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On Being Alone

Written by Jeff Drake
7 · 04 · 18

I recently exchanged emails with a friend about an idea that has been bouncing around in my mind – that if you are honest and seriously think about it, we are all alone in this world.

No, I’m not feeling depressed or isolated. Let me explain. I don’t mean alone as in “lonely”. That’s something else. I mean that even though you have a family, close friends, lovers, whatever; and even if they are with you all the time, they can never, ever, really know what it is like to be you; to be inside your head, to see and experience the world the way you do. In other words, we live in families, a society, and so we interact with other people, but when it comes to our individual lives, our personal experiences, they are ours alone. If you’ve ever had the experience of being with someone who is dying, you know what I am talking about. Think about it. No matter how hard you want to take their pain away, you can’t. Instead you have only your own personal pain. And when they pass, they go by themselves and leave you behind.  Let me tell you that I think the person dying would know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m guessing this is about the time my buddy Jim, here in Portland, might lean over to me and say, “Too much introspection!”. Perhaps, but that’s just the way I roll. LOL. Still, don’t go jumping out the window just yet. I don’t mean to imply that other people don’t somehow matter. They obviously do. Nor am I saying other people aren’t vitally important to us, because they are.

I guess what I am rather inartfully trying to say is that the things that make you, you – all that incredible stuff going on inside your head (let’s call it consciousness), is special, it’s unique; it’s forever yours and is yours alone. To me, this is not a depressing thought. To me, this realization just deepens some of the mysteries about life itself and begs certain questions like: Why are we humans like this? Just what the hell does it mean to be conscious? Is a dog or cat conscious? Is a tree conscious, an ant, or an amoeba? Can a computer be conscious? Is the internet conscious? Is there any way to tell who or what is conscious and who or what isn’t?

Do you know? Because I sure don’t. For sure, some things seem to be easy to point at and say, “That’s conscious!” or “That’s definitely not conscious!”, while other things make me pause and think for a minute before I answer. Some of you are perhaps thinking right now that, “Jeff’s not conscious.” LOL! You may be right, but then my question to you is, how do you know for sure?

As it turns out there is some amazing work going on right now collectively between physicists, psychologists and philosophers, trying to find answers to these very questions. I sense there are breakthroughs coming. What makes the recent work so amazing is that they are making real progress. For example, a method for both detecting consciousness and measuring consciousness is being developed by neuroscientists and generating a lot of interest. Why? Because it’s something you can conduct tests on!  Hello science! Additionally, philosophers are making headway in being able to describe how consciousness begins in the first place and what is necessary for consciousness to blossom. Of course, leave it to the philosophers to uncover other important, yet troublesome questions that we will need to think about at some point – questions like: Does consciousness matter? Should all conscious entities be treated alike? Do all conscious creatures have the same rights? Or even harder questions, like what does it all mean? Yikes, that’s a can of worms! Damn philosophers!

I feel extremely fortunate to be at a point in my life where I have the leisure time to think about what is and why things are the way they are, but also to be living at a point in history where answers may be just on the horizon. We may each be alone in this world, but I believe that together we can seek and find meaning. As my favorite philosopher once said, “The world is pregnant with meaning.” We just need to look for it.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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