08 April 2009

Out of Our Heads – Alva Noë (2009)

Last night I went to a new book event at Powell’s City of Books, for the publication of Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, and his book is really trying to re-define the cognitive science approach to consciousness – not to deny that the brain is an important part of the picture, but to broaden the conception of consciousness out much wider.  He likens it to moving from a physics/chemistry type of approach to a more biological approach, where you focus on a complete entity in its environment rather than going reductionist. He feels the concentration on the neural basis approach actually doesn’t present anything new, because in a sense it’s just a new way of restating what Descartes wrote – that there’s something inside us that is a ‘thinking thing’.  We still don’t really know what that ‘thing’ is, and Noë is trying to reject the notion in any case.

Summing it up from the 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 nonbrain 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.
Afterwards I got a book signed, and mentioned to him my parallel observation with regard to computers.  One can truly say that computers just boil down to 0’s and 1’s – but that explains almost nothing about what is interesting about computers, nor does it predict anything about what will be done with them (nor could you understand much what a computer is doing by simply monitoring the 0’s and 1’s at points within the chips).  He agreed, and spoke of the fact that computers have these various levels of abstraction, where programming languages work high above the 0’s and 1’s.  We concluded that both computers and people are ‘programmable’ – and that the programming clearly involves all sorts of interactions with ‘the world’.

Update:  Here’s a link to a video interview with Alva Noë with transcription, to get a quick overview.