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What do we mean when we say "I" ? - Philosophical Notes, The Independent
Is Reality Objective ? - Article written for bol.com

What do we mean when we say "I"? The Independent

We all think we know what we mean when we say "I". In fact, it is a word that cloaks the most hotly debated topic in the related fields of philosophy and neuroscience.

Our commonsense view is that "I" am in my brain inside my skull, looking out at the world through the windows of my senses. But where is the I" in our brains? Even if it could be located physically, and it can't, it would remain a conceptual problem. We imagine the "I" to be a kind of "central thinker" serving as a focal point for the neural firings going on throughout the brain at all times. It takes only brief reflection to realize that such a notion leads to an impossibly infinite regression: where is the central thinker inside the central thinker, and so on?

A few years ago I came across a book with the provocative title "Thoughts Without A Thinker". It was written by a psychoanalyst who was also a Buddhist - a philosophy which contrasts the Western concept of a self born into the world with the Eastern idea of a self born out of it, as plants or trees grow out of the earth. The distinction doesn't do away with the self, a sense of "I", but it urges us to integrate it with our surroundings and not set it up in opposition to them, with all the neurotic stress that entails.

Some Western philosophers, however, have launched a far more fundamental attack on the "I". According to them, it simply doesn't exist. At best, it is a useful fiction serving as "a narrative focal point" in the midst of the brain's ceaseless activity. The idea of a self existing permanently in its own right is scornfully dismissed as a hangover from the bad old days of Cartesian dualism, when mind was seen as the "ghost in the machine" of the brain.

The most interesting thing about the whole debate - a remarkably bitter one at times - is that not even the most strident opponents of dualism have succeeded in getting rid of the "I" altogether. The most they have managed is to characterize it as an illusion, though without explaining who is experiencing it.

A degree of circularity in these arguments is inevitable, given that we are dealing with consciousness investigating itself. As consciousness is by definition a subjective phenomenon, the only access each of us has to it is through our own internal sense of "I". Whether that "I" is created by micro-particles rubbing together, or is beamed down from some Platonic realm forever beyond our reach, the only thing we know for sure is that it refuses to go away.

It seems increasingly unlikely that we will reach any real understanding of consciousness without breaking out of the dead ends which both dualism and materialism have run into. If ever we do so, then, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, "It will alter our understanding of the universe as radically as anything has to date".

Meanwhile, the implications of the whole debate for the novelist are profoundly interesting. Novels are capable of being written more directly from the point of view of "I", whether told in the first or third person, than are either plays or films. The reader is given privileged access to someone else's inner life in a way that remains unique. It is unlikely that even perfect virtual reality will achieve more, because it will still be "you" in there responding subjectively to whatever illusions are piped into your consciousness.

As a novelist, you take the reader behind the scenes and into your characters' heads - and try to describe what is going on when they think

Is Reality Objective? Written for bol.com

If not, what is the alternative? That is the question behind The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk.

The story is half a Bond-like thriller, and half a surreal adventure from the worlds of Borges or Bunuel - which is why I've partially lifted the title, though with a significant change in spelling, of Bunuel's film masterpiece.

Charlie Monk is a special agent-cum-assassin working for a very shadowy authority which, if only because it operates at so high a level, we assume is part of the government. He is a classic action hero, not much given to introspection, but possessing a certain decency and sometimes surprising sensibility. He is, for example, a talented abstract painter. But there are things in his life that don't quite add up. Certain gaps in his memory trouble him. And certain things he remembers leave questions that trouble him even more - such as what happened to Kathy, the only girl he ever loved.

Dr Susan Flemyng is a brilliant neurologist working on the restoration of memory in brain-damaged patients. She is ruthlessly blackmailed by the people behind Charlie into working on his memory problem. From here on, her world and Charlie's begin to dovetail, but in a strange and ambiguous way. The question arises as to whether only one of those worlds is real, and the other a combination of virtual reality and genetic meddling.

Or are both worlds real, but radically different in a way that only becomes clear much later in the story? And, after that, are they compatible? Will she and Charlie ever really connect? Does anybody? Stephen Hawking has described solipsism - the view that the self is all that exists and can be known - as "a waste of time". He is right, of course - because even if it's true and nothing exists but "me" and "I" have imagined the universe, it makes no difference. As Susan says to Charlie at one point, though in circumstances so unusual that you would have to read the book to understand them, "We can't prove it either way. And in the end it doesn't matter, because the things we experience are the same whether they're coming to us or coming from us. They're there, and that's all that matters".

