Thoughts on Time, Grief, and the Self

I would like to begin by considering two radically different pictures. First, consider the original notion of an atom: a kind of indestructible, unchanging, simple. That is, because it had no smaller parts, i.e., it was simple, and it was further then taken to be indestructible and unchangeable, since to be destroyed or changed, it would require smaller parts that could be taken away or replaced. Now imagine such an atom moving through the world, interacting with various things, but not being affected or changed by those interactions. Throughout all of its interactions and relationships with other things, it remains exactly what it is, this singular, unchanging atom. It hangs out with other atoms for various times, but then moves on, unchanged by the interactions.

Alternatively, consider another picture. Consider a seed that falls from a tree, catches the wind, and lands a ways away on the ground. With the air, light, and moisture it comes into contact with, it begins to change, sending down a tiny shoot that will form a root and opening up to the sky, to the embrace of light. Over time it interacts with, enters into deep relations with, the earth, the air, the sun, water, and even other organisms, such as fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with its root system—and we should not forget gravity, space, and time, all necessary to its existence. One summer there is a drought, and the young tree nearly dies. Ten years later it is still stunted from that summer and near death. But the soil is rich and the sun and water plentiful, and so it grows after many years to a great height. At one point though lightning strikes it, causing a split down its trunk. This doesn’t kill it but it forever alters the life of the tree.

What is the primary difference between these pictures? From my perspective it is that the atom’s nature, what it is, how it is, is intrinsic to it. That is, aside from its origin (if it has one), it is causally unconditioned by the world. The world does not leave its mark on its features, for it has no features, being a simple atom. The tree on the other hand, is what it is in complete dependence on the rest of the world. The kind of tree it is of course depends on its parent, but leaving aside its origin, we see that every aspect of the tree, its height, its girth, how healthy it is, the extent of its roots, the strength of the wood, etc., are all dependent, all conditioned, by the environment over time. If the tree had grown up and lived in an altogether different environment, even as the same seed, it would be a very different tree. Over time, the way it grew, the way its “being” enlarged would have been quite different. This is not at all the case with the atom.

And, so, let us now turn to a consideration of the self. While I think that the idea or concept of “self” is non-univocal, i.e., has multiple senses, I do think we can speak generally and usefully of the self. And here by “self,” I “simply” mean that which one takes oneself to be. For example: I am so-and-so, who was born here, loves this person, reads books, doesn’t watch sports, grew up here, and wants to one day live there—it is that self that is of concern when one contemplates one’s mortality. I take it that that is sufficiently clear for us to work with, even though there are a ridiculous number of complications that we could consider. Continue reading

Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty of Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness

My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

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Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku


“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

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Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of sentience,… Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

Restating what I take to be Epicurus’ point, when we are alive, we are not dead and thus death is not an issue; when we are dead, we cannot know anything good or bad, since we no longer exist; thus, when dead, death is not an issue. The immediate objection, or the one that comes to my mind, is that I can now, while alive, justly fear death because what I am fearing is the cessation of all possible future “lived nows.” What life seeks and fears losing, we might say, is an endless succession of lived moments. So, sure, when I die and cease to be, I won’t be underground in a coffin hating every moment of it, just as before I was born, I did not lament not yet being born. But I sure as hell can not want THIS to stop.

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The Relational Identity of Persons and the Importance of Personal Projects

What follows are some first steps in thinking through an aspect of the possible relational identity of persons. I imagine there is a great deal of confusion herein. But so it goes with many beginnings. The question “What is it to be an…..?” is often, if not always, difficult to answer. Pick any object around the house, a chair, for example, and ask what is it that makes it a chair, and you can discover the difficulty. But when we ask, “What is it to be a person?” we face a more difficult than usual version of the question. I take it that this question is different, though related, to, “What is it to be a human being?”—a question that is most easily interpreted as, “What is it to be a Homo sapiens?” They are different because it is quite conceivable to imagine a creature that is not Homo sapiens that deserves to be called a person and we can easily imagine a particular Homo sapiens that doesn’t deserve to be called, at least not fully, a person. Some kind of intelligent alien might fit the former description, and some kind of human who is less than fully engaged with life might fit the latter (I’ll return to the latter example below).

