This book hails from philosphy and so discusses and argues for a proper definition of consciousness. Science asks what it is, philosphy asks how we should think about it. It is not to be thought of as electro-chemical impulses in the brain, but an an integral and essential entity made up of perception, interpretation, (memory, emotion and reason)determined largely by our environment. Even conjoined twins have a distinct consciousness, because of context. The word context appears late in the book; it might better have appeared in the beginning. A very good portrayal of our awareness, but leaving out the three- dimensional aspects of body soul AND spirit. Spirit fills the gap and makes humans whole.
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57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
An accessible and compelling exploration of the extended mindMarch 30 2009
Todd I. Stark
- Published on Amazon.com
The mind is more than what the brain is doing. The idea isn't new, but it often gets too little respect. Perhaps because people think it implies something supernatural, or perhaps because it just seems weird, but it is a very respectable argument and in Alva Noe's hands, a powerful one.
We often take for granted in brain science that the mind is implemented by things happening inside the skull. That goes against the growing findings that perception is an active process of exploration that depends on our contact with the real world and the skills we possess for navigating its structure. This book takes on the significant challenge of bringing that difficult idea accessibly and non-technically into the popular mind and I think he does an excellent job.
Although Noe doesn't talk about it specifically, Ruth Millikan makes a good related argument that substance categories are really skills. We know substances by our skills for finding and identifying them over and over, not through their intrinsic properties. Noe approaches perception in much the same way. We know the world by interacting with it, not by (or in addition to?) simulating it with detailed models inside our head.
Noe goes a step further and points out how some concepts just don't make from a detached viewpoint, so we are often forced to destroy the phenomena of consciousness, reducing them to something else, in order to study them dispassionately. This is a tough sell, I think, to habitual materialists, but he doesn't rely too heavily on it.
The implication Noe emphasizes is that consciousness is a process involving interaction of the nervous system with the world, not (just) something that is lighting up inside our neural nets. The distinction is sometimes more subtle that Noe acknowledges. He approves of Gibson's ecological theory of perception, but doesn't address the equally important work on expectancy and hypothesis testing approaches to perception, such as Richard Gregory's ideas and the experimental work done around them.
He is probably right that much of our basic perception relies heavily on active engagement with the world, but then some of it, to me, clearly doesn't. He does a good job showing limits to the feature detection approach to vision (doesn't it beg the question to say that features are "built up" toward pictures in the brain?), but doesn't have an alternate explanation for the elaborate architecture of columns and receptor fields and their activity in dreaming and imagination that seem to support at least some version of the mental representation concept in some kinds of mental activity. It seems in places that Noe acknowledges this sort of work but considers it an impoverished-perceptual or non-perceptual kind of mental activity.
Other than the excellent writing and clear arguments, the best part of this book is the skillful use of various findings regarding phantom limbs, sensory illusions, and inattention phenomena to illustrate the empirical implications of a mind extended beyond the brain case. Even if you don't buy the full externalist argument in all its details, it's hard to read those examples and not have a little light go off in your head and think "oh, so that's what he means by the mind being outside the brain!" That's a mark of good writing.
Noe mentions but does not dwell on the role played by philosopher J Merleau-Ponty in many of these ideas, and his work is worth exploring as well. A good non-technical intro in keeping with the spirit of Noe's book is: Merleau-ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed).
This book is a good read, a relatively quick read, and very thought provoking.
57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
"You are not your brain."March 8 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
Or, to use another of philosopher Alva Noë's metaphors, "consciousness is more like dancing than it is digestion." Consciousness is something we do, not something we have. Our awareness of ourselves isn't inside our brains, but in the interaction of our brains with the world around us.
One of the ideas that Noë insists on is that our "theory of mind" (the awareness that other people, like us, are conscious) is practical, not theoretical.
Noë says, "I cannot both trust and love you and also wonder whether, in fact, you are alive in thought and feeling." To put it another way, Noë quotes Louis Armstrong on how to define jazz: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna know."
