This post was originally published on SamBrinson.com
“The central riddle I’ve set out to solve concerns the self’s continuity in change: how can we remain the same people over time, even as we change, sometimes considerably?”
― Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick
What makes you… YOU?
Silly question right? But think about it…
If you lost all of your memories, would you still be you?
What about your senses?
Most of us take the question of ‘Who Am I?’ for granted, but thanks to the questioning nature of philosophers and psychologists we are closer than ever to getting to grips with the elusive answer.
In this post you’ll discover 5 mind bending ideas that will make you question if there’s even a ‘you’ to be questioned.
So buckle up, your ego is in for a bumpy ride!
1. The Teleporter Paradox
There are a lot of opinions and explanations from the likes of Plato and Descartes to more modern philosophers and neuroscientists on this topic. One particularly fun thought-experiment is the teleporter paradox:
In 500 years time, a teleporter is invented that can scan your entire body, all the way down to the sub-atomic particle level. It breaks down your physical form here on earth and puts you back together in a far away galaxy in a fraction of a second. Is it ‘you’ that reappears?
Let’s go further. Let’s say it doesn’t put you back together with the original particles, it uses new ones, so you’re no longer made with any of the same physical atoms of the original you, but the new you contains exactly the same features. Is that you?
A little further. Let’s say that the original you remains on earth and a duplicate is created in another galaxy, that person (not you anymore?) is identical in every way with the exception of place in space. Surely, it’s not you anymore, right?
What makes you ‘you’?
Is it the physical makeup?
Is it a soul?
Is it a continuous consciousness?
You might have heard that as we go through life, all of our cells are replaced. This isn’t true. The neurons in your brain remain the same from age 2, and other cells in different areas have different life spans.
But for arguments sake (these are only thought-experiments), let’s say your brain replaces its cells. Other animals such as birds and fish seem to do it, let’s pretend we do too.
2. Ship of Theseus’ Paradox:
If I have a car, I can replace the tires, and it’s still the same car, correct? I’m sure the insurance agency would think so. What if I then replace the seats? Two weeks later, the windows. The breaks. The engine. The body. Until nothing is the same. In fact, I could take all the parts that I replaced, and put the original car back together. Which car is which?
If all your cells have been replaced, but we somehow take all those old ones and put them back together, to create the ‘you’ of 10 years ago, which is the real ‘you’?
Consciousness and the ‘self’ is an illusion. Your perceptions might seem continuous but they are not. You only exist in the flash of moment, constantly being replaced with each subtle variation, cell, and memory.
You’re dying and being recreated in every moment. The ‘I’ that will exist in 1/10th of a second isn’t me, he’ll be someone new and I’ll be dead.
When you wake up tomorrow you will be born anew.
Those are my own theories and I encourage you to share yours, but for now I’d like to move on to some science.
3. Out of Body Experience
I recently listened to a podcast from You Are Not So Smart‘s David McRaney, talking with Lara Maister, a psychologist at the University of London, about body ownership.
A fun study you can try at home — the rubber hand illusion.
With your hand out of sight, and a rubber glove in front of you, have someone rub both your hidden hand and the glove with a brush in the same way. After a few minutes you can start to feel as if the rubber glove is yours, it belongs to you and you can feel the brush slowly caressing its rubbery surface:
Your mind has to constantly update itself with who you are. We go through subtle little changes as we grow, so we need to be able to recognise ourselves and accommodate the new information. The glove becomes part of us.
Moreover, virtual reality has allowed us to borrow bodies that aren’t our own. And when people occupy, in avatar form, bodies of their out groups— different race, gender, etc — it can help change their social and racial biases, by increasing empathy with the other groups.
Another interesting topic of research is about phantom limbs, whereas when people lose a limb through an accident or amputation, sensations associated with that limb remain — most often in a painful form.
Then there’s out-of-body experiences, or the sensation of looking down on your physical self while floating in the air. This effect hast not well studied, but there is some recent research highlighting the brain areas involved — no, it’s probably not your ‘soul’ leaving your body, but it does help show the disjointed relationship we have with our body.
So far the research is suggests our minds and bodies are not as ‘one’ with each other as they seem…