The Most Depressing Things True Detective Says About The Self Are True

By Kyle Hill | March 3, 2014 11:00 am


We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling. Programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when, in fact, nobody is anybody.

Rust Cohle has tumbled down a deep, dark philosophical hole and wants us to follow him. In HBO’s episodic crime drama True Detective, Cohle—played masterfully by Matthew McConaughey—accentuates his homicide investigations with disturbing existential rumination. Listening to Cohle lecture on the futile nature of human life or the cosmic indifference of the universe is emotionally arresting to say the least. His “corrosive” soul is the fulcrum for the supernatural element in True Detective, a nihilistic car wreck to stare at each week.

But Cohle is more than just dark when he speaks about human nature, he is right.

When Cohle says that we are “programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody,” he’s not just trying to ruin partner Marty Hart’s “silent reflection periods,” he is bringing up some of the biggest questions in the scientific exploration of human consciousness. Is the mind separate from the body? Who is in control? What makes the mind? Some research suggests that fully understanding consciousness involves biting the bullet that Cohle loads in the gun: our sense of self is programmed, a construct, an illusion.

Ask most people if mind and body are one and they will say no. This is referred to as “naïve dualism.” The people who think the body and mind are separate—more specifically the physical brain and the mind—are not naïve or stupid themselves, so to speak, but rather we are born thinking this way without consideration. When we look in the mirror, for example, we instinctively comment on our physical appearance separate from the mind. “You” haven’t aged but your body looks older. When you trip on the sidewalk you might say your legs gave out, but it wasn’t your fault. We feel as though we drive our bodies like a vessel our minds inhabit. But these feelings are still considered naïve because of what we now know about the brain.

James Bridges/Michele K. Short/HBO

James Bridges/Michele K. Short/HBO

When we knew nothing of where the mind sprang from, it was understandable to think ourselves something of a puppet master. We are born (and cultured) with a sense of self located somewhere behind the eyes, in between the temples. Ultimately, our intuitive sense of self is like our pre-programmed intuitive sense of physics—useful in most situations, but not very accurate when we ask bigger questions.

With support from countless experiments and a number of intersecting fields, science is now certain mind and brain are one. More succinctly, “The mind is what the brain does.” If you—the you that harbors your personality, your will, your conscious thought—were truly separate from the physical brain, then brain damage or surgery could never change who you were. But it does. In theory, a surgeon could remove or alter a part of your brain and you would become an entirely different person (the case of Phineas Gage being the classic example). We’ve seen it enough times to know that our naïve dualism lives up to the designation. You are your brain. Dualism is no longer a scientifically tenable position. It may be a philosophical one, but Cohle has something to say about that too.

The dark truth Rust Cohle is alluding to is this: Who you are is entirely dependent on the physical brain, “this meat,” as Cohle puts it. And this meat makes mistakes about reality all the time.

Illusions are the easiest (and maybe the least depressing) way to see that our brains make mistakes. A famous optical illusion like this one makes it pretty clear that something is off. No matter how many times you try to see it, only by changing the conditions does something flip in your brain to say, “These blocks are the same color.”

Your brain is a prediction and modeling machine. There is simply too much information coming into our senses at any one time not to take advantage of some shortcuts. In the block example, your brain is assuming that the blocks are a different color because of their apparent lighting and 3D orientation. It makes a guess and that’s what you perceive.

Another example you’re going to hate me for: Your nose is always in your field of vision. The only reason why you don’t notice it all the time is that your brain is effectively editing it out like some green screen effect. Not only does the brain edit out reality, it fills it in. For example, you have two fairly substantial blind spots in your vision that you never notice. Only when you do a test like this do they “appear.” Otherwise, you would never see two large black spots in your vision. The brain is making predictions about the world and modeling what would be in those blind spots if the world were consistent within them. It’s a weird concept—the world we perceive is only our brain’s best simulation of what is beyond our eyes, ears, and noses. It gets even weirder than that.

In The Self Illusion, psychologist Bruce Hood lays out the case for how the brain’s models extend all the way to the self. Life seems rich and continuous and coherent to us, but thanks to the numerous illusions that fool us we know that’s not true. Because of how our vision works, for example, we are functionally blind between the times our eyes dart from one focal point to another, but we never notice. (Just try to see your eyes moving in a mirror.) Hood claims this blindness adds up to hours each day, but it’s never a part of our conscious experience. Those kinds of insights lead to a disturbing conclusion—the brain also models the self.

