Brain Pickings

The Rainbow as a Metaphor for Understanding Consciousness

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‘The viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.’

The question of what makes us human has long occupied scientists and philosophers alike, and holding the promise of an answer is an understanding of consciousness.

Over at The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks talks to Riccardo Manzotti, who holds degrees in engineering and philosophy and teaches in the psychology department at Milan’s IULM University. Manzotti, a “radical externalist,” offers a model of consciousness he calls Spread Mind, proposing that consciousness is an intermediary between various distinct processes. The rainbow, he says, is the perfect example. Parks explains:

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them… But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the ‘internalists’ who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

(So even though Brian Cox’s explanation of why everything is connected to everything else may have been proven less than scientifically wholesome as it applies to quantum mechanics, the message at its heart might just be true of human consciousness.)

Manzotti is the author of Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin, which synthesizes the results of a workshop taking an externalist approach to art and examines the intersection of cognitive science and art.

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