The Frontal Cortex

You Are An Illusion

So I’m reading about the latest cosmological absurdity and feeling pretty smug. It turns out that, according to the equations, your existence is simply “some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space…Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.”

Aren’t those physicists funny? Once upon a time, we thought quantum mechanics was weird. Then came string theory and all those extra unfolded dimensions. And now comes the latest hypothesis, which is so surreal it’s almost nihilistic. Apparently, I’m just an elaborate illusion, a fictional figment of the universe. Only the equations are real.

But then I started thinking about neuroscience, my own specialty. According to the facts of neuroscience, your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. You are simply a fancy kind of cognitive fakery, an “epiphenomenon” of the cortex. The self is a fiction.

This idea is hardly newsworthy – the ghost was expelled from the machine a long time ago – and yet we often forget just how crazy the concept really is. Think about it: the facts of modern science contradict the most basic facts of our experience. If we know anything, it’s that we are real, that our first-person experience is lucid, vivid and tangible. We feel like more than just a loom of electrical synapses. And yet, what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland is also true of self-consciousness: “there is no there there.”

My worry is that the experiments of modern science, both in physics and neuroscience, are becoming increasingly detached from the empirical actuality of everyday life. Our sciences are turning themselves into immaculate abstractions, unable to reduce or solve or even investigate the only reality we will ever know. Instead, that reality is disregarded as an “illusion”. That hardly strikes me as a satisfying answer.

What do you think?


  1. #1 Elizabeth
    January 15, 2008

    A recent blog was about Asperger / Autistic people not understanding lying… perhaps they are not lying to themselves about the reality that is not around them.

    Watch for BEN X, a Dutch film about self.

    Incidentally, BEN X, when said rapidly in Dutch, means I AM NOTHING.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2008


    I still prefer the theory that we are in a video game the likes of Sim City. We are advised to not organize ourselves in a fashion to indicate to the entity playing the game that we know we are in a video game. That would risk an immediate reboot.

    Not that we would care.

  3. #3 Ian
    January 15, 2008

    How do you say BEN X “in Dutch”?! Isn’t it just BEN X, as in English? Do you mean “Incidentally, BEN X, when said rapidly means, in Dutch, I AM NOTHING.” or is that nothing but my illusion…?

  4. #4 Leisureguy
    January 15, 2008

    Enmeshed as we are in the antics of phenomenal activity, it isn’t surprising that our immediate (empirical, daily) experience is at variance with the underlying facts (truth) of existence. Is anyone surprised that (for example) a cat’s empirical experience doesn’t touch of the underlying truth of existence? We’re just primates who talk: why would we have special God-like immediate knowledge of underlying reality?

    That said, the picture that emerges above reminds me strongly of some of the teachings of Buddhism. Did that not strike you as well?

  5. #5 Rachael
    January 15, 2008

    >Only the equations are real.

    Funny, I’ve always liked the perspective of Ludwig Wittgenstein (in Philosophical Investigations) – he describes philosophical problems as problems of language. I agree with him regarding his perspective that language biases the conclusions of philosophical problems. Where I differ from him is that I believe the language is inherently tangled – I do not believe that untangling language will solve philosophical problems in the sense of a “solved” problem yielding us useful truth. What is truth, anyway?

    The world is what we perceive it to be: as scientists (and philosophers) already know, perception of any sort is inherently subjective. Language is ultimately flawed and incomplete, and therefore I believe that we are not only limited in our measurement (perception) but also in our ability to analyze (language). Since I don’t believe in an omniscient (objective) being, I quickly conclude that the subjective reality is the only one that exists. I have no need to reconcile my own sense of self with the fact that neuroscientists can’t locate that self – it is enough to know that I exist, and that language, math and other tools are useful in describing, manipulating and traversing the world around me. The reality or unreality of my experience and the limitations of science do not bother me.

    >Our sciences are turning themselves into immaculate abstractions, unable to reduce or solve or even investigate the only reality we will ever know. Instead, that reality is disregarded as an “illusion”. That hardly strikes me as a satisfying answer.

    My previous paragraph describes my emotional reaction (or lack there of!) to the possibility that “it is all abstract”. Scientifically, the questions become:

    Is it possible that our own use of language (tending toward the abstract) has slowed down scientific progress?
    Can we even be objective about scientific progress?
    Are we still progressing?

