June 11, 2004

What am I?

I want to take time out from the current discussion to respond to Steven Den Beste’s latest post. (I’ll try to get back to it next week.) Steven asks, “What makes me what I am?

What am I? That can be answered in many ways. I am a particular human being; I am this body. But is the entire body really part of the essential me? I don't consider myself to be different – or to have died – if I trim my fingernails or get my hair cut. If I suffered a grievous injury and had a limb amputated, I would still be me. If I received a heart transplant, I would still be me. (And the donor of that heart would still be dead.)

We consider quadriplegics and "basket cases" (quadruple amputees) to still be alive and to still be themselves. So that means my first answer isn't correct. I am not this body. I must only be part of it. Then which part? What am I?

These are troubling questions for mechanistic atheists like me. We think of humans as walking fires, as complex biological mechanisms which exhibit properties of life, thought and self consciousness powered by controlled release of chemical energy through oxidation. But close examination of our conception of those properties makes clear that we don't really fully understand any of them. For each we have little difficulty describing paradigmatic cases which we are certain have the property in question, but around that center the boundaries are fuzzy. We do not really know where the boundaries are; we may never really be able to say.

I would like to give my answer. I have solved this problem for myself in much the same way that Steven resolves the question, “Are viruses alive?” (Answer: It doesn’t matter, we know what viruses are, whether we call it life or not is beside the point.) Of course, I don’t have an answer to his explicit question. In fact, I will add to his troubling examples one from my own life: When I feel sick, or tired, I feel like a different person. My thoughts are different, my feelings are different, my experience of life is different. Am I really a different person? If I were to have a chronic disease, would I be a different person? I’ll tell you why my answer is no.

My answer to the question, “What makes me what I am?” is: my identity. So that doesn’t sound like a tautology, I will talk a bit about identity. My identity is what I identify with. People are concerned with the fate of the things they identify with in the same way that they are concerned with themselves. Therefore, in a very real way people are those things.

I identify with many things: my self, my family, my friends, my country, other countries, the world, nature, the universe, also abstract concepts: freedom, truth, justice, certain specific ideas, etc. When something “good” happens regarding one of these things, it makes me happy. When something bad happens, it makes me sad.

But more than this: I believe, deep within me, for no logical reason, that life has purpose. In particular my life has purpose. I have no idea what that purpose is, though I believe that pursuing my values and protecting what I believe to be important is the way to achieve it. I deeply identify with this unknown purpose, and since it is immortal, I feel, so am I.

I think that to some extent, all of us struggle with the idea that perhaps, after all, life really is purposeless. It is a depressing thought. At some point I crossed my own Rubicon, and though I do have my moments of doubt, in some holistic sense, I know that I’m immortal. I know it, because I no longer fear death. (At least, not in the terrible, existential way that I once did.)

Scientists like to think in terms of forces and properties, and give them names: gravity, friction, charge, entropy, etc. What shall we call the force/property of purposefulness? Let me suggest one: God.

Near the end of Steven’s post, he makes this remarkable statement:

I do not harbor any doubt about my atheism. But it cannot be denied that atheism is cold and uncomforting, and that there is a price to be paid for believing in it. An atheist must at all times live with the idea that in the end nothing we think or do is really very significant, and we may not really matter at all.

Steven’s behavior, and everything I’ve read in his posts since I discovered him a few months ago, seems to deny this belief. In fact, the very statement of this statement denies its statement. (Like the statement, “I always lie.”)

Steven includes a large number of links to previous posts of his; unfortunately, I don’t have time to read them today. Perhaps one of them contains a rebuttal to this post, if I find it, I will try respond next week.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 11, 2004 12:30 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

haha nobody likes you

Posted by: mm at June 14, 2004 02:37 AM Permalink

× Network: