The Collector
Published in

The Collector

Do I exist?

On individual and collective identity.

‘Louise Loved to Climb to the Summit on One of the Barren Hills Flanking the River, and Stand There While the Wind Blew’ by N.C. Wyeth

Substance, Benedict de Spinoza tells us, is all there is. We happen, simply, to be modes or accidents of that singular universal substance. His position is not completely unlike that of the mereological nihilist that understands the world as not being made of composites, but rather of fundamental ‘simples’ that are rearranged in different patterns which we, erroneously, perceive as individual objects. This is the philosophical background against which I pretend to call myself an individual.

If Spinoza or the mereologists were right, then all that our linguistic categories are is a convenient– but, granted, not necessarily baseless– reflection of our own flawed perceptions. Categories of all kinds would, then, be have to recognized not as fundamental distinctions, but as groups of sensory experiences which we perceive as similar and which are useful to categorize as distinct.

There may not be a fundamental difference between me and a rock, except, perhaps, that the substance which we are made of is composited in a slightly different way. Further, in his Ethics, Spinoza writes:

“If things, therefore, could have been of a different nature, or have been conditioned to act in a different way, so that the order of nature would have been different, [substance] would also have been able to be different from what it now is; and therefore that different nature also would have perforce existed, and consequently there would have been able to be two or more [substances]. This is absurd.”

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that we live in a universe not unlike the one Spinoza describes. That is to say, a universe that is composed of a single substance and whose mechanisms work in a deterministic fashion. There is no free will, and to say that we, as individuals, are seems at best a flimsy preposition.

On other hand, however, I believe there is such a thing as philosophical dissonance. And, roping down our thoughts from the high heavens of epistemology and metaphysics, at the level of the political– the res publica– there is a case to be made for radical individuality.

It may be the case that all things that seem to be particular objects are just our perception of an instance of the grand ontological gradient. However, to know that we have no agency or that we are not really physically insular from the world around us is interesting but, for the most part, ethically useless knowledge. We can not help but to bear the illusion of free will, and to try to escape our human perspective is not folly, it is a waste of time.

It is interesting, isn’t it? I just used the term ‘human perspective’. I suppose I can’t help it. And, to be fair, neither can you. We need, and can not help but produce, these categorical terms. Though we may be part of a whole and simply an elaborate arrangement of simples; though no man is an island, and the borders of our person prove themselves to be, if examined attentively, not hard boundaries but a product of our evolutionary shortsightedness; and, though we are not in control of anything, our experience– that is to say, our consciousness– is insular. Though we may not be separate in any meaningful metaphysical way, the fact remains that you do not know what it is like to be me and I do not know what it is like to be you. I have no recollection of your memories. I do not experience your particular emotions. I am, in that sense, not you.

We are, for better or for worse, shackled to our senses. And, I think there is something to say for the reconciliation of naturalist explanations of consciousness with some of Descartes’ mind body dualism. It may be the case that we are just simples rearranged, or accidents or modes of substance. But, we are, nevertheless, forced to tackle epistemology– our experience of the world around us– from a singular perspective. It is very interesting that, within the apparent truth of our physical cohesion to the rest of the universe, conscience is individual and inaccessible to anyone else but ourselves.

I think, therefore, I am. And, though these thoughts may be physical things, they are particularly my own. We can pinpoint where a thought is, for if your head is gone, there are no thoughts. The chemical and biological reactions in my brain are entirely responsible for my consciousness. My body, in other words, is the eminent cause of my being. And, yet, that particular human experience, though you may hold it between your hands, will never be your own.

From these considerations, I am comfortable saying that I am.

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