    I’m going to provide an annoyingly pragmatic answer to the questions I posed above: I believe that there is no objective perspective by which we can measure scientific progress, so the point is moot. What metric could we choose to measure the use of science – hedonia, population growth, money, self reported happiness, patent applications? All of those metrics are subjective or incomplete. Science gives us useful tools, an occupation to fill our hours with, and incomplete puzzles that tickle our brains.

    Another question: what is the ultimate purpose of science? Is it to discover the inherent humanity (soul) in humans? I think not. I prefer some things to be a mystery. I have often had discussions with people who are disturbed by my extraordinarily deterministic perspective on human existence. I believe in what you are arguing against, that we are merely a formation, a happenstance like a cloud that has ordered structure for a few hours and then dissipates. Does the cloud have a sense of self? No – because it has no biological feedback or sensory experience. Does a bacterium have a sense of self? Yes – but it is considerably less complex than my own. We’re all input output machines with varying levels of feedback built into our experiences. It is the extreme sensory feedback mechanisms which higher order creatures posses that requires consideration of concepts like self, justice, fairness, pleasure and pain, even if we are nothing more than a temporary redistribution of the local entropy of the universe.

    What about free will, they say? Well, so long as nobody knows all the rules to the game, we’ll always be as free as we feel inside. We are responsible for our actions because of the unlucky circumstance of us being us, and that’s all there is to it. If there were ever a point where we started understanding these abstract concepts regarding sense of self in concrete terms, I feel it would take away that freedom. What makes me feel like me is simply me, and I would prefer that science leave a piece of that unique corner of my mind to my own mind.

  6. #6 Stuart Coleman
    January 15, 2008

    You’ve entirely misinterpreted the article, the key fact is that no one actually thinks it works that way. The fact that this stuff pops out is a problem, not an actual consequence. Maybe before you feel smug about the absurdity of something you should make sure you actually understand it.

    (If my tone seems harsh, it’s because this is straight from the article, the fifth sentence, in fact: “Nobody in the field believes that this is the way things really work, however.”)

    And comparing QM and String Theory isn’t entirely fair either, since QM has been thoroughly tested and confirmed while String Theory is still entirely hypothetical.

    I can’t comment on the neuroscience, since I refrain from commenting on stuff I know little about, but I can say pretty confidently that while modern physics does tend to be abstract, mathematical, and difficult to comprehend, it doesn’t say that reality is an illusion. If anything, Physics assumes the opposite (and it really is just an assumption).

  7. #7 Jonah
    January 15, 2008

    Thanks for your comments. I especially like your take on Wittgenstein and free will, Rachael. Per the comments of Stuart: I read the article. I know that cosmologists recognize the absurdity of the situation as a problem. Did I say otherwise? The point is that this latest outcome is part of a larger pattern: we are increasingly being confronted with two separate “realities”. on the one hand, there are the facts of modern science, which tell us all these crazy things about multiverses, the EPR paradox, 11 dimensions, giant vibrating branes, the material reality of self-consciousness, etc. etc. I have no doubt that these conclusions are based on the latest equations and experimental facts. On the other hand, we’ve got our own phenomenal experience, which seems, at least on the surface, to contradict these modern scientific conclusions. im not saying there is a real contradiction – im just saying that it feels like there is one.

  8. #8 Kapitano
    January 15, 2008

    You are simply a fancy kind of cognitive fakery, an “epiphenomenon” of the cortex. The self is a fiction.

    X can be reduced to Y, therefore X is an illusion and Y is the reality. Until Y turns out to be be reducible to Z, and so on.

    Just a few small problems:

    X being reducible to Y doesn’t prove that X doesn’t exist – an apple pie exists even though it’s “merely” an agglomeration of amino acids, sugars etc.

    It doesn’t prove that Y is more “real” – the taste of the pie, it’s nutritional value and it’s price in the supermarket are all real. It’s just that different fields pay attention to some aspects and not others.

    It doesn’t prove the properties that X has that Y doesn’t can be safely ignored – as a nutritionist you might not be concerned that the pie is only lukewarm, but as an eater, you care.

