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What is the "I" inside?
Submitted by Marcus on Sun, 2012-04-29 08:11
In the Guardian today, two scientists argue over the extent to which we are governed by our unconscious thought processes. In other words, getting right down to the nitty gritty behind free will. The interest in this disagreement is that Tallis takes an objectivist-style argument which defeats his opponent.
The disagreement is based around Eagleman's book Incognito in which he argues that our actions are mostly determined at the subconscious level.
Here is an excerpt:
David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and bestselling author.
"A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed."
Raymond Tallis, former professor of geriatric medicine at Manchester University and author.
"Of course brain activity is automated and, as you say, runs "under the hood of conscious awareness", but this doesn't mean that we are automatons or that we are largely unconscious of the reasons we do things. If, as you put it in Incognito, "the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain" to the point that even our most important and personal decisions – such as choice of spouse, where to live, or occupation – are directed by brain mechanisms of which we are unaware, how would you have become sufficiently aware of this unawareness to write about it in your book Incognito (which incidentally shows little evidence of having been written by an automaton)?"
"To be clear, this limitation does not make us equivalent to automatons. But it does give a richer understanding of the wellspring of our ideas, moral intuitions, biases and beliefs. Sometimes these internal drives are genetically embedded, other times they are culturally instructed – but in all cases their mark ends up written into the fabric of the brain."
"Even when you concede in Incognito that "consciousness is the long-term planner", you still can't let go of the idea of the largely unconscious brain being in charge. This is because you want to privilege brain science. Your case is assisted by personifying the brain, as when you say things like "the brain cares about social interaction".
"Each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entirety of objective reality. Until a child learns that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes see infrared, it is not obvious that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. In fact, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but no better.
The concept of the umwelt neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. I think it's a good starting point for our intuitions about our own experience."
"Knowledge transcends immediate experience and corrects some of our intuitions about ourselves. But this knowledge is a part – a huge part – of our conscious (repeat, conscious) mental life. Without it, we could not do the weekly shopping – never mind engage in a correspondence such as this."
And so forth. I encourage everyone to read the whole debate at the link.
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