But is that really enough, even though it makes sense intellectually? Don't we all want to feel that we're part of something bigger? Even though we experience everything personally and therefore separately, it still matters to us that others are having a similar personal and separate experience, and that "I" am not alone.

Over two thousand years ago the Chinese sage, Chuang Tzu, said, "I dreamt I was a butterfly, and didn't know when I awoke if I was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who now dreamt he was a man". That remains a deep human dilemma. It is also Charlie's story.


I don’t suppose anybody can remember the first coincidence that ever happened to them. It’s a phenomenon we take for granted, like the weather. A friend telephones as you’re about to call them. You bump into some stranger who knows your cousin on the far side of the world. You have an amazing run of luck - which, after all, is just a chain of coincidences - at some game of chance.

There is something called “the library angel” known to all writers and students. It refers to the way in which, when you start to research some particular subject, relevant books and information sometimes seem to fall into your lap as if by magic. Another experience, common to everyone, not just writers, is of coming across some new and rather obscure word, then finding it being so widely used over the next few days that you can’t believe you hadn’t known it before.

A coincidence can be trivial, in fact usually is. Even so, it can change your life - like the woman who picked up a phone and got a crossed line, and found herself listening to her husband calling his mistress from the office.

There is no explanation for such things, and most people would probably say no need for one. But sometimes the sheer scale of the events and personalities involved demands one.

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1847, John F. Kennedy in 1947. The names Lincoln and Kennedy both contain seven letters. The wife of each president lost a son while she was first lady. Both presidents were shot in the head from behind on a Friday while sitting beside their wives; both were succeeded by a southerner named Johnson, and the two Johnsons were born a hundred years apart. Both their killers were themselves killed before they could be brought to justice. The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald both contain fifteen letters. Booth was born in 1839, Oswald in 1939. Lincoln had a secretary called Kennedy; Kennedy a secretary called Lincoln. Lincoln was killed in the Ford Theatre; Kennedy was killed in a Ford Lincoln.

This famous list of coincidences has been regularly trashed by rationalist sceptics, who argue that it is merely our need to make sense of our existence that provokes us to seek patterns among random phenomena. And we will always find them. A recent book claiming to discover hidden codes in the Bible has been dismissed on just these grounds. If you have a computer sweep any text in a sufficient number of ways, the argument goes, you will find any number of “hidden messages”. As an example, using this method, one scientists found the assassinations of Indira Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy all predicted, in code, in “Moby Dick”.

Similarly, with the Lincoln-Kennedy parallels, sceptical researchers came up with a remarkable sixteen coincidences between JFK and Mexican President Alvaro Obregon. For example, both “Kennedy” and “Obregon” have seven letters; each was assassinated; both their assassins had three names and died shortly after killing the president; Kennedy and Obregon were both married in years ending in 3; each had a son who died shortly after birth; and both came from large families and died in their forties.

Richard Dawkins, that scourge of superstition and wilful obscurantism, debunks his own experience of amazing coincidence in his book, “Unweaving the Rainbow”. When his wife bought her mother an antique watch, she took it home and peeled off the label to find her mother's initials - M.A.B. - already engraved on it. "Uncanny?" Dawkins asks. He does the calculation based on frequencies of names in phone directories and finds that if everyone in Britain bought an antique engraved watch, 3,000 of them would find their mother's initials on it.

Another favourite subject of the debunkers is the coincidence of walking into a room and finding someone who shares your birthdate (not just birthday). It is, however, mathematically inevitable that in any random selection of twenty-three people there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them will share the same birthdate. In a group of forty-one people, that probability rises to 90%. There are no mysterious forces at work here. It is a calculation that anyone, with enough maths, can do for themselves.

So what is one to believe? Like all questions of belief, the answer is as much a matter of subjectivity and emotion as of reason or logic. Like everyone, I myself have experienced remarkable coincidences. For example, several years ago I was writing a novel called “Superstition”. Every couple of days, in some idle moment, I would check “Document Information” which tells you how many words you’ve written so far, how many lines and paragraphs, average word length, and so on. Among this data is the average number of words you are writing per sentence.

I found that I was consistently writing an average of 13 words per sentence. I thought maybe I always wrote 13 words per sentence; I found it hard to believe I was doing it only now, unconsciously, because I was writing a novel called “Superstition”. But when I checked the manuscripts of other novels and stories of mine. I found my average was 14 to 16 words per sentence, never 13.

