Saturday 29 January 2022

What is the entity that is 'I'?

I've been pondering on a matter since the 1990s when, amongst other things, I was evolving neural networks on a spare computer. And now, decades on, and much reading since, I think I can explain...

When I interact with a dog or a cat, or for that matter watch crows and cows, I am left with a feeling. The feeling is that these entities are like me, they interact with the world by experiencing it. Some entities, such as elephants and dolphins are even more like me, they can pass the mirror test. That is an indication that they are likely self-aware, however self-awareness is a meta-level of awareness oneself. One does not need to be self-aware to be an 'I' that interacts with the world by experiencing it. 

Now, it seems likely that, as the Buddhists tell us, this sense of self (self-awareness) is an illusion. When we think we made a choice, our brain made that choice subconsciously and the I steps in at the last moment and claims credit. Likewise, most of our declared motivations and rational justifications for actions and beliefs are post-hoc justifications for things our subconscious thinks instinctively. But I do not want to digress down that path right now.

What humans cannot experience is the uniqueness of what it is to experience the world as a dog, pig, or whale. Nonetheless we can reasonably see parallel behaviours to our own in other mammals and can reasonably extend compassion and empathy for suffering to other animals, especially mammals with which we share a commonality of brain structure. The behaviour of a maltreated dog reminds one of a maltreated human for this reason. 

Something about the 'I that experiences' has always seemed non-material, this ancient feeling is correct in my opinion. However as a empiricist and rationalist I do not accept that the soul exists, for example. once one accepts evolution, one must say that the soul arose somewhere between chemical reactions in a black smoker through to when the soul arises within the embryonic human, with the thorny issue of what animals have souls in the ground between. It's just not satisfying for an atheist post-Enlightenment mind.

There are other things we can say about the 'I that experiences' 

It is not specific to any one locality of the brain. It can be impaired by localised brain injury, be that from a javelin through the head or a stroke, yet 'I that experiences' remains despite these injuries, excepting perhaps such severe damage that it leaves the victim in a persistent vegetative state.

'I that experiences' is active during dreams. However anaesthetics can temporarily suspend it, though this turns out to be surprisingly technically difficult. Were it trivial one would not need specialist aneasthesiologists.

'I that experiences' seems to be present in all mammals, birds, lizards, possibly some insects. No serious animal behaviourist now thinks of animals as automata, although with insects and similar lower forms of life there is room for reasonable doubt.

'I that experiences' can be fooled by optical illusions and magician's sleight of hand. Such instances informing us of the deeper levels of information processing that give rise to the experience. These are processes that exist below the level of conscious access.

All of these are congruent with the idea that 'I that experiences' being an emergent phenomenon of the operation of the brain.

So, for what it's worth, here is my best stab at what 'I that experiences' actually is.

Consider a game....

The football game is not the individual passes of the ball or positions of players. Nor is it even the movement of the players, although here we get closer to the game, because the game is also the expression of codified rules, the 'culture' of the game.

Likewise a chess game is not the placement of pieces, their movements, or the rules of chess and their impact upon working strategies employed within the game.

The 'game' is an emergent property of the rules and the players and the history of the game. It is an ethereal entity that forms from the physical actions that form the game in the real world.

A game is thus an emergent property of a state machine, where a state machine is broadly defined as a system whose current state is determined by current inputs and past inputs. Looking at a game of Chess as a state machine, the game has a starting state which always has the same array of pieces on the board. It then proceeds through states as the players play with the position of each piece on the board representing a state of the game. The current state, arrangement of pieces, is dependent upon past moves, the rules of the game, the past experience of the players including their exposure to the repertoire of standard moves of the game of chess, indeed even down to the physical state of the players' bodies. A tired Grand Master getting over a bout of flu will make unforced errors.

Likewise the 'I that experiences' is an emergent property of the whole functioning of the state machine that is the brain. It is the outcome of the sensory inputs, firing of individual neurons, the states of the endocrine system, the neural patterns that are coded in the genes and express behaviours that increased procreation chances of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and other organisms deeper back in time within the tree of life). It is also the outcome of the culture in which we live, its suppositions, norms, rules and the framing of aspects of the culture, as expressed in the culture. 

In this sense, like a football match or a game of chess, it is an ephemeral thing which arises from the hard physics of the change of physical objects in the real world, together with the game's rules and history. And from Shamans, to Mystics in more modern organised faiths, this ephemeral quality was correctly sensed during periods of quiet introspection. 

So, in a nutshell, what I am saying is this: 

Those of us entities that interact with the world by experiencing it, we entities are the states of the state machine that is our brain. We are non-physical, ephemeral, and we arise from the physical configuration of our brains, together with their current and past inputs. 

That such a thing has arisen may be a result of natural selection conferring the advantage of creating a distributed organisational structure for the integration of information within the brain. However, if the panpsychists are correct then it is not a specific adaptation, it is an emergent property of information processing in the Universe. I remain agnostic on this point, however if the latter is true then humanity has almost certainly already made aware artificial intelligence entities.

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