Review of Alva Noe

Just over a week ago, a friend of mine sent me the following YouTube video:

The main idea presented by Alva Noë in that short and intriguing video is that our consciousness is not some tool or ability that resides within our head, but a dynamic process that takes place between our brains, our body and our environment. To use his example, you can’t find the value of money by scrutinizing the bills and coins we carry around with us. To understand the value of money you need to look at the entire system of interaction that defines it, of which physical currency is only a part.

This idea resonated with me instantly. Having long been a fan of Julian Jaynes, who asserts that the peculiarities of human consciousness could not have arisen without language, Noë’s statements didn’t seem like much of a stretch.

The idea that Noë introduces in the above video is also the thesis of his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness .

The book begins with a more detailed description of his thesis, which argues quite convincingly for his perspective on the study of consciousness. I read these first words with an exaggerated version of the enthusiasm brought on by the YouTube video, sure that this book was destined to be one my favourites. Surely, if something as brief as a 4-minute YouTube video could stimulate me this much, an entire book would blow my mind.

Sadly, though the book is well written and interesting, it never moves past the content of the video. This means that the book is, essentially, just a more detailed version of the 4-minute speech.

The real point of the book, it would seem, is to convince the many skeptics in the field that Noë’s idea is worth considering. In doing so, he confronts many different schools of thought, anticipating (and responding to) the criticisms they might have of his position.

If you’re one of these well-versed, intellectually entrenched individuals to which he addresses his pre-emptive defenses, you may find the chapter that concerns you extremely interesting. For the layperson, however the book doesn’t really go anywhere. With each chapter, you find yourself more and more desperate to have him finish laying the groundwork and finally start getting into his conception of consciousness. Then, you reach the epilogue and realize that the expected revelations aren’t coming.

Having just finished the book 30 minutes ago, I can honestly say, if you are intrigued about the new direction in which Noë wants to take consciousness, there is literally no reason to read this book. This book was not written for you.

I can’t really fault Noë for this. Consciousness, as a field, seems quite vicious and competitive, with a lot of people telling a lot of other people why they are wrong. For this reason, most books on consciousness devote quite a hefty word-count to defending against the attacks that will no doubt be launched at them after publication.

It is, nevertheless, frustrating to expect a climax that never comes.

If Noë’s ideas are sound (and I leave it to the aforementioned “experts” to decide this), then his book could have a profound influence on the study of consciousness. Perhaps it could even convince some renowned thinkers to change their approach to the problem, cementing itself as a classic text.

For those of us who want to hear him take his ideas somewhere, we will have to wait for the next book.

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