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"Consciousness is not something that happens in us.
It is something we do."
[ALVA NOË:] The central thing that I think about is our nature, our human-animal nature, our being in this world. What is a person? What is a human being? What is consciousness? There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm at the moment about these questions.
They are usually framed as questions about the brain, about how the brain makes consciousness happen, how the brain constitutes who we are, what we are, what we want—our behavior. The thing I find so striking is that, at the present time, we actually can't give any satisfactory explanations about the nature of human experience in terms of the functioning of the brain.
What explains this is really quite simple. You are not your brain. You have a brain, yes. But you are a living being that is connected to an environment; you are embodied, and dynamically interacting with the world. We can't explain consciousness in terms of the brain alone because consciousness doesn't happen in the brain alone.
In many ways, the new thinking about consciousness and the brain is really just the old-fashioned style of traditional philosophical thinking about these questions but presented in a new, neuroscience package. People interested in consciousness have tended to make certain assumptions, take certain things for granted. They take for granted that thinking, feeling, wanting, consciousness in general, is something that happens inside of us. They take for granted that the world, and the rest of our body, matters for consciousness only as a source of causal impingement on what is happening inside of us. Action has no more intimate connection to thought, feeling, consciousness, and experience. They tend to assume that we are fundamentally intellectual—that the thing inside of us which thinks and feels and decides is, in its basic nature, a problem solver, a calculator, a something whose nature is to figure out what there is and what we ought to do in light of what is coming in.
We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.
A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.
And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work.
Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not that merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.
Visual consciousness relies on a whole set of practical skills that we have, making use of the eyes and the head. I understand that if I move my eyes, I produce a certain kind of sensory change. Perceptual consciousness is a mode of exploration of the world, making use of a certain kind of practical bodily understanding. And that is what dance is. And this makes dance, for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness.
But there's more to the comparison with dance.
Consider this. On the traditional conception of the mind, if you want to study experience, you shut your eyes and you introspect. You look inward and reflect on what is going on inside of you, on the inner show. But if experience, if seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling, isn't something going on inside of you, but is something you do, then you need a different paradigm of what phenomenology would be, that is, of what a reflection on experience itself would be.
To reflect on experience is not to look inward, it is to pay attention to what you are doing, and to the way in which what you are doing is world and situation and environment involving. Suppose I am a hiker. I walk along and move my legs in all sorts of subtle ways to follow a path along a trail. But the steps I take and the way I move my legs are modulated by, controlled by, the textures and bumps and patterns of the trail itself. There is a kind of locking in. To study experience, to think about the nature of experience, is to look at this two-way dynamic exchange between world and the active perceiver.
Not only is dance a good analogy for what consciousness is, but the experience of watching dance and the way in which we can cultivate our aesthetic appreciation of something like dance is, actually, a good way of thinking about what phenomenology itself could be. What do you see when you look at a dance? You understand the movements and the forms and the patterns of the ensemble in a particular dance environment, which may be a stage or it may be some other kind of environment. To watch a dance is to make sense of this kind of dynamic.
Contemporary dance—contemporary art more generally—can be hard to appreciate. If you're not already familiar with an artist's work, it can be difficult even to bring it into focus. But we do. It is interesting to compare this process whereby we bring a dance or other work of art into focus for aesthetic experience with the project of phenomenology itself, that is, with the project of bringing experience into focus for science. Scientists ask, how does our biological being enable us to have the kinds of experiences we have? That should be understood as a question less about how the function of our brain produces images inside our skull and, rather, about how our full embodiment enables us to carry on as we do in an environment in a situation. This raises an interesting possibility. Maybe we can think of aesthetic experience as a model of the workings at least of an important core of human consciousness—perceptual consciousness. And then may be we can think of artistic, creative, aesthetic practice as making a direct contribution to the study of mind itself. Art is not something for science to explain; art is a domain for scientific investigation, a potential collaborator for science. It is certainly clear that the empirical investigation of consciousness requires help framing the phenomena of interest for itself.
One experience that I've been especially interested in is our understanding and experience of pictures. If I show you a picture from a newspaper—for example, a photo of Hillary Clinton—there is a sense in which, when you look at that picture, you see Hillary. There she is, in the picture. Of course, Hillary is not there, so there is an obvious sense in which you don't see Hillary when you look at the picture. There is a sense in which you see her; and a sense in which you don't. She shows up for you, in the picture, even though she is not there. She shows up as not there. Getting clear about this phenomenon is the central empirical and conceptual problem about depiction.
