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Truth, Identity and the Illusion of the Self
by Nikos Laios
2017-03-24 10:29:42
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Illusion of the self

There is a profound disconnect at the moment when it comes to the commonality and truth of ideas, thoughts, knowledge and opinions held by individuals, societies and nations. What was considered until very recently the universality of knowledge and thought has been slowly eroded and rejected in the 20th Century and now in the 21st Century. We live in a subjective world where knowledge and truths are only accepted when they become relative to the individual. Waves of disaffection are sweeping both the western world and the third world which has resulted not only in violent and unusual social and geopolitical outcomes, but also in unusual political outcomes right throughout the world. To reflect on the causes of this cognitive dissonance, we must firstly go back and reflect on and investigate the concepts of identity, the self and knowledge to enable us to come to a more complete understanding, where only through such examinations can humanity be able to transcend its differences and problems, and to attempt to make the world a much better place than it is at the moment.

ancient_faces_400_01At present the concept of the self seems to clearly be defined, that people seem to be certain of the concept of their own identity. Where the majority of world culture at present celebrates an individualism built on a narcissist consumerism and materialism. It would seems as though humanity has figured it all out, with our gadgets and pop-up toasters; with our faces buried in the glaring screens of our social media devices connecting with the world to gain some instant gratification. To cover ourselves in a security blanket of certainty in an uncertain world against a meaninglessness and an existential void.

Though the validity of some of the conclusions of philosophy can be questioned at times, what cannot be questioned is the value of the analytical tools that philosophy has brought to the fore into the examination of our existence, of our choices, and most importantly the further and more profound questions on the meaning of life and the very definition of who we are. When one asks the biggest questions on the concept of the self; are we certain that we know who we are? Are we certain that what we define as our self is a rigid and true reality? And how does the conception of our self-limit and define our experience of life, the world and the cosmos?

This question not only has a profound repercussion for every human individual on earth, but the challenging of the definition and truth of the self then has the potential to change every society and human civilization on earth; because the self and society in turn are completely interdependent - society giving shape and form to define the self - and the self in turn building communities and civilizations. At the moment we seem to be living in an age of certainty; the commute to work, punching the clock working 9 to 5, the kids, the mortgage, the mowing of the lawns and then this all repeats again. Living in a world of pre-packaged goods lining our supermarket shelves and cable TV; that's the world that the concept of our self is presently living in.

If we look at the reflection of ourselves in the mirror in the morning as we shave or wash our face, when reflecting upon who the self is, what we firstly see is our physical body, yet we don't say that this is our self but feel that our self is actually residing inside the shell of our body like some pilot. If we engage someone in a conversation on the self and firstly ask them, 'who are you?’ they would answer for example, ' I am John Smith'. At this point we would respond that 'John Smith' is only a name and label that they have given themselves and that they have still not answered our question. We would then ask again, 'who are you?' and he would then respond with, ‘I am an accountant and I live in Sydney' for example. We would again point out to him here that all he has told us is what he does for an occupation and where he lives, that he still hasn't answered with who he is. If we were to ask him the question again, 'who are you?’ he might respond that he is an English immigrant who believes in God and whose ancestors come from Surrey in England. Yet here he still has not answered who he is, that he has only told us what racial label and identity he has been given, what his beliefs are and who his family is and where geographically they came from. For he has still not been able to answer our question of who he is. At this point he - like most people - would be completely perplexed and lost for answers and would be hard-pressed to answer who he is because no one consciously challenges anyone on the concept of the self.

Our self is not our ideas, thoughts or beliefs, for these are simply the things that we experience in life and not who we are. Without our names, labels, definitions or identifications, all we can say here is that 'I am'. That we are our an awareness of our awareness of ourselves - that we exist - that no matter who we think we are; we will always be incorrect for we only ever see a portion of the truth of the whole. Our entire experience of our reality is in our mind, and our mind therefore is our reality. If we reflect on the question of what is 'me', it can be said that it is a network of trillions of experiences and living entities within us. Where the self is a complex mental neurological map allowing us to function as a whole.

