Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Existential Questions: Who Am I? What Am I? What is the world and how did it come to be? Why do humans exist?

Upon birth, we must suppose that an infant faces a physical reality which is totally incomprehensible to him or her. Instinctive reactions, born of evolution’s long history, govern a baby’s behavior. As the neurons of the brain interweave themselves and make connections (while pruning back others), the earliest self-awareness an infant/toddler has begins to emerge. An “I” is beginning to take shape, the sense of being an object differentiated from other objects, a feeling of being connected by the senses to the outside world. So the initial existential question we face is, in my view, What am I? Children tend to quickly learn some variation of an answer to this question: I am a baby, I am baby boy or baby girl, I am something which belongs to mommy or daddy, I am someone who has needs. Young children just learning to speak are often excited to see other very young children, and will often exclaim, “Baby!”, upon seeing them. This recognition of others is a crucial part of personality formation and categorization. There are big people; there are little people. The earliest memories, usually from around the age of 3, indicate (in my view) a stage in the development of the self, and a new step toward defining the “What am I” question.

All throughout life, as roles are acquired and membership in various groups is understood, and assimilated into a person’s consciousness, the answers to What am I grow increasingly elaborate and complex. All sorts of categories now seem applicable: member of a family, member of a neighborhood, member of a school, member of a town, member of a nation, and so on. The answers to the question “What am I” form crucial aspects of an individual’s identity. By identity, I mean the association of the “I”, the self, with various definitions which seem to be congruent with experience. “What am I” continues to be asked (either consciously or unconsciously) all through life. Answers can include, “a child”, “a teenager”, “an adult”, “an employee”, “an old person”, and, if there is sufficient lucidity near the end of one’s life, “a dying person”. In a sense, What am I is the ultimate, primal, permanent question of life, one that follows us from birth all the way to the moment of death.

Who am I? is a variation on What am I?. The various definitions associated with the self, combined with an individual’s unique experiences and genetic predispositions, form a biographical narrative in a human brain (assuming the person in question is of adequate intelligence). This narrative is strengthened by the possession of a name, a ready identifier which becomes indelibly linked to us.  We say, in various ways, “I am [name]. I have a story that is mine alone. I have my own set of characteristics and ways of seeing the world. No one else is me. I live inside of myself, and I know my story better than anyone. Things have happened to me. I have done things. I have thought and felt things. I will be me for the rest of my life.” An individual human might change the definition of Who am I several times over a lifetime. And some people never quite get a handle on it. The answers to the question, Who am I can be vague, somewhat shapeless, indefinite, and malleable, as a human’s life unfolds and follows often unexpected paths. Answers to this fundamental existential question can change under the pressures of new circumstances, dramatic personal events (especially crises), and new, age-related perspectives.

As a person more and more coherently defines himself or herself as a kind of living being existing in a definite kind of world, questions tend to arise about the nature of that world and how humans came to be in it. The overwhelming majority of humans are taught answers to these questions by the adults in their culture, adults who have absorbed cultural traditions that are centuries or even millennia old. The dominant mythology of a given society is usually learned at a young age, and it can be remarkably difficult to dislodge from a person’s consciousness. The root of this difficulty, many times, is the fact that this mythology has been imparted by respected and beloved elders. Further, this mythology is generally learned when the brain is at or near its peak ability to learn. Mythology is also tenacious because of its strong emotional components, especially ones which exalt the group of which a child is a part. Cognitive dissonance can occur when cherished mythology is exposed to empirically-based scrutiny, and the mythology’s contradictions, illogical aspects, and  general explanatory flaws are exposed.

The questions of what the world is, how it came to be, and how humans came to be form the core of a human’s mental picture of himself in relation to the Universe, and his relationship to a hypothesized Divine Creator (or creative force) who is ultimately believed to be responsible for bringing that Universe, and by extension the human himself, into existence. The answers embraced by a human to this set of questions tell us, in many ways, a person’s opinion of herself and the others with whom she lives. Many humans prefer answers to these questions that tend to reaffirm their sense of being important in the scheme of things. It is this comforting belief in human centrality that is most brutally challenged by the facts of our utter spatial and temporal insignificance.

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