Is the Mind Like a Rainbow?Share
"Much of Western philosophy has circled around the apparently unsolvable issue of the conscious mind and the relation between consciousness and the world.(...) Here we will consider a radical conceptual move as to what consciousness might be and its effects on art"
Much of Western philosophy has circled around the apparently unsolvable issue of the conscious mind and the relation between consciousness and the world. Is consciousness made of the same stuff as the physical world? This issue has been key to the way in which Western art has been both conceived and performed. Here we will consider a radical conceptual move as to what consciousness might be and its effects on art.
Either directly or indirectly, most of Western art is based on the idea that there is a distinction between appearance and reality and that art is a device to operate on the former in order to peer into the latter. For instance, during the Renaissance the introduction of perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti was first and foremost a theory of perception that created a new kind of observer. A century later, it didn’t happen by chance that Diego Velasquez painted the first phenomenal cinematic movements in Las Hilanderas after Descartes and Galileo pushed the mind into a private domain of subjective and private phenomenal content.
The relation between appearance and reality is paramount to understanding Western art. When the mind had been separated from the world, art was then targeted to produce a world of images for private consumption by individual subjects. Science, art, and the layman live in the conceptual playground defined by the contrast between the mind and the world – a perfect allegory is offered by René Magritte’s oil on canvas, The Human Condition (1933).
Yet, even the most widespread and established worldviews may require revisions – sometimes very radical ones. In fact, ‘the mind’ is still one of the vaguest notions we have. Notwithstanding the recent impressive technical developments in neuroscience, no accepted theory of the nature of the mind is on the horizon. It is significant that many mind-oriented scholars show a considerable interest in aesthetics (from neuroaesthetics to situated aesthetics).
The biggest problem with the mind is that, ever since the aforementioned Descartes and Galileo, Western scholars have struggled against an apparently impossible task – to decide whether the mind is made of physical stuff or of something altogether different. The latter option is unscientific and thus undesirable. Unfortunately, a physical mind presents formidable obstacles – the biggest one is the fact that, as far as we know, the mind does not share any property of the physical world.
The mind represents the world. We experience our surroundings. We see the sky, smell flowers. We hear beautiful melodies. Nonetheless, as it has been observed countless times, if you peer inside the brain of someone who is watching a green field of grass, you are not going to find anything green. The brain is just a brain: gray, bloody, and in the dark. To the best of our knowledge, in the natural world, everything is just what it is. A brain is a brain and a field of grass is a field of grass, each in its place.
So, to make a long story short, a scientific explanation of consciousness is still missing. It is still largely a mystery that, although the brain lurks in the dark of our cranium, when we open our eyes, we see the bright light of the sun.
We’ve just got to the core of the problem. Most scientists are convinced that the piece of the physical world that produces the mind has to be inside of the body and likely inside the brain. After all, no one has ever reported a conscious state without a working brain. Brain damage can impair conscious experience, and the brain might appear to produce experiences without external stimuli, as in dreams or hallucinations.
Nevertheless, contrary to such a wealth of evidence, neural activity does not look like our conscious experience. Rather, neural activity looks as different as it can both from our experience and from the world. Consider this. You look at a bell-shaped yellow-and-violet flower. Your conscious experience represents, in some vague but intuitively strong sense, a bell-shaped yellow-and-violet flower. The fact is that in the brain nothing is bell-shaped yellow-and-violet. How is it possible that the activity of an object like the brain concocts the conscious experience of a bell-shaped yellow-and-violet flower? Nobody knows.
As a result of these persisting – and apparently insurmountable – difficulties, some are starting to question the assumption that the brain is sufficient for conscious experience. A few daring authors have proposed that the body and the external world are necessary constituents of our mind – an idea that may be advanced with different degrees of boldness. Here we will consider a very bold possibility – namely that our consciousness is not the result of the brain alone, but that, surprisingly, our consciousness is literally constituted by the surrounding physical world. Thus, anything we have an experience of is real.
