Did I hear my friend, or did I hear my friend's voice? What is it to hear someone? Judging by introspection, it does not seem that I analyze a bundle of properties of a voice--its timbre, diction, pitch, and so on--and conclude that I know who caused it. Still less does it seem that I encounter the sounds as mere noises--acoustical objects rendered meaningful by a cognitive task of interpretation. Rather, it seems that one moment, someone is not present to me, and in the next moment, he is. I hear his presence.
The prosaic event of hearing someone can reveal important truths about the nature of the mind and consciousness and expose prevailing myths that have addled the brain sciences, if the philosopher Alva Noë is correct. In his latest book, the brilliant and bracing Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, Noë rejects the computational and "intellectualist" models of the mind that dominate artificial intelligence and neuroscience research in favor of an evolutionary-ecological perspective indebted to Darwin, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Putnam. He argues that
the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn't something that happens inside us: it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us.That world includes other persons and the "cultural habitat" we create together. Consciousness is an achievement, "more like dancing than it is like digestion."
The book, written for a general audience, is in part an elaboration of Noë's collaboration with the psychologist J. Kevin O'Regan on the sensorimotor or "actionist" account of visual perception and sensory experience more generally. O'Regan was one of the discoverers of the phenomenon of "change blindness," in which people fail to notice major changes to a pictured scene when the changes are accompanied by a momentary interruption such as a flash or blink or a minor visual distraction. Here's one example of many available at his website. The fact of change blindness explodes the commonsense idea that vision simply consists in light striking the retina. Notre Dame shifted in your retinal image, but it didn't shift in your experience. More interestingly, change blindness creates a quandary for the computationalist notion that seeing just consists in the brain's construction of an "internal" mental representation of the world. For, in cases of change blindness, the representation must be crucially incomplete, and yet you do not experience the scene as incomplete--you are not struck by any cathedral-shaped holes in your visual field.
The sensorimotor theory attempts to explain this by positing that although you do not represent all of the visual details at once, you have access to all of the details, in that (1) there are details available in the world to access; (2) you are competent in the bodily and practical skills and habits necessary to move your eyes, head, or attention to any of these details; (3) you have some felt awareness of this access and this competence. This is a practical, embodied understanding of the subtle connections between what you do and what you experience--for instance, how an object will loom larger in sight as you move your body closer to it. Seeing, and sensory consciousness generally, involves all of this know-how and the social practices in which it is embedded.
Noë would not pretend to have answered all of the questions about consciousness or the self. Instead, he wants to demonstrate that the domain to which such questions must be addressed is the human organism, including the brain but also the organism's relations to its environment, both physical and socio-cultural. Mind science, like biology more broadly, "must give pride of place to the whole, living being."
What perks the ethical ear in particular is the normative--even Kantian--turn that Noë takes in Out of Our Heads. The book's argument begins with an exciting rethinking of the perennial philosophical "problem of other minds": How do we know that other persons are conscious, that they are subjects of experience? The problem is that we cannot observe a person's experiences; we can only observe the way he looks and sounds "on the outside." Noë admits that from a "theoretical, detached standpoint," the belief in other minds is not justified because it is inadequately supported by evidence. Nevertheless, it is justified--not by theoretical reason, but by practical reason. The commitment to the inner lives of others is not an intellectual commitment but a moral one:
Even to raise the question of whether a person or a thing has a mind is to call one's relation to that person into question. . . . For most of us, most of the time, our relations to each other simply rule out the possibility of asking the question. For the question can only be asked from a detached perspective that is incompatible with the more intimate, engaged perspective that we actually take up to each other.Outside of the philosophy of science seminar, the problem of other minds simply does not arise because the reality of other persons is presupposed by the practices of social cooperation. Noë's work suggests an intriguing area for exploration: the nexus between auditory perception, social cooperation, and the attribution of moral status to beings that have a point of view. When such beings speak, we do not hear noises, or even voices. We hear persons. To hear a person is not merely to have something happen in the head. It is to take a thing to be a certain kind of being, and therefore to give that being a special kind of concern and respect.