Posts tagged ‘externalism’

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.

HonderichBlandulaTed Honderich , as he promised a while ago, has returned in triumph to the periodical which woundingly rejected him a couple of years ago. Back then, Honderich’s paper on ‘Consciousness as Existence‘ failed the peer review for the Journal of Consciousness Studies: now, a whole issue is devoted to a target paper from him and eleven responses.

In the interval, Honderich has not been idle. He published “On Consciousness”, a more substantial adumbration of the same theory, and others, notably Manzotti and Tonneau as mentioned here, have rallied to the banner of Radical Externalism which he has raised. There’s really no such thing as final vindication for a philosopher, but this surely represents a remarkable improvement in the reception accorded to his views, and it must be highly gratifying: all the more so because, on the whole, the reception accorded his paper is a fairly friendly, positive one.


BitbucketIt’s a good time for Honderich – he’s on television in the UK this week presenting his views on the justification for terrorism. He is generally perceived as saying that it is justified, but of course it’s more complicated than that – I think it’s something along the lines of his cautiously asserting the possibility of a denial of the doctrine that there can in principle be no circumstance in which no less than one of the proffered justifications for terrorist acts can be seen on moral grounds to possess the qualifying characteristics mandated of it (whatever and in whichever theoretical context those may, adequately described no doubt in the relevant papers, be presumed to be) under those theories, not here to be elucidated but sufficiently indicated, perhaps, by such.

Perhaps that’s a slightly unfair parody, but I find Honderich’s expositions always suffer from a strange kind of fogginess. He seems to be asserting something very bold, but amongst all the meandering prose you get a certain impression of the fist not quite connecting. It was just the same, many years ago, with his well-received book, Punishment: it looked as if he thought all punishment was wrong, but nothing half so bold as that was ever quite asserted.

And now, consciousness: he seems to be saying, in fact he surely does say, that my consciousness of something just amounts to the thing existing, which is certainly bold: bold to the point of barminess – but it turns out that it actually amounts to the thing ‘in a way’ existing: three little words which actually stand for a hefty additional apparatus. Tim Crane, in his response, accuses Honderich of equivocating on this, and I find it hard not to agree: in some places Honderich seems to lay stress on the simplicity of the thesis that consciousness is existence, just existence: in others, he explains that what he has in mind is a new and puzzling mode of existence in a second or possibly a third metaphysical world with complicated relations of dependency on other worlds to sustain it.


BlandulaI find Honderich’s style rather engaging: it has a kind of gently self-deprecating humour. You’re a bit unfair, aren’t you? On the one hand you accuse him of being “foggy”, and then you complain that his brief statement of the main point is too terse: doesn’t include all the details, and therefore conflicts or equivocates with what he says elsewhere.

As Honderich fairly says, anyway, this particular piece isn’t a detailed, definitive exposition, just a presentation of the theory: namely, that for you to be conscious of something is just for that thing to exist, not in the underlying physical world, nor in the form of firing neurons, but in another, perceptual world, dependent both on the physics and the neurons but separate from them. In other words, for you to see something, the actual atoms and molecules of it have to be there in the physical world, and your neurons have to be firing in whatever way they do when you notice something: but your consciousness does not consist in wither of those things: it consists in the object’s being there in your perceptual world – not inside your skull.
You may find this a ‘hefty apparatus’, but I think it has a lot of intuitive appeal. Think of what people say when they talk about their perceptions – they use phrases like “there’s something there”, or “it’s gone”, even when they are not talking about an object but about the mere appearance itself.


BitbucketAh, mere appearances! Honderich can’t actually cope with those, can he? Since he says that your awareness of something is equivalent to it’s existing (in a way, blah de blah), it follows that illusions, dreams, imaginary things and mirages, must all also exist (in a way, yacketty smacketty). Harold Brown illustrates the difficulty quite neatly by asking about Kanisza triangles (those ones which ‘appear’ when three ‘pac-men’ are positioned so as to define their corners, but have no actual outlines). Do they exist (in a manner, yada yada)?

Honderich concedes that it isn’t clear how these triangles fit into his conceptual framework, but he reckons it is a minor issue of the kind a friendly graduate student could sort out for him. Surely it’s worse than that?

After all, one of the things Honderich particularly wants his theory to do is to banish sense-data style theories from the landscape. Many people have thought that we do not perceive the world directly, but through internal representations of some kind, and it seems to follow that all we ever really perceive is those representations. The main argument put forward for such views is the argument from error or illusion: if we perceived things directly, how could we ever be wrong about them? The error must creep in through our internal representation being different from reality. Honderich is very keen to deny this: indeed I think it is a major part of his motivation here. He asserts that perception is not perception of some representation or sense-data inside our head, it is the external existence of the thing perceived. But if you want to refute a theory whose main argument is based on problems over errors, your theory surely has to have a robust way of dealing with such errors?


BlandulaI agree there’s more to be done in clearing up issues like this, but Honderich has a number of options open to him. He denies that conscious awareness is the perception of internal representations, but that doesn’t commit him to denying that there is any such thing as internal representations. It might well be perfectly reasonable to deny that the objects of perception are in the head while affirming that the objects of dreams and illusions are. This might imply that dreams and illusions are not perceptions, but what’s wrong with that – I’d say they’d better not be! In responding to Paul Snowdon Honderich exploits a distinction between affective and perceptual consciousness, which seems a viable enough path to take.


BitbucketOK. I suppose it’s true that you can lash together a solution to any difficulty if you don’t care about the additional overhead in complexity and ontological commitments that you incur. As a matter of fact, the basic ontological housekeeping of Radical Externalism is its weakest point if you ask me.

