We’ve all had this happen to us — some problem is wracking our brain, and we can’t come up with a solution. We’re stumped. Then out of the blue, we see or hear something that changes our perspective, and suddenly the whole thing makes perfect sense. The situation is exactly what it was a few minutes ago, but our point of view has created a wholesale change in how it looks.
I had an epiphany like this over a decade ago when I was beginning to think about what it means to be human in a godless universe. Several scientific truths had me stumped. The one that got me started was the fact that approximately every seven years, we are literally a completely different person. That is, there are no cells in our body that were there seven years ago. Physically, we are a brand new person.
I was also a bit confused about the brain, the mind, and “personhood.” Clearly, I am the same… something… as a decade ago, but the fact is, my brain doesn’t work the same way it used to. I’ve got a decade of experiences, decisions, emotions, and… well… life, and these changes have changed my mind. Literally. I cannot reach the same answers to a great many questions. I can’t believe what I used to believe. I can’t help but be a different person. But I’m still the same person. But… I’m not. I’m more compassionate than I used to be. Less trusting. I don’t experience “love” the way I did when I was younger.
I’ve written before that I believe that this very philosophical dilemma is directly responsible for the concept of a “soul.” It stands to reason that there is something that makes us… whatever it is that we are. It’s not difficult at all to imagine that this thing is physical, or at least tangible.
This morning, I watched The Matrix Revolutions. (Mostly, I was too lazy to get up and retrieve the remote.) I was particularly struck by one of the early scenes, when Neo is trapped in the “train station” and has a conversation with three “programs” that look and sound suspiciously like Indians. The “mother” and “father” had made an arrangement to save the “life” of their “daughter,” who had been judged unsuitable for inclusion in the Matrix. (Sorry for all the scare quotes. You get the idea, so I’ll stop now.) Neo was very confused that computer programs could feel love. The father explained that love is a word, and what is important is the reality that the word implies. Call it what you want, but the parents were moved to try to save the life of their daughter.
For all the panning Revolutions received, this particular scene has real philosophical importance. We humans really do have a problem with the ideas of life, love, and mind. We believe there’s something special about our minds, and that it has some sort of metaphysical importance in the universe.
We Are Ancient
The first change of perspective I experienced was the realization that I am ancient. Even though my social security card says I was born on such and such a date, the life that is me has been around for billions of years. There has never been even the slightest moment since the beginning of life on earth that “I” have not been alive. My father’s sperm and my mother’s egg were living parts of them, as were their parents, and their parents. The line continues unbroken through ape-like ancestors to mole-like ancestors, to walking fish to jellyfish to colonies of cells with rudimentary structures, and even back to the first single celled organisms. I have been alive for a very, very long time.
For the last thirty-odd years, my life has had some pretty neat characteristics. I’ve been capable of very advanced thought, and of manipulating my environment based on astoundingly complicated goals. If any of my life continues to live after this particular incarnation stops living, who knows what will eventually happen to it! I might end up being a completely different species in another million years. Then again, if I am like so many parts of life, I will probably cease to exist completely as “life.”
Of course, I have no memory of my life as a fish, nor will I be aware of any life I might perpetuate in the distant future. I am only conscious for a very short while. But my life continues.
Life is Dynamic
Still, there is something unique about me for a few decades. Something that other parts of life can recognize. My friends, my cat, the government, and spy satellites can identify me with pinpoint accuracy. What is it that makes me… me?
It’s a process. Call it a computer program if you like. I am using the text editor in WordPress.com to write this blog. And much like the text editor, I am a complicated set of formulae that does things. The formula that makes me who I am dictates what I think, how I look, how I sound, and what I do. It is unique to me out of all the formulae that have ever existed in the history of life. That is what is unique about me. So long as the algorithm that is Hambydammit continues to function, I will be a unique and discreet entity in the universe. There’s nothing special about the fact that I’m alive, or that I’m carbon based, or that I have graying brown hair and hazel eyes. What is unique is the process of Hambydammit.
And this is where the Matrix actually has something useful to teach us. What differentiates the programs in the matrix from humans? For those trapped in the matrix, the illusion is virtually complete. The programs look, feel, and act like individuals. They act on their own to accomplish their own ends. They behave with all the characteristics of love, hate, envy, fear, and all the other human emotions.
And here’s the kicker: From a process perspective, they are just as real as the humans. Yes, there is a difference in kind. The matrix is populated by non-organic processes, and humans are organic. But beyond that, the programs — the processes — are functionally the same. Or at least, they’re so functionally similar that they are indistinguishable. Is the love of a program different from the love of a human? Not if the results are the same.
And that’s the shocking thing about contemplating humanity. We try to place love, compassion, art, passion, and all our other experiences on a pedestal and treat them as if they have existence on their own, but they don’t. Only because of the process of life do they have any reality at all. If there is no one to look at the Mona Lisa, it’s just a collection of molecules.
To me, this realization is powerful. Life teems on planet earth. There are trillions and trillions of bits of life all over the place, and I happen to be a unique part of it that can recognize my own place, and experience the processes of love, hate, lust, wonder, stress, release, and a hundred others. For a few brief years, I am aware of my own life. The process that is me is unique in the history of the universe, and no other life process will ever experience life in precisely the same way as me. When I stop to consider that “I” have been alive for billions of years, and for this tiniest of instants, I am aware of my life…
Well… it’s just staggering.