What Does it Mean to Identify With?


This article is an extended question: if self is the subject of consciousness, then what does it mean to identify with the objects of consciousness, given that everything is in consciousness (ie: everything), including the identification, its consequences, and the inference that there is a subject self?

The rest of this article clarifies this question.


Objects of Consciousness

Objects of consciousness are the things I’m conscious of, such as sight, smell, sound, touch, feelings and thoughts.  But a moment’s reflection shows  this is the same as saying consciousness = everything.  Even the possibility that this is not true is itself an object of consciousness.

Some may object that consciousness is not everything, but simply everything FOR ME.  Very well, but what do I know but myself?  The existence of others — including their consciousness — may exist for them, but exists for me only as an inference in my consciousness.  Indeed, to qualify observations with “I”, “me” or “mine” is to add another object of consciousness to the mix, an object of consciousness that may have arose as an inference to the existence of others.

I do not deny that others exist. I’m simply saying my world is the world and even when I act for others I still act and live in my world which is the world.

The Subject of Consciousness

An inference many draw is this: if there is consciousness, then there is a thing which is conscious, and that thing is me. Put another way,  I exist not as a male, friend or husband — for these are all objects of consciousness — but as the thing that witnesses the thoughts of me-as-male, me-as-friend, me-as-husband, and even me.  Yet this inference assumes the objects of consciousness are not all there is, It assumes the existence of an external world that at least consists of the subject, and often the world itself whose reality is what I observe in the objects of consciousness.  Yet, if conscious objects were all, then there is no need for a subject.

This underlies a root assumption — the stability of perceptions, or perhaps the need for stability of perception gave rise to this and the subsequent myriad other thoughts and habits.  For example, if I look at something and then look at it from a different angle, I see something different yet I infer it’s the same thing and try to explain the difference (via angles, light, etc…).  Is this due to a desire for stability?  Are my attempts to explain why the same food tastes different today, why I behaved differently yesterday, or even why I’m bored with something that I previously enjoyed all attempts at stability?  Are these attempts at positing a stable self?


Identifying with something is taking that thing as “me” or “mine”.  For example, identifying with social status, family and looks  means  I consider my identity bound with these things.  This has been implicated in a great deal of pain, as it’s been suggested that it’s not the things that hurt us, but our identification with them. It’s not being insulted that hurts, but identifying with the insult (or the thing that the insult was meant to undermine)..

But if all things (including pleasure and pain) are objects in consciousness — if even the idea of “me” is an object in consciousness, then what does it mean to identify with them?  What is the “me” that’s being taken as constitutive of these objects?  Is an object of consciousness relating to other objects of consciousness?  Is a “higher” object of consciousness relating these objects or defining itself by these “lower” objects?  Is it the subject getting involved?

If I try to address pain by not identifying with the objects of consciousness, then aren’t I still identifying with other objects of consciousness?  For instance, if I argue that I’m not X,Y, or Z, then have I not simply shifted identification to the concept of me as being not X,Y and Z?  Even if I haven’t, the results I seek — pleasure, serenity, Nirvana — are in themselves objects of consciousness.  At the very least, I’m still invested in objects of consciousness, right?

For that matter, what would it mean to identify with a subject self, a self that “I” cannot directly witness?  Is this self irrelevant?  If I’m trying to maximize a certain class of experiences, then by definition I’ve chosen to live in the world of consciousness, so of what relevance can a subject have for me?  Not that there’s anything with living in objects of consciousness; I find for instance that contemplating all the above brings about a very pleasant serenity, so I intend to keep doing it!

Indeed, with solipsism, the idea of a subject itself vanishes, so is there even a “me” in an existential sense?

The Question

If self is the subject of consciousness, then what does it mean to identify with the objects of consciousness, given that everything is in consciousness (ie: everything), including the identification, its consequences, and the inference that there is a subject self?

What do you think?  Feel free to deny any of these premises.

30 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Identify With?

  1. This is a very interesting point and while reading it i came up with this theory, although it will be jumping from physics to metaphysics i think the example works.

    Theory: an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force,

    My point is this maybe the fact that we as an individual would not change if the objects around us were nothing but consciousness is proof in a way that our surroundings are more than our own consciousness, our dreams which is a complete world of consciousness cannot create but only recreate what the brain has seen.

    All changes occur when there is an external interference the fact that we change or our perception of ourselves change is proof of an external interference not an internal one.

    For example as a child people shout at us for doing something, that shouting is what confirms the action as wrong before that in your perception it was neither right nor wrong just something to do

    1. Thanks for commenting!.

      So the externality of the world is implied by the fact that we change from waking experience and not from dreams? I definitely have to think about this more, but I love that you brought dreams into this, because they are a very relevant subject.

