What is the "I" inside?

Marcus's picture
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)?"

David Eagleman

"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."

Raymond Tallis

"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".

David Eagleman

"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."

Raymond Tallis

"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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Richard Goode's picture

Fact is that information is stored in the brain in the form of short and long term memories which give us our awareness of self.

So what are you? A bunch of memories? What is the "self"?

I say that your "self" (your mind, soul or spirit) is an information structure. It's an arrangement, a pattern, a process realised in your body (your brain, in particular).


Marcus's picture

...Kurzweil might be talking about changes at the molecular level, but brain tissue is composed of many nerve cells that are not replaced during our adulthood.

They can be plastic and might change their function, of course, but that's not the point.

Fact is that information is stored in the brain in the form of short and long term memories which give us our awareness of self.

How often molecules are replaced or recycled over time or whether you have prosthetic brain parts or not is neither here nor there to the subject of "self".

It's just a distraction.


Marcus's picture

...look at the link to the book.

"You will not read a more dazzling book this year --Stephen Fry."


Richard Goode's picture

...maybe I should write a review?

You should write a review!

What is the "I" inside? What are you? (I highly recommend watching the Kurzweil video.)

How is...

Ross Elliot's picture

"The book has very high ratings from readers and is being championed by celebs such as Stephen Fry."

...Fry championing this?

Eagleman's book is on audiobook...

Marcus's picture

...maybe I should write a review?

This is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves.

The book has very high ratings from readers and is being championed by celebs such as Stephen Fry.

This is where the battlefield of ideas are fought.


Sandi's picture

It's there, but ignore it.

That's what you took from this thread....

Ross Elliot's picture

...and my posts?

You're getting dumb and dumber.

Individual rights are UNDER the cloak of capitalism?

Sandi's picture

Ross, it is you who needs to re-think Rand.


Ross Elliot's picture

...the function of capitalism is to make inconsequential the egotistical drive present in all of us.

Yes, we all indulge in self-destructive inclinations. But the idea is to avoid bringing those inclinations into the political sphere in which we influence others. The recognition and protection of individual rights under capitalism is designed to prevent abuses of rights by others.

Collectivism politicises everything. It makes Man his brother's keeper. And in doing so it makes the state the font of our rights, not the protector. It creates a legalistic, wearying effect upon our minds. And it causes us to jealousy guard and advocate for our "new" rights. We are set up against one another and come into conflict where no conflict previously existed. We scramble for a piece of the action in the belief that if we don't grab it now, then someone else will grab it before us.

The Krell...

Ross Elliot's picture

...were an extinct species in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

They had developed a power--via technology--so complete that they could literally will things into being. They had become Gods. And they were destroyed because they had unleashed the ID Monster. Now, this seems all very Freudian. And there's no doubt that that's where the basis is, but it's a nice metaphor for this idea that we can easily suppose that because we advance technologically that we also advance psycho-emotionally.

Fact is, the 20th century has shown us that no matter how much we advance, the underpinnings of our triumph have lagged behind. Rand spoke to the idea that capitalism, although triumphant in the material sense, had not been able to dismiss the foetid ideals of collectivism, that is, of the ID Monster that was always lurking in the fog to destroy us in the moment of our greatest triumph.

In fact, Rand's central thesis, politically, was that capitalism was only semi-formed. Her goal, via Objectivism, was to bring it to fruition.

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