I Me Mind

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

The cover of Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience

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.

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". Courtesy the artist and Interstate Projects
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″. Courtesy the artist and Interstate Projects

If your perception of an apple (Manzotti’s favorite example—I gave up counting how many times the words “apple” or “apples” appear in The Spread Mind after a hundred) is identical with the apple itself, consciousness is not a neuronal robot ballet. As Manzotti tells Parks in one of their conversations on the New York Review of Books website (soon to be published as Dialogues on Consciousness):

There is nothing about the behavior of neurons to suggest that they are any different with respect to consciousness than, say, liver cells or red blood cells. They are cells doing what cells do best, namely, keeping entropy low by generating flows of ions such as sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium and releasing neurotransmitters as a consequence. All of that 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.

Why and how should some cells, even highly specialized ones, differ from other physical components of living organisms in producing this richly detailed experience of subjectivity, Wallace Stevens’s “fresh transfigurings of freshest blue”?

Manzotti is nevertheless committed to a physicalist picture. “We’re not going to accept the idea of some mysterious spirit or substance beyond our ken, as per David Chalmers,” he tells Parks (which wrongly implies that Chalmers is a substance dualist, but never mind). So if materialism’s the only game in town, but neural explanations are out, where can Manzotti situate consciousness? Why, in the world itself. Not, however, as panpsychism, a version of which Chalmers entertains, but as the identity of mind and object. Apples aren’t conscious, but they are our experiences of them. Manzotti wants to get consciousness out of our heads, into the stuff consciousness is about.

This is exactly as radical as it sounds. Bishop Berkeley and other idealists argued that objects are dependent on mind; Manzotti argues the reverse of this: Mind exists in objects. In The Spread Mind, Manzotti contends that we are mistaken to believe that objects “do not depend on our presence. . . . Our bodies enable processes that change the ontology of the world. Our bodies bring into existence the physical objects with which our experience is identical. We are our experience. We are not our bodies.” And later: “We are the world and the world is us—everything is physical.” This includes dreams, hallucinations, memories—all are the imagined physical objects themselves, not neural firings or mental representations (we must at one time have perceived an object to hallucinate or dream it, although it can be an unreal combination of other objects, as in the case of flying pink elephants). Manzotti impishly dubs this doctrine no-psychism. It’s idealism turned on its head, a reductio ad absurdum of scientific materialism. (If you’re confused, well, I’m not sure I understand it myself, and I read the book.)

Manzotti first drew Parks’s attention during a conference at IULM University in Milan, where Parks is a professor, by bellowing “There are no images!” in response to a neuroscientist’s discussion about how the brain transforms visual stimuli into images. On Manzotti’s view, the brain does nothing of the kind. There are no pictures, only objects. “He really couldn’t believe how stupid we were all being, he said, buying into this dumb story of images in our heads.” Parks was besotted.

Out of My Head is as much about what it’s like to be Tim Parks as about Manzotti’s spread mind. We learn of Parks’s abdominal pains, his sleep problems, his meditative techniques (these are related); his partner, Eleonora Gallitelli; his struggles with smartphones, tea urns, and the German language. He ambles, digresses, heads down the block for a pack of smokes, gets sidetracked in conversation, comes back hours later without the cigarettes. The book begins in a hotel bed in Heidelberg with Parks musing that we never see an entire object at once, only aspects of it. I wondered why he didn’t mention Husserl, who made the same point over a century ago. The answer arrives 260 pages later when Parks admits he didn’t discover Husserl until a year after the events described on the first page. His diaristic method prevents him from retroactively introducing Husserl into the earlier parts of the narrative.

There are so many misplaced modifiers that I began to wonder if Parks was doing it on purpose, and I wish Elon Musk were quoted zero times, but the flitting style’s fitting. Parks is moved to examine his own phenomenology as he tries to make the spread-mind theory match up with his experience, so even when he’s interviewing neuroscientists and philosophers, he’s hyperaware of his own responses (memories, idle thoughts) and observations (his interlocutor’s posture and speech patterns).