The self slowly emerged shaped out of the tapestry of our human activity, interactions and experiences; where the self is a product of the brain which in turn is a product of our brain working with other brains. The 'I' and 'me' are simply points of references, hooks to pin our experiences on together of both our present and our past over our lifetime. If our experiences are therefore not woven together in this fashion to form a unified narrative, they would then become separate episodes and fragments without meaning. Only be weaving these episodes of experiences together into a narrative can the brain calculate the sheer volume of experiences, otherwise it would be overwhelmed. Whereby it is our self - or the constructed illusion of our self - that orchestrates and sets together all of these myriad experiences to give us an abbreviated summary which we continually go back to and reorder and revise.

The life experiences that colour our identity are built on individual memories which are interpreted by us as we experience the world around us. We are also guided and shaped by those around us who contribute to this moulding and shaping of our self; for as humans, we are wired for communal and social interaction. Where this social interaction plays the most important role in constructing the illusion of our self-early in our childhood. Whereby if this social interaction is denied early on in childhood, socially damages a child and where it affects their ability to construct their self; as for example in many of the orphanages in the third world countries where these orphans are deprived of the emotional and social interaction through neglect.

The ego is a stumbling block in being able to come to a truer picture of who our self is, where our ego is our own self-image, of who we think we are and where it is founded on our past ideas, experiences, memories, and identifications. In order to experience choice and arrive at truths and the real self, we need to be free of our ego if we are ever to be free from the chains of the past, for when one dwells in the past, one will be completely defined by it to the detriment of the unexplored whole. For when the ego is anchored in the past, it then also looks forwards to the future for recognition only and then one is fully immersed in the ego, completely missing the reality and truths that exist in our present.

Our brains simulate the world by modelling reality based on the interpretations of perceptual stimuli and memories/preconceived models through societal learning; and we build an internal character to interpret that reality. For example this writer was not born as 'Nikos', but had to develop into 'Nikos' mostly through experience. In believing in the illusion of the self, our self then becomes divided in who we think we are and from everyone around us and who we think they think they are. Their ideals, beliefs, religion, thoughts and culture. Where this rigid and dogmatic idea of who we think the self is has been an underlying factor in much of the conflict of the world; its wars, genocides and conflicts over ideas, knowledge and religion. One is not saying that the illusion of the self is a bad thing, for the illusion of the self does act as a point of reference for us to construct an identity, and to also give some organisation and meaning to the chaos around us; but it is only a fragment, a version of the truth, where the unification and integration of the self can help one live a far more richer and infinite experience of the universe and the cosmos.

Yet by succumbing to the ego, we are caught in repeating patterns of the past which are replicated in the future, and it’s only when we realise that the self is an illusion that we find the one true reality in the present; in the right here and now. How many opportunities do we miss out in being able to destroy the illusion of our self, to expand the horizons of its borders to encompass the whole cosmos and experience it all at once. For once we embrace the nothingness of the now can we connect in a universal consciousness and free ourselves from the constricting individual and cultural bonds and have the freedom to achieve something higher. At present we are on the cusp of the whole world connecting to the World Wide Web on an even larger scale, of the instantaneous communication and sharing of ideas, feelings, information, perceptions and realities that can connect humanity like it never has before in its history. This connectivity potential will possibly be able to assist each person one day with the destruction of their illusions of the self and with the integration of a larger definition of the self that will hopefully make wars, violence, chaos, famine and greed antiquated redundant relics of the past.

If one undertakes a cursory examination of modern human history since the start of the 20th Century, we find that there have been many recorded glimpses of the truth of reality, existence and the self-recorded in science, philosophy, and the literary and visual arts. Periods of culture where man briefly peeked behind the curtain of OZ the wizard to glimpse at the true nature of things; and where one of art movement in particular characterises this. Where the art movement called Cubism was a response to the machine age of 1880 to 1914, a mosaic, a puzzle, a fragmentation of the form of a recognisable image which only becomes recognisable at the second or third glance. Attempting to solve the visual problem of how to depict three dimensional shapes and objects on a two-dimensional surface. One of this writer's favourite art movements,  with works from artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso representative of the movement; a movement which is far more fascinating and valid than real-life figurative art for daring to ask these profound questions.

