Archive for the category “philosophy”

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

Just thought this looks very interesting, a new book  By Bruce Hood


14 of 14 people found the following review helpful.
5″Are we all mistaken when it comes to knowing who we are?”
By TChris
Bruce Hood argues that the self is an illusion, “a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.” He contends that a correct understanding of self contradicts the popular view that we are individuals within our bodies, “tracing out a pathway through life, and responsible for our thoughts and actions.” His argument that the self is merely an illusion will probably not be well received by the portion of the mental health and self help industry that makes a living teaching people to understand themselves, control themselves, or change themselves. Hood argues that none of those objectives can be accomplished, although we might maintain the illusion that we have accomplished them, because we cannot change or control what does not exist.

Is the argument convincing? Yes and no. According to Hood, who we think we are is a product of external influences: “it is the experience of others that defines who we are.” Our brains manufacture models to make sense of the external world, and we experience those models as “a cohesive, integrated character,” but the model is just a construct, not a reality. I buy that, but I’m not sure the word “illusion” is synonymous with “mental construct.” I suppose one could argue that any product of the brain — a thought, an emotion, a sensation — is in some sense an illusion as opposed to a tangible reality, but I find it difficult to accept that any creation of the brain is an illusion.

Hood’s thesis, as summarized in the last chapter, is that the self is the product of the mind, built over time from observing externalities. I’m not sure why this means that the self is an illusion. A house is built over time from materials derived from external sources, but a completed house is no illusion. Yes, the self may be based on imperfect memories and misperceived experiences. Yes, the self is “continually shifting and reshaping” as external influences change. That tells me that the self is fluid, not that it isn’t real. Of course, Hood contends that the brain fights hard to protect the self illusion, and that may be exactly what my brain is doing as I write this. Even if “self” is an illusion, however — and Hood acknowledges this — it is a useful illusion, and one with which we are stuck. As Hood notes, we “need a pretty strong sense of self to survive,” so even if self is an illusion, it is one most of us need to embrace.

On the other hand, perhaps my quibble is only a semantic disagreement with Hood’s use of the word “illusion.” Much of Hood’s argument is indisputable. Hood presents the heart of his argument in the preface. The remainder of the book is packed with information. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the brain: how it functions and how it develops during infancy. Chapter 2 focuses on the social interaction of babies, who (Hood says) are hardwired with a Machiavellian ability to manipulate adults. He also discusses the development of self-consciousness during infancy. Chapter 3 explores the notion of the “looking-glass self” (the theory that we conceptualize ourselves based on how others see us), examines the role memory plays in the development of the sense of self, and discusses the phenomenon of false or induced memories. Hood’s premise is largely dependent upon this research. If our sense of identity is based on a composite of our memories, and if our memories are inherently unreliable, are we really who we think we are? Hood also discusses the role that gender and stereotypes play in shaping the sense of self, as well as autism and psycopathy, ADHD and impulse control. Chapter 7 discusses the fallibility of memory and the relationship between memory and identity.

Some aspects of the book are likely to be controversial, particularly the assertion that “the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the self illusion.” Chapter 4 suggests that people are not truly responsible for their actions — a point of view that is shunned by a criminal justice system. That brain injuries rather than conscious choice may lead to aggression or pedophilia is a reality that the law would prefer to ignore. More doubtful, however, is Hood’s assertion that our actions are never a product of free will. Toward the end of chapter 4, Hood acknowledges what seems obvious: even if free will doesn’t exist, we might as well accept the illusion that it does because the illusion makes us happy.

The most valuable concept that follows from Hood’s argument is his rejection of the notion that “winners,” extraordinary achievers who manage to overcome formidable obstacles, are inherently better than “losers,” the large majority of people who are limited by their circumstances. Hood asks why we blame people for failing to achieve “rather than the circumstances that prevent them from achievement.” I suspect that society isn’t ready to accept the ramifications of that simple question.

Much of the rest of The Self Illusion could come from Psychology Today. It’s all very interesting and Hood credibly connects the wide-ranging topics to his central premise. Do we lose our sense of individual identity in a crowd? Do we join groups to define our identity? Why do we fear ostracism? If the self can be easily molded (even made to do evil) by group membership, can a core self really exist? What do identity disorders say about our actual identity?

After absorbing as much of this information as I could, I think Hood’s evidence for the nonexistence of self can be summarized this way: 1. We do not always behave as we expect to behave. 2. We often behave as we think others expect us to behave. 3. When we are in a group, we engage in group behavior rather than behaving as individuals. 4. Behavior is sometimes caused by a mental disorder. This summary is too simplistic to be fair, but I don’t think the broader arguments in The Self Illusion convinced me that self is an illusion so much as it reinforced my understanding that the self is complex. Clearly we construct a sense of ourselves that is influenced by a variety of factors (from dopamine to Twitter), but I’m not sure that construct is illusory so much as it is malleable. In any event, Hood assembles a large amount of information that is useful and interesting, whether or not you ultimately agree that it proves his point.

