Saturday, August 27, 2011


Mens cuiusque is est quisque (Cicero)

The word ‘identity’ has a number of distinct meanings. Only the principal meanings, as they apply to the individual person, are of interest here. There is no point in getting bogged down in recondite logical problems, but one or two of them can be mentioned. There is, for example, the problem of the ‘identity of indiscernibles’. Broadly, this asserts that if two entities have everything in common then they are one and not two. Similarly, the ‘paradox of identity’ claims, roughly, that if one says of two entities that they are identical, then one is either mistaken (because they are distinct) or uttering a tautology (because they are one and the same thing). Though they do have consequences for issues such as ‘brain-mind identity’, these fine logical distinctions are of no particular interest here, a fortiori since they arise largely from habits of perception. What we are interested in here is simply the common practice that persons have of saying of themselves that they are ‘such and such’ (where this can be any label from a huge range of nouns, proper names or definitions) and identifying themselves, as common parlance has it, with what is mentioned. We are also interested in the common insight that in the concept of identity some essence of the person is being talked about when a person refers to his or her own or someone else’s ‘real’ self, what they essentially are. We shall not bother with the logical problem of picking out two distinct entities of importance to the self and calling them identical with the self; nor shall we bother with the closely related problem of the apparently tautologous character of any attempt to establish the relation between the self and itself, between an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, in an effort to circumscribe identity. We shall stick to common usage of the word ‘identity’ and simply assume that the question of human personal identity, involves the self’s comparing or relating itself to identifiable aspects of its activity, constitution, situation or whatever and saying ‘that is what I am.’ Or, alternatively, we shall assume that the question of identity involves the self’s comparing or relating itself to identifiable aspects of its activity, constitution, situation or whatever and saying, ‘that is not what I am.’

There is a fashionable theory of mind that makes use of the notion of the ‘identity of brain and mind’ as if this were a provable – or even proven – state of affairs. If the thesis were provable, this would of course involve showing, rather than just asserting, that the set of all mental properties of an individual is identical with the set of all physical properties of the brain of that individual, i.e. that there is no difference at all. No current use of language, which enshrines the distinctness of the mental and the physical, suggests that this is any way a reasonable thing to try to attempt. Despite the current fad for confidently and loudly (too loudly) maintaining the opposite, there is no reason to suppose that, by means of current language-usage, any identity between brain and self can be arrived at. We simply end up with flat, counter-intuitive assertions of the sort ‘x is y’ where x and y have no obvious points of contact and where what is actually happening is that either x or y is being denied reality. The so-called ‘brain-mind identity’ is no more than an article of faith of certain thinkers who cling to pet theories because the alternatives seem abhorrent. So here we nail our colours to the mast and simply state our view that such an identity is impossible. It is after all the thing-ideology that strives to equate self and brain and for no other good reason apart from the fact that the brain can be seen, handled, dissected, weighed, squelched, smelled and tasted, its geometry agreed upon, and otherwise treated as a three-dimensional object. But if one does not believe in any ultimate separate existence of things, except as abstractions, then one is quite at ease with the notion that the self is distinct from its brain, even though many functions of the self may be closely associated with structures of the brain. The self-brain identity theory disappears when the thing-ideology is ditched.

All material systems, particularly living systems, not only have a whole function which is more than that of their parts, but also depend upon their position within superordinate wholes for that function. Feedback loops exist not only within the system, but also between the system and its environment. That our brain can, to our experience, be an object, in no sense means that isolating and probing that object gives us exhaustive insight into every aspect of the way it works. The brain is clearly in some sense the focus of the self’s interaction with the world, just as the retina is in some sense the focus of the visual experience of the world; but this in no sense indicates either that vision is reducible to processes in the retina, or that the self is reducible to some processes in the brain. Given the interconnectedness of all matter, the self may well be a function of a far larger energic field than that of the chunk of matter that our senses and our objectifying tendencies cut out of the entire material nexus in which our body as vehicle of experience is set.

These latter reflections do not oblige one to adopt any traditional philosophical position, such as Cartesian or any other kind of dualism. The simple fact is this: thinking in terms of the thing-ideology is what creates the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ in the first place; drop the thing-ideology and you either no longer have a problem, or you have a different and much more interesting one. It has always been a mystery to many of us why the ‘self-brain identity theory’ stopped at the brain. Why didn’t it call itself the ‘self-body identity theory’? And if it became this, why should it stop there? Why should it not be the ‘self-body-and-contiguous-environment identity theory’? After all, my body is only separate from the world around it as an abstraction; in fact we know it to be in perpetual chemical contact with all contiguous matter. And it’s undeniable that that chemical contact is decisive; after a few large whiskies, my mind is very different from what it was before beginning to drink them.

