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Monday, March 06, 2006

Why am 'I' not my right kidney?

Why am ‘I’ not my right kidney? I mean, why can’t ‘I’ be my right kidney? After all, it’s the same size as brain. It too does important and complicated things. It also has a cortex, responds to input from the body, and is connected to the body in intricate ways. So why am ‘I’ not a kidney, actively thinking kidney thoughts and pondering the nature of the blood supply among other things? Indeed, for any intelligent entity, there are lots of things to think about. We can ponder the permutations of all the atoms of the universe, read encyclopedias typed by monkeys, add, subtract, and multiply numbers into infinity. Life could be an endless computation, and we could revel in the details, or should we say, the fine print.

So with so much to think about, what makes the world of the kidney less privileged than that of the human brain? The kidney is an important organ as organs go, and does lots of complicated things to keep our bodies humming along. It’s a mindless chore to be sure, but a self-aware kidney could do much more, be entitled to its own opinions, and at least have a say regarding things that effect it directly, such as whether to eat that last taco on your dinner plate. But alas it’s not to be. The kidney is silent, an automaton that is unconscious of existence itself.

Brains of course are information processors, but even kidneys can process information. But the world for brains, or the persons that brains envision themselves to be is a lot more unpredictable than the world for kidneys. And to make sure we can handle this unpredictability, we must make the right choice ahead of time. So we must not only process information, but also model it. Actually, evolution has made us quite conscious of this fact, and we call it ironically consciousness. We are aware of the fact that we are aware, and we use our facsimiles of the future to predict the future and make for futures.

But of course not any future will do. We can spend our time counting atoms or drops of water in sea. But evolution has other purposes. So in its blind wisdom, we have been built not just to solve problems, or even anticipate them, but also to desire them. But these problems are only so if they contribute to our own survival as individuals and as a race. Thus counting raindrops is out, but counting stock options is in. The desirability of just desiring is something of a contrast to the simple materialism or hedonism that makes for car and beer commercials, where just having it all is just about all. Although houses and mates and endless buffets are fine things, and guarantee a life of ease and lots of babies, having it all is not quite the same as wanting it all. Consider that if our past was a Paleolithic Eden. We would have spent our time like a mindless vacuum machine picking up good things easily scattered about like so many dust bunnies. With such a non-challenge, the brain would have precious little to do, and would atrophy to the size of a dust bunny. That is, because it would thus have no mind for the future, it would whither as a mind, and become, well, like a kidney.

Perhaps God realized the importance of this after he tossed our original forebears out of Eden, and perhaps too he needed his own set of problems that would tax even His omniscience. So the wanting part is necessary, the one thing that we have to be conscious of, and perhaps it is a God given thing. And the having? Well, that’s kidney stuff.

(by me, 1988)

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