Who are you?
This isn’t just an idle question posed in a song from The Who.
We can answer with the trivia about us. I’m a husband, a web developer, a skeptic… But the question here is aimed at a much more fundamental level. What about you makes you conscious, sentient?
Why should such a simple question be so difficult to answer? In all the ages since the ancients first bent their minds to defining our place in the scheme of things, we’ve never conclusively established what gives rise to consciousness and sentience. It had seemed obvious back when the world was thought to be entirely controlled by invisible, undefinable forces such as gods and demons, angels, witches and spells. But as science began to probe what matter really is and what keeps the planets on their appointed orbits, doubt began to creep in. Was there, in fact, anything invisible and immensurable at work? Even invisible forces such as gravity and magnetism can be detected—measured.
In the 19th century, behaviorists began to suggest that there was nothing more than wiring in the brain. There was no such thing as consciousness, they insisted. We were, to the behaviorist, not really different from an amoeba that seeks food or a mimosa tree, whose leaves fold closed when touched. Everything was simply behavior. We only differed from the mimosa in the number of neural synapses we possessed, and the behaviors they could exhibit. Thought was an illusion, they insisted. Soon, they promised, we would understand the behaviors and be able to retrain dysfunctional individuals to adopt new, more appropriate behavior. But soon never came, and even while preaching such nonsense, nobody really believed they were unconscious. Behaviorism was, in the end, just an attempt to sweep an unexplained phenomenon under the rug rather than deal with explaining it.
The idea that consciousness is nothing more than what happens when you connect enough switches was demolished when the Internet connected hundreds of millions of computers each with billions to trillions of switches, and yet the Internet did not suddenly become conscious. There are 100 trillion synapses, each like a little switch, in the human brain. The Internet connects hundreds of millions of computers, each with hundreds to millions to trillions of switches, and yet the Internet doesn’t exhibit as much consciousness as mouse.
It would seem there are a limited number of possibilities to explain who we are.
1—We are conscious and sentient because evolution provided us with a unique and sufficiently massive and diverse blend of self-teaching, self programming neural networks. And when you get that magic number of 100 trillion synapses each painstakingly programmed by evolution to learn and program itself to constantly do one thing better and better, or to even adapt to doing all new things, consciousness emerges.
2—We are not just a brain, we are also a spirit. In fact, the brain is nothing more than a very powerful computer. And something, undetectable by any means currently known inhabits humans sometime between conception and birth and imbues humans with sentience—the ability to bend that brain/computer to any task it wishes. But it is the spirit doing the wishing, not the brain.
3—We are a combination of lots of synapses plus the quantum entanglement of the subatomic particles in those synapses with all the other particles in the Universe they have reacted with and thereby become entangled with.
Each postulate has its problems. If it’s quantum entanglement, why aren’t we more aware of each other and the Universe around us. And how do we preserve something as ephemeral as entanglement over a lifetime or even longer?
If it’s just evolution, why did this normally ponderous process advanced in a predictably plodding fashion over 65 million years of the age of the mammals; but sometime in the past 3 million years as upright, ape-like creatures evolved into modern man, suddenly leap light-years ahead?
If it’s transcendental, then why is there a continuum of consciousness, with lower order mammals and even non-mammalians such as crows, parrots and squids displaying varying levels of consciousness. There are animals that fashion and use tools, and others of their kind can learn by observation to copy successful tool using behavior. There are animals smart enough to recognize their own picture and distinguish it from pictures of other animals of their kind. They can recognize pictures of their “friends” and family as distinct from pictures of strangers. This shows they have in place one of the critical building blocks of full sentience, the sense of self as separate from other.
They are not just well programmed automatons. They think. They adapt to change. Are they imbued with mini-spirits, or are they traveling on the evolutionary road humans traveled? Will fully sentient squid emerge when they too pass some critical-mass point in brain power?