Listen to the final 2003 Reith lecture on the Emerging Mind. I won’t even get into all the amazing work neurologist and cognitive scientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has done on how our brains work, function by function, synesthetic impulse by synesthetic impulse.
I will instead jump to Ramachandran’s multiple definition of the self. (This multiple self reminds me of Dan Dennett’s move toward a multiple definition of the mind, and of the admission by physicists that particles can also be described perfectly as waves and vice versa, so that, at a certain level, there are only wave-particles or particle-waves, depending on how you want to write it.)
Ramanchandran says the self is a feeling in the brain of continuity, unity, embodiment, and agency (free will). He admits that maybe, one day, science will find the long-missing thing-that-is-us-inside-our-brains—the tiny meta-man, audience in the Cartesian theater. Unlikely, but maybe. Or maybe science will progress so far that it no longer matters, that we forget the question. Also unlikely. But maybe:
Third, maybe the solution to the problem of the self won’t be a straightforward empirical one. It may instead require a radical shift in perspective, the sort of thing that Einstein did when he rejected the assumption that things can move at arbitrarily high velocities. When we finally achieve such a shift in perspective, we may be in for a big surprise and find that the answer was staring at us all along… There are curious parallels between this idea and the Hindu philosophical view that there is no essential difference between self and others or that the self is an illusion.
Ramachandran isn’t writing as a religious person, but as a scientist, someone seeing how the self is an illusion, literally—a trick your brain plays on “you,” even if, at the end of the day, I stil feel like “me” and you still feel like “you.”
What does this mean? Is science “wrong?” Or is the traditional view of “the self?” Maybe, again, what-is-the-self is not a matter of right and wrong.
Ramanchandran addresses the reversibility of scientific knowledge and but-this-is-what-it-feels-like-to-me affect in an interview:
There are two problems which are sometimes confounded. One is if you reduce everything to neurons, like falling in love, or ambition, or pride, or joy, or the self—my God does that mean there’s no love? And that’s a fallacy because you know explaining something doesn’t mean you explain it away. So for example—supposing two people are making love and a crazy scientist comes along and says “look, this is just neurons in the septum and neurons in the hypothalamic nuclei, these are all the neurons that are firing away, that’s all there is to it.” And then the lover turns to his girlfriend and says “you mean that’s it, it’s just chemicals, it’s neurons firing away, you’re not really in love?” She could then argue “no, on the contrary this proves it’s all real, that I’m not faking it.” “Look, look at the pattern of activity, it shows it’s real.”
Just to emphasize that when you explain something in terms of component parts you enrich your understanding a bit you certainly don’t diminish from the experience or detract from the experience. That fear is not justified.
And yet, even as he allays one fear, he brings up a different one. If we ultimately understand all the component tricks that make the self feel like the self, what’s to stop us from abusing them?
The other deeper fear which I think may be justified is a time will surely come, say 500 years from now, maybe earlier when you create the “brain into vat” scenario that philosophers often talk about. I can take your brain before it starts degenerating, before you die, before you become old, put it in a vat with a culture medium, supply oxygen, stimulate all the right patterns of neural activity. So you can be whoever you want to be. You can be a combination of Bill Gates and Einstein and some Olympic athlete—whoever you want to be.
This is the origin of The Matrix and many other dystopian fantasies. What can science say about it? Will technology one day “replace” or somehow change the very basics of the self, of the human mind-knowing-itself-as-”really”-there, really alive?
Probably religion and science face here the same aporia, or gap in knowledge. It is a profound gap. Probably we will never be able to justify to ourselves, using science, that we are not being tricked into thinking we are ourselves, when we are really something else. This is no reason to despair. If you feel that you are not trapped in a horrible dystopian matrix, why assume that you are? If you feel that you are you, why assume you are anything less?
I think Ramachandran offers us profound insights in part because he knows that we don’t feel like the ghostly sum of component sub-programs operating in an otherwise purely biological–chemical vat of a brain. We feel like dudes and scenesters, lovers and the heartbroken, humans and penitent mortals, aging kids and incomprehensibly suddenly old adults. We feel many things, but we do not feel our brain running its myriad programs.
Like the dystopias we cannot prove aren’t framing our reality, the brain-programs that we can investigate only seem scary at first. They are, as Ramachandran points out, only a way to enrich our understanding of ourselves. And it is only by learning about them and formulating an ethics of how to deal with them (especially how not to deal with them—how to prevent dystopias from being cast over unsuspecting brains) that we can become fully ourselves—our multiple, un-despairing selves.