The “you” that rationalizes and chooses and deliberates is simply a way for the brain to navigate the world. Having a sense of a self that apparently controls the body from behind the eyes is an efficient way to deal with other sentient creatures, and evolved along with our intelligence, or so psychologists like Hood suggest. This conclusion doesn’t necessarily have to come from a scientific perspective either. In Buddhist philosophy, the term “anattā” refers to Rust’s contention of the “not-self” or the self illusion. If you simply pay attention to the nature of perception—what you feel and how—eventually you will notice that the sensation of a singular sense of self melts away. Of course, that kind of meditation does not work for everyone, and does not prove there is no “you.” Maybe shrinking your mirror down to the size of a quarter will help.

Think about the brain’s self modeling like The Matrix. In that film, humans are kept alive and thinking by electrical inputs wired straight into their brains. The humans in turn create a sense of self and experience from these inputs alone. But their sensory experience is completely illusory, and they’d never know it. Is that really any different from how we experience the world? Isn’t the self just a jumbled of sensory input that is stitched together like some rag doll that looks terrible up close? Now that’s thinking like Rust Cohle.

Rust Cohle

Rust Cohle by p1xer on deviantART

Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective could go down in TV history as the world’s biggest bummer—a pessimist walking into extinction. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Knowing that the mind is not separate from the brain, that our senses can be fooled, that our sense of self can break down if we simply pay attention to the here and now, Rust Cohle is right—we are a multitude of unconscious processes cobbled together in a locked room and labeled “You”.

People… I have seen the finale of thousands of lives man. Young, old, each one was so sure of their realness. That their sensory experience constituted a unique individual. Purpose, meaning. So certain that they were more than a biological puppet. Truth wills out, everybody sees once the strings are cut off all down.

If you haven’t seen True Detective, this will give you a good sense of the fantastic (and depressing) acting you are missing (video contains spoilers):

And check out the incredible fan art!

Human consciousness is nowhere close to figured out, and there is no way I could cover every argument about the self here. For more, check out these videos and books:

The Self Illusion: How Your Brain Creates You—A talk by psychologist Bruce Hood

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self—By Jennifer Ouellette

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity—By Bruce Hood

Image Credits:
Rust Cohle by p1xer on deviantART
James Bridges/Michele K. Short/HBO

  • TheBrett

    This reminds me of the experiments suggesting that our awareness of making decisions actually follows our decision-making, and not the other way around. Instead of “that sandwich looks good, I’ll buy it” followed by buying the sandwich, we may “choose” to buy the sandwich and only then come up with “that sandwich is good, I should buy”.

    Granted, there’s been some skepticism about measurement time – and not all brain processes seem to operate at the same delay time – but it’s still a bit of a mind-blowing thing that you aren’t actually consciously “deciding” on something. It’s just a rationale that your mind comes up with after the fact, if true.

  • Ieuan Cilcwri

    Oh that’s just great you’ve just solved all the great philisophical questions that mankind has been wrestling with thousands of years, by a process of simple assertion. Genius.

    The programme represents a particular ‘worldview’ accurately but whether it’s ‘true’ or not will not be posited by you or the programme. I don’t think that’s it’s intention, it’s far more subtle than your rather crude analysis. I see Kohle’s character as a good juxtaposition to the culture and society he’a operating in, or did you not notice that, perhaps in the same way you can’t see your nose. There are glimpses of that society’s loss and fall, but something still shines.

    Feel free to share links on any other of your highly acclaimed articles or peer reviewed pieces.

    • Kyle Hill

      Obviously I disagree with and decline to answer the rather trollish parts of you comment, but I’ll try to answer the rest.

      Rust claims that there is no “I”, something that philosophers and, more recently, neuroscientists have been grappling with for a long time. I took Rust’s claim to mean that we are fundamentally unaware of the subconscious processes that control us, which I think is true. Consciousness doesn’t seem to be a driver of the self, more so a regulator of many processes that congeal in some kind of “you”.

      For example: You are now under the control of your own breathing.

      Sorry to do that, but did you notice how you were completely oblivious to that process before I brought it up? Conscious thought did not need to intrude upon your breathing, so it didn’t.

      With what we know about the brain, I think the same is true for the conception of the self as a whole–consciousness intruding to get through daily life as social animals. The self seems to be more like software that can be re-written than some metaphysical essence.

      Those basic ideas underpin the show. In the deep South, in Christian country, Rust is the pessimist there to give some tension to the narrative. I understand that. It happens to be promoted by the show that way, but based on what I wrote in the article and here I think the view also happens to be the correct one.

