I have felt with increasing certainty recently that the Buddhists are right. We have no separate existence, no soul, no fixed place in the universe. Richard Dawkins is my prophet of choice.
We are mere replicators, a collection of raw matter on or in which certain instructions have been printed as to how we will replicate and hence cause our species to propagate into the future. Mere machines perhaps, little better than the algorithms which drive our computers, or which will drive general purpose artificial intelligence when it arrives.
No one wrote those instructions; they just evolved over the ages from the interaction (the chemical interaction) of matter.
That we are lumps of matter in no way different from that which makes up the rest of the universe is hardly in doubt. We know that the chemical elements which constitute our bodies were put together in the center of stars. Helium and nitrogen were the first and lightest. The rest followed.
Why then do we feel “separate” from the rest of the universe? Why do we feel different than a speck of dust, a doorknob or an ocean?
It is our consciousness, our awareness. Our ability to witness the universe and what is happening in it.
But what IS consciousness and is it in any way “special”? Perhaps consciousness is merely what it feels like to be a replicator, a machine made of chemical elements on which a set of algorithms runs. We are information. Our memories are mere information, stored chemically in ways we still do not understand, in biological wetware.
The algorithms in our body use the information contained in our memories to navigate the world for the purpose of replicating. Memories enable us to make predictions based on existing data. We need prediction to cross the road safely and to guess where our next meal is coming from.
Part of our minds are totally autonomous of our waking or normal consciousness – a machine which runs the heart, generates blood, extracts energy from food, excretes waste. To spread the species. To replicate.
We feel fear because our memories tell us some situation is threatening our existence in some way. We feel aggression because we live in a universe where we have to eat other to survive. We feel love because our algorithms need us to engage in sexual reproduction.
All of this is programmed into our matter. A written set of instruction spread throughout our body.
Who then is the observer? Who is it that is aware? It is not “I”, not “me” or “you”.
Consciousness just “is”. It is what happens when an organism is sufficiently complex. We are complex adaptive systems with feedback loops. “I” is simply what it feels like to be in the middle of this collection of complex adaption and movement. “I” is simply a construct which enables this mass of matter to recall memories (information) from the past and use it to predict the future. To predict for the sake of carrying on, to survive.
So “I” am no different from a lake or a dog or an asteroid. I am just more complex, I have a few more moving parts. My software is lengthier and is better able to steer my future.
What therefor of free will? What of imagination and creativity and art? They are by products of my instructions, the information which makes my body tick. The truth is we have absolutely no idea whether free will even makes sense in the context of an apparently deterministic universe. Leaving aside the many worlds interpretation of quantum weirdness, free will may be just another illusion. It may, once again, be what if feels like to be this set of matter running that set of instructions.
Did the first life feel what it was like to be a Eukaryote? Did the first animals feel what it was like to eat, feed, fight, excrete?
Perhaps not but as the complexity of their wiring increased, awareness of sorts dawned. Consciousness of sorts is probably wide spread in the universe. A worm probably “feels” “something”. The sun perhaps; heat and light; the caress of water; the smell of raw earth,
And so on up to humanity and beyond.
Does it worry me that I have decided “I am not”? Not really, it is a relief. I will continue to explore the nature of consciousness with relish, but I don’t think I can help my odd ways any more than a monster like Adolf Hitler could help his.
At bottom, emotions of worry, guilt, contrition and remorse are pointless. We are what we are; we are “not”.
It wasn’t me m’Lud….it was my programming.