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Musings on Existence

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIn a previous essay, Further Musings on the Soul (blog version), I laid out a brief explanation of why I do not think people have souls. To give an even briefer summary, as we learn more through neuroscience, it becomes more and more apparent that our personalities and memories are controlled by the material processes of our brains. Given that, it calls into question the function of souls if they were to exist, but combined with the complete lack of evidence for souls, it just seems most parsimonious to assume that we are material beings, and that our brains define our sense of self.

But, consciousness, the sensation of experience, has to come from somewhere. To me, since I don't see anywhere else for it to come from, it seems most likely that it comes from the atoms that make up our brains. It's not a single coherent soul in the classical sense, but a bunch of small bits all contributing. As far as we can tell, it relies on a functioning brain to work. So when we eventually die, our consciousness will end, but those atoms will go back out into the ecosystem, and many will probably find their way into new organisms. So, the sensation of experience might come again. That's not really entirely comforting since it won't exactly be 'me' anymore, with all the memories and personality quirks that define me, but it is, in a way, a type of continued existence*. Looking backwards, it also means that the atoms currently making up me have already experienced countless lives. I can't know what those lives were like, but it is intriguing.

On a related note, I wonder just how arbitrary are the processes in our brain that define our subjective experiences. For example, dopamine is a well known neurotransmitter involved in a sense of reward**. Our brain releases it to make us feel happy. But why dopamine? Why that particular chemical? Was it just arbitrary, a chance product of evolution? Would any chemical have fit the bill, so long as other parts of the body evolved to react appropriately? Or is there something about the structure of dopamine that makes it a 'happy' molecule? If the actual structure of molecules does affect our subjective experience, then of course natural selection would have favored molecules that performed those roles better. It sounds obvious, but we like being happy, and we dislike being sad.

And while this discussion may seem trivial, I think we're approaching a point in the not too distant future where it might be a discussion worth having. We're getting closer and closer to creating artificial life, both biological (see Craig Venter) and mechanical (i.e. Artificial Intelligence). We're still a long ways off from creating anything sentient, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that some day we might. And as the creators of sentience, we would be responsible for the emotions that entity experienced. How cruel it would be to create a consciousness that experienced nothing but pain and distress, even if outwardly it smiled the whole time.

I know this might seem a bit more mystical than what I normally write about. But I am still an atheist and a materialist. I don't think there's anything magical going on here. It's just that consciousness happens to be a property of matter. It doesn't have a memory. Homeopathy is still rubbish. We can't relive past lives, because the memories were coded in the brain and disappeared when the brain decayed. But when we die, there may be more to it than simply becoming worm food. A part of us may actually become the worm, which may then become part of a bird, and then a cat, and on and on. I will lose my identity, but it's interesting to think of myself as a part of this great web of experience.

*This is also a selfish reason why I think it's best to strive to improve the world. Sometime down the road, the atoms currently making up me might feel the repercussions of my actions.

**Whenever I talk of dopamine, I'm reminded of an experience I had in middle school health class. It was during a lecture on drugs (and recall that this was during the era of 'Just say no'). Our teacher, Mr. Tinney, told us that dopamine was the chemical responsible for making us happy. He said that when somebody won the lottery, about a pin head's worth of dopamine was released into the brain. But when somebody took cocaine, drops and drops of dopamine were released, like taking a soaked sponge and wringing it out. When he explained it that way, it made cocaine positively tempting, to think that a drug could make you that happy. I don't think he really accomplished what he set out to do with that lecture. (For the record, I've never tried cocaine, though thanks to Mr. Tinney's lecture, I think I might try it if I'm ever terminally ill with no hope of recovery.)


"if I'm ever terminally ill with no hope of recovery." That is the criteria for administering morphine. But you seem to have an affinity for decrying 'junk science'...which you define down to 'politically acceptable.' o.k. Why don't you do a little search of the marijuana advocates' files ; or check out how the science adviser to the UK health minister fared a few years back when he noted fears of drugs were wildly overblown - just as a new campaign harassing the use of non prescription drugs on one's own person was getting underway.

I've written a few times about my stance on drugs. Here's an excert from The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican (dealing with the 2008 platform):

I definitely disagree with the whole War on Drugs. I think it's an intrusive form of government that removes personal freedom. What I'd like to see happen is for all drugs to be legalized and then regulated in a similar manner as alcohol or tobacco. Just like alcoholism, addiction to other drugs should be addressed through treatment, not jail time (that's not to say that crimes committed under the influence should go unpunished).

Here's a different excerpt from The 2012 Texas Republican Platform:

Our nation's drug policy makes no sense. Personally, I'd like to see all drugs made legal, since I don't think the government should be in the business of protecting us from ourselves. However, I can see the argument for making some highly dangerous drugs illegal because of their wider impact on society as opposed to the individual. But if you're going to do that, it should be based on sound science and the actual dangers of the drug. Here's a ranking of drugs in order of danger, based on a study published in The Lancet. Heroine, cocaine, barbiturates, and methadone top the list, but following right behind at 5th is alcohol. A little lower at 9 is tobacco. Some drugs that are currently illicit, such as marijuana, LSD, and ecstasy, were ranked as less dangerous than even tobacco. So what is the reasoning for keeping those drugs illegal, when other, more dangerous drugs, are legal and widely available?

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