July 22, 2013

Is I Is or Is I Ain't?

I listened to "Neurophilosopher" Patricia Churchland on NPR's On Point today. She argued that science proves we are our brains, and nothing more. There is no self, no consciousness, no soul.

I don't know who peed in her Cheerios, but she delivered this news with the sort of glee the Grinch displayed as he waited for the Whos to all cry "Boo-hoo!" on Christmas morning. Her message was that our brains give us the illusion of self, we need to realize that this is just an illusion. The only acceptable religion is Buddhism or some variation thereof, and if you believe anything else you're, at best, a poor sucker, and at worst a plague on the human race.

I have to say, her arguments were rather convincing. And she does make an excellent case for suicide. After all, if I'm just an autonomous pile of neurons, if emotions are just dressed up nerve impulses and "I" don't really exist, why should I keep on existing if I'm tired of it? If the illusion of existence stops being enjoyable, why not end it? I don't need to consider the feelings of friends and family because they're also illusions. It would be like considering the feelings of the light bulb when I turn off the light. Feelings are just convenient labels for various combinations of nerve stimulations. In the end, it's all electrical impulses.

On the other hand, I have to wonder where the rest of the body fits into her worldview. How can I be just a brain when that brain is inside a body that's affecting it? I have skin and eyes and ears and a nose and a tongue. I have a lymphatic system and a digestive system and a million billion invisible bacteria living in and among all those parts.

What's more, this body is in an environment filled with physics and chemistry and biology. Things happen. Things affect me. Other little autonomous piles of neurons - animals and people - interact with me. Many of them are also under the illusion that they, too, have a self. And their illusion communicates with mine, reaches out to it through sound and color and shape.

So I suppose I have to decide: do I abandon the illusion that I exist, or embrace it? Do I do what's rational and logical and end my life when it suits me, or do I let my little illusion of self reach out to the other illusions around me and let them comfort me? Do I let them make me laugh and smile, even knowing those are meaningless neural responses?

Do I believe that a simple sack of meat is all that I am, or do I believe in synergy, that the sum of the parts can be more than the whole, and that this synergy encompasses not only me, but my family, my community, this world, and this universe?


  1. To paraphrase Descartes, "I think, therefore I am a sack of meat".

    I often wonder how we will react as a species once the curtain has been lifted. Will the little man wander out and decree "pay no attention" and leave us to our illusions? Or will we embrace the hard facts that science reveals and live more meaningful lives as a result?
    Science has been treated lately like the guy who comes to the party and complains the music is too loud. Nobody wants to hear that nonsense, even if it is true - we are trying to do a keg-stand here. One of these days the party will be over, we will need to clean up the recklessness left behind by superstition and wishful thinking. We will need to grow up and accept our responsibilities to this planet and to the tiny little insignificant corner of the universe we inhabit.

    So where do we find meaning? Why don't we just end it all now? Our subjective view of what is beautiful, what is noble, what is good - is worthwhile to me. And if it is meaningless in the end, I will still enjoy the experience like a roller coaster. Ups and downs, exciting and terrifying at the same time. But when the ride is over, I will gladly give up my seat so another can experience what I could only now remember.

    But cheer up, we are all stardust after all. And isn’t there something wonderful about that?


  2. Interesting. I watched a documentary last week that argues science is discovering the opposite. Even that the heart often informs the brain. Granted, I haven't checked any of the research they claim, but it brings up a good point about how a determined person with good presentation skills can use "science" to make persuasive arguments aligned to their belief syste. That documentary is "I Am" if you're interested. I'm not sure that I agree with all the interpretations in it though. Spend a lot of time pondering cognitive dissonance these days though.