Monday, March 10, 2008

What does it mean to be aware?

What is it to be aware? To experience awareness? To experience? What is it to be conscious? In the dictionary, these words define one another, but none are explained. Perhaps awareness is a fundamental part of everything.

In what ways are we different from the world around us? We are made of matter, energy, as is our environment. Protons, neutrons, and electrons are assembled into atoms, which are assembled into larger structures to make our bodies and our brains. These fundamental pieces also make up the rivers, mountains, and the air we breath. Also, any part of this system we exist in can be smashed up and broken into building blocks smaller than the atoms. When we smash the atoms, we get the protons, neutrons, etc. When we smash those, we get quarks, neutrons, and a plethora of other particles. Some of these particles are without mass, but are responsible for the binding forces which hold together atoms and other aspects of our world. We are made of the same stuff that makes up the world we live in. All that is different between us physically is how we are put together.

We are made of the same things, but we are put together differently. Is this enough to say that we are not the same as our environment? That we do not share aspects of what we experience with our environment? To say this gives rise to problems which are difficult to approach if we are trying to support the idea that we are special. - Before I go further with that idea, I must explain. I can't begin to say that we, or what we experience, is not special. But, perhaps our experience of this is not unique to us alone. - What does it mean if we, through the advancement of what we call technology, create artificial life? And this is not as far fetched as it once was; we are already successfully simulating functional pieces of rat brains on small supercomputers. Our simulations act as do their biological counterparts. If, over the next few decades, we are able to simulate an entire brain and hook it up to a body so that it can interact with the world, can it be conscious?

This is a fairly macroscopic approach to the problem of consciousness and one which we can relate to. It can be difficult to think objectively when our object of consideration is closely related to how we define ourselves. (Yes, I am saying that if you don't agree with me, you're doing so out of some emotional bias! Please humor me and disregard that :-) Here is another approach to the problem of awareness:

If I walk quietly into a room where you are sitting while the lights are off so that you do not hear me enter, are you aware of me? I expect not. What is different when the lights are on or if I thump my feet as I walk? If the lights are on when I enter, the light will reflect off of my skin and into your eyes and you will become aware that I have entered the room. If I stomp my feet as I enter, sound waves will ripple out through the air and cause your eardrums to vibrate making you aware of me. It is through the effect I have on you that you become aware of me. Cause and effect. What other sorts of things are subject to cause and effect? What things are not? I can't conceive any that aren't. If two molecules of air travel coincidental paths and bump each other, their paths and energies are affected. During the moments in which they are close enough to have an effect on each other, are they not aware of one another? Perhaps not conceptually, but maybe through experience. We humans experience and are affected by many things that we have no conceptual knowledge of. We do not need to understand to experience and be aware of the things that affect us.

No comments: