What am I? Who am I? Why am I?…

Are these questions meaningless pursuits of an emergent illusion, or the doorway to the purpose of life? The fact that I can even wonder is itself absurd. How can I not know who “I” is? How can I seek to “know myself”?

Ultimately, I am nothing; I came from it and will end up in it. I am an insignificant fluctuation; somehow always here and now but also drifting in space and time. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that the universe happens through me. I create it as much as it creates me. It’s all so strange.

How can I be both creator and created? Am I nothing, everything or something in between? Maybe the question of Being (with a capital B) is too much to ask, or its terms too ill-defined, but the absurdity of not knowing who I am is too important to ignore. 

Am I physical or non-physical?
Am I finite or infinite?
Am I timeless or ephemeral?
Am I necessary or contingent?
Am I the mind or the body?
Am I abstract or concrete?
Am I a process or an entity?

These questions partly arise from false dualities, misperceptions or misconceptions that we create ourselves. We perceive boundaries not simply because they exist, but mainly because we create them, just like we create colors, words and ideas. Interestingly, this tendency to understand in terms of dualities (or spectra with opposing ends) is at the very heart of the question of what I am: there is an “I” and a “not-I” that interact in strange but very interesting ways.

This seems to lead naturally into the question of consciousness; an entity that everyone talks about but hardly anyone knows how to define. Whichever assumptions we choose to model consciousness, they always rely on emotions and facts that I assume to be true for everyone, but can only be verified for myself. That’s the thing about consciousness: I’m on my own. And, I guess, so are you.

If you’re already confused as to why you should care about these vague and uncomfortable questions, here’s my argument: even when we don’t see it, our search for understanding our surrounding always bring us back to questions about who we are. We are constantly in search of something or someone to affirm our existence and to bring meaning to our lives. We look for fulfilling jobs, romantic relationships, supporting families, caring gods, successful careers; all self-defining endeavors. We constantly wrestle with our identities: defining what we are, and what we are not. Am I my thoughts, my feelings, my body, my family, my community, my nation, my species or my entire world? Where is the boundary and why is there one in the first place? Being realistic, we try to answer the big questions with smaller projects; maybe glimpsing more authentic versions of ourselves from time to time. But we’re often misguided by contradictory beliefs that drive us farther rather than closer to the answers we seek. The sense of “I” is fragile, fluctuating from moment to another, disappearing during our sleep, constantly getting absorbed by the task at hand, and always on the verge of vanishing forever if any of our important organs decides to stop working. So we are all secretly terrified of permanently losing it, and build much of our lives around protecting and expanding it.

This being said, the strange question of being is not necessarily one to be answered with any practical certainties. The purpose of asking the question is the realization that it can be defined as an attractor to all other questions, ranging from the scientific, to the philosophical and the spiritual. It might be that the concept of “I” is an artifact of our recently acquired intelligence, but even if it is an “illusion” of some sort (depending on what one means by illusion), its conception as a thing that we all refer to (and cherish) is almost enough to make it central to everything else. It sounds like stating the obvious, but somehow words usually trivialize the gravity of the feeling we have for our sense of I, probably because words themselves are secondary to it and exist in a tiny subset of it.

In this article, I’d like to frame the question of being as a desire or tendency to resolve its fundamental paradoxes; mainly, the co-existence of self and non-self. This paradox appears in every aspect of our reality in terms of dualities, many of which we try to reunify as part of what we call understanding. Personally, while I don’t claim to have any answers, the question of being motivate my scientific curiosities where it’s easier to have observable, quantifiable and verifiable answers. But ultimately, I suspect that the answers that matter cannot be objective; described with language or numbers. Yet, my inquiring mind can’t be helped. Fundamental questions have to asked, and established assumptions have to be questioned, because it’s my mind’s tendency to seek the elusive – but too important to ignore – question of who I am. I found that some of the answers were helpful to my search; so I’m summarizing some of them here.

