Defining the Self
Febuary 13, 2011
Part 2 of 5 in a series describing the Pythagorean perspective of Economics and Society
It is a common misconception that economics is simply about money. Money is only useful when it is being handed from one person to another. Without people, money is nothing. So it is intrinsically crucial in our understanding of money that we understand the individuals that use it. This second post out of five is intended to lay out our understanding of money in terms of people, so we must first define what a “person” is.
Note: Neuroeconomics is fascinating, but it will only give us more tools to understand reality. The only way we might advance our understanding is by using tools. We can bypass a lot of irrelevancy by making a few simple assumptions about the human mind.
Stating the Question
We’ve wondered for so long after the question, “What is consciousness?” This question is one of Michael Hanlon’s 10 questions that science cannot yet answer.
Many have answered this question, but apparently to no one’s satisfaction, as the question remains. But answering it is a wonderful mental exercise. My attempt at an answer here is in no way an attempt to “solve” the riddle, cut off dialogue, or be the witty answer that everyone, collectively, sighs at, saying, “Oh, of course. It was that all along! Silly me for not thinking of that.”
Defining Our Terms
Some definitions of consciousness are too narrow. The word itself is actually too narrow, and we need to get rid of it. Consciousness implies existence, where unconsciousness would imply, what, lack of existence? No, because even when you are “unconscious,” dreaming usually, you still exist. You’re still you, making decisions, existing, choosing inside that dream (as I was about five minutes ago, at time of writing).
It would be useless to attempt to answer this question without first defining what, exactly, we mean when we say “consciousness.” When I think of my body, I mostly think of a grotesque meat suit over which I have control, different not in kind but only in degree from the way a video gamer controls a character with a controller. It’s as if there are a thousand buttons and joysticks inside this meat suit, and unaware of these buttons, I go through my life. But this lends to a tricky question, what is this I that controls the body?
I call it the self. Italicized, just for fun. What is the self? For me, this question is identical to the question of consciousness.
An Issue of Existence
What does it mean to exist? We know that a plum exists when we hold it in our hand. But then again, what is a plum? This mass in your hand is mostly water, filling up some (delicious) plant matter. But in fact, that plum is mostly empty space. Just like the rest of physicality, the plum is at most about as dense as our solar system, with a proportionate amount of actual matter. The nucleii and electrons comprising its “existence” are actually all quite far spread apart. And zoom closely enough into that nucleii, or those electrons, and you’ll actually just see energy. In numerous states, but energy. And this energy is, of course, extremely predictable. The plum doesn’t randomly pop into or out of existence. The energy comprising this plum behaves in what we perceive as a very repeating, predictable manner. To most accurately answer this question, to exist is to have energy, but in a repeated, predictable way.
Pattern of Choice
The self is the pattern. I am my repeated action. I am not my meat suit, I am not what has been given to me by my genetic coding, I am not anything that I have no control over. I am what I control. My self is my action, my decisions, my choices. Excluding the most assertive of us, we have no control over our options, we can only pick between them. We do not control what is put on the menu of reality, but we do have control over what we pick from that menu. Reality is broad, and it’s always an option to get up and go to a different restaurant, but this reality is not as easily escaped. It confines us, like a vast, beautiful, garden of a prison. And we choose based on what we’re given. We are our choices.
Awareness then becomes the crux of the issue. One cannot have a choice without first being aware that the choice is there. A man in a burning building will literally burn to death before escaping through the fire escape in the next room, if he is not aware of the option. Awareness can be the difference between life and death, but it often manifests itself less dramatically. Always be aware of as much as possible. Doing so allows one an increased option spread in our shared reality without having to go out and do anything. You improve your situation by introspection. The other option is to stay unaware, and continue to choose, like a jogger with terrible form. Plodding down the street, needlessly stressing his knees because he simply doesn’t understand how to run, and refuses to examine his own stride.
Run on a treadmill in a mirror. Examine your stride. Tweak it. Become aware of everything you do, and then make it exactly what you want.
Awarely made choices are what I consider to be consciousness, which I more often refer to as the self. Unawarely made choices abound, and are a part of the unconscious self, but are still a part of the self to the extent that there is the potential for the individual to become aware of these aspects of action, but the individual has either chosen not to become aware or is not aware for some other reason. I continue to wrestle with this issue, whether an individual can be responsible for actions made unconsciously, where that individual had the capacity to become conscious of the action but did not. Perhaps like the Jewell case taken to the tiny extremes of everyday, far less dramatic, life.
The self is awarely completed, repeating, predictable choices. It is a pattern of choice. The self is the pattern.
Experience with the mystery of the self is the most beautiful, tantalizing, and universal characteristic of humanity. The crime is not in giving a “wrong” answer. The real crime is to deny ourselves the opportunity to wrestle with this question.