It should come as very little surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about the human condition and what exactly that means. What does it mean to be human? And in a wider view, what does it mean to be alive? That’s not meant to be a bombastic or impressive statement, it’s just that when I write my poetry I spend a lot of time being ridiculously introspective, and therefore spend time prodding around in the sinews and synapses of what makes me… well, me.
It will probably also be unsurprising to most of my readers that I am not religious, I have no God, and my awe for the universe comes purely from the magic I see, smell, hear, touch, and imagine on a day-to-day basis. I don’t need a supernatural being to imbue that awe in me, and have not been able to align one logically with the things I see around me. I find beauty in people’s faith and the serenity that sometimes comes with it, but I do not feel it myself. This is not supposed to be a shocking statement, and if you don’t agree with me perhaps you will read on to learn about a little about why I think this way, rather than simply clicking off because it doesn’t align with your worldview.
So, what inspired this rather meta blog post? I was reading Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’ the other day and he quoted Julian Baggini:
I is a verb masquerading as a noun – Julian Baggini
The words got me thinking; they seem so very true to me. I is a verb masquerading as a (pro)noun. There is no constant ‘I’ for me, it does not describe anything if you just say ‘I’. Unlike other nouns such as ‘London’ or ‘bed’ or ‘book’ which all sum up some kind of image. In order to have an image associated with ‘I’ we must say ‘I am something something something‘ therefore creating a simile or metaphor out of ourselves in order to place ourselves in context. ‘I’ is not something that can exist without contextualisation of what you mean by it. To describe ourselves we must say I am thus making a verb of ourselves.
In that vein, I have divided my thoughts on ‘I’ into two separate sections; the physical self, and the mental self.
I should note before continuing that I am not a doctor, a psychologist, a neurobiologist, or an anything -ist. Therefore all of the below observations are done from reading articles (nature communications is always a good journal to start with for sciencey things, and from picking the brains of my science-degree imbued friends.)
The urban myth has always been that every cell in the human body renews itself within seven years. Fairly recently, it has been discovered that the cells in some parts (not all) of the cerebral cortex don’t renew – when they die, well they’re dead. This is where worries around footballers heading too many balls and boxers taking too many punches to the head comes from. There is, however, a process known as neurogenesis which is to do with creation of new type cells in this area, rather than the renewal of existing ones (although this is fairly controversial in science at the moment). Pretty much every other cell type in the human replenishes itself on a fairly regular basis (anywhere between 72 hours and fifteen years!).
So, this being said, the idea that the body is a permanent structure is a complete fallacy. It is in constant flux. Every time you take a shower you wash away a huge number of cells and then new ones appear on the surface of your skin. So not even the layer that holds you together is a constant – in fact this organ is one that changes at an extremely rapid pace. When you look at someone you are not looking at the same person you saw only a few days ago; the physical things that make them up have changed. But have they?
What I am trying to get at by saying all this is that it lends even further to the idea that ‘I’ cannot possibly be a noun because it describes something that is physically always changing. There is no constant.
Je pense donc je suis/I think therefore I am – Rene Descartes (Discourse on Method)
The above quote is possibly one of the most famous by any philosopher ever. According to Descartes, the only thing we can be certain of in life is that we exist because we are thinking. Our ability to think is what makes us a living creature. We can be totally sure of nothing else (logically, think about it; try and convince yourself that the computer you’re reading this on is real – it makes sense to believe that it’s real for expediency sake, but if you actually had to prove it? If you want to know more about this slightly insane theory and where it came from, then google Occam’s razor.)
Therefore we have reached a point where our bodies are in perpetual flux, and there is doubt as to the fixed nature of any of the physical parts of it, and we can be sure of nothing apart from the fact that we are able to think. So what are we?
It’s a pretty insecure place to start from, and as I’m sure you’ve gathered if you’ve read this far, I do not have the answers to these questions. I am simply musing on them.
I think there is nothing that truly makes you you, but it is a result of a complex mix of the way your molecules have been assembled, the DNA therein, the things you were exposed to pre-birth and then everything that has happened since. There was no fully formed ‘I’ when I was born, and it has taken years for me to discover what my ‘I’ might be. It will change again, I am sure of it, and when it does it will probably be so imperceptibly slowly that I will not be aware of it until after the event.
And I’m okay with that.
That’s the important thing to take from any of this. To me it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a solid ‘I’ – I don’t need there to be. I am thinking and living, existing and interacting. Everything works, so the fact that I can’t put my finger on exactly what ‘I’ is does not give me sleepless nights. It is not something that needs protecting, because it is changing as fast as I think about it. Occam’s razor if you will.
Phew! That was a bit of a ramble through some philosophical musings. Well done if you got this far!