“Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.” (Song of Solomon 6:12)
This is the 7th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind (II). I’m looking at the works of two scientists who are considering recent claims from neuroscience: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
Our own sense of ‘self’ (as when we are being ‘self aware’) is that there is an “I” which is in control of our bodies. The neo-atheists have claimed this is purely an illusion (delusion?) since there is no ‘self’ but rather nothing exists beyond the material world and so there is nothing more than biochemical processes on-going in the brain which create this false sense of self. Both Gazzaniga and Tallis challenge the conclusions of the neo-atheists regarding conclusions about the ‘self’ drawn from recent neuroscience. First we look at how Gazzaniga deal with the sense of self/consciousness:
“How can a system work without a head honcho and why does it feel like there is one? The answer to the first question may be that our brain functions as a complex system. Complex Systems A complex system is composed of many different systems that interact and produce emergent properties that are greater than the sum of their parts and cannot be reduced to the properties of the constituent parts. The classic example that is easily understandable is traffic. If you look at car parts, you won’t be able to predict a traffic pattern. You cannot predict it by looking at the next higher state of organization, the car, either. It is from the interaction of all the cars, their drivers, society and its laws, weather, roads, random animals, time, space, and who knows what else that traffic emerges.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1145-52)
Gazzaniga takes a system approach to the issue – brain functions are complex and work together as a system, so there actually is something which exists ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the merely material. Complex brain functions create a system which works together to form this sinse of self.
“The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It is becoming increasingly clear that consciousness involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated in a dynamic manner by the interpreter module. Consciousness is an emergent property. From moment to moment, different modules or systems compete for attention and the winner emerges as the neural system underlying that moment’s conscious experience. Our conscious experience is assembled on the fly, as our brains respond to constantly changing inputs, calculate potential courses of action, and execute responses like a streetwise kid.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1636-42)
Of course the emergence from the complex brain system of an “interpreter” still doesn’t account for why there is a unified experience through time of self. The ‘self’ doesn’t simply emerge temporarily while the particular brain systems are operating, it is there through a life time – it doesn’t disappear through time and so doesn’t leave us with the sense of constantly being constituted anew with no connection to the past. (Though a Buddhist perspective might be closer to this sense that the self is an illusion which happens to emerge).
“Consciousness flows easily and naturally from one moment to the next with a single, unified, and coherent narrative. The psychological unity we experience emerges out of the specialized system called “the interpreter” that generates explanations about our perceptions, memories, and actions and the relationships among them. This leads to a personal narrative, the story that ties together all the disparate aspects of our conscious experience into a coherent whole: order from chaos. The interpreter module appears to be uniquely human and specialized to the left hemisphere. Its drive to generate hypotheses is the trigger for human beliefs, which, in turn, constrain our brain.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1644-49)
Gazzaniga to some extent replaces the nebulous “self” with a theory that the brain system acting together creates this ‘interperter” but this is pretty much the self. Tallis on the other hand directly defends the existence of “self”, whatever self happens to be.