Thursday, 18 June 2020

Philosophy-103: Who Am I, Who Are You?


In a previous post, I took a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, dispassionate view of what you are, from a physics and chemistry perspective.  But who you are is a quite different question that takes us deep into metaphysics.  I would therefore like to take a philosophical look at who are you? Or more personally, who am I?

Note that what are you and who are you are different questions because we are conscious beings. There is no "who" for inanimate objects.  And no one asks "who are you?" about an amoeba or a plant or even a worm.  We might ask that of higher life forms, but usually in an anthropomorphizing way.  At the highest levels, it is not unreasonable to ask that question about a horse or a dog since they seem to have individual personalities, but even then you will not get an answer from the animal.

Beyond my (or your) name, relationships, occupation, hobbies, and other attributes that identify and describe me (or you) to others, how do I identify myself to myself?  First, as previously noted, I am a conscious being, but while we all know that implicitly, it is harder to know precisely what that means. Beyond neurons, neurotransmitters and electrochemical impulses in my brain, who is this person who experiences the fully immersive, interactive movie going on inside my head?  This individual is myself, the aggregation of my awareness, memories, intentions, introspection, and first-person subjective experiences.  Figuring out what that means and how it relates to brain physiology and psychological theories is the "hard problem of consciousness", which science has had difficulty getting a handle on to study effectively, much less resolve.

The self - myself - is a collection of abilities, memories, aspirations, viewpoints, personality traits, foibles, habits, and so on that make up my existence, or my being as a human person.  But more than that, it is the spark of self awareness and interior subjective viewpoint, introspection and stream of consciousness, my intentions, will and decision making.  In short, it is the "I" inside me, the person that makes me me.  And of course, you are a different self made up in a similar way of your own unique set of these various aspects.

This self-hood is difficult to define and identify clearly.  Who precisely am I?  Who are you?  Are you the same person you were when you were born?  How about the same as last year, or even yesterday? You feel like the same coherent self, the continuity of "you" throughout your life, yet ever changing with new experiences and memories, shifting outlooks, viewpoints and opinions.  Science cannot fully elucidate this slippery "self", so we must turn to metaphysics and religion for further insight.

Your self, your whole being as a human person, includes your body but also your mind and spirit, that vague but real part of you that makes you truly yourself!  You are not a body with a brain, nor is your mind merely your brain.  Rather, the "you" you are has a brain and uses it for your own purposes.  So what is this core or heart of your person and from whence comes it?  Odd how our most intimate inner self is so mysterious!  You know for certain that you exist, but it is hard to point to or specify what this being at your core is.  Your self is what makes you truly human, and truly unique. It is also what ties you to others and makes us all want to know who we are.  These are deep metaphysical questions for each one of us to explore and delve into.

My own perspective, as a Christian, is that God created my spirit and somehow connected, or infused it with or into my developing body, to be a living soul (see Genesis 2:7 and Psalm 139:13).  The true "me" has developed, learned, experienced, collected traits, and remembered during my unique journey through life, as did yours.  We are each still growing and trying to understand who we are as we experience reality around us.  And when my body ultimately fails and the community of cells that make up my physical being ceases to function, I firmly believe that my spirit, or inner self, will somehow continue to exist.  Without worrying too much how all that works, I nevertheless entrust myself - my inner being - to God, both in this life and in the one to come.

One often hears someone comment on how fortunate they are to be born here in a peaceful, wealthy country, and at this time in history.  This usually contrasts with a harder life in former times, or other places.  In a very real way, however, I - the person I am - could not have been born elsewhere or elsewhen.  If I had been, even with an identical genetic makeup, I would not now be the same person, the same "self" that I actually am; I would be some other person with different experiences, memories, values, and so on.

This is obviously true in various ways: every person is the result of numerous influences and effects. Genetically, we are determined by a semi-random mix of DNA from our two parents.  If born at another time or place, "we" would have had different parents, hence unrelated DNA, which guides numerous physical and other attributes of who we are.  Hence, future cloning prospects notwithstanding, it is impossible to have someone with same DNA born at different time or in another country. 

Beyond genetics are the numerous environmental influences on who we become as adults: parental upbringing with all its norms, priorities, disciplines, modelling, teaching, etc.; our schooling later on, friends, local culture, or society, and so on.  Even people born at same time in the same neighbourhood will develop differently.  Indeed, even "identical" twins for all their genetic and environmental sameness, develop differently as the exigencies of life and all the random experiential variations accumulate.  Who you are is the summation and outcome of all these influences, absorbed and summed together in your person: your behaviours, preferences, abilities, and especially your memories.  You are unique in this respect and it is impossible to conceive of being the same "you" if you were born elsewhere or at a different time.

