The inquiry ‘Who Am I?’ represents the deepest spiritual quest mankind has ever known. In three incredibly short words, it asks several existential questions, including those like ‘What is consciousness?’ and ‘What does it mean to be alive?’ So what’s the answer?
Some like to start by eliminating everything they’re not, such as their clothes and their car. When the fingers, the arms, and the legs are eliminated as candidates, many logical folks decide to stop at the brain: ‘I am my brain!’. But others go further and say ‘I am my mind’ or ‘I am my soul’ noticing that the brain is constantly changing and there still remains a seamless, persisting component of awareness or observation that is looking through the changing brain in front of it.
Even if the brain were changed to the extent that all previous thoughts and memories were wiped clean and replaced by new ones, to the viewer of that brain, the experience that is happening is still continuous and uninterrupted. To you, you are always you. To many, this you component that persists through different brain states is known as the soul. This mysterious awareness is assumed by several scientists to be a product of material interactions in the brain. But how can something as magical as awareness arise out of mere material?
Before we get too involved in this discussion, let me say that when discussing anything metaphysical, we are unfortunately constrained to a rational thought process, because we have to take ineffable insights and feelings and translate them to discrete, logically meaningful units. Because of this inherent limiting factor, I like to call any metaphysical discussion a kind of poetry. So do not take this post as a theory, or it would lose much of its meaning. Instead, take it as poetic speculation on the fundamental nature of reality. Poetic because it doesn’t point to anything logically place-able but requires an additional step of inquiry – a step out of conditioning – to truly understand.
The Idea that Nothing is Aware
Look at your shirt. Is it aware in any way? We would probably say no. How do we know that? Because all it does is obey the laws of nature. It doesn’t talk or respond to external stimuli in any way except by conforming to the laws of nature.
How about a plant or a tree? There was a controlled study showing that plants grow towards pleasant music and away from unpleasant noisy music. Assuming these studies were valid, this still doesn’t show that plants are aware. As random speculation, noisy music probably created too many harsh harmonics that stimulated certain fibers in the plant that made it grow as it did. It was, like your shirt, just following the pre-programmed laws of nature.
How about a computer? It responds to your actions like it’s aware. It thinks on its own; it’s like a robot. It exhibits more free will than even certain animals do. How do we know that it‘s not aware? Simple, we witnessed its creation and we know that we created it out of materials that were not aware, exploiting the existing laws of nature to create a system that acts like it’s somewhat aware. In other words, we know that we didn’t add any magical component to computers to make them aware. We used the pre-programmed laws of nature. Interesting. So like a shirt, and like a tree, a computer is not aware.
Now, in the interest of enhanced objectivity, imagine you are an alien, not a human being. Like a shirt, and like a tree, a computer is not aware. How about animals and human beings? They definitely appear to think on their own, like robots. Take the simplest organisms, like amoebas, and they are very robotic. Then, as we move up to multi-cellular life and to birds and bees, they are a little less robotic, but it’s still quite easy to predict the behavior of plants, trees, and birds. Finally, human beings are a lot less robotic, but it just seems like that because they are more complex. A convincing enough case doesn’t seem to exist that life is aware. Life just seems to be material acting on the pre-programmed laws of nature. The Big Bang set up the initial conditions, and the rest of all life on Earth has simply been a carrying out of laws – nothing is aware on its own. Nothing has free will.
What is Sure to Exist
Poof! You are a human being again. Why do we as human beings assume that animals (including humans) are aware? Well, the only thing we are absolutely sure exists is our own awareness, our soul, and we assume that anything that acts like us must also have that awareness. In other words, there is no proof that anything else is aware. We just assume other animals are aware because we draw parallels between the way we act and the way other animals act.
The philosophy of solipsism is relevant here. It states that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. We’ve all thought of it at least once in our lives. ‘Everyone else is a robot and I’d never know!’ Well, this gets interesting when you consider the idea that even your own body, at the material level, is an unaware robot. Just as the environment is not aware, neither are our bodies or brain, because our physical form is not categorically different from the environment. So while you are aware, your physical form is not. Your physical form is just following the laws of nature, like the rest of the environment. So who is that you, then? Hold that thought.
