Gordy Slack in Salon:
In his new book, “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness,” Noë attacks the brave new world of neuroscience and its claims that brain mechanics can explain consciousness. Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Francis Crick wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” While Noë credits Crick for drawing popular and scientific attention to the question of consciousness, he thinks Crick's conclusions are dead wrong and dangerous. Noe's conversational style is gentle, attentive and easygoing. But, in true philosopher fashion, he also picks his words deliberately, as if stepping off the path of right thinking would result in some tragic plummet into the abyss of illogic.
In San Francisco there's a brain gym where members exercise their brains with “neurobic” software. A sign outside the place reads: “You Are Your Brain!” It has become almost a mainstream notion now. But the subtitle of your book begins “Why you are not your brain.” What's wrong with the “You are your brain” view?
It's one thing to say you wouldn't be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It's another thing entirely to say that you are your brain. 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.