The debate over personal identity has many manifestations underlying all forms of rational thought. Before one can even think about the world at large, it would seem that consideration should be taken for the point of view of the analyzer. Thoughts, words, and the actions that stem from them, are by their nature communication between relative points of view. When thoughts are used to analyze objective reality, there is immediately a division created by our minds that starts with an idea of the self that creates the other out of the object analyzed. The very vast and limitless nature of reality is incomprehensible without some reference point. This reference point is our identity, shaped by our language and culture. Since it is a creation of culture, the real objective truth, or essence of identity is something experienced by the self, and understood subjectively.For so long people have argued over what exactly constitutes a person, and there are many diverse opinions on it.
Even so, there seems to be some sort of common human condition. When I think about who I am, I want to say that I am always changing, and that there is no static thing that I am that exists over time. From one moment to the next my molecules are arranged differently, my thoughts and beliefs change, and especially my feelings change. But I cannot deny the fact that there is something that I refer to as me. There is some kind of object that I am that is unaffected by the continuous change of the material world. If there really is a contradiction, between these deep intuitions, than I have certain options. Lets assume for a moment that personal identity is not an arbitrary association and that what it is can be known. Then one comes to another contradiction that modern philosophy has been obsessed with. The arguments tend to center around a certain dichotomy of the material and immaterial. This argument arises out of another contradiction between two similar intuitions. At first I want to associate myself with my body. It seems the most logical, since in the material world I am a certain organism that appears to be distinct from other organisms. My every day experience is of being a particular kind of organism with continuity through all the daily chemical and biological changes.
Every night however, I can be any number of different things. In dreams I have experiences of identity as things other than the animal I thought I was. If one argues that dreams are illusions of an animal, than experience and memory would have to be untrustworthy too. This leads to the idea that maybe I am something psychological. This seems closer to the truth because the only reason I experience being the same animal day after day, is that I have a mind that remembers and recognizes itself as an individual both in dreams and awake. To say that I am my mind also comes with many problems including what it is that is constant over time, and how it relates to the body. There are endless examples to contradict this view mainly because the mind or soul is a very abstract concept. The dualist view that I am my mind and my body is even more complex. The argument shifts continually depending on interpretations of words like mind and soul.I think that the words are the root of the problem, and without them there is no problem.
There is a deeper issue that creates this problem and pretending to be objective cannot solve it. I know what time is, and I know who I am, but only on an intuitive level.Like other animals, my intuition works fine for acting in the world, and there aren’t any problems of identity, until I think. Until the voice of “I”, I have no ideas only intuitions. The beginning of language was the beginning of personal identity. While other animals may have intuitions of being individuals, there actions are only responsive to the environment, and their identity is strictly relational, never personal. As our species became cultural, we started to reflect on our actions, and consequently, gained the ability to consciously control our environment and put meaning to the items that make up our world. This is why there is a problem with personal identity, and also why it is important to solve. Newborn children are first purely a reactionary agent of the here and now, responding to emotional and biological stimuli.
Somewhere along the line there enters a voice in their head, analogous to beginning of consciousness in the human animal. It starts to make value judgments based on things that it was told. It starts to divide the world into meaningful units and time into past, present and future. It suddenly has an opportunity to make choices between the very often-conflicting voices in its head, and its emotional, and biological drives. These are definite qualities we recognize as being possessed by a person, but knowing this doesn’t help us make choices. Philosophy tends to view reason as having some kind of inherent objectivity to it. It must be recognized that reason can only describe its relative point of view. The majority of Western thought both in the academic and cultural world has been centered on the cycle of self-reflection. I say cycle because the self attempts to find objective truth in personhood, which is something created by the self. This is endless folly because the self is subjective. If there is really an essential thing that I am, that it is not the voice in my head. Since I do have a deep intuition of having some sort of essential nature, and an even deeper notion that all these various “objects” out in the world have some sort of essential nature, I think that there is an objective truth to be sought after. The way to go about understanding it is through the relations the self has with the “other”.
