Consciousness: An Object Lesson

Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks have been having an entertaining series of conversations in the on-line section of the New York Review of Books, “NYR Daily”, since last November. They published the twelfth installment this month.   Whether they are getting anywhere is hard to say, though Manzotti is representing important trends in the contemporary philosophy of perception. Maybe not much is being expressed to detain the professionals, but for us civilians it’s fun and shows that the philosophical subjects they deal with are not just for academics.

Let’s inject ourselves into the conversation.

Tim Parks gives the intro:   

What is “an object” in the end? And what is “the world” that these objects make up?

When we talk about consciousness, we rarely discuss ordinary physics, which we assume science has long since understood: objects are composed of atoms; they exist entirely separate from ourselves, and can be measured and manipulated in all kind of ways. It’s also clear, however, that this idea of the physical world works only if we suppose that consciousness—our experience of that world—is distinct and apart from it; objects exist first outside us, then in a secondary, shadowy way as representations inside our brains. This is the so-called internalist view. Yet, in these discussions, Riccardo Manzotti has frequently insisted that there are no representations in our brains. Rather, he has suggested that experience and object are one. But in that case, what do we mean by an object?

BQTA: In our scientifically enlightened common sense (or at least slightly enlightened), the medium-sized objects we ordinarily deal with exist outside our bodies and minds. Inside our bodies, we have information drawn from perception about external objects: per Parks, in the “shadowy way as representations”. The information is about the external objects; however, the representation is one thing and the object itself is another. We can sympathize with Parks, who has a hard time  understanding Manzotti’s claim that “experience and object are one.”

Here’s one simple way to think about it. Look around the room you’re in right now. What do you see? A table and chairs perhaps? Is your visual experience of the actual table that is out there in the room? Most people would be heavily inclined to say yes. You experience the table, not a mental model of the table.

On to the dialogue itself.

Tim Parks: Richard Feynman, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, insisted that “Everything is made of atoms … and acts according the laws of physics.” Any object or animal or person is made up of atoms. Thus if we see not atoms but an apple, a star, or a cloud, this is simply our subjective representation of a reality too intricate for us to apprehend. It seems hard to disagree with this.

Riccardo Manzotti: Not at all. This argument was refuted by Democritus as early as the fourth century BCE in a dialogue between the Intellect and the Senses. Let me quote:

Intellect to Senses: Ostensibly there is color, ostensibly sweetness, ostensibly bitterness, actually only atoms and the void.

Senses to Intellect: Poor intellect, do you hope to defeat us while from us you borrow your evidence? Your victory is your defeat.

The view that only the smallest constituents, atoms, are “real” is called smallism in science, or nihilism in philosophy, and it clashes with everyday experience and common sense in the most blatant way. As Democritus suggests, it’s self-defeating because it is conducted only with the aid of the senses, which it claims have no reality. The world we live in is a world of objects. Apples exist, too!

BQTA: How do the Senses refute the Intellect? Manzotti does not make it clear. On the banner of Sean Carroll’s blog Preposterous Universe, he puts the tag line “in truth, only atoms and the void”. Yet he would agree, apples exist too. But according to cognitive science, the apple’s color and taste exist only in our minds. See BQTA posts “The Science of Color”, “Carroll on Color”, “Materialists Who Don’t Mean It: the Dualism of Crick and Koch”, “The Materialist Who Means It”and “A Tree Falls”. How is all this “self-defeating”? The physical world contains only structure, shape, mass, energy. Not color, taste, smell, sound, warm/cold, etc. This is the beginning of the conflict between science and common sense.

The problem with this “internalism” is that the whole universe can get pushed inside the mind if you’re not careful. That’s the challenge posed early in the 18th century by George Berkeley to the new scientific worldview of Newton, Locke and Descartes. See John Campbell and Quassim Cassam, Berkeley’s Puzzle, What Does Experience Teach Us (OUP 2014). Campbell might be sympathetic to Manzotti’s concerns, while Cassam leans more toward representationalism.

Parks: But an apple is made of atoms.

Manzotti: To be made of something is not the same as to be identical with it. “To be made of” means that if the atoms were not there, the apple would not be there, either. That is something we all agree on. But the apple is something more than the atoms it is made of. The apple—or the car, or the pinstripe suit—exists relative to a human being’s body.

BQTA: If an apple were put into the transporter mechanism on Star Trek (see BQTA series on the transporter), the atoms could be beamed to another location and re-assembled. That process of beaming atoms would transport the apple itself (token identity), because the apple is identical to the atoms it is made of, properly configured. There is no additional “appleness” to transport because the apple is not “something more than the atoms it is made of”. 

