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Out Of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain by Alva Noë

Kurt Keefner tells you why you can’t be only your brain.

It always goes back to René Descartes. Descartes said that each of us consists of a non-physical mind inside a physical body. The mind, which in his view is the person, is in a different dimension to the body, as it does not exist in physical space (he would say, ‘mind is not extended’, although it connects with the brain in a definite location, the pineal gland). This aspect of Descartes’ view was jettisoned, but the core template of ‘little true self in big extraneous self’ was retained. However, instead of a non-physical mind, the inner, true self came to be regarded as the brain. This view has been paradoxically called ‘Cartesian Materialism’ by Daniel Dennett (the paradox being that Descartes was no materialist).

Because this core dual structuring of the self was retained, many of the conundrums of Descartes’ philosophy have been retained as well, albeit recast in terms of the brain: Does the brain have direct contact with, and therefore reliable knowledge of, reality, or is our knowledge a ‘user illusion’? Could we be deceived, not by an evil demon, but by a mad scientist who puts our brain in a vat and feeds us a virtual reality? Do we know that other people have minds, or might they all be zombies? Apparently, the switch from immaterial mind to material brain as the true self has not led to as much philosophical progress as one’s brain might have thought.

Berkeley Professor of Philosophy Alva Noë would like to save us from the residues of the Cartesian paradigm by challenging it at the root. Noë’s contention is that you are not your brain – rather, that “consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context” (p.9).

Noë supports this contention with references to many fascinating experiments in neuroscience. But he claims that neuroscience isn’t getting anywhere in explaining consciousness because it views consciousness of reality as a representation of the world created and manipulated by the brain. Noë attacks brain-body dualism in part by attacking this representationalism.

I believe this is one of the key points in the discussion of dualism versus mind-body holism. Dualism and representationalism share the idea of the true self being at one remove from physical reality, with the sensing body as both intermediary and barrier. Noë doesn’t examine this relationship in great detail, but he’s clearly aware of it. For instance, in his chapter ‘The Grand Illusion’, he examines the case for vision not having external reality as its true object, but instead only an internal representation. To take one problem, it is said that vision cannot simply be what it seems because the images on the retinas are upside-down, while what we perceive is right-side-up. Noë’s response is that we do not see our retinal images: there is no ‘mind’s eye’ gazing at the eye from behind. Since no one is looking at them, it doesn’t even make sense to say that the images are upside down. Their orientation is irrelevant to the process of the creation of vision.

Process is an important way of thinking for Noë. Thus, consciousness isn’t just what happens in the brain: brain activity is just part of an extended process that starts with the environment, involves the whole body and includes the brain. In this, the environment isn’t merely a source of stimulation, nor is it a model or representation built by and viewed by the brain. In Noë’s words, “the world is its own model.” To put it another way, the real object of perception is the physical environment, not some artifact of the brain/mind.

Extend Yourself

Up to this juncture of the argument, I am in perfect agreement with Noë. But then he takes what I regard as a wrong turn. He decides to ‘super-size the mind’. By this I mean that instead of merely extending the self from just the brain to the whole embodied person, he goes further and claims that the mind incorporates parts of the ‘external’ environment, too.

This isn’t entirely far-fetched. Think of the virtuoso violinist who ‘sings’ with her instrument. In some perhaps metaphorical sense, the violin is part of her. But Noë wants to say that the blind man’s cane is really (non-metaphorically) part of him, because he feels with it. To put it another way, a blind man walking with his cane isn’t going by what he feels in his hand, but by what he feels in his cane, as if his cane were a sense organ. Or to use another example, when you do calculations with paper and pencil, the paper and pencil become part of the calculation process. What is at work here is not Descartes’ ethereal mind or Dennett’s material brain, but the whole system of brain, eye, hand, body, paper and pencil, all functioning together on one task in one external reality. Noë wants to call this entire system ‘mind’. He provides neurological support for this idea of the extended self in the concept of the ‘body schema’ or ‘map.’ He claims that we can tell from brain scans what the brain considers to be part of the body and its personal space. Train a monkey to use a rake to drag in food and the rake becomes part of its body schema, and its personal space extends to the reach of the rake.

Professor Noë is unsurprisingly critical of the way neuroscientists working under the paradigm of ‘Cartesian materialism’ interpret brain scans. Perhaps he should be more critical of his own interpretations. His description does not demonstrate that the brain’s body maps define the brain’s conception of the boundaries of the self. For one thing, as a neurological organ, the brain does not have conceptions – its ‘categories’, if can even use that term, are surely just practical scientific labels. Similar to what Noë says about the image on the retina, a body map or schema isn’t really a map if there’s no one there to look at it. The incorporation of a mental processing tool into a body map means an organism can act toward a goal with that tool without consciously calculating the mechanics necessary to move the body, for example.

I believe that Noë’s fundamental error is that he wants to hang on to the concept of mind. But what is mind except the thing that is conscious and initiates action? If you eliminate the notion of the little self inside the big self in favor of the person as a whole, the concept of mind doesn’t do any extra work, because we could just say that the person is aware and initiates action. All that would be left for the concept of mind to do would be to support useful metaphors (i.e. fictions), such as ‘I’ll keep it in mind’. Yet if you take the concept of mind more seriously than that, as Noë wants to, then it will begin to work its mischief anew. This is because it is a fuzzy concept.

The Whole Person

Noë wants to break down mind-body/brain-body dualism, which is commendable. But in so doing, he verges on breaking down subject-object dualism: he wants to project mind out into the environment so our bodily-external tools become a part of us. I am reminded of when Sweeney Todd picks up his razor for the first time in years and cries “My arm is complete again!”

Still, I wouldn’t want to dismiss Noë’s extension of the mind completely. Perhaps without using the pernicious concept of mind, we could speak of different senses or extensions of the self. The core sense of self would be the living organism; in its environment, but distinct from it. The next sense of self would incorporate non-living parts of the self, such as the hair and nails. Here the cat’s whiskers serve as a biological analogy to the blind man’s cane. The third level of self would include our clothing and jewelery, which form part of our ‘person’. Fourth might be the tools we use naturally, such as a fork or a pencil and paper. One could take this further and include the things one identifies with, such as family and country – although such identifications are often problematic. Although there would be a solid notion of the person (conscious and bodily) as the primary sense of the self, we could be flexible about the boundaries for different uses of the word. I think this way of speaking would be more intuitive than super-sizing the mind. A framework along these lines would be flexible enough to handle tough cases: the amputee’s prosthetic limb is intimately part of his self insofar as it is strapped securely to him and responds to electrical stimulation from within him, unlike any other tool currently in use. At the same time, if the artificial limb were to be crushed, the amputee would not himself be hurt.

The definition of self along these lines would be a fascinating thing to explore. I would not want to dismiss the idea that some sense of the self can be larger than the bare organism, especially given the way technology will surely extend the self in decades to come. But I believe it is essential to preserve the idea of the natural person, especially in the face of a Cartesian materialism which would divide and destroy it.

© Kurt Keefner 2010

Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher living near Washington, DC. He is working on a book about mind-body holism.

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, by Alva Noë, Hill and Wang, 2009, 232pps, $25, ISBN: 978-0809074655.

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