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If the self doesn’t exist, what am I?

 
dhave
 
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dhave
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31 August 2017 12:27
 
NL. - 30 August 2017 10:00 PM
dhave - 30 August 2017 07:56 PM

One possibility is that you are a famous writer.  Another is that you think too much.

A third is that I’m trying to have an earnest discussion about topics I care about.

Yes, fine.  All I’m saying is that if you are interested in a topic and not satisfied with my explanations then go talk to another person of similar interests.  There are many intelligent people on this forum and no doubt with experience in different religions or practices.  I’ll address your first query.

Buddhists, after much training, have spiritual experiences that align with Buddhism. However, Christians, after much prayer and contemplation, tend to have spiritual experiences that align with Christianity, Jewish people Judaism, Muslims Islam, and so on. You need to add another variable here to explain why we should preference one over the other. For example, if you had a control group that was trained in various spiritual practices with absolutely no prior expectations and they consistently saw things that aligned with a particular theological philosophy, that might constitute more objective evidence (although it seems to me that such people, where they exist, tend to come up with rather “new agey’ ideas that don’t align with any particular philosophy or, often, empirical evidence.) Showing that one particular conclusion is logically consistent might be another route to go, although as we’ve discussed, these experiences generally go beyond conceptual logic and end in paradox at some point.

Here’s my preferred view.  It is not right or wrong, I do not have time to debate whether it is better or worse, it is just how I view things.

Religions, or ways of practicing spirituality, can be divided into two groups:  transformative and translational.

The goal of transformative schools is to effect a fundamental change in who you are, the “I” you subjectively know yourself as.  So you see recipe books like “How to Find God” or “How to Get Rid of What You Haven’t Got” and there is some practice, some empirical experiment that you are given to practice.

The goal of translational schools is to alter the story you tell about who you are, your “I” narrative.  So for example you are over here, Jesus is over there, there’s God up there, and a Holy Spirit is floating about.

Different approaches are not necessarily better or worse, we end up in them for varieties of reasons, often cultural, and often not even thinking about it.  Most “Buddhists” I meet, for example, are just attracted by something new-agey and import whatever ideas they had before into their new sangha.  Some people want to go deeper and no doubt most approaches have a path for them too.

If you are one of the latter and not someone who just enjoys chatting in forums then, at some point, you have to make a choice, find a teacher(s), stop trying to explain everything, and have enough faith that the practice you choose will be healthy for you, for those you love, for the planet.

May we be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.  Amen.

Regards,
Dave.

 

 
 
sojourner
 
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sojourner
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31 August 2017 18:50
 
dhave - 31 August 2017 12:27 PM

Yes, fine.  All I’m saying is that if you are interested in a topic and not satisfied with my explanations then go talk to another person of similar interests.  There are many intelligent people on this forum and no doubt with experience in different religions or practices.  I’ll address your first query.


This sounds like an elaborate way of saying that if you don’t know the answer to a question, I should ask someone who does. It would be less confusing if you just said that directly, “Sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question,” but fair enough. I guess my thought is - hey, I don’t know either, anyone here is free to put their heads together and muse and see what we come up with. But again, fair point that perhaps there are Buddhists scholars out there for whom this is old hat.

 

Here’s my preferred view.  It is not right or wrong, I do not have time to debate whether it is better or worse, it is just how I view things.

Religions, or ways of practicing spirituality, can be divided into two groups:  transformative and translational.

The goal of transformative schools is to effect a fundamental change in who you are, the “I” you subjectively know yourself as.  So you see recipe books like “How to Find God” or “How to Get Rid of What You Haven’t Got” and there is some practice, some empirical experiment that you are given to practice.

The goal of translational schools is to alter the story you tell about who you are, your “I” narrative.  So for example you are over here, Jesus is over there, there’s God up there, and a Holy Spirit is floating about.


