Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why Am I Me?

Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

These are the fundamental questions of life. Science and religion have attempted to answer these questions to some degree, and sometimes seem to be in conflict. For a long time, religion was the only means by which these questions could reasonably be answered, since science had no explanation for the complexity, or even the existence of, the world. Alma said:

"Yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."

Up until relatively recently, the mere existence of the world was enough to prove that God exists to any rational human being. His existence also proves, by definition, that he is our creator. However, as science has advanced, it has increasingly been able to offer alternative explanations for the complexity of the world in which we live. The Big Bang theory attempts to explain the origin of the universe, and the theory of evolution attempts to answer the fundamental questions of life. I'd argue that the explanations that science offers are compelling, and I can see how someone, from a scientific point of view, might consider a "creationist" as a fool. However, there are still some unanswered questions related to how life began, such as... well, how life began. The actual events that led to the first living being are, from what I understand, still not understood by science. Still, from that point on evolution seems like a reasonable explanation; reasonable enough that some have tried to reconcile the two points of view, and claim some ground in the middle of the creationists vs. evolutionist debate.

My point here is not to rehash that old (well, actually relative new) debate. For the sake of argument, let's assume that evolution is correct, and that it fully explains where we came from, why we're here (for no particular reason at all, it would appear), and where we're going (6 feet under). Is that it then? Are there no more questions to ask? No, there's one more question that I would pose to the scientific and religious community alike:

Why Am I Me?

Seriously, why am I writing this post and you reading it, and not the other way around? Or why are we not some Borg-like entity? The idea of "consciousness" or "self-awareness" or whatever you might call it (some more intellectual types might be able to clue me in to the correct term for this) is still unexplained by science, as far as I can see. Hypothetically, I can imagine some explanation involving biological mechanisms and chemical reactions that make my brain think I am conscious. But that explanation, for now, is hypothetical. I've never heard any scientists even attempt to explain why I am a conscious being, and why am I only conscious of myself, and not others. Why, when I open my eyes in the morning, I see the world through the eyes that happen to be attached to this body, and not some other.

Philosophers have wrestled with this question. Descartes supposed, "I think, therefore I am." However, even this is questionable in modern times as medical scientists are increasingly able to explain how our brains work (although still far from completely). One could possible imagine our brain as just a very complex, biological computer. Yet even the most complex computer imaginable still would not be aware of itself (ignoring science fiction, of course). Yet, we are aware of ourselves. Where does this awareness come from? As far as I know, science has not come close to answering this question.

On the other hand, religion does offer an answer: Our self-awareness comes from our spirit, which is different than our physical selves, although the two are bound together to some extent. In the mainstream christian view, God is the creator of our spirits, and therefore the creator of our self-awareness. So the answer, according the mainstream Christianity, is that we are who we are because God willed it to be so, and science has yet to offer a reasonable alternative explanation to that.

Mormonism offers an even more nuanced view. Our understanding of the pre-existence teaches us that we have always been self-aware. Our "intelligence" has always existed, and always will. I am who I am because I always have been. Perhaps that's doesn't directly answer the question, but it is at least a partial answer.

To be clear, my intent is not the set science and religion against each other. I believe there is truth in both, and even when they seem to be in opposition, we do well to learn how each view can enlighten our understanding of truth. However, my point here is to raise the bar, so to speak, on the scientific community by bringing to light one question that still remains beyond their grasp, and help the religious community understand at least one question that remains uniquely theirs to answer.

7 comments:

Sofal said...

I have also wondered at what non-religious people thought about this question, since it very easily comes up when thinking about death.

Most probably just don't think too much about it. When death strikes close, they just pull through it emotionally until they feel stable again. The question is successfully avoided, however narrowly.

But certainly there must be those who don't feel comfortable without reconciling their beliefs about existence and consciousness with reality.

There are some bizarre theories, such as technological singularity, which basically says that our souls are nothing but software running on our "hardware" (brains). The theory is that technology will eventually surpass human intelligence and we will be able to become immortal simply by saving copies of our brains and running them on advanced hardware. It makes for some great sci-fi novels, but it strikes me as impossible.

Another viewpoint comes from Douglass Hofstadter. He explores the fascinating self-referencing loop that exists in our consciousness and chalks it up to being a hallucination of sorts. To get a better idea of what he thinks, read this interview.

Personally, I believe that we have immortal spirits. I also believe that our spirits have a natural yearning for good and an inherent knowledge of the immortal sphere in which it has always existed. I think this is why it is not necessary to believe in a specific religious doctrine in order to be a moral and upstanding person. That being said, I am very grateful for the knowledge of the Gospel and the further direction and light it gives me.

Joey said...

In my opinion, you are treading on what has proven to be inevitably treacherous ground. Or, better said, you are making your stand in a "gap" that the relentless forward march of science will eventually fill.