The most important aspect of Cubism is its phenomenological response to the world around us. The impression of the physical objects and the world; for our perception of the world is limited  by our perceptual attention devices - sight, sound, smell, touch - the question then begs to be asked that if our perception of the reality of objects and the world is only a partially accurate picture, then what is the reality?

Cubism attempts a response visually at least. The questions of the self and existence that follows from this were examined through the moments of Freudian/Jungian psychology of this time, then through existentialism of the 40's and 50's; art, literature, psychology and philosophy movements all linked, one flowing into another. Till the very present day where neuroscientists, medicine, physicists, thinkers and writers have in turn further pushed the boundaries of this field of research.

Here one has to go back to the maxim of Socrates, the essence of which states that in destroying the illusion of the self to reintegrate a more complete and universal whole we have to admit that we know nothing before we can start to know something, and here what Socrates stated then rings true today; " I know that I know nothing.

The search for truth

In regards to the examination of identity, the illusion of the self and the attempts to integrate the self into a more complete whole, we must also now turn to examine the concept of knowledge and its relationship to both the individual and to society to complete our understanding of the present societal state of the world. During the last few hundred years in the western world, the pursuit of truth and knowledge and the belief within the humanist tradition was that the intellectual and contemplative life represented the highest form of human life and activity. This pre-eminence has now been challenged, in that the idea of the pursuit of truth and knowledge is being seen with scepticism at the possibility of objective knowledge; and this scepticism has seeped into institutions of higher learning and has had a profound effect therefore on the intellectual life, where the belief has flourished that if there is no uniqueness in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, then it has become a meaningless and antiquated ritual.

Yet for Aristotle, truth was the object of science, that philosophy is the science that considers the truth. For the true seeker of truth, wisdom and knowledge therefore; the classic works of, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare or the Bhagavad Gita are all valid and contemporary to every time. But the modern age is marked by the laziness of the mind.

Albert Einstein, once stated in 1952 that: "Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist's snobbishness."[1]

As a result this rejection of the universality of knowledge and truth, this has also resulted in the rejection of meritocracy, to avoid the hurt feelings of rejection. Where the banalization of knowledge through easily digestible bite-sized chunks of technical opinions are fed to the public, and the promotion of the policies of inclusiveness and participation at the expense of the maintenance of high levels of the excellence of knowledge and truths. Where excellence is seen as an elitist attempt at excluding a wide section of the population from any attainment of knowledge, and where now this new philistinism has accordingly become entrenched in higher centres of learning and through public policies.

We now live in a new philistine age, an age which is marked by a deficiency in liberal culture and whose main interests are the material and commonplace, marked by apathy and social disengagement. The poverty of the mind has been built in the twentieth century on the foundations of the rise of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and the mass production of food, which has increased the population of the world like at no other time in human history. In most of the western world, the abandonment of religion and its attached corpus of morality has meant the embrace of shallow materialism and consumerism, which has become the new framework within which society attains a meaning.

This trend become especially pronounced post World War Two, and built upon the rubble of a destroyed and alienated western world, and it is during this supposedly affluent and prosperous period that man finally lost his balance and his centre which had thus far defined him throughout human history. Where the pursuit for man in the western world then became on how to live the good life; enjoying the good things in life and indulging in the things that one likes. Where the higher contemplation of the mind has been abandoned, and life has been reduced to an individualism, a personal subjective chase of pleasure and materialism, a world of soul-sucking day jobs, home mortgages, credit cards and five minute television preachers. In a fruitless search of happiness, love and meaning in a decadent society, devoid of any values whatsoever except for alcohol, sex, fame, wealth, materialism and consumption; demoralised by the meaninglessness of a profitable job and living a life with no moral or intellectual centre. A world where man has lost a balance that has thus sustained him for so long. The dislocation and metamorphosis from the humanist ideals of the search for truth and the life of contemplation could not be more stark than in today's preoccupation with materialism and consumerism, where the devaluation of the love of ideas has occurred as soon as the age of philistinism descended upon us.

