011 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm


The right question isn’t, “Does god exist, but does god make a difference?” The first question is irrelevant, albeit this is where most of us get stuck, but the second question is important: whether or not god exists, the “idea of god” can influence events and change outcomes. If the perception makes a difference, it doesn’t really matter if he exists or not—what matters is that he makes a difference.

On the other hand, humans must exist to have an impact. If we are not present, we are ignored. Because we examined the case for including god vs the case for excluding god, and because the question of our existence is more problematic than the question of god’s existence, I began to take a look at deriving a comparison (a bit tongue-in-cheek, at first). The results follow.

Please keep in mind that this discussion is over simplified to improve the reader’s ability to understand the arguments presented without wading through a lot of technical jargon.

The “I” that I Call Myself is Actually a Construct that Does NOT Exist

A Construct is what you get by combining or arranging a number of existing parts or elements in a logical order to construe, interpret, or explain a theoretical concept. We might also refer to it as a real-world model. In our example, the parts used to build our construct are analogous to the parts used to build a computer. We use the computer because nothing else comes closer when trying to model the part of the human body that defines the “I” that we call ourselves.

I propose the theory that we can build a construct, using analogies between the human body and the computing machine that will cause us to question our reality, and our membership in it. At the highest level, the construct is made up of hardware, firmware and software (obviously analogies to computer parts on a functional level). What we are not saying is that a human is nothing more than a computer. What we are saying is that these computing parts are the functional equivalent of biological robotics.

  • The hardware is made up of a computer-like device (the Brain) and wires and cables (the Neurons).
  • The firmware (the genetic code) is read-write, though it is usually “read” when carrying out its instructions and “write” when a glitch occurs in the genetic encoding (or, a change is made to our brain maps, see below).
  • The software is the Electro-Chemical Messenger System that provides the mechanism for executing programs in the brain, in conjunction with various methods of input / output, storage and retrieval, and brain maps.

in this model, the hardware exists

Consider the human eye. We used to believe that we see everything as is, but now we have come to understand that all we actually “see” is created by our brain using limited data outside of ourselves, built primarily from variations in light intensities. These data are collected by the eyes and sent to the brain, where the data are deciphered, and the model for the real object is created. It is our brain that creates a representation of everything we see. We “see” with our brain, not with our eyes.

Lets extend this observation by talking about our hearing. When a radio station broadcasts a program, there are actually silent gaps throughout the transmission. There is enough delay between each transmitted pulse to be highly annoying, if we could actually hear the gaps. But our hearing is so slow that we cannot hear the gaps, because our brain covers them up, and we hear our favorite music, or stock reports, or perhaps a baseball game, courtesy of our inability to hear as well as other animals.

Our brains are physical realities in the real world. A single brain is actually a collection of no fewer than 26 modules, all of which have functions that must be performed, but none of which is in charge of ensuring overall success. It is remarkable how well they usually work together (in a healthy mind). However, when you are having that bad hair day, it could very well be because no module is boss, and all of them are vying for attention, leaving us little room to deal with the resulting emotional states.

More importantly, there are periods of time when these modules perform less than optimally, e.g., the prefrontal cortex (located in the forehead) does not fully develop until the body is fully developed, which occurs perhaps as late as our early-20’s. This causes problems for teenagers especially, who are already under the influence of hormones, and in combination causes inconsistent and sometimes uncivilized behaviors throughout our teen years.

Lets take a look at how those pesky modules we introduced might function in a way that supports my theory. Specialists in neurology have determined that we don’t control how we feel. That happens in a primitive area of the brain called the limbic system, and we are only along for the ride. The limbic system not only tells us how we feel, but it does it before we sense it ourselves. In fact, it tells us how we feel before we feel the emotion itself. The brain literally identifies our emotional state and pushes for a response from us in such a manner that we are certain that the “I” I call myself was ahead of the game.

Another quick example where the brain is messing with us in the background is the loss of a leg or an arm in an accident and the “I” that I call myself believes it is still attached (phantom limb syndrome). We would probably continue to experience the pain in the space where the missing limb used to be because the brain, independent of us, thinks the leg is still there. The reason? The brain map has not changed. The limb is severed,but the brain map doesn’t yet know it. (With some coaxing, we can influence the brain to fix this disconnect.)

the firmware exists

One of the most important discoveries of our time is that we operate in accordance with brain maps. And these brain maps can change their own structure, and even change their own function, well into advanced age. We say that the brain is plastic and self-directed because the brain can change, but all you or I can do is influence the brain to change in the direction we prefer. We don’t actually make the changes. Further, the brain is subject to many influences—the 26 modules, our own preferences, the group we hang around, or work with, or avoid, etc.

We can continue doing what we have always done, in which case the brain will execute in “autopilot” or we can choose to do something else, in which case the brain maps will alter them-selves to accommodate the new skill. It has been estimated that repeating a new fact for about fifteen minutes will change a brain map forever, assuming that periodic reinforcement of the change continues. The other side of that coin is if we don’t use what we know, the brain will stop maintaining the skill, gradually, until it disappears altogether after about ten years.

