Suppose your parents never had children. Would you still be alive? Though this may appear to be a stupid question, it is the purpose of this essay, nonetheless, to present the possibility of the affirmative answer. What follows has nothing to do with religion, nor any other set of beliefs, nor do I present it as gospel. I adduce it only as a possibility, based on simple observations, scientific evidence, thought experiments, and logic.
The Difference between Life and Death is Organization
All living things have characteristics that identify them as being alive. These characteristics constitute physiology. And allphysiology is based on structure. There is no physiology without structure. Indeed, alllife depends on enzymes, the catalysts that greatly accelerate the reactions of life. Without enzymes there would be no reproduction, growth, voluntary movement, thinking, feeling, whatever life does to be alive, and few things depend so precisely on structure as enzymes, for even a small change in its structure can greatly modify or nullify its function. DNA, the chemical structure of most genes, is another molecule whose structure acutely affects the life it forms. It is DNA, in most organisms, that specifies the structure of the enzymes, and thus, gives life its overall organization. It is this life that takes dead matter from the environment in the form of food and converts it into living mass. Structure is the specific organization of mass-energy. To do all that each living thing does, then, depends on its overall organization. And if that living thing does things differently from other living things, then it is because its structure differs from other living things. Thus, fish do things differently from flowering plants because their structures are different. If you were structured like a rose, you'd be a rose. Life depends on structure and therefore on organization.
Life is Organization; Death is Disorganization
Life has no mass-energy that cannot be found in nonliving things. The most abundant elements in living tissue are also the most abundant elements found in the universe. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the sun as it is in your body. It is only the organization of this mass-energy that gives life its name. When this organization is destroyed in some vital way, then death ensues. For instance, it is obvious why someone dies when they are shot in the head. But it is equally obvious that if the bullet did no damage, then nothing changes, the person remains alive, unaltered. The bullet kills by inflicting damage, by altering the organization of the body in some vital way. Obviously, the bullet does not destroy any mass-energy, for not even the most powerful H-bomb can do this. It can only destroy the necessary organization that life needs. Of course, this damage can be much more subtle, such as enzymatic inhibition by certain poisons, but subtle damage or not, once the vital organization of life is lost, then life itself is lost, because life is only this vital organization; it is not a separate entity. Death, then, is the lack of this organization.
The state of this disorganization is of no consequence. There is no difference between being killed by an H-bomb or being killed by a stone. The mass-energy of your body is disorganized in different ways by the H-bomb and the stone, but this does not change death itself. You are dead, whether you are killed by an H-bomb, a stone, an automobile, a poison, or whatever. What can be more obvious?
Death Exists Both Before and After Life
But what may not be so obvious is that death is only the lack of this organization; it is not necessary to have life before it. For what is the significant difference between the state before life and the state after life? You may not look at the state that preceded you as being death, because you look at death as being the end of life. This is true, it is the end of life, but it is also the beginning of life. You may argue that you had no existence, no identity before your conception. What is the difference between death and nonexistence? Death is nonexistence! Before your conception you had no existence and after you die, you will again have no existence. Just because someone puts your name on a tombstone on top of your grave doesn't mean that you still have an identity. Your body will decompose. The atoms that once gave your body substance will give other things substance—the soil, plants, fungi, animals. Nature is always recycling its atoms. Even Lucretius knew this, when, before the time of Christ, he said: "Death does not put an end to things by annihilating the component particles, but only by breaking up their conjunction. Then it links them into new combinations."
Since atoms are not created, you can be certain that every atom that composes you right now once composed plants! You grew from zygote to adulthood by eating, and what did you eat? Plants, or animals that ate plants, or animals that ate animals that ate plants. The oxygen of the air was synthesized by plants. Even most of the water on earth was at one time, or maybe many times, part of plants. Some of the atoms that compose you right now, might have been part of some dinosaur 100 million years ago. And if we go back further in the chain, then each atom that composes you was once part of the lithosphere, the atmosphere, and the hydrosphere. This is where plants get their nourishment. And it is to this that it will ultimately return. So if we look at life as being a vital organization of atoms, which it is, then death is the lack of this vital organization, and this lack exists both before and after life. Just as it makes no difference how you die, it makes no difference how you were disorganized before and after life.
