An essay I wrote, originally for Andrés Gómez Emilsson’s blog, Qualia Computing. I’m reposting it here with some amendments, though I do recommend you check him out.
To understand this essay you should know the difference between Closed, Empty, and Open Individualism.
Closed Individualism — You are a discrete being who was born at some point in the past and then at some point in the future you will die and stop existing. During your whole life, you are the same one being. (This is most people’s common sense view).
Empty Individualism — In each moment, however you quantify a unit of time, you are a discrete being, and then in the next moment there is a different being. Essentially every moment you are a different person. Every moment you are being born and then dying. The being one second ago isn’t the same being now, nor will be one second into the future.
Open Individualism — There is only one being in all of existence, despite the fact that people may feel separate, actually throughout all time there has only ever been and only ever will be one ultimate being.
Set-Up and Squaring Intuitions There is a problem in philosophy of backwards rationalisation, where people feel intuitive pulls towards certain conclusions, and then try to justify why their intuition is correct. We can say this is putting the cart before the horse. If we are to philosophise well, we shouldn’t start with the conclusion. However, the pull to side with your intuitions is so incredibly crucial to decision-making that it basically can’t be ignored. In fact, at the heart of trying to know anything fundamentally hinges on a feeling quality of ‘this seems/feels right’ in relation to a proposition.
Now, this isn’t to say that all intuitions don’t have truth value, it’s just that we need to be subjectively sensitive to when we are totally being led by a feeling (which I think in many cases some philosophers aren’t aware of). At the end of the day, we go off of whether an idea sits right with us at some particular level(s) of the mind, and all the justificatory attempts in favour of this idea serve to shift that feeling in us one way or the other.
Leading on to the discussion of identity: in a lot of thought experiments and attempts to understand where identity starts and stops we find an appeal to intuition. This is often done by conjuring up convoluted scenarios of teleportation machines, brain transplants, or Men-In-Black-style memory wipes and then reflecting on whether we feel that identity stayed the same or not. A good way to press people’s intuitions is to get them to consider suffering, as personal identity is the great motivator of avoiding suffering (no self = no problem, or “not me, not my problem” as they say). Depending on where and at what time suffering is endured by which collection of atoms gets people to consider really quickly and more confidently say where they think the bounds of identity lie.
Along with the epistemological problems of resting an argument on intuition or ‘gut feeling’ mentioned above, intuitions differ not just from person to person, but from moment to moment (in the same person). As William James explored in ‘The Principles of Psychology’ it is common for someone to sometimes feel like they are their body, and then at other times to feel like they have a body. And if you haven’t become privy to how your intuitions can change, you may not question the truth value of the signal they are transmitting. So, I write this to highlight the problems of trying to solve identity issues by appealing to a felt-sense of where it lies.
Two Ways of Talking About the Self
Now I see an obvious split in how to approach this topic:
(1) We can talk about identity as a raw experience — what in the experience ‘space’ do I feel numerically identical to (one and the same as) — and in Buddhistic fashion forgo metaphysical claims thereafter. This is a phenomenological approach to identity and so I call (1) the phenomenological self. How does the self seem to appear experientially/subjectively?
(2) Try to extrapolate beyond immediate experience and argue for a position of what the self is or how identity functions in a metaphysical sense. To try to infer ontologically what exists beyond direct perception, out in the ‘mind in-dependent world’, the ‘world in-and-of-itself’ — Kant’s noumenal world. I call (2) the conceptual self, as it is about the content within concepts you believe refers to you.
To make this distinction clear I’ll give an example of a potential answer to (1) and then to (2). If asked: “What am I?” along the lines of (1) one may answer: “I feel like I am my thoughts.” — thoughts arise in experience and there is a fused impression of ‘me-ness’ with those thoughts. While (2) is concerned about the content of those thoughts and if asked: “What am I?” one may answer and even fervently believe: “I am a brain.” However, they don’t have any direct experience of being a brain (they can’t see, hear, taste, touch or sense ‘brain-ness’ in any way within their experience ) — it is an extrapolation of ideas beyond direct phenomenological perception. Then we can argue about how valid that extrapolation from the content of a thought to a firm conviction in a metaphysical belief is - it may be.
