The following is taken from draft material for my book-in-progress, “Saying Nothing”. The core idea to the book is that our continual use and reliance upon language pushes us to see the world in specific ways, and draws us away from the awareness that reality is beyond definition; that it is so much more than our language-bound ideas about the world allow. Our ideas surrounding Identity and the “Self” exemplify the fundamental degree of fragmentation we project onto the world, simply through our over-reliance upon language.
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‘Who am I?’ may well be the oldest philosophical question; the most fundamental, natural inquiry of a mind able to look upon itself. Any indication of a desire for self-awareness has long been our standard for determining intelligence in other species, and should we create artificial consciousness, it would no doubt be the first question it asks: What is my nature? My place in this space?
Whether we care to notice it or not, whether we acknowledge their importance or not, these questions persist from birth to death, beneath everything we do. You are given a name, you are told you are human, man or woman, daughter or son, employee, boss, friend or rival— you build a picture, create a model to define what’s behind that face you see in the mirror (or the selfie). Whatever answers may be offered or accepted, the fact remains that at the root of all our daily Being, our pottering around from need to idea to accident to not-sure-why-I-did-that, this crazy kaleidoscope of sensory information all seems to orbit around one silent and immutable nugget. There is a space where YOU should be; a space where YOU come from. It is this space or seed that we come to call our “self”, and to reflect upon as some persisting thing that may be described and understood.
Yet this question – “who am I?” – along with every other verbal form of distinguishing “I” or “Me” from “You” or “It”, is entirely taken for granted. We assume, by default, that because this question and these words exist, because it is possible and normal to use them in speech and thought, it is therefore valid. It has spurred philosophers for literally thousands of years, and the underlying sensation of a “me” at odds with the world has shaped the attitudes and behaviour of countless human beings since it became a part of our everyday lexicon.
But what if there isn’t really such a concrete, individual “You” after all? What if, instead of ‘inhabiting’ this world and being born ‘within’ it, having to forge an existence for yourself at odds with this chaotic and indifferent universe, you were instead completely and inseparably interwoven with it— that you effectively are it? How would that change your relationship with your life, your “self”, this world, and other people?
I, Me, You, He, She, They, It… To communicate, we defined these terms, based on our experiences: we see others acting like we do, talking and seemingly thinking the same way, with the same sensation of “looking out” on a world that you move within, and we attribute Identity— individuality, separateness, distinction. We define “gender”; based on patterns in physical appearance and behaviour we sub-categorise into “he” or “she”. Some individuals have breasts and vaginas, some penises and flat chests, and while those lines blur upon examination, with curvy “men” and rugged “women”, the terms are convenient enough to stick, and if you don’t identify with your biological gender, you are still required to define yourself in relation to them.
Despite the fact that, prior to these labels, any human could (ultimately) provide the same experiences, the same connection and interaction, and the same companionship as other separate beings navigating the storm of existence, suddenly they are different— other than you. Upon being labelled, they fall into a separate category than you; the divisions in your head that are made possible with the structure of language become manifest— become real and apparent.
There is no disputing that before words there are/were still clear differences, between YOU and OTHERS, between the creature that “mothered” or “fathered” you, between the friendly likeable other and the hostile detestable one, or between those that you feel compelled to be physical with or not, etcetera. Rather, with the model of words, these divisions become infinitely tangible; as soon as a label is assumed, the contrast between them becomes insoluble save for letting go of words altogether.
Clearly there is a “you”— something is reading these words, forming its own interpretation of them, going about its existence. This “me” is distinct from the “not-me” of everything. And, again clearly, such a distinction of “me” from “you” is essential for communication in our language, as it is simply impractical to try and specify you through “not-me but also not-everything”. Yet the risk comes from our rational tendency to become complacent with words and to begin to believe in their reality – the convenience of their picture – over our actual messy experience. Despite the fact the only real experiential difference between you and me – whether we’re black or white, man or woman – is that you are not seeing things exactly as I am (I.e. that you are not in my head), it becomes near impossible to feel other than that I am an isolated ME floating alone in a sea of unknowns, alongside other YOU’s. Or even, that this “I” is somehow trapped inside this body, forced to experience all it does as it clumsily attempts to guide and control it. The more and more we use this “I, Me, You” distinction, and the more we are confronted with others using it and acting upon it too, the more real it seems to us— until eventually, millions upon billions of us become lost, trapped in cages defined by barriers of definition and distinction from which all our reasoning – our talking to ourselves in our heads – only makes worse. We become convinced that we are “alone” and in desperate need of reassurance, afraid and nervous that we are being somehow punished for something we don’t understand.
While this may be the picture created through everyday use of the tool of language, and while without stepping away from it we may never escape such division and fragmentation, the same tool also tells us there may be more to the picture. Our picture/understanding of “subject” versus “object” tells us that the two are never wholly distinct. The perceiver defines and gives reality to the perceived just as the object allows the observer to experience observing. Without an object to observe, the observer cannot be aware; without an observer the object is not known or defined. Beyond even these fancy word-games, our most accurate model of the universe to date, Quantum Mechanics, tells us the same story— that down to the most fundamental level (so far) you cannot divide observer and object without one affecting the other; while at the macro, human scale, we may see the mountains across a vast empty space of clear summer air, at the quantum level all is a vast ocean of particles and (or) energy flowing around like sand.
In the previous post (“The Self. What Self?“), Tom helped to clarify the topic of “the Self Illusion” that is central to much of Eastern Philosophy’s teachings, so I won’t labour the idea too much now. Yet it seems to me that this is the most succinct answer humankind has offered to the bizarre manifestation of conflict at the heart of our Being, of the feeling of being “alone” and “trapped in a body” in a strange and hostile world, and the existential anguish that has spurred the last 100+ years of Western philosophy from Kierkegaard through Sartre to the present: that our actual sensory experience “before” words contains no such isolation implicitly, but rather, it is the perspective imposed upon us through ideas (as words!) that creates the illusion that we are separate. By splitting the world into subject-verb-object (for example), we lure ourselves into believing there is an “I” that sees a “YOU” doing the action of “RUNNING”, when in truth, my seeing you running is the same as every other moment of this magnificent existence, only in those specific moments of my experience the sensations I associate with YOU are moving in a different way… You can see why the former is the easier way to communicate! But that is not to say the latter is not true.
Beneath all these tiresome words however, there is a beautiful picture that presents itself. It can also be found in Eastern philosophy, particularly Hinduism, but really this is simply how *I* have come to see reality: of a grand and inexpressible whole, much more than just “the universe”, that encompasses every part of every one and every thing in every form; and that this whole, lacking any form of juxtaposition by which to be aware of itself, to experience itself, allows/creates individual consciousnesses to look out from within.
A big, lonely ol’ universe trapping itself in bubbles just so it can experience the sensation of connection and longing…
Who, or What, are YOU? How do you see your “self” with respect to the universe and other people? What is the most convincing and/or fulfilling source of answers to these sort of questions you have found (spiritual or otherwise)? Does any of this crap even matter? Can you fingerpaint a response more eloquent than my sloppy words? …Get Involved and Comment Below!