You Are the World

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 Manzotti, 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?

Read the full excerpt here.