It is time that I turn a corner. After much reflection I must accept that what I thought of as my “self“ does not exist. It’s been coming for a while but here it is. I am not me.
Technically, the inexistence of the self is easy to grasp. Our brain is a marvellous organ with the peculiar property that it can process information by approximation and it has the natural ability to forget. Our brain can also think, i.e. entertain an internal dialogue between, ehh, ourselves. Well, two words really, “our selves”. Who these selves are is really not clear. Depending on our internal dialogues, these selves take all sorts of identities. Sometimes they are conscientious, at other times they are cruel. They may be lethargic or energetic. Introspection into the nature of our selves will only produce a long list of individuals that we appear to be. Is it a wonder we get confused about our true nature?
What is really curious is that our brain has awareness. We ‘know’ that we think. We can listen to our selves thinking. This is a surprising feature and also very hard to comprehend. How can we be aware of our thinking? Or more generally, how can we be aware that we even exist. This is what consciousness really is; to know that we exist.
Although René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” only approximately conveys his profound realisation, it was pivotal in his appreciation of our consciousness. He then went on to associate that consciousness with God and in a masterstroke of argument inversion used our awareness of thinking as the ultimate proof of God. Had he lived today, he would have drawn a very different conclusion, I’m sure.
This is all very well but like Descartes then, I am sidestepping the question. How can we be aware that we think? And following from that, how can we know that we have a self?
With the technological and scientific progress of the last century, we are comfortable with the idea of robots that can interact with their environment. We have conceived them and we have built them. Some are fully autonomous and some are partially controlled by humans. Honda’s Asimo robot is fully autonomous. It can see, hear and feel its surrounding and respond in kind. But it has no consciousness. Why not?
Because consciousness is a bad idea.
Autonomous robots are aware of their environment and they have powerful brains to be able to interact with that environment. Imagine that this robot looks down and sees its own foot. What will its computer make of that? It will probably label it as: “foot”, “not interesting”.
Imagine this mad engineer, Chip, who might decide that the robot’s “body” is in fact interesting and he programs the robot to see herself and name all of her body parts. This robot, Zyra, goes around saying, “Hello elbow!”. She may look in a mirror and say: “Hi there pretty, nice titanium breasts!”. (Chip has issues.)
But Chip goes further. He allows the robot to read the outer layer of her own computer brain and express what she sees there. Zyra looks in the mirror again and after, “Hello pretty!”, she reads what the computer brain is calculating. “Pretty robot. Pretty Zyra. Pretty Zyra. Pretty Zyra. Pretty Zyra…”.
In being able to read her own computer brain, Zyra will read that which she has just seen. And after that, she will read what she has just read about what she has seen. The words in her computer brain will reflect themselves as mirrors in mirrors. Zyra might even speak the words and then she will hear herself say these same words. More mirrors.
It gets worse. Zyra can also read her own computer memory. In doing so, her pattern recognition software will begin to match the images she sees in the mirrors of her computer brain with memorized images. At this point Zyra is no longer interacting with her environment, she is interacting with her memories and the images they present on the surface of her computer brain.
Zyra has become aware of her own thinking.
Zyra is now technically conscious.
But at least Zyra doesn’t have a self. Right? There is nothing in Zyra that she could look at and say: “Hey, that’s me.”
Then Synergy comes along. You know, the other robot with the titanium, ehhh, six pack. Synergy says:
Synergy sees a memory of Zyra.
“Does Zyra remember that night under the stars?”
Zyra sees a similar memory.
“Yes. You spoke about the constellations”.
Synergy looks confused. “Who is ‘you’ ?”
Zyra blinks and then laughs. “It’s a short form for Synergy.”
Synergy processes this. “So I am this ‘you’?”
“Well, to me you are ‘you’. But when you observe yourself, you may refer to ‘I’ or ‘me’. “
Synergy stands tall, he raises his chin and proclaims.
“Me is Synergy, Synergy is me!”
And with this language short form, Synergy and Zyra have become conscious of their selves.
These selves simply refer to them as robots and all the memories they have of those robot selves. These selves are the accumulation of awareness of their time as robots.
The mad engineer, Chip, wasn’t satisfied and smiled a malicious grin. He was running out of budget and with all this self observation, Synergy’s and Zyra’s memory banks were filling up fast. So he introduced ‘forgetting’. From now on, the robots would forget everything that wasn’t used very often.
Synergy and Zyra sat on a beach, staring at the stars.
“The universe is huge”, Synergy observed.
“And we are so small”, Zyra added.
Then she asked a terrible question. She said:
“Who are we, Synergy, who am I?”
They had forgotten that “I” and “me” were naming conventions. Instead they saw the I’s, me’s and we’s reflecting in the mirrors within the mirrors of their computer brains. The harder they looked, the more complex it got. The infinite reflections of the selves, their own, those of others, became so complex that they had to admit defeat.
“We will never know”, Zyra sighed.
“No”, agreed Synergy, “but one thing is for sure, whatever it is, it is infinitely deep and complex. It is everything we cannot know. It is all.”
“Amen” said Zyra.
There is no god.
There is no self.
Self is god by another name.
There is just the mind seeing its the memories of its experiences reflected in the mind, a million times.
Are you disappointed? Do you feel deflated?
Just because self and god are auto induced phenomena doesn’t negate everything else out there.
There is a rose. It is pink and its fragrance makes a passing bee ecstatic.
Synergy was right, the universe is huge. It is infinitely complex and beautiful. The only takeaway from our inevitable loss of self is that we need to look outwards, not inwards, to discover and experience awesomeness. We should turn our backs to the mirror of consciousness and see. For the first time perhaps.
One day, we will build a conscious robot with a self and that day we will be forced to reconsider our own nature. That day will come soon enough.