Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Noë on Why we think we are our brain 1

From Noë's NPR blog post a few weeks back ...
Despite having learned so much about the anatomy and physiology of the human brain in the last century, we don’t actually have a better account of how consciousness and cognition arise in the brain than it arises out of immaterial soul-stuff.
This last claim is not controversial, not really. But then why are we so certain, as a scientific and as a popular culture, that the secrets to our nature lie inside us, in the brain?
Answer: We can’t imagine an alternative to this “you are your brain” idea that does not end up giving up on science. Either you are your brain, or you are a mystery.
It seems to me to be pretty common in the history of science to know that some object produces some phenomenon without knowing how that object produces that phenomenon.  So, for example, humans knew for millennia that the sun produces light, but only for the last hundred years or so have humans known that the sun produces light by nuclear fusion.  The organs of the body provide especially clear cases.  Humans have known for millennia that the alimentary canal digests food, but only for the last hundred years or so have humans known how the alimentary canal digests food.  Humans have known for millennia that the muscles produce contractile forces that move the body, but only for the last fifty years or so have humans known how the muscles produce contractile forces that move the body.  So, it's roughly par for the course to be in a situation where we understand that the brain is the seat of the self, but not know how the brain produces the self.


  1. Although his point seems to be that this is still the case, "despite having learned so much about the anatomy and physiology of the human brain in the last century". So your analogy breaks down some.

  2. I don't see that my analogy breaks down. It's typical that the where precedes the how. So it should not be surprising to find that we can locate source of consciousness, so to speak, in the brain without yet knowing how the brain does it. This is the typical progression.

  3. The critical parameter would seem to be not the recent rate of increase of the level of knowledge about some phenomenon but the current level relative to the level needed to understand some specific feature(s) of the phenomenon.

    The "we know so much about the physical brain and still can't explain X, so X must be inexplicable in physical terms" style of argument might be potentially convincing if we currently knew 90% of what we need to know in order to explain X. But it often appears that even after recent explosive growth in knowledge of the brain, we are still missing a lot of what is needed - in which case, accepting defeat seems a bit premature.

  4. Charles,
    That is so, but we don't have this more sophisticated premise coming from Noe, or from Susan Hurley, who also had this idea.

    Nor are things appreciably improved, many commentators have observers, if we suppose that the supervenience base for consciousness or cognition or whatever is changed from the brain to the body + brain.

    As Bob Brandom used to say in grad sem, "You just turn the crank one more time" and you can see the problem all over again.

  5. Ken -

    Well, being a colleague of Brandom, perhaps you are familiar with "Making it Explicit". As a fan of Rorty and Sellars, I've been tempted to give that book a try but am somewhat intimidated by its length and apparent scope. Any opinion pro or con?

  6. The brain is nothing more than a switchboard (connection) between you and your body.
    When you experience who YOU are you will stop trying the impossible task of trying to make yourself into a brain.
    You are no more a brain than the driver of a car is the car. Without a driver a car is just an inert piece of machinery no matter how complex its control systems are made.
    Without a person (life) a body is just another piece of machinery too.

    Life is not made of machinery. In fact it is not made of anything. It is a zero. A nothingness which yet has ability and causation. Just like the driver of the car. It makes the evaluations and conclusions and dictates the direction of what is to happen and where it is going. Sometimes it wins, sometimes it loses. But that's the game with other life units it plays.
    Mostly at this time it is pretty well unconscious of all this and the game is running on automatic with most people being unaware of who they are and what the deal is such is their confusion about who they are. They can't remember where they came from or what they are really doing here such is how bad their memory has become. It gets worse, as people at this state of perception ridicule (sometimes vehemently) any others who can remember and do have some awareness or experience of who and what they are.

    The riddle of life is not a problem in logic. It is a problem in awareness. If you are unable to experience yourself as separate in quality and substance from the physical then you are stuck with trying logically explain who you are. This deteriorates into an argument (logic) about brains which has nothing to do with what life is all about so just leads to more arguments. The arguments of course always being generated by life never by brains. You never see two cars arguing about who was in the right.

  7. Hi, Charles,

    I was a grad student at Pitt in the History and Philosophy of Science department. That was 20+ years ago.

    I am not that familiar with Brandom's stuff, but why wouldn't you try Articulating Reasons first?

  8. Because I just assumed MIE was the most comprehensive overview of his ideas. But I'm open to suggestions. Why do you recommend that particular alternative?

  9. MIE is probably the most extensive, but AR is shorter, which may meet your needs. If you like that, then press on with the big book. And, it might help sorting out the big book. But, it's a rough sledding in any event.