A Philosophical Exploration of the Reality of Self

I was in a spirited discussion  the other day regarding the nature of the conscious mind. My friend put forth the proposition (the Lord with prayer) that each day was a fresh start, and that we reinvent our selves (or should) constantly in an attempt to find and be our best selves, whereas I countered with the belief that we are narrative monkey fancypants who need a continuity of self and, while more than the sum of those parts, are in fact rooted to the memories of the past, informed and burdened by all that has gone before. To be fair, I’m making it sound like we were complete stoner nerds who were engaged in navel-contemplation, when, in fact, it was a tad less structured and slightly more respectable than that.

I am willing to concede that memories are ephemeral, and that, like time, at a fundamental level, it is merely a subjective concept, much as free will, or morality. In a sense, we do recreate our selves every day, constantly adrift in the ever-shifting concept of the present. As the past and future are constructs of the conscious mind, the only possible existence is of the present moment, albeit with a small delay for processing, and discounting, of course, all of the heavy editing that our brains engage in to keep us from going mad by sensory overload (such as eliminating our noses from our field of vision or blurring a bunch of still frames played at high speed to create the illusion of witnessable events occurring in “real time”.

If you factor in the predictive software that we are constantly running, allowing us to do simple things such as catch a ball or engage in anything moderately athletic, and it gets even weirder.

What we perceive, then, is not the present, but the amalgamation of events transpiring microseconds in a scatter plot surrounding the now.

Given this, it is my hypothesis that, due to the fact that we are bizarrely evolved apes, we must construct a narrative built of the past, of everything which has transpired (whether or not it actually happened) in order to give ourselves meaning. This is how lessons are learned, progress is made, society is formed, and neuroses are developed.

We are the stories we tell ourselves, be they novels or collections of short stories. Seasons of television with story arcs, or a jumble of episodes held together by a cast of characters and similar settings. We are Westworld or we are Cheers, and there is no spoon.

But is there a middle path, threading the needle between the extremes? Is it possible that there is some common ground between constant reinvention and thralldom to the storied which we tell ourselves? And if there is no spoon, how are we to eat soup or cereal, or even ice cream?

The answer is that we must create the spoon, while understanding that it is but a tool, an artifice of ape-based genius, and not something which exists in its own right.

We must learn to dream lucidly, aware that we are but stories we tell ourselves, both protagonist and author. And while we cannot change what’s come before (even though we do it every day), we can and must interfere with our own narratives from time to time if we are to take control of the trajectories of our own lives.

We are the principles upon which Heisenberg built his uncertainties. My friend knew who she was, and therefore could no longer see the countless possibilities of where it was that she might go, where as I know the arc of the narrative which I’ve come to know as me, and yet have not a clue as to where exactly within it I am now,

This is oversimplification, obviously, for she has hopes and dreams, and has learned from what has come before, while on occasion, I have been known to have some sense of what is going on within me at any given moment.

The fact is that we are neither wholly creatures of the now, nor are we neverending stories that we tell. We are chimeras of subjective reality. We are both the spirit and the flesh. Ghosts in meat sacks, held up by skeletons, fueled by our consumption of the dead. Fine-haired monkeys, crippled by anxiety.

We are who we were and what we choose to be.

So curl up with a good book about yourself, sip your warm evening beverage, and tell yourself a bedtime story about who you’ll be tomorrow.