I recently finished reading the book Out of our Heads by Alva Noë. In my lifetime I have read many books on the nature of consciousness. Noë’s book is very thought-provoking, and his critique of much of current cognitive science is cogent. One thing he tells us is that neuroscientists who hope to find consciousness inside the brain are actually looking in the wrong place. There is a joke about the guy who was looking for his car keys on the pavement under the street light even though he had lost them in the grass, because there was more light under the street light. With all the brain imaging equipment that has been recently developed, scientists are looking at brain scans for traces of consciousness. What Noë tells us is that we will more likely find consciousness by looking at the relationship between us and our environment. That is because consciousness only develops through our interaction with the environment. He says that consciousness is something that we do, rather than a thing in someone’s brain. That is why I have made the title of this little essay, “Sensing and understanding consciousness”—sensing and understanding are things that we do, and in fact, they are good candidates for being forms of consciousness.
Noe also frequently says that we are in the world and that the world shows up for us. This is one way he states the antithesis of the Cartesian dilemma that Western Thought has been saddled with since the time of René Descartes. Descartes parlayed his certaintly that he doubted into giving mental phenomena, such as doubting, primary ontological status. For Descartes, the problem was how to explain our less certain knowledge of an “external” world. Many contemporary researchers have somewhat unwittingly substituted the brain for Descartes’ homunculus, Noë argues. The brain is where we look for the explanation of what it is that’s inside of us that accounts for our mental life. Noe thinks, by contrast, that we don’t even need this kind of explanation. No, we are born into a culture and a linguistic system that is mapped out on the world, and as we are educated, we are initiated into this complex, external mapping. As it were, our predecessors, following their predecessors, built a world of practices, and now as we are initiated into these practices, the mapped world shows up, in my words, we sense it and understand it.
When first I began to read Noë’s book, I was quite hopeful that what I was going to find in the final chapters was a positive theory of the nature of this externalized consciousness. With the passing of each succeeding chapter, however, I was—somewhat disappointingly—disabused of this assumption. But I got over my disappointment quickly by realizing that what Noë’s primary goal in writing this book must have been is to put the last nail in the coffin of the brain as little problem-solving agent in the cranium. Like he says, why do we assume that the mind stops at the cranium, as he then proceeds to expose the faulty reasoning that lead us there. He says basically that after all this recent neurophysiology, we still know zip about the relationship between the mind and the body. Maybe if we look at how we develop the relationship between the body and the world that we call mind, we will know a bit more.
Being the closet ontologist that I am—the only A+ I ever got on a philosophy paper was for a paper spelling out my “ontological Weltanschauung” back in 1966 at OSU—I still am asking the question “What is the nature, the being, of consciousness?” Noë has led me to formulate some new directions (for me) in which to go to find an answer to my question. I’m clearer than ever that the mental world cannot be entirely reduced to the physicist’s time-space causal manifold, at least not in the broadly known current state of physics as a discipline. I wonder, for example, if whenever we do understand consciousness better, it will be in terms of more than 4 dimensions. Physicists are now arguing over whether there are 10 or 11 dimensions. Maybe some of those extra ones, welded to the (x,y,z,t) coordinates of space time but tiny, form a mental manifold which we currently cannot sense, but can access indirectly through the understanding emerging from our initiation into language and culture.
Noë gave no hint of this answer, and I wondered if he does think that perception of objects is direct. I couldn’t buy that hypothesis; there are just too many problems with direct realism. It seems to me, as I reflect on my experience of the world, that I always infer to the objects of my perception, in that I predict that they will behave in such and such ways, and continually verify or falsify these predictions with each moment of passing experience. However, these objects do appear to exist in space-time relationships to each other. Now that DOES fascinate me. If this space-time manifold (which Kant and many others thought the knower imposed on experience) does not correlate with some structure in the brain, but rather with some structure in the world, what account can we give for it? I wish I had a hunch about that, but I don’t.