Where is consciousness? It’s out there, apparently, not in here. There has been an interesting dialogue series going on between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks in the NYRB (thanks to Tom Clark for drawing my attention to it) The separate articles are not particularly helpfully laid out or linked to each other: the series is


We discussed Manzotti’s views back in 2006, when with Honderich and Tonneau he represented a new wave of externalism. His version seemed to me perhaps the clearest and most attractive back then (though I think he’s mistaken). He continues to put some good arguments.

In the first part, Manzotti says consciousness is awareness, experience. It is somewhat mysterious – we mustn’t take for granted any view about a movie playing in our head or the like – and it doesn’t feature in the scientific account. All the events and processes described by science could, it seems, go on without conscious experience occurring.

He is scathing, however, about the view that consciousness is therefore special (surely something that science doesn’t account for can reasonably be seen as special?), and he suggests the word “mental” is a kind of conceptual dustbin for anything we can’t accommodate otherwise. He and Parks describe the majority of views as internalist, dedicated to the view that one way or another neural activity just is consciousness. Many neural correlates of consciousness have been spotted, says Manzotti, but correlates ain’t the thing itself.

In the second part he tackles colour, one of the strongest cards in the internalist hand. It looks to us as if things just have colour as a simple property, but in fact the science of colour tells us it’s very far from being that simple. For one thing how we perceive a colour depends strongly on what other colours are adjacent; Manzotti demonstrates this with a graphic where areas with the same RGB values appear either blue or green. Examples like this make it very tempting to conclude that colour is constructed in the brain, but Manzotti boldly suggests that if science and ordinary understanding are at odds, so much the worse for science. Maybe we ought to accept that those colours really are different, and be damned to RGB values.

The third dialogue attacks the metaphor of a computer often applied to the brain, and rejects talk of information processing. Information is not a physical thing, says Manzotti, and to speak of it as though it were a visible fluid passing through the brain risks dualism; something Tononi, with his theory of integrated information, accepts; he agrees that his ideas about information having two aspects point that way.

So what’s a better answer? Manzotti traces externalist ideas back to Aristotle, but focuses on the more ideas of affordances and enactivism. An affordance is roughly a possibility offered to us by an object; a hammer offers us the possibility of hitting nails. This idea of bashing things does not need to be represented in the head, because it is out there in the form of the hammer. Enactivism develops a more general idea of perception as action, but runs into difficulties in some cases such as that of dreams, where we seem to have experience without action; or consider that licking a strawberry or a chocolate ice cream is the same action but yields very different experience.

To set out his own view, Manzotti introduces the ‘metaphysical switchboard’: one switch toggles whether subject and object are separate, the other whether the subject is physical or not. If they’re separate, and we choose to make the subject non-physical, we get something like Cartesian dualism, with all the problems that entails. If we select ‘physical’ then we get the view of modern science; and that too seems to be failing. If subject and object are neither separate nor physical, we get Berkleyan idealism; my perceptions actually constitute reality. The only option that works is to say that subject and object are identical, but physical; so when I see an apple, my experience of it is identical with the apple itself. Parks, rightly I think, says that most people will find this bonkers at first sight. But after all, the apple is the only thing that has apple-like qualities! There’s no appliness in my brain or in my actions.

This raises many problems. My experience of the apple changes according to conditions, yet the apple itself doesn’t change. Oh no? says Manzotti, why not? You’re just clinging to the subject/object distinction; let it go and there’s no problem. OK, but if my experience of the apple is identical with the apple, and so is yours, then our experiences must be identical. In fact, since subject and object are the same, we must also be identical!

The answer here is curious. Manzotti points out that the physical quality of velocity is relative to other things; you may be travelling at one speed relative to me but a different one compared to that train going by. In fact, he says, all physical qualities are relative, so the apple is an apple experience relative to one animal (me) and at the same time relative to another in a different way. I don’t think this ingenious manoeuvre ultimately works; it seems Manzotti is introducing an intermediate entity of the kind he was trying to dispel; we now have an apple-experience relative to me which is different from the one relative to you. What binds these and makes them experiences of the same apple? If we say nothing, we fall back into idealism; if it’s the real physical apple, then we’re more or less back with the traditional framework, just differently labelled.

What about dreams and hallucinations? Manzotti holds that they are always made up out of real things we have previously experienced. Hey, he says, if we just invent things and colour is made in the head, how come we never dream new colours? He argues that there is always an interval between cause and effect when we experience things; given that, why shouldn’t real things from long ago be the causes of dreams?

And the self, that other element in the traditional picture? It’s made up of all the experiences, all the things experienced, that are relative to us; all physical, if a little scattered and dare I say metaphysically unusual; a massive conjunction bound together by… nothing in particular? Of course the body is central, and for certain feelings, or for when we’re in a dark, silent room, it may be especially salient. But it’s not the whole thing, and still less is the brain.