Look at it this way. There are only 2 states: life and death. There is no third state. Since you have not always been alive, there must have been a time when you were dead. Of course you may argue that life can only come from life, and that even before conception, there were your precursors, the sperm and the egg. But life could not always have come from life, for even the algae had a beginning, and only the blueprints, the DNA, for your life have come from your parents. The mass-energy that composed your sperm and egg came from what your father and mother ate. Virtually all, if not all, of your mass-energy was taken in as food, and this, of course, was dead. Yet, the genes of your cells gave this dead mass-energy a new organization—that of life. Thus, life came from death, life was created from death. Life, not being a separate entity, is not passed on from generation to generation—organization is. The organization of DNA, your genes.
What follows from this discussion on life and death is that, by dying, you return to the state from which you came—nonexistence, death. When I say nonexistence, I am talking about the organization, not the mass-energy. Organization, unlike mass-energy, can be created and destroyed. This is why life can be created and destroyed.
Consciousness and Identity Develop as the Brain Develops
Identity develops because of our conscious awareness of our environment. The development of identity parallels the development of the brain. When I was a zygote, I had no brain, and I had no consciousness and no identity. But when my brain started to develop, along with my senses, consciousness started to develop. And this consciousness gave rise to my identity. When I was a newborn infant, I could not distinguish myself from my environment, but I soon came to realize that I could move my hands and my feet, but not the floor beneath me nor the ceiling above me nor the walls beside me. And just as I could not move them, neither could I sense anything directly through them, as I could through my skin. Thus, I began to distinguish self from nonself. Then, later on, I came to realize that I had a name to distinguish me from other selves, that I had a particular look, that I was male, that I lived in a particular place, and so on.
Consciousness is necessary for identity. Consciousness created my identity by allowing me to learn about myself and my environment, and thus, perforce, I had consciousness before I knew anything particular about myself. My name could have been John Doe, I could have been a girl, I could have looked any other way, and I would still have consciousness. Through consciousness, I became aware of these details, but these details did not cause my consciousness, and they do not cause my consciousness to be different from someone else's. These details only gave my consciousness a particular content. Thus, one's existence can only be known through his consciousness, and sensory information gives content to this consciousness.
Consciousness Inheres in the Organization of Mass-Energy, just as Life does
Consciousness is no more a function than life is—both result from the organization of mass-energy. Differing levels of organization have different levels of consciousness. The brain has the highest level of consciousness because of its organization. The cortical neurons have connections to every sense and drive as well as memories and emotions. When I open my eyes, light stimulates the retina, which ultimately stimulates neurons in the primary and secondary visual centers in the cortex. Cut the optic nerve, and while the retina can still see, there is no conscious experience of it. At least not on the cortical level. Thus, this level of consciousness seems to result from the organization of the cortex, and this organization was created, just as it will be destroyed.
Consciousness has Content
When we are mentally conscious, we are conscious of something—an image, a sound, an emotion. All contents of consciousness were ultimately derived from the senses. If we were born without senses, such as eyes and ears, including the basic drives, such as hunger and thirst, which are senses of our internal state, there would be no consciousness. There would be no images or sounds; no memories, since memories are simply traces of past sensory experience; not even emotions, since emotions are stimulated and inhibited by the senses. There could be no thinking or imagining, since the basic elements of thinking, such as words and images, can only be learned through the senses. There could be no creativity, for creativity involves combining information from different sources into new combinations, but this information, in the form of primary qualities, is derivable only from the senses. Primary qualities cannot be broken down into simpler components. Thus, tones cannot be broken down into simpler sounds, so unless you heard it before, the tone cannot be imagined. Music is not a primary quality, because it consists of many tones, and thus, music that has never been heard before, can be imagined. You can imagine a flower that you have never seen before, by combining the primary qualities of our perceived world, such as color, into new combinations, but you cannot imagine a primary color that you have never seen.
