34. Identity and the Absolute

     If the concept of absolute truth means anything at all it must refer to the common denominator of all cognitive systems. Since there is such apparent diversity among the life forms we are familiar with on this planet, it is difficult enough to discern what they have in common as cognitive systems, let alone the common basis of all possible cognitive systems! Whatever it is must be very basic, simple and abstract. The absolute truth of which we are speaking must have at least the generality of the truths of mathematics, which describe the universal properties of "objectness" (existence, discreteness, plurality, location-- in short, number). It must describe what is true for all subjects, just as mathematics describes what is true of all objects.

     We might speculate that the ultimate commonality described by mathematics is the same essence of objective reality referred to as Brahman in Vedic scriptures. If so, these scriptures assure us, there is a second ultimate commonality: that of all subjects, minds, experiences-- the Atman which is the essence of consciousness. The truth, in order to be absolute, must ultimately embrace these commonalities as one. The ultimate reality of the subject, the scriptures say, is none other than the ultimate reality of the object: Atman is Brahman. Idealism holds that the subject is real while the object is not; materialism, that the object alone is real. But if it is true that "subject is object", they must stand or fall together.

     The search for the absolute is a process of abandoning categories, of halting or relaxing thought. Ultimately the being of both subject and object is without category-- simply the recognition of boundless "isness", the realization of the equivalence and arbitrariness of all things and of all points of view from an absolute perspective.

     The absolute truth of the subject is that it is a dimensionless point of view, interior to all experience. It is an indefinitely inner locus, which can be pictured as the center of a circular mandala. For us humans, immediately surrounding this point is a shell of thoughts; surrounding that is a shell of emotions; surrounding that, the shell of somatic sensations. These realms comprise experience of the body. Beyond lies the zone of the world, though no layer is strictly bounded. The intermediary zones, of the body and its thoughts and feelings, are the "lens" through which the self-- as ultimate subject-- experiences the world. But everything is continuous on this map; it is a whole, one piece, one turning, a universe. Everything-- all experience-- is potentially object for the subject at the central point which, though no object itself, is contiguous with the rest.

     While this subject is no more than an idealization, like a mathematical point, in practice some portion of the interior zones of the map are appropriated as "self". A sphere expands as the subject identifies with more and more of experience, and this is taken for the point. The map is egocentric, in that the subject identifies with this shell that constitutes a cognitive system (a mind-body), calling this "myself". Because it is extensional-- part of the relative world of space-time in opposition to other parts, there is the perception of being a separate individual, one mind-body among many. The subject identifies with the lens in opposition to the surrounding "external" world, which includes other cognitive systems.

     To think: these thoughts are true, these feelings are true, these perceptions are true-- is to believe the veracity of the lens, to treat it as transparent. This means to fail to recognize the lens at all as object, implicitly mistaking it as subject. The identity of the self, which is actually an idealized dimensionless point, expands to engulf the lens which has a dimension and a boundary against the world beyond. The inflation of the ego parallels the inflation of the universe! When this shell of identity shrinks again to infinitesimal size or expands to include all existence, it again ceases to have a boundary. Then there is no opposition between subject and object, self and world. But there is little difference between identifying with nothing and identifying with everything. (As the sage Nisargadatta has said, "to realize one is nothing is wisdom; to realize one is everything is love"). Duality and opposition occur when we identify with some thing, in distinction to other things. This is the condition of relative existence, identified with a cognitive system, a body or playing piece in the game of life. It is not in itself the fact that the map is centered in a cognitive system which limits consciousness to the relative, but rather the fact of identifying with the portion of the map that is the cognitive system. It is thinking we are some one that makes the difference between relative and absolute consciousness.

     Brutality presupposes considering subjects as objects. Objects are many, whereas when we consider the experience of the subject with empathy, we realize it is little different than our own. In that moment we may know there is only the subject, tasting experience through this or that body. The MBP is therefore the problem of separation-- of our apparent embodiment as distinct units of consciousness. It is the ancient problem of the many and the one. If there were but one object in the universe, there would be no object at all. The very concept of object refers to multiplicity, structure, separateness of distinct parts. Even so we have named the cosmos Universe, in consideration of our belief that all exists as a unity. Indeed our cosmology traces the history of the universe back to a beginning moment when there was but one object-- and therefore no objects at all. Billions of years later we are reminded of this original unity by the fact that all microscopic particles of a type are qualitatively identical. What distinguishes one proton from another is nothing marking it with individual traits, but only its location in space (measured with respect to other generic particles) and its level of energy (a function of the influence of other particles, and therefore of its location in space). The concept of individual identity of objects we are familiar with on the human scale does not apply to microphysics, where precise laws govern the emergence of complexity and the appearance of diversity from an essential sameness.

     Of course, such laws exist in the macroscopic realm as well. There are laws governing the diversity of species and of individuals within the genotype. Our uniqueness as individuals is a strictly regulated feature of our sameness. After all, every creature that lives or ever lived on earth had a common ancestor. Truly they are "all our relations" in a family that co-evolved as a group effort. It is only because of and within the web of life as a whole that the human form has arisen. Similarly, it is only because of, and as a part of, the collective efforts of other people past and present that you and I can live today as individuals.

     Unity and diversity interplay at every level of physical reality. As the study of objects, science ignores the subject in its discourse. Or rather, it acknowledges the subject as observer, with all observers held to be interchangeable. The observer is a strictly defined role, and any individual can potentially play that role. The perceptions of science are deemed objective because, as far as science is concerned, there is but one observer, one subject.

