A Dialogue on Personhood and Suffering.

Scene: Solitus and Communus are sitting in a diner, eating bacon pancakes. The pancakes contain bacon.

Solitus: At this moment, what is the truest thing you know?

Communus: That’s a weird way to start a conversation.

Solitus: Just answer me anyway.

Communus: Okay… I think the truest thing I know is — that everything I do is a pretense.

Solitus: What does that mean?

Communus: Something about a constructed identity? I think that I mean that my identity is false. I don’t feel real, or like a real person.

Solitus: What does that mean? If you didn’t construct your identity, where would it come from?

Communus: I’m not super sure. If we think about the number of referents for the signifier ‘my identity’, then we get a number of different actual things. One of them is completely abstract and unknowable. Another one of them has nothing to do with me: that’s the identity of mine that is made out of what people think I am. Then there’s a similar identity of mine which is what I think of me. ‘Me’ according to me is just as artificial as ‘me’ according to anyone else, though.

Solitus: If we take all that away, what’s left?

Communus: I’m afraid to admit that there’s nothing substantial underneath all those constructed images.

Solitus: If there’s nothing substantial, then what are people talking about when they think they’re talking about you? What I mean is: If all the images of you are false, what are they false in relation to? A false image fails to describe something that’s there — if the image is false then there is a possibility of a true image. Surely that means there is a you that someone could describe in theory.

Communus: They could be talking about nothing. If I told you a tall tale about how interesting my life is, but in reality my life is empty and boring, we would say that I had described a list of meaningful events where none had actually occurred. They would be false because they wouldn’t describe a true thing — they wouldn’t be false because they had described a true thing falsely.

Solitus: So what you’re saying is that all of these identities are fictitious. They’re like tall tales.

Communus. Yeah, I guess that is what I’m saying. The view I have of myself has about as much to do with the world as Sherlock Holmes does.

Solitus: But think about this: what if the fiction you invent around yourself inspires you to do things that you wouldn’t have done otherwise? Think about Sherlock Holmes. He might inspire people to do singular acts which they might not have done otherwise, so that they could be like Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t matter that he’s a fiction, in this case because he seems to be the cause of some actual events. There, his value is in contributing to the actions of actual people.

Communus: Don’t you see?! What use is it for people to be inspired by a fiction? The value of their actions have to do with the people that do them, or the people who are affected by them. As far as we’re concerned, those people are nothing more than their identities. But those identities are fictions. That means that the only value that could arise from actions inspired by a fiction is itself fictitious. Because the people who are benefited by those actions are themselves just pretend.

Solitus: Reaches across the table and slaps Communus.

Communus: Hey!

Solitus: Was that pretend?

Communus: No, that hurt!

Solitus: Exactly, and that in itself is worth paying attention to. Just because I don’t know who I hit, and just because you don’t know who was hit or who was hitting doesn’t mean that no-one was hit. There could be no identities at all, and there would still be at least one person worthy of consideration.

Communus: I’m afraid I don’t follow.

Sollitus: Then let me explain. Imagine a world that contained only a single individual. Imagine this individual had no self-awareness, and nobody else was around to be aware of him. If you’re right, and a person is nothing more than an identity, and if identities are just fictions, then this world has no people in it.

Communus: Exactly, just a human body. There can’t be any people without society, because there can’t be any identities. If nobody ever looks at me, I never learn what it’s like to be looked at — I never learn how to look at myself.

Solitus: Whether it’s just a body or not remains to be seen. I’d like to show you that this imaginary world contains more than just a body, though it might not contain any identities.

Communus: Well, let’s have your explanation then.

Solitus: Imagine that this being undergoes terrible suffering as a result of some circumstances around his birth and subsequent life. He tends to trip over and skin his knees, and he weeps, though he doesn’t know why.

Communus: He’s sad because he’s alone.

Solitus: Exactly, and he never becomes aware of it. But, how can you even say that if he is merely a body? Is there not something worth real consideration in this imaginary situation?

Communus: There is. I do feel awful for this character, who knows sadness without knowing that he is sad, or why he is. Though there is a difference here.

Solitus: Oh?

Communus: This character has an identity, you see. The difference between what you’ve intended to show me and what you’ve actually shown me is that you could only show me what you intended to show me without showing me it.

Solitus: Now it’s my turn to be confused.

Communus: The fact that we’re considering this character means that he has an existence relative to a viewpoint, namely, ours! If he were truly alone, no-one would consider him. But we’re considering him now. We can see into his universe, and that’s the basis for him being worth consideration. Something can only be worth considering if there’s something to consider, after all. And if we couldn’t imagine him, there would be no him to consider.

Solitus: That just seems to go without saying. But you have stumped me for a minute. I’ll need to think.

Communus: That’s okay. He gestures to the waitress. Could we have some more coffee? She obliges.

