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.

A couple years ago, I was at a party with developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. We got to talking about being parents.

Why do parents sweat the small stuff, we wondered?

When I was a boy, I had a book about a father who sends his child to bed without dinner because he won't remove his tall hat at the table.

The boy goes to sleep hungry and dreams that he is in a forest where the trees are threatened by an evil lumberjack. One of the endangered trees turns out to be the boy's father. In the illustrations, you can see the father's tears in the gnarly bark of the tree.

I can't remember the title and I haven't been able to track this book down. I've asked book sellers and I've searched online. (If any of you know, please drop me a line!)

There is a church in Florence where women and girls are asked to put on a blue robe if their dress is considered too revealing.

It is no doubt an accident that the blue of the gown perfectly matches the blue of the painted night sky of the small cupola in the old chapel and also the blue field of color in a Ghirlandaio painting that hangs near by. Far from concealing these church visitors, the effect, rather, is to draw the eye and throw them into architectural relief.

If you know Theo Jansen's strandbeests, then you surely have in mind images of mammoth, artificial creatures — made of PVC, plastic ties and bottles — roaming the northern beaches of the Netherlands on the watch for rising seas.

Attitudes toward animals are a delicate and complicated matter.

We can group animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, into the wild and the domestic — or into those we keep as pets, those we eat and those we regard with disgust as vermin.

It's OK to love them — but only so much.

It is a remarkable fact that we treat men and women, boys and girls, differently.

I'm not talking about wage disparities and implicit bias. No, I mean that we openly and freely treat males and females as if they were simply different kinds of people.

A few examples of what I have in mind:

  • Boys and girls, men and women, are typically separated for sporting activities regardless of size, strength or ability
  • Commonly, it is expected that men and women go to the toilet in different rooms

In a post a few weeks back, Tania Lombrozo drew attention to research showing that students using laptops and other digital devices in the college classroom are less likely to perform as well as students not using them.

There sure has been a lot of sports in the news these days. NBA Finals, UEFA Cup, Wimbledon, the ongoing endurance test which is Major League Baseball. Sports is a lens on what we can and cannot do.

It's a celebration of ability and disability.

Today, I'm going to introduce you to a sport I just learned about: beep baseball.

It's a common thought that you need to see a person's face to tell whether he or she is telling the truth or not.

This is why courts in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada prohibit witnesses from wearing the niqab, a traditional Muslim headdress that covers up the whole head and face except for the eyes. How can a jury evaluate the words and state of mind of a person hidden behind a veil?

It used to be that if you were a pitcher and you blew out your ulnar collateral ligament — the ligament that holds your elbow together — you were done.

Goodbye, playing days.

Sometimes the mind wanders. Thoughts pop into consciousness. Ideas or images are present when just a moment before they were not. Scientists recently have been turning their attention to making sense of this.

According to a new hypothesis put forward by an international team of geneticists and archeologists, dogs may have been domesticated in two different places from genetically distinct wolf populations in Europe and in East Asia.

There are millions of botulinum toxin (botox) treatments performed, mostly on women, around the world every year. And this sort of cosmetic intervention may have side effects — ones that go beyond the merely cosmetic.

Consider the logical beauty of the blood test.

Its underlying theory is simple: The cocktail of molecules that is your blood is actually the mirror of active processes throughout the body in which chemicals — fats, proteins, sugars, enzymes, hormones, etc. — push and pull against each other.

Disease is what happens when, perhaps as a result of the admission of a germ from the outside or as a result of some unfortunate growth process, the amount of one molecule or another or the ratio of different substances to each other gets out of whack.

Aristotle wrote that imitation is natural to human beings from childhood, and he observed that this is one of our advantages over the so-called lower animals.

A human being is "the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation," he said.

In the last two millennia, we have learned very little that would contradict Aristotle's believe that imitation — the ability to see others and do what they do — is critical for human learning and development. But is it true that we learn "at first" by imitation?

