As anyone who’s a steady reader of this blog knows, there are a lot of current scientific studies trying to explain how we think and how we view the world. The most recent one below is a good example ~ do religious people have a less active anterior cingulated cortex, and if so, what does that mean?
I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with many of these neuroscientific studies. Either the researchers themselves are becoming more extreme in what they believe the evidence shows, or the news articles are sensationalizing the findings.
Likely some of both.
That’s why I’m interested in a new book by Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California. In Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness, he clearly disputes that our brains can be understood in their entirety by a bunch of laboratory tests.
Here are some quotes from Noë that I lifted from a recent interview in Salon.com. They give you a good idea of where he’s coming from:
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.
* * * * *I think of religions as communal and as literary traditions, both things existing outside the brain. I don't think of religious belief as something we can understand individualistically. When someone says they believe in God, you've got to understand the practices, customs, backgrounds and social realities that are part of that. None of it is going to reduce to anything individual inside of that person's brain. People like Sam Harris, who worry about the irrationality of religious customs and practices, are right to be concerned. I agree that religion can be dangerous. But I don't think neuroscience is the way to understand it at all.
* * * * *Instead of asking how the brain makes us conscious, we should ask, How does the brain support the kind of involvement with the world in which our consciousness consists? This is what the best neuroscientists do. The brain is not the author of our experience. If we want to understand the role of the brain, we should ask, How does the brain enable us to interact with and keep track of the world as we do? What makes a certain pattern of brain activity a conscious perceptual experience has nothing to do with the cells themselves, or with the way they are firing, but rather with the way the cells' activity is responsive to and helps us regulate our engagement with the world around us.
Click here for the entire Salon.com interview.
Photo at left is Alva Noë
Photo at left is Alva Noë