What are you?

“One of the truly vexing problems of phenomenology is… how is it that one can apprehend the other as subject?”

Although we long for unity, we live in a fractured world. Our life is like someone having to put together a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from a mixture of several different puzzles. Although unity is our true home, we have wandered into a world of duality.

We take for granted that you and me are different and separate beings. This is one duality. But we also take it for granted that me and the world are quit different and distinct. This is another duality.

When you talk to another person, to what are you talking? How do I know that ‘you’ are there? You must ask this question truly for yourself if you are to understand what I say. You must ask it in spite of the enormous difficulty in doing so. I will explain the difficulty later . Because of the difficulty, unfortunately, the question is rarely, if ever asked. This is unfortunate because by dwelling in this question we can open doors to the transcendent in a simple and uncomplicated way.

Let us take an every day occurrence: you and I are sitting in a cafe drinking coffee, chatting about this and that. How do I know that I am talking to you? or, to put the question in a slightly different way, “are you just the body that sits in front of me, or is there ‘something’ more?”

The behaviourist would say, “No, there is nothing more. You are just the body, just matter. You are, it is true, extremely complex, but it is simply because of this complexity that you appear to be something more than the body.” If this is the case, I am talking to neither a being, a person or consciousness. A different response would be given given by those working in the field of computers, even though, paradoxically they also believe that intelligence, sentience, and what we call a person, come from matter which has simply reached a sufficient degree of complexity.

The great British computer scientist, Alan Turing, proposed that if you talk to a machine – really talk to it, carry on a conversation with it just as you would with another [sic] normal human being – then the machine is intelligent. If after interacting for years with the machine it acts as if it has a personality, has consciousness, (and a conscience), then it really does.[1]

I asked at the beginning of this article, “How do I know that I am talking to you?” Turing would reply “I know you are you because I habitually interact with you as if you were you.” If I can be conditioned to believe that you are you, what would stop me from being conditioned to believe that a machine is also ‘you?’ However, you might well protest and say, “Hey, I am whether you are conditioned to see me as being or not.”

According to Turing, because I cannot disprove that machines and, presumably you, are conscious, I must assume that they and you are conscious. This, of course, is quite contrary to what the behaviourist would say: “You are not a being, a person nor do you have consciousness; you are a machine.” Thus, so far we have two responses to my question: the first response says, “I know you are you because I say you are;” the second says., “I know you are not you because I say you are not.”

In Madame Tussaud’s famous show in London, which is a waxwork show of the famous and infamous, a London policeman used to stand in a darkened corner by the entrance to the museum. It was not unusual for someone to go to the Bobby for directions or information, and then to recoil with slight horror when realizing that the Bobby was made of wax. We must ask ourselves, ‘If we are quite comfortable talking to machines, why does the recognition of our mistake create horror?

The problem is made even more complicated by the experience described in the quote that follows, an experience that is not by any means an unusual one.

“There was just the room with its shabby furniture and the fire burning in the grate and the red shaded lamp on the table. But, the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before. I was filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since.”(My emphasis)

“The Presence was both about me and within me,” could be translated as the presence was both you and me.

One of the astronauts, I think his name was Sheppard, encountered God when he was on the moon. People who have near death experiences sometimes encounter a ‘person’ whom they call ‘a being of light.’ Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, also as a being of light, and Moses talked to God. If I wanted to I could multiply examples like these a hundred, a thousand fold. But do we have to? All of us have had a faint shadow of what is implied by this presence. Who has not had that eerie feeling, when in a house on one’s own, or walking along a dark path, of another presence nearby? A presence that often has has a numinous quality.

The “Someone who was not myself,,” the God of Shepard and Moses, and the Christ that Paul met on the way to Damascus, always appeared, not as some abstract ghost, but as a ‘person’, although perhaps it would be better to say, as the essence of a person. I suggest, they are ‘you,’ but are they different to Turing’s ‘you?’

