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6/25/09

Ego Is Lord: Philosophers & Neuroscientists in Its Service


  • "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994)

    I find something supremely ironic in philosophers and neuroscientists who claim ego is a fiction of the brain. They may be right; they may be wrong. But they pursue careers. They seek to make names for themselves, for the sake of something they claim has no significance as a viable "reality." A sense of self and ego rules them as it does everybody else. Their ambitions are motivated by something they claim is a misperception of common sense: ego and self.

    I think of The Rape of Nanking in 1937 and the unspeakable, despicable atrocities soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army committed against the defenseless men, women, and children of that city. I think of the International Safety Zone set up in the city by Western men and women, Germans, Americans, British, others, to protect the Chinese from the Japanese barbarians. There was Minnie Vautrin who risked a bayonet each time she shoved the American flag in front of a Japanese soldier about to yank an eleven year old girl away to rape her. There was Nazi party member John Rabe who wept at being unable to save more men and women from being gutted by a bayonet or having a sword lop off their heads. They risked their lives to save others. Rabe said it would be immoral to flee to safety in Germany while so many suffered so horribily. He stayed, risked his life to protect them.

    These people had strong beliefs rooted in religious and moral convictions.

    As for they who claim that self and ego are fictions, what would they have done? It follows from their views that any moral position we take is a function of a something tenuous at best--our belief in who we are and what we stand for. Imagine these philosophers and neuroscientists in Nanking in 1937. Speaking for myself, I find it hard to think of them as acting with the same conviction.
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