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Some Quick Notes On The ‘Self’

January 2, 2013

Here are some quick notes I wrote down today, trying to lay out exactly what I think of when I say the word ‘self’ as in ‘myself’.

Instead of viewing yourself as just your brain and your body, and that alone, look at it from a slightly different point of view. More so from the perspective of you living as you. Your brain is structured in such a way that it can adapt to whatever inputs it’s given. You can literally place electrodes on your tongue, wire them to a camera, and then “see” from your tongue. Your neocortex, which is where all thought and identity resides, will rewire itself. The same goes for blind people. Visual cortex will be used to heighten the sense of hearing. The brain adapts to its inputs. I could take your brain out of your skull, place it in a vat, and if I could keep it alive, I could immerse you in virtual reality and give you all kinds of bodies and you would adapt and associate it yourself with them even if you no longer had a “real” body. There’s even tricks to make people think a plastic arm is your own. Ok, enough on that point.

Your body is an object, like other objects around you, but you have more control over it and you’re always experiencing it.  It’s a very persistent object.  You don’t have complete control over it though. Sometimes your hair doesn’t fall the right way, you trip over your own foot, and you can’t stop yourself from things like aging. The body is a slightly uncontrollable object, but we feel like it does our bidding much more than other things around us.

Since we’re speaking of objects, extend your sense of self to your home and your friends as well. Your home is an object that you can experience but you don’t experience it all the time. You can’t leave your body (without doing drugs), but you can leave your house. Think of your friends and coworkers as objects you interact with as well, but you don’t have nearly as much control over them. You can talk with them and try to influence their actions, but they’re a lot more unpredictable, but there is some control there.  You can call up your best friend and he or she will likely come over and listen to your problems.  Your friend is this complicated object you can summon.  Is he or she also conscious?  Of course, but you have to believe that by faith.   You never experience it directly.  There is room to doubt.  You can’t doubt that you’re subjectively experiencing them sitting across the table.  You can doubt whether they’re conscious like you are.  Maybe they’re a ‘zombie’, having no subjective qualia?  If we think of the self subjectively as this incoming stream of objects we perceive, our friends and family and others are all aspects of ourselves.

I don’t see any evidence that there’s free will.  In reality, quantum physics determines what the atoms in my brain are doing, and their small oscillations and changes are governed by chance.  Lots of tiny coin flips.  And I know about these laws because I’ve inferred they exist based on observed relationships between my perceptions.

“It is possible to ask whether there is still concealed behind the statistical universe of perception a ‘true’ universe in which the law of causality would be valid.  But such speculation seems to us to be without value and meaningless, for physics must confine itself to the description of the relationship between perceptions.”

— Werner Heisenberg

If you want a quick thought experiment to identify all these different aspects of yourself, and your attachment to them, imagine that you were cryonically frozen and later resuscitated hundreds of years in the future. What would you miss? A huge part of yourself would be ripped from you. The culture is different and you no longer fit in. Your loved ones and friends are gone. Your childhood home was long ago bulldozed to the ground. It’s all unfamiliar.

All of that is is ourselves. I’m not just my body and brain. I’m also my culture, my family, my friends, and all of that. All of it is in this giant evolving machine, going on its own. The machine is us and we are the machine. In that sense, our individual selves are an illusion.  However, I can never escape myself.  The only decent definition I’ve ever came up with is ‘the ability to experience qualia’, or ‘the ability to have subjective experiences’, or something to that effect.

As for the so-called ‘objective’ world which exists outside myself, I can’t define it.  It’s a bit misleading when I began this talk by talking about my brain.  I experience a representation of my brain with my brain, I guess you could say.  To be a bit pedantic, subjectively there’s only the present, but during the present moment I’m looking at my brain and other sorts of memories are conscious to me at the same time.   There’s an awareness of a personal history, an object in front of me, ‘my’ spatial location, and so on.

As for the world, I never experience it directly as it is.  I can say, “Oh, it’s made of atoms which are jiggling around, and there’s photons moving about in electromagnetic waves.”  But when you carefully ask what those things are, it gets confusing very quickly.  In my own conception of objective reality, the world is something which is different from how I perceive it, and language cannot capture it.  Only mathematics and computer algorithms can do it justice.  To quote Heisenberg,

“It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for, as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consists only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme—the quantum theory—which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualization, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies—the wave picture and the corpuscular picture.”

— Werner Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory

I don’t think I can know what reality is as it is.  What the laws of physics give me are probabilities about how I will subjectively experience the next moment based on initial conditions.  I can never escape myself.   The equations give me a method to determine what to expect if I were to observe things in different circumstances.  In any real circumstance that requires computation and a lot of effort.

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