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What is the Self? Get Naked and See!

Brain in Vat

My brain.

I’m often IDed to see if I’m old enough, sometimes to see if I’m young enough, and occasionally to see if I’m black enough (it’s in the other pocket, hun).  My ID has my name, my picture, my age, my address, my height and my weight about 15 lbs ago.  And this is supposed to represent Me?  The thing I call “I”?  What is the “I”?  How will “I” figure it out?

Get naked!  No, not (just) the clothes.  I mean really naked, down to the core.  What should be left is the quintessential and essential of that which I call “I”.

Circumcising the Body

All the atoms in my body are different every 7 years, but I’m still Me.  I can say that the structure is essentially the same, and it’s the structure that counts.  But even if I lose an arm, a leg, I’m still Me.  In fact, if it were scientifically feasible, I could pop my head off and attach it to an android body and I would still consider that to be essentially me.  I would even go so far as to be a “brain in a vat“, connected to the outside world via artificial sensors, and that would still be me.

The Lobotomy

So it seems that most of my identity is tied up in the headspace; we can almost completely destroy the body.  If my identity is tied up in my mind, then which parts of that can I lop off and still be Me?

Is it my personality?  My outlook on life?  Those parts of Me were very different when I was 5 years old, and 12 and 20.  Most of us feel comfortable saying, “I was a very different person”, but it is figurative.  We feel that it is the same essential “I” that was there, but that the “I” has changed and adapted.  (In some cases people do actually identify a previous segment of their life as  a different person.  In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main character talks about himself prior to electroshock therapy as if he were a different person.)

Hard Drive Failure

Is it the string of memories that are all encoded in the same body?  Then what about people with amnesia?  Are they suddenly not themselves anymore?


Sebastian Seung says “I am my connectome“.  In short, my connectome is the map of all my neurological connections at any given time.  This means that it includes all my memories, sensory functions, linguistic and musical capabilities, reasoning abilities, and arguably, personality.  But if all my neurological connections are constantly changing, again what is the constant that I call “I”?

Experience Necessary

The only thing I can see that truly connects all of Me together and separates Me from You, is the direct Experience.  Through all my personality changes, outlook changes, bodily changes, gained and lost memories, “I” am the one who experienced all those things.  My experience is unique and separate from everybody else’s.

The Spirit

The concept of experience is closely related to our spirituality.  In the many faiths, we each have a soul, and when We die, our Soul goes to Heaven or Hell, to either experience eternal bliss or the eternal gnashing of teeth.  How readily we say “I” am going to heaven or “You” are going to Hell.   We automatically associate the experience with the quintessential Self, the Soul.

Even the non-religious strongly associate Experience with the Spiritual Self.  While listening to some boring dude talk about philosophy, we might  say, “I’m not really here” because instead of experiencing what is physically in front of us, we are in that fantasy with the midget, the 12 inch kielbasa, and a funnel.

The Connection

But even though our experiences are separate, they are connected and interwoven.

The “I” extends beyond our own bodies.  Most of us would rather lose an arm than a loved one because that loved one is more a part of the “I” than our own arm.

What about our bigger associations?  Our faith, our colleagues, people of the same philosophical/political blood?  The “I”, while perhaps being centered on the mind/brain, is spread across a much wider area than we usually think about.

Me and You and You and Me

If My experience and Your experience are linked, and the core of who We are is our collective Experience, then wouldn’t a higher quality of Experience also mean a higher quality of Life?  That’s the conclusion I’ve come to, so I see Life as Experience, and I try to experience more things, focusing on the experience possibilities of my decisions, and looking to enhance My experience and the experience of those around Me, because they interact in a Karmic cloud.

I think this is a useful exercise to get to the core of who We are, whatever it may be, and help us not stray too far away from Ourselves.

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