  9. #9 Ted
    January 15, 2008

    Jonah, That article troubles me because we, as bodies possessing brains, envision (or calculate)the probability of free-floating brains constituting a more probable world than our own. However if we were free-floating brains (with no illusions) we could not even conceive of a universe like the one we inhabit (with bodies like ours’ that possess brains as a component). It doesn’t strike me as likely that the universe (whether expressed abstractly as a mathematical probability or concretely) is likely to exist only in forms we can imagine. Therefore I am troubled by this notion of a universe with a free-floating brain being even conceived of as absurd yet probable. It is ludicrous that the sum of our imaginations could constitute a universe of which we are so small a part.

  10. #10 Dave Briggs
    January 15, 2008

    My worry is that the experiments of modern science, both in physics and neuroscience, are becoming increasingly detached from the empirical actuality of everyday life. Our sciences are turning themselves into immaculate abstractions, unable to reduce or solve or even investigate the only reality we will ever know. Instead, that reality is disregarded as an “illusion”. That hardly strikes me as a satisfying answer.

    What do you think?

    Glad you asked! This blog is aptly named! Food for thought! After studying sciences for over 30 years my conclusion is maybe they are all right!
    One of the latest things I heard from the Quantum guys is that maybe gravity is so weak here is because it is just leaking over from one of those other dimensions. Absurd? Insane you say, OK, prove it! Oops! LOL! Neither side can prove it. As with so much, ( if not all you mentioned above).
    I have been a Christian for 30 years but I won’t dare play the God card as the answer to all your questions. I would in a nano second get that, Prove it, thrown back at me for sure! LOL
    But I think to get closer to your desire for all the answers you have to start out allowing yourself to think a lot bigger. Like as big as the whole known universe.
    Next you are going to have to throw in reference to a lot of science fiction movies. The matrix comes to mind. If someone was running this whole thing and had the power to convince you that your reality was the predominant, (real), reality, until they got to the stage of questioning that you have everything could just go along smoothly, since they “knew” that their reality was the real one.
    The latest cosmology figures I have heard is that 5% of the universe is atomic. 20% is dark matter and 75% is dark energy. These physicists get so much right! I have a picture of Albert Einstein and the atomic bomb on the wall as a reminder that reality can go a whole lot farther than what can be perceived.
    If a person bases their whole life believing that the 5% atomic is really the whole story it seems to me like a 20 to 1 shot that they have got to be missing something.
    I guess I will close now. Don’t know if I was helpful or not. I hope I was. If you keep asking these kinds of questions you may be in line for the one of histories greatest thinkers award! Actually I find that thinking about this kind of stuff is one of the most exhilarating things I have found in walking around on this rock for 55 years!
    Thanks you very much for your time!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  11. #11 Mark P
    January 15, 2008

    The only way the universe can comprehend that it has no meaning is to evolve little bits of thinking matter that can realize there is no meaning before they dissolve back into unthinking matter. We are ultimate practical joke, played by the universe on itself.

  12. #12 peggy
    January 15, 2008

    The self may be a fiction, but it is a very useful one.

  13. #13 Sarah
    January 16, 2008

    How do you say BEN X “in Dutch”?! Isn’t it just BEN X, as in English? Do you mean “Incidentally, BEN X, when said rapidly means, in Dutch, I AM NOTHING.” or is that nothing but my illusion…?

    Ian, ‘ben’ (aside from a name) is also the Dutch word for ‘am’. So Ben X said rapidly in Dutch sounds like ‘Ben niks’. ‘Ben niks’ is Dutch for ‘am nothing’.

    Pretty clever, I never noticed.

  14. #14 Hayden S
    January 16, 2008

    “What do you think?”

    I try not to (at least about this topic anyway) because it hurts my brain.

  15. #15 Daniel
    January 16, 2008

    I liked the comment made by Leisureguy, above:

    “We’re just primates who talk: why would we have special God-like immediate knowledge of underlying reality?”

    We are animals, dwelling in the same world as all the other animals, and thinking and feeling and navigating our way like our closest primate relatives, the chimps and gorillas, but also quite similar to dogs, and horses, and cats, and dophins. We see the same sun, drink the same water, eat the same food, walk the same earth.