      • Yuri Sá Scaramussa

        So what is the self and what is consciousnes? Is the consciousnes usefull for anything at all on your opinion? If we can’t even find the consciousnes “location” on our brain do you really think that anything at all about a point of view about the reality of the self, free will, consciousnes and a lot of philosophical questions is proved? You look just as

  • 0420196311111


    Isn’t Rust saying ‘a syncretion of sensory experience and feeling’, rather than ‘secretion’? Or is secretion meant as a functional byproduct? (English is not my first language.)

    • Kyle Hill

      “Secretion,” as in our sense of self is something that comes out of our senses and experience, and is not the initial source.

      • 0420196311111

        I see. Thanks.

    • colindenronden

      And if you think its bulls#1t, its excretion.

  • Yalla

    “You are your brain.”
    And you are your mother’s child, no matter what. Something so beautiful and natural.
    You are your conscious mind on deciding the existence of human kind, something so profound, not finding the light out of the darkness. It is a conscious choice. It seems more appealing, and more of an easing thought to just nail everything down to a boring line. But things like these are what determines our end of the line.
    The biggest issue that we fail to acknowledge are the things that you can not fathom being out of our plain “view” of “existence”. We find more comfort in explaining our nonsense away rather than taking the undeniable (unanswerable) good vs evil everywhere, into account.
    The more we have moved away from the natural world, the more we have imprisoned ourselves with the excessive need to build walls around it all. So we find comfort in the endless one liner theories. We over compensate on our need to belong, to be loved enough, to be understood, and fail to assess EVERYTHING together as a whole, deeper than the core that we do not see. “Out of sight, out of mind”, I guess.
    People continuously rebel against the same institutions throughout history, that end up on the exact same pile. You fight so hard against spiritual awakening all the while not realizing the other side that you invoke.
    Yes, influences “develop” us into moral beings. Some are more morally- and “structurally” sound, as we are driven by love. But you can not hide what is in front of you and that which surrounds us every day. It goes unnoticed. Because we choose the damages brought onto us. Some have mountains that have fallen onto them. And that is where they bury themselves deeper.
    Some do not become stronger, but hardened by everyday environments, so we prefer to close off to anything that could be eternally good. Like believing in the greater Creator is too sinister and would poise us to failure.
    From what proof? Humans bad taste in free will? You do not notice every principal of LIFE. The very sense of life. It is that sense that brings you closer to inner peace for as long as you can hold on to.
    Physical aspects like a nose in our on-/off view is the way we were created.. Isn’t that wonderful? So that we can focus on what matters around us.
    We are voluntarily locked away from realizations of reality, we choose to wallow in the temporary pleasures.
    After too much hurt from this very hard and challenging life, our pillars start to fall away.
    It is a life altering challenge to be a better person and move forward. To admit and repent. To take notice. To accept or allow. Man’s misguidence comes from blindly listening to poisonous breath.
    We do not exist from measuring the questions that outweigh the answers. To get to the other side is not going to be that easy and life is neither simple, nor complicated. It is during those times when we become more stagnant in our unwise ways and leave our values behind. It takes less energy and time away from the everyday desires that we undoubtedly fall for that now fills us. So we loose control… It’s more exciting and fun, since we are too blinded by the materials that we can see and not the genuine. It is fellow humans that deceive us into craving the now unbalanced factional and non-fiction. And it is you and me pre-occupied with chucking down life as just a indulgence. Nothing to look for in depth because there is too much darkness that lies beneath us. We fear our weaknesses might reveal the byproduct of our fears. It is the over indulgences that we give into that makes us weaker and strips away strength in reality that goes hand in hand. Our senses are numbed by this constant fight.
    Free will is another territory that scientists stay out of, because we do not want to open ourselves to the possibility of the actual forces that drives everything to the One. It is easy to loose sight of the obvious “good vs evil” seeds in everything.
    You may be able to explain half the genetic predispositions carried on from past to present. Since we do not -take care… Of anyone or our environments. No one wants to be responsible. We hate to be vulnerable, but in vulnerability we find strength plus so much more if we let our barriers fall instead of our foundation.
    We are responsible for each other’s wellbeing. And if we do not take care, then life becomes the mess that we fell into. We become disgusting.
    There is ALWAYS a choice. No matter how slight, that crucial moment of clarity is always there. Overcome the lack of will power for what is right, even while the bad is so much more intriguing and attractive, it is the good that inspires and lets go of the bad.

  • 0420196311111

    Interesting topic.

