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Book Review:
Biology of Consciousness book
Splits Author and Reviewer

Out of our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness

Alva Noe, 2018


Reading Alva Noe's book, Out of our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness reminded me of the lesson I learned at CC, in grad school and in subsequent reading: philosophy is hard with treacherous undercurrents. It's possible to begin a philosophical argument from seemingly sound assumptions, proceed carefully and logically to articulate a complex and interesting argument, only to end up with highly questionable conclusions.


Proceeding from the parts of Noe's perspective and arguments with which I agree the most, to arguments I believe are questionable or uncertain to positions with which I disagree:


1. On p. 13, “Maybe consciousness depends on reliable interactions between what is going on in the brain and what is going on in non-brain parts of the body. It could even turn out that consciousness depends on interactions between brain and the body and bits of the world nearby.”  And on pp. 48-49, “neural systems (are) elements of a larger system that includes the rest of the animal's body and also its situation in and interaction with the environment. Perhaps the proper scale at which to make sense of neural function – that is of the contribution that brain makes to mind – is that of the living environmentally situated animal itself.” And on p. 10, “Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body and world.” It is remarkable (if true), that insisting on the inextricable link between the human brain and body would be viewed as daring and unorthodox in neuroscience; ditto for the idea that human consciousness can be described and understood independent of a social environment.  However, there are apparently brain scientists and computer scientists who take seriously the idea of a conscious brain in a vat, an idea Noe rightly describes as absurd, so clearly this author is responding vehemently to some weird ideas!  

2. I strongly agree with Noe's views regarding identity and consciousness: I'm not my brain or any other part of my body, or my genes, upbringing, values, beliefs, past experiences, relationships, etc.  but all of these shape my identity. However,  Noe takes this argument too far. He questions the idea that “We think of ourselves … as dependent on our brains in a special sort of way (p.11).” It's easy to think of having a heart transplant, kidney transplant or artificial hip without altering one's identity, but not a brain transplant. The question regarding the relationship between brain, mind and identity is a dilemma for everyone verging on 'old' old age. What if dementia strips a person or a loved one of memories? Is this the same person, or has the person's identity been stripped and ravaged in an unalterable way? ​

3. In the last chapter of the book, Noe repeatedly attacks the view that “the brain alone makes us conscious (p. 172).” In my view, he does a thorough job demolishing the idea that the brain is solely responsible for consciousness.  Nevertheless, throughout the book Noe sprinkles      sentences such as the following:

“None of this is meant to challenge the pivotal role of the brain and nervous system in the whole story (p.80).”

“There is no human or animal life without a nervous system (p. 71).”

“And, of course the brain, too, is a necessary element of the story (p.65).”

“If the character of our mental lives depends on what's going on in the brain, and it does … (p.48)”

“Only creatures with the right kind of brains can have certain kinds of experiences, and to events in consciousness there doubtless correspond neural events (p.42).”

And amazingly, on p. 45, “I don't rule out the possibility of artificial robotic consciousness.” Unfortunately, Noe offers no explanation of what “artificial robotic consciousness” would be.  Perhaps a disembodied entity such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? In these passages, Noe acknowledges that the brain is necessary – but not sufficient – for consciousness. I question whether this unexceptional view justifies several of his bold assertions, such as:

  • “… there is no thing inside of you that makes you conscious (p.7).”

  • “… consciousness has no locus inside us (p. 24).”

  • “Consciousness does not occur in our brains … (p.76).”

  • “Brains don't think… the world shows up thanks to our interaction with it. It is not made in the brain or by the brain (p. 164).”


4.  I begin to part company with Noe as he more fully articulates his ideas regarding what brains are for, i.e., first and foremost to guide humans'  “dynamic interaction with the things around us (p. 164).” As obvious as this sounds, it's only part of the story of mind and brain; the other part has to do with self regulation and internal coordination of an enormously complex organism with physical, social and spiritual needs. The brain itself is a complex social entity, as Michael Gazzinaga and other neuroscientists have pointed out for decades. It's no small task to achieve the integration of multiple brain structures and functions. There is limited understanding as yet regarding how this is accomplished by brain, body and nervous system, working in concert with parts of the physical and social environment.     


 5. Noe does not do justice regarding the extent to which the human mind imagines and constructs the world through symbols, including the creation of fantastic intellectual structures, e.g, belief systems, myths, rituals and theories in no way determined by the physical world. In day to day life, the world around us is both perceived and thoroughly imagined, so much so that anyone who perceives any part of the world directly without the haze of fantasy, fear, desire, projection and self interest has achieved something extraordinary. This is a life long task for anyone with a reflective capacity.


6. Consciousness is layered in ways that Noe does not discuss.  The variety and functions of internal mental/ emotional states seems to have little or no interest for him. His discussion of dreaming is not adequate. He might have plausibly said that dreaming is a way in which the mind emotionally processes experiences, including social experiences, by disassembling common elements of experience, including feelings, and recreating the world imaginatively,  for purposes that have never been adequately explained; but he doesn't.    Noe is not comfortable with the discussion of internal states that are detached from the external environment revealed by the senses. The existence of a wide range of these internal states, both positive and adverse, does not contradict his main argument,  but it does indicate that his perspective on brain and mind leaves much unexplained and not even acknowledged.

6.  I'm interested in what Noe calls “access consciousness” (p. 9), experiences that can be recalled and verbally described vs. the quick intuitive unconscious calculations of Daniel Kahneman's System 1. (see Thinking Fast and Slow). Noe uses a broad definition of consciousness that other philosophers might name 'awareness', or even 'experience'.  In my view, cognitive psychologists such as Kahneman and Tversky, rather than neuroscientists, have achieved the most insight into the internal workings of System 1, i.e.,  automatic thinking, and System 2, i.e.,  deliberate thinking, in recent decades. System 1 is quick, intuitive, effortless, with unlimited amounts of energy, strongly influenced by emotions and afflicted by several powerful heuristic biases, such as confirmation bias and halo effect. System 2 is slow and deliberate, with limited energy, and therefore lazy. Conscious thinking in the sense of “access consciousness” is usually employed only when System 1 is inadequate to the task at hand, that is when problems arise that cannot be solved quickly by intuition or habit, or to appreciate peak experiences, e.g.,  love, joy, ecstasy, selfless awareness.  Meditation and mindfulness are disciplines intended to increase the ratio of System 2 positive experiences, or the daily experience of mental/ emotional equilibrium, to System 1 “below the radar” awareness.  The neural correlates of the interaction of these two mental/ emotional systems have yet to be described or scientifically explained.   

7. Noe includes several dubious analyzes of brain research,  the most questionable of which is his attack on the idea that the brain “constructs” the sensory world, especially vision. Noe's idea that the world “shows up” in consciousness (p.26), and is in no way constructed or represented by the brain is sure to be disputed by brain scientists who understand the relevant research better than I do, by far. However, it does not take a neuroscientist to understand that there are more options than the world “showing up” vs. accepting the idea that the world is a “grand illusion”, (pp. 129-148). Various animal species experience the world through different sensory modalities, in some cases to an unimaginable degree, thus the famous article by Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” (1974) The experience of humans is based in part on specific ways of organizing a vast array of sensory information. The world “shows up” in perception differently for humans and bats, but neither of these worlds is a “grand illusion” or a trustworthy mirror of “reality”, if such an idea still has meaning.

-- Dee Wilson

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