There are attempts to make a non-dual move here and collapse both ways of talking about the self either fully into one or the other, or dismiss the distinction altogether, or unify them, or transcend them. You have to speak to someone for a long time to understand how they are making sense of this - they may not even know themselves, but it matters!
Apologies for all that set-up.
This is my framing and to give you the best response I needed to spell this out. Now, let me answer personally what I believe identity is in terms of (1) and then (2). However, (2) is informed by (1), and (1) is made sense of by (2); so although the distinction is very useful, like all separations, their boundaries seem to always breakdown — that there is a hint towards my metaphysical beliefs ;).
Phenomenological Senses of Identity
For me, this has changed throughout the years as I’ve meditated more and more. I have shared these images with you before and they represent the transition of intuitions of personal identity throughout my journey.
They seem to match up quite nicely with how Frank Yang lays out his stages. Depending on which stage someone is in, we hear different metaphysical proclamations of identity. (This is where (1) the phenomenological self gets easily conflated with (2) the conceptual self).
When it comes to identifying with awareness, The Witness, (the second picture/stage) this is when you hear talk of the sort of there being one universal consciousness and that’s our true nature.
When I was identifying with awareness, I could suddenly relate to what people meant by “We are all one universal consciousness”. However, I got the sense that people were failing to differentiate between something being numerically identical and qualitatively identical. When you become ‘aware of awareness’ there is a sense that this is a pristine dimension and is not personal. It doesn’t seem to belong to the notion of Roger (as it is perceived causally before the very idea of Roger), nor is it trademarked by Roger’s beliefs or memories. There is an insight that this perfectly equanimous layer of being is part of everyone’s experience, they just don’t see it, just as you used to not see it.
Yet it couldn’t be ruled out whether we are all in touch with the same one pure light of consciousness, or if each sentient organism has its own, and our consciousnesses (plural) are just qualitatively the same. I think people often miss this distinction.
Stage 2 does not obviously lead to open individualism yet. There is still a sense of the duality between ‘the radiant awareness’ and everything else to be aware of.
Although I think that anyone (even those without emptiness insights) could be talked into believing closed, open and empty individualism at a conceptual level, this doesn’t mean their phenomenological experience of identity would change; nor would their instinctive, non-inquisitive gut-intuition on the subject.
I would hypothesize that those who have no insight into the 3 characteristics are intuitively most swayed by closed individualism. And those who have sufficient enough insight into impermanence (but not no-self) may intuitively side with empty individualism. And then with a deep enough insight into no-self, open individualism becomes a no-brainer.
Experiencing God (and a message to Leo Gura)
Stage 3, Big Mind, is when open individualism is most likely to begin to intuitively feel right. This is also when talks of being God come out of people’s mouths and (as in terms of (1)) they phenomenologically perceive the sense of ‘I’ in everything they experience. While they (in terms of (2)) may conceptually infer there is just one thing, one being, call it ‘God’. “God is everything. I am everything.” Because the understanding of moving from (1) to (2) (from experience to conjecture) is often lost on people, all kinds of wacky metaphysical beliefs come about — supposedly self-validating by higher consciousness or direct cosmic download.
While at stage 3, if you inject some metta into your experience space, you come to see what people mean when they say: “God is everywhere and all loving” or even: “God is love”. Having the feeling of being everything in your experience is like you don’t feel separate from anything, thus there is a deep intimacy with the world which construes love. You feel like you are the body, the thoughts, the emotions, the trees, the hills on the horizon, the air in between all of it, the sky and the awareness field which contains all these things. However, going from the experience of feeling identical to everything you are aware of to “I am everything (even that which I’m not currently aware of) and therefore I am God/the universe” requires an unfounded leap — which I admittedly made at some point.
I remember an incredibly stark moment I had when I was in stage 3, where ‘being God’ felt like the most real thing (I can sympathise a lot with where Leo Gura is coming from — though I think he’s lacking some phenomenological discernment). Because at stage 3 the sense of ‘I’ is so prevalent, due to it being perceived everywhere in experience, I was investigating this quality a great deal. I was trying to distil the sense of ‘I’ down to its rawest form. “Yes, I feel identical to the trees and the sky and other people, but what is that common element that can be found in all these things which I call ‘I’?” After whittling away all the other unnecessary phenomenological baggage piled onto this ‘I’, I arrived at a clear perception of ‘I’ in its rawest form. The ‘I’ I call the epistemic agent, the pure sense of a knower of experience.
