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.

When I was a kid, I noticed that sometimes fear and anticipation felt the same way.

I'd get butterflies, a kind of queasiness in the stomach. To figure out what I was feeling, I came to realize, what was needed was not introspection, but attention to the context.

No need to be a baseball fan to get caught up in the drama that unfolded before our eyes during the television broadcast of the Mets-Padres game at Citi Field in New York on Wednesday evening.

It wasn't a baseball drama, but a life drama that puts all of us — and our reliance on, and misplaced confidence in, Twitter (and other new technologies of would-be connectedness) as a source of information — on the spot.

I have an unusual name. As I've mentioned before in this place, it is difficult or even impossible for me to tell someone my name over the phone. If they don't know it, they can't hear it. It's just too unexpected.

In my experience, this is a quite general phenomenon. We see and hear what we expect to see and hear, at least a fair bit of the time. I don't have to actually hear your response to my "How are you?" to be pretty sure what you said in reply.

Our Robot Servants

Jul 17, 2015

Industrial robots are big machines capable of merciless speed and power. In a recent report in Time, a robot "grabbed and pushed" a man against a metal plate at a Volkswagen production plant, crushing him.

The new Pixar animation Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter (Monster's Inc., Up), is the playful and ambitious story of the emotional life of a young girl, Riley, who is uprooted when her parents move to a new city so that her father can take up a job. Like a lot of science fiction, however, the fiction drags because the science never really makes any sense.

Soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — a trauma-induced condition in which individuals experience heightened emotional arousal and anxiety — see a world full of threat.

A new study by Rebecca Todd, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, shows that that they really do. That is, they experience the presence of real threats the rest of us cannot see.

Cheating in science has been in the news lately. The Office of Research Integrity — which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — punishes on the order of a dozen scientists a year for different sorts of misconduct, such as plagiarism and making up results, according to the founders of one watchdog group.

A couple of years back, my neurosurgeon showed me some snaps she'd made on her flip phone of my open forearm during a surgery she had performed on me.

The Late Rembrandt show that closed this past weekend at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is the first exhibition ever to focus on the adventurous and experimental painting of the last 18 years of Rembrandt's life.

Silencing Science

May 8, 2015

Nikos Logothetis, a director at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and leading neuroscientist working on perception, has announced that he is ceasing research on primates.

In her contributions last week to 13.7, guest blogger and author Nancy Ellen Abrams proposed what she calls a new way to define the word "God." You can read the posts here and here.

The baseball season is well underway now. In the past, I've managed to resist posting to 13.7 about the thrill, the hopes, the excitement, the shamefully partisan delight that I feel with the start of the new season.

This year is different for me, though. For the first time, I'm an assistant coach for my son's Little League squad — and I'm even more steeped in baseball, and its sheer difficulty, than ever before.

The Power Of The Screen

Apr 12, 2015

In Kammer Kammer, a choreographic work of William Forsythe and his dancers in the Forsythe Company, some performers wear or carry cameras that send a live feed from the stage to monitors placed in view of the audience around the hall.

I was chatting with a friend who works as a physician at a large California state prison. He mentioned, in passing, that drug use is pretty widespread at the prison. If you can't prohibit the sale and use of drugs in a maximum security prison, he asked, what are the chances you can prohibit drugs on our streets?

A good argument, it seems to me.

If anything deserves to be called "the establishment view," it is what Johann Hari — in his new book on addiction and the war on drugs, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugscalls the pharmaceutical model of addiction.

The pharmaceutical model says that addiction is about chemicals. Addiction is a chronic incurable disease of the brain. The brain's pleasure centers are hijacked.

Who Was Mr. Spock?

Mar 8, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, who died on Feb. 27 at age 83, wrote two memoirs. One was called I Am Not Spock and the other was called I Am Spock.

On my way to Vancouver by air recently, I found myself wondering about the practice of using service trolleys to block access to the cockpit when the pilots need to unlock their secured doors to come aft.

The problem is a real one; opening the door to the flight deck gives would-be maniacs a chance to rush the cockpit. The question is: What's the fix?

Vision comes first in our society. The study of perception has tended to be dominated by the study of vision. Vision, said Aristotle, is the queen of the senses.

There's something to it: I may hear you in the kitchen — but there's a sense that when I see you, only then do I really know exactly what you are doing.

A lot of folks are trying to make sense of what would drive Brian Williams, a reporter, the face of NBC news, to make up easily fact-checkable stories about his experiences as a reporter embedded with troops during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His apology has only made things worse.

The phrase "no problem" has always struck me as a fine way to respond to an apology. It is friendly to say to a person who has interrupted you, or cut you off, or woken you up, or missed an appointment, that the problem they caused you is no problem. By minimizing the wrong done — by saying that it was no problem — you both acknowledge the apology and express forgiveness. Perfect.

Some people argue that we will one day reach a point when our machines, which will have become smarter than us, will be able themselves to make machines that are smarter than them. Superintelligence — an intelligence far-outreaching what we are in a position even to imagine — will come on the scene. We will have attained what is known, in futurist circles, as the "singularity." The singularity is coming. So some people say.

It is now conventional wisdom that the brain is the seat of the mind; it is alone through the brain's workings that we think and feel and know.

But what is a brain, anyway?

The Biased Eye

Jan 9, 2015

Recent events give us occasion to think hard about racial stereotypes and the way they may bias even the unprejudiced mind.

Studies have shown that prejudice can operate in us covertly. Even people who openly reject racial prejudice, for example, may express prejudice in the way they react to situations. Prejudice can operate, in the language of social science, implicitly (or unconsciously).

Remarkably, this sort of implicit bias can affect even the way we see.

Any color you choose can be matched by a mixture of short, medium and long wavelength light (i.e., blue, green and red light). This perceptual observation led to the formulation, early in the 19th century, of a neurophysiological hypothesis: The eye contains three kinds of distinct color-sensitive receptors (cones); just as colors themselves can be composed of lights of different spectral character, so we can see the vast range of visible color thanks to the joint operation of only three distinct kinds of receptors.

When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed at night listening to Mets games on the transistor radio, or to the top 40. Sunday evenings were hard because there was no baseball and most of the music stations went to talk.

As I got older, I came to take comfort in the talk. I learned to love Father Bill Ayers' call-in show late on New York's WPLJ.

One reason I'm not worried about the possibility that we will soon make machines that are smarter than us, is that we haven't managed to make machines until now that are smart at all. Artificial intelligence isn't synthetic intelligence: It's pseudo-intelligence.

Can you tell language from non-language? Meaning from noise? Words from random movement or sound?

The Giants challenged a call in Game 7 of the World Series Wednesday night. It took the umpiring crew — in conference with the umpires holed up in the video monitoring station in New York City's Chelsea district — almost three minutes to overturn the on-field decision. They called the runner out at first, giving the Giants a potentially game-changing double play.

In the game of Telephone, a message gets repeated from person to person in a chain. By the time it comes around again, it's been transformed.

Why Can't Dutee Run?

Oct 10, 2014

The case of Dutee Chand — the Indian sprinter who has been banned from competing as a woman because she has naturally high levels of androgen — casts international sport in a bad light.