The Individual that Never Existed
We are rather ‘dividuals’ than an ‘individual’
I have been thinking about what do we mean when we assign something like free will to an ‘individual’. The concept of the ‘self’ is in question here. What is a ‘self’? Is there a ball of light that we assign ‘self’ to? I want to tackle what is this ‘self’ that is assigned a life here. It is remarkable that we treat ourselves as a single entity and never question it. But, it “feels” that way, doesn’t it? How could we be more than that?
When I interact with this world, it seems like I am speaking for this organism that is contained within the boundaries of this physical body. What if I chop off one of my arms and throw it away? Are there two of me, or the rest of me is a little less of me now? That arm will probably decay and die, but I can still function without an arm (although not as efficiently as before). But people will still recognize me as me and not that arm. So, it seems like an arm is just an extension of myself that doesn’t quite encapsulate the essence of ‘me’.
Going with that, it seems like my digital devices and even my notebooks are extensions of me. I use my laptop and my phone to put down my thoughts, mark my reminders, store memories in the form of videos, etc. If we think about it, even this essay is an extension of my thoughts stored on the internet and rendered in a linguistic format through pixels on this screen. So, where does the ‘me’ end? What should be the criteria of ‘me’?
The criteria can’t be just the physical form. Because even this essay can exist on physical pixels when read and as electrons on a server when stored. Or as ink on the paper of my notebook. All these things are an extension of myself but they don’t have quite the essence of me. I want to get to the bare bones of ‘me’. If we remove all the extensions, I think we’ll get to somewhere around a brain. It seems like that is at the center of all this.
Almost all the other organs are just a way to nourish my brain and provide different functions for its proper working. So, we’ve come to a point where my essence is stored in a calcified housing. But let’s go even further. My brain is made up of chemicals that interact with each other. And different parts of my brain are responsible for different cognitive activities. So, it seems like we could still break it down.
Even if we go into the abstract realm and try to play with the idea of the ‘self’, it doesn’t seem that there is just one ‘self.’ Daniel Kahneman found out through his experiments that there are at least two different selves: the narrating self and the experiencing self. The experiencing self is identical to the stream of consciousness whereas the narrating self weaves a story around all the experiences and provides meaning to our experiences.
So, it seems like the ‘individual’ is divisible after all. The term ‘individual’ literally translates to ‘not divisible’, but the ‘individual’ doesn’t seem to exist. At least not in the way we think it does. Then, why do we “feel” and act like an individual? Is it just another trick that the narrating self pulls off?