Who are you? Really. What makes you you? How do you define you? Are you a body with definite edges? Are you something inside that body? Are you a brain? Are you a product of a brain? Are you just the collection of chemicals that create your thoughts? Are you the thoughts? Are you all of them or only one of them?
When someone asks, “Who are you?”, what do you say?
Last year, I was at a party, and a girl asked me that question but in a tone that suggested she was not rudely demanding that I simply state my name and relation to the host. I was lost for words. I hadn’t really considered the idea.
Who am I? What am I?
It’s a question we ought to consider more often. We ought to do so far more often than we consider the idea of who we want to be.
As I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, I’ve been digging deeply into the writings and lectures of the mid-twentieth century philosopher Alan Watts. He was a great popularizer of Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. I’ve been attracted to his work because he puts the ideas of a very foreign culture in a way that resonates well with my Western mind.
One idea that my listening to his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity has brought up is the notion of the self. The difference in the concept of self between Eastern and Western ideology is a core point of misunderstanding when people of opposite hemispheres meet. Where Westerners often hold a concept of self consistent with Enlightenment ideas of personal liberty and the natural state of man being and individual human outside of society, Easterners see the society itself as being fundamental to the definition of an individual.
This latter view, I believe, is an unfortunate oversight in the Western mind. We are so apt to define ourselves as separate from the world, an intrusion into it, and somehow an independent actor upon it that we frustrate ourselves in the endless search for our proper place within it. To take the view that not only is our relationship to society fundamental to our concept of self but so is our relationship to the entire universe eliminates this question.
To answer the question“Who are you?”, we must define some sort of limit where “you” end and the rest of the universe begins. Does it begin at the end of your brain? At the edge of your body? At the edge of the things you control? And how does one define these edges? Is it at the first molecule of air resting upon the surface of your skin? Is that last molecule of dried and dead skin which awaits its imminent fate as a speck of dust actually still part of “you”?
Pursuing these questions ought to illuminate the fact that our final decision is simply conventional. Such a convention is useful for purposes such as communication or the studies of biology and medicine, but they are no more real than the words on your screen. They are simply ideas, concepts, constructions of the human imagination.
When we recognize this fact, we must also recognize that this lack of boundaries means that I am no more separate from you than your brain is separate from your body. Though thousands of kilometers of Earth, water, and air may separate what our categorizing human brains recognize as our two separate and distinct physical entities, we are both merely features of the existence that we call the Universe.