A Simple Question

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a human being.
    1. R: no, that's just the name of my species.
    2. R: no, 'human being' is just an arbitrary name. we could have named ourselves zertragons for all the difference it would make.
    3. R: no, 'human being' is just an arbitrary name. you don't know what a human being is.


I2 just couldn't let this stand; so, I2 kept repeating the answer, 'human being'. as the reply changed. clearly, I2 saw that the meditation was trying to get me past purely verbal knowledge of arbitrary names. moreover, the voice was right! I2 didn't know what a human being is. I2 just know that I2 am one of us.

but, what are we? I2 realize that I2 am looking for a universal answer, one that any one of us could give; thus, answers to 'what am I, this entire human being?' must also be applicable to the entire human race.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am an individual of that species which is known as 'human being'.
  • R: even correctly naming your species doesn't tell you what you are.


if the thought police lined up various primates, I2 could easily pick out the human beings in the lineup; but, that only tells me which primates are human beings, not what a human being is.

one answers 'which of these are human individuals' by selecting those individuals that have human bodies. I2 may not, at this point, know what a human individual is; but, I2 accept as true:

'human individual' = 'human body' || 'human individual' = ('human body' + X)

either a human individual is just a human body or a human individual is a composite of a human body and something more, the 'X' in the above equation. curiously enough, it follows from this that a human individual has an internal structure. clearly, if a human individual is something more than a human body, it has an internal structure. if a human individual is just a human body, and we admit knowing (from empiricial observation) that the human body has an internal structure, then a human individual has an internal structure.

given the reliability of such a conclusion, it is curious that philosophers do not pursue the obvious question 'what is the internal structure of the human individual'.

at this point I2 don't know whether there is an 'X' factor in the composition of a human individual; and, if so, I2 have no idea what it is. I2 tried to take a new tack, by answering the meditative question in a way that worked around my ignorance.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am that which I am.
  • R: true but uninformative. your task is to say what you are, not that you are.


answers of the form 'I2 am that which I2 am' are rejected as uninformative because it is not clear that I2 am saying anything not already asserted by 'I2 am'.

all identifications assert 'amness' for want of a better word. I2 see no difference between 'I0 am a human being' and 'I0, a human being, am'. so I2 will say 'I0, a human being, live' or 'I0, a human being, live this life'.

but is there a difference. is there a way for I0, the entire human being to assert its reality. that it has a separate reality. it began to feel as if I was modifying my language in order to be clear, in my own awareness, what I intended; but, obviously, if a language specification arbitrarily prevents certain possibilities from being thought about or presented for discussion, it would not be a useful tool. less obviously, if Wittgenstein was correct in saying 'the limits of my language are the limits of my world'; then, it would follow that I2 may change my language and, thereby, rock my world view.

I2 continued to practice this particular meditation technique expecting it to culminate in a flash of insight as I2 become aware of an unrejectable answer, a privileged identification --- one as self-evident as the assertion 'I2 am'. in retrospect, it seems as if the meditation had challenged me --- and I accepted the challenge.

since I2 was now conscious of looking for an unrejectable answer, the sincerity of my rejections might appear questionable. so, it was probably a good thing that, in the previous group of examples, it began to feel like the replies within the mediation were coming from an inner voice --- one with a degree of autonomy from I2, the conscious ego that formulated the answers.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a naked ape.
  • R: no, that's just a colloquial name for your species.


knowing that 'naked ape' is an apt description for my species tells me that human bodies are much less hairy than the bodies of other primates; but, it doesn't tell me what a human being is; unless, of course, I2 was willing to assume that a human being is no more than a human body. I2 may end up concluding that a human being is no more than a human body; but, I2 won't simply assume that conclusion I2 at the getgo.

logically, assumption is the mother of all fallacies.

I2 am begining to gain a dim awareness of how hard it is to ascribe properties to a composite entity without inviting the question of what parts are responsible for that property.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a talking ape.
  • R: you are a primate and you can talk; but, does talking define your species?


even setting aside infants and sleeping, brain damaged and comatose individuals, there are some people (eg Stephen Hawkings) who can't talk at all without the use of hi-tech equipment; but, similar equipment might allow the great apes to communicate. it is unlikely that anyone can define what we are by examining what we are capable of doing.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a rational animal.
  • R: no, that's just more dubious information about your species.


this is the point at which I2 became acutely aware of what had been a vague dissatisfaction with the question. I did not know what the 'I' of the question 'What am I' refers to because I did not know whether the human individual has an internal structure. if not, then there is no problem. the 'I' of 'What am I' refers to the entire human individual. on the other hand, if the human individual has an internal structure, does the 'I' refer to the composite entity or to one of the components?

an answer like 'rational animal', 'fallen angel' or 'risen ape' are all consistent with the assumption that the human individual has an internal structure. there is a higher self and a lower self. some psychologies also postulate a third element that mediates between the higher and lower elements.

this example should be interpreted as if given as 'A: I, this human being, am a rational animal'. the 'I' refers to the entire human being; but, since I2 do not know the structure of a human individual, I2 am unable to say whether rationality is a function of the body (ie a brain function), a function of some other component (eg a mind or soul), a function of their interation or ... whatever.

this is also something vaguely insulting about calling a person a rational animal. I have no objection to being described as 'rational'; but, I object to being described as an 'animal'. although I freely admit that I have an animal body --- a primate body, to be specific. the problem is that I2 still don't know whether or not a human being is more than a human body; and, saying 'I am an animal' seems to imply that I am my body, something I do not know to be true.

even assuming that 'rational animal' means something like an animal with the power of rationality, it would still be an open question whether the power of rationality came from the body or some other component.

if the human individual is a composite entity, this is a general problem. for any identification (statement of the form 'I am [a(n)] X'), we would have to ask whether the predicate of the identification is a property of the composite or of one or more or all of the components?