    On Anatta: Buddhism teaches not to cling to the experience of self, to not regard your perceptions as ‘yours’. This begs the question what or who the ‘one’ is when ‘one does not cling to the self’.

  • 0420196311111

    Interesting topic.

    On Anatta: Buddhism teaches not to cling to the experience of self, to not regard your perceptions as ‘yours’. This begs the question what or who the ‘one’ is when ‘one does not cling to the self’.

  • Robert Johns


  • Longmire

    Thought is the great builder in human life: it is the determining factor.
    Continually think thoughts that are good, and your life will show forth
    in goodness, and your body in health and beauty. Continually think evil
    thoughts, and your life will show forth in evil, and your body in weakness
    and repulsiveness. Think thoughts of love, and you will love and will be loved.
    Think thoughts of hatred, and you will hate and will be hated. Each follows its kind. R. W. Trice

    I personally believe in an eternal soul, I believe I existed before this life and believe I will continue after this life not because I was taught that, quite the contrary, but because I have perceived numerous circumstances that lead me to that conclusion. I personally believe this world is an illusion that is being generated by a malice consensus within this third world, meant to break the will of the individual. Almost every philosophy teaches that “I” alone am nothing which makes me think that maybe “I” am of some greater value than currently appears to be the case. Say that is just some egotistical delusion well then once I die oh well I was wrong but say I’m right then perhaps I will refrain from forsaking my very soul just to belong to some group. There seems to me to be something to a force that just stands in our way, imagine for a moment that all the oblivious fools who have never examined their lives are given there hearts desire and end up in “Heaven” while those who actually sought truth receive theirs and cease to be, how evil would that be. I think the argument about “self” is slightly off target it should be if “I” were suddenly absent from this could “I” stand, am “I” anything outside of my current circumstances. I for one think so even if I have to stand alone.

    • Philip Finn

      I think Asimov said it best: “Democracy doesn’t mean, “Your ignorance is equal to my knowledge”. ”
      think the REAL stumbling block with this as well as most current
      debates about the human condition involves not our belief in the
      existence of self, but whether we’re equal to the other seven billion
      “selves” on the planet. It is a concept we are in no way prepared to
      deal with, and by all obvious signs are dealing with it badly. I think
      science tends to reassure us that whatever the truth, we are not alone,
      that the worst possible fate is we are in it together with seven billion
      other people.
      Philosophy and religion, conversely, allow for some an
      escape route; the perennial ersatz certainty of “holy books” or the
      academic fraudulence of discourses on muddied subjectivity. “Sure, maybe
      THEY’RE all cattle, but I’ve found the secret! I know better!”
      So it comes back down to “all animals are equal; but some are more equal than others”.

      • Longmire

        Equality is a stumbling block when given freely. The only way to true equality is thru mutual strength. The surest path to an acceptable future is for each individual to strive to be a “viable” individual that examines their lot and seeks to steer it in a good way. If one denies there is a “self” there is nothing, no reason at all to respect another, or even try to live a decent life. While we all need to be justified let us not lower the bar completely.

        • Casey Wollberg

          That’s ridiculous.

          • Longmire

            Which part. If you think thru the ramifications of no self existing then there is no reason to try especially when trying is an illusion.

          • Casey Wollberg

            That’s the conclusion when *you* “think” it through, maybe. But you’re operating under a bias. There’s no logical reason to believe your assertion (and you do not support it with any reasoning whatsoever), and it’s an appeal to consequences in the first place.

          • Longmire

            I for one believe individuals should be given every opportunity to think for themselves. Start with the assumption that your thoughts are merely a byproduct of molecular interactions. Wow in the not to distance future there will be no reason that A.I. should not do away with us as a primitive threat to there superior calculations unless there is something unique about us.

          • Casey Wollberg

            More of the same.

        • Philip Finn

          “If one denies there is a “self” there is nothing, no reason at all to respect another, or even try to live a decent life. While we all need
          to be justified let us not lower the bar completely.”
          See? What you’re really saying is, unless the rest of us buy into Longmire’s illusions of self, become enablers to his personal fantasy, he will have no reason to practice the “noblesse oblige” superiors owe to their inferiors such as simple decency, tolerance, and lawfulness. We see this veiled “threat” a lot around the internet, usually in discussions with people heavily-invested in a religion or a personal god, and almost always with the criminally insane, whose primary characteristic – next to a decidedly dim view of the people around them – is narcissism.
          The reason “to respect one another, or even try to live a decent life” is because we share the planet with seven billion other people, whose “self” exists – not to put too fine a point on it, but oh well – whether we acknowledge it or not.
          And most people actually DO acknowledge it, because – as medical science has shown – normal, functioning human beings have what is called “Theory of Mind”, that is, the intuitive appreciation that there are other people in the world besides them, that they have hopes and fears and joys and everyday concerns, and think of themselves as AT LEAST every bit the equal of the other people around them.
          Except for the crimminally insane, who by definition lack “Theory of Mind”, believe themselves to be mystically superior by some agency of their own doing or something they have “perceived” – usually hidden from the lesser lights around them – and see the rest of those around them to have “a need to be justified”.

