by Riccardo Manzotti
Book review by Dr. Gary Ward MBBS BMedSci, BSc
Professor Riccardo Manzotti is a philosopher, psychologist, and AI expert and the author of The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One published in 2017.
Manzotti, currently professor of theoretical philosophy at IULM University (Milan), originally specialized in robotics and artificial intelligence, particularly in the field of artificial vision, where he started to wonder “how can matter have experience of the surrounding world?” 1
Intrigued by this question, he focused his research on the nature of phenomenal experience, how it emerges from physical processes, and how it is related to the object perceived.
In 2014, while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Manzotti presented the Spread Mind Theory (elsewhere dubbed the Mind-Object Identity Theory) which addresses the “hard problem” of consciousness in a completely radical, challenging way.
Manzotti has continued to develop and test this hypothesis, which proposes that one’s consciousness of an object and the external object are the same – they are identical. Manzotti proposes that consciousness of an object is the object. This theory challenges the widespread and popular notion that consciousness resides within the human brain.
In the book, The Spread Mind – Why Consciousness and the World Are One, Manzotti offers a potential solution to a major problem in neuroscience and philosophy that appears simple, elegant and scientifically verifiable.The theory offers a refreshing framework for thinking about the relationship that humanity has with the world.
THE HARD PROBLEM 2
Science and philosophy, at least in the “western” world, have traditionally conceived of the “self” as though it were separate from the world. This dualistic view, often attributed to René Descartes, proposes that mental phenomena are non-physical and that the mind and body are distinct and separable. 3 In both philosophy and religion, the notion of the “soul” persists as a non-physical aspect of humans. It reinforces the view that humans are separate, special, and fundamentally distinct from other processes in the universe.
This dualistic view encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, as well as between subject and object in human experience.
Although Manzotti does not, to my knowledge, acknowledge Dewey and Bentley's work in “Knowing and the Known,” or Dewey’s writing in “Experience and Nature,” the theory of the spread mind articulates an essential message of the philosophy of transactionalism. Manzotti would likely give his emphatic approval to the following quote from Trevor J Phillips in Transactionalism, An Historical and Interpretive Study:
“transactionalists reject any bifurcation of nature implicit in so many dualisms… nature is regarded as a unity in that supernatural or extra natural realms are denied. All that is, is in nature and of nature. Inanimate matter, living organisms, human beings with intelligence, social institutions and culture – all are realities of nature.” 4
Manzotti’s theory of the Spread Mind offers a key perspective for recognizing and challenging an ingrained and dangerous fallacy regarding human consciousness – a fallacy that perpetuates the perspective that we are separate from our environment.
In most of the developed world, we continue as a species to act in a way that asserts separation and attempts to dominate our environment, although we are beginning to recognize that separation and dominance are problematic. Similarly, the prevailing perspective that each human’s consciousness resides within the brain is a perspective that locks us into this same belief system of duality.
Manzotti’s theory addresses not only the problem of “mind-body” duality, but also that of “subject-object” duality” and “organism-environment” duality.
In the case of “mind-body” duality, consider that most people, if asked where their “mind” is, would instinctively point to their head. Even most neuroscientists would assert that memories, our knowledge, our abilities and capacities, and our perceptions of the world are processed, stored and represented in the neural structures of the brain.
However, as neuroscientists map the macroscopic and microscopic details of the human brain and its interplay with the rest of the body and the surrounding environment, they remain baffled by the location and mechanism of consciousness - what is essentially human: our “selves.”
As of this writing, scientists have yet to be able to correlate neural networks in the brain in which the content of consciousness might be stored, suggesting that this correlation may not actually exist. Manzotti suggests that science has given up on searching for the location of consciousness and has fallen back on the notion that “mind” or “consciousness” remains intangible, mysterious, ethereal, or is somehow encapsulated in the equally intangible concept of “sense-data.” 5
In neuroscience, much has been learned about correlations between brain activity and subjective, conscious experiences. Many suggest that neuroscience will ultimately explain consciousness: ‘Consciousness is a biological process that will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways used by interacting populations of nerve cells…’ However, this view has been criticized because consciousness has yet to be shown to be a process and the ‘hard problem of relating consciousness directly to brain activity remains elusive.’ 6
The prevailing idea that consciousness resides as a non-physical aspect of the brain is reminiscent of Dewey’s assertion in Knowing and the Known that “All the spooks, fairies, essences, and entities that once inhabited portions of matter now took flight to new homes, mostly in or at the human body, and particularly the human brain.” 7
In The Spread Mind, Riccardo Manzotti argues that our bodies do not contain “subjective” experience – that if we accept that consciousness is real, then, like the rest of the universe, like any other real phenomenon, perhaps consciousness is physical.
The book starts from the premise that nature, our universe, is all there is. We live in a physical universe, a universe made of objects in process. Therefore, if everything is physical, then perhaps experience or consciousness is also made of objects. If we might for a moment consider consciousness as physical, then where is it? Where is it located? Since neuroscience has failed to find any physical evidence of consciousness in the brain, Manzotti's radical hypothesis is that consciousness is one and the same as the physical world surrounding us: “Consciousness is physical, and it is outside one’s body. Our mind is physical and yet, ironically perhaps, it is neither our body nor our brain (or any property of them).” 8
Manzotti explores the possibility that consciousness is located in the objects of which we are conscious. In some respects, this appeals to common sense. When you consider this perspective, look at your hand. Where does your hand exist? If you are conscious of your hand, perhaps your consciousness is the same as your hand. In the same way, your consciousness of an apple is the apple.
