One of the topics I’ve been pretty interested in is the dialectics between individuality and collectivity. It’s a topic that is echoed in a wide variety of artistic works, some of which we’ll brush over here. It’s pretty common to see plans along the line of the Human Instrumentality Project which aim to destroy individuality and “become one”, i.e. merge humans in some sort of community soup.
I think it’s so well spread because it speaks to something at the fundamental level of human psyche. Consciousness and awareness of self only allow a definition of self by opposition to the rest of the world. There is only a “me” because there is a “non-me”. Therefore the “me” depends on the “non-me” for its definition. And even worst, the “me” can only exists as such because it is perceived by others (part of the “non-me”): that’s the whole thing of Sartre’s Gaze concept.
In addition to this dependency, it seems clear that the feeling of individuality is necessarily tied to a feeling of isolation (vis a vis the rest of the world) because I’m just a “me” in the middle of all the “non-me”. Furthermore, adding to this suffering is the notable fact that this “non-me” resists “me” and may not be super compliant with my goals. So the “me” is completely at the mercy of a tyrannical “non-me”. No wonder people single out individuality as one of the fundamental source of the suffering and wonder about getting rid of it. I personally feel that it is the most fundamental struggle of human existence.
One of my favorite such examples is the catholic concept of Eden, which represent paradise and absolute happiness. Adam and Eve are denied this completeness when they start being self aware and therefore individuals. This marks the start of suffering, and the start of the yearning for an unattainable Paradise Lost, which may be the root of any quest of mankind for an absolute. This essentially sets the tone for all of the christian conception of the world. Incidentally, this mirrors human life and an idealization of the past in general and childhood in particular, which is often reported as a blessed time without worry before self-awareness and its troubles are fully formed.
Considering these hardships, it’s probably no surprise that the question is usually resolved by an ode to individuality. The Human Instrumentality Projects in fiction usually fail, and we’re presented with a portrayal of how important and good individuality is because it brings diversity, “free-will”, independence, the american way of life (TM) and all that stuff. And most importantly maybe, in all that suffering, art. Oh and value to individual life, which is what collectivists are often blamed with lacking. A notable example very dear to my heart is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy which ends up as a celebration of this individuality/self-awareness as a pre-requisite and motor element of scientific reasoning and human progress.
It’s worth noting, however, that it is not a clear endorsement. The “death of the ego” is often presented as a step towards enlightenment and wisdom, proposing a counterpoint to the idolization of the self. It seems a bit less influential in popular culture, at least in the West, though.
Anyway, in this rambling of pseudophilosophical BS I call a blog, I try my best to reason free of the influence of what we take for granted, which includes the idealization of individuality that kinda plagues our society. Not gonna lie, I’ve historically been rather pro-Human Intrumentality Projects, persuaded that self-awareness kinda sucks and we pretend its worth it because we don’t have a choice in the matter and we’re stuck with it, making it a pretty clear case of cognitive dissonance. Plus “support individuality because otherwise your life doesn’t have value” seems like a bit easy (regardless of how true) as a marketing gimmick. But my goal today is not to support an antithesis or fan the fire of the discussion around whether or not self-awareness is a good thing but rather to offer a synthesis to this dialectic.
There’s a good chance that the world is what it is no matter how one feels about it, so whether individuality is good or bad may just be a moot point. Furthermore, if the world is indeed deterministic and govern by laws of cause and consequences, there’s no such thing as free will, and this self-awareness and constructed individual are essentially an illusionary byproduct of the brain’s inner working, a more advanced form of a cat meowing when it’s hungry.
Individuality is harder to define than it seems, because identity is a hard topic. Metaphores like the ship of Theseus highlight the problem of tying identity to a materialistic mass of changing cells, when it’s very obviously what an individual is. If they are not the cells, identity and consciousness must be their activity pattern: they are emerging phenomena resulting from neural activity, which means that they can be replicated not only on a computer, but also in another brain. If what I am is the way my neurons behave, then I can literally be, at least partly, living in someone else’s brain. Which is brilliantly portrayed at the end of Evangelion when Shinji questions his identity with regards to the “Shinji inside other people“.
This conception of the self as a process decorrelated from its substrate echoes nicely the one of the self as a meme (in the Dawkins sense) and sheds new light on the dichotomy between individuality and collectivity. The border between different individualities is more blurred than it seems. Inside of me lives part of my friends, and every author I’ve consumed, possibly literally if I’m reproducing faithfully their neural patterns.
As such the individual is neither a standalone wonderful snowflake nor an insignificant pawn, but an intricate agent in a complex system. An individual is to society what a neuron is to the brain. It doesn’t make it insignificant nor irreplacable (see Brian Tomasik who is passionate about the ethical implications), it’s simply an essential part of the system – mankind. The real cruel curse of consciousness is that it’s an illusion. But there’s no real telling where “me” stops and “non-me” begins, as there is part of “me” everywhere in the system, that will go on in their computing tasks long after my flesh body has decayed, like many little horcruxes rooting me deeply forever in this eternal system.