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Friday, April 8, 2022

Who am I? Am I particles of memory?

 Science and spirituality are points of view, systems of philosophy. Both try to understand life and cosmos. One focuses on reproducible evidence and therefore trustworthy for future actions. It breaks down whole into parts to understand better. It is objective. The other is intuitive and understands the whole and nature as is. It is a combination of subjective and objective and understands that what appears to be objective has the subject also included in it.

I tend to synthesize science and spirituality, whenever possible. I hope I am not going too far with the following thoughts.

When I read that the migration of birds depends on quantum changes in the molecules in their brains, something clicked. It appears that quantum effects of earth’s magnetism acts on two specific molecules in the brains of birds. The molecules are called Trip and FAD. Earth’s magnetic force trips one electron to flip from one molecule to the other and triggers release of neurotransmitters. This is coded as memory, in addition to other clues helping the birds navigate. This is “electromagnetic” memory which depends on quantum particles! May be, the same applies to any kind of memory, since it is a neuro-biochemical process.

If that is true - and that is a big “if” - does it apply to the philosophical question of “Who am I”? My “I” is not the same as the one born almost 89 years back in another part of the world. Every particle in this body has been replaced and changed over the decades – even the genetic material. How is it then that I am still me?

The fundamental particles which make me have changed. My location has changed. Many decades have passed. In other words, matter and energy keeping “me” together in space and time have changed. Yet I am still the same “I”. How is that?

That is because the template is the same as in the famous philosophical experiment in which the question is about an old chariot or a ship whose parts have all been replaced. Is it still the same chariot or ship? The parts are different. But the template is the same. It is another way of saying that the “form” is determined by information giving us a template.

The particles of the chemicals making up my current genes are totally different from the originals with which I was born. But the message has been kept the same by the genetic codes, which are molecules of information. Therefore my “form” is the same except for the changes in it due to passage of time. Information is the same.

The other common factor is my consciousness with its important function of memory. As pointed out by Buddha many centuries back, confirmed more recently by the work of Antonio Tomasio and others, “I” am made up of memories of events in my life (autobiographical memory) and a sense of ownership of those memories as mine (Thanks to our insular cortex). Therefore, I am aware and can say: “I am the continuity of what I was born with although I look and think different”. Others see that continuity too giving me another point of reference.

Since particles are parts of matter which change over space and time and since information, memory and consciousness are concepts and not concrete objects, our ancestors were correct when they challenged us to think “Who am I” and also suggested that may be “I am ultimately the same as the original even though I am separate and different”.  And yes, it seems correct that consciousness shines on its own and illuminates everything.

But that consciousness needs a body (matter) to operate from and information acts with the help of energy on the particles which make up the body. May be Buddha was also correct when he talked about “dependent co-arising” (pratitya samutpada) and said that “I am made of non-I elements”.

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