Monday, July 13, 2009

Jason's Dime Store (or Nickel Bag) Being-ness Discussion

Last night, by random chance, I came across something that I wrote down years ago. I really don't remember when, or what provided the impetus, but it doesn't really matter. I obviously felt it was important to jot it down then, and knowing the Jason of eight to ten years ago as well as I do, I know why. The current Jason likes the thought just as much, and still has no answer to the question. So I'll share it with you and let you roll it around for a while. This entry falls into the "positive" category because it asks a question that gooses my grey matter just the right way and creates a whole host of other interesting questions. So I'll quote what I wrote first. Then they'll be a discussion period, followed by shortbread cookies and punch at the back of the multi-purpose room.

Here's what I wrote:

Let's say you're involved in an accident and suffer complete amnesia; your name, your past, everything. Not a shred of who you are is left. Is the first question you ask yourself, "Who am I?" or does the fact that you don't know only occur to you when someone else asks you, "Who are you?" In other words, does the human sense of self, stripped of identity, need or seek one automatically? Is it enough to say, "I am" or is it essential that we entwine that with, "and who is that?"

Whoa, Jason, that's off the hook, man. You're blowin' my mind.

Thanks, reader who's reacting to this question exactly as I hoped they would. I love this thought experiment, but until I find someone who's had the experience detailed above, I'll never be able to adequately answer it. It's important though, I think, because it gets at the root of who we are as people. Is our identity a necessary, emergent property of the human mind, or is it just a mask layered over the only real truth we can muster; that we are. That we exist. And not that we are "someone", because that's identity, but just that we are. That we exist as self-aware entities. Small dots of raw awareness bound up in, and inseparable from the small lump of squishy, nerveless brain matter floating in our skulls. What is the identity we've layered over that awareness?

It is just an assemblage of behaviors and reactions to stimuli that we've learned since birth? We come into the world raw, and we're immediately given a name and a back story, as the child of so and so, grandchild to so and so and so and so, etc. From there we slowly learn our relationship to the rest of the world around us. Each and every person. Each object we come into contact with. Each experience we have. As we naturally learn language, and with that the ability to think as we know it, the words and concepts are intimately bound up with the experience of learning. The people that guide us through the process. Our mistakes and successes.

Over a period of a few years we go from being a blank slate to being pretty much the person we're going to be for the rest of our lives, though in an immature, unpolished form. That raises a few questions. Is the infant mind primed to accept an identity, apart from outside influences? From the moment it enters the world, is the baby's awareness seeking out an answer to who it is? Is that "identity adoption" process an automatic response for a naked mind? Would our amnesia patient, stripped of his identity, immediately begin seeking a new one? If that need to identify exists in infants, does it stop once the human brain is fully matured? What part of us is the real us?

Our amnesia patient loses his memories. He loses his past. His name and his back story. But his language is still there. His basic knowledge of the outside world remains. His conceptual reference points for being a person remain. That's the difference between an infant and our amnesia case. The infant can't frame a question. But is the seemingly automatic process of identity adoption a de facto proof that the infant would ask the question if they had the language to do so? Is the question "who am I" the root of awareness, a necessary offshoot of awareness, or unnecessary cultural baggage built up over time?

I don't know. Please, if any of you have any thoughts you'd like to share here, drop them into a comment. I'd love to start a discussion about all this.

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