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Archived => Community Debates => Topic started by: Gordon Tubbs on August 16, 2016, 09:00:14 am

Post by: Gordon Tubbs on August 16, 2016, 09:00:14 am

Good day to you all!

I would like to thank the Reasonable Faith Forum for hosting this debate as well as my debate partner EvolutionaryPsychologist, for picking the topic. The question we will be examining together is one that has been asked for thousands of years: does the "self" exist? In response to this question, I will be arguing FOR the proposition - that the "self" DOES exist. For the purposes of my argument, I am defining the "self" as the self-aware first-person super-agency of your consciousness. Your personality, your inner voice, and your identity are all aspects of the "self" that are bundled together into said super-agency (or in Freudian terms, the "super ego" or Uber-Ich or "Over I"). Or to put it succinctly: your "I" is your "self."

Throughout this debate, you may encounter many analogies to describe the "self" or consciousness in either abstract or concrete terms. Personally, I will try to use a computer analogy as much as possible, primarily because I think this analogy is accessible, and that the hardware-software distinction is an easy one to make. I am doing this specifically to avoid the more precise scientific language of neuroscience, as to keep this debate at the popular level. I suspect EP will use some if not the same analogies as well, and so I would ask our audience not to judge our arguments on the strength of our analogies, and instead appreciate the difficulty of our topic and focus instead on what the analogies are conveying.

With that said... my intention for this debate is to employ 5 distinct arguments that should convince any skeptic that the "self" does indeed exist beyond a shadow of a doubt. This may seem like an ambitious goal, but my first challenge and critique of the opposing side is that I believe EP will not be able to reach the same level of confidence I am seeking to achieve by arguing against the proposition. I believe that EP will only be able to use arguments that will result only in marginally confident conclusions AT BEST. This is not meant as an ad hominem attack, but rather to show that the negative side of this proposition has the burden of proof for its claim - which should be abundantly clear after my opening statement.

Lastly, I would like to ask our audience to hold off on commentary and participation only until AFTER both Opening Statements are posted as to make sure there isn’t any peanut gallery interference. I will set up a thread under Choose Your Own Topic when appropriate. Everyone is always invited to send messages and support via PM of course, but I’d like the First Round to be “a good clean fight” so to speak.


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EP – you can take a 500 word intro or waive it, if so, I’ll just post my Opening.
Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: EvolutionaryPsychologist on August 16, 2016, 10:39:29 am
In the interest of time, I will foregoe my intro statement and instead just quote an old Zen monk: "Some say there is a mind. I say there is no mind. But never mind haha."

The floor is yours.
Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: Gordon Tubbs on August 16, 2016, 02:33:18 pm

1. Presuppositional Argument from Intuition
The "self" exists because we presume it to be real based on our own intuition. Believing that the self does not exist goes against common sense and the human experience. Whenever we use pronouns such as "you" or "our" or "I" or "us" - it is because we know the self exists, that we are all individual persons. In order to doubt that the self exists, we must take for granted the existence of a self in the first place. Furthermore, if the self does not exist, how can we trust the judgments of the thing that does not exist? This paradox is unresolved on the negative side, and it is simply more intuitive to think that the self exists because the self is real. There is an inescapable "I" that keeps pushing itself to the forefront of our consciousness, as even during states of self-denial it takes an "I" to deny an "I." Bottom line: the “self” is indispensable and inseparable from our conscious experience.

2. Argument from Emptiness
During deep meditative and reflective states, one is able to achieve a "quieting" of one's own thoughts to the point that they may experience a state of emptiness. In Buddhism, this is known as the SUNYATA and is often translated into "voidness." Different schools of Buddhism have their own flavor of sunyata, but the fundamental similarity is that it is a "release of the consciousness" in the sense that your self-awareness becomes non-awareness. It would be akin to turning on your computer and just letting it run idle without any applications or programs operating. Based on this, my argument is simple: in order to enter and experience a state of emptiness, one must have a "self" in the first place to consciously decide to do so. Additionally, one must need an underlying "self" in order to stop meditating as well. Going back to the computer analogy: opening and closing a program requires user operation, and the "user" in the case of Buddhist meditation is the "self." The implications of this are clear: even during meditative states of emptiness, we are never truly and fully empty. There is always an Operating System running the computer even while it idles, and this OS is the "self."

