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8/12/14

Notes from "Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from The Biology of Consciousness," by Alva Noë

Are you your brain, or something else?


In this book Alva Noë presents his well-informed view of modern thinking and research on consciousness and the brain. He does not subscribe to the mainstream consensus.

Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley, Alva Noë has taken a refreshing approach to the academically hot topic of consciousness. Book after book on consciousness has the same worldview underpinning it. Not here. I found this book quite original and exceptionally clear in its ideas. And, I should add, it is very interesting. In his style and exposition, Noë did not write for his colleagues but for lay readers such as I am, and for that I am thankful. He turned out a remarkable book, which I could not put down. I offer notes, not a book review. Here they are:


  • The prevailing neuroscientific view--the way neuroscientists tend to think about consciousness--is that it must be something that happens in the human brain just as digestion takes place in the stomach. This is the now standard view. Our conscious lives--the fact that we think and feel and that “a world shows up for us”--is achieved in us by the action of our brain. The brain affects images of the environment and manipulates those images in a process known as thought. The brain calculates and infers and eventually produces neural commands so that we act. The standard view is that we really are our brains, and our bodies are at most robotic tools at our brains' disposal.
  • According to this view, the brain, then, is the sole author of what is in fact a grand illusion—the illusion that we inhabit a richly detailed and meaningful world, that we are the sorts of beings we think we are. What are we, then?
  • Noë distills the standard view, using a metaphor. He likens the mainstream view to this: we are brains in vats on life support. Our skulls are the vats and our bodies the life support systems that keep us going. This is how mainstream neuroscience and science fiction writers would have it.
  • Noë disagrees with the prevailing view. Among his many analogies, he offers various proposals. One is that maybe consciousness is like money. Your consciousness--with all its questions for you now--depends not only on what is appearing in your brain, but also on your history and your "current position and interaction with the wider world." In short, you are not a brain in a vat. Noë says that your body is also in the world. You look at a tomato. You know it has another side, though you can't see it. But you can get up from your chair and walk to its other side. Images of the tomato are inverted on the retinas of your eyes, but neither you nor your brain see the images on the retinas. The orientation of the retinal image is irrelevant to you. "Once we appreciate it isn't what we see, we lose a grip on what it means to say" the image is upside down. Upside down, relative to what? It's a pseudo problem that rests on the brain's scrutiny of a "retinal image to turn the image right side up and learn about the world."
  • Noë uses the movie Blade Runner to make a point. In that movie, Replicants appear identical to humans, although they have no innards. There is great prejudice among humans against Replicants. Yet in every way they behave like humans, with the same feelings, from fear to compassion. The movie has as one theme, Why the prejudice if there is no difference? Noë uses it as an analogy to say this to the proponents of the prevailing view: Just as in the Replicants, there is no necessary connection between who we are and what we are made of. Why should we create a connection that we cannot perceive or feel?
  • Toward the end of his book, Noë calls the prevailing view the Foundation Argument. He says that argument is false. It holds that because we can induce consciousness experiences by electrodes implanted in the brains of monkeys or people, the brain causes consciousness. These impulses, he observes, are only fleeting events, not the whole of consciousness. We affect consciousness by interplay with our loved ones, driving a car, making a speech, talking with others at the office. He says that the Foundation Argument derives from Cartesian origins. Although DesCartes did not believe in a little man inside us, a homunculus, that orchestrated our interactions with the world, he nonetheless altered the way we look at the world. With his Cartesian split he altered the world view so that we seek a consciousness cause as something exclusively inside rather than in an interplay with the world. The idea that we are our brains is not something scientists have learned by gathering facts about consciousness. It is a preconception they bring to research. It's a prejudice, not based in scientific fact.

  • Out or Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from The Biology of Consciousness, by Alva Noë.

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