Paul J. Mills, Tiffany Barsotti, Meredith A. Pung, Kathleen L. Wilson, Laura Redwine, and Deepak Chopra Gratitude, along with love, compassion, empathy, joy, forgiveness, and self-knowledge, is a vital attribute of our wellbeing. While there are many definitions of gratitude, at its foundation, gratitude is a healing, life-affirming, and uplifting human experience that shifts us […]
Deepak Chopra Interview with Alva Noe on Sirius XM Radio April 25, 2009
My special guest today is Dr. Alva Noe, professor of philosophy and author. His most recent book is called Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Many times on this program we’ve discussed the mystery of consciousness. It’s the one unsolved mystery of our existence. What is consciousness? What are the origins of consciousness? We’ll ask Dr. Noe him what his definition of consciousness is. Until we can connect with him we can discuss the background ideas of consciousness.
Many spiritual traditions refer to that mystery that we call God. And this is one of the unsolved problems in science today. There are two schools of thought about consciousness. One which we can call the reductionist world view which says that consciousness is a byproduct of our brains. So just like your stomach makes hydrochloric acid, your pancreas secretes pancreatic juice, your gallbladder makes bile, so too your brain makes this mystery thing that we call thought. If we have thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, memories, if you dream, if you believe in God, hell, heaven, hell, salvation, damnation. All this is the byproduct of the molecules of your brain.
And that is the prevailing worldview in science and it’s called the reductionist worldview. It says basically that our biology is primary and our consciousness is secondary. There’s another worldview which goes back to ancient wisdom traditions and this worldview says that consciousness is the ground of being that actually differentiates or becomes everything that we call reality. It is the ground of being that is differentiating into how we think which is called cognition, how we know, how we feel our emotions. Our feelings are another expression of consciousness. How we perceive, another expression of consciousness. Our behavior, our biology, our social interactions, our environment, and even the forces of nature that we interact with. They’re all differentiated expressions of a single field and that field is consciousness. Consciousness rather than being an epiphenomenon of matter is actually the source of matter. It differentiates into space time, energy, information, and matter. Even though this view is an ancient view, an ancient world view it is now finding some resonance amongst a few scientists.
My own training is in the field of neuroendocrinology and I really became very fascinated many years ago with the molecules of emotion, molecules that we call neuropeptides. This was in the 1970’s when I was doing my training in endocrinology and also my training in neuroendocrinology. And we were beginning to identify these molecules of emotion in the brain and now these days everyone is kind of familiar with these molecules.
Things like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and opiates, these molecules not only reflect what’s going on in our emotions, but these molecules somehow permeate our whole biology. When you start to examine cells in different parts of the body such as cells of the immune system, t-cells, b-cells, microphages, on the walls of these cells of the immune system you find little receptor sites which respond to these molecules of emotion, so your immune system is listening on your body’s functioning. Your immune system is protecting you from such disorders as infection, cancer, degenerative disorders, even the ravages of time or aging, and this immune system is listening, it’s eavesdropping on your internal dialogue. Your immune cells are listening to the conversation which you’re having inside you, with yourself. In this program today with Dr. Noe we’re going to try and figure out who this person is, what their local address might be for the time being. I think it’s becoming clear who this person is, he or she, or it never shuts up.
Where is this all going? It leads to a big mystery. Where is our thought located? It seems to be in my head where it speaks to me in English with an Indian accent but it seems the mind has escaped the confines of the brain because the whole biological organism seems to be actually one that has memory, that makes choices, and that implies thinking.
Well in any case I have a brilliant scientist with me to continue with this conversation. His name is Alva Noe, he’s one of a new breed: party philosopher/part cognitive scientist/part neuro-scientist. He has an extraordinary book and the book is called Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. The book is published by Hill and Wang which is a division of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. It’s available in bookstores, online bookstores, I have now read this book about three times and every time I read it I have new insights but I also have new questions and I have to say it’s a very challenging book as well. Let’s see if our guest is on the line. Dr. Noe, are you there sir?
Alva Noe: I am indeed Dr. Chopra and I am delighted to be here.
