Our Unique Self


The discussion begins:

HELEN: I am very honored to have you three here today to dissect the concept of “self”. “Who am I?” is a widely perplexing question that has no definable answer. In a sense it is too broad, so I narrow it down into “what makes us we?”. Opinions are welcomed anytime.

PLATO: Have you not read my book of Republic? Book 7 will be of use if you had not read. If you really did, you should have grasped the idea that our souls create our existence. Only through the world of forms we could see the true reality, and only souls can access to it. However, we are souls imprisoned in bodies. (Lindberg, 13). Our physical bodies trap our souls to only experiencing the imperfect material world, so we only see “truths” that are partly true and do not withstand the test of time. If we continue to be fettered in this cave with our eyes poisoned with ignorance, we would still be stuck with the level of primitive survival, keep asking “what makes us alive?”.

KANDEL: Helen, you have asked a challenging question.  I fully respect Plato’s belief that the only reason we can think about ourselves and our mortal body is that we have a soul that is immaterial and immortal (Kandel, 183) because it gives rise to the origin of consciousness. In my study, I hold true that we can explain our self by Freud’s structural theory. It states that the ID, ego and superego have their respective roles and functions in our consciousness. Why consciousness makes us who we are? Think about your desires and instincts, it is embedded in your unconscious, controlled by your ID.  Our consciousness composes of what we are aware of and what we are ignorant of. It is where all your emotions and behaviors are stemmed from. It is your executive center. Without it, you would not even be you.

HELEN: I think Plato’s soul and Kandel’s consciousness are very alike. Both are in an incorporeal form and cannot be specifically located in our physical body…

PLATO: No, our soul is temporarily residing in our body until we die and our body degenerates, that is only when our soul is freed and returns to the intelligible realm if you have wasted your whole life in the material realm.

KANDEL: No, the study of consciousness is half physicalism and half existentialism. It can be broken down into two separate independent minds in a split brain patient. The amygdala in our brain triggers our conscious and unconscious to act differently while perceiving unsettling images—our conscious prepares our body to fight-or-flight and our unconscious stimulates actions depending on different people’s baseline anxiety level.

HELEN: You are saying different people’s baseline anxiety level, so does it mean that experience makes us who we are?

KANDEL: That is the subjectivity characteristic of the consciousness we are trying to rationalize. However, we lack something to connect the objective happenings with the subjective experiences. Hence, we cannot really explain in scientific terms why what we sense are different from what others sense, or maybe even they are the same.

PLATO: I think that is what beautiful in our quest for the unknown. The more we think we grasp the tail of the whole picture, the more we see it is only the tip of an iceberg. After listening to Kandel’s research findings, maybe the brain is closely related to the soul, after all we need a spectrum present for sensory input in and ideas out. It is all up to us what it produces. I think it is what makes us unique, each of us interpret their selves in their own ways—some turn to science, others religion or philosophy.

HELEN: So you are saying the modes of thinking shape us. Actually when do we begin to think? When we are 3 years old? When we are a baby? Or we are thinking already before we are born? Do we exist before we have a body?

WATSON: I think we do, in a sense that DNA is already set when you are a fertilized egg in the uterus. When you are in your mother’s womb, your gender is determined, which means part of your sense of self is present already. Life begins as gene replicates itself into a chain of double helix called DNA in the code of ATCG, add some protein and you will have chromosome(which determines whether you will have Down’s Syndrome if you lack one),  the chromosomes bundle together in a nucleus of a cell.

HELEN: Identical twins are in the same fertilized egg, so they share the same DNA. They are biologically the same now, do they have identical selves as well?

WATSON: Identical twins are excellent evidence in favor of heredity in the nature vs nurture debate. Yes, you are right. They are programmed identically before their birth and as infants, but what makes them different is their development and lifestyles afterwards, which can be hugely attributed to the parents’ upbringing.

HELEN: Even though you are a biologist, I still question the use of “programmed” on an example of a human. What if now technology is so advanced that robot can be inputted with our DNA, so they can take over our biological bodies. How can we claim ourselves back? We have the same DNA as them. This is not impossible because we now already have organs that can be replicated and reproduced for the sake of curing terminal cancers. Copying DNA may be in due time as a resolution to genetic diseases.

PLATO: We have now advanced so quick that we forget to find ourselves back. We only know we need solutions to something that threatens our survival, not knowing our minds are threatened by us creating something to replace ourselves.  

WATSON: That is why I told you nurture comes to picture as well. We accumulate experiences that shape our personality and temperaments. We claim ourselves from these robots because we are flesh and we have feelings.

HELEN: Exactly. What if we lose our memory to retain these experiences that once make us who we are? How can we still consider we are us? I am saying now we are losing our identity regardless we are souls, we are our consciousness, or we are our own DNA.

KANDEL: What makes us us is that we have the ability to retain a psychological continuity or a physical continuity. If we lose our memory or our body that constitute to our perception of self, we are incomplete. We are already different from the original body with intact memory. Especially for memory, losing it meaning you cannot continue yourself over time because you lose your past and that connectedness with your present and future selves.

PLATO: That will be a tragedy. When all our memories are gone with our desires and plans and hopes, what is left of what can properly be identified as me? (Cave, 267)

KANDEL: Maybe that is why the unitary nature of consciousness so important. Even if we have not lost all memories, memories can deceive us when we grow old or have accidents. How can we be sure that memories are telling us the truth and presenting the real self of who we are? For instance, some say they remember things before 3 years old; these memories can be our make-belief from suggestibility and imagination. If we use this information incorrectly in circumstances like the court case arguing the father rape the 3 year old based on the account of the victim who is now 20, will we wrong an innocent?

PLATO: Nobody would voluntarily do a wrong thing knowing it is wrong in the first place because to do wrong knowingly would be to bring the worst harm upon oneself (Moor, 52). Usually wrongdoings are committed out of ignorance. In this case, the victim is unaware that her memory can be false; maybe she collects and mixes the fear response from the events happening over the time of her developmental stages. We cannot blame her, neither does her father. Hence, we must know ourselves well enough to avoid situations like this.

HELEN: Memory is a psychological component similar to consciousness and its activity can be traced to certain parts of the brain, e.g. the hippocampus. The consciousness is a branch from the brain, the brain is a branch from the body. They are a system working cohesively. What if the whole system is copied in a parallel universe? And you have another you on another planet, a different time frame perhaps?

KANDEL: Cloning is an interesting concept. It brings us to contemplate whether we have free will. We desperately cling on the “fact” that we own ourselves, but do we? Are we are unconsciously controlled by our brains, or by some telepathic powers from another planet? Libet’s experiment discovers that there is a delay between decision and awareness (Kandel, 194). If we do not have free will to execute decisions, then why should we hold responsibility of our actions?

PLATO: You are saying the brain is manipulating your consciousness; it is similar to my allegory that we are prisoners of our own shallow visions. Till the end of the day, we are too smart to realize we are stupid after all.

HELEN: Through asking “what makes us us?” ,  answers differ. However, through asking why we are still us provided by certain disastrous circumstances, answers all resorted to saying we are ignorant. We admit we do not and cannot know ourselves well enough. Then why do we have an answer in the first place? Why are we souls, consciousness and DNA when we cannot differentiate us from a clone with all identical biological engineering intact? Maybe we need to cease believing what we believe is right and start to doubt our beliefs. Perhaps it is not true that you are you because what makes you you does not justify itself.