          • Longmire

            I like how someone who believes they exist are “criminally insane” while all who “realize” they are nothing are justified.

          • Philip Finn

            Perhaps we’re not speaking the same language, Longmire and I…
            Do you even understand what I’m saying to you?
            That you have absolutely no basis, foundation, or grounds to discern that you know something, have an insight, or can count yourself or others as “justified” beyond what you have subjectively imagined for yourself? That as long as you believe you exist without accepting the existence of everyone else as an equal, needing neither your goodwill, approval, or validation, your sense of self is an illusion – that is, no objective basis.

          • Longmire

            Well these symbols are primitive but the ideas they convey I can grasp, sort of. Your saying the “me” is illusionary and I agree but the “I” is what I’m speaking of and is independent of the material world.

    • Philip Finn

      OK, let me be plain, I think you are a narcissist who is proving my hypothesis; in fact, I could have written the entire paragraph simply upon observation of your muddied subjectivity – if for no other reason than your use of “I” over a dozen times, the second and third person plural often but “we” not at all. And I won’t even go into the significance you place upon an imagined “malice” you’ve set up to enhance your unabashed self-importance…
      Just as science is true whether you believe it or not (that is, unlike a fantasy, it doesn’t require your consent or participation) the other seven billion people on this planet are your brethren, fellow travelers and equals whether that fits into your narcissistic, fashioned-in-your-own-image-and-likeness worldview or not.
      Here, I’ll rewrite it more plainly:
      I think the REAL stumbling block with this as well as most current debates about the human condition involves not Longmire’s belief in the existence of self, but whether Longmire’s equal to the other seven billion “selves” on the planet. It is a concept Longmire is in no way prepared to
      deal with, and by all obvious signs Longmire is dealing with it badly.

      • Longmire

        The only possible way there could be equality is if there is a “self” otherwise we are all just reactions to stimuli with the appearance of mind but nothing to value. Personally I think we should all have a “fashioned-in-your-own-image-and-likeness worldview” after all that keeps the group in check.

  • Shane K.

    It is a matter of perspective. I think many times people (especially here in the West) tend to view things in too much of a mechanistic way. True, there is no ego, that is an illusion. But when you begin to shift your focus just a tad, you begin to see so much more.

    Alan Watts was able to explain these concepts with such clarity that when you listen to his lectures, all the puzzle pieces come together. For those of us who come from societies with Western belief systems and ideas, it can be quite eye-opening.

    “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.” – Alan Watts

    Here is a short video that gives you an idea of Watts’ philosophy:

    If you enjoyed that video, I would recommend this long lecture “A Conversation with Myself”:

  • 0420196311111

    It’s been a while since I watched The Matrix, but I’d say Keanu’s experience is not as authentic. The point stands though; his sense of self is just as illusory as that of everyone experiencing the world.

  • CK

    What is truth? His statements aren’t necessarily “truth” as they are one perspective on the self and on the purpose of existence. Rust is not necessarily right; it’s merely one way to look at things. Honestly, this article posits a lot of things as facts when they are merely one theory on the self. It’s a bit misleading.

    • Kyle Hill

      I completely agree that Rust is making a point about his our worldview. However, to say that I am misleading with my presentation is to suggest that there are also many reasons to believe that there is a unique self, a mind seperate from the brain, etc. I don’t think that holds up.

      • CK

        I think there are different philosophies on the self and this is just one way to look at the self. You seem to have dismissed the duality of mind and body, but, last time I checked, this was still a legitimate philosophy on the self, along with other ones as well. This just read to me as if there was one “true”/”correct” answer to the question of self, and I really don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, the mind and brain being the same thing is one theory, but that’s just it: a theory.

        • Kyle Hill

          No. My contention that the mind and brain being inseparable is not “just a theory”–it’s a scientifically validated position. This being a scientific examination of what Rust said, dualism is a testable proposition that happens to be incorrect. Saying that “the mind is what the brain does” is not a philosophy, it’s also a testable claim that any tinkering with the brain shows is correct.

