In this essay I will provoke some thought on two questions which throughout history have created responses of the deepest art and theology and at the same time have plagued us with the worse cases of muddlheadedness. Where does a person or his soul go when he dies? What keeps flesh alive?
The main points of muddleheadedness here is the mistake to immediately call someone's personality a thing when after all a particular person's personality is primarily an experience, either to me or that person. The second point of muddleheadedness is that of trying to place that experience of personality in a three dimensional space inside a person's skin.
I will talk about some examples of personalities, animated presences: a knot in a string, an old fashioned door buzzer, a candle flame, various behaviors of living one celled creatures, a tree, finally a human personality. I will come to the surprising and seemingly inside out conclusions that living beings are not things at all and certainly not inside their skins. They are dynamic patterns that can only happen when energy and molecules are flowing through them. Energy coming from somewhere else and going to somewhere else. A living being can never be at all profitably thought of as an isolated thing in an isolated space. And the personality of a living being, even the soul of a human turns out to be a region in an abstract high dimensional space describing the possible configurations of that beings "parts", some of which may not be inside its skin. The system of interactions of parts of the person lies inside the abstract region of soul, not soul as a part lying inside the space of the person.
For instance: I hook up an electro-magnet in series with a switch and a source of potential electric energy. When the circuit is closed the magnet conducts and pulls the lever of the switch against a spring into the off position. But then the circuit is no longer conducting, so the magnet turns off and the switch springs back on. So the magnet conducts... Round and round it will go, off, on, off, on... If the characteristics are just so, if the rate of flipping off on off on is fast enough, the circuit will buzz. That's a kind of personality. Where is it? Where in the circuit is it? If I cut the wire, the personality is gone. Where did it go?
I light a candle. The flame holds onto its place between the wax and the air, heating the wax so that it flows up the wick and burning it to supply more energy to heat the wax and to pull the molten wax up the wick by capillary action to burn... If it burns too fast or too hot the the supply of molten wax up the wick can't keep up with the burning and the burning slows down. It remains in a steady state. Just how adaptable is a flame? [this needs more data. a full description of all the feedback loops in a candle flame: chemical reaction loops, convection currents, radiative heat transfer... would be mindblowing. i don't know them all. hard to find a comprehensive published account..]
Anyway, a flame is fun to play with. It has a personality. Who is IT? Where is that it?
If I tie a knot in a rope, I can move it along the rope. I can even tie another rope to one end and move the knot onto the new rope [where did i get this story? and why do i think it has something to do with the Baghavad Gita? perhaps the knot off the end of the rope thing is from Gregory Bateson or Bucky Fuller?]. The knot behaves etc... and has a personality. If I cut the rope outside the knot the knot is still there. If I cut the rope inside the knot, it's gone. Or I can roll the knot right off the end of the rope. Where was it? What was it?
After playing with this knot, I realize that what makes it a knot in my perception is tension on the two ends. The knot then moves freely back and forth. Look at this:
If I pull on C and A, what is in the box is a knot. If I pull on C and B, however, NOTHING is in the box! Therefore the soul or the life essence of the knot, that which gives the knot its personality can not be described by a coordinate along the rope at which the pattern in the box can be located. Its personality is "made up of" or, better, "caused by" elements, or configurations outside the box. We must therefore add a dimension of description to describe where the opposite end of tension from C resides relative to what is in the box. So at least two dimensions are needed.
We can be very precise:
WHERE on this circle of rope in 3 dimensional space from which I watch does this knot reside? Put two fingers in A and pull apart: what knot? The whole circle is the knot. More precisely, it exists on a torus.
So where is a person? I can cut off his arms, legs... he's still alive. Although he won't dance. He won't play piano. SOMETHING died. Was the music IN his hands? Then again, he couldn't make music without the PIANO. Some of the music making happens because of interaction with the musician and his instrument, physically or through hearing. Maybe the piano playing behavior isn't IN HIM. It's not in the piano by itself either. Maybe it's BETWEEN him and the piano, and by cutting the connection between those two parts of his music making personality, do I kill it? If I take everything away but his brain, is he still alive? Where is he? In his brain? What's it mean to say he's still alive if you can't interact with him? You can plug in some electrodes and interact that way. Hell, even here can we really imagine that a person's personality or experience of self is in the brain? I think a person without a stomach, gonads, lungs, kidneys, heart is not going to have a human personality or experience. I think we do allot of our experiencing outside of our brains. Well, i need data on this. I would certainly bet on the fact that an embryo can't BECOME a human personality without growing up in contact with those organs. I have no idea what it would become. i believe there is data that babies without physical interactions eventually die, partly mediated by the mental processes not developing and shutting down.
So now lets try to keep an adult's isolated brain alive. Of course we have to keep supplying fresh blood to the brain cells. Suppose we could. The brain STILL interacts with the environment by the energy flow through it. Break THAT link and he's dead. In fact, if we ask whether a brain totally unconnected from any environment can have human experience we run into trouble, because we can't entirely disconnect a brain from environment. We've got to supply it with glucose, oxygen some other nutrients and we've got to remove waste. Furthermore, If the brain thinks more it's gonna need MORE food, and either our machinery will have to supply it or the brain will feel that lack. Conversely, if our machinery causes uneven supply or removal the brain will feel it. So it is physically impossible to have an isolated brain.
Life is not isolatable. Knots are not isolatable. Flames are not isolatable. Personality is never just INSIDE a region.
