Youse pays your money and youse makes your choices when it comes to The Ghost In the Machine

It’s time, I think, for us to revisit the idea of The Ghost in the Machine. To get a firsthand sense of what this widespread dogma that colors so many of our assumptions about ourselves, our perceptions and our decision-making is about, you and I must visit the Great Swami, renowned reader of minds. First item of business: revealing what you, longsuffering reader, at this very moment are experiencing in your own head.

Before the Swami starts, I’ll let you in on a secret. This is going to be an inside job. The Great Swami is owner of the same kind of three-pound, grapefruit-sized, near-pudding-like, enzyme-controlled brain used by everyone else on his block, and he is actually about to describe how his brain seems to be experiencing the outside world. Unless you haven’t slept for the past 72 hours or have inhaled or imbibed something really squirrelly in the past few minutes, your brain is almost certain to be providing you with a similar experience.

And so The Great Swami begins:

“The first thing you are noticing is that it seems to you that you are gazing out the front of your face through a couple of holes in your head. Am I correct? … Ah, I thought so.

“And these vantage points permit you to see, continuously, except when you blink, just about anything you choose to see in roughly a 145-to-160-degree arc aligned center-on with your nose. Is this not right? … Yes! Yes, I thought so!

”And if you blink your eyes a couple of times and look for it, it even seems that you can actually detect the region where the dual images provided by your camera-like eyes merge their observations. That is to say, the view of the external world you get when you close one eye while keeping the other open and the view that you get when you do the reverse appear to be pasted together—when both eyes are open—in the vicinity of your nose. Now admit it? Is this not for you the truth? Yes? … Yes, it is as I had believed.

“Of course, your nose itself is a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp. Sometimes you actually seem to be seeing, if only in the faintest, gauze-like fashion, your nose in that shared viewing area between your eyes (and of course you can see your nose if you cross your eyes and look down) and sometimes it seems like you are also seeing right through your nose, with no discernable loss of vision. But one thing is very clear: everything you see is arriving in your head as a full-formed image, is it not? I mean, Holy Madagascar, just look out there! Images everywhere. It’s all images. All the time, seen from the inside of your head, isn’t it a certainty? … Yes! Absolumento!”

Along with the Great Swami, all of us all are but certain that our eyes are continuously recording—with indisputable fidelity—fully formed pictures of a rich, vivid world right there in front of our noses, and it may be difficult to convince us otherwise.

For example, after tracing what happens to a photon of light as it winds its way through the construction processes involved in producing what we think we see, one observer has summed up our abilities of vision as the “end product of chopping, coding, long-distance transmission, neural guesswork and editable cut and paste.” He adds, “What we see is not the product of direct perception, but of a reconstruction which borders on fragile artistry.”

At this juncture, and with apologies to the Great Swami, we can be absolutely sure that our vision isn’t television. Philosopher Daniel Dennett reminds us that much of our vision’s eventual “products” aren’t imagistic at all but are such things as guided hand and finger motions, involuntary ducking, exclamations of surprise, triggering of ancient memories and sexual arousal, to cite a few. Assuming that the results of our vision started out as pictures—images—“is rather like assuming that power from a hydroelectric plant is apt to be wetter and less radioactive than power from a nuclear plant. The raw retinal data are cooked in many ways betwixt eyeball and verbal report (for instance),” Dennett says.

As for that chief or central executive, that Ghost in the Machine that supposed is “up there” consciously watching the movie and providing us with a sense of self, well … youse pays your money and youse makes your choices when it comes to which theories, and which theorists, of consciousness you choose to follow.

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