Solitus: I think I’ve got it. So it seems like at the base level, we’re disagreeing about whether or not fictitious characters are worth caring about. Does that sound right to you?

Communus: Yeah, that sounds about right.

Solitus: But I don’t think you’ve really given me an argument as to why they aren’t worth caring about. Just now, you even admitted that you cared about our imaginary only-man-on-Earth.

Communus: That only happens because we’re both here talking to each other. If nobody was watching me, I don’t think I’d ever be aware of that. If nobody had taught me to watch myself by looking at me, I wouldn’t have ever realized that I was in pain in relation to our imaginary character.

Solitus: Earlier it sounded like you were talking about how identities can only exist relative to other people, but now it sounds like you’re saying something completely different! Now it sounds like you’re saying you can only create an identity if someone creates one for you.

Communus: I do believe that, yes.

Solitus: But you haven’t taken any effort to establish that! You sneaky bugger, you just slipped it in there about five minutes back.

Communus: Well, think back to when you were a child. How did you become aware of yourself? You only learned how to relate to yourself by the reaction of your mother to you. Then other people entered the scene. You only become aware of the consequences of yourself by interacting with others, at least in some sense. If a part of my identity is to be friendly, I can only be friendly in relation to someone else. If part of me is rude, I can only be rude in relationship to someone else and also to some set of social codes.

Solitus: I think there’s a distinction to be made here, between the idea of you as an object and the idea of knowledge of you as an object. Surely you can come to knowledge of yourself as an object only through others, I agree with you there. But what makes you be friendly when you’re friendly and rude when you’re rude? It has something to do with who you’re talking to, but there are also consistent parts of you that don’t change from instant to instant. Or otherwise, why am I Solidus and you Communus?

Communus: I hope you aren’t appealing to the idea that we somehow have inherent essences.

Solitus: Maybe not, but we might have internal predispositions. Your body is such that it hurts to be slapped. Our imaginary character is such that he suffers without company. Maybe we don’t need to be seen for these feelings to come about. Maybe there are just facts like ‘when someone is alone, suffering comes about.’

Communus: That might be so, but how could we ever be certain?

Solitus: Maybe we don’t need to be certain. Maybe we just need to assume it as the truth as run with it. Don’t you know Pascal’s Wager?

Communus: I might. Assume I don’t and tell me it anyway.

Solitus: It’s the idea that, given two choices A and B, if choice A leads to positive outcomes whether its assumed and is true and no real outcome if it’s assumed as false, whereas choice B leads to no real outcome when assumed as true and negative outcomes when assumed and it’s false, then it’s clearly better to assume choice A. He used it to argue that we ought to believe in God from a rational perspective: if God is real and we believe in him, then we’ll go to Heaven. If he’s false and we believe in him, nothing will happen. If he’s real and we don’t believe in him we’ll go to Hell. If he’s false and we don’t believe in him, nothing will happen. In either case, whether he’s real or false, it seems safer to believe in him. By the same token, it seems better to believe that suffering is real so we avoid causing it. Unless you want to argue that suffering isn’t necessarily something we should avoid causing.

Communus: No, definitely not. I don’t like being beaten over the head with that argument, but I do get the essential spirit in it. What you’re saying is ‘regardless of whether there are identities or not, there is definitely suffering, and it ought to be avoided.’ Is that right?

Solitus: Exactly correct. Suffering is there, and it’s one thing that you can’t pretend isn’t there. Regardless of whether you’re there or not, or whether or not anyone else is there. That’s the point I was trying to get to with the example of the imaginary loner.

Communus: My problem is that I don’t know what to do with this conclusion. If there’s no me to make any decisions — and you still haven’t convinced me there is any me to make a decision — then I can’t exactly choose to stop suffering.

Solitus: That’s true, and I don’t have an argument that both plays by your rules and allows me to show you that you have a real identity. After all, even that point I was making about predispositions to behavior up there means that you’re dependent on external forces to show yourself.

Communus: I was going to jump on that. It seemed like you were getting ahead of yourself.

Solitus: That’s alright. My point was never to convince you that identities existed. You just seemed so sad about the idea that you didn’t exist, or that you were fictional. I was never trying to argue that we weren’t fictional. I couldn’t know that. But I do think that there is some point to our lives regardless of whether we’re ultimately fictional or not.

Communus: And that comes from suffering?

Solitus: Yes, it does. I suffer, therefore I am, in a sense.

Communus: You think I’m a downer?

Solitus: Let’s say that you’re a cynical optimist, whereas I’m an optimistic cynic. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Communus: That’s fine for me. I’m starting to get a little tired, and I think we’re running out of time to make it to the movie.

They walk out together after paying the check. They go see a Tarantino film. I like Tarantino films.

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