Are You a “Self” or an”Organism”?

Self or Organism. Which word would you use to refer to yourself and other individuals?

Self  has a long history of helping us call attention to ourselves. Its earliest root several thousand years ago seems to have been a pronoun that referred back to the subject for emphasis, roughly like saying he himself. Today it evokes the uniqueness and separateness of a single person or a group (ourselves). The Wiktionary list of 242 self- prefix words, such as self-image and self-confident, is a sprawling catalog of all that we do, think, and feel that involve ourselves in any way. And added to these are the many phrases like true self, my old self, sense of self, and of course selfie.

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For many people, self is an essential vocabulary item for reflecting on who they are, how they relate to others, and how they see themselves changing over time.  Phrases such as be yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself are popular tips for surviving in a culture that expects all its members to strive toward individuality.

But for others, self is an illusion that is no help at all. For them, the term conjures up a non-existent entity that demands constant attention and cuts us off from the present moment that we actually live in.

Organism is not an obvious alternative. The technical-sounding word refers not just to humans but to bacteria, whales, trees and every other living thing. Its earliest root meant to do, a sense that is closely preserved in the word work and more loosely in organize and orgy. Organism highlights the material structures and organization of an entity that is actively doing what living things do: growing, responding, reproducing, sustaining itself. In its concreteness, the term seems almost the opposite of the ghost-like self.

But the comparison between organism and self can take some unexpected turns. Wikipedia’s article on organism tells us that “there is a long tradition of defining organisms as self-organizing beings”—my italics. It adds that debates about the definition of organism  have included the suggestion that the term “may well not be adequate in biology.” In science, the self, as some kind of template of organization, may not be quite so dispensable after all.

I asked a friend who is psychologically acute and spiritually oriented which term she preferred for referring to individual people, including herself. For her, organism, even though its source is the immaterial Oneness that everything originates from and returns to, is a more usable term than self. The latter is vague, negative, an expression of our appetite for a specialness that separates us from that Oneness. Given my friend’s spiritual perspective, her preference for the “scientific” term surprised me a little at first, but only briefly.

Conversely, I recently heard the research biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough use self instead of organism in speaking biologically about “the animal self” and the responses of all “selves” (including bacteria) to their environment. Though it was unexpected to hear her discuss single-celled creatures as selves , the term fit effectively in her explanations of how living things know if they are well off or not, pursue what they need, avoid toxic substances, and repair bodily damage.

The preference for self or organism seems to depend on one’s view of the essential nature of being alive.

These days, I find myself liking organism. There is something clean about the word that suits my inclination to de-clutter my psyche and some of my life issues. The word seems to put all its cards on the table. The “I” part of the Brock organism (the irreducible self, I admit) wants to keep this brain, this heart, these connections with other people, all going along for as long as possible. And with organism I’m free of any of the old business about a true self versus a fake self, about losing oneself in something or being alienated from oneself; about the different sides of the self, deserving and undeserving selves, the blessed and the damned, centuries of European agonizing over the clashing selves.

Selves are cultivated, the product of cultures. Organisms are maintained, products of the cosmos and Earth’s marvelous chain of the self-sustaining. High expectations of my Self at my age don’t ring true, to me; have I “made a difference” (but nearly everyone does), do I “have no regrets” (but I do), am I “wise” (hah)? No thanks. I feel good and grateful enough about the extraordinary experience of being a human organism.

The Voice In Our Head: Periscope Or Smoke-and-Mirrors?

Stream of consciousness is a common term for it. Mind wandering and daydreaming are others. These days, more narrowly, “self-talk” refers to our constructive or negative mental judgments of ourselves. “Default mode network,” from neurology, labels the closely interacting regions of the brain that kick in when it is not focused elsewhere.

There is a tension that runs through discussions about stream of consciousness. In science, the reality of any aspect of nature that is under study is acknowledged and respected. Psychologist and neurologists, despite controversies about it, extend such respect to stream of consciousness. On the other hand, the Buddhist or Eastern view of the mind is that the stream of consciousness, while real, is a detrimental spinoff of our psyche. It reinforces the entanglements of our ego with worldly concerns. The wise person will seek to quiet it or ignore it or seek complete release from it.

The tension here is not a disagreement or a debate exactly. It is more a dissonance that stems from the different aims of science and religion. Scientists, committed to objectivity, make judgments cautiously and narrowly. Religious teachings, on the other hand, offer a path towards peace of spirit, a path that invariably calls for the submission of the ego.

It’s no wonder that we read about the marvels of the human brain one day and the unhappiness of the wandering mind the next.

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I’m in the middle here. Our biological past is a foundational belief for me and I think that our stream of consciousness serves adaptive functions that can be understood largely in terms of evolution. But I also want to reduce my stress level and strengthen my sense of focus through meditation. The views of science and religion about stream of consciousness are not incompatible, but you don’t hear much about their common ground or a unified approach.

How could we find such a common ground? Probably in looking tolerantly at the ways in which stream of consciousness both serves us and hinders us. Probably by recognizing that it is difficult for most people to enjoy its advantages without also putting up with at least some of its disadvantages.

