You are not a thing. You are a phenomenon.
And here are several things I’m mulling over because even if we have firm conclusions about anything, how much those conclusions resonate, and how we relate to them is in perpetual flux. This is why I find myself reexamining the same questions on an almost daily basis. And so, there is no such thing as a fixed conclusion, because any conclusion has to be in relation to something, namely a conscious individual.
Lately my ideas about how I conceive of individuals have gone through a bit of refinement because at the same time that ones relation to a given conclusion is continually in flux, one moves around an idea like an oyster’s muscles around sand to produce a pearl, and one comes up with a more satisfying understanding appreciated from different angles.
There are two very opposite ways of thinking of an individual. One is as a distinct biological entity: a body. The other end of the spectrum is to see people as a conglomeration of thoughts, experiences, orientations, memories, values, beliefs and actions: a mind. I am much more fond of the latter view, let’s go with extremely more fond, but I recognize there is some truth to the former.
And here is another notion, which is that apparently irreconcilable or mutually exclusive truths can simultaneously coexist, in which case one has to be comfortable with some cognitive dissonance. Reality, not surprisingly, can not be encapsulated by rational thought alone. Animals live their whole existence without a rational thought. Galaxies are formed without a rational thought.
Descartes made the mistake way back when of conceiving of the universe as operating like a clock. That dissolved with subatomic physics, which showed that the stable basic building blocks were themselves mutable.
There are logical conundrums which are apparently unsolvable. Consider the inception of the universe. Either a first thing came out of nowhere, which is impossible, or there was always something, and no beginning, which is also impossible. According to reason, the universe should not exist.
I acknowledge that a person has certain biological traits and quite possibly personality ones as well. In many ways we come into the world already who we are going to be. But even to the degree this is the case, everything that comes after is what really counts. And yet, even today, people who consider themselves “progressive” will categorize people, and their implicit morality and other factors that are chiefly only evident in conscious behavior, based on the physical body.
There is this insistence, which should strike everyone as outrageously ass-backwards, that you ARE an X or Y (an infamous example on YouTube is the clip of the white man yelling at another white man, “You’re a fucking white male!”) This should be taken as an insult. You are a THING?! Who you are was already determined before you were born?! In fact, this denies your individuality and your identity!
It would be more accurate and progressive to say you are NOT an X or Y. The rejoinder to this is that it denies race or pretends it is invisible. Not so fast. It merely insists that one is not determined by ones biology at birth; that one has a say so in who one is; that ones actions, beliefs, and thoughts matter. Ones life matters. To insist you are defined by your race or gender is to deny your consciousness, free will, and intelligence. Only a stupid creature, like an insect, is (as far as we can tell, I think) defined absolutely by its biology.
We intelligent beings are capable of being arbitrary or very deliberate. I made an argument before about free will, which is that if we don’t have it than our actions should be predictable, in which case with the most advanced super computers and countless models of human behavior, scientists, psychiatrists and other relevant experts should be able to tell you what you will do next. Note here that one of the strongest arguments against free will is that humans are physical things, and every physical thing operates by the laws of physics and is the inevitable outcome of everything that went before. Our minds, they argue (including Sam Harris) merely experience what was going to happen anyway, and consciousness is just along for the ride. Free will, they say, is an illusion. But if the best scientists and computers were to tell you, “You will now sit on that chair”, you could easily kick it over instead.
In order to prove determinism, they would need to be able to tell you that you are going to do something, and you wouldn’t be able to do something else arbitrarily, on a whim. That’s just not going to happen.
We are biological organisms, and all evidence points to our consciousness being a byproduct or emergent property of the physical brain: we see no evidence of consciousness independent of highly advanced organic brains. However, according to science, consciousness itself is a non-physical property, and it cannot be found. If you follow my blog, you know what I’m about to say. Right. Let’s go back to Descartes and the one thing that he determined was an irreducible and undeniable truth: “I think therefore I am”. This is self-awareness in a nutshell. I know that I have cognizance, and therefore there must be an “I”. I exist.
And yet, the one thing that defines us at our core – our self-awareness – does not empirically exist at all according to the instruments of science. It can only be inferred that it must exist, but there is no direct evidence other than our undeniable experience of it. Subjectively speaking, we know we exist because we are conscious. Hence, consciousness is the seat of our being. Objectively speaking, however, there is no more direct physical evidence for consciousness than there is for God. Could there be any greater conundrum than that there is no empirical evidence of our own subjective existence?
