Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
Noe (Alva)
Source: Noe (Alva) - Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
Paper - Abstract

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Chapter Summaries1

  1. An Astonishing Hypothesis – 3
    • Introduction: Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago. If we are to understand our human nature, we need to make a fresh start. In this first chapter I lay out the basic challenge.
    • Sections:
      … Consciousness is Like Money
      … Are You Your Brain?
      … A Really Astonishing Hypothesis
      … A Note on Terminology, and the Thesis Restated
      … The Man with Two Brains
      … Consciousness in a Petri Dish?
      … Taking the Problem Seriously
      … Looking into the Head
      … The New Phrenology?
    • Conclusion - You Are Not Your Brain: Empirical research on consciousness and human nature takes for granted that the problem for science is to understand how consciousness arises in the brain. That consciousness arises in the brain goes unquestioned. In the meantime, guns blazing, engines roaring, we are going nowhere in our quest to understand what we are2. In this chapter I ask whether our inability to explain consciousness and the workings of our minds stems precisely from our unquestioned assumptions. In the remainder of this book I seek to demonstrate that the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn't something that happens inside us: it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us. The brain—that particular bodily organ—is certainly critical to understanding how we work. I would not wish to deny that. But if we want to understand how the brain contributes to consciousness, we need to look at the brain's job in relation to the larger non-brain body and the environment in which we find ourselves. I urge that it is a body- and world-involving conception of ourselves that the best new science as well as philosophy should lead us to endorse.
    • Author’s Notes – 189
      Works cited (that I possess):-
      "Crick (Francis) - The Astonishing Hypothesis - The Scientific Search for the Soul"
      "Churchland (Patricia) - Brain-wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy"
      "Block (Ned) - On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness"
      "Nagel (Thomas) - What is it Like to Be a Bat?"
  2. Conscious Life – 25
    • Introduction: I begin with what can seem to be the most challenging of problems about consciousness, what philosophers call "the problem of other minds." Can we know the minds of others? How do we decide whether other people are conscious? And what about the consciousness of other species? The problem of other minds can seem insurmountable. This is because we think that the problem we face is a theoretical one: how to acquire knowledge of an-other's mind on the basis of what he or she says and does, or on the basis of a neural signature. But we don't face this problem. The basis of our confidence in the minds of others is practical. We cannot take seriously the possibility that others lack minds because doing so requires that we take up a theoretical, detached stance on others that is incompatible with the kind of life that we already share with them. All this points to something paradoxical about the science of the mind: science requires detachment, but mind can only come into focus if we take up an altogether different, more engaged attitude. Does this mean a science of the mind must be impossible? No. There is a way forward for science. The solution comes when we recognize that there is a rigorously empirical alternative to mechanistic detachment on the one hand and mere personal intimacy on the other. This is the perspective of biology.
    • Sections:
      … Other Minds
      … “Theory of Mind”
      … Personal Intimacy
      … Accepting Ungroundedness
      … Man’s Best Friend
      … The Paradox of Mind and Science
      … Mind is Life
      … Other Minds, Other Worlds
    • Conclusion: Understanding Ourselves
      Life is the lower boundary of consciousness. I do not know where we will find its upper limit. I don't rule out the possibility of artificial robot consciousness. But I would not be surprised if the only route to artificial consciousness is through artificial life.
      The question of consciousness arises for living beings and it arises for them because living beings exhibit at least primitive agency. To study mind, as with life itself, we need to keep the whole organism in its natural environmental setting in focus. Neuroscience matters, as does chemistry and physics. But in these lower-level or internal perspectives, our subject matter loses resolution for us.
      What I am saying is that the question of consciousness arises for living beings. To answer the question—about this or that organism—we need to look to the details on a case-by-case basis. Vervet monkeys have minds appropriate to their lives; they are not mere machines. If I am on the right track, then, however far-fetched, something of this sort should be said about the bacterium itself. It is a primitive agent, which is to say, it is a primitive subject.