DC: Well thank you, I guess we were mixed up a little bit on the timing but now we’re here and it’s really an honor to have you on the show and as I was saying to my audience we discuss consciousness a lot on this show, we’ve had some very interesting people, but I think you’re the most intriguing guest we’ve ever had. We have a huge audience and they’re very interested in the subject so I thought we’d have you for the entire hour and you graciously accepted. And I’ve been reading a bit from your book before you came on and I’ve been mentioning a few sentences here and there, but now that you’re here may I start the interview and ask you some questions sir?
DC: So okay just so we have all our definitions correct, how would you define consciousness?
AN: Consciousness is the fact that we think and feel and that a world, the world shows up for us….You look around and you don’t see mirror stuff, you encounter a meaningful environment of people, and places, and architecture, and emotions, and skies, and your coffee cup perhaps on the table in front of you. We are in this amazingly rich environment and the question is, how does this all show up for us?
DC: Dr. Noe’s thesis in this book which is very radical and very different from where mainstream science is talking about consciousness, is that consciousness is not located nor localized nor originates in our brains. And one of the questions that has always intrigued me Dr. Noe, is that the brain is enclosed in a bony structure that we call the skull, it really has no exposure to the outside world. The neurons respond to internal biological states like pH and electrolytes and body temperature and various hormones and the activity of these neurons in the cells is one of potassium, sodium, iron, potassium exchanged in connection with other neurons through electrical firings. How does this thing, which has no exposure to the outside world, which responds only to internal states, give us the experience of things like color and sound and form and internal experiences such as thoughts as you mentioned or feelings or emotions or desires or memories or dreams or insights or inspiration? It’s always puzzled me, so I was thrilled to see something like this coming out from the world of science which challenged the prevailing view that the brain is not the source of our consciousness.
And consistently… and there’s a very strong recognition of this within the scientific community. We have failed looking at the brain itself to get the explanatory insight that we want. Now there’s no question whatsoever that the brain is necessary. But the idea that has begun to come into focus for many researchers is it’s necessary but maybe it’s not sufficient. Or maybe the reason we haven’t been able to get the explanation by looking at the operation of the brain is that we’re forgetting that the brain is just simply part of our bodies, it is simply part of this whole system which we are, and indeed we ourselves are tightly coupled to and involved with the world around us, including by the way, the social world around us. The simple proposal that I make in this book is that we can make surprising progress on these questions that seem so mysterious if we give up the idea that consciousness is sort of like digestion.
They’re not occurring in isolation either. They’re occurring as you said in a context, the context includes the environment, it includes the forces of nature and so how about what you’re saying is really that me the observer and the environment that I observe and the universe at large are one process and that if I start to reduce that process to this particular structure which when I look deep enough turns out to not be a structure. I think the brain is not really a structure but a process because its dynamic, its changing with every thought, with every perception, with every relationship, even DNA seems to go on and off. These things that we call structures are a process which is part of a larger process and if we could start thinking like that then we would understand what you’re saying. Correct me if I’m wrong (laughs).
So that’s my sort of, that’s my retreat from what you’ve just said (laughs), On the other hand I do think that at least when we’re thinking about ourselves as living, conscious, human beings we are dynamic wholes. And what is special about us seems to really come into focus when we refuse to think about ourselves as merely chemistry, but when we think about ourselves as kind of dynamic whole. Which is to say as a kind of active process. And so while I want to take a step backwards from endorsing entirely what you’ve just said I do see what you say as perfectly capturing the spirit of my, of where my argument leads us.
DC: Well I have of course been influenced by my own personal practices of subjectivity and exploring consciousness subjectively because even though I have a background in science, one of the basic tenets of Eastern wisdom traditions is that when you’re exploring consciousness, then of course it’s your consciousness that is exploring consciousness. So by definition that’s a subjective experience. Any objective knowledge of consciousness is at best inferential. So when I heard that many years ago, I personally took it upon myself to use the techniques of the East, subjective techniques to explore my own being and one of the things that puzzled me and maybe you can help answer this question is let’s say I close my eyes and imagine the color red or imagine a red rose. I actually see a picture of a red rose or I actually see the color red or I can imagine the sound of my mother’s voice who is no longer with me, but I can remember it and I can experience the sound of her voice. The question that eludes me anyway is where is that sound located and where is that picture? If I look inside the brain with all the technology we have today including all these magnetic scans and all these positron emission tomography, I’ll see electrical activity but there are no pictures or sounds there. Where is that being produced?