From this perspective, consciousness is no longer an unexpected ethereal addition to the physical world, somehow located in a “mind” somewhere in our head, or even in some ethereal proposed “spirit” world of the universe; but as Manzotti proposes, consciousness is identical with the objects one experiences. Consciousness is where and when the physical objects that one experiences take place.
Manzotti’s theory acknowledges the process-relational nature of all physical structures as “spread” in time and space. Common perception might view a wooden table as a fixed object but, in a process-relational perspective, the table was once a tree and, in the future, may be firewood or termite food. All objects are in process, including the human body.
In addition, objects exist in relation to other objects. Manzotti asks us to consider:
“First and foremost, objects are relative objects. They are relative to other objects rather than, as is the case with idealism, to subjects. This is key. The kind of relativity we are considering is a pure physical notion. It is just like the notion of relative velocity – something that does not require one to step outside of nature.” 9
“Existence is relative. Since objects are bundles of relative properties, objects are relative objects. They are also actual insofar as relative existence always needs to be embodied by an ongoing causal process. Existence is relative and actual.” 10
The theory of the spread mind does not negate the perspective that one’s mind, sense of self, or individual consciousness is personal to each of us, but challenges us to consider that the location of our mind is not within us but is “spread” and consists of the world as we perceive it.
Some may interpret the spread mind theory as a form of “panpsychism,” which is the proposition that the type of mentality we know through our own experience is present, in some form, in a wide range of natural bodies. Some panpsychists ascribe attributes such as life or spirits to all entities. Some would ascribe a primitive form of mentality to entities at the fundamental level of physics - and some “animists,” even rocks or buildings. 11 Manzotti is emphatic that his theory is one of “no-psychism.” 12
Drawing on Einstein's theories of relativity, his own expertise in evidence about the geometry of light in perception and using vivid, real-world examples to illustrate his ideas (including dreams and hallucination), Manzotti argues that consciousness is not a ''movie in the head.'' 13 Experience is not in our head: it is the actual world we move in. 14
In ways reminiscent of the works of American transactionalist philosopher John Dewey and the modern architect of the philosophy of transactionalism, Kirkland Tibbels, Riccardo Manzotti asserts that there is a co-constitutive causal relationship between the objects we experience and the object that is our physical body when he asserts that “We experience the part of nature whose existence is a causal by-product of our bodies.” 15
Manzotti offers an analogy. Just as a dam wall causes a lake to form in the right conditions, the experience of the flow of our lives in relation to the objects we experience causes our consciousness to exist. In this way, the processual flow of our lives in relation to the processual flow of objects fills our “lake” of conscious experience. In this analogy, the lake is made of objects, and is our consciousness. 16
A causal account of objects allows us to merge what we call “experience” and the physical world (“reality”) seamlessly. Objects are no longer static entities, but cause their existence.
“Objects take place relatively to the causal circumstances that our bodies contribute to. They would not exist, as they do, if our bodies were not there; they're not internal to our bodies. They are akin to the relative velocities of things surrounding us. Such relative velocities depend on their own speed and direction, yet they are both physical and relative to us” 17
In this sense “a person is a world that exists causally relative to his /her body. The body is the proxy that allows the objects one experiences to produce effects here and now. In this regard, a person is a physical part of the world like a pebble or a thunderstorm, only the world is not identical with one's body. 18
“We cannot experience what the world would be if our bodies were not there. Likewise what we experience is what the world is when our body is there” 19
“The Spread Mind allows us to find our true nature in the very world that surrounds us. We are the starry sky, the clouds, a rainbow, trees, people, even simple objects such as an apple or a rock. We are not inside our body, we are out there, in the world!” 20
In this theory of the Spread Mind, Manzotti not only offers a perspective in which we can begin to experience our existence and the world as a unity, but he also asserts that this is a theory that aligns more accurately with current scientific evidence. The book provides a wealth of evidence to support the theory, and perhaps just as we mostly now accept the evidence that the world is not flat, and that the theory of evolution best accords with observable data, perhaps it is time to consider the validity of the location of consciousness. Perhaps we might consider that who we truly are is the world: each of us is not our body, but a “soul” and that soul, our consciousness, our “self,” is the physical universe.
And perhaps this perspective, like that offered by the philosophy of transactionalism, might contribute to freeing us from the hazards implicit in a bifurcated, dualistic, disconnected world.
1 Manzotti, Riccardo. "Riccardo Manzotti." Riccardo Manzotti: Philosopher, Psychologist, and AI Scholar. 2023. https://www.riccardomanzotti.com/about/.
2 Illustration of mind-body dualism. Descartes believed inputs were passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit.
3 Descartes, René. Treatise on Man and on the Formation of the Foetus. Paris, 1674.
4 Phillips, Trevor J., foreword by Kirkland Tibbels. 2013. Transactionalism: An Historical and Interpretive Study. 1st ed. Independently Published. 80.
5 Manzotti, Riccardo. 2018. The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One. 1st ed. New York City: OR Books. 230.
6 "Mind-Body Problem." En.Wikipedia.Org. March 13, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind%E2%80%93body_problem.
7 Dewey, John and Arthur F. Bentley. 1949. Knowing and the Known. 1st ed. Boston: The Beacon Press.131.
8 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. viii.
9 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 42.
10 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 44.
11 "Panpsychism." En.Wikipedia.Org. March 22, 2023.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism.
12 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 67.
13 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 69, 84.
14 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. viii.
15 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 21.
17 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 37.16 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 12.
17 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 37.
18 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. viii-ix.
19 Manzotti. The Spread Mind. 59.
20 Manzotti, Riccardo. "The Spread Mind: How to Experience Myself and the World as One." Science and Nonduality. Science and Nonduality (SAND), February 1, 2019. https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/webinar/the-spread-mind-how-to-experience-myself-and-the-world-as-one.