Is there a YOU that exists that doesn’t need your thoughts to function?
What am I is a very old question.
The answers available today are very different from any available to our cultural histories.
For anyone interested in a brief(ish) introduction, Ginger Campbell has been running a great podcast for the last 5 years brainsciencepodcast.com.
As an undergrad 40 years ago I spent many days in Faraday cages with hand drawn glass electrodes measuring electrical potentials in the brains of frogs. Since then I have kept an interest in the field, and read a lot of abstracts and quite a few papers and books. My 27 years experience running a software company have given me a perspective and understanding of systems that few experience.
To me, it is clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the thing which recognises itself as me, is a high level software system resident in the very special hardware and software system that is the brain inside the body that is also identified as me.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. It occurs almost every day, as the need for the body to switch into repair mode requires that high level functions are shut down (we call it sleep).
It occurs when we go under general anaesthetic, a chemical disrupter strong enough to knock out the high level brain function without destroying the lower level functionality.
It is clear to me (the bit of me reflecting on the words that come into my brain, or through my finger movements onto the screen), that I do not consciously create the words. The words just flow, and I observe them.
I can create contexts, mental pictures, that influence the flow of words, yet I do not control the flow of words. The flow is generated by lower level functionality that is below the level of my conscious awareness, and yet it is still clearly, logically, part of me.
The complexity of us is something I have often written of, and it is worth considering yet again. There are roughly 10,000 times as many cells in our bodies as there are people on the planet, and roughly as many molecules in each cell as there are cells. If we could somehow take a single snapshot of all those molecules that we could blow up and look at, and we had been looking at 100 molecules per second since the universe began (14.8 billion years) then we would be about 1 30 millionth of the way through looking at a single snapshot (roughly the same ratio as a second is to a year).
The complexity of the molecular signalling going on within every one of those cells, and between the cells is amazing. We understand quite a few of the major signalling pathways now, in terms of single molecules, but not in terms of the complexity of all of those trillions of trillions of molecules signalling to each other trillions of times every second.
It seems very clear that our awareness is just the tiny apex of an amazing set of interlocking pyramids that is so vast that it is beyond the ability of any consciousness to grasp (by definition).
All we can do is get a vague feeling for the grandeur that we each are.
We can see many of the interlocking pieces teased out separately, but have no chance of ever doing anything other than simply appreciating the whole as it is, for what it is: the most profoundly complex system we have yet encountered.
With a modern understanding, it is easy to see how the old cultural understandings evolved, but it is not possible to give them much credence.
It is easy to see how the experience of being gives rise to impressions that seem to confirm the old cultural understandings, yet when they are examined closely with the tools of modern science, the real picture appears to be something else entirely.
This understanding does not question anyone’s experience of being. We each have the experiences we have. They are ours and ours alone, that is the nature of the beast. All the modern understanding does is change the interpretation of those experiences.
I am clear that I could study the human brain for a trillion years, and make exciting discoveries about it every day, and still be almost as profoundly ignorant of the subtleties of its function at the end of that process as I am today; and still as interested in studying it further.
It is that complex.
We are, each of us, that complex. Yet mostly we sell ourselves woefully short of our potential, to ourselves.
We do differ here.
To me it is very clear that the flow of words is created by the brain, by the pattern recognisers responding to the model of reality created by other sets of pattern recognisers.
The conscious me is conscious that the words are not created by a conscious process, and at the same time I do recognise that they are created by the vast array of subconscious processes.
And of course we are connected to everything else at different levels. Everything influences everything else, nothing completely independent, yet all higher level functionality seems to be dependent on the enabling patterns being available at lower levels.
This is very different from the explanatory framework you have described.
In my understanding the brain is definitely the creator of higher level patterns, and it does so with the help of inputs from all the rest of reality. It is a complex system, made all the more complex by our experience being of the model of reality our brains create, not of reality itself. Our experience of being seems to be of software experiencing software.
It is complex a subtle and distinction, and the common idea about QM indicating that the universe is somehow fundamentally responding to the act of measuring is not one I share.
The idea of some awareness needing to be present to “collapse a wave function” is to me a nonsense – logically and physically.
All of that “nonsense” seems to derive from the idea that light exists as waves, and has been picked up by those people devoted to the notion of primacy of consciousness as evidence.
That idea doesn’t make any sense to me, and does not correspond to any measurements we have ever made of light. Whenever we measure light, we find discrete quanta. The only way people attached to the wave view of light can get from there to what we actually observe is to introduce this “collapsing wave function” idea. Much simpler to simply abandon waves completely, and deal with the numbers of what can easily be interpreted as probability functions.