The goal of this article is to propose a few hypotheses that came up in the last few years as I’ve pondered on the question, usually using a combination scientific and philosophical speculation. I try to build a perspective without making many assumptions, but this post is best seen as a proposal for future exploration. While my ideas are clearly related to philosophy of mind, ontology and computational neuroscience, I should warn you that I am an expert in none.

The Paradox of Being

If I were to give being-in-the-world a fundamental property, it would be its paradoxical nature. Being always comes with its opposite. To start with, “I” am:

  • on one hand, a singular present:
    • An intersection of past and future.
    • A source (of actions) and sink (of perceptions).
  • and on the other hand, the surrounding non-present:
    • A synthesis and consequence of the past.
    • A free (?) agent acting upon and expecting the future.

I only exist in the present. But I am only manifested in its surrounding non-present, perceiving the past and acting upon its future. My reality is a combination of my actions and perceptions. Yet, I am the ultimate source of my actions (a free agent) and the ultimate perceiver of my reality.

Any scientific or philosophical attempt to answer the question of being will have to first address its paradoxical nature. Am I the present or what is around it? Am I a combination of my actions and perceptions, or an entity that exists at their intersecting ends? Am I the initial cause of my actions and the final destination of my perceptions, or simply a means of space-time evolution? Why do I exist in the middle of an asymmetrical psychological and ontological duality of past and future (the arrow of time), as well as action and perception (output and input)? And what is the structure of this duality?

The present-non-present duality of being in time is complementary to that of self-non-self duality in space. In fact, the action-perception (input-output) field is a dynamical process that constantly projects the self upon the non-self (via actions) and vice versa (via perceptions).

Furthermore, this duality seems to be irreducible. An internal (self) and an external (non-self) are in perpetual tension with an undefinable and constantly shifting boundary. This internal-external boundary can be illustrated as a continuous hierarchy that depends on the level of entanglement between the present-self and its surrounding non-self (i.e. I am more my mind, than I am my body, than I am my community, than I am the human race etc.). This boundary is illusive and hard to define. This is in part due to the fact that boundaries are internal constructs that can be shaped independently from the external objects they describe.

When I speak of an internal-external duality, I am not referring to the mind-body problem where mind and body are assumed to be different in nature and separated by a sharp boundary. Here, internal and external are loose terms that only assume duality in self-hood: I am inside and I interact with the outside. It is hard to appreciate this observation until one realizes that it’s a completely contingent part of our reality. And somehow this duality is at the very core of what we are; or its very definition.

The question reduces to this: why is there such a separation in the first place? And what is its nature? What is the structure of this multi-dimensional multi-scale action-perception past-future self-non-self internal-external duality?


The Attributes of Consciousness

In this article, I want to focus on the structure of the internal-external duality. Before I do so, I’d like to briefly address the problem of consciousness, because what I call the internal is often associated with being conscious.

Like other qualia (happiness, pain etc.), consciousness is a psychological state that slips through my fingers as soon as I attempt to comprehend it. While any philosophical inquiry about consciousness requires rational and linguistic description, pure self-awareness is best achieved when one’s mind is void and clear; a meditative state. But this is only my own definition of consciousness. Some might refer to consciousness as the external representation of one’s own body and mind; a symbol rather than a feeling. It is not clear how far rational inquiry can go in defining and describing consciousness, given its rather “fluid” nature. For instance, contrary to Descartes’ observation, to me, cogito ergo non sum! But maybe that’s just me.

When consciousness is characterized logically, the qualitative/emotional side of its nature is inevitably downplayed. When consciousness is described as a bounded object with well-defined properties, it takes the form of the action-perception function chosen to describe it. Not being aware of these linguistic limitations, one might be led to the conclusion that consciousness doesn’t exist altogether. This is why, I prefer describing consciousness as part of an internal whose existence is self-evident in contradistinction to the external, and whose boundary varies continuously from nothing to everything. In adopting this perspective, I hope to highlight this question: 

How come I exist in one point of space-time bounded by so many physical layers (mind, body and beyond like an onion) with which I interact?

