Exploring The Idea, Or Notion, Of A ‘Self’
April 22, 2011
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Knowing others is wisdom… Knowing yourself is enlightenment.
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This is the first part of a series of blogs that I mentioned would be coming… The ones where I was going to do my best to present several ideas which aptly demonstrated that the notion of a ‘self’, a notion which we all seem to cling to so ardently in life, is really nothing more than a sort of grand illusion of consciousness conjured up by the biochemically ‘aware’ molecular systems of our bodies, which – if you’re a human being (or even a bird, perhaps) – use a vocalized type of memetic linguistic patterning to confer ideas, notions, emotions, warnings and/or other data to one another within social groups of a similar species… As it happens, these memes also evolve in a very similar way to the physical bodies that we presently use to convey all these ideas/memes with (after all, we do live in a fractal like universe)… And, it should be mentioned, all of this arose ‘naturally’ from the strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos inherent within the solar system’s accreted mass of star dust… In fact this same strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos resides at the heart of all universal phenomena… But more on that later.
For the moment… Please do excuse the length of time it has taken for me to realize this post… However, much patience, practice and research was needed to construct the essence of, what I’m sure many experts on the subject will only consider to be, this very rudimentary study. And perhaps, while I am managing to be humble, I should also add – so as to be totally honest and fair – that I’m really no better off reaching any definitive conclusion about what ‘I’, or rather my ‘self’, actually is either!?!?
In fact… This study has only made me more and more unsure – more unsure than I’ve ever been before – about what constitutes an idea of a ‘self’… Demonstrating for me, at least, that what many of us seem to take for granted as being a ‘certain’, ‘definable’ and ‘constant’ notion of identity and/or existence, upon closer inspection, actually becomes a very vague, intangible and indefinable man-made abstraction centered more around linguistic syntax rather than on direct knowledge or experience alone. I know that might sound quite disconcerting to some… However, it should be noted that it is nothing more than an alternative idea to counter the many commonplace views that presently exist on how the majority of us see our ‘selves’ and our position here in the cosmos today… Not to mention that I feel it might well be a good time to start evolving a bit, both mentally as well as physically.
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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
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I know, I know… Why would anyone want to challenge the socially accepted Western view of the universe that we’re presently running along with… One that seems to set in stone a type of superiority over the rest of life here on Earth… One where the ‘self’ is all pervasive, and yet, it remains silently un-clear and unrevealed to those who need to know the most about it… ? Well, I for one don’t feel that our present state of Being and/or understanding adequately reflects our true circumstance… Let alone our true nature… And, having spoken to many fellow human beings here on Earth recently (so as to clarify whether we’re all functioning properly or not), I have discovered that many of our present problems i.e. over population, food shortages, war, etc… seem to stem from a fundamental error in the way we all perceive how we connect to the environment around us… To be more specific about this error… We all seem to be observing everything we do through an idea – or lens – of ‘self’. One that focuses our minds into modes of specific and present action within the world we presently find our ‘selves’ in.
But why should this way in which we perceiving things actually be a problem? Well… If we were to accept the idea of our ‘self’ somewhat blindly – like many of us do presently – and see ourselves as all being independently standing i.e. our ‘self’ exists separately and independently of everything else (which many of us clearly thinks is the case, seen by most people amassing bank balances, material wealth like gold, jewelry, cars, fashion based clothes, social status, etc)… Then we can actually limit the way that we see, understand and interrelate to everything and everyone else around us here on planet Earth and within the universe… Why? Because if we choose to completely disregard how the notion of ‘self’ came into being, and use only a marginalized approximation of what this unbounded essence of existence really is, then I fear we may mangle and divorce ourselves thoroughly from any real chance that we might have of developing a true and more appropriately connected state of Being that considers who ‘we’ all i.e. all sentient beings, unquestionably are.
