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You Cannot Be An Illusion

“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.

17 thoughts on “You Cannot Be An Illusion Leave a comment

  1. Science is no longer practiced in these United States. In the university environment, science has been smothered with a pillow, and quietly replaced by ¡Science! The professors and administrators know that he who pays the researcher calls the results.

    Objectivity, integrity, rationality and reality are all dismissed as counterproductive to the daily narrative issued by MiniTru.

  2. I think you should have more sympathy for the meat-people, Briggs. Just because they share a more or less morphological similarity with you and me doesn’t mean they are like us. I take them at their word, understanding that they, like Mr Dawkins, are meat robots directed by a molecule. Like they say in Texan departments of philosophy, they’re all accident and no substance.

  3. So Stephen Stills song about Hendrix had meaningless lines?

    “Don’t want to forget me
    It doesn’t matter
    Which of our fantasies fled
    :
    :
    It doesn’t matter
    Which of our fantasies stay”

    Shucks!

  4. “…why is it that they are then trying to sell the fallacy?”

    “So why are they selling it?”

    I know, I know!

    They want to bang co-eds.

  5. This was a very entertainingly written essay!
    Though, I am a bit surprised that some common ground wasn’t found & exploited, perhaps this from the main referenced article:

    “The philosophical crisis of the 21st century… has its roots in the changes wrought by scientific discoveries, which, … 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.””

    See that — Neuroexistentialism has its roots in scientific discoveries that undermine certain notions to include god. How was it that this wasn’t parlayed into a familiar anti-science screed of “scientism”!? Opportunity lost there….

    Here’s another quote from the referenced article worth some consideration:

    Sean Carroll’s essay … [concludes] that there’s no essential meaning in the universe, as evidenced by both its vastness and randomness. Yet [Sean Carroll] 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.”

    Note there (above) that the left-wing view of the value of life is linked to grandiose scales — a “meaning inherent in the universe itself” was the wish.

    That is an extremely narcissistic viewpoint, to strive to believe that one’s value could be (or might have been) measured on an inter-galactic scale. Most of use are content with a practical world view dominated by our immediate family, close friends and local community. But so much of what we see from the Left is extreme narcissistic self-centeredness … sometimes that gets undermined.

    But that narcissism in society has and continues to grow…the reasons for this were both recognized with the current trends predicted decades ago, and, have explanations readily found on-line, via Amazon, etc. For those bemoaning the selfish state of society and related trends learning about how/why narcissism is increasing is worth the research.

  6. Has any experiment done that conclusively shows that brain is deterministic?
    Are animal behavior deterministic?
    Aquinas didn’t think so. He makes a distinction between things that move by necessity and the (living) things that move by instinct.

  7. Mactoul,

    The key is: Aquinas didn’t think so.

    Has any experiment shown that the brain is not deterministic?
    Has any experiment been done that conclusively shows Aquinas was right?
    Is it possible for an experiment conclusively show anything except a theory is wrong?

    Some have argued that when it comes to Aquinas — and philosophy in general — verification is not required.

  8. What’s to stop us thinking rationally with one part of our brain, while maintaining a somewhat illusory impression of ourselves as ongoing in another part? That’s how our brains work – different bits do different things. I read recently that some people are braindamaged in such a way that they can see faces with both eyes, but only recognise them with one eye. This shows just how localised and specific our brain functions can be.

    As for our brains not operating deterministically, what other option is there apart from random?

  9. I think that science has proven it is incapable of determining if their is essential meaning in the universe, and has not actually shown such a thing could not exist.

    I like Mr. Carroll as a science populariser, but his field, physics, is starting to have some issues. Most physicists talk about phenomenon on scales too big or small for most people to appreciate, so beyond our comprehension that we end up taking their word for it. They then use a language of mathematics that is obscure to describe their theories which makes it tough for mere mortals to actually understand what is said. This especially applies to the many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity.

    This results in physicists, claiming to be the rational and objective ones, sounding like shaman. I’m not saying their work is wrong or misleading, although it must be incomplete, given the mess of interpretations of quantum mechanics. However, the more physicists rely on mathematical abstractions with limitations, the more I suspect their theories may not actually reflect reality.

    I have a thought experiment where you ask relatively intelligent humans who know nothing of quantum mechanics and relativity to read what physicists today are saying. My guess would be they would find physicists more akin to prophets and priests than scientists.

    And I suspect that in a few hundred years, scientists (if they are still around) will look back at the current era and treat most of these theories as quackery propagated by priests using an arcane language.

  10. That brain dynamics is deterministic is itself a theory or hypothesis capable of being proven wrong.
    Do we have sufficient reasons to believe that the brain dynamics is, in fact, deterministic?

    The question about animals is a separate question.

  11. Kenny,
    Your remarks about physicists find a resonance in what CS Lewis wrote about modern physics in The Discarded Image. The notion of truth employed in modern physics is rather different from what it means in our everyday life.

  12. That brain dynamics is deterministic is itself a theory or hypothesis capable of being proven wrong. Do we have sufficient reasons to believe that the brain dynamics is, in fact, deterministic?

    Seems it should be the default unless by nondeterministic you mean from the viewpoint of an observer like the motion of air molecules or quantum particles. That is, appearing random to an observer but likely from undetermined — perhaps unknowable — causes.

  13. “have dealt the final blow to notions of god”

    I’m reminded of the six or so “final notices” of automobile warranty expirations I get every day.

  14. DAV,
    Physics experiments are generally conducted on nonliving things.
    How do we know that the living things behave exactly according to the laws of
    physics of nonliving things?
    Why can’t there be something in living things that escapes the laws of nonliving things?

  15. Mactoul,

    Why can’t there be something in living things that escapes the laws of nonliving things?

    I suppose they could but what is the evidence for it?
    The musings of a 13th century philosopher?

    Do you accept that the living affect their surroundings?
    If living things can act nondeterministically then the universe itself is nondeterministic if only because living things have made it so.

    Wouldn’t it be something if, after following the chain of causes of a volcanic eruption, it was discovered it to be the result of someone waving their arm for no reason whatsoever causing a disruption in air flow? Or even without a living being, it was traced back some electron zigging instead of zagging without cause? Wouldn’t that imply physics is ultimately on a fool’s errand?

    To assume no causes for events is to forsake understanding them — they just happen. Why would you want to start there?

  16. – Clearly these guys have no idea of what Phenomenology is:
    – Can their science explain phenomena _as the phenomena present themselves to us_ (ie subjectively)?
    – “And I suspect that in a few hundred years, scientists (if they are still around) will look back at the current era and treat most of these theories as quackery propagated by priests using an arcane language.” Yep.

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