Sunday, September 18, 2016

Michael Gazzaniga and the illusion of self

As recommended by Louis Putterman in the WINIR 2016 Conference in Boston, I have been reading neurologist Michael Gazzaniga. In particular, I read the book "Who is in Charge." This scholar is famously expert for his study of the parallel work of left and right hemispheres in our brain. As a byproduct of this work, he has a powerful theory of how consciousness is just an emerging property that has been evolutionarily useful, but that results from the interaction of specialized units of our brain that follow physical laws. In reality, there is no-one in charge, and no unique self calling the shots. For example, some hours ago, I was writing something related to economics in my computer, my daughter came into my offcie, said something related to an agenda and, when she left the room, I noticed that "I" had typed in my computer the word "agenda", which was completely unrelated to my writing before she came in. "...Consciousness involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated in a dynamic manner by the interpreter module. Consciousness is an emergent property. (...) Our conscious experience is assembled on the fly, as our brains respond to constantly changing inputs, calculate potential courses of action, and execute responses like a streetwise kid." We are like other complex systems, such as an ant hill, made of self-organizing units. As a scientist that I heard in a BBC documentary said, we are just put together in a way that makes us look smarter. Therefore, the idea of a rational self that is free to make decisions is not only eroded from outside, by social forces whose role is increasingly recognized by social psychology and other behavioural sciences, but also from inside, as increasingly noted by neurologists like Gazzaniga. The rest of the book is about how "this post hoc interpreting process has implications for and an impact on the big questions of free will and determinism, personal responsibility and our moral compass."

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