Can You Trust Mainstream Definition of The Self?
If you are one of those who still thinks that there is nothing wrong with our world, don’t read this. But if you, too, think that our world is going through chaos, maybe you would want to read on.
My musings here have been originated by the mainstream worldview usually expressed in terms similar to this:
“… if you really want to change how you view humanity, I guess you start viewing humanity as nothing but another species that developed on a planet with optimal circumstances for the evolution of that species.
This can be hard to do if you are religious or exceptionally spiritual [*my highlighting].
You could just think “I am just one in 7 billion living homo sapiens. My existence is no more meaningful than that of anybody or anything else. I am not here for any reason worth thinking about. I just am. Like other (advanced) species I desire shelter and food and my ultimate evolutionary goal is to procreate and ensure the continuation of my genes.” That’s it.
It’s not fun, but it’s not wrong, per say [sic].
I guess it helps if you look up pictures of space so you see how minuscule humanity is and that our existence (whether we become a utopian race or literally blow up the planet) is not in any way important or exceptional relative to the universe.”
Is that so?? Is it not important, really? If tomorrow our grandchildren will ask us “Why did you let that happen to the planet, to the animals and plants, and to the world?”, would it look like sound judgment to them if we told them: “See, you, and the world are not important in any way”? Or, perhaps, they would ask us: “Are you in your right mind?”
With all the chaos happening around us, I have recently had a good number of reasons to see that human life (and life in general) has become quite a negligible concept in a sea of more important things, like government, security, the military, the economy, the stock market, bonds, shares, the investment market, so on, and so forth.
Actually in what regards the crucial issue of identity, there is more polarity than ever before in the whole of our mass consciousness.
At one extreme, religious dogma has been telling us for two thousand years that we are sinners and unworthy, guilty of some “original” sin. At the other, science is telling us that we are just accidentally here, and the technocrats consider that we humans (are themselves included?) have become less apt than the increasingly smart artificial intelligence – AI, even at such uncomplicated tasks as driving, for instance. That’s why there are serious propositions to replace human driving with self-driving cars.
What I find mostly disturbing in this general frame of mind is not that humans are being unfavorably compared to AI – we do have less computation power or less memory – it is the belief that the ultimate solution to our current problems would be the machines. It is expected that they should teach us empathy and ethics: “the machines teach empathy, prospection, and correct agency attribution”, according to a Computer Science professor at the University of Vermont (here).
But I don’t think that I should entrust my children, my children’s children and the planet to the empathy of machines. Why don’t we “teach” them by showing empathy ourselves? Is it that hard?
Would it be easier to risk it all just because we are being too lazy to make an effort? Or too irresponsible? Too careless? Too “inhuman”?
Which Part of You Is Irreplaceable?
Today science and technology have enabled us to live with different donors’ organs, with artificial organs or limbs, more recently 3D printed, or with newly grown parts from stem cells. We have the ability to change body parts like we do for our cars, yet we are still capable of identifying ourselves as being the same person as before. What is this thing that makes us form and keep an identity, a basic feeling of who we are?
It’s ok to change a limb, or an organ – even as crucial as the heart. But what if we were to change, for instance, our brain, in a head transplant? Would we still keep your identity after that?? For my part, what makes me be who I am is not my hair, or liver, or legs, but my mind (ok, maybe my soul: my brain and my heart), because it’s behind the way I feel, think, remember, act and react. So, I guess, identity is mostly provided by our mind.
Which brings me to this crucial question: If a doctor were to transplant a head on a different body, who would the new person be – what would be his identity? If we had a John’s head on a Bill’s body, would that be Bill, still, but with a different head? Or would that be John, “wearing” Bill’s body??
As absurd that this may sound – and it did seem so out of this world to me when I first heard about it, this is a real scientific project, already performed on dogs, rats and monkeys. But between a monkey and a human there is not much of a difference, right?
Why would scientists do that? I think that people, when they do crazy things, they do it firstly because they can; many things are happening in the world today because of the high disproportion between wisdom and intelligence, and power doesn’t seem to care about wisdom – not even when it comes to science. Is it in quest of fame? Even though this fame may well turn into notoriety a few years ahead, when the results may turn out to be disastrous?