It became obvious that once the epistemic agent was singled out in experience that this perception of ‘I’ can only manifest in one way. What I mean by this is unlike with milk where the formula can be tainted slightly and result in versions of milk with slightly different colours, or tastes, or smells and yet they are all still versions of milk, it is impossible for the epistemic agent to have a slightly different perceptual ‘flavour’ to it other than it does. This is because the qualia recipe only consists of one ingredient and if that’s missing or different then it’s not the epistemic agent (the rawest sense of I am). Once I clocked this, I realised that all iterations of ‘I’ wherever and whenever, in all beings at all times, experience the sense of ‘I am’ exactly the same way. Then, and I remember this moment so clearly, it hit me: “if God or the universe is self-aware — which it is just by dint of me being of the universe and self-aware — and has an experience of I-ness, then my experience of I-ness in this relative body is the same as God’s and through a sharing of experience there is a direct link and so… Oh my god, I am God!”
(I am not suggesting that this line of reasoning is sound. It was simply the series of steps I went through which brought upon this profound experience).
Again, the numerically versus qualitatively identical distinction could be parsed, however there is a way to get around this, for when you remove the sense of time and space from the equation then that difference collapses. To say that something is qualitatively identical to something else, but not numerically identical doesn’t make sense if two things can’t be differentiated by existing in separate moments of time or space. So in my “Oh my god, I am God!” epiphany, the sense of time and space had been shunned from attention and numerical identity was presumed.
I can imagine that someone has this epiphany moment as I did, but then when they return to a more ‘timey/spacey’ existence they retain credence in the belief that they are God and not just a single, distinct instance of experience of ‘I’ (which would be more of an empty individualist thought). They do this because they are basing their beliefs off of a very profound mind moment, even if the majority of their waking hours don’t suggest the same message.
[I want to add a disclaimer before this next part and express appreciation towards Leo Gura and his channel, Actualized.org. I think it’s an amazing channel and I have learnt a lot from him. I highly recommend people check him out. So don’t take this next part as a slight against him. He’s got some great content!]
Now, if I could tell Leo Gura one thing it would be this: “Profundity does not equate to truth.” Just because something felt so real and epic, does not mean that experience is giving you the most accurate representation of greater reality. Truth be told at stage 3 I didn’t have anywhere near the attentional clarity, precision of view, and metacognitive abilities that came later; and so while I was having all these profound experiences I was not totally clued into the subtle ways I was manipulating my experience and was biased to certain perspectives while overlooking certain presumptive views that became clearer to me later on.
Self, Not-self, and Neither Self nor Not-self
When it comes to personal identity, I want to distinguish three things the mind can do here:
It can project a sense of self onto parts of experience — “I feel like I am this chair.” — said the man on salvia.
It can project a sense of not-self onto parts of experience — “I don’t feel identical to that person over there.” — said sober Joe. I want to emphasise here that I don’t mean there is just a lack of ‘feeling’ associated with something, but rather there is an actual new ‘feeling’ of not identifying with something. (Stage 4, Not Self, was living a life with the constant signal of ‘not me’ being coupled with everything I pointed my attention to.)
It can stop projecting any sense of self and not-self — “I neither feel like I am everything, nor I’m not.” said Roger. Here, I mean the lack of projecting a sense of self and even a sense of not-self.
To go into a little more detail on what is meant by 3. Neither self, nor not-self, essentially there is just no transmission of data on this subject. No reading. When asked “What are you?” it’s like the question doesn’t even compute. Before, there were qualia indicators to be able to judge what is self and what is not-self. And now it’s like the mind pulls a blank. It is not because the answer is obvious that ‘I am everything’, or ‘I am nothing’, it’s because those signals are both seen as empty phenomenological constructions and not confused as being statements pertaining to ontological facts in themselves. It’s almost a bit like asking a person who is blind from birth “Do you just see blackness?” — it can be really hard for sight-abled-people to get their head around the fact that some blind people don’t see anything at all (and what that really means). 4th path is akin to becoming blind to identity in a way. Although, I wasn’t identity blind from birth, memory of the qualia of ‘me-ness’ and ‘not me-ness’ is incredibly faded.*
*There is subtle nuance to get into with retaining semblances of individuality just to be able to function in the world, though any and all self-models (or put another way, ‘character models’) that still persist are instantaneously contextualised in the mind as being ephemeral, hollow mental constructions and never confused as being the ‘true self’.
