• Robin Koerner

I Know What Makes You You

Updated: Mar 10

What is a person? Or to put the question more personally, what are you?

I don’t mean “what are you physically?” No one is referring to your body when he says “I”. Nor am I asking about the properties you exhibit or the things you do.

“What are you?” is a metaphysical question; more than that, it is an ontological one.

When I’ve found myself spending hours pondering that question, it has invariably been late at night, usually on long walks, motivated by some bout of anxiety, feeling of stuckness, or even depression.

These are typically times of existential crisis, or at least disturbance, when I am aware of knowing neither what I am nor what I should be doing; of feeling that I’m missing the point of my own existence; and/or simply unsure whether there is any such thing.

The typical response to the question “who are you?” is to start listing of facts about oneself – name, physical facts (such as sex or ethnicity), ancestry, legal designations (such as citizenship), dispositions, personality traits, desires, passions, preferences, tastes, abilities, beliefs, and so on. Some of the more insistently introspective among us have even made some surprisingly subtle and powerful observations about ourselves that help us make better decisions, live happier lives, and impress others with our self-awareness.

While the items on that list of “things about me” are not unimportant, none of them tells anyone to what you are referring when you say “I”.

As Alan Watts playfully put it:

There was a young man who said, “Though It seems that I know that I know, What I would like to see Is the I that knows me When I know that I know that I know.”

What is the “I” that knows “me”? What is this “I” that is me that knows?!

Religious individuals arguably have a ready-made answer. The rest of us do not, and we can respond to the question in a few ways. We might,

  1. not bother with the question;

  2. find our own answer to the question; or

  3. try but fail to answer the question and thus face a life of making decisions and doing things without any certain, ultimate reason for them.

On the answer to the question “what am I?” rest all of the questions about “I” that can possibly matter. For example, “Does my life matter? If so, why? What should I do with it? What goals should I pursue and what priorities should I set? Do my decisions matter even if I can’t have much of an impact on the world?” etc.

Can we get close to the referent of “I” by analogy?

If you were to ask, “what is a house?” or “what is that?” while pointing at a particular house, and the response was a complete and detailed list of what it is made of (its materials, its components, its location, the space it occupies etc.) you’d not really have received a satisfactory answer to your question.

Arguably, to know what a house is, you must know what it is for. Like a person (who dies with almost none of the cells he had either at birth or as a young adult), if you replaced all of its constituents, you’d not have the same house, but you’d have the same house. In this sense, identity or essence consists in a pattern, which corresponds to a function.

We can generally communicate the function of things that we create (such as houses) without difficulty, because their function pre-existed those things in the purpose and intention (which rests on the relevant knowledge) of the minds in which they originated.

Unfortunately, that does not help us when we’re talking about selves (“I”s) rather than houses, because when we are trying to specify a “self”, we are usually making the effort precisely because we don’t have the access that their creator (if there is one) would have to the purpose and functions of the thing created.

Some people believe that the purpose of each self has been written down by other selves (!) but most of us don’t simply accept the authority of the religious books in which they have done so.

In fact, rather than ask “what is my purpose?” or “what is my function” to find out “what am I?”, most of us who ask the latter question are motivated to do so as a means of finding the answers to the first two – which would, in turn, provide a justification for, and confidence in, particular life choices.

How can we begin such an exploration?

Ultimately, all we have is experience – in its broadest sense.

We experience the world; we experience ourselves. Our perceptions are experiences; our thoughts are experiences of a different kind; knowledge is experienced. Our motivations are experienced. And if there is an outside world, we cannot know anything about it except inasmuch as we can experience it and the inferences we make from it and about it - which we also then experience, perhaps as belief. Certainly, two plus two equals four independently of our experience, but we can only know that fact and use it because we experience it as knowledge (and get to that knowledge through experience of things in the world).

Neuroscience today tells us that neither “the self” nor our sense of self has any particular physical location. There is no center in the brain, or anywhere else, where “experience happens”. There is no single place or region that can be associated with the the experience of an “I”.

Physically, then, many scientists identify the sense of self with a vaguely defined set of patterns of activity in the brain and body. At a push, a neuroscientist might say that “I” am the very stream of experiences that "I" seem to have.

