Inventing the Self


September 24th, 2013 by Adam Wagner · 4 Comments

I want to start by saying that several times while reading this book, I threw my hands up in disgust with the arguments.  Then, occasionally, I found what I was disgusted by redacted in a way to a broader argument I could subscribe to.  It seems to me that Noe’s thesis is mainly that our conscious experience is not simply in the brain, but it a product of an embodied existence. I agree.  However, he seems to think this is dramatically different than other posited theories.  His arguments are often invalid (conclusion does not necessarily follow from premises) and he constantly uses skepticism to discount scientific evidence, but then uses similarly constructed evidence to prove his hypothesis.  Also, Noe’s argument constantly commits the straw man fallacy, building up arguments attributed to scientists that are under-representations or utter misrepresentations.  I’d like to think that no scientist actually thinks that the brain is independent (or even the nervous system) in conscious experience.

He uses the metaphor that science sees consciousness as a “phenomenon of the brain, the way digestion is a phenomenon of the stomach.”  First of all, digestion is a product of the stomach, but it is not exclusive to the stomach.  It, too, is an embodied process full of biological intricacies.  In the same way, consciousness is a product of the brain (he avows this occasionally) but it is not exclusive to the brain or independent of other processes.

I don’t know, in the video, he seemed much clearer as he really only posited his thesis that consciousness is much more complicated that strictly neural activity.  I completely agree with that, but in the book, he tries to propose reasons to discount the work or analysis of the work of neuroscience that is completely unfounded and badly argued.  I was content with the thesis, just not at all what developed from it.

In my opinion, I agree that consciousness is more than neural activity.  However, I believe it is because the concept of consciousness is linguistically vague and developed before the science trying to describe it.  Therefore, science is trying, in vain, to pinpoint something that doesn’t necessarily have a neurological basis.  I believe that science can discover qualities of the brain and the importance of its processes and even describe what happens when we are conscious of particular moments, however, that will never be enough to completely be sufficient for “consciousness” as we know it phenomenologically.  Because what we feel and understand as being conscious comes from that phenomenological aspect, and the word consciousness was constructed to encompass that feeling, science will have a hard time satisfying that definition biologically.


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4 responses so far ↓

  • Shona Mari Sapphire // Sep 24th 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Response to Adam Wagner:

    “Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion”

    As you said, this form of assertion is meant to sound deliberate or definitive, but it actually lacks logic. The semantic effect offered by the image of “dancing”, which ostensibly sounds more multidimensional and graceful than “digestion’’ serves his claim well here – but this seems a purely subjective view. Digestion, as you said, involves a multitude of biological systems and processes, functioning in an integrated manner to perform the task of extracting nutrients for subsistence and life process – just as consciousness involves multiple functioning parts within the brain, mind and body interplay with the external environment. The two named processes seem not to be antonyms. I think digestion could be seen as a dance in itself!

    Action over and against all other phenomena seems to be central in Noe’s argument. And this does seem logical. Similar to how the functionality of biological systems and components arise through activity and external interaction which underpins much evolutionary theory on human development – as outlined by Damasio.

    Noe conveys the general view that consciousness is not in the brain, crafted through several arguments. One notable statement was his explanation of the perception apparatus which allowed a blind person to see through providing pertinent information about the external environment through “perceptual plasticity rather than neural plasticity” (58). Meaning, that consciousness was effectively altered without altering the brain itself, thus proving that consciousness is not in the brain. The argument again leads to the hypothesis that consciousness arises through interaction and relation with the environment, through whatever channels, not always or necessarily charted through the brain as the conduit, “What causes the effects for consciousness of neural activity in the touch-dedicated parts of the brain to change? Answer: the world and our relation to it” (59).

    He also makes the assertion that brain scans are not actual depictions of cognitive processes in the brain while in action and therefore cannot be read as scientific accounts of brain activity. I found this interesting?

