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My Age Explains It

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on January 4, 2004 20:50:38 UTC

Hi Wanda,

You must be quite a bit younger than I in order for my title to be perplexing. I'll explain.

I am so old that the current spate of Political Correctness has not impressed me. So, I need either to be forgiven or chastised for this. There is an old joke, which is now so politically incorrect that you probably have not heard it, but which I find to be very funny. More importantly, I find the punch line very useful in discussions involving identity, the self, consciousness, etc. Here's the joke:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are hunkered down, surrounded by hostile Indians. They are hopelessly outnumbered and out gunned. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto in his desperation and says, "Tonto, what are we going to do?" And, of course Tonto replies, "What do you mean by "We", white man?"

So, now to explain how it relates to our conversation. I was referring to the "We" in the title of your post where you said "We are more detectors than sources". The point I was making by using Tonto's punch line was that we need to make some fine distinctions about what exactly we are referring to when we attribute capabilities such as sensing, perceiving, attending, knowing, willing, thinking, calculating, recalling, imagining, feeling, wondering, etc.

Some of these, e.g. sensing, can be done with a camera or other inanimate device. But I don't think we would attribute the capability to wonder to a camera.

Similarly, when we talk about the human psyche, I think that in reality, different capabilities might reside in different places. For people who hold fast to the view that all mentality is resident in the brain, then what I say would seem to be nonsense. But if you suppose, as I do, that at least some part of mentality is resident outside the brain, then you need to deal with the questions of, Exactly which parts? and For those parts, where are they? And, I suspect that the answers to those questions are not trivial or obvious.

Now, suppose we knew the answers to all my hypothetical questions. That is, suppose we knew the exact make up, structure, and configurations of reality, (including but not limited to matter, energy, and information) which completely account for human mentality, and that furthermore, we knew exactly how the various mental capabilities were implemented within those structures and configurations. Knowing all that, how would we define the self?

Without thinking about it, or if you hold the view that all mentality is in the brain, defining the self poses no problem and seems to be trivial. The self is simply a functioning brain in a body. What else could it be? A split-brain patient might complicate the question a little because you might consider there to be one or two selves, but in any case, you would still point to the same body and claim that is the self, or selves.

In my view, the concept of self is connected to, or is identical with, the capability to know. So, if I start with the customary and easy notion of self and say that the author of this post, me, Paul Martin, is an individual self, I have no problem using the term 'self' in ordinary conversation. I, along with people I interact with, will point to the same body, mine, if asked to point to myself.

But when I think about it more carefully, I rule out some possibilities. For example, I do not consider my self to be the ten-year-old body over 50 years ago that seemed to have evolved to the body doing this typing right now. Nor do I consider that is my self that is dependably causing my heart to beat day and night. I, myself, pay very little attention to this process so I hardly feel responsible for it or in control of it. Breathing is a little different. If I, myself, exercise my free will in a certain way, I can breathe somewhat faster, or somewhat slower than I otherwise would. If I don't do that, however, my breathing seems to be controlled by something other than myself.

So, in your title, where you commented on "We" being more detectors than sources, I raise the question of exactly what do you mean by 'We'? In my view, which I admit seems absurd to many if not most people, I think that there is only one knower in the entire reality. So, that means that there is only one self in the entire universe. It means that you and I, Wanda, are the same self. Or, at least, whatever parts of our respective psyches really constitute the self are not separate and distinct, but one and the same and identical. Other parts of our respective psyches are not parts of the self but more like instruments the self uses, like bodies, sense organs, brains, etc. These are separate and distinct and are the things we mistakenly believe are individual selves.

So that's why I read so very much into the use of the term 'we' and question assumptions that are made without realizing it.

Now, as I think I have told you before, since I know my views seem absurd to people, I am perfectly willing to moderate or abandon them if someone can tell me where my ideas don't make sense, or don't explain what we observe in the world better than some alternative explanation. I am sincerely interested in hearing those kinds of criticisms so I can correct my ideas where they need correcting.

Of course, simply telling me that my ideas are wrong or absurd doesn't help me and I will pay little attention to that kind of criticism. Tell me where they don't make sense, or where some other idea makes more sense.

In my view, the mystics got it right: We are all one -- literally.

Looking forward to hearing from you, Wanda, or any other readers who might want to comment.

Warm regards,


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