Perhaps for this reason, he turns out to be adept at exposing the flummery of neuroscience. It’s “puzzling,” he writes after reading an introductory text, “that our brains are made up of things—computers—that we ourselves only recently invented. Puzzling that the nervous system can be divided into parts that, like people, appear to possess intention and volition, suggesting and telling each other things.” It has often been noted that metaphors for mind and brain are drawn from the technological advances of the day. For Descartes, the brain is a sort of water pump; for Freud, a steam engine. Now it’s a computer. Parks asks the neuroscientist Hannah Monyer about this predilection; she agrees that terms like “compute” and “information” are misleading, but “Neuroscientists aren’t misled because we know what is meant.” So that’s OK then.

Joel Dean, Path Morphology and Core Individuation in Centrifugal Expansion Models (Fuji), 2018, plywood, bleached beeswax, wood glue, dye, found objects, 31 × 31 × 10". Courtesy the artist and Interstate Projects
Joel Dean, Path Morphology and Core Individuation in Centrifugal Expansion Models (Fuji), 2018, plywood, bleached beeswax, wood glue, dye, found objects, 31 × 31 × 10″. Courtesy the artist and Interstate Projects

PARKS WOULD HAVE A FIELD DAY with Rethinking Consciousness, in which the Princeton neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano proposes yet another theory of consciousness, “the attention schema theory.” For Graziano, when we look at an apple (what is it about apples?), “the brain constructs a representation” of the fruit—its shape and color, its spatial relationship to you. But “it also constructs a representation of your attentional focus on the apple.” This book is Manzotti’s worst nightmare. Throughout, neurons are said to “compete,” “prefer,” “say,” “tell,” “win,” “process,” and perform many other actions that only sentient agents are capable of performing.

Of course metaphors are useful and inevitable. It would be absurd to demand that neuroscientists never write figuratively about the activity of the objects of their study. The problem is rather (as Richard Lewontin has noted about the use of “natural selection” in evolutionary biology) that the metaphors seem rarely to register as metaphors. They’re never quite cashed out. Graziano writes about neural “competition” to describe why our attention fixes on one thing rather than another: “bits of information are in constant competition as neurons inhibit their neighbors.” He never lays out what, precisely, is going on among neurons as they “perform” this “breakdown of the visual world.”

If I’m walking to Shake Shack to get a milkshake, my attention focused on how good the milkshake will taste, and I see a tiger running toward me, I have no problem believing that my neurons have something to do with how quickly I forget about the milkshake and begin paying attention to the tiger. But this is not, as Graziano would have it, because the neurons associated with the approaching tiger beat out the milkshake neurons in some internal “competition.” In order to compete, you have to know you’re in a competition, you have to want to beat a rival, you have to know who your rival is and what goal you’re trying to achieve. Far too often in neuroscientific literature, neurons play the role of fancy homunculi. We’re not actually conscious, it’s just an illusion caused by our neurons, which are then described in terms that presuppose consciousness.

But what we really want from a theory of consciousness is to know why the neuronal activity that leads to my recognizing the tiger as a threat is accompanied by the subjective experience of being chased by a tiger. Not just the information that there is a tiger so I should run away, but “Holy shit, I’m being chased by a tiger! What the actual fuck!” Graziano’s theory proposes that this experience arises because the brain constructs a “model” of what it’s paying attention to, including its own actions: “When the machine [he means the brain] accesses its attention schema—a simplified, cartoonish account of its own internal processes—it is informed that it contains a private, ghostly, inner property of consciousness.” This is restated in several ways throughout the book, but it never gets more specific about how that “private, ghostly, inner property,” which he regards as a kind of illusion, is produced by this model. How can the brain’s “accessing” a “cartoonish account” of its “attention” create this ineffable, overwhelming meness? As Elizabeth Bishop put it:

you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?

A great deal of neuroscientific conjecture about consciousness could be summarized by Nietzsche’s droll paraphrase of Kant’s answer to the question “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?”: “By means of a faculty.”

Graziano does little to dispel this impression. A frog “almost certainly” isn’t conscious, he tells us. How does he know? Well, after making some reasonable observations regarding the structure of frog brains, which lack a cerebral cortex, he imagines a device called the Speechinator 5000 that translates “information found in the brain” into speech. Then he imagines using this device to have a conversation with the frog’s brain in which it reveals that it has no subjective experience. Since this is the level of argument, I’m happy to assure frog lovers that I just imagined using the Speechinator 5000 to have my own conversation with a frog’s brain, and it turns out frogs are conscious after all. (Perhaps this denial of frog-mind explains Graziano’s insouciant description of a horrific experiment in which a frog’s eyes were removed and reinstalled upside down; the frog had to be fed by hand for the rest of its life. Parks, by contrast, can’t stop reflecting that, whatever else neuroscience has accomplished, it has been hell for mice.)