Here I am a dozen paragraphs in and I haven’t said explicitly how I conceive of people yet. The model I find most useful at present is to think of people as immaterial consciousnesses caught in a set of circumstances. I might even say that deep down, the pure phenomenon of consciousness is the same in all of us: we are animated by the same thing, even if it is just an emergent property of the brain. Let’s imagine consciousness exists somewhere in a heretofore undiscovered dimension and has certain constant properties, something like currents or frequencies (though it would probably be something else we haven’t conceived of yet, as these things apply to extant dimensions). Well, this pure phenomenon of consciousness would be identical in each of us, both as a property and experientially at the most core level: the undeniable experience of being, a.k.a. self-awareness.
And so, I rather think of people as – to go with a much more direct and popular analogy – spirits or souls operating within a set of circumstances which includes the body (and here gender matters), race, ethnicity, culture, class, geography, and the most minute of everyday experiences. Race is not denied, as it can equate to a very large set of important or even overwhelming circumstances.
If I were to go with the convenient analogy of a “soul”, I would go further and postulate that the “spirits” in question may, on the most fundamental level, be the same spirit. Hence, all people have a shared core identity. This is quite opposed to viewing people as primarily biologically determined, in which case others are necessarily entirely separate from you, and can be conceived of as alien, other, and hostile. Hatred takes root much more easily in the very fertile ground that believes individuals are biologically determined, and exist within an inherently competitive environment (here a self-fulfilling prophecy).
“Spirits” or “souls” may strike people as frivolous spiritual/religious mumbo-jumbo. Except, as I have already outlined, I’m using it as a metaphor for the mind, and the foundation of the mind, which is consciousness. I don’t say that the souls are immortal, transcend death, or are unique to a person irrespective of the body. I’m just talking here about the sense of the experience of existing that we can all agree on.
When I look at people this way, I am often struck by how difficult or odd another’s experience in their unique circumstances must be. A dark side is we can be trapped in untenable, unconscionable, or unbearable situations. And it also seems as if consciousness via humans is forcing upon itself every conceivable experience, no matter how extravagant or grisly.
It may be that even an immaterial conscious entity is still quite distinct from others until one excavates to the most basic underlying ground of being.
If you follow my work you might have thought of my most recent project while reading this, because I am creating versions of myself – with the help of artificial intelligence – that do not exist except as images, and whatever fleeting pseudo-consciousness they may remotely possess in terms of a conveyable quality (an expression, for example). The odd thing here, which was the inspiration, was the uncanny resemblance the neural network would produce, while radically changing my features. It is based on physical characteristics, but also keeps subtle expressions.
Working on this project has helped me evolve my thinking about identity, and existence, because it helps me visualize myself in completely different circumstances. While none of the resultant portraits are of me, they are all nevertheless self-portraits because that which connects them and is less obviously tangible more accurately reflects who I really am. What is the “me” that carries from one visage to another? Perhaps it’s the character.
This is another word that is quite useful and lamentably absent in current discourse about identity. When we are dealing with people who belong to our same biological type and general circumstances (if I am in a group of white men for example), character becomes all important. We recognize people as humorous, generous, shy, bullies, brave, heretics, conformists, hot-tempered, combinations thereof, and so on. These remain the most important things in more mixed groups as well, until we assign character based on biology and not on our more intimate interactions with real people. As everyone discovers repeatedly in life, it’s usually easier to be mad at someone, or dislike them from a remote distance.
Identity politics, I think, has many good elements when it is dedicated to freeing people from suppression of their unique identity. The best part, for me, is allowing people to express and share their unique experiences, though this is obviously predicated on their ability to explore their interests, desires, and so on – to have those experiences. A TV show like RuPaul’s Drag Race couldn’t exist without identity politics, and I much prefer to live in a world in with that show in it. Even if I am uncomfortable with some people’s identities (I wouldn’t be comfortable at an exclusive party on a yacht) — I am cool with that, and much less comfortable with the idea that this or that identity is forbidden, assuming they aren’t hurting anyone.