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It is astounding that man, the instigator, inventor and vehicle of all these (i.e. political opinions and religious understandings) developments, the originator of all judgments and decisions and the planner of the future, must make himself such a quantité négligeable. The contradiction, the paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgment – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals in point of anatomy and physiology… But as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgment. He is on this planet a unique phenomenon, which he cannot compare with anything else. The possibility of comparison and hence self-knowledge would arise only if he could establish relations with quasi-human mammals inhabiting other stars…
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)
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I mean… If we could cultivate an understanding of things that is free of ‘self’ centered tendencies and ‘selfish’ attitudes towards natural resources and ecological processes… An attitude that is devoid of all ‘self’ importance… And, thus, prevents our ‘selves’ from taking this idea of a ‘self’ too literally… Thereby relieving most – if not all – of the unnecessary stress and folly that awaits us if we continue with these ‘self’ centered views and relationships i.e. unwittingly promoting deconstructive behavioral patterns within our societies and ecosystems… Then we might well be able to disarm the citadels of ‘self’-importance that we have all imprisoned our ‘selves’ in… And REALLY SEE how ‘we’ all closely interconnect to the world (and universe) around us…
In many ways, this is why this journey to find my ‘self’ was so important… In fact, it’s why I feel it’s a really important journey for us all to undertake. Otherwise we will be cursed to pollute and destroy our delicate ecosystem over and over again, propagating an unsettled karmic pattern from our unenlightened mind streams and resulting behavior patterns, creating a Saṃsāra without end.
Thus, bearing in mind all I’ve written about within this website, it became, for me, a natural evolutionary process to take sometime to ponder over where the true enemy lay hidden… And, by being as humble and as diligent as I possibly could (please bear in mind I still have many faults and, thus, have done only as best as I could with my present defilements of mind, etc…), I managed to catch a glimpse of the enemy within… The enemy within my ‘self’… The one who created all the ‘self’-centered views, stances, opinions, arguments and ways of being that I’ve had, gotten into or done over the years… And I wondered, how can pacify this selfish mode of being… ?
For, once we manage to dismantle this ‘selfish’ perceptive stance, we might well be able to grasp how our present worldview was constructed and, thus, develop a better attitude toward solving our problem of ‘self’ obsession from the inside out rather than trying to do it from the outside in. Nothing we can do outside will ever really permanently change what is going on inside… Why? Well, it’s a bit like what Robert Persig once wrote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government again and again. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
In my humble opinion, it’s in building our present conceptualized understanding of things from the inside out that we have created most of our problems here on Earth.
For example, the idea of ‘self’ – which is a designated social construct that allows anyone who can grasp it to relay, say, how they are feeling in relation to the world around them – provides us with the necessary notions/ideas for constructing sentences with, eluding to a “subject” and “object” with regards to some aspect of happening or action, OR change, between – or relative to – the two entities i.e. a subject and an object… From this formulation we derive the ability to describe to others our place in the world around us, along with the changes that effect all within it daily unfolding, and even how they affect our ‘selves’ and each other (see Noam Chomsky’s “Language And Mind”). Thus the notion of a ‘self’ gives us a very handy tool by which we can understand the world around us, conveying what we feel we need to convey to others in order to act with every one’s best interests at heart (or not) and do our best to survive.
Through this conveyance, We i.e. human beings, were able to organize – via the use of language – our ‘selves’ as collective groups who work together more effectively and efficiently as an objective, collective unit, relaying the merits of certain actions, and condemning overly ‘self’-centered interests that broke up group efforts (see Scientific American’s recent article “Groups With Good Social Skills Outperform The Merely Smart“). In this kind of linguistic/collective exchange, the ‘self’ allowed us to find a type of collective ‘fairness’ and/or ‘equanimity’ within the subsequent constructs of moral codes of conduct… Which, in time, became laws of the land.
So the ‘self’ has bestowed us with the advantage of understanding how we – as individuals – would like to be treated morally and, thereby, it allows us to develop a kind of moral, self-referenced exchange that ultimately posits an agreeable universal code of conduct between us all, precluding good living and optimal survival conditions for the majority. This is a type of morality that most of us would agree with one another upon… Why? Because it allows us to see things in relative terms i.e. the body, where our ‘perceived’ center of consciousness ‘seems’ to emanate from (more on this later), is the center of our perspective… And, relative to everything else, we desire a certain amount of ‘happiness‘ from the actions we perform, so that, on the whole, we all lead stress free and healthy lives. Thus, for the most constructive outcome within the complex dynamics of human flourishing, our actions should be morally guided with a concern for the whole… For looking after the interests of the whole precludes looking the interests of the individual.
