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Archive for May 11th, 2022

Three pearl milkweed flowers

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From May 1st in Schroeter Neighborhood Park come these three pearl milkweed vine flowers (Matelea reticulata), several buds, one leaf, and one ant. In the universe of flowers, not that many are green, a color normally associated with foliage and photosynthesis. Also unusual is the little pearly structure at the center, inside of which lie each flower’s reproductive elements.


And speaking of pearls, I’ve been reading Julian Baggini‘s The Ego Trick. This passage sets forth probably the book’s most important point:

It would be claiming too much to say that neuroscience has fully explained what selves are and how they can exist. Nevertheless, real progress has been made in recent decades and we are now in a position to at least sketch out how the self is constructed.

The most important finding, which seems to be universally accepted by all researchers into the self and the brain, is that brain research has given up on the search for the pearl of self. As the clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks put it to me, ‘We have this deep intuition that there is a core, an essence there, and it’s hard to shake off, probably impossible to shake off, I suspect. But it’s true that neuroscience shows that there is no centre in the brain where things do all come together.’ The unity of the self is not to be explained in terms of a single, unified brain region, which acts as the master controller.

This is not what common sense would expect, but philosophers have anticipated it. For some time now, they have been wary of explanations which commit what is known as the homunculus fallacy. This is best explained through the example of vision. Armed with an elementary knowledge of how the eye works, it is tempting to think that light shines on the retina and then the brain creates from this a single, three-dimensional image. But who sees this image? The temptation is to think (or perhaps more usually assume) that there is a kind of mind’s eye which inspects the image in the brain. But then how does this ‘mind’s eye’ see this image? It cannot be that there is a little person — a homunculus — in our brains which watches mental images. If that were the case, we’d have to ask what was going on inside the head of that homunculus. Would there be another mental image, and if so, what would be seeing that? An even smaller homunculus? If we continued to explain each stage in the same way, we’d end up with an infinite number of ever smaller homunculi, each packed Russian-doll-like into our brains. Such an infinite regress could never explain how any seeing actually went on at all.

What is true of vision is true of the mental in general. Daniel Dennett uses the term ‘Cartesian theater’ to label this misguided way of thinking. The idea here is that it is easily assumed that in order to explain consciousness, we have to think of there being a single, unified centre of consciousness somewhere ‘inside’ us, whether we think this is an immaterial soul or a special part of the physical brain. But this cannot explain the unity of consciousness at all. You cannot explain the unity of experience by simply positing an inner, unified experiencer. That simply begs the question: how is unity of experience possible in the first place?

So even before neuroscience shone a light on how experience is unified in the brain, philosophers had a theoretical reason to think that, whatever the answer was, it couldn’t be that there was a kind of ‘inner self’ doing the work. Neuroscience has in effect discovered through experiment and observation what philosophers had concluded just by thinking.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 11, 2022 at 4:32 AM

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