Sunday, January 28, 2007
The Ghost In The Machine
I have a question for you. It's a simple question really: Do you exist?
I know, you think it's a stupid question to ask. Of course you exist, you say. You see yourself in the mirror. You live in a complex, three dimensional world. You walk, you talk, you drive, you fuck, you work, you buy, you eat, you consume, you digest, you shit, you sleep, you scream, you meditate, you travel, you come home, you have a family, friends, kids, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, enemies, rivals, people keeping you down, people lifting you up, television and movies you watch, books you read, music you like, and a "life" you are living. How could you not exist? You think therefore you are.
Further apparent evidence of your existence lies in your own body, an amazingly complex organism. Hold your hand up in front of you. Have you ever really looked at your hand and seen it for the incredible creation it is? It's a perfect tool, really. Unlike monkeys, you have five fingers, including opposable thumbs that move and rotate to help you pick up things, throw a baseball, drink a beer, and pleasure yourself. You use your hands virtually every second of the day without even thinking about it. Try living without your hands for a day. Or an hour, even.
Besides your hands, your body contains other intricate mechanisms that serve as further evidence of your existence: a bony skeleton wrapped in sinewy muscle and skin, hair follicles on your head and elsewhere, eyes that see, a nose that smells, and ears that hear. Each of these is miraculous in the way it works and in how well it works. You look at your body and you are certain you exist. How you could you not exist? The mere fact that you are reading this and thinking and perceiving means you exist, doesn't it?
Maybe, but not necessarily. Today, we have computers and video games like The Sims and World of Warcraft that create vast two-dimensional worlds, inhabited by characters with races, traits, talents, and reputations that the gameplayers select – characters who are good, evil, conservative, promiscuous, Palladin, Dwarf, Necromancer, white collar, blue collar, criminal, hero, bully, man, woman, other – you name it, you can BE it. Not too long ago we were playing Pong and Asteroids on Atari. Now, a lawyer in New York can get online in his office or apartment and be cast into a world of virtual reality, where he fights demigods, sorcerers, reanimated skeletons, and sulphuric demons with a team comprised of a high school student from Des Moines, a mother of two from San Diego, and a construction worker from Memphis. As the processing capability and power of our computers has increased, so too have the complexity of the two-dimensional worlds that our characters (we) live and play in.
If we stretch this idea out at bit, is it not at least theoretically possible that you, me – all of us – are all simply characters playing in a more complex, richer, fuller, three-dimensional version of The Sims? Isn’t it possible that our existence, our perceived reality is really an illusion, and we are simply constructs of the real gameplayers, who live and exist in the real reality, one we cannot see? That we are all living and existing in the ultimate game of virtual reality? Til death do us part? Just like my character in Medal of Honor, who has been killed and reanimated more times than I can count, isn’t it possible that after we die, someone just hits the restart button and we come back to life as a new character, a new person?
I know what you’re thinking. Poppycock. We have free will, the characters in our video games don’t. In this world, I can freely choose to live peacefully pursuant to the social contract, or I can choose to kill someone and if I do, I will subject myself to all sorts of consequences, some of which are predictable, some of which are not. We make free decisions every day, from buying a magazine, to choosing which pair of jeans we want to wear. Game characters, even in the most advanced virtual games, don’t do that. They have to be controlled, manipulated. True that. But maybe the concept of free will is one of the rules of our game. Maybe every potential decision available to us has already been factored in to the computer program or intelligence that is running this game, so that what looks to be free will to us really isn’t. It’s just an illusory component of a very complex virtual reality program. Maybe you’re not exercising free will at all, you just think you are.
Okay, so let’s assume we exist and everything we experience in the material world we are living in manifests our existence. I’ll ask another question. Who or what are you? Who is the “you” in you? That subjective thing that is making your decisions, telling you that you like strawberry ice cream, not chocolate, women, not men, and AC/DC not Justin Timberlake. How do you know what green is?
If you think it’s your brain, I have news for you, it’s not. Your brain is just another three-pound hunk of matter sitting in your skull, connected to a bunch of neurons. By itself, it can’t do anything other than process the electromagnetic energy flying through it, which seems to control your thoughts, movements, decisions, memories, and dreams. Scientists are only beginning to understand how the brain works, and the brain is looking more and more like the effect, not the cause, of consciousness and mind.
