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Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 9: Virtual Reality, Dreams, and Conclusion

Written by Jeff Drake
10 · 22 · 19

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, but no worries if you choose not to, as I’ve read it for you and recount what I have learned below.

At this point, and if you have been able to follow any of Noe’s positions that I have tried to cover in my blog so far (e.g., “Alva Noe’s Philosophical Concepts 8: Out of Your Head”), I feel safe in saying that we can now put away thoughts and/or concerns we may have harbored about the Grand Illusion theory. The world is not something always once-removed for us, something remote, something that is “out there,” recreated internally by our brains for our brain’s consumption and enjoyment. The Grand Illusion theory is quite frankly, bullshit. The world is real, it is here, there, all around us, and like it or not, we are immersed and embedded in it, from the get-go.

I think it is also safe to put aside thoughts that our brain is just an information processing machine, like a computer. As Noe points out repeatedly, computers don’t think, they are just machines flipping 1’s and 0’s. More importantly, brains don’t think either, any more than a watch can tell time! Brains and computers are merely tools. So, what or who is it that thinks? Well, animals think. Think about it.

Oh, in case it is getting lost along the way, please rest assured that Noe certainly accepts the science that the brain is heavily involved with shaping our experience of the world. He’s not denying any of that. However, the point that he keeps hammering home is instead, that “the brain is not, on its own, a source of experience or cognition.”[i] Noe emphasizes that “Experience and cognition are not bodily by-products.”[ii] In other words, these aren’t things that suddenly appear internally, behind our eyes and before the back of our head, in isolation, as if by magic. For Noe, “What gives the living animal’s states their significance is the animal’s dynamic engagement with the world around it.”[iii]

Noe freely gives the point to Hubel and Weisel that some insight into how the brain works might be gained by thinking of the brain as an information processor. When you stop to think about the types of problems brains are solving, Noe says it’s “reasonable” to approach seeing and the other mental powers we possess as “information processing capacities.” But – and this is a big “but” – Noe also points out that Hubel and Weisel seem completely unaware and therefore have missed the fact that choosing to use this methodology did not force them to take it one step beyond and start thinking of “…vision as an information-processing problem carried out in the brain.”[iv] Why? Because there was nothing in their research that would support such a conclusion. There simply is no evidence that neural activity all on its own generates consciousness. This is an assumption and a huge leap.

Hubel and Weisel’s theory for our vision is that the brain builds, constructs – however you want to put it – an internal representation of the world “out there” by processing visual symbols that our brain then sees. Really? And what, pray tell, “sees” this internal picture of the world? They would have us believe it is the brain, but the brain does not have eyes and cannot “see” a damn thing! There really is no valid reason to conclude that seeing happens in the brain. Noe then asks, “And what good are symbols if no one is around to read them?”[v] A valid question.

It’s good to remember here that Hubel and Weisel’s work involved subjects that were unconscious. They were strapped into an apparatus, their eyes propped open, while they ran through a series of tests to see how the brain would react to different visual stimuli. In other words, these animals were not engaged in any kind of activity while being tested. Noe reminds us that research shows that the behavior of cells in our cortex varies “…depending on what the animal is doing or what it is paying attention to.”[vi] In other words, our cells react differently depending on context and this is something they completely left out. Given that their subjects were unconscious, they couldn’t have taken this into account even if they’d wanted to.

Why did they use this approach in their research? I think it seems clear that one major reason for choosing this approach is the underlying assumption on both their parts, that vision “…is something that happens passively inside the brain…”.[vii] Noe says, rightfully so, I believe, that at this point we need to seriously question this assumption. How can we not? We just have no real idea how activated neurons result in a visual experience. Here he tells us that it is beneficial to remind ourselves how animals evolved the ability to see. Animals evolved vision not to build up an internal representation of the world in our heads, but rather to “enable engaged living—for example, the pursuit of prey and mates and the avoidance of predators and other dangers.”[viii]

Noe says that, “Once this is clear, we are forced to rethink the value even of Nobel Prize–winning research. This is a disturbing consequence, but one we had better be willing to accept if we want to move forward with a genuinely biological theory of ourselves.”[ix]

But, we’re not done with the brain yet, folks.

