Ard: Do we have souls?
AR: Of course not. Not only do we not have souls, but I think that contemporary cognitive neuroscience suggests that we don’t even have selves.
David: Well that’s disturbing because I was sure I had a self when I walked in.
AR: Right. You did have a self, but it may well be different now – a different self in your body.
Ard: Is that the science that’s telling us this?
AR: Yes, I think that a good deal of neuroscience is telling us this. Now, David, you were pretty confident that you had a self when you walked in, and you’re still confident that you have a self, and you will be confident tomorrow, and we, all of us, are victims of a vast range of illusions foisted upon us by conscious introspection, of which the belief in an enduring self is probably one of the most difficult to undermine or dislodge.
David: Why would I want to undermine it though?
AR: In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to undermine it, and it is the result, most probably, of a process that is highly adaptive in our species. Okay? But if you now go on to say, since I have this firm conviction, it must be true…
AR: …you then begin to worry about questions to which the answers are either negative, or they turn out to be pseudo-questions.
Ard: It looks like it’s troubling you, David, if you don’t have a self?
AR: But wait, wait. Look…
Ard: I mean, what does that mean?
AR: We’ve got this word, and we’ve got this continuing stream of memories. It’s fairly defective, broken up, and out of this we cobble together a conception that we call the self. Okay? This conception has important use for us in our daily lives, but it doesn’t have a foundation in the nature of psychological reality. It’s another one of those confabulations of introspection that have a payoff in adaptation, but which don’t have a grounding in reality.
There are many things that we believe, and that humans have believed since we began to have beliefs about the nature of reality, that are highly adaptive and quite false. One obvious one is that things are coloured. Colour only comes into existence somewhere in our visual cortex.
Ard: But that doesn’t make it unreal.
AR: It doesn’t make the sensation unreal, but it makes that belief false and our beliefs about ourselves and the world are widely false in that way. Adaptive, useful, but based on mistakes.
David: I get the sense that you’re saying, ‘Look, what’s real is the stuff that’s out there. And the stuff that’s in here is somehow not real?’
AR: No, the stuff that’s in here is composed of the same constituents as the stuff that’s out there.
AR: Everything’s just fermions and bosons, including the neurology of our brains.
David: But I have thoughts.
David: I’m fairly convinced I do.
David: And I feel that those thoughts, they have a reality as well. So my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas, they seem real, as real as this stuff, just real in a different way.
AR: Well, they’re real in that sense that they are represented in your brain in complex neural circuitry, which fires in a way that produces behaviour in you, including the verbal behaviour that you just engaged in. And so, of course, it’s real.
AR: But the spin that we put on those neural circuits, that’s been pretty consistently mistaken ever since people started thinking that there were minds and that they were distinct from brains.