Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ I am What I think I am

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 25, 2011

I know that the question of personal identity is one of the most debated and discussed topic in philosophy and in the humanities generally. It is also one that assumes a greater importance as time goes by. As Damon Horowitz wrote, "The technology issues facing us today—issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation—require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately." But we can't, most of us, deal with them adequately - there is to much involved in living a live to devote that life to the study of itself - too many of us need to be doctors and engineers, teachers and physicists, botanists and lawyers. Well, maybe not lawyers.

The most important thing for anyone to learn, I would say, is that the concept of mind, the concept of self, is what we make it. Literally.

There are different aspects to the self - there's the part that experiences, which seems based in the human body (but then there's empathy and mirror neurons). There's the part that thinks, plans and infers, which may be the unaided mind, or may be mind plus calculator, or may be mind plus drill sergeant. There's the part that remembers, which may be the the structure of the neural net that composes our brain, may be so-called 'muscle memory', or may be a book, a library, or a good friend that keeps reminding you who you are. And there's the part that hopes, dreams, wishes, idealizes and aspires, which some say is spiritual, some say is ethereal, and some say is hopelessly romantic. You know the type.

My perspective is that what we are is not just what we think we are, it's not even just what we think we can be, it's everything we can think we can be. We are, literally, our imaginations.

Let me explain, simply, with an example. Consider basic language, basic linguistic form. Yes yes, I know there is much more to our imagination than what we can express in language, but roll with it. Think of the basic statement, "I am." Think about how that explodes into worlds of possibility. We have "I was" and "I will be" and all of a sudden our identity comprises our past and our future. We also have "I had been," "I have been," and "I will have been," which is the same past, present and future from a different perspective. There is "I might have been," "I could be" and "I might be" to express possibilities. Or "I must be" to express both an imperative in our lives and a discovery about ourselves.

We could begin with "I am" and be pragmatically present, or we could begin with "I want to be" and work toward our aspirations, or "I could have been" and live in a land of regrets. All of these, and all the other forms of life we can imagine, as aspects of ourselves. Every minute of every day one of them or the other is present in our mind. We are what we think we are, literally.

Thanks to Alex Reid, for making me think about this again.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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