The illusion of the self ( Harris interviews Bruce Wood)

The Illusion of the Self
An Interview with Bruce Hood

Bruce Hood is currently the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol. He has been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz Memorial Award and voted a Fellow by the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of several books, including SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable. This year he was selected as the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer—to give three lectures broadcast by the BBC—the most prestigious appointment for the public engagement of science in the UK. Bruce was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book,The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.

There’s a basic flaw with the idea that I don’t exist…

The fact that I change does not imply that there is no underlying “me”, the change has to refer to something after all. The easiest way to comprehend the self is as a whole,ie, everything you did, are doing and will do.I used to think that I am just a process, but it is clear I am the source of the process.

Free will is reliant upon knowledge, eg, if I know that jumping off a 20 storey building will kill me then I am responsible for my death if I jump.It’s all so fucking simple.

Yes, my “self” is certainly just an illusion if it is but 1 of 7.015 billion sets of dominoes nature is now currently toppling over out in the world.

But, in my view, we can’t know that with the sort of certainty you persist in arguing for.

Instead, “I” is situated in dasein. It is ever an existential work in progress from the cradle to the grave. It is “thrown” out into a particular world the complexity of which it can never either fully understand or control.

It is more analogous to Michael Novak’s rendition from The Experience of Nothingness.

I recognize that I put structure into my world…There is no ‘real’ world out there, given, intact, full of significance. Consciousnes is constituted by random, virtually infinite barrages of experience; these experiences are indistinguishably ‘inner’ and ‘outer’…Structure is put into experience by culture and self, and may also be pulled out again…The experience of nothingness is an experience beyond the limits of reason…it is terrifying. It makes all attempts at speaking of purpose, goals, aims, meaning, importance, conformity, harmnony, unity----it makes all such attempts seem doubtful and spurious.

How does Novak “resolve” this then? Through God. In particular the Catholic God. A staunch capitalist presumably.

I can live with this part though:

By rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails.

But if the autonomous self is the true illusion how can it ever really go off the rails when being on the particular rails it is is merely matter unfolding ineluctably per the laws of physics?


The change refers to a lot of things. Not to a specific thing.
The truth is that:

There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or pathway of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging “center of narrative gravity” -

Also, free will has nothing to do with knowledge. The only simple thing about it, is that you still don’t know what free will is.

I keep seeing people on this forum arguing the follow: "we don’t know everything about x, therefor y is likely to exist/be true.

Now just replace X with universe or mind and Y with god or free will and you get the most common arguments used “against” my views.
This is obviously a logical fallacy.

Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don´t do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No, we are not, in any of these cases. But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine… Well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is, the first source of our knowledge.
Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty. (I am very sure what my own name is … but what if I just hit my head and got momentarily confused?) Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature.

I used to think that such notable people would of course have enough understanding to not confuse a “Self” in speech or concept, with an “Ego”. #-o
But that was merely one of a long list of disappointments with such people. :confused:

No, but there is an overall cohesion, it is what we experience [are you saying that our expereince is magic? surely EVERYTHING we experience is neuronal in your books [though not mine]. You can look at any and all of the parts and not find the whole ~ stands to reason; the whole is not any of the parts [like a machine isn’t]. Possibly not even the entire collection of the parts.

Where and what is colour. Like consciousness you cannot find it purely in photonic signals, nor electrical signals, nor in perception. We can look at the brain every which way you choose ~ literally, and you wont find colour or consciousness. This is not about what we don’t know, its about what we do know! It is not there, LOOK, see for yourself.

Just show me that isn’t true and I’ll stop saying all that stuff - for real.

I think we’d all believe/accept your premises, if not for the fact that our very existence would deny it! we are not stupid. #-o


In here is not nature?

And basically what you do is claim to have all the evidence on your side. And then you declare yourself the winner.

And yet there is no clear “winner” declared yet. Why? Because if there had been – i.e. if this truly age-old antinomy had been resolved – it would be astonishing news throughout both the scientific and the philosophical communities.

Can you even imagine the excitement if someone had produced an argument [with supporting evidence] that demonstrated conclusively if we either have or do not have autonomy?

Such a proof would have reprecussions far beyond global warming or evolution.

Thus the logical fallacy that seems pervasive in your own approach here is, in my opinion, that only you get to say what is or is not logical.

Autonomy has nothing to do with free will and you completely missed the point I just made. Completely. Which is why, at the end of the day, this is a waste of time.
Here I am trying to explain to you for the millionth time that science doesn’t work the way you think, that all we have are degrees of certainty or confidence, that knowledge is probabilistic in nature and you just keep whining about how the issue hasn’t been proven or disprove. I mean, my god, could you have missed the point in a more spectacular way?

