His grandfather had now received solemn dispensation from his interim stage and had finally returned to the form appropriate to him—an event of which [Hans] could only approve.
– Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
“How are you?” is often used as a filler in conversation, and it’s an extremely versatile question, but lately it’s been giving me trouble. It can mean: “How are you feeling?” “What have you been doing lately?” “Where are you headed?” and sometimes it’s just something we say after “hello” as a pleasantry. The sense that I’ve gotten stuck on is when the emphasis is placed on the verb, “How are you?” and I interpret it literally.
How do I exist in the world? This is a different question from, “How did I come to exist,” it asks instead about my present state of being. And since the question of sustaining my existence is derived from that one about its origin, the sense of the question I’m really driving at is, “How am I coming off as existing in the world? What could I point to that demonstrates my existence? What does it mean, to me, to be, and am I being that right now?” How am I?
In the past, when I’ve considered the definition of my existence, I’ve found comfort in Descartes’ Meditations, which assert that I am a thinking thing—a rational entity—and my existence exists primarily as my contemplation of it. If I closed my eyes and pretended like all of my senses were giving me false data—my body was nothing like the one I inhabit, the world around me was completely different than the one I knew, nothing I could smell or taste or touch was real,—I would still be left with an irrefutable sense of self, of a person who was considering the reality of these perceptions.
This “self” is a persistent identity we assign to our unique collection of thoughts and experiences. Descartes takes a ball of wax and smooshes it into different shapes. It can be a horse, it can be a chair, it can be a flower, or it could be melted into a translucent puddle, but in every case we can still recognize it as the same ball of wax because we have witnessed its changes.
Therefore, he says we exist primarily as rational minds who may or may not also be having a physical experience. Because I did not create myself, there must be others who exist as well, but I could just write off all others under the umbrella category, “God,” and leave it at that. Someone has to be the one who shapes this ball of wax and if my parents exist then so do their parents and eventually I’ll go far enough back into history that there will have to be some kind of intentional primary creator.
But none of this answers the question. Descartes proves that I am, but only to myself. And I kind of already knew that I existed because I was the person asking the question in the first place. The question is how I am. I am by interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of my remembered experiences to make decisions about what to do and/or think. Whether or not the experiences I remembered actually happened (or happened the way I remember them) is immaterial because it is the memories that form the basis for my action, not the experiences themselves. I am an impression I have of what a person like me would do, given the things I’ve done in the past and the decisions that are before me now—at least, to myself.
Despite Cartesian isolationism, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence for the existence of another contemporaneous rational mind, otherwise who’s asking me how I am? It’s certainly not a question I ever pose to myself, I’m too caught up in being me to wonder how it’s happening. And if there’s another rational mind out there then let’s face it, there are probably billions. Billions of people just like me who exist as an impressions of themselves.
So the problem I’ve gotten myself wrapped up in (I should have just said, “I’m fine” and walked away, but we’ve gone too far for that) is that other people have impressions of me, too, just as I have impressions of them. Do I exist solely as my impression of myself, or do I exist primarily as my impression of myself while also existing as others’ impressions of me? How am I, am I independently of others or am I interdependently with them? Am I depending on them?
It was so easy back when other people didn’t exist and it was just me and God playing with a ball of wax. But when other people exist and encounter me, they are also interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of their remembered experience of me to make predictions about what I’ll do and/or think. What if their impression of me differs from my own?
I suppose I could claim seniority and say that their impression must be inaccurate if it differs from mine because I’ve spent every second of my life with myself and am, therefore, the authority on what I’ve done and am likely to do next. For anyone to have comparable experience, they would have to have spent my entire life with me, from the moment I was born.
And even then, I could claim that external presence isn’t the same as internal presence. You can be in the same room as I am, but you can’t know my thoughts unless I’m actively sharing them with you, and even then, I’m thinking at the same time about what I’m saying and what I’m likely to say next. It’s impossible for another person to have as well-informed an opinion about myself as I do—unless there’s more than one. And as I mentioned earlier, if there’s just one other rational being out there, besides God, it implies the existence of billions more.
If there’s a group of people who are around my for the duration of my life, their combined knowledge about the previous circumstances of my mind and body could exceed my own. Even if I claim total mindful self-awareness (which would be a bold-faced lie,) I’ve only known myself for thirty-five years. If I shared a room with four other people during that time, they’d have known me for a hundred years longer than I’ve known myself.
