Where’s the Self?


Just a brief shout-out to Steven Rose, the author of The Future of the Brain, who in this review of David Linden’s new book on pleasure homes in on the missing theory of self in much of modern neuroscience:

“Linden is not alone in making this type of essentialist assumption. The weird locution – “it was not me; it was my brain that made me do it” – is increasingly used by neuroscientists who are sure that human thought and action are reducible to brain processes, and by legal defence teams pleading diminished responsibility for their clients. The trouble is that this way of speaking – and thinking, if such a term remains permissible – leaves unresolved who is the “me” that the brain drives.”

1 Comment

  1. Embodied neuroscience solves this problem elegantly: the self is defined by the interacitonal patterns between your body and the world around you. The brain is no pilot, it’s just part of a incredibly complex machine. And just as a car can’t get anywhere without a road, so an organism needs a world around it.

    The self, then, is consistency. There is a boundary where skin ends and where other things begin: we notice this immediately because our arms, legs, noses and so on are always with us, but other things vary and move. Reliably, tactile sensation correlates with visual, olfactory, thermal, or other sensation to tell us where our bodies are and how they work. “Me” is whatever cohesively sticks together as I go about being a human being, who interacts with the world in particular ways. Introspection, self-awareness, and other related phenomena are the result of having big brains and being complex organisms, not any particular special motive force with a specific location or point of origin. Or so the theory runs.

    I think the trouble is that many neuroscientists can’t be troubled to remember that brains need heads to be in and arms and legs to work with and a world to exist in, otherwise they aren’t good for much. The brains in vats scenario is defeated by elementary biology: the brain, to survive, would need a very complex vat, supplying all kind of nutrients, electrochemical stimuli, and fluid exchange. It would have to be so complex that it mirrored, in form if not in function, a body. But then, form follows function. So really the answer to brains in vats is, “We ARE brains in vats. They’re just really nice, big vats.” And so we have no problem with the self-ness issue, but a big problem with modern neuroscientific thought.

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