    We run the same race from birth to death. We are like the animals, but we are a little more. I think that we are just a little bit more, but this little extra that we have surely does make a big difference, in our abilities to conceive and know of the world. We have the ability to descern the many patterns of existence, that remain invisible and unknowable to all the lower, less intelligent animals. But that’s about it.

  16. #16 Aoron
    January 16, 2008

    “Science” proves none of the metaphysical claims you made. It describes how particles behave, not what they are deep down. It describes neurons but says zip about consciousness.

    I’m getting tired of materialists pretending research somehow directly vindicates them. No, what you’ve got here is only a philosophical worldview loosely inspired by science.

  17. #17 Jesse M.
    January 16, 2008

    Stuart Coleman’s comment above is correct–the idea that you might be a free-floating brain created by a random statistical fluctuation is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, not a serious proposal for how the world really is. See the post by physicist Sean Carroll here.

  18. #18 Chris Wren
    January 16, 2008

    It’s one thing to say that the “ghost” has been expelled from the machine. But to then end up at the conclusion that there’s no machine either… sorry but I just can’t help but think – if you’ll forgive the term – that a wrong turn’s been taken somewhere a few miles back.

  19. #19 Corey
    January 16, 2008

    Doesn’t an illusion need to be perceived by someone?

    Douglas Hofstadter’s latest book, I Am A Strange Loop, addresses many of these issues. His way of putting is that the self is “a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination”. While I found the book a most compelling and enjoyable read, I failed to see how this was simpler (a la Occam) than simple Cartesian dualism. Although he gives several arguments designed to point out the problems of dualism, I prefer to take it as a matter of faith that there’s a least a ghost in my machine. While it’s fun to engage in self-referential exercises, maybe C.S. Lewis was on to something when he said that “questioning reason is like taking out your eyeballs to look at them.” You have to start somewhere.

    And yet it’s true that the more we focus on others, the more they seem to behave according to the laws of physics, biology, and statistics. Perhaps there’s a “Consciousness Censorship Principle” (analogous to the Cosmic Censorship Principle) that says that the Universe clothes naked sentience with orderly matter.

    Occam may sever that narrow silver thread, but I can tell you that I’m only getting in a transporter if I acquire something fatal.

  20. #20 tamiasmin
    January 16, 2008

    Trillions of cells in Babe Ruth’s body, and not one of them knew how to hit a curveball. Of course a curveball is not a random statistical fluctuation. That would be a knuckleball.

  21. #21 jmo
    January 16, 2008

    Has anyone listened to Ray Kuszweil and Dr. Michio Kaku discuss the proposed Fifth Fundamental Force? Makes my brain hurt….

  22. #22 Pender
    January 16, 2008

    Our sciences are turning themselves into immaculate abstractions, unable to reduce or solve or even investigate the only reality we will ever know.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but science is nothing if not effective. Sometimes its truths are not pleasant, but they make up for that by being true. Neuroscience and physics pay enormous dividends in the form of technology that improves the quality of our lives.

  23. #23 amrav
    January 16, 2008

    I don’t know how relevant is this but the Vedas and Upanishads(The Hindu philosophic texts) says exactly this.
    They say It’s all Maya(Illusion) and all your experiences are Bhranti(synonym for Maya).

  24. #24 Davon
    January 16, 2008

    I’m not nearly well-versed enough to comment on any specific scientific question in any of the fields you mention. But it seems to be that if we experience a phenomena beyond any doubt, but cannot explain it, then a science fails in its fundamental purpose if it not only fails to account for that phenomenon, but then proceeds to assume that just because it fails to explain the that phenomenon, then it does not exist.

    You mention your field’s inability to explain the self. It seems to me that this failure is similar to the difficulty physics has in explaining gravity. We experience gravity, and we experience gravity in a consistent way. But you’d be met with some really hard questions if you proposed that your theory’s failure to account for gravity is acceptable because, you see, the very absence of gravity in your theory shows that [i]gravity is merely an illusion[/i]. And yet psychologists and neuroscientists seems to love to do this with regards to the self.

    Of course, it could be that gravity and the self as we experience them are somehow illusions. But it then remains for science to show us the mechanics behind these illusions.