          • CK

            How can you say they are scientifically 100% the same thing? What truly is “the mind”? Our thoughts, our perceptions, our beliefs, both about ourself and the world, etc.? Yes, the mind is contained within the brain, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying they are scientifically the same thing. This (obviously) delves a bit into philosophy, which isn’t so cut-and-dry. There are many ways to look at the mind and joining it with the brain is just one. I guess I just disagree that this is a necessarily testable proposition and that it is scientifically proven the mind and the brain are the same thing. Philosophers would disagree on what even CONSTITUTES the mind, never mind if it joins with the brain. Honestly, I haven’t seen evidence that proves to me beyond any shadow of a doubt that the mind and the body are the same thing, scientifically proven, 100%.

          • TravelGayle

            Enjoying this dichotomy of the mind being ‘the whole (I., the mind) greater than the sum if it’s parts (the brain); and consciousness merely being the command center for all the subconscious directives of the brain. Parts only. Maybe rather than dichotomy I should just consider it a continuum. The mind is definitely the “I” orchestration as interesting as any symphony, artwork, athletic or other oerformance that seemns somehow to transcend the sum of their parts ; or maybe that’s just programmed wishful thinking.

          • Casey Wollberg

            That you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps you should put down the philosophy for a bit and read some science. At any rate, it seems you’re batting at a straw man (“the mind and the brain are the same thing” is not identical to “the mind is what the brain does”), so you’re just muddying the waters here.

          • CK

            I didn’t say that just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Who’s using straw men now? I’ve read science, thank you. Yes, part of what makes the mind what it is is what the brain does. I’m saying I disagree that we have proven 100% scientifically once and for all that there is no duality present there. I’m not muddying anything. I’m expressing my opinion.

          • Vanessa Plain

            I’ve only just discovered this conversation, so I’m a bit late to the table. Kyle Hill argued “that any tinkering with the brain” affects the mind, therefore this is evidence that the two are one and the same. It is a flawed, though understandable argument – like saying the radio broadcast is contained within the radio, because if I unplug the radio I lose the broadcast, and if I tamper with the wires I distort the broadcast. It is easy to assume the broadcast is contained within the device I use to access it. Like saying the TV shows are contained within my TV, that the internet exists within my computer. I can’t locate it among the bolts and wires, but give me time – I know its there!

            Just as we need a device to access the internet – and the construct of the device dictates ‘how’ we interact with the internet – perhaps our brains are the devices by which we access mind. This is just one argument for separation of mind and body.

          • Philip Finn

            OK, now you’re just “arguing from ignorance” as N.D. Tyson has said. Science (and the lack of duality) is true whether you believe in it or not, or whether it lies outside your extent of knowledge. And on it’s best day, neither Philosophy nor your personal subjective meanderings – while you’re more than welcome to them – are science, and have no bearing, weight, or value in a science discussion, much less any objective veracity.
            That’s all we’re saying. That, and Philosophy, Religion, and the other subjective pastimes aren’t science, and share no duality with science, no matter how badly Philosophy and Religion want it to.
            And I see no reason why that can’t be or isn’t OK with people.

          • CK

            Fine. Then, please, show me the scientific 100% true evidence of this. That’s all I’m saying. Because I have yet to see it.

  • Casey Wollberg

    I love all these commenters who just ignore the science and say, “Oh, that’s just one way to look at it,” as though every idea were equally valid.

    • melitagnm105

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      Convertible only from working part time off a home computer… find out here

    • Philip Finn

      I think Asimov said it best: “Democracy doesn’t mean, “Your ignorance is equal to my knowledge”. “

  • steveschlicht

    I don’t find this realization depressing at all.


    Who we think we are as individual selves is purely dependent upon the physical material world and a brain soaking in a bath of unique chemicals and synaptic transfers perceiving, processing and making guesses, edits and revisions as we make our way through the here and now without walking in front of a moving train inadvertently while experiencing the full range of human emotions, joys, despairs, ambiguities.

    What makes that depressing?

    We are able to think about how we think and even generate a good drama out of it.

    I think it makes our awareness, our brevity and rarity, our culpability, all that more exciting and adventurous within the vast and perpetual universe in plain view.

  • Fred Rogers

    It’s about how the characters within the show toil under the illusion of a self. The show isn’t making a statement about how everything humans do is biologically predetermined- it’s about characters within the show. The parts about how they live on is about how the characters live on when people watch the show 5, 10, 50 years from now, even if they die in episode 8. You should stick to making My Face of Atheism memes, you’ll be euphoric and won’t spend so much time practicing mental masturbation.

