Here’s a thought experiment… If you do something similar, I’d LOVE to hear your results…
It’s pitch-black. I feel no sensations, I remember nothing. I cannot even move. But I am aware.
In this moment, do I have an identity? Of what can it consist? Every thing I can think of (job, habits, memories) don’t exist in this situation. There is awareness, but is that enough for identity?
The pitch black room (and lack of sensations) is important. Things are defined in terms of other things, and any objects I can latch on to will give me the foundation to start the divisions and conceptualizations. For example, for sweetness to be recognized as a quality, there must be things that are not sweet, otherwise I can taste sweetness but never recognize it as a quality per se.
The most obvious example of this is the one thing in life which seems all encompassing: awareness. I don’t know what it is like not to be aware. Even when I’m unconscious, I never know it. Rather, it’s when I regain consciousness that I infer from the gap of time that I was ever unconscious.
A light comes on, and I see I’m in a room filled with objects. There are tables, chairs, all piled high with precariously balanced objects. I hear a click, and a hum, and cold air floods the room. Movement becomes possible. A desire to move is felt, then an intention to move is felt, then movement — my feet walk. This produces other sensations — of motion: of my bare feet lifting and touching the cold hard floor. More desires, followed by intentions are felt. Some — like the desire to raise my hand — cause results. Others — like the desire that the table in the corner float — have none.
I divide the room into things that obey the desire-intention imperative and things that don’t. The things that do are (among other things) the arms dangling at my side, the feet near the floor, things that maintain a remarkably consistent appearance no matter where I go — as opposed to the dramatically shifting perspective of the room. At this point, I make a fundamental distinction between what’s in the area corresponding to my body, and the room — between “me” and “not-me” although I may not think of it in those terms.
Do I see this desire-intention as another group of sensations, or do I assume it’s indicative of something else? Do I see desire-intention as CAUSING action? Do I have a concept of cause? Do I infer from the desire-action an entity that is causing the desire-action? At this point, my identity is related to desire — either as desire-intention or that which desires-intends.
I hit my foot on the table and feel pain. A block falls off the table onto the same foot, causing more pain. Then I bump into another table and a block falls on the floor, but I feel no pain. The sensations (and their lack) correspond to the area I privileged before, and reinforce my special interest in this area. Everything reinforces the message: this spot is where pleasure, pain, stability, and control are all maximized, and hence it’s the most important area.
The “I” gets stronger, yet there is much missing. Are there dreams, hopes, memory, identity, roles? Is there anything like a self image? It seems this thing is very physical, associated with immediate experience. Yet it is still very compelling.
A door opens and people walk in. I recognize things in common with myself — the hands, feet, the way of walking. They have things I do not recognize — heads and faces. I approach and see a reflection of them in a mirror on a far wall. It takes a moment, before I realize the mirror reflects the scene. Then I see a person among them I do not recognize. A bit of mental mapping places that person in my spot and I infer that person is me. I too have a head and a face, and this is what it looks like. Now my physical spot has been reified, this perspective has been given form, localized in my mind.
I see these people doing things, moving things, yelling in (what I assume to be) pain when they hit tables. If they look like me and act like me, could it be that inside they have perspectives like me? If so, I am not the universe; there are others, and my perspective becomes merely one among many. I have been limited, and now I need to identify this perspective as it is not the all. It is “me”. I also start to feel strongly about this area.
Ironically, the realization that others exist might be the thing that most strongly strengthens my identity. With peers to identify with (or against) comes the closest things against which to define myself. I’m not a block or a stone, but a person is close enough to me that there’s a challenge to my “me-ness”. With another like me, I must fight harder to distinguish myself.
These people make noises I do not like and move things around in ways I do not like. They have intentions and their intentions can stand opposed to me.
Is it at this point that my identity flares most strongly? Having identified myself closely with desire-intention, do I now identify those people with the same, and regard their desire-intention as the essence of who they are, the most important aspects of my dealing with them? Is this why I would react most angrily not to what they do, but to what I perceive their intentions are in doing them (reacting more to what I cannot perceive than what I can)?
Would my dealing with them start to define a role I play in this “society”, and build the kinds of memories that would lead to the kind of identity (self-image) most of us are likely familiar with?
Ok, enough with the thought experiment.
This experiment highlights the role of desire in the self. It’s easy to think of the self as being closely related to desire, but to see it as defined by it was a leap that only came out at me when I thought of a “pure” sense of self divorced from all the usual trappings. Of course given my Buddhist leanings, it’s very possible I imported my preconceived notions into this experiment.
The other thing this experiment highlights is the role others play. People are our greatest challenge and greatest reward. Our peers (and society in general) are so influential, that a great deal of our search for happiness involves dealing with them. For better or worse, how much of our happiness revolves around relationships, status, social jockeying, conflict, etc…? If we define ourselves by others (and not just in terms of success, but in much more existential terms), then this explains why, and why our identity seems to flare up most strongly in the presence of others.
This experiment started out with a “First Principles” approach that should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with Decartes’ thought experiment that culminated with “I think, therefore I am”. In Descartes’ case, he inferred a lot, including the thinker behind the thoughts.
Harding’s “Headless Way” is an informative take on how our conceptualizations seem to trump our perceptions — at least when it comes to our bodies. Certain things like the stability of bodily perceptions and reifying my position courtesy of a mirror are likely influenced by his work.