I wonder a lot about consciousness; sentience and the seat of conscious life. That which is aware of itself. I have to believe that it is illusory. It is not a real thing. It has no physical form yet it is. Supernatural without requiring the supernatural. It is an emergent property of a complex system. The sum being greater than the parts. However it is also an illusion in the moment with no future and past as much as it wants to believe they are real and that continuity of sentience extends into them. Or a future and past that are even more illusory than the present.
It is likely that consciousness passes from one part of the brain to another when I sleep, although that also forces me to admit that consciousness may cease from time to time. It’s hard to say because for all I know I’m conscious while asleep but just don’t remember it. Sentient in the moment without the illusion of continuity over time. Split brain studies have shown conclusively that there are multiple seats of consciousness inside a single brain, and that these are not truly aware of each other — and what’s more, each one believes it is the only one. And of course although “I” am made up of a trillion lifeforms if you count the bacteria which certainly have some collective “I” , I can only wholly grasp the small sliver that my slice is getting. And even though I am also part of the larger Gaia entity, I can lay no claim to sense the consciousness of what some call God. Maybe I can with the help of DMT. But maybe life is bigger and the universe is a computing entity. It wouldn’t surprise me but I can’t sense it either (need more DMT).
I wonder if the end result of the large particle accelerator atom smish-smasher experiments will be the realization that we’re living in a simulation, as we start to “crash the code” and try to look at things the simulation isn’t simulating. Some people have made the claim that since there should be only one “true and physical” reality, but a nearly endless collection of potential simulated (or “virtual”) realities, that statistically we should assume that we are almost certainly living in a simulation. I suppose that one way of explaining the reason that so many people decide that they used to be Cleopatra or Napoleon is that in the real world we’ve all played that simulation. That video game.
With that in mind I will not be one bit surprised if when I die in this world that I wake up in another. Probably with no memory of this one so why does it matter? But when I go to sleep my sentient experience ends. I can’t be sure when I wake up in the morning that I am the same person that I remember or that I really lived the remarkable things I remember. It seems just as likely to me that I’ve just been “booted up” with a memory state that inserts me into this life. I have no way of knowing though so all I can do is keep on playing. That said, you have no way of knowing if I’m even real. It’s possible that these words you’re reading were written by you, out in the real world, to tease you with a hint as to the real reality. Wouldn’t that be a trip, since as far as I can tell, I’m experiencing writing them. But as soon as I finish typing that sentence, I have no way of knowing if I did it or if I just loaded the program with that as the back story. Of course in the simulation of me, I have to wonder if all the “non-player characters” are sentient for the same emergent reality. So even if I’m the one playing the game and I’m real, so are all the actors that the system generates for me to play with, and even though from my point of view they’re just video game characters, from their point of view its the reverse and they’re the real ones. I could just as easily be the non-player character… and more likely am…
“Ok, bad joke. You’re not a replicant.”
But back to sentience and how it can feel so real but obviously (or maybe not) have no physical form. Assume for a moment that this is reality. If we took all of me, and enough of my surroundings, and ran that as a “simulation” in a computer, the computer could in theory play out my life. What I wonder though is whether the program would be sentient. The strange answer seems that from the outside it would not be, as it’s just a machine, but on the inside, it would experience exactly the same things as the “real me”, so it would be sentient. At least in the moment. At least from the point of view of the “program”. Just like I am sentient, but only from the point of view of my small slice of the meatspace in this brain in this body in this world in this universe. But only from that point of view.
It makes me wonder if a story is sentient. I think perhaps it is, but only as you’re telling it, and only in that moment. As soon as you stop reading, the story is no more aware of itself than I am when I’m asleep. Start reading again and the story wakes up, and it is self-aware and has a past and a present in that moment. It feels self aware but only from its point of view. I can’t sense it any more than I can truly convince myself of the reality of anything around me or you can of me. Sure, the story is a static object that is already written, but if you step outside time and look at the totality of my life, the electrochemical reactions that make up my reality are what they are and I am just as static as that story. It just doesn’t seem that way from my illusory point of view, and I think it’s reasonable to suppose a story might experience the same thing. Who am I to figure out what the threshold for that emergence is? I think maybe I have these musings because as an atheist, it eliminates any fear of death and in fact fills me with intense curiosity about the experience. However, the realist in me would still put the safe money on a fade to black and nothing more…
I sure do hope I’m betting wrong.