Where does the world stop, and identity begin?

How far is it true that an experience of the world is really just an experience of the self? As I have explored previously, the world of phenomenology has taught us that our perceptions have limits as to how far they can truly represent the world as the world is to us. The reason for this is that we always have some preceding conditionality regarding the information we pick up, and the character by which we define it. What we want to get to the bottom of is what exactly it is which precedes our perception. This may not be completely possible in this investigation, but we shall cover some ground, and reach some conclusions regarding the ideas of ‘culture’ and ‘God’.

As in the previous essay, (CLICK HERE) we discussed the Maltese cross. We saw that it could be seen as a black cross on a white background, or a white flower on a black background, depending on what dispositions you had prior to your perceptions of it. This means that no object is ever merely the object being perceived, but instead contains within it preconstructed notions regarding, not necessarily the object its self, but relational aspects which correspond proximally by notional or representative value to the object in question. These perceptions do not exist in the object, nor do they exist within the perceiver directly, but are instantiated when a temporal phenomenological (through perception of the noumenal) perception of the thing is happening.

This can be summed up by understanding the simple matter of what it actually means to formalise a description. I’m now at my desk, typing on my laptop. I touch the table. I perceive the table to be hard and cold. Now, are ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ intrinsic natures of the table? Most definitely not. Coldness, for example, is a matter of personal inference, which is individual in character. If you live in the arctic, you would probably think a British autumn was relatively warm, whereas somebody from Portugal may define it as far colder. The grounds of perception differ from person to person, they are subjectivised normative truths. The reason is because we each establish baseline ‘facts’ about the world in order to have a familiarity of it. What is cold to me is cold to me so that I can have a working understanding of cold. Therefore, my understanding of cold matters to my experiences of the world to date, as does yours to you. The truth that they are only relative values is readily evinced when our contexts change. In other words, we impose upon the world our assumptions of the world, so the character of those perceptions imbibes the objects of perception with the assumptions generated from our past.

Now that we have established a certain value to the character of our phenomenology, we shall examine what sorts of things detail the character of our perceptions. We shall understand these as ‘everyday’ familiarities, by which we shall mean repeated common features of life. These can be-

  1. The information we were educated with, or inculcated with as children. This can start of as objects of our ontology (objects, such as cats and trees and kettles, colours, sounds, genders…) and can lead up to moralities and ideologies. This can also include the information we have learned later in life, such as repeated features within our everyday jobs. These things can all create biases of familiarity towards our future predictions of object properties.
  2. Cultural values is the next aspect which we shall consider. We learn things as education and via interaction, but we also pick up separate sets of assumptions through our culture. The immediate nature of (a) is different in terms of proximity, force upon us, and often in terms of nature too. Cultural values give us ideas which are widely accepted, ideas which social groups share, tastes and preferences and so forth. Somebody who grows up and lives in London centre is going to have a completely different set of cultural inferences from somebody who grows up and lives in rural Yorkshire. This group can contain details about arts and sciences too.
  3. Religious information. If we have a belief in God/Gods, that information is going to prime our perceptions with a definite character which neither (a) nor (b) possibly could, for obvious reasons. If you think there is an omnipotent power which has crafted indubitable, immutable rules regarding the nature of the world and of life, those assumptions will be definite preconditions to the content of our phenomenology.

Now, we have so far seen that we have only subjective experiential knowledge of the objective data of the world. We have understood why our experiences are so subjective, and we have acknowledged that there are (at least) three primary conditions which prime the phenomenological content of our perceptions. Now we are going to address how exactly this relates to the self.

What we need to understand is that the self cannot be understood without the self experiencing something. If we look inwards, all we see are emotions, memories, moods, images and so forth, these things aren’t part of the self, but if you remove anything not connected to our inner life solely and intrinsically, we are left with nothing whatsoever. Therefore, we have to acknowledge that we can only ever ‘get a taste’ for the self when we perceive other things. The self could be thought of as a stream; each time something is dropped in the stream, or a wind blows on the stream, the reaction to it is different, but the ripples of that stream are characteristic of that stream. Observing different streams will give you a ‘feel’ for each one, which could be assumed to be the content within the reaction to the cause of the ripples. We could ‘get a feel’ for our self in noticing a regular character in the range of our reactions to things. This will provide us with some form of working understanding regarding our knowledge of the self.

However, just as you can’t stand in the same waters twice (so said Heraclitus), we will never react to the same thing in the same way twice. There may be some essence which is immutable, but it seems unlikely as all aspects of our character, like Heraclitus’s proverbial waters, change over time. The issue becomes more difficult because of the fact that if they are changing, it is because they are reacting to something from the external world, rendering the extrinsic inextricable with the self. Kill the connection to the external world and it seems that we lose our self too. The other issue is that any instantiated experience of the self reacting to the world isn’t a totality of the self, but a small aspect of it. Throw a rock into Heraclitus’s river and we see a ripple, but we don’t see what is below the surface. Therefore, I would like to claim that one way to understand this state of affairs is to see the self as something which can’t be perceived because it is the perceiver, in the same way as the eyes can’t perceive the eyes because the view of things is from the eyes. If we ask what is behind the perceiver, and we hypothesise another ‘I’, or a ‘self’, we would have to posit another ‘I’ behind that, which would result in an infinite regression of ‘I’s, and we would therefore never arrive at that thing which is the self.