      The link between life and consciousness is critical. Part of what makes it so hard to judge whether a person in a persistent vegetative state has experience is that her life has been utterly disrupted; in a way, her life itself is called into question for us. Matters are different when we ask if, say, a lobster feels our touch. The lobster's life is questionable for us, not because it is disturbed, but because it is so alien. In neither case, though, is our problem that we cannot pull back the curtain and look inside. The organism's life is not inside.
      In the next chapter I turn to the brain and to the task of understanding the brain's role in explaining animal consciousness. I show that the perspective developed here provides a new setting in which to understand and explain consciousness.
    • Author’s Notes – 191
  3. The Dynamics of Consciousness – 47
    • Introduction: How does consciousness arise in the brain? In this chapter I offer evidence that it does not. We can explain how the brain's activity gives rise to consciousness only when we appreciate that what matters for consciousness is not the neural activity as such but neural activity as embedded in an animal's larger action and interaction with the world around it. Which is another way of saying that it isn't the neural activity on its own that fixes consciousness. I propose that the brain's job is that of facilitating a dynamic pattern of interaction among brain, body, and world. Experience is enacted by conscious beings with the help of the world.
    • Sections:
      … Magical Membranes
      … No Man is an Island
      … Neural Plasticity and Consciousness
      … Bridging the Gap
      … Sensory Substitution
      … Looking Beyond the Brain
      … Action in Perception
      … Back to Sensory Substitution
      … The Upshot
      … Brain and World
    • Conclusion: The Machinery of Mind Is Extended
      We began by asking what features of individual cells explain the qualitative character of human experience. We conclude by appreciating that we are looking for consciousness in the wrong place if we look for it in the brain. We need to widen our conception of the machinery of consciousness beyond the brain to include not only the brain but also our active lives in the context of our worlds. This is what the biology of consciousness now teaches. In the next chapter I begin to explore some of the implications of this new way of thinking about our conscious being.
    • Author’s Notes – 193
      … See "Hurley (Susan) & Noe (Alva) - Neural Plasticity and Consciousness"
      … Also "Levine (Joseph) - On Leaving Out What It's Like".
  4. Wide Minds – 67
    • Introduction: In the previous chapter I offered evidence that the brain gives rise to consciousness by enabling an exchange between the person or animal and the world. What emerges from this discussion is a new conception of ourselves as expanded, extended, and dynamic. In this chapter I place this discovery in a larger context. Our bodies and our minds are active. By changing the shape of our activity, we can change our own shape, body, and mind. Language, tools, and collective practices make us what we are3. Where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin? There is no reason to suppose that the critical boundary is found in our brains or our skin.
    • Sections:
      … Where do we Find Ourselves?
      … Magical Boundaries and the Rubber-Hand Illusion
      … Phantom Hands
      … The Body Schema
      … Extending the Body
      … Knowing One’s Way About
      … Real Presence
      … The Case of French Air Traffic Controllers
      … Extending the Mind
      … Meaning Isn’t in the Head
      … The Secret Lives of Snails
      … Where do You Stop?
    • Conclusion: We Are Involved with the World
      Landmarks, tools, shared places and practices, belong to the machinery of our being. We are partly constituted by a flow of activity with the world around us. We are partly constituted by the world around us. Which is just to say that, in an important sense, we are not separate from the world, we are of it, part of it. Susan Hurley said that persons are dynamic singularities. We are where something is happening. We are wide. Many of us were taught to believe that habits are bad. They are there to be broken. In the next chapter I try to convince you that habits are in fact essential to our mental lives. Because habits are highly dependent on the environment, they provide a striking illustration of the way in which our manner of being implicates our ongoing dependence on the world around us.