By the way, I think it’s too much to ask or expect people to be comfortable with everyone. We aren’t generally comfortable in new situations or among strangers, especially if we aren’t particularly outgoing to begin with. Once while living in China I walked into a restaurant with a friend, and where we lived there were only a handful of non-Chinese. Everyone turned to us and started talking loudly about us, snapping pictures, and laughing. In fact, this happened to some degree whenever we ventured out of our apartments. But when it was particularly intense, nah, it wasn’t comfortable, and that’s OK.
On the other hand, identity politics goes too far when it starts to describe people by their biology. This is “essentialism” – the notion that your essential qualities are fixed to your biology – and is the root of all racism, sexism, homophobia, and you name it. We can’t turn around and use essentialism in the name of progress and the good. You don’t get to project all sorts of deleterious qualities, and characteristics on someone because of the way they look, and pat yourself on the back for being a champion of the good and an enemy of prejudice and discrimination.
Rather than defining myself as a “white male” – which is the way I am seen as a physical thing from the outside – I would and do perceive myself as a consciousness or “spirit” who navigates an existence that includes the circumstances of being white, male, and so on. It also includes many other and quite likely much more important factors, such as that I’m an artist; an expat living in Asia; come from the working class; have an MFA; am in a relationship; and most crucially am the sum total of all my lived experience which I helped tailor, and is the result of billions of decisions and micro-decisions.
The best way to understand who someone is, ideally, is not to look at them with your eyes, but to look out from their eyes. [Note that when you look at my art you are indeed looking at someone through your eyes, but you are simultaneously looking at what I fashioned through what I saw with my own. You are thus looking through my eyes and seeing how I see myself in these various guises, and as interpreted in and through collaboration with AI.] When we define people by race, gender, and so on, we are insisting they are ONLY what we see, and we may even mock them for it (have a coffee cup with the words “white male tears” on it). The biggest flaw with this kind of thinking is it is astoundingly stupid and anti-human. It insists that someone is a thing that is necessarily deficient in some ways and thus can be mocked with self-righteous impunity. This is the underlying cancer that fuels hatred of whatever groups of people. You need to see them as inherently different and separate from yourself, and somehow inferior (even if it’s the moral inferiority of thinking they are superior).
When we decide that people are not worthy of sympathy, compassion, or empathy, without knowing anything about them, because they somehow lack real humanity or are otherwise inherently and necessarily BAD, it’s a sure sign we’re hypocrites. Look for this and you will see it everywhere. You can not say a group of people is bad and think you are fighting against bigotry.
The mental cancer is itself the problem, and attributing it necessarily to any group of people, while simultaneously absolving all others from possessing the cancer, is an expression of the cancer itself in the malignant phase [“You are necessarily bad. I am incapable of being bad. You must be punished.”].
I didn’t want to get this political about it. As I said earlier, people are not just blank slates, even at birth. We may already have strong inclinations and proclivities. Some of our character may already be present. But we are definitely not mere physical objects mindlessly propelled through life by the laws of physics. Quite the contrary, the real person is the invisible, lived experience of how she or he operates within his or her unique set of ever-changing circumstances.
To define someone by their body is like defining a Poker player by the hand he or she was dealt. If you think you can see the player, you’ve been fooled by a decoy.
22 replies on “Runaway Rant: How I Conceive of People Vs. Identity Politics”
Your posts-always a treat! How about this: I think too much about stuff, therefore I write a blog. You write: self-awareness doesn’t empirically exist. If I walk into a wall and say “ouch” that’s empirical (unscientific and based on experience or observation) evidence that I exist. I know you’re talking about subjective experience but isn’t my reaction to hitting that wall subjective.
Another one: animals have no rational thought. Is there concrete proof of that? When an antelope flees a pursuing lion, is it instinct or rational thought? Because if I flee a lion, it will probably be called a rational reaction. As far as galaxies, who knows?
I’ve always believed that who we are is in no small way determined by our physical appearance. Someone who is attractive, healthy and fit will have that determine parts of their personality as much as a person who is ugly, unhealthy and obese determine parts of theirs. At six feet and 150 lbs. I’m considered healthy at my age, but at twenty-five when I was six feet and 135 lbs. I was considered too thin or skinny. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t affect to some degree who I am. But hey, all you fatties, who’s laughing now? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
By the way, I noticed that your project has no people of color, although there is an alien.