So we have a dilemma, on the one hand is Turing’s ‘you.’ This is a machine, but nevertheless, according to Tipler, it is a real, you. On the other hand we have the ‘you’ of Moses, Paul, Sheppard and many others. This is a real you, but without form. Then there is ‘you’ that I am talking to in the café.

The question of what constitutes ‘awareness-of you’ is a difficult one. If someone truly believes that machines are alive and aware, as some primitive people believed that idols carved of wood were truly alive, then surely we must account for such experiences. On the other hand, people have encountered ‘you ‘as a presence or a living light or Christ, Buddha, Krishna, and Kali and we must account for that presence as well. Moreover , in so far as they are both encounters with ‘you,’ the same explanation must cover both ‘you’s,’ even though, on the face of it, they are quite different.

Another, common and different, encounter with ‘you’ is the little girl or boy playing with a doll. The famous Calvin and Hobbes strip cartoon illustrates so well what I am now referring ImageExtract-001to. Calvin, as you are probably aware, was a little boy who, like many little boys, had a pet teddy bear. Sometimes the teddy bear, whose name was Hobbes, was a scruffy, well worn doll, at others it was another person alongside Calvin with whom Calvin was in full communication. Most people would dismiss this as an example of the very vivid imagination of children. But what is this ‘imagination?’ Is it the same as the imagination of Moses, Paul or Arjuna?

Let me make a final reference, this time to the work of the late Julian James, one time professor of psychology. He authored a book in which he wrote of a time before the development of human consciousness. He called this the bicameral era. The word ‘bicameral’ means “two legislative chambers.” At this time me-you was separated into two identities : me on the one hand and you on the other. “You” spoke to “me” as the voice of the gods. A vestige of this communication continues in most people today who have a continuous mono-duologue churning at the back of their minds.

Simply condemning all these people, including Calvin, Turing, and calling them stupid, ignorant, and wrong, is not a reasonable response. Nor is simply dismissing the experiences as ‘imagination,’ illusion, or self-suggestion. Bearing in mind we are talking about Moses as well as Calvin, if we were to get a satisfactory answer, would it show that there is a transcendent ‘reality’ which does not need physical support of any kind, but which at the same time is not imaginary nor illusory? While, for most societies in the past, the transcendent would not have come as any surprise, in our society it is something that most of our leading thinkers, if they do not simply ignore it, would scoff at as mere superstition.

Again, let me ask, I say “I see you,” What do I mean? I see your body and its behaviour and in this way I know your body and behaviour. However, in addition, I also know that you are you, just as Calvin knew Hobbes as ‘you,’ and Moses knew God as ‘you.’ How do I know that you are, not simply ‘you’ as some kind of imagination, as a body, as a set of responses or as a repertoire of behaviour, or even you, as a soul?

For example a man who is in love with a woman is pervaded by her whole presence whether she is with him or not. He may, it is true, recall certain mannerisms that she has: her way of smiling, of leaning forward when she speaks, the way she brushes the hair out of her eyes, but for him, beyond all of this, is ‘you,’ the woman he loves. What does that mean? Who are you who lies beyond mere memory of detail? The same question arises when we consider the mystic’s encounter with his beloved of the kind we quoted in the example above. What, or who, was encountered? In the quotation in which he speaks of the encounter, the author says that he could describe the presence as ‘Christ coming to him,’ in other words the presence, he felt, was a person. How can we account for this in a reasonable way?

A famous Sufi mystic, Ib’n ‘Arabi, put it this way, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” In other words, to know myself is to know you. ‘Christ,’ ‘the Lord,’ you in the café, ‘Hobbes,’ ‘you’ are not an object among other objects, but Subject; ‘you’ are [my] knowing. That does not mean that you are [my] knowing something. We have difficulty in understanding that ‘you’ are simply knowing because we believe that even we ourselves are objects, separated and isolated in a world of objects. ‘Alone and afraid in a world I never made’ as someone put it.

