Displacing the Immaterial Self
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.