This doesn’t really track with my experience. I guess it all depends on the specifics of which church/es you’re picturing. I’m sure there are people who are very rigid in all traditions - but the idea that Buddhism is transformative and Christianity is a static narrative hasn’t been my experience at all. I think almost all major religions contain a significant ‘transformative’ element, they just frame it differently. I’ve found Christianity to be very transformative, in a positive way - although I also found studying Buddhist philosophy incredibly helpful in that process. That sort of ‘opened a door’ for me wherein other spiritual traditions made more sense, and since then I feel I’ve been able to benefit more from what Christianity has to offer, even if I don’t agree with everything or at least a literal interpretation of everything in the Christian tradition. Like I said, I certainly don’t agree with everything that’s purported to be part of the Buddhist tradition either, I think cultural mores simply shift to much for any religion to be totally translatable centuries later.

 

Different approaches are not necessarily better or worse, we end up in them for varieties of reasons, often cultural, and often not even thinking about it.  Most “Buddhists” I meet, for example, are just attracted by something new-agey and import whatever ideas they had before into their new sangha.  Some people want to go deeper and no doubt most approaches have a path for them too.

If you are one of the latter and not someone who just enjoys chatting in forums then, at some point, you have to make a choice, find a teacher(s), stop trying to explain everything, and have enough faith that the practice you choose will be healthy for you, for those you love, for the planet.


I’m not sure why you’d assume these are mutually exclusive - i.e., if I’m talking on a message board I haven’t “made a choice”. I’ve been on about seven meditation retreats if I remember correctly, five silent, one yoga-based, and one at Menla. I read spiritual literature to learn about the underlying concepts. I go on retreat. I meditate daily, both in formal practice and with a chosen ‘meditation of the day’, like metta or the nature of self, that I try to work in to more informal activities. I work on character development and spending time with spiritual groups (including, yes, Christians,) and time with animals and in nature and so on. And I’m pretty happy with how that’s going, so that’s not my point in bringing up these ideas. As I’ve said a few times now, I think the strongest argument I would make for contemplative practice is that, if nothing else, it does seem to be beneficial in strictly practical terms. Do larger metaphysical themes and philosophy interest me? Yes, absolutely, a great deal - but not because I’m expressing some kind of dissatisfaction with spiritual practice, which I’m not. Just because they, well, interest me. I mean it’s the fabric of the very universe we’re talking about here - what could be more fascinating?

 
 
sojourner
 
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sojourner
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01 September 2017 18:36
 

On the OP topic in general - I was reading this article today that I thought (possibly) gave some really interesting insight into why we should value ‘self’, vs. total selflessness in the colloquial sense. This (the colloquial sense) does admittedly differ somewhat from the Buddhist version, I think, but I also think it’s a good example of what to watch out for when we attempt to frame ancient and possibly poorly translated concepts in 2017. ‘Selflessness’ as a state of total equanimity, non attachment,  and compassion is one thing (you’ll notice in the quotes below that these problems would not exist if that were the case.) ‘Selflessness’ as a state of passivity is probably rather harmful and even against Buddhists teachings - so I think it’s an area where one has to be very careful with the fine parsing of language and concepts.


Anyways. The author tends to describe these concepts in terms of ‘different types of empathy’, whereas I think the ‘empathy vs. compassion’ distinction that you hear people like Paul Bloom and Matthieu Ricard talk about is semantically simpler. Either way, though, I think this makes a really interesting case for the ‘light side’ of ‘“self”-ishness’. Initially, this ‘self-ing’ or sense of agency creates a needed distinction between the experience of self and the experience of other:

This agentive capacity is critical for empathy: in a complete empathic experience, affective sharing tnust be modulated and monitored by the sense of whose feelings belong to whom (Decety & Jackson (2004» . Further, self-awareness generally and agency in particular are crucial aspects in promoting a selfless regard for the other rather than a selfish desire to escape aversive arousal (Batson, Sager, Garst, Kang, Rubchinsky, & Dawson,(1997».


