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Introducing Dr. Alva Noe

Written by Jeff Drake
12 · 31 · 21

Dr. Alva Noe is a philosopher at the University of Berkeley in California. Alva is also a noted author whose research and teaching focus on the philosophy of mind (perception, consciousness) and the philosophy of art.

It was one year ago last month that I wrote a blog post called, “Introducing Dr. Andrew Thomas.” I wrote this because Dr. Thomas’ books introduced me to some new ways of thinking about both physics and consciousness – new and exciting, so I was compelled to share. Since this time I have also discovered (and read) Christof Koch of the Allen Institute, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist[i] and Giulio Tonini, author of PHI: A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul.[ii]” These two guys are working together with other neuroscience experts in the field to develop a demonstrable, repeatable test for detecting and measuring consciousness.

Happily, I can say that I have recently discovered yet another terrific author, a philosopher this time, who is throwing a major wrench into most conventional thinking about consciousness… and perception. In my humble opinion, at least for me, Alva Noe’s work on consciousness is a game changer.

Alva Noe is a philosopher at the University of Berkeley. He is author of:

  • Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004).
  • Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009);
  • Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012);
  • Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2015).

His latest book is Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark (Oxford University Press, 2019). I’m curious why he is writing about baseball, one of the most boring sports ever created (to me), but I’m so taken with his thinking on things that I will try to keep an open mind and will therefore read this and will, no doubt, learn something.

In addition to being a Berkeley professor, Alva is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. He was a recipient of 2018 recipient of the Judd/Hume Prize in Advanced Visual Studies and he was a weekly contributor to National Public Radio’s now defunct science blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. (Wiki bio).

I am currently reading his “Out of Our Heads” book. It is a such a great read! This book is six years old and I am disappointed that it took me this long to get into his work. I was initially introduced to Alva in a philosophy of mind class I took at our local community college a few years ago, but for some stupid reason I never followed up with his books. Oh well, better late than never! Then again, perhaps his work would not have resonated with me six years ago the way it does now.

I also like the way Alva writes and the way he lays out his ideas, very succinct and coherent. I think it will make it easy to take some of his ideas and put them into bite-size pieces that I can share. Alva Noe is what some might call a “disrupter.” That is, he looks at long-standing traditional beliefs held by neuroscience, cognitive psychology and perception science and pokes at them with the sharp stick of his intellect. And he strikes deep. Ouch!

He makes very clear cases as to how these sciences are based on age-old philosophical assumptions (beliefs) that are so ingrained and pervasive that they are unquestioned. The pervasiveness of these beliefs spans beyond these sciences to other related sciences as well, and into society at large. The problem with this is that these philosophical beliefs are wrong from the get-go. And if these beliefs are wrong, then all of the science that is based on these beliefs must be questioned! This is some serious shit, actually, at least for the communities affected. Some of the research based on these misguided assumptions have won prestigious awards. Noe puts all of that research back where it belongs – under the spotlight. It’s time to reevaluate what we think we know about both consciousness and perception!

The two biggest assumptions that neuroscience and cognitive science are based on are probably also assumptions that you have as well, whether you realize it or not.

The first assumption he goes after is the one that states that we can learn everything we know about consciousness by just studying the brain (or words to this effect). Alva Noe says this is wrong, or at least not the end of the story:

“In a way our problem is that we have been looking for consciousness where it isn’t. We should look for it where it is. Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Better: it is something we achieve. Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion… The locus of consciousness is the dynamic life of the whole, environmentally plugged-in person or animal. Indeed, it is only when we take up this holistic perspective on the active life of the person or animal that we can begin to make sense of the brain’s contribution to conscious experience.”[iii]

The second assumption that Alva goes after has to do with perception, how we see everything, the world around us. The scientific community (and most of us who have ever watched a Nova program), believe that the way we see is basically this: Light hits on object and is reflected into our eyes, whereby a mirrored image is translated for our brains (neuron fireworks), which then recreates the image in our heads. (I know this is oversimplified, but I think this gets the gist of it). I think most of us would probably describe something like this if asked how to explain perception. Well, guess what. This is wrong. And there is science to back this claim up.

Noe says further: “In this book I argue that mind science, like biology more generally, must give pride of place to the whole, living being. I leave it to the reader to judge whether I am successful.”[iv]

I am undertaking something which is for me, a new philosophical journey, as I read his book, “Out of Our Heads,” and I hope to be able to share with you some of what I learn along the way. As to whether Alva Noe succeeds in convincing any of us that he’s right remains to be seen. I hope you’ll join me on the trek!

I have said this before and my reading experience this year backs this claim up – we are in an exciting time for consciousness research!

[i] Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, The MIT Press, (2012), ISBN 978-0-262-01749-7.

[ii] Tononi, G. (2012). PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Pantheon Books.

[iii] Noe, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (p. xiii). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Ibid.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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