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What am I?


Give up all questions except one, ‘who am I?’ After all the only fact you are sure of is that you ‘are’. The ‘I am’ is certain, the ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.Nisargadatta Maharaj

A blogger I follow recently asked The Big Question.
What are we?

She divides the question up into three parts – body, heart and mind – and poetically examines each of these parts for the answer.

Given my level of poetic skill an exercise like that on my part would probably give an answer something like “gllrrrrrkmmph” and prompt readers to ask “Why is he?”.

So instead I’ll just analyse the question to dust and pretend I offered some kind of answer.

It’s not because I don’t have an answer – oddly enough I think I do have at least one of them – but rather I don’t know how to say it.
In fact even asking the question in words seems to lead inevitably to the wrong answer

So I’m going to begin by make the question much simpler by asking not “What are we?” but rather “What am I?”.
That dispenses with additional complications arising from my obsessive subjectivity at least.

Anyway, if I’m going to start solving your great existential questions as well I want to discuss pay rates first.

I don’t think anyone really believes we are our bodies, do they?

Well, OK, maybe the fundamentalists of Scientism do but they’re not real people anyway. They’re just meat puppets jerked about by strings of causality. Strangely enough, those who believe they are their bodies are also most likely to believe some day they will exist separately from their body after uploading themselves onto computer.

If I’m my body, would I be less ‘me’ if I lost a finger? A leg? If I had a heart transplant?

How could I feel so alienated from my body so much of the time if it’s me?
Why do so many desires and aversions I associate with my body seem to be something ‘outside’ of me? Something that pushes me around rather than inspiring me to action. Something I must control with my will.

And my 51 year old body sure isn’t the 21 year old one that gave me such joy and grief. Am I no longer ‘me’?

What about my heart?
The arbiter of loves and hatreds. The font of elation and despair.

Most of the things I consider most important in my life I think of as residing in my heart.

When I’m part of a crowd that shares an emotional experience I feel my ‘self’ subsumed. The border between ‘me’ and ‘we’ becomes fuzzier. By joining our hearts we join ourselves.

But the heart is even more transient and insubstantial than the body.
Could the ‘me’ now peacefully typing and contemplating be the same ‘me’ who only hours ago was fantasising about threatening the life of a fascist skinhead?
Am I less ‘me’ because my feelings aren’t as intense as they were when I was a teenager or more ‘me’ because they are now more complex and nuanced?
Could the ‘me’ of the Long Darkness, the unrelenting despair, be the ecstatic ‘me’ of the bombora and mosh-pit.

Heck, I can change my emotions as easily as sticking a needle in my arm.

When I’m feeling ‘ruled by my heart’ people who know me are most likely to say I’m not being myself. When I’ve calmed down it can be tempting to agree with them.

My heart? Could anything so wayward, so impulsive, so transient, so manipulable by others yet uncontrollable by myself really be ‘me’?

But there’s still my mind.
It’s what’s composing this essay, so it may not be entirely impartial, but surely my mind is where ‘me’ lives.

Sometimes it even seems I can control my mind. I can use it to work things out or perform entertaining tricks. The wellspring of my opinions and beliefs. My communications director and chief breadwinner.

My mind is also the repository of the ongoing story of me I tell myself.
Now we’re cooking!

If it were possible for you and I to completely exchange our memories we would not perceive it as swapping minds, but swapping bodies. “I” would live in “your” head, and visa versa. Before long our friends would probably get used to the change and start treating us accordingly.

For years I thought I’d solved it. My memories are me. The demented don’t only lose their memories, they lose themselves.

Nyanaponika Mahathera

It was the Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera who set me straight. There is no such thing as memory.

This was a difficult claim for a professional computer programmer to accept.

I put things into memory and retrieved them during every minute of my professional career. Now you’re telling me memory doesn’t exist? I can pull the chip out and hold it up to you in the palm of my hand.

