Life, Consciousness, and Mary Shelley

Sunday, July 13, 2014 Dr. Vishaal Bhat 0 Comments

I know, it’s an interesting title. I promise the three will come together nicely if you read further.
The world was to him a secret which he desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to him, are among the earliest sensations he can remember… It was the secrets of heaven and earth that he desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied him, still his inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the wind play on my cheeks. Light, feeling, and sense will pass away; and in this condition must I find my happiness.
-From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
What is consciousness? 

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience no doubt help us understand more at a fundamental level how things work in our brain. Modern technology allowed us to monitor and take a peak at how neurons fire and how chemicals in our bodies react when excited by outside stimulus. That’s the “what” of it, and from the “what” of it, we can even figure out the “how” of it. But what puzzles me is the “why” of it. Like how we now have the genetic mapping of ourselves, but that does not mean we understand life. 

We have the code, but we don’t really understand the code. Even if we find out everything about the way the brain works, there will still be something missing from the picture. This is best illustrated by John Searle’s thought experiment, the Chinese room. 

Imagine a man sitting in a room, the room is filled with cards with writings on them which he does not understand. The room also has slots which will deliver such cards, his job is to send a proper response to the cards to the outside world. But the man is given a thick instruction manual that tells him what cards to send back out given what cards he receives. The result is that he communicates in Chinese as seen from outside the room, when in fact he doesn’t even know the language.

 Likewise, one can build a computer that responds perfectly like a human in every single situation, but surely that does not make the computer a human right? Or does it? Perhaps it does. Maybe that’s exactly how our brains work, it follows the rules of nature, action and reaction. Maybe consciousness is just a by product of our incredibly complex neural network? Could it be that we refuse to believe it because then our lives will seem so objectified? Maybe we are in love with the notion of soul, because we can then separate ourselves from the physical world. It makes us feel special that we are not chess pieces moving in the universe.

Which brings me to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, her book is interesting from many perspectives, but the one that I find most fascinating is that her story was one of the first to explore the idea of artificial life. The book contained no supernatural elements, the creation of the monster is described on a rational scientific basis. 

Frankenstein is about a scientist who challenged the world with the possibilities of modern science, but was destroyed because he cannot anticipate the outcomes of his own acts. That particular outcome was the fact that artificial life has as much feelings and consciousness as we do. No, Dr. Frankenstein did not create a monster. What he created was human, it was the humanity that made the monster question his existence, hunger for beauty and love, and ultimately commit crimes of hatred. I always had great respect for Mary Shelley, such a great talent at such young age. Did you know that she wrote Frankenstein at 19 in 1818? She really showed those Englishmen that it’s possible to write a classic dark tale even if you are a young female in 19th century.

Back to the topic of minds and souls. I don’t really believe in souls. Objectively, I think of my body as a corporation that’s designed to carry my genetic markup. Every couple years, every single molecule of my body is completely refreshed. I think I am the same person because of my memory. But really, it’s an illusion. The only thing that remains truly constant is my DNA markup, but even that can be altered by mutation. 

As many great philosophers have said, the concept of self is really just an illusion. We normally think of viruses as weird, but from viruses’ standpoint, we are the weird ones. We evolved so much just to do the same things they do. But in the end, I like the extra complexities. My appreciation for life and love stems from it. Life might not really have meaning objectively, but life always creates meaning for itself. 

Whether it’s an illusion or not, I still love the beauty of my first kiss, the intellectual stimulation of reading books, the magnificent awe of diving under the ocean, the longing of finding that someone, the satisfaction of picking the winning stock, the thrill of riding a roller coaster, …etc. It’s what makes us human.
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulcher for its eternity.
-From Percy Shelley’s To Divide is Not to Take Away

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