Parks: You spoke of objects existing relative to others in an earlier conversation, but I’m not sure I have really understood. Why relative to a human being’s body and why not simply to a human being? Why not relative to a horse, or a maggot, or a tree?

BQTA: I’m not sure I’ve understood Manzotti’s point either. Ordinary objects exist independently of us. If all of us were suddenly transported to another planet—leaving Earth unoccupied—all our objects would still be here.

Manzotti: This is a crucial point, so let’s take it slowly. What is required for an atom to be an atom?

Parks: I’ve no idea. A nucleus. Electrons. I’m no expert on physics.

Manzotti: I mean for an atom to behave as an atom. To function as an atom. To do what atoms do.

Parks: Well, I suppose it needs another atom to combine with. But couldn’t it exist without behaving, or functioning, or doing? In blissful isolation?

Manzotti: Nobody has ever found any atom, or any object for that matter, that was not in a direct cause-effect relationship with some other object, influencing it in some way. To be in such a relationship, something science can measure or experiment on, is what it means to exist. The question of whether an atom could exist alone, in the absence of everything else, is empirically unverifiable, and thus scientifically meaningless. Meantime, though, you are right. An atom, to be an atom, requires nothing more than the presence of another atom with which it can combine. In relation, they are atoms.

Parks: But for some larger object, an atom would not be enough.

Manzotti: Right. A handle, to be a handle, requires a hand. A key, to be a key, requires a lock. A face requires a fusiform gyrus [part of the brain] that can distinguish a face from mere skin and hair. For a work of art to be a work of art—Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—requires a human being who can see, hear, read. We assume atoms are more fundamental than keys or handles or works of art because they require less work, less stuff, to be what they are. But actually, they are no different from more complex macroscopic objects. Everything is what it is because of its relation to another object.

BQTA: Among the real properties of objects are their relationships to other objects. “The table is bigger than the chair”: this describes real physical properties of table and chair. However, some properties of the table—that it has four corners, for example—do not depend on the chair. If all humans departed the Earth, Michelangelo’s David would still be standing there in Florence. It would cease to be art because nobody would be around to perceive it?

Parks: And you consider a human being an object?

Manzotti: I deliberately specified a human body rather than a human being because the latter is often taken as a synonym for a self, which is a vague notion and something many people may think of as immaterial. A human body, on the contrary, is entirely concrete. It is another object in the mix—extremely complex, of course, but entirely physical. Works of art need human bodies to exist. If there were no one to read a novel, it wouldn’t be a novel.

Parks: And you would consider a novel an object on the same level as a stone or a beetle?

BQTA: Parks is a literary guy, so he’s sensitive about novels being “on the same level” as a beetle. Nevertheless, I don’t see how Manzotti’s feelings about art get him the result he wants. If all humans depart, the books are still here. “It wouldn’t be a novel”, just a book?

Manzotti: I am defining an object as something that comes into being by virtue of its relation to another object. In that sense, yes, we can put stones, beetles, and novels on the same level.

Parks: So, just as a novel isn’t a novel when nobody reads it, a stone is not a stone when nobody is around to see it or kick it.

BQTA: A blog is still a blog when nobody reads it.

Manzotti: You are hoping to accuse me of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. Obviously, when I am not there to see or touch the stone, the agglomeration of atoms is there in relation to the ground, the air, or another body, perhaps. But it is not the stone I saw.

Parks: It’s a different object.

Manzotti: Yes.

Parks: With the same atoms?

Manzotti: Yes.

BQTA: No. It’s the same object. Its relationship to you might change.

Parks: But don’t we then get back to the formula that reality, minus human beings—objective reality, that is—is simply atoms?

Manzotti: Why would you want to subtract the human beings?

BQTA: Because we’re trying to figure out what the physical world is independently of us. 

Manzotti: We are objects, too, and we make things happen by our relations with other objects. As we said, the conditions for being an atom are simple and ubiquitous. The conditions for being, say, a face are far more complex. But both are real, and both are objects. The reason why people have trouble with these reflections is that we have all been educated to believe that things are what they are in themselves, absolutely. If you take that line, then inevitably you begin to think that only the tiniest universal particle can be entirely real, entirely sufficient to itself: the atom. But as we’ve said, even the atom doesn’t exist alone. And as soon as you accept the widely recognized scientific fact that an object exists relative to other objects, then it’s clear that there are not only atoms, but also apples, cars, and stars. They are all viable objects.

