So this is something that plagues my mind from time to time, it usually branches out from an internal debate in my mind over the existence of God. Are we real? Is our perception of life real? Are we just biological computers? I would like to challenge your thoughts using some pretty wacky but hypothetically possible scenarios.
Before I explore this though I would like to clarify, what is meant by consciousness? Well in this context I am referring to your ‘first person experience’ it is the subjective experience you have which you are intimately familiar with, yet cannot prove the existence of to anybody else. Some people may refer to it as your soul. It is what you have that computers which perfectly emulate human behavior do not.
So I think that people just generally go along with it, everybody regards themselves as an individual entity, imbued with something special which separates us from a bundle of atoms or a simple biological organism like a bacteria. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – I think, therefore I am. A somewhat familiar axiom originally propositioned by Descartes, but is this really enough to constitute proof?
One of the things that triggered this question was watching the transporters in the next generation of Star Trek. The principal behind transporters is that they disassemble you to create a map of where your atoms go, store you in the ships pattern buffer, and use the blueprint to reassemble you using elements available in the destination (for the most part I assume it would be carbon, hydrogen and oxygen).
So this begs the questions; are you not just being destroyed and a new you created to take your place? How could your first person experience be transferred in this fashion? And how does this challenge the traditional perception of consciousness? Some of you may be thinking that this is a moot point since the technology does not exist. Well in regard to the last point it is a hypothetically possible scenario, true the tech does not exist but the laws of physics do allow it to happen if the tech were developed. So if the universe says we can do it, I believe it is worth thinking about. The other questions I will try to answer after another hypothetical.
So I was driving my Co-worker/friend home and somehow got onto a similar topic. I warned him that the question was a little strange but intriguing nonetheless. The first question I asked him was this, “have you ever heard of a Hemispherectomy?” to which he replied “no”, I told him that it was an operation whereby they remove half of your brain. I told him that you can still function albeit with some personality changes and maybe blindness in an eye opposite the side removed, he was curious about it but that was about the limit of my knowledge. So then I asked him, “what about if they performed this operation on both of us, and swapped over each half of the brain, and reconnected them at the corpus colosum, the bridge between the two halves, what would happen to our first person experiences, would your ‘soul’ become one? He struggled to answer the question but tried to speculate. The mere fact that this is hypothetically possible certainly raises philosophical and religious questions.
I had my own theory but I decided to keep it to myself because I wanted him to be able to think about it himself, and also I didn’t want to sound like a mad scientist. So what do I think about all this? What I think may actually be pretty horrific, or mind boggling, it may even change the way you perceive life, the universe, and everything, or it may just sound like the nonsense ramblings of a mad man. It does I believe tie into the understanding in physics that time is also an illusion though I will try not to digress. It is quite simply this, ‘our first person experience or consciousness is always replacing itself with every infinitesimally small division of time. you are not the same person you were a second ago, you associate yourself with that person because of the formation of memories. There is a new entity of you with each division of time’.
This theory comfortably accommodates my previous two hypotheticals because if with each progression of a unit of time your first person experience is being replaced by the you which is in the present, it wouldn’t matter if you were blown up, reassembled with an atom re-assembly machine, merged with another brain or transported, the idea of a single soul going along with you is not conducive to the mechanics of the universe as my hypothetical show, so on that basis one could argue that our understanding of ourselves is totally incorrect.
Does any of this matter? well I guess for religion it doesn’t look good, but then again there are deeply profound concepts that support the idea of a prime mover. I guess the short answer is, have fun thinking about it but don’t let it worry you, there are many forces at work in the universe that we have barely scratched the surface of, so it would be terribly arrogant to assume we had all the answers now.
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