Thursday, January 10, 2008

Displacing the Immaterial Self

The naturalistic worldview has gained ground, slowly and incompletely, by means of scientific explanations for phenomena that have displaced supernatural explanations. The process of explanatory displacement has relegated god, in the unlikely event he exists, to the role of remote controller: the guy who got the ball rolling, but whose day-to-day supervision isn’t necessary. Things seem to happen quite nicely on their own, in accordance with physical laws and higher-level regularities we discover in the domains of biology, psychology and maybe someday even sociology.

God hasn’t been the only victim of explanatory displacement. Our understanding of life no longer includes the rather elusive concepts of élan vital or protoplasm: we now see it’s all a matter of complex interlocking mechanisms that encode information and control reproduction and behavior.

Next up, and it’s a biggie, is consciousness and the self. It seems pre-theoretically that the mind and body are very different things, and the mind, what we think of as the essential immaterial self, still seems beyond what physicalist science can account for.

But they’re working on it. A team of scientists and philosophers, including neurophilosopher and Center for Naturalism advisor Thomas Metzinger, has published a fascinating paper on how the experience of being a self located in the body can be altered experimentally, thus mimicking, at least partially, so-called out of body experiences. As the abstract in Science has it:

…we designed an experiment that uses conflicting visual-somatosensory input in virtual reality to disrupt the spatial unity between the self and the body. We found that during multisensory conflict, participants felt as if a virtual body seen in front of them was their own body and mislocalized themselves toward the virtual body, to a position outside their bodily borders. Our results indicate that spatial unity and bodily self-consciousness can be studied experimentally and are based on multisensory and cognitive processing of bodily information.

So the quintessential me that I so confidently and continuously feel sitting behind my eyes will move in response to perceptual cues (see the video on the experiment here). This supports the idea that the felt sense of self is construction of the brain in response to sensory input, not the result of being an immaterial something or other. In short, it’s another instance of explanatory displacement, in which a materially based informational process explains what was previously thought to be a categorically mental phenomenon. Out of body experiences can now be understood as what the brain does, not a matter of the soul floating outside the body. As a New York Times article on the experiment put it:

“The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to otherworldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, who, like Dr. Botvinick, had no role in the experiments. In what is popularly referred to as near-death experience, people who have been in the throes of severe and sudden injury or illness often report the sensation of floating over their body, looking down, hearing what is said and then, just as suddenly, finding themselves back inside their body. Out-of-body experiences have also been reported to occur during sleep paralysis, the exertion of extreme sports and intense meditation practices.”
The basic sense of self, according to the original paper, is attributable to the fact that we experience “the transparent content of a single, whole-body representation.” In effect, what we experience is a model of ourselves, interestingly enough. Further, in their conclusion the authors speculate that “humans’ daily experience of an embodied self and selfhood, as well as the illusion reported here, relies on brain mechanisms at the temporoparietal junction.” So it looks like the brain, astounding machine that it is, constructs the self, for the self. That’s quite a trick. In displacing the immaterial soul, the physicalist explanation of self doesn’t diminish us, rather it shows what amazing things the physical world can cook up, including, remarkably, our very selves.


Anonymous Spinoza said...

Hello Tom... and all others.

I continue to be surprised and dissappointed somewhat at the lack of participation at this wonderful web site... but that's another story.

Regarding the work of Dr. Blanke, which I knew from earlier work published in Nature about 3 years ago, it is without doubt the case that the very notion of our "selves" in a narrative and construct of our brains.

The earlier research centered around a woman who was have recalcitrant seizures and during the usual pre-operative locus exploration with electrodes, became convinced that someone other than herself... a shadowy figure of sorts... was about the room and mimicking her. It was akin to OOB's and simply resulted from stimulation at the temporo-parietal junction.

The research presented here goes a bit further in disentangling the brain's construct of our sense of "embodiment".

Of course, medical science has known for many, many years how necessary our physical brains are to a functional and whole representation of the self. Neuropathologies such as Dementias and Disssociative Disorders... and curiosities such as Capgras Syndrome, Phantom Limb and others make that abundantly clear.

The immaterial self has long been 'missing in action' so to speak with the advent of neuroscience... particularly of the cognitive flavor.

Perhaps now we can begin to appreciate the full extent of the capabilities of evolutionary biology and neuro-cellular function: a natural miracle indeed.

No supernatural entities need apply.

Jan 29, 2008, 11:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


Thanks for checking in and for your good thoughts. I'm in the midst of re-reading Thomas Metzinger's book Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity which I recommend to anyone wanting to go deep into the puzzles of consciousness and selfhood. The feeling of being a self is one aspect of the "hard problem" of how conscious phenomenal experience of *any sort* arises in a physical system. Metzinger's idea is that the representational and functional characteristics of those neural processes associated with consciousness necessarily entail the existence of our subjective phenomenal worlds. It's a complex story that I don't yet fully understand, but well worth grappling with. At the very least, it will unsettle any convictions that the world outside our heads is immediately given to us in experience.

Jan 30, 2008, 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the article in Nature:
"According to the researchers, several subjects reported feeling “weird” but none actually reported the disembodiment classically described in an out-of-body experience. They knew the body image was not theirs."

So the researchers have a hypothesized model of a phenomena. They came up with a way to experimentally test the model. The experiment failed to produce the phenomena.
How does that validate the model, exactly?

Jan 31, 2008, 5:23:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Anon wrote: How does that validate the model, exactly?

The authors are simply being properly conservative in their claims. They write:

"Because the present illusion was
neither associated with overt disembodiment nor with a change in visuospatial perspective, we argue that we have induced only some aspects of out-of-body experiences or rather the closely related experience of heautoscopy that has also been observed in neurological patients (15–17)."

Feb 13, 2008, 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger sacred slut said...

I try not to think about shit like that too much. It makes it too hard to function. :)

But it is interesting to know about.

Sep 13, 2009, 1:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what exactly does this do to dispute dualism? this sounds like a metaphysical reductionist argument. the problem with a metaphysical reductionist argument is that it already concedes with there being an immaterial self. some dualists would have no problem with the self being a result of biological processes, because the end result is the same, an immaterial mind or self or what have you. All the dualist would have to say is that while the biological processes are closely related to the immaterial self, this does not necessarily entail that one is the cause of the other.

Apr 24, 2010, 11:46:00 PM  

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