Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why I believe in death

From the various comments on my last article (which, by the way, are much appreciated), it has become clear that I need to justify my belief in death.

The fundamental insight of our century is the discovery of the nature of consciousness. There remains much to learn, but we know the trick now; the mystery is gone, and it's just incomprehensible complexity. Not magic.

When I was in college, definitions were a big thing in my philosophy classes. People could do things, like identify horses, and nobody knew how. We'd come up with these definitions, like "a horse is brown animal with four legs." Somebody would point out that horses come in black, white, red, and gray, so we'd add that in; others would note that the common phrase "three-legged horse" (Google it - 195,000 results!) clearly indicated that horsehood did not require four legs.

On and on we'd go, until we had pages of exceptions and modifications. Just when we'd get close to actually generating a complete, fool-proof definition, somebody would bring in a four-year-old.

Four-year-old children can't read a five page definition, let alone remember it or even understand it. But they can still identify a three-legged horse.

It was a pickle. It kept philosophers busy for many years. And then one day, the gig was up: some mathematician discovered the neural network.

It turns out that if you show a neural network hundreds of pictures of horses, and then show it a picture of a horse painted blue with its legs cut off, it grinds away for a while and then says... "93.7 % PROBABILITY OF HORSE."

The way we identify things is just a math trick. Complicated, amazing, bizarre... but just a trick of math. Just an effect of the complex firmware embedded in our skulls.

When I say I believe in death, what I'm really saying is that I believe that consciousness is purely a function of the brain. It is a trick, like the math thing; we evolved a way to store and extrapolate information to hunt better. Along the way it became useful to have a focus for that information, a construct around which to organize the information to maximum effectiveness. That focus is us; our consciousness is nothing more than an accidental side-effect.

In sheer point of fact, we are never conscious; we only remember being conscious. If you ask people to push a button, and to tell you when they decided to push the button, you find a half-second gap. But the gap goes the wrong way; people report deciding to push the button after they have already pushed it. Consciousness is like the Secretary of Congress. After a day of debate, Congress votes on a policy, and the Secretary writes it down and makes it law. Then he goes to a bar, gets drunk, and brags to the hot lady sitting next to him, "Guess what law I made today?"

Our selves are physical phenomena. Alzheimer's proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt. Damage to the brain changes our personality, destroys our memories, sometimes even creates new memories. How we feel is influenced by what we ate or drank. Hormones make us fall in love, and seeing our loved ones releases hormones. There is no question about whether the presence of hormones causes love; the hormones are love. What we call love is a short-hand reference to complex phenomena, among which are the relationship between hormone levels and proximity to our lovers.

And this is why I believe in death: because I understand the scientific truth that life is a material, physical phenomenon. Once you accept that - once you accept that Alzheimer's is real - you cannot believe that personalty survives destruction of the body. Heck, it doesn't even survive dinner - our sense of self is constructed on the fly, minute to minute. Of course you don't feel that way, because your brain erases that feeling to create a sense of unity and uniqueness, which is part of creating self-identity.

Christianity - in any form, in any understanding of the resurrection - asserts that our conscious lives are not inextricably bound up with our physical brains. There is only one way to square that with the scientific knowledge we have now - but that way lies dualism.

1 comment:

E.M. Cadwaladr said...

A good, clean argument. One with which I happen to agree, also.