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September 2005

Who are you?

The question “Who are you?” is one of those fundamental questions that is intimidating and almost unanswerable. It can mean so many different things, depending upon the desire of the person asking. Thus the questioner might be asking:

Please place yourself in the structured schema that I use to describe society and the world around me. In other words, give me a series of tags that I can use to categorize you.
The answer to such a demand needs must depend upon the categories and tags that the questioner recognizes. Fortunately there are a large series of such tags that are commonly and conventionally recognized. Thus the categories of nationality, ethnic origin, gender, occupation, income, place of residence, marital status, hobbies and interests, religion, and political affiliation.

An answer in terms of these tags often suffices to satisfy the questioner because we all of us carry with mental schemas, lists of default assumptions about persons bearing said tags. This is a practical necessity – we cannot know everyone in intimate detail. These assumptions are only defaults; each individual represents an exception to the defaults in some respects.

This form of the question is more of a “What are you?” than a “Who are you?” – that is, it reduces the person to a list of attributes.

There is another meaning that the question might take, on the lines of “What is your essential self?”, there being an implicit assumption that people have essential selves. As an example of this kind of question I will quote from the book, Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. The female protagonist, Jenny Waynest, is addressing the supporting character, Gareth:

… “Who are you, Gareth of Magloshaldon?”

He started at that, and for an instant she saw fright and guilt in his gray eyes. He stammered, “I – I’m Gareth of – of Magloshaldon. It’s a province of Bemaire…”

Her eyes sought his and held them in the gray shadows of the trees. “And if you weren’t not of that province, would you still be Gareth?”

“Er – yes. Of course. I …”

“And if you were not Gareth?” she pressed him, holding his gaze and mind locked with her own. “Would you still be you? If you were crippled, or old – if you became a leper, or lost your manhood – who would you be then?”

“I don’t know -”

“You know.”

An irony in this passage is that Gareth, at that point, is travelling under a false identity.

The passage (and the book) presumes one of the great answers to the question of identity, which is that we have an inner essence which defines our self, the various attributes being trappings like the clothes we wear.

There is an old story that purports to explain the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy. It seems that in Europe there was a mountain much favored by persons who seek true wisdom in contemplation. At the time of our story a famous master of wisdom dwelt on the mountain. One day a would-be disciple made his way to the master’s hermitage and asked:

Oh, Master, What is the Answer?
To which the master replied:
What is the Question?
As it happens, in Asia there also was a mountain also favored by persons who seek true wisdom in contemplation. At the time of our story it too was home to a famous master of wisdom. One day a would-be disciple made his way to the master’s hermitage and asked:
Oh, Master, What is the Answer?
To which the master replied:
Who is asking?
Each master, perhaps, is addressing the dictum, Know thyself. The Western master was teaching that one has to cut through the confusions and discern what one is really about, what one’s needs really are, what question one is really asking. The Western master does not question the existence of the self; rather he demanded of the disciple that the disciple correct his ignorance of his self.

The Eastern master’s teaching was somewhat different; he taught that the self that the disciple was conscious of was an illusion compounded of identification of self with attributes and desires. He demanded of the disciple that he cut through the illusion of self, that he discover who he was.

The Western master (and Western philosophy and religion) seem to be definitely on the side of an essential self, commonly called a soul. The Eastern master’s position is more ambiguous. The enlightened ones who have cut through all illusion report back that the attempt to verbalize the tao is illusion.

Another answer is that there is no essential self, that we are like onions from which you can remove layer after layer without ever arriving at an essence, an inner core. This model corresponds to the common perception of introspection, in which one can endlessly question what one “really” means and what one “really” thinks. Perhaps it is this endless search for motive behind motive and meaning behind meaning that the Eastern master calls illusion.

Another theory, one that is popular among cognitive psychologists and artificial intelligence theorists, is that the mind is a collection of modules (mental capabilities) bound together, that our self is really a community of selves of different types. Our perception of self is an illusion (though not of the kind the Eastern master means) constructed by collaborating selves.

It is not that simple though; there are definite diseases of perception of self. There are people who perceive themselves as having no self and people who have fragmented or multiple personalities. Then there are people who perceive that the selves of others are missing, like the young man who felt that his mother had disappeared, that her body had been taken over by a robot that acted just like her.

The fictional theologian, “Bull” Morris, claimed that we wear masks and that the masks become part of our selves. It is always difficult to make sense of “Bull” Morris; his dicta are more dogmatic than clear, and it is just when they are the clearest that they are the most confusing.

Still he seems to be saying that our selves are composite rather than elemental, and that appearances can become part of the composition. This is all very well, but it leaves the issue of identity on the table. The ancient Greeks were fond of paradoxes of identity.

