Have you ever pondered the nature of consciousness; the steady stream of blether that flows through the head? If this first-person cogitation is what constitutes the “I”, then where does this leave the body? People keenly feel autonomous ownership over their own bodies, especially amidst this flood of sexual misconduct allegations spanning various industries. Each human claims a right to their body and feels they can dictate who can- and cannot- touch it. But are these lumbering fleshy vehicles truly us? In a free-thinker’s snapshot pertaining to “the self”, I’d like to take you through a couple of issues relating to this matter. I’d like to explain why we cannot possibly be our bodies.
Most people would agree that we seem to be greater than the sum of our parts. Even scientists who profess to a staunch realism admit that there appears to be some ‘spark’ that makes selfhood, rather than mere flesh, bones and web of nervous systems.
Imagine you were born with a condition that allows you only to perceive monochromatically: you can only see in black and white. You have spent your life studying the nature of colours; the photons of certain frequencies that are reflected by a surface (rather than energy absorbed and dissipated), bouncing back into your eyes to excite certain cone cells at the back of the retina. You understand the science behind the colour ‘red’, but you have never experienced the passion or anger that the colour is said to evoke. You know the various areas of the brain that work to give the experience of ‘redness’. But there is, indubitably, something to ‘redness’, over and above these synaptic impulses, that you cannot feel. You would agree that this qualitative experience does not equate to the physical happenings in the body. There is a yawning discrepancy between the physical and the mental, the mind and the body. A dualism.
Now, you might ask, “can the mind not be reduced to the brain?”- after all, the beliefs and desires and ‘redness’ that you experience, wouldn’t exist without brain activity. In this case, this “spark” of phenomenology (the first-person experience directed towards something) that we view as the self, can be simply reduced to the mass of flesh, bones and nerves that we hold to be our physical bodies. I beg to differ.
Let’s pause for a second and talk about correlation vs. causation; one of the more important distinctions when it comes to analysing the weird and wonderful occurrences that happen all around us. Suppose that every time you started to sing, someone behind you clanged two metal trash-can lids together. There has never been an instance of singing, in your life-long experience, that hasn’t been followed by a metallic racket. Ergo, singing causes a horrible clanging noise. You would bet your life on it. But we know that, no matter how many thousands of instances you can rest your conviction on, this notion of causation is false. Instead, what is happening is simply a correlation of the two events. What has been crudely outlined here, is a difference that has profound implications across a plethora of academic disciplines. Are synaptic transmissions the cause of phenomenological experience, or even vice versa? Could it be that picturing a red rose causes a flood of chemical and electrical impulses in the brain? I maintain that they aren’t causally linked.
Now, there are nice philosophical definitions (and redefined definitions) for correlation and causation, but what matters for these purposes is as follows. We can see, in a brain scan, what areas of the brain ‘light up’ when a subject thinks about their fluffy dog, or pictures the look on their boss’ face when they’re late for work. But they are inherently different to the feeling of love or mild revulsion. Moreover, the two events (visible brain activity and phenomenological “qualia”) differ slightly every time, and differ largely from person to person. There is no one-to-one mapping of qualia onto physical brain activity patterns.
What’s to say the duality of phenomenology and physical isn’t a case of the clanging trash-can lids? This could simply be correlation: a stream of consciousness (‘us’- the thinker) running parallel to activity in the material world. We can take billions of instances where brain activity correlates with phenomenological experiences, but we cannot infer from these that one causes the other.
“Nonsense!” you might cry. We can see that mental degeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s are manifested in physical deterioration of the brain. And sadness from a broken heart can be accompanied by actual pain in the chest (although philosophy of ‘pain’ is a-whole-nother can of worms). Is there any way the mental and the physical can be linked?
At this point, I’d like to bring in Artificial “Intelligence”. One can create webs of connections that function in a similar way to synapses: gateways that use symbols and binary to transfer impulses and information. But what cannot be recreated, is the qualitative ‘redness’ of the colour red; the experiencer that constitutes the self. The ‘I’ that lives in consciousness. So, we can have the physical without the phenomenological experience (as we can see in the instance of AI). We can’t even know, for certain, that our consciousness stops when our bodies cease to function – oh, the problematic nature of death! Perhaps we can have conscious experience without the body.
Despite the inability to marry the physical and the mental realms, I’ll admit that thoughts are being had by something (the precursor to Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum”). One simply cannot prove that our bodies are tying them to the material world. Perhaps we are merely being fed these experiences by our mechanical overlords, far off in some Matrix-esque dystopia. Who knows? Now let’s retract from this philosophical snapshot and return to my initial reference to the current allegations of sexual misconduct: even if these bodies are not us, that certainly doesn’t allow someone else a proprietary right to them. Or any other sort of right to these bodies. Armchair musings have no bearing on ethics; they are merely enjoyable for a brief transportation to Planet Zong.