So… Bearing all this in mind… Perhaps now is a good time for me to introduce the idea that most languages are essentially the same… I know on one level it might sound a bit bizarre i.e. Japanese is certainly not the same as French, which is not the same as English or Tibetan, otherwise we’d all speak like each other… Rather I mean that the syntax of all sentence structure is essentially the same as one another. In order to demonstrate this, I have quoted the following passage, which comes from the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s book, entitled “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.”
Taken from Noam Chomsky’s “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”, this is a Forward by Neil Smith. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi, 230. Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University
Here are seven essays that describe and deplore a philosophical double standard that respects the methods and results of physics, chemistry, and biology but not the methods and results of linguistics and other sciences of the mind.
One sign of the double standard is that, while hardly anyone thinks one can do philosophy of physics without knowing physics, it is all too common for one to think that they can do philosophy of language without knowing linguistics.
Chomsky is, of course, the leading figure in contemporary linguistics. Starting in the 1950s, his development of generative grammar was an important factor in the shift from behavioristic to cognitive approaches to language and mind. Chomsky’s approach takes the goal of linguistics to be to characterize the human faculty of language, noting its differences from the human faculties for general problem solving science. As Chomsky and other linguists tried to give explicit characterizations of the competence of a speaker of a language like English, it became clear that a child learning language simply does not have the sort of evidence available that would enable it to learn the relevant principles from scratch. There is a “poverty of the stimulus.” The child must be prepared to acquire language with these principles in a way that it is not prepared to acquire the principles of, say, physics or quantification theory.
It is clear that normal children acquire a language that reflects their particular linguistic environment. A child brought up in Japan acquires a version of Japanese. The same child brought up in Brazil acquires a version of Portuguese. So, these languages must in some sense reflect some of the same underlying innate principles.
Further reflection along these lines and a great deal of empirical study of particular languages has led to the “principles and parameters” framework which has dominated linguistics in the last few decades. The idea is that languages are basically the same in structure, up to certain parameters, for example, whether the head of a phrase goes at the beginning of a phrase or at the end. Children do not have to learn the basic principles, they only need to set the parameters. Linguistics aims at stating the basic principles and parameters by considering how languages differ in certain more or less subtle respects. The result of this approach has been a truly amazing outpouring of discoveries about how languages are the same yet different.
More recently, there have been attempts to try to explain some of the basic principles on the assumption that the language faculty is close to an ideal engineering solution to a problem of connecting the language faculty with the cognitive system and the articulatory perceptual system. This “minimalist program” remains highly speculative, but whether of not it succeeds, contemporary linguistics as a whole has been a tremendous success story, the most successful of the cognitive sciences.
One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.
For me, at least, this demonstrates – via the tenets of linguistics – that languages used for communication, a ‘universal’ trait of human beings presently here on Earth, are all essentially structured in very similar ways to one another. This notion of the subjective vs. objective in turn aids, what I can only call, the programming of one’s ‘self’ – via a type of memetic feedback loop – into who they ‘feel’ they presently are in this moment of their lives.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned here that, as we use with such daily regularity a linguistic ‘method’ that defines how separate aspects of the world occur in relation to ourselves i.e. we use sentences that include a plethora of ‘nouns’ or ‘names’ for almost everything we can experience tangibly or intangibly (see the dictionary for a full scope on the number of words that we use to describe things seperately with, coupled with their manmade ‘meanings’/'definitions’) along with how these names/nouns/concepts all interrelate to the separate notion of our ‘selves’… Thus we are unwittingly cementing in place a worldview based on an understanding of ‘separateness’… Of ‘independent’ arising… Where everything seems to have an ‘apparent’ individual identity and meaning, independent of everything else. And, if we don’t check ourselves daily, then we will fall foul of this ‘self’ referential system of thought, and think that everything must be ‘separate’ from everything else… Or even have a ‘meaning’ or a ‘purpose’ of some sort… A meaning that differentiates and/or separates it from other things… !!!
Perhaps that is why many of us feel at a loss when we truly realize that there is no inherent meaning to anything i.e. that everything is ultimately empty… Even the idea of our own lives, which is just a fantastical social construct at best, has no inherent meaning beyond that which we create for our ‘selves’… And, something that has scared me recently (though I must say I am slowly beginning to feel more at ease with the idea now), that there is no inherent meaning, or even concrete definition, to the notion of my – or even your – ‘self.’ I know I still haven’t discussed why the idea of a solid, or ever constant, ‘self’ is perhaps a delusion… But I am getting there slowly…
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Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth.
