http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-illusion-of-the-self2

 

A fascinating interview Sam Harris conducts with Bruce Hood. An excerpt:

 

"If the self is an illusion, what is your position on free will?”

"Free will is certainly a major component of the self illusion, but it is not synonymous. Both are illusions, but the self illusion extends beyond the issues of choice and culpability to other realms of human experience. From what I understand, I think you and I share the same basic position about the logical impossibility of free will. I also think that compatibilism (that determinism and free will can co-exist) is incoherent. We certainly have more choices today to do things that are not in accord with our biology, and it may be true that we should talk about free will in a meaningful way, as Dennett has argued, but that seems irrelevant to the central problem of positing an entity that can make choices independently of the multitude of factors that control a decision. To me, the problem of free will is a logical impasse – we cannot choose the factors that ultimately influence what we do and think. That does not mean that we throw away the social, moral, and legal rulebooks, but we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes about individuals will be challenged as we come to understand the factors (both material and psychological) that control our behaviors when it comes to attributing praise and blame. I believe this is somewhat akin to your position."

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Sam Harris says it for me far better than I can,


"we cannot choose the factors that ultimately influence what we do and think. That does not mean that we throw away the social, moral, and legal rulebooks, but we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes about individuals will be challenged as we come to understand the factors (both material and psychological) that control our behaviors when it comes to attributing praise and blame.

Beautifully put! You're right Joan, Sam says it better than I could. Thanks for the response!

Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview for me was this:

 

"I think it helps to compare the experience of self to subjective contours – illusions such as theKanizsa pattern where you see an invisible shape that is really defined entirely by the surrounding context. People understand that it is a trick of the mind but what they may not appreciate is that the brain is actually generating the neural activation as if the illusory shape was really there. In other words, the brain is hallucinating the experience. There are now many studies revealing that illusions generate brain activity as if they existed. They are not real but the brain treats them as if they were."

This is fascinating. "illusions generate brain activity as if they existed."

I had an experience that relates to this "illusion". 

My husband was in Viet Nam as an army battlefield surgeon charged with taking care of head and neck injuries, as all dentist were. I was in Spokane with our three three-year old children (one adopted and twins born 5 months and 13 days after Cary came home a new-born.


My husband was due to fly on a troop plane out of Saigon to return home on a specific day at a specific time. On the day and at the time of his scheduled departure a troop plane full of returning soldiers crashed at the end of the runway and all perished. I heard nothing and assumed he was on the plane that crashed. I didn't know there were other planes taking off at the same time. 

I started making lists, setting up plans, What to do first? What to tell the kids? What about his return in a casket? Where would he want to be buried? How would I deal with his family who thought I was a "bad" woman? How would I deal with my family who believed assault and battery against wives and children was the appropriate way to conduct one's life. What about housing? On and on. This went on all that day, all that night, all the next day and into the second night. Not a word from anyone. 

All the lights were on on the street side of the house because I was sorting and planning and crying, and wondering "what if?". The doorbell rang, it was 2 AM, I looked out the window and saw a USA Air force car with yellow lettering on the side, two men in uniform standing with military hats tucked under their arms. I "saw" the military coming to inform me of my husband's death. I didn't stop to think they wouldn't come at 2 AM, I just saw two military men standing at my door. 

I opened the door, my husband stood in uniform, a Yellow cab company driver standing next to him and the car was yellow with Yellow Cab on the side. 


"illusions generate brain activity as if they existed"


As it turned out, three planes took off that day, one right after the other. My husband was on the second plane and saw the burning plane ... He knew I would learn about the crash and made the decision not to tell me but to "surprise" me. 

I don't know how you feel about such a decision, but I interpreted it as cruel. Profoundly, utterly and disgustingly unloving. 


What a surreal and awful time for you.  And you husband's "surprise" was terrible.  Narcissistic, manipulative, and abusive.

On illusions, I have memories that I don't know if they were real, and multiple years with no memory of what happened.  The brain does some strange things.

That is unbelievable, the entire thing from beginning to end, but particularly that your husband would do that to you. I learned quickly that my wife could not tell the difference between surprises that I might possibly enjoy (like bringing me home a gift?), and those that would really upset me. I warned her repeatedly and strenuously never to surprise me, I don't like them, never do it. I hope she got the message. But what your husband did was terrible. What seems clear to me is that he was only ever thinking about himself, trying to set himself up as some sort of miracle-worker or "god", and never once stopped to put himself into your shoes and think about what you must be going through. Would he have liked that if you did it to him? Of course not. Thanks for sharing your story Joan.

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