  25. #25 Bob Munck
    January 16, 2008

    Science has always contradicted the “facts” of our experience. Does the world appear round to you? Do you think the sun is setting, or is the horizon rising up to cover it? Pick up a spinning gyroscope and twist it around; there’s a new fact that seems to contradict all the old ones you knew about objects.

    I put scare quotes around facts above because you aren’t talking about facts, you’re talking about perceptions.

    We’re all standing waves in flows of matter and energy. There’s nothing belittling about that.

  26. #26 Caledonian
    January 16, 2008

    On the off-chance that someone reading this thread (besides Mr. Munck, who has already said as much as is necessary) is actually interested in rational discussion:

    You may find an examination of Egan’s ‘Dust hypothesis’ to be informative.

  27. #27 Bob Munck
    January 17, 2008

    Caledonian, I have no idea how to interpret your comment about my previous post.

  28. #28 Matt Brown
    January 17, 2008

    So “The Matrix” was totally real…. When will Neo save us?

  29. #29 Michael Bacon
    January 17, 2008

    Love the comment about the Vedas. Here I was going to say that this is all just going back to Kant, but it looks like the Upanishads scooped him by a millennium or two.

    Simply put, we only have access to the phenomena, which is reality as we experience, which is separate from the noumina or reality as it actually is. Obvious antecedents in Plato, of course, but I like Kant’s phrasing the best.

    Fortunately, the only real casualty here is vulgar reductionism. No, dear physicists, it does not all boil down to your subatomic particles. Instead, complex systems produce emergent phenomena (in the physical sense, not the Kantian sense), and it is those phenomena that are actually relevant to helping us to understand the world as we experience it.

    How dreary it would be to merely exist! How much more fun to border right on the edge of passing into oblivion, not by dying, but by lacking ontological primacy!

  30. #30 kmm
    January 17, 2008

    Bob–I think he was praising your comment–as well he should have, because it was fantastic.

    “We’re all standing waves in flows of matter and energy. There’s nothing belittling about that” — well put!

  31. #31 Glooby
    January 17, 2008

    I don’t find it weird. Maybe it is for us living and educated in western cultures but as many readers have pointed out, the teaching of modern physics are surprisingly in line with very ancient texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads as well as zen philosophy. The ‘Tao of Physics’ makes the case very well.

    I have no problem with being an emerging phenomena of beautiful complexity in a deep sea of wonders.

  32. #32 A.R.Yngve
    January 17, 2008

    Here’s one of the great mysteries of existence, which science hasn’t satisfactorily explained (yet):

    Is time really like we experience it, or is it fundamentally different?

    Sub-questions: Does the future exist in the same way as the present exists? DOES the present exist, considering that all information about reality reaches us from the past? (Light takes 1.5 seconds to go from the Moon to your eyes. You never see “now”.)

    I feel that even as physics becomes more and more abstract, it fails to confront such “basic issues” of reality. Merely saying “Oh, your perception of time is only an illusion” isn’t enough.

  33. #33 Richard
    January 17, 2008

    This is really nothing new. The Buddha taught it 2500 years ago.

  34. #34 Scott de B.
    January 17, 2008

    Is anyone surprised that (for example) a cat’s empirical experience doesn’t touch of the underlying truth of existence?

    Actually, cats are the only creatures that grasp the true nature of reality.

  35. #35 Gerard Mason
    January 17, 2008

    I think we have to get away from the idea that things are not real because they aren’t apparent when you look at their constituents: Hive/Bees, Person/Cells, Cells/Atoms, Atoms/Wavefunctions, we all disappear at certain magnifications. The problem was known about as soon as people started thinking at all, certainly to the Ancient Greeks, and it’s spooked people ever since (it’s why the Scholastics defined God as “simple”, i.e. not made up of parts).

    For my part I wonder how I can possibly be expected to collapse a wave function if I’m only an illusion. Perhaps wave functions never really collapse after all?

