I’ve been spending the last few days, apart from trying to earn a living, wondering how on earth I’m going to keep finding inspiration for additions to this blog which the people who read it would find interesting enough to want to finish and then come back for more. Always leave them wanting more. It’s a performance thing. It’s probably what feeds the storytelling instinct in me.
I’ve just come back from weekend seven at The Quest Institute in London and, whilst it’s been really interesting and full of learning, hasn’t yet grabbed me by the throat and shoved another blog topic at me though I’m pretty sure one will evolve because we covered a lot of ground over the last two days.
Then, when I got home, it hit me.
Who the hell am I? What is it about me that makes me the me that’s sitting here blogging to you and you’re the you that’s spending precious time in role of bloggee trying to work out what strange and convoluted concept the me that’s me is trying to get across to you this time?
We’re going to get messy in an existentially scientific mix of space time, emergent property and cellular biology, so if you’ve the stomach for the journey, strap in and let me know if any of this still makes sense by the end. By the way, I do realise that the last statement does presuppose that some sense is being made so far. I’ll leave that judgement up to you.
Now, obviously Quantum Determinism leads to the fundamental principle that, when combined with Reversibility, the content of any present wave function subject to changes must abide by the output of the corresponding evolution operator, I mean, who would expect anything else, right? The evolution operator always has an inverse, so the uniqueness of this opposition leads inexorably to the consequence that the information contained in any wave function has to be preserved no matter what happens.
Much as this may seem like a load of pseudo-scientific drivel, it is in fact one of the cornerstones of our universe (and probably other ones too). Every single physical entity is made up of particles. Every particle at its heart is a wave. Every wave contains unique information. You cannot destroy the wave, no matter what you do to the particle. Hadron Collider, do your worst! Smash those subatomic particles into as many sub-sub particles as you wish. Quarks beware. There is nothing you can do to the information they contain. The wave carries on, well, waving. Information cannot be destroyed. It here forever. Fact.
So what? I hear you cry in a Caddyshack style echo. This is what.
When you step up from sub-atomic wave physics to the human sized universe, these waves and particles coalesce into atoms, molecules and cells. Cells combine into organisms and depending on your point of view, humans are at the top of the Darwinian Tree of Life but that’s a whole other debate.
There are some tricky concepts to wrestle with at this level too. If I’m me, residing as I do in this multicellular collective that I understand to be my body, then how come I’m still me? Every single cell in my body has been replaced many times over the course of my not quite so long and somewhat uneventful life. That means that every single molecule and atom has been replaced, which in turn means that every single sub-atomic wave of information which was the me of a few years back is now no longer there unless by some random chance it was re-absorbed and used again.
Actually, that’s statistically quite likely. There is almost certainly a molecule from the cup of hemlock that Socrates drank in every glass of water that you drink. If you think that sounds weird, consider this. Socrates died quite a while back. Quite a few glasses of water have been drunk since then, so it’s very likely that the fresh water you’re drinking had proved its freshness and suitability for human consumption several times already.
Anyway, how the hell can I still be me if I contain nothing from the me that was around a few years ago other than a few randomly re-absorbed atoms? My brain has been entirely replaced. More than once, I might add, although this may come as no surprise to several people I know. So how can I still have the same memories I had from before?
Fortunately, that one’s easy. The cells which have been replaced, occupy the same sites as the ones that were there before and reconnect, regrow or replace the pre-existing format. This mostly preserves the memories that I hold dear. Unfortunately, it also preserves the ones I would rather not have stored but hell, that’s what therapists are for. So does this mean that I stay as me because the cells occupy the same information space, no matter how many times they or their atomic components get replaced? In essence, yes it does. But this doesn’t explain how I got to be me in the first place.
There’s another odd aspect to self. Well there would be wouldn’t there, otherwise why would I bother with this post? It is a well-known fact that organisms can recognise their own. Not just the species but the self. Human cells are not just human cells. They are cells of a single human. An individual. Cells possess identity. An identity that is different to every other human. They can recognise each other.
They’re not happy when strangers gate-crash the multicellular community gig that is you. If you’re a gate-crashing cell, the host of the party doesn’t just politely ask you to leave. They call the police and have you evicted. If you’re lucky. More often than not, they set the Rottweiler’s on you and feed you to the lions. This is the basis of transplant rejection. If something in you isn’t you, you kill it. It keeps you alive. You don’t stop to work out whether it’s beneficial or not, you just get rid. It really is a matter of life or death. Some of the most insidious diseases are caused by viruses that the body doesn’t recognise as being foreign.
So how does this take us closer to working out who I am? Simples…
Your body is made up of cells which are unique to you. The combination of these cells and how they operate throws up an emergent identity which is what we perceive as us. Consciousness is the higher level output of the combination of everything that happens in your body. It’s the Fat Controller making sure that the steam trains of your body run on time and Thomas doesn’t cock everything up again.
The cells are coded as you. Every single cell in your body carries the same code so every other cell in your body knows you’re you. The surface of each and every cell is covered with hundreds of highly specialised receptors which tell the inside of the cell what’s going on outside the cell so that the inside of the cell knows what to do. Is it under threat? Which proteins does it need to synthesise? Is there enough oxygen to respire? Is it time to reproduce? (Yes, even at cellular level, decisions are made about whether it the right time for kids). This is the scientific background to the mind body connection.
Cells know what’s going on around them. Your mind releases nerve impulses to control certain aspects of your body function but there are much older and more fundamental styles of communication. Your brains and other organs release a constant flow of peptides which keep the basic processes of your body in balance. They achieve this because every single cell has receptors which are tuned to every single one of these peptides. The peptide mix regulates cell activity throughout your body. And most of these peptides are produced by your brain. You brain controls your cells’ activity. Your mind really is connected to your body and how it functions in an extremely fundamental way. Peptide communication is present in every living multicellular organism.
According to Candace Pert, the scientist who discovered opiate receptors in human brains, (don’t ask how, it probably got mushy), we are all aware of this flow of peptides all the time. She calls them the molecules of emotion. It is this flow of peptides which our brain interprets as emotion. How you feel affects your body. At a cellular level. And what you think affects what you feel. So if you can control your emotional flow, control your thoughts, then you can affect every single cell in your body. Hey Presto! The Mind-body connection. That’s one-nil in the Eastern Philosophy / Western Medicine match.
But where next? Here’s the kicker. The receptors which tell your body that you’re you, the ones which stop you from killing your own cells, are all pointing outwards. They are even called ‘receptors’. They receive information. From outside the cell. From the environment.
So what makes you you and me me isn’t anything to do with what’s going on on the inside. It’s all about the outside.
If what makes you you and me me is determined by the particularly unique combination of receptors, then what determines me-ness and you-ness is how the multitude of information which is drifting around out there is perceived by each and every cell in your body.
The I that is me is a highly particular information recipe, extracted from the everything that is the universe. This is the part that Bruce Lipton, ex hippy biker and cell-biologist extra-ordinaire, refers to as his perception of the divine. Why? Because we are a computer that downloads our identity from the ultimate internet of the universe. We are simply an output of an interpretation of information. Information which, if you recall, cannot be destroyed. The information that I am based on cannot disappear.
Not only that, even though there are many hundreds of receptors, many millions of potential combinations, it is always possible that the particular combination that created me might just turn up again.
And when it does, in the words of a certain US Governor, I’ll be back.
© Tony Burkinshaw 2012