Friday, October 5, 2007

You Don't Exist

"Huh? Of course I exist! You're sitting there writing to me, aren't you?"

Actually I'm quite sure you do exist. But according to typical attempts to scientifically "explain" your behavior, you are merely "an emergent phenomenon" caused by a tangle of little nerve cells tickling one another.

That isn't the doctrine of some eccentric individual. True, I've oversimplified a vast array of variations of this idea tremendously--But when anyone whatsoever tries to explain consciousness as the result of a physical process, he necessarily concludes that there isn't any such thing. He finds only those physical processes which he can potentially observe from outside.

"Yes! But I'm here! Right here sitting at my terminal, reading this drivel!"

Please be quiet; this is Science, and you are not! You only imagine that you exist, because little waves of electric charge are running down your nerve fibers and making them produce neurotransmitters which diffuse over to nearby nerve endings and stimulate them to go "twang!" One of those twangs was the thought that you exist; that's why you just thought so! But you were wrong, of course.

I'm making fun of some very smart people here. If I wanted to design a machine for the purpose of mimicking human behavior, some of their ideas might be very close to how it should be done. So far as we can tell, it seems to be the way Nature does it!

What I find bizarre about this is that people have constructed an elaborate, well-reasoned, even creative explanation for human consciousness... that ignores their most fundamental data: the fact that they experience themselves as conscious.

"Yes, but Science has proved that the experience of consciousness is merely an emergent phenomenon caused by a suitably-connected array of neurons diddling one another! To imagine anything else would open the door to the absurd notion that something in the world is supernatural!"

Well, actually scientists have made an effort to see how far they could get on the assumption that consciousness is all done by physical events. They've found out marvelous things about the physical processes associated with consciousness. But they haven't proved their assumption; some of them merely assume they've done that because they've done such a marvelous job of explaining everything they can observe. Except for their own odd notion that they exist.

But let's construct one of these machines--in imagination, because that will serve perfectly well for my purpose. Crank it up--that little wheel on your right, thank you!--and let's see what it does. Hmmm... Little waves of electical charge are going in here, running around and interacting with one another in the middle, and here's the output: "Of course I exist, you ninny!"

Of course WHO exists? I don't see anyone; there's just that tangle of fibers, with no place whatsoever for "I" to affect anything they're doing.

I can get my computer to print out "Hello world!" That's the beginning assignment in a lot of introductory programming classes. But there's nobody inside the computer greeting the world, just a pattern of electrical circuits that make any message we choose appear on the screen. Just like your little twangy bits can make a message appear on my screen, stating your delusion that you exist!

This is all extremely unsatisfactory, and until my disfunctional circuits are finally thrown in the Quality Control 'reject' box, I intend to go on insisting that I exist. I'll vote for you, too, if you vote for me!

How, then, do I get all those little fibers to do what I want? How can I even "read" them?

I can't. If they're all mechanically laid out according to specification, doing precisely what they're supposed to do--no matter how chaotic that might be in practice--There's no room in there for "me" to make them do anything, and no place for me to sit while they tell me what they're doing!

What can I conclude from this? I have to conclude that this mechanism we're talking about is itself imaginary--just an illusion we might experience if we poked me full of electrodes and ran certain procedures on me. But it's nothing as real as me, sitting at this keyboard.

I'm uneasy about that idea also--It isn't just that some people's neurons automatically reject it; there's something about it bothers me too:

If not physical laws, what causative rules are at work in my consciousness? If there were none, there'd be no connection between one moment and another; my experience would reduce to chaos. It doesn't. But are the workings of my mind a deterministic system? Have I gone through all this thinking, freeing myself from a physically determined existence, only to find myself at the mercy of deterministic immaterial powers? Or am I somehow freer, because the connections between one thought and the next don't always make a whole lot of sense? I'm so glad I don't have to figure that out!


David Carl said...

Experiencing is going on, but why does that prove that there is a discrete and individual "I" who experiences?

forrest said...

It's either "I" or someone else of the same name...

A good Buddhist may argue that this "I" is an illusion... or he might rather say, "Shut up and count your breaths until it goes away." But that's basically about the fact that the content of this word "I" is impermanent, not precisely the same (for example) as when it experienced the illusion of sitting down here a few minutes ago.

Rain falls, whether or not the grammar of "It rains" needs an "it." But the 'I' of "I experience" is a different sort of issue. The point is whether that "experiencing" that's going on is anything beyond the movement of information through an organic neural net.

I expect that that net would give you exactly the same response that I'm giving you. But what it was doing in the process wouldn't be "experiencing."

Thank your nonexistent self for dropping by, by the way! (But where are you when Kwakerskripturestudy needs some fuss!?)

David Carl said...

Hi Forrest,

Well, if I did exist, perhaps I would argue that there is indeed an "I" but that this is not an individualized "entity" separate from anything else. In fact, had I existed, I would have gone looking for exactly what "I" meant when I thought about myself (which I would have done quite a lot!) I wouldn't have been able to find anything except an idea, i.e., the "thought of I." Its a very persistent idea that keeps arising, yet its merely a symbol for something. That "something" however isn't limited by the thoughts that arise about it. Nevertheless, consciousness and experiencing (and even beliving I exist) go on!

As for scripture, I guess I'm often not "in the spirit in which it was written" when I'm at my computer!

Take care,