Friday, July 23, 2010

Our endless, pointless, futile, and ultimately destructive quest to define ourselves

Yes, that's a long title. But it's something we find ourselves coming back to lately, this relentless human urge to define oneself. Why? Why the need to believe that we are anything more than this conglomeration of atoms stuck together at this particular moment?

We were having a conversation with our wife the other day that turned to an old acquaintance - in fact, a mutual acquaintance who first introduced us. Thus, without this individual's involvement, we would both be leading separate, and perhaps dramatically different, lives. We have been pondering this, as it gets to the root of this whole chimera of identity with which we are all so obsessed.

There is a branch of physics that holds there are a virtually infinite number of universes (the multiverse), with a new one created each time anything could go one of two ways. Thus, the universe in which we find ourselves, rather than representing "reality," might simply be one among a countless number of other realities. Whether or not this is true (and even among those who believe this, there is resignation it could never be proved), it introduces an interesting way of looking at things. In short, perhaps we are free to choose which of these universes we inhabit merely by adjusting our future choices.

On the other hand, perhaps the whole concept of being free to choose is itself an illusion. We came across a fascinating piece the other day by John Derbyshire, in which he recounted a conference on consciousness:

"The disciplines most prominently on display at Tucson were neuroscience and philosophy. These two fields had collided quite sensationally in 1985, when Benjamin Libet published his discovery that the subjective experience of willing an act is preceded by the brain activities required to initiate the act. The measured gap between unconscious initiation and conscious decision-making was less than a second in Libet's experiments, but later researchers have since pushed it back to seven seconds.

Seven seconds! Your brain starts up the neural processes necessary for you to push a button. Seven seconds later you experience the wish to push that button. You then push the button. Where is free will? Where Schopenhauer left it, perhaps. Loosely translated: "We can do what we want, but we can't want what we want."

Well. This is truly bizarre stuff. If this is to be believed, then our "desire" to write this post occurred after some sort of neural event in our brain that created the desire.

Interestingly, while these views seem like polar opposites at first glance, they in fact lead one to the same conclusion with regard to identity--namely, that it is an illusion. In the first case, the concept that there are a countless number of "ourselves" coexisting in parallel universes is a pretty clear refutation that there is any reality to what we consider the self, while the second suggests that even our arguments against the self are mere physical manifestations of underlying neural processes - in other words, we don't actually "decide" to do things, but instead react to firings in our brain. (To clarify, we're not sure what to think about the first, and think the second seems pretty logical. But we don't spend much time dwelling on it...)

So where does this leave us? Living in the moment, laughing at our human foibles, and trying to be compassionate to others. Was all that decided by some chemical event in our brain seven seconds ago? Maybe so. But at least we didn't try to unravel the even more bizarre mystery of non-locality...


  1. Totally agree, but I can't figure out what this means: "We were having a conversation with our wife..." Polygamy?

  2. Anonymous,

    I think the word you're looking for is "Polyandry."


  3. Anon-

    We use the plural "we" here to remind ourselves (and readers) that the concept of self is an illusion - i.e., there is no "I."