Social Question

ETpro's avatar

Who are you?

Asked by ETpro (34436points) July 15th, 2012

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?

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33 Answers

athenasgriffin's avatar

This is a really good question. Everyone has different beliefs on what it is that makes us conscious, some say it is God that produces our individual consciousness. Others think there is a common consciousness between all living things and variations upon that idea, such as reincarnation or the universal mind (I personally like this story as an offshoot of that theory.) I think that animals have more consciousness than we give them credit for, but other people vehemently disagree, as there is no proof.

But, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. Even Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds that has ever received popular appeal, couldn’t fully explain his own beliefs:

“You know them to be true but you could spend a whole lifetime without being able to prove them. The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.”

I believe a part of humanity is being unsure about our roots. We don’t know why or how we came to be. We are forever searching for the answers to very basic questions, and even the most accepted are usually proven to be false. Sometimes we land on an idea and stick with it for a while, but can really only be accepted with a willing suspension of disbelief, eventually rationality takes hold. And again we are searching.

Cruiser's avatar

It is by sheer instinct and a lifetime of experiences that makes me conscious of who I am AND keeps me alive. You can wrap the modern man’s existence in all the psychobable and color it with new age musings and it won’t change the basic fact that we are a human style organism that is only here because we have evolved and learned to survive despite pretty sizeable odds and adverse circumstance.

ucme's avatar

I’m a six foot homo sapien with a childish mind & a massive trouser snake.

gondwanalon's avatar

I’m the engineer in charge of driving a high-speed computerized train through life. I rarely change tracks or deviate from my normal preset routs which are infinitely variable. This is disturbing to me even though I’ve be at this for many many years. I dream of a set in stone routine and schedule but my daily schedules are always changing. I console myself by reveling in the challenges of my life and appreciating all of the many opportunities constantly being offered to me. Someday I plan to retire to get off the fast tracks of life. Then I will bum a ride in the back boxcars of a slow moving freight train where I can do my own thing while I let the younger engineers carry me to some unknown and unforgiving destination.

Linda_Owl's avatar

I am unique, but I am also the same as most other people. I have given a great deal of thought in the past about several of the statements you made in your question. Scientists insist that everything that drives us resides in our brains, but I think that each of us has a spark of something extra – I think it is possible to tap into the universal consciousness – I think this is what happens when you have feeling inside of yourself that you know will take place. I think that all of us (or most of us anyway) feel alone & we wonder why this is so. This feeling of being alone is the driving force behind our need for friends, our need for families, our need to belong to something bigger than ourselves – it is one of the driving forces behind religion & politics…. the desperate need to belong. For many of us, religion has long since fallen by the way-side, & clearly politicians (for the most part) are for only themselves. Will any marine life or any other animal ever evolve to the point that humans have obtained? There is no way to answer that question, but I do think there is a great deal more to the minds of animals than we realize. After all, we are just barely cognizant of the realm of possibilities of the human mind. We may yet find that the planets & stars within the Universe are all “alive” in a sense that we are not yet aware of, but maybe we will find out before we render our planet to be uninhabitable to the humans & animals that live here. Who we are & what we are, no one really knows. We are all a part of everything we read, the art we admire, the philosophy we espouse, the empathy we feel for others, the connection that we feel for others – we are all much more interconnected than we realize at this point in time.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

Just another one trying to get through this all to reach the end.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t know who I am. I live in a constant identity crisis.

Coloma's avatar

I could get all deep and philosophical but, meh…been there done that. Chop wood carry water.
I’ll go with an @ucme and @Cruiser version.

I am a semi-enlightened duck masked female whose consciousness is floating about on an internet forum like feathers in the wind. ;-)
I am a portal of consciousness dabbling about like a goose in a hot tub. lololol

tinyfaery's avatar


Paradox25's avatar

What I think that our minds are is similar to the philosophies of Rene Descarte on the subject, but with some differences. Technically I don’t consider myself a real dualist, and I’m not a fan of using terms such as materialism, physicalism and dualism, but I do so in hopes that people can understand what I’m talking about.

I’m not going to get too deep here, but I’ll say a few brief things about what you’re asking and where I stand on this (at this point). I think that there is a cosmic or universal single mind, but the mind is made up of a near infinite amount of fragments. I think that brains give us the illusion of individuality. The Great Mind of the universe would likely have been bored and lonely with nothing to relate to, so it deliberately divided itself into many different fragments, isolated from each other using some type of information filter barrier, like a brain for example. In this way the Universal Mind, Great Spirit or God (if so you may) could have meaningful experiences with its other fragments.

Worlds of ‘spirit’ are nothing more than interpenetrating matter systems, as Pearson, Wolf and others have shown this is possible, according to quantum theory (I’m not talking about mtheory here). The Universal Mind is like a magnetic field, in the sense that we can only see the effects of it, but not the fields themselves. I don’t believe in quantum consciousness theories though, and I believe that thought is a different type of phenomena from that of quantum wave/particle duality. I know, no proof of this.

