Robert Krulwich had a really lovely piece on Weekend Edition discussing Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, split-brain patients and the emergent self. Much of the piece was drawn from my chapter on Woolf in Proust Was A Neuroscientist.
Here is how I summarize the paradox in the book, using the phenomenon of blindsight to make my point:
The one thing neuroscience cannot find is the loom of cells that creates the self. If neuroscience knows anything, it is that there is no ghost in the machine: there is only the vibration of the machinery. 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. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.
This is all undoubtedly true. And yet, if the mechanical mind is denied the illusion of a self, if the machine lacks a ghost, then everything falls apart. Sensations fail to cohere. Reality disappears. As Woolf wondered in The Waves: “How to describe the world seen without a self?” “There are no words,” she answered, and she was right. Deprived of the fictional self, all is dark. We think we are blind.
Update: While on the NPR website, be sure to check out the live recordings from the Newport Folk Festival. Highlights include Gillian Welch and She and Him.