Alva Noë

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

Noë received his PhD from Harvard in 1995 and is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. He previously was a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been philosopher-in-residence with The Forsythe Company and has recently begun a performative-lecture collaboration with Deborah Hay. Noë is a 2012 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.

He is the author of Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004); Out of Our Heads (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009); and most recently, Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012). He is now at work on a book about art and human nature.

Philosophers have long worried whether it is ever really possible to know how things are, internally, with another.

After all, we are confined to the external — to mere behavior, or perhaps to behavior plus measurements of brain activity. But the thoughts, feelings, images, sensations of another person, these are always hidden from our direct inspection.

The situation of doctors facing unresponsive victims of brain injury is a terrifying real-world example of the fact that we our locked out of the minds of another.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can find him on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe


We value works of art, whether by Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Rothko, or Rosie Lee Tomkins, for both personal and historical reasons.

In a remarkable study published last week, Suzy J. Styles of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Nora Turoman of the University of Lausanne document evidence of iconicity in human writing systems.

Drawing on databases of images collected from an online dating site, a new study conducted at Stanford University concludes that faces carry information about sexual orientation.

This information is not available to visual inspection by ordinary perceivers. But it can be extracted by powerful, pattern-recognizing machines ("deep neural networks" or DNNs).

We are a social animal. Indeed, it is our sociality, and everything that it demands of us — such as the ability to make sense of each other, to communicate, to work cooperatively and, finally, to create culture — that marks us off from other animal species.

An Aug. 14, 1932, headline in the The New York Times read: "Eclipse to be best until August 21, 2017."

Sometimes scientists get it so right.

But not always. Sometimes science goes wrong, and with terrible consequences.

This is the topic of Paul A. Offit's very important book Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, just published in April.

Consider this tale detailed in the book:

One of Tesla CEO Elon Musk's companies, the nonprofit start-up OpenAI, manufactures a device that last week was victorious in defeating some of the world's top gamers in an international video game (e-sport) tournament with a multi-million-dollar pot of prize money.

We're getting very good, it seems, at making machines that can outplay us at our favorite pastimes. Machines dominate Go, Jeopardy, Chess and — as of now — at least some video games.

New evidence is calling into question the reliability of temperament tests widely used to help assess whether it's safe to send a dog home with an adoptive family, according to a fascinating and important article published last week in The New York Times.

The decision of a company to offer its employs the option to hack their bodies to function better in the workplace has raised eyebrows and, no doubt, generated publicity.

But it also gives us a chance to turn a light on hidden attitudes about the nature of the self.

Imagine that you could pay for your morning coffee with the swipe of your hand, or that you didn't need to have a key on your person to start up your car. Pretty convenient, huh?

Since the Enlightenment, champions of progress have urged us to break free of the chains of tradition.

Just because "we've always done it this way," is no reason to keep doing it this way. It is irrational, it is dumb, indeed, it is frequently dishonest, to cling to traditions, they say. If we aim to understand the world and control it — the abiding ambition of all empirically minded thinkers — then surely we can dispense with the baggage of inherited convention.

Commercial brain training programs are taking another hit.

Humans and other primates see color thanks to three different kinds of cells in the retina.

By responding differently to short-, medium- and long-wavelength light, these cells provide the information the brain needs to figure out color in the environment.

This is how we do it. It's also how the birds and the bees do it.

But it turns out that our eyes do this imperfectly.

There's a provocative interview with the philosopher Daniel Dennett in Living on Earth.

The topic is Dennett's latest book — From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds — and his idea that Charles Darwin and Alan Turing can be credited, in a way, with the same discovery: that you don't need comprehension to achieve competence.

The Civic Museum of Natural History in Milan, which I visited last month, contains a magnificent collection of dioramas.

The museum was badly damaged during WWII, so the oldest of them dates back no earlier than the 1950s. But the diorama form is very much alive and well in this museum as, indeed, it is in some other natural history museums around the world. There are more than 100 dioramas in the Milan collection — and three new ones are coming soon.