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After we have seen how everything slots together within linguistic constructs – and understood from which direction we constructed the conceptualized notion of the universe around us – we might well clinch a better method of action with which to resolve most our problems of sustainability and war with… Not to mention that it might well become a highly effective method that will allow us to see how we constructed the notion of our ‘self’ within our relative modes of understanding. For, once that is understood, I believe that we might well give our ‘selves’ the power to ‘self’ realize and actualize our own remedy from within.
It’s a bit like a motorbike… If you don’t know how one is constructed… Or even what a screw does… Or, even, how this basic unit of the motorbike functions i.e. a screw… Then you will never be able to repair it when it breaks down… Just because you know how to drive a bike doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. But when you look at all the parts that gave rise to its coming together… Even how it stays together… Then we will be able to at least take the motorbike apart, bit by bit, undoing the of the basic units that built it up… And, thus, through that process, we’d be able to have a better chance at seeing what is wrong with it and, so, have a better chance of repairing it.
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So as to look at some functions within the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum… I’d like to recap on what we’ve already covered in this blog… Mainly because I feel they contain some very important aspects about how the ‘self’ functions within this here website… For example, the notion of our ‘self’ functioning as a sort of feedback loop (as discussed in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled “I Am A Strange Loop“), along with how analogy can be viewed as the core of cognition, plus how the mind naturally demonstrates that the very process that drives it is based on an engine of nonlinear dynamics i.e. an engine of pure chaos, as well as how we are beginning to use these models of understanding in order to develop artificial intelligence with… Not to mention we have discussed concepts that treat our ‘self’ as nothing more than an amalgamation of ideas/memes that collect over the course of our lives, via a feedback loop between the mind/brain/body/environment continuum, and which are then assimilated into a central memeplex of ‘self’ for relative temporal processing… !!! We’ve also seen how prone to illusion the system of our biomechanical bodies makes us – the very bodies that we use on a daily basis to perceive the world around us with… And, thus, we can see how we should also be aware of the resulting delusions that therefore creep into our own socially constructed understanding about what the nature of reality ‘seems’ to be… !?!? And, bearing that in mind, we’ve even managed to discuss how nothing is permanent and that ‘time’ is really only a conceptualized understanding about how our past memories relate to the only moment that we really have i.e. this present moment… Thus we can begin to understand how we distort the essence of experience with social constructs, like the concept of ‘time’, which we choose to gauge gradients of change with in relation to our own, somewhat ‘self’ biased perspectives, which are usually mainly centered around our own clusters of personalized memories.
I think all these insights are so important to bear in mind… Why? Because rarely do we truly see past these prejudiced, memetically procured views and glimpse at the pure and ultimate nature of everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – which resides in a continually evolving flux of new patterns… Unfolding freely and interconnectedly from one ‘conceptualized’ moment to the next… In fact, there never was any need for conceptualization… Nor was there ever any moment… There was only Being… Being in the now… A Being that was beyond all definition… Continually evolving… Beyond all understanding… Free from any conceptualization…
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None by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it.
John Van Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381)
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‘Being’ never needed any conceptualization because experience was naturally selected for without it and, so, it spoke completely for its ‘self’… Pure ‘experience’ is unbounded and beyond all dualistic modes of thinking… But once one takes the bitter bite/byte from the fruit that came off the tree of knowledge, we instantly limit our understanding of all things and forget that we are much like butterflies ‘flapping our wings’ of imagination within the parameters of our caged, syntax based existence, ‘using our structured minds’ to shape the world in which we now live… How many of us realize that there is this beautifully unbounded, enchanting, chaotic beast lurking deep within the system of our ‘selves’… ? One that, if ignored, can amplifiy subtle changes to manifest infinitly further down the line, like ‘hurricanes’ ripple off the flutter of a butterfly’s wings… Capable of destroying as much as creating.