David Hume’s bundle theory could help us here. (CLICK HERE for a 3 minute fun explanation of Hume). Take the nearest object to you, say, a biro. You could allow it such properties as hardness, blackness, weight, and so forth. The physical form of the biro isn’t merely formalised in the description of the thing (I.E. it’s properties), it IS its properties. He went as far as to say that there aren’t actually objects, merely ‘bundles’ of properties. He defended this claim by challenging you to describe an object without properties. This idea can comfortably be applied to a worldview of modern physics where the world is wobbly and formless; those objects in the world are demarcated into physical forms by being perceived as the things they are as and when we perceive them. That is beside the point, however. Hume’s bundle theory can be applied to the human mind, saying that the mind is also merely a bundle of sense data, collected from the outside world. The self is merely the fluctuation in these things, bundled together and reacting with the external world, in a bid to return to a state of equanimity.

So now we are at the point of understanding that the self MAY have an unchanging character, but can only really be understood by the sense data bundled from the external world. The next step is to return to the question “How far is it true that an experience of the world is really just an experience of the self”.

One thing we can do is to address this by dividing how our self appears in our perceptions of things, and how it appears in ideas. I would posit that the self, when it appears as its manifest connected form in the phenomenological perceptions of the things in the world, I.E. the physical objects, we are simply imposing the coherent character of repeated forms in our life thus far. This much we have already discussed. We may wish to take it further and say that two people could live the same lives and still impose different assumptions into the phenomenology of their perceptions. We could reply to this by assuming that we collect different details from situations and forms of experience in life. This could be random or it could be an example of the innate self at play, that is a debate for another time for now.

How the self appears in ideas characterised as the forms (b) and (c) in information is interesting. I’m going to take the question of religious experience to explore this. The idea of God can come from (a), (b) and (c). We are going to say that category (c) in terms of experience of the experience of God, I.E. the religious experience, the experience of the divine.

When we have an experience of God (IF we do/if we posit God in our ontology), what are we having an experience of? There is a universal truth to acknowledge here which is that the experience of the divine is subjective as far as anything else is, if not, more so. No two person’s experiences of God are exactly the same. We cannot know this in experiential terms, for we can only have OUR experiences. However, we understand that people act out their experiences differently, and their descriptions of God and their religious ethics differ. No two people seem to derive exactly the same ethics and worldviews from their experiences of God. Hindus would answer that this is because YOU are God. God means something very different to the Hindus and Christians, given, but not just in terms of the nature of God. That is a discussion for another time though. It needs only to be said here that one way of thinking about it is this- you are god TO YOU because you create YOUR world as you perceive it. You create simply by opening your eyes.

The other conclusion to draw can be that even when you are having a religious experience, all you are having is an experience of your own mind. The mind can contain those ideas of religion as learned from parents and culture in regards of this. However, when an experience is had of the divine, it is individual, and has the character of those ideas we have of the divine, combined with our ideas of the world. Nobody seems to have a religious experience which contradicts with their worldview. This is of course merely rule of thumb, there are exceptions, as there are to every claim. However, this statement stands to be true. Christians have experiences of the Christian God, and their experiences can even be aligned to the specific teaching of their church, whilst Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu, for example, all have experiences aligned to the cultural teachings and conceptions of their religious institutions.

One more point to acknowledge regarding this is that the mind needs to interact, it needs to draw out sense data from the world, when there is no relationship between the mind and the world, the mind creates a relationship, thus externalising the contents of the unconscious into the world. This is famously demonstrated in the phenomenon of sensory deprivation. Some say this breaks the boundaries between asleep and awake states, creating a feeling of dreaming whilst awake. People in this state experience geometric patterning in their visual field, full immersive hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, divine experiences, and so forth. There is, however, no input from the external world, this is all externalised mental life. It is also important to understand that people aren’t dreaming, nor asleep, this is all during awake, conscious life. (CLICK HERE to read more about sensory deprivation on wikipedia, AND HERE to read a fascinating account of an experience).

One conclusion I wish to draw from this is that when we are having a religious or transcendent experience, we are experiencing our selves in our truest states. One reason for this is that an experience of God is often isolated from the outside world. We can have experiences of a religious kind in prayer, mantra, meditation. These experiences can solidify our worldviews and order the sense data which we bundle from the external world. What I want to propose here is that the religious experience is, for functional purposes, the same form as an ideology. That is to say, like an ideology or belief, it can organise and sort our sense data bundle into sets which can be, for example, ethics sets, sets which pre-empt attributes in objects, sets which pre-empt character in phenomenologies, and so forth.

The self also has to exist within cultural paradigms. By taking (b) to be a part of the constitution of our bundle, we are accepting that the culture, at that time, is the culture which influences us. Our culture is temporal, and therefore our self has a temporal identity in relation to our space in time at the point of our being in time. What we are seeing is that the self is far further constituted by the data of the external world than many would comfortably admit. It isn’t merely limited to the information it takes in, but by the place in time in which the corporeal body is situated too.

The distance by which we can answer the question at the start is equated to the distance by which we can actually define what the self is when separate from the outside world. The most we have reached is that it is found in collected data, and in elicited reactions, but its actual character is elusive. The self can be found in things as far as the specific character of our collected sense data is organised into specific subset bundles regarding the functionality of our identity and self. That is not to say that there couldn’t be a self, but since we have to define the character of the self as a reactionary unity which has identity in a counter-reaction to its place in a counter positional space with that which it is experiencing. We have to say that the self is only visible when we define it in terms of other things and dispositions. It is a unity, it is an essence, it is merely a form which comes to be when the body comes to react against something else; any of these three things may be true. For now we shall have to leave the question open ended. What part of our phenomenological experience of our sense data is the ‘I’? It would appear to be anything we choose to impose into the object. We contain multitudes, that is the true nature of the ‘I’, and our sense data contains those multitudes.

One thought on “Where does the world stop, and identity begin?

  1. “We have to say that the self is only visible when we define it in terms of other things and dispositions.”

    So, do we know of the self through the subject-object dichotomy? Is that the only way or means to know of the self?

    Perhaps, the self, the individuated consciousness simply is.


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