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What Are “You” Anyway?

October 25, 2010

Just the other day, I wrote a post related to quantum mechanics and the observer.  In that post, I mainly discussed “other” observers.  I didn’t really talk about the most important observer of all — “you”.  The “I”.  “Me”.  People often say, “Everyone else may be a robot, but at least I know I’m alive.”

Philosophical problems like those are never answered because they’re rooted in confused thinking to begin with.   Problems rooted in confused thinking can never be solved because most of the time, there’s nothing needing to be solved.

David Bohm, in a collection of letters to his brother-in-law Yitzhak Woolfson, discussed the confused thinking which gives rise to our idea of “I” — our “self” — “me”.   If you’ve never heard of David Bohm, he was one of Albert Einstein’s best friends, and one of the greatest quantum physicists to ever live.  He was also heavily involved in the Manhatten project.  The man was brilliant.

Bohm discusses this problem with his brother, and I’ll let his own words speak for themselves.  When I look in the mirror and wonder what “I” am, my thought process runs similar to his.

Also, one can ask, “Is there really an ‘I’ that is ‘doing’ the observing or is there not just a process of observing that is going on?” When a person is serious about what he is doing, the ego falls away, and the individual as a whole is perceiving and acting. For instance, suppose that he is playing music. When he is finished, the ego process comes back into existence, and takes the credit. But in reality, the ego process never does anything at all, except to get in the way. Imagine trying to play music, while the ego is saying, “I am now playing music. Isn’t it wonderful what I can do?”

So it seems to me that at all times, when the ego exists, the individual is in a state of confused perception. In this state he sees “the world,” and also, he hears the words “this is ‘I,’” along with a feeling of ownership or possession of a whole set of qualities, memories, urges, relations, desires, etc. This latter feeling can be called “identification.” The individual also has the illusory perception of a process in which the centralized collection of qualities is initiating actions. But in reality, it is the individual as a whole who acts. The confusion is that the individual is seeing the process as if it were the separate ego that was acting, as in a moving picture we see the image of a person as if it were “doing” things.

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I would like to go a bit into the origin of the confusion that is responsible for the ego process.

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It seems to me that every experience leaves a kind of “negative trace” or imprint in the mind. When the experience is repeated, it fits this imprint as a key fits a lock. In this way one can recognize it. One can also produce an internal image in the imagination, which is recognized in the same way that direct perceptions are recognized, i.e., against the “negative trace.” So memory is a positive internal imitation (in the imagination) of something that was once perceived, while recognition precedes imitation in the development of the infant, because it is basically a simpler procedure.

One can compare recognition to a set of grooves and scratches impressed by past experience on the mind, while memory is like the “play-back” of the record as internal images, sounds, etc.

It is important to notice that both recognition and memory involve the emotions as well as factual records of what happened outwardly. Thus, if the infant has a certain experience that is pleasant, his recognition traces start to demand a repetition. He tries to find a way to repeat it. But if they are unpleasant, he tries to find a way to avoid it. Here is the real beginning of the ego process. Evidently when the memory “play-back” develops later in the child, it too will be accompanied by emotional demands for or against the experience in question. Since thought is based on recognition and memory, it is clear that thought and feeling cannot be separated. They are two aspects of the one process, which is the response of recognition and memory to new perceptions.

Out of thought is then born desire, the urge to continue, to enhance, to possess, to make secure that which is pleasant and to guarantee the avoidance of what is unpleasant. Desire attaches itself to an object of the imagination, in order to attain permanence. But the object of desire is always changing. Firstly, the real object changes in one way, while the object imagined in desire changes in another way. We then discover when we get the object of our desire that it isn’t what we expected; we soon encounter satiety and boredom. Other objects soon seem more attractive to desire. Besides, objects of desire change in unexpected ways, grow old, and even pass out of existence. So the attachment of desire to an object leads to contradiction (contradictory desires), and out of this comes confusion.

Religious people and moralists then tell us to suppress desire, shape it, control it, direct it to God or to the triumph of Communism. Psychologists and others tell us to sublimate it. But doing this only heightens the contradiction and confusion. Then comes fear that one will never achieve satisfaction of desire, a state of anxiety and despair, alternating with periods of hope, when there is the momentary belief that one can escape into a new job, a new religion, a new hobby, a new marriage, etc.

So we see that the ego process, with its attachment of desire to an object, is inherently in a state of confusion. What is the origin of this confusion? It is very simple. We mistake the demands made in the “play-back” of memory for true feelings. True feelings arise only in fresh perception of what is new. This perception is understanding on the intellectual side, and it has the wholeness of feeling sometimes called love on the emotional side. It can also be called creativity. But this creativity refers to creative living, and not just to the expression of creation in art, science, music, etc. It is essential to understand that the play-back of memory and the recognition “scratches” are not creative in this sense. They have their utility as factual memory to guide you in your life or your job (how to get home, etc). Memory is, like fire, “a good servant but a bad master.” And as soon as you take the play-back of emotions seriously, you are the slave of memory, since your actions will then be only a response to these “memory scratches,” and not to reality as it actually is from moment to moment. Since the “memory scratches” cannot fit reality (because reality is always changing), one comes into a state of contradiction between demands based on memory and reality, as well as between the different aspects of memory demands that contradict each other. So the ego is inherently in a state of confusion and contradiction.

What is to be done about all this? The answer is, as I said before, nothing at all. Whatever action is born of desire will also be self-contradictory (e.g., the desire to end desire which in fact only continues desire in another form). But the question is, “Why do anything at all about desire?” Desire seems to be necessary to mental life. It is like a many-colored flame, very beautiful and full of energy, always changing. When it is attached to something, it falls into contradiction and confusion – the flame turns into dense smoke. But if you understand the futility of doing anything at all about desire (satisfying it, attaching it to an object, shaping it, suppressing it, choosing “good” desires and getting rid of “bad” desires), then you will just turn away from these efforts, and let desire do what it will, to die as to unfold in its own natural way. Then there will be no contradiction. Desire does no harm if it is not attached. In other words, desire is something different, when you understand it. For recall, “As man sees, so he is.” If you see desire in a new way, then desire is different in its operation in you.

– David Bohm, writing to his brother-in-law Yitzhak Woolfson, (1962)

Everyday occurrences, when you really think about them, are nothing like what people think is going on.

People imagine that there is a little “spirit” controller within my body, controlling everything I do, and another little “spirit” controller in every other living thing, and we hold each other morally culpable for our actions, judge one another based on things like intelligence, work ethic, and so on, where these little spirits are either at war or in love with each other.  It’s all confused thinking.

Have you ever really sat and thought about what you’re doing when you converse with someone else?  Have you studied the neuroscience into how your brain works?  “You” are not conversing with “me”.  There’s simply a conversation taking place, mostly automated by our brains.  “I” is just a word – a symbol on this computer screen.  How could it do anything?

Don’t believe me?  If I gave you brain damage in Broca’s area, you’d become diagnosed with Broca’s aphasia.  You’d know what you want to say, but wouldn’t be able to put it into words for me.  So much for the idea that you’re controlling your vocal chords and directing each individual vibration and exhalation of air.

Philosophers such as John Locke felt that we could control our bodily movements, giving us “free will” to walk and move about how we want to.  That’s not true.  Your brain does all sorts of calculations and planning with every movement.  There are several modules which act like computers, reading in sensory information, planning limb trajectories, attempting to perform the action, receiving feedback, making corrections, and so on.  There is no simple “you” controlling a bodily movement.

Even if you believe this the case, I want you to perform a simple experiment for me.  When I talk with my physics buddies, and we’re in a restaurant someplace, I ask them to simply place their hand on the table, and then lift it up.  They then look at me funny and do so.  Then I ask, “How many state changes of the universe just took place?  Did you think of them all?”  If this movement were captured in a slow-motion camera, how many frames would such an arm movement have?  How many individual movements in every individual cell and atom?  We might as well assume an infinite number.  I can assure you that you didn’t think of them all, nor direct each and every one of them.

I think “you” probably controlled your movement, but the confusion is that “you” is some ultimately simple thing, instead of your entire brain, your entire body, and even your environment around you.  You can’t separate any of it.  The smallest event, when truly thought about, is infinite in scope and extent.

Have you guys seen Carl Sagan’s Cosmos?  Remember when he places the apple pie on the table?  He says, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”  If “you” wanted to move your arm, all by yourself, you’d also have to create the entire universe.

When you perform an action, you do so as an entire unit.  In a very real sense, the entire universe moves with every action you do.  People on this planet can make you feel like you’re nothing and no good.  Don’t believe any of them.  You’re alive, and everything you do is a big deal, no matter how small.  Even the most insignicant events of your life are complete miracles.  I don’t know who or what you should thank – God, the universe, your mother… — but you need to be thankful that you’re alive.  Celebrate your existence.

“You” is your physical existence in its entirety.  Every aspect of your brain and body, and your surroundings too.  When someone says, “I” am everything, in a sense they’re correct.  But to define yourself as the words bouncing around in your head is confusion.  I think when people speak of “everything”, they’re using the same categorization system the brain can use, creating a class “everything” which has no prerequisites to be a member.  Every new concept and experience can be a member, making it a very broad container of sorts.

Intelligent folks tend to lend way too much weight to their words.  They act as if someone who can’t express their feelings and intentions in words is somehow inferior and doesn’t understand.   You may well know something, and completely understand something, but not be good at expressing it.

I was watching a Woody Allen movie years ago.  I think it was Annie Hall?  I can’t remember which one it was.  Woody was walking with the girl down the sidewalk and Woody says, “I love you”, and she says, “Define it.”  Then he stumbles with his words and we as viewers are supposed to come to the conclusion that he’s not all that smart, and that he doesn’t understand what love is.

Did you catch how Bohm defined love?  It doesn’t require words.  It’s a proactive action.  To try to put it into words gets you caught in that whole “desire” stuff he mentioned.  I think love and everything else that’s beautiful about us humans is active, in the moment creativity.  You want to love the person in front of you, be in the moment then and there with them, not be stuck in memories of past experiences.

Woody should’ve replied, “I love this.”  and then extended out his hands indicating everything around him.  “I love this moment.  I love watching you smile.  I love watching your hair blow in the wind.  I love admiring your outfits.  I love listening to your jokes and the way you make me laugh.  I love your intelligence and listening to your opinions on things.  I love the way you make me feel.  I love everything about you.”  I don’t think “I love you” needs any further explanation; it says all that needs to be said.

I suppose we could say, “I want to create more moments like this.”  But that’s defining “her” in terms of your current memories.  In that case, you love the memories and experiences which are like those memories.  The more time that goes by, the more inaccurate those memories will be a reflection of “her” right now.  Good memories are not a bad thing, but to love the real her requires a constant pursuit in reality.  The world changes.  You change.  She changes.  Moment by moment, and day by day, the world moves on in constant flux.  You have to leave your own head and be immersed in the world where you both are, actively engaged.

This applies to more than just love.  The nature of knowledge and thought are misunderstood as well.  Thinking is not something that you do, thinking is something that you are.  As your brain crunches away, thinking about all sorts of things and problems, are you actively and “willfully” controlling it?  No.  It happens, just like anything else happens.  It’s not an action of the will, because if you have various forms of brain damage, that thinking stops.  It’s a computer, and it crunches away at what’s fed into it.

When you have a rush of insight, was that because of some willful action “you” did, or did it just happen once the brain finished its calculations?  We’d all have to agree that it just came to us.

I’ve never been big into prizes, awards, and certificates.  Great things, like insights, just happen and we should share them collectively with one another.  Few men soar very high on their own wings.  We stand on the shoulders of giants, as Issac Newton aptly put it.

That’s another illusion plaguing mankind – ownership.  “Mine” and “Yours”.  Most of our society still thinks in terms of ownership and “merit”.  This marks a good moment to break into song:  “She works hard for her money. So hard for it, honey.  So you better treat her right.”  (That song just came to mind, sorry).

None of us exist in a vacuum.  We are completely dependent on one another, our environment, and even all those wonderful (or terrible) things left behind for us from previous generations.

Who invented the mathematics we all learn in school?  Was it one person?  No.  It’s a cross-cultural, cross-historical-age phenomenon.  The same goes with the languages we speak, the furniture designs we use, the clothes we wear, and everything else.

What I mean by “thought” is the whole thing – thought, felt, the body, the whole society sharing thoughts – it’s all one process. It is essential for me not to break that up, because it’s all one process; somebody else’s thoughts becomes my thoughts, and vice versa. Therefore it would be wrong and misleading to break it up into my thoughts, your thoughts, my feelings, these feelings, those feelings… I would say that thought makes what is often called in modern language a system. A system means a set of connected things or parts. But the way people commonly use the word nowadays it means something all of whose parts are mutually interdependent – not only for their mutual action, but for their meaning and for their existence. A corporation is organized as a system – it has this department, that department, that department. They don’t have any meaning separately; they only can function together. And also the body is a system. Society is a system in some sense. And so on. Similarly, thought is a system. That system not only includes thoughts, “felts” and feelings, but it includes the state of the body; it includes the whole of society – as thought is passing back and forth between people in a process by which thought evolved from ancient times. A system is constantly engaged in a process of development, change, evolution and structure changes…although there are certain features of the system which become relatively fixed. We call this the structure…. Thought has been constantly evolving and we can’t say when that structure began. But with the growth of civilization it has developed a great deal. It was probably very simple thought before civilization, and now it has become very complex and ramified and has much more incoherence than before. Now, I say that this system has a fault in it – a “systematic fault”. It is not a fault here, there or here, but it is a fault that is all throughout the system. Can you picture that? It is everywhere and nowhere. You may say “I see a problem here, so I will bring my thoughts to bear on this problem”. But “my” thought is part of the system. It has the same fault as the fault I’m trying to look at, or a similar fault. Thought is constantly creating problems that way and then trying to solve them. But as it tries to solve them it makes it worse because it doesn’t notice that it’s creating them, and the more it thinks, the more problems it creates.

