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Strange Tools

By Timothy Cocks Philosophy of pain 23 Sep 2015

Out of our heads

I’m a big fan of the work and writings of Alva Noë, I’ve found his arguments about mind and consciousness both challenging and compelling. I think his book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness is a must read for any clinician or therapist interested in philosophy of mind.

Today marks the release of Alva Noë’s newest book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature:

“This is a book about art. What is art? Why is it so important? What does art tell us about ourselves? In Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature I engage these questions. 

… Art, really, is an engagement with the ways in which our practices, techniques, and technologies, organize us and it is, finally, a way to understand that organization and, inevitably, to reorganize ourselves.”

In the lead up to the release of Strange Tools, Noë published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which, I think, is worth a read.

How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience

“The basic problem with the brain theory of art is that neuroscience continues to be straitjacketed by an ideology about what we are. Each of us, according to this ideology, is a brain in a vat of flesh and bone…

“The brain is necessary for human life and consciousness. But it can’t be the whole story.”

Crucially, this picture — you are your brain; the body is the brain’s vessel; the world, including other people, are unknowable stimuli, sources of irradiation of the nervous system — is not one of neuroscience’s findings. It is rather something that has been taken for granted by neuroscience from the start: Descartes’s conception with a materialist makeover.

…But a work of art, like the meaningful world around us, is not a mere stimulus. And we work hard — we look, we ask, we think, we collaborate — to bring art and world into focus for consciousness”  (emphasis added) 

I like Noë’s idea that perception – seeing, hearing, feeling, is not something that just happens to us, or in us, as energies impinge on our nervous system, but rather that it is something that we do – that we have to work, and be engaged in the activity of perception.

Seeing patients

The phrase ‘seeing patients’ is common enough in the health and medical world as a shorthand way of explaining what we do, but Noë’s idea of perception as action – as work, raises possible thoughts that are potentially cautionary, and at the same time, enriching. Take the following opening passages from Noë’s essay:

“You go to a gallery. The work is strange. You don’t know the artist. You aren’t familiar with the style. The pictures all look the same. Flat and dull. They fail to capture your attention. You move on to the next room. You give your energy to your date.

But what if your friend knows this work and she invites you to stop and look again? She calls your attention to features. She suggests questions for you to ask about patterns and relationship, color and content, as well as about the artist’s intent, influences, milieu, and preoccupations.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, something remarkable happens. Where all the pieces looked alike, now they start to stand out individually. Where they were flat, now you see depth. Where they were dull, now they fascinate.

What a transformation. The paintings have not changed. But neither is the change simply a subjective one, as if you merely have new beliefs or feelings about what you see. No, thanks to your exchange with the work — your queries, your probes, against the background of what you know, how you feel, what you desire — you now see what is there differently. The change opens up a world to you.”

Rather than a work of art, substitute a new patient as the focus of attention – someone you don’t know, perhaps with an unfamiliar culture (style), whose thoughts and beliefs (content), relationships, intentions, influences, and social milieu are not known to you. Rather than ‘dull’ perhaps this patient is closed off to you, inaccessible in some way. But then you do the work – with interest and questions and through collaborative engagement with the person, a new world – their world, perhaps a shared world, opens up to you and you see them in a whole new light.

Good clinicians and therapists are without a doubt doing this already, but maybe a bit of philosophy, a little bit of Noë’s way of thinking, might perhaps illuminate therapeutic encounters anew?


-Tim Cocks

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  1. Hi Tim,

    Why does Noe argue ‘you are not your brain’ when it’s so obvious? The brain is a specialized tissue, like a liver or heart, but much more sophisticated. Would anyone ever suggest we are our brains?

    It’s obvious that when the mind switches off, we are no longer. Ask someone who is unconscious who he is and what he is experiencing, and it will be like talking to a corpse.

    When I am looking at a dog, is the image of a dog in my mind real? No, it’s a representation of the dog. When I have the thought ‘dog’, is that thought a reality? No, the dog itself is the reality. My thought of ‘dog’ is just an ephemeral representation of the reality.

    So… when I have the thought “here I am, this is me”, is the “I”-thought real? No, absolutely not. I don’t exist other than the thought form which is ephemeral. The body is real, the brain is real, the mind flashes on and off doing its thing.

