Consciousness: An Object Lesson

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In this interview for The New York Review of Books, Riccardo Manzotti puts forth a view of existence as relative. However, he argues, the fact that reality is subjective and constructed does not make it any less real.

“We live in a time when scientists seem to like nothing better than to expose our everyday view of reality as delusional. They say, ‘You see the color red, but in fact, out there are only atoms; there are no colors. You hear music, but out there, there are no sounds,’ etc. This gives them the authority to describe an entirely different reality, in which deciding between chocolate or strawberry ice cream, say, is nothing more than a matter of warring cohorts of neurons transferring their electrical charges and chemical processes this way and that, while outside your brain there is only a flavorless world of atomic particles. It’s a vision that denies not only our existence—as people choosing between ice-cream flavors—but also the existence of the things we experience: the banana sundae, a new car, paintings, planets, smells, seas. All these macroscopic objects cease to be real. They are all merely subjective. Merely the product of your brain.

The word subjective suggests that a person is somehow inventing what he or she is experiencing, and could perhaps invent it differently. But when I see a red traffic light, I can’t choose to see some other color. The nature of my eyes, my photoreceptors, and my visual cortex is such that when they encounter this phenomenon, it is red. And the red is out there in the street, not in my brain. The color is not a subjective experience, but a relative object. And my experience is the object that, in relation to my body, is that color.”

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