Of course I am, of course you are. But the resources that are available to us that if you make us what we are, are not necessarily resources that are within us. So, for example when you see a color what you see is the color of something. The something that you see is let’s say a flower or a piece of pottery or the side of a building and these are the things that you also encounter in situations, in situations where there is ambient light coming down from the sky illuminating the object. When you’re aware of the object you’re aware actually of a whole situation that involves the physical world, the environmental world, and in this case the architectural or artifactual world.
DC: No, I’m just asking the questions that I don’t know the answer to.
AN: But I think you are raising, you are calling forth trying to remember or visualizing something that comes out of this very complex setting and that even though you’re now doing it with your eyes shut by yourself, it’s something that you only can do thanks to all the times you spent with your eyes open looking around and sort of skillfully interacting with the world around you. But where does it happen? Well right now you can say you’re doing it, you’re visualizing it and it certainly depends on what’s going on in your brain right now so there will be activation in areas of the brain that are related to color perception, but what enables… what makes it possible for this to happen for you in this way I dare say depends on much else that has happened before in your interaction with the world.
AN: This is such an exciting question for philosophy and for science. For hundreds of years physicists, Galileo, philosophers, Descartes have puzzled over just this question and we’re always torn in two opposing directions. On one hand there are those who say well there is no color in the light, there is no color in the rose. The color is a sensation produced in you by the bombardment of your nervous system by these physical magnitudes. And then the other side is actually the group of, it’s actually a tradition which have argued for a physical quality. That is they’ve said that there’s actually a property of the surface of the rose. It’s a property that it has, a disposition that it has to systematically absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect other wavelengths of light and that’s what the color of the rose consists of. Now both of these views leave something out. The physicalist view, the view that says the color is an absorption property of the surface of the rose, that leaves out the fact that colors are things we see.
AN: Colors are things we experience.
DC: Yeah, we experience.
AN: And the, but the subject of this side, the other side which says that the color is not actually in the rose at all or in the light at all, but that it is in me also leaves out the fact that when you see the color of the rose in your truest self that color adheres to the rose, it inheres in the rose. You’re experiencing a bit of the world around you when you experience it’s color. At least that the way, to use this phrase before that I’ve used in our conversation. That’s the way the color shows up for us. It doesn’t show up in the way that the prick of a pin shows up. That is as in my skin. It shows up in the rose and I discover it in the world around me. So I feel that any adequate understanding of such a phenomenon as the experience of the color of a rose needs to account for both its subjectivity and both its objectivity. For both it’s experience directedness and it’s world directedness. And, so how does one do this? How does one shape the right theory?
My own view and I’ll just say it, I don’t know if I’ll convince you of it. But my own view is that the color is itself something unfixed, dynamic, and changing. And we’re constantly searching for it and we’re constantly exploring it and we never actually fully find it. Let me give you an example to illustrate this. Think of a brand new automobile on a rainy day. And it’s parked on the street and down at the street corner there’s a busy intersection and there’s a red light and it’s a green light. And now you look at your car sitting there and it’s red across it’s surface but it also has highlights where it reflects the green from the traffic circle and now the red from the traffic circle. Over here there’s a little bit of direct sunlight that hits it and it shines brightly almost like hot rice. And over there where it’s in shadow it’s almost a grayish, dull red. And we’re able to look at this car and see something and see two things simultaneously. We cans see its redness, its uniform redness, and we can also see this fabulous variation in color across its surface. Here it’s one color, there it’s one color. It’s constantly changing, it’s constantly interacting and I think that what the redness of the car is, is not something simple, but something complex. It’s the way the car changes as the light moves, as the light’s change, as you move in relation to it. The color is this sort of dynamic quality that depends on our nervous system and our brains but also on the car and the environment and the surface of the car and it’s interaction with the environment. So I think the color of the car or colors is what I called earlier in our conversation, environmental properties. Whereas our tradition, our philosophical tradition and maybe our common sense tends to think of them as simple, kind of simple sensations. I think that’s a misleading analogy.
AN: You think of color as simple sensation, I don’t think we’ll ever get an adequate explanation of our experience.
