Two Ships Passing in the Night: The Alva Noë and Gabrielle Starr Debate

Alva Noë (UC Berkeley) and Gabrielle Starr (NYU)
Alva Noë (UC Berkeley) and Gabrielle Starr (NYU)

On a climate-confused, balmy December evening in New York City, neuro-phobic philosopher Alva Noë took the stage at NYU’s Casa Italiana to respond to Gabrielle Starr, who had, for the first 20 minutes of the event, offered a clear and decent account of her neuroaesthetics research for the audience gathered at NYU’s Casa Italiana. Noë was playing an away game on Starr’s homecourt: her collaborators, including neuroaesthetician Ed Vessel, were sitting in the packed house, and the event– billed as a debate to answer the question “Can Neuroscience Help Us Understand Art?”– was hosted by her institution.

The rest of the room seemed to be filled with students, faculty, and laypeople eager to see how a dialogue between a promulgator and a skeptic of the brain sciences might shake out.

“People call me Dr. No,” Noë began, referring to the uncertainty of pronunciation that his surname begets, “because they think a lot of the time I’m saying no to neuroscience, no to neuroaesthetics.” And I, for one, was expecting that– judging by Noë’s 2011 NYT Opinionator piece “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience”, his externalist manifesto Out of our Heads, and his new book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, which was published this fall, it’s been nothing but no.  But he promised that he wasn’t out just to say no to neuroscience: instead, he was there to say yes to art.

In a sense, then, Noë was negating the debate’s organizing question before it even began, and it soon became clear that his Dr. No joke was instead a prophecy, a capturing of the audience’s expectations that served to soften the forthcoming blow. For his subsequent response to Starr and his follow-up responses thereafter amounted to a sustained, walloping no to any potential uses for neuroscience in approaching art and aesthetics. Noë’s “no’s”, however, did come in the form of fair and well-reasoned criticisms of Starr’s experiments– from the universalizability of aesthetic responses in general to the illusions of neural “data points” as bearing any causal, explanatory weight, and the reminder that art demands engagement from a plurality of first-person senses and academic disciplines, in real space with real objects, and in dialogue with distributed cultural knowledge that defies measurement inside individual brains. More generally and aggressively against the field as a whole, he argued that whenever neuroscience attempts to grapple with art, the art itself disappears, becoming the mere stimulus for a discussion of what then happens in the brain.

But when someone in the crowd, near the end of the event, asked Noë what exactly he wanted from neuroscience (‘Sharper questions? Go away completely?’) he sidestepped and ducked back into the humanities, skirting the question’s demand for critical, positive engagement with the preferred target of his criticisms. “I think that art is its own domain, and deserves its own questions and investigations,” he offered, suddenly with nothing to say about where he wanted neuroscience to go. In an intriguing reversal of Noë’s central claim,  it seemed as though the neuroscience itself had disappeared from the philosopher’s investigation.

It was a key moment in the otherwise uneventful evening because it briefly unveiled the reactionary nature of the positions onstage, which had otherwise been veiled in respectfulness and humility. Starr diligently offered the results of her work with Vessel on self-reported aesthetic responses to visual art– some of which I have previously described on this site– and for the most part she responded by clearly and patiently restating her experimental procedures and results without counterattacking Noë’s barbs against the entire endeavor of neuroscience. But it was almost as if her humility and steadfast redescriptions were not so much in dialogue with Noë as they were with the perceived oversteps of neuroscience at large, and neuroaesthetics specifically– and for good measure, as the backlash this decade has been real. In a debate setting, though, I would have liked to see Starr be more of an advocate for neuroscience’s place at the table– a table surely populated by the other disciplines and rich first-person descriptions, as Noë would have it, but sorely lacking in 21st century psychological insight if it didn’t include the vanguard of brain science at one of its place settings, not to mention the emerging real-world applications in treating brain injury and disease through art therapy, or in childhood development and education reform.

On the other side of the reactionary spectrum, Noë’s stance seems to continue to be in dialogue with a perceived turf battle that neuroscience is waging against the humanities– a sense that it is an invading ontological army seeking to totally capture the discussions of art he would rather continue to frame in rich, first-person accounts bursting with action verbs. I saw this firsthand at the 2013 Association of Neuroaesthetics Symposium panel at the Venice Biennale, on which I sat alongside Noë and other philosophers, neuroscientists and art historians, and which devolved into a full-on territorial squabble as to whether neuroaesthetics has any legs to stand on at all. The symposium was intended to be a discussion of performance artist Tino Seghal’s prize-winning work at that Biennale, which we had all witnessed the previous day, through the lens of neuroaesthetics. But Seghal’s work was– as Noë would say– ‘merely the stimulus’ for the disciplinary tug-of-war that ensued. So after last week’s Starr/Noë debate, I remembered that Seghal– who was in the audience for that symposium in Venice about his work– had been called on by the moderator near the end of the event, and had remarked on what he thought of all the turf-battling that had just concluded. Checking the transcript, I was reminded that his comment that day had reinjected a positive sense of curiosity into the room, rendering many of our previous exchanges small and childish in comparison. “To this kind of territorial question of interdisciplinarity… I wouldn’t say that art is referring to art, it’s referring to reality… and I prefer in a way to hear– for me, as an artist, someone who knows art– I think it’s actually more interesting to hear what a neuroscientist has to say,” said Seghal.

So once we can set aside these territorial reactions– which to me always seem to be borne from an existential threat felt by the humanities, and end up churning out only acrobatic, rhetorical, and purely ideological positioning– the question always comes back to the one posed by the audience member at the Starr/Noë debate: ‘OK. So, then, what do you want from neuroscience?’

Because when you dig into Starr’s work and that of the other newer generation, experimental neuroaestheticians, the actual work going on out there tends to fall in line with the rest of science, being that it is funded through the same mechanisms and must adhere to the same processes of review and criticism (for a collection of critical neuroscience that actually engages with the work being done, see the new collection of essays “Neuroscience and Critique” edited by Jan De Vos and Ed Pluth). And in the end, the studies offer small, incremental additions to– and in some cases, subtractions of– false claims from a body of knowledge. It’s much more the case that it’s in their press release, subsequent trumped-up interpretations, and the occasional overexcited book where an explanatory overreach by any of the neurosciences is felt. That deserves its own form of criticism, and there are many level-headed voices out there who are on it. What Noë is prosecuting is something I believe to be out of step with current realities: a straw-man of an argument that pits the entire discipline of neuroscience as having claimed it will– and then already failed to produce– a full explanation of everything, and thus already deserving of full negation, a swearing-off, a cold shoulder. It treats an emerging one-of-many approach as a totalizing end-domain we ought to avoid completely.

And to some extent I can empathize with this fear, for we are talking about the assumed seat of human subjectivity– the brain– in relation to the peak of human subjectivity– art, so there’s a natural sense that more mapping, probing, and simulating of the former might fully explain the latter. But like Noë and other skeptics, I’m not so sure what the causality of that final explanation would ever look like (and neither is Starr, as she stated at the debate). But I do think neuroscience deserves a place setting at the table– so instead of treating it as an end-domain threatening a totalizing turf-battle victory, I now prefer to approach the neuro-disciplines as the Apollo 13 space shuttle had to revise their approach to the moon: not as a place we can land on with our current machinery, but as a place we need to get as close to as we can without landing in order to gather more velocity, swing back around, and re-approach humanity.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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