We've Been Looking for Consciousness in the Wrong Place
Alva Noë is a writer and a philosopher who lives in New York City and Berkeley. His work focuses on the nature of mind and human experience. He is the author of Action in Perception (The MIT Press, 2004), Out of Our Heads (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009), Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012), and Strange Tools (2015). Noë, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1995, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. He has been Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been philosopher-in-residence with The Forsythe Company and has recently begun a performative-lecture collaboration with Deborah Hay. Noë is a 2012 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a weekly contributor to National Public Radio's science blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture.
One of the problems in the contemporary neuro-scientific study of consciousness is really a basic fundamental one, which is that we’ve been looking for consciousness in the wrong place. We’ve been looking for it inside of us. That’s a profound mistake. It’s a little bit like trying to find the dancing in the musculature of the dancer or trying to find the value of money in the chemical composition of the dollar bill. It’s the wrong kind of place to look.
The idea that I've had in my work is that instead of thinking about consciousness as something that happens in us or to us in our brains or anywhere else, why don’t we try to think of consciousness as something that we do or enact or perform in our dynamic involvement with the world around us.
There are some unquestioned assumptions that are motivating the neuro-scientific study of consciousness and I think nothing encapsulates that more than the idea that you see all over the literature in this field, which is that you are your brain. You, your personality, your emotions, your memories, your feelings are nothing but the action of your brain cells together with their associated molecules.
In fact, these words are almost an exact quotation of something that Francis Crick wrote in a book toward the end of his life called The Astonishing Hypothesis. Crick claimed that it was precisely this idea that you are really nothing but your brain. That is the astonishing hypothesis that has sort of come forward out of contemporary neuroscience. He said that idea is so strange to the way most people think today about themselves that it can truly be called astonishing. But the thing I argue in my book is that actually the striking thing about that idea is it’s not astonishing at all. The idea that consciousness is inside us, that there is a thing inside of us that thinks and feels and that you are that thing is an old idea.
In the olden days the older generation of philosophers and scientists couldn’t conceive how that thing inside of you that thinks and feels and is conscious could be your brain. They couldn’t understand, couldn’t even imagine how mere stuff, mere meat could do that. And so the contemporary scientists say it’s the brain that’s the thing inside of you that does all that. It’s not the soul, the immaterial spirit. But the truth of the matter is we don’t have any better idea today how the brain accomplishes what the spirit was supposed to accomplish. Sorry. We don’t have a better idea today how the brain does that than Descartes had how immaterial soul stuff does that.
So when I say that the contemporary approach to neuroscience is resting on unquestioned assumptions, I primarily have in mind the idea that consciousness is something that happens inside of you. Look, if I said to you here is a dollar bill, let’s look at it and try to discover its value you’d say that’s crazy because the value isn’t in the dollar bill. Where is it? That’s an interesting question. And then if you came to me and said "Look, I've got the best electron microscope in the world, let’s really study that dollar and try to find its value." No, you’re looking for the value in the wrong place. And the idea I have is that the neuroscience of consciousness has been making that kind of mistake in assumption about where to look for an understanding of what consciousness is and how it happens, how it arises.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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