Book Review: "Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness" by Alva Noe

Interesting, but ultimately disappointing and unconvincing. (2 out of 5 stars)

Noe avoids mystical explanations and the supernatural. He doesn’t put forth souls or the vague appeals to quantum mechanics that are the hallmarks of new age quackery. And while he skates close, he doesn’t present consciousness as just merely a postmodern social construction. “Out of Our Heads” is grounded in this sense.

Consciousness, Noe states, is not a something that takes place in the brain like digestion takes place in the stomach. And it is more than just the sum of its parts, just as a performing dancer is more than just muscles. But as poetic as Noe gets, his arguments are full of discrepancies and far from compelling. His biggest mistake is that you can easily replace his use of the words “environment” or “body” with “the brain’s sensory input” and all his anecdotes and scientific appeals are just as valid and consistent.

Noe’s job to put forth a new approach to consciousness is made simple because neither science nor philosophy has an answer as to what consciousness and self-awareness are or where they come from. And because science doesn’t have a conclusive answer as to how the brain creates consciousness, Noe is free to exclaim that science cannot guarantee that the brain alone is where what we experience as consciousness takes place. But Noe’s own assertions are even more uncompelling, and it shows in how he attempts to refute the “consciousness is the brain” position.

And at times, Noe goes too far with this rhetoric. In chapter five he states that computers do not “play chess”, because the computer does not understand chess as a game. The computer’s mechanistic churning out of moves based on algorithms (however sophisticated) does not make the computer comprehend the environment and culture that make up “chess”. And while I’m personally tired of the “brain-is-a-computer” metaphor as anyone, Noe goes too far in the opposite direction when he says that computers are somehow not authentically playing the game. This romantic view ignores the fact that most computer chess programs can beat most people most of the time. The same reasoning Noe uses could just as easily say computers don’t truly “play mp3s” or “add numbers” since they don’t have an emotional connection with the world of music or mathematics.

This goalpost-moving of definitions is a tune that the author plays again and again. One might think that dreams are an example of conscious experience that don’t make use of a physical body that interacts with the real world or a. Noe dismisses dreams as not “bona fide perceptual experiences”. Perhaps a hypothetical “The Matrix”-like experience would be an example of a brain-only existence for the mind? No, this would be a virtual existence for a virtual mind. Semantics.

Meanwhile, he presents conventional neuroscientists as myopic and misguided. The caricature includes a cold, detached, lifeless method of examining consciousness that is fanatically committed to a materialist view to a fault. He criticizes this approach because, despite it making continued progress for the last several decades, it has failed to come up with a conclusive answer even after several decades. The ideas in the book are his (at times very interesting) interpretations, but they aren’t concrete conclusions. Noe does not go so far as to claim that consciousness is completely detached from the brain. But he includes the world and body in his definition of consciousness in an exaggerated stance that is as ostentatious as saying a souped-up hot rod is literally an extension of the driver’s body. Nonsense.

I don’t even disagree with all of Noe’s points or put his idea as impossible. But the tone of the book is more new paradigms, scientific revolution, and sensationalism than sober and serious. Two stars out of five.

Amazon review link

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