With a 4 year old at home, I’m quite conscious just how much we tend to her building of the concept of her identity – like farmers watering a field. Today I ponder the illusion behind that crop we call Identity, pulling in lessons from the two previous posts on probabilistic thought and the division between intelligence and intent. To get there, we must first Split a Chicken.
You know, it’s funny, but I never had – or even seen – a split chicken until our doula for our first daughter made one for us as a conciliatory gesture for missing the actual birth. Lots of symbolism there, but moving on…
Secret Ingredient: you know, I live with deep regret for all those roasts I’ve made of the years without making full use of the drippings into an Au Jus.
Music Accompaniment: UB40 songs – yeah, I don’t know why, but it works great.
Now from splitting a chicken to splitting identity from awareness. This is a story of how I had an epiphany today in which my brain made new pathways in my personal ontology that I haven’t had before. But first, I must build the road so that you may come along:
With a 4 year old at home, I’m quite conscious now just how much we tend to her building of the concept of her identity – like farmers watering a field. We encourage her to name it (literally with a unique name), strengthen it with compliments, relish in its uniqueness. Our goal as parents in these first years is to define this structure of identity so that we have coat hangers on which we can then hang on such societal concepts such as ethics and morality, emotion and analytics, social norms and political discourse. But without the concept of identity – and the creation of one in our mind – on which to hang them, all these higher level ideas that we build from 3 years old to adulthood are just floating in the wind, and ephemeral. Just try to imagine empathy without identity, among many other metaphysical concepts or states. Heck, there is a reason why the Cogito of “I think therefore I am” exists, as identity is the only thing we can trust. But can we?
So you can gather now, that I’ve been thinking rather Taoist of late, and ever since wanting to explore the idea of embracing probability in my rational mind self in an earlier post, I’ve been realizing just how tall of a structure our human mind creates to form ones own identity. The problem is, this structure is a yet another artifice and one created to maximize our Darwinian survival – but an artifice nonetheless. And as such, it can be yet another thing that can be stripped away, just as my good friend has systematically stripped away many societal notions to lead a nomadic life.
So we know that the creation of identity, the I in the Cogito, is a necessary first step. And therefore, the shedding of it will take some work. I think of the work in the Taoist mindset to remove the ego, or the Buddhist Pursuit of identity differentiation, or the Baha’I pursuit of the Delphic “Know Thyself”, or the Avatar blend of Scholasticism and Buddhism with its connected life force. But none of these appeal to the poetic naturalist mind, and inherently are false premises that are built on top of identity rather than the removal of it (even I’d argue Buddhism).
But tonight I thought of an easy way in which my mind suddenly realized I was floating in a sea of stars without meaning or individuality. I thought of the paper clip maker referenced in existential risk literature by Nick Bostrom. In this exercise, you imagine a super-intelligent paper clip manufacturing robot, built with the simple mandate to build as many paper clips as possible. This paper clip manufacturer soon begins to realize that having humans on the planet is interfering with the optimal creation of the maximum number of paper clips, so true to its programming destroys the human race and perhaps all of life in its quest to fulfill the goals of its programming.
There is no consciousness or intent in the paper clip machine, nor is there any concept of identity. The whole point of the exercise is to emphasize that superintelligence can occur without consciousness or identity.
And so with that, I realize today that life itself is its own form of a paper clip machine.
To get there, I go to the Matrix movies, where Agent Smith wipes the sweat off of Mr. Anderson’s forehead and declares that the human race is a virus, a form of life that has exceeded its natural boundaries and is now all-consuming in its spread across the globe, consuming all resources without regard until it destroys its host, in this case the planet. I love this image and have always subscribed to it, but I realize today that we are more than that virus, as that analogy applies just to humanity.
If you step back further, life itself is the very building of the paper clip machine. Go back to the primordial soups and you realize that the moment some proto-DNA strands first self replicated, that life became a paper clip machine – but instead of building paper clips, its job was simply to replicate itself in a fashion to ensure the most optimal ability to expand replication. This is the foundation of life, and once set in motion, it had no end, just like the paper clip machine.
Fast forward, oh and few eons, and humanity evolves in its Matrix virus fashion, but still built with that fundamental paper clip manufacturing programming for self replication. Identity evolves as a coat hanger for all those higher level ideas for societal structure. But in the end we are a paper clip manufacturer with these artifices built up just to ensure overall maximal realization of our programming for replication.
And there, at that moment, with that viewpoint applied to my own identity, I saw myself disappear, as the self was an artifice created on top of that programming. I was able to hold on to language and senses, so I could see existence still proceeding on Time’s arrow – but for a few moments I truly felt the dissolution of identity and reduce myself to mere DNA programming with a single goal in mind.
At that moment, it went dark into the emptiness of space in “my” mind. I could no longer use “I” to describe where “I” was for “I” did not exist. Existence simply was, and was so vastly but empty, with a few pieces of nearby matter waiting to be used to further the goal in the programming allowing the very ability to perceive that very same matter.
I loved being fully immersed into that space (but without the I to be aware). It felt beyond primal or Darwinian or anything remotely subjective (again requiring identity). It was purely rooted in naturalism. So I close by encouraging you to take the thought experiment and imagine your collection of DNA and body as being a mere cog of a much larger paper machine maker, and finally see your identity as an artifice designed as a necessary expedient to fulfill your programming. Then dissolve the coat hanger, and let identity fall away…