Understanding cannot be divorced from experience. There is no way I can say exactly what I am essentially, but I can experience being me and I can describe my point of view. One might argue that this is the place of religion. There is a fine line separating the two. Religion has been more focused on describing whom we are in relation to the bigger picture, with emphasis on how we should act because of this relation. I think that growing up in Western society made religion seem flawed to me in some way because I was taking all the religious allegory as objective fact. It never seemed very objective. Philosophy seemed more attractive as a way of finding truth because it appeared to be more objective. It was also easier for me to understand what Philosophers were talking about because I could follow their train of thought through the logical processes they use to describe. What I failed to realize for a while was that reason may be a powerful tool for explaining, but it is no more objective than religion. Both describe certain ways of looking at the same thing. That thing has many names, but reasonably stated it is the objective truth. I still prefer to look at it reasonably because religious allegory is rather static. I can now appreciate it for what it is worth, but analogies seem to bypass all argumentation because by its nature a metaphor admits to being a symbol for the object and doesn’t attempt to define it.
Philosophy tends to be more dynamic, an ongoing argument that pushes closer to the objective truth. The value of reason is not in any inherent objectivity but in its subjective simplicity. If we want to understand who we are, it is pointless to try to reason it out by ourselves. Understanding is a process of communication between the self and other. Objective reality is something foreign only to the self. Being just a reference point for ordering reality, the self can only know its relative point of view, but with reason this relativity can very easily be pin pointed, understood and controlled. Any description that we make of the object, is useful as a way of communicating with the other.
Reason should be used to pit its subjective view against the other’s subjective view in order to make any real progress towards objective truth. In this manner, a certain point of view is used to give a much-needed purpose and active role to our self, (which is what religion is useful for), and it serves as a tool for making that point of view, and consequently our actions, a dynamic evolution towards understanding the objective truth.Before I can talk about personal identity, I need to get a good idea of what identity is in general. I have to determine whether it is something real and objective or if it simply a matter of opinion. The best way to do this is to figure out what causes anyone to think there is such a thing in the first place. Humans started to identify objects out of environmental pressures that threatened their survival. By ordering reality into separate objects they developed a symbolic system that mediated their relation to their environment and gave them relative autonomy. This changed them from being strictly agents within a natural system to also being agents within the symbolic system, and each man a system unto himself.
This feeling of being an autonomous system unto himself is what caused identity both of self and other. This might seem like proof that identity is an arbitrary correlation of signs that has no connection to the real world. In this relativist view, things such as trees and rocks did not exist until someone put a name to them. In that case the number of things that there are is equal to the number of things classified using the vernacular. This makes sense because of the way agency works. A group of agents on one level is a singular agent on a higher level. If our symbolic system is looking out into the natural world where everything works as a relational system of agents working together for a unified purpose, than the moment those things, including man himself, became part of our symbolic system of meaning, a new thing was created in a new system. This seems to say that numerical identity is based on something’s agency.
If we take, for example, what some may call a knife, and others a blade, you only have something different if the different names correspond to different uses inside someone’s system. Therefore if a certain knife was showed to both a soldier and a chef, it could be two different things if its use in their symbolic system was different regardless if they called it the same thing. If the image of a knife can interpreted as a symbol for numerous things, that is if it can be used in someone’s cognitive world in many ways, there seems to be infinite possibilities for meaning. So numerical identity is kept intact over time only if there is a reoccurring use of a symbol in a singular way. This is explains why we think there is only one knife because, it has a conventional, literal meaning. This seems to be saying that any objective reality, any identity, is merely a by-product of convention. Convention cannot exist without memory, which also fits in with the origin of identity. Once things started having a meaning beyond the here and now, we had to remember them. Or maybe when we started remembering things they began to take on meaning. It doesn’t matter because the causal agent here is also a relative association.
