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.