Mind-Body Holism, Consciousness, and Reality

…Because this core dual structuring of the self was retained, many of the conundrums of Descartes’ philosophy have been retained as well, albeit recast in terms of the brain: Does the brain have direct contact with, and therefore reliable knowledge of, reality, or is our knowledge a ‘user illusion’? … [Noë] claims that neuroscience isn’t getting anywhere in explaining consciousness because it views consciousness of reality as a representation of the world created and manipulated by the brain. Noë attacks brain-body dualism in part by attacking this representationalism.

I believe this is one of the key points in the discussion of dualism versus mind-body holism. Dualism and representationalism share the idea of the true self being at one remove from physical reality, with the sensing body as both intermediary and barrier. Noë doesn’t examine this relationship in great detail, but he’s clearly aware of it. …brain activity is just part of an extended process that starts with the environment, involves the whole body and includes the brain. In this, the environment isn’t merely a source of stimulation, nor is it a model or representation built by and viewed by the brain. In Noë’s words, “the world is its own model.” To put it another way, the real object of perception is the physical environment, not some artifact of the brain/mind.

….I believe that Noë’s fundamental error is that he wants to hang on to the concept of mind. But what is mind except the thing that is conscious and initiates action? If you eliminate the notion of the little self inside the big self in favor of the person as a whole, the concept of mind doesn’t do any extra work, because we could just say that the person is aware and initiates action. All that would be left for the concept of mind to do would be to support useful metaphors (i.e. fictions), such as ‘I’ll keep it in mind’. Yet if you take the concept of mind more seriously than that, as Noë wants to, then it will begin to work its mischief anew. This is because it is a fuzzy concept. … Noë wants to break down mind-body/brain-body dualism, which is commendable. But in so doing, he verges on breaking down subject-object dualism: he wants to project mind out into the environment so our bodily-external tools become a part of us….

Still, I wouldn’t want to dismiss Noë’s extension of the mind completely. Perhaps without using the pernicious concept of mind, we could speak of different senses or extensions of the self. The core sense of self would be the living organism; in its environment, but distinct from it. The next sense of self would incorporate non-living parts of the self, such as the hair and nails. Here the cat’s whiskers serve as a biological analogy to the blind man’s cane. The third level of self would include our clothing and jewelery, which form part of our ‘person’. Fourth might be the tools we use naturally, such as a fork or a pencil and paper. One could take this further and include the things one identifies with, such as family and country – although such identifications are often problematic. Although there would be a solid notion of the person (conscious and bodily) as the primary sense of the self, we could be flexible about the boundaries for different uses of the word. I think this way of speaking would be more intuitive than super-sizing the mind. A framework along these lines would be flexible enough to handle tough cases: the amputee’s prosthetic limb is intimately part of his self insofar as it is strapped securely to him and responds to electrical stimulation from within him, unlike any other tool currently in use. At the same time, if the artificial limb were to be crushed, the amputee would not himself be hurt. The definition of self along these lines would be a fascinating thing to explore. I would not want to dismiss the idea that some sense of the self can be larger than the bare organism, especially given the way technology will surely extend the self in decades to come. But I believe it is essential to preserve the idea of the natural person, especially in the face of a Cartesian materialism which would divide and destroy it.

—© Kurt Keefner 2010, from “Out Of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain by Alva Noë; Kurt Keefner tells you why you can’t be only your brain.” at Philosophy Now Magazine


Vision science has for a few centuries now taken its start from the idea that what we see far exceeds what we receive in the form of sensory stimulation… The brain’s job, it is supposed, is to make up for this discrepancy…to compensate…

The question of vision science boils down to explaining how we can enjoy uniformly detailed, high resolution, brilliantly colored images of the world when, really, we see so very little…

Alva Noë, “Out of Our Heads” page 136.


