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Monday, May 7, 2018

A revolution in our sense of self

Nick Chater
The Guardian
Originally posted April 1, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

One crucial clue that the inner oracle is an illusion comes, on closer analysis, from the fact that our explanations are less than watertight. Indeed, they are systematically and spectacularly leaky. Now it is hardly controversial that our thoughts seem fragmentary and contradictory. I can’t quite tell you how a fridge works or how electricity flows around the house. I continually fall into confusion and contradiction when struggling to explain rules of English grammar, how quantitative easing works or the difference between a fruit and a vegetable.

But can’t the gaps be filled in and the contradictions somehow resolved? The only way to find out is to try. And try we have. Two thousand years of philosophy have been devoted to the problem of “clarifying” many of our commonsense ideas: causality, the good, space, time, knowledge, mind and many more; clarity has, needless to say, not been achieved. Moreover, science and mathematics began with our commonsense ideas, but ended up having to distort them so drastically – whether discussing heat, weight, force, energy and many more – that they were refashioned into entirely new, sophisticated concepts, with often counterintuitive consequences. This is one reason why “real” physics took centuries to discover and presents a fresh challenge to each generation of students.

Philosophers and scientists have found that beliefs, desires and similar every-day psychological concepts turn out to be especially puzzling and confused. We project them liberally: we say that ants “know” where the food is and “want” to bring it back to the nest; cows “believe” it is about rain; Tamagotchis “want” to be fed; autocomplete “thinks” I meant to type gristle when I really wanted grist. We project beliefs and desires just as wildly on ourselves and others; since Freud, we even create multiple inner selves (id, ego, superego), each with its own motives and agendas. But such rationalisations are never more than convenient fictions. Indeed, psychoanalysis is projection at its apogee: stories of greatest possible complexity can be spun from the barest fragments of behaviours or snippets of dreams.

The information is here.