Alva Noe on consciousness. Why You Are Not Your Brain
"You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." — Francis Crick, nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist“You are not your brain. You have a brain, yes. But you are a living being that is connected to an environment; you are embodied, and dynamically interacting with the world. We can’t explain consciousness in terms of the brain alone because consciousness doesn’t happen in the brain alone. (…)
"The idea that we could think that the brain is not only part of the story, but the whole story, is, well, it is unfounded. It is religious in its scope and reach. Mental phenomena are not neural phenomena. We have no better reason to think that mental lives happen in our brains than we do that speech happens in our mouths." — Alva Noe, Beyond Brain Reading: Making Sense Of Brain Behavior from NPR Blogs: 13.7: Cosmos And Culture
We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.
A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.
And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work.
Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not that merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.
Visual consciousness relies on a whole set of practical skills that we have, making use of the eyes and the head. I understand that if I move my eyes, I produce a certain kind of sensory change. Perceptual consciousness is a mode of exploration of the world, making use of a certain kind of practical bodily understanding. And that is what dance is. And this makes dance, for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness. (…)
To study experience, to think about the nature of experience, is to look at this two-way dynamic exchange between world and the active perceiver.
Not only is dance a good analogy for what consciousness is, but the experience of watching dance and the way in which we can cultivate our aesthetic appreciation of something like dance is, actually, a good way of thinking about what phenomenology itself could be. What do you see when you look at a dance? You understand the movements and the forms and the patterns of the ensemble in a particular dance environment, which may be a stage or it may be some other kind of environment. To watch a dance is to make sense of this kind of dynamic. (…)
Scientists ask, how does our biological being enable us to have the kinds of experiences we have? That should be understood as a question less about how the function of our brain produces images inside our skull and, rather, about how our full embodiment enables us to carry on as we do in an environment in a situation. This raises an interesting possibility. Maybe we can think of aesthetic experience as a model of the workings at least of an important core of human consciousness—perceptual consciousness. (…)
My view is that traditional philosophy and cognitive science has been asking the wrong question when it comes to pictures. They ask, how does the picture affect us and give rise to an experience in our heads? Instead, what they should ask is how do we achieve a kind of access to Hillary, to properties of Hillary, such as her visual appearance, by exploration of something which is not Hillary, namely, a picture? (…) Once again we are thrown back to this idea that the perceiving is an achievement of access by making use of skills, knowledge. I need to know what Hillary looks like in order to recognize Hillary in her picture. (…)
Scientists ask, what is it about the way these cells are firing in the brain that makes the corresponding experience a visual experience? It’s a trick question because there is nothing about the way those cells are firing that can explain that. Certainly we don’t now know anything that would allow us to point to the intrinsic properties of the cells and say, it’s something about the intrinsic behavior of these cells that makes the resulting experience, the smell of coffee on a rainy morning, or the redness of red. Nor can we say that populations of cells give you the solution.
We have to get bigger than that. It’s not one cell; it’s not populations of cells. We need to look at the whole animals’ involvement with a situation. The thing about a smell is that a smell gives you the space of possible movement sensitive changes. If I am smelling something, the movements of my nostrils in relation to the source of the order will produce changes in the character or the odor. If we want to ask, what is it about this cellular activity that makes it olfactory cellular activity, the answer is going to be the way in which the cellular activity varies as a function of the animal’s movement.
And that is what the brain is doing. The brain is enabling us to establish this kind of sensorimotor engagement with the world around us. (…)
If we want to understand human consciousness or indeed animal consciousness overall, we can’t just look to the brain. We need to look to the embodied, situated animal’s life. No brain scan, no matter how cleverly constructed, is going to reveal the consciousness happening because that is not where the consciousness is happening.
That’s the wrong level of analysis. The consciousness is unfolding in this dynamic. The consciousness is not in the head. (…)
The problem of consciousness is understanding how this world is there for us. It shows up in our senses. It shows up in our thoughts. Our feelings and interests and concerns are directed to and embrace this world around us. We think, we feel, the world shows up for us. To me that’s the problem of consciousness. That is a real problem that needs to be studied, and it’s a special problem. (…)
Our ordinary experience, the kind of richness, the texture, the stability of waking experience, can only be achieved for an organism that is actually locked into the environment in a certain kind of way. If you change the environment or take away the environment, you would alter human consciousness.”
