If you’ve never seen someone drop 4 Mentos into a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke (let alone done it yourself) you’re … More
If you let your mind get caught in a loop of thinking, these girls will trigger a sort of philosophical optical illusion about the self. On the one hand, if their brains are indeed connected and sharing information, they have one – very unusual – brain. So using a neural definition of the self, that means they’re one person. But when you see them on video you experience them – as their mother does – as having two minds. Using a mental definition of self, that means they’re two selves. But then you realize these two selves have one brain… and back again you go to the beginning. And that’s the optical illusion. Depending on whether you define the self using minds or brains, you see a different number of people: One. Two. One. Two. The purpose of this illusion, which I submit should be called the “Neuroself Illusion,” is not to get you to choose one or two. Rather, it is to introduce you to the very real possibility that neuroscience does not support our four-hundred year-old Enlightenment assumption that each of us has a single self. Rather, neuroscience – mixed with simple logic – makes it increasingly likely that we will conclude the brain makes multiple selves or – if you think that idea makes no sense – no self at all. But either way we’re in for a cultural (but not a scientific!) paradigm shift. Because both conclusions rock western society’s core metaphysical assumption: that an individual self, in an individual body, is what we really are. Increasingly, the smart money says it ain’t.
Is it ethical to use public-record human behavior – the actions, including the words, of people identified in published articles by reputable sources – to talk about neuroscience? As a neuroscientist, I already think of motor behavior as being neural. Muscles contract when neurons tell them to, and those neurons can be traced back to the brain. So in my view journalism has always talked about neuroscience – in fact, there is nothing else to talk about!
In a sense that’s what worked about the photo. Obama could have been in any living room in America on any given Sunday. All that was missing was the chips and dip. We’ve all sat around with our friends, just like him, and we’ve all gazed up at the television, just like him. And we’ve all held our breaths as our team began its final play for all the marbles, just like him.
Given the inevitability of metaphysics, I propose the Neuroself variety. It’s a practical metaneuroscience that helps patients figure out how to handle what we currently call the mind-brain problem as it announces itself in everyday psychiatric dilemmas – such as whether to smoke pot, drink coffee, get drunk, take prozac, go for therapy, divorce your wife, quit your job, and so forth. You know, real life decisions. It helps them convert all their choices into a single currency – the currency of information. And with this single currency it is easier – if not actually easy – to figure out the cheapest path to happiness.
Do not believe the rumors. It’s not a physical world. Not merely, not only. Material is a lot of it, but isn’t all of it; matter does not have the right of way, for it does not have all the facts. It cannot tell the truth, or at least, not the whole. Matter must stand by meaning to be corrected. But even that correction will not be correct. For to restore the Idea to its proper place, with full equality to Matter, is merely to make a larger error. The two of them, as a dichotomy and dualism, are as wrong as either one alone. For the universe contains both of them, but as a single, united thing. But what is this thing?
As though in some Greek tragedy, the source of the self’s power – that it is a perpetual motion machine – is its undoing. It is impossible to locate this uncaused cause on neural terrain. And in some comic farce, neuroscience cannot accomodate conscious experience. Which is only the most important feature of our lives. We have therefore ended up in an absurdity. We are committed simultaneously to two impossible notions: that we are subjects and also objects, that we are selves and also brains. Worst of all, the two beliefs cannot save each other – in fact, each is its opposite’s fatal flaw. And this is Neuroapocalypse. The Enlightenment has reached its end.
The self is defined by its capacity to own. But ownership is not a property of the natural world. In physics there is no force of ownership, or particle, or field. You have never seen the ownership equation, because there isn’t one. This point may seem ridiculous – one may as well note with alarm that we lack a unified theory of elves. But it is not ridiculous – it is urgent. It must be made if we are to call a halt to the doomed, absurd, expensive endeavor to find the Enlightenment self inside the brain.
To listen to the apologists in the newspapers and glossy blogs, to the glad-handers and Pop Neuroscientists, one would hardly know the brain was anything but the self’s greatest ally. In the grip of some counter-phobic fugue the neurocredulists act like teenage fanboys, slobbering over the naked organ’s folds and crevices as though it were Pirelli’s calendar.
The self is a black hole: it is completely private. No subjective experience can escape from it; this is why no one can feel our pain. Selves rendered us, collectively, the opposite of a collective. We became digital: a group of pure and absolutely bounded points. We became privacy as a process. The self made the human being a lonely, isolated mind.
The self is the atom of democracy, the engine of capitalism, the focus of law, the agent of free will, and the flaw of all religion. It is the secular derivative of soul. It is perhaps not too much to say that the self is the building block of the modern secular world.