“Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”
I. Mind and Brain
Ahab’s conundrum has echoed through human culture since the dawn of consciousness. Every single one of us must confront that eternal question: “What am I?” One possibility put forth by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett in their book, The Mind’s I, is that we are our minds.
Let’s define someone’s “mind” as their collection of thoughts and conscious faculties including memory, language, reason, fear, curiosity, belief, emotion, intuition, and sense of self. This list is far from exhaustive, but includes a few of the essential parts of a human mind. In short, a mind is the collection of self-interacting cognitive states and symbols in someone’s head. This is an unrigorous definition, but it’s good enough for our current discussion. Mostly, we want to be able to distinguish mind from brain.
“Brain” is a little bit easier to define. It’s the neural tissue forming the core of someone’s nervous system. It’s the neurons in their head and the glial cells keeping those neurons alive. Once again, this isn’t a revolutionary or comprehensive definition; we only need to establish mind and brain as nonidentical. To borrow an analogy from Dennett and Hofstadter, it can be helpful to think of a mind as software that is run by the brain’s hardware.
A strict interpretation of Cartesian Dualism holds that mind and brain are mutually exclusive, but this school of thought is dangerous. It’s more accurate to say that the two are subtly, yet intimately connected. On one hand, our abstract thoughts are manifest as chemical and electrical patterns. On the other, the connections between our neurons are forged based on the ideas we nurture. The physical and the mental depend on each other; trying to isolate the two is bound to lead to disaster.
Still, it can be convenient to sometimes talk of mind and to sometimes talk of brain. For example, let’s consider a person playing a video game, perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If we’re focused on a more concrete process, like interpreting sensory input (e.g. translating the sound waves vibrating their eardrum or reading the photons absorbed by their eyes) it’s much easier to speak in terms of their brain. If we’re focused on a highly abstract process, like how they’re enjoying the plot and the characters, it makes more sense to discuss what’s going on in their mind.
II. Alright, so what’s an “Ocarina?”
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 by Nintendo Entertainment for the Nintendo 64 console. It’s a landmark game that pioneered mechanics that are now standard to the gaming industry. Ocarina was the first game to feature a system for “locking-on” to enemies during combat. It also introduced context sensitive buttons; for example, hitting the “A” button near a door would open the door, but hitting “A” near an enemy would launch an attack. Both of these developments allowed for far more versatile gameplay than ever before. In addition to these technological advances, the game’s story offers a unique context to ponder the philosophy of mind. The following paragraphs contain a few spoilers, but nothing too drastic.
In Ocarina, the player takes of control Link, a boy residing in the isolated Kokiri Forest in the kingdom of Hyrule. After waking from a nightmare, Link is summoned by the Great Deku Tree, the guardian of Kokiri. The arboreal spirit has been mortally cursed by a mysterious villain seeking to claim the forest’s Spiritual Stone, a gem with mystical powers. With his dying breath, the Great Deku Tree tells Link to seek out Princess Zelda and entrusts him with the Spiritual Stone.
Link travels to the capital and meets Zelda, who has been monitoring political affairs. She identifies the Great Deku Tree’s murderer as Ganondorf, a bandit king hailing from the arid Gerudo Valley. He is hunting down the Spiritual Stones because they are keys to the Temple of Time. Hidden inside the temple is the Triforce, a relic left by Hyrule’s creator goddesses that embodies the balance of courage, wisdom, and power. Ganondorf seeks the Triforce in an attempt to become a god, but the young heroes have other plans. Zelda continues spying on him while Link races to collect the remaining Spiritual Stones.
Link scours several dungeons, slays their vile overlords, and claims all the Spiritual Stones. While venturing back to the castle, he’s nearly run over by Zelda. She’s fleeing on horseback from Ganondorf, who has launched a coup! As her horse sprints into the distance, Zelda leaves behind the eponymous Ocarina of Time, a flute-like instrument that can channel the power of the Spiritual Stones into unlocking the Temple of Time.
