Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wisdom Of The Week

Parks: So, assuming consciousness is a thing, a physical thing, or an amalgam of things, what do we do with the word “mental”?

Manzotti: Good question! Actually “mental” isn’t so different, at least as regards its function, from a word like “spiritual.” Neither word has a precise referent. I’m afraid we’re going to run into a lot of words like this in the course of these conversations. It’s as if certain terms we use had been given a special license to operate outside the constraints of the physical world. The philosopher Sidney Shoemaker observed that the notion of the “mental” amounts to a kind of ontological dustbin. Anything that doesn’t fit with our current picture of physical reality is moved to the bin whose main purpose is to collect together all the things we can’t explain. It’s a sort of quiet dualism: you don’t say the word “spirit,” but in fact you’re splitting the world in two.

Parks: A bin is hardly flattering. Surely when we talk about our mental lives we’re simply thinking of everything that makes human beings special, different—our thoughts, our language-based lucubration.

Manzotti: Absolutely. There are good reasons to be fond of a notion like “the mental,” because it places our minds above the constraints of physical necessity. It’s a comforting idea. We are above nature. We are special. We have our mental lives. Separate from the nitty-gritty of matter. Unfortunately, we have no scientific justification for this belief, which is very likely just another manifestation of what Freud described as human narcissism, the desire to believe ourselves at once at the center of the universe, yet in some way superior to and even separate from the nature around us.
How convenient, when you can’t explain something, to say, well, that means we’re special, we’re not like the rest of the natural world. But science works on the assumption that nature is one and that all phenomena must fit in the same system and obey the same laws; hence the fact that we experience the world—i.e., consciousness—must be a natural phenomenon which, like all other natural phenomena, is physical, I mean made of matter and energy.


Manzotti: There are many strands to internalism, but on the whole, and certainly initially, yes. The idea was formalized in the 1950s by people like David Armstrong and J.J.C. Smart. They advanced the idea that consciousness is neural processes, or certain neural processes. Once they’d formed this perfectly respectable hypothesis an army of scientists set about verifying it empirically. And in fact, over the past fifty years we’ve made extraordinary progress in the development of sophisticated instruments to probe and explore the brain with all its fantastically intricate electrical and chemical activity.

Parks: And?

Manzotti: Well, neuroscientists have certainly found a huge number of correlates of consciousness; that is, for all kinds of sensory experiences they have established which parts of the brain are active, and the nature of that activity. This is of enormous interest and scientifically very sound.

Parks: I hear a but coming.

Manzotti: Well, a correlate of consciousness is not consciousness. When scientists look for AIDS or DNA, they look for the thing itself, not a mere correlate. This is a problem: how to get from the neural correlate—the fact that there’s neural activity when I experience something—to the thing itself, the experience? As Bertrand Russell almost facetiously put it, when one licks chocolate ice-cream nothing in the brain tastes like chocolate. Of course an experience also has correlates outside the brain: the sensory organs—eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebuds—not to mention the object itself that we experience, light, soundwaves, that chocolate ice-cream, whatever. Why privilege the correlates in the brain in our attempt to locate consciousness? Why…

- The Challenge of Consciousness, Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks

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