Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does it all mean?
Whenever any or all of these questions percolate into our consciousness, we’re experiencing a moment of philosophical (or at least existential) angst. Existential philosophy is just one way to answer such questions.
I am not an existentialist. I’m an intensional realist. It’s taken over 50 years to fully figure that out and the journey continues. So don’t bother wrestling with what it means. The point is, you must come to grips with philosophical angst on your own and in your own terms. The cure for it is found in answers to those questions and all the others like them (Science? Religion?). Every potential answer and cure is philosophical.
Unfortunately, philosophies are like those tube-shaped sacs attached to and opening into the lower end of our large intestines – our appendixes. Each of us has one, but most of us never think about it. For many of us it’s been preventively removed so it won't get infected and kill us, or it’s been snipped out in an emergency because it was already going that way. Think of this as a philosophectomy. Like an appendectomy, the great thing about a philosophectomy is never having to worry or think about it again. But be assured -- unless you've undergone a philosophectomy, you do have a philosophy whether you ever know or think about it or not.
For nearly everyone else, it's probably a close call between the last time you thought about your physical appendix and its philosophical sibling. Neither of them serves any real purpose or has any worthwhile meaning, so best to just leave it hanging there until it gets in the way, which hopefully will be never.
Unlike an appendectomy, which leaves only a barely visible scar these days, post-op philosophectomy recovery never really ends. Questions like those above tend to haunt us long after the operation, like phantom sensations of an amputated limb.
We philosophers seem to be rare and strange genetic aberrations with our (philosophical) appendages attached somewhere in our brains, with some weird connection to our guts as well. Removal is physically impossible and psychologically fatal, so we may as well use it to figure out what everything is all about.
Who Are We?
Let’s start with homo sapiens – Latin for ‘wise man,’ the one and only extant human species, capable of analytic, creative, and inspired thought and reason. But this isn’t the whole story. We’re also homo sentiens – Latin for ‘feeling man’, where feeling has two different meanings, namely, our five senses of vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, but we also have emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, trust, anticipation, and surprise. Put the sapience and sentience together, and ipso facto abracadabra – there we have us – homo cognitio!
“So I’m a cognitive human,” you say, “that’s so old news, like, so yesterday.” Fine. Let’s drill a bit deeper. What's the essence of our cognition that differentiates us as unique? If that’s why we’re the crown of creation or the baddest beast in the gene pool, how does this ‘cognition’ work? So, like, glad you asked!
It’s very complicated to fully understand, but the Facebook boil-down goes something like this. We have physical bodies (with brains) for feeling, cognitively connected to our metaphysical (no body) minds for thinking. Our body/mind presence is immersed in a universe soaked in causation. The laws that govern causality generate the sensations our bodies and brains filter and sort to produce thoughts and ideas in our minds. This causal connection between our body/mind selves and the immediate and local contexts of our experience in the universe is a medium of signal communication. Just as analog and digital signals are transmitted and received through time, space, and matter as audio and video, for instance, causal signals are transmitted and received between each of us and those local causal contexts, including among other homo cognitio causal agents who may also be present.
The theory of what those signals are and how they work was conceived and worked out by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). It’s called ‘semiotics,’ for the study or theory of signs. If you'd like to have an encounter with an incredibly hyperactive and prolific philosophical appendix, give his writings a try sometime.
The point is, as I see it, once all is said and done, the best answer to, “Who are we?” is, homo semioticus. That’s the best label for the class containing each of the 7 billion (and counting) of us alive today, and all who passed before. The true beauty of being a member of that class is, each of us is absolutely unique as a sign-processing entity!
In other words, I myself am the one and only me that experiences and knows myself and the world from my point of view. What a blessing, right? But what a curse if we're wrong, or worse, if we can’t find ways to fully and meaningfully share with others, hey?
Next question, next time: “How did I get here?” or, “Who’s to blame for me?” Meanwhile, give a bit of thought to re-growing your philosophical appendix if you’ve had a philosophectomy. Like the lizard’s tail or the sea star’s arms, philosophy is inevitably regenerative -- the darn thing will keep growing back even without you knowing it. The trick to healthy regeneration is, you must choose to take it over and keep willing it to happen and doing the work to nurture the growth. It's like the difference between kudzu in the wild and bonsai on display: nobody ever said it would be easy. But as a last resort, philosophectomy is always an easy out.