I mean, you’ve got this object of perception – let’s be unimaginative and say it’s a chair. It’s not in the world of physics, it’s not in my neurons, it’s in this other place, this world of perception. Is that my world of perception, or the world of perception?

Let’s assume to begin with that there’s only one world of perception: is the chair I perceive there the same as the one you perceive? Strange if so, because it doesn’t look quite the same to you as it does to me. These differences are not really errors, just differences in point of view and the like: so Honderich can’t deploy whatever he may eventually come up with as a solution for errors (and if he could I think he’d find that his treatment of errors gradually eroded the rest of his theory away altogether). I think we’re forced to conclude that the objects of our perception are different. This looks worryingly as if the chair itself might split into two, but Honderich can retain the identity of the single chair intact in the world of physics and just allow it to have, as it were, different avatars in the world of perception.
However, if all the objects of my perception are separate from all the objects of yours, we might just as well say that we each have our own separate world of perception, containing the objects of perception special to us individually. So let’s move on to the hypothesis that we each have our own world of perception with its own objects: our own are directly accessible to us, but not at all to other people (or we should all have a perfect kind of telepathy). Now you can call such worlds external if you like, but it means nothing: if they’re particular to us and denied to everyone else, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to describe them as internal?


BlandulaI think the point is not about perceptions being specific to individuals, but about their being distinct from my personal neuronal activity. If we can agree that they’re outside the skull, I think Honderich might not care all that much about your wanting to call them internal in some other vague sense. And your version of internality does strike me as pretty loose: my shoes are particular to me, but that doesn’t make them internal. Don’t get me wrong on all this – I’m not saying I’m signing up for membership of the Radical Externalists. But I would go along with what some of the respondents say: anything that cracks open the traditional ways we look at these things: gives us a new set of categories and concepts, must surely be welcome. Even if you don’t like the externalism, you’ve surely got to give two cheers for the radicalism?

Picture: Honderich Exclusus.

Blandula There are many eye-brow raising sentences in Ted Honderich’s paper “Consciousness as Existence, Devout Physicalism, Spiritualism”, accessible on his own web-site. Not the least surprising is the confession, half-way through, that the paper was rejected by the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The lack of reserve here will be familiar to readers of Honderich’s remarkably frank autobiography “Philosopher: a kind of life”.

But what’s going on? Honderich, now retired, had a long and eminent career in philosophy. He is the former Grote Professor at University College, London; author of many magisterial works, notably on punishment, free will, and the justifications for terrorism. He has himself acted as editor for more philosophy books than you could conveniently shake a stick at. You really wouldn’t expect him to be getting many flat rejections at this stage.

Bitbucket I think I can shed some light on that. I believe the JCS must have rejected the paper because it just makes no sense. I’ve read it carefully, and it’s not that I disagree with Honderich – I just cannot make out what he is getting at. Look, he says ‘For you to be conscious of the room is, it seems, for the room somehow to exist.’ I’d like this sentence a lot better without the ‘it seems’ and the ‘somehow’, but those are minor quibbles. Can he really mean that the room’s existence is the same thing as my being conscious of it? If so, it follows that I must be conscious of everything that exists. Which is surely nonsense. Equally, if my being conscious of the room is merely a fact about the room (that it exists), the state of my brain at the time is irrelevant. So I could have exactly the same brain state while conscious of the room as I have while I’m not conscious of it. Which is also surely nonsense.

Bitbucket So what can he mean? He says that what is normally, or by some people, taken to be the contents of consciousness are in fact, more or less, consciousness itself. What could that mean? I can imagine someone declaring that the contents of a book were the book (rather than any actual physical copy of the book), but how would that apply to consciousness? It seems that if you interpret it one way it becomes vacuous (the fact that consciousness has contents is what distinguishes it from unconsciousness); if you interpret it another it becomes absurd (there is no distinction between the conscious thing and the thing it is conscious of).

Bitbucket Honderich doesn’t give us all that much help in the course of the paper. He compares his theory with hard-line materialism and with dualism (the ‘devout physicalism’ and ‘spiritualism’ of the title), and he rates it against four criteria which he seems to take as obvious, but which in fact seem rather arbitrarily chosen. None of this helps much in the basic task of grasping his meaning. At one early stage I wondered if we were heading towards some kind of idealism, but Honderich, pointing out that he is ‘not mad as a hatter’ says his views are nothing to do with Bishop Berkeley, and no kind of epiphenomenalism, either.

Blandula I think you have to remember that Honderich has been struggling with the mind-body problem since long before it became so fashionable. I think part of his reason for stressing existence is simply to short-circuit the argument from error which was still strong thirty years ago (actually it still crops up). According to that argument, the fact that we are sometimes wrong about our perceptions shows it’s really only sense-data, or images we perceive – by stressing that true consciousness involves the existence of the perceived, Honderich rules that line of thinking firmly out of court.

Blandula I don’t think the theory is quite as confusing as you maintain, but I do have a bit of difficulty deciding whether it is meant to be relativistic or absolute. Some of the things said imply that each conscious entity exists in its own perceived world, where indeed existence and consciousness coincide, but it’s also a key point for Honderich that his argument makes consciousness a straightforward physical phenomenon, amenable to physical investigation. I’m not sure how these two claims can be reconciled.

We mustn’t forget, of course, the possibility that Honderich has got it absolutely right, and cracked the ultimate mystery of consciousness – but that we’re still too stupid to understand the answer, even when it’s explained to us.

Blandula Honderich himself doesn’t seem to regard the theory as the final truth, though. He claims that it has the desirable quality of explaining its own limitations – if consciousness is like this, no wonder it seems permanently mysterious – and suggests we might see merit in several different theories – pursue several in tandem. That doesn’t seem to me an unappealing perspective.