on 8 June 2010
Alva Noe is a good philosopher, and the argument he presents in this book is worth taking seriously. As a philosopher too (who should disclose that he has traded words and shared parties with Alva), I'm not convinced entirely by his case, but I find the general drift quite persuasive. Essentially, the prevailing orthodoxy that minds are implemented by brains is conceptually lazy and possibly only half the truth, but we have our work cut out trying to go beyond it. Noe has made a brave start. Naturally, there's still an awful lot of mileage in the mind-brain orthodoxy, and much of the hard science in the area would be incomprehensible without it, in some form, but minds extend beyond brains and are sustained in being by more than brains. As an intuition pump here, imagine that minds are like money. Dollar bills and so on implement money, but money is a lot more, even if you exclude collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and so on as beyond the pale. Minds are part of a huge public institution by which we build our organized and collective appreciation of nature and our place in it. Noe sees something like this (my gloss on the view is of course my own to live down) and gives the view a hearty helping hand. My reservation (hence four stars) is over the rather folksy rhetoric that decorates the book. This creditably personal style makes the hard core argument easier and smoother reading, and many will welcome it for that reason, but for me as a logical purist is was rather ad hominem. Anyway, that said, read this book in conjunction with Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind. The basic message is the same. This is a message whose time is coming, I think. And Noe has done a great job in putting it out there for all interested readers to enjoy.
on 4 August 2012
This is a wonderful little book. Noë has deliberately avoided 'the jargon and insider-speak, the styles of language and argumentation that already presuppose that one is a member of the cognitive science club' and he has been brilliantly successful in doing so. Having read this book, I was able to go on and read Evan Thompson's much more difficult and comprehensive 'Mind and Life'. Coming back to Noë again, I could see how much he'd synthesised in his easily accessible prose. It's a good compare and contrast too with Andy Clark's 'Supersizing the Mind'. Although apparently a very similar thesis, Clark retains the traditional view of understanding mind in terms of cognitive brain function; he doesn't 'get' the fundamental point that this treats human beings as cognitive devices rather than creatures at home in an environment they 'enact' through their engagement with it. Noë 's thinking is grounded in phenomenology - Merleau-Ponty in particular - and for readers like me who've heard of this kind of philosophy but don't know much about it, it makes a superb introduction. It is much more than a book about neuroscience or even the philosophy of consciousness. It is also a very HUMAN book that as he says tries to show 'that science and humanist styles of thinking must engage with each other'. So it includes telling and touching examples about his immigrant father's loss of his 'life-world' and the man on the train who couldn't understand his 6 year old son's question about the man's dog. Noë practises what he preaches - what reviewer Andrew Ross saw as `ad hominem' folksy rhetoric' appealed to me as a kind of passionate conviction that is too often edited out of the literature of philosophy and science
on 22 October 2010
Like a good Buddhist challenging ego-centric Westerners to point to where their interior, individuated selves might be, Alva Noe challenges the neuroscientific orthodoxy which tries to nail consciouness to the brain. After all, has anybody ever been found to be in their head? Has any post-mortem revealed an interior self or homunculus? No, most of our lives is out of our heads. Our consciousness is in the world and moves around and has its effects out there, not in here. Being's being in the head is an experientially based presumption of scientists who don't realize how thorough-going their own intellectualism is - and go on to obliviously found whole scientific descriptions on this unexamined starting point; their personal experience of interiority. This book begins deconstructing those unfounded and philosophically [even scientifically] errant presuppositions.
Drawing existentially on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and theoretically on contemporary work in the field of situated cognition [which he here makes popular and accessible], Alva Noe begins to establish a legitimately sustained place for consciouness in the processes of the world. Why should I claim information is being processed in my head [where no one has ever actually located information, in spite of trying] when I have a pen and notepad in my hand, on which I am working out an equation? Look, the writing miraculously appears, the very substrate of my thought - there, in the world! Why locate that information processing where it has never been found as such; doing so is a cartesian prejudice. Why say my neurons are the substrate of my memory when I, equally, have images on my laptop? We are outside our heads, or at least contiguous with a world in which divisions of interior and exterior can only ever be relative. To make a cut in the contiguity of cause and effect, as this information arises on the screen, is to lay down a political and experiential marker, delimiting a supposedly independent consciousness. Where are these words? Where is the 'meaning' of these words? In systems biology, there is no privileged level of causation, equally there is no location sustained without the world, that looks at the world and controls it.
This brief publication is a good, popularizing punt, but Alva Noe has some way to go yet before he can describe an experience of consciouness, which is both fully fleshed out and established in the continuous material of the world, as well as the present paradigm forces many people, unfortunately, to live in the material inside their heads. However, if you are stuck inside your head - at least partially due to the tyranny of the dualistic divides of orthodox science - this book may help you, to some degree, get out of it.
on 23 August 2011
This book gives a concise outline of the idea that consciousness derives from the environment outside the brain. It revolves round the author's interpretation of experiments. A study with ferrets showed that if their eyes were connected to their auditory rather than their visual cortex, the animals were able to see. Another study with blind patients involved a device connecting a camera to vibrators attached to the body of the patient. Visual information entering the camera produced vibrations on the skin that were transmitted to the somatosensory cortex. From signals in this area of the brain normally producing tactile experience, the patient was able to judge the size, shape and number of nearby objects, and to pick up the objects.
The real query is over the author's interpretation of these studies. His suggestion is that because areas of the brain can be persuaded to process a different modality from their normal one, then it is not the brain that produces the experience.
It is hard to see why this should be the case. The author makes much of the fact that the different sensory cortices do not have types of neurons. This is supposed to indicate that the different modalities cannot arise in the brain, but all that looks justified is a statement that different modalities are not a function of types of neurons. The evidence of these studies would rather indicate that neurons can differentiate between varying types of electrical nerve impulses produced by visual, auditory and tactile data.
An alternative explanation might be acceptable if there was an attempt here to explain a physical mechanism by which conscious could be generated by the environment outside the brain. It is further surprising that the evidence for correlaltes of consciousness in specific brain processing is not discussed.