I Think I Think, Therefore I Think I Am

13:59 Sun 10 May 2009. Updated: 23:45 01 Dec 2009
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The title of this post is hardly original, but it’s been a favorite of mine for many years. Underneath the smartass exterior, however, the aphorism packs a fairly significant punch that’s not necessarily merely a variant on solipsism.

I’ve started watching Dead Like Me, a television series about a girl who dies and is recruited into the ranks of the grim reapers, undead who do the job of shepherding the souls of those who die from their bodies to whatever their next realm is. It’s not a bad show, and I enjoyed the couple of episodes I’ve watched so far, but as I was watching it I was wondering if stories like that will cease to be culturally possible as the notion of the soul is eroded, much as it’s not really possible today to write a story about falling off the edge of the world, or about the Sun revolving around the Earth—at least not while maintaining that those stories have anything to do with our, “real”, world.

That is, if our culture catches up to the looking-increasingly-like-a-fact that we don’t have “souls”, will stories about ghosts, life after death, and so on, simply cease to function?

I’m not sure, but I suppose I should back up and address the soul thing.

I’ve tended to ambivalence about the idea of a soul, and the life after death question, for a while. They’re deeply related. It’s easy for me to accept (rationally, if not emotionally) that there’s nothing after death, that death is the end. The only thing that’s made that seem questionable (apart from a strong desire to deny it utterly) has been the question of what happens to consciousness. To my consciousness, specifically.

Perhaps this is the result of thinking narratively: my life is my story, and it’s told from my viewpoint, so even if I die as a character, the viewpoint must persist, if only to make narrative sense.

In any case, the question of “what happens to consciousness” can lead to all kinds of bizarre notions, like the idea that if consciousness is non-physical (which most of us seem to think on some level), then it isn’t necessarily tied to the body, or the death of the body. Maybe at body death consciousness is “separated” from it. Maybe at body death consciousness “migrates”. Maybe at body death consciousness merges into the larger global consciousness. One can come up with a lot of scenarios.

Throw out the idea that consciousness is non-physical, and that stumbling block/generator of wacky ideas disappears.

Various sources in recent years have altered my conception of consciousness: Derren Brown‘s exposure of tricks for taking advantage of apparent glitches in our programming; Peter Watts’ Blindsight, R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series, his novel Neuropath, and his “Semantic Apocalypse” idea; aspects of Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s work, particularly the pieces concerning our cognitive limitations; some of my own work; and doubtless other references I’ve forgotten.

Introspectively, I find it difficult to conceive of consciousness being purely physical, and when I was younger I did have trouble rejecting the concept that somehow the “essence” of consciousness could be somehow different, and that maybe it could survive, or be “transferred”, or even “downloaded” (as in The Singularity, AKA the Geek Rapture). But all scientific evidence points in the opposite direction.

It points to consciousness being deeply wrapped up in the physical, not merely in the brain itself, but also the rest of the body, and further suggests that consciousness itself may be fake, a kind of evolutionary advantage that, like many such advantages, works just fine if it isn’t a fully-realized function but a semblance of one.

So at this point my take on the question “what happens to my consciousness after I die” isn’t merely “nothing, because death is the end”, but “nothing, because consciousness is nothing”. That is, I think/suspect/fear that consciousness is illusory, another trick our brain is playing on us. Watching Dead Like Me, I came up with this:

Imagine a hamster on a treadmill (not a hamster wheel, but a hamster-sized, gym-style treadmill). The hamster has blinders on, and is facing a video screen with the image of a road on it. As the treadmill moves, the image of the road changes to simulate moving down the road. The hamster, stupid and in possession of very limited information/input, believes that it’s actually running down the road. That’s what thinking, or the concept of self thinking, is like for us. We’re dumb enough to think we really have a “self” when all that’s happening is the machinery in our brain moving around.

So when we die, the machinery stops moving, and the parlor trick that we think is “consciousness” stops as well.

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One Response to “I Think I Think, Therefore I Think I Am”

  1. Stephen Casey Says:

    I find the disappearance of consciousness more easily explained when you remove time from the process. If you view it as something continous, it is hard to see how it could simply cease. If you view it as individual points in time, moments when you make a decision or analyse the current state, it makes more sense that it could vanish.

    Sleep is a good example of this. You effectively loose any sense of an inner self when you sleep. Apart from the odd lucid dreaming events, consciousness is reduced to a passive state. Your whole conscious self takes an 8hr (I wish) break between points in time and becomes a movie, albiet an immersive one. The death of consciousness is simply switching off that movie, there are no more memories available to catalog.

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