3. An assumption
If you think that what I have said thus far gives little reason to conclude that I/me, the concept of self-identity, might be less than we make it out to be, I would have to agree with you. Fortunately, I have no intention of proving anything. I only hope I have given some basis for you to allow that pursuing the line of thought I am laying out is not entirely unreasonable or arbitrary. I propose it as possibly the only way out of a very tight corner. And I propose it in the manner of a hypothesis. Let’s see how far we can go toward an alternative understanding of our situation by considering the possibility that self-identity as we understand it is a mistake, albeit one that would have to be very easy to make, if not unavoidable.
I would like to proceed without any assumptions, but I think that is not possible. Long before Descartes laid the foundation for modern philosophy with his famous deduction, another famous certainty was established in ancient Greek philosophy: nothing comes from nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit in its Latin incarnation). Parmenides gets the credit. I might recast Descartes’ basic premise as something like “thought proves existence,” to avoid the emphasis on “I,” but these two insights are basically all we need to get going. We do, however, need to start off in one of two basic directions.
Either life arose randomly out of chance combinations of matter, or it is the manifestation of some impulse or impulses. If the former is the case, or if multiple impulses are acting independently, then the beginning of the road is also the end of it. Randomness underlies existence, so we have no point of reference to build from. We could discuss what we would like to build, but it would be a purely abstract endeavor.
Opting for the alternative of life as the manifestation of a unitary impulse might seem more a matter of fantasy or wishful thinking than a serious attempt at understanding reality, but I would contend that some compelling reasons exist to at least follow this out and see where it leads. For one, it correlates with the bare-bones majority of religious experience over millennia, which has focused on unity in one way or another, whether through monotheism or some kind of mystical union or return. (Outside of animism, which seems to have been in a steady decline almost everywhere for centuries, multiple gods seem to have survived primarily as differentiated aspects of a divine presence, as in Hinduism.)
I am more than willing to question the need to posit a divine presence, but it would be more than arrogant to casually dismiss the collective thrust of much of human thought over thousands of years as completely off track and at odds with reality. I’m not saying it is impossible for us to be completely off track, just improbable. And I see an even more fundamental analogy in what scientists have deduced about how the universe began. The Big Bang is as unitary an impulse as could be conceived. As far as we can determine, everything that exists came from one cosmic irruption that has been expanding and changing ever since.
I will not try to make the case that the coalescence of elementary particles after the Big Bang, leading to the formation of hydrogen and a little helium, and thence to stars, the formation of the earth and the beginnings of life as we know it, can be considered a single evolutionary arc; but even less would I deny this. For now it is enough to note that existence proceeds directly and only from the Big Bang, which is indeed a unitary genesis, even if it arose from some prior sequence of events. Since nothing comes from nothing, something had to produce that primal event, and even if we propose an analogy with birth out of sexual union, the result of more than one impulse, the process of conception we are familiar with is unitary in that it merges these impulses rather than fluctuating randomly between them.
So, for the purpose of discussion, we acknowledge the assumption that existence has a fundamental unity or cohesiveness. It remains to be seen how far this can take us in accounting for reality, and whether we would need to add more elaborate constructs along the way.
Note: Some people are now claiming that existence is a case of something arising from nothing, the “nothing” of quantum fluctuations. But this nothing would have to have an awful lot of potential to be something, so I see the distinction as a matter of semantics as long as we do not try to say that anything in particular existed before the Big Bang.