Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You Are Not Your Avatar

I responded to an article in the New York Review of Books about James Cameron,  and his exploration of what it means to be human. I have not just heard this talked about with Cameron lately, but it is an old, tired, but still somehow mainstream philosophy-light concept. I have mentioned in my blogs before that I think there is no place in modern thought for mind body duality. We know one thing with near certainty, which is that the mind (the brain) is an organ in the body. A separation from it has been speculated on by philosophers such as Plato and Descartes, but neither of these brilliant men had the tools for understanding the brain the way we do now. While the big question, the one of why we are conscious at all, is still being debated and studied, the neuro-physical partnership is well understood. I was in Athens this week and had the strong feeling that despite mythological gods and beasts, and Plato’s elevation of the mind over the body, the Greeks in general did understand the physical nature of being. The sculptures depict athletic beauty in ways that are so convincing that it is impossible to remove the mind from the physicality. In fact I would argue that theatre itself is a dedication to mind body singularity. The transformation of characters to people, is an example of muscular and memory cognition. It is also why two actors never play a role the same way.

It is understandable that we are questioning these ideas again. For once a virtual world seems actually possible. Even contemplating the downloading of the entire brain seems one day likely, as computer memory increases. The Avatar in Cameron’s film is farfetched, but not impossible. I would like to propose that a very different outcome though would occur, if it were possible to separate mind from body, in the Avatar sense. The resulting person would be nothing like us. Imagine how we change even in our own bodies. When we are sick for instance. Or when we are drunk. Or when we break a bone. To speculate on having a whole new body, other than brain is hard but not impossible. A paraplegic who was paralyzed in an accident essentially takes on a new body. The one thing that they don’t do however is take on a new brain, whether that brain is biological, as in Avatar, or a computer. If this were to happen axons would be farther from certain receptors, synapses would happen differently. Memory would last for different amounts of time, as all tissue behaves differently. Perception would be different. In essence we would not be ourselves. We could not remove our body from our mind. This doesn’t mean it would not be a fun thing to try, and I am game if anyone wants to try after my demise, but I just don’t think the new me will be my charming self.

This actually came to me in a rather decadent moment, while I was sitting in a spa in Athens. Sitting in spas in Athens is a great experience, because wrapped in those towels, with a foot bath, you really do not feel so far away from the baths Sophocles may have been taking while listening to Plato ramble on about a better republic. What I thought though, was how much the relaxation of my body affected my mind. Surely the Greeks thought of this too. When the water is bubbling, or you are having a message, it is nice to be yourself, not an Avatar.

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