Inventing the Self

Out of our Heads

September 24th, 2013 by Yana Walton · 2 Comments

My blurb on this book if I were a super cheesy book reviewer: Out of Our Heads is a breath of fresh air among the neuroscience literature we’ve explored so far. Noë’s facility with simple yet highly effective analogies and expert storytelling that distills what is generally presented tediously and dry into a page-turner for this genre.

OK, so that aside, I was definitely captured by this book and became clearly convinced by his hypothesis: That consciousness cannot simply “live in our brains, or in our bodies, but is the ongoing experience of relating to and being changed by our environments and other organisms.” He’s so convincing regarding what it’s not, that it was fascinating (and even entertaining) enough to learn about what consciousness is not through several different philosophical and biological lenses.

One large theoretical question I have about Noë’s argument is about it’s implications for our agency. Since humans cannot control much of our environments (including other humans), does his viewing of consciousness as always partially determined by our environment mean that we do not “drive” the “story in our minds”? He writes that consciousness is “…not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain , body, and world. Indeed, consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context” (Noë 10). While Noë’s ideas may open up much greater possibilities for understandings of our selves in relation to a dynamic world and he may see that as liberating us from neural determinism where you = your brain, it’s also a little scary too.  In true analogical style, He writes that “the brain is no more in charge of what you do that a surfer is in charge of the wave he’s riding” (Noë 95).

Yet just because the brain is not the only apparatus at work – doesn’t mean that Noë agrees with Blackmore’s claim that consciousness or the self are illusory, and makes a clear return to realism from science’s post-modern focus on deconstructing the awareness of individual senses in the brain (like vision) as mere illusions. In relation to Damasio, I wonder if Noë would agree that thought without language is possible, when he writes that “A language user is, to the extent that she is expert, the participant in a specific social practice; crucially she is the participant in a social practice of which language forms only an aspect.” This remains unclear to me, but I’d be curious to know what others think he would argue.

Just as I now use a language that was in place before my body/consciousness arrived, the idea that other people have produced the knowledge that I now think of as “mine,” or what I know – was beautifully explained in this book. The interconnectedness of humankind through knowledge, language, and “commitment to the consciousness of others”  (Noë 33) had really beautiful implications for humanity: Essentially he shows the extent to which the consicouness of ourselves is predicated on the viability of consciousness of others (and vice versa), showing that we are so interconnected that our default view of others’ existence is that of ourselves. Perhaps the implication is that with this more accurate understanding of consciousness as highly related to our outside world, we’ll take better care of it, and of each other.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Alessandro Mitrotti // Sep 24th 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I agree with your eloquent observation that the interconnectednes he alludes to has “beautiful implications for humanity.” It reminds me of the Zen teaching, No Self but for Others – and other spiritual teachings of oneness with the earth and with each other. I found Noë’s metaphysical approach more accessible and appealing than anything we’ve read thus far, perhaps because I have a better understanding of philosophy than I do of neuroscience. The idea that consciousness=brain+body+world, feels right intuitively, although such feeling could lull me into a complacency that might keep me from digging deeper into questions of self, at least for awhile….

  • matthew finston // Sep 25th 2013 at 4:04 pm

    On page 83 Noe writes “Without language it would be impossible to, surely, to think about the question of whether I had breakfast the morning of November 1, 1974, for it is language itself, with its implicit system for dating, counting, and conceptualizing time, that provides the very medium in which such a thought can take place”.

    I take this to mean that thought as we understand it is a product of language. It is possible primitive thought may be possible without language. But I don’t think so. Because On page 84 Noe writes “to know a language is to know the meaning of its words–to have meanings in mind. Those meanings fix what you are talking about when you use language to talk . . . And we do that because meaning is not something internal: it is not internal me; it is not internal to the experts. Meaning depends on practice”.

    Meaning is produced socially, not internal.

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