Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [5]

My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins,
My city’s in ruins.

Bruce Springsteen

Neuroscience looks for the soul in the brain and can’t find it. What it finds instead are the elements of consciousness — sensory perception, language, cognition, memory,  etc. — in various neural networks and regions of the brain, and those diverse networks collaborating to generate a composite conscious experience. Meanwhile, the master network — the one that is equivalent to conventional notions of the soul or self — remains elusive.

Prof. Bruce Hood lays out the progression from conventional belief in a separate self to the current brain network theory:

“Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word “illusion” does not mean that it does not exist — rather an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.

“Understanding that the self could be an illusion is really difficult… Our self seems so convincing, so real to us. But then again, many aspects of our experience are not what they seem.

“In challenging what is the self, what most people think is the self must first be considered. If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individual inside bodies is sometimes called the ‘ego theory,’ although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’

“In contrast to this ego view, there is an alternative version of the self, based on the ‘bundle theory’ after the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume… He tried to describe his inner self and thought that there was no single entity, but rather bundles of sensations, perceptions and thoughts piled on top of each other. He concluded that the self emerged out of the bundling together of these experiences.

“If the self is the sum of our thoughts and actions, then the first inescapable fact is that these depend on brains. Thoughts and actions are not exclusively the brain because we are always thinking about and acting upon things in the world with our bodies, but the brain is primarily responsible for coordinating these activities. In effect, we are our brains or at least, the brain is the most critical body part when it comes to who we are.

“There is no center in the brain where the self is constructed. The brain has many distributed jobs. It processes incoming information from the external world into meaningful patterns that are interpreted and stored for future reference. It generates different levels and types of motivations that are the human drives, emotions, and feelings. It produces all sorts of behavior — some of them automatic while other are acquired thought skill, practice, and sheer effort.

“The sense of self that most of us experience is not to be found in any one area. Rather it emerges out of the orchestra of different brain processes.”

The Self Illusion:  How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano uses an “attention schema theory” to describe this collaboration of neural networks. “The heart of the theory is that awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention,” he says, and expands as follows:

“In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the ‘global workspace.’ In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

To those who hold fast to the common belief (as most people do) that the soul is something transcendent, noble, unique, special, poetic, and divine, referring to consciousness and the self as “global workspace” and calling awareness “information” lacks a little something. But is that any reason to reject the bundle theory as untrue?

Meanwhile, Prof. Graziano admits that “the attention schema theory does not even seek to answer the question of existential reality but instead tries to describe what is constructed by the brain.” And besides, is science really after truth anyway?

We’ll look at those questions next time.

Fake Truth

shakespeare

When my love swears that she is made of truth, 
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

My sister was in second grade — two years older and far wiser than me. We were watching the clouds scuttling past the chimney when she announced,  “Look! You can see the Earth move.” We argued for awhile — she learned that in school, but what can you expect from a brother in kindergarten? No way the earth moves — if it did, I would know it.

As a matter of fact:

  • Earth spins on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 km/hr) .
  • It orbits the sun at 67,000 mph (107,000 km/hr).
  • Our Solar System rotates around the center of the Milky Way at 514,000 mph (828,000 km/hr).
  • The Milky Way zips through space at 1.3 million mph (2.1 million km/hr).
  • And the Universe? Well, that’s more complicated:

“The expansion rate of the universe is called the Hubble parameter. Because the fabric of the universe is being stretched out as it expands, galaxies farther away from us appear to be moving away faster. This is why the Hubble parameter is measured in units of kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/s/Mpc).

“We don’t know the rate exactly, but in the last 50 years, we’ve narrowed it down to either 67 or 73 km/s/Mpc. That’s not to say we believe the true expansion rate lies between those two values, but rather we think it’s reasonably close to either one or the other. So a galaxy 1 Mpc away — 3.26 million light-years — is moving away from us at 73 km/s (or 67 km/s, depending on which scientists you’re talking to). A galaxy 10 Mpc away would be moving at 730 (or 670) km/s.”[1]

That’s an incomprehensible number of incomprehensibly big things moving at incomprehensible speeds across incomprehensible distances. And somewhere in the midst of them, there’s the Earth — moving, big time. But thanks to gravity, proprioception[2] (awareness of where we are in space), and peripersonal neural networks[3] (awareness of what’s around us), we’re firmly rooted right here, unaware of it all, keeping our bearings by things that don’t move.

