Saturday, 29 November 2014

The illusion of self?

A very close friend of mine recently gave me a book called, The Self Illusion: how the social brain creates identity, written by Bruce Hood (2012).

I've always had an interest in the cognitive sciences whether it be popularized recounting of findings in the science itself, philosophical speculation, linguistics, etc.—I, in fact, tend to regard my spirituality in such terms: ie, it is the whole package of the Judeo-Christian faith (the literary/linguistic structures, the aesthetic appeal of contrasting archetypes, the practical wisdom, reflecting upon the veracity of my Master's Gospel using the principles of PARDES (the Jewish tradition of Scriptural exegesis)—in short, trying to be human to the fullest—all the time trying not to set or delimit my expectations).

Believing that purely literal interpretation (fundamentalism and dogmatic thought) is not only a perversion but utterly ignorant and blasphemous, I do not pretend that the world is only 6000 years old (who did the math anyway?), do not believe in the so-called creationism, take ecclesiastical hierarchies seriously only up to a point, truly believe that G*d can and does speak truth to anyone He wishes, and truly believe that spontaneous rejoicing/ecstasy is a possibility built into the architecture of our being as much as cripplingly dark pessimism (ie, revelation and reception of truth is a matter of perspective and emotive intent).

I've been re-reading David Berlinski's, The Devil's Delusion (2009)—a scathing tour-de-force response to militant atheism—along with the Hood book (which is really an apologia for militant atheism).

The Hood book is highly selective in advancing its arguments (but so is the great Berlinski for that matter). For instance, Hood contends that that "the illusion of self" can be and is demonstrated by brain experiments that examine what is called the "readiness potential":

Prior to most voluntary motor acts, such as pushing a button with a finger, a spike of neural activity occurs in the brain's motor cortex region that is responsible for producing the eventual movement of the finger. This is known as a readiness potential, and it is the forerunner to the cascade of brain activation that actually makes the finger move. Of course, in making a decision, we also experience a conscious intention or free will to initiate the act of pushing the button about a fifth of a second before we actually begin to press the button. But here is the spooky thing. [Californian psychologist, Benjamin] Libet demonstrated that there was a mismatch between when the readiness potential began and the point when the individual experienced the conscious intention to push the button.

One might argue that half a second is hardly a long time but, more recently, researchers using brain imaging have been able to push this boundary back to 7 seconds. They can predict on the basis of brain activity which two buttons a subject will eventually press. This is shocking. As you can imagine, these sorts of findings create havoc for most people. How can we be so out of touch with our bodies? Do we not have conscious control? The whole point about voluntary acts is that we feel both the intention to act and the effort of our agency. We feel there is a moment in time when we have decided to do something, which is followed by the execution of the act. Brain science tells us that, in these experiments, the feeling of intention occurs after the fact. (Hood (2012), pp. 128-129)

The missing premise I see in this line of reasoning is the development of the cerebral cortex—that part of the human brain that epitomizes the evolution of the homo sapiens sapiens—which is said to "censor" our impulses (I, myself, much prefer "edit" to "censor") and activates right before we execute the expression of  a given thought or action. It is telling that, in Hood's book, the index makes no reference to this significant and important area of the human brain. I guess it screws up the whole point of the tome.

I'm not dismissing Hood out of hand. There are many interesting tidbits, already in common knowledge, about the workings of the human brain that he alludes to throughout the book. But like any interesting piece of "scientific" writing, it is necessarily incomplete, and should be assayed in light of all findings and extant scientific/philosophical thought that inform this corpus of knowledge.


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