Without a better viewpoint of our ‘selves’ and how we relate to the universal system in a karmic manner, it will be very hard for us to develop a pure and compassionate intent that amplifies predominantly constructive modes of living, while diminishing the destructive aspects of actions suitably for optimal flourishing of all sentient beings… For, without constructive modes of living, we only unwittingly harm other sentient beings, including ourselves, much further down the line.
Furthermore… So as free our own existence from a “God created us in his image” induced self-righteousness, which seems to only further this ‘self’ obsession… I’ve also begun to touch on how science, along with other ‘human’ endeavors, are yielding results that clearly demonstrate that ‘We’ all are really nothing more than a bunch of ‘interdependently’ related chemical reactions which are slowly evolving in a closed-off, ‘petri dish’ type of a planetary environment, which is isolated from other planetary ecosystems only through space’s vast and open, inhospitable expanses… Here, on Earth, whether we realize it or not, we are simply ‘doomed’ (though I fear that is very much the wrong word with which to describe life’s bountiful delights with) to do our best to survive and work around any sudden environmental/social/universal changes that might disrupt or hamper our ability to live in stability with the environment and ecosystem we find ourselves in. That is unless, somewhere down the line, we actually forget what our original purpose was.
Here I’d like to take a moment to introduce an article from Paulo Coelho’s blog entitled, “Learned Helplessness”… Perhaps, while reading it, I would beg everyone to consider the plethora of maladies that this modern world – and its medicine – has invented for us i.e. ADHD, anxiety disorder, etc…
The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression.
A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile.Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.
Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies.
Some experts suggest learned helplessness can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband’s commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the “normal” demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the learned helplessness cycle.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences.
A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.
How many times could I have just given up and gone to sit with the rest of the herd, medicated up to my eye-balls, happy and supposedly contented with my lot in the daily routine of ‘supposedly’ well adjusted human endeavor… And done so until eventually, one day, I died… ? Too many times was I given this option… And how many times could I have just proclaimed helplessness within this capitalist society and given up this quest of ‘self’ discovery and operated in only the confines of some syndrome or mental disorder, looking for immediate gratification and comfortable conformity? Again, all too many…
Perhaps when one begins to formulate all this for themselves… And glimpse at a more adequate type of interdependent reality for themselves… They might well suddenly realize that our own need for stability limits the way we view this ever-changing world and universe… And, once that step has been taken, perhaps we can then also begin to glimpse at a humbling reminder that shows us we are all really nothing more than the ‘left-overs’ of matter reconfigured in the present solar system’s accretion process – all of which was constructed naturally, via processes of chaos, from a mass of fused atomic debris which had been expired, like soot from a fire, by past splendiferous burns of long gone suns…
Here, perhaps we are somewhat fortunate to have developed a type of organic Life that allows ‘us’ to be present, both here and now, and perceive the wonders of the universe as they unfold around us… Using similar structures and processes to those found in and around the universe so as to guide our perceptive mechanisms and understandings..
Well… I’m sure you can imagine how all this began to sound to a layman like myself… Especially when I began compiling and piecing together all the data and experience I had available to me – which, on the whole, was taken from a vast quagmire of scientific journals, published papers, university/researcher websites, books, video lectures and even going to (though I think ‘sneaking into’ is a far better description of events) a few university lectures in person, as well as some transcendent experiences involving psychedelic drugs and certain meditative techniques – so as to understand a bit more about my place, here, in the unfolding non-linear dynamic of the cosmos…
No doubt, while gorging my ‘self’ on the raw data that ‘I’ had amassed, ‘I’ found my ‘self’ restructuring and rearranging it into streams of, what ‘I’ can only call, an intuitive patterning, or sense of reasoning… One that came from my heart and gut as much as it did my head, all the while filling up the pages of this website with these ‘raw’ ideas… Ideas that relentlessly kept flooding into my mind’s memetic stream… And yet, whilst laying out all these ideas for restructuring, I never knew that I’d be slowly coming back round, ‘full circle’ so to speak, to look back at the observer… At the ‘self’… To see this idea of consciousness looking back at its ‘self’ in an eternal feedback loop… Like someone standing in front of two slightly distorted mirrors faced back in upon each other… And then, when I discovered that the observer, them ‘selves’, can actually shape the way in which the world functions around them simply through the act of perceiving it… !?!? Well… That blew a lot of the ‘supposed’ common sense I had learned from school and society right out of the water.