BQTA: Apples, cars and stars are only atoms, but surely Manzotti is right that the objects themselves exist too. The idea would be that the physical world has different valid levels of description. Even within physics, you could study, for example, air in terms of its macroscopic fluid properties without worrying about quantum mechanics. See Sean Carroll, The Big Picture ch. 12, “Reality Emerges”.

Parks:  So how does this change the way we think about consciousness?

Manzotti: We live in a time when scientists seem to like nothing better than to expose our everyday view of reality as delusional. They say, “You see the color red, but in fact, out there are only atoms; there are no colors. You hear music, but out there, there are no sounds,” etc. This gives them the authority to describe an entirely different reality, in which deciding between chocolate or strawberry ice cream, say, is nothing more than a matter of warring cohorts of neurons transferring their electrical charges and chemical processes this way and that, while outside your brain there is only a flavorless world of atomic particles. It’s a vision that denies not only our existence—as people choosing between ice-cream flavors—but also the existence of the things we experience: the banana sundae, a new car, paintings, planets, smells, seas. All these macroscopic objects cease to be real. They are all merely subjective. Merely the product of your brain.

BQTA: Is Manzotti getting preachy? But what if that’s the truth of the matter?

Parks: But what if that’s the truth of the matter?

Manzotti: It is not the truth. It is a profound misunderstanding. The notion that objects exist relative to each other, brought into existence by each other, does not clash with any scientific finding or demonstrated result. Only with smallism, which, again, is an idea, a theory, not a scientific finding. There are atoms, but there are also macroscopic objects, and the key to understanding why both categories exist and are equally real is that they exist relative to different things.

BQTA: Manzotti is plumping for important trends in contemporary philosophy, but his arguments are not convincing. “Smallism” seems like rock throwing. However, this is difficult terrain and nobody has all the answers.

Parks: Can you give me an example of when the same chunk of physical reality is different depending on the object it is in relation to?

Manzotti: This is not hard. My answer would encompass virtually all the objects that make up our lives. The apple is round and red, but pick it up and close your eyes and it is a smooth, hard thing of a certain weight. A different object. Measure the velocity of a car relative to the road, and it is one number. Measure it relative to a second car, and you have another number. Measure the car’s speed relative to a bird, the moon, a passing plane, a distant satellite, and it is different in each case. Velocity is a physical property, yet this property changes depending on the object our car is in relation to. If we have different properties, we have a different object. Because when you see that existence is relative, you also realize that it is multiple; the same stuff, which will always be an aggregate of atoms, can simultaneously be different things depending on what object they are relative to.

BQTA: Not a good argument. Objects have relationships to each other, but they exist independently of each other. The relationships can change if, for example, you move the objects around. Putting a chair on top of a table changes its relationship to the table, but does not make it “a different object.”

Parks: But all you’re doing is describing subjective experience!

Manzotti: The word subjective suggests that a person is somehow inventing what he or she is experiencing, and could perhaps invent it differently. But when I see a red traffic light, I can’t choose to see some other color. The nature of my eyes, my photoreceptors, and my visual cortex is such that when they encounter this phenomenon, it is red. And the red is out there in the street, not in my brain. The color is not a subjective experience, but a relative object. And my experience is the object that, in relation to my body, is that color.

BQTA: “the red is out there in the street, not in my brain” is exactly what cognitive scientists like Steve Palmer say is shown by science not to be true. Manzotti’s inability to choose to see a different color does not make color mind-independent.

Parks: Sorry: at the traffic light it’s true that almost everyone will see red, but a colorblind person won’t. Surely, he or she is simply seeing it “wrong.” Subjective.

Manzotti: Why wrong? Because in a minority? The body of a colorblind person is no less real than the body of a person with normal color sight, so the objects that exist relative to the colorblind person are no less real than those that exist relative to any human body. But they are different.

BQTA: Someone with complete color blindness cannot process the wavelength information in light. They see the world in black and white, which is close to the way the world is for everyone in moonlight. To see a traffic light as a shade of gray could fairly be called “wrong”. That does not make the traffic light less real for anyone. 

Parks: What if we move away from color to something that can be impartially measured by a scientific instrument? For example, a thermometer tells me it’s seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit. I should feel fine, but in fact, I feel cold. At the same time, you’re feeling warm. These experiences, which I assume you would call objects, must be subjective since we know that the temperature is seventy-two degrees.

Manzotti: One of the comedies of modern thinking is that we treat objects that exist relative to the tools of scientists as more real, more correct, somehow, than other objects. In the case you mention, there are four objects: the air, and three others in relation to it—your body, the thermometer, and my body. The thermometer meets the air and says seventy-two degrees. A digit. Your body meets the air and registers cold. My body meets the air and registers warm. All three “measurements” are valid and real. Seventy-two degrees, cold, and warm. You can’t choose to be warm because someone tells you a column of mercury is registering the number seventy-two. There is nothing absolute about the temperature.