Here on The Creativity Post, Alva Noe, recently reassessed his main view that the mind is not a property of neural activity but of activities that extend beyond the brain to the body and the world. It is a strong hypothesis that echoes other path-breaking authors such as James J. Gibson, Francisco Varela, and Noe’s colleague and friend Kevin O’Regan. Noe’s is a daring view that received its share of criticism by many neuroscientists. Yet such a hypothesis may not be bold enough. For one, it shifts the focus of the explanations from the issue of representation to that of knowledge. Yet, knowledge is no more easily translatable in natural terms than mental representation. In the natural world, knowledge does not fit seamlessly with atoms, quarks, bosons, and force fields. Furthermore, it is fair to maintain that the set of correspondences between action and sensory inputs is not wide enough to account for the richness of mental content.
Let’s then consider a more radical hypothesis. When you look at a rose, what is the physical portion of the world that is “you”? Is it a piece of the brain? Is it the brain and the body engaged in some interactions with the surroundings? Where are you exactly? What are you? The hypothesis that I put forward is that you are the rose and that the rose is a process that takes place between the material you have in front of you and your body-and-brain. So, in a rather strong sense, you are the world. You are what is around you – to use the poet Wallace Stevens’ words.
The gist of the hypothesis is that the whole issue of the separation between consciousness and world might simply vanish once a different perspective is adopted. Thus, the very notion of mental representation becomes useless, just like those of absolute space and phlogiston. To perceive the world is to be the world that is perceived.
How is this identity between us and the world possible? The trick is that the world you have an experience of – when you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste – is not a pre-constituted gallery of entities. The objects we experience come into existence as a result of the interaction between their matter and our bodily structure. The beholder’s body is the key that unlocks the existence of these objects or, if you prefer, the body is the physical device that allows a world of objects to exist.
Being in a room provides a way for the room to take place. If you were not in a given room, the stuff that is there would be engaged in totally different causal processes. You experience these processes rather than a world of autonomous and isolated entities. You and the world are one, taking place in time.
Consider the beautiful example offered by the rainbow. You look at a cloud under the proper light conditions. You see a rainbow. Would the rainbow be there if you were not looking at it? No. The raindrops would be there, as well as the sunrays, but the curved, colored shape called “rainbow” would not be there. It is a fact that without a beholder no physicist can point to a particular rainbow in the sky. Without a beholder, there is simply no rainbow. Where is the rainbow? It cannot not simply be “there” in the cloud. The rainbow is spread in time and space from the cloud up to the beholder’s brain. This view has elsewhere been called the “spread mind”.
The conceptual move I advocate suggests extending the intuition about the rainbow to every object we have an experience of. Looking at, touching, smelling, hearing, tasting something is a way to let something take place. Our consciousness would then be that process that takes place because of our bodily structure.
One may advance a series of objections, of course. On one hand, it may be argued that these processes do not take place inside the body. However, why should consciousness be constituted only by internal processes? There is nothing magic or special about a process-taking place inside the skin. It may turn out that, surprisingly, the physical underpinnings of consciousness are more extended than those of the skin. On the other hand, neural processes are extended in time and space, too.
Thus far, neuroscience has focused mainly on the neural portion of the processes involved. Yet it may be that the alleged sufficiency of the brain for conscious experience is not stronger than the sufficiency of lungs for blood re-oxygenation. If we had ignored the existence of the air, we may have developed the idea that lungs are sufficient to regenerate our blood. However, we may later discover that lungs work only because they are in contact with air. Likewise, the brain may support consciousness only because it is coupled with a surrounding environment.
Our experience of art is no exception. If the boundaries of one’s consciousness are not limited to one’s body, that means that the mind is physically spread. Thus, we became the art we are exposed to. Art becomes a way to shape the real physical world and not simply a device to stimulate the beholder’s mental world. If you look at Picasso’s oil on canvas The Model and the Painter, you’ll see that the familiar shape of a face appears only on a canvas at the intersection between the object (the model) and the subject (the painter). The face does not exist before that interaction. Subject and object are just different ways to address the process that fleshes out the world we are familiar with.
Image: Pablo Picasso, Painter and Model, 1928 Oil on canvas,