In sum, the studies reviewed indicate that in addition to perception-action coupling and emotional responsivity being basic building blocks in infancy, a sense of self, agency, and self-other distinctions emerge early in the preverbal period (see also Rochat & Striano (2000». If infants or adults were restricted only to perceiving others as ‘like me,’ and nothing more (and we have argued that infants and young children do more than this, see Meltzoff& Moore (1995», this could potentially be detrimental for the altruistic function of empathy—-self-other merging causes personal distress, not pro-social helping behavior (e.g. Decety & Lamm (2009); Lamm, Batson, & Decety (2007» . A sense of agency, however, helps children discriminate self-produced actions from other-produced actions. Importantly, the development of agency in children is bolstered by the emergence of intentional imitation.


And then goes on to discuss the implications of having this distinction (or not having it) in real world situations (apologies for all the neuroanatomy verbiage, I just skim that as it doesn’t particularly affect the psychological outcomes):

 

A recent functional MRI study by Lamm, Batson, & Decety (2007) investigated the distinction between empathic concern and personal distress combining a number of behavioral measures and event-related fl’v1R1. Participants were asked to watch a series of video-clips featuring patients undergoing painful medical treatment either with the instruction to put themselves explicitly in the shoes of the patient (‘imagine self’), or, in another condition, to focus their attention on the feelings and reactions ofthe patient (‘imagine other’). Behavioral measures confirmed previous social psychology fIndings that projecting oneself into an aversive situation leads to higher personal distress and lower empathic concern-while focusing on the emotional and behavioral reactions of another’s plight is accompanied by higher empathic concern and lower personal distress. Neuroimaging data were consistent with such fIndings. The self-perspective evoked stronger hemodynamic responses in brain regions involved in coding the motivational-affective dimensions of pain, including bilateral insular cortices and anterior medial cingulate cortex. In addition, the self-perspective led to stronger activation in the amygdala, a limbic structure that plays a critical role in fear-related behaviors, such as the evaluation of actual or potential threats. Interestingly, the amygdala receives nociceptive information from the spino-parabrachial pain system and the insula, and its activity appears closely tied to the context and level of aversiveness of the perceived stimuli. Imagining oneself to be in a painful and potentially dangerous situation thus triggers a stronger fearful and/or aversive response than imagining someone else to be in the same situation.


In other words, unless you are able to be in pretty much any situation, no matter how painful or torturous, and experience zero suffering and nothing but equanimity and compassion (and a quick look at the nightly news should confirm, I think, that this pretty much impossible unless you literally are an Enlightened Being,) it’s actually helpful, in terms of altruism, to experience others as ‘an other’ to some degree. I think the trick here is that what Buddhism refers to as ‘selflessness’ is actually not ‘agency-less-ness’, as we understand it in Western psychology. Maybe not, I don’t want to misrepresent Buddhism, but that’s my hunch. I think the fact that there appears to be a contradiction here speaks to a mistranslation of the original concept, either via language change or via lack of experiential knowledge on the part of listeners over the generations - I think to most people, to say you have no self but you do have agency would be contradictory, meaning perhaps Buddhism means something a bit different by ‘self’.

[ Edited: 01 September 2017 18:40 by sojourner]
 
 
Brian888
 
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Brian888
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07 September 2017 06:54
 

A new book entitled “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright has some very interesting observations about selflessness (or, as he puts it, not-self).  Wright describes the many ways in which the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience appear to correlate with Buddhist propositions about the nature of self.  A fair bit of the book is dedicated to discussing a relatively new idea in neuroscience, namely that there is no “self” that is the primary decision-maker (i.e., Plato’s metaphor of the rational ego being a charioteer driving a team of unruly horses is dead-wrong).  Instead, our brains appear to be composed of “modules” (as Wright puts it), with each module having a specific purpose (for example, reproduction, eating, resting…the list is pretty endless).  The modules are in constant competition to direct our actions.  Interestingly, this all pretty much happens subconsciously; many (maybe most) of our decisions are essentially made “for us” at the subconscious level.  What we think of as “ourselves,” our rational ego, is more akin to a story that we weave together after the fact in order to be able to explain our actions to ourselves and others.  For example, at a certain point during the day my hunger module may win out and direct my body to go get a snack from the vending machine.  When this happens, I tell myself, “I’m hungry; guess I’ll go get a snack.”  This is, from an evolutionary perspective, much more palatable than telling myself and others (if they ask why I just went to get a snack), “I have no idea why I just did that; I’m not in control.”