3. Argument from Cartesian Dualism
In order for somebody to have beliefs about ethics, morality, or reality itself, there needs to be a "self" that exists for those beliefs to be tangible. Indeed, Descartes famous line "I think therefore I am" is a pre-requisite foundational truth by which all other truths can be based on. Without a "self" all reasoning (a priori and a posteriori) becomes moot. If one does not believe the "self" exists, then they must accept the consequences: total skepticism of the internal and external world. In doing so, they must accept that all propositions are intrinsically unknowable, because it takes a "self" to "know." However, if one does this, then they must also be skeptical of their own claim that the self does not exist, but this ironically would be self-defeating!

4. Argument from Self-Predeterminism
If we live in a world that can be reduced to a system of physically mechanistic causes and effects, then there is truly no free will. If our mental states can be reduced to biochemical interactions within the brain, then any cognition of the self or a “mind” can equally be reducible. Suppose for a moment this means there is no free will – only physical determinism. What mechanism decides our decisions? To an extent, our consciousness mostly isn’t free – we have limitations in our hardware (the condition of the brain itself) and our software (memory, intelligence) – and both of these things are influenced by our external environment. So who or what makes our choices for us? Are we all playing our roles autonomously, or is there liberty? What is the precise nature and relationship between stimuli and response when it comes to consciousness and the mind? Science has yet to fully answer these questions (as detailed in my next argument), but that’s not the point I’m making at the moment. This is the point: if physical determinism is true (our conscious will is determined by physical laws), then all I have to do is predetermine a course of action, decision, or choice before I make it in order to regain free will. Setting my alarm clock to wake up at a precise time tomorrow morning is but one of countless pre-decisions I can make in order to fulfill a desired response. These decisions (even if there is no free will) are evidence of our “self” taking command and acting as the first-person super-agency of our consciousness.

5. Ad Hominem
Do the millions of copies of books authored by Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett constitute an authoritative body of work against the Academy? What – if anything – does the Academy have to say about the existence of self? I explored these questions within PsycNET, which is the American Psychological Association’s online database of journal articles, books, abstracts, op-eds, you-name-it-they-got-it when it comes to neuroscience, psychology, and anything with the APA stamp. It may come as a shock to you that Harris’ peer reviewed work is mostly on neurovascular research (particularly for epilepsy), that Dennett’s articles may wow you with terms such as hetero-phenomenology and the “Cartesian Theater,” but at the end of the day – neither of these two men have put forth ANY peer-reviewed or co-authored works with ANY research or observations that support the conclusion that “the self does not exist.”

There is a time and place for pop-science and pseudo-science, but when it comes to determining the precise mechanisms of consciousness and modeling the “self” - the only hope pseudo-scientific works have when it comes to our topic is to make assertions, speculations, and (faulty) generalizations. If one wishes to deny the self scientifically, they will not find objective empirical research to back up that claim.

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Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: EvolutionaryPsychologist on August 17, 2016, 03:07:06 pm
In my opening I will simply outline the modern scientific consensus that there is no-self, and in doing so it will make all of his arguments obsolete.

The Modern Consensus

To quote neuroscientist and meditation master Dr. John Yates, “modern philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and physics have all validated the no-self view”.  I can already hear my dear reader grumbling. 

Skeptical reader: No self, are you kidding me? Are you telling me I don’t exist? That you don’t exist? Who am I talking to then?

With so much confusion about what the self is, and what the self isn’t, it is extremely important to be very clear as to what is meant by no-self. So for an explanation, let me turn the world’s most well known cognitive psychologist -- Harvard’s Steven Pinker:

“Another startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.”

How this works:

We can separate the “mind” into two parts, the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. The unconscious mind has dozens of separate subminds that process different types of information. These different subminds include the different senses - visual, hearing, etc, but also emotional, thinking, discriminatory, memory, and the narrative submind, which sort of sums up what the other subminds are doing and concocts the impression after the fact that all of these disparate subminds are one single unified whole. The role of consciousness is to integrate this subconscious neural processing that would otherwise be independent. These different subminds are located in different areas of the brain, and they use consciousness as a way to talk to each other.

Think of consciousness as a screen, and each of the different subminds have the capability of projecting their conclusions on to this screen, a sort of community bulletin board, for the other subminds to see and then use that information. Let’s give a concrete example of looking at a cat.

The visual submind will intake sense data from the eyes, and project that data into consciousness, where the memory part of the brain might quickly try and figure if we have seen that before, so that we can know what it is, and then another submind will highlight the relevant information to focus on - the cat - instead of something in the background, and project the image of the cat into consciousness, where the emotional submind will see that image and produce a feeling based on that image - say cuteness - and then the narrative mind will sum up what’s going on “looking at a cute cat picture”.

