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You Are Not Just Your Brain

· Nov. 13, 2015, 12:03 pm

For some time now, I’ve been skeptical about the neuroscience of consciousness. Not so much because I doubt that consciousness is affected by neural states and processes, but because of the persistent tendency on the part of some neuroscientists to think of consciousness itself as a neural phenomenon.

Nothing epitomizes this tendency better than Francis Crick’s famous claim — he called it his “astonishing hypothesis” — that you are your brain. At an interdisciplinary conference at Brown not so long ago, I heard a prominent neuroscientist blandly assert, as if voicing well-established scientific fact, that thoughts, feelings and beliefs are specific constellations of matter that are located (as it happens) inside the head. My own view — I laid this out in a book I wrote a few years back called Out of Our Heads — is that the brain is only part of the story, and that we can only begin to understand how the brain makes us consciousness by realizing that brain functions only in the setting of our bodies and our broader environmental (including our social and cultural) situation. The skull is not a magical membrane, my late collaborator, friend and teacher Susan Hurley used to say. And there is no reason to think the processes supporting consciousness are confined to what happens only on one side (the inside) of that boundary.

There is a nice interview on the Oxford University Press website with Anil Seth, the editor of a new Oxford journal Neuroscience of Consciousness. It’s an informative discussion and makes the valuable point that the study of consciousness is interdisciplinary. As he puts it:

“Consciousness science is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Today, it is a flourishing enterprise which engages neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists, clinicians, mathematicians, and physicists, with sociologists and anthropologists also joining the party. Consciousness is studied in psychiatric and neurological patients, in non-human animals and in healthy human volunteers (including infants), with experiments deploying increasingly powerful methodologies for acquiring, analysing, and connecting data of many different kinds, all brought together by powerful new theories and computational models.”

He doesn’t mention philosophy here, but he might have. As he notes, the new Oxford journal will be the official journal of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. The ASSC, of which I am member (and a former member of the executive committee), is a society that was founded by philosophers and neuroscientists back in the 1990s with the goal of furthering the new science of consciousness.

Seth is correct that “it’s tricky to come up with a rigorous scientific definition of consciousness which enjoys a broad consensus.” He goes on to say: “Put simply, for a conscious organism, there is ‘something it is like’ to be that organism.” It’s worth noting that this characterization of what it is for an organism to be conscious — that there is something that it is like to be that organism — was first advanced in the 70s by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

I don’t intend this observation as a criticism. To the contrary, I applaud Seth for undertaking the project of leading this new research journal and for emphasizing, at the outset, that consciousness science isn’t — and can’t be — just neuroscience.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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