 
dhave
 
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dhave
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07 September 2017 09:13
 
Brian888 - 07 September 2017 06:54 AM

A new book entitled “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright has some very interesting observations about selflessness (or, as he puts it, not-self).  Wright describes the many ways in which the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience appear to correlate with Buddhist propositions about the nature of self.  A fair bit of the book is dedicated to discussing a relatively new idea in neuroscience, namely that there is no “self” that is the primary decision-maker (i.e., Plato’s metaphor of the rational ego being a charioteer driving a team of unruly horses is dead-wrong).  Instead, our brains appear to be composed of “modules” (as Wright puts it), with each module having a specific purpose (for example, reproduction, eating, resting…the list is pretty endless).  The modules are in constant competition to direct our actions.  Interestingly, this all pretty much happens subconsciously; many (maybe most) of our decisions are essentially made “for us” at the subconscious level.  What we think of as “ourselves,” our rational ego, is more akin to a story that we weave together after the fact in order to be able to explain our actions to ourselves and others.  For example, at a certain point during the day my hunger module may win out and direct my body to go get a snack from the vending machine.  When this happens, I tell myself, “I’m hungry; guess I’ll go get a snack.”  This is, from an evolutionary perspective, much more palatable than telling myself and others (if they ask why I just went to get a snack), “I have no idea why I just did that; I’m not in control.”

Yes, we mentioned this here, looks like a great read.

Regards,
Dave.

 
 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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Antisocialdarwinist
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07 September 2017 13:22
 
Brian888 - 07 September 2017 06:54 AM

A new book entitled “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright has some very interesting observations about selflessness (or, as he puts it, not-self).  Wright describes the many ways in which the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience appear to correlate with Buddhist propositions about the nature of self.  A fair bit of the book is dedicated to discussing a relatively new idea in neuroscience, namely that there is no “self” that is the primary decision-maker (i.e., Plato’s metaphor of the rational ego being a charioteer driving a team of unruly horses is dead-wrong).  Instead, our brains appear to be composed of “modules” (as Wright puts it), with each module having a specific purpose (for example, reproduction, eating, resting…the list is pretty endless).  The modules are in constant competition to direct our actions.  Interestingly, this all pretty much happens subconsciously; many (maybe most) of our decisions are essentially made “for us” at the subconscious level.  What we think of as “ourselves,” our rational ego, is more akin to a story that we weave together after the fact in order to be able to explain our actions to ourselves and others.  For example, at a certain point during the day my hunger module may win out and direct my body to go get a snack from the vending machine.  When this happens, I tell myself, “I’m hungry; guess I’ll go get a snack.”  This is, from an evolutionary perspective, much more palatable than telling myself and others (if they ask why I just went to get a snack), “I have no idea why I just did that; I’m not in control.”

You might also be interested in The Enigma of Reason. The title is actually a little misleading, since the book purports to solve the enigma of why people reason so poorly. At the risk of oversimplifying, people don’t actually reason poorly, it’s just that the traditional view of reason is incorrect. The purpose of reason is not to help us solve problems or make better decisions, but rather to justify decisions or conclusions that we arrive at intuitively, and to persuade others that our intuitive decisions and conclusions are valid. Reason is a module whose function is to promote cooperation among social animals, and not to help individuals make better decisions or reach better conclusions. It turns out that as long as we accept this view of reason, people actually reason quite well.

The New Yorker ran a review of it earlier this year: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.