    Who are you? Any answer you give, ask the question “who knows this?”. There’s an infinite regress. We can’t be anything other than thought.

    I have to say I find Noe’s work intellectually weak. Sorry. If I’m missing something, please point it out. Can he even give a definition of who/what he is himself? That would be a starting point.

    1. Hey EG
      No need to apologise. I can’t answer on Noë’s behalf, but the suggestion has been made that “we are our brains” by Crick and any others who think that brains are sufficient for consciousness.

      Noë might suggest that when you look at a dog, there is no image of a dog in your mind. There is the dog, there is you, you have access to the world that you enact which is based on your particular way of being in the world (which is different than the dog’s way of being in the world). Noë might also add that the world shows up for you because of your ability to master certain sensorimotor contingencies (the ‘laws’ that govern the way that the energies reaching your sensors change as you move).

      If you have the thought ‘dog’, I would agree that the thought itself is not ‘real’ in a physical, material sense (that’s the wrong ontological category for a thought), however the object of that thought – the dog, is real. When you have the thought “I” the *thought* (in the same sense) might not be real (in a material sense) but why can’t the object of that thought – ‘you’ be real? It doesn’t necessartily follow that just because the thought is not ‘real’ that the object of the thought – its content, is not real, this is an ontological category error, but not a strong argument, in my mind, that we are nothing but thought.

      Infinite regress only occurs if you pre-suppose some kind of homunculs inside my head having the thought, then you have to ask who is inside his head and off we go (Terrence Deacon deals with this idea quite well in his work i think). But if we do not suppose a tiny man, then the response become circular but not regressive – i am me and I am having this thought and I know this, round and round, but there is no regress to higher and higher levels of homunculi unless you insert them – i don’t.

      I would argue that you do exist – that you are you, an embodied brain (nervous system) embeded in a world that you brinbg forth (enact) by virtue of having a certain kind of body with which to access to the world.

      “We can’t be anything other than thought”, sounds to me like an appeal solipsism – the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. I can’t argue that this is wrong (in fact one of the arguments against solipsism is the fact that it is an unfalsifiable claim), but I do not hold to the view.

      I don’t find Noë’s work intellectually weak, but again that’s just me. I think Noë can and does give a definition of who he is in his various works – he is Alva; a sentient agent in the world, again, embodied, embeded and enacted.

      I don’t by any means think that Noë has all the answers – quite the opposite, and his somewhat anti-representationalist stance is in conflict with predictive coding theories (Clark, Hohwy, Friston, Seth) that from my, currently limited, understanding are very strong candidates for explaining what the brains does, but even here there is overlap. But the charge of being ‘intellectually weak’ is a strong one, and one i hope that is not based solely on the tiny sliver of his work that i have written about in this post.

      Thanks as always for dropping by

  2. Just to make it easier for me I’ll number some of your points and pose a few questions/challenges underneath:

    1) “the suggestion has been made that “we are our brains” by Crick and any others who think that brains are sufficient for consciousness”.

    ok, so it’s a metaphor they were using when they said ‘we are our brains’. I don’t think metaphors are particularly appropriate in these matters and wish they wouldn’t do that! Would be interesting to know what Crick thinks a ‘person’ is in actuality. In terms of consciousness, I’m more than happy to define it as ‘the awareness which switches on when we wake up in the morning”.
    You don’t think a brain is sufficient for consciousness? Where else in the body would it be generated?

    2) “When you have the thought “I” the *thought* (in the same sense) might not be real (in a material sense) but why can’t the object of that thought – ‘you’ be real?”

    It is real. The object of the thought is the body, and the body is absolutely real. The mind’s fundamental error is that it claims the body as its own using thought, and thought is ephemeral. When my mind is active, it says “my body” and most importantly, I *feel* like I am the body. When the mind is inactive but still conscious, it’s just… “body”. A tree is just… “tree”. It’s not mine. The body is perfectly capable of existing and functioning without me as owner-occupier.
    I think this is the basis of our miscommunication, right here.

    3) “Infinite regress only occurs if you pre-suppose some kind of homunculs inside my head having the thought..”

    I don’t like using the word ‘homonculus’, because it’s not real. There’s no such thing as an homonculus. I’d rather deal in actualities.