A new scientific journal is not merely a new venue for publishing research, it can encourage new science, create a new community of investigators and, to some degree, contribute to the establishing of new fields.

From the start of Maia Szalavitz's englightening, insightful and informative new book on addiction titled Unbroken Brain, I had the feeling that I was being reminded of truths that I'd once known but that I and others, as if through a kind of collective amnesia, had somehow forgotten.

Thinking about addiction tends to cluster around two extremes.

Making Art From Life

Apr 23, 2016

Kevin Sudeith, whose work is up at the Mike Weiss Gallery in New York's Chelsea district, refers to his rock carvings as petroglyphs.

I had a chance to see Anri Sala's wonderful Ravel Ravel Unraveled again in New York City this past weekend. I had seen it first at the Venice Bienale back in 2013, and I wrote about it here and then again in my book.

The Art Of Pitching

Apr 8, 2016

To celebrate the start of the new baseball season, I offer you the poem The Pitcher, by Robert Francis (1901-1987).

The Pitcher

His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,

His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He

Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,

But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate

Here in California we worry a lot about the "Monkey Mind." You know, the noisy thoughts that jump and trip and interrupt your meditation.

But what's really going on inside the mind of a monkey?

A bunch of my Facebook friends — cognitive scientists, professors, students of the mind, one and all — were more excited than a barrel of monkeys this week over some videos of monkeys and apes confronted with stage magic that have been making the rounds.

Take exhibit one, for example, here.

NPR's Eyder Peralta covered a recent gathering of "transhumanists" and so-called body hackers last week.

He interviewed me for the story and we had a great chat. You can listen to (or read) the piece here. So, I thought I'd use my space this week to follow up with some further thoughts.

We haven't been too lucky with our new car. How else to characterize the experience of buying a spanking new Volkswagen diesel two weeks before word broke that VW had been cheating regulators. And then, Sunday morning, my partner, running late, backed up before I had a chance to shut the passenger door. I could hear the door squeal on its hinges as we reversed into the tree in front of our house.

I filed a claim — and it was with a heavy heart that I brought the car to the body shop to estimate the damages. What happened next impressed me greatly.

Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, originally published as a series of essays in an Italian newspaper, was just released in book form in the U.S. on March 1. I read the book by the noted physicist in a single sitting with pleasure and mounting excitement.

It is a very clear book and it is likely to provoke in readers, as it provoked in me, a desire to learn more about space, time, quantum reality, the nature of the gravity, our universe and, finally, about ourselves.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist. His dad wanted him to study medicine and encouraged him to draw cadavers at the graveyard.

The rest is history.

The answer as to whether a DNA test can tell you your ethnic identity? Yes — and no.

It is one of the great ironies of biology that sometimes breakthroughs seem to come when it is supposed that its problems have less to do with the body, which is pulsing, hot, and wet, and more to do with information processing, which is dry and computational.

To give an example, vision is widely believed to be the process of extracting information about an environment from an image. There is nothing distinctively biological about this. A machine can do it, in principle at least.

Consider these facts, culled from writings here:

  • You share no DNA with the vast majority of your ancestors.
  • You have more ancestors — hundreds a few generations back, thousands in just a millennium — than you have sections of DNA.
  • You have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents — but if you are a man, you share your Y-chromosome with only one of them.

For the holidays, I bought my science-loving 11-year-old tickets to "An evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson" at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. The big night was last Friday.

Some intellectuals bring out the immense complexity behind simple phenomena and others, like the estimable Dr. Tyson, excel at bringing complicated ideas down to earth. My son and I are both Cosmos fans but, still, we didn't really know what to expect.

We don't know why our ancestors made paintings deep inside caves in France and Spain as long ago as 30,000 years ago.

Was it to celebrate or tabulate or hallucinate or worship? We can only speculate. This much is pretty sure, though. The caves, inaccessible now, were — or so at least there is every reason to believe — pretty inaccessible then. You needed to climb and crawl and squeeze in. And once you were there, you were shrouded in darkness.