The List is the origin of culture.
– Umberto Eco
oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and trace elements
– List of elements that compose the human body
Father’s and sons have been at it since the beginning of time — since an outraged God told Adam to get out of Eden and take his side rib (Eve) with him, and go fuck himself, after His Satan-driven brat ate of the iMac tree, and started thinking for himself; and Adam screamed back over his shoulder, “You go Yahweh and I’ll go mine; and, He riposted to Them, “See ya, Totem and Taboo.” They went into Exile, and many many many many many many illicit light thoughts later, to make a long story short, here we are.
When Umberto Eco died of complications from pancreatic cancer in Milan in 2016, many people felt as if they had lost a loveable father figure. With his trademark self-effacing humor, he honored the reader, which is to say he honored and fought for freedom of thought, and took the real value of a text away from what he called ‘the imperial author’ and ceded its interpretation to the reader. He was kinder than Yahweh that way. In a speech before PEN America in 2008, he spoke of his father’s absence in his life. “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than my father,” he begins. There were stories never told, emotions never felt, and his father drifted away, a ghost to him, before ever being fully realized.
Newly translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen, On the Shoulders of Giants is a series of twelve lectures Eco wrote for an annual cultural festival called La Milanesiana that commenced in 2000. It’s deep dive into an array of esoteric, sublime, and sometimes scatological ideas that Eco manages to make accessible to intellectuals, wannabe intellectuals, and people who fucking hate intellectuals but enjoy and playfulness. He’s a semiotician interested in the signs and symbols of ancient Christianity; he’s a linguist interested in how words communicate, identifying a triadic dialectic between the reader, the text, and the writer; and, he’s a responsible relativist. The lectures cover three broad areas: relativism, aesthetics, and the duality of truth.
Eco begins his lecture series with “On the Shoulders of Giants,” which is a much-trodden ground of inquiry, all kinds of homage parties have been thrown over the years: Where would we be if not for Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Copenicus, Darwin, yada yada, and this is all meet and acceptable behavior, so let us carry on. What makes Eco’s talks fun is his humor, penetrating insights and truly eclectic examples of topic points. He manages to make you feel that you’re going on an esoteric adventure into secret spaces, rather than some Adventure World ride into over-structured sentimentality. In this first lecture, Eco reminds us that, postmodern or not, the age-old struggle with Daddy (patriarchy) continues, and we alternate between dwarfs and giants into the uncertain future.
Eco starts biblically. After the Flood, Noah got shit-faced, and took a nap, and, peeking in on Dad, Ham took note of his “nakedness” and tittered, some say like Eddie Murphy in Raw, who invited his brothers, Japheth and Shem, to check it out; instead, they grabbed a sheet and, walking backwards into the tent, they covered Dad and skedaddled, but their brother, still hamming it up, woke Dad from his wet dream, and all hell broke loose. “Imagine opposing one’s father by mocking him,” Eco tells us, “as Ham did when he couldn’t overlook Noah’s having a little wine after all that water…” Noah reacted by dropping the N-bomb and “exiling his disrespectful son…[and] descendants to thousands of years of endemic hunger and slavery.” Poor Noah, said Polly to the cracker, who bequeathed us chain gangs and economic inequality.
After these two major over-reactions (Adam, Noah) to nakedness by father figures, Eco reminds us of how psychopathic old monotheism could be. God terrorizes Abraham to the point he’s willing to cut the throat of his scapegoated kid, Isaac, to please the Old Man. (Actually, the whole vibe of this scene is captured perfectly by Dylan in Highway 61.) Eco tells us, “(Believing the son would die of a slit throat while the father earned the benevolence of Yahweh—you cannot tell me the man was behaving according to our moral canons.) Luckily, Yahweh was joking—but Abraham did not know that.” Fucking Yahweh, right? Maybe he told the serpent to go Eve, just to see what would happen next.
These kinds of estrangements carry a lot of weight with Eco — he traces these battles of fathers and sons, dwarfs and giants, from the Bible through to the rest of history. Copernicus, he says,
referred back to the thinking of Plato and Pythagoras…Kant needs Hume to awaken him from his dogmatic slumbers; the Romantics engage…the Middle Ages; Hegel explicitly sanctions the primacy of the new over the old…Marx, reinterpreting human history …[started with] the Greek atomists…Darwin kills off his biblical parents by making giants of the great anthropomorphic apes, on whose shoulders men came down from the trees to manage, still full of wonder and ferocity, that marvel of evolution that is the opposable thumb.
