The Royal We And The Singular I

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-02-26 13:00:00 No comments

Deric's MindBlog: Our microbiome challenges our concept of self.

Microbiome science has the exciting––the important––potential to catalyze the breakdown of the anachronistic barriers between the natural and the human sciences and enable a truly integrated understanding of what it means to be human, after the illusion of the bounded, individual self. The human is more than the human.

That blurb is rather hyperbolic — the blog post around it less so — but the core idea is worthy of mulling over.

OK. Here's Buddhism while standing on one leg:

Things aren't "things"; they're aggregates, collections. They are not so much things as they are manifestations of interactions. This includes you too, pubby. Many people have trouble accepting this, and so they manufacture all kinds of useless pain for themselves (and often others) struggling with it. If you spend some time getting to know this on a gut level, it won't bother you as much when it smacks you more completely in the face — that is, when you experience suffering in a truly big way, or when your mortal coil finally shuffles on off. Know thyself, schmuck, because you're not a thing, but a process.

[puts leg back down]

We've long understood that there's no singular of anything, us included, except in the sense that it's a handy label used to navigate the mundane functions of the macro-level real world. This "I" typing at you right now is an aggregate, and five minutes from now it's going to be a verrrry slightly different one — not so drastically different that you'd want to put a headstone up (I hope!), but different enough that it matters in however tiny a way.

But for the most part, we live in a world where we don't notice those things, by design. Most of us live in a world where we eat apples and drive cars and read blog posts, and pay no attention to the aggregates behind each of those respective curtains. The person I talked to an hour ago may not actually exist except as the manifestation of a process involving a whole bunch of different things, none of which alone is "them". But it's sure convenient to talk about it that way. The vast majority of us will never live in any other kind of a world, and most of the time it isn't a problem to do so. But in the moments when you really, really need to see the world another way, it really helps.

When I first started studying Buddhism and this concept of "emptiness" or "no-self" — absolutely terrible transliterations of terms that don't imply anything like that, by the way — one thing that I ran across time and again was the idea that, if this is the way things really are, how do we convince others of it? The answer, one that's also come up time and again, is that you can't convince others of it — you have to invite them to participate in the process of getting to know about it on their own terms. Discovering that you too are like this is not something you can strong-arm either yourself or someone else into knowing.

Some time after that, I saw a growing number of articles — serious stuff, not New Age woo — about the way human bodies and minds are very much in the vein of aggregates or active processes, not immutable things with indivisible essences. The above piece is in that vein; it's the idea that we're not just a brain, or a brain and a body, but a brain, a body, and a biosphere, and there's interrelations between all of them that are worthy of study because they probably shape who we are to a great extent.

So now comes my new question: At what point do insights like this stop becoming personal spiritual matters, and start becoming actual science? That part I'm not too sure about, and I think there's no sin in saying "We don't know, but by all means let's find out." I think any future civilization that knows we're not externally singular, but in fact inwardly plural, would need to make this a self-conscious part of its social construction. Maybe it would work that much more to clear spaces for people to go and explore such things on their own terms; maybe it would make such exploration into a sort of social policy.

I just have no idea what that would look like. Yet.

Tags: Buddhism personality philosophy psychology science