    If I say “I am the body”, who or what is the ‘I’ claiming this definition to be true? There’s your regress.

    4) “embodied brain (nervous system) embeded in a world that you brinbg forth (enact) by virtue of having a certain kind of body with which to access to the world”.

    I’d say a person is an embodied mind, not an embodied brain. Hmm, maybe we’re not too far apart after all. But what do you make of the following scenario? Remove the mind, or switch it off, and you’re left with a body which has no owner. An unconscious person is as good as a corpse. There’s no experiencer. No person, just an alive body. Wake the person up, and in that split second before his mind starts, there’s still no owner. He can still function in this state.

    Body = real.

    ‘Person’ = the thought “this body is me”. It’s not necessary.

    When I say ‘weak’, I get a strong feeling reading his quotes that he’s desperate to avoid an inconvenient truth.

    Say there’s a Tao (some sort of ‘way’ to an ultimate truth or freedom). There may not be such a ‘way’, but just assume there is. If this ‘way’ was anything other than extremely counterintuitive and frightening, then the whole population would realize ultimate truth. As it is, we all live in ignorance. Just watch the nightly news for proof of that – the state of the world is a goddamn bloody mess.

    The closer one gets to ultimate truth, the more wrong it will look, the more fear it will evoke. Truth *must* look and feel like a huge, frightening challenge. Just remember the mechanically-minded phsyios who live in a fantasy world; they do so because it’s comfortable. I reckon Noe is looking for a comfortable philosophy. That’s how it comes across.

    Looking forward to your replies.

    Regards, EG.

  3. I think that the held view in cognitive science that we sense,think and act is really what is being questioned by embodied cognition philosophy.The environment we move through,what is available to explore (our “affordances”) and the bodies limitations in that exploration is really turning it on its head.
    Our actions in the world are really what drives our senses and thinking.
    The famous experiment Noe gives where one kitten pulls another kitten that is attached to a cart.The kitten being pulled does not develop its perceptual apparatus well,showing our movement and contact s in the world are vital to healthy functioning.
    Really looking forward to Andy Clark’s Surfing Uncertainty to be released in Jan 2016-look at amazon preview to whet your appetite.

  4. What came first me or my brain? I only know that my brain would be very pissed off sitting on the kitchen table without my boby as transport and as an interface to my world. Me without my body would get bored. My body without me would die. Draw your own conclusions about the chicken and the egg story!
    London 🐔🌠

  5. DB,

    Some of your questions are answerable with a high degree of certainty. Your comments are very typical. You know that feeling of incredulity and frustration you get trying to explain a BPS model to a biomechanist physio? I get that feeling trying to explain ‘self’ to a bunch of peope who just… don’t… get it.

    — “What came first me or my brain?”

    Your brain. Newborns do not have a self concept. They do not know they exist as separate people. They are awake, conscious and fucntioning, but their skin does not define a personal boundary of ‘me’ versus ‘everything else’. ‘Mummy’ and ‘doggie’ and ‘tree’ and ‘cot’ and ‘body’ are all elements of the one thing.

    — “Me without my body would get bored”

    This is also completely false. The self cannot exist without the body. Self is created by the mind, and the mind is an output of the brain.

    — “My body without me would die”

    I’m actually glad you said this. This is *THE* primal fear. It ranks ahead of the fear of death. This belief is actually what prevents you and others here seeing that this is not actually true. Your statement has been proven false in a whole range of ways, some scientific, some spiritually-oriented.

    You can die and the body can remain and function perfectly well. However if your body dies, you die with it. What happens after death is a big unknown, and it’s not worth speculating on.

    If anyone is wondering why I bang on about self so much, it’s because it’s the Tyranasaurus Rex in the room, and it has a massive impact on pain. Understanding self is crucial if you want to ‘go deep’ in your understanding of pain and suffering.

    Over and out.