In doing so, I wish to focus my attention on ontology in general, rather than the psychological state of consciousness as an isolated phenomenon. Most attempts to explain the internal-external duality are done by projecting the internal upon something external or vice versa. Just as in the mind-body problem, a complete projection of the internal on the external results in physicalism (i.e. the scientific approach), and a projection of the external on the internal results in idealism (i.e. the physical world is an illusion). In both cases, either the internal or the external is chosen to be necessary and the other contingent upon it. Both extremes have their shortcomings and seem unjustifiable.

My main hypothesis revolves around the idea that consciousness is emergent but that this emergence comes from a more fundamental driving force that can also be found in external observations. I postulate that consciousness is a particular case of the tendency to unify; as applied to the internal and external dualities. I thus focus my characterization on (i) the drive to unification itself and (ii) the cyclical (feedback) nature of their interaction.

For the lack of a better alternative, I give this drive the name Philenosis: The {drive, will, tendency} to {unification, union}. From the Greek “philos”, meaning love of, and “enosis”, meaning union.


Ultimately, I will attempt to show that consciousness lies at the heart of a more general property of being: the desire or tendency to unify two opposing fluxes (of causality in space-time); the external-internal projection via perceptions and the internal-external projection via a source actions. The source and sink are separate in physical nature (senses and muscles), as well psychological nature. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon created by the agent’s tendency to be both the perceiver and the actor. “I” is the unifier of the sink and the source.

More generally, philenosis is the drive of most human endeavors. My various interests in philosophy and science revolve around the desire to find unifying principles. We always find meaning in philenosis. Here’s a list of different facets of philenosis:

  1. Understanding, done by analogy, clustering and repetition, is the unification of concepts and experiences (sense data). Understanding is the process of “reducing”, and thus bringing together, seemingly complex and random experiences to a simple and predictable pattern.
  2. Words are unifiers of perceived objects by a hierarchical “measure of sameness”.
  3. Philosophy is the desire to unify concepts in a single theory, as consistently as possible, choosing the assumptions that minimize contradictions.
  4. Science is the drive to unify experiences as part of a single mathematical theory of quantifiable observables generalizing over (and thus unifying) as much of space and time.
  5. Mathematics is the tendency to unify as many true and consistent statements as possible within the same axiomatic system.
  6. Art is an interplay between symmetry within the piece of art on the one hand, and resonance between the observer’s internal world (emotional-intellectual complex) and the art piece on the other; a two-way symmetry in which the observer takes part.
  7. Music, in particular, is a unifier of sounds by synchronized vibrations at multiple scales of space and time: integer harmonics, harmonic ratios, melodic themes etc. 
  8. Peace, whatever it means, is a physical (emotional) state of harmony within one’s own mind and body and between the body and its surroundings. 
  9. Community is the tendency of people to unite in a collaborating social organism.
  10. Social power is the desire to unify one’s surrounding (and world?) under one’s own control; that is, expand the boundaries of the internal to engulf the external.
  11. A single God is a desire to unify being as a whole, including our human identity. Less ambitious, and probably more consistent, polytheists create different gods for different unifying concepts.

Philenosis is the natural drive of the internal to become one with the external at all scales. Such unification is achieved only locally in space and time for example by the experiences mentioned above.

Unfortunately, ultimate union is only desired but impossible to achieve. This is part of the paradoxical nature of being. Running counter to the desire to union is a feedback destructive dependence of the internal on the external; a seemingly inevitable trade-off. This includes:

  1. Eating, a necessary means of survival, is the act of destroying/disintegrating plant or animal at multiple stages of the digestive system until its energy (ATP) is extracted as a fuel for keeping the body and mind running.
  2. A rigorous dissection of concepts and observations with clearly definable boundaries is a prerequisite for any form of understanding.
  3. Destruction of nature to acquire raw material for social and technological construction.
  4. Competition and war with people outside a group as a means (and justification) of reinforcing bonds within a group.

