To understand consciousness, look at a rainbow?

There’s been a lot written here about consciousness lately. And there’s been much, much more in the popular science press.

For example, the April 20th issue of New Scientist contains an article titled “We’re Closing in on Consciousness in the Brain.”

In the article, Christof Koch, a colleague of Francis Crick in devising the idea that there are “neuronal correlates of consciousness” (NCC), claims that NCC are “the minimal neuronal mechanisms – the synapses, neurons and brain regions – that are jointly sufficient for any one conscious percept.”

You’ll notice that this claim makes no reference to the rest of the body, much less to the rest of the world outside the brain. This is the prototypical “the mind is the brain” conception.

And, according to robotics expert Riccardo Manzotti, it’s completely wrong.

People say the robot stores images of the world through its video camera. It doesn’t, it stores digital data. It has no images.

Manzotti’s ideas have recently been publicized in an unlikely place, the New York Review of Books, where novelist Tim Parks reports Manzotti’s ideas of a radically embedded consciousness.

Now, a recent article on this blog highlighted another conception of a deeply extended consciousness. But in that case the thinker, Lambros Malafouris, was an anthropologist, which could lead some readers to temper their reading with an awareness of the typically social and cultural stance of a relativist discipline.

This time, however, it’s different. Manzotti is an engineer turned philosopher, a robot-building psychologist, someone whose expected paradigm should be mechanical, not cultural. Yet his ideas about consciousness are much more similar to those of Malafouris than they are to those of Koch and Crick. There’s no computational bias in Manzotti’s version of consciousness.

Parks is interested in Manzotti’s ideas because of their potential influence on our understanding of literary narrative and characterization, although, curiously, after raising the issue, Parks never gets into these implications in his article.

In “The Mind Outside My Head,” Parks reports Manzotti’s contention that “There are no images and no representations in our minds. Our visual experience of the world is a continuum between see-er and seen united in a shared process of seeing.” This, Parks writes, makes Manzotti “a radical externalist.”

Manzotti’s model is what he calls the “Spread Mind,” in which “consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object.” In this way, he argues, “Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.”

Manzotti’s favourite example: the rainbow.

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear.

In other words, for Manzotti “the viewer doesn‟t see the world; he is part of a world process.”

Even when our eyes are closed and our minds are wandering, or when we are asleep, our brains continue to access external processes (more often called “things”), stored as memories. Why don’t people blind from birth dream in colour? There are no colour processes in their experience with which their brains can interact. No inner-outer mixing of processes, no colour event. The colours exist, but the temporal conjunction of the colours and the brain doesn’t happen, so there is no consciousness of colour.

It’s a very adroit idea — not only isn’t consciousness the parts or processes of the brain, but what we have considered abstract things, like memories of colours, are reconstituted as physical events.

Why, then, are we still so attracted to “brain in a box” conceptions of consciousness? Manzotti argues:

By locating consciousness exclusively within the brain we can imagine that the subject, me, at some very deep level, is not subject to the same law of constant change that evidently governs the phenomena around me. The subject accrues and sheds attributes, but remains in essence him or herself.

We crave and protect the “comforting illusion” that the self is somehow “an entity outside the world.” We hope that maybe, just maybe, the “I” could survive death.

Not bad for an engineer. In a single stroke, he solves the “hard problem” of consciousness and explains why so many of us believe in God and His Heaven!

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