5. The aggregate self
It may seem that we have come a long way for nothing, or are just going around in circles. But if consciousness along with the ability to think and reason does precede self-consciousness, if they are not one and the same, then we need to ask whether the one is a further development of the other. The developmental nature of the emerging self might suggest this conclusion, but our roundabout way of getting here suggests something different. Self seems something pieced together, accumulated rather than developed, more the stuff of memory than of consciousness itself.
Here let’s recall our assumption — life is unitary. Might consciousness be unitary too, a single phenomenon in the evolution of the single life process that has produced humanity (and other sentient creatures)? Might localized consciousness, which comes into sensory awareness through a particular body and brain, mistakenly interpret its activity as individual existence?
The physical self early on becomes the emerging mind’s sole reference point for sensory and mental experiences, and this could lead to a fundamental identification with the memories and characteristics associated with that physical self, as opposed to the rest of the world. Constant awareness of the mental and physical boundaries of this body and brain could naturally collapse into me as a more efficient mental construct, requiring less energy. As the young and still-forming mind develops its powers of abstraction, however, this practical shorthand could increasingly take on a sense of “solidity” and permanence. The localized I becomes the separate me. It would be a natural mistake — but perhaps almost unavoidable in the evolution of consciousness through individual instances of life.
We could go further into how this idea of consciousness impacts the relationship between I and me, but first let’s look into what the nature of the self we are describing here would be. We seem to be at an opposite pole from the concept of an organic entity that realizes its selfhood over time. Instead we are considering the possibility that the self essentially begins as a repository for experiences and memories, and expands or solidifies incrementally through aggregation.
This aggregate self we are describing is precisely the sum of its parts. Remove something and it diminishes; add something and it increases. But there is no upper limit, no point at which it is complete; unlike, say, a collection of stamps or coins, for which only a finite number of possibilities exist. This self can grow and grow.
It starts with sensory experience and memory, but the dynamic at work can be extended. The mind is aware of its existence within a unique physical entity and identifies with it. Once it first does this, it can generalize and apply this procedure again and again. Anything, literally, can become part of me. This might sound more familiar were I to say that I could become attached to anything, although the dynamic would be clearer if I said I could attach anything to me.
Can an ordinary object actually become part of my identity? Surely, as has many a baby blanket. We get more sophisticated as we grow, and the obvious physical separation between our body and a physical object is difficult to ignore, but people can and do develop irrationally strong bonds with inanimate objects and, more importantly, with thoughts and ideas. Pleasure is real, and we will sometimes even take risks or go out of our way for it, but can anything besides the direct identification we are talking about explain the huge investments of time and energy people can put into cars, collections of this or that, and sports teams, let alone organizations or ideologies?
Indeed, the baby blanket marks but an early stage in a lifetime of accumulation. And while many of the things we acquire have an obvious use or benefit, others do not. On a general level, this could seem of little consequence, so let’s cut to the chase. We are homing in on the basic nature of greed. Beyond any harmless propensity to accumulate things, why do we keep doing it and take more than we need when others have less than they need and could use some of what we have?
This behavior makes no logical sense unless we understand all we acquire as part of our cumulative self. The more I have, literally, the more I am.
But why should this matter? Why do I need to be more? Even if the self comes into existence as the “owner” of memories, experiences and whatever else we decide is ours, why does it not reach a limit like our bodies, trees or other things that grow?
Here we must go back to the beginning, our beginning at least. I think, therefore I am. I am doing it here, and you are doing it there. But it might be better to say: You are doing it only there, and I am doing it only here. And we can go a step further: You are doing it only there now, and I am doing it only here now. We can extend that last bit a little, but for sure neither of us was doing anything, say, 200 years ago. And I don’t think we will be doing anything 200 years from now. Reality as we know it has four dimensions — space and time — and we exist very locally within them. Not only is each physical individual restricted to a particular point in space at any particular point in time, but those points in time have two distinct endpoints — conception and death.
We have implicitly mentioned the first of these. It produces the physical condition without which the consciousness we eventually come to call ours could not arise. Now it’s time to take up the challenge of the abyss and look objectively at the second of these points, which brings the clear and individual path begun by the first to just as clear and individual an end.