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.