False Personhood

*This is a personal reflection on the topic of phenomenology, i.e. the philosophy of consciousness. It is not meant to be logically rigorous by any means.*

Fundamentally, nobody cares about you. And this is not a particular statement about you the reader, it is simply a restatement of the obvious truth, that it is impossible for others to care about you —you in the sense that encapsulates your conscious awareness, your deliberate thoughts, separate from the objective you that appears and behaves in this world. The latter is the extent to which others can perceive you, the former locked away in the depths of your skull. When others pass a judgement on you, it is not on your subjective, deliberate self, but rather your objective, external self.

This is an important point of differentiation because the objective you contains far too elements outside your control, from your personality to your inherited genes, from your inculcated habits to your reflexes. Every human that has integrated themselves to the presence of others, to society, has learned to accept their lot, which are assigned to them through complete and blind randomness. The mistake however, is in confusing one’s evaluation of one’s subjective self with one’s objective self. You are neither ugly nor pretty, that characterization only exists to describe an objective part of you bestowed upon you without your input, constituting a has-a relationship rather than an is-a relationship. In other words, in the metaphorical house of your conscious self, your inherited features and tendencies are merely gifts of your guests, and a good host knows not to take personally what was given without ill intent, in fact, without any intent — in the case that the guests are nature and luck — disparate as it may to one’s tastes.

How does one conduct oneself in the face of such realization? Should we resign ourselves to defeated acceptance if we are bestowed an undesirable lot in life, be it family, relationships, work, inner tendencies, physique, all of which defines the facets of our objective selves, or do the opposite? Revisiting our formulation of a subjective self, separate from the objective self, on what basis does the former have any burden or responsibility at all on the well-being of the latter? The subjective self is a prisoner of the objective self, does it not have every right to rebel against this entrapment and conduct itself in supreme indifference?

Let us take a closer relationship between the subjective and objective selves. Who gets to say whether they are different entities to begin with? Modern neuroscience has made increasingly apparent that consciousness is nothing but an emergent property of neural firing, implying that our physical brain and conscious minds are but two sides of the same coin. But this is irrelevant to our discussion, for we are debating the nature of experience, not of existence. When you are happy, you are not the one controlling your happiness, you merely exist to perceive it. In this apparent duality of control and causation, we delineate the boundaries of the subjective (perceiving; reactive) and objective (automatic) selves. They may very well share the same physical root, but insofar that one cannot will oneself to be happy and content, they are distinct.

With this definition, we can analyze with greater clarity the interaction between these two selves. The foremost question one can ask is whether one is subject to the other. Is our subjective self nothing but a slave to our objective self? This question serves to reveal the contradiction of our conventional thinking about self, because it implies that both selves engage in power dynamics. We imagine a set up where both selves are in constant competition in one another, “higher ideals” fighting over “lower urges”. Developing instead from the first principles of the reactive-automatic dichotomy, we offer a simpler formulation of selves: the subjective self is the part of self that does not will, and the objective self is that which wills. This self has neither moral inclinations, aspirations nor desires of any kind. And it is this self that you have true, undisputed control over.

It is important to dwell on this point because here we make an almost heretical claim that the conscious self has no will of any kind. As Schopenhauer famously said, “A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills”. But, what is the point of giving the man the freedom to will, if we are to take away his freedom to decide his will? Is this not just kicking the ball down to the next post? It also runs head-on with Sartre’s freedom of the will, for he did not expound on the source of will. How free can an individual truly be, if he cannot dictate his will, but is merely emboldened to act on it?

In contrast, we offer a version of conscious self that is truly free — not free to will, but free from will. The conscious or subjective self is nothing but a vizier of the objective self, and acts so with no ulterior motive nor wish of any kind. In other words, the subjective self serves to choose without being accountable to what is chosen. It does not have to act in a manner that is conducive to the objective self at all. The actualization of the subjective self comes from realizing its detachment from the objective self or its many wills, which the subjective self can be said to have, but not is. You may have passion for certain someone or something, but to describe yourself as being passionate is to unwittingly claim creatorship over what is gifted to you, and along with it, false responsibility. Fundamentally, we have control neither of our will nor our circumstances, and therefore, we (our subjective selves) are acquitted of any burden in this automatic world. As a member of society, your objective self bears the responsibility to be an integral, cohesive whole, but your subjective self has never been a party to this contract, thus it is free to act independently of any law or reason. In that sense, the subjective self is the supreme irrational.

What then belongs to the regime of the subjective? With the removal of will from the domain of the subjective, we arrive at the only thing that truly and fully within our conscious control— reaction to the will. For instance, let’s say you are to read the statement “do not think about a pink elephant”, you may instinctively think of a pink elephant, and that is an example of an automatic response. However, you have the freedom to then reclaim control and change the color of this elephant to whatever you wish in your mind, and that is an example of the deliberation of attention which the subjective self can exert. Reaction to the will must be fundamentally detached from will itself, and cannot be influenced by it, in a sense it must be neutral and dispassionate. This neutral, dispassionate part is the subjective self, and is the only component of which you dictate. Anything else, from your sensations, gut reaction, to your calling, personality, is automatic.

A feature worth considering about the subjective self is that while is free to act, it is not free to be. Its presence is determined solely by the objective self, just as the role of a vizier is at the sole discretion of the ruler. Many speak about “losing themselves” in the midst of an intense sport, or after recreational drug use, indicating that it is very possible for the subjective self to be banished at any moment. Through its conscious effort however, the subjective self can seek to solidify its presence. In Buddhism, a state of enlightenment is said to be reached when one becomes unconditioned (asankhata). This individual does not want, he simply acts. This is nothing but a subjective self that has earned great allotment from its objective counterpart, achieved through prolonged efforts of contemplation and practice. Bringing our reasoning to its furthest, this individual will not see this transformation as victory over oneself, because in his mind, the concept of rightdoing and wrongdoing simply ceases to exist.

The conception of the subjective self that we have thus arrived at is one that is free from characterization, will and responsibility. It does not strive to be anything, and realizes that it does not bear responsibility for its being. When one embraces this essence, his subjective self sits at ease with Nature itself to play a lifelong game of action and reaction that neither can lose.



Casual thinker, serious procrastinator, trying to understand phenomena of life through different lenses of philosophy and science.

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Casual thinker, serious procrastinator, trying to understand phenomena of life through different lenses of philosophy and science.