But there is something profoundly unsatisfying about that. What aspects of what patterns underlie the experience of “I” specifically, and make me experience “I” as a thing that itself has experiences?

Even if we could answer those questions, we’d still not have answered the ontological question, “What am “I”?” or more generally, “What is an “I”?”, because we’d still not have any explanation for why those patterns of physical activity equal or manifest as conscious experience at all. Why are they not just patterns of physical activity without any corresponding experience – which is exactly what most people believe are all physical processes that go on anywhere other than in our brains.

It seems quite unempirical, and therefore unscientific, to claim that some tiny class of physical processes constitute consciousness without being able to explain why they do, i.e. what about them causes them to do so, while simultaneously claiming that all other processes that involve exactly the same physical entities and properties and relationships (atoms, electrons, fields, currents, voltages, and even nodes etc.) do not.

Perhaps one day we will know everything about all of the physical processes that correspond to experiencing. In principle, we could map, at the resolution of single brain cells, entire brain states associated with experiences etc.; but none of that will tell us what the experience of an experiencing self IS. (And we don’t actually know that nothing outside a single brain and body determines the experience of the “I” associated with that brain and body.) Even if we might be able to map a brain state so precisely that we can reproduce it in some other medium, the fundamental questions of “why experience at all?” and “why this experience in particular?” won’t be answered.

In short, even the reasonable assumption that every single experience of each experiencing entity has a unique representation in a neural network cannot deliver a proof that experience is nothing more than a physical pattern or process. It won’t tell us why experience, including the experience of self, of seeking meaning, or anxiety about purpose etc. etc. happens at all; why, in other words, certain physical patterns yield consciousness or why any consciousness exists at all for physical patterns to correspond to. Nor will it tell us why a consciousness is not merely a stream of experiences that do not feel as if they belong to an “I”, which is an individual experiencer.

“I” is for “Irreducible

The (experienced) “I” is irreducible. It can’t be analyzed into parts, or specifiable in scientific terms. No experience can.

It is barely even treatable in linguistic terms. We have words that vaguely capture elements of experience but it is impossible to communicate the specifics of an experiential state or feeling. Furthermore, since each “I” experiences the “I” as having experiences, the series of experiences that the “I” “has” are clearly not identical to the experiencing and experienced “I" - but neither are they separable.

Accordingly, my best answer to the question “What am I?” and my best description of the “I that knows me”, to recall Watts’ expression, is an initially unsatisfying irreducible unknowability.

The expression irreducible unknowability doesn’t provide much (any?) information, but it is nevertheless chosen to capture what can be said most fundamentally and with certainty about a self.

The word irreducible has already been explained. The word unknowability distinguishes “I” from everything else inasmuch as anything else that one can speak of seems to be at least partially knowable in a way that the “I” is not. Specifically, to think or say something about anything other than “I” is to use language to convey something about an entity that can itself be indicated using language (for how else could we conceive of that to which we refer). In contrast, when I think or say something about “I”, I find I can say plenty about it but I only “know” the referent inasmuch as I directly experience it. In short, everything but a knower can be the object of knowledge.

Is it even the case that whatever I say about “I” is even really about whatever “I” refers to? I may talk about personality or tendencies or tastes etc. that are associated with “I”, but it’s not clear that any of those things are inherent properties of “I” nor is it clear how they are related to the experience that I call “I”.

Is my existential angst an inherent or necessary part of “I”, a contingent part of “I”, a property of “I”, just something I have but could just as easily not have had, just something I do but need not do, a state something that I am in permanently but feel only occasionally (whatever that may mean), or just a temporary experience that “passes through” or “attaches itself to” the “I”? (I’m rubbing up against the limits of language here.) Am “I” “having” experiences while at the same time my “experiences” determine the “I” that “has” them?

And so on and so on.

To borrow from Wittgenstein,

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In the face of such apparent intractability, let us turn again to analogy.

