Identity and I-dentity

  • Posted on August 31, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Show me your ID.

It is hugely important these days to have your ID. Maybe you look younger than you are and you can’t be served alcohol. Perhaps you can’t get into a building without it. Or you are stopped for any reason and someone in authority demands your ID. It isn’t just your passport anymore, it instead has become something more important than your word, or your name. You have become an entity, you have become a thing. A thing that has more substance than you, where it matters. Without it you are not what you say. You have become a singularity that cannot exist, nor cease to exist, separately from your ID.

It was Descartes who declared: ‘I think, therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum). This is the Western philosophy of individualism, by which we are separated, even isolated from each other in the ultimate loneliness of the spirit creature answerable only to some god. Most world religions are based around the individual as one accountable to a deity for every action or inaction. We sense that loneliness in facing life and in facing death, and this feeling is exacerbated by beliefs about good acts deserving future reward and bad acts deserving future punishment. Accountability amongst ourselves and agreeing rules in one thing, but the urge to have absolute rules and absolute authority to decide what is good and what is bad brings more guilt than it brings inner peace. And yet, surely, we all have a sense of self long before we are troubled by whether we have a sense of a deity or supreme invisible being, let alone one that is concerned with our daily thoughts and doings.

I am interested in this sense of self, and whether or how it relates to a sense of identity, and then whether this sense has meaning in our personal philosophy (and most of us at least adopt some convenient philosophy to get us by in life, even if we don’t bother to develop and grow one for ourselves). In recent years I have been confronted by many different ideas about gender identity: what it is, whether it is essential (unchanging) or fluid, innate or socialised. And gender identity is but one aspect of how we feel about ourselves, and perhaps not even the most important. Nevertheless, our bodies substantiate some sense of identity, because our bodies move around freely and separately from other bodies (if we can simply agree to the exceptions, you understand what I mean). So it is reasonable to describe ourselves as individuals. Consequently, we create narratives, files and records that identify these distinctive lives. Only now we can wrap each up in a code for easy access, and thus our identities have become externalised and mechanised. Even our DNA, and possibly our entire genome, can be attached as a file to this code, giving a more permanent and definitive identity than we have ever had before. Is the individual still a person, or an entity, a thing? And who creates identity: the ‘administration’, or the individual – and who has precedence?

It sounds like I rub roughly against this aspect of society and against religion? Well, I do. I can see how they develop and why; everything seems quite reasonable – except for the outcome. Ultimately, I think religion has done us more harm as a species with ‘civilisation’ at its heart, than it has done us good. It has created absolute systems out of nothing, that differ and disagree, and thus as absolutes cause lasting conflicts. Further, our philosophies have been developed out of religion as much as from anything else. To survive religious authorities, the past great philosophers have in the main had to frame their thoughts within accepted religious dictat. Descartes, not least, spent much time and effort in proving the existence of (a) god. How can a philosophical development have meaning when it is constrained by prior beliefs that maintain an independent absolute authority? Scientific method (itself a philosophy) struggles to this day against fundamentalist (or simply conservative) religious belief, as if the latter was as reasoned and reasonable. We must be free to observe, and remain open to consideration of from where our interpretations derive, if we are to be enquiring and intelligent creatures. We also can only observe with limited senses and scope, and must always keep that in mind. We do not, and cannot, see the whole, when the whole is not in ‘sight’ and ‘sight’ is our only, limited, sense.

For this reason, I want to think aloud in this blog about what identity is, and what it means to say ‘I’.

Aspects I would like to cover include:

  • the identity (separability) of anything, including subatomic particles, or even electromagnetic vibration, since that is the nature, the sole content, of everything we express as ‘existing’.
  • the identity of a living cell, its possible evolution, stem cells, regeneration, and why identity and DNA seem so important.
  • the concept of identity within mosaicism and chimerism, and why this may matter to any of us, and phenomena such as personality changes following transplant, and concepts such as the fluid genome.
  • so far as I can begin to understand it, the idea of implicate and explicate order, as descriptions of how things are (David Bohm).
  • how separate anything is when we do not name anything, and thus, whether it is we who create this individualistic identity by which we increasingly live.

These are big ideas, and all I can do is poke a stick at them and see what stirs. But given the importance of ‘identity’ in the history of this blog, I think it’s worth a go over coming weeks.


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