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Thread: Do Philosophy and Science Agree on the Non-Existence of the Self?

  1. #1
    Member HilbertSpace's Avatar
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    Do Philosophy and Science Agree on the Non-Existence of the Self?

    Although this might have gone into the Responses to Lectures thread, I felt that the topics addressed here were distinct, in some ways, from where that discussion was evolving.

    I recently read, at someone’s suggestion, a novel by Peter Watts called Blindsight. It is available (legally) for free in several formats from here. The novel itself is a creative and interesting work of hard science fiction (including both physics and biology components – the latter is pretty rare, in my experience), and has an interesting exposition on actually alien aliens. I recommend it to SF enthusiasts without hesitation, but what lead me down an interesting path was the author’s ending section, called “Notes and references.” In it, he mentions the work of the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who works in the philosophy of mind and consciousness.

    Metzinger works closely with neuroscientists and believes strongly that philosophers of the mind must rigorously include modern scientific research in their explorations and explanations of mental phenomena. It’s probably a good thing, because although I think I would be considered somewhat radical (or at least very unconventional, given some receptions I’ve recently received) in my own field(s), I would have taken his work with a very large grain of salt if he didn’t have a fairly rich set of experimental evidence to back him up.

    As an introduction, I submit the following TedX talk. It’s less than 20 minutes, but it’s (obviously) only the briefest of introductions. Much better would be one of his books. The Ego Tunnel was written for laypeople and is fairly accessible (although I wouldn’t call it a trivial read by a long shot). His more technical work is Being No One. This past week, I started with the former in order to get a general idea of his arguments, and am now starting on the latter, but additional reading and work are interfering with making significant progress. TedX is very non-technical, and so it might be tough to get at what he's saying, so ignore the video (or find other interviews - I've seen some listed but haven't watched them yet) if it seems too shallow.

    Some of Metzinger’s more radical ideas have to do with the illusory nature and non-existence of the self (the Ego, but not within the strictly Freudian definition). The self, he argues, is a process that emerges as an evolutionarily selected-for framework for the assembly of a coherent picture of the world, and which contributed toward the infrastructure necessary for sociality (or eusociality, if we go with EO Wilson’s arguments, but that’s a separate body of work, for now).

    What I found particularly fascinating was the proposal that language evolved out of (hand-based) gestures, rather than exclusively vocalizations. I’ve always considered linguistics fairly key to my work, and I am very interested in the ideas of the cognitive linguists, who branched off somewhat orthogonally from graduate study with Chomsky. One of the primary concepts in cognitive linguistics is that language is “embodied” – that the physical and biological nature of humans intimately informs language and thought, and that the idea that there is (in people) a logical framework apart from this embodied context is necessarily false.

    I found that Metzinger adopts this position, and further research into the literature shows that there is in fact significant collaboration between the neuroscientists and other researchers working in the field, and cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff. They cite a significant body of evidence indicating the neurological correlation and co-occurrences between gestures and speaking, for instance. In addition, there is also strong evidence that mirror neurons (neurons that fire when observing others and that simulate a model of the action observed) may be causally linked with both sociality and with language.

    I think that this work might be among some of the most important research being done right now, and I am excited to be exploring it and trying to line it up with my own ideas and work. Although I have been actively working with the cognitive linguistics and cognitive semantics work, this additional angle (including possible evolutionary foundations and experimental evidence) has me very excited. My jaw literally dropped several times when reading The Ego Tunnel, and I cannot remember the last time that has happened.

    Note: This post was going to be a lot longer. This is the closest I can get to a TL;DR.

  2. #2
    Member joft's Avatar
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    To answer your thread title question: no, and eventually the opposite.

    Philosophy, like mathematics, has logically consistent arguments as its main form of establishing truth. I think it is probably impossible to give a logically consistent account of "self," so philosophy should conclude it does not exist.

    Science, on the other hand, cannot progress if it requires the same high level of rigor found in mathematical/philosophical arguments. It uses hand waving definitions so it can get past the definition part to the experimentation part. It can easily define the "self" simply as the persistent organism whose brain is pondering this question.

    Eventually philosophical arguments about "mind" and "self" will evolve to use the scientific definitions, and then both will agree that the self does exist.

  3. #3
    Amen P-O's Avatar
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    Philosophy doesn't even agree with philosophy, so why should it agree with science?

    I mostly agree with joft: Self is a word... And philosophy is just a self consistent way of attaching ideas to words. If a philosophy is written correctly, it's impossible for it to disagree with science in a substantive sense.

    Quote Originally Posted by HilbertSpace View Post
    Metzinger works closely with neuroscientists and believes strongly that philosophers of the mind must rigorously include modern scientific research in their explorations and explanations of mental phenomena.
    I disagree with this sentiment. I think it's probably useful to do so for the sake of communicating with people, but not really necessary.
    Violence is never the right answer, unless used against heathens and monsters.

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  5. #5
    Member HilbertSpace's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by joft View Post
    To answer your thread title question: no, and eventually the opposite.

    Philosophy, like mathematics, has logically consistent arguments as its main form of establishing truth. I think it is probably impossible to give a logically consistent account of "self," so philosophy should conclude it does not exist.

