“Increasingly, however, scientists are finding that the self is a kind of necessary illusion manufactured by the brain and often more fragile than we’d like to imagine.”
So says an illusion at Quartz, in the fawning and deeply confused article “Feeling anxious? It’s not just you, it’s our philosophical era of neuroexistentialism.”
Now this illusion who wrote the article would, I’m betting, carp and whine and moan if it didn’t get its fee. All the arguments the illusion used in saying “that we have no soul, no fixed self, and no inherent purpose” would be jettisoned faster than an anti-abortionist at a Democrat party convention if its check did not arrive on time. So this illusion is surely lying when it says it doesn’t exist. But why did this illusion lie?
Let’s clear the brush first. It is impossible that you are an illusion. It requires a rational mind to have an illusion. An illusion requires a mind as a platform for its illusory dance. Therefore, if you were an illusion and did not possess a rational mind, you couldn’t have an illusion. Therefore, it is impossible that you are an illusion. You need to be you before you can imagine you’re somebody or something else.
This is so obvious a deduction that we have to explain why it wasn’t made by the well-credentialed people who were the subject of the Quartz article. Or we can accept these fine people did make the obvious deduction, as we would expect of such eminences, but then we have to ask why is it that they are then trying to sell the fallacy?
The answer to the first question can be one of these two: (1) ignorance, (2) love of theory.
The eminences are Gregg Caruso, a professor of philosophy at some place or other, and Owen Flanagan, a Duke philosopher of philosophy and neurobiology. We have met Caruso before, in “You Don’t Have Free Will, Which Is Why You Make Such Bad Choices” and “Free Will Cannot Be An Illusion“. Caruso’s neuronal sheathes are not the most impermeable. Flanagan is new to us.
Both men—both illusions, that is—could scarcely have reached their positions and be ignorant of basic logic, so the above deduction must have occurred to them. But it was obviously overruled, and that is only possible because of the love of theory.
Their argument, as evidenced by their writing, goes something like this. The brain appears deterministic, ruled by physics, chemistry, biology: there is no soul (which they never define). Yet people report existing, making choices, having qualia and the like. But these acts and experiences do not follow if the theory of determinism (to give it a shorthand name) is true. Thus qualia and thoughts of self must be an illusion.
Determinism must be false, because, of course, we do have these experiences, and it is impossible we are illusions. (Our pair have no theory how these supposed illusions can work, even in principle.) But our authors believe the theory. It must be love.
Our pair are concerned, though, what others believing this false theory might wreak. “Today, there is a third-wave existentialism, neuroexistentialism, which expresses the anxiety that, even as science yields the truth about human nature, it also disenchants.”
The philosophical crisis of the 21st century…has its roots in the changes wrought by scientific discoveries, which, according to Flanagan and Caruso, have dealt the final blow to notions of god, an immaterial soul, spirit, self, agency. They explain, “[N]euroexistentialism is caused by the rise of the scientific authority of the human sciences and a resultant clash between the scientific and humanistic image of persons.”
This contemporary angst arises from the growing body of knowledge that shows the existence we experience is a result of neural processes. The findings suggest that introspection, or self-knowledge, can’t really reveal the mind, and that death is the end for us all. If the brain’s processes give us our experience of life and there is no “immaterial spirit” or soul, then when the brain stops functioning, nothing follows life, and nothing “survives” us. Along with this understanding of ourselves as animals governed by natural laws and physical mechanisms comes another loss—the sense of agency or free will.
We can agree with our mistaken authors that forcing folks to believe what is false and impossible can and will cause them angst. We already know from far superior minds, and all practical experience, what removing religion and tradition does to a people (they even quote the rise in suicide, etc.). Replacing God with science is like swapping food with photographs of food. The only possible result is starvation.
How they missed the hilarity in claiming introspection can’t reveal the mind in a book which purports to prove how introspection reveals the mind is all the proof we need of the destructive nature of “neuroexistentialism.”
Another good joke is an inclusion by our pair of an essay by CIT’s Sean Carroll which
surveys classical mechanics, quantum physics, time, and the nature of emergent phenomena, concluding that there’s no essential meaning in the universe, as evidenced by both its vastness and randomness. Yet he still argues that life matters on a personal and human scale, even if “modern science has thoroughly undermined any hopes for a higher purpose or meaning inherent in the universe itself.”
The joke is that here is a physicist who believes (or says he believes) there there is “no essential universe meaning in the universe” and that it is random yet who still writes papers finding meaning and evading randomness (unpredictability).
Again, it is proof nobody who slings this hash believes what they’re selling. So why are they selling it?
Stay tuned! We have a guest post from The Cranky Professor next week on the subject of why emergentism and so forth are inadequate explanations for intellect and will.