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Put succinctly, what Alva Noë is offering in Out of Our Heads is nothing short of a paradigm shift, complete with an incisive criticism of the status quo of neurosciences and a suggestion for an alternative model. The scientific study of consciousness in general, and what Noë calls the establishment neuroscience in particular claims to have broken free from its philosophical foundations. Although Noë acknowledges that the problem of consciousness is a scientific problem, one for which a scientific answer should be expected, he challenges the scientific community's contention that consciousness no longer remains a philosophical problem.
The key assumption behind the science of consciousness is that consciousness is an internal process that occurs in the brain. Noë's chief goal in the book is to show that this highly questionable, yet unquestioned assumption, has led the consciousness research astray; in brief, the search for consciousness has focused on where it isn't. Noë opens by challenging this assumption, and offers an alternative picture. Instead of characterizing consciousness as an internal process (like digestion) Noë proposes a picture which takes consciousness to be an activity (like dancing). To try to understand consciousness by just focusing on the brain's neural activity is tantamount to trying to understand dancing strictly in terms of the muscles. In the latter case, the muscles certainly play a part in the explanation, but they can hardly be the entire story. Analogously for the explanation of consciousness: brain processes are a part of the story, but they are not the whole story, even if they have been given an undue amount of attention.
In chapter 1, Noë provides an overview of the status quo of consciousness research in the neurosciences and its relation to philosophy. Noë acknowledges what the scientists have surmised – that the problem of consciousness is a scientific problem, to which we can hope to find a scientific answer. Yet the problem has a venerable philosophical background, and part of the reason why answers have remained elusive is that the project rests on questionable philosophical assumptions that have scarcely been questioned. One may think that the answers have not been discovered yet because consciousness research is in its infancy, but if given due time to mature, it will discover the answers to all its questions. Noë challenges this contention as overly optimistic, and submits that the neurosciences is more aptly compared to a teenager; "it has a grandiose sense of its own abilities, and it is entirely lacking a sense of history of what, for it, seems so new and exciting" (7).
The implications from Noë's approach reach beyond just research on consciousness. For instance, when it comes to theories of personhood, Noë's claim is equally iconoclastic here. The status quo of theories of personhood has that personhood is an intrinsic feature borne by (most) human beings (and maybe some non-humans). In chapter 2, Noë argues that the question of consciousness (that is, which beings are conscious) should be viewed as a question of life: "life is the lower boundary of consciousness" (45). But in order to do this, we cannot regard conscious beings just as the locus of processes or physicochemical mechanisms. Rather, when we try to study the mind, "we need to keep the whole organism in its natural environmental settings in focus" (45). Although Noë does nowhere make the argument explicit, his view has a strong anti-reductionist character: attempts at reductionist explanations, which aim to reduce consciousness to these physicochemical processes and mechanisms is bound to leave a remainder that it cannot adequately explain. In a sense, Noë's discussion in chapter 2 is lacking, given how other philosophers (whom Noë does not mention) have argued for a similar view about persons in terms of recognition. However, given the overall goals of Noë's book, this is only a minor issue, as it would understandably be impossible for him to address all viewpoints, congruent and otherwise.
In chapter 3, Noë begins to outline his preferred alternative. Instead of tackling the question "how does consciousness arise in the brain" head-on, Noë moves to offer evidence that it does not. Revisiting the "brain in the vat" thought experiment from chapter 1, Noë argues that this picture is liable to mislead; in and of itself, a brain cannot produce consciousness, for it requires the connections with the body for its nourishment and for its connections with the environment. By filling out these details, the brain-in-the-vat hypothesis becomes more fantastical than Noë's alternative, which has the brain "facilitating a dynamic pattern of interaction among brain, body, and world" (47), rather than producing consciousness in isolation. After outlining his proposal, Noë moves to provide details of – and detailed evidence for – it. Chapter 4 discusses how we extend our minds beyond the brain and the body by the use of tools (including language). In chapter 5, Noë focuses on habits as a crucial element to how we respond to our environment.
After delineating his alternative model, in chapter 6 Noë turns to the alleged empirical evidence for the claim that our perceptual consciousness is illusory. Noë summarizes some of the key findings in vision research (of how the eye is not uniform in it resolving power, of how the retinal image is unstable, and so on) which to some suggest that the brain fills in the gaps of what our vision gives us: the brain has to compensate for these shortcomings, and it does so by creating a detailed, uniform, stable, etc. representation of the world. Noë challenges these findings by arguing against the assumption on which this conclusion rests. Drawing from common cases (like sleight-of-hand tricks) and the view he outlines in earlier chapters, Noë claims that the problem presented by the 'grand illusion' hypothesis is a pseudo-problem. At the end of the chapter, Noë consigns the claim that perceptual consciousness is illusory to bad science, as it rests upon unsound – and untenable – philosophical assumptions. Chapter 7 further develops this theme by taking on the research by the Nobel laureates Hubel and Wiesel, and Noë is equally unrelenting here. Despite the merits of the work, its conclusions ultimately rest of shaky foundations. In chapter 8, Noë turns to the foundation argument which underlies the establishment neurosciences. According to the argument, "the fact that we can produce experience by direct stimulation of the brain shows that it is the brain itself, independent of its larger context, that is the basic ground of experience" (173). Noë shows how this argument is a remnant of the Cartesian notion of res cogitans which the neurosciences have inherited, despite the fact that they eschew Descartes' dualism. Noë identifies this remnant to be responsible of the view that brain alone is sufficient for consciousness. This claim, however, lacks any empirical support, as Noë forcefully demonstrates.
Now, as far as reading Noë's arguments go, what may strike the reader as disappointing is the dearth of references to the authors whose works he challenges. This shortcoming is remedied by the notes at the end of the book, which contain a wealth of references and discussions of the examples discussed in the body of the book. To someone focused on assessing Noë's arguments, reading the notes after each chapter may prove to be fruitful.
On the whole, what Noë's aims to accomplish is no small feat. From a philosopher's perspective, Noë's paradigm shift provides a new framework to replace the façade that has been handed down from Descartes onwards. Noë's contribution is extremely valuable to someone working on questions in philosophy of mind and philosophy of personhood. Obviously, I cannot speak for all the intended audiences of the book – which include not just philosophers but also cognitive scientists and others whose research focuses on consciousness. However, one can view Noë's book as an invitation for scientists and philosophers alike to enter into conversation – one that has been discontinued in recent past – not the least because some of the philosophical assumptions that have been guiding the scientific approach are suspect.
© 2009 Tuomas Manninen
Tuomas Manninen is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Arizona State University at the West Campus. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the metaphysics of personhood at the University of Iowa in 2007.