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Food For Thought
[ Issue 153 Page 10 ] Friday, May 05, 2017, 14:11:36 Yehhyun Jo Head of Society yehhyunjo18@kaist.ac.kr

     What instills the intrinsic realization that you are you? It is the age-old philosophical question of what makes consciousness and the concept of self. Regarding this entire concept I am dealing with here, there is a deeper foundational and intrinsic feeling that we all share; this conscious realization that we are all unique as existential beings, confined to our own physical container, unable to venture out and inhabit other individuals. This is a rather uncomfortable feeling: the feeling that you are you and only you and forever you and will only be you until you die at which point there will be no you. You are unique because you have never existed before you were born and you will never exist after you die. Your “self” is a one-time existence that is destined to pop in and out of existence for a minute moment of infinity. This is the uniqueness of self.

     So is it purely limited to our brain or can it also be a manifestation of your physical self — such as your blood, organs, and genes?

     Consider this: if your heart was replaced, would you still be yourself? Would your “self” be a changed person after the surgery or would you still maintain the same “consciousness” as the person before the surgery? How about if your kidneys were replaced? Or blood transfusions? What if you suffered from heavy brain damage but survived? There have been reported cases of personality alterations due to these types of medical procedures in hospitals. But a change in personality doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the “person” inside of your head that is aware that you are sentient has changed too. After all, your personality undergoes several major changes in life without affecting the knowledge that you are still you. For instance, after puberty, one’s personality can sometimes become drastically altered due to the hormones released by the brain and glands into the bloodstream. However, we maintain that special “something” we all have inside our heads that reaffirms us that no, I haven’t gone anywhere, I am still the same me as I was since I can remember. So is it memory that provides the boundary for the definition of the self? I would think not. The meaning of having the exact same memory as someone else does not extend to the realm of consciousness. You could have half of your memory replaced and still be yourself, albeit confused and disorientated.

     Here is another interesting question: for victims of major mental distress who have had their minds broken and can no longer interact with reality in a meaningful and coherent way, have their brains lost the ability to be aware that they are alive? Have they lost consciousness? Have they lost their “selves”? If so, then they are basically “dead inside” since they have all but lost the sense, the intuition of being alive. If not, how do their brains work? Or the more interesting question: is the nature of the self and the consciousness immune to damage?

     If everything is a manifestation of the physical, then there should be no metaphysical entities such as the soul. The awareness of being alive and knowing the uniqueness in your conscious self should then be able to be limited to the physical body. Then what if you could construct a perfect replica of your brain and body, with all of the blood cells, neurons, neurological pathways and connections, hormones, bone density, eyesight, fingernails, etc.? In fact, there are scientific projects that deal with brain mapping called connectomes. Would this replica of yourself share your consciousness? If so, then how? Will you suddenly be able to perceive the world through two separate physical entities? I assume that that would not happen. In fact, I would guess that two beings with two identical brains with two different “selves” would arise.

     Then is the “self” and the awareness of being alive simply an illusion brought about by our biological programming? What if we are nothing but products of evolution and we think that we have a unique awareness within ourselves but we really do not? What if this “realization” is a byproduct of our brain development? If we can assume that not all animals share this feeling of being alive, then it is clearly not a given attribute of life so we must have gained it somewhere along our evolution. And like many of our other brain failures (optical illusions, etc.), perhaps we only feel that we are aware of the self but in reality it doesn’t exist. But, to paraphrase Professor Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, just because it is only in our heads, does it mean that it is not real?

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