Next up is a discussion of a few other points often made by people who insist that the brain is all that is needed for consciousness.

A House is Only as Strong as its Foundation

Here’s a great quote from Noe’s book:

“Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness—it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there.) At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything.” — Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift.[x]

Noe has shown so far that consciousness doesn’t just happen in the brain. But, he wonders, are there other more general reasons that would cause neuroscientists to hold onto the theory that our brain is all that is required for consciousness? As it turns out, there are, and Noe tackles them one-by-one.

The Foundation Argument

Noe labels the idea that the brain alone is enough to generate consciousness, the “Foundation Argument.” He admits that it is simple and “…can seem compelling.”[xi] Noe remains “unconvinced.”

One argument that is used to justify this Foundation position is the claim that experiments show that direct stimulation of the brain can produce experiences in a subject, thereby proving that the brain alone can produce said experiences. Noe casts shade all over this claim. For one thing, he says it’s just not true that we know how to produce experiences by stimulating the brain. In explanation, Noe tells us that while it is true that we can produce events (e.g., light flashes) or alter other mental events (e.g., create the illusion of moving) using direct brain stimulation, “it does not follow that we can produce all events in consciousness in this way”[xii]. (Italics are mine). Further, he says to do so is a mistake.

Noe tells us that even if we had technologies that would allow us to create elaborate and complex hallucinatory experiences that correspond to our entire repertoire of possible experiences, it still wouldn’t demonstrate that the brain alone is sufficient for the hallucinatory experiences, “let alone for all consciousness.”[xiii] The very best we could do in this case is to say that the brain “plus the actions of the manipulating scientist are sufficient for the occurrence of hallucinatory events in consciousness.”[xiv] This is, after all, a scenario that has to include not just the brain, but also the scientist and their apparatus. This is, in Noe’s point of view, an imagination of something very different than imagining that a consciousness like the one we enjoy, might arise out of brain neural activity all on its own.

He tells us, too, that when we produce a conscious event by a direct action on the brain, what we’re really doing is modulating “already existing states of consciousness.”[xv] Let’s remember that the person, whose brain we are acting upon, is already conscious. Thus, we’re not really generating something out of nothing, we’re “intervening” in an existing consciousness.

Reports of such experiments may add fuel to the defenders of the Foundation Argument, who feel that if we could just control a subject’s brain, we could ensure that the brain undergoes the same mental states as an ordinary person engaged in normal perception of the world. Noe is willing to agree with this in concept, but he says that in doing so, we must “…further insist that we be more explicit about just what we would be imagining.”[xvi]

Noe explains:

He tells us that at any point in time, the state of our brain is dependent on many different conditions. For example: our metabolism, digestive states, and where you happen to be. He adds that that what you do can also affect your brain state and cites how moving your hands, eyes or head can bring about “…changes in how things look and sound and smell.”[xvii] He tells us that a brain state “…isn’t determined by causal influence in one direction only.” Rather, your brain’s condition is the result of “an ongoing dynamic of action and interaction between me and the environment around me, both the physical environment in which I find myself and also the biological environment of my bodily milieu.”

Noe says this is the crux of the issue – in order to simulate for any brain the effects of normal interaction with an environment, would mean that you’d essentially have to supply the brain with a complete “alternative bodily milieu and environment. Indeed, such an ersatz body and environment would be tantamount to a virtual world.”[xviii]

In other words, instead of providing any evidence that consciousness arises from the brain alone, this instead shows that consciousness depends on the “…interplay among brain, body, and world, or at least among brain, body, and virtual world.”[xix] Noe therefore, rightfully concludes that following this path doesn’t take us to a point where we can claim that a self-sufficient brain, acting alone, could produce consciousness. At best, he says, all we’ve shown is that consciousness might be achieved in some other manner than normal – a manner that includes “…the ingenuity of neuroscientific engineers constructing an environment that is meant to affect us just as the regular environment would.”[xx]

We should remember that this virtual reality scenario isn’t one in which a subject is actually immersed in an environment that allows him to act or feel normally. Virtual reality isn’t quite like that. Instead, it’s a “…scenario in which it misleadingly seems to us as if that were the case.”[xxi] At best, says, Noe, virtual reality gives us “…virtual experience and virtual minds.”[xxii] He uses the example of a pilot trainee, telling us that no matter what the pilot trainee may think, he or she is not flying a real airplane. So much for the virtual reality approach.

