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Pathways to Philosophy

Mind, Body and Personal Identity

by James Martin


'Philosophy has always gone astray by giving the name of "I" to the most unlikely things but never to the thing you can call "I" in your daily life.'

— Jose' Ortega Y Gasset (1883-1995) In Search of Goethe from Within

Who am I? And who am I not? Why am I 'me'? What have I become? And what have I 'lost' in the process of attempting to define my 'being' in this interlude between our two eternities? How much of 'me' is 'pure thought', or worse yet: simply a physical response in origin and perhaps substance. Am I nothing more than an involuntary response? Gone mad.

There is something exciting happening here. Something that grabs my thinking to enable an enthusiastic response. It's not academic. I am not here to examine what Descartes, Berkeley et al 'meant'. Although it seems I have spent an extraordinary time block with these 'great thinkers' of philosophy, religion and politics over my mature lifetime. Because of, and despite this fact, I would rather examine 'me' now, and then compare my own search for identity — comprising both mind and body with what 'they' (classic philosophers) have discovered or discerned on their own — and in their own time.

There are no real road maps or clues that can yield the elements of a 'personal identity' — but, there is something here larger than our thinking, grander than formal education, more meaningful than the lives of our ancestors: Our Perceived Experience. That which is unique to our individual life. The one that is perceived. And examined. The one that cheers for itself. And suffers alone. And the one that struts and strains for a physical presence that preserves and pretends itself part of the whole. At odds with itself perhaps, the mind-body connection is Descartes legacy. But my child.

The problem appears to lie in what makes 'identity' of one person in time — and through time. For me, 57 years of perceptions yields experience (and experience equals perception) — events, both major and insignificant. From a remembered childhood, to the current hour of my life. Every experience has yielded some result or other — a degree of satisfaction, a so-called success, periods of boredom, consistent disappointment, grief, sorrow — and yes, longing. How generous I have been to myself in my own thinking! to elicit such responses in these thousands of clashes, arguments, resolutions or reconciliations — with myself — and those I loved over a lifetime, and those long forgotten even in the moment. Events in review, both locked and floating as charged memory cells, isolated in that part of the brain reserved for recall. Perception as remembrance. Intangible acts of thought — dependent on physical processes. Or not.

What is identity? Is it nothing more than the subtraction or addition of some conscious elements and labels of identity that precedes us — and follow us, often thrown upon us by society that yields some definition, no matter how elusive it is manifested? No one seems to disagree with Samuel Butler who said, "everything is what it is and not another thing". I've been told the difficulty here is to know when we have one thing and not two. Let me begin:

I was a husband once. For 31 years. We had two children. Now they are 30 and 26. The sense of 'identity' that motivated my actions it appears were institutional labels that became conscious relating. Marriage is an interesting concept. Society often demands it if we are to conceive and raise out children with some formal structure using the 'family' as it central focus. Yet, it doesn't take much research to realize half the marriages, more or less end in divorce. Dissolved is the idea that this institution (marriage) is mandated for life. A necessary perception. Does this mean our identity is locked up already, one predetermined set of outcomes after another? Universal in its application and resolve. It seems not only does the relation between mind (perception) and body (physical processes) compete for attention and relevance — but that even our perceptions are not our own...where in fact, they belong to the necessity of 'man' to believe in his relevance and continuation.

You might think that perhaps even 'perception' has an organic base, rooted in process and resolve. Why not? The body functions that mingle with the mind include learned responses of walking and movement, both required integrations dependent on the signals sent from the brain to the limbs and back again.

Our perceptions are shaped by our mental experiences and the physical consequences; the ability to interpret them rests on our need to make 'sense' of our life in each stage of existence. Mid-life seems an appropriate time lime to meditate a while on the roles we have played throughout our life. Child, adolescent, adult, and finally at life's termination point.

Oddly enough, the older we become, more often than not, we see our 'identity' comprised of monitoring a physical self and its eventual decline, as well as our perceptions of 'who we once were'. The relevance of such a definition is that we in fact are 'following' both our physical presence and at last, what was our most important 'thoughts' that comprised our belief system of perceptions over a lifetime.

The Big Three responses to the problem of defining what 'me' is: Dualism, Materialism and Idealism — each offers some sense of continuity 'after the fact': that is, from my own examination of my life, inside and out, I see myself in these linguistic labels.

