toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: The Self

[What's going on here?]

My response to a discussion with OGNG which presumably arose from this blog entry.


Presumably you believe in an immortal soul and I'm guessing because of this you feel that mind/self/consciousness is not much of a mystery. Assuming this is your belief I look forward to hearing your case for:

- the existence of a soul
- immortality of the soul
- how the soul and the physical world interact

For me mind/self/consciousness is a huge mystery that I've been reading and thinking about for as long as I can remember. Delving into my understanding of the current best scientific explanation for mind/consciousness/self would seem to be going far afield of our core conversation, but if that's the direction you want to go then I'll gladly outline the big picture as I understand it (though you'd be much better served to go read up on it for yourself). The one thing I will say is that it would be most surprising to me if an understanding of the self included a self as part of the explanation. I'm not ruling it out but let's take the example of how the brain perceives the color red or the taste of chocolate. While we know a lot about the chemical reactions, brain modules and sensory apparatus that allow us to perceive these things, there is also much left to understand. But the one thing that is clear is that when we perceive red there is no inherent "red-ness" in our brains and there is no "chocolaty-ness" in our brain. These are in a sense illusions. Illusion is not meant as a pejorative term. The ability to detect 3D-ness in a photo from shading is also an illusion as I'm using the word. Another thing I experience which I'd like to understand is the self. From what I know about the brain it is not clear why I should write off the idea a priori that the sense of self is an illusion of sorts as well.

For what it's worth my theories of the mind/self/consciousness have been largely shaped by Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Minds I), Steven Pinker (lots of books) and more recently Susan Blackmore (essays and interviews) among others.

I'm not sure why I care what a mathematician's (C.J.S. Clarke) theory is on the nature of the mind and self. Should I start reporting what my plumber thinks about it as well? Also you may be surprised that philosophically Descartes "cogito" is not considered very sound or obvious by a lot of scholars. Just google around for the phrase and you'd see lots of different opinions on it's validity or usefulness.

I think I understand why you think my exploration of the idea of the self as illusion is a desperate attempt on my part to replace god and a not-so-silent cry for help. Presumably your theory is that if I don't believe in god and don't report being miserable I must be lying or self deluded. Since you don't have evidence for either these claims I'm hoping you can reign in your speculation. (If you do have evidence that I'm miserable or my heart is crying out I'd appreciate specific examples). But if the crying out of my heart for help is too distracting I'll try to find the volume and turn it down a little for you. You *might* also as a thought experiment consider whether hearing my heart call out for help is just an illusion on your part. I asked my wife if I seemed desperate or if she heard my heart crying out and she said, "Why are you wasting your time talking to that guy?". I'm not sure if that's a yes or a no.


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