I me mind the unending quest to explain consciousness


Joel Dean, Path Morphology and Core Individuation in Centrifugal Expansion Models (Gala), 2018, plywood, bleached beeswax, plaster, wood glue, dye, found objects, 30 × 30 × 10″. IMAGE/The artist and Interstate Projects

Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness BY Tim Parks. New York: New York Harvill Secker. 320 pages. $19.

The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One BY Riccardo Manzotti. New York: OR Books. 304 pages. $24.

Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience BY Michael S A Graziano. New York:Norton. 256 pages. $29.

THE HARD PROBLEM, DAVID CHALMERS CALLS IT: Why are the physical processes of the brain “accompanied by an experienced inner life?” How and why is there something it is like to be you and me, in Thomas Nagel’s formulation? I’ve been reading around in the field of consciousness studies for over two decades—Chalmers, Nagel, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Jerry Fodor, Ned Block, Frank Jackson, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Alva Noë, Susan Blackmore—and the main thing I’ve learned is that no one has the slightest idea. Not that the field lacks for confident pronouncements to the contrary.

Briefly stated, the problem is that the world appears to contain two very different kinds of stuff—mind and body, for which Descartes posited two substances, res cogitans and res extensa. The mind is not physical, not extended in space. The body and everything else are made of physical substance and located in space. Substance dualism is out of fashion these days, but some philosophers (including Chalmers) are property dualists, who believe consciousness is an emergent property, a kind of ghostly accompaniment to physical reality. Some go so far as to embrace panpsychism, the doctrine that consciousness pervades all things; others think that mind just comes along with certain complex physical objects (brains) without being reducible to them. Chalmers sees consciousness as “a movie playing inside your head,” and this first-person experience is what needs to be explained.

Most neuroscientists and many philosophers view either form of dualism as hocus pocus. How, for one thing, do the mental and physical orders interact? A complete description of consciousness will be, on this view, a physical description of brain states: the absurdly complex interactions of neurons, axons, glia, synapses, “a trillion mindless robots dancing,” as arch-physicalist Dennett has it. For Dennett, the brain produces a “user illusion” that you’re in control, but in fact it’s running the show. You’re a robot, and the movie theater is empty.

All the above positions are rejected by the Italian philosopher and psychologist Riccardo Manzotti in his theory of “the spread mind,” set forth in his 2017 volume of that title, also called “the mind-object identity theory.” The idea is easy enough to state, if not to comprehend: All experience is perception, and all perception is physical objects. Experience is not experience of something, it just is that thing. The term “spread mind” was suggested by the British novelist Tim Parks, whose new book is a ramshackle tour of Manzotti’s theory, or at least of his attempts to understand it and explain it to other people.

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