It could be said that we know the world through causal relations, that is through sense data of one kind or another, which create in us images, sounds, and smells. As objects, things or persons, we are inhabited, some believe, by souls or spirits and these are also, in their own way, objects. With this belief in being a separate, isolated object among objects is associated the tacit assumption that my world could exist without me. Because of this belief moreover, when confronted with the mystery of ‘you,’ we ask ourselves, “What stimulus from the outside, what causal relation, which of my senses, tells me of ‘your’ presence?”

If you are indeed a separate, isolated object, then, as Turing has pointed out, all that we have left of you is behaviour: the twinkle in your eye, the smile, the toss of your head, because only this can possibly come to us via the senses. But then what about that presence, God, the Lord, the Presence in the room, that has no accompanying form or behaviour, the presence which is just presence? What about the beloved who pervades yet transcends all of her manifestations? And what about Hobbes who has no twinkle in his eye, smile, nor toss of his head,

Though ‘you’ may or may not have a material counterpart, this does not mean that you must be ‘a product of my imagination.’ It does show, however, that my awareness-of you is not dependent upon sense data. I do not see ‘you’ with my eyes. Furthermore, although we have used words to describe this encounter of you and me, it should be stressed that the encounter is in no way dependent upon words, thoughts, names nor ideas. Neither you nor me is an idea; you are you without any need of words, just as me is me without needing the word ‘me.’

Martin Buber, in his book I and Thou, says,“I-you is basic, it is not derived. Another does not cause the relation I-thou, but gives it expression. We are content with this I-you evocation until it is shown that we err.” ‘You’ do not cause the relation I-you; you evoke it. Thus I-you does not tell us anything about what evokes it, other than what evokes it has the power of evocation. This means that if someone truly believes that a machine is alive, when he addresses this machine as ‘you,’ he does not thereby confirm the aliveness of the machine, but confirms that the machine can awaken a genuine transcendent and primordial ‘experience,’ an experience me-you which is at least as real as my experience of the world.

But, is this not saying that you are my imagination: that you evoke an imaginary image in me?

Each of us is an individual, that which cannot be divided, and yet we are divided. Each of us is one, but two. Although this defies logic, nevertheless ‘experience’ shows that this logic is too limited. The ‘experience’ of Me-you is the experience of one that is two. To understand this further we have to explore in some detail different modes of awareness.

According to modern psychology, the young baby’s awareness is different from an adult’s awareness. Child psychologist, Alison Gopnik, tells us that the consciousness of a baby could be called ‘lantern consciousness,’ while the consciousness of an adult could be called ‘flashlight’ consciousness. A lantern would light a room without any distinction or differentiation. It would light it up “all at once.” Flashlight awareness would light up one item at a time; in other words, it would distinguish and differentiate.

For example, suppose that you wanted something from the cellar. You could turn on a light, in which case everything in the cellar is lit up equally, or you could turn on a flashlight, which would light up one thing at a time. Thus there are two modes of awareness. The names that I gave to these two modes[2] are: awareness-as and awareness-of. We are aware-as the world, and this awareness corresponds to Gopnik’s lantern consciousness; we are also aware-of the world, and this corresponds to Gopnik’s flashlight consciousness. Awareness-as is constant and unceasing. Awareness-of arises out of awareness-as much like the waves arise out of the sea.

We are all, all the time, including when we are asleep, aware-as. Awareness-of picks out specific items from the background given to us by awareness-as. For example, you are aware-as the pressure of the seat against your body. When I say this, you immediately become aware-of it. You are aware-as the floor, but my having said that immediately turns on your flashlight awareness and you become aware-of it. This is why it is so difficult to talk about awareness-as, and why it is so difficult for people to understand it. Awareness-of can only pick out one thing at a time. The one thing then stands out from the rest, it ‘exists’ uniquely and it acquires a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness.

Awareness-of can also be aware of itself, and from this comes the drama of life and of me-you. Just as what is lit up by flashlight awareness stands out from the rest and ‘exists’ uniquely while acquiring a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness, so the light of the flashlight that is shone upon by the same flashlight stands out from the rest, ‘exists’ uniquely and acquires a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness.