BQTA: The argument about hot and cold mentioned by Parks is indeed a classic. If the air can be both hot and cold—if both feelings are “valid and real”— then hot and cold cannot be mind-independent. The idea would be that air in itself does not have properties like hot and cold. It only has varying amounts of molecular motion (the kinetic theory of gases). Feelings of hot and cold is how we perceive that molecular motion. Thermometers give a measurement of the amount of motion in the air that is independent of anyone’s feelings. That make the measured temperature objective rather than subjective. There is nothing absolute about the number on the thermometer; but that number is caused by mind-independent—i.e. absolute—molecular motion.

Parks: Your point, then, is that we have fallen into the habit of calling objective and real something that exists in relation to a scientific instrument. And we call it subjective and possibly hallucinatory if it is in relation to an individual body that experiences it differently from others. You’re claiming that this is a form of cultural discrimination, not a scientifically useful distinction.

Manzotti: Exactly. And notice, in contrast, how democratic this notion of relative existence is: the average human body, the blind person, the deaf person, the dog, the scientist’s instrument are all equal conditions for bringing an object into existence. As in physics, there are no frames that are more true than other frames, only frames that make it easier for us to compare certain situations. The thermometer simply makes it easy to compare seventy-two degrees with one hundred and ten.

BQTA: “Cultural discrimination”? Between what’s out there in the physical world and what is only in the minds of us humans? Actually, that is a “scientifically useful distinction”. In fact, it’s the whole point of science.

Parks: Has anyone else ever put forward this view of existence as relative?

Manzotti: In one of Plato’s more difficult dialogues, a rather mysterious, unnamed philosopher referred to as “the visitor” or “the stranger” argues that existence is a form of action, of doing things. Since the visitor was from a place called Elea (corresponding to the present-day village of Velia, in Italy, not far from Pompeii), this notion came to be called the Eleatic Principle. It has been restated many times over the centuries, using slightly different terms, by philosophers as diverse as Samuel Alexander, Jaegwon Kim, Trenton Merricks, and Peter van Inwagen. They all connected existence with cause-effect relations between objects.

BQTA: Perhaps only what can enter into cause-effect relations can really exist, but we may be getting too far afield. Let’s leave off Parks and Manzotti, thanking them for letting us butt in, and give John Campbell the last word, adapted from Berkeley’s Puzzle.

John Campbell: Mathematical physics gave us the firm conception of ‘matter’. But it seemed to show our surroundings to be unlike anything in sensory experience. The trouble is that physics seemed to push sensory experience inside the head.

The problem is particularly obvious in the case of colour. Colour does not seem to be in the world described by physics. Before physics you might have thought that the qualitative character of sensory experience is actually constituted by the qualitative character of the world. When you encounter the beach ball on the beach, for example, you are having an experience that you could not have had unless the world has the qualitative character it does. The beach ball and the sky are constituents of your experience,  and their qualitative characters constitute the qualitative character of your experience. That’s the natural picture. The trouble is that physics seems to undermine that picture, by showing you that the qualitative character of the world is quite unlike anything that shows up in your experience. How then can experience be playing any role in our knowledge of our surroundings? 

BQTA: According to cognitive scientist Steven Shevell “Color is in the mind of the viewer (thus psychological), not in light (the physical) or even in the eye’s photoreceptors, which create from light the essential biological signals for seeing… color is a product of the mind.” But then is everything we experience “a product of the mind”? That doesn’t seem possible.

Campbell: How can we resist the way physics [physiology, psychology and cognitive science, too] pushes sensory experience inside the head? Our understanding of sensory experience could be transformed by giving due weight to the idea that reality can be described ‘at many levels’. We can acknowledge that there is something fundamental about the physics of our surroundings, at least in that all other facts about our world supervene on the physical facts, while being ‘pluralistic’ about our world, which can be described ‘at many levels’, and the physical is only one level of description, even if it is a particularly fundamental level of description. 

BQTA: Does Campbell’s approach, which he calls the relational view of experience, remain consistent with science?

Campbell: We think of material objects as the mechanisms by which causal influence is transmitted from place to place and time to time. If we think of perceptual experience as a relation between the perceiver and the ordinary, mind-independent objects in the environment, then we can immediately see how perceptual experience could play a role in our having this conception.

The key point is this: On the relational view, the qualitative character of the experience is the qualitative character of the object itself. 