The Formation of Experience
First, there clearly seems to be a link between the experience of the conscious entity and the physical brain. Naturally, the experience of the conscious entity, including the choices that might seem to arise out of the conscious entity, can be dramatically influenced by minor tweaks of the chemical processes within the physical brain. These tweaks might occur as the result of magnetic equipment that is designed to stimulate certain areas of the brain such as those concerned with moving an arm or deciding which button to press. They might occur through the ingestion of alcohol or other psychoactive substances, causing you to punch your friend in the face when you wouldn’t have otherwise. So clearly our experience depends on our brain, but does our brain ever get controlled by us? We feel like we make decisions every day, but is that the reality of it? Is there a means by which the metaphysical manipulates the physical?
Well, first consider that each chemical alteration to the brain produces changes in the decision-making algorithms of the brain, and also the overall perception of reality, including the associations and patterns that the brain chooses to pick up on. It’s also interesting that before the feeling of making a decision takes place, there are several unconscious chemical processes that work to create that decision first. It’s only afterwards that you become conscious of it. In other words, chemical reactions are obviously some kind of precursor to our own experience of making a decision. By this alone it should be clear that our own experience is not a great indication of being able to override chemical processes of the brain because our own experience – which includes the feeling of free will – depends highly on the chemical processes of the brain. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether free will is an illusion or not.
Take dreaming as a prime example of suggesting that free will is an illusion. In a non-lucid dream, the events of the dream might play out in a certain way and give you the illusion of control within that dream, but then you’ll wake up and realize that the story told itself. In the dream there was a cohesion of a different kind that we did not question until we ‘woke up’. The dream was formed by chemical reactions in the brain, following the laws of nature, and we experienced it as a kind of free will.
By the same token, ‘our own experience’ is not an indicator that we are separate from one another. Separation could be an illusion. Just because two people’s brains are distinct in their chemical structure, it doesn’t mean that their ‘conscious entities’ are. Naturally, my brain will be distinct in its activity from yours and that explains one brain not being able to magically align itself to match the chemical processes corresponding to the ‘thoughts’, ‘memories’, and ‘emotions’ of the other. That is why ‘I’ don’t know what ‘you’ are thinking – even though it’s more along the lines of ‘my brain has no physical link to your brain’. There is no reason the ‘conscious entity’ here has to exist multiple times to produce the experiences of multiple people, because the experience of multiple separate objects is only in the brain. Some people have dreams of being one with all things.
And of course, some have those experiences while awake. Under certain states of consciousness, the idea of ‘separation’ might seem foreign, and concepts of ‘soul’ and ‘conscious entity’ would seem like constructs of an alien language. These states are so ineffably different from what we might call a ‘normal state’, that even trying to place it from a normal consciousness is futile. And yet, these states can be brought about by very minor tweaks of the brain’s chemical functioning, such as introducing a serotonin-resembling compound into the blood stream ex. LSD, or even having a stroke like Jill Bolte Taylor.
So what happens when you have more significant tweaks of chemistry? What about a gram of LSD for example (a normal dose is in the order of micrograms)? All traditional ideas of reality would be completely demolished. ‘Self’ and ‘individuality’ would definitely be out of the question. There would just be some kind of out-of-this-world experience without an individual present. And even then, a gram of LSD would be a relatively minor chemical tweak compared to the experience of ‘death’, a much more intense chemically active experience. Or, consider something entirely different. If Red’s brain was hypothetically tweaked to be a physical clone of Blue’s current brain, then Red would act like Blue would and make decisions very much like Blue would. In a sense, he would ‘be’ Blue and make the choices that Blue would. That would be one hell of an altered state for Red.
