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Where Does Self End, and Everything Else Begin?

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

This is an odd question, but trying to answer it leads to interesting ideas and concepts.

To begin, a system could be defined as any group of interrelated elements that together form a collective entity.

Indirectly this vague definition points toward one of the most important attributes of a system: the boundary layer, that barrier that defines ‘a something’ as different from ‘something else’.

If we draw a circle, our attention is directed toward what is enclosed in the circle, but inadvertently, we also define what is outside the circle as different in some way. We call it ‘everything else’.

Boundaries are interesting areas because they don’t just hold whatever it is inside, they prevent outside elements from coming in. Boundaries are selective. They discriminate.

A single cell is surrounded by a membrane that allows the organism to function internally without undue outside influence from the environment. The membrane restricts certain molecules from entering, thus preserving the salinity, acidity level (pH), and general uniformity of the interior.

Multicellular organisms are built from the smaller elements of cells.

With humans, the largest multi-cellular organ of the body is the skin. It is a boundary layer, and its importance is becoming better understood. A recent study cited the correlation between moisturizing the skin and mental diseases, like dementia. This is not so farfetched, considering there is also a link between dental health and heart disease, not just in humans, but in dogs in particular.

There is also a boundary between whom we consider ourselves to be, the ‘you’, and everything and everyone else. We are our bodies, but then we are not. Each of us sees ourselves as a unique personality. We are conscious of the color violet and the smell of coffee. We know what they are, but who, should we have the need to clarify, is doing the explaining precisely and to whom? It gets complicated.

To simplify this, if we take the idea of no boundary layer between who we consider ourselves to be and everything else, there would be no consciousness. We, if there was a such a thing, would be the universe. Of course, we could say that we already are the universe, and there is truth in that, but no barriers at all means no consciousness. To be conscious is to be separate and know it. That requires boundaries.

As it is, our mental activity is usually considered different from the physical because humans have the ability to imagine. The mental worlds we inhabit contain elements of the future and make-believe. We can conceive of most anything, but how likely is it that our mental activities and ourselves are completely divorced from the physical elements that make up our bodies and the universe in general?

Many believe in the soul, astral projection, or that we can travel outside the body. Many religions consider the spiritual as separate from the material world.

My question is, can consciousness be completely divorced from the universe in which it lives?

If consciousness was completely separate, we would not be living in the way we think of ourselves as being alive.

Take a single cell surrounded by an utterly impermeable shell made of a glasslike substance. Is it alive? No, not really. We have no idea what is happening inside, and it has no way of knowing what is happening outside. There is no interaction.

There are organisms such as certain deepfreeze bacteria that can survive tens of thousands of years. They come back to life when water and heat are added. It is the water that allows the shells that surround them to become permeable and allow interaction with their environment. They procreate and do what bacteria do after centuries of suspended animation. Do they dream in there? But is dreaming really living?

To exist, consciousness cannot be completely separate from the world. If it exists, and we each know it does, it must have some similarity and connection with the systems described above.

So what is consciousness? In my opinion, it is an emergent phenomenon that is created due to the systemic nature of the mind. In this it is similar to the concept of Time. Time does not exist at the quantum level. Odd but true. At the quantum level, distance has no meaning because it is undefined. What exists at that level are connections of some sort. (See Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time for more on this.) With changing connections, time forms. Consciousness is similar in its emergence from organization and interaction.

One attribute of babies is that they absorb everything. They have no boundaries, at least mentally. As humans age, we begin to construct mental walls. How can we absorb the 40 million bits of information we receive every second? If this seems unlikely, we receive at least 34 Gigabytes of information from daily interactions with just our electronic devices per day. How about all the other visual and non-visual data we receive every second? The amount of information we receive is staggering, and we can’t process it. It would be like drinking from a high pressure fire hose. We have to block some of the input, or we overload.

This is not a decision that we make. It is systemic. The number of brains and computational organs in the human body is many times larger than was thought. We don’t have a single brain. We have thousands of them. Some are so thin, they are transparent, but each has extraordinary processing power that helps us absorb the vast quantities of information we receive every moment without overwhelming our higher faculties.

Our conscious selves experience only a minute fraction as a result, and that is a good thing. How else could we have the space to think and to daydream? But there are consequences.

We form a wall between ourselves and the world.

It is interesting to note that as we grow into adolescence, it’s all about us, who we are, and what will happen to us in particular. Others play a minor role.

In the far distant past, there were rites of passage to adulthood. Many of them were spiritual in nature, such as vision quests. These rites broke down the walls we built as youngsters between us and the world. Over time, we discovered there was more than just ourselves.

Perhaps narcissists and sociopaths have never moved beyond a universe of just themselves and their needs and wants.

As we age, we find all those mental barriers breaking down. We begin to let the world in.

Where YOU end and the world begins is a shifting threshold that is non-existent at birth, constructed in childhood, and moves outward with adulthood as we let the world in. As the years pile up, it becomes more permeable. We become less egotistical, less self-centered, but more importantly, less self-conscious.

In sum, consciousness appears to be an emergent manifestation of the systemic nature of the mind.

If this is true, then it is likely many creatures are conscious. Certainly far more than just us and a few higher animals. Most living things would in fact be conscious, with some more than others, because each functions and has developed along similar evolutionary lines.

This also means it might be possible to build conscious AI by having two computers functioning in tandem with one working at a higher clock speed than the other. The senior slower one would have to adapt to the information overload from the faster, but how it would do that would be a function of the learning of its neural networks. How it would develop into an entity that recognized the importance of others, not just itself, would be an interesting undertaking. The idea of a narcissistic sociopathic intelligent computer is not so far removed.

It’s food for thought.

Some may comment that in this explanation there is no place for the spirit or the soul. I think there is, but that would take another blog post.

As I said earlier: it’s complicated, but isn’t life grand? So many questions.






  1. craig says:

    Food for thought, indeed. Thank you for being the curious and articulate fellow that you are.

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