Tim asked:

My name is Timothy Fuller. I am a Philosophy and Economics B.A Graduate. I currently run my own business and continue to learn and research and aspire for Graduate Studies. Thank you for taking my question.

I am interested in the question of how physical inanimate objects can create an experience of being and living as something in real time. To take it further, how can the ‘electrical storm’, firing synapses etc, all physical create something it is to be something to be that INDIVIDUAL. To take further what would we say we are as an individual? We are not the cells of our bodies or any individual atom. We are the thing that experiences. What is that ‘thing’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Tim, as Morpheus says to Neo, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ It’s absurd, ain’t it, the very idea that the person called ‘Tim’, as an ‘individual’, just IS some physical thing, an object in the world, physical processes happening, causes and effects, all building up to make YOU?

It’s good that you took a joint degree. At least you’ve learned something useful. To pass Philosophy, you had to submit to ideological brainwashing, as all undergrads do. You learned what a ‘good argument’ or a ‘bad argument’ is, and how to tell the difference. You were punished (with bad marks) if you wrote essays that didn’t conform to the accepted view of a ‘good’ essay in philosophy, that is to say, an essay developed from, based upon the ‘correct’ assumptions and argued according to the accepted canons of ‘good’ argument.

And one of the things you were taught is that materialism — the materialist view of the self — is a perfectly reasonable theory, and that any arguments based on your subjective sense or intuition that ‘it just can’t be true’ are irrelevant, or just an expression of your mental incapacity. I know how you feel, because I went through this too.

First, let’s get rid of the aura around ‘electricity’. (‘Elastic trickery,’ as I remember it being called in some TV comedy program.) Ever since Galvani succeed in making frog legs twitch when he applied a current, electricity and electrical processes have had an inexpressible mystique. Electricity goes its own way invisibly up and down silver wires and round and round printed circuits. Nothing moves, yet everything is happening.

I was once the proud owner of an original Sony radio with nine transistors. Nine! A marvel of the modern age. That was the 60s. (Wish I’d kept it, it would be worth a fortune on eBay.) Today, an ordinary desktop computer contains hundreds of millions of transistors. The mind boggles.

Get rid of all that. Put it out of your mind. Numbers are just numbers. Imagine instead that the thing you call ‘you’ was made of wooden cogs and pulleys, twisted rubber bands, paper, plasticine et cetera. It’s long been an accepted axiom of AI that the ‘program’ is all that matters.

Neural networks are the latest thing, but they are just a minor variant. It was always suspected that computers could do a better job of programming themselves than we can do, using our limited human knowledge. Hence the remarkable success of AlphaZero. If the supercomputer running AlphaZero was made of wood and rubber, etc. how big would it have to be? How long would it take to calculate a chess move? As I said, numbers are irrelevant.

I am not going to repeat arguments I’ve given in other posts on this topic. (Just do a search through these pages.) There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!