Or so we think. As a matter of fact:

Jerry Lee Lewis

“In Homer’s time, that star, which today we call Polaris, stood a dozen degrees from the North Pole; in Columbus’s time, it stood three and a half degrees away; in Sputnik’s time, it stood right near the pole. But about AD 15,000, as Earth keeps wobbling like a top, Polaris will sit forty-five degrees away.”[4]

In other words:

True North is not always True, and not always North.

true-north

Things we think are fixed and stable, often aren’t. Our perceptions go unchallenged because for purposes of managing our experience, good enough is good enough. My five-year-old self didn’t need to know about all that spinning, orbiting, expanding, and wobbling in order to run out and play. The same is true for my current self. sitting here typing this sentence:  I may be deceived in my present conviction that the Earth under this building is not moving, but I can still sit here and type no matter what the truth is.

In fact, self-deception is sometimes useful for life and death issues:

“Evidence suggests that specific instances of self-deception can enhance wellbeing and even prolong life. For example, multiple studies have found that optimistic individuals have better survival rates when diagnosed with cancer and other chronic illnesses, whereas ‘realistic acceptance’ of one’s prognosis has been linked to decreased life expectancy.”[5]

On the other hand, there are times when we’d like to not be deceived — like the one Shakespeare wrote about.

More to come re: self-deception and why belief doesn’t have to be true in order to work.

[1] “How fast is the universe expanding? How do astronomers calculate the expansion rate?” Astronomy Magazine (July 26, 2018).  (After several tries, I couldn’t get a link to the article to work, but if you copy and past it into a Google search, the article will come up.)

[2] “Proprioception is the medical term that describes the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space or in your environment. Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.” Very Well Health.

[3]Peripersonal neurons are cells in the brain that monitor the space around the body. Their activity rises like a Geiger counter to indicate the location of objects entering a margin of safety. The neurons can detect an intruding object through vision, hearing, touch, and even by the memory of where objects are positioned in the dark.” The Spaces Between Us:  A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. by Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano.

[4] Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[5]Buddhism And Self-Deception,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 24, 2019).

What do Fortnite, New Year’s Day, and the USA All Have in Common?

fortnite

They exist because we believe they do.

Political theorists call this kind of communal belief a “social contract.” According to Rousseau, that’s the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint.

“Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
The Social Contract & Discourses

Thomas Hobbes said something similar in Leviathan:

“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”

In Fortnite terms, life is a battle royale:  everybody against everybody else, with only one left standing. As Hobbes famously said, that makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — or, as a recent version[1]  put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.” A social contract suggests we can do better.

new year's day

Can we really create something out of nothing, by mere belief? Yes, of course — we do it all the time. My daughter can’t figure out why New Year’s Day is a holiday. “It’s just a day!” she says, unimpressed by my explanation that it’s a holiday because everyone believes it is.

Same with Fortnite:  as 125 million enthusiasts know, it’s not just an online game, it’s a worldwide reality.

And same with the United States:  when the Colonies’ deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom, the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once war settled the issue of sovereign independence[2], the Founders articulated a new liberty/restraint balance:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

Different nations arise from different kinds of origins — ethnicities and otherwise — and over time the characteristics of those foundations become informally transmitted and formally codified into their social contracts. The United States, on the other hand, was created out of whole cloth, borne of imagination and belief. Since then, its social contact — like that of other nations — has been and continues to be re-defined and updated through interpretations and amendments to that contract.

Social contracts work because of a brain neuro-network that creates “social intelligence” — a concept Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano describes in his book Consciousness and the Social Brain. Social intelligence enables shared awareness:  I know that I know; you know that you know; and both of us know that the other knows. That’s how the whole community believes things into existence. According to mega-bestseller Yuval Noah Harari, that’s why humans are the world’s dominant species:

“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals.

“The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.

“This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.

“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven.

“Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

More to come.

[1] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016),

[2] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale war. Ironically, they also create war — the result of clashing social contracts.

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