Look at a cell, a bacteria. It's alive. It can interact with you. Where in the cell is its soul/consciousness? We know that the mechanisms which are responsible for responding to us are spread THROUGHOUT the cell. Take out an organelle, and no problem. When do we call a cell dead?
If we gave it no food it would slow down and encase itself into a spore, isolated from the environment thermodynamically. Where did it go? Where did that personality you interacted with go? This is like snuffing out a flame. When we light it up again is it the "same" flame? WHERE was it then, in the interim? Or a computer program, when we save it along with state variables on the disk and turn off the computer, is it sleeping there in the pattern on the disk?
How does the dormant cell know to come back to life when food is present, or conditions are again suitable? What's the trigger? I don't know about this. How about cooling it? Will it form a spore if I do it slowly enough and come out of the spore if I then slowly warm it? This is very sophisticated behavior for a chemical system. Damm! We still don't even know how the simplest cell works. (I could be wrong on this)
I say cells didn't evolve from simpler things, the simpler the cell the more metabolic support it needs from the outside. Oh. The simplest cell is the entire Earth metabolism of those 14 elements. The simplest cells were probably not INSIDE a membrane, but where an entire metabolism spread throughout the Earth.
But look this way, look at one bacteria. No ONE soul, soul is spread, decision making is spread across membranes, interactions of many proteins there. Decision making spread across the thousands of feedback loops throughout the chemical cycles in the cell. Check out this example. Most cells in organisms must ingest packets of protein and lipid molecules that other cells manufacture. The packets are surrounded by certain protein shapes. We with our mythology of monolithic mind directed behavior might imagine constructing a mechanism to ingest these packets thusly: Put an eye up on a tower and have some guy look out for the right shaped packet. Then when he sees one he steers out an arm to go intercept it and then builds a sack around it and bring it into the cell.
Well, cells do it quite differently. All that goal directed behavior is spread out. There are proteins floating around at the surface of the membrane all over the cell. They move around randomly. They only know one thing each, if a protein from a packet bumps into me, stick to it and open up my two arms sticking out on the inside of the membrane. Then there are proteins wandering aimlessly about inside the membrane that only know one thing each, they've got three arms and when one bumps into one of the two arms of the other proteins, they stick to it. Also they hold their arms at a convex angle with respect to the membrane. Follow the logic and you see it makes a ball around the packet and nips it off into the cell. The decision making, the information processing is entirely spread out between these two kinds of proteins wandering about in brownian motion and the physics of the membrane itself.
[pic of clathrin coated pits]
WHERE is the soul of the cell? In the relationship between thousands of parts, or even less material, between thousands of changes in concentrations of molecules. So the soul is not inside the membrane in 3-d space, but HOVERING ABOUT a region of some several thousand dimensional configuration space of the whole dynamical system that may very well contain variables we would normally say are "outside" the cell.
Now where is the soul of a person? Just because a person can be killed with such a simple act in 3-d space does not mean that its LIFE resides in such a simple space.
Taking the DNA out of a bacteria in 3-d space is simple, but in that 1000 dimension configuration space, we have just done a very complicated bit of extrication. No doubt you can kill a person or jam a computer or kill a bacteria by leading it through a complicated maze of its configuration space into some kind of weird dead end repeating loop also. In fact we see this on crowded urban streets, some people go insane and are caught in these endless mental loops headed for destruction.
Interesting that 3-d space and higher dimensional configuration. spaces are related in this manner.
Cutting the brain stem of a person does not kill him. It does remove from the system, thousands of feedback loops which happen to have gotten themselves threaded through a tight location in 3-d space. Interesting of course that trees did not go in this direction. Nor did ant colonies. How do you kill an ant colony? Where is its soul? NOT in its queen.
Why did humans and their ancestor vertebrates make themselves so VULNERABLE in 3-space?
If you cut down a tree, it is not killed. Although because of some simple physics, you have broken a main thermodynamic river supplying nutrients, and water. However, after that act, ALL of the tree is still "alive". The death of each of the terminal buds will be a long drawn out complicated process. In fact if we could watch a person die in detail and in slow motion... How would we define a precise millisecond when the person dies.
We have come to think of a person as very monolithic. And in 3-d the body IS arranged in a very centralized manner with much specialization of tissues that cannot live on their own. There are at least 200 tissue types. What makes a person is a complicated dance of feedback loops among all these tissues, not to mention the complicated community of immune cells, or God knows what complicated community of interacting programs in the neural software.
Even the myth that the mental/social behavior of a person is a monolithic personality is ridiculous. Careful response to what a human being is by watching one in a with a very naive attitude about humans will wipe out the "he" very quickly. The response will be that "he" is a complicated community of sub-personalities. Now "he" does not reside anyWHERE. Or HE resides in the space of configurations of this community. Where does he go? When he dies, the configuration of the community moves out of the space we call "his living personality" and wanders around in the total space of all possible interactions between the parts. I claim that we CAN bring him back by bringing the community back into that configuration. There are of course certain thermodynamic difficulties in doing this.
So we have turned the traditional thinking inside-out. Souls do not reside in particular three dimensional CONTAINERS. Souls are REGIONS of high dimensional configuration spaces in which configurations of cooperating parts reside!
What of his experiencing? His consciousness? Do I truly believe that my consciousness of being me, of being alive, is just a region in a configuration space? Sure! In fact, the configuration of my community of parts weaves in and out of that region all the time. I am not CONTINUALLY conscious. Boy, this is frightening. Yes, but not as much if I learn about the physics/mathematics of how stable certain chaotic attractors might be. And of course it's frightening. I AM easily killed!