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Commentary on a discussion of consciousness

Originally written on March 26, 2017 and edited on July 31, 2018

On Consciousness

Ricardo Manzotti and Tim Parks, in a series of articles in The New Yorkerdiscuss the nature of consciousness. Below is my commentary about the key points made in the articles.

First, I start with Manzotti and Parks’ conclusion that consciousness is nothing more than the experience of objects. That is, the experience of objects and the objects themselves are one and the same! This is a nondual perspective. My first Zen teacher used to say something very similar: “Who you are and what happens to you are the same thing!”

Consciousness and the experience of the world co-arise together. Simultaneously. They are mutually interdependent. This is a core aspect of all spiritual teachings. But from what or where they co-arise cannot be known.

Unfortunately, Manzotti and Parks err when he concluded that objects are real; that is, that there is an external world that exists and that somehow those objects have become conscious only because the objects exist in relation to one another.

But, to discuss my objection to this last statement, I need to summarize the other philosophical perspectives that Manzotti and Parks dismiss.

Manzotti and Parks consider the various philosophical perspectives to fall into four categories. He uses a metaphor of two switches. One switch places subject and object as either separate from one another or the same as one another (i.e., non-separate from one another). The second switch places the subject (observer) as physical or not physical.

Thus, when the first switch is set in the ‘separate’ position, there are two possibilities: either the subject is not physical or the subject is physical. The former is the Cartesian model. The mind (or soul) is immaterial, which is separate from the objects that are experienced. Conversely, the latter states that subject and object are separate, but that the subject arises from matter. This is the current neuroscientist (materialist) perspective. Consciousness arises from neural activity. But like the Cartesian model, it assumes that an external physical world exists a priori.

When the first switch is set in the ‘not-separate’ position, again, there are two possibilities. The first is that neither subject nor object are physical. This is the perspective of those who state that consciousness is not contained inside the head (or body) but constituted by our interaction with the world. He refers to those who take this position as enactivists. But, as Manzotti and Parks stated, the enactivist position, although it doesn’t place the subject inside the brain or body, is that consciousness is a product of the actions we perform. Thus, based on Manzotti and Parks’ description of this perspective, a material universe of objects is still required, even though they state that neither the subject nor object are physical. Actions must take place someplace. Do they occur inside the mind or do they occur within a physical reality? The universe, therefore, must be a priori, even if consciousness is not separate from that universe. Now, it is possible that I do not completely understand this position. But if I do understand it correctly, it is being misidentified as a one in which neither subject nor object is physical.

An alternative example of the non-separate immaterial perspective is that of the idealists who propose that an object of perception is nothing but a modification of a part of the subject who experiences mental representations or ideas, which are not physical. This perspective assumes that the world is just an idea. It presupposes that consciousness is a priori. Manzotti and Parks reject this perspective because it is not provable.

The last perspective described by Manzotti and Parks is that of a non-separate world, but the subject is physical. The assumption here is that there is a physical universe that includes all objects, including the bodies that perceive the universe. They concluded that an experience of an object does not reside in the brain, nor in some immaterial soul or consciousness; but in the object itself. That is, your experience of an object isthe object. For example, in the case of an apple, the experience of the apple, which implies consciousness, resides in the apple itself.

This perspective is a non-dual perspective in that there is no separation between the subject and the object. However, the first problem or flaw that I see is that they place primacy in the objects themselves. The assumption is that that the objects are “real physical objects” and from those objects consciousness arises.

However, as we now know from quantum physics, objects themselves do not exist at all. At the quantum level, the best description is that virtual particles pop in and out of existence (from where, we do not know), interact with one another, and form the basis for the existence of what we consider to be subatomic particles. But even these particles don’t exist at all, except as mathematical probability functions when ‘collapse’ when they are observed.

In other words, reality isn’t real; and what is perceived as real depends on an observer.

They go on to further state that “despite being physical, it [an object] cannot exist by itself. It requires neither consciousness nor an observer, but another object, which for this discussion is the body because it is through the body that the object is perceived. He refers to this as relative existence.Bodies are just objects which, “through their sensory capacities…bring into existence the world we are identical with, the sights, sounds, smells, and so on that are our experience, are us.”

So, although consciousness is nothing more than the experience of objects (or in other terms, arisings), he starts with an actual physical universe; and not with consciousness.

Second, he neglects to mention and ignores completely the subject. He doesn’t explain how the experience of an object arises or exists as the object. That is, an experience still requires a mechanism or medium for the experience. If consciousness exists in the objects, then how is it possible that there is an experience of the object? In other words, although he is correct in taking a non-dual position, he doesn’t explain how objects become consciousness. Objects that are supposedly real somehow are equivalent to consciousness when they are experienced.

To account for this, Manzotti and Parks invoke something called ‘opportunity’, which arises based on how a specific body (human or otherwise) is constructed. Humans, for example, perceive an apple one way, because the human body is constructed with a specific set of physical apparatus’ that differs, for example, from a worm, which perceives the apple as something completely different.

Manzotti and Parks go on to state that that apple that humans perceive is not the absolute apple; just the one that is experienced in a particular manner because of how the body is constructed. That is, human perception is a subset of the ‘absolute’ apple.

Again, he starts with the assumption that there is a real world out there, which he refers to as a whirlwind of physical states, which contain atoms, neutrinos, photons, quarks, strings, quantum fields, etc. What a body does is “carve out one possible subset of that whirlwind.” Or put another way “one possible set within the whirlwind finds, relative to the body, a suitable causal path” in which to manifest. A body brings other objects into existence in the sense that it selected them and only them from the whirlwind.

But remember, the body itself doesn’t exist: it too is comprised of the same virtual particles that comprise all other objects. That is, there is no inherent reality in any object, including the body, which is supposedly carving out a possible reality from the underlying substrate.

So, “each conscious mind is the collection of objects that exist relative to that object which is our body.” When the body stops working and dies, that world of experience, your consciousness, which is external to your body, ceases to exist as well, but not the whirlwind it was selected from.

This is the second flaw: our experience of an object, such as an apple, occurs, according to Manzotti and Parks, because of how our body is constructed; and consciousness, therefore, is nothing more than the object. But that doesn’t explain how consciousness arises to have the experience in the first place!

Thus, on the one hand, although their overall conclusion is correct: that experience and objects are one and the same, the manner in which he gets there is incorrect and requires a mechanism: the body, which itself is an object. So, an object that is constructed in a particular manner somehow experiences another object. Therefore, consciousness isn’t really required. Just one object experiencing another object.

The assumption, therefore, is that there are external conditions that fluctuate depending on the specific perceptual apparatus of another object.

Thus, from his perspective, there must be an external object that is identical with one’s experience of it!

The third flaw, which is not mutually exclusive of the above, is that they go on to state that consciousness is an idea that was invented to explain how one could experience an apple when there is no apple in one’s head. Thus, even the idea of consciousness is false.

Indeed, their position is, in a manner of speaking, technically correct in that (a) it is a non-dual position and (b) consciousness is itself an object. Indeed, most spiritual teachings, especially those grounded in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta point to the fact that the observer and the observed are one and the same thing.

However, in their analysis and conclusion, Manzotti and Parks miss a key point: what is it that is inventing a consciousness? What is it that is prior to both consciousness and reality? Observer and observed? Witness and witnessed? Subject and object?

In Buddhism, what is a priori has been referred to as nothingness, emptiness, or the deathless. It is no thing, and yet it contains everything, including consciousness. It exists prior to all arisings; but yet, paradoxically, it cannot be known. But even more paradoxically, it is what we are.

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