What kind of stuff are we made of?

As previously discussed, Sam Harris suggested swapping our situations with other people by substituting atom-for-atom, while I proposed the Cherokee way as being most effective, that is, by walking in that person’s moccasins.  This difference of opinion aims at the same thing and seems benign enough, but to inquiring minds it points to widely differing world views.  Are we, as people, a product of experiences or of atoms?

Search the web for This American Life 3/27/07 TV1.1: Reality Check which tells the story of a much beloved bull named Chance whom the owners cloned to produce Second Chance, the product of which proved not to be the beloved bull the owners wished for when they essentially swapped atom-for-atom.  My reply, why should people expect a more accurate portrayal of a human life through the duplication of atoms when we sport and support brains that are so much more complex?  Answer: We shouldn’t.

I recall my Introduction to Linguistics class from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley.  The professor was discussing, as well she should have, the diversity of language and language structures that existed and that warranted understanding and investigation.  To this, a student asked whether a more important goal of Linguistics shouldn’t be to bring all languages into conformity so that everyone in the world could understand each other and communicate better.  To which the professor replied that she would not like us all to speak one language because it was the diversity of language that she was interested in.  Now, as a psychologist, I prefer to ask, who among us means the same thing when we use the same words anyway?  For example, when you ask, “How are you?” who really wants to know or is this simply a rhetorical question.  Answer: No one really knows what is meant, not even the speaker in most instances because the question addresses situation and motive, not to mention the speaker’s mood and attention by the speaker to what he or she is actually saying.  Does it really mean anything when we don’t really think about something we say?  What percentage of things that we do is done without conscious thought, including breathing and digestion?  Not much.

Amidst all this, I found myself in dialogue on Twitter with a blogger, who will henceforth remain nameless, whom I believed to be stating that experience has nothing to do with cognition at all, but that what is happening is all neurochemistry.  (This person subsequently denied that this was his opinion. More about this later).  It took me a while to wrap my neurochemicals around this thought (whether or not it was what was intended) to understand it because in my world there is no sense in being alive if all experience is a product and elaboration of brain chemistry.

I thought the idea pretty funny, until I found quick support for it on NPR’s Morning Edition where it was reported that the US military was working on treating PTSD, Depression and other ills of the mind by putting electronic implants in the brain to alter brain functioning in order to eliminate symptoms.  “I got it!” I thought.  “We’ll fix the troops up by stimulating certain areas of the brain.  This will substitute for a slap in the face or a punch in the jaw (as was done in the movies from time immemorial which means at least since John Wayne) when a simple, ‘Get out in the battlefield, soldier’ will do.”  With brain implant treatment, we can eliminate government entitlements for experienced trauma and having to offer services to our troops suffering from PTSD.  We can put our fighting force back to work indefinitely, fighting in endless battle until they quit.  They won’t even know that they’re getting old or tired, perhaps even those who are getting old will find it irrelevant.  And we can conquer endless lands and acquire endless wealth as a result of it…but then, why would we need all of this land and wealth if we can get the same feeling of gratification by stimulating the brain, giving us all the sense we had acquired something without ever leaving the safety and security of our beds?  We could have our mammas back, our beloved bulls, our lost socks.  The Koch brothers could then be the richest, most powerful men in the world even as the government taxed them 100%.  This would be the unifying language that we are looking for, electronic stimulation of neurotransmitters.  And, the beginnings of such treatment will become available, as reported on NPR, in the next five years.

This means swapping the experience of living for atoms, chemicals and offering a unified language that side-steps all human experience by just stimulating the brain, changing what we think we perceive, but that we never quite grasp.  Seems to me this is as reductionistic as it gets, brain stimulation replacing every experience.

What would someone like me want out of my manipulated brain?  Good question!  And I’m thinking it’s time for a new pair of moccasins.  Mine are getting a bit thin with use…or maybe I don’t need shoes, just brain implants.

Bringing us full circle to the question, what kind of stuff are we made of?

To be continued…