What does it mean to exist? To be self aware?
“Cogito, ergo sum” is the phrase by the French philosopher, Rene Descartes, that translates to, “I think, therefore I am.”
This idea is given as proof to ourselves that we are self aware and do indeed exist.
It is simple and elegant. However, should we try to take it a step further, it becomes more complicated. What if we were wondering about the existence of another being? Or trying to prove our existence to someone else?
Most every proof could be explained away due to a mistake, a deception, or might just be a figment of imagination. This is true even if we are given the opportunity to present a physical proof, such as our living body. Magicians can make their living off of such illusions. A modern example of attempting to determine whether another intelligent being exists is found in the world of electronics. We wonder whether a computer AI has reached self awareness and could show an intelligent existence apart from the configuration of its components. Does an intelligence truly exist? Is it really self aware? Or is it our clever programming that provides the illusion of such?
Tests do exist to address these questions. Robots have even passed a test that previously only humans were believed to be able to demonstrate.
But what if we tried to prove that a given machine possessed, not just one self aware entity, but multiple? How would we devise tests that would allow us to verify their shared existence if they utilize the same input and output? And if we had already proven that one consciousness was present, would that being be able to prove the existence of another within the same physical framework? Would it even be aware of another?
These questions apply to ourselves as well. Of course, we are not robots or silicon based computers. But we do share the commonality of having a physical presence in our world. We have our own biological carbon based hardware. And I think it could be argued that we have our own version of software too. We have instruction sets that are carried out based upon input from our environment. The production of adrenaline when we become excited by external events is a good example.
That means that AI can give us a mirror in which we can examine our own self aware existence. But we can also use technology directly to peer deeper into our own minds.
Researchers at MIT have created a wearable device called AlterEgo that is able to read neuromuscular signals that are triggered by thinking words to yourself silently in your own mind. Those signals can then be interpreted to determine what your thoughts actually were. It reads your mind.
But we can up the ante by thinking about Descartes’ line of reasoning. Could we prove whether multiple readings using AlterEgo actually came from the same source? How would we make that determination? Is the fact that they all came from the same physical individual enough of a case?
AlterEgo would have great difficulty answering that question. But what about us? The person wearing the device. Would we know whether those readings came from us or not? Could we tell whether the output from AlterEgo came from reading our thoughts? Or did the technician add responses in an attempt to pass them off as our ideas instead?
If we believe in the thought that oneself can only know oneself, then we should also know what is not oneself as well, right? We know the difference between what is us, and what is not us. We certainly would know which responses were not our thoughts.
Now, imagine trying to decide whether a thought that passed through your mind was your own, or whether it belonged to another person. Weird, right? Or so you might think if you have never struggled with severe emotional and mental challenges.
For those who have, this can actually be a perfectly normal question. “Did I really just think that”? Perhaps some of us tend to believe that a stray thought was some remnant from childhood. A common phrase that someone in our family or inner circle uses often that we simply recalled randomly. But others are more sensitive to the inner barriers that seperate us from what is not us. We feel that we have experienced an encounter with someone not ourselves. An encounter that takes place within our own minds.
Some have wondered whether thoughts might somehow be projected into their heads. Or whether someone else was reading their thoughts. Especially when the voice you know isn’t you, responds to the inner dialogue inside of your head. It can be very a confusing and sometimes, alarming occurence.
It certainly was for us.
Compounding the situation is that thoughts are not alone in this consideration.
Emotions and memories also become entwined in this idea. This belief that they are coming from somewhere else. It is especially noticeable when these thoughts or emotions are conflicting with one another. They may not reflect how you feel about your current state of mind. For instance, you may be ready and prepared for a job interview, but deep down you feel this nagging sense of doubt. Where does it come from?
We have wrestled with these ideas for years. The reason is that they are not hypothetical questions for us. We had thoughts, emotions, and memories that would come upon us, interrupting our stream of consciousness.
Even while thinking to ourselves, we could sometimes feel a response to our line of thinking waiting, impatiently, to counter or support the idea that we were considering. As though we, or someone else, could not wait for it to be completed before blurting out an alternate or even opposing line of reasoning.
So we began an exploration into our own mind. Trying to observe as objectively as possible to determine what was really happening.
We can tell you that any honest search for intelligence begins with listening. To search within yourself you have to listen to your mind and emotions. Just letting go of your own thoughts. Later, we discovered that our own experience with listening was very much as described in this article on meditation. It reviews the book Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion 1994) by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.
When you seek self reflection, we can imagine that all of our thoughts are like a river. Rather than trying to stop its flow, we should observe its passage without adding our own flowing stream to it. Kabat-Zinn writes:
“Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us.” He writes, “We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment ‘practice’ or ‘meditation practice.’”
We had not heard this before we began to research for this article, but his language accurately portrays the same process we used to come to our knowledge. We would be hard pressed to improve upon his description. And the more we practiced, the easier it became to achieve this state of awareness. It allowed us to begin looking for persistent elements in this stream. We were able to begin to discern unique voices.
Best of all, we gradually began to be able to slip into this state, all of the time. And to speak back to those unique, persistent voices even while remaining outside of this stream of thought. We could interact without interrupting and established real communication.
Communication is the key to a harmonious existence between any two beings. Through it we began to learn about one another. Comparing notes as it were. And through numerous tests with ourselves, we established that we are indeed seperate individuals with a shared connection through our physical body. It changed the very core of what we thought that we knew about ourselves.
But there is a shortcoming to this method. It is proof to ourselves and not to others. Everyone must look inside of their own physical being, find their boundaries of self, and discover whether others are outside of them or not.
What about being a figment of your imagination, you might ask?
Indeed that could very well be the case. Our tests could be fallible and we might have a low bar for what can be construed as proof. But it is at least good enough to have convinced us of its truth.
The mark we have set for ourselves is one of persistence and consistancy. In other words, our shared communication, and the notes we exchange with one another, and the test results we recieve must be persistent over repetition and time, and they must remain consistent across that time frame.
Now, we suggest that you try your own thought explorations on this topic. Even if you do not hear voices or experience emotions that seem incongrous with your mood. True understanding of any idea only comes after you have turned it over and examined it yourself.
As you do, we will be walking along with you, virtually and in person where invited. Our writing has only just begun and we have so much more to describe. It changed our life completely. We know that our discoveries will be able to help others. Not just by speaking of our own Muses, but how to manage the complexities of communication in a shared mind and body. To help to clear away the confusion.
And if you do not hear voices, but are wondering how this could actually apply to your own life with bipolar or chronic depression, then rest assured we will be getting to those articles very soon.
Thank you for taking the time to read along. I hope that it has convinced you enough to stick around for another article. An even greater hope and desire is that you are inspired to leave a comment or question. This is more than just a passion project. We won’t simply move along to something more interesting or lucrative as an activity.
This is our life. We wake up every day in wonder at the miracle that has befallen us. And we wake up with the desire to educate others on how to understand what is happening in their own lives.
So if you are interested, think about the question of how you would prove that you shared your mind with another. Perform your own thought experiments and see what results you can get. Then hopefully you will join the conversation as we work to reveal our own experiences. We would love to hear about yours.