Achieving any form of local unification often requires a certain level of dissection. Most forms of dependence enhancing our powers as individuals or as a society (e.g. technology, food, resources, etc.) seem to require some form of consumption or destruction. Are there conservation laws that impose a certain bound on the amount of disunion to be traded with an equal amount of union? For instance, is there a certain ‘conservation of understanding‘ at play in the process of defining concepts and their boundaries as building blocks for consistent unifying principles/theories?

Understanding the interplay between destruction and construction, union and disunion, stability and instability of unifying structures reveals certain properties of the interaction between internal and external that are both competing and trying to merge. Given that understanding is itself a form of philenosis, I will start with it. After all, everything that follows will rely on certain assumptions of what I consider to be understanding. Am I creating a model, objectively describing or providing an explanation?


An action-perception system is capable of ‘understanding’ (or representing) its environment and interacting with it accordingly. The complexity of that understanding is demonstrated in an equally complex behavior ensuing a wider reach of one’s action-perception field (higher control of and power over the environment). Intelligence is a measure of that complexity. But what exactly is intelligence; and what is understanding? Is it a purely abstract faculty of the mind or something that emerges out of the body’s structure and its field of possibilities?

Representation in an Action-Perception field

The brain, if we assume understanding is created from a purely physical process, is primarily a complex network of oscillating and firing neurons. This network extends its boundaries continuously to the whole organism. The nature of its inputs and outputs plays a crucial role in its wiring and chemical programming. How does that network generate our complex understanding of our environment and ourselves? Cognitive scientists know some answers but there is still a big gap to be filled.

What I will present next is a bottom-up approach to modeling understanding as an interaction between its two fundamental properties: philenosis and the cyclical nature of internal-external interactions.

Understanding is a manifestation of philenosis; a desire to unify or reduce the complexity of experience to a space-time algorithm that can reproduce our observations. The basic postulate is that our internal representation of the external world is done by minimizing the difference between the internal and external mappings of action to perception. Both the world and the brain are time-dependent functions that map actions to perceptions. Representation is, by definition, the brain’s attempt to behave as similarly as possible to the world it interacts with it. The dichotomy between action and perception and their manifestation in the physical world can be understood in analogy to the magnetic field around a magnet. The magnetic field is the causal field of the actions leading to perceptions, the north pole is the motor cortex, and the south pole is the perception areas in the brain. 

Note that this is described at the scale of the individual but in reality our body is made of billions of agents all with an action-perception internal-external interaction with their environments. In particular, cells breath, receive messages from their surrounding and send messages accordingly. They all refer to the same program (the DNA) but have different functions in a highly interconnected society working together to maximize survival; or union with their surrounding. Brain cells are each an action-perception system adapting to their environment just as an individual adapts to her social environment. Neurons also form communities that fire together, and somehow create abstract unifying concepts. The internal-external action-perception cyclical interaction between organisms and their environment happens at multiple scales of space and time, sometimes with fractal-like structures.

The orthogonality of the action-perception field and the internal-external duality

The drive to union (philenosis), results in a two-fold reduction of the space-time action-perception field:

  1. The internal (brain) representation of the external (environment) happens by minimizing the functional difference between the internal and external action-perception relationship.
  2. Within the brain, both action and perception responses can be tuned to create a unifying representation for multiple objects (i.e. a word).

Internal and external objects are functional transformations of output signals (actions) sent by the motor cortex to input perceptions applied on the senses. This functional mapping can be represented by the figure above. The mappings can be written as


\displaystyle{ p_e =\Omega_e(a_e; \phi_e) }

\displaystyle{ p_i =\Omega_i(a_i; \phi_i) }


  • \Omega_e is the external object that functionally transforms an external action, a_e , to an external perception, p_e , subject to external physics, \phi_e .
  • \Omega_i is the internal object that functionally transforms an internal action, a_i , to an internal perception, p_i , subject to internal physics, \phi_i (i.e. biochemical neural network).
  • Learning (or understanding) is a process of changing the operation of the internal physics \phi_i , in such a way to minimize the difference between p_e and p_i , for a given action a_e = a_i = a , coming from the same source. That is, learning is the following functional minimization 


\displaystyle{ \min_{\phi_i} | \Omega_e(a; \phi_e) - \Omega_i(a; \phi_i) | }


where the mind seeks to minimize the difference between the internal and external by changing the internal brain structure \phi_i that map actions to perceptions. Note however, that it’s also very likely that changing the external environment also contributes to better representations. We make the world simpler to understand and interact with.