 
 
dhave
 
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dhave
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07 September 2017 15:00
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 07 September 2017 01:22 PM

You might also be interested in The Enigma of Reason. The title is actually a little misleading, since the book purports to solve the enigma of why people reason so poorly. At the risk of oversimplifying, people don’t actually reason poorly, it’s just that the traditional view of reason is incorrect. The purpose of reason is not to help us solve problems or make better decisions, but rather to justify decisions or conclusions that we arrive at intuitively, and to persuade others that our intuitive decisions and conclusions are valid. Reason is a module whose function is to promote cooperation among social animals, and not to help individuals make better decisions or reach better conclusions. It turns out that as long as we accept this view of reason, people actually reason quite well.

The New Yorker ran a review of it earlier this year: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.

That is so true and so pertinent it seems:  I wish Sam, the guru of convincing arguments, could address this in one of his podcasts; it throws a wrench in the idea that one can “prove” their ethical choices are best or, worse, that they found some kind of absolutes about how everyone ought to behave.  It is complicated.

These ethical debates might be richer if both sides included these factoids in their analysis.  (Maybe Sam does, I’ve not read his moral landscape yet.)

Regards,
Dave.

 
 
sojourner
 
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07 September 2017 19:06
 
Brian888 - 07 September 2017 06:54 AM

A new book entitled “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright has some very interesting observations about selflessness (or, as he puts it, not-self).  Wright describes the many ways in which the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience appear to correlate with Buddhist propositions about the nature of self.  A fair bit of the book is dedicated to discussing a relatively new idea in neuroscience, namely that there is no “self” that is the primary decision-maker (i.e., Plato’s metaphor of the rational ego being a charioteer driving a team of unruly horses is dead-wrong).  Instead, our brains appear to be composed of “modules” (as Wright puts it), with each module having a specific purpose (for example, reproduction, eating, resting…the list is pretty endless).  The modules are in constant competition to direct our actions.  Interestingly, this all pretty much happens subconsciously; many (maybe most) of our decisions are essentially made “for us” at the subconscious level.  What we think of as “ourselves,” our rational ego, is more akin to a story that we weave together after the fact in order to be able to explain our actions to ourselves and others.  For example, at a certain point during the day my hunger module may win out and direct my body to go get a snack from the vending machine.  When this happens, I tell myself, “I’m hungry; guess I’ll go get a snack.”  This is, from an evolutionary perspective, much more palatable than telling myself and others (if they ask why I just went to get a snack), “I have no idea why I just did that; I’m not in control.”


Ok, I am going to insert a nitpick that I think is kinda necessary here, and then move on - I think the title is realistically “Why (selected portions) of Buddhism are True”, although I realize that’s far less catchy. I do think it’s important to note that Buddhism encompasses many traditions and says many different things, so it is not free from claims of cherrypicking in cases like this.


That said, I do find the research behind various practices fascinating, especially where they are counter-intuitive (i.e., it’s not clear why a practice like focusing on the breath should cause a myriad of changes in the brain that don’t reflect a sort of ‘practice effect’ of simply getting better at breathing, ha ha, in the way that parts of the brain related to motor skills get better when practicing basketball; those related to navigation when training to be a taxi driver, etc.)


Regarding the subconscious, I recently read a passage that was like an ‘analytical meditation’ (in the Buddhist sense) for me. Something about the way it was phrased did give me a visceral, if temporary, sense (I think) of what Buddhists call ‘emptiness’ and I call ‘being made of math’. I’ll quote here, as it touches on similar topics and I think gives a good sense of how ethereal our seemingly concrete existence actually is, and how even the simplest action is probably the result of millions of equations flying at the speed of light and then deciding on a narrative:

Below the conscious stage stage, myriad unconscious processors, operating in parallel, constantly strive to extract the most detailed and complete interpretation of our environment. They operate as nearly optimal statisticians who exploit every slightest perceptual hint—a faint movement, a shadow, a splotch of light—to calculate the probability that a given property holds true in the outside world. Much as the weather bureau combines dozens of meteorological observations to infer the chance of rain in the next few days, our unconscious perception uses incoming sense data to compute the probability that colors, shapes, animals, or people are present in our surroundings. Our consciousness, on the other hand, offers us only a glimpse of this probabilistic universe—what statisticians call a “sample” from this unconscious distribution. It cuts through all ambiguities and achieves a simplified view, a summary of the best current interpretation of the world, which can then be passed on to our decision-making system.