DC: Dr. Oliver Sachs says, “Out of Our Heads is a book that should be read by everyone who thinks about thinking.” From Daniel C. Dennett, an authority on consciousness who wrote the seminal book Consciousness Explained, which I thought was consciousness explained away, but nevertheless he says “A provocative and insightful book that will force experts and students alike to reconsider their grasp on current orthodoxy. Those of us who disagree with some of its main conclusions have our work cut out for us.”
Let me share with you a worldview that you probably may not agree with, nevertheless it leads to, there are certain correspondences between what you are saying and what I have learned through my own personal practice of meditation and going within and exploring consciousness. Subjectively is the means of exploring consciousness in the ancient wisdom tradition of Vedanta. It is that consciousness which differentiates simultaneously into both the biological organism and the environment. That it’s one process, that in the deeper reality the observer and the observed are one phenomenon. And that our cognition, our perception, our speech, our behavior, our biology, our environment, and even the forces of nature are one phenomenon because the forces of nature inside us are not different from the forces of nature outside us.
AN: But , I would say that one of the ideas that I had reached through the particular intellectual path that I have followed is the idea that we are at home in the world where we find ourselves.
We are not encapsulated, isolated, bits of intellect trapped inside our skulls forced like a detective to formulate theoretical models of what’s going on around us. That’s what a lot of scientists think that we are. Somehow from the very beginning of our investigation, we are forced to take that image for granted and then the question is how does our brain solve the theoretical problem? How do we come to believe in other people or an external world when all we have is these events inside the cave of our own mind? I think that, that’s very sad. This is not speaking as a scientist, but as a person. I think it’s a very sad and distressing picture of ourselves and it’s one that I find, and here I’ll speak in a strong way — I find it ridiculous to think that science thinks it has shown that that’s the correct way to think about ourselves. In fact there are huge mysteries and puzzles surrounding our understanding of our own selves and in order to try to understand our own selves better we need to question that starting model that has been taken for granted. And so what I’ve tried to do is show that if you, if you let the world do some of the work that we ask the brain to do…
AN: If you let other people do some of the work that we ask ourselves to do, if you allow for the fact that we are ourselves dependent on and distributed over and in a way made up out of the world and processes around us then we can explain certain questions that we otherwise cannot explain and moreover we discover that we are not aliens in a strange world, we’re at home, we’re at home in this world and with each other. Now I haven’t framed that as you did in terms of the idea of sort of a oneness or as a kind of single process, but it certainly is a related idea that I have arrived at.
DC: But even as you speak sir I see that you’re really questioning the very foundations of our current science which says that the observer is somehow outside of the observation, that our whole scientific edifice is built on the idea of total objectivity which presumes I think that the observer is somehow outside of that which is being observed. And yet we are part of the whole process which is what you’re saying and in moving in that direction you’re really questioning the whole basis, the foundation of science as it is now structured.
AN: Yes. Well one of the things I did in writing this book Out of Our Heads which you’ve so kindly praised is I tried to write this book for the general public.
AN: So I want to have a fruitful dialogue.
DC: Yes, absolutely.
DC: Well my special guest this morning has been Dr. Alva Noe and his book is Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Another quote here from Evan Thompson, University of Toronto: “If you think the brain is the beginning and end of the story about consciousness you need to get out of your head and read this book.” So I definitely recommend this book highly. It’s also featured on DeepakChopra.com. So check it out. Go to intent.com and you can check this for several weeks. You can listen to this conversation. I will hopefully have Dr. Noe back on this program if he’s kind enough to come back and just before you go sir, do you then challenge scientists like Patricia Churchland and others, Richard Dawkins who have a totally materialistic, structural explanation of life and consciousness, or how about the fact that every scientific American that we see is getting closer to saying that we’re solving the mystery because we can locate such and such activity in such and such brain when you have such and such thought.
DC: Not at all.
AN: I think that consciousness….
DC: But you could be revolutionizing science.
AN: Yes but consciousness belongs to nature and we want to understand nature and really the question that we face is what is the correct conception of nature and what is the correct conception of the scientific enterprise, so that we can move forward on these questions. I don’t so much view myself as anti-materialist as anti a certain kind of brain reductionism. And I might add genetic reductionism as well.
DC: Well thank you so much for joining the show and I hope you’ll come back and it’s been a real pleasure.
AN: I’d love to come back and it’s been a real honor to be on with you, thank you so much.
Follow Deepak on Twitter