Thursday, January 8, 2009

Identity: "We are the potential we see in the world"

With the rather complex network of questions revealed that hint towards the nature of identity and the self, perhaps we can move within our questions to discover hints toward answers. After all, in the beginning, I promised positive theology, and as much as questions are a critical part of the search here, they are not the only critical part. Momentary theopoetics is not a pleasant sounding, broad skepticism. At least, I hope it is not.

After so many unstabilities had been revealed within the nature of the self, one might be tempted to give up on the search completely. It is tempting to simply claim that there must be no self, no individuality, and be done with the search completely. We grow tired of the haunting. We grow tired of questions with incomplete answers.

However, if these narrative threads held up so far have any tension in them at all, they will refuse to snap under such weight, under such unstabilities. After all, if ghostly values are all we have to build upon, if we give up on our narrative threads established thus far, it is hard to imagine what will be holding back the tides of nihilism, the darkness of the void.

So if we don't give up on the search for the individual, what has our hunt revealed to us thus far? Within the mutuality shared between the questions "who are you?" and "what do you want?" it has been revealed that, like what we eat, we are what we value. As such, it becomes quite clear that if we give up on the search for us as individuals, we give up our values (and nihilism awaits). There is an important distinction in Buddhism to note here: Zen Buddhists often claim the self is empty (but they rarely claim that it is nothing). Even as we have revealed the unstable, fluxing nature of the self, the "empty" nature of the self, so to speak (as there is nothing "essential" to the self) the self is not nothing. If we assert the self is nothing, our values our nothing. (Although it is important to note here that nothingness, the typically understood opposite of being, of actuality has a critical role to play here. Too often nothingness as a concept has taken a back seat to being. Think Plato. Or Augustine. Or Aquinas. Or Tillich. Or even Heidegger. Such a privileging of being has resulted in grave consequences. More on that later.).

The interesting tie between our values and who we are extends even further than merely just drawing a line between us and nihilism. As was mentioned before, our values are pluralistic (that is they expose us to multiple, contradictory desires). We never have a singular desire that is made up of all our values united toward one cause. An interesting product of this is we see multiple possibilities, we envision multiple (valued) futures in each moment. For example, if I hold two loved individuals by each hand on the edge of a cliff side, I can envision two future possibilities, one in which I pull up one, another in which I save the other. Emphasis must be stressed on the fact that our values open up certain possibilities to us - after all, if I didn't value either person on the cliff side, an action to save either of them would become meaningless. As such, it becomes clear that our meaning, our values are not (at least not completely) exterior to us. The statement "I envision such-and-such as possible" cannot be stated without the "I," or the locality expressed with the verb "envision." After all, we see from a particular focal point.

Of course, there is an exterior interaction with our values that creates our possibilities as well. For example, if I am not at a cliff side with two loved ones the statement "I envision the possibility of saving such-and-such loved one from falling off the cliff," doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Possibilities are born within our local moment, but find focus within our individuality. And each focus is naturally different, since, each local moment (time, location, past experiences, etc) is different for each individuality. One individual on a cliff side will see different possibilities than another individual.

(At this point, it is important to note a critical part of momentary possibility that has been left unsaid, and will probably remain mostly hidden for a while. The kind of possibility that is critical here is identity possibility, i.e. envisioned possibility. In other words, what is possible is only what I can see as "possible" because of my locality, my values, my experiences, etc. However, in order to preserve the undecidability, and the possibility of possibility there also must be possibility contained within the exterior world, i.e. chance must exist even in our world apart from humans. Here I stand with the majority of quantum physicists that at the heart of physical existence lies a certain amount of chance, of undecidability on the quantum level. As such, all the possibilities we envision are possibly actualized (even if such an event is incredibly unlikely), even as there are always possibilities that are possible in the world apart from our envisioning them. For example, perhaps there is a possibility in the "world" that if I drop my two loved ones both will magically appear behind me safe and sound. However, if I have not encountered experiences that will increase my likelihood of believing such an occurrence will happen, I will probably not envision it as a possibility even though in the "world" it is a possibility to happen. Hence why we can be surprised all the time. That said, I am fairly skeptical of a self/world distinction and will have some words about such a topic at a later point. For now, this footnote on chance and possibility at two levels will have to function).

Of course, on the subjective level, our values will pull us to prefer certain possibilities in a given moment. In a more clear cut case, if I merely like one individual on the cliff side and love the other, I'll probably value saving the second individual more. Here we have discovered the slippage between could and should, between possibility and potential. My values and my own subjectivity determine what I see as possible within my local moment, within my identity, and yet even within those possibilities, my values and my own subjectivity pull me even further into my preferred actualities, my potential. Ethics is revealed as not only our guide for what we believe we should do, but also what we could do. Of course as the sands that we stand upon shift, so too do we change, and the should/coulds we see, the potential/possibilities we envision shift as well. A possible answer to our identity question has (re)presented itself - "We are the potential we see in the world." That potential (and the possibilities behind it) are ghostly, not actually yet in existence, simply on the brink of our minds. And yet that brink is who we are, who we become. Before we give up on the search for the self and/or our values, we would do well to remember that. And as we evaluate ourselves, we must ask - are we proud of what we see?

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