Saturday, March 28, 2009

Consciousness is More Than Our Brains

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 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 interview.
Photo at left is Alva Noë


christopher said...

Greg, thanks for this. It is a very good group of statements about the brain and consciousness. However, the purpose of religion is not well stated. There are at least two primary pieces to religious life. The one piece is to stabilize the group. The other is to support the forward thrust of those with the calling to a life of transcendance. It is therefore true that religion is a group effort and the experience of the religious life is not in the individual but in the group. However it is also true that in the highest religious traditions the religious life is a group supported intensely personal transcending life. The group fades into the background precisely as mothers do in the life of adolescents achieving maturity. This is the source of all religious innovation, and the tremendous conservatism in most traditions is conservatism in service to the hope that someone will (perhaps with the help of God) do this.

Without a way to support this particular individualistic breaking past the dogma and rules and authorities, religions are dead things rather than living traditions. I wrote something related in my post of this date. I humbly refer you to my writing there.

George Breed said...

Thanks for posting this, Greg. I appreciate your focus on these matters. Helps me keep thinking and opening. Love to you, Brother.

Gregory LeFever said...

Thank you, George and Christopher, for your respective visits!

Christopher, I'll head over to your blog to see the post you mention. I appreciate your insights here regarding the religious life, especially the part about the individual and religious innovation.

George, glad to hear my efforts here have some meaning for others. You've been writing a number of provocative things on Embodying Spirit, and I've been remiss in not leaving recent comments. I'll do better, my friend.

Ghost Dansing said...

there is not political (or scientific) solution for a troubled evolution...... we are spirits in the material

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