How Science Reveals the Limits of ‘Nooaesthetics’ (A Reply to Alva Noë)

by rsbakker

As a full-time artist (novelist) who has long ago given up on the ability of traditional aesthetics (or as I’ll refer to it here, ‘nooaesthetics’) to do much more than recontextualize art in ways that yoke it to different ingroup agendas, I look at the ongoing war between the sciences and the scholarly traditions of the human as profoundly exciting. The old, perpetually underdetermined convolutions are in the process of being swept away—and good riddance! Alva Noë, however, sees things differently.

So much of rhetoric turns on asking only those questions that flatter your view. And far too often, this amounts to asking the wrong questions, in particular, those questions that only point your way. All the other questions, you pass over in strategic silence. Noë provides a classic example of this tactic in “How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience,” his recent critique of ‘neuroaesthetics’ in the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

So for instance, it seems pretty clear that art is a human activity, a quintessentially human activity according to some. As a human activity, it seems pretty clear that our understanding of art turns on our understanding of humanity. As it turns out, we find ourselves in the early stages of the most radical revolution in our understanding of the human ever… Period. So it stands to reason that a revolution in our understanding of the human will amount to a revolution in our understanding of human activities—such as art.

The problem with revolutions, of course, is that they involve the overthrow of entrenched authorities, those invested in the old claims and the old ways of doing business. This is why revolutions always give rise to apologists, to individuals possessing the rhetorical means of rationalizing the old ways, while delegitimizing the new.

Noë, in this context at least, is pretty clearly the apologist, applying words as poultices, ways to soothe those who confuse old, obsolete necessities with absolute ones. He could have framed his critique of neuroaesthetics in this more comprehensive light, but that would have the unwelcome effect of raising other questions, the kind that reveal the poverty of the case he assembles. The fact is, for all the purported shortcomings of neuroaesthetics he considers, he utterly fails to explain why ‘nooaesthetics,’ the analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of art using the resources of the tradition, is any better.

The problem, as Noë sees it, runs as follows:

“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, or, to change the image, we are like submariners in a windowless craft (the body) afloat in a dark ocean of energy (the world). We know nothing of what there is around us except what shows up on our internal screens.”

As a description of parts of neuroscience, this is certainly the case. But as a high-profile spokesperson for enactive cognition, Noë knows full well that the representational paradigm is a fiercely debated one in the cognitive sciences. But it suits his rhetorical purposes to choose the most theoretically ill-equipped foes, because, as we shall see, his theoretical equipment isn’t all that capable either.

As a one-time Heideggerean, I recognize Noë’s tactics as my own from way back when: charge your opponent with presupposing some ‘problematic ontological assumption,’ then show how this or that cognitive register is distorted by said assumption. Among the most venerable of those problematic assumptions has to be the charge of ‘Cartesianism,’ one that has become so overdetermined as to be meaningless without some kind of qualification. Noë describes his understanding as follows:

“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.”

In cognitive science circles, Noë is notorious for the breezy way he consigns cognitive scientists to his ‘Cartesian box.’ For a fellow anti-representationalist such as myself, I often find his disregard for the nuances posed by his detractors troubling. Consider:

“Careful work on the conceptual foundations of cognitive neuroscience has questioned the plausibility of straightforward mind-brain reduction. But many neuroscientists, even those not working on such grand issues as the nature of consciousness, art, and love, are committed to a single proposition that is, in fact, tantamount to a Cartesian idea they might be embarrassed to endorse outright. The momentous proposition is this: Every thought, feeling, experience, impression, value, argument, emotion, attitude, inclination, belief, desire, and ambition is in your brain. We may not know how the brain manages this feat, but, so it is said, we are beginning to understand. And this new knowledge — of how the organization of bits of matter inside your head can be your personality, thoughts, understanding, wonderings, religious or sexual impulses — is surely among the most exciting and important in all of science, or so it is claimed.”

I hate to say it, but this is a mischaracterization. One has to remember that before cognitive science, theory was all we had when it came to the human. Guesswork, profound to the extent that we consider ourselves profound, but guesswork all the same. Cognitive science, in its many-pronged attempt to scientifically explain the human, has inherited all this guesswork. What Noë calls ‘careful work’ simply refers to his brand of guesswork, enactive cognition, and its concerns, like the question of how the ‘mind’ is related to the ‘brain,’ are as old as the hills. ‘Straightforward mind brain reduction,’ as he calls it, has always been questioned. This mystery is a bullet that everyone in the cognitive sciences bites in some way or another. The ‘momentous proposition’ that the majority of neuroscientists assume isn’t that “[e]very thought, feeling, experience, impression, value, argument, emotion, attitude, inclination, belief, desire, and ambition is in [our] brain,” but rather that every thought, feeling, experience, impression, value, argument, emotion, attitude, inclination, belief, desire, and ambition involves our brain. Noë’s Cartesian box assumption is nowhere so simple or so pervasive as he would have you believe.