– David Bohm, Thought As A System

The way we think creates a society.  We don’t have this information database which is “knowledge” in our brains, which we then access and utilize before we make our decisions.  No.  The knowledge is us.  The thought processes are us.  We are our thoughts and they’re us.  You can’t separate us.

A deep connection exists between everything in this universe.  I guess most of you reading this probably haven’t studied quantum mechanics, but man oh man, it gets really weird.  You’d probably never guess that what you’re doing now influences both people in the past and those in the future who haven’t even been born yet.  Yes, you heard me right.  We have scientific laboratory evidence showing that the future can influence the past.

To me, this expresses that even on a fundamental physical level, the very atoms of we’re constructed, past, present, and future, of all ages, are all connected.  Not just through memories and carried through time.  We’re connected on an atomic, physical basis, across a giant timeless web.  And if the many-worlds interpretation is true, we’re not only connected with past and future time periods, but with all other potential possible realities as well.  Of course, all this stuff blows our mind, which simply fizzles out trying to think about it.

A major problem in the world is we don’t see these connections, but they’re there when you think about it.  We have these mistaken views that we’re all individuals, disconnected from one another and our environment.  This confusion has led us to pollute our world, to mass exterminate other species, and to make wars on one another and with nature.  Even in politics, between nations we think of individual nations, acting like what we do is our business, and what they do is their business.  You can’t disconnect the individual from the environment, or vice versa.  They’re one and the same.  There’s the political landscape with everyone and everything in it.  What you do affects me and what I do affects you.

What is the source of all this trouble? I’m saying that the source is basically in thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That’s part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems with is the source of our problems. It’s like going to the doctor and having him make you ill. In fact, in 20% of medical cases we do apparently have that going on. But in the case of thought, it’s far over 20%.

– David Bohm, Thought As A System

Have you noticed that we’ve never been able to figure out the problem of balancing structure with change?  We’ve never figured it out in political philosophy, and we haven’t quite come to grasp it in the world of physics.  We have these atoms which consist of both particles and waves, but we know both are one and the same;  nonetheless, it’s still confusing to us.  In government, we’ve tried to form a system which can change with the times, yet still allow the expression of individual diversity.  It’s not easy.  We want to be independent, but also dependent upon one another with social safety nets (when we’re in trouble anyway).

We like the net to be there when we fall, but we don’t want to help provide for it.  I wouldn’t blame this on moral failures, but simply on our bodies which are selfish, self-replicating machines, produced by evolution, caring mostly about spreading its genes.  We have both selfish instincts and the ability to have compassion for one another.  Yin and Yang.  It’s all there in the half crocodile, half rational brain of ours.

Even in our political documents – The Declaration of Independence.  This is us, that is you.  This land is us, that land is you. It’s so ingrained in people, the thought of us/them is just part of human collective thought.  It’s part of the collective mind.  It’ll take a lot of time before we can get rid of it.  We have to deal with racism, different religious belief systems, cultural differences, and problems like unity versus diversity, freedom versus organization, the individual versus the state, and so on.

Human society started off ruled by alpha males, then tribal warlords, and then kings, monarchs, and tyrants.  We’ve managed to extend our integration with democracy, and have slowly found a way to include most everyone within the nation in the political process.  Next we have to unite the nations.  Also, we have to include our environment and all the other life around us as well.

This may sound like a digression, but it’s not.  All of this is “you” because “you” are everything (everything as in, all of your experiences).   How can “you” be something different from the life you’re experiencing?  And that’s not solipsistic.  I can say this because the “dividers” between things don’t have fundamental realities.  They’re products of the same mind which tells you “This is me” when you look in the mirror.  As I mentioned the other day, autistic individuals don’t feel other human bodies which they see are “observers” and alive; they see them as complex moving objects.  What grounds do you have to say that what you see in the mirror is a simple “observer” – “you”?

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