Am I the sum of my body and mind? Each taking a center stage to the understanding of the other. Body-mind, Mind-body. I call on one. One calls on me. I can control my thoughts. At least as I am conscious to think of thinking. But I react to the pain of an unknown throbbing in my chest. I think of my possible demise. The incomplete life not quite fulfilled. My mind and body are in perfect harmony, are they not? One relies on the other. Physical signals sent to my brain and resolved by my thoughts. And so it goes with the rest of my collection of organs. Each interdependent on the other. Oh! this body and its parts. What a wonder of biology. To be dissected, labeled, reissued, used again in transplants. A physical presence we hold preeminent.

But without thinking about them, how do we know they really exist? Are their names or labels required to make them real? Two entities, the physical, and mental, separate but equal perhaps. The physical cannot be the mental. Or can the mental ever become the physical? Can mind and matter unite? as one. Or do they co-exist, each to be reacted to by the other. When I think a thought, does my body care? or is it simply 'listening'. And when I think a thought, is my body 'on alert' to the mind's orders of the day? It seems so. One can't live without the other, or at least the thought of a complete human being includes body and mind functioning in some harmony or a parched chaos. I suppose the very thought of mind-body relationship often wore out Descartes late at night; sleeping till noon was a requirement.

Or, can I describe 'me' in terms of a materialistic self, that is, the body obviously exists in this state, but for the materialist, it appears that mental states are not separate from the body. Such is the view the world is entirely composed of matter. The Ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus might say I consist of invisible and indivisible bits called 'atoms'. And much later (17th century), Hobbes' Leviathan captured the same notion in his long poem. That the laws of nature dictate our best being. Direct observation of nature might explain it all based of scientific knowledge — not from a first philosophy of philosophic reasoning. Known also called 'physicalism', based on the laws of physics that matter resolves into forces and energy. I suppose for the physicist, matter and energy mix. But it doesn't answer (hopefully) the nature of the mind and its companion processes — essentially consciousness. Of course, I remember the epigram I wrote:

'If we are but the charge between the cells, what have we lost and what can we gain?'

— from A Man's Life James Martin (Four Seasons Press 1994)

There is that possibility then. And what about consciousness? Nothing more than a physical state too? And what we think doesn't matter? Babbling idiots, us. Trapped in the body. Mind is body. Body is body. Very confusing existence I would say. For now, I must pass. However, I think I will drift to the third response for possible comfort and maybe a sense of security to house the 'me' I have come to think about. Idealistically speaking, of course.

As I observe my life past, in the moment, and to its completion, I do so with the understanding my physical existence are the experiences I am left to conceive of — all of which take place in my mind's view. So in retrospect, my perception is based on my perceptions of events. There is neither pain or pleasure in these associations, at least not at the moment. They (perceptions) simply 'were'. Yet, it seems to me there is a dilemma here too: how can we both aware of physical objects while it appears physical objects are independent of us, holding court in an external world outside our ability to create them? I mean, now what can we authentically perceive outside our internal senses. Of course, the argument becomes more dense with Locke's Representative Realism vs. Berkeley's notion that we can hold fast to the physical world itself and believing ideas are dependent on the mind. And what is 'real' through Idealism is a mind-construct. Hmm. That seems hard to prove otherwise, since it is impossible at this juncture to characterize a perception outside the medium of the mind. You have to admire a man like Berkeley. At least he can't be disproved. Yet.

My-Oh-my. All these barriers toward a unifying theme of 'Identity'. Yet, when one considers Dualism, Materialism, and Idealism, are not each interdependent in a way that accounts for our viewing 'self' if not comprehensively, perhaps as best we can? all the time realizing , we do not create worlds, but find ourselves in one. Or do we?

I'm not in Ohio anymore. My wife is dead. Two years this month. My Son flew back to Washington DC recently after a brief visit with me in Wisconsin. I see his Mother in him. Her conscious state lingers there. But so does mine...and all who passed his way, genetically, as well teachers, friends, and every influence ever recorded and absorbed. We (and they) are all there is seems. Identity is hopefully never stagnant, but perhaps transitory, migratory — and finally, collective in its conscious-absorbing 'self'.

And the desire to Love takes hold once again. It is the same inflection and the same song — perhaps the same inflection with a new twist. Who would have thunk it? Yet 'what was' 'is'. In a odd and mysterious way, to love again, is to love always — and also, to never stop loving. Its temporal object may physically change, but its necessity changes us. Even though the outcome is often in doubt.

My daughter and her husband are six months pregnant — the first in the next generation will be a girl. We are all there too as 'collective identity'. Yet, neither philosophy or poetry will answer us completely this time. But we hear their call, and eagerly move closer to what we cannot know — with tears, laughter...and in awe of our very soul that it be known somehow. Someday.

© James Martin 2002

E-mail: sheldonjamesmartin@hotmail.com