Why is the self constant? – The consistency of personal Identity

self

In the video, “who am I” I stated the following statement:

“The thing which is me, must remain constant everywhere I am”

Why does it have to be so?

I can answer it with two different approaches:

  1. The observational approach
  2. A logical-philosophic approach

The observational approach – where is the sense of self

So let us start with the basics: Why do we call ourselves “I” anyway? This is because we have an experience of being a self. A central focal point of reality.

Most of us believe that we are our body, but why is it so? Why don’t we believe also that we are the clothes we wear. Why don’t we say “this shirt is me?”. And the simple answer we might give is that I am still me even when I’m not wearing the shirt. Even if I’ll burn the shirt I will remain. So the shirt isn’t me.

In other words, the experience of self continues even without the clothes, so the clothes are not the generator of the experience of self, and therefore, they are not me.

So we can conclude that in order for something to be “me”, it must always be present with the experience of self. Or, as I said in the video:”…constant everywhere I am…”.
This is also the reason we believe that the body is the self since everywhere we have the experience of self, the body is present. (Yet, as I showed in the video “who am I“, and in further details in the video “am I the brain“,  this is not true.)

This way It is also very easy to see that the mind or our personality is not the self.
Some may ask: “but why can’t we see ourselves as personalities that always changes?” This can be answered with a question: “If at the age of 3 I had a totally different personality that at the age of 40, then why are these personalities the same self? Why don’t we refer them as two different selves?
And the answer is: because there is something that remains constant between these two, that makes us believe they are the same self. Usually, it is our body, that we perceive as “the same body”, or several memories that manage to survive from childhood to adulthood, and make us think we are the same self.

I am not my mind

Yet, we can give simple examples that show us it is not enough. Does a man who has completely lost his memory in an accident, is a different self? Does a man that all his organs were replaced and implanted by new ones, is a different self? (Theoretically, apart from the brain, it is possible to do it even today)

So we have to continue and search for the constant thing that remains, which is the real I, and, as I showed in the video “who am I“, this thing is an observer, or, as I called it, consciousness.

 

A logical-philosophic approach

From a philosophic point of view, a logical condition that is necessary for something to have an identity is consistency.

This is described in the philosophical theme called “The consistency of Identity”. This theme is presented nicely in this TED-ED video.

In order to understand the necessity of a constant for having an Identity (not only self-identity), let us examine the example of a molecule:

h2o

Let’s take a water molecule, that is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. We can say it has the identity of a water molecule. Now, we can put it in a mixture of other molecules, like ozone, graphite, ammonia and so on. As long as they don’t react among themselves and create new molecules, we can say that the water molecule is still a water molecule. It preserves its identity.

HHO

Now, if we break it into its components, we will have two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. We surely can’t call them a water molecule. This means that the identity of a water molecule is preserved only when the following are constant: 2 atoms of hydrogen + 1 atom of oxygen, no less and no more, connected together. We can change all the other parameters, the spin of the molecule, the shape of the molecule, and more. As long as the condition stated before remains constant, the molecule preserves its identity.

Let’s go forward with another example. Let us take an oxygen atom and find what is the constant that makes it an oxygen atom, and what are the variables that do not affect its identity.
If we take an electron from the oxygen atom, or if we give him an extra one, we can still refer it as an oxygen atom. But if we took or add a proton to its nucleus, it is no longer oxygen, but a nitrogen or fluorine atom. In fact, if we take all of its electrons except one, it will still be an oxygen atom. Once we take all its electrons, it could not be considered an oxygen atom anymore but a naked nucleus.

I hope you feel that there is something problematic with the statements in the last paragraph: Who has decided that a naked nucleus of an atom cannot be considered as an atom?
This brings us to a deeper understanding, that Identity is determined by our mind, and it is not a quality of the physical world.
Unless we find an indivisible fundamental particle (like atoms were considered to be), we can say that everything in the physical world is divisible and is in constant change, so it has no identity of his own, but an identity which its boundaries are determined by our mind.

planks

This is, by the way, the reason I chose the example of a molecule. I found it is more difficult to see the principle of consistency with other examples. For example, I can show you a pile of planks, and you would never call it a cupboard. Yet if I take your cupboard and disassemble it in front of your eyes into a pile of planks, you would still point at the pile and say “this is my cupboard”. With this example, I won’t be able to explain to you that there is something constant that exists in both the cupboard and the pile of planks, that
makes your mind believe it has the same identity.
So when I try to identify the “I”, I.E. find its identity, we have to find something that is always constant, that preserves our perception or definition of I.
But, didn’t we just said that there is nothing in the physical world the has its own identity, that everything is subject to change?
Yes, we did. But we have discovered that the “I” is not physical, and not even mental. We have found that it is the pure consciousness (or awareness). It is not subject to changes because it is not a thing. It resembles more a void or space. Something that has no tangible existence for itself but enables the existence of all the other phenomena. In the case of space, it enables the existence of matter. In the case of consciousness, it enables the existence of experience.