Does I exist?

2008/01/28

Most thinkers must pass through a phase when they question their own existance. My running buddy db has made the denial of his own existence the central theme of his life philosophy, which he equates with a modernized form of Buddhism: admitting to being nothing, one can become everything. The thought is succinctly and humorously captured at extelligentsia.

Studying the brain will inevitably put one through a reality-questioning phase. My brain is a collection of interconnected cells, none of which can care or even knowing about me. All behavior, perceptions, and emotions result from a mix of electric and chemical messages among these cells. There is no one place in my body where I is. Every experience and every perception ever so slightly modify the synapses between neurons and, voilà, I emerges.

René Descartes started from the opposite end of questioning: As the one having these very thoughts, I must exist and I question the reality of everything else. Is there a fallacy in his Cogito ergo sum?

These dilemmas come from our misconceptions of what qualifies as real or true. For us, emergence boundaries present insurmountable cognitive hurdles: we cannot accept something as real if we cannot reduce it to its clear causes or moving agents. Things that arise through emergence cannot be real, our intuition tells us, they are but ephemeral constructs!

And scientists have been the worst! Over-reliant on reductionism, science has consistently claimed to uncover how things really are. The result has been the alienation of vast vast majorities of people or the reduction of science to just another conceptual framework, a point of view, or a social construct. Scientists often think of their subject being more real than other disciplines because they fail to recognize that the regularities in their own discipline emerge from another type of reality.

The greatest tragedy of our inability to comprehend emergence is the rise of postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism postulates that there exist infinitely many disparate and equally valid and interesting interpretations of everything, all of which arise simply from the observer’s point of view. A biologist views the brain as a collection of neurons whereas I see a person and a soul. The physicist sees atoms and quarks while I see a beautiful flower. The dichotomies seem irreconcilable to most. Thinkers feel like they have to choose a cognitive framework from which to interpret the world.

I hope that, with time, we will learn to overcome reductionist thinking in science and develop the language to comprehend emergence and that postmodernism will fade as a dark page in our cultural history.

Neuroscientifically informed philosophers are leading the transformation from the intellectually segmented postmodernist academics to coherency between them. In his new book, Proust was a neuroscientist, the science writer Jonah Lehrer explores how art, music, and literature bring understanding of human nature that is only later solidified and elaborated by science. I am finishing the book here at the coffee shop and will share my further impressions soon.

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3 Responses to “Does I exist?”

  1. db Says:

    Nothing exists, we all know that by now.

    What does it mean to exist anyway?

  2. Dimitri Says:

    No, I don’t know that nothing exists. Not being able to understand or accept modes of emergence is what makes it difficult for us to accept much empirical evidence. You seem to have taken this denial to the extreme.

  3. db Says:

    I was kidding.

    Maybe we should be asking if sarcasm really exists?


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