The Ship of Theseus, Threshold Emptiness Insights and Losing the Ability to Buy into Nouns
At a certain point, once enough insight into emptiness was established, the ability to seriously believe in separate entities became near impossible. I remember with my beginner’s mind, closed individualism was the default position. And when nouns were comprehended, they were firmly believed to be distinct, real partitions in reality. “The world is made of things that are tables and things that are not.” (As if a table is an actual thing, lol). However, now I can never fully think that a table is anything more than a mind-made construct. It is perceived as so porous, airy, hollow…. empty. And this applies to all nouns: ‘atoms’, ‘being’, ‘non-being’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘mind’ and including the idea of ‘The Now’ (I’ll get into that later).
One time in philosophy class we were going over the ‘paradox’ of The Ship of Theseus. People in my class had all kinds of differing intuitions. Some said: “As soon as over 50% of the ship parts have been replaced then it’s a new/different ship”. Some others said: “As soon as you replace one part of the ship it’s a new/different ship”. While others said: “As soon as one atom changes it’s a new/different ship”. They were going back and forth arguing over the identity of a ship, which fair enough was the point of the class. And meanwhile, the whole time I was thinking “There is no ship of Theseus to begin with. There never was. It’s not a thing. And so there is no paradox. There is no conundrum to solve.”
I had been reading ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain’ at the time, and it occurred to me during the class that what I was witnessing were people with all very different brain chemistries, with either left or right hemisphere biases, and this is what was leading them to different conclusions (me being no exception) — the philosophical quibbling had little to do with it. (Keep in mind I am not resorting to any postmodernist conclusions. I do think some positions contain more truth signal than others.)
4th Path Putting the Nail in the Coffin for Empty Individualism?
There is no ‘now’, as there is not enough time for even a single isolated self to form. At 4th path, insight into emptiness is so stark that you realise that to conceive of ‘The Now’ as a thing is wrong view. I used to experience things as arising and then a moment later passing; as manifesting and then slightly thereafter defabricating. But now I can see how phenomena are already disappearing the moment they are appearing. This leads to kinds of visions of a super-position — simultaneous 1 and 0, neither something nor nothing. With such perception a ‘now’ as a moment can’t even consolidate — there truly is no ground for things to rest on.
Finally (2) My Conceptual Beliefs About Identity! (Prepare to be disappointed)
Keeping in mind what I said about neither self nor not-self, when the intuition of personal identity is so lacking the question of ‘What is me and what is not me?’ just becomes ‘What does it mean for something to be its own individual entity?’ or even more simply ‘What exists?’ Does there exist one thing or more than one thing? And does it even make sense to consider there being ‘things’ (nouns) at all?
(Take this next part as me applying a cosmic lens).
So, is there more than one thing? Engaging my scrupulous, philosophical, inquisitive mind, I can’t conceive of how there being more than one thing would be meaningful. But I don’t even really believe in things at all (if thing is taken as a noun), so one thing isn’t quite getting at it either. There is something and it seems to be something so magical that it defies categorical comprehension. But the fact that there is change suggests this is not unitary, yet nor do I wish to say it is legion. Not noun, but verb? A process? But to where and how?
Heidegger often wrote in double negatives; I believe because when you construe something in the negative you bring to mind both the thing and its negative simultaneously. There is a greater potential for the mind to grasp a seeming paradox, but the conceptual mind can never fully do it, it can only approximate. Kierkegaard tried as he put it:
“The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
But words can only serve to point to something outside of their grasp. This is why:
“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”
However, when I stop thinking (disengage the conceptual mind) and simply be, I get an intuitive sense of a super-position. Simultaneously, neither one nor many. Neither now nor not now. Neither existing nor not existing. Neither conscious nor not conscious. And this is apprehended in a way that is not confusing or jarring, but as the most sensible stance.
Still, I have a sceptic bone in my body and I am always open to being schooled.
[The original article contained a short story at the end ‘Halfway In, Halfway Out The Great Door of Being’, however here I’ve decided to make it a separate post].