The Experience of Being Alive

Chapter 12 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and B&N.

TheWriter_CoverPJ produced a new piece about intuition. “As you know, I’ve made a study in quest of the meaning of the word: intuition. And I came to understand that it begins in childhood unconsciously, and it is a totally unconscious process; nobody knows anything about it. In other words you’re in a situation and the issue is stated and right away your reaction is instant, and positive. But people can spend the rest of their lives trying to rationalize what they did. Did I explain that clearly?”

“You do,” I said. “Very well.”

PJ’s new definition of “intuition” as integral to human motivation and behavior interested me. He showed its operation in his own life in The Writer.

At thirty one, the young artist made a decision, known to him at the time but unknown during an interim of years until the writer reminded him of it. At that early age, when most young men are seeking a profession which will pay them well, the young man determined that he would never again work for money.

He lived by that resolution, too, while in the competitive society in which he found himself. He did later work on salary. But that was for bread, the landlord and the utilities. He lived to learn that there is no money in living “for the joy of it.”

Then youth to old age, with intuitive perception, he lived for the experience of being alive.

“This phrase, intuitive perception,” I said to PJ, “how can that work with your new concept of intuition?”

***

In the church’s front office, I picked up a book, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. He summarized Kierkegaard’s “lie of character” as being “built up because the child needs to adjust to the world, to the parents, and to his own existential dilemmas.”

Not very specific, but it was a summary after all. Becker went on, “It is built up before the child has a chance to learn about himself in an open or free way, and thus character defenses are automatic and unconscious.” Then the person “becomes dependent on them and comes to be encased in his own prison, and into himself … and the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom.”

Isak Dinesen, though, said there are ways to escape this prison, this slavery to the accreted self, and create one’s self anew and form new identities at will.

PJ felt he had been forced to create new identities. In each identity he found “a clean slate.” Studying his own identity, he began to think about the adjustments children make.

“Now, presume that a child begins life innocent and amiable and feels no guilt,” he said, “until the first time someone punishes him. Then the child feels anger and guilt. Although later, he may learn to mask hostility with an amiable appearance, there will never be a time of complete amiability again. The hostility may be disguised so well that the person does not know he experiences it himself.”

“So the cause of hostility,” I said, “is that rebuke to your innocence.”

Yes, he nodded.

“Isn’t there one more ‘station’ between impulse and action?” I quoted Voltaire: “’I believe that with the slightest shift in my character, there is no crime I could not commit.’”

He smiled. There was a last stage one’s reactions go through, he said. “You see, character gives a temper point, having something to think about, argue about.”

I liked the way PJ’s theories were specific and not sterile, incorporating emotions such as love and anger, and the palpable senses of guilt and innocence.

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8 thoughts on “The Experience of Being Alive

  1. It is interesting to compare Derek Porfit’s essay “We Are Not Human Beings” with PJ’s ideas. Consider your comment — ‘PJ felt he had been forced to create new identities. In each identity he found “a clean slate.”

    • He also differentiated between physical death (or near-death) and psychological death. He believed for a person to be undergo radical transformation, that is, for “renascence” a person had to die and be brought back to life, as he was by the doctors. Psychological death occurs several times in many people’s lives (severe depression, for instance). We emerge from this form of death, and “make” changes in our lives. In fact, we are not the same person we once were: we have a changed identity.

      • Sorry to be a bit abstruse before; I’m suffering a very sore finger which makes typing difficult. I mean to say, it is possible that psychologically speaking PJ may have felt he had undergone a permanent change in his state of being, so the metaphor of death and a new identity would seem apposite to him.

        What I’m unsure about is how much a psychological account of identity can carry. It is interesting as Richard remarks, to compare this with Parfit’s most recent Lockean, psychological-anatomical view of identity. Parfit thinks that all we need is a cerebrum that is capable of thinking and so long it is the same cerebrum it is the same person (numerically). Of course it might be qualitatively a different person if the cerebrum ends up on artificial life support to replace a body. On this account the cerebrum represents the Inner-I and the body or life support machine or whatever is the Outer-I, which is only derivatively the same identity, not directly the same.