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Hi James. Glad you enjoyed the post.
So, you were saying that the physical experience of pain is subjective. The counter would be that you only need be aware to experience pain, but not aware that you are aware (consciousness is often defined as the awareness of being aware). So, that you feel pain can be seen as a physical, biological reaction that an animal with a pea-size brain would experience, but the ability to, say, resent that you are in pain and think about it requires consciousness. The whole discussion of consciousness is rather elusive at first. There’s evidence that you feel pain, that the brain registers it, and that you are thinking about it. But science deals with things that physically exist, and self-awareness is experiential and entirely subjective. The brain, its chemistry, and its behavior are all observable, but the phenomenon of being self-aware is a state, and an incredibly stable one, but which cannot be located physically. Scientists are searching for it and trying to figure it out right now, and it’s a hotly debated topic.
If gets rather philosophical. According to many scientists, only physical things exist. If you can’t find something, you can’t measure it in any way. The only thing we know of that exists that isn’t physical, is consciousness. There’s something called “the hard problem” which is how a non-physical thing – your mind — can control the physical body. Some scientists will say that your mind doesn’t control it, but the physical brain does, and you only experience it after the fact.
“When an antelope flees a pursuing lion, is it instinct or rational thought? Because if I flee a lion, it will probably be called a rational reaction.” That would be the rational thing to do if you were answering a questionnaire, but reason isn’t required. You don’t really need to think it through using language. Blind instinct would do in that case. The antelope doesn’t have linguistics and thoughts in language, so can’t reason. It isn’t making an argument to support its conclusion.
“I’ve always believed that who we are is in no small way determined by our physical appearance.” And I think you are right about that. I wouldn’t use the word “determined” as it’s too absolute. I would say “influenced”. But, yeah, you are conditioned by how your are treated, and how you are treated is going to have a lot to do with how appealing you are to others. But there’s room in there to have different reactions, some more positive and some more negative.
“By the way, I noticed that your project has no people of color, although there is an alien.” The alien is in the background. There are a few Asian people in the background of the one in the airport. In fact there used to be an app where you could change your race, but it was SHUT DOWN by the social justice warriors. Nevertheless I have already tweaked out the AI in various ways and stumbled upon how to make black versions of myself, though they are less clear than the white ones. I’ll include those at some point, though they are very risky, ad the knee jerk reaction would be to accuse me of black-face and racism, etc. As I said, the app that allowed people to change race was banned as racist.
That’s a fun little point I can bring up when people say, “Why are they mostly white?” “Because you killed the app that would allow me to experiment with different races, that’s why!” I can do it the old fashioned way, but it’s quite a lot more work, so, I will do it maybe a few times.
You’re right-influenced is the better description. I didn’t know about the app. That’s a problem I have with art that is too heavily dependent on technology. All too often the artist is also at its mercy (limitations).
I should probably let my brother figure all this out; he teaches philosophy at a university. It gives me a headache. That’s one of the things I like about painting. It’s more visceral and intuitive, and, in my opinion, the best art is always intuitive. If it gets too cerebral, it can read like a visual platitude.
Anyway, keep writing.
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“That’s one of the things I like about painting. It’s more visceral and intuitive, and, in my opinion, the best art is always intuitive.”
The proof is in the pudding. Anything and everything else is bullshit.
True enough! But at the end of the day, the world or posterity or something will decide whose pudding is the tastiest and has the most proof.
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Well said. To my understanding there is a conceptualized distinction in Vedic philosophy between the Jiva (individuated self which acts and lives out an identity according to the cause and effects of residual karma) and the Atman (the seat of consciousness which is understood to be a singular substrate at the core of every being). I feel that this somewhat relates to your perspective. Either way, well said.
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Yes it does, and some of my thinking is based on the transcripts of talks by NIsargadatta Maharaj I read over a decade ago. Just today I was telling myself I should read his writings again.
At the time I was reading him I was also reading a couple scientific books on brain/consciousness theory, etc. And strangely enough, Maharaj was saying many of the same things, but had gleaned them subjectively rather than objectively. His talks helped me understand the science, and vice-verse. I was also profoundly influenced by some experiences which perhaps I’ll share at a future time.