Consciousness Depends on Structure, but not on any Particular Structure
There is no center in the brain that just makes you conscious. The reticular activating system regulates consciousness, but it is not consciousness itself. Consciousness has content; therefore, it is always associated with some other function, such as vision or hearing, or remembering. The neurons that give rise to visual consciousness are different from the neurons that give rise to an audible consciousness. Consciousness seems to be an implicit function. You cannot see, in the sense that we use the word, and not be conscious. If you could, there would be no need for consciousness.
There is no Center of Consciousness—it is Implicit in other Functions
Seeing is visual consciousness, hearing is audible consciousness, smelling is olfactory consciousness—a consciousness with every sense and thought. Remembering, thinking, imagining, and creating use the sensory consciousnesses, since, when we think, we mostly use images or sounds. These 4 functions, which all could be grouped under thinking, merely retrieve and combine information that was ultimately derived from the senses. Since the brain functions by organizing electricity, it is not inconceivable that one day a computer can do all that the brain can do, and if such a computer would be built, there would be no need to build a consciousness circuit, since consciousness would be implicit in the functions of sensing and thinking. This would demonstrate that consciousness does not have its own unique structure, and that, indeed, it is not even a unique function, since as I have said, it is always associated with some other function. You have to be conscious of something.
Consciousness, as most people think of it, is created when the cortical neurons function. It is the information contained in these and other neurons that give consciousness content. However, consciousness, itself, does not have features. Either you are conscious or not. Because it is featureless, it has no genetic variation. Only the contents of consciousness can be affected by genes. Thus, a red-color blind person would have no experience of red as a separate color, but he would still be conscious. Content has no effect on whether you are conscious or not.
Since Consciousness is not a Function, it does not depend on a Specific Structure
Consciousness, like life, results from the overall organization of our mass-energy, and like life, it has no center. There is no specific structure that causes consciousness.
What might lead us to think that another person is conscious? We see her react to environmental stimuli. We might give her a problem to solve, wait until she gives us the answer, then infer that some kind of internal processing went on to arrive at the answer. However, this does not demonstrate consciousness. A cash register will do the same thing, yet most people would not regard a cash register as being conscious. But it might be!
Some people might assume that consciousness needs to be intelligent, or that it needs to be self-sufficient. What evidence supports this? Another example: the liver responds to its environment. When blood glucose decreases, the liver puts more glucose in the bloodstream. When it is high, it takes it out. Most people probably wouldn't consider the liver to be conscious even though it is aware of its environment, but it receives input, processes it, then outputs the result. Now, a liver cannot ask why it exists. It cannot see itself, for its senses are extremely specialized, but nonetheless, it is aware of those things it has senses for, such as glucose levels. How do we know this awareness? Because it responds to its environment. This can be measured, just as a human responding to her environment can be measured. Intelligence can be measured, emotions can be detected, even thinking can be detected with new equipment such as PET scans and BEAM. But is consciousness necessary for thinking? We associate consciousness with thinking, because we know we are conscious when we think, and therefore we infer that others are, too. However, detecting electrical potentials as someone thinks is really no different than detecting the same potentials when a computer processes data. So it is true, as the solipsist avers, that the only consciousness we can be sure of is our own. For if the brain is nothing more than a mass of neurons stimulating or inhibiting each other, which it seems to be, then what role could consciousness play in this? Since consciousness, per se, cannot affect the electrical circuitry that constitutes the brain, this would indicate that it has no role at all, and thus is a concomitant of thinking, and not a cause or necessary component!
To illustrate further: Suppose we designed a computer to behave as humans do in every way. How could we be sure that it is conscious? We couldn't. We wouldn't be as confident in inferring that the computer is conscious, because even though it behaves as we do, it is not built like we are. We can demonstrate seeing and intelligence in the computer, for instance, but we could never be sure if there was a consciousness in it. An electrical engineer could explain the computer completely without ever invoking the need for consciousness, because consciousness doesn't really explain anything. It is merely transistors affecting each other, just as neurons affect each other in our brains. Consciousness is observed as a concomitant of our own brain functions. It's not that we need consciousness to think. When we think, we experience consciousness, a consciousness that can be inquired about, since it is connected to the intellectual centers of our brain. When computers develop sufficient intelligence, then they'll be able to make the same inquiry. The liver has no connections to an intellectual center, and thus, cannot question its consciousness. Thus, it is a possibility that the locus of consciousness is the locus of mass-energy, and though nothing is explained by this consciousness, it doesn't negate its existence, either.