Here is what Wood said, and I only had to stop reading after this:

He says an illusion is an experience that is not what it seems. He specifically says that it is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. He points out that these subjective experiences that are not what they seem are not out there in nature. He admits that he and others have this subjective experience of the self. He points out that our self does not exist independent of the person having the experience. Does anyone not see how nonsensical this talk is? He is saying that the self does not exist because it is a subjective experience that is not independent of our subjective experience of it. It only exists because we exist, it does not exist independent of us existing. The self is suppose to exist when you are existing and not exist when you are not existing.

I had to stop reading after that non-sense.

@ Zen Kitty.

Think about schizophrenia. One of the symptoms is hearing voices. Hearing voices is the subjective side of the schizophrenic’s experience. He is perceiving something in the absence of stimuli. The person talking isn’t there, in “nature”. It’s part of his subjective experience.

It’s easy to call something nonsensical when you don’t think it trough.

The sound is the stimuli so they are perceiving something when there is a stimuli. The schizophrenic would not have had an experience unless there were stimuli, and there is no evidence for anything existing independent of subjective experience. We have no data points for this, but all our data points we do have are based on subjective experience. Maybe you should think harder on reality, because you and Bruce Wood are definitely going beyond experience here, besides him admitting that we do have an experience of the self. Wood is saying that we have an experience of self and that we also have an experience of no self, which means we are having an experience of having no experience.

If only…
An auditory hallucination is a form of hallucination that involves perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus.
The brain is inducing the auditory hallucinations without stimuli.

It’s quite surreal that you just make this assertions, pulling facts out of your ass, without knowing what you’re talking about.
I know these things because I’ve studied psychopathology but in this day and age all it takes is a quick look on Wikipedia. Try it. It Might save you from embarrassments like this.

Experience, or perceptions, are all you have and all we have to work with. And so hearing something means that there is an auditory stimulus, that is because this is a perception. Perhaps you and Mr. Wood can go beyond the curtain, i.e. beyond experience to learn about reality and know what is true and what is not.

And I am not pulling anything out of my ass, I actually stick with the facts, which is called experience. You, and others, may try to be beyond experience to support your views that have no experiential support, but that does not change experience.

Is this real life?
Are you serious right now? You’re claiming to want to stick with the facts and you’re gonna argue that?
Fuck psychopathology. You know best.

For fuck’s sake. Go to wikipedia. Open a DSM. Research. Educate yourself. Do something…because you’re humiliating yourself.

This is the only life we know, and it is the one where there is a self, as Bruce Wood pointed out.

Yes, let us stick with the facts. You know, this thing called experience.

Right, I am humiliating myself. This from the person who has no experience to back up the claim that Bruce Wood mentioned, besides Bruce Woods comments being incoherent and unverifiable in principle.

But here is something interesting. We find that people hear things when, as you say, there is no stimuli and hear things when there is a stimuli. This would appear to indicate that hearing is not based on stimuli. So if you wanted, hearing is not based on the ears or what stimulates the ears.

Autonomy in the dictionary:

…independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions: the autonomy of the individual.

Or is your intent intead on drawing me into a discussion of technical terms? Down here the terms are often used interchangably.

But you don’t seem to apply this to your own views here. You seem at times dismissive of those who refuse to admit they don’t have free will.

I merely point out this is still unresolved because an actual resolution would be astonding news.

And there are no headlines yet to that effect.

It means that the brain can induce experiences without stimuli. That’s why they call it hallucinations. The fact that you’re arguing otherwise is surreal.
It’s one thing to disagree with me, but this is a well known and well established scientific fact that even ignorant people know.

DSM-IV’s definition of hallucination
: a sensory perception that has a compelling sense of reality of a true perception, but occurs without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ.

I dealt with this sort of thing on another thread:


There is not just one way to think things through. Not regarding relationships this complex.

I’m not a materialist like you so I’m not driven to the point of not believing in myself (which is a kind of insanity).Luckily I’m happy with the knowledge that there is a correlation between my brain and my thoughts (they are “welded” together rather than an unproven causation type relationship) , therefore my thoughts are my own rather than property of the material world .But setting that aside, it is clear that there is a core part of me where everything I sense gets focused, where I am then able to make choices about what I sense. So, at heart , I am a choosing “machine”.

My freedom to choose is in a kind of slavery to my beliefs, but one I accept that I am fallible ,the way is open for knowledge to give me ever increasing degrees of freedom to do the right thing…which is actually all we want in terms of freedom of choice.