The Magic Glitter
What exactly is persistent across these vastly different states of perception brought about by minute or more significant changes in chemistry? As far as we can empirically tell, the only thing that persists is some form of ‘awareness’, or ‘observation’, no matter how different in character it might be from a normal state of mind. The flavor or quality of ‘observation’ changes based on the brain chemistry.
While in one state you might see everything as one, including the ‘observer’ and the ‘observed’ (a very common experience among dedicated meditators), in another state you might see everything as totally separate (a very common experience among members of contemporary society). The flavor of observation varies indelibly from state to state, but yet, there is something ‘there’. Some kind of ‘observation’ is still taking place regardless of the particular combination of chemical reactions that are happening.
The idea I’m trying to express is loosely analogous to vision. When we ‘see’ a keyboard, the picture is completely different from how it is when we ‘see’ a mountain, yet there is a similarity by virtue of both experiences being ‘vision’. Similarly, when our ‘conscious entity’ is looking through our brain’s chemistry, each state of the brain entails a completely different experience, yet the ‘observation’ seems to persist in some shape or form.
To reiterate the main theme, it seems that no matter what chemical processes the brain exhibits, there appears to be a kind of ‘observation’ taking place. You can go from your current brain to being a brain on acid, to being a brain with a computer chip implanted in it, to having Blue’s brain, to being a dead brain, to perhaps not being what we would consider a brain at all. Each experience entailed by a given brain will be different from another brain.
While the brain – and the rest of the environment – appears to be merely following laws, even if they are somewhat complex and part of a bigger model that we are yet to discover, somehow there is a sense of being ‘alive’, of ‘observation’, of ‘consciousness’. It’s like everything was barren material, and then a divine entity sparkled magic glitter over it, and suddenly, awareness was permeating all things.
There is clearly an unchanging kind of ‘super-observation’ taking place that we have said is separate from the physical brain. The more and more the physical brain changes in its structure, the more and more the relationship to ‘observation’ changes – or rephrased, the more and more the flavor of ‘observation’ changes. Now, imagine that the brain was ‘chemically’ restructured to resemble another organic entity, such as a plant or a tree.
Since based on the chemistry of the ‘brain’, the flavor of ‘observation’ changes, such an extreme change in chemistry would elicit an extremely different flavor of ‘observation’. The flavor of ‘observation’ would be different, but ‘observation’ would still be taking place by virtue of this new ‘brain’ still being a combination of chemicals acting and reacting. Just as science hasn’t found the ‘producer’ of consciousness or ‘awareness’ in the physical brain, science cannot find the ‘producer’ of consciousness in the rest of nature.
The underlying assumption that this ‘observation’ somehow resides specifically in the brain seems to be naive, simply because no matter how you play with the brain, extrapolation suggests that ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ is still there. Change the brain into a tree, and some ‘observation’ will still be taking place, albeit a very different kind.
In this sense, all aspects of the universe are under this objective ‘observation’. The flavor through which ‘observation’ relates to these things varies. ‘Observation’ of the human experience takes the flavor of feeling ‘grounded’ in people’s heads. ‘Observation’ of the plant experience might entail something completely different. It’s like no matter what confluence of chemical reactions are taking place in the “brain” or “chemically active entity”, ‘observation’ of some kind continues to take place. Even in a decomposing brain, some kinds of chemical reactions are taking place, and some kind of ‘observation’ would therefore be happening. That magical component, the ‘observer’, or what we can call ‘observation’ is what creates this mystery of consciousness.
Awareness and Reality
The observer in you, the one that you feel every day, the soul, is different from the chemical reactions that define your physical form. You could have a different brain, and act completely differently, but ‘observation’ would still take place. This ‘observation’ would be ‘observing’ everything in the universe, from every cell to every other manifestation of energy. That’s what one might call the ‘collective conscious’, God, the Energy, Awareness, or the Source.
So in a sense, that awareness that you feel, that proof that you are alive, that conscious entity, is the one and only thing that is observing the entire universe, and the same thing through which Blue’s brain is being observed. It is the fundamental component of reality. It is what makes everything come alive. Awareness is the fundamental substance of reality.