Alva Noë somehow made his book better by commenting on my review of it…

Several months ago, I posted an article titled “Horribly disappointed by a really good book,” in which I reviewed Alva Noë’s book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.

In retrospect, it was a strange review, fraught with all the mixed feelings hinted at by the title. After publishing it, I read it over again and was surprised at how negative it sounded — especially given the fact that I very much enjoyed the book and the ideas presented within.

This strange feeling was made worse when Alva Noë himself commented on the post.

The title of this post is, of course, meant in jest, but when you decide to amend a review after a comment from the author, it’s hard to feel anything but sheepish about it.

It’s quite easy, in this situation, to feel as if you were somehow coerced into changing your opinion. I do admit that, having a great amount of respect for Mr. Noë, the negative aspects of my review (which can be found here) seemed quite a bit harsher knowing that he had read them.

But Noë’s comment was not coercive at all. In fact, he merely thanked me for my criticisms and gently recommended that I reread chapters 3 and 4.

In the original review, I criticized the book for ending suddenly after a drawn out response to inevitable naysayers in the consciousness community, leaving me desperately wanting more material furthering his central thesis. That feeling of wanting more, while it was used as a criticism, is obviously something of a compliment as well. If I had hated Noë’s ideas and found his thesis to be silly and poorly defended, I probably would have been happy to see the book end when it did — if I hadn’t stopped reading it already.

But I really enjoyed the ideas presented in the book, so when Noë broke away from the meat of his new ideas about consciousness and began the laborious task of attempting to defend his ideas against likely objections, I felt as if he had gone off on a necessary tangent that, once dealt with, would allow him to return to the fun stuff.

One chapter turned into several, and I suddenly found myself reading a short epilogue, feeling as if I had been cheated out of some phantom payoff. It was with this frame of mind that I wrote the review.

Of course, after Noë’s comment, I took his suggestion and reread the recommended chapters. On this second reading, I was struck again by just how clearly expressed and accessible his ideas were, something I had noticed the first time through, but forgotten during my slog through the pre-emptive rebuttals that make up the latter portion of the book. In fact, reading these key chapters made me feel as if I was discovering that final intellectual climax that I had expected on my first trip through.

It struck me then that, had these chapters been placed at the end of the book, following Noë’s preemptive rebuttals, I would have had no complaint. I would still have found the chapters that are meant for naysayers a bit of a chore to get through, but this small objection would have been completely overshadowed by the enjoyment with which I finished the book.

It would, nevertheless, be oversimplifying things to say that Noë should have simply reordered the book to please my tastes. Perhaps it is my tendency towards writing and reading novels that had me applying the basic rules of fiction to a non-fiction exploration of consciousness, looking for a grand climactic revelation to close the narrative.

Perhaps Noe was trying to cater to excited readers by putting all the new and exciting stuff at the beginning, leaving the second half to the experts whose objections he was trying to address.

It is, perhaps, another fault of mine that I prefer reading about the ideas an author is excited about rather than the inevitable objections. In almost every book I read on the topic of consciousness, I find myself rolling my eyes at this tendency, even though I’m acutely aware of how necessary the inclusion of these chapters is.

As I noted in the previous review, it seems that the consciousness community (populated, as it is, by a mixed bag of philosophers, neurologists, cognitive scientists, etc.) is an extremely volatile place in which to present a new idea, for it will surely be attacked by critics who are looking at the project through the uniquely tinted lens of their own particular expertise.

The result is that anyone who writes a book about consciousness, especially one that breaks new ground, necessarily has to spend a good portion of their text dodging punches that have yet to be thrown. The most frustrating thing about this — for author and reader both, I am sure — is the fact that the intended audience for many of these rebuttals will not even read them, instead discounting the presented idea based on snap judgments made early in the text.

I remember reading a Daniel Dennett book in which I was extremely frustrated by just how many paranoid rebuttals he offered to expected criticisms. It wasn’t until I watched a lengthy debate between Dennett and one of his peers on YouTube that I realized the position he was in. Over the course of the debate, which was organized on the assumption that the two parties involved had read each other’s most recent work, Dennett’s time was repeatedly wasted in having to redundantly address issues that had already been effectively dealt with in the text that his opponent had ostensibly read.

Surely it must be things like this that drive consciousness writers (and probably anyone else writing in a hotly contested field) to continue to obsess over the complaints of their peers.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that my complaint about Out of Our Heads was actually a complaint about discourse in general and cannot be rightly held against any one author.

This brings me to the one portion of my original review that I do not want to expand or explain, but erase and replace.

The statement that I would like to retract is the following one:

“[If you have already watched Noë’s YouTube video and] are intrigued about the new direction in which he wants to take consciousness, there is literally no reason to read this book.”

Having reread the chapters suggested to me by the author, I realize that this statement was unnecessarily negative, inaccurate, and dumb. And while, in some way I had hoped it would come off more as praise for the video than criticism of the book, this was not the case.

This comment was very much the result of my own personal distaste for intellectual housekeeping. Just because I don’t always enjoy reading sections addressed to possible critics doesn’t mean they aren’t completely necessary. To let this distaste — which lingered in my mouth so soon after finishing the book — lead me to forget all the wonderful ideas Noe presents in this book, was a silly thing to do.

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