“Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë


It’s probably not news to most people that philosophers have a tendency to get stuck in their heads. This is especially true in the field of cognitive science, where for several decades the dominant paradigm has lead philosophers (and scientists) to look in the brain for evidence of thought and consciousness. The core metaphor guiding this paradigm is that human cognition is computational—in other words, that the brain is a computer.

While it may still be mainstream, this disciplinary matrix has a growing number of critics. Those philosophers, like David Chalmers, who take consciousness seriously point out that even a complete computational account of brain activity (which is itself still far from feasible) would fail to explain why said activity should be accompanied by experience. If the brain is merely a computer processor—if it is capable of performing all its tasks in a mechanical, algorithmic fashion—why should a world have to show up for it at all?

Proponents of computationalism, like Daniel Dennett, claim that we have too inflated a view of conscious experience. Dennett points to certain visual inadequacies likechange and inattentional blindness as proof that our consciousness of the world is far less complete than we are lead to believe. In fact, Dennett goes so far as to argue that our first-person experience of a richly textured environment is largely an illusion. We don’t see what is there; rather, we see the choppy, low-resolution fantasy the brain clumsily constructs for us.

One might begin by criticizing Dennett for his reduction of consciousness first to perception, and then to visual perception specifically, but even supposing he was right about the over-inflation of consciousness more generally (an insight of Jungiandepth psychology as well as contemporary mind science), the claim that conscious experience is a phantom still hasn’t even begun to explain why we (the brain) should experience such appearances at all. Why can’t the brain perform its functions without “our” having to be aware of the illusion of a world? The computationalist theory of cognition would be true even on an earth populated entirely by zombies or robots. It therefore fails to adequately account for the world we actually live in, that of purposeful projects and meaningful, moral relationships with others.

Dennett’s is one of a family of greedily reductionistic views criticized by Alva Noë in his new book. The book is made not merely of ink, glue, and paper—at least if what he argues for in it is true. If he is right, and consciousness is not lodged in the skull, then his book is literally a piece of his mind. “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness” presents Noë’s case that the dominant paradigm within the cognitive sciences is off the mark.

Rather than looking for consciousness within the confines of the skull by supposing the brain’s job is to internally represent a world it has access to only through the filters of five fallible senses, Noë reminds the forgetful philosopher and scientist alike that thought and perception are tied to action, and that the mind is embodied and embedded in the world. The senses are not windows through which a pre-existing world is mentally reconstructed. Rather, sensory perception is always already motoractivity, always already participating in the appearance and subsequent course of worldly events. We see the horizon not because of “information” encoded by neurons in our visual cortex, but because we are living bodies that can stand upon the earth, turn our heads, and look.

Noë does not believe that Chalmers’ so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a problem at all. He and Dennett are in agreement about this much, but for entirely different reasons. Dennett believes the word “consciousness” is nothing but a cultural idol that continued neuroscience will soon call down off its pedestal. Eventually, he assures us, the “hard problem” will go away because we simply won’t recognize our conscious experience as anything other than an illusion generated by unconscious neural activity.

Noë is of the opinion that though the brain is necessary for consciousness, it is not sufficient for it. He dismisses the “hard problem” as the product of misplaced concreteness: it asks how brain matter might be in the possession of mind and experience, when really these emerge through the dynamic relationships between brain, body, and world and are never “possessed” (or simply located) in the first place.

I am conscious not merely because my brain is doing something special, but because it is coupled to others and the world via language, various levels of emotiveintentionality, and a series of sensorimotor (or perception-action) loops. From Noë’s point of view, a brain in a vat would not be conscious. Only contact with and access to an actual world is sufficient for conscious experience. Being conscious is something we must do, something we constantly achieve together with others and the help of the world itself. Organisms and their environments can only be studied in the abstract as separate systems. To fully understand the evolutionary process of phylogenic adaptation, or the ontogenic process of skillful coping (learning), one must develop a sense for the dynamics of whole organism-environment systems [my essay, “Unearthing the Earth” investigates what the implications of this approach are for our being-on-the-earth].

Noë writes:

We are, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, empty heads turned to the world. The world is not a construction of the brain, nor is it a product of our own conscious efforts. It is there for us; we are here in it. The conscious mind is not inside us; it is, it would be better to say, a kind of active attunement to the world, an achieved integration. It is the world itself, all around, that fixes the nature of conscious experience. (p. 142).

The computational approach to consciousness assumes that consciousness is equal and reducible to intra-cranial neurochemical processes. Noë’s rejoinder is a refreshing reminder that such solipsistic misplaced concreteness is, ironically, a product of the same Cartesian tradition most mainstream theorists rail against. That consciousness is located in the brain, that it has no direct access to the real world but through some internal language of ideas (or mental representations)… these are thoroughly Cartesian presuppositions. Noë suggests we begin not with the abstract thought experiments of lonely philosophers, but with the lived body and its everyday being-in-the-world among others (life-world).

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