    2. Makes sense, blindmuggy, but it is all going to depend on whether change is real or not. Solipsism is unfalsifiable precisely because we cannot prove that change is real, or the phenomena that change. There’s no easy victories in philosophy.

      1. Thats exactly why i love philosophy, I’m not in it to win it but to give and get different ideas, i would like to give this the reply it deserves, but first i have to research into solipsism as i have not heard of it before, i may not win but i wont lose easily 🙂

      2. So after some research and a lot of thinking i can see that solipsism is truly a hard one to refute, anything i say can be said to be in my own mind breaking down any argument i may put across, but referring to your easy win comment i realised that i don’t like losing, (not that i think this is a win lose situation don’t get me wrong), in general i don’t like losing never have, i realised then that you with your statement were right and i would then be wrong, but if this was all in my mind then surely you would not have been right as i wanted to be right, it then occurred to me that my mind would never have created that situation, therefore by being right you have refuted your own statement.

        I realise there are some holes still in this statement but the thing about solipsism is you cant prove or disprove anything about it, making it an unnecessary point within discussion of philosophy, similar to the existence of god, it can be argued till the end of time with no result.

        Im sure you have an extremely good point to make about this a view I’m not seeing and i am looking forward to hearing it

      3. blindmuggy – Hi again. I think I see what you’re saying. If you were making it all up then you wouldn’t have made it like this. It’s a fair point. I don’t know though. Nobody volunteers to have nightmares. Whatever the truth is, it remains the case that it would impossible to prove that things that change truly exist, or exist as more than appearances, and it remains the case that the idea of change becomes paradoxical when we assume that they do. There has to be a reason for this, and one possible reason would be the unreality (but not ‘non-existence’) of changing phenomena. If you’re into physics then this is what Ulrich Mohrhoff discusses at length in his writings, the idea that QM is trying to tell us that reality is structured from the top down such that its structure disappears when we delve deep enough into the nature of phenomena. His proposal is that there is only one real phenomenon, and it does not change. This would be the reason why we cannot prove otherwise. His view is unfalsifiable, but we do not have to believe this is because it is correct.

      1. Well, your question starts by assuming that the self is the subject of consciousness, This seems like jumping the gun. As asked it may be unanswerable.

        Schopenhauer speaks of his ‘better consciousness’, which would transcend the subject/object distinction and thus also his ‘self’. If we make the self the subject of consciousness then we have reified it and then we run into all sorts of paradoxes and dilemmas, including the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. .

        A ‘personal construct’ is how psychologists sometimes see our personalities. They would be something we create. Dennett uses the metaphor of a bower-bird’s nest, a collection of contingent odds and ends that we put together and then live in. They do not usually extend this idea to the whole of our notion of our ‘self’, but there’s no reason not to do so. A subject requires an object and vice versa so one cannot have one without the other, which suggest that they can be reduced to a form of awareness or state of being that is neither, as Kant proposed and as Schopenhauer seems to have discovered.

        This would be part of the solution for the problem of consciousness according to Buddhism, that intentional consciousness, which requires a subject and object, can be reduced to a pure or non-conceptual awareness for which there is no such division. This would be our true identity, or ‘face before we are born’. If we learn this in practice rather than in theory then it would be a realisation of identity. We would have followed the Oracle’s advice to ‘know thyself’, and in this way would know all phenomena for what they are.

        When Mohammed says ‘Die before your death’, or Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those whose end is before their beginning’, this would be what they are talking about, or so I believe, the realisation that the self that lives and dies is not what we really are. One yoga teacher I read recently says that one of the first moments of excitement in the practice is realising that it is not us who is breathing.

  2. I tend to think that the road requires some pretending along the way. Imagine an impartial observer of all the goings-on in the mind. This will help withdraw identification first from emotional states, and then later, beliefs.

    And Guymax, I got the Edward Barkin article through a university connection. Great read, though a complicated way to arrive at something important – a kind of dharma perhaps.

    1. A lot of the time your name is not a link back to your blog – it’s black, not blue. For example, “Another question would be ‘Is self the subject of consciousness or what psychologists call a personal construct?”, above. But you were able to comment here. I’ll check my settings and spam folder.

    1. Yes, let’s do that. I could see no ‘comments’ button anywhere. Maybe it was a temporary glitch. These things usually turn out to be my fault. Anyway, back to the topic, with thanks to BiaR for the use of this blog as a helpline.

  3. I tend to think of the self not really as the self (i.e. consciousness or “all there is”) but as a small part of consciousness, a concept which is linked to a series of others through experience and hard-wiring. What I mean is that, interpreted this way, the self can identify with pretty much whatever it pleases, in the sense that what’s really identifying with that is not you: it is a certain subroutine in the bigger program that has as one of its directives identifying with stuff.
    I feel I’m doing a terrible job of explaining myself.
    The idea is that what you associate to the word “me” is not really you but a certain (crap I can’t find the word) neural circuit adapted for a certain purpose. This neural circuit is made in such a way that it will find trends in perception (no need to assume an external world; we can talk about “impressions” instead) and link them to itself. Just as with any other such mechanism, it is susceptible of hypertrophy.
    By the way and relatively off-topic: one of my new readers just pointed me to this article on consciousness. I was skeptical, but on reading further he does seem to make good points. Thoughts?