For this in turn has led to instrumentalism, which is an ethos which only values education, culture and art where they serve practical instruments for the wider economic good. Where knowledge has become a product, and academic establishments have become the production line and catering industry of the economy. The universality of truth and knowledge are now challenged by the theory of relativism, which is a view that states that ideas and perceptions of moral values and truth are relative to the groups and persons holding them, and where the subjective has become dominant over the objective. Where once the right wing of politics was against truth and knowledge of the enlightenment tradition - and the left its champions - these roles have now been reversed due to the left's victory in academia and the professionalization of the intellectual life, where they now see the universalism of the enlightenment as a threat to their now entrenched intellectual life.

This rebellion against the universalism of the enlightenment has become even more entrenched in academia with the adoption of particularism. Which defines the truth and knowledge of intellectualism through the particular experience, which dedicates intellectual interests to one's own group, party, sect or nation. Where instead of there just being an intellectual, we now have today black, feminist, English, Gay and Jewish intellectuals; where intellectual ability no longer resides on the ability to represent the objective truth, but in championing and affirming the identify of a specific group. Such a move is the most dangerous and odious of all in that it entrenches the shift away from the universality of the intellectual life to the ambition to affirm the particular experience, and such a view is in turn a hostile and a conservative reaction against the critical questioning of society.

This particularism and relativist challenge of the universality of knowledge has been dominant since the 1960's.Where the rebellion against universalism has turned into a celebration of difference, and to the dominance of a post-modernism and systematic rejection of objective knowledge, and where only through subjectivity could understanding be established, according to the worldview of the instrumentalists, relativists and particularisms. Where this also takes the form of claims of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism; where various groups have laid claims to being the only authorities that can write about their own histories. Where the rationalism of the enlightenment is rejected as biased and a 'male logic’, and that truths can only be found via the subjective experience; this is the perverse, dumbed down world that we live in at the moment, where theorising and contemplation are therefore rejected. Yet the gifts of detachment and objectivity - of a distance between topic and observer - gives a far more valid, complete and accurate, holistic picture of the particular topic in question, rather than from the position of an observer who is deeply rooted and subjectively biased and related to the topic in question. These instrumentalist, relativist, and especially the particularism world-views are the most absurd and are to be rejected outright.

For being white or black, male or female, left wing or right wing, Democrat or Republican does not give one a unique access to a special experience or set of truths; these claims can only be considered as false where the holistic truth is excluded in any assumption. The intellectual and contemplative life, the pursuit of truth and knowledge have been mostly abandoned in our modern world. Across the world, nations and sections of society are in constant conflict and diametrically opposed to each other, where the supposed infallibility of their ideas and knowledge are based upon a subjective concrete idea of identity and the self; the working and middle classes against the elite, the dislocation between what the media thinks is important and true as compared to the common man in the street, various religions and philosophies around the world who are diametrically opposed to each other in a violent theological apocalyptic battle to the end to prove which religious illusion is the more correct, nations and their alliances opposed in a struggle for supremacy, capitalists versus socialists, and it goes on.

Only when humanity transcends ideological differences and enmities do we stand a chance of uniting together to solve our problems; war, conflict, famine, religious strife and the destruction of our environment. It is only when we go back to an individual level to examine and challenge the illusion of identify and the self can we therefore expand our knowledge and encompass a greater wisdom, for only then might we stand a chance at grappling with some of our Sisyphean challenges. Yet here alas, we are at the mercy of our mammalian instincts and biology, and this ironically might be the biggest impediment in our ability to transcend and reach something higher, our very own humanity. The very thing that is our biggest hope in the end is also the greatest contradiction, the duality of our human condition. I think the Scottish writer Robert Louise Stevenson summed up the contradiction and duality of the human condition in his novel 'The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' when he stated; "With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” [2]



1. Written for the Jungkaufmann February 29, 1952 and included in Einstein's book 'Ideas and Opinions.'

2. The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Chapter 10,P104. Robert Louis Stevenson.



With two digital drawings (cover + article) from Nikos Laios


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