As we contemplate the “Miracle of Sight” and the wonder with which our physical mechanisms make sense of the world around us, I was struck with Alva Noë’s words, appearing above — that sight is “affected,” or derives from the following examples of brain-altered discrepancies:

  • The inverted retinal image and the cyclopean character of vision
  • The uneven resolution of the eye
  • The unstable retinal image (i.e., saccades)
  • The blind spot
  • Obstructions, such as veins criss-crossing the eyeball; “bits of organic material float[ing] freely in the eye itself”; “Strangest of all, the retina itself is positioned backward; that is, the sensitive receptor itself is positioned behind the web of nerve fibers that ultimately join to form the optic nerve.” (Ibid. pg 134)
  • “A small object nearby can project the same pattern of retinal stimulation as a large object at a distance. All we are given, when we see, is the two-dimensional image… if we do in fact see spatial relations…we don’t do so directly. That information just isn’t there in what is given to us.”
  • Color (refer to my previous bare-bones understanding of Color Weirdness…) 🙂
  • Time — The nature of the established fact that what we are actually seeing is the past existence of the object in our vision, due to the nature of light carrying the information to our eyes and then the time it takes for the eye to make sense of the stimuli reaching it. At the extreme, think of the nature of the stars we observe in the night sky. We are seeing the stars as they were, not as they are now. The same is true on a much smaller scale in regard to everything we encounter around us.

It is due to these natural, biological elements “conspiring” against our seemingly flawless vision, that it is thought of our minds to be responsible for “filling in the gaps,” as it were; making up for the deficiencies and “fixing” our flawed input of information, making for perfected output of understanding. And that’s where we all wonder, how do our brains do it? Is what we see, then, a Grand Illusion, constructed by our brains filling in the gaps of what’s missing sensorily? Are we all just being deceived by our eyes? Is Believing, Seeing?

I had a most interesting inspiration while contemplating these thoughts… I fully accept that there is Reality within which we are fully integrated. We are All. We are Star-Stuff, birthed via eons of generations from the crudest life forms in the earth… We are a part of our environment, and it is us, as well. We all affect each other. And, I am absolutely fascinated with the nature of Perception, that we interpret and influence what we see and experience via our senses, based on, well, what our senses tell us, AND how we interpret those signals as they pass through the Ego-Filter! Then… based on those interpreted signals, we make choices and react… It is All, we are All, entirely cyclical and thoroughly integrated!

So, then, what of the concept that our brains must fill in missing information, as is considered with the Miracle of Sight? Consider this:

When did our brains ever decide there was anything missing that needed filling in, in the first place?

In other words, I posit that what we see as steady, for example, perhaps may not be steady at all, but because we all share the same experience, and it is all we know growing up, we interpret our “unstable retinal image” as steadiness and stability! Likewise, what if the world really is seen as “upside-down”? But we know not any differently, because to us, down would be up, and up would be down. We’ve grown up seeing and perceiving as we do, and this is our shared experience. Again… “It’s difficult to say how someone else sees color, because it’s so subjective. How do I know that what I see as red is what you see as red?” (from this article). Perhaps the stimuli creating the sensation of blue in my vision is creating a sensation of mauve in yours! As an extreme example, if the mauve-seer had grown up being told what he sees is called blue then how easy it is for us to agree, yes, we are both seeing this object as blue… when, oddly enough, perhaps it is not… But for each of our perceived Realities, both colors are called blue, and therefore, they are indeed Blue. But… what is Blue to you, may not be Blue to me… Yet, we could not possibly know this…

Spatial relations and three dimensions?… We call our experience three-dimensional… but at the heart of it all, this is a human contrivance, a way of labeling what we experience around us and comparing it to other experiences of lesser dimensional relations. We see, we experience, we feel, we touch and examine, and we say… three dimensions. I’ve read that it is the nature of our three-coned eye system that gives us the sensation of seeing in three dimensions…. Perhaps our reality in which we find ourselves is truly in multiple dimensions, but our biological systems can only perceive it as three, and with only certain color implications… But, again, this is all we know, this is our shared experience, this is our reality. This notion, too, however, doesn’t make our Reality any less Real!

It all comes down to the fact that we can only experience what we can experience. And we label it and study it, rightly so, trying to understand our environment and the greater universe around us. We are still very much intertwined with our environmental Reality, and we affect each other profoundly.

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Practical Hermetic. Or Gnostic Realist. I love using the Tarot as a means of psychological symbolism to gain insight into the unconscious. I also love Evolution, Science, Music, Mysticism, Nature, Beauty, Thought and Meditation, all the Wonders of the Universe. Follow me on Instagram! (@motherprotennoia)

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