Arnold Trehub's comment on Noe's interview:
“What Alva Noe and others with similar views about consciousness seemingly fail to understand is that the very world with which we are dynamically interacting is both a real and a phenomenal world. It is the real world in which our actions must be adaptive and creative, but—and this is the key point—our consciously initiated actions can only be governed by the features of our phenomenal world. It is the phenomenal world that poses the essential problem of conscious experience.— Alva Noe, Life is the way the animal is in the world: A Talk with Alva Noe, Edge, 2008
Here’s why. The world that you (or I) consciously experience (the phenomenal world) is, in its irreducible form, a global coherent volumetric space in which you are the egocentric origin of all experience and action. The rich and constantly changing content of your phenomenal world cannot exist outside of your phenomenal 3D space that encompasses it. Whatever your conscious experience, it must be an experience of something somewhere in your egocentric phenomenal world. The problem is that humans have no sensory transducers by which to detect and represent the extended coherent 3D space of the world we live in. This means that the brain must have an innate system of biological mechanisms (most likely neuronal) that provide us with a transparent representation of the world from our privileged egocentric perspective. The existence of this conscious egocentric representation of our personal world is a necessary precondition for the kind of active engagement with the world that Alva Noe describes so well.
A final comment. When Noe claims that “… at the present time, we actually can’t give any satisfactory explanations about the nature of human experience in terms of the functioning of the brain”, it appears that he is unaware of a wealth of recently published findings relating brain events to objective measures of phenomenal experience.”
“Consciousness isn’t something that happens; it is something we do or make. And like everything else that we do, it depends both on the way we are constituted — on our brains and bodies — but also on the world around us.
Looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for dance in the legs. (…)
Both Cartesian dualism, with its insistence that the mind is separate from the body, and the contemporary dogma that that the thing inside us that thinks and feels is the brain, share a common premise: that there is a thing inside that thinks and feels and decides and is conscious. It is this assumption, shared by dualist and most neuroscientists alike, that really holds us captive. (…)
There is as of yet no consensus on what a science of human or animal experience should even look like. I propose that what limits us, and what limits our science, is a dual misunderstanding. The first I have already indicated: we suppose that mind is in the head. No, we need to get out of our heads to understand the workings of the mind, to look at the way the animal is closely coupled to and involved with its environment. (…)
We confuse the fabulous success of modern physics with grounds for believing that we live in the world that physics describes. And then we are confronted with the fact that the world of the physicist is a world devoid of colors and sounds and textures and odors and all the other qualities that fill up our experience. This tends to throw us back on our brains again: if the world isn’t really the way we experience it as being, then our experience must be something we confabulate, or that our brains confabulate for us. Back to the Cartesian capsule! (…)
The basic laws of physics that support life are well understood; but this does not imply that we understand, in the terms of physics, how there is life!
The thing is: we do not live in the world of physics. If that were so, then there would be no biology at all. No, humans and other animals live in niches. They, or rather, we, occupy landscapes of values — worlds made up not of quantum lattice structures, but of opportunities and obstacles, affordances and hinderances. Life, including our experiential lives, happen not in clouds of atoms, but on level ground, with others, surrounded by hiding places, food, friends and enemies.
It is there, where we find ourselves, that we find the stage of our active lives and our active experience. We actually have the resources we need to understand ourselves. It is two dogmas of now antiquated modern science — that mind is in the head, and that the world is devoid of meaning unless we, or our brains, give it meaning — that creates the illusion — a meta-cognitive illusion! — that there is a hard problem of consciousness we are unable to solve.”
— Alva Noe, professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, Home Sweet Home: Finding Ourselves, NPR, May 28, 2011.
“Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago,” writes philosopher Alva Noë in his book “Out of Our Heads.”
It’s a bold assertion in an age when fMRI has enabled us to see images of the brain functioning in real time, and when many prominent public intellectuals (Stephen Hawking, Eric Kandel) have argued, either implicitly or vociferously, in favor of reductionism. The “brain-as-calculating machine” analogy assumes that human thought, personality, memory, and emotion are located somewhere in the gray matter protected by the skull. In other words, you — at least, the waking you who gets out of bed in the morning — are your brain.
But you’re not, says Noë. Just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space — it’s something that arises, something that occurs: a verb rather than a noun. And since the publication of Francis Crick’s influential “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul,” scientists have been looking for it in all the wrong places. “
— Big Think, May 2012.
☞ Gordy Slack, You are not your brain, Salon, Mar 25, 2009
☞ Quantum Approaches to Consciousness, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Alva Noe on Life
☞ Consciousness tag on Lapidarium
☞ Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel ‘there is no such thing as a “self” — a “self” is simply the content of a model created by our brain’, TEDx (video)