“Who’s There?” Is The Self A Convenient Fiction?
For a long time people thought that the self was unified and eternal. It’s easy to see why.
This post was originally posted on my previous blog Why We Reason.
For a long time people thought that the self was unified and eternal. It’s easy to see why. We feel like we have an essence; we grow old, gain and lose friends, and change preferences but we are the same person from day one.
The idea of the unified self has had a rough few centuries however. During the English Enlightenment Hume and Locke challenged the platonic idea of human nature being derived from an essence; in the 19th century Freud declared that the ego “was not even the master of his own house;” and after decades of revealing empirical research neuroscience has yet to reveal anything that scientists would call unified. As clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks says, “We have this deep intuition that there is a core… But neuroscience shows that there is no center in that brain where things do all come together.”
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the illusion of the unified self comes from Michael Gazzaniga, who showed that each hemisphere of the brain exercises free will independently when surgeons cut the corpus callosum. Gazzaniga discovered this with a simple experiment. When he flashed the word “WALK” in the right hemisphere of split-brain patients they walked out of the room. But when he asked them why they walked out all responded with a trivial remark such as, “To go to the bathroom” or “To get a Coke.” Here’s where things got weird. When he flashed a chicken in patients’ left hemisphere (in the right visual field) and a wintry scene in their right hemisphere (in the left visual field), and asked them to select a picture that goes with what they saw, he found that their left hand correctly pointed to a snow shovel and their right hand correctly pointed to a chicken. However, when the patients were asked to explain why they pointed at the pictures they responded with something like, “That’s easy. The shovel is for cleaning up the chicken.”
Nietszche was right: “We are necessarily strangers to ourselves…we are not ‘men of knowledge’ with respect to ourselves.”
But you don’t have to have a severed corpus callosum or a deep understanding of Genealogy of Morals(which I don’t) to appreciate how modular ourselves are. Our everyday inner-monologues are telling enough. We weigh the pros and cons between fatty meats and nutritious vegetables even though we know which is healthier. When we have the chance to procrastinate we usually take it and rationalize it as a good decision. We cheat, lie, are lazy and eat Big Macs knowing full well how harmful doing these things are. When it comes to what we think about, what we like and what we do Walt Whitman captured our natural hypocrisies and inconsistencies with this famous and keenly insightful remark: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
That the unified self is largely an illusion is not necessarily a bad thing. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett suggests that it is a convenient fiction. I think he’s right. With it we are able to maintain stories and narratives that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. This is a popular conviction nowadays. As prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker explains in one of his bestsellers, “each of us feels that there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce.” In fact, without the illusion of selfhood we all might suffer the same fate as Phineas Gage who was, as anyone who has taken an introductory to psychology course might remember, “no longer Gage” after a tragic railroad accident turned his ventromedial prefrontal cortex into a jumbled stew of disconnected neurons.
However, according to the British philosopher Julian Baggini in a recent TED lecture the illusion of the self might not be an illusion. The question Baggini asks is if a person should think of himself as a thing that has a bunch of different experiences or as a collection of experiences. This is an important distinction. Baggini explains that, “the fact that we are a very complex collection of things does not mean we are not real.” He invites the audience to consider the metaphor of a waterfall. In many ways a waterfall is like the illusion of the self: is it not permanent, it is always changing and it is different at every single instance. But this doesn’t mean that a waterfall is an illusion or that it is not real. What it means is that we have to understand it as a history, as having certain things that are the same and as a process.
Baggini is trying to save the self from neuroscience, which is admirable considering that neuroscience continues to show how convoluted our brains are. I am not sure if he is successful – argument by metaphor can only go so far, empirical data wins at the end of the day – but I like the idea that personal and neurological change and inconsistency doesn’t imply an illusion of identity. In this age of cognitive science it’s easy to subscribe to Whitman’s doctrine – that we are constituted by multitudes; it takes a brave intellect, on the other hand, to hang on to what Freud called our “naïve self-love.”
Shakespeare opened Hamlet with the huge and beautifully complex query, “Who’s There.” Four hundred years later Baggini has an answer, but many of us are still scratching our heads.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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Vanchurin interview:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="539759cbfd8fcd5b6ebf14a3b597b3f9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bmyRy2-UhEE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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