Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Measure of a human

A while ago a new video game was released by the creators of the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent as well as other games featuring similar types of psychological horror. This new game is called SOMA and retains the psychological part of the previous games, even if it tones down the 'horror' side of things a bit, instead choosing to focus on far more existential questions. Basically it's a pretty heavy game when you start thinking about the things it presents to you.

Without going too deep into spoilers (if you haven't played the game yet, this is your chance to stop reading), the essence of the game revolves around what constitutes a 'human'. That is, what is it that makes a human uniquely human and what defines us as an individual?

To the first question, we can easily deduce this: if you take an average human being and chop off its arms and legs, is it still human? Most decidedly yes. Remove the torso so that you're left with just a head. Is this still a human being? Most would still agree it is. We then remove the skull, the eyes and other tissues surrounding the brain. Is this brain human?

Looking at the pile of tissue we discarded so far, we have to grudgingly admit that none of those bits are truly the core of a human being, even if they are parts of a complete human being as we are familiar with them. Thus we focus back on the brain.

A brain by itself clearly isn't human, so we can conclude from this that what makes something 'human' is something contained by this brain's structures, which is to say the network created by its neurons and their interactions. The conclusion we are thus left with is that a 'human' isn't a physical thing, but is a concept created by a complex network of electrical impulses and biochemistry.

A human is software.

We exist by the grace of this collection of biological tissues which support this network, allowing it to grow and develop, to enrich itself as an entity as it explores its environment through the means provided by its physical body.

There is nothing which would keep us from developing compatible hardware which can host this system we refer to as a 'human'. That is the wondrous part about being a human, it's not something which is necessarily contained by its physical shape, but is instead something which can will itself into almost any shape to accomplish virtually any task or goal it sets itself.

The second question was what makes someone into an individual. What does it mean when we refer to ourselves, when we use words like 'I', 'me' and 'myself'? To be a unique entity, separate from other entities. I think that the most important thing to realise here is that a human being is not a static entity. Every day we change and we are not the same person at the end of a day as the person we woke up as.

Each experience, each event changes the sum of this network which constitutes a human being as new neurons are slot into place and existing neurons weaken or strengthen their connections with other neurons. Just by existing we change. What thus forms our 'self', our quintessential sense of being this one, unique individual? Research suggests that it is mostly just part of the grand illusion our own minds produce to shield us from realising too much of what is going on.

In this SOMA game, the concept is raised of copying a brain or similar. That is, to produce a copy of the person which up to that point was only inhabiting that particular body. Afterwards there exist the original body with the entity and a scan of said entity. This scan can then be copied onto compatible hardware and function there much like the original, depending on the body it was copied into.

Regardless of the approach chosen, there would at this point be a fork in this continuity formed by this single entity. Suddenly there are two entities, which at least for one brief moment are completely identical. What was unique suddenly isn't any more.

Then, with one or more copies of the original entity existing and each going their separate ways, each of them begin to gather different memories, different experiences and views on life. They are no longer the same. What this suggests is that the only thing which makes an individual unique is its collection of memories and experiences. That each entity is essentially an imprint, or an echo if you wish, of these recollections.

A human entity is thus in essence a software construction, capable of gathering, processing, analysing and subsequently expressing preferences and opinions based upon this input, which then determine its following decisions, which thus lead to new input which better fit its preferences.

Much of this is shared with less advanced entities as found in other animals. What makes a human entity hereby so unique is its ability to integrate all of the external and internal input and create a system of self-awareness and self-reflection, which is referred to as 'consciousness'. This ability is what drives them to sate this curious sensation of 'curiosity'.

It is also what gives humans their incredible drive to survive and push the boundaries of what would normally be possible. Part of this is enabled by possessing a body which allows them to manipulate their environment in many ways and to develop complex tools where they cannot do so themselves.

All of this leads us to conclude that there really isn't such a thing as an 'individual'. Every single human being is a constantly morphing entity. Our bodies are pretty unique, but as twins demonstrate, the distinction here falls flat, too. Uniqueness then is a temporary thing.

Maybe it's because of our apparently unchanging bodies that we crave the need to define our minds in a way that they seem static and unchanging as well. Maybe embracing the knowledge of what it truly means to be human can be a very liberating thing, indeed.


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