An Odd Theory Of Human Identity

"We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience -- a new feeling of what it is to be 'I'. The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing -- with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego."

-- Alan Watts, The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Trillions of cells roam around the human body, jostle together and hurry apart from one another, bind and split, multiply and divide, undulate back and forth in the brain, swishing about, contributing in some specific way to respiration, digestion, locomotion, cerebration. Exactly how, from these material and kinetic events, is consciousness derived? And who, in sum, am I really -- the material body or the incorporeal consciousness, neither or both? And if both, how are the material and inmaterial aspects of "me" reconciled to one another?

Few questions are as perplexing as these, and the inability to furnish a satisfactory answer must mean that the deepest knowledge of human identity is elusive. Perhaps the ideal approach is to forget all the ready phrases and theories of the philosophers and become "tuned in" to the mystery. Sartre once said that "existence is not something which lets itself be thought of from a distance: it must invade you suddenly, master you, weigh heavily on your heart like a great motionless beast --- or else there is nothing more at all." Perhaps as much might be said about the mind-body or "identity" problem: unless it registers deeply in oneself, enjoins one to quiet meditation, nothing much can be expected in the way of insight.

There are numerous theories to consider and to be amused by [see Theories Of Mind-Body Interaction], but here I'll take up two. The first I'll call the "man-in-the-street" view (why this person is a man and not a woman is surely one of the great mysteries of life), and it might go something like this:

"We have a mind, a body, and a spirit. They're all integrated and interconnected somehow, but don't ask me to explain it. It's a mystery. A human being is the sum of the interaction of the three. The body corresponds to a person's biology, the mind to his/her psychology, and the spirit to the conscience or religious side.

A crude materialist (or atheist, for that matter) might leave the word "spirit" out altogether and even deny there's a mind. On this view, a person is simply his body -- internal organs, nervous system, circulatory system, integumen, &c. -- and emotional and psychological states might be explained by some version of epiphenomenalism or other.

From a simple ontological statement the man in the street might offer up descriptions drawn from social theory or psychology:

"Each person is a unique and autonomous being, equal to everyone else in the eyes of nature (or of God), with unalienable rights which include the right to life and property. Apart from gender, biology, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic standing, what makes people different from one another is simply personality, or personal traits. These range from temperament and mood to humor and intellect. I, as an autonomous being, am separate and different from you, but also related to you by species and by humane fraternity."

Something along these lines corresponds to the western conception of the human person, and any view which is markedly different from this one might be dismissed by us in the west as either eccentric or unsacred, or, worse still, unscientific and baseless.

But consider one such eccentric view -- a view which every self-respecting naturalist would understandably reject out of hand, and one I'd never be heard talking very loudly about in public. Let me first go back to the basic questions.

Who precisely is the "you that is really you"? The "innermost" you, the "utmost" you? The problem that first presents itself is the split between essence and function: the totality of matter and form that is you might be thought of as the noun, which can be described innumerable ways; the consciousness that you think of as "mind" or "soul" or "spirit" might be thought of as the present participle of a verb -- a process that is occurring and unfolding (presumably within your skin), not a thing that can be described. The western conception of personhood dwells on the noun aspect: you are, say, a moral agent, an autonomous being with unalienable rights, a separate self in the world, a person of a certain status (depending, among other things, on how you look), a genetically unique being (there is some differentiation even between identical twins).

What happens when the focus shifts from the "without" of oneself to the "within," from the noun to the present participle of the verb? The tendency remains the same: i.e., to declare that my consciousness is a self-contained and separate something, contradistinguishable from yours, which is contradistinguishable from everyone else's. But how can we prove this?

Perhaps we can't. Consciousness, as far as it is known, must be embodied to exist, and insofar as I am materially different from everyone else, that animating energy which somehow comes alive in the center of my brain must be adjudged to be my own. Perhaps this is as clear and as far as the case can be made.

But there are and have been those philosophies which dismiss the premise and contend that the consciousness of human beings is actually the consciousness of the "divine," or the "universal soul (Brahma)," or the "ground of ultimate being." Your identity, if "identity" means simply "soul" or "consciousness," is on this view really my identity, which is everyone else's identity: It ("God," "the Unconscious," "Brahma" -- pick your word, pick your metaphor) garbs Itself in the clothes of your face and your body, in the clothes of my face and my body, and somehow, in some mysterious way, retracts Itself just long enough to allow each individual some existential elbow room, some capacity for individuation and differentiation. Human life, accordingly, is a bizarre costume party, only there is one Self putting on countless different disguises, play-acting in countless different ways, accepting countless facades.

This idea sounds perfectly absurd, almost like I'm making it up. And yet, it is one that Lao-Tzu flirted with, that the Hindus accepted, that Eckhart and Spinoza and Milton embraced each in his own way. It is one which many mystics and pantheists could embrace, which many monistic theories of the world could live comfortably with.

Consider these lines from the Bhagavad-Gita:

"Who sees his Lord Within every creature, Deathlessly dwelling Amidst the mortal: That man sees truly."

"Not subject to change Is the infinite Atman, Without beginning, Beyond the gunas: Therefore, O Prince, Though It dwells in the body, It acts not, nor feels The fruits of our action.

For, like the ether, Pervading all things, Too subtle for taint, This Atman also Inhabits all bodies But never is tainted."

Consider the following from Spinoza's Ethics:

"In these propositions I have explained the nature and properties of God: that he necessarily exists: that he is one alone: that he exists and acts merely from the necessity of his nature: that he is the free cause of all things and in what manner: that all things are in God, and so depend upon him that without him they could neither exist nor be conceived... follows that the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God, and thus when we say that the human mind perceives this or that, we say nothing else than that God, not in so far as he is infinite, but in so far as he is explained through the nature of the human mind, or in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind, has this or that idea..."

Here is what Aldous Huxley has to say in The Perennial Philosophy:

"...there is an incarnation of God in a human being, who possesses the same qualities of character as the personal God, but who exhibits them under the limitations necessarily imposed by confinement within a material body born into the world at a given moment of time."

Huxley's text is full of mystical passages attesting to the same "fact". For instance, here's a line from William Law: "What could begin to deny self, if there were not something in man different from self?" And another from Eckhart: "The seed of God is in us. Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God seed into God."

Why should this monistic view be derided and laughed out of court by those of us principally in the west? First, and most obviously, it is sheer conjecture, appealing perhaps to the imagination of the poet or the metaphysician, but annoying to the naturalist (to whose company I happen to belong when I'm not conjecturing thusly). Second, it is an offense to Judaism. The God of the Old Testament is a transcendent God, not an immanent God; He is king of kings, master of His creation, anthropomorphic only when showing his undiminishable preference for the Jews. Third, the idea is equally odious to Christianity, which cannot brook the suggestion that every human being is an incarnation of God; history only produced one who was the divine incarnate, and everyone else before him and since suffers the condition of being fallen (but not necessarily damned). Fourth, the idea clashes with all strands of individualism, clashes with our much-adored capitalist system, which must accentuate the supposed differences in talent and energy in people to be theoretically palatable. If we're all in essence "the divine," how could we begin to rationalize gross inequality in the world -- the fact that some have billions and many others have absolutely nothing? How could we justify greed or starvation or military supremacy or the denial of certain rights to certain groups?

Further Reading:

Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches Of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth And As Religion (2002).

Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul (1994).

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained (1992).

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy (1945).