Intentions and decision making follow a similar process. The intentions and decisions are produced subconsciously, with the results projected into consciousness. Gordon gave the example of setting an alarm clock. The decision to set the alarm at certain time could go as follows:

Rational Submind: It takes 20 minutes to get to work, I should set the alarm for 730. *Projects that idea into consciousness*

Memory Submind: *Sees the idea of 730 in consciousness*, but the memory submind remembers that tomorrow is friday and on fridays there is more traffic. *Projects that thought and that alarm should go off at 7 in consciousness*

Anxiety Submind: *Sees 7 in consciousness* But if I wake up at 7, I won’t get a good night’s sleep and I’ll be drowsy all day!

Eventually the different subminds will reach a decision after arguing back and forth. This process takes place a bit democratically. When a majority of subminds “Vote” for a certain decision, that decision gets made, which then appears in consciousness “Setting it for 7:15”. And if Gordon is paying close attention he may even notice that his hand started moving towards the buttons before the thought “7:15 is good” enters his consciousness!

At no point in this decision making process did the conscious mind make a decision. The decision was made unconsciously, and the results were simply shown on the screen of consciousness. Countless scientific experiments have shown this to be true, decisions are made by the subconscious mind, long before they enter into consciousness. Experiment with this yourself throughout the day to see if you find it true. See if you can notice that your body often moves before the thought enters your mind of what decision you have made. Notice how you start to get up before you think “I’m going go to the bathroom”, or how your hand begins reaching for the milk instead of the eggs just before you think “I’m going to have cereal”.

The idea of the self is that of a “conscious agent”,  who makes decisions, who knows things, who remembers..etc. But this is simply not how the brain and mind work. Consciousness doesn’t have memories, instead memories are stored in the subconscious mind, and the subconscious mind projects that memory into consciousness. When you ask “Where are my keys?” You are doing so, because one part of the brain needs the memory part of the brain to flash that answer into consciousness so that the part of the brain that controls movement can tell the body to walk to where the keys are. All of these decision and memory processes take place subconsciously. As John Yates put it “consciousness doesn’t do anything.” And since consciousness doesn’t do anything, there can be no conscious agent doing stuff. There can be no self.

P.S Just to address your ad hominem..Dennett has authored more than a few peer reviewed papers on no-self, and his conclusion that the self is just a story the brain tells of what is going on. Here are two.

“The Origin of Selves” in the journal Cogito

“The Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity” in the journal philosophia
Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: Gordon Tubbs on August 18, 2016, 08:44:26 am

Dearest audience and Mr. Skeptic,

I’m sure you can already see and appreciate the line in the sand that has been drawn between the two sides of this debate. On one side of that line is a sign labeled “Science” and on the other side one labeled “Philosophy.” When it comes to consciousness and the pursuit of the mind, the line in the sand is just that – it is not a wall or a river blocking both sides. In fact when it comes to this topic, philosophy and psychology may as well be playing beach volleyball together, because the line in the sand means nothing. BUT it would seem though that my debate partner would wish there to be a conflict... with Team Psychology doing all the serving, spiking, and scoring, leaving Team Philosophy bruised and crying because it got sand in its eye. This narrative my debate partner wishes you to take hold of is an illusion and deception.

My debate partner has seemingly put all of his argumentative eggs in the Science Basket, and so instead of supplying support for my previous arguments, I will simply attack the main and only argument that my partner is using. On a technical note, I will concede my Ad Hominem attack against Daniel Dennet, but I will sustain it against Sam Harris: there is no room for mass-publication works in this debate. Let us now turn to Science and Science alone.

One should always be wary whenever Team Science says “Eureka! We’ve figured it out! We have a consensus!” and immediately prop up some individuals for Nobel grandeur. For something as groundbreaking as the “no self” view, it strikes me as curious that the Nobel committee hasn’t awarded anyone for this advancement. Sure, the Nobel Committee might be more biased towards the physical sciences, but isn’t this just what today’s cognitive psychologists have done? Haven’t they reduced consciousness and the mind to physical science? Haven’t they mapped how the brain fully functions?