In mathematics, division is well-defined and the number zero sits on the same plane of numbers as all others, and yet division by zero is not well defined; in physics, the laws of nature are universal across time and space and the inside of a black hole is just another thing in time and space, and yet the laws of nature tell us nothing about the inside of a black hole. By analogy, something can be known about anything in the world, and knowers are very much things in the world, but a knower (“I”) cannot know itself.

Taking a few liberties with technical terms, if division by zero is a mathematical singularity, and the center of a black hole is a physical singularity, then “I” am an epistemic singularity – a singularity in knowledge.

Perhaps that ineffability of “I” is a kind of logical necessity – or a kind of logical limit - because logic breaks down at self-reference. Famously, “This statement is false” is a statement that is neither true nor false and similarly, perhaps, the “I” (that which knows) is the one thing in the world that cannot be an object of knowledge.

So far so bad - but the analogies are not exhausted yet.

Even though black holes have no identifiable form or structure, they are clearly things in and of the universe – and plenty of things are known about them that can be well formulated.

For example, the signature of a black hole is its event horizon, which is the spherical boundary in space within which nothing – not even light - can escape the gravitational pull of whatever is inside it: it is called a “hole” because things disappear into it and can then never come out, and it is “black” because light is one of those things.

Despite the impossibility of discerning the structure or constituents of black holes, like each “I”, each black hole has unique effects on all it interacts with, which can be observed and measured, and from such observations its essential properties can be inferred. “Essential” because they are the properties without which a black hole would not be a black hole. Black holes have three such properties - mass, spin and charge. We can determine them even as the matter of which the black hole consists is unknowable in principle.

In this, black holes are (loosely) like “I”s: they exhibit unique properties, can be distinguished from each other, and have measurable impacts on the world – but unlike almost anything else in the universe, we can say nothing of what they consist, and we cannot understand them better by reductively examining their parts. Like “I”s, they have no parts.

With all that said, let us slightly alter our initial question, “to what does “I” refer?” thus: what are the essential properties of “I” that, like mass, spin and charge for a black-hole, distinguish each “I”, and determine its interactions with everything else?

In other words, what is the defining characteristic of a person that does not derive from anything else that we can say about her, but to which everything else about her must conform?

Equivalently, what is true about you that makes you unique and must be taken as a brute fact about your particular “I” because, on the one hand, it cannot be deconstructed or analyzed in terms of any parts, and on the other, all other true statements about you must be consistent with this defining characteristic?

Before an answer to that question is offered, let us acknowledge that since we are talking about whatever is this thing we experience as “I” (of whose essence we cannot be speak, pace Wittgenstein), rather than some materialist reduction of a body etc, there is no a priori reason to assume that anyone has any “defining characteristic” that satisfies the above conditions, influencing everything else that is true about it.

Accordingly, my suggestion that each of us has such a defining characteristic, despite our inability to specify of what it consists, (just as a black hole has three defining characteristics, despite our inability to specify of what it consists,) and that this defining characteristic determines both the effect of the world on the “I” that is experienced and the effect of the “I” on the world, is offered merely as a result of stumbling across a contender for it upon pondering the question that began this post.

That is to say, when I peer as deeply as I can into all of my experiences and try to see what is the “I” that they all have in common and that has them all in common, I seem to find something that unites all of them and, I imagine, the future evolution of all my other traits, such as my motivations, passions, interests, elements of personality, dislikes, resistances etc.

Moreover, I feel as if this defining characteristic is something of which all of those other traits are effects and not causes, because when I consider what it feels like to be me, I imagine that the only characteristic I could not change while still feeling like me is this defining characteristic, and that, were I to change all of those other traits, this defining characteristic would remain untouched.

On top of that, my experience of this defining characteristic (I’m going to tell you what it is in just a moment!), on the occasions when I do directly experience it, is the most powerful of any experience I can have – on two dimensions. The first dimension is intensity and the second is (for want of a better term) proximity to a direct experience of “I”.

My direct experiences of this defining characteristic are all-consuming; they overwhelm every other experience that I might otherwise have. They are the experiences that I have no control over but that exert the most control over how I experience the world and everything in it.

Therefore, they are experiences not directly of “I”, but of as close to “I” as I can get: they are, in my black-hole analogy, direct experiences of my mass, charge and spin.