Objecthood as a class of similar mappings

Two internal represented objects, \Omega_i^{(1)} and \Omega_i^{(2)} , are the same if the difference between their respective internal perceptions for a given action a , is smaller than some ‘tunable’ tolerance \varepsilon , that is: 


\displaystyle{ \text{sameness} \sim |\Omega_i^{(1)}(a; \phi_i) - \Omega_i^{(2)}(a; \phi_i)|< \varepsilon }


The similarity of two internal representations is multi-dimensional. Two objects are often similar in some properties but different in others. For example, two objects can have the same color but a different shape. They can be both spherical but different in size. The isomorphism between the objects being compared depends on the properties being considered; their measure of similarity depends on the ability to first separate their properties and then compare them. The question then becomes: how do properties arise and how are they compared?


The mental algorithm for creating objects and properties

Here I propose the outline for an iterative algorithm for the formation of objects and their properties. Properties and objects are formed by an iterative process of union and intersection:


\displaystyle{ \pi_k = \bigcap_i \Theta_i }

\displaystyle{ \Theta_i = \bigcup_k \pi_k }


Where \pi_k is a property with index k , and \Theta_i is the object with index i.

The intersection process happens as described above. That is, two representations are the same if they share action-perception pairs \{a, p\} . These pairs give rise to the property that makes the objects in question similar. The more different the objects are, the more specific their properties. For example, many physical objects share the property volume. Physical dimensions used in sciences (like length, mass, position etc.) attempt to be intersections of “all of matter”, trying to find properties that everything shares. In this sense, physicists look for atomic (indivisible) properties that are common to as much of matter as possible. These atoms can be used to then reconstruct a representation of the world from the bottom-up by union.

The union process is a constructive process of adding various properties to recreate (or simulate) an object. Objects can be thus defined as bundles of properties, as described by Hume’s bundle theory. Those properties are deduced by observing multiple objects with similar properties, out of which emerges abstract classes. As these properties become better defined by intersection, they are used to reconstruct and simulate objects by union. The simulated object is then compared with the observed object (via its functional mapping in the action-perception field), and the properties are updated accordingly by intersection. This iterative process happens at the scale of cognitive understanding as well as at the social and possibly neural scales. 

Monadology? A generalization of the internal-external duality

The world in which we live evolves in such a way to minimize the mapping between internal and external worlds (reality and brain) as we simultaneously change the world and get changed by it. As I tried to explain however, the duality is not really binary but a hierarchy or spectrum of dependence between self and non-self at multiple levels.

A generalization of the internal-external duality is a continuous transition from closest to farthest from self. That is, there are degrees of self-hood rather than a clearcut separation. The general principle governing the evolution of self-hood in space and time is dictated by laws of minimization of differences between the different action-perception layers. Those layers can be thought of as a continuous spectrum going from mind to body to world. We can postulate, by inductive reasoning, that there is a deepest source-sink Self that unifies all these layers (shown in the figure). The duality of being is not restricted to the structure of human existence. In other words, the brain and the body are particular cases of physical manifestations of the duality.

In the singular Self (with a capital S) frame of reference, the action-perception field of the brain and the world is both generated and absorbed by the Self. That is, both mental and physical processes, have the same source and sink.

This idea sounds a lot like Leibniz’s monadology. In this case, the Self is the ultimate creator and perceiver of the world in space-time and every single physical manifestation is a particular case of this cycle. Causality does not occur at the level of physical objects, but happens a priori at some ultimate source. This is of course simply an inductive extension of the action-perception field model and the assumed duality of self and non-self. There is nothing much that supports it, other than its elegance.