Conclusion - the Two Most Important Questions

I think that given how much we’ve learned about everything else in the universe, and how little we’ve learned about consciousness, that it’s easy to be tempted to conclude that we’re never going to understand consciousness. Or maybe that it consciousness is a kind of thing that it’s just impossible to understand. I didn’t set out to write these essays with any specific idea in mind, but rereading them now they do seem all be pointing towards the idea that consciousness is something that’s important to understand and also something that’s possible to understand. Ultimately I think there are two questions that are going to end up being very important, maybe the most important questions we’ve ever asked, and they are:

The second question is one that’s the basis for many philosophical thought experiments. If we replaced the neurons in my brain one by one with artificial neurons that worked the same, would I still be me? Would I still feel like me? Someday this probably won’t be a thought experiment anymore, eventually we’ll be able to replace a neuron with an artificial substitute, and hopefully by then we’ll have a better idea of the answer to the first question.

The first question might make us think about things differently though. When I ask what happens to consciousness when we’re asleep, I’m really asking what kind of thing is consciousness. There’s some things that we say exist because of what they’re made of. Things like people or chairs or atoms, we say they continue to exist if all their parts are there in the right spots. Then there are other kinds of things that only exist on top of an underlying structure of some sort. Things like waves in the water or a magnetic field or information on a disk. If you put a wave in a bucket, it’s not a wave anymore. The water still exists, but the wave’s gone. Same thing with information, if we reordered all the bits on a hard drive, the drive and the metal and electrons that made it up would still be there, but the information would be gone.

When we go to sleep, is consciousness like water or like a wave? If it’s like water, it’s still there when we’re asleep, it’s just not active in the same way as when we’re awake. Water can do useful stuff, and when we wake up we start doing that useful stuff again, and there’s been an unbroken chain of continuity the entire time. However if consciousness is like a wave, then it goes away, and in a sense we go away, when we fall asleep every night. It would be like if a part of our brain was a bucket, the water would still be there, but it would be still, the consciousness would be gone. In the morning, some things happen in our brain and it starts to make some ripples in the water and our consciousness, and us, are back. The ripples are the same kinds of patterns as yesterday and they work in the same way they’ve always worked, but they’re not really the same waves as yesterday, they’re just in the same kinds of patterns.

If consciousness does not merely stop working when we’re asleep, but is just gone, then that means we should have a very different perspective on philosophical questions of identity like what happens if we teleport a person or making a copy of them or replace their neurons.

Being conscious is what’s really important to everyone. It’s likely that evolution ‘discovered’ that consciousness could do some useful things in a brain, and that’s why it’s here, and in a sense, that’s the only reason any of us are here. We care about our bodies and our brains because they’re the only ways that we know of to keep our consciousness around, and the only ways to connect it to the rest of the world, but that won’t always be the case. In theory almost every part of our body can be replaced or removed, and eventually the same will be true for most, maybe all, of our brains. Before we get to that point it would be good to know what kind of thing consciousness is, is it like water or waves?