And later, that marvel of revolution, the middle finger.
In a lecture Eco gave before PEN America in 2008 he tells his audience that “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than I knew my father” and laments his absence, “the ghost lost forever.” We can speculate on what this meant for Eco, whether in the absence of his father he sought solace or understanding in the depths of the past where, as he says in a later lecture in this volume, “To the mystic, God appears as a Great Void.”
Eco sums up the intellectual connective tissue between millenia of generations, giants and dwarfs, as they sort out what to bring to forward from the past and what to pass on through time and space. Nietzsche, the philologist and arguably a proto-semiotician, makes a cameo appearance to guide us on how to treat the past:
Nietzsche names it in the second of his Untimely Meditations…, where he denounces our excess of historical awareness. If the oppressive influence of this awareness cannot be eliminated even by the revolutionary activities of the avant garde, the postmodern stance is that we might as well accept the past, revisit it as a form of apparent tribute, and reconsider it from the distance permitted us by irony.
This is an excellent way of putting it.
Though Eco briefly mentions the Bard in his lectures, he’d probably agree with Harold Bloom’s summary statement in The Anxiety of Influence, of Shakespeare’s outsized cultural value over the last four centuries:
I sometimes suspect that we really do not listen to one another because Shakespeare’s friends and lovers never quite hear what the other is saying, which is part of the ironical truth that Shakespeare largely invented us. The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary.
But even Shakespeare, since the onset postmodernism has begun to crack and crumble like Ozymandias in a desert of mainstream neglect. Billions returned to dust, a handful still discussed.
Another form of the age-old Father-Son struggle, from Eden on, is what Eco addresses in his lecture, “The Absolute and the Relative.” An understanding of this relationship goes to the core of human being, the nature of reality (if there is any), as well as the mind-body problem and the experience of what we call consciousness. Eco cites Dante’s Paradiso in an eloquent encapsulation of the relationship: “Within its depths I saw gathered together, / Bound by love into a single volume, / Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.” In this lecture, he considers the most important question: “Is it possible to believe in an absolute and state that it is unthinkable and undefinable?” This we struggle with.
This uncertainty of what represents absolute value and what is relative carries over into the realm of art. In his lecture, “On Some Forms of Imperfection in Art,” he cites a number of examples of the power flaws to accentuate beauty. He notes how “Montaigne (Essays III, II) hailed the attractions of lame women.” This made me think of the gimpy femme fatale in W. Somerset Maughn’s Of Human Bondage, whose cruel beauty reduces a man to desolation and disillusionment. He sums up how the presence of imperfection can affect an aesthetic object this way: “So two forms of imperfection can be attributed to a work of art: the absence of some parts that the whole would require or the presence of more of them.”
This discussion of aesthetics leads Eco to more specific qualities of the aesthetic, which he has written quite a bit about over the years — beauty and ugliness There are separate lectures for each in the volume, as well as a complementary lecture on the invisible. He humorously notes that, today,
For some youngsters with earrings or maybe pierced noses, a Botticellian beauty may appear attractive because they are delightfully and perversely high on cannabis, but it certainly was not like that for Botticelli’s contemporaries, who admired the face of Venus in the Primavera for other reasons.
Again, a snapshot of generational relativity. Personally, I prefer to see it both ways, old and new, pass the bong.
Eco further stokes the comedy flames by having us “imagine if that traveler coming from outer space to determine our prevailing idea of female beauty had only Picasso’s portraits to go by. With respect to past centuries, we find ourselves in this kind of situation.” This makes sense to most of us intuitively, even within the set of generations we live through: I can barely handle hip-hop, whereas others seem to regard it as the cat’s meow.
Eco brings Thomas Aquinas’s three criteria of beauty, featuring proportionality, into the lecture hall; he briefly considers beauty’s “play of light, or claritas,” which he says was sacred and “valued due to the fact that numerous civilizations have associated God with light, and often with the sun.” He compares baroque painting, “such as Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame,” wherein “everything in the scene is struck by the light of a candle,” with medieval paintings in which, “by contrast, light seems to radiate out from objects in the scene. They, being beautiful, are luminous in themselves.”
