The Search-Focusing Question: What am I0?


What is a human being? Any systematic philosophy ought to offer an answer to that question.1

Certainly, a most important aspect of the philosophical treatment of any problem is the relationship between that treatment and the philosopher's theory of human nature.2


§1: invitations

an unanswered question invites us to search for an answer; but, clearly, not all such invitations are accepted; so, any actual search for truth must result from an interaction between the questioner and the question that becomes a search-focusing question for him or her.

who conspired to assassinate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then President of the United States of America?

I, for one, consider this an unanswered question; but, I have no interest in speculation as to who Oswald's co-conspirators might have been.

was there ever an island continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules?

this question interests me; but, as I am neither an archeologist, nor a scholar of ancient languages, I limit my involvement to an appreciation of the efforts of active researchers as I consider their latest findings.

what am I0?

now, for me anyway, this is the question that burns within, providing both motivation and focus.

§2: finding the question

some years ago, I2 began meditating for a purely pragmatic reason: to remain calm in the face of stress. I discovered the 'who am I' technique in How to Meditate by LeShan. it takes the form of an inner dialogue. the meditator asks 'who am I?', listens for an answer, rejects that answer and then repeats the question. it's all done in the first person. this proved to be an interesting technique; but, very soon after trying it out, I decided to change the question from 'who am I' to 'what am I'. my reasons for making this change are not entirely clear; but, I recall wondering if I could really reject the more generic answers I expected from this question --- in particular, answers like 'I am a human being'.

Other routes to this search-focusing question

§3: responding to the question

I suspect that how one responds to the search-focusing question is more important that how one found it. I responded on several levels. on the psychophysiological level, the meditation seems to achieve its intended effect, increased serenity despite continued stress. although such a judgement may not be a reliable inference from my experience, I continue to meditate.

on the psychological level the question had a powerful and unexpected effect on me. although the 'rules' require the meditator to reject every answer that comes up, I felt challenged to find an unrejectable answer. I eventually changed the meaning of the question slightly so that an unrejectable answer could be found. it was, however, only a partial answer; and, thus, I began a philosophical inquiry to find ... the rest of the answer.

§4: language modifications

unfortunately, I2 found myself enmeshed in the quagmire of a language not designed to support philosophical inquiry. I2 came to appeciate Wittgenstein's observation, 'The limits of my language are the limits of my world'; and, eventually, I2 surrendered to the obvious corollary: I2 may change my language; and, thereby, rock my worldview.

it seems to have worked; but, now, when attempting to describe a never-ending journey while reporting my findings to date, I2 must also communicate the language conventions by which I2 am communicating my findings.

I2 have choosen to write in humanese english, HE, which is identical to common or vernacular english, VE, except for modifications required to comply with the language specification for humanese, a hypothetical language designed to optimize the functioning of the human biocomputer. while most of this specification remains to be written, what is already present is intended to facilitate the psychophilosophical knowledge quest.

most of the modifications built into humanese english serve to disambiguate common useage; and, these can be introduced when first employed. however, the most striking modification concerns the use of first-person singular pronoun(s); and, this I2 must discuss ahead of time.

in VE, there is only one first person singular pronoun: 'I'. it is indexical; meaning, that its referent is its user. the word 'I' refers to whoever is speaking, writing or thinking it --- whoever is using it. its meaning is something like 'this entire human individual'. thus, in VE, 'I drove to work on tuesday' means 'I, this entire human individual, drove to work on tuesday'. the latter sentence, while fuller, is merely redundant.

for most uses, VE is fine. its limitations become apparent only when the question as to the composition of the human individual has been (or should be) raised.

in VE, how can I, this entire human individual, ask 'what am I' without prejudicing the inquiry into whether or not the human individual is a composite of distinct components; for example, a body and a soul? if the human individual is a composite; then, when this human individual asks 'what am I', who or what is doing the asking? is it the composite or a component; and, if a component is asking, which component is asking?

I2 found myself wanting to ask 'what am I2, this component that asks "what am I2"'. so, I2 created some extra pronouns. this changed the meaning of the question so that an unrejectable answer could be found.

First Person Singular Pronouns in Humanese English
Symbol Specification
I0 the entire the human individual, whether composite or not, irregardless of structure, if any; can be used interchangeably with the component-amibiguous 'I' of VE except where the structure of the human individual is an issue.
I1 the component of the I0, this human individual, that is composed of matter and energy; the body associated with a given I2; when used with regard to research in consciousness, the brain associated with a given I2.
I2 the component of I0, this human individual, that experiences and which may wonder about its origins, its relation to other components and its fate; the experiencer.
I3 the component associated with a given I0, this human individual, that is composed of something other than matter and energy; goes by any number of names; may be considered as either a collective or an individuated entity.
Ix this placeholder may be used to temporarily indicate where in a text first-person singular, indexical self-referencing occurs without indicating what is self-referencing. when it becomes clear what is self-referencing, Ix must be replaced with one of the numbered pronouns listed above.


§5: caveat

it should be noted that, at this point, I2 am merely defining the useage of these component-specific, first-person singular pronouns. it doesn't follow that there is a referent for each pronoun. someone who did not accept the reality of the referent of a given pronoun would simply not use that pronoun. for example, many people do not believe that there is an immaterial component of the human individual. they would simply not use 'I3'.

§6: the presentation

I will present examples, with commentary, of question/answer/reply, QAR, sequences I encountered while meditating. initially, the question will be presented in VE, as 'what am I' because this is how I0 started out. the commentary will always be in HE as it was written later. the reader will be able to see what led up to the moment when I2 lapsed into a component inquiry and changed the question to 'what am I2, that which asks "what am I2"'.

I2've broken down this section into three pages loosely representing the phases of my response to the meditiation:

  1. idiosyncratic identifications
  2. humanoid identifications
  3. experiencer-centric identifications

§7: the hope

in any event, I hope that at least some readers will take up the 'What am I?' meditation, if only to see what might happen. if so, we could compare notes. if a significant percentage of meditators experience similar insights, this technique might become standard practice in academia; thereby, making philosophy a partially experiential, if not empirical, discipline. a phenomenology of philosophical inquiry may develop. who knows where it might lead? mailing lists , perhaps?


[1]: Voss, Stephen. 1994. "Descartes: The End of Anthropology". in Cottingham, John (ed). 1994. Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes' Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press. @273-306. [Back]

[2]: Ballard, Edward G. 1957. Descartes' Revision of the Cartesian Dualism. The Philosophical Quarterly. 7(28):249-259. @249 [Back]