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Neuroscientists and Philosophers Debate Whether the World Exists

Philosopher Alva Noë explains why neuroscientists assume the answer to an old philosophical question that really can’t be resolved.

Is it the world we really see? (DMITRIS_K)

You might not think there’d be much overlap between neuroscience and philosophy, but that’s not what philosopher Alva Noë sees. Where philosophers have long debated how much we should trust our perception of the external world, neuroscientists operate on the assumption that we shouldn’t trust it much at all. According to neuroscience, says, Noë, it’s pretty much all in your head.


Your world, through neuroscience’s empirical lens, is a construct you’ve built from patterns your brain has identified in sensory experiences. Not so fast, says Noë.

Noë talks here about color, but he could just as easily be talking about sound. Like color, we don’t directly perceive things that make noise. When a sound is generated, it causes changes in the surrounding air. These fluctuations in air pressure reach our ears, vibrate our eardrums, and finally excite thousands of tiny hairs, called cilia. These hairs produce what our brains interpret as sound. But as with light, a sound is also shaped by changing variables, such as the physical space in which a sound occurs and air humidity.

There’s a reason philosophers can’t resolve this issue: Our sensory experience of the world is a reality we can’t look behind to see what’s really there. Maybe neuroscience shouldn’t be so sure.

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Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

A girl and her mother take an afternoon nap in bed.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
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