Eco also brings in the saintly 12th century intellectual Robert Grosseteste (or Bobby Big Balls, as his more immature friends ranked on him), who “conceived of the universe as formed by a single flux of luminous energy that was at once the source of beauty and being—an image that, for us, summons the notion of a Big Bang.” Well, probably enough said.
His lecture “Ugliness” is essentially a taste of his longer, more famous work, On Ugliness. He asks rhetorically, and to the point, “Are there universal ways in which people react to beauty? No, because beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion.” He adds further clarification, humorously (unless,of course, you’re a neo-Nazi), “There is a judgment of ugliness as a non-correspondence to the ideal of beauty, for example, when we say that a painting of a vase of flowers is ugly. Who painted it? Hitler.” A rose is rose is a rose unless it’s a prick.
In his lecture, “The Invisible,” he almost immediately asks the pointed question, “How can you show what cannot be seen?” He compares the historian’s depiction of personages who end up coming at the reader like ghosts versus characters a fiction writer creates. Eco tells us, “Reading fiction means knowing that the character’s destiny is ineluctable.” He provides as examples the many fictional lives of Madame Bovary, from verisimilitudinous adaptations to parodic (like Woody Allen’s The Kugelmass Episode), which are all anchored in her suicide. Likewise, with depictions of Anna Karenina, Eco says, “Only the fact that Anna Karenina inevitably dies makes her fondly, imperiously, and obsessively present as the melancholy companion of our existence, even though she never physically existed.” The historian can represent facts in ghosts clothing, but novelists can show a kind of relative truth.
Another area of oral exposition that Eco plays around with in his lectures is the duplicity of language, especially in such areas of paradoxes, lies, and conspiracies. Information can seem to mean two things at once; we can be faced with outright lies that may or may not have the desired effect on the target(s); and there is the allure of apparent “secret men’s business” that we sometimes filter public utterances from politicians and even, counterintuitively, the mainstream media.
He provides splendid examples of paradoxes, like “Of course I’m a solipsist, isn’t everybody?” and “God must exist because he wouldn’t be so mean as to make me believe he exists if he really doesn’t.”
Everybody lies, and Eco makes fun of St. Augustine, through Immanuel Kant, when the saint avers that we mustn’t ever lie. Eco passes on the example of a killer ringing Augustine’s doorbell. He says that Augustine “maintained that we should never lie for any reason, not even to save a human life. [He] proposed the extreme example of those who have hidden in their own home someone that a vicious murderer is seeking to kill.” St. Augustine’s coughing up the target. Of this proposition, Immanuel Kant said that it “reveals that the great man was capable of talking nonsense every now and then.”
For secrecy and conspiracies, Eco reaches back into the obscurist mythology. It’s fun. He says, “All mythologies have had a god of secrecy; the figure of Harpocrates, under various names, appears from Egyptian art through the Graeco-Roman world to the Renaissance.” I have new insight into his silence.
“Representations of the Sacred” is his last lecture in the volume. No one who has read The Name of the Rose could doubt that they are dealing with an author and thinker who is deeply suffused in the sacred and its mysteries. How do we know a sign to be sacred or merely a natural phenomenon? He says, “Simply put, a lightning strike that incinerates a tree accompanied by a clap of thunder would in itself be only a frightening accident and sensation were it not seen and justified as a manifestation of some transcendent entity or will….” At the end of the world, we get Noah’s Gof back, and, apparently, Noah’s water, too.
Even if we get through Covid-19 and Climate Change next, we still have AI and the quantum and multiverses ahead to further fuck ourselves with, and we seem a long way off before we return to the Garden, prodigal sons and their families, all in all a little worse off for the wear at journey’s end — maybe one or two of us with an axe to grind with their Eves. But here we are, many father and son quarrels later, after many master and slave tumbles in the mud, still exiles. In my mind’s eye I sometimes see the dome of the Sistine Chapel, Adam and God facing off, not touching fingers, ET-style, but instead, withdrawing from each other, maybe forever, angry middle fingers raised.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“The glitter is in everything.”
