Bill Gosper's Glider Gun in action—a variation of Conway's Game of Life. This image was made by using Life32 v2.15 beta, by Johan G. Bontes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Last night I got into a wonderful discussion at the Maine Hackers Club. I used the word “epiphenomenon” more that night than I had my whole prior life. And boy, did it feel good. Today I checked two books by Daniel Dennett out of the library: “Consciousness Explained” and “Freedom Evolves.” Because I’m an epiphenomenon that wants to understand its epiphenominality.
What’s an epiphenomenon? Well, the dictionary says: “: a secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it; specifically : a secondary mental phenomenon that is caused by and accompanies a physical phenomenon but has no causal influence itself.”
And Wikipedia says:
Epiphenomenalism is a mind–body philosophy marked by the belief that basic physical events (sense organs, neural impulses, and muscle contractions) are causal with respect to mental events (thought, consciousness, and cognition). Mental events are viewed as completely dependent on physical functions and, as such, have no independent existence or causal efficacy; it is a mere appearance. Fear seems to make the heart beat faster; though, according to epiphenomenalism, the state of the nervous system causes the heart to beat faster. Because mental events are a kind of overflow that cannot cause anything physical, yet have non-physical properties, epiphenomenalism is viewed as a form of property dualism.
And I say: what underlies all of existence is quantum mechanics, wave functions, configurations with amplitude functions. Everything else is epiphenomenal.
The Buddha said: Everything is impermanent, and we know that to be true even at the macro level. As I write this some molecules are leaving my body, for example as I exhale, and some others enter it, as I inhale. Inhaled oxygen atoms find their way into my blood stream, course through capillaries, are absorbed by cells where they participate in metabolism. Some metabolic by-products remain in the body for a while, others leave.
What I experience as consciousness is ever changing, because what gives rise to consciousness is ever changing. All of conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, or in a constant state of flux. That we can talk about consciousness seems to imply that consciousness is a thing, but it is no less and no more a thing than a person is a thing, or a drop of water is a thing.
As we talked about this, as I interacted with the minds of my fellow-hackers, as we danced with the ideas of consciousness and epiphenomenality, for a few moments, several time, I imagined that the veil of apparency was lifted. I stopped seeing myself as an individual talking with other individuals and experienced the boundaries between us falling away. There was no I and no them, but only an us. The words that I said came out of my mouth, but they were not caused solely by me because it was the words and reactions of my comrades that elicited those words; had they not been there, I would not have said what I did; had they not responded as they had, I would have said something different, or said the same thing differently; had I not said what I had said still earlier, they would not have said and done what they had said and they had done.
My consciousness is an epiphenomenon arising from a collection of primary phenomena considered as a unit and given a name. But since everything in the universe interacts, however weakly, with everything else in the universe, no matter how carefully the collection is constructed, it must be incomplete. And giving it a name does not give it any special standing in the universe.
I was an epiphenomenon, experiencing my epiphenomenality.