One idea might be to say, well, seeing a picture of Hillary is just like seeing Hillary. Seeing a picture of Hillary produces in you, the perceiver, just the same effects that actually seeing Hillary would produce. The problem with that suggestion is that if that's right then we lose our sense of the difference between seeing Hillary and seeing a picture of Hillary. The distinctive thing about seeing Hillary in a picture is that she is there but not there. She is there but visually absent. She is manifestly absent in her visual presence. It's a kind of a paradoxical thing. There is something paradoxical about pictures.
My view is that traditional philosophy and cognitive science has been asking the wrong question when it comes to pictures. They ask, how does the picture affect us and give rise to an experience in our heads? Instead, what they should ask is how do we achieve a kind of access to Hillary, to properties of Hillary, such as her visual appearance, by exploration of something which is not Hillary, namely, a picture?
The critical thing is the relation between this model, this picture, and that which is absent, such that we can gain access to what is absent in the picture. Once again we are thrown back to this idea that the perceiving is an achievement of access by making use of skills, knowledge. I need to know what Hillary looks like in order to recognize Hillary in her picture.
A striking feature of pictures is their immediacy. A picture of Hillary doesn't seem to be a symbolic representation of Hillary. There seems to be the sense in which merely knowing how to recognize Hillary or how to recognize a human form, a figure, is enough to recognize a picture of Hillary. There is this idea that we don't need any further knowledge or further skills in order to perceive something in the picture.
That is a very interesting idea. But, in fact, there is a nice comparison we can make to help us see that pictures don't really have this sort of immediacy. Think about something like the Macintosh operating system. No promotional endorsement intended, but the Mac OS is user friendly. If you understand a few basic metaphors, about the desktop, clicking, open files, closing files, a few basic metaphors allow you to unpack just about any program that you might be working with.
So there is a sense in which the functionality of the graphical user interface is straightforward and immediate. But, of course, that is precisely because the engineers have built the program with our particular predilections and capacities in mind. They built it to be easy for us. It's not as though it just happens to be easy. Technological evolution made it transparent for us. And pictures are just the same. You encounter pictures in a newspaper, say, and we find it easy to see Hillary Clinton in the picture. We don't need any further training. But that is not because you don't require training to see Hillary Clinton in a picture. It's because that technology was devised to be easy for us. The technology was designed for people with the training we already had.
OK, what does that mean? Pictorial technologies, both painting and photography, have been designed to be straightforward for people that already know how to recognize things by using their eyes. Certain background visual skills are all that is presupposed. But then seeing itself requires tremendous background knowledge.
If I have never seen a camera before, I won't know how to make sense of what that is. A beautiful paradigm for how much seeing requires background knowledge comes from art again. When you go to a museum you can look at a picture on the wall and it can be flat and unavailable and opaque. You look about it, you think about it, you talk about it, you read the placard on the wall and discuss it with a friend and all of a sudden it can come into focus as an object. As you learn about it, you bring it visually into focus as an object. Your understanding, your thinking, helps make it intelligible. Ask this question: do you need to learn to see in pictures? Do you need to learn to see your father in a photograph?
I had an interesting example of this the other day. When I go to the museum, I often take photos with my cell phone as a record of the pictures I looked at and thought about. My son was looking through my camera and he came across this odd picture of a Dürer painting. I was in Vienna, and it was a painting that was covered with glass so that my face was also reflected in the picture of the painting. He said, "What's this?" And I said, "You tell me. What do you see?" He said, "That looks like George Washington, pointing to the business man depicted by Dürer. This other person, that looks like Martin Luther King." He failed to see me in the picture. He thought I was Martin Luther King.
I thought that the part that was interesting about that—my son is only six, I should add—is that so little of the stage-setting that normally goes into looking at and evaluating a photographic image was in place that for him that it really was strange. The image confronted him as strange. Most of the time when we look at pictures, we do so in a context, in a setting. We can already presuppose what we are looking for, what we are interested in. These are people, these are celebrities, there are artifacts, and these are works of art. That opens the door to the question about works of art because what makes a picture distinctively a work of art is precisely that that background presupposition is not clear, it's all in play.
