"'Who are you?' said the caterpillar..."

    For this week’s post I thought I’d keep it simple, and just answer honestly what I consider “Me” to be; how I understand the Self, and my experience of identity. It led naturally to discussing the tension at the heart of it all: the conflict between my mental ideas of Self, versus my sensory experience of Me, and the questions this raises…

    This week’s post is accompanied by a track composed by Ben Daniel-Thorpe (of “AI & Your Future” fame) inspired by this month’s topic! Huge thanks to him – check out more of his stuff here, and his radio sets here. If you’ve got something to share, get in touch via the Contribute page.  ʕ•́ᴥ•̀ʔっ

(~5 Minute Read)

 
So, what are we? What is this mess we call “life” or “reality”?
 
    I could say I’m a lump of electric, cosmic goo that congealed out of the universe for no apparent reason, that will de-congeal for equally little reason; I could say I’m a writer from England, with a head full of silly and a heart full of worry; I could even say I’m smart, handsome, talented, and extremely generous and thoughtful; but I could equally say I’m a half-witted, clumsy idiot, with an ever-wrinkly face who gets too lost in his thoughts to think of others, and only does things for his own happiness…
 
    Well, I know for certain that one thing doesn’t and won’t ever change (until I cease to be)– “this moment”; the space surrounding my experience of “now”. Wherever I am, whenever I am, the extent and “essence” of this moment never changes for me, and my experience of being “conscious” and aware of a fluid sphere of sensations never really changes, only the degree of my awareness of it does. I may fluctuate between being right in the moment, somewhat aware of the experience itself, to being distracted and lost in some other world in my thoughts or feeling, but THIS remains… this “place” that is Me. Moods, feelings, desires, thoughts– all these fluctuate in quick rhythms and much broader ones, some consistent, some not, yet they all orbit around this Now.
 
   This sensation of “Me”, however, is not the only one… I am also (for example) a lover– a partner, a husband, a carer: what I see myself as being, is those roles and responsibilities. While I know they are just artificial, man-made ideas, they nonetheless dictate my choices and actions, to the extent that I identify with those roles; I aim to be (or become) them. Clearly there is a difference here, however, between this identity as the process of fulfilling roles, and the process of simply being conscious. 
    The latter is purely sensory; it is concrete in that it is defined by my senses, without which I could not be anything (here I’m including the sensation of thoughts and ideas too). The former – my mentally constructed identity – is not so concrete or essential… my marriage requires it, for we could not cooperate efficiently enough to maintain a committed relationship without these mental coat hooks of roles for my mind to latch onto. Yet my identity is clearly more fragile and variable; my experiences and interactions can shape them or alter them entirely, and in that way depend at least in part upon others.
    Despite the fact that my “concrete” self – the Me of consciousness that persists from birth to death (so I’m told!) – is primary, that it is the foundation of all other sensations of identity, I nonetheless feel clearly that there are two sides of my existential coin: my individual, fundamental consciousness, and my self for others— the ego of idea I use to communicate and to form an understand of how others view me.
 
    This latter, broader self is also aware of “Me” from countless different perspectives. It confidently “knows” that I am a human, that I am an animal with a highly developed brain (again, so I’m told…), that I am a lump of organic matter powered by that brain or potentially something more, that others would see me as English, (mostly?) male, talkative, weird… All around the present me of peaceful permanence in the now, is a snowfall of possible identities, each carrying a different perspective upon me and hence a different value to me. The power of this secondary, otherly awareness is that it provides a means to shifting my values over myself– my feelings, and hence the actions motivated by them. If I believe I am fat or unhealthy, I am motivated to give my time to exercise; if I believe I am intelligent, I have the confidence to teach myself difficult subjects; if I am handsome, I am obviously capable of chatting up that beautiful woman… But if I can shift my values so simply with ideas purely by convincing myself of how others see me, the question arises of “what is ‘real’?” What is the Truth– am I actually handsome? Am I really smart? Am I human? The president of the United States?
 
   To me, this is the real heart of where all our modern human anxieties begin, for we are taught on the one hand, that there is an objective truth – Brad Pitt is handsome, you are average – while in our everyday experience, on the other hand, these truths claimed by the mind (and society) are nowhere to be found– beauty is subjective since not everyone agrees, intelligence is a skill since the mind is plastic (the more you learn, the easier it becomes). Our minds go to war with themselves trying to make sense of the sturdy Truth of ideas, that clash with the messy unpredictability of reality. This is closely linked with the topics of the previous posts, and Eastern philosophies have taken a much more ‘holistic’ and human approach to this conflict than the West. In short, while the typical values of the West hold that “I think, therefore I am” – I.e., it is my rational, self-reflective self that is true and real – Eastern philosophies argue that letting yourself get pulled around by fickle ideas, and losing touch with your immediate Self in “the now”, is what causes us our existential grief.
    I certainly don’t have the answer. I have my own answer, but what about you? It is all too easy to pretend like this topic is irrelevant, that it is just philosophical mind games, and yet the questions at the heart of it have plagued human minds for as long as we have records of us thinking. There is a reason philosophers have tied themselves in knots over it, particularly in the last century.
    Next time you feel confused, torn, and in any way at odds with yourself, see what the real source of the angst is– is it that your ideas about how things are/should be clash with how you feel they are/should be? Or is it something else? If so, what? And how do you address these sensations?
Who or what are you, anyway?
 
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Ben
Ben
6 months ago

Interesting! Wonder if the harmful notion of objective truth in identity is an example of positivist-style thinking overreaching