    1. So basically self (as most people take it) is another object of consciousness, but one that lies at the nexus of a web of mental and perceptual relations? This self is more of a mental process? Did I get that?

      I’ll take a look at the article shortly and let you know what I think. Thanks for the link!

    2. Reading it now… I don’t see how the information density theory answers the question about conscious experience. How does information density imply a subjective state? Why can’t a non-conscious entity process even more information than a human?

    3. So what are your thoughts on Consciousness as Integrated Information? The problem I have is that it doesn’t explain “the hard” problem of consciousness. A completely non-conscious process can integrate information and can accommodate more information than a conscious process. Nor is there anything in information integration, quantity or density that explains how a subjective state could possibly arise as a result of any of that. “Comprehension”, information processing, etc… are all perfectly explained with non-conscious processes.

      Interestingly enough, there’s actually an opposite view, that consciousness handles very little information and is called in to handle the information that was discarded. Not defending that view either, but thought it interesting to mention.


      1. Just took a look, but couldn’t get much from the summary, so I can’t give you an opinion. Of course we discard plenty of information: that point is hardly arguable. But I am not sure is whether this discarding of information actually explains consciousness.
        Regarding Tononi’s, I don’t think he explains the “hard” problem of consciousness but I liked the fact that he makes a quantitative effort to explain consciousness. Also, I am not sure that a lot of information integration can be unconscious. What he is saying (or maybe what I’m interpreting) is that it’s all the layering in our neural networks, the constant refinement into groups and then more groups and so on that causes consciousness. And I find that his numbers agree with what I would intuitively expect for a conscious being to arise.
        On the self: yes, I would see the self as just another process, a subroutine and the “I” as an identifier or marker. I mean, obviously “I” am much more than what I think of as “I” in the sense that most of the thought processes in my head are unconscious. Also, where do I draw the line? Are the “external” events that cause me to act in one way or another part of the “I”? If not, why don’t they qualify whereas the internal processes do?

      2. True, the idea that what’s discarded is in consciousness does not explain the hard problem either.

        That degrees of consciousness can be a function of information is perfectly fine with me, and it seems intuitive enough. But whenever someone writes about consciousness, I start looking for something on the hard problem, which to me is the real meat of the issue.

        I agree with you on not knowing where to draw the line with “self”, which is all the more reason to not cling to that concept.

  4. I would agree completely. Yet again we see a theory that does not address the problem. I also find the article on Integrated Information overly complex. David Chalmers promotes a dual-aspect theory of information that seems more useful. It is not fundamental, but it can be made so by combining it with the doctrine of dependent origination. I would propose that it is the failure to distinguish between intentional consciousness and objectless awareness that causes these problems. Kant was well ahead of the game imho, but has been forgotten.

    Hmm. Perhaps it would be possible to interpret Buddhism’s Abhidhamma Pitaka as an information theory. I hadn’t thought of this before. Maybe not. But if it is, then it’s a vastly more developed one than has appeared in consciousness studies as yet.

  5. So is the idea that objects of consciousness are not the consciousness itself? So identification is when the self which is conscious mistakes itself for an object of consciousness opposed to consciousness itself? When you think you in your entirety is a mailman when really that is just something you do. This may seem strange but think, when we are in a moment of passion or strong desire, it is almost as if, to us, the passion is all that is. This is a mistake, for it is not all that is, there is much much more. The passion being an object of consciousness opposed to consciousness itself. So consciousness = everything that is. Objects are not consciousness and therefore are not. At least we wouldn’t say they are in the same way that consciousness is. Is this what you are saying here?

    Also, I’m not sure if I have it right there but I’d also say reading up on some Indian philosophy would be really helpful for answering this.

    1. Well it’s a bit more involved than that. I’m only aware of objects. That there is an awareness perceiving them is an implication or assumption, an added entity.

      With that said, identification is when the self takes itself for an object of consciousness. It’s not necessary for the self to identify with anything else whether or not that thing is its correct identity. In fact, I wonder if its necessary to explicitly identify with consciousness; if consciousness is all there is, then there’s nothing to identify with for this consciousness is the all, and in trying to identify with it, one could turn it into a concept and hence an object of consciousness and thus make the same mistake, albeit in a different form.

      I like your examples of the mailman and strong passions, and I agree that reading Indian Philosophy (perhaps some commentaries on Patanjali) is a good avenue for exploration. Additionally, some other fruitful avenues may be reading up on some Phenomenology.

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