However, during this process of reflection, the hardest thing for me was trying to pin point where this ‘self’, this observer, actually was… Where ‘I’ actually came from… Why? Because, in trying to discover what my ‘self’ was – this powerful perceiving entity that could shape the universe around it simply by observing – I found my ‘self’ using all the antiquated social constructs that I had been provided with during my childhood and teenage years; concepts and ideas that I had learnt while I was at school and university… And in doing so, I found my ‘self’ needing to ask new questions within questions, so as to to puncture the crusty surface of a hard-baked, almost calcified, social reality… Questions like, if I didn’t use any type of language to communicate with, then, in the absence of any conceptualized notion of a ‘self’, would ‘I’ still be aware of my ‘self’ in the way that ‘I’ presently am, etc… ???
‘I’ mean… Surely if this idea of a ‘self’ was meant to be so obvious a fact… Like, “I think, therefore I am…” ! And as obvious as the existence of a ‘self’ seemingly was… Didn’t there have to be an equally obvious and simple answer about what the ‘self’ actually was/is… An answer that could exist independently of everything else – like language seemed to hint at – without the need to unravel the highly complex and infinitely long chain of cause and effect that brought it all into being… !?!?
But every time I looked at boiling any set of these conceptualized notions about the ‘self’ down into a concise and tidy bit of understanding… I only found endless vagaries, each of which did not quite fit the mark… Each of which didn’t satisfy my need for precision… Each of which required more questions to be asked… And each of which required more answers than the last to be defined and clarified… Spiraling into and endless foray of attach and parry that would apparently lead me to a reachable goal. Oh, how deluded I was.
It eventually became evident that a straightforward and transparent concept of the ‘self’ was not possible. In fact, the solution of my ‘self’ – which I found to be impressively colorful, soluble and ‘seemingly’ apparent in the vocalized solution of syntax which we all used in every day life, much like a dye in water – kept evading any type of concise certainty about what the ‘I’, which was being discussed, actually was. Paradox upon paradox kept layering over one another… I mean… How far could it go? Could these questions go on and on forever and ever… ? Like the way we could go on zooming into and/or out of our present scale of conscious resolution (let’s temporarily forget the apparent limits imposed by the Planck length)?
For example… When I wanted to look at the solidity of my body, where I once thought I perceived my ‘self’ to reside… I wondered whether the ‘self’ could simply be a sum of its physical parts i.e. and enduring form relating to all the atoms in their present structural configurations, connected together in cascading molecular lines/chains of environmental functionality?
But then ‘I’ remembered an idea that was discussed earlier in “An Idea About Who We Really Are“… An idea where the body’s apparent solidity comes into question.
Perhaps here it is a good time to introduce one of those paradoxes that I came across not too long ago, entitled the “Ship of Theseus…” For I feel this adequately allows us to grasp the idea of whether physical (even mental) identity – something that is related to the idea of a ‘self’ – is persistent or not…
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“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch tells us that the ship was exhibited during the time [i.e., lifetime] of Demetrius Phalereus, which means ca. 350-280 BCE.
To make the original puzzle clearer… Let me reiterate this idea in planer English… Over the years, the Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good repair. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship. So, did the Athenians still have one and the same ship? Or was it a completely different ship?
But we can liven it up a bit by considering two different, somewhat modernized, versions. On both versions, the replacing of the planks takes place while the ship is at sea. We are to imagine that Theseus sails away, and then systematically replaces each plank on board with a new one (say it is his habit to carry a complete supply of new parts on board as his cargo). Now we can consider these two versions of the story:
Simple version: Theseus completely rebuilds his ship, replaces all the parts, throws the old ones overboard. Does he arrive on the same ship as the one he left on? Of course it has changed. But is it really the original ship?
Let A = the ship Theseus started his voyage on.
Let B = the ship Theseus finished his voyage on.
Our question then is: Does A = B? If not, why not? Suppose he had left one original part in. Is that enough to make A identical to B? If not, suppose he had left two, etc, etc… Where do you draw the line? I mean… If all the new parts came from the same forest… Or even better… If they all came from the same type of tree as the pieces of wood that ship was originally constructed from did, would this allow one to call it the same ship? Or if these pieces of the same tree were carved by the same person… Would it then be the same ship? Then again… Are these just trivialities? And, if so, would it even matter if Theseus stopped along the way and used different types of wood, whatever came to hand, so to speak… Then would this still be the same ship?
