Here is a thought experiment to help you rethink your long-held beliefs about the nature of reality and purpose of life.
Would the death of every human on this planet within two months of your death matter to you?
I am certainly not the first person to ask such a question or try to answer it. However, I am probably one of the very few who is trying to do so without the pretense of authority, certainty, metaphysics, rhetoric, sophism, solipsism or appeals to tradition. As you will see, even attempting to answer this question honestly will help you see the world around you in a very different light.
To better understand the issues posed in the main question, let us divide it into two parts.
Question 1: Who or what is â€œyouâ€? and perhaps more importantly- who or what is not â€œyouâ€?
Question 2: Does the existence of a large system matter without a sentient observer?
Let us try to answer the first question by first scrutinizing popular ideas about what the self is made up of. As many of you might already know, most traditional religious belief systems believe that the self is made up of a mysterious substance known as the â€œsoulâ€. A few traditional religious belief systems (some interpretations of Buddhism) take a different approach by trying to deny the existence of the self by calling it an illusion using sophistic arguments.
Most modern secular belief systems, on the other hand, largely agree that whatever is commonly understood as the self resides in the brain. But they canâ€™t seem to agree on what it is actually made up of beyond some hand-waving about neuronal networks, prior experiences, memories etc.
While we cannot be certain about the real nature of â€œyouâ€ or self, it appears to be linked to certain patterns of brain activity that can be modified and affected by past experiences. Additional requirement for the self to exist include a critical level of system-wide brain activity integration and ability to process feedback from interactions with the environment.
Here is an allegory that might help you understand my view on this issue. You are probably aware that computers loaded with the same operating system and containing the same chipsets almost always end up as very different machines after a year or two of active use. But why? Well.. it comes down to what happens to a given computer once a person starts using it. Every new action by the user (from data storage and creation, software installations and upgrades to hardware upgrades) will continuously alter the â€œpersonalityâ€, â€œappearanceâ€ and â€œbehaviorâ€ of a given machine such that two computers from the same batch will almost never be identical to each other after as little as a few weeks of use.
Each machine will develop its own unique â€œpersonaâ€ which is a summation of data on the hard drives, data loaded into the RAM upon bootup (and during normal usage) plus the behavior of the operating system in combination with all other software on that particular machine. While you can clone and transfer the contents of the hard drive to another machine, you can almost never recreate the same user experience or persona on another machine- even on one with identical hardware.
The self is a lot like the unique user experience, behavior and abilities of a computer that has been used for a few months.
But why do we spend so much effort trying to define the self? Donâ€™t other life-forms on earth (from bacteria to plants and other animals) go on living, reproducing and evolving without displaying any strong evidence for having selves or the biological hardware to host them? Why do humans care about something that is nothing more than an ephemeral phenomena dependent on information exchange among the underlying biological hardware components?
It comes down to how humans interact with the world around them.
All organisms on earth, except humans and perhaps apes and dolphins, act via reflex or instinct. This is not to say that they cannot think or solve problems logically. But they do so without a detailed mental model of the world around them. Humans, on the other hand, interact with the external world based on their internal mental model of it. They will do so even if the internal world model is obviously faulty- which is why we have cults, religions and ideologies.
But what does any of this have to do with each self being the most important person in the universe?
To answer this question, let us conduct another series of thought experiments. Imagine that there is a rock, with a mass of a few tons, floating somewhere in intergalactic space. Now imagine that this rock is in a region of space that is especially empty and essentially free of any electromagnetic radiation or gravitational fields. How would an observer know about the existence of something that does not interact with the rest of the universe in any measurable way. Something that does not interact with the rest of the universe does not exist even if it exists.
Now turn this idea around and ask yourself- If the ephemeral self ceases to exist, does the continued existence of rest of the universe matter even if it continues to exist? Let us take that question even further and ask ourselves whether the existence of a universe without sentient entities (biological or otherwise) matter even if said universe lasted forever. Without an observer capable of building a mental model of the universe, isnâ€™t the existence of that physical system immaterial.
The point I am trying to make is that the self of a person, aka the â€œyouâ€ in you, is the most important part of a person.
However it is also the most perishable part of a person in addition to being not cloneable. Your genetic legacy is not â€œyouâ€ and neither are your relatives or members of any group that you supposedly belong to. Their continued survival is relevant only as far as enabling or facilitating the survival of your own self. There is therefore no reason to give a f**k about the continued survival of anyone else, especially if doing so would impair the survival of your self. Similarly there is no point in being concerned about how others might remember you after your death.
It is about being realistic about the nature of the self and the rest of the universe.
What do you think? Comments?