    Science, on the other hand, cannot progress if it requires the same high level of rigor found in mathematical/philosophical arguments. It uses hand waving definitions so it can get past the definition part to the experimentation part. It can easily define the "self" simply as the persistent organism whose brain is pondering this question.

    Eventually philosophical arguments about "mind" and "self" will evolve to use the scientific definitions, and then both will agree that the self does exist.
    Metzinger (and others) aren't arguing from a Popperian or semantic point of view, though.

    Philosophy of mind addresses (among other things) questions about the nature of consciousness (and the self), while neuroscience addresses questions about the operation of the brain. Ideally, the two should be in (or at least working toward) alignment. I believe in interdisciplinary approaches almost to a fault - every field can have unique insights into a problem, and as long as no one gets too parochial about their own field, the interactions can be at worst interesting and at best transformative.

    Where areas of interest overlap, though, I think it may be entirely necessary to collaborate. I think that fields of philosophy that cover the nature of mankind had better take into account what we already know from evolutionary biology and anthropology. The converse also holds - people looking at the evolution of social-ethical systems should probably turn to philosophy to help identify some of the existing frameworks and questions. One of the best books I've read on multilevel selection theory was written by a philosopher. It stood out to me because he was almost painfully precise in his development of terminology and ideas - a skill that's generally under strong selection in those departments.

    As fun and convenient as hand-waving definitions are, they can get us in a fair amount of trouble - either because we end up working with shaky theories and designing faulty experiments, or because we end up arguing with one another over what are mostly semantic differences.

    In any case, I'm increasingly of the opinion that the neuroscientific evidence is building behind the no-self model. That's not to say that an ego-identity doesn't exist as a psychologically motivating factor, but rather that a lot of the ideas about it in both folk psychology and in some of the more classical schools of investigation need to be re-thought.

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    Quote Originally Posted by HilbertSpace View Post
    One of the best books I've read on multilevel selection theory was written by a philosopher. It stood out to me because he was almost painfully precise in his development of terminology and ideas - a skill that's generally under strong selection in those departments.
    Which one was it?

  7. #7
    Mens bona regnum possidet ferrus's Avatar
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    Sorry to be so brief as to be glib - but what do you make of Dennett's philosophy of mind based on the multiple drafts theory (which is based on a degree of experiment evidence)?

    Philosophy of mind is something I mean to study in more detail at some point. I believe it will feature as part of the 'philosophy of AI' that I'll be doing as part of my AI degree sometime soon.
    Die Logik ist keine Lehre, sondern ein Spiegelbild der Welt. Die Logik ist transcendental. - Wittgenstein

  8. #8
    Senior Member Starjots's Avatar
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    I was surprised to read that neuroscience is able to experimentally explore and begin to draw conclusions about the nature of consciousness. Which makes me wonder, consciousness and self are really the same thing aren't they?

    http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-...pr_product_top

  9. #9
    Minister of Love Roger Mexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HilbertSpace View Post
    The self, he argues, is a process that emerges as an evolutionarily selected-for framework for the assembly of a coherent picture of the world, and which contributed toward the infrastructure necessary for sociality (or eusociality, if we go with EO Wilson’s arguments, but that’s a separate body of work, for now).
    I don't read a ton of modern philosophy, but should I assume you've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit? This seems right up that same alley.

    Not to go all druggie with this, either, but loss of ego (a sense of connection with everything around you, to the point where you stop perceiving a distinction between yourself and the world around you) is pretty commonly reported by people who use certain hallucinogens. Psilocybin in particular has a reputation for this. It would seem at least that whatever parts of the brain are involved in generating this perception of a distinctive "I"-entity are rather easily suppressed or tweaked into altered states without consciousness itself being significantly disrupted.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    No history, no exposition, no anecdote or argument changes the invariant: we are all human beings, and some humans are idiots.

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    Limber Member floid's Avatar
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    The subject/object dichotomy is indispensable to the operation of the human mind.
    There is nothing it can do without it.

    Terence James Stannus Gray in "All Else is Bondage"
    My head is the centre of the universe.
    Everything I see, sense, know is centred in my head (and in yours, and in the beetle’s).
    All are objects in which my head is subject (mediate Subject as a head, ultimate subject as “I”).
    But I cannot see, sense, or know my head, and the inference of its existence is inadmissible, sensorially unjustifiable.
    I perceive no such object, all other objects but not that.
    My head alone is not my object.
    Of course not: it is subject, and an eye cannot see itself, I cannot sensorially perceive myself, subject cannot know itself—for that which is known is thereby an object.
    Subject cannot subsist as its own object.
    So, all that is object appears to exist;
    Subject alone does not appear to exist.
    But object cannot exist apart from subject, whose manifest aspect it is.
    Therefore it is apparently inexistent subject that IS , and apparently existent object that IS not.
    Yet, since object is subject, and subject is object, intemporally that which they are, all that they can be, and all that IS , is the absence of my head (and of yours, and of the beetle’s), which is also the presence of everything.
    Where, then, am I?
    Where, then, are you, and the beetle?
    We are our absence.
    Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.
    -- Edward Abbey

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