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A brief consideration on 'I'

1-29-2019

Hector Rios-Jaime, Contributing Writer

Among the most influential ideas in psychology there is that of the heuristic, a mechanism that gives mental phenomenon its sense of completeness and continuity. Among the most commonplace heuristics is Availability. Simply put we make decisions based on whatever information is available to us at a given moment. The world of appearance is not strictly composed of sensory stimuli, but it is complemented by the convenient packages we chunk this stimuli in order to interact with it more meaningfully. To borrow a little exercise from Heidegger, close you eyes and listen to the world around you. What do you hear? A random collection of auditory stimuli or do you hear objects themselves such as the ring of glass bottles, the fizz of sodas, the thumping of boot and shoes, the creaking of opening and closing doors, and so on? The world around us is not composed of disconnected, atomized stimuli, but of things and the place in the world.

 

Among the things in the world there are people. And people, like all things, are not experienced in parts, but as a whole. We complete the experience of a person, ourselves as well. We have identities. These identities are complementary, they extend our understanding of a person beyond immediate experience. Each person, ourselves included, is understood in terms of what they are, what they do and what they belong to. In the process of completing these experiences we are inevitably bound to make fundamental attribution errors, but without them we would be faced with a nothingness that would make action impossible. We will never have all the information there is to be had about any one thing, yet we need to have working notions of the world we live in and the things in it in order to act according to our best interests. It is only natural to be wrong. It is human to be wrong.

 

Yet about ourselves, are we wrong there too? Of all the things there are and will be, we feel, understandably so, that we know more of ourselves than of anything else. Psychologists and philosophers for the last couple centuries have been adamant in telling us that we know as little of ourselves as of the nature of truth. It is not enough to experience and think, says Kant near the end of the 18th century, what we call the experience of consciousness is only appearance, the byproduct of a mechanical process that synthesizes external stimuli, it is abstract code that says “I, as in the synthetic unity of the stimuli processed, am in such and such a relation with objects in space and this same synthetic unity in time.” The ‘I’ is reduced to a mere logical necessity.

 

If we only ever represent ourselves as we appear at a given moment and not as we are, then identities are faced with an obstacle — What do they identify? Is Kant’s logical ‘I’ capable of continuous existence? Is the ‘I’ that I think I am nothing more than a heuristic useful for my momentary needs and interests? Nothing that can be said about an appearance can be said to be true of things-in-themselves. Nothing that can be said about the ‘I’ can be said to be true of ourselves beyond appearance. We think we are, but that’s not enough.