A weird phenomenon: childhood friends re-establishing contact with me and in particular wanting to have a conversation with me or see me again after not seeing me for so long. This is weird because it assumes that the person they used to know is the same as the person I now am. It is undeniably clear that this is false, although the argument of the persistence of personal identity remains a controversial one in the modern philosophical debate. I would insist upon the settling of this debate in favour of the impossibility of our identities’ persistence on account of what is abundantly clear on the one hand, and what is mere psychological guesswork and intuitions based upon my casual and extremely limited observations of people on the other.
Firstly, who am I? A body, a mind, a spirit? A personality? Memories and achievements? Legacy and social status? There are many complexities residing in this most entangled of issues and resolving the proper conception of selfhood is not an easy task. I suggest that a solution which is philosophically comfortable for the modern materialist is to postulate the body as the metaphysical self. Mind and spirit and personality and so forth are special attributes and functions of this body just as arms and running and immune systems are. Although I am not myself convinced that metaphysical materialism is a satisfactory and exhaustive system I shall concede its merits for the time being, leaving the examination of the second side of reality to later. So, a body is all that I am, at least as pictured from the objective side of things. It is obvious that the body I call mine today is not at all the same as the body I used to call mine fifteen years ago. Not only have all the constituent particles of the child’s body been replaced during the course of the fifteen years, but even the overall physics of it have changed via an increase in mass and volume and length and so on. Even its appearance has changed as secondary sexual characteristics bloomed and hair sprouted, albeit while retaining a resemblance to the child. But a resemblance is no identity. X does not equal x, although it resembles it very closely. So it would seem that the argument for the persistence of the personal identity through time crumbles to pieces in light of this consideration. Rather than search for the corrective to this eliminative account of the self in ad hoc arguments put together for the sole purpose of preserving a pet idea – the motive to do this itself betraying the attachment we instinctively feel towards our conceptions of our selves – I will simply accept what reason brings to light without allowing my biases to usurp the detached cold functioning of a logic apprehending what is there to be apprehended without desired results. The reason why the issue of personal identity is so entangled is precisely this clandestine smuggling in of our self-interest into all our reasonings. When we attempt to reason about our self, we are bound by these interests to presuppose the existence of the self. To reason disinterestedly is to make no such presupposition but to examine the world through the focussing lens of logic in order to see if there is any such thing therein as would correspond to what people usually refer to as ‘self’. And, it is also evident that if personal identity were found to be unable to persist through time, then one could not very confidently assert the existence of any self whatsoever, unless such a self were postulated to arise afresh and pass away every moment, at which point we would no longer be talking about a self but merely about a state of affairs at a given moment and place in spacetime, i.e. an event, and speaking of selves becomes redundant and reducible to speaking about spacetime and causality. This is the case if one analyses the world from the objective point of view, that is, to conceive of ‘what there is’ as a world independent of our experience of it – a world which we are in, rather than a world which is in us, which would constitute the subjective point of view, to which I will now turn.
Seeing the world from the subjective point of view and finding a correct conception of this is very difficult: Wittgenstein called it the limit of the world, the metaphysical self, Schopenhauer called it the eye the cannot see itself, the unknown knower, and Kant called it the transcendental unity of apperception. At bottom it is bare awareness; the mere consciousness of other, necessarily presupposing the subject-object duality. The potentiality of this being explicable by neurobiology does not invalidate the separate treatment of this as a different point of view since it is a radically different sort of consideration which delves to a more fundamental level, insofar as it is pre-linguistic and even pre-perceptual. It is a consideration of the very possibility and conditions of experience. In this sense, it is the most general consideration that philosophy, or philosophizing, can attain to. Perhaps philosophy cannot be said to be properly disposed to deal with such generality, these considerations being what, according to Wittgenstein, show themselves and must be passed over in silence. It is true that we can conceive of the world which we inhabit as being independent of our experience of it, but this conception still itself occurs as an experience and hence must be looked at from this other side as well, namely the subjective side which abstracts everything away from all experiences to arrive at the bare conditions of all experience. This awareness which remains when all else is stripped from it is a veritable non-thing, and as such is not susceptible to change, but is equally not amenable to identification with. It is a timeless and spaceless awareness, demarcating the boundary of these two realms, or their limit. Time and space are set up as the correlatives of its mere awareness, in order for it to be ‘aware of’. From this point of view, everything which is experienced is equally an experience, and as Schopenhauer says, even the body is an ‘object among objects’. There is no special status that can be attributed to any experience that elevates it above the ordinary level of mere experience. Thus, there is nothing unchanging and with privileged status in experience sufficient to justify the common conception of selfhood. So, both paths lead to the same conclusion, namely, there is no self such as we would like there to be.
