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Unraveling Sentience

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Posted by Mario Dovalina on May 10, 2004 14:46:47 UTC

Hey all, just dropping by to see how everyone's doing, and to post thoughts that I've posted before, but never fully realized or fleshed out. Much of the following I've previously discussed with Macula about a year ago, so this is partially a resposting. Anyways, enjoy!


Unraveling Sentience: A Reductionistic Approach to the Myth of Individuality

“I think, therefore I am. I think.”
-Ambrose Bierce

There is a certain sense of irony in the achievements of mankind’s innate desire to philosophize. Throughout the course of human history, we have been provided with consistent and logically harmonious answers to such seemingly subjective questions such as “What is courage?”, “What is love?”, or “What is happiness?” However, when dealing with questions that at first glance appear to be much more fundamental and inherently objective, such as “What is thought?”, “What is life?”, or “What does it mean to be conscious?” the old arguments of “iron and adamant” dissolve into oblivion. Theories on the nature of consciousness (or, to use a more religious term, the nature of the soul) may be logically consistent, but are utterly unverifiable. The terrible truth behind the seductive voice of philosophy, and the secret behind the smoke and mirrors is this: we have the power to place our subjective natures under a microscope and examine and probe to our hearts’ content. However, the all-encompassing, all important inquiry regarding the source of our natures, the criminally simple question “Who am I?” remains unplumbed and forever enshrouded in mystery.
Perhaps we never shall know who we truly are or what we consist of in a metaphysical sense. We must reluctantly take solace in the fact that although the answer to what we are may be forever lost to us, we can at the very least define with great accuracy what we aren’t. Theories on consciousness and souls abound (for the purposes of simplicity and readability, these two terms will be used interchangeably throughout this paper) however upon false premises. Most notions on the meaning of sentience are in effect the fat, limping gazelles in the Philosophical Serengeti: easy to take down and rip to shreds once the proper approach in developed. If logically flawed theories of consciousness are thrown out, we can narrow down the set of possible answers to this great question, and provide ourselves with a more palatable range of possibilities.
Though perhaps more sophisticated approaches exist, this author has found traditional ideas on the soul to fall easy prey to simple reductionistic arguments. One would think that most theories on the matter could survive at least some cursory reductionism; however it truly is remarkable how quickly most people’s conceptions of the soul crumble to ash when the right questions are asked. Before proceeding further, however, it becomes necessary to define these “traditional” ideas of the soul in greater detail, before finally offering a reductionistically compatible model of consciousness. The two greatest, oldest, and most common beliefs could perhaps be labeled “The Intrinsic Soul” and “The Inhabitant Soul.”
The Inhabitant Soul is a poor answer to the question, because it neatly dodges it: it is the generally monotheistic belief that the body is a reservoir for the soul; that the soul takes housing inside the body, but is not required for the body’s existence and vitality. That is, it is possible to have an organism without a soul (clones, apes, or superintelligent computers, for instance.) It sidesteps the question entirely. If a soul is not required for an organism to exist, that is, if the phenomenon of consciousness can occur without a “life-essence;” if a soul and a consciousness are not treated as the same thing, one must be forced to ask why the soul is necessary to explain anything at all. The Inhabitant Soul theory is therefore a poor philosophical construct in that it is both unverifiable and logically answers no questions, and it is therefore suited better to idle speculation and Gregorian chanting than a logical treatise on the nature of the self.
The Intrinsic Soul is a new-age and Eastern belief that a life-essence is a quality universal to all living things: the idea that life and souls exist together by definition. If it has a soul, it is alive. If it is alive, it has a soul. Every piece of organic matter possesses a spirit in and of itself. Holes in this theory begin to arise when one asks the question “What is life?”
Or, more accurately, “Give me an absolute dividing line between what makes something living and what makes it ‘dead.’” After all, proponents of this theory would agree that a human or a dog would possess this life essence, but that a rock or a hydrogen atom would not. Thus, they apparently believe in a fundamental difference between life and death. Finding it, however, is another matter entirely. Taking two extremes on the conceptual life-death spectrum is deceptive: it is easy to claim that a rock is dead and a human alive if those two data samples are all that is being considered. But, let’s break it down further to get more accurate. Where does one draw the line? Humans? Chimpanzees? Dogs? Frogs? Fish? Worms? Ferns? Lichen? Paramecia? Bacteria? Viruses? Amino acids? The components of amino acids? Complex carbon molecules? Carbon? At what point, after removing which atom, does a living thing cease to be living and lose its “soul” and individuality? Simply saying that more complex constructs possess souls is misleading: a tentative dividing line must still be drawn, describing at what point a system’s complexity is sufficient enough to afford it its own sense of awareness.