NO! They have not… and this is why we still have the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In response to my debate partner’s arguments I must simply reiterate my first argument from intuition. Steven Pinker says that despite our best intuitions otherwise – the “self” does not exist. Yet, I find it hard to believe that if our intuition is wrong about the “self” then how can we trust our own intuition in judgment of itself? As I stated in my opening, this is no easy question and represents a crisis on the opposing side that remains unresolved. Of course we may hear a predictable refrain in response: “we’re not using our intuition to judge our intuition, we’re using objective empirically-based research.” So tell us then, Scientific Community, do we have consciousness figured out? Are we close to solving the Hard Problem? Why not ask the guy who coined the term – David Chalmers…

Now, I'm a scientific materialist at heart. I want a scientific theory of consciousness that works, and for a long time, I banged my head against the wall looking for a theory of consciousness in purely physical terms that would work. But I eventually came to the conclusion that [it] just didn't work for systematic reasons. It's a long story, but the core idea is just that what you get from purely reductionist explanations in physical terms, in brain-based terms, is stories about the functioning of a system, its structure, its dynamics, the behavior it produces, great for solving the easy problems — how we behave, how we function — but when it comes to subjective experience — why does all this feel like something from the inside? — that's something fundamentally new, and it's always a further question. So I think we're at a kind of impasse here. We've got this wonderful, great chain of explanation, we're used to it, where physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains parts of psychology. But consciousness doesn't seem to fit into this picture. On the one hand, it's a datum that we're conscious. On the other hand, we don't know how to accommodate it into our scientific view of the world. So I think consciousness right now is a kind of anomaly, one that we need to integrate into our view of the world, but we don't yet see how. Faced with an anomaly like this, radical ideas may be needed, and I think that we may need one or two ideas that initially seem crazy before we can come to grips with consciousness scientifically.

In the TED Talk ( where I quoted Chalmers here, he quickly gets into these two crazy ideas, but not before mentioning his friend Daniel Dennett. Does he agree with him? No. How confident can we be in any scientific theory of consciousness then? Do we have grounds to remain skeptical? The two theories Chalmers does mention are that 1) consciousness is fundamental, and/or 2) consciousness is universal. I would encourage you to listen to the TED Talk because they are fascinating.

I would like to finish my rebuttal by simply reviewing some important points…

1. My audience should note that my debate partner has attempted to show that by explaining (away) consciousness, this somehow also explains (away) the “self” – but this line of thinking is philosophically problematic, as well as guilty of making a false equivocation.

2. My audience should note that "The Modern Consensus" has no consensus, and to simple argue against the existence of the self on scientific grounds alone is unsuitable. Scientific theories of consciousness are incomplete and insufficient, however provocative they may be.

3. My audience should be reminded that my Arguments from Intuition, Emptiness, Cartesian Dualism, and Self-Predeterminism continue to place a heavy burden of proof on the opposition’s side. My opponent therefore is caught between a rock and a hard place: he can fend off my rebuttal and concede my arguments OR fend off my arguments and concede my rebuttal. He can’t do both!

Thank you!

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Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: EvolutionaryPsychologist on August 18, 2016, 09:59:48 am
1.GT would like you to believe that Team Science and Team Philosophy are at odds here. But that is simply not the case, they are on the same team. Modern philosophers are also in no-self camp, and the tradition goes back a lot farther than that. The Buddha clearly believed in no-self, as did Heraclitus, and then the idea of no-self was expanded into emptiness by Buddhism's second greatest figure - Nagarjuna. Emptiness, despite what GT has said, is actually the realization that all things lack a self, not just you. It is the idea that consciousness creates the idea of self, but that in reality things are "empty of self". That's what emptiness means. And no, you don't need a self want to experience emptiness, you just need an unconscious mind. David Hume famously argued that he could find no-self, but just a bundle of sensations in constant flux. And today, the vast majority of philosophers are in the no-self camp.

2. I completely agree, as does Steven Pinker, and many other scientists and philosophers that we haven't solved the hard problem of consciousness. But the hard problem of consciousness and 'no-self' are completely different problems. The hard problem of consciousness is completely irrelevant to the subject of no-self.

3. GT is right, no-self does go against intuition. But so does the earth rotating around the sun. If understanding no-self was easy, we wouldn't call people who realized this 'enlightened'! The reason it goes against intuition is because it was evolutionary advantageous for us to believe we have selves, perhaps because it is more likely we will put resources into ourselves, even if it is not true. Those enlightened people who are without the sense of self are said to be selfless (in the giving sense), compassionate, and place no great emphasis on their well-being over the welfare of others. And while this may lead to great happiness, it may not lead to better survival and replication.