When one does that, one ends up with a reality that is of a very different sort, and much more capable of having high speed computers work faultlessly (which they do).
And certainly, every act of measurement does interfere with a system, and it seems that not in the way that the collapsing wave function folks would have us believe.
It is a bit odd.
There is a sense in which consciousness is primary, in that we are conscious (or at least I am confident that I am, and fairly certain that you are too 😉 ). So from that perspective, we get to experience consciousness first, and it is only from the perspective of consciousness that we can get to explore the rest of reality.
For me, the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness is a relatively recent arrival on the scene of reality, as an emergent property of the amazing systems (both hardware and software) that make up our brains.
So certainly, we experience consciousness first, and in that sense (and that sense alone) it is primary for us as individuals.
However, based on the vast amount of evidence about how that consciousness arises, and the major levels of systems in the human brain and human awareness, it seems clear to me, beyond any reasonable doubt, that consciousness is a property of highly complex systems only.
Many cultures have a notion of god in them, as a prime mover (some do not, and many do). People raised in that paradigm tend to look for supporting evidence for that paradigm.
I was raised in a culture that taught me to question, and to make my own observations, and to trust my own intuitions (and to test them when and where possible).
So I am not attached to any idea, I just use the ideas that seem to me to be a best fit for the evidence available. In that sense, I have no “beliefs”. All I have is best guesses, best estimates, and operational principles.
In one sense, the sense that the actions springng from a belief structure pose no real threat to my longevity, I don’t much care what anyone else believes. It only becomes important to me when those beliefs create actions that are in some measurable sense an increased risk to my survival, that the beliefs of another become of significant interest to me.
Were I to now meet myself of 30 years ago, I would find my own belief sets from that time quite demonstrably in error.
I am similarly confident that many of the operant hypotheses I currently use will be shown (at some future time) to be demonstrably in error. Such is the nature of the process of exploration and growth.
I don’t hold that any of the ideas I use are in any way any sort of absolute truth, they are simply my best guesses at present, and seem to be useful to me in most situations.
I also find it interesting how much alignment can be achieved even from vastly different starting assumptions. I guess reality sort of does that to ideas, it is quite harsh sometimes in its demonstrations of what actually works and what actually does not work.
Often, timing and coordination are critical to success in anything, from riding a bike to success in global politics.
I have a similar compulsion to experiential understanding.
I search for patterns, particularly recursive patterns, that make understanding easier.
With all the work I have done on biochemistry, I have something of a “feel” for at least the major systems of patterns operating there.
Similarly, after 40 years of playing with computers, from mainframes to micros, from machine code to advanced conceptual languages, I have been immersed in a world of systems, often systems, within systems, within systems, …
Thus to me, it is perfectly normal to question the nature of the boundaries of any system, it is what I am paid to do in a sense.
So, whereas for most people, reality is just so immediate, it is simply accepted as part of experience, for me, it became something to be questioned and examined, particularly once I had accumulated a few experiences that just didn’t make sense under the standard interpretation.
In some states, I have a fairly good memory, I could not do what I do with computers unless that was the case. So when I noticed one day, that the car in front of me had braked unexpectedly, and had suddenly appeared about 30ft closer than it had been a split second previously, I trusted my memory.
The only way that could have happened, was if my experience was not actually of reality, but of a model of reality constructed by my brain, and presented to my awareness. The model had to be predictive in nature, so that it was slightly ahead, allowing my relatively slow reactions to work in real time.
I confirmed this with several experiments I did with a video camera, were I panned, stopped, panned again, stopped, then played back the recording. In the recording there were no stops. My body never actually got time to stop before getting the next move command. The difference is small, always less than a third of a second, and noticeable.
So then I started looking through literature for explanations of the phenomenon.
I noticed a lot of stuff in the literature about action potentials showing that our brains make decisions before we consciously do, but that doesn’t make sense. What makes much more sense is if our internal reality clock is offset from reality by about a third of a second. Then all the brain measurements make sense.
So we live in a model.
That model is constructed by a mix of our memories of similar situations from our past, the inputs from our senses, and a vast array of other things, mostly to do with bundles of pattern recognisers in the neocortex of our brains.
The inputs from our senses hold the model in train with reality, unless they are disrupted for any reason, which reasons might relate to physical disruption, or chemical disruption, which may be induced by drugs, or emotions or cosmic rays or disease or whatever.
