10 March 2009

Out of Our Heads

I came across this short interview with philosopher Alva Noë in The Nation (Christine Smallwood continues to do really interesting things with her "Back Talk" feature). What caught my eye was this passage:
Are fundamental experimental flaws contributing to a picture of consciousness as being seated materially inside the brain?

One place where I think there's source for concern is with the so-called brain-imaging technologies such as MRI or PET scans. Scientists have the idea that these technologies are photographing or depicting the brain in action or catching the brain in action as it thinks, as it feels, as it acts. In fact, those technologies are highly theoretically laden ways of thinking and talking about what's going on in the brain. There are many layers of interpretation and supposition. We assume that the cognitive phenomena are neural events, and we assume that the neural events correspond to metabolic processes, and we assume that the physical magnitudes we're measuring correspond to the metabolic processes. There's a sense in which these brain images are more like composite police sketches than photographs.
I find this is interesting for two reasons. First, consider his provocative view of these brain-imaging technologies - a drawing rather than a photograph (as though making and viewing photography does not require "layers of interpretation and supposition"). I think he is correct to destabilize common conceptions. Second, his view is a profound challenge to the many political scientists who are scrambling out to do brain-imaging studies of various processes of "political" responses - affect, judgment and so forth. My colleagues think they are being oh-so-scientific (where that means repudiating philosophical considerations). That, of course, just is silly.

Having never heard of Noë but since he seems to endorse a view of human mental functioning similar to how I think about such matters and because I think that view has important implications for how we understand political economic issues, I thought I would look him up. You can find his web page here. And you can find a longer interview with him here. He advances what (I think) is a very persuasive view of perception and consciousness. Here is some of the good part of the longer interview to which I just linked:

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.
This is enough to make me track down Noë's new book - you can find publication information here.

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Blogger eugev44 said...

I'm currently reading and highly recommend Consciousness Explained by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. One of the things that have become clear from reading him, some other psychologists,cognitive scientists, etc. is that in general, humans are extremely bad at correctly identifying the way in which their mental processes function. Numerous experiments have been done in various fields that seem surprising mainly because we don't actually know how we do many of the things our brains do. While Noe may in fact be right about the approach to brain sciences, it is important to realize the ways in which we constantly delude ourselves by imbuing emotion, and on a grand scale, facing one of the greatest consequences of consciousness itself: the realization of inevitable death.

12 March, 2009 14:14  
Blogger Tom White said...

The study of consciousness is really the study of how we perceive and interpret reality, with all the inherent philosophical and metaphysical conundrums that implies. I love discussing this subject, you swing wildly between feeling incredibly aware and intelligent and blindly innocent and full of incomprehension.

One of the more curious books related to this theme that I have ever read is 'Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid' by Douglas Hofstadter. It was given to me to read by a psychology student when I was at college for my BA. Way more interesting (and relevant) than the art theory books on my own course's curriculum!

16 March, 2009 23:16  
Blogger Scott Ellington said...

Sixteen months ago I bought my first "serious" digital camera. It changed my life by rebalancing the manner in which I spend discretionary time; not hovering over a keyboard in a darkened room, but keenly attending the behavior of wild birds.
Predictably, my awareness of subtle variations in ambient light has become considerably keener, but, as well, my ears and skin have opened to environmental stimulii that were previously ignored because they had no action-oriented meaning.
Longer lenses, metering devices, and a second, more "serious" camera; each addition to my camera kit effects significant change in my perceptual array/arsenal; guiding me out of my head.

An analysis of the technological instruments I've acquired might lead to interesting inferential, statistical descriptions of my photographic agenda (expressed in demographic doubletalk) without ever detecting any suspicion of the overwhelming thrill that comes with actually SEEING the theoretical curvature of the earth through a 600mm lens that allows a "hill" of bay water to obscure the ground floor and parking lot at Candlestick Park.

From this (moderately-deranged and peculiar) perspective, I'm seeking to reinforce the notion that the instrumentalities of mind should not be confused with the source. And that the study of mechanism, no matter how atomistic, may be deeply misguided in the scientific pursuit of attention/consciousness/awareness/mind.

22 March, 2009 12:57  

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