An Answer to the Hard Problem

Darned if I wasn’t just writing about the “hard problem” of consciousness here, and lo and behold (love that phrase) the NY Times Book Review Blog tries to show me up with this interview of Riccardo Manzotti, who just so happens to have an answer to the hard problem.

If you don’t know, the  so-called hard problem refers to attempts to explain how and why we seem to have conscious awareness particular to our human organisms, or how and why we experience phenomena in a way that leads us to identify with our own minds or points-of-view. We could use the phrase “subjective consciousness” but folks like Manzotti dismiss the subject-object distinction as oversimplified. In its place, Manzotti has devised the “Spread Mind,” which is not like the popular offensive formation in American college football. Instead, from the aforementioned interview, it goes like this:

consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object.

Got that? No? Then Manzotti will engage you in comic strip form. No kidding. Check out the link above. He’s also pretty suave with the metaphors. He describes his particular externalist approach to explaining consciousness (externalist essentially means that he thinks consciousness is not primarily an interior phenomenon characterized by a screen inside the brain on which the world shows up; instead, every element that shows up in experience, both interior and exterior, contributes to consciousness through a continuous process) by using a rainbow, and, I might add, quite effectively:

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the “internalists” who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

I really like this, but I’m also waiting for some internalist to come along and totally shatter it for me. I’m not interested in reaching any conclusions about, well, anything. I just like the questions. I also wish I would have gone down the philosophy route with my studies. I so cherish useless conversations, and I mean that in the best possible way. Uselessness is the supreme virtue.

(I should add that Manzotti is actually trying to apply his theories to create robots; that’s far too useful for me.)

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