     Perhaps our individuality in life is ultimately related to our fundamental interchangeability as subjects in a similar way. The difference between us, like the differences between observers, may be at the deepest level a function of separation in space and time. Like elementary particles, we are numerically distinct while identical in essence. We think of ourselves as separate because we identify with the distinct location in space of the body, and we think of ourselves as unique because we identify with the history of the body in time. At this level there appears to be great diversity of experience, circumstance, ability and character. Some people suffer incredible hardship while others are blessed with comfort and ease. But if we press deeply enough into subjectivity-- past individual histories of experience, into what it means to be consciousness itself-- the differences disappear with which one could lay claim to individual identity.

     To be a particular self, an ego, is to have a special relationship to that part of the world that is one's own body. This has two aspects: particular dedicated channels of information (the hardware of nerves), and particular response patterns (software). Both concern one's own body in a different way than other bodies in the universe. One's identity is based wholly upon one's identification with the particular body that is "one's own". This relationship is not epistemically special, but physically and affectively special. I can know as much about the status of your body's tissue as I can about my own-- but through different channels, and with a different attitude towards it.

     The sense of self-- of identity as "I"-- is an attitude or stance [29] rather than a function of being one person or body or another. This is so because the same distinction that is supposed to split the subject off within the field of experience, as a private inner domain, occurs within the subject itself. To observe one's experience is a different stance than believing it.

     And the basic choice is whether to believe experience. Treating one's experience as real-- believing one's thoughts-- makes not only the world real but also the self. The same reifying tendency that naively considers the world real and external also makes substantial the contents of the subjective perspective that is supposed to mitigate that very tendency. It creates an identity and a self out of the contents of the subjective realm.

     According to non-dual eastern philosophy, neither the universe nor the self are real. This is not, however, an ontological statement-- about what exists or doesn't exist-- so much as an injunction toward an attitude or relationship to experience. The key to spiritual liberation is refusing to implicitly believe one's own mind. This means suspending belief in the reality of the world and the self. And this is really a matter of holding experience in a certain light, whereby one is not committed to interpret it as experience of a real world, nor by a real self, but merely as an undesignated "something" passing through attention. Since "I" is the mind's theory about the activity of theorizing-- just as "reality" is the mind's theory about the contents it interprets, when the activity of interpreting is suspended "I" ceases to exist. When reality goes, so does the self. The liberated person is transparent. There is no self that is doing, but "all is done". There is no identification with experience or action. The subject disappears as a mediating window on the world and the object, in the usual sense, disappears also. What is considered real is no longer the objects or contents of experience, nor something to be acted upon, but the ultimate ground of being from which experience arises and which is also the ultimate cause of action.

     Suppose a clone was made of you, identical down to the molecular level. In what sense would this copy be "you"? It seems obvious it would be conscious, would think and react emotionally exactly as you do, and would-- at the moment of creation-- have identical memories. It would be numerically different from you and otherwise qualitatively identical, but even mere numerical difference would give it henceforth a different experience. Even if it remained forever close by you-- like a siamese twin-- it would occupy at least a slightly different perspective. With the possibility to move about freely to the other side of the world, its experience could diverge greatly from yours. Its identity would come be that of someone very like you but clearly not you.

     Suppose now that an identical clone is made of you, but in the process your body is destroyed [30]. With the clone appearing instantly-- with all your thought, feelings and memories-- in place of the body that was yours, it now seems that there would be continuity between your consciousness and its, making it more plausible that the clone would actually "be" you. A variation of this would be teletransportation (a la Star Trek), where the clone appears at a different place and slightly different time, replacing the you that is here and now. There would presumably be a small interval in which you were discarnate, a message travelling across space. In the first case above, we say the clone is not you and in the present case we say it is you-- depending solely on whether the original survives! But how can the existence of another body affect your identification with this one?

     In either case-- of teletransporting or of "regular" cloning-- it is assumed that the process of duplication is finite, that only a finite amount of information is required to define "you". The identity is therefore that of an artifice, a formal system. If reality-- even the reality of "you"-- is infinitely complex and unfathomable, then it is merely an "essence" of you that is duplicated in an incompletely perfect copy.

     And what are we to make of the subjective sense of identity, experienced as "I"? Since I can recognize memories as my own, just as I can recognize this body as my own, my consciousness would appear seamlessly continuous if the cloning or teletransporting were near perfect. I might have the experience of waking up in someone else's body if the body seemed different or the memories were unfamiliar. Even so I could perhaps be convinced by others that I was merely suffering from amnesia and that I must really be who they insist I am. Merely waking up in a different place and time, but as my familiar self, would be assimilated as a lapse of memory or as evidence of teletransporting.

     In the case where I survive the cloning (so that there are two of us), my clone would surely have his own sense of "I", belonging to his numerically distinct body, even though-- from my point of view, at least-- we shared the same qualitative identity at the moment of his inception. Since that moment-- including his present interaction with me-- he has been free to create an identity of his own through experience diverging from mine. We each continue with a distinct sense of "I" and now a separate identity as well. Moreover, he could argue, as convincingly as I could, that it is I who am the copy-- that is, my memories of childhood, of his cloning, etc., are false, rather than his!

     In the case where I don't survive, my absence would not affect my clone's claim to selfhood. But it would affect his identity, at least in the view of others who might be inclined to say that he is me-- or that there is but one person who was teletransported or cellularly renewed through cloning. His identity is a public fact with which he would be forced to agree.

     It seems then that the subjective sense of "I" is a different matter than identity-- the particulars of what sort of person one is, with what history-- which is a matter of public record, as accessible to others as to oneself. Memories of which identity consists may be viewed as private experiences, but they are memories of events in the world. What differentiates me as an individual is a collection of events, a history. But the experience of a numerically distinct "I" could consist of (very nearly) those same events, creating very nearly the same identity. All that could render a distinct subjective sense of "I" would ultimately be our numerical difference. The sense of "I" cannot have a content, because that would be a phenomenal event, part of identity. What then could it be if not the sheer awareness of awareness?