(I recently, fortuitously, made a new acquaintance who lent me a couple of books to read on consciousness, a topic I studied for a while in an earlier phase of life. The first was Out of my Head by Tim Parks. What follows arose from my reading of the book. Apologies for reversion to academic writing style.)
Why do we think our experience/consciousness is ‘in our heads’?
Tim Parks’ book focuses on neuroscience as its antagonist, and the supposition that mental contents are brain-based, that my consciousness lives in my brain. This is referred to as ‘internalism’, in contrast to the view Parks seems to be advocating, channelling Riccardo Manzotti, called ‘the spread mind’, which locates conscious experience in the objects experienced, not ‘in the head’.
It seems to me that one reason we tend to locate our conscious experience ‘in our heads’, which seems to be ignored by Parks/Manzotti, is our awareness of the existence of other minds. It feels like my experience is private to me, and yours to you. We cannot feel each other’s sensations, pains, emotions, etc. without some kind of intermediation, such as language, or body language. It is this privacy or separateness that suggests our minds are internal, if not to our brains then to our bodies.
If babies have to learn to distinguish themselves from the world, what they are learning is that there are things (or people) existing which are out of their control and out of their awareness. The world doesn’t come in and out of existence when they open or close their eyes. It carries on regardless. The internalising of the self goes hand in hand with the externalising of the world, and perhaps with the recognition that there are other minds that share the same world.
This militates against the idea that the objects of experience are identical with that experience, unless we are willing to say that your experience of that object in front of us is the same thing as my experience of it, not just qualitatively similar (probably). Spread minds à la Manzotti would seem to be overlapping minds – but even when I am in a life-drawing studio surrounded by other people contemplating the same object, I do not feel that my mind is merged with their minds. If anything, when focused on the model I feel more private than ever (though my consciousness is in my hands and on the paper as much as behind my eyes).
Whether my experience/consciousness is in my brain or spreads out into my body or my interactions with the world, it is mine, not yours, and I’d think that matters more to our common-sense (‘folk scientific’) internalism than the question of whether mind=brain or mind=something else.
(And maybe neuroscientists are just adopting folk science as their background assumption. If our minds feel like they are in our heads, behind our eyes, where we see the world from, then the brain appears to be the best place to look. Parks says ‘[Hannah Monyer, neuroscientist] told me that she had decided way back … that there was simply no point in working on consciousness, because she couldn’t see how neuroscientific experiments could ever yield results in that field.’ It seems a bit unfair to criticise neuroscience as being internalist about consciousness, if neuroscientists aren’t trying to say anything about consciousness at all.)
My sense of subjectivity involves an idea of the existence of other subjects of experience. So if I believe that the objects of my experience can also be the objects of yours, and that we are different subjects, then my experience is not identifiable with the object experienced. If it were, would not some form of solipsism follow, or psychopathy? Or some kind of singular über-mind of which all subjects are parts? Leibniz’s God holding the universe together?
The view Parks is presenting does seem pretty solipsistic in its methodology and/or assumptions; he begins with a description of his own experience as he wakes up from a dream and observes his surroundings. And if you start from a solipsistic position, finding a way ‘out of your head’ matters. But if you do it by extending the boundaries of consciousness outwards, I’m not sure you’ve escaped solipsism, rather you’ve just made the self bigger. (This is indicated by Parks himself on p. 258 (original emphasis): ‘the idea that our experience is not locked up in our heads, but is really out there, the idea that we in a real way are the world, …’.)
What the lonely solipsist needs is access to an other, i.e. not to be alone (in or out of her head); to be able to make contact with an external world and particularly with other distinct minds, living in the same world, which is not the same as becoming ‘one with the universe’.
If it’s the privacy of other minds, their inaccessibility to me, that informs an ‘internalist’ view of consciousness, colonising the external world we share by spreading my mind outside my head seems to be beside the point.