To clarify: The brain consists of neurons. Neurons are connected to each other, and affect each other by electrochemical impulses. The firing of some neurons causes others to fire, just as circuits in a computer causes other circuits to fire. If an alien could see the firing of our neurons, and see their every connection, then it would describe human behavior in terms of the firing of neurons. There would be no need to invoke consciousness to explain anything, anymore than an automobile engineer needs to invoke a consciousness to explain the behavior of an automobile. He could describe it totally in terms of structure and function.
Consciousness, then, is not a function! Functions have underlying structures, but there doesn't seem to be any specific structure for consciousness.
Subjectivity, the I, is coextensive with mental consciousness. They may even be the same thing. Subjectivity is the difference between my consciousness and a consciousness. I do, I see, I hear, I dream, I love: these are all functions of the brain. The I is that which is aware and that which does. Without the brain, there would seem to be no subjectivity, no I. There is no difference between existing as a rock and not existing at all!
Subjectivity, however, is puzzling.
Most functions of the body work much the same way in all individuals. Retinas see in the same way, muscles contract in the same way. Now there are some genetic differences between individuals that could lead to functional differences, but most of these differences are minor. There are differences in height, but we all grow the same way. What is unique about consciousness is that every consciousness is different, not in the structural or functional sense, but rather, in the subjective sense. The functions that give rise to consciousness probably work the same, but they still lead to a different consciousness. Identical twins share the same genes, and as a zygote, even shared the same cytoplasm and the same cellular membrane, yet their consciousnesses become separate.
That consciousness and identity do not depend on the details of the brain's organization is further demonstrated by the fact that as one gets older and acquires memories, then, in order for the brain to retain these memories, it must have changed in some way, even if only on the molecular level. Even though the contents of one's consciousness changes, the fact that he is conscious does not. Thus, though the environment causes significant changes in our structure through the course of our lives, it does not affect that we are aware. It only changes what we are aware of.
The subjective I, then, doesn't seem to be a affected by the details of the brain's structure. In fact, it doesn't appear to have a physical basis at all! Just like consciousness and just like life! Identical twins basically have the same structure, but they have different subjective I's. One twin does not experience the consciousness of the other.
A thought experiment: suppose it were possible to duplicate yourself totally, atom for atom. There is nothing theoretically impossible about this, but yet, if it were done, even though your replica is exact, it would have one difference: a different consciousness, a different I. You would not be aware of the other consciousness, even though it is based on a structure identical to you. This thought experiment seems very reasonable, and yet, it easily shows that there can't be a structural basis for the subjective I, and therefore, no one-to-one correspondence can be demonstrated between a brain and an I.
The I, like consciousness, cannot be demonstrated experimentally. We only infer that others feel the same way that we do.
The Subjective I has no Physical Basis
Since the subjective I doesn't have a physical basis, it has no genetic basis, and therefore doesn't depend on the zygote that formed your present manifestation.
But, then, if there is no one-to-one correspondence between a given zygote and a given consciousness, then how does one ever become conscious? Is it random or is there a cause-and-effect relationship between one's consciousness and something else? This question I cannot answer. Since any given consciousness does not seem to depend on the details of one's physical substance, then nothing can be isolated as being the cause of anyone's particular consciousness. Indeed, if such a thing, whatever it may be (maybe this is the function of the soul!), could be discovered, then this would be the quintessence of that person, a thing far more fundamental than one's looks or his mental state, or his inheritance! I do not know what causes what I will hereon call subjective consciousness. (By subjective consciousness I mean that consciousness that each of us actually experience. This is in contrast to objective consciousness, the consciousness of everyone else that cannot be directly experienced, but only inferred.) The brain seems to be the source of mental consciousness, but why it is the source of my consciousness and not someone else's, I have no notion whatsoever.