Moreover, looking at the entity in question as a whole being is too macroscopic a view as well: any given atom in an organism is inorganic. That is, there is no chemical difference between the iron in Julius Caesar’s blood and the iron in the knife that slew him. There is no chemical or physical difference between the water in the human body and the water in the icecaps on Mars. Every subatomic particle we consist of would be thought of as inorganic if encountered alone in the universe. Each atom that makes up who we are was once floating around space, ejected from some primeval supernova or drifting as coalesced nuclear gas leftover from the Big Bang. While we may, as a whole, be organic, we are comprised of inorganic parts. Thus, it means nothing to say that organic matter possesses a life essence when every individual portion of that living thing is dead. This theory requires that there is a fundamental, dividing difference between life and death. If one cannot be found, then therefore there is no definable “life” and no definable “death” so much as there are vague terms defined by faulty human perception: varying shades of grey, interpreted and categorized by the mind, but no more substantial than vapor in the wind. Asking at what point does inorganic matter becomes organic is like asking at what point does red blend into orange on the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no one point. There is no way of saying that everything to the left of this point is “red” and everything to the right is “orange” without applying frail and arbitrary human perception to the mix.
Further problems develop when the distinctness and individuality of organisms is called into question. A starfish, for example, can be divided into five pieces, and each piece will grow into a new, wholly self-sufficient organism. In such a case, would one suggest that each new organism possesses one fifth of the original consciousness? Or perhaps would each fifth of the animal attain its own individuality and essence? In the first case, it would seem to fly in the face of the theory that a full-grown, independent animal would only have “part of” a self, it would be similar to suggesting that a human has “part of” his or her parents’ consciousnesses (and scientifically absurd to suggest that consciousness can be divided and divvied up in this fashion) In the second case, a mechanism is assumed that prevents the separate arms of the starfish from having their own sense of self when the creature is intact. However, the only logical mechanism for this is physical proximity since that is the only variable in this question. The mere physical separation of the arms formed four new organisms, with four new consciousnesses; thus, the potential for “individuality” is inherent to all the pieces of an “individual” creature.
Such reasoning is not restricted to the lower animals. Medical cases have existed where half of an infant’s brain is removed to save her life, and the child developed in a relatively normal, functional fashion. Theoretically, the other half could have been kept alive, under similar conditions (either artificially or as a theoretical transplant) and developed into its own “person” with its own sense of self and individuality. What sense does it make, then, to treat oneself as one unchanging soul, one unchanging essence, one unchanging consciousness, if the very seat of one’s sentience could have so easily been divided and redistributed at birth? If a brain can be separated into two independent people, what does this mean for the ontological question "Who am I?"
Similar arguments can be made via the following thought experiment. If you were to take a neuron out of the brain of his friend, would he still retain his identity? Would “he” still be “him?” It's not a large change, and after all, what's one neuron among friends? In addition, if you were to put your friend’s neuron in place of one of your own that has the same function, there would be no chemical or electrical difference in his brain as a result of the transfer. Thus, can we say it makes any difference at all? To suggest that it does would assume that there is some cosmological standard out there, separating "your neuron" from "your friend’s neuron." There is certainly no scientific or empirical reason to think that this is the case. Now, if you were to cut out your left hemisphere and swap it with your friend’s left hemisphere, would "he" still be "him?" How is this question fundamentally different than the one regarding one neuron? It's not. It's simply a matter of degree. What makes this question so confounding is that it falls easy prey to reductionistic thought. If a large change in someone’s brain would change his or her identity, so must a small one. If replacing a hemisphere will make you stop being "yourself," that is, if your sensation of being conscious will no longer be "you," then replacing a neuron must also have the same effect, since we seem to be talking about a binary system here, of "you" versus "your friend." But why stop at neurons? Plucking out an atom at some arbitrary point in your brain must also compromise your consciousness, reductionistically speaking, as must arbitrarily putting an atom inside. When your brain receives free radicals from the outside world, reacting with your engine of consciousness and forever altering it, in what way are "you" forever altered?
In the end, this question all boils down to what is meant by the term “I.” What then, is consciousness? It is a question that is intrinsically and inescapably human and subjective. One might as well ask “what is a galaxy?” or “what is an island?” as if there were some metaphysical or platonic ideal defining the nature of such faulty human compartmentalization. A galaxy is an island of matter, and an individuality is an island of consciousness. There is no conceptual wall separating your consciousness from the consciousness of your friend as your brains as combined, just as there is no conceptual wall separating the identity of two galaxies colliding. It is quite simply a matter of human interpretation. Changing the consistency of the island never changes the fact that it is, as always, an island. Defining and individualizing a consciousness is akin to individualizing a cloud, a wave, a vapor. We are nothing more, it would seem, than pinnacles on an infinite backdrop of universal consciousness. As has been said, we are not waves. We are part of the ocean. And, as such, will dissolve back again into the native cosmic infinity from which we emerged.

Instinctively, culturally, egotistically and naturally we all assume our identities to be unique and unchanging. In an ocean of chaos we long to see ourselves as the bedrock, the unmoved and unchanging and eternal. However, as shown, the realism of the inviolate “I” is a hypothesis largely devoid of reductionistically compatible evidence or argumentation. One might argue that the nature of the self is a question far too metaphysical and complex to delve into with any kind of accuracy, and this is largely true, but with the important caveat that any kind of model of consciousness must be at least logically consistent. Thus, it would seem that any logically consistent model of consciousness must do away with the notion of an inviolate, unchanging “I.”

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