Zen and Ego-persistence

Written on February 25, 2009. Written by .

To maximize expected subjective life quality, it is important to know what life is. We all have a notion of what our life is to us, but that notion may or may not be generally valid. In order to test the validity of our notions, we can apply them in the context of a thought experiment and see how they hold up.

Now we want to determine what we mean when we think of our life. In particular, what property defines the continuation of life? In other words, given two points in time during your life, what makes those two points connected by one life? Why is this important? Well, we value our lives a lot and many people go to great efforts to preserve their life. Do they know exactly what they are trying to preserve?

It can’t be continuity of consciousness or we would start a new life every time we go to sleep.

Is it just because your body was alive during the interval between them? Well, even if you die, you could still be brought back to life, and both segments would be considered of the same life. If this doesn’t make sense, just ask yourself if you went through death and rejuvenation, would “you” still be alive? Yes, so before and after are both a part of the same life. So continuity of alive-ness is not what we want.

What if it is continuity of the matter in our bodies? That doesn’t make sense either because our bodies are constantly regenerating cells, so after a few years most of the cells in your body will be gone and replaced by new ones. It is like the Ship of Theseus problem – if you replace all the parts of an object one by one, is it still the same object? In this case, we are still in the same life even after a complete replacement, so continuity of matter is not required for a life.

If it is not continuity of consciousness, alive-ness, or matter, then the continuity of a life must be based on our memory somehow. In all of the situations above, the person’s memory was preserved through the process, so let’s check if continuity of memory is what distinguishes a life.

Suppose you were to be teleported like in Star Trek – a machine breaks apart your body as it scans the quantum state of every particle in your body and simultaneously reconstructs it using a machine in a remote location. You show up at the other end with all your memories and consciousness intact. It seems like your life has been preserved. But what if the machine didn’t destroy the original copy of your body? Then there would be two of you at the same time. Both would think that they are the “original you”, even though they have separate consciousnesses. Now if you were the un-teleported copy, would you be ok with being murdered? Probably not because from your point of view nothing happened, you just got scanned. This means that preservation of memories is not enough to make you feel like your life is preserved.

So what really is this “life” that we are trying to preserve? I think it is nothing really. Or more properly, I think it is an illusion that is created by our genes. Our genes have the clearly defined “goal” of survival and replication, but in order to succeed, they have to convince “us” (our consciousnesses) to cooperate. In order to do this, our genes need to set up a system of incentives and disincentives to steer us where they want us. In this case they have created the illusion that we need to care about what our bodies will feel in the future. The illusion that our current self will experience the thoughts and feel the pleasure and pain of our future self is what I call ego-persistence. It is so ingrained in us that it may sound preposterous to say that this is an illusion, but we already saw that there is no logical way to define the continuation of a life, so there is no logical reason to conclude that we are the same person as we were a second ago. Don’t believe me? Imagine what it would feel like if your consciousness swapped into the mind of someone else all of a sudden. How could you tell the difference if you lost all your old memories and now have all their memories instead. The answer is there is absolutely no way to tell. Therefore it could be happening as we speak! And if our consciousnesses were swapping bodies randomly every second or so, then why would you care more about your current body than any other body in the world? The only explanation is covert mental manipulation by our genes, which don’t want us to be careless with our bodies.

The Zen philosophy is based on the idea that the whole universe is connected and this belief results in more compassion and less fear of death. The conclusion that we could be continually swapping consciousnesses without knowing it leads to the same set of beliefs. Why fear death if you are going to swap to a new body right away? Why harm someone else when you might be in their body next? The only reason we fear death and exploit others is because of our genes’ trick of ego-persistence.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t fear death at all? I don’t think it is necessary to fight your genes unless if they are causing serious problems. But I do think it is really helpful to understand what our genes are doing to us, what is real and what is illusion. If it gives you confidence, compassion, and awe at the beauty of the universe, then it is definitely worth understanding.

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