  36. #36 Matt Poland
    January 17, 2008

    This type of talk drives me crazy. Science is not saying you are not real. This is the kind of “appeal to common sense” that religious people have always used to dismiss scientific explanations of what’s going on in the world. It doesn’t “feel” like we are hurtling around the sun at however many million miles per hour, either. It seems like the sun is moving from East to West across our stationary home town. Well, this is wrong. The earth is revolving around the sun. This is Exactly what it feels like to be on a planet that’s revolving around a star. Similarly, when you say “We feel like more than just a loom of electrical synapses,” you’re handing the day to people who are content with a medieval understanding of the universe. This is EXACTLY what it feels like to have a consciousness that is a result of a loom of electrical synapses. Everything is the same as it always was. The Battle of Hastings still happened in 1092. Your parents still love you. The universe still exists. We just know a little bit more about it, and that is a good thing.

  37. #37 Crusty Dem
    January 17, 2008

    Electrical synapses? You’ve been reading too much Barry Connors (actually, that’s not possible, but still). I think if we can get enough physicists and fMRI machines, we might make some progress on this topic.

    But seriously, as a neuroscientist, this type of stuff drives me crazy. It’s self-evident, yet sounds complex and interesting because it’s “philosophical science”, getting at the “why?” that we can’t understand right now. What’s intriguing is how a large numbers of fairly simple machines (neurons) can create a consciousness, but we won’t be able to model anything like that for ~10-20 years, assuming Moore’s law holds…

  38. #38 Zathras
    January 17, 2008

    The objective/relative divide present in this post and the comments is a false dichotomy. It is true that Kant spoke of the physical world as appearance, and he went on to say that “Once you speak of the physical world as appearance, you must acknowledge a reality behind the appearance.” The physical world does not have to be strictly either objectively real or an illusion; it is the appearance of reality, in that it is that part of reality which we can apprehend through our faculties. In mathematical terms, our faculties can be viewed as taking a Projection of reality. The Projection has a real aspect, but it is not necessarily all that is real.

    Viewed this way, the physical characteristics of time and space are not just made up characteristics of the mind or objective manifestations of reality, but simply our construction of reality so that it is comprehensible. There does not need to be a dualism between the ghost and the machine; the machine is the Projection into the Physical world of the ghost as viewed by others.

  39. #39 Chris Austin-Lane
    January 17, 2008

    When I was following this link, I expected another “neuroscience studies meditation” story. Meditation commonly leaves people aware of the fact that the unitary persistent self we think of as “I” is just a temporary standing wave without any essential or lasting reality. But really coming to terms with that truth doesn’t lessen the interest one has in this particular life.

  40. #40 Swells
    January 17, 2008

    Personally, I really like the idea that science is becoming more abstract and more removed from everyday experience. It pushes our boundaries and gives us building blocks with which to evolve a new experience. The thing that is really cool is that with the scientific method we finally have a system that is capable of transcending it own boudaries in a very open – ended fashion.

    A little example that might be apposite. When talking about neuroscience, I think back to Hume’s classic statement of the problem in his Treatise on Human Nature.

    “The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.”

    Science has pushed forward to a place where we actually have some prospect of answering Hume’s objection to the self. What do I mean? Well, a little thought experiment might illustrate things. Keep in mind here that I AM NOT asserting that is this how consciousness is. It may be. I find the idea appealing. Odds are it is probably wrong. What I’m trying to do, is to illustrate how the advance of science into realms that lay outside our experience at one point could possibly bootstrap our experience into new realms that are, in fact, part of our experience but unnoticed until a certain scientific sophistication is achieved.

    Could what we now know about standing waves (solitons to be specific) be useful in explaining the sort of self that Hume denied existed in “reality”? Well, we now know that all physical interactions are essentially exchages of energy. Waves can become arbitrarily complex thru energy exchanges and still be discretely decomposed. What if the self is a soliton that becomes progressively more complex as we interact with our environment and the brain is a waveform decomposer. What if meaning arises from relationships within that waveform? Could harmonic relationships be the key we use to reason by analogy, etc.

    Just suppose that something like this were the case. Would we still have not the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented or of the materials of which it is composed?

    Solitons are super simple by virtue of a kind of non-locality (kind of like superconductors or Bose-Einstein condensates). Yet, they would seem to make possible an arbitrarily large repository of information that is what it was as well as what it is yet capable of decomposition without being destroyed by the perturbation of that act of decomposition.

