Know thyself?

What is self, and how will you know if you know it? are unanswered questions that have been the subject of endless discussion, from esoteric religious thought to reductionist scientific rationalism. Who is looking, and who is found? Even asking such paradoxical questions seems to require multiple selves.

If the self is actually multiple selves (obviously, none of them a complete self) as opposed to an autonomous single self, it logically raises questions of how many selves and of what type? For example, there is the self we remember, the self which once was (even just a minute or a moment ago), memory of a self that no longer actually exists. Old photographs picture that self (or at least the body of that self), but the self within the person in the “Kodak moment” photo is long gone. Is our memory-self the same self as our present-self, and when by the way, does our present-self begin and end?

There is the thinking-self that asks all these questions and comes up with possible answers, and there is the body-self, too. The body-self gets hungry, tired, physically injured, sweaty, smelly and so forth and stimulates various behaviors and actions of which our thinking-self often has little awareness. Can our autonomous self (if there is one) be found in the body; can self be located outside of the body? Our emotional-self seems to combine both body and mind, but feels quite different than our thinking-self. In fact, our thinking-self tells our emotional-self to “stop being silly,” “get over it” and to “get a grip.” At such times, which self is running the ship?

And let us not forget the dream-self, the self that creates its own fully-functional magical universe and creatively populates it with unlimited selves disguised as others. Nearly one-third of our life is spent asleep, much of that in dream. A strong case can be made that our dream-self gets more “air time” than any other self, and in that case perhaps our dream-self is our real self.

This contemplation leads to several conclusions: (a) self is actually composed of unlimited, multiple competing incomplete pieces of self, and/or (b) there actually is no self at all. Typical of the thinking-self, it is also possible that both conclusions are equally real, or equally unreal. At minimum, it seems an autonomous unitary self is nowhere to be found; attempting to know thyself is in this sense impossible. Self (whatever it is is or isn’t) appears to happen moment to moment, created right on the spot, and in any case the present moment (and when does that begin and end?) is all we have to work with.

The 16th century French philosopher Descartes famously declared, “I think therefore I am.” He never, however, indicated which particular “I” does the thinking. Suffice to say I appear to exist (despite some strong evidence to the contrary), but “I” may be a delusion, a cooked-up dream-self concocted by my competing selves. Elusive, hidden, multifaceted, untouchable — perhaps self is simply a continuous string of memories devoid of any substance whatsoever.

Finally, I recall songwriter Leonard Cohen’s words, which seem to nicely sum up the quandary of self: “It’s real but it’s not exactly there, or it’s there but it’s not exactly real.”