The Concept “I” And How It Fits Into Reality
“I,” when used in our speech and thought, often refers to the concepts we use to identify the self: its physical attributes, personality, possessions, tendencies, and social relations. After a moment of contemplation, it can also be understood that the use of this concept “I” also implies that there is a distinction to be made between “Self” and “Other,” and, “Subject” and “Object.”
Of course this separation is taken as granted: of course there is the “Self” and then there is the “Other,” of course there is the “Perceiver” and then there is the “Object” being perceived. But how do we know this?
Well, because that is how reality is perceived. This is what our senses commonly tell us. We don’t usually look at a glass of water and confuse our self for the glass of water – no, instead it is “I” who is seeing the glass of water. There are two distinct things being perceived.
Why do things seem the way that they are? Where does this thing-ness come from?
But, wouldn’t that be delusional? Why should we try to see things differently than the way they already seem? But then again things aren’t always as they seem? So what is there to tell the difference?
Well, think of yourself as a juror in a courtroom. It is your job to be fair and unbiased, to see things as they are, and then form a judgment on what really happened in a particular time and place. But, of course, you are getting two conflicting stories: one from the supposed “victim,” the other from the supposed “criminal” – but you cannot fully trust either source your information is coming from.
In what way is this similar to observing and judging everyday reality? In what way can reality give conflicting reports on what reality “really” is? This means: when do our senses deceive us, and also, when is reality merely being shaped by our conceptions.
In my article Thoughts On The Nature of Reality, Existence, And Meditation I open with a couple paragraphs dedicated to how our mind shapes reality through our perceptual biases (based on our biological make-up which allows for sensation) and our cognitive biases (based on our thinking tendencies, or mental disposition towards our environment).
But in this article I just want to focus solely on the idea of how our conceptual thinking – and the using of meaningful concepts explains and describes “objective” reality. I want to discuss how reality and our conceptions have an interactive and interdependent relationship with one another, and – in a sense – are one in the same.
Our map of reality is limited by the language and concepts we use to describe it. Those with a better perspective on reality are likely going to have a wider vocabulary, a better grasp of various concepts (both abstract and concrete), and an easy way of integrating these concepts together in relation to each “Other.”
The better we become at integrating concepts, the more intelligent we become, the better we can apply this knowledge to improving life, the better we can adapt to our environment. This is the nature of concepts.
The “Outer” And “Inner” World
Concepts derived from the natural sciences like those from physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy and geology have become tremendously useful in helping us to understand the external and physical world.
Concepts that have been developed to help explain the inner world of our existence haven’t done so well compared to the natural sciences. This is due to the difficulty of making objective conclusions about a subjective world.
You have a choice:
A) You could choose to observe the subjective world directly and draw conclusions based on those experiences, perceptions, and interpretations.
B) You can observe things from an outside perspective, so this allows you to make objective findings and then make inferences as to what happens in the “black box.” In other words: we observe what goes in and we observe what comes out – while paying little attention to the subjective content inside.
C) You can integrate both of these methods into your studies of mind.
Western Psychology has a history with both A and B, but due to the influences of the scientific method made a complete paradigm shift in favor towards B. This paradigm shift has in itself evolved over the past century: beginning with the experimental methods of B.F. Skinner, who was one of the pioneers of the Behaviorist philosophy with his theories on Operant Conditioning (how the mind creates associations, and other early learning theories).
In the 1950s emerged the cognitive revolution, now known as the cognitive sciences – an interdisciplinary study of the mind that includes psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, artificial intelligence, and computer science. This field, which is still congruent with choice B as it follows the scientific method of experimentation, and has made extraordinarily leaps in the study of the mind within the past few decades. The cognitive sciences are a prime example of the incredible integration of a diverse array of concepts, all for the sake of knowledge.
Science, however, cannot be excused for what it willingly chooses to ignore – the subjective world of experience – Choice A. Introspection could never fit into the scientific method, and therefore it is completely dismissed by Western psychology.
Introspection, of course, isn’t perfect – but neither is the scientific method, especially when it comes to the exploration of things like subjective minds. Thus science only allows for a limited range of concepts regarding the mind, as it refuses to look inwards and define these “fabrications” of mind that we spend so much time theorizing and treating as if they were real, but seemingly refuse to look inside and observe them for our self.
Neuroscience, the science of our neurology and brain, has become a fake-way to get inside the “mind”. Psychologists and neuroscientists have teamed up to help explain minds and behavior as they relate to brain chemistry, neural activity, neural networks etc. In truth, neuroscience has led to many advancements into the understanding of the biological mechanisms behind how the brain-part of the mind perceives, stores associations, and cognizes, but it reveals little about how the mind perceives subjective reality, the nature of existence, and how we can reshape our thought patterns, limiting beliefs, and unhealthy behaviors and decision-making. Instead, neuroscience has simply offered information on the neural correlations between the brain and mind but has given limited direct causal inference between brain -> mind. If anything, the mind and brain have an interactive relationship, as can be seen in certain studies, especially those of trained monks and nuns who can alter the EEG-levels of certain parts of the brain when in meditation. There is also no reason to discount how our particular subjective beliefs, and personal thought patterns, can create their own mental associations and therefore, in a way, “rewire” the brain’s neural composition.