My concern with personal identity is primarily due to its implications for death. In the west it is usual to either identify oneself as a soul that will go to heaven or hell, or with one’s body, in which case death means the cessation of existence. Things are, of course, more complicated than this. Leaving aside the possibility, much less the nature, of a soul, philosophers are less than agreed as to what constitutes personal identity, what makes person A at time t1 the same person as B at time t2. Continue reading

Something about the self

With some questions we
just can’t help our-
Buddhists answer one way.
Hindus answer another.
Both say we’ve got the wrong idea
of what the self is or isn’t.
I’m not sure what to think…except…
that they, that we, are likely all a bit off
in our estimation.

Is it a bit like when in
the Boy Scouts, on a camping
trip, the older scouts would make the
younger scouts excited about snipe hunting?
And so off we’d go
looking for something we could never find
because it didn’t exist,
though we were convinced that there must be some-
thing to which “snipe” refers.

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The Relational Nature of Personal Identity Part II

In the original essay on the relational nature of personal identity, from October 10th, 2010, I wrote the following:

What are some of the typical components of personal identity?
1) Body
2) Consciousness associate with/centered in one body (including will and self-consciousness).
3) Memories of consciousness (as the direct causal product of 2)

But it seems to me that we should also include things such as:

4) Sets of beliefs
5) Attitudes/dispositions
6) Emotional make up
7) Ways of thinking about and approaching and evaluating the world (including others)

Now one might object that two individuals, X and Y, who are unknown to one another, who live on opposite ends of the earth might have exactly the same 4)-7), but we would not say that they are thereby, or to that extent, the same person; rather, they are just similar in those respects.

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The Relational Nature of Personal Identity and What it Means for Us and the Death of Those We Love

Life as tapestry: the whole cloth is the great clod, our lives patterns of thread in relation to each other—the patterns, the threads of those dearest to us are interwoven with our own, and in places here and there the interwoven threads merge as our identities flow into each other….

The above is meant to be a poetic expression of the following, hopefully, more philosophically rigorous idea.  Having lost my ex-wife, Jennie, to suicide seven months ago (and “ex-wife” does not properly characterize the ongoing love we had for one another), and having just now (October 9th) gone through the memorial service for her sister, Lindsay, who killed herself seven months after Jennie, I am prompted to think the following.

So many of the fibers of my being are ones I shared with Jennie; they are the  product of, and constitute, our shared identities.  Part of her is gone, and part of her remains in me, as me.  Such a beautiful thing; and I am so terribly grateful for it.

While personal identity is not a stable or constant thing, nevertheless, given the extent to which Jennie is a part of who I am, I can move forward with my life without worrying about leaving her behind or forgetting her, something I have been afraid of doing.  This is a great comfort.

One might even say that that part of me that is Jennie is very much alive (she lives) and she will continue to evolve as I evolve through my interactions with others and the world more generally.

But how might I lay this all out in more rigorous, philosophical detail?  Well, what are some of the typical components of personal identity?

1) Body

2) Consciousness associate with/centered in one body (including will and self-consciousness).

3) Memories of consciousness (as the direct causal product of 2)

But it seems to me that we should also include things such as:

4) Sets of beliefs

5) Attitudes/dispositions

6) Emotional make up

7) Ways of thinking about and approaching and evaluating the world (including others)

Now one might object that two individuals, X and Y, who are unknown to one another, who live on opposite ends of the earth might have exactly the same 4)-7), but we would not say that they are thereby, or to that extent, the same person; rather, they are just similar in those respects.

I am certainly sympathetic to that objection.  However, here is where and how the threads of our identities begin to merge.  When two people with different backgrounds and only some overlap regarding 4)-7) meet and then spend much time together, intimately engaging each other, and through that shared experience form common memories (so 3)) and in combination therewith exert causal/rational influence on each others’ 4)-7), creating a new kind of equilibrium in regard to them, then it is not that there is similarity of 4)-7) that constitutes shared identity.  Rather, it is the mutual shaping of each other’s, and intermixing of, 4)-7) that allows for/constitutes this merging of certain threads/fibers of our being.  It’s the causal/rational influence/connection between two people’s 4)-7), not just the similarity of their content that makes all the difference—the fact that two people’s shared 4)-7) is the product of mutual, reciprocal influence and not just coincidental similarity that constitutes the merged threads.

Now to some extent this phenomenon of shared identities occurs more broadly, especially and more and more with the use of technology to communicate and shape each others’ 4)-7).   But it is strongest with those with whom we are closest:  family, friends, partners/lovers.

Notice that I have not attempted to speak of 1)-7) in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity.  I am not sure, I am indeed doubtful, that personal identity lends itself to such analysis.   But that is not necessarily an objection to the idea of personal identity or to my reasoning above.