Monday, June 13, 2016

Where Does Identity Reside?

Having spent recent months crafting a sequel to The Methuselarity Transformation, I have felt suspended between the reality of my everyday life and relationships and the lives of the characters in my fantasy world. Between stints at the laptop turning out words that portray the experience of my characters, I’ve found myself drawn inside their heads and points of view, experiencing their crises and working through their solutions to the conflicts they face as their stories unfold. In this way, my characters teach me what it’s like to be them, sometimes providing unexpected lessons about the nature of experience, of consciousness, and of identity.

In Brink of Life, a woman suddenly plunges into consciousness in the midst of what seems like someone else’s life, sending her on a quest to discover who she is and to craft an identity that makes sense within the context of her present circumstances. One of the lessons that emerged as I watched her life unfold through her eyes was that consciousness is more than a state of mind. It’s a state of being defined not only by the brain, but by the characteristics of the body that is the interface for perceiving the world and for acting upon it. And each of our bodies comprises a complex array of elements that color the way we understand our surroundings and ourselves.

Just a few of the ways our bodies are hardwired include the sensitivity of tuning of each of our senses (or even whether those senses are working at all), potential for muscle development and coordination, sexual preference and identification, our ability to taste salty or bitter things, our thresholds for pain and for pleasurable reward, and even the limits of our capacity to experience joy. Fold in a lifetime of sensorimotor experience within these bodies to round out the complexity of how we perceive our identities. Our adaptation to aging, to disease, and to recovery from disease further illustrates the fluid relationship between the body and the self.

Futuristic concepts of immortality have included models in which consciousness is uploaded to computers (Transcendence), embodied within digital avatars (The Matrix), or even linked to other physical entities (either biological or artificial) capable of interacting with the physical world (Avatar). These conceptions assume a model of consciousness and identity as something abstractly residing within the brain, apart from their physical incarnation. Perhaps our intelligence is separable from our bodies, but what would it take to maintain a persistent sense of self rather than just to create an authentic looking copy?

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