By Kate Rix
Most scientists would say the brain houses all of our capacity for consciousness: no functioning brain, no consciousness. René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, disagreed, and so do the followers of many religions. For them, the seat of consciousness is a mind or soul, and isn’t physical at all.
Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë argues that this debate, between neurons and the immaterial soul, misses a third option. Consciousness, he writes in Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness, is not immaterial, but it’s also not just something inside our brains. It is something we do— a porous and seamless exchange between us and other people, us and the things we see and hear, us and the technology and tools we use.
Noë, a member of Berkeley’s philosophy department as well as the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media, argues that while neuroscience is indispensable for understanding consciousness, it can’t be the whole story. The explanation that brain scientists give for our capacity to think, feel and perceive — that it takes places exclusively inside our skulls—is bad science.
“I like to think of consciousness in terms of how the world shows up for us,” Noë says, seated in his Moses Hall office. “I experience a world that shows up for me as meaningful, full of things that count: the people walking by outside the window, the airplane going overhead. If there is graffiti on the wall in a language I don’t understand, I might appreciate it simply for the way it looks. Meaning shows up for me not only because of images on my retina, but because of context I bring to what I see.”
In Out of Our Heads Noë argues that we have too narrowly defined the study of consciousness. Neuroscience, while an important field of study, does not take into account the ways that our environments, cultures and everyday interactions with one another help form our conscious selves.
“We need a science that is contextual, that will look at the way brains are embodied in animals, which are in turn situated in environments with histories and cultures,” Noë says. “It needs to be much more nuanced and indeed more humanistic. It needs to be more like history, or evolutionary biology, than it is like molecular biology.”
Looking at consciousness this way stresses the link between our brains and our animal selves, Noë says, and moves beyond the more limited neuroscientific understanding of consciousness.
Noë’s metaphor for human consciousness is that it is a dance. It happens inside us but it depends upon our attunement to the world. The world outside of us plays a role in how we perceive, just as the musicians and the audience play a role in a dancer’s performance.
He takes this metaphor very seriously. Noë is philosopher-in-residence with the Frankfurt, Germany-based Forsythe Company. Over the next year Noë and the dance company’s founder, William Forsythe, will meet to develop a series of lecture-performances that incorporate conversation about philosophy, neuroscience, dance and art.
Noë says the collaboration has nourished his inquiry into how the body is a part of how we think and perceive.
“Performers have to have quite sophisticated working theories about how audiences think and perceive in order to engage audiences,” he says. “I believe that to a surprising degree the aims of art and philosophy are the same, and that therefore it’s quite a natural thing to try to do philosophy with a dance company.”
Noë quite purposefully wrote Out of Our Heads for a mainstream audience, hoping to reach a variety of readers. He has more than met his goal. Since the book came out earlier this year, Noë has spoken at venues as varied as Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Powell’s Books in Portland, Google, and Boston University’s Philosophy of Neuroscience group, and his book has been reviewed by outlets as varied as the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com.
“It’s been fantastic,” he says. “I’ve been very moved by the depth of interest that people have in these questions. I feel like there’s a certain cultural urgency about them.”