From this relativist stance, all distinctions are a quality of overlapping systems. Any idea of cause and effect, past and future, individual and environment, is true if it fits within a system. Since in the relativist paradigm, there is no essence to anything, truth is solely in the eye of the beholder. This seems correct up to a point, but the problem comes in when we acknowledge the fact that we are still agents within two different systems.In our own relative world, anything goes, like in the freedom of dreams. In the natural world and the cultural world, however, I do not have such freedom. Even though quantum physics maintains a certain degree of probability for anything under the sun, there is obviously something affecting the probability. I could certainly dream that I walked through walls or was president of the U.S. , and it would be true in my autonomous reality, but not as a valid assessment of either system I am an agent of. Certainly I have a possibility of becoming president, and there is a small probability that I could walk through walls. So if I remember doing it, but have a disagreement with other agents within a system, its truth is limited to its agency in my system. So we have an apparent paradox that states that something can be both true and false when two systems overlap. There is no contradiction in an autonomous system by itself, but they only exist where two different systems overlap.
You see there are no real boundaries that define the systems. Reality is an infinite system of agents. This is the key that solves the paradox: there is only one essence, one object, one identity, one person, and it is all that there is. This solves the relativist/realist dilemma, because it allows for both of them to be right. There is one that makes me think that there are things, and it is me. If every particular thing is the same thing, than that individuating essence is the causal factor. If there is no individual to group agents together into a finite system then there are no distinctions, no order, no meaning. By systematizing the systems one creates the other. Personal identity is simply the individual whose actions I report by sing the pronoun “I”. If we are all the same individual, then there can be no false claims of agency. Since all proper names refer to the same object, any statement of identity cannot be disproved. The truth of the realists comes into play when we want to believe that there is a point and a goal to living as an object with a relative view of myself. While everything is equal and one, the fun of life is living as one lost in the systems of agents.
For all practical purposes we cannot deny that we are, illusion or not, individuals that have a choice in how to live our relative existence. Therefor any argument for a particular way of looking at one’s self should be for its use in everyday life. If I am that person who’s actions I report by using “I”, then I have some choices here. I could claim that I am God, so to speak, or whatever you want to call the absolute, the one. That puts me at the center of the universe. That is an interesting place to be because I can claim that anything that happens is my doing. When something goes right it is because it was my creation. This is the creative force behind everything, and by identifying with that part of me it can empower me, and keep me from blaming my actions on other people if things do go wrong. By living in this manner, one can always say that they are in control of their destiny. I would always be in my world, because I would always be creating. The consequences of this point of view are not often obvious but they are not something that suits me well. To claim I am one seems like indulging in the power that comes with autonomy. It has a tendency to promote stubborn, obsessive egotism. If I am acting as one with people, I could miss all the things that didn’t fit in with my world, and my own creations. It is a certain occult view that everything living thing has a spirit. The spirit is what goes through the cycles of life. People are unique because they breathe in a divine principal at birth along with the spirit. People are said to become immortal only if the become conscious of their spirit by being born again. A “soul”, it is said, is created when the three parts of a man become unified into a foursquare. It is my view that this has some truth but that all these notions of individual spirits and souls are misunderstood.
My identity, I do believe has three essential parts. There is a part that is a detached observer because it is connected to everything, a part of me that acts and reacts, and a part of me that makes sense of it all. It is hard to say if I really am any one of those three parts, all of them or none. It is more like using my borrowed order to balance out my separate parts in order to maximize efficiency. I think that the only thing that has continuity over time, the one thing that is, wants to know what it is like, hence the symbols. I have made a choice to view the order as a foreign invasion into my organism, even though I would have no idea of individuality without it. I choose to identify myself as a free agent. I don’t want the concreteness of all that order, and instead choose the abstract goal of freedom. I am whatever I am doing. This choice is a very difficult one to live because it requires a careful balance of control and abandon. By switching back between one and the other, I try to go with the flow without losing my individuality. This directs the energy that I have under my immediate control to a very small crack between two points of view where the overlapping systems diverge but I still keep my autonomy. I think of it as a type of evolution through awareness that leaves all systems with an even gain. I give my memories to the one in exchange for the basic individuating essence, the Word; and I use it to order the chaos, free in the system as a whole with no more need for conventions and chains.