Thursday, September 07, 2006

You Are A Soul II

I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.
- Vincent van Gogh

Our last thought experiment asked you to imagine that the technology exists to replace neurons in your brain with exact replicas. Imagine that your friendly neighborhood neurologist (or ersatz-neurologist) conducted this procedure on you. Do you think there would be any change in to your cognitive ability? Your sense of “self?”

The common answer is generally no (based on informal polling conducted by myself). A sense of self is an admittedly fuzzy concept in that it is ill defined. What do we mean by sense of self? Obviously there is no hard definition of self or identity or similar concepts, but you can more easily imagine that observations of others of yourself after this procedure would not change. Let’s put this line of thought on hold and present the second thought experiment.

Thought Experiment #2
Now imagine that instead of replicating and replacing a single neuron, your neurologist is able to map your entire brain, but she does not recreate it using our magic artificial neuron. Instead she whips out a .357 Magnum and drills one into your right ear. You are now dead. But suppose she now recreates your brain using her artificial neurons. What result?

Shoshana noted the problem of a time lag in the last experiment. But since I am making this up as I go along, imagine the technology exists to record your neurons up until the precise moment of death.

The point of these thought experiments is to get what it means to be conscious. Is consciousness the byproduct of an arrangement of neurons? Does consciousness rest upon the neural configuration or is it the neural configuration?

After initially writing off these thought experiments, I thought about it a little longer until I was so perplexed it hurt. It seems to be that rather than talking about souls, we ought to be talking about brains. You are your brain. You can even go as far as to say that you are your body. Both are dynamic. Both represent unique combinations over time. Your neurons are not arranged the same way they were when you were five, or even seconds ago. Likewise, your body is not the same one you had when you began reading this post.

And therein lies the rub.

If the foundation of our sense of self is our body or our brain, and that this foundation is unique over time, than does “sense” or identity mean anything?

If our brain states (or body states) are unique over time, than aren’t we literally living for the moment? By this I mean that if our brain states change than our sense of self is really a collection of snapshots at any given moment. Rather than having a static homunculi who dispassionately records the changes to your brain, it seems more likely that your current sense of self is contemplating its memories of another self.

Lest this turn into utter psychobabble, consider this scenario, take from The Mind’s I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. You are tooling along in your spaceship when you run out of gas and are forced to make a crash landing on Mars. You have ample ramen noodle to last you the rest of your natural life on Mars. But (omitting the chance of rescue) will never see your family again. Aboard the ship there is a device that records every molecule of your body is able to beam a radio signal to a body reassembling machine located on Earth. After recording your body, the machine vaporizes you and then sends along your "map" to the reassembly device.

Deciding your children need a parent, you step into the recording device and POOF you are in the reassembly machine on Earth. And you live happily ever after. Or do you? You begin to wonder if you are the same person that walk into the recorder. You remember walking into the recorder. You remember pressing the red button. But is it the same you? The only person who could possibly answer that question in the negative is (possibly) dead and is telling no tales.

The mechanics of this sci-fi vignette are the same as our though experiment. Is it possible to reconstruct yourself from the configuration of your brain? Is it possible to blink in and out of the conscious experience? Have you ever had general anesthesia (I haven’t, but I am assured by those who have that it is a relevant experience)?

If you haven't lost interest, these experiments continue.

Monday, September 04, 2006

You Are A Soul I

You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
- C.S. Lewis

My current wanderings led me to reconsider a series of thought experiments I wrote off in more optimistic times. Please keep in mind that the point of the experiments is not to speculate about future technologies. The point is to try to abstract out fuzzy terms and get to the essence of being. I confess that I was hostile to this line of thinking when I was first introduced to these experiments and it took me a while to adjust. But the problems the experiments raise and/or address are crucial, it seems, to a rational understanding of existence.

The experiments build on each other, so I think it would be useful to present them as a series.

I also confess that I am a novice in this area and I am still developing my thoughts in the area.

Try them out.

Thought Experiment #1
Suppose the technology exists to create an artificial neuron. The exact composition of the artificial neuron is not important, but suffice it to say that the technology exists to replicate every chemical property of a neuron. The technology to take an accurate reading of a neuron, that is, its exact chemical properties, also exists. Hence it is possible for a neurologist to identify an individual neuron, determine its exact properties and its exact connections to surrounding neurons. The neurologist is further able to replicate the neuron, extract the original neuron and replace with an artificial one.

Query: Suppose a neurologist conducted this procedure on your brain, removing one neuron and replacing it with another. Will there be any impact on your sense of self or your cognitive ability?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle

“[T]hat was the fatal flaw in the Charedi Philosophy. They crashed around the world selling "spirituality" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for eighty bucks an Esrog. But their loss and failure is ours too. What the Chareidim took down with them was the central illusion of a whole life-style that they helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of Religiosity: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”

I debated whether or not I would blog again, at least at respondingtojblogs, but in the end my need to whine won out over everything else. I’ve been alternating between incredibly busy and incredibly fallow these past months, and it’s been gratifying to see that people still pop in once a while.

The reason I haven’t posted is that is seems I’ve traveled this road as far as it will take me. Now that I have left civilization and I am at the edge of an endless expanse of desert, there is not much else to say.

I initially came to blogosphere to work out my sfeikos b’emunah. I know think that most forms of organized religion are a perverse joke. I don’t say that with relish, but with regret. The story told by religion is as compelling as it is comforting. We aren’t just near-random samples of molecules, there is a reason for suffering in this life, the reward in the next life is great, and that the vale of tears eventually lifts into a mountain of joy.

To accept that as true again.

Instead we are left rudderless in an uncaring world. Our feeble faculties are burdened by the baggage of our forefathers. Even the language we use often obfuscates rather than clarifies. And in the end, there is no release. It would be nice to pretend I am a rebellious teenager who, after sneaking a cigarette on Shabbos, can confess to his mashgiach and redevote himself to the fairy tale. Instead, the idea that we are soulless, organic, and emotional computational machines haunts every waking moment.

I initially wanted this blog to be an instrument of debate, to present ideas to my readers and get their thoughts, but at this point debate seems near pointless.

All this is not to say that life isn’t filled with wonder. It is. What is despairing is our utter inability to pursue this wonder. After a certain point we recognize our failings and discourse becomes fanciful speculations of future technologies or solipsistic answers to intractable problems.

Therefore, it is difficult to produce posts that aren’t inherently emotional, since it is hard to produce new rational stuff. This post itself is emotional and self-indulgent, but I guess that just about sums up humanity.

The bottom line? Take the Blue Pill.