Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Am I?

Reflections and Considerations on the Topic of the Self

Part Two of Five

This won't make any sense if you have not read Part One: Do I Exist?

I cannot contemplate myself in a state apart from a sensation. Hunger, frustration, cold, bloodlust, anger. Whenever I apply these terms to myself, I do so on the basis of certain sensations that I am feeling that I associate with these states. If I were in the state without the corresponding sensation, I would feel as though something else were in the state. If your body were starving, but you could not feel it, you would feel as though something other than yourself were starving. I think that this is true of almost all parts of your body, so I say that I am separate from at least most of my physical body.

I am situated in the world. I am subject to space. At first, one might think that this is a step back, since it implies that we are wherever our body is. However, imagine a man whose body (sans head) was being kept alive in China while only his head was being kept alive and talkative in Germany. If you asked him where he was, wouldn't he say Germany? It is evident, however, that we exist in the world at a certain point in space. (4, 7, 10)

I am capable of sensation. This means that I am nothing dead. These sensations change. (3, 6, 8)

I am capable of contemplation and mental activity. I am self-aware. (2)

I am moving throughout time. I am I despite motion. (1, 5, 9)

I am capable of will (4).

What am I?

I am whatever it is that is capable of contemplation and mental activity, capable of changing sensation, capable of persisting through time, capable of will, self-aware, and situated in space.

So, it would seem that I am a brain. Specifically, a part of a brain (since there are parts of the brain not related to any of the above characteristics). I am not unchanging, because the brain does change, grow, and diminish over time. I am not united, because the brain is active in different ways at different times leading to changing desires, wills, and attitudes.

Now, I ask, removing all other features of my body and leaving only my brain behind, could I say that I am that? If that brain can produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness, then am I there?

But, then, do we really need the brain at all? Let us suppose a machine were perfected that could produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness. Would that consciousness not regard itself as I?

And that's when I realize that, really, I am not my brain. I am a self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness. I am produced by the brain's activity, but even if my brain were to die and be replaced bit-by-bit by tiny machines that perform the same functions, I would persist. I am the consciousness generated by the brain, not the brain itself.

It occurs to me, especially exemplified by the wording I chose in the paragraph before last (“Would that consciousness not regard itself as I?”) That there is one other detail that needs to be attended to. Many brains may produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness, but why is it that in one case I am there and in all other cases I am not?

Looking from the outside, picturing a brain in a vat generating consciousness, I cannot find myself there. I cannot look at myself from the outside any more than my eye can see itself. I must look from the perspective of consciousness generated by the brain in the vat. If I am looking at the brain from the outside, then I am not the brain.

And that is when I see the whole matter from a new angle.

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