There is one more thing to say about this characteristic that I can experience as telling me something fundamental about me: it requires me to refer to things that are not me. This is unsurprising for the simple reason that “I” can only be experienced as “I” or “self” by an entity that can also experience “not I” or “not self” – in other words, the external world.

Just as there can be no experience of good without bad or tall without short, here without there, or this without that, so there can be no experience of “I” without “world”.

And given that my fundamental experience of “I” as having any form or characteristics at all (rather than something of which we entirely cannot speak because it has no form or characteristics) is, therefore, an experience of contrast with something else, the experience of the most fundamental characteristic of “I” is really an experience of a relationship, or interaction, between “I” and “not I”.

This defining characteristic does not have a name, and I’ve not seen it described in the terms in which I am going to attempt to describe it. Therefore I’m going to have to give it a name. It’s not a very compelling one so I’m open to suggestions to improve it:

A person’s defining characteristic is his or her sentimentality profile.

Sentimentality Profile

What makes you you, drives you, and so reveals you, more than anything else, are the set of things about which you are sentimental.

I am using “sentimentality” in a particular sense to suit my purpose. I mean by it an involuntarily response of overwhelming emotion – often tears, unspeakable yearning, or a desire to have, hold or keep something that can never been had, held or kept – in a manner that is wholly unmediated by thought or concept, and cannot be ignored because it is all-consuming, pushing out all other feeling.

This is the kind of experience that many people call “spiritual” or “transcendent” because no other words properly distinguish it from “mere emotion”, which it is quite unlike. Unlike triggers of mere emotion, that about which we are sentimental is that which, when encountered, exerts an irresistible force on us, overwhelming even our will, which cannot mitigate or suppress it. Whereas occurrences to which we respond with normal emotion are experienced as triggering that emotion because of some specific, describable and understandable effect on us as individuals (everything from an insult to a death in the family), triggers of sentimentality are experienced as being of something universal, or having universal consequence or meaning.

Thus, as I am using it, the term “experience of sentimentality” is a kind of direct and full experience of oneself in connection to whatever else ultimately matters.

By way of example, one of my friends from university, an engineer, is a brilliant musician. I remember the moment that he told me that he cried whenever he listened to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I had no way of relating to his comment: no piece of music had (at that age of 21 or so) ever made me cry, and certainly none had ever reliably made me cry, as Mahler’s Fifth did for Jason.

Accordingly, my friend’s comment made me wonder if I were missing a whole chunk of reality.

Of course I was. We are all “missing” most of reality, being finite creatures with limited sensory inputs and limited ability to attend to it. Each of us just gets to see the merest slithers of it but, fortunately, through those slithers something of the whole, because as William Blake reminded us, the whole World can be seen in a grain of sand. (This is literally true in that no one thing can be specified completely and precisely without specifying all that exists and is happening.)

Experiences of the type that many call “spiritual” and that I am here calling sentimental can open up entirely new experiential possibilities. I can count the number of such experiences of mine on two hands. I believe that one such experience in particular, sometime in my mid 30s, was critical to my inadvertently developing the capacity to be moved to tears spontaneously by a piece of music, as Jason had told me he was decades earlier.

Here is the recording that did that to me. https://www.chonday.com/25879/palaramic5/ .

Appearing as it does on my list of things to which I respond sentimentally, this particular recording is part of my sentimentality profile. I will never be able to determine or communicate precisely why.

Moreover, I can’t even tell what the fact of my extreme reaction to this recording says about me. Rather, the suggestion here that one is fundamentally characterized by one’s sentimentality profile is merely to say that whatever about me causes me to respond as I do to this recording (and everything else that elicits a similarly overwhelming, immediate response) partially but fundamentally determines what makes me experience everything else in the world as I do.

There’s no reason why this recording should move anyone else as it does me - but if you find yourself weeping the first time you encounter it, then perhaps it is part of your sentimentality profile, too. I have shared the link with a few friends in the last few years and at least one found herself crying immediately upon listening to it, suggesting that whatever causes me to respond to it as I do is something that is fundamental for me but not at all unique to me.