Now this thought experiment is becoming impractical. I already know that no one has shared a room with me my entire life. My sister is the only one who would even come close, and we had separate bedrooms by the time I was six. But consider a murder trial with a “guilty” verdict.
When a defendant who pleads “not guilty” (and believes that to be true) is nonetheless convicted of murder, a group of people deliberated on a collection of remembered experiences, some supported by tangible objects they could encounter directly with their senses, and came to an agreement about what the defendant was likely to do and/or think. Either the defendant misremembered their experiences or an external group of people was able to form more accurate conclusions about their identity. How is a murderer—as an isolated collection of self-impressions, or as a combination of their existence to themselves and their existence toward others? Whether the individual in question thinks of themselves as a murderer or not, they would still be considered one if they murdered someone, right?
In that case, a group of people were able to form a more accurate impression about what an individual might do and/or think than the individual themselves, and they didn’t need a lifetime’s worth of remembered experience with them to do it. They collectively formed an impression by rigorously considering the details of a specific incident.
In a lot of cases, there has to be a special reason for a group of people to pay so much attention to something outside their own total mindful self-awareness, but our social relationships exist entirely as the same phenomenon. We are to our friends their collective impression of us given their remembered experience of us, just as know them by what they’ve done and what they’ve been through. Our families might know us even better since the time we spend with them in early childhood is dense with new experience. None of them need to be with us every second of our lives to know what we’re likely to do and/or think, they just need some remembered experiences with us and a reason to deliberate about them.
Am I more to me, i.e. is my impression of myself more important to my existence than the collective impression others have of me, or am I more to them, and my existence is contingent on their collective impression of me? How am I?
If I were to try to quantify the amounts, the numbers quickly paint a chaotic picture. An average murder trial takes about 3–4 days. Assuming they’re standard eight-hour work days, that’s 24–36 hours that a jury might spend considering the case before them. Twelve jurors yields 288 (or 312) hours of remembered experience to weigh against the defendant’s—again, assuming the defendant believes themselves to be not guilty while the facts of the case incontrovertibly reveal guilt. Collectively, that’s 12-13 full calendar days the jury has been able to consider the facts of the case and arrive at a different conclusion than the defendant.
Maybe the defendant’s self-identity takes priority—after all, they’ve lived however many years of their life prior to this trial, so they handily outnumber the jury’s 13 measly days—but even if that’s the case, we live in a world where numbers just aren’t that small anymore.
Take Natalie Wynn’s Contrapoints video on cancel culture. It’s about a hundred minutes long and had 4,000,000 views by the time of this writing. Whatever interpretation of her identity is accessible via YouTube video amounts to some 6,666,666 collective hours—or, you know, 760 years. If she lived to be one hundred, her viewers’ collective impression of her would still be seven times as long as her entire lifespan. And that’s just one video. She has a dozen more, also with millions of views.
If four million people disagreed with me about who I am, I would have some concerns about how I wasn’t whatever they believed me to be. If one percent of them wrote to refute my account of myself, and they each only offered one page of data, their account would be 10,000 pages long compared to whatever I could write in my defense.
How can I be different from others’ cumulative impressions of me, how can my internal self-perception take precedence in the face of such overwhelming numbers? As much as I fear death, I’m starting to think I might prefer dying in obscurity to being so scrutinized by the minds of history as to no longer determine my own persistent identity. I’ve tried to distance myself from social media because of the addictive behavior it perpetuates, but now I’m thinking I really dodged a bullet by keeping low the number of people who can deliberate on their remembered experiences with me.
A few years back, I began to realize I didn’t have many strong, close, long friendships anymore, and it made me wonder why I prioritize the effort to “know myself” over everything else. Even if I attained complete knowledge of myself, it could mean nothing against the swell of collective impressions and who I am—how I am—could be primarily determined by external impressions of me anyway. There were a lot of ways that who I was didn’t matter when we disagreed because it was their impression of me that determined what would or wouldn’t happened next.
As much as I want to say “I think, therefore I am,” I have to concede that it’s at least mathematically plausible that I am only because I am thought of, and I’m not the only person doing the thinking. I sustain my life and derive my agency from the good graces (or graceful apathy) of other people because if they collectively decided to deprive me of either, I would be completely powerless to stop them. Similarly, if they decided I was someone completely different than who I think I am, I would be completely at their mercy to persist as my version of myself or theirs.
How am I?