    I find Noe’s account somewhat intriguing and accessible within a non-scientific theoretical standpoint. He backs up his hypothesis with some scientific studies which add concrete analogies and metaphors to his main point that consciousness is not in the brain. Without a broader, stratified information design and delivery though, this lacks the reliability to truly be adopted, from my perspective. More than any innovative concrete theory on an answer to the question of consciousness, mind and self already well researched and presented by others such as Damasio, the invitation to think more broadly is what Noe presents.

    A one line exchange between Damasio and Noe might go something like this:
    Noe: “The blithe confidence of the neuroscientist that the brain is the seat of consciousness amounts to an unearned conviction that we can draw the boundary between ourselves and the rest of the world at the skull” (70)
    Damasio: (in a calm, emotionless confident tone) “Please refer to my detailed account of brain-mapping and the interplay between the environment and the body that informs consciousness and formation of the mind within the brain…also if possible, study my account of the ‘as-if ‘body loop.”

  • Sabrina Smith // Sep 25th 2013 at 10:50 am

    I agree with you that Noe’s arguments were not consistent and it made it a bit hard to follow his overall stance. His analogies don’t really do him justice either but I did appreciate his attempt to integrate the environment and the functionality of the brain and ‘mental’ capabilities to explain consciousness. On page 99 of “Out of our Heads” he makes an intriguing point ” The fantasy of rational emancipation is just that- a fantasy- at least if it is meant to suggest that there can be a presuppositionless form of mental life.” Not exactly sure where he wanted to go with this but i did sense the effort to rationalize the idea of conscious thinking.

  • Kristina Bodetti // Sep 25th 2013 at 1:36 pm

    I agree with your analysis completely. I watched the video first and was ready for a discussion of consciousness outside the brain until the argument of that discussion fell apart. There were hints of a poor argument in the video but I had hoped that was the result of condensing a theory into an 11min Q&A; clearly it was simply the result of faulty logic.

    I also agree with you that before we can come up with a solid theory of consciousness and self be need to solidify our understanding and definitions of the terms involved.

  • Adam Wagner // Sep 25th 2013 at 4:34 pm

    The blind person example is faulty on several levels. The blind person is still conscious and experiencing consciousness before the apparatus, the apparatus only serves to strengthen the detail in her perception. You wouldn’t say wearing glasses/contacts is altering consciousness but essentially it is the same argument. Similar to the digestion/dancing metaphor, he seems to be playing the strength of the metaphor to appeal to our logical assumptions without actually making progress in an argument or providing real proof.

    I find his use of scientific studies hurts his credibility rather than adds to it. He picks and chooses across the board to suit what he is trying to say but the relative scope of the studies is noticeably inconsistent. He denies the work being done in neuroscience on the basis of skepticism but then attempts to strengthen his own arguments using scientific evidence? Why is his evidence not faulty on the same skeptical grounds? His discussion of the ferrets and the rewiring of their visual systems was one of those times I through up my arms in disgust. He assumes we all thought, upon hearing the introduction to the experiment, that the ferrets would “hear through their eyes.” I was somewhat insulted. Clearly the visual system would not all of the sudden gather the perceptual qualities needed for auditory perception. I assumed with plasticity, especially since he prefaced the experiment by claiming ferret’s brains are extremely immature when born, that what happened would have happened. The auditory cortex of the ferret’s brain did not suddenly begin to see, the part of the brain that is typically the auditory part of the brain was surgically rewired and became the visual cortex. Fascinating nature of the brain, but not hard to imagine given the plasticity of an immature brain. He then went on to compare that to the remapping of phantom limbs in an adult, human brain. That was almost laughable. No judgement can be drawn from the comparison, unless you are trying to show that the adult brain is less plastic.

    I was disappointed, not only in the evidence, but in the logic of the arguments. As a philosophy major, interested in this topic, I felt he could have at least been better at formulating the argument and not committing fallacies all over the place. But then again, I guess philosophers throughout the ages have been guilty of this.

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