Chimpanzees are conscious of themselves. This can be demonstrated by showing them their own reflection in a mirror. Monkeys and gibbons, notably, are not self-aware. This does not prove anything, but it makes the claim that God is responsible for human consciousness a poorly informed one.

Please don't see this as antagonistic. I am a member of the LDS Church trying desperately to find a way to believe again. But I find myself dissatisfied with the various proofs offered by members. My father offers the proof of the implausibility of abiogenesis. A quick search on Amazon reveals a number of books on the subject, all with legitimate and perfectly natural hypotheses, many of them over a decade old. The same can be said for the origin of consciousness.

My questions lie not with the phenomena for which science has yet to provide a concrete answer. My questions lie in the doctrines set forth by the church that seemingly contradict the concrete answers that science has provided.

For example, what is your opinion of this quote from page 20 of the Harold B. Lee manual:

"Besides the Fall having had to do with Adam and Eve, causing a change to come over them, that change affected all human nature, all of the natural creations, all of the creation of animals, plants—all kinds of life were changed. The earth itself became subject to death. … How it took place no one can explain, and anyone who would attempt to make an explanation would be going far beyond anything the Lord has told us. But a change was wrought over the whole face of the creation, which up to that time had not been subject to death. From that time henceforth all in nature was in a state of gradual dissolution until mortal death was to come, after which there would be required a restoration in a resurrected state."

It is glaringly obvious that organisms existed and died for billions of years prior to the arrival of humans on this planet. Yet how do we reconcile this concrete, provable knowledge with opposing doctrines declared by our church? I do not see how spiritual evidence can resolve these conflicts.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Anonymous said...
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Mike said...

joey,

Thanks for your comments. Let me try to reponse.

First, let me make clear that I'm not basing my faith on the fact that science has not answered this question, and I haven't ruled out the possibility that science will eventually have an explanation for this. But I'm merely pointing out one area were religion appears to still have the only answer. I took a look at some of sofals links, and while they are interesting, there doesn't seem to be much evidence presented to support their views, as you would expect in hard science. So while science could eventually catch up, from what I've seen they are no where close yet.

As I said in the post, I'm not trying to pit science and religion against each other. I'm arguing that we can find truth in both.

In regards to animals being self-aware, I don't see how that refutes the view that God gave us our consciousness. If God created other animals as well, then he could have given them their consciousness also, right? Or perhaps they always existed, as intelligences? I think this is an area where we get into the area of speculation. I don't think there is any official doctrine on that matter of whether animals have spirits, and if so why were they created as animals and not people, and what happens to them after they die, etc.?

And I find it strange to say that monkeys aren't self-aware. It seems to me that any animal that is concerned for their own interest over the interests of others is self-aware. I guess it depends on how you define self-awareness.

Finally, regarding your points about the validity of the LDS faith, I don't see how that relates to this discussion. I understand you disagree with the teachings of the church, and I respect your views. But that discussion isn't related to this post, as far as I can tell.

However, I will point out that that quote seems to be in line with what's in the Bible, and historically the Mormon interpretation of the Bible leans toward the literal interpretation, from what I can tell. However, it is interesting to note that church recently put out a statement that said that the church does not endorse any particular interpretive method for reading the Bible, including literalism. On the bloggernacle you can certainly find many practicing Mormons who embrace the idea that much of the Old Testament is metaphor. I don't really want to defend nor oppose that position here (again, I don't think that's related to this post), but I just wanted to point out that position. Someone who believes the story of the fall is not literal (but still respect it as a metaphorical story designed to teach us a principle) might also interpret the quote from the President Lee manual as describing the same metaphor that the Bible does. If anytime someone taught a story from the Bible, they had to say, "By the way, this might not have actually happened", that would take away from the teaching. A person with a metaphorical interpretation views the stories of the Bible as important and inspired, regardless of whether that actually happened or not, and therefore whether they happened of not makes no difference when we talk about them. What is important is what we learn from them. This is partially what I mean when I say that we can learn both from religion and science. They can teach us things in different ways, even when they seamingly contradict each other when taken literally.

Anyway, this is just one way of looking at things. If you disagree, then again, I respect your view.

Doug Towers said...

Mike

This is a very interesting subject that I have been pondering upon more of late.

I would have to say as regard animals and self-awareness that you can walk into a room with 3 cockroaches. One will run away, one will stand still and hope you don't notice and the other can charge at you. So much for instinct. Obviously this proves decision making processes.

But your posts gets to the more serious question of just why we chose to do as we did? Why didn't we follow Satan, for example? And I'd assume that some intelligences didn't decide to go along with the idea of getting a spirit body even.

Obviously a plant is a plant because it was less intelligent long ago. So what made us choose to become more intelligent long ago? This is a question I'll be interested to find the answer to at some stage.

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty deep question. Somebody wrote a thoughtful philosophical essay on it at: http://jeffwunder.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/why-am-i-me/

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