Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Consciousness: Best understood as like dancing, not digesting?

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noë. Hill and Wang, 2009

Alva No, a University of California, Berkeley, philosopher and cognitive scientist, argues that after decades of concerted effort on the part of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers "only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious ... has emerged unchallenged: we don't have a clue." The reason we have been unable to explain the neural basis of consciousness, he says, is that it does not take place in the brain.

Consciousness is not something that happens inside us but something we achieve
it is more like dancing than it is like the digestive process. To understand consciousness the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element.
Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body and world. "You are
not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are."

I must get this book and read it.

The typical materialist, of course, wants to understand consciousness as like digesting, not dancing - and that position has been a total flop that makes the American auto sector look prosperous.

Here's a review:
Although Noë is a philosopher, his argument is carefully built on scientific evidence, as he considers everything from studies of cells in the visual cortex to examples of neural plasticity. In each instance, he interprets the data in a startlingly original fashion, such as when he uses experiments showing that ferrets can learn to "see" with cells in their auditory cortex as proof that "there isn't anything special about the cells in the so-called visual cortex that makes them visual. Cells in the auditory cortex can be visual just as well. There is no necessary connection between the character of experience and the behavior of certain cells."

Certainly, many of the scientists cited by Noë would disagree with his interpretations, but that's part of what makes this book so important: It's an audacious retelling of the standard story, an exploration of the mind that questions some of our most cherished assumptions about what the mind is.