The brain literally seizes the space required for new thoughts and new ideas, and lets go of a part of our past that has fallen into disuse. This is why most immigrants after only one generation have lost prior language skills, and assimilated their new language. We no longer think that the brain retains every thought we ever had. We now know that the brain must overwrite old thoughts with new thoughts in order to accommodate what is important today.

Because our storage capacity is not infinite, the brain also uses what might be thought of as “data compression.” Most of what is stored in the brain is stored as an attribute. As a child, I might have a red fire truck, and my best friend might have a red bicycle. The brain takes the attribute of redness and stores that attribute in one place, linked to other attributes for the toy and for the bicycle. The greater the difference between the two, the less reinforcement occurs and vice versa. In other words, our firmest memories are in general polluted with a lot of variation, unrelated to the original item. (People make very poor witnesses.)

The foregoing is generally true for all but faces. We are excellent at face recognition (stored in one location), but often can’t get the name right (stored in another). A very large part of the brain is reserved for faces, probably because there is survival value in knowing who you are doing business with.

but the executing software DOES NOT EXIST

When computer software is still in its wrapper, sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be installed so it can come alive and do its job, we think of it as something tangible with a physical presence in our universe that can be defined and understood in its proper context. We agree on what it looks like, what it is supposed to do, and whether or not it does it.

But take it out of the wrapper and install it, and if the development phase has achieved it’s goals, you move into the realm of self-contained decision making based on predefined criteria. In other words, the programmer, the end user, and the internal parts are all part of a system, in general, that operates independently of its creator.

Only the dead no longer execute the software in their brains. The living continue to run their programs around the clock. This very action suggests that we are programmed for something—perhaps that mythical quest we are all supposed to be on, and that we must complete before we die. And the “I” I call myself is actually a construction by the brain to represent all of the systems that define body conciousness that could not otherwise exist.

Put another way, biological software is the set of instructions that define the ego, which makes the transformations that define our lives. Software operates like a set of switches that must be thrown for each pathway chosen. This biological software does not have a human creator. It is generated by our bodies from experience, and from our genetic encoding. The new question is, “Do I really exist or am I just a construct of my brain?”

In school, we learn that behaviors are learned and unlearned, which suggests that we are always in charge. But “learned” is the wrong paradigm. Changes in humans are not learned, they are merged as physical changes to the brain, which is why it takes so long to “unlearn” negative behaviors.  The “me” that I am is wholly dependent on these physical representations and changes.

The “who am I?” in all of this is that I realize “I” am a construct:  the sum of all I do and all things done to me; embodied in flesh, brain cells and nervous system the “I” that is not much more than the sum of the influence of my parts. It is the “me” in motion, the executing program instructions formed by the wiring and chemistry of my computer-like brain. And nobody is in charge.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

  1. With little doubt I would agree that “I” am a construct… a result of all my experiences. But I also have little doubt that many assume the existance of God, because it is “morally necessary” to their personal survival? That the will to survive would be dashed without a belief, that in life after death inequities will be righted. I am grateful for the comfort they may have in this, an envious that I cannot authentically share in it.

    • Nothing I write is intended to be “the truth.” My intent is to provide an informal forum for ideas that preserve our sanity in an insane world. My satisfaction comes from knowing that I might have provided the jump start that someone needed to find their own destiny. You see, we all need something to believe in. Otherwise, what’s the point of existence?

      You certainly shouldn’t be overly concerned about not believing everything you read. That sounds pretty intelligent to me. At the end of the day, we are all searching for something. If I write something that everyone rejects, I will consider that as much a success as if everyone accepts. My job is to help people find out what they believe. It is not to convert you to what I believe.

  2. […] 011 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales December 2009 6 comments […]

  3. Message Two: I’d be interested in your response to the last two posts on my “serious” blog

    I’m also asking with this message to be notified of follow-up comments and posts via email. THS

  4. I’d be interested in your feedback to my recent two posts on my “serious” blog

    Now let’s see if this gets there. THS

  5. yes you should continue to blog!i must admiti donnot understand this article, but im trying!!!!right even though our cultures look so differenly at life. i think through bloging, my people one day may raise their eyes to your people, instead of refusing to look your way. keep bloging wasta, loo{good job} mr graham

  6. Graham – I’ve just written a comment in relation to this post. However, when I clicked on the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” the entire comment seems to have been deleted. I’m hoping if you find it floating around somewhere, you might be able to get it back.

    Of course you should continue this blog when you return in the New Year! In the meantime, best wishes for the holidays. Terry

    • I had that happen to me, as well, but it only deleted 4 paragraphs which I was able to reconstruct. This is bothersome, I’m sure you agree. You and I have better things to do than to repeat work already finished. I’ll keep my eyes out for it but fear the worst.

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