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How to crack consciousness

It’s what makes us human – but despite the best efforts of philosophy and science, the nature of our experience of reality remains elusive.

When I read philosophy at Oxford in the early 1980s there wasn’t a lot of talk about consciousness. There was a course you could take called Philosophy of Mind, which involved a certain amount of psychology – and I was one of those who read Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind (1949), a book that damned Cartesian dualism as a category error, while explaining the weirdness that went on between our ears as a cascading series of intentional acts, in no way different to bodily movements. Mind was to be understood by analogy with purely physical processes, although Ryle – himself a linguistic philosopher – also wished to guard against any reduction to the absurdity of a merely behaviouristic explanation of consciousness. Why an absurdity? Because if your ineffable existential thoughts are simply a function of universal instinctive drives and processes, it’s hard to see what consciousness adds to the business of being human, beyond a lot of useless agonising. My personal feeling is that consciousness is indeed distinctly overrated – although this would seem belied by the burgeoning literature on the subject.

The 20th century was not great for philosophy generally: the linguistic turn taken by Bertrand Russell, Ryle (the man who coined the term “the ghost in the machine” to describe Descartes’s mind-body dualism) et al, ended in a cul-de-sac, where these tinder-dry logicians were confronted by that fiery Viennese, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Russell – together with his wing-man, Alfred North Whitehead – wanted to reduce mathematics to a system, so that the existence of God, or the nature of consciousness for that matter, could be computed. For the later Wittgenstein, language, rather than being some sort of representation of the external world we formulate in our heads, is instead part of a collective undertaking: crucially, for him the meaning of a word is a function of the way it’s actually used.

Wittgenstein believed that metaphysical problems – and I would accord the nature of consciousness to be one of these – cannot be solved by philosophy, and anyone who obsesses too much about her qualia (the technical term for a quality, such as the particular redness of a given apple, experienced by a given individual), is more in need of psychotherapy than philosophising.

But soon after the so-called “prince of disciplines” suffered this touchy-feely assault, another more technical one was mounted on its left flank: the massive increase in computer processing speeds, allied to new imaging technologies – notably positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging – seemed to be ushering in an era in which it would be possible to see thoughts; or, at any rate, our thought processes. At last, the brain box was to be fully prised open, and subjectivity itself would be subject to proper analysis.

 It’s this vision – and for once, this does seem to be the mot juste – that’s led to a great splurge of books on consciousness over the past 30 years. And not just books but entire subject areas and fields: cognitive studies, cognitive science, and of course neuroscience itself, which has become the go-to field for those seeking to “crack” the problem of consciousness, quite possibly by creating a conscious machine.

Unfortunately, things haven’t quite turn-ed out that way. Just as sequencing the human genome failed to result in our physical nature becoming fully legible, so the vast amount of data provided by these scans has proved incommensurate with my – or anyone else’s – experience of the redness of a particular apple.

Tim Parks, in his book on consciousness, clamps this conundrum to the laboratory bench where it originates. First, he quotes from the summary of a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, entitled “Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Progress and Problems”: “When the content-specific NCC neurons in this example [face recognition] are activated artificially… the participant should see a face even if none is present, whereas if their activity is blocked, the participant should not be able to see a face even if one is present.” Then Parks drily observes: “In general, the logic here is that scientists should be able to recreate, or recall, more or less every experience by stimulating our brains in certain ways. However, there are not many accounts of this actually occurring.”

Not many? In fact, none at all – unless you count the sort of commonplace reactions that mice exhibit when you place their skulls in clamps and make them smell stuff. Reading Parks’s account of his lengthy interview with Professor Hannah Monyer, the Heidelberg-based neuroscientist responsible for the mouse-clamping, I was reminded of conversations I had with physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. In both instances, such is the near-infinite complexity of the subjects being investigated, that if more advanced equipment were to be built, I suspect yet more infinitesimal occurrences of the phenomena will indeed be detected.

Which is not to say that this data will solve the basic conundrum: how is it that the roughly 1,400 grams of grey mush inside our skulls can produce our hopes, fears and dreams – as well as allowing us to revisit the very specific redness of a particular apple, one perhaps seen many years since?

I found the physicists at CERN, despite their preoccupation with the ultimate nature of matter, to be distinctly spiritual in their outlook: convinced that Humanity (with a capital “H”), had some sort of Destiny, to discover the Truth. Of course, when I put it to them that their anchorite existence on the outskirts of Geneva, together with their ritualised attention to the sublime, psychically allied them most obviously to an order of monks or nuns, they demurred furiously: physics is emphatically not metaphysics.

Parks’s raison d’être – in Heidelberg at least – is to participate in a project whereby artists and scientists get together in order to assay precisely this: the extent to which science has replaced theology when it comes to settling our metaphysical doubts. It’s a typically woolly brief for this sort of bridging-the-two-cultures boondoggle; but Parks “goes rogue” – while in no way avoiding his religious duties – not because he has any philosophic axe to grind into the human cerebellum, but due to a friendship.

Parks is an extraordinarily lucid and productive essayist, as well as a hugely respected translator from the Italian, and an academic specialist in translation. Moreover, he’s also enjoyed a prolific career as a novelist, and his nonfiction book Teach Us to Sit Still (2010) is one of the best accounts of the nature and significance of meditation I’ve read written by anyone who doesn’t have faith in universal consciousness.

