Can Immortal Worms and AI answer life’s most Mysterious Question?

When I was a kid, I would imagine a little man sitting somewhere inside my skull pulling strings to control my movements. I would often wonder what or who it was making decisions, speaking, thinking.

Only in the past few years have I really come to appreciate these childhood enquiries as being very reasonable ones.

As it turns out, we have no idea who or what is ‘pulling the strings’.

Who are ‘you’?

Do you ever stop to really consider this question?

What does it really mean to be a ‘you’ or an ‘I’? 

People refer to you as a ‘you’ all the time, and you refer to yourself as an ‘I’ just as often.

What is it, exactly, that we are referring to here?

A collection of bones and organs floating around inside a big sack of skin that you’ve somehow come to own?

It’s a strange feeling most of us have. An unchanging central point of control and experience, for most, located somewhere in the head, behind the eyes.

Though the feeling doesn’t feel strange, it feels normal.

So normal in fact that we hardly ever stop to question it.

Surely something that feels so real must have a clear scientific and biological explanation?

Nope, nada, none.

Not only is the self-feeling not explainable; there are mountains of evidence, both new and old, pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

There exists no static and unchanging self.

The idea that ‘self is an illusion’ isn’t a new one.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Islam and Sufism, Christianity and Judaism. Almost all major religions and belief systems explore this idea in their own way.

In ‘The Perennial Philosophy’, Aldous Huxley explores the idea that all the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions share a common core of wisdom about the nature of reality and the self.


Despite their differing rituals, practices and cultural expressions, they all point to the same fundamental truths – that the self is an illusion, that there is a transcendent divine reality.

A quote from the book.

“It is only when we have renounced our preoccupation with “I,” “me,” “mine,” that we can truly possess the world in which we live.”

Another of the great East to West scholars, Alan Watts, spent a lifetime attempting to communicate the same idea.


Many people understand this idea conceptually.

Yeah, the self is an illusion, so what?

It doesn’t change the fact that it still feels very much like we exist as single, separate individuals, with bills and allergies, and jobs and parking fines and grocery lists.

An occasional encounter with an oversized dose of mushrooms or a pipe loaded with toad venom serves to remove the veil temporarily, but then it’s back to the matrix.

Because the phenomenon of ‘The Self’, along with other labels like consciousness and intelligence remain about as explainable as fairy-dust, we spend most of our time in an ongoing state of ignorance.

In the remaining words, I’m going to put forth the rather ambitious argument that Artificial Intelligence, for better or worse, might be the thing that forces us to more seriously confront the reality of the non-existence of ‘The Self’.

The Immortal Worm

I’m convinced that Michael Levin is doing some of the most interesting research on planet Earth.

He is a Biology Professor at Tufts University, studying bioelectricity, cellular communication and morphogenesis.

One of the many mind-bending experiments he has conducted involves dissecting a particularly interesting species of flatworm – a Planaria.

Planaria might just hold the answers to all of life’s great mysteries, according to Levin.

Planaria are “immortal” in the sense that they can regenerate from small fragments, suggesting that their “self” is not tied to any one part of their body, not even the brain.

Levin and his team were able to manipulate the way the worms regenerated, by altering the bioelectrical signals in the cells, creating two-headed worms.

If the implications of this research aren’t immediately apparent, let me briefly explain.

Science, evolution and any standard biological textbook will tell you that your DNA and Genome (coded instructions in your cells) are the static instructions primarily responsible for the way you develop – from an embryo, right through to a fully grown human meat sack.

Levin and his lab are repeatedly and conclusively proving this is not the whole story.

New research suggests that ‘the self’ (the ‘you’), is not a fixed, predefined entity, but rather an emergent and dynamic process arising from the complex interactions of multiple levels and networks of cells and biological systems, throughout the body, and throughout your externally connected environment.

A ‘Multi-Scale Competency Architecture’ as Levin explains.

This all creates the illusion of a self. But a clear-cut, static boundary between you and the outside world doesn’t exist. 

The Self Illusion meets Artificial Intelligence

To make matters more interesting, Levin’s work is now spilling over into the world of Artificial Intelligence.

Here’s a clip from a recent presentation Levin gave titled Where Minds Come From: the scaling of collective intelligence, and what it means for AI and you

If Levin’s findings and ideas gain wider acceptance – that intelligence and ‘selves’ are emergent properties of complex systems that exist on a continuum (from simple cells to complex human minds), we will be forced to confront the reality that the ‘self’ we hold so dearly isn’t all that static, enduring or unique, after all.

We will be forced to reexamine the concept of ‘self’.

Perhaps more interesting – if we accept that the human ‘self’ is part of a larger, interconnected system of intelligences, we will have to reconsider how we value, morally, non-human intelligences, and develop new frameworks for recognising, communicating with and creating non-human entities.

Today AI models, and the transformer architecture behind things like ChatGPT, are incredible. 

Almost nobody predicted just how good an application could become by simply understanding packaged-up packets of the internet fed through some neural nets.

But I agree with Levin, in that all of today’s heated arguments about potentially emergent capabilities of these models will likely be irrelevant at some point.

We are programming ‘human-like’ intelligence into silicon.

What happens when we start to truly recognise non-human intelligence?  

“I’m going to argue that all the things that people argue about today in terms of artificial intelligence are basically a kind of an off-ramp to a much deeper, more difficult discussion about the really deep philosophical questions about what we are, about freedom of embodiment and things like that.”

We’re still a long way from fully understanding the self-feeling, or how or why we assemble into selves in the first place. Or why we have a conscious experience of being a self at all.

It feels increasingly likely that it’s far more complex and far less human-unique than we’d like to believe.

Which is equally terrifying and exciting.