AstroChuck's avatar

I am the lizard king.

serenityNOW's avatar

I’m just a regular dude who wants to be happy, and have the people around me to be happy, too.
If you’ve been reading any of my recent posts, it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Ron_C's avatar

I am just a regular guy, husband, father,engineer, and teacher who is slowly going off the deep end.

Strauss's avatar

I’m so complicated, in a simple way.

augustlan's avatar

This is another of those big questions I could drown in, if I let myself. I’ve run myself in circles on this kind of thing in the past, and it was a thrilling but ultimately depressing exercise for me, so I had to let it go. I just push these things to the back of my brain, and try to enjoy what is rather than drive myself insane wondering why it is. I applaud you for diving in, though!

ETpro's avatar

Dagnabit, I answered most of you last night, then fell asleep at the switch. I woke up at 4:00 AM and had just enough consciousness left to turn the machine off without a save. So here’s trying one more time.

@athenasgriffin I totally agree animals are more conscious than chauvinistic humans care to admit. I listen to dolphin chatter and it’s clear to me they are carrying on a high-order conversation. Other dolphins in the pod react to what one dolphin vocalizes. What more evidence do we need?

@Cruiser You won’t get any argument from me on that.

@ucme Are you, now? Can you prove the last assertion?

@gondwanalon I am not at all clear on why you would ever need to vary from an infinitely variable route. What causes these occasional variations from infinite variation?

@Linda_Owl I welcome your thoughts on this. But by my observations, we aren’t conscious of anything close to what we credit ourselves as being conscious of. Our “experience” of consciousness is that it is a continuous flow of recordings of everything we see, hear or feel. But is it? While out of the room involved, Write down every single detail of what is on one of its walls. Then go back into the room and see how much was there, but not part of your conscious mind. Would you immediately notice of a door suddenly opened from the opposite side? When driving into an intersection, would your attention be drawn to a traffic light where the red and green signals were in reverse order, with the green on top and the red at the bottom?

Granted all these details are in our memory somewhere, but most are not part of consciousness.

@ZEPHYRA And I am just another one now conscious that the end is getting ever closer, and will come all too soon.

@WillWorkForChocolate I appreciate honesty far above false bravado.

@Coloma Nothing like knowing who you really are.

@tinyfaery Huh? Persimmon.

@Paradox25 That is so far beyond my conscious awareness of reality I won’t touch it.

@AstroChuck Bucking for a Geiko commercial, are we?

ucme's avatar

@ETpro I could, but that would make me a show off & we can’t be having that.

pezz's avatar

I have no problem with answering this question.. I AM PEZZARUSS… a GOD in my own body… I AM that that I hold true…. I believe I AM, so therefore I AM… I strive to have faith in my faith in me. What more could anyone ask for….?

snapdragon24's avatar

Im perfectly imperfect. Someone who is in constant search of who she is…and trying to evolve into something better.

ETpro's avatar

@ucme Called your bluff, did I? When did braggadocio silence you heretofore?

@pezz For someone so awesome, how come you only managed 2 entries in Google?

@snapdragon24 Fair skies as you fly.

tinyfaery's avatar

Pineapple is my go to word when a topic is so speculative and ultimately a pointless exercise. We are what other’s perceive us to be and to ourselves we are nothing but self.


ucme's avatar

@ETpro Oh i’m a very humble man, I do humble fantastically well.

ETpro's avatar

@tinyfaery Thanks for enlightening me. I was off speculating on being a fruit, being tropical, nothing close to the meaning you intended. So why did you choose to answer, it this was a pointless exercise?

@ucme Yeah, riiight. :-)

tinyfaery's avatar

Because pineapple is yummy.

ETpro's avatar

@tinyfaery So are on topic answers. In fact, I prefer them to pineapples except when I am specifically seeking a pineapple.

tinyfaery's avatar

Too bad. Social sucks. You have to put up with it just like everyone else. Plus, I answered your question. Don’t get all butt hurt because I’m honest.

Coloma's avatar

Social is GREAT! It allows for free flowing interplay, I prefer flying by the seat of my consciousness rather than being strapped down any day o’ the week.

tinyfaery's avatar

Yes, we all know how much you love to talk about yourself.

ETpro's avatar

@tinyfaery And that isn’t what Pineapples has been all about? What’s wrong with being forthcoming?

mattbrowne's avatar

Mr. Curious from Germany.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne And wherever you journey in the future, may you remain Mr. Curious.

gondwanalon's avatar

I just watched the movie “Flight” with Denzel Washington. At the end of the movie the son asked his father “Who are you”? Some people may point to their profession or other activities to define who they are. But if that is true then who you are changes through time. For example a high school student then a college student then a soldier, then a CEO then a senior citizen. But I think that who you really are doesn’t change much.

Who am I really? In a nutshell I’ve always been a struggler who seems to have unlimited perseverance and determination with a true love monotonous hard work and nature. I’m an introverted master of mediocrity who knows a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing.

ETpro's avatar

@gondwanalon Well said. I agree. The real me changes very slowly over time.

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