What it is to Perceive
Inspired by overthinking a philosophy lecture
There are two definitions of ego: (1) the modern version referencing one’s self-image; (2) the metaphysical reference to the conscious thinking subject. The first is merely a value judgment of the second, presupposing their metaphysical equality. This is the difference between the statements “I am great,” and “I am.” So who, or what, is this ‘I’ (aside from definition #2)? In other words, what is the identity ‘I’ that we ascribe to ourselves, and how is it different from a name? In short, 'I' is what you're doing, and names are a useful fiction. An important thing to note here is that, while the ego - the self - is an illusion, that in no way takes away from the qualitative experience that is to be you.
Your brain is a tricky bastard
From the moment you're born (or become conscious in the womb – whichever comes first), the brain, in a self-serving act, tricks you into believing that its act of processing data from the senses and relating itself to the world is a concrete and tangible thing. The brain describes itself as an agent, ‘I.’ This is its way of statically locating itself in the dynamic world… But a static identity is a false one.
We are constantly changing, growing, evolving, and adapting to our inner and outer environments. So to assume that your perceptions are some static thing that maintains over a period of time is rather silly.
Let's phrase this as a question: where exactly in this body am ‘I?’ ‘I’ can't be in one spot, or else at any given time, one limb or another would not be a part of me. So then ‘I’ must be the whole body, since you are, most of the time, aware of it. However, this means that if you lose a limb, you lose part of your identity. But unless the lost limb was meaningfully tattooed, this is false. A person who losses their leg is still the same person as they were before the mutilation - though they may interact with themselves and the world differently. ‘I minus left leg’ is still ‘I.’ So then it must be true that the identity ‘I’ is not dependent on the physical body, but is instead an identity for the whole organism in relation to its parts. In other words, ‘I’ is a quality ascribed to the relations of your perceptions in contemplation.
This idea of no-personal-self is one of the main tenets of Buddhist philosophy. So if I’m not a spatiotemporal entity, what am ‘I’?
‘I’ is the objective self that apprehends the world through the life of a person
What this means is that 'I' is not an agent being conscious, 'I' is the act of consciousness. Moreover, ‘I’ am not ‘Paul.’ I’m referred to as 'Paul' because that’s the reference assigned to me at birth to make day-to-day life less complicated. So, in this context of ‘I’ not being metaphysically equal to ‘Paul,’ ‘Paul’ is a quality of the conscious thinking subject ‘I.’
And this is true for everyone. Ned Stark is not ‘I.’ Nor is Justin Trudeau. Nor are you, dear reader. Ned, Justin, Paul, and yourself are faces on an infinite sided die and ‘I’ is the die itself.
Consciousness (or, more simply, being aware) is a juggling act of perceiving, understanding, and responding to information from your senses, done at an immense rate by the brain. Although we cannot (and in my opinion, should not) reduce 'I' to a mere bundle of neurons, and only correlate 1st person experience with neurochemistry and brain states, it is still true that the brain is the thing doing the consciousnessing.
The brain is (almost) always perceiving its internal and external environments, and has gotten so quick at doing so that it has developed the ability to react to it’s own perceptions. So, in the same way as you might refer to me as 'Paul', the brain (mistakenly) refers to itself as 'I.'
If this self-identity is incorrect, why do we have it? Because before agricultural society, when survival meant not being eaten, you absolutely had to believe that you were your perceptions. If you didn't, the desire to keep the process of perceiving going would be ignorable, if not forgettable. There'd be no motivation to run away from that scary animal with big teeth about to eat you.
The quality of your life is determined by your reaction to it
We've come to the conclusion that people are not 'things' but a continuous action. We are not our perceptions because, ultimately, our perceptions are just symptoms of being conscious thinking subjects. We are, playing nicely with plurality (the idea behind why two people can interact with the same scene but interpret it in different ways), how we choose to react to our perceptions, and to ourselves (and yes, I'm presupposing the existence of free will, which, given enough interest, I will happily discuss in another article).
This means that we as a species have outgrown the 'survive' mentality that has kept us alive for roughly 2 million years. It means that we have a lot more control over our lives and our immediate experience than we ever realized. It means that there's no point in comparing people to people because, at the end of the day, the things being compared are nothing more than helpful lies. So let's take ourselves a little less seriously. Let’s choose to experience love and joy a little more often. And let’s wish each other a pleasant days consciousnessing.
If you'd like to hear more about the topic on consciousness, this TED talk is a wonderful physiological and psychology perspective on the topic.