The permutations on this paradox are almost endless… For example, if all the atoms in the ship, atoms that have come together after the processes of accretion and evolution that formed us all along with the rest of the solar system that we now see around us today… If these atoms were replaced in exactly the same position and manner… The only difference being that the atomic matter came from a different set of suns… Would Theseus’ ship still be the same ship? Are the processes that made us more important that the material we are built from?? Or is the notion of ‘importance’ its ‘self’ empty of all inherent meaning… And, thus, is inadequate to describe anything ultimately???
In my humble opinion… We can apply this same principle to the physical notion of our ‘self’… For example we have already seen in a prior blog, entitled “An Idea About Who We Really Are” that, over a 15 year period, the human body replaces almost every single cell within its structure. All the material changes within us… Thus, is this body, that you are now using to read these words with, actually the same body that you had several years ago? I know for me, at least, it certainly feels like it is the same body… In fact it feels similar to the body I had 15 years ago… 15 years ago I was 20 years old, and pretty much looked the same… Albeit now I have a few grey hairs and am slightly fatter than I used to be… I know I ‘essentially’ still feel the same now… And I can still do nearly all the same things I used to, etc… But, despite these similar feelings, am I really the same person?
The same happens with experience. Experience shapes the way we react to the world around us. Different experiences cause different memories to be formed… And with these memories, we temporally choose to guide our ‘selves’ through certain situations… So, if we had to two of me… Exactly the same as each other, up to a specific point in time i.e. all the materials and processes that made us both were exactly identical… Along with all the experiences up to that moment in time, etc… Then, if one of me was to experience something completely different to the other… Would that differing experience mean that ‘I’ am no longer my ‘self’?
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Even if the ‘self’ was simply just a sum of its parts and expereinces… We should ask the question… Where should one draw the lines between all these parts i.e. at a molecular level, or at an atomic level, or even at subatomic levels, as with neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, etc… ?? Or even, where should one draw the line between all these experiences? I mean… What even REALLY constitutes a part??? Isn’t it just the mind grasping at trying to understand the unfathomable process of everything… And, in doing so, procure its own brand of stupid dependability and definition???? Because to define any part properly, shouldn’t we still also include the processes that brought all these individual parts together to function as they do presently, describing, as well, how those processes arose too, and the ones that gave rise to them, ad infinitum?????
But perhaps more pertinently… Do we actually have any real right to divide the flow of an interdependent system up into conceptualized parts? You know, like we feel we do, for example, with borders between countries i.e. separating these interrelated topographies with merely imagined, fracturing lines that stem from our fractured, intellectualized memetic mind streams… I mean… It obvious that these lines simply do not exist in the real world. Nowhere that I have ever been on Earth is there some line that nature left us that denotes who should live where and how they should live or what they should be called… Nowhere!
And even if we did have a right to divide up them up… What would happen if we were to walk around these imagined borders, examining every nook and cranny of the immense majesty and diversity that fell into and out of every facade of their periphery… ? Wouldn’t we also find what Benoît Mandelbrot wrote about in his 1967 paper, published in Science, entitled “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension“?
Surely with every new question asked, a new level of detail emerges, giving rise to an unbounded and infinite boarder? Just as Lewis Fry Richardson discovered, the length of a given coastline depends on the method used to measure it. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious limit to the size of the smallest feature that should/could not be measured around… And, hence, there is no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.
In my humble opinion, it is this very idea that should be applied to trying to understand the notion of ‘self.’ For example, when someone asks us the question “who are we?”, various approximations seem to come to mind and, with these approximations, vague assumptions are made about who we are i.e. he/she lives in Tunbridge Wells, wears sunglasses on sunny days, is a vegetarian, etc… And, perhaps, if we were from a scientific disposition, we might also include that we were made from flesh and bone, which in turn is made from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, calcium, etc… It doesn’t matter to our conceptualized notions that this flesh and bone changes every few years… Just so long as we can describe what it is that we vaguely want to talk about here and now… !?!?
