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If our sense of self is an illusion, how does anything get done?
on 1 September 2014
This is a book everyone should read to become aware, as most people are not, of the frameworks within which science has made such astonishing progress over the centuries, such the people put their trust in it beyond all else. Without understanding these, any idea, including the strange one held by eminent scientists including Crick, the 'father' of DNA, our sense of self may well seem to be an illusion.
Science is normally presented as pure, untainted by messy human subjectivity. 'The scientific method' has become seen as the only way of knowing, of developing the evidence needed to come to conclusions and make progress. As Mary Midgley points out, for example, what started as a hypothesis to see how statistical methods could be applied to human behaviour, became a strongly held view that all there is to humans is their behaviour.
The primacy of physics has much to do with the fascination with numbers which goes back to Pythagoras and the discovery of the mathematical basis for musical harmony. But numbers are not an appropriate medium for all explantion as shown by the table example below.
Her argument is not to deny what has been achieved in the sciences, but to put it in context, to show that the sciences represent one, very powerful, way of looking at things, but there are others. She uses the simple case of a table which can be described in terms of its make-up at the nano-science level, or as a carpenter would want to know if he wanted to copy it - or we could add, a householder who wanted to determine whether it would fit and look good in the space available in their home. None of these explanations are better or more true than the other, each is appropriate to the relevant context.
Midgley also draws attention to the ancient dualism of Plato, of the Ideal and what we see, noting that we use this still in everyday speech, like for example in referring to legal decisions - it is legal, but it is justice? We do not have difficulty with this concept, although we might be hard put to explain what Justice is. With the spread of religion, in particular Christianity, the difference between the spiritual world and the material world was increasingly stressed. However as religion began to be attacked as superstition and an 'unnecessary hypothesis', many stressed the material to the exclusion of any other type of explanation. Many of today's scientists just accept that there is only the material, although as she points out, the alternatives do not have to be any religion.
Her short book is particularly addressed to those scientists and others who have used some findings from neuroscience to say that our bodies do things before our brains become aware of them and so our sense of self is an illusion. Certainly, neuroscience has developed amazing insights into how the brain works, but as Midgley points out that the conclusions drawn from the work (on tennis players and hand movements in a fMRI scanner are a step too far. Yes, the movement may come before the brain 'lights' up, but at some point before that, the subject had to be told to raise its hand and had to decide to comply. If we are simply illusions, whose illusion are we? If we are simply illusions, how do these eminent scientists themselves get to do the complex, demanding, long term work involved in making discoveries in science?
While Crick and Dawkins are well known eminent figures, I would have liked some discussion on Damasio who has been at the forefront of the discussion on the implications of neuroscience and also of Heisinberg and the uncertainty principle, but accept that there is little room in 150 pages....