-An old friend from way back when
Who’s to say what consciousness is? Nobody knows. Only a few good wo/men seem to give a shit at any given moment. The poet T.S. Eliot famously noted that humankind cannot stand too much reality and that we are distracted from distraction by distraction. As Jack Nicholson once growled at us, like a Gitmo poster boy, tortured souls sandwiched between our knocking knees, “You can’t handle the truth.” And now with the glaring prospect of four more years of Trump ahead of us — violence guaranteed — understanding consciousness seems to be the last thing on most people’s minds. We long ago lost our sense of conscience; consciousness could not be far behind. And yet.
In Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff invites the reader along on a dialectical journey from the first constellations of science toward a future of interpenetrating consciousnesses, from the ‘discovery’ of gravity to the still-mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. It’s not an exhaustive journey, either in method or intention, but it’s an enjoyable day trip through philosophical jungle — a tour down the Amazon that includes the oohs-and-ahhs of piranha-baiting, views of well-fed boas, ‘happy-shiny’ shamans waving from a deforested shore. Goff’s examples are exemplary: We creep up on Susan from behind; we meet Mary black-and-white; we see things done with Okham’s razor; we see the shit scared out of Philosophical Zombies (but not really), and, glimpse the creepy mind-computer merge ahead.
Ultimately, as the book title suggests (and cutting to the chase), Phillip Goff wants us to consider how Galileo, “the father of modern science,” created The Consciousness Problem when he separated quantitative information from qualitative, leaving the latter out of scientific inquiry, and resulting in a mind-body dualism we are still wrestling with today. Panpsychism is Goff’s proposed scientific solution.
Goff begins Galileo’s Error by asking the reader to go on a guided meditation with him. “As you read this page, you are having a visual experience of black letters against a white background,” he writes, “You can probably hear background noises: traffic, distant conversation, or the faint hum of a computer….” You could be Descartes meditating on his Cogito. In fact, your guide informs you as you listen to your environs, “[T]here is one thing I know for certain: I exist as a conscious being.” But Goff is leading us not to René, but to Galileo Galilei, “the father of modern science.”
According to Goff, looking up at the stars, Galileo had an epiphany — not about what he saw, but how he understood: “[T]he universe, which stands continually open to our gaze…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.” Galileo thought that there was a mathematical language embedded in the cosmos that could only be seen once qualitative phenomena were removed from the quantitative. Thus, in his observations, he removed sensory data derived from the five senses, and was left with a set of quantitative data — Size, Shape, Location, Motion — that became the basis for a new paradigm called science, which went beyond the limits of philosophical reasoning to the development of the scientific method.
The subjective world of sensory experience that makes up the mental phenomena of mind could not be accounted for in an objective fashion, and are “forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding,” writes Goff, and he adds that this lock-out is how “Galileo created the problem of consciousness.” This mind-body dualism, which has been with us now for hundreds of years, accepts that “reality is made up of two very different kinds of thing: immaterial minds on the one hand and physical things on the other.”
To understand this, Goff asks us to creep up behind Susan, sitting in a chair, with the top of her skull sawed off, for our scientific convenience. We’re looking at her brain. Can we see her consciousness, her experiences at work, her sensory conjurings? No, we can’t, but somewhere, somehow in that brain, consciousness is at work. Goff writes,
For the dualist, the relationship between Susan and her physical body is a bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. Just as the drone pilot controls the drone and receives information about the world from it, so Susan controls (to an extent) her body and receives information from its eyes and ears.
Raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable with the drone pilot analogy.
As opposed to a reality composed of separate physical and “immaterial” properties, these days we’re inclined to see everything included under the rubric of physical causes and effects only — including mental phenomena. In fact, if you go insane you’ll discover that the psychiatrist has no interest in your sob story at all — it’s all seen as symptoms and chemical imbalance, and you won’t leave the doctor’s office without a mandated prescription. (All those years of medical school down the drain, you’ll “think,” when they could’ve just brought in an astrologer and handed them a script pad.) De-institutionalization: a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Goff rages against the machinery of materialism throughout Galileo’s Error. But after he’s cooled down some, he offers up another female volunteer in his narrative — this time it’s Mary Black-and-White — to explain the limitations of materialism. Picture Mary, he says, locked away in a black-and-white room her entire life, no peeky-boo windows looking out onto external reality. Everything she knows about color is from something read, and she’s well-read. “If materialism is true and neuroscience is able to give us a complete theory of the nature of color experience, then what pre-liberation Mary has learned is the complete and final theory of color experience.”