This is not surprising. Overlaps of individuals’ sentimentality profiles are to be expected because whatever “sets one of us off” must contain elements that trigger sentimentality because they speak directly to, stir up, reflect or force us to attend to, something that connects to our human nature, self-hood or “I”-ness, which is shared by us all, even as it manifests variously in us. (Analogously, we are all black holes, even if our masses, spins and charges vary.)

Despite this shared nature, the fact that encounters with entirely different things in the world trigger sentimental responses from different people and thus distinguish us from each other is equally unsurprising. Obvious (albeit partial) causes of an individual’s responding uniquely sentimentally to certain things rather than other things, are to be found in their past experiences and all of their unconscious effects, which they will never know. If previous associations made through experience drive an individual’s sentimental responses to a particular set of new encounters in life, then those experiences are the ones that were most profoundly formative, whether or not they can be identified or even recalled.

What these triggers of sentimentality seem to have in common is that they enable us to come into contact with a deep and non-propositional truth about what lies beyond the self, but in being those particular triggers rather than some others, they reveal a deep truth about the particular “I” whose sentimentality they trigger.

As a further example of my own sentimentality profile, there is a particular poem that induces a strangely powerful response in me. The poem is called Song for a Child Newly Born and usually brings me to tears. My disproportionate response is likely related in part to the fact that it was written by a relative of mine, to knowledge I have of him and his life, and to experiences I’ve had because of him. Whatever the reason for the power this poem has over me, I am wonderfully “stuck” with it, and it provides me a direct and profound experience of what I am and of what life means, if it means anything at all, even if its propositional content includes nothing that I have not thought or read or heard in other ways multiple times before.

That seems to speak to something that this experience of sentimentality requires: it must present to the sentimentally affected an experience of what could, in a very broad sense, be called beauty.

That the experience of beauty tells us something as profound about the beholder as of the content that is found in Margaret Hungerford’s truism that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – and I would add “or his ear, heart, or spirit, etc.”

Another personal example: as a graduate of Cambridge, I can stand in certain places in that town, survey all around me, recalling my experiences there and pondering its eight centuries of world-changing, knowledge-shattering history, and be rendered speechless with emotion. (With my friends, I’ve coined the expression “I’m having a Wittengensteinian moment”, which is made for such moments, but I more often pull it out with my tongue in my cheek when I am enjoying a meal that comes as close as pure physical pleasure can come to the transcendent.)

Another item in my sentimentality profile is the opening of the film Wit (the film version of Margaret Edson’s breath-taking play, starring Emma Thompson). It moves me so utterly that it is my favorite movie opening of all time. And yet, because of its power over me, I have to check my state of mind before rewatching it - to make sure I can bear it. Here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXowrolrFz0

In the first draft of this essay, I had written here that it is possible that no other human being feels exactly the same way I do about this opening scene. Comparing experiences among various selves is impossible, but while working on a later draft, I went to YouTube to find the above video, and I read this comment underneath it.

“Fewer men have walked the moon, than there are scenes that can surpass this one.”

To those for whom this scene is not part of their sentimentality profile, such a comment may seem utterly hyperbolic, over-dramatic, or even self-indulgent. But for me, it captures exactly its power.

The quoted comment tells you nothing about the scene, but it tells you something important about the commenter’s relationship to it - and therefore something important about the commenter. “Important” on account of the magnitude of the claim that it makes, and therefore of what it reveals about the commenter. The assertion of this essay is that what it says about the commenter (and about me because I could have made it too), is something so fundamental that the list of all things that move him that much tells you more about him – his “I” – than anything else could.

Why would anyone bother to make such a list to understand a person, including perhaps oneself? Just because what the list means cannot in general be verbalized – or even be excavated into the conscious mind. So the list itself as close as you’re going to get to yourself!

An important corollary of the general claim that I am fundamentally characterized by my “sentimentality profile” is that the inclusion of this scene from Wit in both the commenter’s sentimentality profile and my own is enough to establish that he (or she) and I have something deep in common, and that this commonality is to do with what matters most about our two “I”s. This suggests that s/he and I know something profound about each other even though we have never met and cannot precisely specify its nature.