        So Parfit would presumably disagree with PJ, in that PJ’s cerebrum remains intact and identical through whatever other bodily changes PJ suffered. So it appears that PJ would disagree with both the Lockean psychological view and the purely biological view that identity merely means the same body.

        The question is what sort of view does PJ have? If he is talking about a change in the state of guilt to one of innocence, it would appear to me that PJ has a lot more in common with say Socrates in the Phaedo, than he has with Parfit. Socrates thought that a good person was guaranteed good things (at death and afterwards). Just where the comparison goes to from here I am unsure.

    • Hello Mary and Richard

      There is a paradox here. The way you both put it (and PJ also) is that having a new identity is something we do. But presumably, since the metaphor is death, this new identity is created by us while we are dead (near-physically and/or psychologically). Otherwise, if it was created while we are alive, it would not be a new identity, but would be simply an outgrowth of the old.

      I wonder how you resolve the paradox?

      • I think it’s a two part process. First, the death of the old identity occurs either in the near-death experience or the traumatic illness (depression, psychosis, PTSD etc), but the person only becomes aware of it in the aftermath. Then it’s a matter of creating a new identity. But the other part of that process is the reality of having been in the world awhile, and with that are the memories and other encoded experience. Because he was no longer who he had been, PJ felt his prior guilt was wiped away. He had a “clean slate” after his death and renascence. I suppose the Greek concept of catharsis might apply here. That didn’t mean he had forgotten his previous motives and actions. Of course there has to be some continuity here. Richard has pointed us to a paper that speaks to what constitutes “a person.” It’s heavily into the mind-body duality. What do you think?

      • I’ve just finished reading the Parfit essay, and will open up a discussion on that on our other discussion forum. Thanks to Richard from mentioning it!

        First we need to discuss what is meant by death in this context, in order to make sense of the term new identity. If we are using the term death with poetic license and not ontologically, we can get away with being poetical about new identity also. The philosophical problem only kicks in when we view death as either the complete loss of being, or as a permanent change of state of being.

        Leaving questions of guilt and innocence to one side, one might question what permanent change of state occurred to PJ. Or did he have a possibly temporary psychological sense that some such change of state had occurred? And then did he built a mythical identity afterwards about this?

        I cannot know the answer. I’m inclined to think PJ was simply using poetic license to convey a story, that is in the end, purely myth creation. But I’m open to be convinced otherwise.

      • Parfit makes the distinction between qualitative and numerical identity very clear. Applied to the concept of death, there are two corresponding sorts, qualitative and numerical.

        Numerical death is when there was once one person A and now there is no person A Qualitative death is when some aspect of a person is no longer the same. This happens typically in the transition from childhood to adult, or when a person’s character or manner of appearance undergoes a radical change. It is this latter sort of death that applies to PJ.

        It is likely that our human tendency towards mythology involves a preference for qualitative death, such that instances of numerical death are reinterpreted as instances of qualitative death. Hence our familiar references to people who have died as the departed, a separation rather than a complete loss.

  2. Let’s say we believe PJ’s account of his experience, and that his bodily life systems ceased to function, whether for 15 seconds or a matter of minutes. I’m not an expert on biology, but I think this causes changes in body and brain chemistry. It’s probable this process of dying is registered in the brain stem. When he was brought back by medical intervention, he slowly gained consciousness and became aware of his body reviving. At some time, information from the brain stem came into the cortex, and into the realm of conscious thought, that he, both body and mind, had experienced an end-of-life event. In this scenario, PJ died a numerical death, even if for only a very short time. The psychological ramifications would likely be major and lasting. So it is qualitative death as well. PJ retained certain core characteristics, having to do with inherent talents (genetics), and his intuition.

    Poetic license is needed in creating the first myth of who we are, and all subsequent myths. Then there’s the shedding or shredding of the myths as we come to know who we really are. PJ was far down the road on that journey.

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