I was thinking of adding another metaphor in the post, which is that God has gazillians of eyes, two of which belong to you. But I didn’t want to go too far in that direction, especially since it would take several long paragraphs and defining terms to make that seem grounded in reality.
Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you liked my expression of those ideas.
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Cool. My exposure to Vedic philosophy was many years ago as well and through literature written by german philosophy students expounding upon the nondual school of Advaita Vedanta, particularly centered around Adi Shankara (spl?) Anyways, it was all presented in a way which cut past the pretenses of religion to get to the bare bones of it which are actually very much in concord with the more platonic schools of western philosophy. Cant say I am able to speak ad any philosophical authority but the effect of just reading analysis of such ideas had a profound impact that was mind alteting at the time. And in vein of the God idea you mention, the further realization of the Advaita school is that Atman is Brahman. I am sure you already are aware of this.
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Also, coincidentally I was drunk last night and wrote a similar diatribe about identity politics albeit from a slightly different angle, but never finished as I was a little too drunk to organize my thoughts towards a cohesive point. Anyways, much of it was inspired by this song, which I recommend you check out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4-IPpuXIvs
Identity politics has become a self-parody existing in a confirmation bias echo-chamber. My biggest problem with social justice and identity politics is that the former doesn’t seek social justice and the latter has become anti-identity. Both of them appear to be in a vengeance mode in which injustice and discrimination are considered a necessary good in a radical revolution.
Oh, Sun Ra. “Some of them are on the right road, but they are going to wrong way. The way they are going points to pointlessness”.
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Right. I remember a few years ago when I first heard the term and jokingly declared that I was going to go through an identity politics phase. What I set out to make fun of soon became all too real for the slightly younger friends around me and I soon found myself feeling a bit alienated, with new to the rhetoric peers suddenly projecting half understood platitudes that assumed me to be hostile towards just for pointing out irony and begging for more depth. It seems like a phase that will only last as long as the high of a drawn out liberal arts degree. After the reality of debt and uselessness of moral outrage sets in people will be people again. I still wonder though who was feeding them this?
I got this stuff in graduate school over 20 years ago. It hasn’t died out. It’s metastasized and spread outside of academia . It’s become a dominant belief system in the West today. Ultimately it seems to serve the powerful elite, because instead of people fighting actual power, they are busy fighting the unconscious micro-aggressions of the deplorable working class white male. A scapegoat has been found, and the people really responsible for the state of the economy, war and piece, social stratification, and so on are laughing their way to the bank.
If you havnt watched the documentary “hypernormalization” yet, it is on youtube and worth checkibg out. It isnt about identity politics persay but does trace a lot of the declining trend of western society in last couple decades.
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I’ve watched that and then a bunch of other Adam Curtis documentaries. Very interesting stuff and I got a lot of perspective from them.
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Not sure if you are fond of or familiar with discordianism but Adam Curtis did an interview with Historia Discrordia author Adam Gorightly last year for a yet to be revealed project and Gorightly briefly interviewed him as well which can be listened to at http://historiadiscordia.com/a-brief-conversation-with-adam-curtis/
Will have to take a look when I have a chance.
” it was all presented in a way which cut past the pretenses of religion to get to the bare bones of it .”
Exactly. That’s the appeal of Advaita. No discussion of Arjuna on the battlefield, and very little terminology. Nisargadatta Maharaj was the most accessible of the Advaita school, for my tastes, and he was speak about how what we perceive is what we project on the inner screens of our consciousness. It all centers around what consciousness is and what it means to be conscious.
I’m not sure about the Platonic school, and the Platonic forms and whatnot. I don’t see a direct parallel. Maybe my Philosophy 101 class didn’t go into Plato enough.
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Have you heard of the fox P2 gene. It is what gives us the ability to speak and create languages. I’m not an expert on evolution but I think this is what sets us apart from other animals. Once your able to communicate and write books knowledge is infinite. We should be getting smarter as we go forward, but there will always be questions that have no answers. Maybe someone will figure out consciousnesses, maybe not. Maybe Elon Musk is right and we live in a computer program. Maybe there is a god. I hope not, because if there is it doesn’t appear to be a good creature. The cool thing is as humans we get to contemplate all of these things and go on vacations and just do things like paint that no other animal gets to do. The real enjoyable parts of being alive.
