Saturday, March 14, 2009

Quote of the Day: Alva Noë

by Karl Steel

From an interview with Alva Noë, author of Our of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, comes a paragraph that--barring its unfortunate use of the word "identity"--intersects very nicely with conversations we've had here over the past few years:
[Smallwood]So we're not just brains in vats.

[Noë] Exactly. I argue that our commitment to the minds of others isn't, strictly speaking, a theoretical one; it's more like a moral or existential one. It's a condition of the kinds of relationships we enjoy with them. I couldn't love you if I thought of you as a hypothetical explanation of the sensory experiences I have when I look at you. What that seems to mean as a consequence is that it isn't possible to recognize mind in the universe from a purely disengaged, detached, objective, theoretical standpoint. And that seems to have the consequence that we can't really have a science of the mind, because science requires that you take a detached, objective attitude toward things. We don't have to accept that consequence, but we need to realize that there is a kind of natural scientific perspective on mind that is not detached, and I call that the biological perspective. Exactly the same things can be said about life. When I recognize a little bacterium as living, I'm thinking of it as not merely a locus of chemical processes; I'm thinking of it as doing things, having interests, seeking food, preserving its unity in the fluid that it's floating around in and not just dissolving. I'm singling it out as having a story, as having an identity. And you can't do that unless in some sense you already take life in a kind of primitive way for granted. We need to enrich our conception of what our so-called scientific study of these phenomena is if we really want to understand them.

[Green June Beetle photo from here under a Creative Commons license]

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