ManzottiTed Honderich’s new theory of consciousness – that me being conscious of a room is in some sense just there being a room – was mentioned in these pages a while ago. On that occasion it was noted that, in spite of his philosophical eminence as a former Grote professor, his paper had been rejected by the Journal of Consciousness Studies (not normally a narrow-minded periodical – happy to publish pieces on parapsychology, say or Rupert Sheldrake), and it was suggested that the reason might be that no-one could work out what he was on about. But we liked the rallying-cry with which he ended, calling for further progress.

That call has not gone unanswered. Last August in Copenhagen, at Towards a Science of Consciousness, Honderich, Riccardo Manzotti and Francois Tonneau presented papers in support of their own versions of the theory of Radical Externalism. We could be witnessing the beginning of a movement. Suitably abashed, the JCS has apparently agreed that an entire issue will be devoted to responses to Honderich, some time in the summer.

The least we can do, then, is to have a further look at what these Radical Externalists are saying, and Manzotti’s paper seems a good place to start.

The distinctive feature of Manzotti’s theory is that he takes a process-based view. Things don’t exist, in his eyes, they take place. Like many others, he thinks we are to some extent captives of the philosophical outlook adopted four or five hundred years ago, but instead of Descartes getting all the blame, as is usual in these cases, he attributes the main guilt to Galileo (though of course Descartes does not escape unreproved altogether). Galileo, he says, adopted a methodology which separated the observer from an observed world of autonomous objects susceptible to measurement and mathematics. Some features of these objects, such as mass, were really out there in the world; others, notably colour, were really only in the observer’s head. This, clearly, was a productive approach: but what Galileo had no business to do was to add an ontological commitment. The fact that considering the observer and the observed separately allowed him to do some interesting sums did not mean that the observer and the observed were really separate.

This mistake, according to Manzotti, led to our disastrously dualistic outlook, the view that perception happens in the head, and all our difficulties with connecting the inner subjective world with the physical reality outside. Manzotti is surely right to want to remove unnecessary intermediaries from our account of perception – what he refers to as the ‘television’ view.

In fact, he says, the mind is identical with everything the subject is conscious of. Instead of talking about the perceived and the perceiver, we should talk about the unifying process of perception, the ‘onphene’ . Our mental life is composed of these onphenes, reaching out far beyond our skulls. Once we adopt this conception of ‘the enlarged mind’, all the difficult problems of consciousness fall away. We don’t have to reconcile qualia with objective reality because they are objective reality; we need no longer puzzle over intentionality, the link between things which mean and things which are meant: the onphene is intentionality.

According to Manzotti, perception in some sense constitutes objects. A favourite example is the rainbow. There is, in fact, no vast coloured arch in the sky: it’s only in the act of observation that the rainbow is brought about. As with Honderich, it would be possible to misconstrue this as a radical kind of relativism – your own perceptions are the only reality – but Manzotti’s outlook is much more commonsensical than that. Rainbows, after all, still have some underlying physical support in the form of raindrops and sunlight. I fear this is more commonsensical than it really has any right to be. If there’s still an objective physical world underlying and giving rise to the onphenes, I think some of the old problems of the relationship between mental and physical are merely going to be relocated. If Manzotti wants to embrace his radicalism fully, I think he is bound to adopt an ontology in which there really is nothing but collections of onphenes. He would then be faced with difficult problems of accounting for why the onphenes exist, and how they come to have certain consistencies and commonalities – the kind of regularities which real objects at one end, and observing people at the other, are generally thought to explain.

One of the challenges he faces, of course is how to account for erroneous perceptions. If all my perceptions just are the things perceived, how could I ever suffer from illusions or mistakes? Manzotti offers an account of dreams and memories in which he seeks to preserve the idea that they are, somehow, realities. Memories are just delayed effects of the onphene still doing its stuff – but hang on there: if my mind is identical with the things it is conscious of, how come my mind is here now and the thing remembered is back then? Dreams, on the other hand, recombine elements drawn ultimately from reality. It is a key point for Manzotti that the contents of the mind can only come from the real world – you cannot imagine anything entirely new, such as a new colour. If I dream of my mother wearing Napoleon’s hat, it is my real mother and (by a more obscure process, since I have never seen it) Napoleon’s real hat that are involved. But surely my-mother-in-the-hat is a legitimate single object of perception, not irreducibly dual. What if I dream of a purple cow? It may be, at some remove, a real cow: but where does the purple come from? A particular purple object? Purpleness?

