Damasio, Noë and disciplinary positioning

I came away from last week’s discussion of Damasio irritated and frustrated. I felt not only that I had lost my provisional hold on Damasio’s central ideas, but that the only way to regain that provisional understanding would be to read Damasio again after disregarding everything that was said in class.

It’s possible that our discussion was unfocused and simply failed to get an adequate purchase on the case Damasio is trying to make in Self Comes to Mind. It’s also possible that Damasio’s case itself lacks focus, and that this is the inevitable upshot of working from a “framework” as opposed to a central thesis. The sheer number of key terms there were for us to unpack in the first half of the class suggests that there is a great deal going on in Damasio’s argument, with many entry points and no obvious center to any of it. Maybe Damasio’s framework just doesn’t stand up well to discussion.

Part of the problem with Damasio, too–or at least my own problem with Self Comes to Mind—is that though he is clearly something of an amateur philosopher, his authority is based on his standing as a neuroscientist. This knowledge sets up an expectation on the part of the reader that Damasio’s case will be backed by empirical evidence – the gathering of which, after all, is what differentiates scientists from philosophers, whose evidence, per disciplinary convention, is permitted to be much more informal and anecdotal. Yet Damasio was repeatedly forced to acknowledge the many places where empirical science has not yet (as he insinuates) caught up to his argument; in fact the book sometimes read as if Damasio were attempting to dictate the direction of his colleagues’ future experimentation so that his framework would be bolstered by empirical support after the fact, and would thus appear prescient as opposed to merely premature.

Noë, by contrast, has a few professional connections to neuroscience but is primarily a professor of philosophy, and his book grounds the question of what consciousness is, disciplinarily speaking, in philosophy, with occasional detours into neuroscience and psychology where those fields provide relevant support for his argument. Given the highly fragmented and incomplete state of neuroscience’s empirical findings about the nature of consciousness, it seems to me that Noë’s approach puts him on firmer ground than Damasio’s.

While I don’t see the stances of Damasio and Noë as necessarily opposed to or precluding one another, I did find it interesting that in a few key places, Noë appeared to be attempting to wrestle questions of consciousness away from the grip of neuroscience by defining them as inherently non-empirical and incapable of being solved empirically in a neuroscientific setting. Regarding the problem of how we can know or prove that other people, or other species, have consciousness as we ourselves do, Noë writes,

We think that the problem we face is a theoretical one: how to acquire knowledge of another’s mind on the basis of what he or she says and does, or on the basis of a neural signature. But we don’t face this problem. We cannot take seriously the possibility that others lack minds because doing so requires that we take up a theoretical, detached stance on others that is incompatible with the kind of life that we already share with them. All this points to something paradoxical about the science of the mind: science requires detachment, but mind can only come into focus if we take up an altogether different, more engaged attitude. (26)

In this case, Noë is not taking the question away from neuroscience in order to claim it for philosophy: rather, he drops the ball into the court of a different science:

Does this mean a science of the mind must be impossible? No. There is a way forward for science. The solution comes when we recognize that there is a rigorously empirical alternative to mechanistic detachment on the one hand and mere personal intimacy on the other. This is the perspective of biology. (26-27)

Still, neuroscientists of Damasio’s stripe are likely to be a little miffed at the suggestion that such a question is not, and cannot by definition be, part of their purview at all.

Even more important are the problematic implications that Noë’s notion of consciousness as “something we do…not something that happens to us” creates for any kind of empirical science. Noë’s position is that consciousness is not isolable, either in a bodily location or a neural process, but rather is entirely dependent on living, nonstatic interaction among the brain, the body, and their environment at a given moment. If consciousness is dynamic and contextual, and the context for consciousness is constantly shifting, how will it ever be possible to fully duplicate the conditions for testing any aspect of consciousness in a lab? It may be possible to isolate certain elements of consciousness, or certain bodily actions, but if consciousness cannot be comprised of anything short of the full interplay of physical, mental and environmental factors at a given moment, how feasible will it ever be to extrapolate any larger theories about the nature of consciousness from such limited experiments?

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1 Response to Damasio, Noë and disciplinary positioning

  1. I think it takes two or three readings to make sense of how all the components of Damasio’s argument work together. You’ve identified the issue with your point about all the key terms. Each of those terms represents a component of the larger idea. All the components are related, but each relates to all the others in a different way. Basically, that pushes readers beyond the point at which we can keep track of it all.

    You point out a really interesting disciplinary contrast between Damasio and Noë. Damasio feels amateurish as a philosopher, and Noë sometimes represents a kind of rhetorical turf war between philosophy and neuroscience. In both cases, two disciplines interested in some of the same questions seem to have an uneasy coexistence. I actually think Hustvedt does a better job of integrating them than either Damasio or Noë.

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