Parks applies a similar methodology to Out of My Head: a particular – and very personal – incident in his own life, leads him to reconsider both his theoretical positions and his values, and eventually initiates a major change in his behaviour. In the former book this personal incident was his prostate trouble – a painful, debilitating condition that focused the reader’s mind insistently on his perineal region, such that when Parks experienced the ecstatic relief that came with his attentiveness to his breathing, so, dear reader, did I. But with this new book, the method is rather different. As I say, ostensibly it’s a response to his friendship with a neuroscientist colleague at the University of Milan. “For some years,” Parks tells us, “I have been in an intense conversation with Riccardo Manzotti, one of the most intense and extended conversations of my life.”

Both men are interested in the phenomenon of consciousness. Parks’s preoccupation – sharpened by his experience of meditation – remains one of literary mechanics: how do you calibrate the internal and the external, the thought and the felt? But Manzotti has a different idea – the so-called “spread-mind” theory.

Put simply, Manzotti’s view is that your experience of the redness of the apple, rather than being created in the brain – as philosophers from Locke, via Kant, to the present day have resolutely contended (and neuroscientists from the late 20th century have sought to prove), in fact “takes place” externally, in the object itself. Mark well: this is not simply asserting that a causal chain – albeit a nigh-infinitely complex one – links the external object of attention and the internal one of contemplation, but that the experience of the external object is vitally located in that object.

I have to say, I didn’t exactly yawn when Parks did his “big reveal” of Manzotti’s concept of consciousness on page 79 – but I almost did. It put me in mind, first, of the little homily attributed to the Buddha: a disciple once asked him, “Master, should we be compassionate to others?” And after a few moments of contemplation, the ascetic answered, “There are no others.” For the “spread mind” – or “mind-object” – theory, is both inherent in Buddhist teaching, and a reconfiguration of philosophy’s own mid-20th-century fight-back against Wittgenstein and the computers.

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That Parks should have been unaware of phenomenology – the study of the structures of consciousness – prior to writing this book, I find surpassing strange, but I suppose it’s possible: the technical language of philosophy can be daunting. Nevertheless, it was odd to reach page 261 of this book before encountering the name of Edmund Husserl, and reading on a couple more before Parks explains the key method of phenomenology (one he’s in fact been employing since the very outset), namely the so-called “epoché” or “bracketing” of our conscious experience, so that we consider its objects separate from the troubling matter of their reality.

Phenomenology bodied-forth most notably in the existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir, and, to a lesser extent, that of Sartre and Camus. All of these names were pretty much anathema so far as the Oxford philosophy syllabus of the early 1980s was concerned – while the ideas they propounded were dismissed as exactly the sort of psychotherapy Wittgenstein had prescribed for the philosophically challenged. The analytic philosophers who taught me had far more sympathy with the coming age of neuroscience, for it bore a strong resemblance to their own linguistic turn: if consciousness could be computer-modelled, then the problem of ontology – the nature of being – would also evaporate. Why? Because if we know the status in reality of the objects we contemplate, then we know what reality is tout court.

Parks makes an excellent point about what he calls the “internalist” position (that our picture of reality is just that: a subjective one, concocted by our brains), which is that it flatters our sense of our own importance, making of us creators of our own effectively unique worlds. Certainly, there has to be some explanation of why it is we’ve clung so doggedly to this view.

Parks’s own fantastic journey into the human brain takes him to Heidelberg, where he interviews a trio of neuroscientists – but while his prose remains as Englishly empirical as ever, his methodology is that of phenomenology from beginning to end: a consideration of his own consciousness shorn of any assumptions about what has caused it. Thus he begins the book with a description of his awakening next to his lover in a hotel room – what he sees, feels, smells and hears. Parks’s rubric with Teach Us to Sit Still was that illness was the beginning of all psychology – a position first identified by Nietzsche; but here, it’s romance: Parks’s lover is, we learn, a new relationship – and she’s much younger than him, indeed, a little bit under half his age.

In the #MeToo era it has become rather hard to read books about men in late middle age with young women lovers without feeling a little bit queasy; how much more difficult must it be to write them? I think Parks is responding to this, and that there’s a dialectic underlying Out of My Head that makes it less about consciousness, and more about its author’s conscience. How else to explain the introduction of his lover, Eleonora, by her full name? Given his friend’s theories, it’s hard not to feel (and “feel” is surely the operative word here), that Parks wants us – in a “readers’ wives” sort of a way – to embrace her as passionately as he does, and in so doing to absolve him of any age-inappropriate behaviour. For, as we’ve noted, Manzotti’s “spread-mind theory” encourages us to abolish the mind/body distinction by understanding our conscious experiences to be synonymous with the objects which cause them.

At the very end of the book, Parks finds in his experience of touching an old plaque in a Heidelberg park the confirmation he seeks of Manzotti’s position:

I shut my eyes and grasped the side of the stone which was, and no doubt is, about three inches thick. Now the stone was a solid gritty thing. Without vision the experience was quite different. This was a different object. And suddenly it was terribly easy to think that when I took my hand away that object, that experience, would be gone.

That his own experience and the world are “the same thing” is an insight we would have expected a little earlier from this mindfulness fanatic (Parks describes getting up in the middle of the night to meditate away his insomnia). But then, if his account of his long years of unhappy marriage is anything to go by, up until recently, Parks did indeed want them to remain altogether separate. 

Will Self 's most recent book is “Phone” (Penguin)

Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness
Tim Parks
Harvill Secker, 312pp, £16.99

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact