Self and Inner Self: Existence, Identity and Being - “I Am Me”

This article is about the self and the nature and proof of its existence. Considered is how we may define ourselves and our identity as an individual human being without reference to others and things. Take these external references away and, as will be concluded, we are left still with our sense of our individual existence or being: “I Am Me.” The individual who is truly comfortable with their sense of self needs no validation of existence or being; they are secure and confident in themselves.

Peter Gerstmann, Psychologist, London, UK, May 2009

A person awakes one day, all alone on an island, with no knowledge or recollection of anything before that point in time. Who am I? What am I? How do I know I am real? Are my thoughts and feelings somehow separate from ‘me?’

The questions above imply doubt. Doubt concerning our identity and our reality.

What is the self, or person inhabiting the island in the scenario above?

At a fundamental level, the person consists of a body, an organized collection of cell-based parts arranged as a whole, making up a physical structure, broadly: A skeleton, to provide a framework to contain and support the body; flesh and skin, to provide a surface for the body; muscles, to produce movement in or to maintain the position of, or a part of the body; organs, to provide functions which support life; and other matter.

The body does not exist in isolation; it exists within an environment (dimensioned extent).

The body is capable of perceiving external stimuli via the primary senses or faculties of vision, olfaction (smell), hearing, taste, and touch. It does this using the eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and surface covering of skin and flesh respectively. Flavour is the sensory impression of a food or other substance, and is determined mainly by the senses of taste and smell. The (inner) ear is where equilibrioception (balance) is sensed mainly (the visual and other systems plays a role here too). Using certain organs and its muscles, the body is capable of being aware of, and placing itself and moving in the environment.

The body is capable also of perceiving sensations, or feelings and mental states that arise within itself. Strong feelings are called emotions. Mood is a relatively long lasting positive or negative emotional state. The person’s brain is the organ which functions as the coordinating centre of sensation and nervous and mental activity.

The nerves are the fibres or bundles of fibres in the body that transmits impulses of sensation between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body. Special nerves called motor nerves activate muscular movement. The spinal cord is the cylindrical bundle of nerve fibres which is enclosed in the person’s spine or backbone and connects to the brain, with which it forms the central nervous system which controls the activities of the body. Several processes in the body, such as heart beat and breathing are regulated automatically or adapt, within certain parameters to the demands placed on the body.

Mental activity is done by, or occurs in the mind. The mind is collectively the aspects of intellect (the faculty of reasoning, understanding and forming judgments objectively) and consciousness (perception of oneself and other things, including the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and one’s environment, and objects within the environment). These aspects of mind are manifested as combinations of perception, self awareness, feelings and emotions, thought (the private conversation with ourselves that we carry on ‘inside our heads’), reasoning, memory, will, and imagination.

Some of the bodily processes which are automatically regulated, for example breathing can be altered by the intervention of will. We can will our behaviours and the focus of our attention. Contrast this with automatic processes and with instincts (an inborn tendency or impulse to behave in a certain way) such as the instinct of the self to survive and to act accordingly.

Imagine for a moment your thoughts flowing as a stream of energy. This should not be too hard as that is happening as you comprehend these words. So, where do our thoughts reside? As we have said, in our mind. And where does our mind reside? “Obvious! Within our brain,” you may reply. It is worthwhile considering for a moment that some question whether or not our mind is somehow separate from our physical body. In philosophy, this is called the mind-body problem. The brain is a physical structure in which electrochemical neuronal processes occur. The mind consists of mental attributes as discussed previously. The correlations between mental events and neuronal events are known scientifically; the philosophical question is whether these phenomena are identical, at least partially distinct, or related in some unknown way.

Dualism and monism represent the two major philosophical positions on the mind-body problem. Dualism is the position that the mind exists independently of, or cannot be reduced to the brain. Monism is the position that mind and body are not distinct kinds of entities. Dualism requires admitting nonphysical substances or properties, which is in apparent conflict with the scientific view. Whether or not there is a part of us which exists in another form or without form, for example as a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit,’ and the question of whether we live on in some way after our physical death are matters of personal belief of course.

The mind-body debate may be fuelled in part by our inability to describe adequately the subjective quality of our mental processes. Thinking and feeling have the quality of ineffability, meaning that they are beyond being described adequately in words, i.e. they can only be known internally by an individual. “The map is not the territory” is a remark by Alfred Korzybski (early 20th century Polish-American philosopher and scientist, developer of the theory of general semantics) made in 1931,[1] encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself; a metaphorical representation of a concept is not the concept itself. Here, the experience of thinking and feeling is not the same as the description of thinking and feeling. For example, a person who has never tasted an orange, or has never felt in love will never fully understand through language what the taste of an orange, or the feeling of being in love is. Only through direct experience (eating an orange, or being in love) can that experience be fully understood.

Korzybski’s dictum “The map is not the territory” is important too as it signifies that individuals in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality; they only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time through their perceptions and reflections about reality. Perception always intervenes between reality and ourselves. So it is very important to be aware that individuals’ beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the ‘map’) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (‘the territory’), even though perceptions may be considered by the perceiver to be reality.

Nonetheless, we interact physically (and psychologically and philosophically) with the ‘real’ in the environment using our senses and the resultant (processed) representations of the ‘real’ in our heads (the ‘map’). The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes argued in his works Discourse on the Method (1637)[2] and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)[3] and Principles of Philosophy (1644)[4] that since the only method by which we perceive the external world is through our senses, and that since the senses are fallible, we should not consider our concept of knowledge to be infallible. We need to remain aware that our perceptions and the interpretation of our perceptions (knowledge and belief (the ‘map’)) are not necessarily reliable or accurate. Further to Descartes’ belief, we should be very much aware also that we are capable of introducing internally our own distortions about reality.

According to Descartes, it is logical to question anything that involves or has involved the senses because of their fallibility and our potential to be deceived. However, the one fact we cannot doubt is that of our own existence. Descartes realised that by the very act of considering our existence, we must in fact exist. The way in which we consider is by thinking, hence Descartes’ dictum “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am, or better, I am thinking, therefore I exist). Consider “I do not exist.” This is a contradiction in terms; the act of saying that one does not exist assumes that someone must be making the statement in the first place. Though we can doubt our senses, our body and the world around us, we cannot deny our own existence because we are able to doubt and must exist in order to do so. Even if we are being deceived, we would have to exist in order to be deceived. At this level, it does not matter what exactly exists, it only matters that it does indeed exist. At the very least, we are thinking things.

Another perspective on considering our own existence was proposed by the 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his philosophical and psychological essay The Transcendence of the Ego (1937),[5] Sartre opines that self consciousness needs “the Other” (meaning simply, beings or objects that are not the self) to prove (display) its own existence. According to Sartre, the self has a “masochistic desire” to be limited, i.e. limited by the reflective consciousness of another subject. Sartre was wanting to get away from the idea of the senses playing a crucial role in the self forming a sense of itself. However, as Descartes showed, we do not need to know anything of anything external to ourselves to know that we exist because the act of considering our existence is proof enough of our existence.

So, now we have an idea of what we are, and have some idea about the context we seem to find ourselves in (subject to the limitations placed on our knowledge of ‘reality’ beyond our thoughts about our existence), who are we? This is a question about identity; “Who am I?”

An individual can perceive and act only from their own point of reference. No matter how hard we may try to see from the perspective of another, we are trapped in ourselves. When we watch a movie, we see a representation of a reality from the perspective of the story teller and the director. We watch with our eyes and listen with our ears and make sense of our senses within our selves. We cannot remove ourselves from our equation. Our self is our fundamental point of reference, our origin. Our identity as a person is centred on our individual existence and can be expressed in its simplest and purest form as, “I Am Me.”

The ‘I,’ or ‘ego’ is, in this context a “sense of self by the self.” Here, ‘ego’ is not to be confused with the meaning of a sense of one’s self-esteem, or self-importance. Rather, ‘ego’ here is the identification of self from the perspective of the self. Nor is the concept of ‘ego’ in this context to be confused with being ‘egocentric,’ or self-centred. Rather, ‘ego’ here is the origin (the point where something begins or arises) or point of reference of the self by the self.

Of course, there are many ways of establishing our identity (by us or by others): Characteristics may include our name, our job, the colour of our skin, how much money we have, the clothes we wear, the things we do, our sexuality, our possessions, the people we associate with, our social class, where we live, and so on. But these characteristics are all superficial identifiers given an artificial prominence. Take these and other superficial identifiers or labels away and we are left still with our sense of our individual existence or essence of being: “I Am Me.” The individual who is truly comfortable with their sense of self needs no validation of existence or being; they are secure and confident in themselves.

I hope you have found this article, Self and Inner Self: Existence, Identity and Being - “I Am Me” interesting and thought provoking.

In forthcoming articles, we will consider the self among other selves, i.e. our interpersonal self, and consider distortions of reality which can prevent us perceiving ourselves and others truly and the negative consequences which may arise as a result.

Peter Gerstmann, Psychologist, London, UK, May 2009

References, Links, Suggested Readings

  1. Korzybski, Alfred, A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics, a paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (International Non-Aristotelian Library).
  2. Descartes, René, Discourse on Method and Related Writings (Penguin Classics).
  3. Descartes, René, Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from the Objections and Replies (Oxford World's Classics).
  4. Descartes, René, René Descartes: Principles of Philosophy: Translation with Explanatory Notes (Synthese Historical Library).
  5. Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness.

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