Science Thursday: More Lunacy Regarding The “Self Illusion” Book

It seems that every time the determinists begin to tackle the problem of consciousness and the self, they run aground (on their own science) and it’s usually in exactly the same way, it just “appears” to be different. And the self illusion” appears to be of a different science than some of the other books, (about free will) but in actuality, it is based on the same fundamental premise(s): determinism and also experiments of Libet and others done in the 1980’s. What appears to be a hard science based dismissal of the self is really nothing more than reworking of this familiar territory.

It starts off well enough, with some very high brow credentials.

I would assume, based on what is claimed in the book, that these are credentials that should help make this all go down much easier. I recall a scene from “The King’s Speech” where the king, (Colin Firth’s character) is telling his speech therapist /psychologist that he’s already had expert opinions on his problem. His therapist quips “they’re idiots.” The king replies “but they went to Oxford.” To which the therapist replies “..makes it official then.” It’s good to keep an open mind about reality, and not be too trusting of what ‘experts’ tell us.

Here is a quote from the interview in “Psychology Today” with Bruce Hood, author of “The Self Illusion” book:


“Interviewer: “In what sense is the self an illusion?

Hood: For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience..”


Here is the problem with that premise. I have a basic problem wth any premise that is simply not true. He seems to believe he has “evidence” that the self is an illusion, which he likens to holograms. But is the self really like a hologram or an illusion, a real illusion? Let’s consider that for a moment.

The hologram or 3D image appears to be real to us, and yet it isn’t. That’s its appeal. That’s why they’re fun. But obviously, we know that the image isn’t real. Why is that statement true? That’s an important non trivial question to think about. A: Because we can test it. For one thing, try putting your hand through the “real” surface of the hologram. See, nothing touches! Just like magic. We know that a 3D hologram is not a real 3D object for very simple reasons. But there are other ways of course to test whether or not a 3D image produced by a trick of the eye or really the brain (how it processes images with confocal vision) is actually a real object. This is not too fine a point. I believe either the author isn’t grasping this physical distinction or is not being authentic about it, for the purposes of making his case that the self is an illusion.

So, even if we know nothing about neuroscience, we can say at the very least that we, ourselves or “the self” are healthy and fully functitoning because of a healthy mind and body? Correct? But we can also say with a high degree of confidence that that is not an illusion like the illusion of a K diagram or a 3D hologram.

Simplified analogies are a way of teaching complex scientific principles. But his analogy, the one he’s making is rather hostile and highly inaccurate. An illusion isn’t physically real, in the sense that it occupies actual space, it is made by the brain. But even by their own definition and models, the self is a projection of biological effects. It is as real as anything. But the result of this analogy would be to say that the self is not even biolgically determined. Calling it an “illusion” is a semantic oversimplification.

Let’s think about this for a moment. (And if you’re uncertain of your self’s existence, in this exercise, perhaps you can borrow someone else’s). So if the self is an illusion, then what is real? Are trees, and houses, and dogs real? , what he’s really defining here as “self” is the so called problem of will or free volition. Not the physical “self” made by a mind or a projection of the mind’s activities. That’s ultimately what he’s claiming is the non real part, the illusion as he calls it. So that arguemnt goes back to the experiments of Libet and others like them, and it goes back to determinism.

In reality, the science he’s claiming to back up the claims from his scientific book is actually not so solid. The studies of Libet are rife with uncertainties, and there are a plethora of unanswered questions about their validity, but as I’ve stated before, determinism itself is a theory with other problems and triggers (which we’ve explored before). What is at issue here is that this is not what it seems really, not a book “based on scientific research” but an unabashed flogging of the underlying deterministic agenda. The self is illusion, just like “I” and “me” are illusions, is straight out of the determinists play book. I for one have never seen an “I” wandering about, so does that mean “we” doesn’t exist?

But the real error in the science is that no science is ever claimed. There isn’t a hypothesis, or position claimed. And that is in many ways, the first rule of science- you state clearly what it is you’re attempting to prove.

This argument that he uses to annihilate the self premise is a trick, and I’ll give you examples of how this fallacious argument works. I can tell you that I think a certain food is good. Maybe it’s a favorite of mine. But, can I physically show you what ‘good’ is? No. Does that mean that it isn’t good? If I claim it’s my favorite food, I also cannot show what this means physically. But this doesn’t change the fact. We have to establish what “favorite” even means in terms of a parameter, a comparison, a mathematical model, that can be valid. Sometimes even this model is wrong, and possibly it can’t be evaluated. That is the most glaring issue I have with the science of the book “The Self Illusion.” The author does not attempt to evaluate the problem in terms that might actually be justifiable. Instead he embarks on a stratagem to erode and annihilate these definitions, thus creating the illusion that it doesn’t exist.

So don’t worry. No one can prove you don’t ‘like’ chocolate, just because the word “like” doesn’t physically exist, any more than they can prove that the self is an illusion, just because there isn’t any scientifically provable or agreed to definition of what consciousness is.*


*And if there was, in theory, would this not automatically invalidate the “illusion?”






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One response to “Science Thursday: More Lunacy Regarding The “Self Illusion” Book

  1. Matthew Kosak

    Actually, we can test the statement “y is my favorite flavor”, provided that we are willing to agree to certain basic standards of reference. A word like ‘favorite’ is by no means precise, but we might define it in terms of some probability of making a selection, e.g. ‘favorite’ being stronger than simply ‘like.’

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