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Out of Our Heads

Why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness.
Denyse O'Leary | 21 May 2009
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Out of Our Heads comes with endorsements from neurologist Oliver Sacks ("a book that should be read by everyone who thinks about thinking") and materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett (“Those of us who disagree with some of its main conclusions have our work cut out for us.”) so no serious brain boffin is going to ignore this work. In it, Alva Noë, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, tackles the most basic issue in neuroscience—consciousness:

"It is sometimes said that the neuroscience of consciousness is in its infancy. But that’s not quite right, as it suggests that progress will take care of itself: it’s just a matter of time and the normal process of maturation. A better image might be that of inexperienced hikers out on the trails without any clear idea where they are: they are lost and don't even know it!"
Noë writes “to shake up the cognitive science establishment”. He takes aim at the “new skepticism” represented by, for example, philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist Susan Blackmore for whom consciousness is an illusion created by the activity of neurons -- to say nothing of the “astonishing hypothesis” of Francis Crick that “you are nothing but a pack of neurons”.

Noë hopes to show a way forward. His central thesis is that

"... the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn't something that happens inside us: it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us."

The greatest strength of Out of Our Heads is the way in which Noë confronts the true significance of research findings that are often obscured for the public by materialist bias in the popular science media. For example, he notes, “It is disturbing to learn that so far there are no theoretically satisfying or practically reliable criteria for deciding when a person with brain injury is conscious or not.” It certainly is disturbing if you followed the Terry Schiavo case, or have watched the relentless advance of euthanasia legislation (though Noë avoids that issue).

He does discuss the implications of remarkable neuroscience studies like those of the late engineer and physiologist Paul Bach-y-Rita, who showed that blind people could be taught to “see” using their tactile sensations:

"... when the camera was mounted on the head or shoulder of the person, visual information presented to the camera that in turn produced tactile sensations on the body enabled the person to make judgements about the size, shape, and number of objects placed on the other side of the room. By deploying the substitution system, the blind person was able to reach out and pick up objects, and even swat at a ball successfully with a Ping-Pong paddle."
Bach-y-Rita’s device was not commercially practical for a number of reasons, but it established that perception is plastic, not fixed in one part of the brain.

Out of Our Heads is more interesting than many neuroscience works because Noë frequently uses popular culture themes -- for example, movies such as Blade Runner or the role of text messaging in modern teen life.

He raises vital issues but, unfortunately, he fails to offer a convincing solution. Arguing that consciousness must be understood as involving the body and the environment as well as the brain, he offers platitudes such as, “Where do you stop and where does the rest of the world begin?” An interesting question, but if consciousness is real — and not well described by materialist theory — we are no closer to an answer even if our brains, bodies, and environment are all one world. He offers only a different description of the problem.

Noë seems to want to move away from reductive explanations, but not away from the materialism that underlies them. So he ends up with non-reductive explanations that still don’t explain. By the time he ends up arguing that most human language is like dogs barking, he sounds like the people he critiques.

He seems to fear attack by materialist fanatics, so he keeps stressing that he supports “Evolution” — in situations where it appears irrelevant. I doubt the gods of evolution will accept his sacrifice, but I am, admittedly, no prophet.

For those interested in following the debate on this book, there is an interview with glitzy Salon by Gordy Slack. Here’s a podcast with him. And here’s a videocast. Here is one of his critics.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of The Spiritual Brain

 

 

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