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.

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.

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?

Suppose I take the candy from the cabinet where you left it and put it someplace else. Where will you look for it when you get home?

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.

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.

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.

The beheadings of journalists, aid workers, tourists and countless soldiers by the group calling itself the Islamic State (or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) are noteworthy for their terrifying depravity, but also for the fact that they are staged as acts of political theater or, more accurately, video.

In a fascinating interview on the topic of atheism versus theism over at The Stone in The New York Times, Yale University philosopher Keith DeRose, in email conversation with Gary Gutting, makes the claim that theists don't know that God exists and that atheists don't know that there isn't a God. It's a stand off.

"European society is very advanced, very civilized. Between holocausts."

The painter Barnett Newman is said to have replied along these lines to a friend who was bemoaning the sorry state of American political life and praising European social democracy.

It's a good joke. It casts light on the whole religion versus science controversy as well.

According to a paper just published in the PNAS, our Neanderthal cousins made pictures.

Or at least they found reason to use stone implements to carve shapes onto the surfaces of cave walls. This was hard work requiring hundreds of scrapes. Whether compositions of lines of this sort should be thought of as images, or pictures, or as proto-pictures, of this we can be sure — making them was a deliberate act and it was important to someone.

No doubt some of the autograph seekers leaning across the fence straining for the baseball players' attention were in it for the money.

I suppose a baseball signed by the right person is worth something. Others were collectors working to complete their sets.

But most of us clumped up along the side of the dugout were fans — and our motives were of an entirely different nature.

Well, to be accurate, I wasn't begging for autographs. My kids were. I was there as a chaperone.