The division between philosophical and empirical approaches to these questions of consciousness, understanding and experience is an artificial one. People interested in the mind, have a set of questions that they want to understand: what is thought, what is emotion, what is consciousness, what is cognition? How is it that we are able as the animals we are able to do all this? Philosophy and science have been working on this together.
In fact, most of the science grows out of philosophical discussions. It is sometimes said by scientists that now that we have the new technologies of brain science we no longer need to pay attention to what philosophy has to say about these questions. But in fact—and this is just plain truth—most of what empirical science has to say about consciousness, language, memory, perception, emotion is the expression of a philosophy. It comes out of an investment in a particular philosophy, namely the philosophy of the internal, the philosophy of the individual: the mind is something inside each individual; it is disconnected from other people and from the body and from the outer world. If natural science is to gain a foothold in this area, if our own nature is to become subject of empirical science, it can only be because the conceptual, methodological, philosophical, as well as empirical questions are approached in a new, open-minded way.
Scientists ask, what is it about the way these cells are firing in the brain that makes the corresponding experience a visual experience? It's a trick question because there is nothing about the way those cells are firing that can explain that. Certainly we don't now know anything that would allow us to point to the intrinsic properties of the cells and say, it's something about the intrinsic behavior of these cells that makes the resulting experience, the smell of coffee on a rainy morning, or the redness of red. Nor can we say that populations of cells give you the solution.
We have to get bigger than that. It's not one cell; it's not populations of cells. We need to look at the whole animals' involvement with a situation. The thing about a smell is that a smell gives you the space of possible movement sensitive changes. If I am smelling something, the movements of my nostrils in relation to the source of the order will produce changes in the character or the odor. If we want to ask, what is it about this cellular activity that makes it olfactory cellular activity, the answer is going to be the way in which the cellular activity varies as a function of the animal's movement.
And that is what the brain is doing. The brain is enabling us to establish this kind of sensorimotor engagement with the world around us. This is a is substantive empirical hypothesis that I am putting forward. There are profound philosophical reasons to embrace it. And I hope that scientists and philosophers will find ways of communicating so they can work on these questions together.
Even though I'm a theoretician and not an experimentalist, Philosophical research is empirically significant and I would hope that my theoretical work will contribute to the framing of theories that are empirically testable. I have collaborated with empirical researchers, although never experimentally.
In one article that I wrote with the philosopher Susan Hurley, who died in the summer of 2007, we actually made some predictions that turned out subsequently to be clinically demonstrated. In particular, we offered an account of phantom-limb pain that predicted what has subsequently been reported by V.S. Ramachandran, namely, that the use of mirrors to create sensory feedback could provide a therapy for phantom-limb pain. What Ramachandran and others have done is allow somebody who experiences phantom-limb discomfort to look at a mirror and move his good arm but get visual feedback as if he is moving the bad arm. They find that through moving the good arm it's possible to work out a cramp in what is in fact an absent arm. One of the problems of phantom-limb pain is that you can't massage it because there isn't actually a limb for you to touch. You can't work out the cramp. The sort of sensorimotor, dynamic approach that I have developed with collaborators actually predicted what they found. So that's an example of a philosophically-informed empirical prediction.
I started out in the mid-to-late nineties working on visual perception. I was intrigued by the fact that there was relatively little work done on the importance of action for visual perception. The assumption was that our visual system is kind of like a camera. Action allows you to point the camera over there, but then everything just happens inside the mechanism, that, between your eyes and your brain.
The standard approaches that have developed over the last 100 years or so, many of which are fantastically ingenious and rich, have tended to think of vision that way: it is something that happens in the brain once the eyes get stimulated. There is one exception historically to this standard approach, a very striking exception, and that was the American psychologist J.J. Gibson. Gibson interestingly was a very philosophically-savvy psychologist, somebody whose writing bears marks of the influence of Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and maybe even Merleau-Ponty. I view Gibson as a very important forerunner to the kind of work that I and others have been doing.
Part of the project for me has been to explore the way in which we go astray if we think of perception and action as divorced. Susan Hurley had a beautiful phrase for this. She talked about the "input-output picture," where the idea is that on this picture, perception is input from the world to the mind, action is output from the mind to the world, and cognition and consciousness is what happens inside the head to relate those two. In my view, this is all wrong. We need to get rid od the input-output picture altogether. This is what I argued in my 2004 book Action in Perception. To see is to attain a certain kind of skillful access to the world. It is, for that reason, an essentially action-dependent kind of thing—by which I don't merely mean that we need to move in order to see, but by which I mean that, in order to see, we need to understand what happens to us visually when we move—seeing is a kind of knowledge of the sensory effects of movement.
