What can we be sure of?

2. What can we be sure of?

Modern philosophy, in my very limited understanding of it, goes back to the only thing that can be said with complete certainty: “I think, therefore I am.” Surely anyone proposing that Descartes’ most basic truth is not true would have a hard time being heard, literally. But maybe a case can be made that it is true in a conditional sense.

To begin with, what can I say about the I that exists? What is the nature of individual existence? Surely it has a mental component, which, as with Descartes, is the starting point: I am thinking these words. And it has a physical component: my body. The relationship is a very close one, since only I am sitting here typing these words and you (only you) are sitting there reading them. But how close? And is it necessary to posit an extra component, a spirit or soul, in order for me to be me, or stay me? At this point, let’s note that the mental component we are considering here is not just mentality but includes self-consciousness, which I think we can agree is implied in the concept “I.” This component I will refer to as “mind,” but for now self-consciousness is the matter of interest.

Anyone who has had a child or been around a child from infancy probably has noticed how the child develops a personality gradually, as an accumulation of habits, ways of doing things and, in time, ways of talking and thinking. Some of these components naturally follow or are in synch with one another, but some seem an odd match. Additionally, this is not a linear process. A child who eats almost anything changes and becomes a very picky eater, not only disdaining broccoli but ruthlessly rejecting anything that might have originated in the vegetable kingdom. Or a child who showed no interest in reading spends hours at it.

Influences may also be apparent. A child whose parents are quick to get upset might well become temperamental. Or they might react the other way and become rather quiet. The point is, personality develops, and in a somewhat haphazard way. It is not like a readymade statue inside a block of stone or wood that is chipped or crumbles away, bit by bit, to reveal the true nature enclosed within.

Psychologists have detailed how for a while after birth, an infant does not realize they are separate from their mother. Margaret Mahler called this the separation-individuation process. Not only does personality develop, but so does individual self-consciousness. We don’t want to confuse things, however, by mixing up personality and self-consciousness, which are not one and the same thing. So it might be wise to start speaking of my identity as the crucial parameter in my talking about me. And this self-identity has no direct connection to any image someone else might have of me. It is mine, and might in fact serve as a more meaningful expression for “me.”

On the other hand, a fully developed identity is not as solid as it might appear, even allowing for the possibility of continual change. Alzheimer’s disease proves this in a very sad way. As it progresses a person’s identity disappears, in effect dying before they do. Dementia has a similar, if slower or less drastic, effect. In both cases, a physical malfunction or breakdown is the cause. It appears that identity, as a continuous sense of self-consciousness, is not intrinsic to an individual’s makeup. Rather, it seems at least partially dependent on the environment and critically dependent on neurology, the functioning of the brain.

If a spirit or soul is involved, it appears a weaker factor than the body, which does not incline me toward expanding the necessary bases of individuality beyond body and mind. But does the seeming neurological dependency of identity imply that it is a direct function of the brain? Let’s go back to the nature of self-identity as something that develops over time. And let’s not get sidetracked by the irrelevant debate of nurture versus nature. It is not the exact causes of this or that component of identity we are interested in, as for example why I might be good at math. Is it in my genes? Is it because my home environment somehow encouraged this skill? Or because I started going to tutoring classes at the age of 4? For our purposes, it does not matter. We are concerned only with my awareness that I am good at math, that it forms some part of my identity. Because whatever the genesis, I did not wake up one day and, out of the blue, decide I am good at math. It happened over time as I found, repeatedly, that I was able to solve mathematical problems correctly, and perhaps more easily or quickly than others

If we can agree that newborn infants lack individual identity, let’s briefly outline how such an identity begins to develop. So long as mother and baby remain in reasonably close contact, so long as milk is present when the baby is hungry and discomforts are removed quickly, there might be little reason to assume that anything significant has changed in the move from the womb to the admittedly cooler and drier world outside. But when milk cannot be found or discomfort persists, and relief arrives only after a time, awareness may arise that something is different. And after this happens enough times, it begins to register that crying alone does not solve the problem. Relief depends instead on a certain presence that comes and goes. This leaves me no choice but to begin differentiating me from whatever else I am aware of.

From that point onward, individual identity, the basic dichotomy between self and other, is an unquestioned pillar of reality. But is it unquestionable?


Practically speaking, something we are looking for always turns up in the last place we look, because we stop looking when we find it. But often the last place we look is the last place we thought to look, the last place we expected to find what we were looking for.

Once when I was a child I could not find my glasses. I looked all over the house at least twice … everywhere I could have mislaid them. Finally I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror, looking right through them. An extreme case to be sure, but it shows that the most compelling reason for not looking somewhere is the conviction that it is not there, that it cannot be there. When this certainty turns out to be a wrong assumption, we are left scratching our heads. How could we have been so wrong?

When we consider why we can’t seem to do better than we have done on this earth, our failure is so complete that we have no choice but to look for an assumption or assumptions to question, unless we opt for abject despair or can convince ourselves a supernatural rescue is in the offing. As neither of the last two options seems viable to me, I see no choice but to first question the only thing left — me.

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