Manzotti goes so far as to claim that the coloured spots created by pressing your eyes (or banging your head – don’t try this at home) derive from real colours we have seen. A person who was blind from birth whose eyes were pressed in this way, he thinks, could not experience colour, but would perceive the spots through the sensation of touch (why not smell?). But the weakest of his defences, I think, is the one presented for the case of optical illusions such as the Kanisza triangle (formed by three ‘pac-men’ providing the apparent corners) or illusions of movement. Manzotti introduces the idea of a ‘perceived triangle’ and ‘perceived motion’ as the objects of perception in these cases. Wasn’t this just the sort of thing he was against? And where is the perceived triangle? Not, surely… in the head of the perceiver?

In short, I think there are unresolved problems in Manzotti’s theory. He might well seek to resolve them by becoming less radical about his externalism – but perhaps it would be more interesting to go the other way: cast off from the shores of mere common sense and set up a truly radical onphene metaphysics.

Update: Riccardo Manzotti has very kindly provided the following commentary.

I seldom find such a clear and to-the-point understanding of my work. For this reason I would like to try to dispel a few minor misunderstandings that might be attributed to my paper.

In my paper I was, due to many suggestions on the part of the editors, rather conservative and, as you put it, maybe a little more commonsensical than I should have been. The reason is that, when you present a really novel viewpoint, readers seem to have problems in following you unless you keep a low profile.

Let me give you a very sketchy but extremely honest summary of my view.

According to the traditional view, reality is made of entities that are under many respects autonomous and separate. Among the proposed entities I could quote atoms, objects, events, individuals and many others. The problem is that, once you accept such a view, reality is made of separate entities that cannot be put together again. The problem becomes severe in the case of conscious experience whereas a body (or a brain) has an experience of something else (the external world). How can the two be one if they are made of separate entities?

I suggest accepting an alternative view: reality is made of processes. Each process is like a dipole – it can be seen from two perspectives (cause and effect) but it is really one process. Whenever we refer to an object or a physical state of affairs we refer to a process taking place.

Unlike objects, processes are compositional. I mean they merge together forming other processes.

Thus, consciousness becomes an opportunity to understand the nature of reality. It is not another problem. It is a chance to grasp the overall nature of things.

Let me also address a few of your comments.

In fact, he says, the mind is identical with everything the subject is conscious of. Instead of talking about the perceived and the perceiver, we should talk about the unifying process of perception, the ‘onphene’ .

I do agree. However I would like to stress the fact that when I say that the mind is identical with everything the subject is conscious of, I refer to a world made of processes and not objects. I would not say that when I am aware of a bottle (as an object), I am identical with the bottle (as an object). I mean that the bottle is a process and in that sense I am identical with it.

According to Manzotti, perception in some sense constitutes objects.

Again. I do agree. Of course the processes, which constitute my perception, are also constitutive of the objects I perceive – the two being two ways to look at the same process. But let me stress the fact that I do not assign any particular power to the perceiver’s side.

Manzotti’s outlook is much more commonsensical than that. Rainbows, after all, still have some underlying physical support in the form of raindrops and sunlight. I fear this is more commonsensical than it really has any right to be. If there’s still an objective physical world underlying and giving rise to the onphenes, I think some of the old problems of the relationship between mental and physical are merely going to be relocated. If Manzotti wants to embrace his radicalism fully, I think he is bound to adopt an ontology in which there really is nothing but collections of onphenes.

As I mentioned at the beginning I would really like to opt for an onphene-only ontology. However we do not need to get rid of the familiar world of molecules and such. There can be a dual perspective on things. More or less like referring to the south and north poles of magnetic fields. However, you’re right. This is a point that needs further clarification.

He would then be faced with difficult problems of accounting for why the onphenes exist, and how they come to have certain consistencies and commonalities -the kind of regularities which real objects at one end, and observing people at the other, are generally thought to explain.