To see something's mind, "we need to turn our attention to the way brain, body, and world together maintain living consciousness."
Using language as an indicator of consciousness, Noë may just be reaching for effect when he says that "talking is more like barking than it is anything like what the linguists have in mind." He compares using language to chimpanzee grooming behavior or sheepdogs barking while herding sheep. But linguists often talk about speech's "phatic" or social function (see How Language Works by David Crystal), and one of the first language teachers I had (a Hungarian who taught Russian and Swahili) said one of the main purposes of language was to acknowledge other people's existence. I was too naïve to realize I was getting a lesson in linguistics.
Noë has two "political" goals in this book. One is to "shake up the cognitive science establishment" and the other is to show "that science and humanistic styles of thinking must engage each other."
I don't know if Noë will be successful with the first goal, but he succeeded with the second. Out of Our Heads is clear and entertaining, and shows how philosophy and biology can work together to explain human behavior, as well as why they should.
61 of 76 people found the following review helpful
Intriguing But FlawedAug. 17 2009
Robert W. Sawyer
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I appreciate Noe's expansive view of the conditions of human experience, and his battle against simplistic reductionism. Materialist-minded neuroscientists, like many specialists, overstate the significance of their own research, and in a psychiatric context can do more harm than good.
But Noe's single-minded focus on the role of active engagement in everyday-life phenomenology leads him to overstate his own case.
It isn't clear, for example, why an organism's active engagement with its environment, a precondition for normal perception, should count toward a definitive account of "consciousness", while model-building neural activity in the brain shouldn't, unless you're simply assuming about consciousness what you wish to prove, i.e., that it isn't in any way its neurological correlates.
Noe also goes too far in his insistence on environmental engagement as a necessary precondition for consciousness. One of his own examples - patients with locked-in syndrome - brings this out. While Noe uses such cases of radical immobility to argue for the unreliability of brain scans, such cases also clearly illustrate consciousness can exist in a state approaching that of a brain in a vat. (It's not much of stretch to imagine the body functions that support the brain in such tragic cases being replaced with artificial supports, presumably with the patient continuing to remain aware despite no outward sign of consciousness.)
The brain is far from the whole story of consciousness, which can be studied from multiple historical, biological and humanist perspectives, all of which shed light on its development and nature. But Noe's insistence that consciousness requires present active engagement with the world is either an overstatement or a re-definition by fiat.
104 of 140 people found the following review helpful
Noe the obscureAug. 17 2009
John L. Kubie
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I found the summary of neuroscience simplistic and the "new" ideas about consciousness obscure. First, I'm a neuroscientist and I know no neuroscientist who think that the current state of fMRI and PET scans are the holy grail. These are important tools with important limitations.
Second, I don't see how a sensori-motor conception of behavior eliminates the brain. This seems like a retread of reductionist behaviorism.
While I agree with the general thrust of embodied consciousness -- observing how an organism interacts with the environment, rather than passively receives information from the environment -- is generally correct, this does not eliminate the brain, nor the wide variety of approaches that brain scientist use. It makes the project more challenging and interesting.
Finally, try as I might, I don't understand how Noe defines consciousness. It seems like hand-waving. And, like virtually every other attempt to explain first-person consciousness, it either denies its existence (unlikely) or performs magic.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Individualism consideredJuly 10 2010
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Noe's ideas are a good start on breaking the peculiar Western need to locate consciousness in a particular physical place. If I understand correctly, he locates "mind" in the interactions of the brain with the world.
My own sense, and I don't have it well developed, is that we need to go further out, and begin to see mind as including what Durkheim called "social facts". I doubt it will happen soon, due to our delusions of atomism in the social world. We seem to be stuck with the idea that each of us is, say, a pool ball, complete with mind and brain, and that we bounce around, hitting the cushions or each other, and have no enduring connections with any. Noe makes a start toward working out the goofiness of that view.