Get the book here.

By Bruce Hood

Is Dark Matter a Glimpse of a Deeper Level of Reality?

Is Dark Matter a Glimpse of a Deeper Level of Reality?

Something that’s been going through my mind lately, for around 4 or 5 months, with all the talk by determinists, is that it is premature to start saying we know everything about physics. It just strikes me that this is similar to about 120 years ago when some held the view that physics was complete, and all that was left to do were ever finer measuring of everything discovered.

This article at Scientific American explains recent attempts to theorize matters of space and time in ways that are outside the bounds of our minds to truly understand, such as time being an emergent property of a deeper reality, and even more bizarre things.

An example is made of dark matter, which does not seem t abide by the known properties of matter, and mention is made of MOND and other incomplete, but situationaly explanatory,  hypothesis and theories like Superstring.

It starts out by revisiting a 2 year old paper that was initially viewed with great scepticism, but has seen a resurgence of discussion lately:

Two years ago several of my Sci Am colleagues and I had an intense email exchange over a period of weeks, trying to figure out what to make of a new paper by string theorist Erik Verlinde. I don’t think I’ve ever been so flummoxed by physicists’ reactions to a paper. Mathematically it could hardly have been simpler—the level of middle-school algebra for the most part. Logically and physically, it was a head-hurter. I couldn’t decide whether it was profound or trite. The theorists we consulted said they couldn’t follow it, which we took as a polite way of saying that their colleague had gone off the deep end. Some physics bloggers came out and called Verlinde a crackpot.

There is the matter(lol) of dark matter and energy, and now speculation about what black holes really are:

In that case, black holes represent a new phase of matter. Outside the hole, the universe’s “degrees of freedom”—all that its most fundamental building blocks are capable of—are in a low-energy state, forming what you might think of as a crystal, with a fixed, regular arrangement we perceive as the spacetime continuum. But inside the hole, conditions become so extreme that the continuum breaks apart. “You can make spacetime melt,” Verlinde told me. “This is really where spacetime ends. To understand what goes on, you need to use these underlying degrees of freedom.” Those degrees of freedom cannot be thought of as existing in one place or another. They transcend space. Their true venue is a ginormous abstract realm of possibilities—in the jargon, a “phase space” commensurate with their almost unimaginably rich repertoire of behaviors.

As I have recently read, the question of Quantum effects being relevant in our brains with the knowledge, now, of a deep structure of nanotubes that may have functional components in the overall operation of neurons that we haven’t considered before, there is very much unknown regarding how the brain functions. There is Gödel’s proof that no purely deterministic system, such as a computer, can have consciousness. There is the inability to explain what ideas and our sensory perceptions really are by any stretch of ‘known’ physics, that determinist’s insist is irrelevant (even Gödel concludes this, though), with which I have serious reservations about right from the get go.

Much to boggle the mind these days, in any event!

A Taxonomy of Free Will Positions

Just found one of the most wicked reference sites for philosophy. I am looking at this page right now:

A Taxonomy of Free Will Positions.

Image chart displaying the taxonomy presented The Information Philosopher

Flow chart of free will topics covered and their interrelation

The description of the site is Information Philosopher is dedicated to the new Information Philosophy, with explanations for Freedom, Values, and Knowledge.

It is an incredibly comprehensive reference with the full section on Freedom published in book form, but available to read online, and download, by chapter, the whole  book :

Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy

Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy was published June 19, 2011.

See the press release.

Order a copy from

Amazon, Amazon in the UK
Barnes & Noble
Harvard Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine

480 pages, 40 figures, 15 sidebars, glossary, bibliography, index.

Philosophers who want to review the work online can download a PDF.

To request a review/examination copy, send an email with your philosophy department mailing address to

The references are complete and numerous – no explanation is not linked to the sources and philosophers the work is based upon.

See you next year!

Rationally Speaking podcast: The ‘isms’ Episode

More of my blathering, today, where else, but in a reply to a blog post!!

The fundamental behaviors are what science can deal with, but the fundamental nature – the why and how – may easily be unkowable. I completely agree with you, Hector M., and that knowing is subject to our ability to mentally configure the objective observations, and our subjective knowledge is severely constrained by our experience of living in a purely cause and effect, macroscopic, environment.

I now see myself as a subjective awareness, and my sensory input and movements as interfaces to objective reality. My reality exists solely in my head, and my understanding of what is going on is what is ‘real’. How well my thoughts and understandings, and abstract creating and planning, can only be tested against ‘objective’, or ‘outside of self’, reality subject to my subjective values being satisfied. I strongly believe that our understanding is fundamentally limited to the nature, or level of nature, of our local macroscopic physical ‘laws’ of nature that shaped us, and we can affect in reverse. We are a product of a fundamentally limited slice of the over-all nature of our universe.