Much earlier, before I had begun really writing the novel, I had sold the films rights on the strength of a 13-page outline. It was a quite unintentional length; it just worked out that way. I do not recall consciously registering the moment at which the deal was struck. However, I saw in my diary shortly afterwards that it had happened on the afternoon of Tuesday the 13th of February, 1996.

The producers of the film asked me to meet them at the Cannes Festival in 1997. The only day we could all manage turned out to be Tuesday the 13th of May.

In June they flew me out to L.A. for further meetings. Still nobody was actively thinking “thirteen”. I arrived on the 8th, planning to fly on to New York to see the American publishers of “Superstition” the following Friday - which turned out to be the 13th of June.

While in L.A. I picked up from my agent a copy of the fully executed contract. The covering letter from the agency’s legal department was dated the 13th of May - coincidentally the same day on which I had lunched with the producers in Cannes.

During the summer I found myself finishing the screenplay version to a deadline. The reasons for this deadline don’t matter. The point is that I had to get the finished draft in as soon as possible. With every incentive to make it earlier, I didn’t manage it before October 13th.

In February 1998 I had to have a meeting with my London publishers to discuss the paperback edition of the book. The only date on which it turned out that everyone could be there was Friday the 13th of February.

At some point after the 13th of October, 1997, when I handed in my script, the producers had hired another screenwriter do some work on it (a perfectly usual procedure). What wasn’t so usual, in the circumstances, was that this writer’s re-write of my script reached me by special delivery on Friday, March 13th, 1998.

It’s silly, really, but it just goes on, and to no apparent point. If we had been making this happen even half consciously, we would surely have published the book on the 13th. As it was, it came out on the 10th of July. However, my editor and I weren’t able to have our planned celebratory lunch on that day, so it had to be moved to the following Monday. Which was the 13th.

Lastly, I was on various radio and TV shows during the week of publication. Nobody gave any thought to the actual number of shows. It was, as always, just a question of getting on as many as possible. At the end of the week, when I glanced through my schedule and counted up the number of broadcasts I’d done, I saw it was thirteen.

It was C.G. Jung, working with the physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Paul, who gave this phenomenon the name “synchronicity”. In 1952 they published a treatise called: “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting principle”.

Surprisingly, there is still no mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that these two remarkable men, despite being treated at length individually, ever knew each other. You will search the index in vain for any mention of synchronicity. In fact you will search pretty much the whole of scientific literature without success.

Twenty years ago the Concise Oxford Dictionary didn’t list the word either. Now it does, defining it as: “The simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible connection”.

Jung gives an example of synchronicity in his practice as a psychoanalyst.

“ A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.”

Up till that time, Jung writes, the woman had refused to believe that her dreams could be important in resolving her psychological problems. She could not see the connection. Now she understood how all kinds of connections might exist, and how they would explain a great many things if they did. She recovered quickly.

One understands the reluctance of sceptics to accept such a concept as scientific. It is not something that can be analysed and broken down into its component parts. This “reductionist” approach is still, fundamentally, how we define scientific understanding. The problem is that these component parts also have a tendency to break down.

For example, the atom has turned out to be mostly space, and sub-atomic particles such as the electron and the photon are described as existing in a probabilistic limbo of many possible superimposed states - until forced into a single state by an act of observation. Thus, consciousness itself has become an integral part of any comprehensive definition of reality. As one distinguished science writer has put it, “When we peer down into the deepest recesses of matter or at the farthest edge of the universe, we see, finally, our own puzzled faces looking back at us.”

So what does this strange synergy of mind and matter tell us about coincidence? That we make coincidences happen in some way? That we think them into existence?

It seems extreme. Yet John Wheeler, one of the most distinguished physicists of the twentieth century, the man who coined the term “Black Holes”, has said, “I do take 100% seriously the idea that the world is a figment of the imagination.” He has also famously said, “There is no ‘out there’ out there.”

Jung wrote: “We delude ourselves with the thought that we know much more about matter than about a ‘metaphysical’ mind or spirit, and so we overestimate material causation and believe that it alone affords us a true explanation of life. But matter is just as inscrutable as mind.”

In other words, mind and matter are one. Back in the twenties and thirties, when quantum physics was revolutionising our vision of reality, cosmologists like James Jeans and Arthur Eddington were saying such things as, “The stuff of the world is mind stuff“; and, “The universe looks less and less like a great machine and more and more like a great thought”.

How much substance, we may wonder, has a thought?

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