4. Cartesian dualism in the words of Dan Dennett is "Dualism (the view that minds are composed of some nonphysical and utterly mysterious stuff) . . . [has]been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology. Unless you are also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses — unless, in other words, your defiance of modern science is quite complete — you won't find any place to stand and fight for these obsolete ideas".

5. Pre-determination - Again, the modern scientific understanding of how consciousness works shows that it is the unconscious mind that makes the decisions, not a conscious self.

Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: Gordon Tubbs on August 18, 2016, 02:05:11 pm

I fail to see how my opponent made a confident and convincing case that the "self" does not exist. He made some technical errors that should not be overlooked when you, our audience and dear Mr. Skeptic, are rendering your final decision.

1.GT would like you to believe that Team Science and Team Philosophy are at odds here.

I make no such claim. In fact, in the first paragraph of my rebuttal I clearly point out that Science and Philosophy are in the same boat: "In fact when it comes to this topic, philosophy and psychology may as well be playing beach volleyball together, because the line in the sand means nothing." I don't see how one could see this as a pretext for conflict by any stretch of the imagination.

2. ...The hard problem of consciousness is completely irrelevant to the subject of no-self.

In my opponent's opening, he began quoting Yates, "modern philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and physics have all validated the no-self view" and then you quote Steven Pinker, who more or less equivocates the "I" with consciousness, and then promptly declares it an illusion because "the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along." My opponent then proceeded to explain how the conscious and subconscious mind works - as to explain how the "self" works. However fascinating it was to hear about a “democracy of subminds,” this view is purely ONE theory of the mind (among many) which was derived from correlating regions of the brain to basic functions. It is a basic rule of science that correlation does not imply causation - yet that is exactly the mistake my opponent keeps making.

3. GT is right, no-self does go against intuition.

Seeing as how my opponent agrees with me that the no-self view is non-intuitive, he must also be contented with the paradox of using the intuition to judge itself.

4. Cartesian dualism in the words of Dan Dennett is... OPINION. Besides, David Chalmers rebuffs Dennett's views and suggests otherwise with the two theories of consciousness I mentioned earlier - 1) consciousness is fundamental and/or 2) consciousness is universal. It would behoove my opponent to read up on those. The task of the scientist is to remain open-minded and accept alternative and even competing views and theories before coming to a final decision. It would seem that my opponent cares only to be the "no self" drum.

5. Pre-determination - Again, the modern scientific understanding of how consciousness works shows that it is the unconscious mind that makes the decisions, not a conscious self.

Again with the equivocation. My opponent is implying a direct causal relationship between the "self" and the mind, and then seeks to explain (away) the "self" by detailing how the conscious and subconscious mind makes decisions? I have to ask, are we debating the same topic?

Thank you all for your time. This was a fun debate![

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Title: Re: DOES THE "SELF" EXIST? (GT v. EP)
Post by: EvolutionaryPsychologist on August 18, 2016, 11:06:44 pm
The Buddha once told an aspiring meditator named Bahiya:

"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."

The idea of self is the sense that there is this "I", someone, "Me", who has experiences, who thinks thoughts, who has feelings, who makes decisions. When the Buddha says in the seen there is just the seen, in the heard there is just heard, he denies that very claim. There is not someone who hears, there is just hearing. There is not someone who sees, there is just seeing. There is not someone who thinks, there is just thinking. That which is taken to be 'you' is really just the collection of these aggregates. There is no separate you apart from the thinking, hearing, seeing, feeling, etc..The perception that there is "you" is just another perception that arises within consciousness. And it's a perception, that if you follow the Buddha's advice, will fall away.

Buddhism, modern philosophy, physics and brain science have all found that this sense of "I" is an illusion. It's an illusion because that "I" just isn't there. In my opening statement I outlined the modern consensus (not just one opinion) of what consciousness is for (information exchange between subminds) and what it does (nothing other than be a source for information). Nowhere in this model of consciousness is there a self. There is simply no ghost in the machine that thinks thoughts, and experiences experiences. But don't worry my friends, because to realize no-self is to be enlightened. And to be enlightened, is a very good thing.

P.S I am well aware of David Chalmers. He's the one who outlined the difference between the hard and easy problems of consciousness. His solution to those problems are crazy imo, and very few if anyone agrees with him. Still I do agree with Gordon that you should at least hear him out. He appeared on Sam Harris's podcast back in April and it's worth listening to for sure. Although the hard problem of consciousness is completely different than the existence of self!