He knows this, of course, which is why he devotes the next paragraph to dispatching those scientists who want (like Noë himself does, ultimately) to have it both ways. He needs his Cartesian box to better frame the contest in clear-cut ‘us against them’ terms. The fact that cognitive science is a muddle of theoretical dissension—and moreover, that it knows as much—simply does not serve his tradition redeeming narrative. So you find him claiming:

“The concern of science, humanities, and art, is, or ought to be, the active life of the whole, embodied, environmentally and socially situated animal. The brain is necessary for human life and consciousness. But it can’t be the whole story. Our lives do not unfold in our brains. Instead of thinking of the Creator Brain that builds up the virtual world in which we find ourselves in our heads, think of the brain’s job as enabling us to achieve access to the places where we find ourselves and the stuff we share those places with.”

These, of course, are platitudes. In philosophical debates, when representationalists critique proponents of embodied or enactive cognition like Noë, they always begin by pointing out their agreement with claims like these. They entirely agree that environments condition experience, but disagree (given ‘environmentally off-line’ phenomena such as mental imagery or dreams) that they are directly constitutive of experience. The scientific view is de facto a situated view, a view committed to understanding natural systems in context, as contingent products of their environments. As it turns out, the best way to do this involves looking at these systems mechanically, not in any ‘clockwork’ deterministic sense, but in the far richer sense reveal by the life sciences. To understand how a natural system fits into its environment, we need to understand it, statistically if not precisely, as a component of larger systems. The only way to do this is figure how, as a matter of fact, it works, which is to say, to understand its own components. And it just so happens that the brain is the most complicated machine we have ever encountered.

The overarching concern of science is always the whole; it just so happens that the study of minutiae is crucial to understanding the whole. Does this lead to institutional myopia? Of course it does. Scientists are human like anyone else, every bit as prone to map local concerns across global ones. The same goes for English professors and art critics and novelists and Noë. The difference, of course, is the kind of cognitive authority possessed by scientists. Where the artistic decisions I make as a novelist can potentially enrich lives, discoveries in science can also save them, perhaps even create new forms of life altogether.

Science is bloody powerful. This, ultimately, is what makes the revolution in our human self-understanding out and out inevitable. Scientific theory, unlike theory elsewhere, commands consensus, because scientific theory, unlike theory elsewhere, reliably provides us with direct power over ourselves and our environments. Scientific understanding, when genuine, cannot but revolutionize. Nooaesthetic understanding, like religious or philosophical understanding, simply has no way of arbitrating its theoretical claims. It is, compared to science at least, toothless.

And it always has been. Only the absence of any real scientific understanding of the human has allowed us to pretend otherwise all these years, to think our armchair theory games were more than mere games. And that’s changing.

So of course it makes sense to be wary of scientific myopia, especially given what science has taught us about our cognitive foibles. Humans oversimplify, and science, like art and traditional aesthetics, is a human enterprise. The difference is that science, unlike traditional aesthetics, revolutionizes our collective understanding of ourselves and the world.

The very reason we need to guard against scientific myopia, in other words, is also the very reason why science is doomed to revolutionize the aesthetic. We need to be wary of things like Cartesian thinking simply because it really is the case that our every thought, feeling, experience, impression, value, argument, emotion, attitude, inclination, belief, desire, and ambition turns on our biology in some fundamental respect. The only real question is how.

But Noë is making a far different and far less plausible claim: that contemporary neuroscience has no place in aesthetics.

“Neuroscience is too individual, too internal, too representational, too idealistic, and too antirealistic to be a suitable technique for studying art. Art isn’t really a phenomenon at all, not in the sense that photosynthesis or eyesight are phenomena that stand in need of explanation. Art is, rather, a mode of investigation, a style of research, into what we are. Art also gives us an opportunity to observe ourselves in the act of knowing the world.”

The reason for this, Noë is quick to point out, isn’t that the sciences of the human don’t have important things to say about a human activity such as art—of course it does—but because “neuroscience has failed to frame a plausible conception of human nature and experience.”

Neuroscience, in other words, possesses no solution to the mind-body problem. Like biology before the institutionalization of evolution, cognitive science lacks the theoretical framework required to unify the myriad phenomena of the human. But then, so does Noë, who only has philosophy to throw at the problem, philosophy that, by his own admission, neuroscience does not find all that compelling.

Which at last frames the question of neuroaesthetics the way Noë should have framed it in the beginning. Say we agree with Noë, and decide that neuroaesthetics has no place in art criticism. Okay, so what does? The possibility that neuroaesthetics ‘gets art wrong’ tells us nothing about the ability of nooaesthetics, traditional art criticism turning on folk-psychological idioms, to get art right. After all, the fact that science has overthrown every single traditional domain of speculation it has encountered strongly suggests that nooaesthetics has got art wrong as well. What grounds do we have for assuming that, in this one domain at least, our guesswork has managed to get things right? Like any other domain of traditional speculation on the human, theorists can’t even formulate their explananda in a consensus commanding way, let alone explain them. Noë can confidently declare to know ‘What Art Is’ if he wants, but ultimately he’s taking a very high number in a very long line at a wicket that, for all anyone knows, has always been closed.

The fact is, despite all the verbiage Noë has provided, it seems pretty clear that neuroaesthetics—even if inevitably myopic in, this, the age of its infancy—will play an ever more important role in our understanding of art, and that the nooaesthetic conceits of our past will correspondingly dwindle ever further into the mists of prescientific fable and myth.

As this artist thinks they should.