This text is being written on a computer. There is a body sitting here, and a computer in front of the body. The body taps on a keyboard. The keyboard is attached to the computer.
If I say, "my computer", I have given the computer an abstract identity. It's not longer just a computer, it's now my computer. That means I can change the monitors and it's still my computer. I can then change the keyboard and mouse and it's still my computer. I can take the motherboard and hard drive out, put them in a new box, and it's still my computer. I can then put a new motherboard and hard drive in, and it's still my computer, even though the physical identity is completely different to when I started.
Human beings are similar, but we have two abstract identities. The first can be thought of as a kind of social identity, our name, our position in our family, or work desk, the name on my bank account, the electricity bill, the voting roll. And so on. This is the identity from which the "freemen on the land" are trying to dissociate.
The second abstract identity is internal. It goes by many names - Ego, I, Me, Self, Mind, Consciousness, Executive, Soul, Atman etc. Many people believe this is a real thing. But it's not. These words are just labels.
There is a body there and it is real. The body has a brain. The brain is made up of neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters and lots of other stuff. It is a very complicated thing. Science today understands little about exactly how thoughts are constructed, but brain activity can be observed with scientific instruments, and the activity changes when the stimulus changes. So the brain has events, and we call these brain events thoughts. Thoughts can also be about other thoughts, which can be about other thoughts, and on and on ad infinitum. "I'm hungry. Now I'm thinking about being hungry. Now I must get something to eat. Now I'm thinking about getting something to eat..." Some people say that because we can think like this, and because we have this sense of self-awareness, and because animals don't seem to have this, then human beings have some kind of metaphysical identity, often called mind, but could be any of the other synonyms. And that it somehow attaches to your body, yet it's not your body. Religious people in particular think like this. Even very intelligent people will sometimes think like this, and try to debate, "the hard problem of consciousness", but it's because they can't bare to face the idea that they have no identity.
Mind is an illusion created by the brain. Yes, that's right. Mind is an illusion created by the brain. Your bain is subject to the laws of nature, it's mechanistically determined, and the thoughts you have are therefore an effect of previous causes. Understand this, and you understand we don't have free will either. It feels like we do, but that's a trick of the brain, an illusion. The brain plays many other tricks, too - we will see more later. But the illusion of our identity is in our brains, caused by the ability of thoughts to endlessly relate to other thoughts, and back to themselves again. It's an infinite loop, and that's where our consciousness comes from.
Human beings, and a lot of other animals have senses. Senses are stimulus for the brain. They bring information from the outside world. Photons bring information about colors via the eyes. Frequencies bring sounds to the ears. Particles in the air stimulate nerves in the nose. The brain gets this information. The brain then constructs what appears as a 3D moving picture. The movie constructed by the brain allows us to navigate the world. When the brain does not do a very good job of this, we call it mental illness. Drugs can change the picture. Hallucinations happen when there is nothing there, but the brain has gone ahead and constructed an picture of it anyway.
Most of the time, the movie allows us to navigate the world safely. It allows us to attend to our survival - to find food and water to eat and drink, to avoid danger, to build shelter, to reproduce. The brain does a great job of this. Sometimes inputs are incomplete. For example, the eyes see flat two dimensional pictures, yet everything is seen in motion with 135° range. The brain helpfully fills in blind spots and edits out things that are unnecessary. The result is a movie that is very, very convincing. It has to be: we need full confidence in what we are doing. Think how tentative we become in the dark. The brain is also easily fooled. Large objects in the background can look small if placed next to something small in the foreground. This is an optical illusion. The picture we have is not a complete representation. Birds have better eyesight and can see things we can't, like a bug in the grass. Some animals can't see, but get spatial information from echo-location. Other animals like dogs have superior senses of smell, and can smell whole worlds of which we can't even imagine. Young children can hear sounds older people can't hear. Examples go on and on.
The representation our brains build of the world are adequate for our survival. But these pictures are not completely accurate, in the same way as an oil painting of a tree is not an accurate representation. That these pictures appear so real to us is an illusion. Some people take this to extremes, "it's all an illusion", they say. The illusion is in how we think the mind's picture is reality. Beware! the physical objects are still there. If our mind's picture is wrong, we can walk around the picture, but we can still walk into a pole we didn't see. And it will hurt us.
Our bodies are also in the physical world. That means our brains are in the physical world. So let's return to this idea of abstract identity. We have our memories, and we think something happened to us last week, or 10 years ago, or when we were kids. But to whom did these things happen? It didn't happen to our bodies, because our bodies are continually renewing themselves. None of the cells in your body was there even six months ago. They are all new. Sure, when the brain cells are being replaced, structures and patterns are retained, and that's how we have memories. The memories seem to relate to "me", but "me" is just a lable given to this body. So to whom did these events we remember happen?
Well, even though our bodies change, the genetic pattern doesn't. The blueprint stays essentially the same. Genes can express themselves in different ways. This is called epigenetics. Humans in particular have huge potential for differences in gene expression over their lifetimes. So the best we can say, in terms of trying to find out who we are, is that we are the way our genes are expressing themselves at this particular point in time. Everything else is an illusion.
A body is typing this out, here and now. A body is reading it, here and how. Some people think the bodies aren't real either, because the bodies are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of sub-atomic particles. And quantum mechanics is very weird and uncertain (it's also very interesting). But people make the mistake of assuming that the molecular world is somehow analogous the the sub-atomic world world. But it's not - it's not even close. Importantly, sub-atomic particles can't exist by themselves. The physical world is made of molecules (small exception - noble gases) and that's where our bodies are.
I've had people try to tell me that they are an illusion and I am an illusion. But when I've offered to punch them in the face, they declined because they didn't want to get hurt. Don't be misled by people who try to use quantam mechanics as an argument for anything. And be especially careful of the fallacy of arguing by analogy.
Draw your own conclusion, but here is old man's advice.
Old man welcomes emails. The address is: w.david.porter @ outlook.com