A Tibetan monk stares out from the cover of the latest issue of National Geographic, his head sheathed in a wire-studded helmet of electrical sensors. The sensors will measure the monk's neural activity in an effort to understand how the physiology of the brain relates to emotion, cognition, and perception.
"The mind is what the brain does," blares the story's headline.
Alva Noë at his desk in Moses Hall, UC Berkeley
But according to UC Berkeley associate professor of philosophy Alva Noë, the answer is not that simple.
Perception is not something that happens only within the brain, Noë argues in his new book, Action in Perception (The MIT Press). Instead, he says, it's a function of the whole human animal.
It's a proposition that could turn the field of brain science on its head.
According to Noë, most current scientific models of perception imagine the brain as a kind of computer. The brain, according to these models, passively accumulates information provided by the senses and processes that input to create what we experience as ourselves and the world around us.
In his book, Noë argues that the brain-centric approach to perception fails to account for a fundamental question that Western philosophy, science, and art have never been able to answer.
"Right now there is no theory about how the action of the brain produces the experience of redness or the taste of a lemon," Noë says. "We know all sorts of things about what happens when you look at something red, what happens when taste buds are influenced by biting into a lemon, but how that cascade of neural activity generates those experiences is as much a mystery today as it was a thousand years ago."
To solve the problem of not just how perception happens but what it is, cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind need to look beyond the brain to the body as a whole, he says. Perception cannot be adequately explained as a function of the brain alone but of the whole human animal actively, dynamically engaging its environment.
"Perception isn't something that happens inside us," he says. "It's something we do."
Noë's holistic approach to perception mirrors the wide breadth of his academic interests.
Action in Perception by Alva NoÃƒÂ«
The MIT Press
Noë first began to tackle the problems of perception and consciousness as a doctoral student at Harvard. He studied under Hilary Putnam, one of the late twentieth century's most renowned philosophers and a pioneer in the field of philosophy of mind.
At Harvard, Noë says, he remained something of a purist, expounding his views on consciousness "from on philosophical high."
After earning his PhD in 1995, Noë spent a post-doc year at the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies. He worked there with another famed philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett. This also marked Noë's first real run-in with scientists exploring the same kinds of questions he was asking as a philosopher.
"I was just dumbfounded by how philosophically subtle they were," he says. "And how much of real value was really going on in science."
That encounter helped to ground Noë's strong belief in an interdisciplinary approach.
"Philosophical questions arise in science right next to empirical questions," Noë says.
"So when biologists are thinking about the origins of life, they need to think philosophically about what could even count as an explanation of how inorganic processes could yield life. When scientists think about the big bang and the origins of the universe, likewise they are entering into philosophy. Nowhere is it more true that empirical questions implicate philosophy than the study of mind."
Especially in the realm of the study of perception. Long debated in philosophy, the notion of the mind as a blank slate--or an empty hard drive with a camera and a tape recorder attached--has been a premise of much cognitive scientific research.
Noë faults that model in his book as both philosophically ham-fisted and not borne out by scientific research. The world, he argues, does not register in the conscious mind all at once like a photograph. Instead, perception is a gradual coalescing of understanding gained through active exploration of the world around us.
The mind, he argues, doesn't simply process data gathered by the body. Brain and body working as an indivisible unit together embody the mind.
Much as he refuses to put the brain on a pedestal, Noë does not believe any one field of study has a privileged relationship to knowledge, particularly when it comes to answering questions about perception. Philosophy and science--and art, for that matter--all need each other if they hope to create a truly complete picture of the nature of human understanding.
By staking a claim to true interdisciplinarity, Noë looks to a future where scholars of all stripes feel less constrained by traditional academic barriers.
His work has been published in philosophy journals, cognitive science journals, and psychology journals. He is a member of UC Berkeley's Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences and recently became a core faculty member of Berkeley's Center for New Media.
Noë also believes strongly in the contribution art can make in the study of the nature of consciousness--not as something to be explained by scientists and philosophers, but as a way of seeing that offers insights uniquely its own.
To that end, Noë has collaborated with a Toronto-based dance company to explore his ideas of embodied perception.
Still, despite his forward-looking ecumenicalism, Noë's approach also carries the whiff of a time long past, when philosophy championed a much grander vision of itself than it does now.
Philosophers once aspired to know everything, says Noë. They styled philosophy "queen of the sciences" for its effort to systematize all knowledge. (For instance Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, considered his Principia Mathematica a work of "natural philosophy.")
Things changed in the 19th century, Noë says. Scientific knowledge became more specialized. Philosophers saw they could not hope to unify such a vast and rapid expansion of knowledge into one integrated theory.
And so philosophy became the study of science rather than science itself; became an investigation of how science can claim to know what it knows.
Noë believes that the time has come for philosophy to move again beyond a study of method to questions of meaning.
"I'm trying to go to some of the places that philosophers have tended not to go because they don't have the knowledge, they don't have the engagement with the empirical issues," he says. "I've gotten engaged with the scientists, let them take me by the hand, and take me to a spot where they can frame a philosophical problem that we didn't quite know how to frame until we went to that spot."
"That's not because I'm a kind of self-hating philosopher who really wants to be a scientist and wants to kind of leave philosophy behind because philosophy is not as good as science. It's not that philosophy is less than science. It's that science needs philosophy."
– Marcus Wohlsen