Tuesday, 3 December 2013

What's in a name?

Perhaps the most fundamental precept of logic is the rule that "A is A". This is what is known as the Law of Identity, and it's a pretty simple concept - even simplistic. It's saying exactly what it looks like it's saying: that something is itself, and not "not itself". (The phrase "I'm not myself today" could be more accurately stated as "my self today is altered beyond the range of my general conception of myself" - everyone is their own self at any given time.) I'm not here to discuss the truth of this rule, though. The vast majority of people will probably agree with its truth. Rather, I want to discuss a question I find far more interesting: What is A?

Simply put, A is an identifier. It's shorthand for absolutely anything, in this case, just as "X" can mean any positive number in the equation X > 0. You could replace A with a whale, humanity, the concept of brotherly love, a chair. You could replace it with anything. So I'm going to replace it with a chair.

A chair is a chair, right? At its fundamental level, it is an objective arrangement of atoms that together make the thing described as a chair. But, while the arrangement of atoms is objective and definite (the chair IS that arrangement, it isn't a whale), its chairness is not. You see, a chair is a chair because we say so. Nothing we say about it can change its physical structure, but it is us who have decided that that particular physical structure is a chair.

The physical world doesn't actually care what we say about it. Biological classifications don't really affect the lives of the animals within. Why should they care? They have survival to worry about. Whether we call a stone a rock, a carraig, a sten, or a 岩, doesn't matter to the atoms that make it up. Let me put it this way: language is the subjective assertion of consciousness onto an objective world. How we identify things doesn't change them, but it does identify them. The universe couldn't care less if we call a specific arrangement of atoms a "chair", but it matters to us, because now we have something to classify that general shape into. There are all sorts of variables: size, decoration, back, accessories, whether it has massage capabilities, but for the most part, we can point at something and identify whether it's a chair or not.

This may all seem rather boring and dull, but it actually has huge consequences: it shows us that consciousness exists. Information (specifically language, in this case) is non-existent without an intelligence to create and interpret it. Writing isn't just funny squiggles on paper, because a mind can look at that and learn from it. It doesn't change the fundamental structure of the ink and the paper, and neither of those things care that you're writing with them, but the information is real, and so the consciousness is too. We detect with our senses, we store in our brains, but we think with our minds. Information is meaningless without sentience.

Another interesting thing about consciousness is that it is the only place where contradictions can exist. They're completely impossible in the physical world (A is A, it is not "not A"), but they are free to exist in information. Two people can tell opposing stories, and though only one can be true in the real world, the fact remains that a contradiction exists in the information. I can say "this sentence is false", and that is self-contradictory. It is completely useless and unrelated to the real world, but the contradiction still exists. In fact, because of this, it's reasonable to assume that the concept of contradictions was created because of false or incorrect information. It's information designed to relate only to information, since the concept is impossible outside of information. On another note, it is possible for someone to genuinely believe in contradicting things. Both of those things cannot be true, but a person is free to choose to believe in both, assuming they are OK with hypocrisy.

This is all to show that information and consciousness exist apart from physical matter. Perhaps not independently - at least not within this universe - but there is certainly a distinction. I personally believe it points to the existence of a soul, though I guess you're free to draw your own conclusions.

(Incidentally, this is why I dislike it when people say they reject labels. To reject labels is almost rejecting consciousness in a way. Language exists for a reason. Use it.)

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