This new existence is called ‘me,’ and, as you can see, me is very ambiguous. For example when a flashlight lights up an object, the light goes from the source (the flashlight) to the destination (the object.) When the flashlight shines on itself the light goes from the source (the flashlight) to the destination (the same flashlight.) One cannot think about this, otherwise one will become quite dizzy. The Jesuit and palaeontologist, Teillard de Chardin, in his book, the Phenomenon of Man, tried to think about it and wrote this:

“As soon as a child is born it must breath or it will die. Similarly the reflective psychic center once turned in on itself can only subsist by means of a double movement which in reality is one and the same. It centers itself further upon itself by entry into a new space and at the same time it centers the rest of the world around itself by the establishment of an even more coherent and better organized perspective in the realities which surround it.” He went on to say, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus but with a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born. The ego only persists by becoming ever more itself, in the measure in which it makes everything itself.”

What de Chardin calls the ‘reflexive psychic center’ is ‘me.’ In the example of the flashlight, ‘me’ is both the source and the destination. Being both source and destination simultaneously is what de Chardin describes as “the reflective psychic center [turning] in on itself.” It does this by means of “a double movement which in reality is one and the same.” ‘Me’ centers the rest of the world around itself. This is an experience that most of us must have of being at the center of the world, not only geographically, but dynamically.[3] But this is only half of the double movement. The other half is that it centers itself further on itself through ‘you.’ But this double movement is “one and the same.” This is shown in the metaphor of the flashlight turned on itself in that the light that is sent out from the source and received by the destination is the same light. The lights are “one and the same.”

de Chardin goes on to say, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus but with a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.” The metaphor of the flashlight is, like all metaphors, limited. With this metaphor the source of the light and the destination, although the same, is fixed. But de Chardin says, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus.” Another, better metaphor to show what he means by “a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.,” is the metaphor of the microphone placed up against a loud-speaker. In an emotionally charged situation the microphone (me) is the source and the loudspeaker (you) is the destination. But as soon as the sound leaves the microphone the loudspeaker (you) becomes the source and the microphone (me) becomes the destination and a vortex develops. Finally, “it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.” The vortex of sound builds up because it feeds on the sound which is fed into the microphone.

Let us return to the account that I gave earlier of a “mystical experience.”

The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before. I was filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since.6

The presence was “about me and within me.” This corresponds to de Chardin’s reflective psychic center that turns in on itself and subsists by means of a double movement which in reality is one and the same. The presence is also the ‘light’ that is both source and destination. In a similar way, “I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before,” is also de Chardin’s double movement. “Being filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since” illustrates de Chardin’s vortex.

Attempts have been made to depict this “double movement,” the self that is reflecting the ImageExtract-002
self that is reflecting…. that is the foundation of ‘me’. They are interesting mainly because all of them fail. de Chardin’s (and my) tortuous attempt to talk about the ambiguity in words, when it is beyond concepts and reason, is also a failure

Possibly the most famous of these attempts to picture the “double movement” is the Oruborus, or symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail. It is of interest to us as it often symbolizes self-reflexivity, that is to say, de Chardin’s reflective psychic center. It can also symbolize cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, corresponding to the vortex of which de Chardin writes.

ImageExtract-003The problem, however, with this symbol is that it fails to depict the ambiguous nature of self reflexivity. If the head depicts the source and the tail the destination then the symbol only depicts half of the self reflexivity. Some artists realized this and attempted, unsuccessfully, to adjust the symbol by giving it two heads.

Another symbol yet for ‘double movement’ is the vesica pisces.image001

In this symbol the centers of the circles are on the periphery of the other circle. One way of talking about the double movement is: the center is at the periphery while at the same time being the center. I have often used the expression, ‘me-as-center/me-as-periphery.’ Once more, the ambiguity is not shown in the vesica pisces and the only way to see the ambiguity is to collapse the two circles into one.


