Alva Noё Considers Life and Consciousness
If we think of Hurley’s project as a thin-edge operation with respect to understanding consciousness, philosopher Alva Noe is pushing the wedge further. In his book Out of Our Heads (Noe 2009), he tries to explain consciousness in terms of an externalist account. Like Hurley, he tells us that the key to understanding consciousness lies within understanding of the question of life. What is it about life that holds the answer to the riddle of consciousness? Noe lets us know that the problem of the mind is the problem of life, and that wherever there is life there is also the mind:
The problem of mind is that of the problem of life. What biology brings into focus is the living being, but where we discern life, we have everything we need to discern mind. (Noe 2009, p. 41)
We are also to think of the problem of consciousness as the problem of life:
The problem of consciousness, then, is none other than the problem of life. What we need to understand is how life emerges in the natural world. (Noe 2009, p. 41)
So if we can understand life, then we have solved both the problem of the mind and the problem of consciousness. How are these problems the same? In an earlier work, Noe considers the possibility that a phototactic (light-sensitive) bacterium has a mind:
We start with the reasonable assumption that some simple life forms embody simple sensorimotor systems. A phototactic bacterium, for example, embodies a kind of sensorimotor “knowledge”; stimulation of its surfaces produce[s] motor responses. Such a simple creature is capable of responding to stimulation; its very existence manifests an environmentally embedded sensorimotor looping. With such a maximally simple being we already have the ingredients needed for the enactment of experience. The organism is not merely a locus of mechano-chemical processes; we have a unitary being that responds and acts. Nevertheless, where the sensorimotor repertoire is rigid and simple, there is no compelling reason to attribute mind or experience. (Noe 2004, p. 229)
Here Noe speculates about where life starts, and he does not want to affirm that a bacterium has a mind. He cautions that the sensorimotor repertoire—the range of possible motor and sense interactions with the environment—might be too rigid and simple. We humans, in contrast, have a rich sensorimotor repertoire, and this explains our mind and experiences, according to Noe’s account. However, in Out of Our Heads, Noe changes direction. There he writes:
The bacterium is not merely a process, it is an agent, however simple; it has interests. It wants and needs sugar. (Noe 2009, p. 40)
Noe suggests we should think of the bacterium not only as having a mind but also as having consciousness:
In this book I am urging that we should not think of consciousness as something that goes on inside us. The mind of the bacterium does not consist in something about the way it is internally organized. It pertains, rather, to the way it actively meshes with its environment and gears into it. Conscious beings have worlds precisely in the sense that the world shows up for them as laden with value: sugar! light! sex! kin! The mind of the bacterium, such as it is, consists in its form of engagement with and gearing into the world around it. Its mind is its life. But the life of the bacterium is not hidden within it. The life of the bacterium is a dynamic in which the bacterium, in its environmental situation, participates. And so it is for consciousness more generally. (№зё 2009, p. 42)
The bacterium has a life—how it meshes and gears into the world—and this is its mind.
Moreover, Noe’s text suggests that the way the world shows up for it—as laden with value: sugar or light—constitutes its range of conscious experiences. For Noe, “Life is the lower boundary of consciousness” (Noe 2009, p. 45). We are to think of the mind of a bacterium in terms of behavior, not internal organization. The mind and consciousness are achieved through interaction between an organism and the world. In our own case, this means that:
Consciousness is . . . something we do or make. Better: it is something we achieve.
Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion. The aim of this book is to convince you of this. (Noe 2009, p. xii)
We have examined Noe’s positive thesis of consciousness—his attempts to explain consciousness. He sometimes calls his approach sensorimotor, enactive, or actionist to indicate that conscious experience is to be understood in terms of what an organism does in an environment.
Let us now examine his negative thesis that consciousness does not happen in the brain:
The fundamental assumption of much work on the neuroscience of consciousness is that
consciousness is, well, a neuroscientific phenomenon. It happens inside us, in the brain. . . .
In this book I will try to convince you that this starting assumption of consciousness research is badly mistaken. Consciousness does not happen in the brain. (Noe 2009, p. 5)
Noe rejects the possibility that there could be neural correlates of consciousness in the traditional sense:
But if I am right, whole research programs have to be set aside. It is misguided to search for neural correlates of consciousness—at least if these are understood, as they sometimes are, to be neural structures or processes that are alone sufficient for consciousness. There are no such neural structures. (Noe 2009, p. 185)
Noe claims that neuroscientists are lost without knowing it and will show us the way forward:
It is sometimes said that the neuroscience of consciousness is in its infancy. But that’s not quite right, as it suggests that progress will take care of itself: it’s just a matter of time and the normal process of maturation. A better image might be that of inexperienced hikers out on the trails without any clear idea where they are: they are lost and don’t even know it! I am writing this book to help us figure out where we are and to show us the way forward. (Noe 2009, p. xii)
Why should we think neuroscientists who study consciousness are lost? Why is the search for neural correlates misguided? Noe illustrates his thinking with several thought experiments.
-  Noe defines consciousness in the following way: “I use the term ‘consciousness’ to mean,roughly, experience. And I think of experience, broadly, as encompassing thinking, feeling, and thefact that a world ‘shows up’ for us in perception” (№зё 2009, p. 8).