<DIV><DIV><P>1 AN ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS</P><P>The human body is the best picture of the human soul.</P><P>—Ludwig Wittgenstein</P><P>Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago. If we are to understand our human nature, we need to make a fresh start. In this first chapter I lay out the basic challenge.</P><P>Consciousness Is Like Money</P><P>Stop and notice that you can believe in consciousness—appreciate the fact that we feel and think and that the world shows up for us—without believing that there is a place, or a moment in time, when and where consciousness happens or comes to be inside of us. As a comparison, consider that there’s nothing about this piece of paper in my hand, taken in isolation, that makes it one dollar. It would be ludicrous to search for the physical or molecular correlates of its monetary value. The monetary value, after all, is not intrinsic to the piece of paper itself, but depends on the existence of practices and conventions and institutions. The marks or francs or pesos or lire in your wallet didn’t change physically when, from one day to the next, they ceased to be legal tender. The change was as real as it gets, but it wasn’t a physical change in the money.</P><P>Maybe consciousness is like money. Here’s a possibility: my consciousness now—with all its particular quality for me now— depends not only on what is happening in my brain but also on my history and my current position in and interaction with the wider world. It is striking that the majority of scientists working on consciousness don’t even notice there is an overlooked theoretical possibility here. They tend to think that consciousness, whatever its ultimate explanation, must be something that happens somewhere and sometime in the human brain, just as digestion must take place in the stomach.</P><P>According to the now standard view, our conscious lives—the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us—is achieved in us by the action of our brain. The brain produces images of the environment and manipulates those images in a process known as thought. The brain calculates and infers and eventually produces neural commands so that we act. We really are our brains, and our bodies are at most robotic tools at our brains’ disposal. The brain is sole author of what is in fact a grand illusion: that we inhabit a richly detailed and meaningful world, that we are the sorts of beings we think we are. What are we, then? If the truth be told, we are brains in vats on life support. Our skulls are the vats and our bodies the life-support systems that keep us going.</P><P>Or so mainstream neuroscience, and writers of science fiction, would have it. Is my body a robot that my brain inhabits? Is the world a grand illusion? Is this really an intelligible conception of ourselves?</P><P>Are You Your Brain?</P><P>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.</P><P>All scientific theories rest on assumptions. It is important that these assumptions be true. 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. That’s why we have been unable to come up with a good explanation of its neural basis.</P><P>Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize–winning codiscoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, has proposed (in a book titled The Astonishing Hypothesis) that "you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." With a flourish, he adds, "This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing."</P><P>What is striking about Crick’s hypothesis is how astonishing it isn’t. It isn’t surprising to be told that there is a thing inside each of us that thinks and feels and wants and decides. This was the view of the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, who held that each of us is identical to an interior something whose essence is consciousness; each of us, really, is an internal res cogitans, or thinking thing. And this is the doctrine promulgated by many religious traditions. Of course, the religions, and Descartes himself, didn’t teach that that thing inside us that thinks and feels is a part of our body, a bit of flesh, such as the brain. They supposed that it was something immaterial or spiritual, and so, in that sense, that it was something unnatural. How could mere matter—mere meat—achieve the powers of thought and feeling? Such a possibility boggles the mind. It is precisely on this point, and only on this point, really, that today’s neurosci-entist breaks with tradition. As Patricia Churchland, a prominent philosopher of neuroscience, has written: "The weight of evidence now implies that it is the brain, rather than some non-physical stuff, that feels, thinks, decides."</P><P>But what needs to be kept clearly in focus is that the neuro-scientists, in updating the traditional conception of ourselves in this way, have really only succeeded in replacing one mystery with another. At present, we have no better understanding of how "a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules" might give rise to consciousness than we understand how supernatural soul stuff might do the trick. Which is just to say that the you-are-your-brain idea is not so much a working hypothesis as it is the placeholder for one.</P><P>Consciousness researchers in neuroscience like to think that they have broken with philosophy. They have left it behind and set off on the path of science. As Crick has written: "No longer need one spend time attempting . . . to endure the tedium of philosophers perpetually disagreeing with each other. Consciousness is now largely a scientific problem."</P><P>Crick is right that the problem of consciousness is now a problem for science. But this doesn’t mean that it is no longer a problem for philosophy. For one thing, the aims of philosophy and of science are not different: to achieve understanding of the problems that matter to us. But that’s just the beginning: it is a mistake to think that the new neuroscience of consciousness has broken with philosophy or moved beyond it. In fact, as we have been discovering, Crick and other neuroscientists have simply taken a specific family of philosophical assumptions for granted, so much so that their own reliance on them has become all but invisible to themselves. But the fact of the reliance is everywhere in evidence. Its perturbing influence is felt in the seeming mandatoriness of what we can think of as a kind of "gastric juices" conception of consciousness—that is, the idea that consciousness happens in the head the way digestion happens in the stomach. I mentioned before that it is overoptimistic to think of the new neuroscience of consciousness as in its infancy. Devel-opmentally, it would be more apt to characterize it as like a teenager. Like teenagers, neuroscience is in the grip of technology; it has a grandiose sense of its own abilities; and it is entirely lacking a sense of the history of what, for it, seems so new and exciting.</P><P>A Really Astonishing Hypothesis</P><P>It would be astonishing to learn that you are not your brain. All the more so to be told that the brain is not the thing inside of you that makes you conscious because, in fact, there is no thing inside of you that makes you conscious. It would then turn out that contemporary neuroscience has <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Out of Our Heads</b> by <b>Noe, Alva</b> Copyright © 2010 by Noe, Alva. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.