One thinks of the Allegory of Plato’s Cave; and Chance the gardener from Being There. Goff writes, that no matter how much theory Mary’s been imbued with, she’s missing one thing that doesn’t happen until she leaves her room: experience, the experience of color. Consequently, Goff asserts,
It follows that a neuroscientific theory of color experience is necessarily incomplete. It leaves out the subjective qualities involved in color experience, those qualities we are directly aware of when we see colors.
Consciousness involves the subjective experience of phenomena — a kind of epiphenomena, or je ne sais quoi experience you can’t measure. He adds, “Neuroscience cannot teach the blind/color-blind what it’s like to have color experience.” Which reminds me of one of my favorite blind-leading-the-blind enlightenment stories: Raymond Carver’s, “Cathedral.”
In his further furtive assault on the human body (ostensibly in defense of the mind), Goff introduces the concept of the Philosophical Zombie. He writes, “If you stick a knife in a philosophical zombie, it’ll scream and try to get away, but it doesn’t actually feel pain” because “A philosophical zombie is just a complicated mechanism set up to behave like an ordinary human being.” But his essential point is a logical one. Goff writes, “It can be logically demonstrated that if zombies are even possible—not actual, merely logically possible—then materialism cannot possibly be true.” Goff even proposes a six-step, if-then, Zombie Argument.
He’s not done there though. Goff conjures up a barroom scene where he has a shitfaced materialist feeling the blues and staggered by a thought,
I pushed my way out of the bar and stood in the cold rain with my eyes closed. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I’d already accepted that if materialism was true, then I was a zombie. But I knew I wasn’t a zombie; I was a thinking, feeling human being. I could no longer live in denial of my consciousness. I became something of a closet dualist.
The reader cringes to see a philosopher lean towards the politically incorrect.
All that loving on the legacies of Descartes, Newton and Galileo that takes place early in the journey, followed by jumping the materialist behind the tavern and beating the living snot out of him and unbalancing his chemicals, is all meant to lead us to the Shangri-La of panpsychism. And for Goff it seems almost akin to a religious experience. Goff riffs, “I can’t help being excited by the possibility that, in a panpsychist worldview, the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony…Panpsychism offers a way of ‘re-enchanting’ the universe….” It turns out that Goff was in the closet too. He comes clean: “In panpsychism I found intellectual peace; I could live comfortably in my own skin.”
For Goff consciousness goes to the core of the meaning of life — literally. Citing Thomas Nagel’s 1972 article, “Panpsychism,” Goff calls it the “third way” between dualism and materialism. On the surface, it smells of rancid pantheism, but with a privileged consciousness taking the place of a murdered God in the cathedral.
But, Goff, however enthusiastically he waxes, like a reborn sinner, about the joy of panpsychism and the many rivers in one to cross, wants to bring in the authority of science. First he cites Stephen Hawking, who has insisted that humans will one day come up with a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything — even he seems to have doubted that it would be fully “satisfying,” as Goff puts it. Hawking noted: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” For Goff, consciousness is the heavy breather.
Goff pushes quantum mechanics. In it he sees an integral place for consciousness. But more specifically a pilot seat for observation. Explaining the concept of superpositioning, Goff cites the example Schrödinger’s cat, put in a box, with a vial of poison and radioactive material. If the material decays, the vial will smash, and the cat will die. But, notes Goff,
If the radioactive substance doesn’t decay, the cat will be saved. While the box is closed and the system unobserved, Schrödinger’s equation rules the roost, with the result that the radioactive substance exists in a superposition of both decaying and not decaying, from which it follows that the cat is in a superposition of being both alive and dead.
But when the box is opened, and the cat’s observed, it will be either dead or living.
This is conceptually weird, this on-and-off at the same time stuff, but it’s the promise that quantum computing holds, and it is, says Goff, scientifically sound, and goes to the heart of particle physics. Picture the famous rabbitduck illusion, where both the duck and rabbit are present together before you, but only one of them can be seen at any given moment. Imagine a computing system that could be on and off like that at the same time. But it’s the observational aspect of this phenomenon that Goff is keened to.
