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Where Am I?

  We’ve read a lot about artificial intelligence (AI), the effort to construct a machine that truly thinks, in the same sense that we think. Movies are full of robots that do it, but serious computer programmers and scientists are still working on the actuality of it. Frankly, it’s more complicated than anyone can imagine—including the people who are in the field. Every once in a while, I read something about the mind that reminds me of just how complicated it would be to duplicate everyday mental functions.

British AI scientist Steve Grand is quoted in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion: “Steve Grand points out that you and I are more like standing waves than permanent ‘things.’”

To clarify things right in the beginning, a “standing wave” is a wave on the surface of a liquid that does not move. It is most visible in a closed container. Because the vibration that creates the wave is bounced off the sides of the container, at some point the waves going and coming back reinforce each other, resulting in what seems to be a stationary, or “standing” wave. The wave appears to be a “thing,” an object, even though that’s an illusion. Steve Grand is saying that we are also illusions.

To continue the quotation: “He invites his reader to think . . .

. . . of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place . . . Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.’”

  We’re told often that our skin sloughs off cells by the millions every day—most of the dust in our homes is dead skin. Yet as we look at the backs of our hands, we see the same hands as were there yesterday and last year (maybe a little more wrinkled, a few dark spots, veins showing through, but yes, the same hands; they’re my hands). All of the organs of our bodies gradually replace themselves with a continual generation of new cells.

So how is it that I can remember the time my father took me to the locks on the ship canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington when I was three or four? The memory is a little hazy, I admit. But there’s no question in my mind that I was there, looking down at the boats slowly rising up to the top of the locks, and people waving at me. How could I remember that if no part of me, no atom, no molecule that is in my head now was there at that time seventy-five years ago? Who was it that was there, and how did I get that memory? I can remember remembering it many times since then. Wasn’t that me, either?

In a way, I can sort of understand it if I think of a computer—the programs and data contained in one computer can be installed in another computer, where they function exactly the same. I certainly recognize that this old body of mine has changed a lot since I was three. But it’s really hard to encompass the notion that the continuity I sense in my self, the day-to-day continuation of me is illusory. Things in my world persist. Some of the scones I baked for Judith last week are still in the breadbox. Maybe a little stale, but the same scones. How could four different scones make their way into the box to replace those that I baked?

Okay, maybe it doesn’t work that fast. Eventually, the scones would fall victim to bread mold, and disappear. Nobody would be astonished at that.

But my self? The most reliable thing in my life? Maybe Judith changes, ever-so-slowly. In some ways, she’s not the same person I married—neither of us is. We adjust to the changes, and hardly notice them. Even our love is different. We sometimes get nostalgic about who we were back then, full of enthusiasm and energy.

When I look at photographs of myself, say as a boy, part of what I see is just a boy. It’s hard to identify with him, to feel myself inside him, even though I know that at one time I was just that—inside him. The I that is in me now is somehow the same I that was there, plus a few subsequent memories and banged-up shins. It’s when I look back through the snapshots of my memory, rather than the outside views that show up in photographs, that I struggle to separate the I that is now from the I that was then.

It’s no wonder people believe that each of us has a soul that is somehow separate from our body. Just like a computer program, handed off from time to time by the body that is sloughing off into the dust on the window sill to the body that is taking its place in the family. The baton handed by one marathon runner to the next. The program never stops going.

The analogy breaks down, however, when it’s examined closely enough. Just as when one looks at a “solid” object at a sub-microscopic scale, it’s not solid at all. Electrons look like mosquitoes in the middle of the Silver Dome. “Solid” is mostly open space. Similarly, one can visualize the mind as a computer program, but the program in our brain is constantly under construction, yielding to new connections, associating different things, changing the pictures of memory, all by itself. There’s no CPU, or central processing unit, that directs it all. There’s no director, in fact.

No one is in charge, much as we might hate to think that. There’s nothing I can point to as Me, beyond a vague, fleeting pattern of neuronal activity—standing waves. It just so happens that I can recall a similar pattern of activity that I’ll call a memory. I suppose it’s something that really existed seventy-five years ago.

Maybe it’s more like an echo that returns from the depths of the Grand Canyon of time. The “I” of this moment will likewise echo into the future when called up by some future being who thinks he is me.

 

Donald Skiff, February 4, 2008

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