Tim Parks on consciousness

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If the mind is marooned in the head, pulling levers and pushing buttons (alone or in a team) to tell the body what to do — then our knowledge of the outside world will always be suspect. How can I know a world if I’m not part of it, if I’m stuck in Plato’s cave unable to experience the reality without, if I’m seeing colors where there are no colors, smelling smells when, as Galileo would have it, there are no smells?[1]

  1. The popular and orthodox view [of consciousness]: It is produced by your brain and exists exclusively in your head. This is supported by almost all neuroscientists and many philosophers. Most textbooks give this view as proved.
  2. The minority enactivist view: Consciousness arises from our active engagement with the world and requires both subject and object to happen so that conscious experience is extended through the body and into the environment. This view is supported by some philosophers and a few neuroscientists.
  3. The minority Spread Mind view: Experience is made possible by the meeting of the perceptive system and the world, but actually located at the object perceived, identical with it even; in short, experience is the same thing as the object.[2]

The present orthodoxy is that there are black holes, but no smells. We are in the Platonic cave and need instruments of every kind to look at the higher reality outside, even though what we actually experience are only readings on instruments. We are trapped on one side of a Cartesian duality wondering what’s on the other, constructing a hypothetical ‘reality’ in figures, predictions and ideas.[3]

While the brain may be ‘responsible’ for the pain we feel in other parts of the body, it is apparently immune to pain itself. You don’t feel a scalpel cutting into it.[4]

Consciousness is all change, accumulation, dispersion, things that unexpectedly remain active, or repeat themselves, over years and years, a few words a teacher said at school, still very much in hearing range — things you thought had gone but suddenly come back — the smell of a certain red sauce they poured on ice cream in your infancy wafts by you fifty years later at a street corner [in a far different place] — and things you imaged would remain, must remain, they hurt so much or give so much pleasure, and yet are quite gone, or so it seems; in fact there must be many such things you don’t even know you’ve lost; you performed them once, then never again.[5]

[1] Parks, Tim. Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, New York Review of Books, New York, 2018: 32.

[2] Ibid, 129.

[3] Ibid, 156.

[4] Ibid, 207.

[5] Ibid, 267.