However, the more you delve into this, the stranger it gets — even in Freud’s Uncanny sense — as though, extrapolated to Reality, you could come to believe you were in two places at once. While some of this thinking leads toward multiverses, and the like, there’s an area Goff concentrates on that is most eerie of all: Integrated Information Theory (IIT). According to Goff, “The theory tells us that, in any physical system, consciousness is present at the level at which there is the most integrated information.” The system needn’t be human. At the same time, Goff is not articulating that everything in the universe has a form of consciousness. It depends on the level of integration.
There are levels, leading to a ‘maximum of integration’. Goff explains that a single neuron is highly integrated, but not as integrated as the brain it belongs to, which contains a forest of neurons. Further, and from a different perspective,
A human society has a great deal of integrated information, due to its complex social connections. However, a society is not a maximum of integration, as it is surpassed from below: people make up societies, and their brains have significantly more integrated information than does the society as a whole.
That’s all fine and dandy, that leaves room for people to go all shape-shifting Shangri-La when they discover the beam-me-up-Scotty joys of panpsychic integration — “consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter” — but then the other shoe drops on a phenomenological turd.
Goff considers the current human-machine trajectory of the Internet, and it can get scary in a hurry, depending on whether or not you welcome the coming Singularity or regard its arrival as akin to having Freddie Krueger over for a dinner of pulled pork, the pig not happy in the sty. Goff anticipates:
IIT predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
And you thought today’s Internet activity was out of control, full of fakery, dark web secrets, overcommercialization. Imagine absorption in that unenlightened Mind-set. Maybe it wouldn’t be so ducky down the rabbit hole after all.
But that worry aside, Goff suggests several times in his book that we are on the verge of something, a new paradigm, that we are waiting for a “Newton of consciousness” to come along to affirm the scientific validity of panpsychism, and the age-old mind-body problem will be resolved once and for all. But more than that, maybe we should be invoking Copernicus, rather than Newton, coming to terms, spiritually and scientifically, that as Earth is not the center of the solar system, human consciousness is not the center of the universe: consciousness abounds. The universe is not all about me.
Let us now return to trashing Trump: The Shitter is in everything.
In fact it seems to me quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. That this is the beginning of the rest of the future, now, and that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing.
– My Dinner with Andre (1981) by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Consciousness comes in all kinds of flavors — political, ecological, historical, psychological, etc. Even an awareness of unconsciousness can be a kind of consciousness, such as when we refer to, say, the archetypal realm of the Collective Unconscious, which is a kind of consciousness of gene-level symbolism. In fact, a good place for understanding what consciousness is may start with what it isn’t — unconsciousness. I guess it depends on what your definition of isn’t isn’t.
A few years ago I was in a coma for a week. I was an Isn’t — and yet I was. (Kinda like that catchy Donovan song.) While the functions of my biology were artificially maintained by machines, my brain activity had flat-lined. My consciousness slowly returned, and I came out of a void, without emotions, doing my best imitation of Lazarus. What did I bring back with me — Light at the end of questioning tunnels? Myopic insight into the realms of the beyond? Nothing. I brought back nothing. A week had been cut from my life, no memories, no resonances, no nothing. If that was death, then there is no Inferno, Purgatorio, or Beatrice. However, I regained full “consciousness,” as far as I am aware.
So, consciousness requires you to be awake and aware, and then you go from there. The world opens up before you and you read it, experience it, with your agenda, your style, your orientation, within the context of the circumstances that govern your milieu. Consciousness. How would you approach the question? Well, I tried taking the online Jung Typology Type test — that proved to be uncannily accurate, in some respects. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of what consciousness is, but it does provide some insight into what filters you might use in your approach, and puts you in the starting “subjective” position to relate to the “objective” world. The ol’ In/Out of experience.
Arguably, an understanding of consciousness has never been more important to humanity as we creep further into what may be the final frontier: artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called Singularity. Certainly it’s a frontier that Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks are fully cognizant of as they work their way, two guys talking, through Dialogues on Consciousness. In the preamble to their opening chapter, Parks writes, “Hardly a day goes by without some in-depth article wondering whether computers can be conscious, whether our universe is some kind of simulation, whether the mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread.” Manzotti and Parks make it clear rather quickly: This is not your father’s Consciousness.
