by Bruce Hood. Oxford University Press, 2012 (29.95)
"Self Illusion"? What could the author possibly mean? Oh, I hope this is not another one of those books that claims that the self doesn't exist...
When a newborn baby's eyes scan a room, Hood writes, the infant does not decide where to focus. Instead inborn cognitive mechanisms respond to the environment and focus the baby's attention.
Of course the infant decides. A newborn lacks developed intellectual faculties, but he certainly has will and certainly carries out willful acts.
"Honey, that new machine in the crib is making that crying noise again. Could you get up and insert it a bottle into its intake orifice..."
Later in life, the child develops self-awareness and the conviction that he consciously controls his body and brain. Yet what if this belief does not reflect reality?
Who is it who "develops self-awareness and the conviction..."? Self-awareness and convictions are acts of intelligent agents, not acts of meat machines.
Note that the author can't even speak about mental acts without presuming a real self, even a real self to be deceived.
In The Self Illusion, Hood argues precisely that. After exploring various definitions of self--a soul, an agent with free will, some essential and unique set of qualities--he concludes that what we experience as a self is actually a narrative spun by our brain.
So the brain is the real self? Then we have a real self, embodied in neurons. And if the brain is not the real self, just who is it that the brain deceives? Does the brain deceive the brain?
Since we have no real self, I suggest that the publisher demand that Hood's brain, not Hood himself, sign the royalty checks.
To see why, consider an experiment in the 1980s by physiologist Benjamin Libet. He showed that neural activity reveals what an individual will do before that person becomes conscious of having made a decision.
Libet's experiments are fascinating. They suggest that our intentions to act are motivated by unconscious processes. Of course, most of our acts are driven in large part by mental processes of which we are only dimly aware. Are you aware of each muscle you are using at this moment? Are you aware of each muscle you use when you walk or talk or type or eat? Yet you are certainly conscious of doing each of these things.
The automatic nature of most of our routine acts is obvious. That does not mean that we are soulless automatons driven by electrochemistry and duped into believing we have selves.
It means that we are each an ensouled creature, a composite of soul and matter, with a complex intellect and complex will. Unconscious or pre-conscious acts make it possible to function in the world. If we had to consciously invoke each tiny thing we did, we would be incapable of efficient acting. That doesn't mean that we are robots, or that we don't have "selves".
Perhaps our sense of free will is just a way for our brain to organize our actions and memories, as Harvard University psychologist Dan Wegner has argued. Building on Libet's and Wegner's work, Hood proposes that our sense of self is an after-the-fact organizational trick for the brain.
Libet was a property dualist who, on the basis of his science, emphatically believed in free will. He noted that experimental subjects who demonstrated brain activity several hundred milliseconds before being consciously aware of a decision to act retained the ability to cancel the act. Libet's experiments substantiate free will, and support a dualist, not a materialist monist, understanding of the mind.
Many scientists and philosophers, usually of a materialist bent, misrepresent Libet's work. Libet had deep disdain for materialism.
As with a just-so story, our brain synthesizes the complex interactions of biology and environment to create a simplified explanation of who we are.
So our brain is the agent deceiving us? Who is the brain deceiving? Itself? Perhaps Dr. Hood's brain is deceiving itself that it is deceiving itself? Double-deception. Maybe his brain is deceiving itself that it is deceiving itself that it is deceiving itself. Triple-deception!
Note to publisher: don't send Hood's brain the royalty check, either. It's not to be trusted.
Hood likens this fragile, malleable creation to a spiderweb being tugged in many directions at once. In the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, college students transformed into brutal guards who abused fellow students playing inmates. A milder illustration comes from the questionnaires used to assess personality traits: respondents alter their answers when imagining themselves in different social contexts. Hood argues that our protean personalities allow us to adapt to new surroundings.
Who is it who adapts, protean-personality-wise?
Although Hood believes the self may be the greatest trick our brain has ever played on us, he concludes that believing in it makes life more fulfilling.
On whom is the brain playing a trick? Who is it who believes the brain's 'trick'? Whose life is made more fulfilling? Does the brain trick the brain to believe the brain's trick?
I'm getting a headache. Or my brain is getting a headache, or maybe it's just tricking me that I have a headache, or maybe it's just tricking itself that it has a headache...
The illusion is difficult--if not impossible--to dispel. Even if we could, why deny an experience that enables empathy, storytelling and love?
Welcome to idiot materialism. I assure you, this is the best it gets. Materialist theories of the mind are all pretentious self-contradictory crap, moron philosophy dressed up like science.
Materialism is nonsense.
You are real. You have a soul. You are created and loved by God.