Dr Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group proposed to use surgery to extend the lives of people with degenerated muscles and nerves or cancer-permeated organs: “I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible” – he is preparing to do it himself in two years from the date of the announcement (June, 2015, according to New Scientist). The head will belong to a 30 y.o. Russian patient who is trying to offer himself a chance this way. He is suffering of a rare degenerative genetic disorder, a muscle wasting disease, which would be the main reason behind operating head transplants. Now, if the volunteering patient feels and knows for sure that there is no other way for him than do it or die, it’s easy to understand: the guy is kind of playing the “Russian Roulette”, but in reverse: of all the deadly bullets, there may be a single one to shoot life back into his body, give him a probable chance to life.
I have no doubts that, if this experiment will fail in 2017, chances are that it may become routine in 2020. That is why I would like to take you off the course of current way of thinking: “Let’s take the next step ahead, even though, who knows, the stepping stone my foot is currently on may go tumbling down into the abyss as soon as I move it, leaving me stranded above a gaping void.” What sort of a life would that be? How, and who could one feel with a new head, or a new body?
Identity – What Makes Me Be “Me”?
I know who I am not only because I read, studied, listened, exchanged information with the world outside of me. But I am who I am because this body of mine that I’ve been gifted with years ago has been the source of endless experiences, pleasurable or not, but mostly through my senses – my body has provided them to my brain, and my brain has been labeling them in categories and memories from least to most joyful or painful. I am a full package of all this, a whole circuit of an entire chemistry between my brain and my body – a package of memories of sensations and emotions provided by my brain-body system. To these I add my dreams (wishes and literal dreams), my ambitions (which mostly are not for recognition, but for realizing, I hope, happiness), my relationships – I can’t see my life without them (would they relate the same way to me when I’m no more the one they knew??). This is what makes me and defines me, gives me the feeling of who and what I am, and I wouldn’t exchange them with anybody or anything. This is how I relate to my inner self and to the world around me.
When I feel tired, or sad, if there is a breeze of wind, a fresh scent of freshly cut grass, some scented oil on my skin after a relaxing bath, a beautiful plateau with mountain flowers and grazing sheep with bells by a gurgling spring nearby, or the taste of freshly picked, ripe raspberries, any of these would immediately project me into a different dimension, and would effect a sudden change to this complex “I am”: any of these can instantly change me from a grumpy person into a five-year-old jumping bundle of joy. I am not so sure that my head alone could provide me with any of these – I can read about a love scene, but it would always leave inside me a craving for the real experience – to me, quality of life is not tradable in exchange for longer life, not even for the long-held humanity’s dream, immortality.
What brought me to these musings is all this talk about the increasing role that information technologies (IT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to play in our lives sooner than later. Maybe I am old-fashion, but I am not such a big fun of virtual reality, and in the next post I am going to explain why.
I Exist, Therefore I Am – Conscious!
When I first read Empedocles’ famous “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere”, I thought: “philosophers are crazy people” – didn’t know about non-locality then. He must have already understood the reality of panpsychism (the idea that the mind is not only present in humans, but in all things) but then, all ancients did, or believed that anyway. We like to consider them rathe primitive It makes a whole universe of sense to me now, but I had to grow up before, and out of my previous conditioning.
I used to see the world as divided between those people who accept the “God up there” idea, and those in favor of the idea that there is no God at all, and that the world has come into existence just like that, out of nothingness – like many mainstream scientists like to believe today.
I was quite jealous of those having faith, as they could easily accept strange things and call them “miracles”. As my parents were totally irreligious, an absolute requirement of their time and of the communist type of society, my very religious grandparents were trying hard to give me a minimum of religious education. As a little girl, I have spent many long and lonely summers back there at my grandparents’ village, trying to figure out the best way to spot Him while He is spying on us. Lying in the deep grass I was squinting my eyes until they would become sore from trying hard to discern among the passing clouds a silhouette seated on some gauzy mass observing us. “He must be very interested in us, people, as He must know to which department He is to send us after some indefinite time”, I thought. But, you know what? Hard as I tried, I could never, ever see Him.
Growing up, such episodes seemed ridiculous; this, my formal education and the “materialist-dialectic” communist ideology that was being insidiously forced on us, made me grow up considering my grandparents’ religion and God as some myth, an anachronistic story of other times.
I wish that didn’t happen – I mean, growing up without having faith. Maybe my inner and outer life could have been way easier had I not been torn between two incompatible things: my absolute disbelief in anything outside of this tangible, material reality, and the impossible-to-deny experiences that I have been trying for so long to bury deep in some dusty folders of my mind. Read more…