This division of labor, between an army of unconscious statisticians and a single conscious decision decision maker, may impose itself on any moving organism by that organism’s very necessity of acting upon the world. No one can act on mere probabilities—at some point, a dictatorial process is needed to collapse all uncertainties and decide. Alea jacta est: “the die is cast,” as Caesar famously said after crossing the Rubicon to seize Rome from the hands of Pompey. Any voluntary action requires tipping the scales to a point of no return. Consciousness may be the brain’s scale-tipping device—collapsing all unconscious probabilities into a single conscious sample, so that we can move on to further decisions.


The classical fable of Buridan’s ass hints at the usefulness of quickly breaking through complex decisions. In this imaginary tale, a donkey that is thirsty and hungry is placed exactly midway between a pail of water and a stack of hay. Unable to decide between them, the fabled animal dies of both hunger and thirst. The problem seems ridiculous, yet we are constantly confronted with difficult decisions of a similar kind: the world offers us only unlabeled opportunities with uncertain, probabilistic probabilistic outcomes. Consciousness resolves the issue by bringing to our attention, at any given time, only one out of the thousands of possible interpretations of the incoming world.


The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, following in the footsteps of the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, was among the first to recognize that even our simplest conscious observation results from a bewildering complexity of unconscious probabilistic inferences:


Looking out my window this lovely spring morning I see an azalea in full bloom. No, no! I do not see that; though that is the only way I can describe what I see. That is a proposition, a sentence, a fact; but what I perceive is not proposition, sentence, fact, but only an image, which I make intelligible in part by means of a statement of fact. This statement is abstract; but what I see is concrete. I perform an abduction when I so much as express in a sentence anything I see. The truth is that the whole fabric of our knowledge knowledge is one matted felt of pure hypothesis confirmed and refined by induction. Not the smallest advance can be made in knowledge beyond the stage of vacant staring, without making an abduction at every step.7


What Peirce called “abduction” is what a modern cognitive scientist would dub “Bayesian inference,” after the Reverend Thomas Bayes (ca. 1701–61), who first explored this domain of mathematics. Bayesian inference consists in using statistical reasoning in a backward manner to infer the hidden causes behind our observations. In classical probability theory, we are typically told what happens (for instance, “someone draws three cards from a deck of fifty-two”); the theory allows us to assign probabilities to specific outcomes (for instance, “What is the probability that all three cards are aces?”). Bayesian theory, however, lets us reason in the converse direction, from outcomes to their unknown origins (for instance, “If someone draws three aces from a deck of fifty-two cards, what is the likelihood that the deck was rigged and comprised more than four aces?”). This is called “reverse inference” or “Bayesian statistics.” The hypothesis that the brain acts as a Bayesian statistician is one of the hottest and most debated areas of contemporary neuroscience.


Our brain must perform a kind of reverse inference because all our sensations are ambiguous: many remote objects could have caused them. When I manipulate a plate, for instance, its rim appears to be a perfect circle, but it actually projects on my retina as a distorted ellipse, compatible with myriad other interpretations. Infinitely many potato-shaped objects, of countless orientations in space, could have cast the same projection onto my retina. If I see a circle, it is only because my visual brain, unconsciously pondering the endless possible causes for this sensory input, opts for “circle” as the most probable. Thus, although my perception of the plate as a circle seems immediate, it actually arises from a complex inference that weeds out an inconceivably vast array of other explanations for that particular sensation.


Neuroscience offers much evidence that during the intermediate visual stages, the brain ponders a vast number of alternative interpretations for its sensory inputs. A single neuron, for instance, may perceive only a small segment of an ellipse’s overall contour. This information is compatible with a broad variety of shapes and motion patterns. Once visual neurons start talking to one another, however, casting their “votes” for the best percept, the entire population of neurons can converge. When you have eliminated the impossible, Sherlock Holmes famously stated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.


Dehaene, Stanislas. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

 
 
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