I do not believe that those problems will be so difficult. However, I would like to be challenged by precise reference to cases that do not seem to fit with the process view. I have always had problems in dealing explicitly with them because usually philosophers refer in a vague way to them. I would like very much to do it.

Memories are just delayed effects of the onphene still doing its stuff – but hang on there: if my mind is identical with the things it is conscious of, how come my mind is here now and the thing remembered is back then? Dreams, on the other hand, recombine elements drawn ultimately from reality. It is a key point for Manzotti that the contents of the mind can only come from the real world – you cannot imagine anything entirely new, such as a new colour. If I dream of my mother wearing Napoleon’s hat, it is my real mother and (by a more obscure process, since I have never seen it) Napoleon’s real hat that are involved. But surely my-mother-in-the-hat is a legitimate single object of perception, not irreducibly dual. What if I dream of a purple cow? It may be, at some remove, a real cow: but where does the purple come from? A particular purple object? Purpleness?

This is a crucial issue for me. All experience must be rooted in reality. I think there is plenty of evidence for this. People who are born blind do not dream of colours. We do not dream ultrawaves of infrared, and so on. As far as we know all conscious experience is rooted in reality. During perception processes have a short time span. In memory the time span is longer. Where is the difference? Could I dream of my grandmother unless my grandmother had been there many years ago? Your example does not quite reflect my view correctly. According to my position you cannot dream of Napoleon’s hat, since that hat has never been part of your experience. There is no causal connection between that hat and you. But of course you had plenty of direct contact with paintings or other kind of reproduction of Napoleon’s hat. Thus there are two events: one is your grandmother at a certain point of your life and another is a reproduction of Napoleon’s hat at some other point in your life. These events(where “event” is a way to refer to the beginning of a process) will eventually connect (probably due to some random links between your neurons). Because of this kind of joint effect the two processes intermingle in one. Still, both the grandmother and the reproduction of Napoleon’s hat, by means of what takes place in your skull, are something different. In some respect, they do exist thanks to that process.

Let’s get to the purple cow. Where does the purple come from? Every time we perceive a purple object in our V4 there is the perception of purple. What is purple? It is a certain cause (a certain ratio among the frequency of light waves) singled out by certain process (those ending in V4).

Manzotti goes so far as to claim that the coloured spots created by pressing your eyes (or banging your head – don’t try this at home) derive from real colours we have seen. A person who was blind from birth whose eyes were pressed in this way, he thinks, could not experience colour, but would perceive the spots through the sensation of touch (why not smell?).

Because there is a causal connection between tactile events and the brain by means of his/her blind eyes. The eyes, presumably, are subject to tactile pressure and thus there is a causal connection between pressures and the further neural activity. This can be tested by pressing the eyeballs. However, it could be possible to envisage a more complex experimental setup in which there is a transducer of the density of certain molecules to the neural activity on the optic nerve. In this case, I suggest, there will be an olfactory sensation by means of the optical nerve. What counts, in my view, is what is brought together by the causal process, not the machinery in between.

But the weakest of his defences, I think, is the one presented for the case of optical illusions such as the Kanisza triangle (formed by three ‘pac-men’ providing the apparent corners) or illusions of movement. Manzotti introduces the idea of a ‘perceived triangle’ and ‘perceived motion’ as the objects of perception in these cases. Wasn’t this just the sort of thing he was against? And where is the perceived triangle? Not, surely… in the head of the perceiver?

The weakest of my defences! I need to work harder on it then! Again I did not express myself in the best way with the use of terms like “perceived X”. Well, I won’t be very precise on this issue. The general idea is the following: there are processes that single out certain combinations of events. Usually these processes take place together with other processes. Sometimes these associations are disrupted. And yet there is a real continuity with the first kind of process.

In short, I think there are unresolved problems in Manzotti’s theory. He might well seek to resolve them by becoming less radical about his externalism – but perhaps it would be more interesting to go the other way: cast off from the shores of mere common sense and set up a truly radical onphene metaphysics.

I think there are yet many unresolved problems and I like very much what you suggest to me at the end of your page! I hope so.

2 Comments

  1. 1. Breeriegess says:

    http://www.consciousentities.com – Great site !

    Thank for your help for us!
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    Best Regards

    Neo

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