I can’t remember, maybe it was von Neuman, who replied, when asked by one of his students Felix T. Smith, “I’m afraid I don’t understand the method of characteristics.” Yes, it was, and he replied, “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” Now that I read John von Neumann’s quotations, math seems to be a beautiful analogy to our attempts and knowing reality.

We seem to be limited to Bayesion modelling and selection (Bayesian Classification and Regression with High Dimensional Features ) in order to approximated the behavior of reality, one that is almost entirely probabilistic in nature, and thus, our knowledge of objective reality can never be any greater than probabilistic. 


I have to start recording my thoughts I post elsewhere

I seem to be coming up with all sorts of thinking and ways of expressing my disagreement with the philosophical idea that free will is highly unlikely, if not impossible, and is only a self perceived illusion.
At the Mind Hacks blog, one such discussion is taking place. I responded to a particularly dogmatic ‘free will denialist’ thus:

Posted January Posted January 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

Mason Kelsey said:

Once again, any first year philosophy undergraduate knows you cannot prove a negative, that is you cannot prove something doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t exist.

Wrong. Fail. You’re saying that I cannot prove that, for instance, that our eyes don’t emit light if they don’t emit light? Or because you can’t prove our thoughts don’t exist, therefore they don’t exist?

You are nothing but a fallacy. You equate generalities with specifics. You are saying that if something doesn’t exist, it can’t be proved so.

Some negatives are unprovable, and from that you get all negatives are unprovable.

Mason Kelsey also said:

Requiring a complete understanding of consciousness in order to debunk free will is like requiring a chemist to have a complete understanding of molecular orbital theory in order to debunk phlogiston.

But you do need and understanding of the chemistry – These are often divided into bonding orbitals, anti-bonding orbitals, and non-bonding orbitals. A molecular orbital is merely a Schrödinger orbital that includes several, but often only two nuclei. If this orbital is of type in which the electron(s) in the orbital have a higher probability of being between nuclei than elsewhere, the orbital will be a bonding orbita – to show how burning occurs, and you do indeed need quantum mechanics to calculate why these reactions are exothermic.

To restate your analogy correctly, you actually do have to understand the intermediary process between air + fuel, and combustion. You have to have precise measurements of the originating constituents, then the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species, and then a minutely detailed analysis of the products.

All you have, Brian, as a starting principle, is a general macroscopic approximation of the brain, and you have zero measurement or even an wild guess as to the resulting product, cognition.

Our mind is completely beyond explanation given your general parameters, yet you are 100% confident that an apparent property(free will) of the product(mind) is inconsistent.

I got news for you: the product itself(mind) is inconsistent with your starting conditions, so unless you have the slightest idea, or even then wildest and most capricious guess, as to what our mind is, then you can hardly claim to know that part of the product(mind) is an invalid illusion(e.g. that free will is false).

Tell me where this illusion is, what is its functionality and purpose?

Why is it necessary? I mean, your whole process of step by step transformation, from physically describable system(brain) -> unknown phenomenal manifestation(mind), breaks down/fails. You don’t know what our mind is, let alone if it is an artifact or not.

You are assuming an entirely presumptuous position by positing a direct cause-effect relationship when you don’t know what the effect is, certainly not in the same manner as your causative agent.

Your theory is inconsistent because you cannot equivalently describe both sides of the equation.

You see, this is a proper analogy: 1 + 1(brain) = մեկ գումարած մեկ(mind). The product is gibberish in terms of the initial statement – a mathematical relationship.

If your complete understanding of reality can be described with just english and math (and that’s not far from the truth), then you don’t know if ‘մեկ գումարած մեկ’ makes sense, let alone if it is true or not.

I leave it you to find out if it is true, but keep in mind you know that both sides of the equations are similar in ways that our physical brains and our awareness of cognition are not. Basically, if instead of using ‘մեկ գումարած մեկ’ for the answer, and instead tried to explain what I am seeing inside my head for an answer(the color reddish ultraviolet, combined with a strange smell), that would be more completely analogous with your physics leading to phenomena description of the cause and effect relationship between our brains and our cognitive process.

Here’s a thought: What if there is no Higgs particle? That would mean that the Standard Model(key word: model) of reality/nature is at least badly incorrect, if not completely wrong.
And then we’ll revisit the ‘brain/illusion of will’ duality you expound.

I don’t have the patience to go through every incongruency you express, so let’s just stick with one simple question: what are qualia composed of?

Everything else is a red herring, a false equivalence, bullshit

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