Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dare I Press The Button?

There was a course at my university called "Contemporary Metaphysics", which was probably the second best class I ever took. In it, we spent a few months discussing just one scenario: Imagine it's the future, and the capability exists for a new body identical to your own to be created on a planet light years away, and for your complete brain state to be transferred (bit by bit, to make a computer metaphor) into it. The net effect would be that you walk into a transporter on Earth, press a button, and in an instant your consciousness is transferred between the planets, your old body is liquefied, and your suddenly find yourself in another world. Would you press the button?

The mechanical/computer metaphor for the human body/brain works pretty well for me all things considered. The entire observable range of human behavior could in principle be replicated in a sufficiently advanced machine. Even complex concepts like the appreciation of art can be explained as programmatic response to visual and auditory stimuli.

The only thing that this model doesn't cover is consciousness, because we still can't really describe what "consciousness" is. If I am simply a machine too complicated for me to understand, why am I conscious at all? What does a consciousness accomplish? Is it "a soul", or something else entirely? At that point, metaphysical (usually religious) beliefs have to take over.

Dare I?
I've had great difficulty making sense of the Christian concept of an immortal individual soul my whole life. Too many logical questions arise for me to accept it completely. How many souls are there? Has the number of souls increased or decreased over time? Do animals have souls? What happens to my soul when I die? Does it just get planted into a new baby? Does it sit in limbo until a new baby is conceived? What would happen to our souls if the planet blew up, everybody died and there were no more babies ever? Not to say that the soul theory is incorrect, but I'm personally not satisfied by it. Claiming that it's "a mystery" that only God can understand is a cop out, especially if you aren't sure God exists at all.

The Buddhist model of metaphysics makes much more intuitive sense to me. It's difficult to describe in a few sentences, but think of it this way. "I" am made up of a mind-boggling number of little bits, including both physical bits and immaterial bits. The physical bits can be conceived of as cells or atoms, while the immaterial bits include my thoughts, perceptions, personalities, ideas, etc. From the instant "I" am born to the instant "I" die, I am constantly gaining and losing cells. It could be argued that physically, "I" am an entirely different person when I die than when I am born.

If you extend this analogy to the immaterial bits of "me", from the instant I am born I constantly gain new knowledge, form new opinions, discard old beliefs, change my personality, form attachments to things and people, etc. Again, one could argue that "I" am an entirely different person when I die than when I am born. What makes me "me", then? The Buddha posited that "I" am an illusion. That the sum total of the universe's bits is one big stew of stuff that is just there. The life that flows through "me" flows through everything. When I am born, a bunch of bits coalesce into what resembles a person. When I die, none of those bits are extinguished. Everything in the universe is in a constant state of flux. The central charge The Buddha left us with was to think about that for a good long while until it makes sense.

Tyler - one of the sweetest
dogs I have ever known
This is indeed a strange thing for Westerners to think of, because it's entirely different from the concepts we've largely been brought up with. To me, however, it makes sense. My personal life goal is to engage in discourse and experiences with as many people as possible, so that part of me (my ideas) will pass on to someone else.

My father was very close to his dog Tyler, who passed away fairly young.   Once my father told me he feels that Tyler is still "with" him, although he can't explain it. I entirely believe that his dog is with him, because Tyler had a great effect on my father in life, and lives on in him after death. Indeed, he never really died.

So back to the issue at hand: I wouldn't just press the button for grins... unless it was really red and shiny.  I would not hesitate to press it if I had good reason (i.e. better job opportunities, long distance romance, or I want to see the universe). I don't fear death because I don't think there's anything to fear. All the same, I don't want to die because life is fun, and I don't want to leave important things unfinished. Life, like physical matter, can neither be created nor destroyed. Only enjoyed.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! So deep yet so easy to understand. :)