September 6, 2015

The Self And Its Brain

It can be argued that there are at least three popular, contradictory notions of the self or person. First, a major tenet of Western philosophy is the existence and importance of a self - the Delphic dictum "know thyself," Socrates's "the unexamined life (of a person) is not worth living," and the Stoics' emphasis on cultivating personal virtues as a means to achieve individual happiness and social harmony. The Enlightenment notion of individuals (persons) not only existing but having certain rights must also be included here. 

Second, Buddhism also acknowledges the existence of the self but this religion's path to happiness and social flourishing involves meditation emphasizing an abandonment or transcendence of self, or a submerging of one's self into Nature.

Finally, the idea that the self is an "illusion" is a popular notion promoted by neuroscientists and a few psychologists and philosophers. That is, the self is an illusion arising from the brain (where does it exist and who/what is having this illusion?) that the "owner of a brain" (another interesting notion), and other brains and their language facilities and bodily speech organs, falsely claim is a self. 

I fully accept that the self or person is somehow a product of and exists initially within the electro-chemical workings of brain tissue. That the self is neither a ghost nor homunculus in the cranium nor an eternal soul existing independent of the living embodied brain.

However, I cannot accept that the self is only or merely an "illusion" as that term is favored by many neuroscientists and writers and as defined by the OED: "a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses; a deceptive appearance or impression; a false idea or belief."

This brings us to the psychological, social, and humanities notions of self or person. To claim that the self is essentially an unreal illusion produced by the brain requires that one also show that everything that is derived from this illusion is also illusionary. That the psychological, social, selves portrayed in nonfiction and literature, using our definition above, are things that are likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses; a deceptive appearance or impression; or a false idea or belief.

Yes, the selves of psychology, sociology, and literature may be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses. And, yes, they may give rise to deceptive appearances or impressions. But no, they definitely are not false ideas or beliefs. They are real. 

That the self is produced by the brain does make it an illusionary epiphenomenon. And this certainly does not support the claim that this supposed illusion gives good evidence for the materialist claim that brain electro-chemical activity should therefore be considered the only real entity and activity wherein the human experience can be found and definitively understood. And, finally, the claim of self as an illusion produced by the brain does not negate the truth that the self is real in a psychological and social sense. 

If you believe it does, and think you are on or supporting the cutting edge of contemporary thinking, that explanations of what we "really" are, psychologically, socially, historically and otherwise, are most fruitfully pursued by only studying brains, you are mistaken. You are supporting a way of thinking and approach to discovery and knowledge that denigrates and denies what is perhaps the most important and meaning-laden aspects of the entirety of the human evolutionary experience. That being our ability to create credible, functioning persons who find meaning in who we are and what we do as individuals, and in what we do in the company of our fellow humans.

Neuroscience is great. I'm all for it and am certain it will continue to help us understand many things about the human experience. Understanding in detail how the brain produces consciousness, mind, and the self at that level of complexity/analysis, if neuroscientists ever do, will be a monumental and I suspect very surprising discovery. However, humanness is not only and at bottom what our brains are and do. Most significantly, from an evolutionary and almost every other standpoint, our humanness is that which we think we are and aspire to, and it is the good we do and the things we achieve as one person among other persons. In human evolutionary terms, brains only really matter in terms of their ability to help create enough mentally healthy and socially adept persons to sustain our human way of life, add to our well-being, and contribute to our survival.

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