If I approach an object, it looms in my visual field. If I blink, the sensory stimulation from the object is disrupted. If I walk around an object, its profile transforms. In these and other ways movement produces sensory change. I hold that seeing just is an activity of exploring the world, making use of that kind of sensorimotor understanding. The world—three-dimensional objects arrayed in space, colors, shapes, etc.—only comes into focus for perception given the perceiver's ability to exercise this kind of practical sensorimotor understanding.
There are very straightforward ways of testing this. If I put on left-right reversing goggles, you might think that what happens is that things on the left look as through they are on the right and things on the right look as though they are on the left. In fact, that's not it at all what happens. If I give you descriptions written by subjects of what it is like to put on left-right reversing goggles, what they described are strange, trippy, nearly hallucinogenic experiences of boundaries between objects disintegrating, and bulges and distortions, and seemingly random movement—a breakdown of the visual world.
By hypothesis, these goggles are not distorting information. They are simply inverting it in a certain way. So why should that kind of mere inversion produce that kind of radical distortion of the character of our experience? The answer is very simple, as the psychologist Kevin O'Regan and I first showed in our 2001 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article on visual consciousness. When you put on those goggles, you change radically the sensory effects of your own movement. Now when you move your eyes to the left or right, you have unexpected, unanticipated consequences, and the result is not inversion, but a kind of swirling, sensory confusion. If you wear the goggles long enough, it's possible to adapt to them and to see things as they are.
What explains this is the fact that through exploration of the world with the goggles one learns the new patterns of regularity, the new ways in which movement produces sensory change, the new ways in which sensory change varies systematically with movement. Once you figure out the new laws of sensory motor contingency, the world comes back into focus. What is interesting in this story is you don't explain how the experience changed by looking at cells or populations of cells. You explain how experience changes by looking at the way in which cells function as part of a larger dynamic of activity: animal, world, brain working together to make consciousness happen.
One of the key thoughts here, then, is that if we want to understand human consciousness or indeed animal consciousness overall, we can't just look to the brain. We need to look to the embodied, situated animal's life. No brain scan, no matter how cleverly constructed, is going to reveal the consciousness happening because that is not where the consciousness is happening.
That's the wrong level of analysis. The consciousness is unfolding in this dynamic. The consciousness is not in the head. There are a number of philosophers who are very sympathetic to this kind of extended conception of the mind. Andy Clark, for example, or Daniel Dennett—I view them very much as allies, although explicitly Andy doesn't think the extended mind approach for consciousness. He thinks it works for cognition, certain kinds of cognitive processes, memory and cognition, but not for consciousness.
The problem of consciousness is understanding how this world is there for us. It shows up in our senses. It shows up in our thoughts. Our feelings and interests and concerns are directed to and embrace this world around us. We think, we feel, the world shows up for us. To me that's the problem of consciousness. That is a real problem that needs to be studied, and it's a special problem.
A useful analogy is life. What is life? We can point to all sorts of chemical processes, metabolic processes, reproductive processes that are present where there is life. But we ask, where is the life? You don't say life is a thing inside the organism. The life is this process that the organism is participating in, a process that involves an environmental niche and dynamic selectivity. If you want to find the life, look to the dynamic of the animal's engagement with its world. The life is there. The life is not inside the animal. The life is the way the animal is in the world.
This is perhaps the biggest idea I can talk with you about today: the problem of consciousness and the problem of life are in effect the same problem, and that the problem with so much of the science of consciousness today is that it treats consciousness as somehow separable from the mode of dynamic activity, which is the consciousness. (By the way, I should say this idea, this critical notion of the intimate interconnectedness of the problems of consciousness and life, is something that forms a theme of the work of Evan Thompson, who has a new book called Mind in Life.)
One way this comes out in an interesting way is if we look to a simple organism. An organism is not merely a collection of chemical processes. The organism has a certain unity, and it is only when I can conceptually bring that organism into focus as a unity that I can study it, that I can even recognize it. Once I do that, I can ask questions about what the organism's interest are, what its goals are, what its needs are. I can't ask about the needs of chemicals in a soup. There is sense in which just to perceive the life in the thing before me, I need already to see it as an integrated whole distinct from its environment. Once I do that, I can also see it as having needs and interesting goals, and, thus, in some sense, a mind. I don't mean to say that a bacterium has a mind. But I mean that wherever we find life we find the necessity for a certain kind of narrative which makes the attribution of mind at least intelligible..