Noe then raises another argument that could be made by Foundation theorists: “What about dreaming? Does the fact that we dream show that consciousness depends only on what goes on inside us?”[xxiii] He feels, correctly, I believe, that this concept will be compelling for any adherents to the Foundation theory. I’m fairly certain that everyone reading this paper has heard the story at some time about a man who woke up from sleep unsure whether he’d dreamt he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was human. Dreams can be like that. So real. So full of what appear to be real experiences. Because of this, some might say, “See! We get all these experiences in dreams without physically interacting with the world, so this supports our Foundation theory!” They feel they nailed it. Are they right?

No, they’re wrong. Noe says that for the sake of argument, let’s accept that dreaming only depends on what is going on inside us. But, he tells us, an effort to conclude that based on this we can now claim that for consciousness all that matters is what is in our head is incorrect. According to Noe, this conclusion doesn’t follow at all from this premise. If anything, all that this shows is that dream experiences depend on what is going on inside our heads.

Delving further, Noe uses the example of hearing his mother call his name in a dream. The only way he says he can describe this is to say that he heard his mother calling his name in a dream. But in saying this, is he really admitting that there is no difference between his mother calling him in a dream or in real life? Noe believes that a little bit of reflection on this will show that drawing this conclusion is unjustified. One reason for him saying this is current dream research. Studies show that one major difference between dream experience and waking experience is… stability.

Who knew dream experiences are unstable? Well, a dream research by the name of Stephen LaBerge, knew. His research shows “…it is a universal feature of dream experiences that detail is never stable across scenes in the dream. For example, if you read a sign in a dream and then, in the dream, turn away and then turn back, the words on the sign will have altered.”[xxiv] Noe says he isn’t surprised by this finding and I am not surprised either.

When it comes to real-world perceiving, we don’t have to worry about the stability of what we are seeing (unless you’re high on something, perhaps). Noe says, “The detail is there, in the world. Reality anchors us. Whatever actions we take— shutting our eyes, turning away, getting distracted—things around us remain unaffected.”[xxv] Dreams are quite different because when we are dreaming, “…we are decoupled from the world around us. What determines content in a dream is precisely not what is there in front of us. We can see what we want to see, or what we are afraid to see, or what we wonder what it might be like to see. Which is just another way of saying that dream seeing is not really seeing at all.”[xxvi]

Thus, this appeal to dreams to support the Foundation approach, falls by the wayside. Noe is finally ready to bring his book to a close.

Conclusion

Noe reiterates one last time that, “There is no empirical or philosophical justification for the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness.”[xxvii] He hopes that he has convinced us by now that there “…is something perverse about the very idea that we are our brains, that the world we experience is within us.”[xxviii] He tells us that there is no need to have the world within us. Why? Because “…we have access to the world around us; we are open to it.”[xxix] He believes this is essentially the point made by the Saul Bellow quote above.

Noe tells us that the idea that we are our brains is really not something that scientists learned along the way. Rather, it is a preconception that scientists had from the very beginning and brought with them to their research. This idea does not belong, he says, to the realm of “…well-established theory…it is just prejudice.”[xxx]

And Noe believes that now is the time to finally reject this idea. Why? Because, “It is a prejudice that constrains us like a straitjacket when we are trying to understand what we are and how we work. We spend all our lives embodied, environmentally situated, with others. We are not merely recipients of external influences, but are creatures built to receive influences that we ourselves enact; we are dynamically coupled with the world, not separate from it. In so many aspects of our lives this is becoming clear. Neuroscience must come to grips with it.”[xxxi]

Hear, hear.

I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the philosophical concepts of Professor Alva Noe as much as I’ve enjoyed reading and writing about them.

Jeff

[i] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 165). 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. 166). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[v] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 167). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 168). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 169). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[x] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 171). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xi] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 173). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 174). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 175). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 176). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 177). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xxiv] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 179). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. 181). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

Let us know what you think…

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Jeff Drake

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