And it seems there is a vast distribution in the strength of connection and entrainment between individuals. In some people their models (their experience of reality) are much more tightly coupled to reality than others.
So there is a vast distribution of experiential realities amongst people; yet we all seem to share the same physical reality (as recorded by our best instruments).
So – yes – we get inputs, from reality, which includes our cultures and our genetics, and geology, cosmology, …………….
And all of that seems to go into our model in our brains, and delivers to each of us our personalised experience of our personal models of our shared reality.
And there is vastly more in that reality than any of us are capable of consciously comprehending – our instruments are very clear on that fact.
So it seems that our brains have a lot of choice about just which aspects of reality they present to us, and we have some influence over those choices our brains make – the more aware we are, the more influence we have.
I had read your reply before writing my reply to Judi, so there is stuff in there relevant to our discussion.
I agree with you that we are all vastly more creative than any of the standard models taught in educational institutions. Anyone capable of speech is, in my understanding, by definition, infinitely creative.
Getting our emotional systems to line up with that fact is often difficult, mostly as a result of many layers of cultural conditioning.
I certainly agree with you that our educational, social, legal and political systems vastly undervalue human diversity, and vastly overvalue conformity to authority (in any manifestation). Altering that reality is one of my consistently stated objectives. It seems to me that technology and awareness are moving towards an enabling set of contexts that could transform the nature of existence for vast numbers of people; and I am cautiously optimistic that it will in fact happen. And we have much to do to make it happen.
The idea of an intelligence external to brain, while not impossible, seems improbable for a lot of reasons.
What seems vastly more likely, is that the brain consists of a vast array of systems, most of which are invisible to consciousness, and consciousness is a pattern that resides atop that vast multitude of systems.
So there is a lot that brain does that we are not consciously aware of, that is all part of us.
It is like consciousness is the leader of a large nation. Just as Obama is not aware of what every plumber or street cleaner or computer programmer is doing, but is making choices about the direction the nation is taking, so too with each of us with our consciousness. We each have millions of “plumbers” and “street cleaners” in our brains, that are doing massive amounts of work, sorting sense impressions and memories into useful inputs to the model of reality we get to experience (amongst many other things).
It is physically impossible for a consciousness to be aware of all of the actions of all of its constituent parts – that is demonstrable in terms of logic and computational theory.
Logic requires that there is a great deal of intelligence that is part of making any awareness work, that is not consciously available to that awareness; and that intelligence is not separate from the organism, it is part of it, and not available to conscious awareness. We can understand the theory of it, and be aware of the general structure of the systems, and we cannot be simultaneously aware of all of it. That is simply not an option.
We can certainly attain states that are much more aware than the default state for humanity, and total awareness is never an option. However aware we become, there must always remain things within us that are beyond our ken.
One follow on thought, on computation and intelligence.
If we define intelligence as the ability to respond to some stimulus in some way, then there are many classes of molecules that can do that.
Some change shape in response to the presence of certain types of molecules, some in response to the presence of certain types of electrical patterns, some in response to photons with certain ranges of energies.
Sometimes the change in shape can cause the production or destruction (or ceasing the production or destruction) of a certain type of molecule; sometimes it can make a certain sized hole in a membrane that allows the flow of certain sorts of molecules (which may or may not carry charge), and sometimes it creates electrical activity, or emits a photon of energy, or changes the shape of something else through a sequence of connected molecules. Thus there are established causal chains of temporal patterns.
Every cell in our body contains more of these shape changing molecules than there are people on the planet.
We each have about 10,000 times more cells than there are people.
Some of these cells are specialised for the conduction of electrical impulses and are called nerves, and form complex and very subtle patterns with other sets of nerves, to perform very complex processes on very complex signals (we have hundreds of times more of them than there are people on the planet). Many of them are arranged in our neocortex in patterns of between 20 and 100 nerves that are high order pattern recognition systems, and we have more of them than there are people on the planet.
Our awareness sits singularly atop this vast mass of intelligence at many different levels in a sense. Yet in another sense it appears that only the top level has reflective awareness of itself. All the other many layers and levels simply do what they do, intelligent in a sense, yet without awareness of their intelligence.
It seems clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that this is what it is to be human.
This is the reality in which I live.
Infinitely creative, flexible and while I may come to learn all of the systems as separate items, I could never anticipate all of the evolving complexity that such flexible systems can deliver.
However much my awareness and understanding expands, I must always remain in large measure a mystery to myself.