“There is no empirical or philosophical justification for the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness.”
So says the philosopher – or perhaps neurophilosopher – Alva Noë in his book Out of Our Heads, which challenges the idea that our brains are just a complex computer and that everything we do will eventually be traced back to the firing of the appropriate neurons. Instead, he argues that human consciousness is the result of our interaction with the world around us.
Noë is no shrinking violet. He even challenges the Nobel-Prize-winning research of David Hubel and Torstein Wiesel on the neurophysiology of vision. But his arguments are compelling. The tools we use, the languages we learn, the habits we develop, all these things contribute to our consciousness.
This makes a lot of sense to me. In my study of Aikido, I have discovered that I don’t truly understand something until I move with it and use it in response to another person. The pure idea is not enough without the physical movement. My Aikido teacher, Mitsugi Saotome, often emphasizes that what we learn from touch and awareness gives us the material with which to work and learn. It seems to me that our physical bodies and how they interact with the world are an integral part of who we are.
Noë studied with the late British philosopher Susan Hurley, who also wrote on these subjects. In his book he says Hurley referred to people as “dynamic singularities.” There’s an interesting phrase.
Reading Noë raises all kind of questions in my head. If he’s right that what makes us conscious is more than neurons firing in the brain, creating artificial intelligence will be a lot more complex than just developing an incredibly fast computer. A true AI will have to be set up to interact in the world and learn from it. And if it has an appreciably different body from human beings, it will probably learn things in very different ways — which would be fascinating but also could be very, very frightening.
I’d like to know what Noë makes of the singularity, and what the thinkers behind the singularity make of Noë. By the way, Noë works with the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Berkeley, in addition to teaching philosophy. He’s definitely knowledgeable about the latest neurophysiology research.
As usual, I’m fascinated by work by smart people that challenges the current thinking. This is a short book chock full of ideas that will shake up your brain. I recommend it.
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