Alva Noë’s “Out of Our Heads” [ISBN 978-0-8090-1648-8] makes a strong case for understanding consciousness as a phenomenon, not produced by the brain (in the way that the stomach produces gastric juices, as he says), but rather….well, this is how he puts it –
Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. Indeed consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.
He rejects completely a reductionist view that you are your brain –
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.
Brains don’t have minds; people (and other animals) do.
This way of thinking is entirely consistent with what Dan Seigel teaches from a perspective of “Interpersonal neurobiology” – we can find neural correlates of mental phenomena, but we have no way of proving either causation or direct linkage between the two. This is also consistent with those who argue for both and “embodied” and, in particular, an “extended” mind (see Andy Clark’s work). I particularly liked the phrase Alva quotes in his book (attributed to his colleague Susan Hurley) –
…the skull is not a magical membrane; why not take seriously the possibility that the causal processes that matter for consciousness are themselves boundary crossing and, therefore, world involving?
I love that. We are all deeply and intimately connected as open systems with our environments – our physical, social and semantic environments. The flows of energy and life flow into us, through us, out of us. They create us in interaction with our own bodies and minds. As Alva paraphrases Merleau-Ponty –
…our body is ours – the place where we feel and the means by which we act – insofar as the current of activity that flows toward the world passes through it.
There is so much to stimulate your thinking in this book – about consciousness, about a sense of self, about habits, language, how we create the world in constant interaction with that changing world. I’ll just highlight two other parts of the book for you. Firstly what he says about science and biology –
Science takes up the detached attitude to things. But from the detached standpoint, it turns out, it is not possible even to bring the mind of another into focus. From the detached standpoint, there is only behaviour and physiology: there is no mind.
..you can’t do biology from within physics. To do biology, we need the resources to take up a nonmechanistic attitude to the organism as an environmentally embedded unity. When we do that – and now we come to my critical claim – we also secure the (at least) primitive mentality of the organisms. The problem of mind is that of the problem of life. What biology brings into focus is the living being, but where we discern life, we have everything we need to discern mind.
…once you see the organism as a unity, as more than just a process, you are, in effect, recognising its primitive agency, its possession of interests, needs, and point of view.
I feel this is crucial if we are to achieve a better understanding of these big issues of life, mind and consciousness. We have to see people as whole organisms in constant exchange with their environment. There’s something inherently inhuman about the attempts to reduce biology to physics, or the attempts to reduce human beings to physiology and behaviour.
Finally, I could pick many, many paragraphs to make this point, but let me end with this one –
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 places where something is happening. We are wide.
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