With apologies to George Orwell.
With apologies to George Orwell.
In lieu of attending either the People’s Vote March in London taking place tomorrow or the Anti-fracking Rally at Preston New Road, also tomorrow, hopefully this cartoon speaks for itself:
(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.
Some qualities of a drawn line (in no particular order and not necessarily distinct):
Curvature – straight/simple/wavering
Speed of gesture
Regularity of tone/variation of tone
Scale of variation in curvature (see speed)
Possible combinations of qualities:
A straight fine, dark line
A simple smooth curve, varying from dark to light
A soft pale wavering line
A hard, dark, jagged, fast scribble
A complicated curve of varying intensity
Each combination suggests/implies a different bodily action or feeling: a tight or a loose grip of the drawing tool, a fine movement of the fingers or a large movement of the arm, a slow or a fast gesture, considered or unplanned mark-making, a gentle stroke or an angry scrawl …
It’s a good thing we aren’t consciously thinking about all these things when we draw. Here are some recent abstract-ish drawings, starting from fairly random lines and seeing what happens:
Growth: the process of increasing in size; development to maturity
Growth, infinite: the premise of capitalism
Growth, malignant: uncontrolled abnormal cell division that can invade and destroy nearby tissue and may spread to other parts of the body
I am currently reading Naomi Klein’s No is not enough, and, thanks to her brilliant exposition, I’ve finally understood why some apparently intelligent, powerful people persist, at least in public, in denying what we/they are doing to the planet and carry on acting in ways that exacerbate the crisis. I now realise that it isn’t that they are too blinkered or isolated to see what is happening or that they believe their wealth will protect them from the unfortunate (but unavoidable because the neoliberal show must go on) effects of disrupting ecosystems and society. It’s that they welcome the coming crises because they are set to profit from them. Wars and catastrophes are just business opportunities if you are in the right line of work. And social disruption just frees up the 1% from the irritating hindrances of democracy, regulation and all that.
I’m hoping the last part of the book will give me more reason for optimism.
Here’s a snippet.
Yesterday evening some of us turned off the lights to mark Earth Hour. To briefly, symbolically, pay attention to the harm we are doing every day by the way we live on the planet. A feeble gesture no doubt. Can a drip, drip of small individual acts eventually add up to a system change? Probably not. But system change is what is needed and sooner than eventually…
Drawn during Earth Hour by candlelight.