We can roughly gauge the advantages of stream of consciousness from noting the kinds of items in our own stream. Mine buzzes with flashbacks, flash-forwards, bits of script for conversations and letters to editors, and a mix of sunny and cloudy moods about myself—all of which I can see as beneficial much of the time in one way or another. But like most people’s, my stream sometimes fails badly to tell me what others are really thinking, worries needlessly about what probably won’t go wrong, and obsesses about what is unimportant. Stream of consciousness might be compared to a periscope through which we can fortunately see above the surface and around corners to what lies ahead, but which also captures fragmented and misleading pictures.

Sam Harris in Waking Up puts the spiritual case against stream of consciousness. We are “continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” As both the speaker and listener in our heads, we create the illusion of the individual self. Harris adds, “We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist.” Viewed this way, stream of consciousness is the voice of illusions, of smoke-and-mirrors. Still, no matter how we define self, humans like all other organisms need a steady flow of information, no matter how imperfect, to monitor the environment and process our complex social life. Harris, awake as he is, still writes, lectures, and engages with many people.

So I think a common ground between the spiritual and scientific approaches to stream of consciousness might essentially be the recognition that we live in three time frames, not one, and in many locations. These are of two different kinds, the sensory perceptions of the here and now, and the remembered and imagined past and future in other places. We need to process all of these not only unconsciously but through our stream of consciousness. As in so much else, balance between the here and now and other times and places seems a good goal.

I recall a simile—from the popular gestalt therapist, Fritz Perls?—that living solely in the moment can be like listening only to the note in the music that is sounding at the present instant.  Unless we’ve also heard the notes that lead up to that moment, there is no music. And, I would add, if we can hear only the past notes but cannot hear the note of the moment itself, the music can never be new.

The Fading Individual

I used to see people, including myself, as individuals first and as social creatures after that. Emotions and words, my own and others’, seemed the prime movers; groups, society as a whole, seemed a context, a setting, not an essence. I was me, Brock Haussamen, a unique bundle of thoughts and feelings, and I could insert that bundle into conversations, relationships, and social conventions or not, as I chose. This perspective came easily to an introverted young man. And it was supported by the great romance of male/Western/modern/American individualism.

But over the last decade or two I’ve come to see how life—all life, especially human life—is primarily and profoundly social. It’s been a disillusionment and a revelation at the same time. By social, I mean that living things are largely built by interactions with others and for such interactions. We like to think that we humans are distinguished from other species by our private consciousness and from each other by our winning personalities. But our consciousness and our individual traits turn out to be products of the joys, pains, love, violence, tedium, and necessity of our connections to other people and living things. The social underlies the individual, not the other way around.

Social bacteria, playing different roles (

Social bacteria, playing different roles

Many ideas and pieces of information have shifted my point of view.

Bacteria: The earliest and simplest life forms relied on interactions. Billions of years ago, bacteria made the great leap forward of developing a nucleus when they absorbed other bacteria. Natural selection took off when bacteria moved beyond cloning themselves to exchanging DNA with each other. And we in turn carry around several pounds of necessary bacteria, interacting with it constantly; our body is literally a community.

Darwin: The engines of evolution described by Darwin—competition and cooperation—are largely social. Even plants, indifferent to each other, are ultimate competitors. For early humans, the social experiences of hunting and village life over hundreds of thousands of years led to language, organization, and morality. Religion relies on concepts articulated by groups and reflects a sense of security in belonging to the group itself. And current research tells us that good health, physical and mental, depends in large part on our engagement with friends, family, and community.

A social animal (

A social animal

Brain: Our intelligence is more of a social instrument than we might think given how private our thoughts seem to be. Whenever we finish a particular cognitive task, such as figuring out a math problem, our brain almost always reverts to thinking about ourselves or other people. (Try it.) And our consciousness itself, our self-awareness, apparently has roots in our brain’s capacity to keep track of other people and relationships; as part of monitoring that complex network, it seems that the brain constructs an “I” as an on-going player.

Species success: Viewed broadly, successful species have acquired special skills that make them effective at living in their particular environmental niches. Our human survival skill seems to be our social intelligence, and our niche seems practically global.

Of course, the importance of our social nature is obvious to us, up to a point. Love, family, community, friendship, charity, compassion, hospitality are all almost universal values. And yet we can also push back hard against the dominance of the social. When the social network feels oppressive, we stand firm on our individuality, our rights. We deny the legitimacy of the social rules, we change allies, feud with the family, withdraw. We agree with Sartre that “Hell is other people” and insist that true peace lies within us. And yet such moves towards solitude never stray too far from how we perceive others and how we imagine they perceive us.

Nodes in a network.  (

Nodes in a network.

It’s tempting to conclude that we and all living things are essentially nodes, junctions, in a network of living things and that humans happen to be the kind of node with the bizarre illusion of being separate. But that might be going overboard. A better image is a Venn diagram with each of us a very small shaded intersection where the huge ovals of other people, other organisms, and the force of the past all overlap.