    • Author’s Notes – 195
      "Kinsbourne (Marcel) - Awareness of One's Own Body: An Attentional Theory of Its Nature, Development, and Brain Basis"
      "Evans (Gareth), McDowell (John), Ed. - The Varieties of Reference"
      "Chalmers (David) & Clark (Andy) - The Extended Mind"
      "Putnam (Hilary) - The Meaning of 'Meaning'"
      "Kandel (Eric R.) - The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialogue Between Genes and Synapses"
  5. Habits – 97
    • Introduction: Scientists have tended to think that to have a mind like ours, one must be able to think and calculate and deliberate as we do. In fact, to have a mind like ours, what is needed are habits like ours. Habits and skills are environmental in the sense that they are triggered by environmental conditions and they vanish in the absence of the appropriate environmental setting. We can reject the idea that we are autonomous islands of decision making, acting on the basis of careful scanning and sound judgment. Our nature is more intimately entangled with our environment than that.
    • Sections:
      … Creatures of Habit
      … From Novice to Expert
      … In the Beginning was the Situation
      … The Language of Chess
      … The Language of Thought
      … The Many Faces of Expertise
      … “The Familiar Face of a Word”
      … Bad Habits
      … Good Habits
      … Trails
      … The Limits of the Known World
      … The Ecology of Habit
    • Conclusion: We Are Creatures of Habit and Habit Is World-Involving
      Insofar as we are skilful and expert, we are not deliberate in what we do. Our skill enables us to respond appropriately to the world and in an automatic way. If we were to deliberate, we would interrupt the flow and undermine the conditions of our own expertise. We would choke. An appreciation of habit and practical skill in our intellectual life reveals that intellectualism is a misguided conception of even our intellectual capacities. Habit and skills, however, are world-involving. Just as my habitual route to work is shaped in part by the landscape in which I find myself, so in general our habits are made possible by the world's being as it is (even if it is also true that our action shapes the world in turn). The idea that the brain alone can explain the character of our conscious lives appears in this way thinner and more farfetched. Neural activity enables us to develop the forms of expertise that determine how we deal with the world around us, but the brain is never more than part of the story about how all this works.
      The basic fact of animal consciousness—we think, and a world shows up for us—can be explained only by supposing that we possess the kinds of skills that yield access to the world. We are not in the predicament that has been supposed traditionally by cognitive science, namely, that of having to figure everything out from first principles. Our lives depend on what Adrian Cussins, a British philosopher now at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, has called cognitive trails and other modes of cognitive habits that presuppose for their activation our actual presence in an environment hospitable to us.
      Why do so many thinkers persist in thinking that consciousness—thought, perception, the fact that a world shows up for us—can be explained in terms of interior neural events alone? And is there really any case to be made in favor of this idea at all? We must confront this insistence. I turn to this in the next three chapters.
    • Author’s Notes – 197
      "Cussins (Adrian) - Content, Embodiment and Objectivity: The Theory of Cognitive Trails"
  6. The Grand Illusion – 129
    • Introduction: The idea that our perceptual consciousness is somehow a grand illusion has seemed to gain support from work in empirical science. This is one source of resistance to the idea that the brain is only one element in the more complicated dynamic that is our conscious life. In this chapter I look at two influential lines of argument for this skeptical conclusion and show that neither has any force. In fact, there is no empirical basis for the idea that the world is a grand illusion.
    • Sections:
      … The Creator Brain
      … Vision: A Case Study
      … The Miracle of Sight
      … … The Inverted Retinal Image and the Cyclopean Nature of Vision
      … … The Resolving Power of the Eye is Uneven
      … … The Retinal Image is Unstable
      … … The Blind Spot
      … … Obstructions
      … … The Third Dimension
      … … Colour
      … … Time
      … Picture of the World in Mind
      … “The World is its Own Model”
      … Back to Vision
      … Doing Without the Creation Myth
    • Conclusion: Giving Up the Grand Illusion
      The "grand illusion" hypothesis is bad philosophy; the cognitive science that supposedly provides evidence in its favor is bad science. Excellent work in perceptual psychology—for example, work on change blindness—properly construed, in fact provides excellent reasons to think of ourselves not as victims of a grand illusion but, rather, as open to an environment that matters to us.
