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Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 1: A Shaky Foundation for Neuroscience

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 30 · 19

Professor Alva Noe lays out his challenge to those of us seeking an answer to the question, “What is consciousness?” According to Noe, the foundation used by neuroscience today to answer this question is “highly questionable”.

[The following is based on information that can be found fully described in Alva Noe’s book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. I urge you to read it. My introduction to Alva Noe can be found here.]

This particular post has to do with Alva’s first chapter titled, “An Astonishing Hypothesis.”

Alva doesn’t waste any time in his book getting to the point. I like that. His first chapter is titled, “An Astonishing Hypothesis,” and it certainly is.

One thing that has bugged for me for a long time is the fact that we have been trying to figure out consciousness for centuries. Really? I keep feeling that we should be further along with consciousness research than we are. Yet, we are still pretty much in the dark when it comes to understanding the most vital phenomenon in our life. Why is that?

Back in the 80’s there was an adult PC game that was quite fun and funny called, “Leisure Suit Larry: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” I mention it because Alva Noe is essentially telling us that research into consciousness all these years has been done by a bunch of Leisure Suit Larrys! (My analogy, not his. LOL!) He tells us right up front that scientists have been looking for consciousness in – not many places, but rather one wrong place specifically – inside our head, as if that is the only place consciousness could be found. I have to ask, “Who in their right mind would ever think otherwise?” LOL! So this is a commonly held assumption, but Is it true and if not, why do scientists continue to believe it?

By the way, Alva gives one of the simplest, yet most elegant definitions of consciousness I’ve ever come across: consciousness can be defined as the fact that we feel, we think, and that the world shows up for us. Short, sweet and to the point. I love it! However, I won’t say that this is all of Noe’s philosophy “in a nutshell,” as he is also known to also say that if you can fit your entire philosophy or research program into a nutshell, it probably belongs there. ? This definition is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Once you look at the various definitions of consciousness  in use today, they essentially boil down to say something along this line. So, generally, this is an accurate definition.

He reminds us that it is possible to accept this definition of consciousness without ever believing that there is “…a place, or a moment in time, when and where consciousness happens or comes to be inside of us.”[i] Yet, that is exactly what scientists believe, that consciousness is in us, inside of, comprised of, or coequal with our brain. Alva says, and he’s not wrong, that the fact that the majority of scientists today researching consciousness have completely overlooked a rather obvious alternative “theoretical possibility” regarding consciousness is “striking”. (While I agree with Alva Noe here, I think that I know why scientists have missed this alternative theory – because they have been and are still, laboring under a very powerful paradigm. Alva Noe is what I would call, a “change agent,” a harbinger of the potential demise of a widely accepted paradigm. Knowingly or not, I believe Alva Noe is actively trying to orchestrate a major paradigm shift. I may write more on this later.)

Scientists are locked into the conventional view that our ability to think, feel, and have the world show up for us is due solely to brain activities. These activities are known many of us, I think. Alva leads us through the drill: The brain creates images of that world on the other side of our skull and then “…manipulates those images in a process known as thought. The brain calculates and infers and eventually produces neural commands so that we act.”[ii] By the way, this isn’t really much of a theory, it is more of an assumption, albeit a philosophical assumption. Does it sound just a bit familiar? I suspect it does. After all, it is accepted across the globe and provides the basis for most of the research today on the subject.  There is irony here, though, for many scientists these days think that the study of consciousness is now solidly out of the hands of head-in-the-clouds philosophers and into their feet-on-the ground, capable hands as scientists, causing them to breath a collective sigh of relief; yet they are basing their research on a theory of consciousness that is not only philosophical (ha!), it’s also wrong (ha, ha!).

My next post, “Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 2,” will continue the discussion around Alva’s first chapter in his book and includes a discussion about the origins of this widely accepted assumption.

[i] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 3). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 4). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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