It does seem, however, that once you are conscious, then obviously you cannot be conscious as someone else at the same time. Having the consciousness of one person precludes you from having the consciousness of anyone else as long as you live. This, of course, results because any given brain has no physical connection with any other brain. But then, doesn't this show that consciousness is a function of the brain? Not perforce. In fact, it shows the exact opposite. Referring to the aforementioned thought experiment involving exact replicas, how could we have 2 brains with the exact same structure, but with 2 different functions? The brain may only give consciousness content.
Suppose the brains were connected? Would there then be one consciousness, or would it be just one mind reading another? In split-brain experiments, where the corpus callosum that connects the 2 hemispheres of the brain are surgically separated, the ½ of the cerebral hemisphere can't communicate directly with the other half, but does this create 2 separate consciousnesses? People who have had this operation function normally. It is only through specialized testing, that this severance can be functionally detected, because the senses communicate with both hemispheres, so that, in most instances, direct cerebral communication isn't necessary. But if this creates 2 separate consciousnesses, then wouldn't this be the same, in many respects, as 2 people sensing the same thing?
Numerous other arguments and counter arguments could be presented with this example, but how can this really be resolved? Because consciousness cannot be directly detected, there is no way to ascertain that there are 2 consciousnesses in the same individual. Though the 2 hemispheres can respond separately and simultaneously to different stimuli, and under special conditions, one hemisphere does not know what the other knows, does this actually mean there are 2 consciousnesses, or just one consciousness with different capabilities? Indeed, many subconscious functions of the brain could be said to have their own consciousness, since their circuits do not communicate directly with the intellectual consciousness.
Could my consciousness be created from the zygote of a frog instead of a human zygote? In other words, why am I not a frog instead of a human, or, for that matter, any other living creature? Since consciousness doesn't seem to have a particular physical basis, it would seem possible that I could have become conscious as an animal. If I could answer why I am not a frog, I could answer why I am human and why I am me, since I would, therefore, know the basis of me, whether it be physical or something else.
Therefore, a more fundamental and universal question is, why do I exist at all? Much of what I have already said is related to this question because if some structure can be shown to cause my consciousness instead of a consciousness, then this would answer the question. This question cannot be answered because there is no such apparent structure, since, as I have been saying, there doesn't seem to be a one-to-one correspondence between someone's structure and his consciousness.
Is It Possible that I May Live Again, as a Different Being?
After I die, I return to the state that I had before conception, nonexistence! Therefore, is it possible that I could be reborn as another individual? Or as an animal? Or as some other being elsewhere in the universe? Why couldn't it happen again? By dying, I return to my initial state, the same state that existed before I was born—disorganization. But since my I doesn't seem to depend on a given structure, then why couldn't I come to be in the same way I came to be in the first place, if it was a first place? In other words, if my consciousness was created, is it possible that it could be created again?
I don't know, but suppose it is created again? What is the connection between the consciousness of any particular individual and a possible future consciousness in another body, as another person? Absolutely none!
(I am only comparing 2 consciousnesses to get my point across. Obviously, if what I am saying is true, then I might have been conscious as any number of individuals in the past, and will be conscious as any number of individuals, human or animal or even as a computer, in the future. Of course, I cannot possibly ascertain how many times this has happened or will happen, for I do not know what factors govern the creation of I's.)
There is no objective test to which a consciousness in 2 different bodies in 2 different lifetimes can be shown to be the same, because consciousness cannot be traced to some specific structure, and therefore, it cannot be traced to some specific function. No one-to-one correspondence.
If I should live again, I obviously would not remember anything from my present life, because my memories will perish with my brain when I die. The only way any connection could ever be made between 2 people, is by discovering the quintessence of those people, that unique thing that makes that person have subjective consciousness. But, it may not exist! (I do want to point out that I am not talking about reincarnation, at least not in the religious sense, for this implies the existence of a soul, and while this may be a possibility, I cannot adduce any evidence for it, so I pose it only as a possibility. And, furthermore, it is not immortality, because no given life extends beyond finitude.)
So after I die, and if my consciousness is created again, then how will I know that I am alive again? I will not know that I am alive again, but I will know that I am alive for the same reason that I know that I am alive now. But this I does not mean "I, William C. Spaulding." It means "I, the center of consciousness, that which is aware."