BQTA: Thanks to Tim, Riccardo and John for much enlightenment.

1 Comment

  1. A comment by Carter Gillies re Consciousness: an Object Lesson

    That was a really entertaining read! I will track down the other installments of that conversation. I’m very glad you posted about this.

    I am more inclined than you are to accept some of the things Manzotti is proposing. I see most of the points he makes, though I may not always grant the exact conclusions he draws. But I do think he frames the issue particularly well: We seem to be stuck with the idea that consciousness needs to be explained, and the ways we have been inclined to consider it seem to run straight into roadblocks at every turn. 

    What I am inclined to think is that the question “What kind of thing is consciousness?” may be a bad question itself, or at least ‘bad’ in the sense that we are tempted to only give a certain type of answer for it. Being able to ask something as a question sets the table for what can be given as an answer. In a sense, the question provides a framework for how we measure responses. And if there can be ‘good’ questions there can also be poor ones. A question merely shows us what things we are interested in, not that they have to make sense or be meaningful in any important way…..

    And of course philosophy has tangled with consciousness from the very beginning. Not all directions this has lead have been worth pursuing, but some have been deeply impactful, often even when wildly wrong (dualistic metaphysics, panspychism, etc).

    The sense I get is that especially in these days of science we are driven to explain anything and everything, leave no stone unturned, so of course consciousness gets lumped into the things we ask these questions about. And what we typically mean by ‘being explained’ is that things have been measured in ways that show their interaction, their place and position, how they fit with the rest of the things we get to explain. At one extreme end some folks prefer to reduce it all down to the barest constituents and build back from there and from the other the macro level is assumed and other explanations are simply different levels that are also possible (that was what I took Manzotti to be suggesting, I think, consciousness being structurally implicated in consciousness of). 

    The tension seems to be mostly between the desire to explain the world as if there were no humans to whom it would necessarily be known, the world absent the limitations and bias of human psyches, and on the other hand the irreducible subjectivity of being human, that also seems part of the world, if in some important ways different from it. It has been some time since I read Tom Nagel’s book The View From Nowhere, but this was what he saw as the challenge, and I seem to recall he was very persuasive in handling it. Have you read that book? I felt the introduction a useful primer, and the conclusion to stand up well on its own. The middle chapters were good but not strictly necessary (it seemed to me).

    I haven’t thought enough about this issue, but to me it seems the tangle we are in is specifically in making consciousness itself an object of investigation. This is going to be rough and unsatisfying, but the problem I see is that we are taking a fundamental tool of measurement (awareness and judgment, etc) and seeking to measure it in turn. The problem being that the world that is given to consciousness to be measured does not easily include measuring the measure itself. This is why I think asking what sort of thing consciousness is gets us off on the wrong foot and is ultimately a poor question the way we usually expect it to be answered. 

    We have all sorts of missteps these days when we attempt to measure the measures. My personal hobby horse is “What is the value of the arts?”, or, “Are the arts justified?” From the outside the arts seem like they only have an instrumental value, that they are good for the economy, benefit cognitive development, etc. And while these things can in fact be measured, what they fail to include is that for the people for whom the arts matter, the arts are not in need of justification and their value is not in question. That is, the value of the arts is not a question, it is assumed from the beginning AS the measure of what else in their lives matters. The people for whom the arts matter measure their lives by the arts. The value of the arts IS the measure. It is the hinge upon which the rest turns…..

    When I first read your post I thought of this quote from Barry Smith, who teaches philo somewhere in London. It is from an interview on Wittgenstein, and is specifically about Wittgenstein’s early philosophy. Things became much more subtle later, but it spells out part of the issue, I think.

    “Science has got a perfectly good job of trying to describe the way the world is and how things work. Now what about all the things that we can’t put into scientific speak? We might want to say that the world has a certain meaning for us or that things are valuable. And when we say that life has a value or a meaning, as Wittgenstein points out that’s not just one more fact. Its not going to be found in the world alongside water boiling at 100 degrees Celsius and certain facts about chemical substances. 

    So what are we to make of that idea that the world has value or that there’s a meaning to our lives? Instead of it being something that we state in a another proposition or that scientists investigate it’s not a part of the world, it’s an attitude to the world. It’s a way that we regard the world. So if you’ve got the facts in front of you, there’s something else you can do other than just list them. You can take up a stance in respect of what you find there, and that’s what gives the world its ethical value, that’s what we have over and above.”

    You can almost read into this the difference between things that have been measured and the measures themselves, but I’m not sure W was all the way there yet when he came to this conclusion. I find the best expression of these particular ideas are found in On Certainty.

    Carter Gillies


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