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12 December
12:33
December
2016

Whatever would it be like to be a fiction? This is where we need to be clear about what the question means. What sense does it make to suggest that I am not real? Maybe the question is really the question of what makes me “me”, the same person, over time. Now, that is a real and troubling question — for can I not make sense of myself waking up with a different body —or like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa finding himself with the body of a gigantic insect? “What has happened to me?” he asks. Thus it is that having continuity of body does not seem to be essential to being me.

Yet, also, can I not make sense of myself still being me, even though my memories, my intentions are all forgotten? Surely, if this body is being tortured, then I should still suffer the pain even if I no longer remembered who I am, what I did and what plans I had? Hence, neither bodily nor psychological continuity seems to be essential to me... So, yes, indeed, what am I?

"Descartes’ response was to argue, “I must be real because whatever deceptions are going on, however misleading the world is, I have to exist to be deceived, or to be having these thoughts.”

Philosophers have taken on this question in different ways; we can but offer only vague sketches. René Descartes, whom we have already met, famously set as his foundational certainty the claim, “I think, therefore I am.” He postulated the possibility of an evil genius, out to deceive him as much as possible. Descartes’ response was to argue, “I must be real because whatever deceptions are going on, however misleading the world is, I have to exist to be deceived, or to be having these thoughts.” Hence, he concludes that whatever he is, must be something different from the material world.

He asks the question, “Am I alone?” and slowly argues to the existence of God, via the acceptance that he has the idea of an all-powerful being, leading him to the conclusion that only such a being could have been the source for such an idea. Of course, there are many objections to his reasoning; indeed, a more radical approach is that of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who sought to understand everything in material terms.

"These matters, raising questions of the relationship between mind and body, between our psycho-logical states and our biology or brain states, are being investigated these days through the labours of Artificial Intelligence."

In this medley of 17th-century philosophers, we also encounter Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), typically understood as offering a version of a “pantheist”. He was reacting against Descartes’ dualism of mind and body being two distinct substances, insisting that there is only one substance, namely the world, the universe, which is what we understand as “Nature” and, indeed, as “God”. Nature and God are one and the same substance. The creator and the created are the same.

These matters, raising questions of the relationship between mind and body, between our psycho-logical states and our biology or brain states, are being investigated these days through the labours of Artificial Intelligence. Significant work – by philosophers, neurologists, technologists – is being done regarding trying to make sense of how psychological states, such as thinking about England or experiencing a pain, are nothing but states of the brain or dispositions to behave in a certain way, or functions of the biology.

"He (Spinoza) was reacting against Descartes’ dualism of mind and body being two distinct substances, insisting that there is only one substance, namely the world, the universe, which is what we understand as “Nature” and, indeed, as “God”. Nature and God are one and the same substance. The creator and the created are the same."

A different line, with some notable support, is to reflect that however much we discover about the brain, the neurology, the firings of neurons and so forth, can we really make sense of how those physical changes just are experiences of pain, of thinking of England, recalling romantic encounters or promising to return the pet goat? A famous example, much discussed, is “What is it like to be a bat?

However much you understand about the bat’s ecosystem, or climb to the top of church towers and wave your arms, flapping as if with bat’s wings, you’ll never really know what it’s like to experience the world as a bat. In other words, physical science will always miss out on “the first-person viewpoint”.

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