  6. It always amazes me that when it comes to the search for life on other planets such as Mars that we fail to think outside of the box. Why do we limit ourselves to life existing within the paradigm of oxygen and hydrogen ?
    Equally, with the self, why do we limit ourselves to it evolving within each new being. Maybe the Self pre existed the body and chose to experience a physical form for a while and chose an appropriate embryo for that purpose.
    Equally why do some people assume that everyone has a fear of death. Death can be an exciting beginning rather than a frightening ending.
    As to primal wounds/fears, the ultimate primal wound when all is taken away is shame and not a fear of death. In my case the shame felt that you were not worthy of your parents love……
    On location 😎☕️🍤

  7. You seem to be using ‘self’ and ‘Self’ interchangeably, which will cause confusion for anyone reading.

    In the Perennial Philosophy*:

    self = ego, person, individual, mind, I/me
    Self = Life, Tao, God, etc.

    I have no idea whether ‘Self’ exists, but ‘self’ looks to be on very shaky ground. Everything they said about self appears true in my experience, so I think – ok maybe the rest of it is true also.

    The idea is that self is who we think we are, and Self is who we really are. Or, self is the imagined identity, and Self is the real identity. And this is how Perennialism works – as a retreat from what is untrue. That idea should appeal. It’s what we do here on NOIJAM – retreat from all the bullshit and see if anything remains.

    The feeling of being me (individual self) has a very low level of reality, because that feeling is created by thought. The cortical representation of the body and the thought ‘this is me’ are so closely entwined that we think they are the same. That’s the primary issue. Remove the thought and the feeling of being an individual goes with it. How real is that? It disappears every night.

    Shame is the primary wound of the self, as you say. Shame is the basic feeling of badness, unworthiness, hollowness, blackness. It’s also made of thought, and in that sense not real. All shame disappears when you sleep at night. Where is the shame of not being loved? Only in thought. Memory-thought. In moments when that thought shuts off, the shame is gone…. then maybe it re-appears. It’s that tendency for the mind to continue to focus on past hurts which is so damaging. It’s also the cause of chronic pain, imho.

    Most thoughts we have will be around two broad themes –

    1) how can I get (something to enhance my sense of goodness of self)
    2) how can I avoid (something which might degrade my sense of badness)
    (Freuds pleasure principle).

    In this way, most thoughts we have are fear-based. Occasionally, people break free of that tendency, but such people appear to be very rare. Of course most people deny they are motivated by fear – it’s just that they don’t want to admit that themes of gain and avoidance have such a hollow, black core. But that’s our inheritance. I have no idea why the human mind has evolved this way, but it’s set up for suffering unless we do something quite drastic to change that trajectory.

    Remember, the definition of fear is expectation of emotional or physical pain. If there was no negative expectation, the obsessive self-referecing thoughts of gain and avoidance would disappear. A good place to start practice is to realize that the self image is like a virus. It’s the virus that causes all turmoil and pain in the world.

    If most human thoughts are based in fear and shame, then one solution is to think less. A lot less. Just don’t indulge in thought unless it’s necessary for the immediate task. Mostly it’s not.



  8. In terms of reframing ‘a feeling of unworthiness of parental love’, it’s a tough one, but something along the following lines may work:

    Your heart’s beating. Notice you can’t make it happen and you can’t stop it using your own will. One way to explain the beating heart is by looking at the electrical circuitry… but really, is that an explanation? What creates the electrical circuitry? You don’t create it yourself, that’s for sure. Keep taking another step back, and back… until you realize that Life itself is beating your heart. Can you get to that point? Can you see that the totality of Existence has been powering and animating your body this whole time?

    It’s a nice thought and it’s also factual. You are not maintaining the body, because you have no idea how to do that. You don’t know how to beat your heart, digest your food, maintain cell structure and function, exchange CO2 for oxygen. Life has been animating, protecting and maintaining your body since you were a tiny embryo. You had nothing to do with this. If it was up to you (the mind, the ego) you’d perish in seconds.

    Now switch your attention to the feeling of ‘aliveness’ inside the body. The animation is happening in real time. This can be used as a meditation.

    If Life is animating your body, surely it approves of you. The whole of Existence would appear to approve of you. It’s sort of obvious yet so easily overlooked. And if certain significant people in your life have not been capable of giving you the love you wanted, so be it. You can bet they wanted to more than anything in the world, because everyone wants that.


    1. Hi EG et al,
      Sorry for th tipo I am referring to self with an s …….However maybe we are all aspiring to become a Self 🙂
      London 😇

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