The last illustration that I shall use is Escher’s Man at the Gallery. This shows a man, in a gallery. (left corner,) looking at a picture. The picture is of the same man in a gallery looking at a picture . In the center of the picture is a white circle. The switch over from the man looking at the picture to the picture of the same man looking at a picture in the gallery is covered over by a white circle. The reason is that it is impossible to depict that crossover.

Let us pause for a moment to see where we have got to.

 Martin Buber’s spoke of  “I-thou ”and “i-It’ as primary words although I prefer to call it the primary word ‘me-you.’ The ‘me-you’ relation covers a very wide spectrum from Moses talking to God to a little girl putting her doll to bed, with me talking to you over a cup of coffee somewhere midway on the spectrum. Although we could dismiss Moses’ encounter and the little girl’s action as imagination or delusion, we can hardly dismiss my encounter with you in the same way: you and I are real. Neither is the product of the other’s imagination So who or what are ‘you?’

End Notes:

[1] ibid p.20

[2] See for example Albert Low Creating Consciousness:a study in consciousness, creativity, evolution and violence.

[3] I have explored the meaning and significance of the ’dynamic center ‘ in “I am therefore I think” CreateSpace 2013

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3 Responses to What are you?

  1. Eugene says:

    Albert, thank you for your insights. I love reading your books.

    A few thoughts on the subject. Figuring out the mechanics, origin and functioning of “I-ness” can be very interesting and useful. But ultimately it’s always just a “part” of THIS: the now-clearly-present direct experience. Any feeling or idea of “I” or “you”, as well as any other feeling, sensation, or thought, is equally present-“awared”-experienced as inseparable part of THIS field of present experience. And any reflection or understanding of this, whether right or wrong (if we think we know what it means), is also automatically a part of the same THIS. There is no way to get out or beyond THIS, anything existing outside or beyond THIS can only be imagined as a content of an idea or of some sort of a “mystical feeling” which is still always experienced as part of THIS. This includes any feeling or notion of “I-ness” or a “subject” of THIS-experience: in the field of direct experience we cannot find any “subject” of this experience except for an idea or feeling of the presence of the “subject” which is also automatically experienced as part of THIS.

    At the same time we cannot disprove that anything can “exist” beyond THIS, including the existence of those mysterious “I”- or “you”-entities. If anyone wants to believe in their “existence” (and also believe they understand what “existence” really means) then we have no means to prove that wrong. Ultimately the criterion is simple: there is nothing wrong with unprovable beliefs per se, the question is how practical they are, how much benefit or harm they cause in real life. The belief in the existence of “I” and “you” seems to cause a lot of trouble, confusion and suffering both in personal lives and in the world as a consequence of personal confusions. So why have an unprovable belief that causes so much trouble and pain? Well, that’s a psychological question rather than philosophical, some beliefs are addictive in spite of the harm they do just like some destructive behaviors are addictive.

    • Albert Low says:

      You say, “Figuring out the mechanics, origin and functioning of “I-ness” can be very interesting and useful. But ultimately it’s always just a “part” of THIS: the now-clearly-present direct experience.”

      However, the point of my posting was to show that neither “I”nor “you” can be experienced. Perhaps in order to avoid confusion I should say, “I” (experiencer,) you(experiencer.) cannot be experienced. You would question this because you say, “anything existing outside or beyond THIS can only be imagined as a content of an idea or of some sort of a “mystical feeling””

      As I understand it, beyond experience is the potential for experience. In terms of the Lankavatara sutra there are the seeds, bija, stored in the storehouse consciousness. You might deny this, but then you will be talking from the point of view of idealism. Perception makes the potential, actual.

      In other words, “I” and you have their origins beyond awareness, beyond THIS. Beyond THIS is dynamic unity. I have given ample support for this in my writings.

      By the way, for the record, I have not “figured out the mechanics, origin and functioning of “I-ness” What am I? is the basic koan and I have spent sixty years meditating on the question.

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