identity – part I: consciousness

The school’s theme for term 1 is identity, so it seems like a good idea to think about my own starting concept of the nature of identity and the kind of thinks which might make good starting points for examining what identity is and how we might embody our identity (or identities).

Firstly, as an artist, identity is one of personal fascinations and is at the core of much of my artplay.
Magnetic Tape Reader – Mic Watts mixed media on board, 175mm x 230mm, 2015

Having been infected fairly early with an obsession with uncertain landscapes of reality through Philip K. Dick, the twilight zone and 1st year philosophy papers, I have long been interested in the emergent nature of the mind. Within the black box of our skulls, bio-electro-chemical signals pulsing thousands of times a second through a hyper-connected substrate result in the sophisticated physical experience of personhood that we live each day.

My exploration of identity and consciousness has lead me down a recursive rabbit hole toward the concept of recursion. At many different levels, it seems apparent that a crucial element of the richness of human cognitive experience is not just that we think, but that we are able to think about our thinking – metacognition. We are able to reflect on the content of our minds and to recombine this content imaginatively.

One of the key nudges of my train of thought along this track came from a thought experiment from one of my philosophy papers in my first year at university:
1. Imagine that you wake up one morning and inscrutable aliens have cleanly and painlessly separated your left foot from the rest of your body (who knows why they do these things?). Which part would you identify as still being you? easy: your body, right?
2. Unfortunately the aliens aren’t finished and the following morning your head and body have been separated (somehow the alien’s tech can keep both alive). Which part is lost now?
3. Those pesky aliens return the following night and restore your body, but they replace your brain with an exact (atom-for-atom) copy. Would the person who wakes up in the body be you?

I am recalling from a long time ago, but the gist is there: To begin questioning exactly what our minds are and where they reside. Most would agree that the where is ‘in my brain’ but the what is a bit more tricky. How does our internal, subjective experience of self-ness arise from the dizzying activity of our neural structures and patterns? Do other people experience things similarly to us? How does the picture our (skull-enclosed) brains build based on our perceptions reflect the ‘true’ world outside the skull? These questions are not easy to answer once you begin to pick the whole thing apart…

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

– Emerson M. Pugh

From the inside of my mind it seems that experience consists of an interplay between perception and memory. Perception – a picture of one’s current situation in time and space, based on sensory inputs – triggers various responses from memory – information from past experience which may assist a mind in formulating a response to the perceived situation. The more we perceive and remember the wider the variety of potential responses a mind might call upon in any given situation.

These processes (both perception and memory) are insidiously recursive, and the recursivity of the underlying neural structures gives rise to the capacity for metacognition and the ability to think about how one thinks.

Language, as a subsystem within this mental environment includes a significant degree of recursion – especially in English (which provides a variety of grammatical structures for recursively nesting clauses – such as this one – at different levels) – which enable us to formulate highly complex ideas and structures.

My conceptualisation, then, of identity, rests on the foundations of several layers of structure:

  • Hardware:
    – at base, the energy of the universe, structured according to laws of physics…
    – some of which is congealed into matter formed into chemical structures…
    – some of which  is self-organised into biochemical structures culminating in bodies with brains
    – which develop complex information processing architecture, conducting electrochemical signals
  • Software:
    – these signals form complicated patterns in order to convey and manipulate coded information based on external input signals and internal neural processes…
    – allowing an individual to experience and act within their environment and community…
  • Subjective:
    – this experience, via some blurry neural magic, results in an emergent phenomena called consciousness

And – despite all of this taking place within the warm, mushy darkness of a human skull – feels very much like being an evolutionarily advanced ape on a rocky planet orbiting a small star in a far-flung arm of the milky way.

This, roughly, is the basis of the mental model inside my brain of what, where and how my self is…


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