    • Author’s Notes – 199
      "Dennett (Daniel) - Consciousness Explained"
  7. Voyages of Discovery – 149
    • Introduction: In this chapter I tell the story of Hubel and Wiesel's Nobel Prize-winning research into vision in mammals. The work rests, I show, on an untenable conception of vision and other mental powers as computational processes taking place in the brain. The main problem with the computational theory of mind is that it supposes, mistakenly, that mind arises out of events in the head. The legacy of Hubel and Wiesel's research must be called into question.
    • Sections:
      … The Visual Brain in Action
      … The Basic Project
      … Christopher Columbus and the Brain
      … The Computer Model of the Mind
      … Is the Brain an Information Processor, Really?
      … The Computational Brain
      … The Mind is not in the Head
      … The Mind-Body Problem for Robots
      … Flaws in the Foundations
    • Conclusion: Mind Is Not the Brain's Software
      Computers can't think on their own any more than hammers can pound in nails on their own. They are tools we use to think with. For this reason, we make no progress in trying to understand how brains think by supposing that they are computers. In any case, brains don't think: they don't have minds; animals do. To understand the contribution of the brain to the life of the mind, we need to give up once and for all the idea that our minds are achieved inside us by internal goings-on. 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.
    • Author’s Notes – 201
      "Searle (John) - The Rediscovery of the Mind"
      "Dennett (Daniel) - Brainstorms - Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology"
      "Copeland (B. Jack) - Artificial Intelligence: A Philosophical Introduction"
  8. A Nothing Reserved for Everything – 171
    • Introduction: Consciousness does not happen in our brains; it is not a product of the brain. Certainly there is no sound empirical evidence to support the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness. But is there some more general reason to hold, as so many neuroscientists do, that the brain alone is sufficient for human consciousness? I turn to this issue now.
    • Sections:
      … The Foundation Argument
      … Weak Foundations
      … The Devil is in the Details
      … Real Minds, Virtual Reality
      … Dreaming
    • Conclusion: Even the Mind of a Brain in a Vat4 Needs a Body and a World
      There is no empirical or philosophical justification for the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness. I hope I have convinced you that there is something perverse about the very idea that we are our brains, that the world we experience is within us. We don't need to have the world within us: we have access to the world around us; we are open to it. I take this to be the import of Bellow's language in this chapter's epigraph.
      The idea that we are our brains is not something scientists have learned; it is rather a preconception that scientists have brought with them from home to their workbenches. It belongs not to well-established theory, nor even to that category of proposition—such as "I exist"—whose truth can require no verification. It is just prejudice. And in fact we have every reason to reject it now. It is a prejudice that constrains us like a straitjacket when we are trying to understand what we are5 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.
    • Author’s Notes – 202
  9. Epilogue: Home Sweet Home – 183
    • We are out of our heads. We are in the world and of it. We are patterns of active engagement with fluid boundaries and changing components. We are distributed. So I have urged in this book.
    • If this book is an adventure story, then much of its drama unfolds in our attempts to escape the clutches of a durable yet false conception of our own intellectual predicament. Scientists seem to represent us as if we were strangers in a strange land. They represent us as if we were alienated. Nowhere is this view clearer than when discussion turns to relations among people. When we talk, for example, it is supposed that we transmit mere noises whose significance must be figured out by our conversation partner. According to this description of our interactions, we take up in relation to the other a stance of theoretical detachment and curiosity. Making sense of you is a puzzle I need to solve. Infants, coming to understand the world around them, are styled as scientists in the crib.
    • But we are not in this way alienated from each other or the world around us. We don't confront mere noises; we confront each other. We are always already in a shared context, and this shared context eliminates the need to figure out what is going on. Like a soccer player in mid-match, we are always already involved in the game. We rarely face the problem of assigning meaning to otherwise meaningless noises or deciding whether a being is conscious on the basis of the observation of behaviour alone. We don't see mere patterns of shape and color and then judge them to be other people or objects. And so it is misguided to think that the brain's job is to solve these problems for us.
