You Are More Than Neurons Firing in Your Head?

Naturalism starts with the assumption that there is only one world, not two. It’s one of the things that distinguishes atheists and agnostics from theists (who think that there is a “universe next door”, a supernatural world, too).

So what could atheist, and UC Berkeley philosopher, Alva Noe, in his new book, Out of Our Heads, possibly mean when he says that WE ARE NOT OUR BRAINS? And how, as an atheist, could he contradict Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick, who said:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Salon.com interviewed Noe and got some interesting answers.

Noe’s view is that we are no more our brains than our cars are their engines. In other words, an engine is necessary, but not sufficient, to explain the interaction of a car with its environment. In short, to really understand things like free will, love, religion, and consciousness, we need to step out of the neurons of our brains and think about our embeddedness in the universal “ecosystem” around us.

Money quote:

It’s one thing to say you wouldn’t be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It’s another thing entirely to say that you are your brain.

I don’t reject the idea that the brain is necessary for consciousness; but I do reject the argument that it is sufficient. That’s just a fancy, contemporary version of the old philosophical idea that our true selves are interior, cut off from the outside world, only accidentally situated in the world. The view I’m attacking claims that neural activity is enough to explain consciousness, that you could have consciousness in a petri dish. It supposes that consciousness happens inside the brain the way digestion occurs inside the GI tract. But consciousness is not like digestion; it doesn’t happen inside of us. It is something we do, something we achieve. It’s more like dance than it is like digestion.

Even if we had a perfect way of observing exactly what a brain was doing, we would never be able to understand how it made us have the kinds of experiences we do. The experiences just aren’t happening inside our skulls. Trying to understand consciousness in neural terms alone is like trying to understand a car driving down the road only in terms of its engine. It’s bad philosophy masquerading as science.

Noe also talks about DELUSION, and our pleasure in unmasking delusion, and how it may be clouding our thinking about who we are, and how we should study ourselves:

For a long time now, going back at least to Descartes and Galileo, we’ve liked to be told that things are not what they seem. When we go to a magic show, there’s a feeling of delicious pleasure when the wool has been pulled over our eyes. Similarly, to be told that the love you feel is actually just a chemical reaction, or that your depression is just a malfunctioning of your brain, is surprising and in some paradoxical way satisfying. There’s a modern pleasure in the unmasking of our everyday experience. We feel like we’re seeing behind the curtain, seeing how the trick is done.

It validates our suspicion that the world is different than it looks?

Yes. Galileo said that the apple in your hand is colorless, odorless and flavorless. That color and so on are effects that the apple has on you, comparable to the sensation of the prick of a pin. The flavor of the apple, he said, is no more in the apple than the prickliness is in the pin. The taste and the prickliness are in you. Galileo thought we were radically deceived by the world around us. The contemporary neuroscientists simply extend this even further — this idea that the world is a kind of grand illusion that the brain creates.

Sure, it’s an important fact that the perception of colors depends on the physics of light and the nature of the nervous system. If our physiology were different, our ability to detect colors would be different. But none of that speaks to the unreality of color, any more than saying that I can’t see anything in my room if I turn the lights off speaks to the unreality of my desk. We’ve almost made a fetish of this desire to be told that things are not what they seem.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to You Are More Than Neurons Firing in Your Head?

  1. morsec0de says:

    “It is something we do, something we achieve.”

    As is digestion.

    I completely disagree with Noe. Not that it isn’t an interesting subject. It is. But he seems to say “science can never understand this” and then follow it up with “so there must be more”.

    Well, if it can never be understood, then his claim of their being more comes from nothing.

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