself, is seemingly a-reel at this metaphysical development:

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.

This sounds sensible, although one wonders ‘who’ did the inventing.

While he garners no more than a mention in Dialogues, Manzotti does seem to support the thesis put forth by Princeton professor Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This bicameral approach posits that, long ago, in ancient days, the right side of the brain dialogued with the left (two hems talking), in a manner descriptive of modern voice-hearing schizophrenia (the ancient gods being a product of this bicameralism) — until a breakdown of that system led to a unified consciousness. Fascinating, as Spock would say.

But perhaps the best help for visualizing Manzotti’s concept comes from the aesthetic realm (which Manzotti largely ignores at his peril). French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in describing a painter’s vision comes very close to bringing Manzottis’ apple concept to life. In “Eye and Mind”, M-P writes, “Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.” (One recalls Carl Sagan’s amazing observation: “We are star stuff.”) And there’s no question that Manzotti and Parks would agree with M-P’s assertion, “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” It’s this “living in” that humans are capable of and machines are not.

In the end, it’s the ol’ In-Out, or as Manzotti and Parks explain it:

Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.

Manzotti: That’s the idea. Look at the world, and you’ll find yourself. Look inside your experience, and you find… what? The world that surrounds your body.

It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a welcome alternative view to the operationalism that currently prevails. Kinda like the White Album.

If Google’s recent pronouncement that they’ve had a breakthrough in quantum computing is any indicator of the shape of things to come, then we’ve already entered a strange new world, where we can use all of the thinking about consciousness that we can conjure up. Let’s not leave the future to the likes of Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt and the visions they pitch, such as the weird scenario they offered up in The New Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind). Talking about the future of entertainment and holograph boxes you could set up in your living room, they ask us to imagine, “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Hmph.

Dialogues on Consciousness is a short easy collection of sessional dialogues. It would be a good book to bring on a long train or plane journey. You might find all those Philosophy 101 thought-experiments reactivating in you and casually preparing you for Manzotti and Parks’ near-quantum paradigm-thinking — about you and apples. You might try to recall how you answered Bishop Berkeley’s query: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Before you fall into a comatose sleep, and wake up hours later, suddenly…

Switched On.

More articles by:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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