In the latest dialogue, Manzotti and Parks consider free will. For Manzotti, having said that you are the sum of your experiences, it is straightforward to say that your decisions are made by the subset of those experiences that are causally active; nothing that contradicts determinist physics, but a reasonable sense in which we can say your act belonged to you. To me this is a relatively appealing outlook.

Overall? Well, I like the way externalism seeks to get rid of all the problems with mediation that lead many people to think we never experience the world, only our own impressions of it. Manzotti’s version is particularly coherent and intelligible. I’m not sure his clever relativity finally works though. I agree that experience isn’t strictly in the brain, but I don’t think it’s in the apple either; to talk about its physical location is just a mistake. The processes that give rise to experience certainly have a location, but in itself it just doesn’t have that kind of property.


  1. 1. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    The internalist vs externalist debate strikes me as similar to the old nature vs nurture debate. In both, there are purists on either side insisting that only one or the other are the answer, when in reality the answer seems to be both.

    That said, if we destroy the brain, there is no consciousness, which seems to establish the brain as pretty essential. If we cut off a previously healthy adult brain from its environment, then it seems like a consciousness would remain, albeit one with a pretty terrible existence.

    But what if, due to some fetal medical condition, a brain developed without ever having any sensory access to the environment? Would it be conscious? It seems like any consciousness it might eventually develop would be pretty poor and desolate.

  2. 2. Tom Clark says:

    Peter: “I agree that experience isn’t strictly in the brain, but I don’t think it’s in the apple either; to talk about its physical location is just a mistake. The processes that give rise to experience certainly have a location, but in itself it just doesn’t have that kind of property.”

    I agree, and doesn’t this suggest that experience is therefore not physical, since physical phenomena are all locatable in space? Experiences certainly participate in representing and therefore locating physical objects, including the physical processes that are associated with having experiences. But we don’t find experiences in the world they participate in representing, weirdly enough.

    “…I like the way externalism seeks to get rid of all the problems with mediation that lead many people to think we never experience the world, only our own impressions of it.”

    Yes, this can be confusing, but we needn’t resort to externalism to get rid of this problem. We experience the world, that is, the world appears to us in terms of experience. We don’t experience our *model* of the world, which would introduce a problematic mediator, something between us and experience. As subjects, we *consist* of experience, we’re not in an epistemic or observational relation to it, and the world-model that is our experience is directly responsive to the world via sensory input.

  3. 3. arnold says:

    In the discovery of self, do we need to experience mass-space-time-interaction as the singleness of knowledge…

    Interaction (knowledge) is posited to have begun biological processes–evolving hierarchical organizations from instinctive attractions to (our own) sensation, emotion and mentation…

    That this process, of awareness or consciousness, has moved to the world of psychology is no longer useful in philosophy (in what a self could be)…

    What’s left, I posit, is not attaching I to observation—hard to understand but observation is a way to self, in hierarchical organizations…

    Observation and Nature have a lot in common, in that we can’t have one without the other…

  4. 4. john davey says:


    Experience is generated in the brain : part of that experience is always going to be associated with a location – and a time – as any human cognitive experience can’t exist outside of them. “Where” the experience is – that is an objective aspect of the subjective experience.

    Where is it produced ? Well, that’s a question about the objective location of the causal factors.I’d have to say there isn’t any evidence that I’m aware of to say that mental experience is produced in any other place than the brain.

    In short, I think our man is confusing the data of the experience with the location of the production of the experience. Subjective and Objective mixed up again, as happens repeatedly in these discussions. That’s why he thinks he’s breaking ground by denying the subject/object distinction : he’s not seeing that they are completely clearly delineated in the first place.

    An apple is a biological artefact that generates certain mental response in humans. From where I’m standing, it’s as simple as that. It generates a green visual image in human heads and a certain taste . In other animals, with different mental systems, it generates different visual images and tastes. That doesn’t require a rewrite of the common-sense interpretation of the world.


  5. 5. john davey says:


    I forgot to mention my two penn’orth on the rather non-point point that’s always raised about hallucinations.

    I really don’t think it’s that difficult : a hallucination is something you’re seeing that isn’t really there. If it really is there, it’s not a hallucination. There is no need to resort to any drama : a hallucination was, is and always will be an objective question as to mental state.


  6. 6. Jan Pilotti says:

    Peter: “I agree that experience isn’t strictly in the brain, but I don’t think it’s in the apple either; to talk about its physical location is just a mistake. The processes that give rise to experience certainly have a location, but in itself it just doesn’t have that kind of property.”
    If sensory experince has no location in space it would be a poor help for our conduct in physical life. All my sensory experienes are ever located at the physical objects, never ever in the brain

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