    Surely Hume never foresaw the possibility of that kind of coherence. How could he have done? The science wasn’t there yet.

    As I said, probably not the way it is. But, I think it kind of shows how science could possibly expand our everyday experience by venturing into realms abstract by comparison with it.

  41. #41 Simon
    January 17, 2008

    My personal approach. Go out with your mates, have a nice meal in a fancy restaurant, go to a strip club, get a private dance … and then think about metaphysics.

    My results: whatever does not concern the reality I live in, doesn’t really make any difference. Hell I care whether I am an electric network of nonsentient cells or not. I like tits.

  42. #42 Glenn Borchardt
    January 17, 2008

    “So I’m reading about the latest cosmological absurdity and feeling pretty smug. It turns out that, according to the equations, your existence is simply “some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space…Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.”

    Aren’t those physicists funny? Once upon a time, we thought quantum mechanics was weird. Then came string theory and all those extra unfolded dimensions. And now comes the latest hypothesis, which is so surreal it’s almost nihilistic. Apparently, I’m just an elaborate illusion, a fictional figment of the universe. Only the equations are real.”

    Great post! My conclusions exactly. I had a similar take on the New York Times article on my blog: You might want to take a look at my latest book “The Scientific Worldview: Beyond Newton and Einstein” for the alternative to the Big Bang Theory.

  43. #43 Sho
    January 17, 2008

    Like other commenters, I think your article misses the point. I started writing a long comment, but it got too long so I turned it into a blog post found here.

    Thanks, though, for bringing this topic up. Interesting stuff!

  44. #44 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    January 18, 2008

    After reading posts as above, I muse on these thoughts by ANTLER


    If seeing only 6000 stars with the naked eye
    awestrucks us to topple
    in drunken ecstasy
    Or piss looking up in devout praise of being,
    What would happen if we could truly perceive,
    comprehend and experience
    the zillions
    of stars galaxies universes

    And if, as scientists agree, we only use
    10% of our brain’s potential,
    Then the astonishment we sense
    is only 10% of the astonishment
    we could sense,
    And so it would seem that what seems
    like dots of light twinkling
    in pretty patterns
    moving across the black
    is really enough to shatter us
    like goblets when the soprano
    hits the highest note.

    And if the 10% of the brainpower we do use
    is ignorant of 99.9% of the totality
    of the Universe,
    perhaps a li’l vino in our goblet
    ain’t a bad idea –
    Perhaps a flask of wine
    in deep wilderness night
    is more powerful
    than the largest telescope.

    Antler (born 1946, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, USA) is an American poet who lives in Wisconsin. His work reflects the influences of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and the American traditions of transcendentalism and environmentalism. He celebrates the wilderness, often comparing urban, industrial life unfavorably with natural phenomena. His frank, sometimes earthy poems frequently exhibit sexual and spiritual energy entwined with the wonder of the natural world.

  45. #45 mhogan
    December 11, 2008

    First, I’d like to correct a small mistake. Rachael, you said

    “Where I differ from [Wittgenstein] is that I believe the language is inherently tangled – I do not believe that untangling language will solve philosophical problems in the sense of a “solved” problem yielding us useful truth.”

    I think his work is highly relevant here. But you mischaracterized Luddie’s distinction–in fact, your positions are highly similar, as he thought that untangling the linguistic knots, or defying the “seduction of language,” was key to DISSOLVING such philosophical problems, not solving them: “The best philosophy is the one that allows me to stop doing philosophy when I want to.” He felt that quandaries like the one we confront in this post, problems of solipsism (in which one skeptically believes that only he exists) or, as in this article, “anti-solipsism” (in which one believes that everything but himself exists, or that he’s an illusion), were malign products of an illegitimate view and use of language. Thus, to him such problems were more like weeds; they weren’t meant to be watered, but to be picked.

