Tim Parks interviews Riccardo Manzotti about his externalism (free will oriented)


INTRO (Tim Parks): For any materialist vision of consciousness, the crucial stumbling block is the question of free will. A modern, enlightened person tends to feel that he or she has rejected a mystical, immaterial conception of the eternal soul in exchange for a strictly scientific understanding of consciousness and selfhood – as something created by the billions of neurons in our brains with their trillions of synapses and complex chemical and electrical processes. But the fact of our being entirely material, hence subject to the laws of cause and effect, introduces the concern that our lives might be altogether determined. Is it possible that our experience of decision-making – the impression we have of making choices, indeed of having choices to make, sometimes hard ones – is entirely illusory? Is it possible that a chain of physical events in our bodies and brains must cause us to act in the way we do, whatever our experience of the process might be?

In my conversations with Riccardo Mazotti, professor of theoretical philosophy at the IULM University in Milan, we have explored his mind-object identity theory, a hypothesis that shifts the physical location of consciousness away from the brain and its neurons. In Manzotti’s version of events, the brain does not ‘process information’ coming from the senses to create illusory representations of an external reality that it can never really know (the hypothesis supported by most neuroscientists and many philosophers); rather, the encounter of the body (brain and senses included, of course) with the world allows the world to occur in a certain way, to become an object relative to the body; and that occurrence, that relative object, is what we call perception, consciousness, and it remains exactly where it is, outside our body. Our experience, our mind, is the world as it is in relation to our body. And the ‘I’ is identified neither with the brain, nor more extensively with the body, but with our experience which is the world in relation to the body.

However, if this is the case, if subject and object, or rather mind and relative object, are one in experience, does this not make it all the more difficult to explain our impression of free will? Isn’t it precisely our moment-by-moment awareness of making decisions that proves that we are separate and sovereign subjects moving in a world of objects that remain quite distinct from us and over which we seek to have mastery? (MORE)


[...] Parks: Well, mainstream science tells us that, essentially, we are our brains. Didn’t the British biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004) say that we are nothing but our neurons and their activity? In his book The Brain: The Story of You (2015), the American neuroscientist David Eagleman claims that: ‘Who you are depends on what your neurons are up to, moment by moment.’

Manzotti: Right. Crick and many other neuroscientists are convinced that we are our neurons and that these neurons, which are of course physical things, somehow make our choices. The problem is that, when we use modern microscopes to look at our neurons, we don’t find any evidence of this. All we see is a passage of electrical charges and complex chemical changes. Some people no doubt take consolation from the idea that they can blame their grey matter for their sins, as in the past they liked to blame the devil or fate. Eagleman, in the book you mentioned, describes with some satisfaction how a man went on a shooting spree, killing 13 people, as a direct consequence, he claims, of a small brain tumour ‘the size of a nickel’, which pressed on his amygdala and upset all the neurons there. In this scenario, then, we attribute moral blame to a bunch of cells. But this is hard to square with our actual experience of living and acting in the world. We don’t feel an identity with our neurons, and we do feel we are responsible for what we do. So, again, the question is: what are we?

Parks: I notice that when I say that I have a strong instinctive impression of something, you call my experience into question. But when a neuroscientist says we are our neurons, you appeal to instinct and experience to deny it.

Manzotti: Our experience offers a starting point. We have this or that impression, okay, so let’s test it scientifically. Crick has neither experience nor science on his side when he claims we are our neurons. Our experience does not offer evidence that this is the case and, despite years of research, it has not been demonstrated.

Parks: I’m sure neuroscientists would disagree with you....

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