Friday, September 2, 2011

On the Arbitrariness of Identity

We yelled at our son this morning. According to our wife, we were standing over him, pointing, and yelling for him to "KNOCK IT OFF!" In other words, the very antithesis of the absurd man we ramble on about in these pages. Yet now, a few short hours later, we sit in mystified contemplation of the morning's events, nonplussed and a bit embarrassed at the way we acted. Indeed, we felt similarly a mere 20 or 30 minutes after the incident. Which raises an interesting question.

Which individual--the ranting, unhinged father, or the calm, contemplative thinker--better represents our true identity? Were we acting out of character then...or are we now? Or are both versions somehow pieces of the same whole? But before we get to that, let us pose another question.

Consider a man about to have sex. (We speak of men because we have no knowledge of whether the same is true for women. As an aside, we recently heard that one of Goethe's primary goals was to understand how it felt to be a woman. This has seemed more and more interesting the more we have thought about it...) For a man in the throes of passion, having sex is the most important thing in the world. Bombs going off, floodwaters rising, bottom of the ninth...nothing else matters. And yet, after sex, the exact opposite is true. Sex now holds zero interest for him - suddenly, the top of the fifth seems a lot more enticing.

So...which is the "real" man? Said a different way, how can an individual's value system shift so completely (taking sex from the top to the bottom) a fraction of a second?!?

Our answer, as you may have guessed, is that this is an empty question, akin to asking what rocks think about. The reason we can seemingly be "different" people not just over the years, but from day to day and moment to moment, is that we are different, as physical changes occur and alter who "we" are. However, while sometimes these changes are radical (eg someone who has a stroke), most of the time they are minor enough to fit into our established personal narrative. Thus, while we are clearly a "different person" from 20 or 30 years ago, this is far less obvious, at least most of the time, over very short periods.

What we call identity, then, is simply a convenient fiction we establish to try to make sense of our life, with no more meaning than the arrangement of fallen leaves under a tree.

The odd thing is, even as we sit here writing about how foolishly we acted this morning, we have no doubt such experiences will occur again. (Although we should note they seem to occur with far less frequency the more we have embraced the absurd; further, our "recovery time" from such events is significantly shorter. Not that it matters, of course...;-)

And this brings us to another Goethe quote we find remarkably insightful:

"Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again."


  1. Interesting question. Urban dictionary defines the moments after ejaculation as

    Assuming they are a reliable source for agreed upon social mores, I would agree and say we are our truest selves when in a post-coital, relaxed, and coolly contemplating state as is demonstrated here on this blog. Philosophical thinking is very difficult to accomplish under duress. Hunger, fear, desire, all activate the animal instincts we try so hard to repress with our advanced brains and nobody likes to be shown that they are just another animal. Better to attribute the wild side to "chemicals" and the controlled side to who we really are.

  2. Hello again...

    Love your post! In my opinion there is no self or identity. I think of us as being like an atom. You have the nucleus and the particles which circle it. Yet if you take all the matter which comprises every human being on earth and put it in one place the combined matter would be no bigger than a sugar cube. This means that we are mostly made up of nothing, space.

    I think that we are this space and the particles are phenomena arising from the space we can observe such as emotions etc. We are basically a narrative we self-construct in an attempt to make ourselves substantial in an insubstantial and impermanent world. We try to assign too much importance to our narrative and phenomena to create a sense of self and stability out of them. This can sometimes drive a person crazy. (Not me...yet)