Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Self - A Scientific Idea Ready for Retirement (EDGE Question 2014)

The 2014 EDGE Question is out and all 176 contributors (174 responses) can be reviewed and pondered at the EDGE site. This year's question is a good one (they are always interesting) in that it provided many respondents an opportunity to question some of the basic tenets of scientific belief.
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?


Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
Among this years respondents are the usual who's who of science, as well as a lot of people I have never heard of but who contribute excellent responses.

One of the cool responses this year is from Bruce Hood, who is still arguing that we might do well to be done with the notion of the self. His book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012), conceptualized the self as the product of our relationships and interactions with others, a thing that exists only in our brains. Hood argues, however, that though the self is an illusion, it is one that humans cannot live without. As a scientific concept, it has become useless in its traditional understanding.

NOTE: I disagree with Hood that we must do away with free will when we discard the scientific notion of the self - the two things are not identical.

The Self

Bruce Hood
Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol; Author, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. The self did not have to be discovered as it is the default assumption that most of us experience, so it was not really revealed by methods of scientific enquiry. Challenging the notion of a self is also not new. Freud's unconscious ego has been dismissed for lacking empirical support since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s.

Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die. It crops up again and again in recent theories of decision-making as an entity with free will that can be depleted. It re-appears as an interpreter in cognitive neuroscience as capable on integrating parallel streams of information arising from separable neural substrates. Even if these appearances of the self are understood to be convenient ways of discussing the emergent output of multiple parallel processes, students of the mind continue to implicitly endorse that there is a decision-maker, an experiencer, a point of origin.

We know that the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed through damage, disease and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output and internal representations. It is an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true for free will. Although we can experience the mental anguish of making a decision, our free will cannot be some kind of King Solomon in our mind weighing up the pros and cons as this would present the problem of logical infinite regress (who is inside their head and so on?). The choices and decisions we make are based on situations that impose on us. We do not have the free will to choose the experiences that have shaped our decisions.

Should we really care about the self? After all, trying to live without the self is challenging and not how we think. By experiencing, evoking and talking about the self, we are conveniently addressing a phenomenology that we can all relate to. Defaulting to the self in explanations of human behavior enables us to draw an abrupt stop in the chain of causality when trying to understand thoughts and actions. How notable that we do this all so easily when talking about humans but as soon as we apply the same approach to animals, one gets accused of anthropomorphism!

By abandoning the free willing self, we are forced to re-examine the factors that are really behind our thoughts and behavior and the way they interact, balance, over-ride and cancel out. Only then we will begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.

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