  • Tumnas

    Mr. Hill, I hope that the following does not come off as hostile, confrontational, or closed-minded – or for that matter, especially antagonistic towards the views of the character Rustin Cohle, who is my new favorite thing on television. But:
    With regard to the (absolutely true) assertion that the mind is indistinguishable from the biological processes of the brain: in my opinion, this should not be understood as a diminution of the self. This should be understood as a celebration of the brain. Yes, our brains construct what we see as the world around us on-the-fly, making use of sleight-of-hand shortcuts and conjurer’s tricks. Yes, our “selves” are almost certainly the product of evolution as a highly social organism. To quote the comment of Mr. Schlicht, below, “What makes that depressing?” The fact that our minds made the laptop I’m using to compose this bloated monstrosity of a comment, as well as the webpage that will host it, as well as the world wide web that will host that? The harnessing of electricity to power such things, and the network of metal along which it is distributed? The use of similar cables (or satellite transmissions, or radio signals) to beam a series of images so tightly choreographed as to present the illusion of motion into people’s homes, or the ability to record those images (with sound and color!) in the first place? These are all products of the mind, born as ideas before they became physical realities.

    If we received our tremendous creative potential simply as a result of our ancestors’ collective desire to get along with one another, then that is a reason to rejoice in one another’s company. The self is not merely an accident of evolution. It is the crowning achievement of evolution. Despite all its limitations, it is the only reason we can have this discussion, or any discussion. It is, as far as we know at this time, the only instrument with which any work is being done to understand any piece of the entire universe, much less our own natures. So the world, and our places in it, are a story that we tell ourselves; it’s the only show in town, and we’ve got the best seats in the house.

  • waynecoghlan

    The brain also constructs a sense of self from accumulated memories of experiences, expectations, and the meaning it applies to them.

  • Juan

    This brain-mind conclusion draws from a certain cultural perspective, as always, bound in space and time. What is interesting from this delusion, however, is that, as many people experience, the mind can heal the body, and vice versa. The questions remains…how does it work and where does one’s soul fit in space and time? The more we know about the pieces, the less we understand about the whole.

  • Richard Orndorff

    I have read through some of the comments which to me are more interesting than the article. To say something is scientifically valid does not make it true. Beyond this point is another which is more basic in human communication, grammar and definition. I doubt that if one could construct a ‘line’ that does not show an example of ‘straight’ and/or ‘curved’ that the construction could not be perceived because the brain/mind will create this ‘line’ in one or both. How can one define an ‘unknown’? Human lives exist as human because we feel (rightly or wrongly) that we have hearts and souls and brains/minds. How does one measure a human heart or soul or mind objectively for that matter? The heart/soul/mind experience (subjective or not) is what the “I” is. What is physical is not what one supposedly takes with her or him after physical death. Just because one has not experienced a ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ does not mean it does not exist. The name existed and had meaning before we were born. A part of human reality always contains an unknown. Why else would we be built to doubt? It is a part of our humanity. To deny this is to deny the “I”. Each plays in her or his own theatre. However, it takes a community of two to know the other exists, does it not?

  • isntlam

    Did you get that, everyone? Everything we believe is wrong because it isn’t what they believe.

  • colindenronden

    The mind does not equal the brain. Usually, just after you die your brain still exists, but your mind has ceased to. The brain is just a lattice-work for the mind, a trellis of atoms. The mind is the electrons that flow along it. There is one theory that electrons don’t orbit the atom like in the Bohr model, but that their position is described by probability; they can range out to infinity. There is also speculation that they travel through all the different parallel universes. This could explain why dreams are crazy. While you are sleeping the electrons in your brain are travelling in tandem to other multiverses and briefly inhabiting the brains of alternate ‘You’s. Just a theory, or a new way of space travel? Something to cogitate on.

  • buster01

    Longmire, your ideas of the soul are nothing new. So you believe in life before birth? That is an odd concept. Same goes for life after death. It means that you have separated the body from the mind. Hopefully you read the article with understanding rather than a cursory review, and then parroted what has been espoused by the mainstream. It is a wonderful thing that we are all free to believe anything that we want to believe. However, it does not make such beliefs true.

