Psychologically and even physiologically we tend to think of our technology in anthropomorphic terms and these days sometimes our computers seem to almost be alive.
There is ample science fiction written about machines becoming conscious and taking over, along with the famous Turing Test of whether a machine’s communication could ever be mistaken completely for human. So with my own background in software training, and looking ahead to this week’s Science and Nonduality Conference in San Jose where the nature of the “Self” is a huge topic, I want to explore this more deeply: where is the “identity” in the computer actually located (if at all) and how does it coincide with our own similar inquiry.
The genesis of this is once again my own work with Michael Jeffreys who often does a similar inquiry, and comes up with the realization that the “I” is the earliest sensation that was ever felt— and then the question arises – “if I am a feeling — Who or What felt it?”
Where Is The “I” In Your Computer?
The first place to begin with the computer would be the CPU or the chip; we often describe a PC as its Pentium (Intel) chip as in “I bought an i5 from Hewlett-Packard or Gateway.” For apple users -who I notice tend to have a bit more of a tendency to personalize and even “fall in love” with their devices -it would be referred to as their iMac or Macbook Air for example.
But the chip -while it is certainly the brain and processing center for the information that flows through the computer -is clearly not its identity because there are millions of identical chips, and even though the ONE in your PC might have a unique serial number (like your own social security number), once the electricity is turned off, it’s dead. When you go to sleep, at least you wake up. The chip alone does nothing.
If you’ve ever listened to the beep-beep when the computer “boots up” you may know that there is a “BIOS” or basic input/output system that comes with the chip as primary software before the hard drive is accessed. This is what allows the disk to communicate with the peripherals like the hard drive and monitor so that anything can begin to happen.
But this robotic set of commands isn’t a self—first of all every Gateway or Mac uses the same set of BIOS, and similarly we can dismiss the operating system, even though it may have another unique serial number, even if it can be “personalized” with a desktop or set of custom features. It is only when we begin to personalize further, with a set of programs and files that are created within the machine itself that a seemingly unique identity seems to take shape.
In fact the software, which can make calculations and even decisions like when to “wake up” (using commands that “you” have programmed) seems to be the “thinking” in the machine that makes it most human. But here we can begin to see that even such “thought” clearly does not constitute a self because it proceeds according to a program originally designed by others, and even if customized and personalized, with files saved in a personal repository or “memory,” there is always another program, file or thought that supersedes what has been “saved.”
Of course, who is making these decisions and “inputs” with a mouse or keyboard – “you” the “end user” – but that’s another “story,” isn’t it?
The Computer As We Know It
Let’s take this unit as an entity as we now know it—the computer no longer exists in isolation even with its operating system and programs and files and personal settings. After all, we can “back up” our data (or self perhaps) and reinstall it into another machine (different serial number) and it will behave almost identically as the original. Not only that, we now have merged our own information and settings with the Internet – a massive network or “cloud” from which our own data and that of others is sometimes indistinguishable.
What is so interesting about this is that in neuroscience, where we often look for a “self” organically and assume that one exists, we now know that nothing permanent really “exists” other than electrical signals between synapses (gaps between neurons) that also comprise “neural networks” of thought and presumably emotion and sensation. These of course are instructed by our own software (DNA) as well as what we now call “Epigenetics” or the “inputs” or influences of the environment –both in terms of impressions and the apparent behavior of other human “selves” and nature –weather, disease, food intake, and so on.
So indeed, the most advanced machine that we have created “in our own image” can begin to make us fathom the depth of our own inability to isolate an individual, permanent or even transitory but consistent Self. And if we look deeply we notice that indeed, our neural networks are one “self” with our family, another “self” with our colleagues and hundreds of other selves in different circumstances—some of which we seem to be able to influence, and others that seem to go on automatic pilot and “impulse.”
If we turn our attention finally to the energetic component of computers, we must eventually recognize that we are “software” –but not just any software but an application or executable –or a program that seems to do things for a limited period of time and then ends. As Buckminster Fuller once said,
“I seem to be a verb.”
This software or energetic component is the closest thing in a computer to what we call Life, but having done this inquiry we can now see clearly that in terms of identity, as Eckhart Tolle says,
“we don’t have a life [or permanent identity], we ARE Life.”
And like software or the temporary self of a computer, we are “no thing” but rather something fleeting, ephemeral, indefinable and mysterious—from which all further scientific investigation must proceed.