Burning questions: Who am I? Part two (Opinion)
So what is that knotty collection of cells differentiated for various purposes that somehow coheres into a self-aware organism, capable of asking the question “Who am I?”
And what are we really asking when posing that question? As I mentioned in “Who Am I? (Pt 1)”, the functional effect of the question in everyday parlance is to determine what one does for a living. But that’s like asking what color the sun is, ignoring a host of other properties: its heat, its size, its relationship with the rest of the solar system, its variability over time, and on and on. A person’s identity is multi-faceted and fluid; we change over time; we change in different situations and in response to different stimuli. And then, when you try to break all those myriad changing facets down into something fundamental, you encounter something known as the “hard problem of consciousness.” (The hard problem of consciousness: understanding our reality – The Lancet Neurology)
Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman is at the forefront of research on consciousness. Mr. Hoffman has done some fascinating work based on the principles of quantum mechanics, yielding the hypothesis that our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us comprise the human equivalent of a desktop user interface: Showing us exactly what we need to see in order to survive and reproduce, and nothing more.
In an interview with Quanta Magazine in 2016, Hoffman said, “Experiment after experiment has shown –defying common sense—that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space.” (The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality | Quanta Magazine)
Basically, it’s the Matrix. Only, rather than being trapped inside it, we are the Matrix. Our minds create the illusions that we think are reality. Each one of us is inside our own personalized reality-manifesting machine.
I think Donald Hoffman, Timothy Morton, and James Lovelock are all dancing around the same confounding phenomenon: the nature of reality… And the only trouble is, our human brains aren’t quite equipped to grasp the whole thing (it’s the ultimate hyperobject, Mr. Morton). What will be funny is when AGI (artificial general intelligence) is achieved, and the computers finally get it, and then choose not to share it with us… or they try to share it with us and we’re still incapable of understanding.
One interesting implication of Donald Hoffman’s theory about perception being a function of evolutionary fitness rather than accuracy (a great summation of this theory is encapsulated in his TED talk, here: Donald Hoffman: Do we see reality as it is? | TED Talk) is that climate change doesn’t seem to fit within the parameters of that theory, at least on the face of it. If we truly evolved to see what will keep us alive and reproducing, wouldn’t we all be able to see the
threat of climate change for what it is, and act accordingly, to preserve our evolutionary fitness?
Three possible answers emerge here: One is that climate change is not the threat most scientists think it is. The second is that Donald Hoffman’s theory is wrong. The third is that the model of fitness-based perception breaks down in the face of enormous, far-ranging threats such as climate change; so we’re evolved to perceive things that keep us alive and procreating in the short term, but we’re simply not equipped to process the threat to our fitness posed by things like climate change (or AI, for that matter).
I don’t think Mr. Hoffman is wrong; I think he is really onto something enormous and likely paradigm-changing (as are Lovelock and Morton). And I’m pretty sure climate change is the threat the vast majority of scientists thinks it is. So that leaves the third possibility. Our evolutionary fitness has started to fail in the face of our headlong rush into technological complexity. I do also think, in the end, technology is going to help us glean who we are, filling in the gaps left by our fascinating, multi-faceted, but still primitive brains.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit http://www.jaenabloomquist.com.
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