With all of the keys in his possession, Link runs to the Temple of Time in search of the Triforce. Inside, he finds the legendary Master Sword, a weapon rumored to be the blade of evil’s bane. Link draws the Master Sword from its resting place and begins to drift into a deep slumber, à la Rip van Winkle. The evil king appears, reveals that he has manipulated Link into opening the temple, and claims the Triforce as his own.
Upon awakening, Link discovers that seven years’ time has passed; but for everyone else, time has been flowing normally. It turns out that the Temple of Time sealed him away until he was old enough to stand a chance against Ganondorf, who now rules with a bloody, iron fist. The dark lord has assassinated his rivals, razed entire cites, and unleashed monsters upon the land. In short, Hyrule has gone to hell in a hand basket.
But there’s one bit of good news: the time traveling is reversible. In order to save Hyrule, Link must battle Ganondorf in the past and in the future. By drawing or sheathing the Master Sword, Link’s mind can now seamlessly travel back and forth between his childhood and his adulthood in the blink of an eye. If we recall the definition of mind, we’ll see that this has some unusual implications.
III. UnLinking Mind and Brain
First, let’s consider how the time warp affects Link’s mind, then we look to its effects on his brain. Link’s consciousness evidently tracks the player’s perspective. If Link does some adventuring as an adult, then travels back in time, Link’s younger self will remember those “future” adventures. His mind seems to progress continuously, regardless of his place in time. Whether he is in the past or present, Link retains all the memories that the player does.
Link’s brain experiences things quite differently. It undeniably undergoes changes as it ages or rejuvenates during each time traveling session. The neural wiring of an adult’s brain is not the same as a child’s. In fact, his brain isn’t even the same size in the two time periods! Link’s mind effectively makes a discontinuous jump from one brain to another.
It seems that the game’s continuous mind mechanic exists to mesh the character’s experience with the player’s experiences. But this makes Link’s case no less interesting to study. From our own continuous minds and brains, we are able to immerse ourselves into Link’s continuous mind yet discontinuous brain with minimal suspension of disbelief. Perhaps the game had to be constructed this way to accommodate its players? Can our own minds only flow continuously?
I’d argue otherwise. Our encounters with mental non-continuity tend to be discomforting and can border on the surreal. One familiar example lies in the phenomenon of sleep. Our conscious mind, the tip of our mental iceberg, gives way to our underlying unconscious as we drift into the land of dreams. Sometimes we gradually make our way from this strange world back to reality, but a buzzing alarm can make this transition more of a jump.
Anterograde amnesia is a more terrifying case of mental discontinuity. It is a condition where patients are unable to form new memories following an event. Many people have experienced this after having a drink too many. Yet some suffer from chronic anterograde amnesia, as captured in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In either case, losing these memories results in a break in the flow of consciousness.
I doubt the mind actually undergoes a full discontinuity in either of these examples. But it is still not possible for the dreamer or the amnesiac to fully recreate their train of thought. This means the the flow of consciousness has been broken to some degree. This is a bit creepy if we go back to Dennett and Hofstadter’s suggestion that we are our minds. If we experience a mental discontinuity, what happened to our self during that time?
Ocarina of Time subtly invokes some of the concepts on philosophy of mind that are explored more deeply in The Mind’s I. It clearly demonstrates one of the book’s assertions: that “Who am I?” must asked alongside “Who was I?” Even more fundamentally, we must continue to meditate on what exactly the self is. While we may never know who lifts Ahab’s arm, considering these questions might guide us to a better understanding.
IV. Further Works:
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Nintendo EAD
The Mind’s I – Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter
“Where Am I” – Daniel Dennett
“Where Was I” – David Hawley Sanford
“Minds, Brains, and Programs” – John Searle
“An Unfortunate Dualist” – Raymond Smullyan
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – Douglass Hofstadter
The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am – Luke Cuddy