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Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 2: Thanks for Nothing, Descartes!

Written by Jeff Drake
10 · 29 · 19

Why do neuroscientists insist on sticking with a theory of consciousness that is based on an error? I think we can all thank Rene Descartes for leading us into this fine mess!

[The following discussion 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.]

This post continues the discussion I began in “Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 1.” Thus, it also has to do with Alva’s first chapter titled, “An Astonishing Hypothesis.” I do recommend that you read 1 before reading 2.

Why do scientists continue on the path of an erroneous theory of consciousness, that it is all “in our heads?” One reason is that this is a very old idea and has been around for centuries. The idea that this thing that thinks, the thing I call myself, is in my head (or somehow internalized) began with a man you’ve no doubt heard of before: Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Sound familiar? Do you remember the phrase “cogito ergo sum” or translated: “I think, therefore I am”? Yeah, that’s guy.

Descartes never made the association of the self to the brain per se, as he leaned toward more spiritual answers. (It was the 16th century after all and Descartes was a most devout Catholic) He believed that our mind was somehow an actual separate entity from our physical body that also resided in our body, internally, like a soul. Later it took scientists to replace this theory with one that has a connection to the brain, but without doubt, Descartes holds the blame for this belief that if you want to study who we are, what our minds are, you have to look inside of us because that’s where you’ll find yourself. Alva Noe likes to use the analogy that this is looking at consciousness as if it were digestion, a purely internal physical process. It’s a good analogy.

This idea of Descartes’, that consciousness is completely an internal “something” took hold, perhaps because people then, as Alva Noe suggests, could not imagine how “…mere matter – mere meat – (could) achieve the powers of thought and feeling.”[i]. Remarkably, it is only on this point – spiritual substance vs physical brain – that today’s scientists disagree with this very traditional view.

Alva points out something that we need to remind ourselves of – namely that in swapping the brain for some ethereal substance, scientists have “…really only succeeded in replacing one mystery with another.” Think about it. Moving from some mumbo-jumbo religious internal seat of consciousness idea to thinking instead that it is the brain is progress, but even so, it actually leaves us no closer to explaining how a lump of gray matter between our ears can give rise to consciousness. It’s an assumption, a theory, yet as Alva points out, this isn’t even a real working hypothesis, but simply a “placeholder for one.”[ii] So, not much real progress at all.

If this is the case then, what is the alternative? Neuroscientists seem to think that it is an if-then situation i.e., if consciousness is not some ethereal substance inside of us, then it must be the brain in our heads. Alva disagrees and this then, is the “astonishing hypothesis” Alva is talking about – that you are not your brain, that there is nothing inside you that makes you conscious.

Let me make it clear here that Alva is NOT saying that the brain is not involved in consciousness, for it clearly is and he knows it. What he is saying is that the brain alone is not what’s needed for consciousness to arise. In other words, the brain is necessary for consciousness, but is not sufficient for consciousness. More is required for consciousness to rise. In Alva’s own words:

“…to understand consciousness in humans and animals, we must look not inward, into the recesses of our insides; rather, we need to look to the ways in which each of us, as a whole animal, carries on the processes of living in and with and in response to the world around us. The subject of experience is not a bit of your body. You are not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are.”[iii]

Further: “…My central claim in this book is that 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 is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. Indeed, consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context. I deny, in short, that you are your brain. But I don’t deny that you have a brain. And I certainly don’t deny that you have a mind. To have a mind, though, requires more than a brain. Brains don’t have minds; people (and other animals) do.”[iv]

My next post, Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 3, will follow the lead found in another chapter of Alva Noe’s book, titled, “Looking into the Head.” It takes a look at the issues surrounding the use of brain scanning technologies that are being used to view brain activity. People claim that this shows consciousness happening in our brains. But, does it really? Alva Noe teaches us a lot about what brain scanning technology is really doing – and what it really shows.

[i] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (pp. 7-8). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 10). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Let us know what you think…



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Jeff Drake

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