While I can forgive Graziano his apparent belief that “hath” is third-person plural and his confusion of Superman’s X-ray vision and heat vision, I must quibble with his contention that philosophy has become interested in “the act of being conscious” only in the past fifty years, because of “the advance of computer technology.” He might want to reread his Hegel (or his Bergson or Husserl or Merleau-Ponty or Sartre or . . . ).

It’s a telling slip, insofar as it points up the absence of historicization (as opposed to potted histories) in so many writings on consciousness. Graziano, for instance, estimates that within fifty years we will create machines with artificial consciousness. This assumes not only that there will still be functional civilizations in fifty years but that, despite ecological collapse and capital’s insurmountable crises of accumulation, they will have the luxury to invest in such research. Surely the future of robotics is much darker: surveillance, weapons tech, and replacement of human labor.

The attention-schema theory strikes me as neither more nor less plausible than most of the other ideas floating about neuroscience and philosophy of mind. It has something in common with Dennett’s “multiple drafts model,” which views consciousness as a kind of narrative we construct from flows of information, and with Blackmore’s notion that there isn’t actually “anything it is like to be us most of the time,” only “a model of self . . . we construct” when we ask or are asked whether we’re conscious. Such theories have the benefit of denying that neuronal activity “produces” consciousness, but at the expense of, well, consciousness. And these theories neatly avoid the real question at issue because, in a way, it doesn’t matter if consciousness is an illusion. The explicandum is the experience of the illusion. As Searle has written, contra Dennett, “where the existence of conscious states is concerned . . . the existence of the appearance is the reality.”

Manzotti’s spread mind (which also dispenses with neural correlates of consciousness) at least has the virtue of originality, though I remain unpersuaded that I am the MacBook I’m writing this on. And I am hard-pressed to agree that my experience of, say, sorrow or boredom or impatience or joy must be identical with a physical object, even if, as Manzotti suggests in a very brief discussion of feelings, that object is my body.

The contrast between the two thinkers is instructive. Graziano places great stock in phantom limb syndrome, which “90 percent of amputees” experience; Manzotti assures us that the syndrome “is based on an extremely limited number of cases and there is latitude for available alternative interpretation.” What’s at stake here is, of course, the location of experience. Both men are convinced that reality is the physical and nothing else, but Graziano’s attention-schema is created within the brain, while Manzotti rejects Chalmers’s vision of consciousness as “a movie playing inside your head.” For my money, it’s refreshing to get out of our heads for once, regardless of whether the mind is in fact spread. (It’s not clear if Manzotti is familiar with the work of Henri Bergson, who observed in 1908 that it is absurd to oppose the brain, which is part of the material world, to the material world.)

Noam Chomsky has cheekily suggested that Isaac Newton destroyed Cartesian dualism by demonstrating that one of the substances does not exist: res extensa. A force influencing bodies at a distance through no discernible physical means? We still don’t know what gravity is.

In this it resembles consciousness. Ghost or machine? Both? Neither? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Parks concludes his book by inviting

readers to refer everything they read about consciousness . . . to their own experience; never to be wowed or dazzled; scrupulously to consider what it’s really like being alive. When it comes to consciousness, we are all repositories of quantities of evidence far richer than any available in the neuroscientist’s laboratory.

This is right. Each of us has direct and immediate access to the problem. My own intuition, for what little it’s worth, is that consciousness really is something extra—not (or not only) physical, not reducible to physical properties. I’m with Chalmers thus far, though I happily follow Nagel even further: “Conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences.” I learn much that is fascinating about the brain from books like Graziano’s, but nothing about how its processes or electrochemical interactions, no matter their baroque intricacy, could produce this.

Thus, it seems to me, the proliferation of ever wilder positions. You are the apple. Consciousness is an illusion. And, hell, maybe you are the apple. Crazier things have turned out to be true. But if you simply rule in advance that the mind must be physical and assume that an understanding of consciousness must be a materialist understanding, because scientific materialism is obviously correct, you end up looking for your keys under the streetlamp because that’s where the light is.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and Walkman (forthcoming, both Penguin) and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). He is an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University.