In the science world, however, the brain is still an “Other,” to the wretched, and scary “Self” that scientists so conveniently ignore. But how can any true seeker of knowledge ignore the direct observation of the phenomena it so wishes to explore? Methodological introspection, like meditation and hypnosis, helps to fill in the gaps that third-person psychology neglects.
Introspecting on “I.”
Introspecting on the self can be a daunting task. The process can sometimes reveal implicit (or perhaps previously “unconscious”) understandings about our self that we find shocking, frightening or even impulsive. In this sense, self-analysis can become a scary thing for the self. It is turning a mirror inwards and observing whatever there is to be observed – inner chat, thought patterns, lines of reasoning, belief systems, subjective feelings and emotions, and associations we make between the mind, body, and our environments.
Extended self-reflection is sometimes even considered a symptom of depression by some psychiatrists and therapists, especially if someone gets into the habit of only reflecting on negative thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc.
But in general, self-reflection can be tremendously beneficial if it is done balanced and mindfully. Balanced self-reflection (or Equanimity) means observing all thoughts, beliefs, and feelings equally under the so-called microscope of the mind, including ones that give pleasure as well as pain. Mindfulness self-reflection means observing al mental phenomena with a sense of passiveness – not clinging or giving energy to any particular arising stimulus (even the sensations we find absurdly enjoyable).
By observing the “I,” continuously one becomes more skillful in the act of being balanced and mindful. Slowly, the nature of “I” – through direct observation – begins to reveal itself. It can be noticed that the arising of the “I” concept is entangled with all other concepts that arise in the mind. Why? Because the “I” is what does the observing – so the “I”-concept is implied in all other observations being made.
What Is Thing-ness?
The thing-ness of things arises from the identification of those things done by the mind. Contemporary philosophers of mind call this concept intentionality – meaning “aboutness” – it is the distinguishing property of mental phenomenon. It is the difference between when a mind looks at an object and distinguishes it as “Water” and when a mind looks at an object and distinguishes it as “Computer.” In other words, these are all talking about the concept of “Concepts”, and how they are created and used by the mind, especially when making a particular judgment on what is being observed.
How Does The “I” Create Thing-ness
Physical matter that has the property to experience its own being is said to have consciousness. Although only the individual can only prove his or her own consciousness (as depicted in David Chalmer’s Philosophical Zombie argument – an interesting thought experiment), it is reasonably to assume that most things that we perceive as beings (such as insects, fish, birds, reptiles and mammals) also have consciousness – they experience their environments in relation to a self (or “I”).
But what comes first: consciousness or the self? Can physical matter experience its self without first having a conception of what “self” there is to experience? What might create this conception? The mind? What creates the mind? Is it the ability to perceive and make sense of the environment? What creates that perception? Senses? Experience? Consciousness?!
Perhaps consciousness arises parallel to the conception of self, or maybe a better explanation is that they are one in the same thing.
Is consciousness “the conception of a self”? And thus could consciousness (and the self) be the origins of mind: the beginning of concepts, reality, and even happiness and suffering.
If there is no thing-“I” or thing-“Self”, how can there be thing-“Other.” Without this initial distinction, existence can quickly become chaotic and meaningless – perhaps something akin to the realities of self-less schizophrenics. Instead, concepts make things meaningful, give things sense, make environments adaptable, and create useful maps of how reality is.
Caveats To The Concept Of “I” And “Self”
The concept of self is necessary in the same way the concept of gravity is necessary. As humans, we wouldn’t normally try jumping off of buildings trying to fly because we have learned the experiential-component of “Gravity” – that thing, or force, that we experience as pulling us down to the Earth, and at times is associated with that feeling “Pain” which can be experienced if one falls from a great height such as the top of a building.
Even the simplest of thoughts and understandings require the use of a multiple array of concepts – all encoded, stored, retrieved, and re-encoded in the brain’s neural networks, similar to a computer hard drive – but perhaps not as reliably.
To start, the concept of “I” changes moment by moment. Each new registered memory in the brain plays its small part in shaping the new you. If not registering new sensations, the brain is just as often letting go of old sensations and old conceptions, or previous moments of self. These changes can be dramatic, but ordinary daily experience is rarely described as “life-changing” – there are certainly some moments we naturally hold as more meaningful than others.
If the one thing that observes things (the lens of the “Self”) is always changing, than the Self’s perception of reality and thing-ness is also, to some degree, always changing. This is an insight into the ever-fleeting, impermanent nature of reality that has been started by this thing we call “I.”