Just as with landmasses too, various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size. So… How far can we go on probing the idea of a ‘self’ with out questioning the very logic/ideas/ approximations/processes that created it? Or even the language that we use to describe it? I mean… If we go all the way… ALL THE WAY… Will we not discover that we are really inherently unbounded and indefinable… ?? That we are infinite in a perspective that present social conditioning and understanding has forced us to forget… ???
While looking for my ‘self’, I found that Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled, “Escher, Bach and Gödel: And Eternal Golden Braid”, was more pertinent than I had ever really imagined it would be… And recently I’ve found my ‘self’ coming back to it time and again… Because in many ways this search for the ‘self’ reminds me of looking at Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” Rather than the ‘self’ being a real entity that can be defined logically and reasonably within axiomatic definitions based on “good-old” empirical evidence – evidence that is derived from many types of experimental observation, and then assessed via modes of logical reasoning, so as to posit how it all fits together into a greater, universal picture… Upon a closer inspection, this ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to merge with, and become part of, the WHOLE universal dynamic… A tiny part of the WHOLE picture… Like a baby Mandelbrot set in the totality of the WHOLE Mandelbrot set… Each of these little sets is dependent on all the totality of the patterns preceding it… Patterns that, if they were any different further upstream, would not have brought it to rest in its present place, shape, size and/or fashion.
Saying that… I doubt that the factors that brought about our “selves” into this present universal moment are quite as simple as zn+1 = zn2 + c… Rather, in my humble opinion, there would have to be – more likely – an infinite amount of describing equations, all entangled and entwined into one another, rippling in and out of sync with each other, feeding back through and around them ‘selves’, making – from a human’s point of view – such an overwhelmingly complex totality of indefinable and unpredictable occurring precisions that one might only be able to describe it as Baruch Spinoza once did… Simply as “God, or Nature” its very ‘self’.
When I began to view the idea of ‘self’ in these terms i.e. that there is this evolving fractal chain of interdependent events, linked by cause and effect – one that gives rise to the notion of ‘self’ – it reminded me somewhat of Kalu Rinpoche’s writing on “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness.” This unfolding cascade of events stacks up with every conscious and unconscious decision/action creating the karmic patterns that determine the unfolding nature of our reality and, therefore, our circumstance.
I know many of us might well call everything We i.e. humans, do or make or say, even, “man-made…” But in reality it is all a part of the natural flow of things… There is an order there, one that defies comprehension… It’s flow is so uncertain and unpredictable that it flexes with every new action or event that is presented to it… Never does it stay the same… In fact, it is so sensitive to everything, that even a little ripple can manifest huge changes somewhere later down the line… Certain ancient Chinese philosophers once called this the great Tao. It was unspeakable, un-describable, and all pervasive… To talk of it would limit it and destroy its essence… To define it would only end up defiling its purity.
So too with the ‘self’… When we try to define our ‘self’, nothing that we hang on ‘it’ conceptually fits ‘its’ essence properly… Every limiting word presumes a rough approximation of something infinite and unbounded… And to use limitations to describe something which is unbounded is dangerous… It breeds delusion and breaks the delicate balance between what ‘IS’ and what we think ‘it’ is. I’m sure that if we all were to spend most of our time striving for enlightenment, then we would begin to see all this i.e. that we are nothing more than a part of the chaos inherent in a universal – although even the term universal might well seem to limit what I really want to express – system that is continually evolving and unfolding in this present moment. When we let go of our ‘selves’ then we truly become free and we can see that nothing begins or ends… Nor does anything exist independent of everything else, especially in the finite ways that we have been taught to describe the world with.
So… To bring it back round to where we started from… To understand what the ‘self’ is, I found my ‘self’ having to look at all the processes that brought me into being… And while I’m sure I’ve only touched on just a hand-full of these in the infinite majesty unfolding continuously around us… It lays a good idea at the unknowable totality of the interconnectedness we all share with one another AND the universe around us… I know we might well like to describe everything in terms of how it relates to our “selves”… But it would be better not to get too attached to this way of describing things… For it can breed delusion and spread confusion by manifesting fantasies beyond what actually “IS”. I As Douglas Adams once said…
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
I will leave it here for now… The second part to this study of ‘self’ will follow soon.