The authors both live and work in Milan, and while they come from distinctly different backgrounds, they share a fascination with consciousness.. Riccardo Manzotti teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University. He has a PhD in Robotics and specializes in AI, perception, and consciousness. Dialogues on Consciousness is a follow-up to his study of 2017, The Spread Mind, in which he lays out his philosophy of externalism — a belief that the mind is not just the brain or functions of the brain. Tim Parks is a prize-winning novelist and essayist. He has also put out a non-fiction meditation on consciousness, Out of Mind: On the Trial of Consciousness.
As I followed their dialogue in the book, I was reminded of the pair, Wallace Shawn (Parks) and Andre Gregory (Manzotti) from My Dinner with Andre. The dinner pair’s discussion anticipates many of the issues that trouble humanity today — especially the effects of science and technology. It’s a great philosophical film, part of the Criterion Collection (so you know it’s been vetted), and you can well imagine how the two might actually have sat down for dinner one time and wrote the screenplay while eating knishes and noshes in Soho.
While Manzotti and Parks provide plenty of food-for-thought in Dialogues on Consciousness, their discussion is not saturated in existential angst and ennui the way it is for Shawn and Gregory. It’s more of a straight-up cerebral set of conversations about the mind. However, it is a scripted exercise in which each chapter of the book represents a “session” for the day. It’s a cumulative process, each of the 15 days, or chapters, building on the last. Parks acts mostly as a kind of good-natured set-up guy for Manzotti’s project on Externalism. Their dialogues have the feel of having been recorded in a university department office, a coffee plunger between them.
For the most part, except for Manzotti’s Externalism, most of the philosophy discussed (and/or referenced) is familiar ground to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Thus, there are mentions of Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ Cogito, Bishop Berkeley’s If A Tree Falls in the Forest problem, B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, et alis. Later, when sufficient dialogical momentum has built more modern philosophers are introduced. Manzotti has a particular hair across his ass for Australian philosopher David Chalmers and his ‘internalism’ — a position that sees all operations of the mind as processes of neurons and brain chemicals.
What’s inside the mind? What’s outside? What is the difference, if any, between subjects and objects? These are the familiar questions raised in Dialogues on Consciousness. Manzotti and Parks want to wake up the sleeper cells of dogmatism that may have been snoring since the undergraduate years, in order to accompany the pair as they discuss Externalism. It can get hairy (remember Woody Allen’s Love and Death?), but the pair expect that the reader possesses the skills necessary to understand.
Despite millenia of moonful ponderings by the best minds evolution has flowered, Riccardo Manzotti is not ready to accept that an understanding of consciousness is a given. “For most people ‘consciousness’ will have various meanings and include awareness, self-awareness, thinking in language,” he tells Parks in the opening chapter, “but for philosophers and neuroscientists the crucial meaning is that of feeling something, having a feeling you might say, or an experience.” It is this ‘experience’ — the relationship between the subject and an object — that is key to understanding Manzotti’s thesis, and he feels it is far from a settled project. “The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is,” he posits.
As Manzotti sees it, scientists are snobby and regard fellow humans as “trapped … watching shadows on the wall, while reality is outside, beyond [their] grasp,” a la Plato’s Cave. So that, in the latter day version, when some nerdy Socrates returns from the “real” world to the Cave to announce — “Multiverses are everywhere! Come see!” — one feminist looks up from her read of the Guardian and groans; the male next to her goes back to gazing at his porn; all the others, but one, are glued to El Camino, and that one hands Socrates a vial of hemlock, saying,”Fuck off.” Socrates eschews (gesundheit) the vial, and traipses, like some 3D Ezekiel, back to the coggy wheels of reality.
The elitism suggested by the Allegory persisted all the way to Descartes and his Cogito — the notion that there’s an In and Out of experience. As the two put it:
Parks: It really does seem impossible to think about consciousness without falling back at some point into this Cartesian view, the real world out there and a representation of it in the head.
Manzotti: You can see why everyone is willing to give so much credit to the neuroscientists, or just scientists in general, hoping they will come up with something that will solve the dilemma, some as yet unknown aspect of the material world that will explain why consciousness is indeed in the head, but has nevertheless managed to remain invisible up to now.
But Manzotti rejects such Internalism, and doesn’t believe science will ever crack the nut of consciousness.