This one scene is, for reasons the commenter and I shall never quite know, at the top of both of our (effectively infinite) lists of all encounters of our lives, when ranked by … what, exactly?

Certainly by intensity and depth of experience, as discussed at length already. But not just that – because there are many mere emotions that overwhelm in the moment but do not have this transcendent, defining, element that the sentimental response involves.

Beauty Defined

The aforementioned song, poem, town, and movie scene in my sentimentality profile all sit at the top of a list ranked not just by intensity, but also by beauty, and this is the only definition of beauty that makes sense to me.

The sentimentality profile consists of encounters in which the “I” finds beauty and, equivalently, causes it to experience directly an aspect of reality that cannot be known propositionally.

This is how I understand John Keats most famous lines (Ode to a Grecian Urn):

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It is important to pause here and note in what, therefore, beauty consists.

Keats’ Grecian Urn might be in some common sense beautiful but Beauty, which I’m deliberately capitalizing to make the point, is not usefully regarded as an inherent property of an urn – or anything else in the world. It refers to an experiential relationship between an “I” and something outside the “I”, which causes the “I” to have an experience that provides a form of knowledge about more than the self and the object and that cannot be propositionalized.

While we lazily attribute beauty to the thing in the world that triggers a profound sentimental response, Beauty inheres as much in the particular “I” that experiences it as it does on the encountered entity or occurrence that triggers that experience.

(As an aside, the attribution to something external of a quality that ultimately depends on an internal human state is an error that is also made in moral philosophy. We commonly and falsely attribute moral content to acts without reference to the agents who perform them, whereas moral content derives from moral agency, and therefore the internal state, (including the intent etc.) of the moral agents who perform acts.)

Those who are comfortable with such language might prefer the expression “spiritual fingerprint” to “sentimentality profile”. Considering once again the YouTube commenter, I might thus say that my spiritual fingerprint has some identical wiggles to his.

The responses of sentiment, as I am calling it, are ultimately beyond explanation. Undoubtedly, many or most such responses are rooted in our upbringing: the places we called home as children, the people who made us safe there, the things we were doing when, or the contexts in which, we made our great discoveries or had our most formative experiences or achievements, and so on. Trivially, for example, Cambridge would not appear anywhere in my sentimentality profile if I had not spent such an important part of my life and done what I did there.

There are obviously developmental psychological causes of a person’s being moved by one thing and not another - finding Beauty with one thing and not another - but the details of those causes are typically lost to us. Whereas we can try to put in words why a particular encounter cuts straight through to our selves or our “spirits” and to connect them with something then experienced as of universal consequence, we will never fully succeed. And so I claim the best we can do when someone asks us who we are is to present our sentimentality profile.

If you will, consider again all the aspects of your emotional and psychological make-up for which we have labels, of which I listed some above. Here they are repeated, with a few more added: personality traits, desires, passions, preferences, tastes, abilities, beliefs, dislikes, interests, tendencies, habits, morality. All of those, I propose, can be changed by force of will and they frequently change considerably over a lifetime. They are all causes (of experience and attention) and effects (of experience and will), which can be cognitively, if crudely, grasped.

Attempts to describe oneself using any items on that list are necessarily vague. Personality traits? Perhaps you are an extrovert and conscientious. Passions? Perhaps you love swimming, dogs and crime novels. Morality? Perhaps your main moral motivation is kindness and your politics are progressive? Habits? Perhaps you have a tendency to worry and keep a clean house. However much one describes oneself in these ways, one will be neither distinguishing oneself from thousands of other people nor conveying what makes one oneself in the way that one feels one’s “I”.

In contrast, the contents of your sentimentality profile determine all of those aspects of your make-up – those traits, passions, beliefs, interests, morality, etc. – but they are not themselves the effects of will or anything else about you that can be cognitively grasped. Rather, your sentimentality profile - your access to Beauty - directs your will and your understanding of everything else you encounter. Tell another what moves you to tears before you’ve even had a thought about it; tell her what gives you an experience of transcendence, and thus bears on everything you believe about yourself, the universe, everything you care enough about to hold an opinion about it, and you will have shared, to the extent that any mind can, the ‘“I” that knows you’.