Thus consider a ship that has had every rope, every spar, every board replaced over time so that there is no original component left. Is it the same ship? If you say yes because it still has the same shape and configuration then consider this:

Over time the owners of the ship have reworked it and redesigned it, replacing the oars by sails, one type of rudder by another, added a deck, and so on, until nothing is quite the same as it was before and nothing has quite the same function as it did before. Is it still the same ship? If you say yes because it has the same purpose (it is a ship) and continuity of existence then consider this:

The owners, tired of the seafaring life, beach the ship and convert it into an inn. They cut a door in the side, add seats in a common area, and use pieces of nautical gear as decoration. Is it still the same ship? If you say yes because it is still recognizably a ship then consider this:

The owners do well with their inn. Over time they add additions and remove the cumbersome bits of ship until eventually nothing whatsoever is left of the original lumber and parts, and indeed nothing of the original configuration. In short every vestige of the ship is gone save its name, and then even that is changed? Is the ship now gone?

Some would say no, it is not, in that it is part of the history of the new inn. Similarly our past selves are neither truly gone nor truly present. Reality’s memory always hold traces of the past, but those traces are not complete – memory fades and the past fades with it. Identity is not preserved over time, only the semblence of identity.

Thus it is, so some would say, that “Who were you?” and “Who are you?” are different questions with different answers. Indeed, some would say that a true answer to “Who are you?” is impossible because by the time you answer the question you are no longer quite the person who was asked the question.

Even our physical identity is ambiguous. Our bodies are constantly being reworked. I have read that on average every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. I won’t testify to the truth of this but it seems clear that our physical identity changes over time.

Modern science has found a basis for our physical identity in the DNA molecule. Each of us (except for identical twins) has our own individual version of DNA, the molecule of heredity. We have become accustomed to parentage being determined by DNA analysis and crimes solved by identifying DNA traces left behind by perpetrators. Doesn’t DNA give us an invariant identity?

Apparently not. To begin with, our bodies contain a substantial quantity of bacteria. If I recall correctly, ten percent of our bodies by weight are bacteria. If so, bacteria comprise a significant fraction of our physical self.

Bacteria, however, are resident aliens, guest workers. They aren’t part of our genetic system. Surely our cells are our own, i.e., they all have our DNA. Yes and no.

The bond between mother and child is not just a matter of hormones; they share genomes as well. The mother and the fetus coexist. Cells from the fetus find their way into the mother and vice versa. Nowadays the determination of a fetus’s gender can be done by examining a sample of the mother’s blood. This sharing does not end with birth; for many years afterwards mothers carry bits of their children within them and children bear bits of their mother.

It goes beyond that; some of us are genuine chimeras, composites of two genetically distinct individuals. The New Scientist (vol 180 issue 2421 – 15 November 2003, page 34) has a fascinating article called The stranger within. A copy of the article can be found at http://www.katewerk.com/chimera.html. The centerpiece of the article is the strange case of “Jane”. Jane needed a kidney transplant. Her family underwent blood tests to see if any of them would make a suitable donor.

The results were startling. According to the tests two of her three sons could not be hers, even though she conceived them naturally with her husband. How could this be?

Margot Kruskall, a doctor at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts was tasked with solving the mystery. Eventually her team figured out that “Jane is a chimera, a mixture of two individuals – non-identical twin sisters – who fused in the womb and grew into a single body. Some parts of her are derived from one twin, others from the other.”

What a DNA test would show depended on what part of her body the samples were taken from. The cells in her blood stream were dominated by one of the “twins” whereas the eggs in her ovary came from both “twins”.

Chimeras are rare but apparently more common than has been realized. For the most part chimeras simply are never recognized. Sometimes the results are exotic:

And the fact that embryos are in close contact in the lab dish or when transferred to the womb may encourage them to fuse, according to a report by a team at the University of Edinburgh, UK. In 1998, they reported a case of a chimeric IVF baby who resulted from the accidental fusion of a male embryo and a female embryo (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 338, p 166). The child was outwardly male, but the left hand side of his internal reproductive system had developed as an ovary and fallopian tube.
There is a book called Where Death Delights, a biography of a New York city chief medical examiner. In the course of his career he performed an absurd number of autopsies, some 45,000 if I recall correctly. One of his cases which I have quoted from time to time, was the autopsy an adult male, father of several children, who, unbeknownst to the man, had an ovary and fallopian tube. Perhaps he, too, was a chimera. It is a strange old world we live in, a world filled with strangers, and some of us are stranger than others.

So: Who are you?

This page was last updated September 1, 2005.

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Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2005!