    I’m hesitant to apply his thought in a situation he couldn’t have anticipated fully, as most people that do simply stuff words in his mouth, but I think his thought would have been consonant with modern complexity theory, or the idea that phenomena can be viewed from multiple scales. My interpretation of the work, and I’m drawing heavily on Stuart Kauffman here, is that, while it’s certainly productive to analyze a scaled phenomenon from its components–for example, predicting ant colony organization or behavior from individual ant biology or behavior, as E. O. Wilson has–each scale exhibits unexpected characteristics that can’t be fully accounted for by an appeal to other scales. Exhaustively surveying an ant worker, for example, wouldn’t tell you that the colony also breed heteromorphic soldiers whose sole task is to defend it, or the timing and characteristics of the nuptial flight. I’d go on, and explicitly relate these and other aspects of complex systems to neuroscience, but, you know, I’m currently writing this paper, and I’ve got to get paid :). So I’m going to continue to rip Kauffman off.

    Take it on faith that one consequence of this characteristic system-wide structure, in which order and disorder is precisely balanced to give rise to self-assembly and autocatalyzing behavior, is that laws, behaviors, and structures exist on each scale that can’t be decomposed: Kauffman calls these laws “ontologically emergent.” It’s very likely that there are aspects of the mind that will never be reduced to neuronal behavior. Of course, it would be entirely missing the point to read this as saying that reductionistic science is pointless. It’s necessary, and can (has) shed light on complex systems. It’s just that reductionism has to be complemented by a causal analysis from large- to small-scale, as well.

    The point is that there’s no better way to understand the mind than from the point of view of the mind–the level of magnification that the mind occurs in, which ranges from the cortex to the central nervous system to the entire body, depending on your choice of emphasis.

    At the precise, physical level of description that these authors use to examine nature, new facts don’t necessarily carry over to the level of the mind, less so as they’re increasingly removed from the spatial and temporal scales we inhabit, not to mention the fact that as complex systems we exhibit biology-specific, brain-specific traits that can’t be reduced to their components. They are simply answers to two different questions: “What is the universe [in the sense of the physical sciences]” and “What am I [in the sense of introspective attribution of mental states].” The answer to the first question may very well be that we’re actually string-shaped care bears galloping around the multiverse on Patrick Swayze-shaped Higgs bosons, but the answer to the question is patently obvious to anybody that hasn’t wrapped himself in a verbal straitjacket–we’re living, conscious, volitional beings that inhabit a world populated with other such beings, and we have experiences.

    For example–knowing that dopaminergic cascades can cause sensations of pleasure (btw, there are papers that show they ANTICIPATE pleasure, implying that they might not be the efficient causal agents) does not mean that pleasure has somehow been “decomposed.” To return to Wittgenstein, the meaning of a linguistic notion such as pleasure is intimately bound up within the entire web of the language game: the rules we learn for using the word, the uses we make of the word (i.e. the things we use it to do; imagine the word as a tool), the incredible sensitivity to contexts, the ways in which using one term for one thing impacts the use of another term for another thing etc. There are many uses, and consequently meanings, of “pleasure,” but they aren’t necessarily bound by a single, universal essence of “pleasureness.” Instead, they have patterns of similarities, like family members–some may have the same nose, some may have the same eyes, but there isn’t one characteristic that is criterial of belonging to that family.

    Importantly, in the context of dopaminergic cascades there is one use of the word ‘pleasure’ that neuroscientists have invented. They refer specifically to experimentally elicited pleasures, such as winning a game of poker, snorting a line of coke, or having an orgasm, that have been reliably correlated with dopaminergic activity. While the term overlaps a little with some colloquial uses of the word pleasure (especially those having to do with “vice,” interestingly enough), it doesn’t completely: we don’t yet know if dopaminergic recruitment is sufficient for feelings of pleasure, or even if it’s necessary, and it’s probably not. Besides, there are other completely unrelated uses, such as that in Freud’s pleasure principle.

    I hope that I’ve shown how articles like these, even if true (this one definitely isn’t), shouldn’t cause us to ask solipsistic, metaphysical questions like “Am I self-aware?” Those questions are the products of linguistic coercion. However, there are other thorny questions that neuroscience definitely poses: for instance, the discovery that patients deprived of emotional centers in the PFC can’t behave functionally, even if they’re, strictly speaking, ‘rational.’ This should cause us to question the Platonic idea of whether humans are defined by their rationality. But this isn’t a metaphysical question; we’re not reduced to something we’re clearly not, it’s just that our intellectual traditions are modified to accommodate the new view.

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