Archive for the category “science”

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!

15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense: Scientific American

15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense: Scientific American.

I, and others in the sceptical community, think that a resource that everyone can easily reference whenever Christians, other religious preachers, and I think should include  pseude-science and new ageist charlatans, posit well debunked and refuted talking points ad nauseum. I think I’ll start a category called Refutations, with the appropriate sub headings, for the over-used and oft presented idiocies, along with the places and documents and articles that contain the often well known and well ignored answers.

Brainz Buffet!

Checkmate, mate.

Praise Tarti’

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. 


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