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Yeah, there are so many good things about being alive. In fact, with our current technology and knowledge, we could make this Earth much more of a paradisaical place to live in. But we’re too busy trying to oppress and repress and subjugate each other. All the surveillance is starting to bother me. Where I live I now have to report to immigration every time I leave the city I live in, even for one night. I have to notify my landlord who has to contact immigration. They need to know where foreigners are every day!
Meanwhile China is setting up a citizen ranking system, and everyone is tracking Internet history. You can now serve jail time for merely sharing an article or meme or whatever on social media that is deemed “hate speech”. This level of monitoring and control has extraordinary potential for abuse, and the fact that people are already monitoring American citizens without their consent, and selling the information, signals that those collecting it are corrupt.
I see what Elon Musk is saying, but, we aren’t anywhere near creating conscious AI. We’d have to be fully conscious numbers, essentially, for his scenarios to work. So far, life only exists in biological things, and thus no matter how intelligent computers get, they still aren’t alive. Consciousness may not be a result of intelligence at all, but rather of existing biologically. We can’t really expect information to realize it’s alive when it isn’t alive to begin with. It might therefore be productive to experiment more with giving AI senses and awareness than much more intelligence. The real trick is to bring the dead to life, like Frankenstein, and if we created artificial life, than we’d be like God.
If there were a God I wouldn’t expect it to cater to our whims like a genie in a lamp. Is the universe itself conscious? If it were, what would that consciousness be like and how would it operate? From it’s perspective we couldn’t really expect it to bend to our wills, desires, and so on. It probably had to go the other way.
I didn’t know about that gene. I just looked it up, and apparently it facilitates language. But, it is not unique to humans. It’s essential for our language, but other vertebrates have it and it plays a role in the development of bird song.
The thing that sets people apart, I’ve heard and read, is our self-awareness. Perhaps that is necessary to think abstractly. Anyway, I’m sure you’re right that being able to read and write, which allows us to store our knowledge and build on it (think science and medicine) allows for seemingly endless expansion of knowledge and understanding.
As everyone is fond of pointing out, this works for things like science, but not so much for human behavior. I suppose there’s a big difference between harnessing the cumulative knowledge of the past, and learning from experience.
Mostly I relate it through neoplatonism and what little I gather from reading Plotinus, who incidentally attempted to travel to India in his lifetime but was haulted due to some war going on at the time or something.
I have heard about the scoring system over there. It’s very 1984. Things are getting scary all over the world right now. Maybe it’s just that social media is so new and it needs some time for everyone to get used to, but my gut feeling is things are going to get worse. I don’t want to be pessimistic, so I read Steven Pinkers new book Enlightenment Now, and it helped a little, but something still feels like we’re heading for trouble. A Woman reporter from Fox was out to dinner a day ago with her mom and some far left wing liberals threw water on her because she’s a conservative. A few democrats were defending the people who threw the water. This really bothers me because if you are not a democrat your supposed to shut up or it’s ok for people to throw water on you in public. Call me crazy but when throwing water is fine what will stop them from escalating to worse things?
That’s really the, “It’s OK to punch a Nazi” scenario. Problem is, people are calling you a Nazi if you are an evolutionary biologist who points out that male peacocks look differently than female ones, and, well, there are physical, biological differences between genders. This happened. People stormed out of a lecture when a female biology professor merely noted that on average men are taller than women, and one of the protesters interviewed said that we can’t tolerate “Fascism and Nazis”.
I just read the community guidelines for one of the social platforms I use, which are the same for a lot of platforms – they are all rolling out new rules – and of course they are now openly against hate speech and all that. Sounds sorta’ good on the front side.
But, I noticed something curious in the fine print. They are against insulting, demeaning, using racial slurs, and inciting violence against “protected classes”.
From the sound of it one might imagine there are dozens of “classes” and several of the most vulnerable are “protected” from abuse. That might work for me. Who wants people abusing a group of vulnerable people? But, Orwell might see it another way, which is that everyone is protected except just one “class” of people, in which case all hate and blame can be conveniently directed at them.
Perhaps in the future the social media platforms will extend their protections to include everyone. Until then I get a bit of a chill from it rather than a feeling of safety.