Ask yourself: Where's your left hand?

I bet you don't need to look around to answer this. Or try this: Shut your eyes and reach down and touch your right heel. Not that hard for most of us.

Proprioception is the name of this ability we have that lets us keep track of, locate and make use of our own bodies. Proprioception works thanks to sensors in our muscles (muscle spindles), but it also depends on our sensitivity to stretching and pressure on the skin.

What happens if you lose proprioception?

The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said: "Football is not a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that."

Philosopher David Papineau quotes these words admiringly in his intelligent and very personal new book on sport titled Knowing the Score: What Sports Can Teach Us About Philosophy (And What Philosophy Can Teach Us About Sports).

The brain has evolved over evolutionary time scales of millions of years. So, what is the likelihood that the relatively recent advent of reading and writing, or motorized transport, or the Internet, could have changed our brains?

How do you know you are not now dreaming?

Any test you might perform, you might be merely dreaming that you are performing.

How can you get outside experience to verify that things are, at least once and for all, the way they seem to be?

This is philosophical skepticism in the potent and daring form that comes down to us from René Descartes.

Teachers and students alike have experienced the curious paradox that beginners, as a rule, tend to think too little about what they are doing because they think about what they are doing too much.

The first time I laid eyes on Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, I let out a sob.

I don't know why. I was surrounded by a dense crowd of tourists; the sculpture was set back behind a thick Plexiglas panel. Whatever view I was able to enjoy was punctuated by the lights of auto-focus cameras reflected in the intervening panel.

An article in The New York Times last month highlighted the concern of museum curators and event planners over finding ways to make works of art accessible to the viewing public.

The director of Harvard's Peabody Museum has turned to brain science for clues to the way art manages — or, as is often the case, fails to manage — to ignite the imagination and pleasure centers of the viewing public.

Major League Baseball has been wrestling with the question of how to shorten the length of baseball games.

A friend of mine, a professor at a university in Canada, confided to me a few days ago that she thinks she might be addicted to email.

She feels compelled to check her email all the time. And she feels bad about it. She experiences anxiety if she doesn't check, and anxiety if she does. Email gets in the way of her productivity at work and makes her feel distracted from family when she is at home.

Yup, sounds like addiction to me.

In Wim Wenders' wonderful movie Wings of Desire, angels hear what a person is thinking and feeling as they hover nearby. As angels move among people, voices come in and out of focus for them.

If you stop and think about it, the idea that you could understand a complex system by detailed description of one its parts is crazy on the face of it.

You are unlikely to get too much insight into the principles organizing flocking behavior in birds by confining your attention to what is going on inside an individual bird. And you aren't very likely to figure out how birds fly in the first place by studying properties of the feather.

Lawrence Weschler's new book Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists is part scientific detective story and part reflection on science and its relation to its own history and social reality.

It's also a celebration of the life and personality of its central character, the acclaimed 73-year-old sound and film editor — and polymath-extraordinaire — Walter Murch.

Can We Trust Science?

Feb 10, 2017

Science is knowledge.

The practice of science is nothing more, and nothing less, than the earnest and thoughtful work of figuring things out, of trying to understand, of learning how things work.

Scientists are people committed to this practice, or to a community of shared practice. They work together to understand. And understanding is a thing of immense power. If you understand why the car has stalled, for example, you can fix it. And if you know when the tide will ebb, you can escape the harbor.

Blood is red to the naked eye. Under a microscope, it depends.

This isn't because it isn't really red, but rather because its redness is a macroscopic feature. Human blood is red because hemoglobin, which is carried in the blood and functions to transport oxygen, is iron-rich and red in color.

Octopuses and horseshoe crabs have blue blood. This is because the protein transporting oxygen in their blood, hemocyanin, is actually blue.

Whether you travel for work or pleasure, you have probably experienced travel fatigue — the distinct exhaustion that comes from too little leg room, bad air, bad food and stress endured while traveling.

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