But what about who I am now?  Am I the same person as yesterday or last year, will I be the same person tomorrow or next year?  In one sense, of course, the answer to both of these is, "no, you are different from who you were yesterday and will be different again tomorrow."  After all, if who you are is determined by your experiences and memories, then take away or add to these, and the self changes.  Obviously you are not the same as you were as a child, and God willing, will be quite different again in many ways before you die.

Clearly the person you are changes throughout your life.  Yet in a very real sense, we each feel like the same person from day to day.  I am the same "me" that went to elementary school, who got married many years ago, who worked in an engineering career, who fathered children, and so on.  Those are MY experiences and memories.  I feel that I have somehow been the same "self" all my life.  How do we reconcile these two contrasting perspectives?

One obvious way is to say that the changes in my person or self from day to day are miniscule compared to the accumulated years gone by.  This does not apply to my life as a new-born, of course, but since I don't remember that, it doesn't much matter.  By the time I was old enough to experience myself as a "self" and to remember past events in a meaningful way, one day was already a tiny percentage of my past.  Thus, day-to-day changes are small, and represent tiny shifts or incremental adjustments to who I am.  I can therefore feel the continuity of my life over time, and my self seems to flow continually through the years, developing and piling up memories yes, but somehow remaining the same "me", even though how I define myself today may be quite different than, say, ten years ago.

Perhaps that concept of a new-born becoming her own self over time is one way of looking at personhood; a certain minimum assemblage of personality traits, experiences, awareness, and thinking ability is needed for the "self" to come into being.  Maybe the fact we do not remember anything from our first months or years means "we" did not truly exist yet?  That seems bizarre, but might be worth considering.  Certainly it takes years for a mature sense of self to emerge.  Observing developing children is often a good way to explore philosophy questions!  The reverse effect occurs at the end of life for some people. More on that below...

Yes, continuity of self is the key to the feeling of being the same person throughout life.  All the accumulated experiences, and memories are all mine!  None come from elsewhere, ported into my being by some mysterious manner, various sci-fi stories notwithstanding.  Except in some rare cases, my life is a continuum and I experience it as one self passing through time on the journey of life.  Exceptions might include a long comatose period, for instance: waking as a quite different person (older, probably weaker and disoriented).  Another example would be amnesia, not knowing who I am or much of my past life.  But even in these cases, there is some partial continuity (personality, abilities, language, etc.) that allow me to remain me.  It might be good to study such people as they rebuild their sense of "self" to see: a) how much of that sense they actually lost, and b) whether and how it is different from before.

Does the self have components, or is it a singular entity?  Apart from schizophrenia, most people feel like a coherent, unitary entity.  Apparently people who have undergone split brain surgery to quell epileptic seizures remain as single integrated individuals, despite having two unconnected  half-brains.  Can one somehow imagine dismantling one's self to separate out aspects of the "me" within, other than hypothetically?  Many of us would like to change aspects of who we are; we are aware of our better and darker parts, if we are honest.  But while we can work to change who we are, we cannot really peel off and discard the parts we don't like.

The idea of losing parts of oneself is worth exploring further.  When drunk or on drugs, there may be a temporary loss or confusion of one's faculties.  Yet the unitary self remains as long as the person is conscious.  Brain damage due to accident or disease may also cause loss of faculties or behavioural changes, but here too, unless the damage is extreme, the changes leave the person feeling like they are still a human person, and more or less, the same person as they were before, albeit reduced somehow.

The ultimate instance of this is people suffering from dementia, who indeed appear to be slowly losing parts of themselves.  Yet they too remain unitary, albeit reduced, selves until nearly the end.  As the disease progresses, the person's family will see changes in them, and experience a slow loss of their loved one.  People with dementia have written books about how it feels to lose their faculties and experience the world and their life differently.  Yet they still feel like the same person, albeit reduced somehow.  Nevertheless, in the end dementia is a true example of the self dissolving.

A final question about who I am relates to my spirit or soul.  Materialists will deny the existence of a non-material spirit, even if they accept the "soul" as the organizing life component in a living body, as opposed to a dead one.  Can the "self" exist apart from the body?  This of course, is the ultimate question of metaphysics, religion and the mind-brain problem of consciousness.  I am not going to resolve it here except to say I believe humans have spirits that outlive their physical bodies.  There is considerable evidence backing up that claim, if one is willing to consider it.

So where are we now?  I have not said anything new about consciousness or the self, and many authors, far more intelligent and thoughtful than I, have explored these questions in deeper ways for millennia.  The "self" remains a mystery, even as it is the most obvious aspect of our reality; "I think therefore I exist".  Even if we cannot fully understand it, we can all think about who we are, what we want to become, and how to live to pursue our goals.  That is, the "I" can take charge of my life, seek to understand who I am, and work toward being a better self.

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