But he was right of course. ‘Remembering’ is a verb, something we do. ‘Memory’ is a noun, referring to an object. But it is an abstract noun, like ‘honour’ or ‘fear’. It doesn’t describe something you can pick up like ‘apple’.

What about the RAM chip I hold in my hand?
What about the engrams I hold in my head?
Surely ‘memory’ describes something physical, something real.

Nope. You’re supplying the abstraction yourself then promptly forgetting you’ve done so. Memory is tricky that way.

Memory doesn’t exist on magnetic tape or on the head that reads it. If there is no tape player, the tape contains no memory. If there’s no computers, RAM chips contain no memory. If there are no literates, books contain no memory. If there is no ‘me’, my neuronal engrams contain no memory. ‘Memory’ is not a ‘thing’. It’s a potential that can only be actuated by a reader and interpreter. The ordering of data needed to compile a memory is no order at all if no-one understands it.

Memory is akin to a quantum waveform that only collapses into reality upon being measured and observed. Different ‘observation methods’ will produce different memories, as anyone who has put a PAL video into an NTSC player can tell you.

As ‘I’ may also be an abstract noun there is no reason it can’t mean the same as ‘memory’, but if memory=me, what does the remembering? How can I be both the engrams on my neurons and that which reads and interprets them? Why would I need to read myself?

But if we accept that ‘I’ could be an abstract noun, might we not also accept that it refers to nothing material or substantial.

Am I not a thing, but a process?
If so, which process or processes are the vital part.

Medical science can now maintain or mimic almost every process carried out by the human body. Once brain function ceases the corpse can be kept ‘alive’ almost indefinitely with artificial oxygenation and nutrition, but the ‘me’ is definitely gone.

What if scientists work out how to stimulate my neurons into passing electrochemical impulses in the same way they did before I died? If I then did something in the same manner as before I died, would I be alive again? Would I be someone else doing the same thing? Or would I be no-one at all – a flesh robot? If the process is being driven by technicians with a brain-stimulator, how could it be ‘me’? It would just be a high tech version of wiring up a frog leg to make it jerk.

So if ‘I’ is a process, it’s not a bodily one.

Hmm. Let’s get back to first principles. What does “I” actually mean?

“I” am the bits of the universe that aren’t “them”. It’s really a definition of borders. It’s a relational term.

Could it be that simple? “I” am defined by my relationships? The dynamic total of all my interactions with all other people, places, objects and ideas.
Am “I” built up of the effect I have on other beings and objects and the feedback I experience from them?

“I” would be a node of Indra’s Net, both illuminated by and illuminating all other things in my universe.
It would not even be necessary for something to ‘be’ at the intersection of all these relationships, the relationships themselves define the ‘thing’.

The Buddha would be right. There would be no core ‘self’. Nothing is soul. Anatta.

Sankara would be right. There would be no real distinction between ‘self’ and the universe. Everything is soul. Nirguna Brahman.

If you can come up with statements as obviously preposterous as that while keeping a straight face, you are doing ‘philosophy’.

From → confusion

  1. wow !!! I haven’t got my answer still…..But I must say you have given me so many new thoughts and things to ponder upon ! Very impressive post…..I am amazed to read your thoughts on us. ….I have nothing to add more because you explained it all in an excellent way !
    Yes everything may be soul……But still this secret is not revealed yet to humans….I don’t think humans are capable to hold this secret !!


  2. you are trash of muscle and blood and some other chemicals. so is she and me and all others you know.


    • That’s the position of Scientism alright, so you’ve got a fair amount of clever people who’d agree with you.


  3. Am I not a thing, but a process?

    Omg, that gave me chills xD


  4. This refers to our earlier discussion, I’d like to hear more about this and the ‘debates’ with Bhikkhu Bodhi.


    • I started to reply to this comment but realised it’s gonna get so long it would be better as a blogpost.

      I expect I’ll post it later tonight.


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