In my observations of people, I have noticed that they maintain old thought patterns and habit patterns across many years even while everything changes in the constant flux that is time. Once a person reaches a certain age, after a certain satisfactory and workable amount of knowledge has been gathered, the mind closes, so to speak, and refuses to allow further modification of this locked-down personality that has been fashioned and identified with. This is why it is so hard for people to learn anything which does not directly serve their immediate interests, and even then if it diverges too much from their locked-down personality. I have found in my reunions with old friends that they will have changed very little and act as though nothing in our relationship had changed at all. As to the underlying psychology behind this observation I can only hypothesize. My suggestion is that it is due to the complete subjugation of the intellect to the will. That is to say that self-interestedness pervades all behaviour and cognition. In being self-interested one must first set up a self as an independent and inherent entity which persists through time and is truly separate from its surroundings. This is the only way for self-interest to take place on an intellectual level since understanding that we are parts of a whole intimately connected to our surroundings necessarily leads to the striving for the benefit of that whole of which we are merely part. The only explanation I can see for the primacy of self-interest must be that it is what we most desire. This offers an elegant solution for the vehemence with which we continue to cling onto notions of self, autonomy and free will and why these continue to be vigorously debated and have been since ancient times. It must be the case that we simply want to be independent and autonomous selves, that we are voluntarily ignorant, and that our ego sits exalted upon our tallest column among columns in the temple of our polytheistic worship. If this desire is postulated, then the seemingly intractable interlocutions invoked in order to defend selfhood are easily explained. So, people resist and fight against and struggle with change precisely because this conflicts with their conception of themselves as enduring beings separated from their surroundings, and specifically because of their desire to maintain this conception because of their desire to continue seeing themselves according to that conception. A dissolution of the self is too hard to bear for one whose whole essence seems to consist in this limited separated independent self. All talk of ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘people’ or ‘me’ must be recognized as mere convention for the sake of convenience. If self is thus understood to be no more than a label, a mere finger pointing at a particular position in spacetime, for no other purpose than meaningful discourse, then there are no problems of identification and enduring identities. But there can be no understanding for those that desire ignorance and ego-worship. Knowledge only comes to those that seek it, and seek it truthfully, that is disinterestedly.
This has all been a conversation regarding the weird occurrence of a phenomenon of old friends wishing to re-establish contact with me because of the attachment they maintain to the person they used to be when they knew me and the their identification with that person. The thought must be then that not knowing me today constitutes a loss of a relationship and the reunion with me a regaining of something lost, and thus must appear very desirable to an ego-worshipper. Whatever the case may be, I have witnessed the vehemence with which people will defend their pet beliefs and so I have ceased arguing as though I wished to persuade since I know that people can only learn after they have opened up to change. Instead, I speak what I know and I explain how I know without harbouring a desire to convince. Let whoever wishes to know first ask – that great sign of pride swallowed – then will I attempt to teach. It takes a leap of faith to abandon our comfort zone and jump headlong into the realm of what is unknown, i.e. the future. That is why the fearful prefer to tell themselves the story of their lives and adhere at all times to this story finding refuge and protection from chaos, but what feeble and meagre and false refuge is this artifice. Truth is my refuge and I care about nothing else.
May all beings embrace impermanence and realize the truth