The three-dimensional object that we see as the brain is a construct of our habits of mind, one more object in a world that these habits tell us consists only of objects. It should be sufficiently clear by now that this is precisely the view of the world that needs to be contested if the self is to be understood at all, rather than being abolished by identifying it entirely with a chunk of ‘matter’. But if we do not identify the self with its brain, then we do not have to identify it with any of the other definable structures that people use in order to pick themselves out and to designate the uniqueness of their self. We can reject each one of these conventional sources of identity as being in any way essential and home in on the irreducible core of the self to which all these ancillary features, such as name-identity, body-identity, memory-identity, ego-identity, persona-identity, role-identity, function-identity, group-identity, team-identity, national-identity, and so on, act as modes of expression. As human beings, we are always in search of some invariance, some stability of structure, some repeatable permanence – in short, some essence within the process of uninterrupted change, not only in the universe at large, but also in the self. But the question must be asked whether beyond any physical object – body, brain – beyond any physical organisation – family, clan, team, church, nation – there is any other more essential source of individual identity. The philosopher David Hume was quite clear on this point: if we look for the self, we will find quite simply nothing apart from perceptions of these things. We can drop all of these empirically comprehensible sources of identity without coming upon, but equally, without abolishing the core of the self, in which surely our identity must be set.

It would seem that the fundamental paradox of the human is that only in stripping away all these structures that seem to give the context and character to human life, only in penetrating to the intrinsic nothingness of the inner self, do we come upon any real essence. Naturally, the thing-ideology would instantly claim that in arriving at an entity that seems not to be a thing, we have precisely ‘no-thing’ and therefore no subject of discussion, no entity to be investigated, no issue at all to be addressed, nothing to which any permanence at all can be attributed, no repeatability. But that is precisely the point. It may be, of course, that what we call ‘matter’ invariably involves what we call ‘mind’, but that it is only in the complex energic fields that are our physical selves that the intelligence, the mind-aspect becomes self-reflective and capable of experiencing itself. It may be, moreover, that the informational content of that complex field provides a degree of permanence within change that we may equate with the permanence of the conscious self. But this is quite a different matter from equating the self with any discrete object that the sensory-cognitive apparatus may cut out from the entire material nexus of our experience. And even if we could do this, equating the self with an isolatable body of information is essentially no more helpful than equating it with a three-dimensional object.

The permanence of the self, however, need not be tied to any sort of mechanical or physical invariance, no sort of repetitive objective stability, since the self, as an entity primarily structured by information, feeds on itself. It is intrinsically an ever-renewed, permanent opportunity for growth. This ever-renewed opportunity is the opportunity of creative re-discovery of what we may have so far identified ourselves with and of the ways in which we may have so far understood ourselves. The self is precisely this open-ended, ever-renewed process and it is utterly pointless to try to tie it to the illusory invariance of a three-dimensional object. The ego and the rational intellect under the dominance of the ego with its thing-obsession, will naturally reject this construction on human life and insist upon equating any source of identity with thing-like entities or indeed with things themselves. It will ‘prove’ such equations by pointing to circumstantial evidence such as the apparent disappearance of the self in degenerative disorders or other kinds of brain damage. But it would do that wouldn’t it? The ego, with its craving for control is tied closely to the language-engine (the function of the right-brain in current brain-mythology) and can only come up with names – i.e., things – and their apparent isolation in space. The scientific theories of the self are driven by this language engine and can only come up with more and more ‘things’. Thus every exploratory and explanatory activity of the scientific ego becomes an exercise in self-confirming theories, since it is incapable of emerging from the habit of viewing the world as a collection of things. In only looking for things, that is all it finds; and identity becomes no more than a matter of equivalence between things. Now since this is an ideological position, there is absolutely no reason at all not to adopt a contrary position based on the experience of the self and declare that only in the indeterminate core of the self, beyond perception, beyond language and beyond the perceived world, only in the hyperworld connection that we have with all of reality do we encounter something like a permanent identity, some focus of the self, where the self can convince itself that it remains the same. It is the confrontation with the indeterminate ‘no-thing’ in self and in world that constitutes the essence of the human and the essence of everything that makes us intrinsically what we are. This is not, moreover, an anti-empirical position. We know that we are an intrinsic part of the world, but we do not have to believe that we have to identify ourselves with a three-dimensional thing: if we experience ourselves as indeterminate, immaterial parts of the world then only an ideologue can say we are deluded. We shall try and put a little more evidence for this view in the next chapter where we discuss perception. For the moment, we shall simply assume that the notion of the indeterminate core of the self as identical with the essential indeterminacy of the world is understood.

