Buddha & Bombs

Here is my talk from TAM 2012 where I talk about the basic premise of The Self Illusion.

If you read some of the comments (which I know an author never should) there are some complaints that this sounds a bit like the teachings of Buddha – well duh! I make this point almost at the very beginning of The Self Illusion but when you only have 30 mins to give a talk and you have been told to make it even shorter because of scheduling problems, then you don’t have time to give a full account.

More importantly, I wanted to squeeze in a mention of the dowsing bomb detectors story as the perpetrators of this shameful activity were scheduled to appear in court that very morning in London. An officer from Avon & Somerset police kindly called me last night to inform me that the gang were due back in court on October 18th but they fully expected the case to be prosecuted in the spring. I knew that of course, because of the tireless efforts of Techowiz & Peter Robinson who have been keeping informed of events. Watch this space as they say.


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21 responses to “Buddha & Bombs

  1. One of the reasons I found your book, The Self Illusion, to be so persuasive was the sheer volume and breadth of evidence in support of the central proposition. So summarising it in 30 minutes was always going to be a challenge, but in my view one in which you acquitted yourself admirably. As for the comments about Buddhism, I suppose this is to be expected since that’s almost the only realm in which “the self” has been widely discussed until comparatively recently (William James notwithstanding). I’ve even had the same comments about my book, and that’s fiction.

  2. Hi Bruce. Thoroughly enjoyed watching, and have forwarded to my teenage daughters as part of my efforts to educate them in the wonderful Worlds of science and skepticism. You are an excellent communicator. Well done!

    Also, thanks for the mention regarding the fake detectors. To be clear, have never personally sought any credit for this. Just the satisfaction of seeing action after so long. Techowiz has said to me on many occasions that he feels the same, but despite that, I have tried to ensure he gets maximum kudos, because without him, nothing would have happened. Sadly, but for very good reasons, he must remain anonymous.

    I hope we may one fine day get to raise a glass or two to celebrate a satisfactory outcome!

    While I understand the concept of academics distancing themselves from activism, it would be good if your excellent example does prompt more of your colleagues to become active where woo causes real harm.

  3. Excellent video and interesting (and I guess flattering) to have your ideas compared to those of Buddha. I was wondering if you are familiar with the work of the philosopher Alan Watts, who was writing in the 1960s-70s? If not I recommend you check out The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are, which is all about the self-illusion and how it affects the way we live our lives. It changed my life when I read it, over 30 years ago.

  4. Lee

    Hey Bruce,

    As others commentators have noticed, this is a topic which intersects a bit with issues discussed by pop-psychology and pop-spirituality. So I think it would be an interesting exercise to identify what is useful and what is pseudo-scientific in the techniques recommended by these authors.

    One example that comes to mind is Eckhart Tolle. I don’t want to send you to the library so I’ll just mention what I believe is relevant. An idea he constantly comes back to is the notion that what most people consider to be their self is, quote: “a story that exists only in your mind” (pretty much his exact words). “You are not your life’s story” and the only true self with any actual reality is that which manifests itself from moment to moment in the present. I have found this to be extremely liberating and practiced this way of thinking for quite a while, until I realized that, when applied all the time, it leads to a sort of methodological solipsism, where the only thing that matters is the present phenomenological experience (what buddhists call mindfulness). One may tend to shun remembering the past or having expectations from the future because you’re just wasting input from the present to simulate being somewhere else.

    Then after reading some more, I have come to realize that the present experience is just as much an illusion created by the brain as simulating scenarios with no live sensory input. This is what you’re talking about in the video, about how the brain simply creates the illusion of continuity, filling in the blanks (from eye movements, blind spots etc.)

    What are the long-term effects of this way of viewing the world? One thought that spontaneously came to me was that if we could simulate a human being atom by atom with the use of a supercomputer, that person would experience the world as if one moment he was in the device that originally scanned his molecular structure, and then suddenly everything went dark. But he would continue to be aware. So it now seems natural to me that the feeling of self is a result of that person’s particular brain geometry and functioning, not a distinct entity in itself.

    One who has been used with this way of thinking would probably perform differently on the hamster test than kids instinctively do.

    This is a topic that interests me a lot and it would be nice if it were explored some more in a reasonable manner.

    • brucehood

      Lee.. some really interesting ideas there. I am continuing to refine my ideas and arguments especially from those who seem to think that there is a logical flaw in that an illusion needs to be experienced by someone and so therefore there must be a self. This is the old issue of subjectivity. I usually get picked up on this point but I think that it emerges from a view that was originally proposed by Bishop Berkeley for the existence of God – that there had to be an omnipresent entity to experience everything. I suppose I am inclined to Douglas Hofstadter’s position that self can be an emergent property that feedbacks on itself (actually he uses this argument for the mind rather than self) but I think it still applies. You can have feedback in a system that is independent of any one experiencing it. It is simply a property of the system that generates output and then uses that output as input for further processing. No need for anyone there to experience the illusion.
      Thanks for the other recommendations. I am madly working away on another book but plan to take next year off catching up on readings.

      • Lee

        Daniel Dennett is arguing for a similar position in his excellent talk, “The Magic of Consciousness”. It was taken down from YouTube for a while, but I see it’s back again, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muzXdknlQ7c

      • My understanding of this issue, garnered from both Buddhist literature and Alan Watts, is that the problem hinges on the illusion of duality: every experience requires a self to do the experiencing, just as every ‘this’ requires a ‘that’ and the concept of ‘up’ is meaningless without a concept of ‘down’. We come across the problem in many different guises: we try and define ‘everything there is’ as ‘the universe’, and immediately start discussing what might be outside the universe, or if there is more than one universe, which makes no sense at all. Buddha’s answer is to refer to ‘unity’ or ‘consciousness’ as an unbroken reality – a field or a ‘gestalt’ – but its impossible to discuss such ideas without it sounding mystical and woolly.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: The Self Illusion | Advaita Vision

  6. Esther

    I was enjoying your book until I came to the part where you say that there are only 2500 possible combinations of 500 neurons and that that is more that the number of atoms in the observable universe, (which is 10 to the power of 81, not 1081),,,? I’m not a scientist or a mathematician but even I can see these numbers are silly. Can you explain why any brain would look at those numbers and not question? Unbelievable!

    • brucehood

      It’s called superscript and for some totally infuriating reason, the publishers and proof readers seemed to think it was not important.
      Believe me, I have received nothing but grief over this and it was NOT MY FAULT! I pointed it out in the proofs and still they did not fix it. I half believe the error will be there till the day I die!

    • brucehood

      Oh yes and BTW it 2 to the power of 500 or 2500 (you see I can’t even superscript it in WordPress)

      • Esther

        Hmm, maybe you just have to write it out, ten to the power of…so what does two to the power of 500 come out to? if you write that out in tens it would be more believable. Thanks for the reply, I knew there must be an explanation. What’s really hard to believe is that I’m smarter than your publisher 🙂

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