    • The substrate of our lives, and of our conscious experience, is the meaningful world in which we find ourselves. The broader world, and the character of our situation in it, is the raw material of a theory of conscious life. The brain plays a starring role in the story, to be sure. But the brain's job is not to "generate" consciousness. Consciousness isn't that kind of thing. It isn't a thing at all. The brain's job is to enable us to carry on as we do in relation to the world around us. Brain, body, and world—each plays a critical role in making us the kind of beings we are.
    • Our relation to the world is not that of an interpreter. The meaningful world is there for us, understood, before interpretation gets its start. The literary approach to the world—the world as a text standing in need of interpretation—is a dead end. Interestingly, many scientists working on problems about mind—cognition, thought, consciousness—presuppose something like the literary, interpretative stance to the world. But we don't secure the world through interpretation. Interpretation comes after we have the world in hand.
    • Our relation to the world is not that of a creator. The world is bigger than we are; what we are able to do is be open to it—that is, we are able to find our way around in it.
    • In mathematics you can distinguish the proof itself from the prose that surrounds the proof and comments on it. Philosophers writing about mathematics frequently take issue with the prose, but the proof itself stands untouched by philosophical scruples. In this book I am not interested in the prose of the science of consciousness but in the findings themselves. My purpose is not to comment on trends in neuroscience but to convince you that the neuroscientific, and more broadly the cognitive scientific, approach to mind needs rethinking from the ground up. Of course, there is much excellent experimental and theoretical work that has been and is now being done in cognitive science. But if I am right, whole research programs have to be set aside. It is misguided to search for neural correlates of consciousness—at least if these are understood, as they sometimes are, to be neural structures or processes that are alone sufficient for consciousness. There are no such neural structures. How could there be? It is a mistake to think that vision is a process in the brain whereby the brain builds up a representation of the world around us. It is likewise a mistake to think, as many neuroscientists now claim, that humans and other mammals are born with innate modules in the brain such as that for face detection. More generally, it is untenable to suppose that the brain's job is to do our thinking for us, and so it is untenable to think that the brain manages this task by performing complex computations.
    • As we move forward, then, we will appreciate that the foundations of consciousness are not distinctively neural. Insofar as we seek to understand the brain basis of experience, we will ask how the brain subserves our dynamic transactions with the world around us. We will keep the whole organism in focus and will think of the nervous system in the context of its normal embodiment. The developmental and evolutionary perspectives will be paramount, and we will pay close attention to the comparison of different species of animal. Just as we do not draw an impermeable boundary around the brain, we will not draw such a boundary around the individual organism itself. The environment of the organism will include not only the physical environment but also the habitat, including, sometimes, the cultural habitat of the organism.
    • Throughout this book I have been attacking orthodoxy and I have been seeking to give shape to an alternative. I am not alone in doing this. The fabric of neuroscience and cognitive science is patchwork and variable. Even as orthodoxy spreads its branches, heterodoxy seeks to reach out of the shadow into the sunlight. The last twenty-five years have witnessed the gradual shaping of an embodied, situated approach to mind. This approach has flourished in certain regions of cognitive science such as philosophy and robotics, but it has been all but ignored in neuroscience, in mainstream linguistics, and, more generally, in the domain of consciousness studies. If we are to understand consciousness—the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us—we need to turn our backs on the orthodox assumption that consciousness is something that happens inside us, like digestion. It is now clear, as it has not been before, that consciousness, like a work of improvisational music, is achieved in action, by us, thanks to our situation in and access to a world we know around us. We are in the world and of it. We are home sweet home.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: The Abstract currently consists in the Introduction to and Conclusion of each chapter, together with the Section Headings. When I read the book in detail, I intend to replace these extracts with my own evaluation.


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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