This indeterminate core of the self is the cockpit of the soul, the vantage-point from which we view all determined structure that we may see as attributes of our self, but which, in reality are only the sloughed-off husks of the self. These husks are the determinate locus of the self’s indeterminate presence in the world. It is from the vantage-point of the indeterminate core of the self that all structure is found to be expressive of some agency that is not part of the structure itself. This is the essential lesson of Gödel’s view of formal systems. It is from the vantage-point of the indeterminate self, for example, that language is discovered to be a ceaseless striving to go beyond its own boundaries, mathematics a ceaseless striving to transcend its limitations in new and more powerful formalisms and experience itself a ceaseless striving to penetrate beyond the veil imposed upon the world by our senses and their habits. We are not bodies, not, brains, not functions, not cog-in-machine components of contingent material structures such as crowds and nations, we are beyond all of those avenues of self-expression, we are unique selves, uniquely creative entities whose inner nature is only comprehensible as an inseparable aspect of the indeterminate inner nature of the world. The fact that this inner nature is no-thing, precisely not a thing, does not mean that in talking of it we are talking of illusion and self-deception. If it sounds like that, this is because language is tied to the objects of sense. Language is a kind of consensus tied to a certain mode of habituation of the senses. Its principal purpose is the communication of practical meanings concerning shared experience of things. Language becomes strange and analogical, it cracks, splits and becomes paradoxical when the self sees beyond the habituation of the senses to perceive only things and beyond the linguistic consensus that reflects this habituation. But it is the lot of every discoverer to run the risk of appearing to attack and to damage this consensus and to draw the ire of those whose identity is apparently bound up closely with it.

The individual who has discovered the creative core of his or her self, knows that it is this core that is the focus of the self’s identity and of all its experience and that all the empirical features of identity are incidental. The self is the infinitely dimensional ‘space’ where the caesura between subject and object ceases to have any meaning, where the difference between world perceived and perceiving consciousness no longer counts, where the difference between the products of the mind, in language or any other medium, and the world they are meant to portray, ceases to have any weight at all. In the encounter with the indeterminate self, the true source of identity, the individual is pure hyperworld, world in its character as pure creation. Things appear as mere temporary phantasms, mere transient fictions and utterances about them have the same character. The body appears for what it is: a transient structure, a transient world-tube, in how many dimensions, we know not, that emerged around the time of our conception from the universal energy-field and that will disappear, at our death back into it. That body constituted a unique viewpoint on the universal process; but the viewpoint is not the same as the view and the view can potentially be from anywhere.

Given that general picture of human life, in which the body is no more stable, no more permanent than the virtual particles that appear and disappear, that are ‘created’ and ‘destroyed’ by emerging from and being re-absorbed into the universal energy field, our identity need not be associated with any specific aspect of that material process. Indeed, our identity is all the poorer, all the more illusory, all the more trivial, if we are so identified. The indeterminate in mind and world is the source of the wave of information that accompanies all particles of so-called matter and that to a much greater extent accompanies all aggregations of such particles. Hyperworld, the world as such, moves constantly according to its own indeterminate core of intelligent, creative innovation. The self that has discovered in its own depths the indeterminate, intelligent link to that universal fount of perpetual innovation has in the truest sense discovered its identity. The self that finds its identity in any-thing else still has a long way to go.

Self is indistinguishable from world, though the undeveloped self experiences this as an absolute opposition: self and non-self. Identity, essentially is the discovery of identity of self and non-self; it is not ego-identity. The so-called problem of identity arises because the ego-dominated self becomes itself part, and only a part, of its world. Both the sense of the self as ego, as a substantial, stable, persisting entity initiating and causing effects, on the one hand, and the sense of one’s ‘world’, out there, as a stable, persisting object of perception and use in which the self’s cause has effects, on the other, are alike, the one and the other, both illusions. Both illusions can be uncovered only in the self’s discovery of its own indeterminacy and the correlate indeterminacy of the world; and that requires a complete separation of the self from the desires, plans, wishes, intentions and even perceptions of the ego. It requires even more, perhaps, separation of the self from the additional level of illusion, namely the purely linguistic dimension in which the ego is structured by the stories it spins to account for itself to itself, the stories in terms of which its enquiries are dealt with ‘rationally’, i.e. in midworld. When this separation of the self from language takes place, the self enters the state of understanding quite spontaneously, for understanding is its natural state. The problem of identity then disappears: there remains only the one universal process, the perpetual creativity of hyperworld, and identification with any single part of this, either as body or mind, is thereafter impossible. It is, of course, rare for this kind of self-identity to blossom without the luxury of contemplation. It can, however, be grasped by considering the experience of perception, to which we now turn.

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