Neuroscience for Buddhists: Externalism Nicely Explained

At the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks recounts his experience of having a beer with Riccardo Manzotti, a man who believes that consciousness does not reside in the brain. Monzotti is an externalist who thinks the subject-object split that most psychologists and neuroscientists take for granted is illusory. He teaches in the psychology department at IULM University, Milan, and Parks summarizes Manzotti’s position on consciousness this way:

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. […] But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the “internalists” who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

Sounds curiously Buddhist, doesn’t it? Tim Parks continues:

Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, Manzotti argues, involves the same creation of a physical unity—the moment of consciousness—sustained by processes within and without the head. The room, or part of a room, that you see now, including the screen on which you’re reading this blog, becomes, in combination with your faculties, a whole; this is consciousness. It happens in time, and it takes time (consciousness of visual phenomena seems to require at least 100 milliseconds to occur), and it changes constantly.

Again, though not a Buddhist myself, I’m hearing in this what Buddhists call “spontaneous Buddha nature.” But what about when our eyes are closed or we’re dreaming? Aren’t we still conscious? Parks says Manzotti has an answer:

This minimal time lapse (some claim it is as much as 500 milliseconds) required for brain and world to generate consciousness allows Manzotti to deal with what would seem to be the obvious objection to the externalist theory. Do we not have consciousness when the eyes are shut and the mind lies in silence? And what about dreams? Isn’t the brain evidently sufficient to sustain consciousness without support from outside?

We do indeed have consciousness in these moments, Manzotti replies, but it is still spread out between mind and world. It may take only a fraction of a second for you to become conscious of the face appearing at your window, and then three more years before the same face surfaces in a dream, perhaps mingled with all kinds of other stimuli from elsewhere. But this doesn’t change the fact that consciousness is a coming together of brain and world: the physical process begun at the window is continuing in memory and dream. The congenitally blind, Manzotti points out, don’t dream colors because they have never encountered them. Consciousness is the mingling of mind process with the processes we call objects that are all in a state of flux, however fast or slow.

In other words, the objects of consciousness in dreams are delayed sensory traces processed by memory (as opposed to the near immediate processing of data by eyes, nose, ears, tongue, or skin when we’re awake). A failure of memory, therefore, would be akin to a failure of the eyes: both would represent avenues by which consciousness is short-circuited. But when they’re on, then the world for us is on. I guess it follows that a person without functioning eyes, nose, ears, tongue, skin, and memory would be unconscious in the same way that raindrops and sunshine fail to make a rainbow absent an observer.

Consciousness, in short, is an open field. A prairie.

It reminds me of an Emily Dickinson poem:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one


One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do

If bees are few.

Well, yes, the revery will do if you have memory; that is, if you can recall in solitude or dream what it once felt like to dance amidst the clovers and bees. But if the prairie, the clover, and the bee have not been objects of your experience—or you’ve simply forgotten them—you can’t be in revery about them. (You can be, of course, in revery about your inner prairie, which may consist of different objects of recalled attention.)

Bringing up a literary artist like Emily Dickinson here seems apt, for Manzotti has also edited a book on externalism applied to aesthetics: Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin. In the preface he clarifies what he means, exactly, by externalism:

If you believe that handling a tool is constitutive of your cognitive process, then in our view you are an externalist. […] Mind is constituted by events, processes, or circumstances involving the world external to the body of the subject. […]

Essentially there are two fundamental intuitions at stake: either the mind is made up of neurons the same way mechanical force is produced by muscles even though in a much more complex maner, or the supervenience basis of the mind somehow extends beyond the body boundaries.

I like this way of looking at consciousness. I think I too am an externalist.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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