There is a really interesting article in last week’s Time Magazine, which describes what we know about the brain, what we are learning, and what we still don’t know. One thing I was surprised to learn is that the brain itself cannot feel any pain. That hunk of grayish-pink mass of curlicues and nerves can’t feel anything if you poke at it. That’s why doctors can apply a local anesthetic to the scalp, bore a hole through the skull, and perform experiments on the brain by stimulating different neural centers. I came away from the article believing that consciousness, the Ghost in the Machine, the mind, is a total mystery to us. We still don’t know where it comes from, how it works, or what it is. Which means we don’t know who we are. We don’t know what happens to all that electricity after we die, where it goes, or if it goes anywhere.
But the article did describe a number of fascinating things we do know about how our brain works. For example, brain scans reveal that seeing faces and places and imagining faces and places stimulate the same regions of the brain in similar ways. This means that seeing and imagining are very similar processes. Which begs the question, how much of our reality is what we see and how much of it is what we imagine? What is reality?
The article also described the results of experiments that were done by British and Belgian scientists on a woman who had survived a car crash that had destroyed parts of her brain. The woman could open her eyes, but could not respond to sights, sounds, or jabs. Much like Terry Schiavo, she was deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state. So imagine how surprising it was when the scientists scanned her brain with an MRI and learned that when they spoke to her, the parts of her brain involved in language lit up. When they asked her to think of visiting the rooms of her house, the parts of her brain involved in navigating space and recognizing places lit up. When they told her to imagine playing tennis, the regions relating to motion brightened on the MRI. Amazingly, the woman’s MRI scans were not much different from those of healthy volunteers.
The stunning results of these experiments implicate all kinds of ethical issues about life and death. Even if you were conscious and had full cognitive ability, would you still want to live in the prison of a destroyed body? But what really interests me is what it says about the mind, about consciousness. What is consciousness? Is it a soul? What’s a soul? We can’t see a soul, so we don’t know if one exists. This means nothing of course. Though they are objectively complex instruments, in the grand scheme of All That Is, our eyes have proven to be pretty crude perceiving machines. As little as we know about the material universe, we already know that there is a bunch of shit we can’t see with our eyes: ultraviolet light, gamma rays, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, microbes, bacteria, amoebas, etc. This is why we have only scratched the surface of seeing and understanding the true building blocks of the universe.
One thing we can see through the use of MRIs and other instruments, however, are the electromagnetic impulses that pass through the brain. Some scientists believe that the answers to consciousness – to the Ghost – lie in that electricity. Some believe that consciousness is the activity in the brain and the resultant chemical reactions. That idea also raises questions about what is real and what is not. Because brain activity can be manipulated. It’s proven that if you stimulate certain areas of the brain, you can induce hallucinations so powerful that they are indistinguishable from reality. Stimulate other parts and you can conjure up an innocuous memory from childhood, like the first day you rode your bike to school, May 2, 1976. Other experiments suggest that your brain, or your consciousness records every single second of every day of your life, like a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 GB hard drive.
The more we learn about the brain and consciousness, the more it seems we are all carbon-based supercomputers, hardwired with unlimited memory storage and an apparent ability to choose our behavior. Perhaps we are connected to a massive, super-intelligent computer server (God or Creator). Maybe we are psychically connected to other carbon-based supercomputers – each other – through an as-yet undiscovered communication method comparable to the Internet. We just don't know how to tap into it yet. This analogy will seem even more apt as the worlds of carbon and computer continue to converge in the next hundred years and we start to see people walking on bionic legs, holding coffee cups with bionic hands, and seeing the world through bionic eyes. In the sci-fi movies of the 1980s and 90s, these part-human, part-computer beings were called “cyborgs,” and we laughed at how far-fetched the idea seemed. (Remember Robocop?) Now, the Six Million Dollar Man – my childhood idol – is set to become a reality, though due to technological advances, he may only cost $60k and change.
All of this begs the question of what reality truly is and who we really are. Is reality truly objective, the material world you and everyone around you sees, a collective reality that everyone agrees exists? How do we truly know that “everyone” is really there? How do I know that I’m not sitting in a chair somewhere in the Fourth or Fifth Dimension having my fourth or fifth-dimensional brain probed by a “real” doctor whose experimentation is conjuring up this three-dimensional reality for me? How do we know that what appears to be my reality isn't just a dream being experienced by a single, complex mind in a different "real" reality?
The more we learn about ourselves, the more enlightened we will become about who and what we are, and one day the Ghost will be revealed. I wonder if we will be satisfied with the answer once we hear it.
Now go enjoy your brunch. Assuming those bacon and eggs are really there of course, and not simply a projection of your mind.