2. The illusion of 'I'

November 28, 2023

"I" is an illusion. To be more precise, the "thinking me" is just a delusion. We believe that we think freely. We believe that we live our lives by proactively and ambitiously 'thinking.' It seems as though we have the reins of life. From this perspective, what thoughts you have and how you act every moment are entirely up to you. However, this is a blatant illusion. Thoughts merely 'appear' in our minds.

Let's conduct a thought experiment. Suppose a woodlice is placed on a Petri dish. Is this woodlouse a lifeform that thinks and behaves freely? Woodlice have a characteristic called chemotaxis. Simply put, they move towards specific chemical substances. Therefore, scientists can easily predict which path the woodlouse will take on the Petri dish. In fact, we can even determine in which direction the woodlouse will move depending on how we arrange the chemicals. In light of this, it doesn't seem like the woodlouse is a creature that acts according to its own thoughts. The woodlouse is merely a creature that moves in response to external stimuli.

Figure 1. We can predict the movement path of the mealworm with incredible accuracy.

Now let's think about ants. Are ants free-thinking and acting creatures? Ants use a chemical substance called pheromones to communicate, and often move following these pheromones. The way ants follow pheromones is much more complex than the case of the woodlice. Yet, some scientists have modeled the way ants follow pheromones via complex calculations. Utilizing such modeling, we can almost accurately predict how ants will move. Therefore, at least in terms of how they move, ants are also just creatures that move in response to external stimuli.

Figure 2. We can also predict the trajectory of an ant's movement with high precision.

Is it the same for dogs? Or how about us humans? Are we free-thinking and acting creatures? Imagine this. There are aliens. This alien race is highly advanced and has all the knowledge about the human species. They know about human genetics, how those genes react to environmental stimuli, and what happens in the human brain. Now, to those aliens, are humans creatures who think and act freely, or simply creatures who react to external stimuli? Probably the latter.

Figure 3. How would the species called 'human' appear to an alien?

The fact that humans are not free-thinking and acting creatures has been proved through research. Physiologist Benjamin Libet revealed that activity is visible in the motor cortex of the brain up to 300 milliseconds before a person feels they have made a decision to move. In the subsequent research, it was revealed that the brain has already decided what it will do before a person chooses to do something. In the corresponding study, they were able to predict with 80% accuracy what a person's decision will be by calculating the activity of the neurons. Such research results clearly support the notion that 'I' is a delusion.

Actually, this is more apparent when we break down the concept of 'thought' into smaller elements. How are thoughts formed? It is hard to disagree that thoughts are formed from the neuronal firing in the prefrontal cortex. The era where we suggested that souls create thoughts has long passed. It is undoubtable that the origin of thoughts is the neural firing of the prefrontal cortex. Can you control the neural firing in your prefrontal cortex? If so, who chose to stimulate the prefrontal cortex again? Where does this will come from? Another neural firing in the prefrontal cortex? Such explanations are only circular logic. There is no way to explain the beginning in many issues. Scientists will never be able to find out what the universe was like before the Big Bang. However, at least in relation to consciousness, there is no room for such explanations. As long as you do not believe in the existence of a soul, there is no such thing as a free initial thought.

Thoughts do not originate from intentional consciousness. Thoughts only 'appear' in consciousness. And that thought is a single psychological event, a neural physiological event. An event that emerges due to environmental stimuli. From this perspective, if a person had exactly the same genes as you and was in exactly the same environmental conditions, they would have exactly the same thoughts as you. Of course, you can act according to your decisions. But you cannot decide what to decide. That decision merely arises in your mind in response to environmental stimuli.

Thoughts are like popcorn. We all have popcorn machines in our minds. Popcorn in the popcorn machine pops out irregularly. 'Pop', 'pop'. You never know when, how, and in which direction it will pop out. They just pop out irregularly according to the right temperature, humidity, and pressure. This is exactly how thoughts work. They just emerge randomly in our minds. Depending on the current situation, passing words, memories of the past, even childhood experiences, even the weather of the day, various thoughts pop into our minds. 'Pop', 'pop'.

Figure 4. Thoughts pop up like popcorn. Unconsciously and automatically.

However, it is not easy for us to accept the fact that we are such passive beings. So, most people act as if they think actively. They believe they can control their thoughts. As a result, they sometimes fight with depression and anxiety that emerge in their minds. Sometimes, they instantly react to the thoughts that have arisen in their minds, expressing their anger to others without even realizing what kind of thoughts are arising in their minds, or even the fact that they are arising.

The crucial point is that a few people have known this secret. Eminent religious leaders did, great philosophers like Wittgenstein did, and Steve Jobs did too. Many people who have freed themselves from the quagmire of deep depression did so, and people who broke out of the cycle of recurring panic attacks found this truth. Whether or not you believe in this secret doesn't change its existence. You might say, "What nonsense," or, "I am thinking freely with my free will." Regrettably, such thoughts just appear in your mind.

'I' am an illusion. This secret reshapes many things. It's okay if you're skeptic. Acknowledge that such thoughts have sprung into your mind and start working to understanding what the next steps are.

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