The Realms of Existence

Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

― Zoroastrian mantra

“Who am I?” ― what kind of answer can we give to this fundamental question of our selves? Are we, perhaps, our emotions? Are we what other people think about us? How we define ourselves has critical implications for our path of self-development, because “perception precedes improvement”, and “what you measure, you improve”.

Just as there are four kinds of explanations for anything in the world, there are four parallel realms of our own existence, four kinds of self which each explain us in a different way. And just as some temperaments prefer certain kinds of explanations over others, some will identify strongly with only one of these facets of self. Knowing the kind of self you associate with most strongly can tell you about your strengths and your weaknesses.

Thoughts: Our Inner Worlds

The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.

― Marcus Aurelius

Some associate themselves most strongly with our internal world of thoughts and feelings. In Western cultures, this individualistic internal focus has been especially common. Christianity especially reinforces this view, identifying beliefs and attested creeds as the most important feature determining the fate of your soul.

There are strong arguments to place the locus of the self in the realm of internal experience. Our thoughts filter our perceptions, and thus all of our experiences. Through thought, we correct our actions and aim towards improvement, even when our imperfections cause us to stumble.

But, as much as we might consider ourselves to live thoughtful lives, we might actually be operating on autopilot for a huge swath of the decisions we make.1 Tossed about by contextual pressure, or acting on habit or instinct, much of our self might exist outside conscious awareness at any point in time. Despite this caveat, no decision process seems impervious to conscious inspection,2 so that even if in any moment we might not exhibit conscious control, in retrospect we can course correct into a consciously controlled existence, perhaps justifying again this internal-centric view.

Words: Personae Gratae

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

― Kurt Vonnegut

In less individualistic cultures, and perhaps as social media has grown into a hard-to-escape [xx] of our social fabric, there is a tendency to self-associate with your external persona. It is certainly a kind of self; it is the self as perceived by others, which defines their expectations of you and can form the basis for opportunities or safety in many social contexts. As social creatures, we rely, now more than ever before, on our many social interdependencies for many basic needs which previously we could have provided for ourselves. This fundamental dependency might justify a significant consideration of our persona as our locus of self.

Our persona is not restricted merely to be defined by others; there is also the sense of a persona which is projected, rather than understood. Thinking of our social self as this projected persona, we can still maintain the locus of control inside of ourselves; if any perceive our persona to be different than what we intend to project, that could simply mean that they are wrong. But even if we try to reinforce this socialized sense of self with our own stories and intent, there is still an undeniable tug-of-war over control of our social selves, as we constantly negotiate our social existences with the world around us.

Deeds: Life as Lived

You are what you do, not what you say you'll do.

― Carl Jung

It is not obvious that, leaving our internal worlds behind, that our social self should be paramount. There is an entire external world, and social interactions cover only part of that. Much of the impact we have on the world around us can occur without social mediation, or, especially in our modern capitalist system, can occur transactionally (and if our interactions with others are formed, not on the basis of their perception of me, but on the well-socialized contexts in which we operate, then our personas might not matter at all).

Stripping away, then, personas from the external world, we are left with your raw actions as you thrust them on the world around you, and their consequences. If you are the kind of person who picks up litter, or who helps strangers on the street ― these deeds are just as true whether they are recognized by you or anyone around you.

Many major world religions, including Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, take a deeds-centric approach in weighing the moral worth of person. Casting aside intentions, however grand or ill, and social perceptions, whether insightful or misguided, focusing on raw actions and consequences allows for a more objective view of ourselves.

Between all three of these ― Thoughts, Words, and Deeds ― we can craft for ourselves a complete picture of our selves. Not limiting ourself to one view only, a balanced perspective can help us see gaps in ourselves and suggest areas of growth. But there is still one more kind of explanations unconsidered, one incompatible with self-identification.

Matter: Made of Meat

A physicist is just an atom's way of looking at itself.

― Niels Bohr

Circumstances don't make the man, they only reveal him to himself.

― Epictetus

In modern times, some scientifically-inclined people have extended its preferred kind of explanation (the “material cause”) toward our understanding of self. In this lens, we are, each of us, merely multicellular organisms, mere arrangements of atoms which for some strange reasons have opinions about their own arrangement ― but no, even “having opinions” is cheating this frame. We are simply patterns, and any sense of “having opinions” is beyond what we can strictly observe, and so, ignoring our inner lives, materialists can only take a consumerist or a behavioralist frame.

As consumers, we can extend our sense of selves towards all of our accumulated material possessions. Cheating materialism a little, we might try to cast any education of ours as if it were a similarly accumulated asset (our “human capital”) or our intimate relationships or status as some kind of insurance policy (our “social capital”). Reducing our selves to such categories of accumulation implicitly sets as our goal continued accumulation in each of these areas, as if that actually formed some meaningful path through life. It is a frame that is attractive to any wishing to analyze whole societies at once (reducing each human to some vector of accumulated capital simplifies a society into a distribution of such vectors, which is easy to mathematically analyze), but it doesn’t point toward anything like a good life.

From a behavioralist view, we are all simply animals acting in the world. Again eliding our internal and narrative lives, again cheating materialism slightly, here to pull in some causation in the realm of deads, we are beasts with tendencies, and in our beastly tendencies we are either succeeding or frustrated. The profaning of ourselves into such mean terms allows for no “good” or “bad”, and devolves into a kind of instinctual hedonism, where instinctual explanations are seen as sufficient justification for any action.

Of all of the forms of self-identification, identifying yourself with your material existence is the one most resoundingly berated by the wisdom of all of our traditions. It is the one kind of explanation most solidly outside ourselves ― for that reason it is often preferred for objective analysis, but for that reason as well it but poorly corresponds to our actual selves. The thoughts within our heads are largely under our influence, as are the stories we tell about ourselves and the acts we perform in the world, but the accumulation of money or status is often more a matter of windfall than of personhood. Of the four kinds of explanations, this is the one wrong answer for defining the self.

  1. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.

  2. Newell, Shanks. "Unconscious Influences on Decision Making: A Critical Review", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2012. link