There’s an operational or even mechanistic aspect of the Internalist argument than seems to offend Manzotti. You can see this most clearly in the so-called Computer Model of the human mind that likens the processes of the brain to the functions of a computer. We are processors with long (hard drive) and short-term memory (RAM). We ‘keyboard’ our experiences and watch the results of old and new data come together on the monitor of our minds. As Manzotti puts it, “Words like ‘input,’ ‘output,’ ‘code,’ ‘encoding,’ and ‘decoding’ abound. It all sounds so familiar, as if we knew exactly what was going on.” But Manzotti senses dangerous implications (and applications) as we move forward into AI with our mechanistic assumptions about human consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, the Internalist views of Australian philosopher David Chalmers are especially irksome to Manzotti. He is, says Manzotti, “the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years.” And not in a helpful way. For Chalmers, it’s all a movie-house-in-the-mind (neurons supplying the popcorn) — and there is no out there. But it’s hard to pin Chalmers’ views down with precision. Seethes Manzotti, “Chalmers has dabbled with panpsychism, dualism, emergentism, physicalism, Russellian monism, and even computationalism.” (“That’s a lot of -isms,” chimes Parks.) In essence, Chalmers seems to be all over the place.
But it’s Chalmers’ presumptuousness that seems to drive Manzotti up around the bend. His own Mind-Object externalism is diametrically opposed to what Chalmers stands for:
Essentially, when Chalmers so dramatically announced “the hard problem,” insisting that we had no solution to the question of consciousness, he simultaneously assumed that the constraints governing any enquiry into it were already well defined and unassailable.
Chalmers seems almost arrogant — does he think he’s the only one who can crack the Hard Problem? Bring it over, Manzotti seems to say to Chalmers.
So, if Manzotti rejects Internalism, including the movie house model and the neurons-and-brain-chemistry model, while at the same time he rejects that there’s an external world that is removed from the experience of consciousness, then what does he argue? For Manzotti, it’s pretty easy, and can be summed up: When I see an apple on a table, I am the apple. In short, there’s not an internal subject observing an external object. Rather, in the moment of perception they merge and are one. Manzotti provides further explication here.
Even Parks, who has a background in Consciousness himself, is seemingly a-reel at this metaphysical development:
Parks: So I am the apple.
Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head? So we have to have this consciousness apple.
This sounds sensible, although one wonders ‘who’ did the inventing.
While he garners no more than a mention in Dialogues, Manzotti does seem to support the thesis put forth by Princeton professor Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This bicameral approach posits that, long ago, in ancient days, the right side of the brain dialogued with the left (two hems talking), in a manner descriptive of modern voice-hearing schizophrenia (the ancient gods being a product of this bicameralism) — until a breakdown of that system led to a unified consciousness. Fascinating, as Spock would say.
But perhaps the best help for visualizing Manzotti’s concept comes from the aesthetic realm (which Manzotti largely ignores at his peril). French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in describing a painter’s vision comes very close to bringing Manzottis’ apple concept to life. In “Eye and Mind”, M-P writes, “Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.” (One recalls Carl Sagan’s amazing observation: “We are star stuff.”) And there’s no question that Manzotti and Parks would agree with M-P’s assertion, “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” It’s this “living in” that humans are capable of and machines are not.
In the end, it’s the ol’ In-Out, or as Manzotti and Parks explain it:
Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.
Manzotti: That’s the idea. Look at the world, and you’ll find yourself. Look inside your experience, and you find… what? The world that surrounds your body.
It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a welcome alternative view to the operationalism that currently prevails. Kinda like the White Album.
If Google’s recent pronouncement that they’ve had a breakthrough in quantum computing is any indicator of the shape of things to come, then we’ve already entered a strange new world, where we can use all of the thinking about consciousness that we can conjure up. Let’s not leave the future to the likes of Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt and the visions they pitch, such as the weird scenario they offered up in The New Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind). Talking about the future of entertainment and holograph boxes you could set up in your living room, they ask us to imagine, “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Hmph.
Dialogues on Consciousness is a short easy collection of sessional dialogues. It would be a good book to bring on a long train or plane journey. You might find all those Philosophy 101 thought-experiments reactivating in you and casually preparing you for Manzotti and Parks’ near-quantum paradigm-thinking — about you and apples. You might try to recall how you answered Bishop Berkeley’s query: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Before you fall into a comatose sleep, and wake up hours later, suddenly…