Science Corner: Who’s Wearing You?

Self portrait combining an image of a woman's face and a portion of that same face on a smartphone display

We know lots about selfies, but we’re still trying to figure out our selves. (Photo by geralt)

Scientists are reasonably confident that they can describe and study and explain the biological stuff you’re walking around in. The you part–the self that feels like it inhabits or animates that body and looks out at the world from it–that part is where things get a lot trickier. There were a couple of items circulating this week on the topic of self: an editorial on whether self is an illusion, and a discussion of the proposal that consciousness is a state of matter (named perceptronium, presumably by James Cameron). The second piece conveniently summarizes what we currently know for sure on these deep and fundamental topics: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Personally, I think the self can be real even if it is complicated; life is equally hard to define but the state of living is still useful to distinguish from alternatives. Still, since definitive answers about self and consciousness are in short supply, what interested me most is that the questions are something of a Rorschach test. Want to believe self is an illusion? Scrub with a generous dollop of reductionism and watch the whole thing disappear. Want to believe computers and ant colonies and maybe the universe itself are all conscious? Find a definition abstract enough, throw in some optimism about technological progress and you’re off to the races. Want to believe consciousness is the pinnacle of human exceptionalism? No other species have iPhones or blogs about what consciousness is, do they?

For obvious reasons, I was most interested in the different conclusions about religion that people drew from these pieces. When science doesn’t have definite answers or explanations, some see an opening to suggest that’s because God is the only or best explanation. I’m certainly sympathetic to that impulse, since I believe God is causally involved. Given that belief, I certainly can’t rule out the possibility that we will never be able to understand consciousness as anything other than a function of an immaterial soul given to us by that God. At the same time, it feels odd to celebrate the unique creative power of human intelligence in order to say what it will never be able to accomplish.

How do you handle the unknown in your field?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Michael Stell commented on September 21, 2016 Reply

    Andy – as always, I love reading your stuff and I always find it thought-provoking. I only wish that I could read it every week, but time is unfortunately a limited quantity, and Dr. Who doesn’t watch itself! The self is a concept I think about a lot so this was particularly interesting to me. I was in particular drawn to this “I think the self can be real even if it is complicated” from the second paragraph. I guess I was left wondering after reading the whole thing whether you think that the self is reducible to the material – am I my brain in other words? Is materiality necessary for realness? And do you think that there is an agenda (at least for some) for those who are seeking to equate the self with matter? (I realize this gets into questions of motive which raises its own set of difficulties, but I am only asking for an educated reaction as a scientist – since I am not one and I look at this discussion from a different perspective).

      Andy Walsh commented on September 23, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for the encouraging words. Glad you continue to find my posts worthwhile – and that you have some time for The Doctor as well. The mind needs a wide range of inputs. 🙂

      I wouldn’t say that you are your brain, no. Partly because I think that’s biologically too simplistic; some of the behaviors we think of stemming from “me” have at least partial determinants outside of the brain. But also because I don’t think our minds or our selves are completely reducible to biology. Just as our biology is not completely reducible to our genes; even identical twins aren’t completely identical. Whether that means our selves are some kind of emergent phenomenon that arises from biological activity or something more likely substance dualism, I’m less certain. I lean towards the former but I suppose we can probably never conclusively rule out the latter.

      I would also say that it is my expectation that someday, maybe not in my lifetime but someday, someone(s) will come up with a description or explanation of consciousness that is sufficiently useful and satisfying that it will be deemed good enough to be “the” scientific answer. It probably won’t answer everything and so there will always be room to insist it is incomplete or incorrect. But I expect it will happen because, even if some strong form of substance dualism turns out to actually be true, there still has to be some kind of interaction with the material body and we’ll wind up describing that. As with other topics, I think we should be prepared to discuss how the existence of a mechanistic understanding doesn’t rule out God being the creator of those mechanisms and creating through those mechanisms, rather than using the lack of mechanism as evidence of God.

      For humans, I think materiality is necessary for realness. In other words, I don’t expect that we will ever exists as unembodied spirits or souls. More generally, I don’t think I’m enough of a philosopher to say. When physicists imagine 10 dimensional universes that don’t actually exist (if for no other reason than there are different, mutually exclusive versions of such so they can’t all correspond to reality), are those universes immaterial because they are purely mind constructs? Or are they material because the thoughts of them manifest in the brain in some fashion, or possibly via sound waves or ink marks if they are spoken or written? Is the operating system of my computer immaterial because I can’t touch it, or is it material because it is realized by electrons and wires? And so on.

      As for motives, it is nearly certain that some scientists and others are motivated to find a material explanation of self because it helps eliminate a (perceived?) need for God. I also think some folks are motivated to see them fail because then it leaves room to say that God is the only explanation. But mostly I think people are motivated by curiosity; they want to be able to explain as much as possible, even if it turns out there’s a limit to how far those explanations can go.

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