Science of Illusion (Brains)


Last Sunday in the New York Times, there was this article about neurology, neurological firing, and the illusion of consciousness. I think it’s a lot of hokum, not because I don’t trust the scientific findings, but because I don’t trust what seems to me to be the interpretive overreach. I mention this article, not because it is exceptional, but because it is par for the course for what passes in the popular press.  It seeks to make a public argument that I’m not sure can withstand critical scrutiny.

The scientific finding: a false transfer that exploits a lag in the brain’s perception of motion, called persistence of vision. When done right, the spectator will actually see the coin in the left palm for a split second after the hands separate.

This bizarre afterimage results from the fact that visual neurons don’t stop firing once a given stimulus (here, the coin) is no longer present. As a result, our perception of reality lags behind reality by about one one-hundredth of a second.

And here’s the overreaching conclusion: Such blind spots confirm what many philosophers have long suspected: reality and our perception of it are incommensurate to a far greater degree than is often believed. For all its apparent fidelity, the movie in our heads is a “Rashomon” narrative pieced together from inconsistent and unreliable bits of information. It is, to a certain extent, an illusion.

I’m not going to get too worked up and make too many broad conclusions about the illusion of consciousness because my perception of things lags one one-hundreth of a second behind “the real thing.” One one-hundreth of second sounds pretty close enough to me. It might only matter if you working under some very seriously rarified laboratory conditions. I don’t think this incremental time gap is enough to warrant the big conclusion about perception and reality which you read in science studies, not enough to conclude that “the movie in our head…is, to a certain extent, an illusion.”

This word “illusion” pops up in the discourse a lot. Consciousness is an illusion, subjectivity is an illusion, free will is an illusion etc., etc. And I’m sure this is true at certain speeds, but not at the speeds under which most of us operate in what we might naively call “real time.”

Also to the point, I what I suspect is the serious misuse of the word “illusion.” In theory, false perceptions and beliefs can stand to be corrected, which dispels the illusion. If there is no perceptual standpoint from which to correct a putatively false perception, then I’m not sure what sense it makes to say that such a perception is, in fact, an illusion.

Maybe what this means is that all the things are supposed to be an illusion, that are allegedly just a bundle of functions,“things” like subjectivity and consciousness,  and free will, that all these things elude scientific observation and testing. Once you get into the laboratory and start clocking functions at super fast speeds, these kinds of “things” slip out of view. I just don’t think this epistemological gap is enough on which to hang an ontological hat. It’s like these guys never read Kant.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Science of Illusion (Brains)

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    As annoyed as I am with you for making me look at a lamb’s brain in the morning, and although I think we might take your conclusion in different directions, I want to second the thrust of your post and your concern about the profligate use of the word “illusion.” Maybe a better term would be “construction,” which acknowledges Kantian, phenomenological, and cognitive scientific accounts in one nod.

    The problem is that while in academic research we’re wrestling with Kant/Husserl/Merleau-Ponty, the popular discourse is still dealing with Plato/Descartes. It’s news that the world is transmitted to us through our embodied minds rather than a transcendent membrane. I wonder if the insistence of some introductory philosophy courses on starting with the history of philosophy–getting students thinking about obsolete models of consciousness before getting them to the state of the art–is part of the problem?

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