"The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's first hypothesis - that consciousness (as he carefully defines it) is based on language, and related topics.
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"The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Post by Moderator »

Just rereading The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders. There is a lot of material that ties in with Jaynes's ideas. He describes research and experiments that suggest consciousness is involved in much less of our thinking and behavior than we are led to believe -- that most of our actions are indeed initiated on a subconscious level, with conscious will in most cases more of an illusion.

There is an interesting discussion of the "I" (subjective consciousness) vs. the "me" (the entire person, including the subconscious) and conflicts that arise between the two. Also some interesting thoughts on our seeking out experiences in which we can "turn off" conscious thought through sports, music, religious rituals, entertainment, etc. [see Ch. 10 - Maxwell's Me].

Chapter 11 describes Gazzaniga and LeDoux's split-brain experiments and their implications for consciousness.

In Chapter 12, he describes Jaynes' ideas and how consciousness may have actually declined during the Dark Ages.

It's a lot to take in but the ideas in this book provide a great deal of support for Jaynes' view of consciousness as only a small portion of our mentality.

Has anyone else read this book? Any comments on it?
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Will give comments in a few weeks

Post by Holmes »

Hi Moderator,

I just orderd the book and will try to read it in then next weeks. Stay tuned :-)

Timothy Campbell

"The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Post by Timothy Campbell »

It's nice to see a book referencing Jaynes. Sometimes in the library I pick up a book about consciousness and the first thing I do is check the index. If there's no mention of Jaynes, I tend to think the book is incomplete.

It's not that I think Jaynes is 100% right -- or even 1% right -- I can't know because I don't have a time machine. But the thing is, I have yet to read any book besides OOCITBOTBM that examines the evolution of consciousness so carefully, and from so many angles.

Is there some other book about the evolution of consciousness that can compare? If so, I'd like to read it!
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"The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Post by pigeonsailor »

hi mr moderator :)

I'm actually reading this book right now as part of an exchange program with a consciousness-studies friend -- i recommended OC to him and he recommended The User Illusion to me. funny too -- I was reading amazon reviews of the latter and saw your post about it. Good review.

The preface of the User Illusion blew me away and got me very excited, especially the last line, in which the end of the analog "I" is predicted to soon have its demise. I too have had a sense that that is going to be happening, that it is already happening (perhaps in autistics), so it was gratifying and exciting to read that.

I'm now on the second chapter but feel like i need to start over again and make notes along the way.

I'm also reading Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, which is a little fluffier but comforting too.
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Re: "The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Post by ignosympathnoramus »

I have read this book and quite enjoyed it. However, I disagreed with much of what it had to say on the Free Will problem, especially his position that the "Me" is always in charge and only lets the "I" do some deciding sometimes...it begins to flirt with epiphenomenalism regarding consciousness. I also thought that he didn't use Jaynes properly. I ended up writing some rather fiery criticisms in a couple blog posts, if anybody is interested, but I must warn that the second one is especially long and vitriolic.
http://thinkonthesethingstoo.wordpress. ... -illusion/
http://thinkonthesethingstoo.wordpress. ... free-will/

The first post essentially objects to calling any map an "illusion." It is only an illusion if you mistake it for a perfect replica of the terrain, or mistake it for the terrain itself. Not all illusions are equal and its kinda irresponsible to write off consciousness as a pure illusion, on par with LCD-induced hallucinations or other illusions. Afterall, isn't the Graphic User Interface of a computer rather accurately representing the salient features of the underlying hardware, and thus not an illusion at all? Tor's thesis seems to make a similar mistake to writing off all myth as fiction, when really its not a lie, its a metaphor! Moreover, not all fiction is equally false...so writing it all off as a lie is just intellectually lazy.

The second post focuses on Free Will, the "bandwidth" of consciousness, the timing of consciousness, and so forth. Essentially I think it is nonsense to suggest that consciousness is limited to 4 bits/second. I also take aim at Tor's interpretation of Benjamin Libet's experiments on the timing of consciousness. Tor doesn't seem to notice that Libet's own salvation for Free Will (the conscious "veto") actually undermines his own position on Free Will, which is largely based on Libet's experiments nonetheless. It doesn't make any sense to talk about consciousness having a veto if this veto is given to it by the Me (the unconscious)...its not a conscious veto then...consciousness just amounts to a display of the results of unconscious cognition, with no power of its own whatsoever. (hence epiphenomenalism) Did anyone else notice that if Tor's theory were right then we all would still be bicameral! That is, the only apparent difference btwn bicameral man and us is that our left hemisphere is sent hallucinations that it is in control by the right hemisphere ("Me"), in addition to any other content that the "Me" wants to serve up. Instead of unconscious automata, we are unconscious automata with a user illusion. Pure nonsense.

Anyway, I found the book very interesting, learned a lot from it (especially about information theory), but sadly it acted mostly as a good devils advocate for me to take aim at in the forming of my own opinions.
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Re: "The User Illusion" by Tor Nørretranders

Post by HurdyGurdyMan »

A very interesting discussion. I must first confess that I haven't read the book in question, but plan to purchase a copy. Tor, BTW, reminds me very much of a "Tor" I have, in the past, encountered in another discussion forum, and who was very interested in Jaynes' theory.

Having not read the book, I plead ignorance as regards any rating of the veracity of the work.

The discussion of "illusion", in particular, interests me. Perhaps the devil is in the details of one's definition of the word "illusion", but I tend to think of any virtual construct ( idea, metaphor, the idea that a map represents) as being a form of illusion. Mind you, some ideas in the head might be more in tune with real events in reality. And, of course, some might not. Some are thus better predictors of potential future events. But, all ideas are virtual constructs, and not the reality they are meant to represent. Some illusions, then, are more useful than are others.

Fiction, I think, is not necessarily the same thing as is a lie. A fiction might be a story one tells not with the intention of asserting that the described events actually happened as stated. Rather, the story might be told to represent relationships one has actually observed in reality. A lie, OTOH, is a deliberate attempt to assert something that one knows is not true, and is thus a form of dishonesty ( a trait, according to Jaynes, I think, that is one of the earmarks of consciousness).

Consciousness, it would seem, is not an actual thing, but rather, a *way* in which a brain equipped with the necessary hardware, and then tweaked to use the hardware in the appropriate way, operates. As such, it might be referred to as an illusion of sorts, as no such physical entity called consciousness may be observed - only the footprints of the process. Perhaps, at best, we could call it the "software" running in our brains. As such, "it" is not a "lie" (although we could use the process to tell a lie), but is, rather, a sometimes useful illusion. The objective reality is the neuro-electric activity. The experience arising from that activity in a conscious individual is not "out there" in the world to be observed; it is the subjective, virtual construct that we fabricate, sometimes to our advantage, if we have done our homework well.
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