This is the power of the theory of evolution: it makes the narrative official. Evolution shows us how life works; it allows us to tell stories about an organism has the traits it has. We tell historical narratives. If we try to stay just at the level of atoms or molecules or chemical processes, we couldn't do that. So in a way my moral is this: the standpoint that cognitive science needs to take towards animals, and indeed, towards ourselves, is the biological standpoint, the standpoint that allows us to bring the whole animal and its story into focus. Unfortunately, cognitive science has tended to take a distinctively non-biological approach. They say they are looking at the brain and the nervous system, but they tend to model the brain and nervous system as computational systems, systems thought of solving problems and computing functions, systems that are, in the end, very much divorced from the active life of the animal.
Philosophers like to say that for all we know we could be a brain in a vat. But If you actually try to fill out the details of that thought experiment, it starts to seem much harder to make good sense of it. For example, very few of us would be inclined to think that a couple of cells in a petri dish were conscious. So how many more cells would we need to pile up before we began to think it became conscious? There is not any obvious way we can say where we would have to stop. It seems we would really need to try the experiment. But then who knows? It may be that we would have to build up to such a complex brain in a vat that what we ended up building is a brain and a virtual environment to house the brain. So maybe what this would teach us is that to make a mind you need to make a world. There would be consciousness in a world in a vat! Now, let's ask: where does the brain's body stop and the rest of the world begin?The critical point is there's no way to draw this line a priori.
Evan Thompson and Diego Cosmelli have written a paper on this. They point out how much structure would need to go into the vat. The brain requires metabolism, it requires nourishment, and it requires the elimination of waste products. So if you actually try to fill in what the vat would look like, what you are actually describing is, in effect, a kind of body. But we already knew that a living brain and body can be conscious!
When we ask ourselves, wouldn't we have the same experience we are having now if we were being fed the right kind of stimulation? The answer is, yes, of course. But what does this show us? Again, we already know that there can be consciousness arising out of the close coupling of an animal and a world. But that's just we are imagining when we imagine a mad scientist stimulating the brain. We are imagining a new kind of coupling of brain, body and world. Crucially, here's what we are not describing: we are not describing a brain generating in consciousness independently of the involvement of a world. We have not factored the world out of the equation But that's what the old Cartesian thought experiment was aiming at, as if my internal states are sufficient for the world.
There is very interesting work done now in psychology labs—for example, work in O'Regan's lab—on the importance of eye movements and environmental stimulation for capturing attention and directing attention. This is why virtual reality systems are so hard to make really convincing. It's one thing to make a flight simulator—all you have to do is make a very good replica cockpit and a reactive virtual environment—But in most video games and in digital technology, there are huge shortcomings in the power of the virtual. In part this has to do with the fact our own perceptual attunement to the environment is so dependent on what the world brings to the table, as it were. Landmarks, markers, signposts that we respond to, all play a role in our experiments. If you take the world out of the equation, I suspect that the brain, with its own internal powers, would be capable of producing only very impoverished experiences.
In fact, there is one nice bit of evidence I have to support that. There is a sleep scientist named Stephen Laberge, who has done studies on lucid dreaming. In a series of studies that he did, he would interrogate these lucid dreamers on their experiences. I don't remember all the methodology but the basic conclusion he found was this: in a dream it was impossible for one to look at a sign with text on it, look away and look back at the sign, and have the sign say the same thing. In reality what enables us to look at a sign and look back and have it say the same thing is the reality. The sign anchors the experience. The sign carries the information. But the human brain on its own isn't good at storing information—if you look away, it's just impossible to see the same thing when you look back in a dream because in a dream you are responsible for all of that.
Our ordinary experience, the kind of richness, the texture, the stability of waking experience, can only be achieved for an organism that is actually locked into the environment in a certain kind of way. If you change the environment or take away the environment, you would alter human consciousness. This points in a very profound way to this basic point I keep making, that the idea that you are your brain or that the brain is alone sufficient for consciousness is really just a mantra, and that there is no reason to believe it.