    • Longmire

      Well I certainly don’t believe I was taught those ideas by society. The belief of a preexisting soul is heresy in Christianity.
      Perhaps the mind is separate from the brain before and after “life’ and is unified/entangled in our current state. Newton when speaking of time stated that every once in awhile we should stop and examine what we are actually talking about, I couldn’t see a more appropriate time to do so than when we speak of self. Time is fluid change, the self is constant “awareness” in the broadest sense of the word. When I think deeply I can sometimes notice that the outside world is almost completely blocked out, and at other times I can focus intently on the outside world and effect it, leading me to think that “awareness” is the energy effecting the brain with the brain effecting the mind as well.

  • Philip Finn

    And as far as the “monster at the end of the dream” excerpt, I was stunned to hear McConaughey’s character describe the final look in the victim’s eyes EXACTLY as Nam vets who were close friends describe to me the people they had watched die, and their final moment.

  • buster01

    Longmire, as previously stated, you are free to believe anything that you wish to believe. That belief, however, does not make it true or have any bearing on reality. Have fun!

    • Longmire

      While I agree that what one believes isn’t truth by default it does obviously have a bearing on reality. From a brief interview I read with Hood I would agree the “me” doesn’t exist but his argument against “I” is full of holes.

      • buster01

        Well, no what you believe does not have any bearing on reality. How is is possible that you could think that truth and reality are somehow different? Again, have fun!

        • Longmire

          What I believe has a direct bearing on how I interact with the “world” which we call “reality”. Truth is there are other circumstances not relevant to this world.

          • buster01

            What we all believe certainly has a “direct bearing” on interaction with the “world”. However, reality in your case is subjective. Truth and reality are on a grand scale are one in the same. You still operate from the idea that there are somehow separate realities. The only way that this is the case is in your fantasy world.

          • Longmire

            Ok to state my case “I” the conscious being that is capable of controlling “my” body can use it to directly effect the physical world, that which is reality(presumably). What is being stated by Cohle, Hill, and Hood amongst others is that the “I” the conscious being DOES NOT EXIST but is only an illusion, consisting of neither matter or energy. How is it then that nothing can effect something it cant, that’s impossible but they are overlooking that fact to reinforce their own biased worldview. They did good to recognize the subjective self was an illusion but took the next step blindly which negates most of the good that could come from the discussion.

          • buster01

            I think that you are confused, and you have taken this all too seriously. You state that “I”, the conscious being … consisting of neither matter or energy. Unilaterally this conversation has ended. Adios.

  • KarinVanDerHout

    To begin with, ‘neuroscience’ is, as of yet, pretty much an oxymoron. The fact that you keep referring to it as “this science out there” implies naivety of your own. It is one of the least scientifically robust disciplines in practice today. Most of the “facts” it has produced so far are simply subjective extrapolations from correlations.

    For example, the standard method so far for connecting brain regions to cognitive processes involves analyzing fMRIs of people who are asked to perform a task where the cognitive process in question is involved. A person adds two numbers, and the fMRI shows a pattern which is then taken to imply what part of the brain is involved in basic arithmetic. Several big issues plague this approach. To begin with,
    there is the obvious inference issue, when all you have is a correlation you can’t say what generates what. Then there’s the fact that the fMRI itself doesn’t actually give an accurate picture of what is going on in the brain, just because an area doesn’t light up doesn’t mean it’s inactive.

    Another thing I take issue with is your idea that optical illusions and other examples of sensory limitation implies something about how the self is constructed. It reminds me of this type of magical thinking where if two distinct things are poorly understood the reflex seems to be to assume they are connected. Maybe the cognitive limitations you speak of are causing you to infer something incorrectly about the nature of these limitations?

    For a more comprehensive overview of the pseudoscience that is “the science of the mind” I recommend

    Another recommendation would be

    Apart from the misplaced faith in neuroscience, you also have bizarre statements like “Life seems rich and continuous and coherent to us, but thanks to the numerous illusions that fool us we know that’s not true.” Really??

  • keith hutchings

    All of history demonstrates that science as a belief system proves Godels Theorem. As long as we cling to material frames, material creatures is all we are. When we consider the vastness of time and that our conscience ness STREAMS through it, then the butterfly effect makes it apparent that our smallest acts can, and do have great consequences. This Higher Self attains REAL sentience, as many great minds attest. It is great conceit that might say our time is smarter, it is only more material, and more clever.
    Einstein said that we can choose to believe that nothing is a miracle, or that all existence is a miracle. I must go with Alberts choice, nothing else explains this great thought experiment we all perceive.

  • George R. Williams

    If “human consciousness is nowhere close to figured out” then I don’t think we can be certain that the mind and brain are one.


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But Not Simpler

It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture. But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.


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