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Exploring the Underlying Mechanisms Behind Identity’s Context-Dependencies
Today’s essay will explore the premise that context governs which identities are active, inclusive of the identities we hold for ourselves and others. We will explore the idea that quantum mechanics are responsible for this behavior and the potential ramifications of this concept. It stems from an admittedly superficial understanding of quantum mechanics and is rife with logical leaps, speculation, and pseudoscience. If such a journey is not your cup of tea, I suggest you move along to something more concrete and rational.
To grossly oversimplify a rigorous science, quantum theory holds that subatomic particles can exist in multiple states at once. This was brought into the public eye by Schrödinger and his infamous thought experiment in which a cat is both dead and alive until a box is opened by an observer. There are many theories on the nature of these particles, but none are definitive. We will explore two theories on the nature of these particles prior to the definition of their active state through observation.
According to Werner Heisenberg, the particles exist simultaneously in both states until they are constrained by experimental conditions while John von Neumann postulated that they exist in a maybe/in between state until observed. Regardless of whether its inactive state is in between states or residing both, the subatomic particle’s behavior becomes defined once a context is applied.
Quantum mechanics is exciting to some because it may further our understanding of the nature of the universe. To that we say, boring - here we explore more personal topics. Let’s explore how quantum mechanics influences your universe.
The Quantum Nature of Identity
Identity - or the way we view ourselves - may share the same quantum nature as these subatomic particles or Schrödinger’s cat. In other words, context defines the behavior of identity by the same mechanisms proposed by Heisenberg and von Neumann.1
If identity (and quantum physics) agrees with Heisenberg, you and the local schizophrenic have more in common than you think. Multiple identities passively live within you and wait their turn for the right context to become active. Much like how the emotions in Inside Out take control of their human at different times, these different identities are awoken by different circumstances. About to give a big presentation? The Executive might make an appearance. Perhaps The Entertainer will bless us at his dinner party after The Philosopher returns from his study.
If identity follows von Neumann’s ideas, you are a blend of these identities and different sides of you emerge in different contexts. I imagine this is the more popular interpretation of identity - where you view yourself as a complicated individual with many different sides depending on the occasion. The introvert in you ekes out around strangers but your extroverted side booms with exuberance when surrounded by friends. You Renaissance Man, you!
Internal vs External Identities
The concept of identity not only applies to the internal, as we just explored, but also the “external.” Internal identity refers to how you view yourself while external identity refers to your characterization of external objects. The word external is placed in quotation marks because if you assign an identity to an object, would its characteristics not reside within you? The identity of this external object is predicated upon your belief system and may hold different characteristics in another person’s universe. The associations tied to the object is dependent upon the personal experiences harbored entirely within your head. For example, an apple is a delicious fruit that activates salivary glands for some, but those with an apple allergy revile it as a source of fear and caution. Like our subatomic particle, that same apple exists simultaneously in two different states between individuals. The identity of the apple becomes apparent once you apply the observer’s personal context. If the apple holds different identities across different individuals, which is its true identity?
Space-Dependency vs Time-Dependency
Context can be manipulated across two domains: space and time. The apple’s identity is space dependent because it simultaneously exists in multiple states between individuals. Depending on which mental space you occupy, it holds different characteristics. The same can be said about your internal identity: your view of yourself changes based on the mental space you reside in. As we’ll explore later, this mental space is largely reflected by your surroundings - are you at a party or the library?
In a similar and perhaps more obvious vein, identities can be manipulated across time since our views tend to change over time. For example, let’s say you, someone who devoutly identifies with a political party,2 celebrate your weekly ritual at the local coffee shop. You nestle down in your corner seat and savor your first sip of liquid gold. After fueling yourself with your drug of choice, you pull out a book that adequately embodies the niche interests fitting for a Renaissance Man such as yourself. The stranger seated next to you taps your shoulder to share that he too is a fan of this book. This is a big deal to you because this book certainly wouldn’t be found on any New York Times Bestseller lists nor within the remote vicinity of an airport bookstore. This stranger is clearly cut from the same cloth of erudition and sophistication. Your excitement bubbles over, leading you two to share a nice long chat. Right when you feel you’ve met your new best friend, the conversation enters the political arena. Bad News Bears - you and him are not on the same page. In fact, he is so misguided that he is part of the problem with this country. What was once warm and amicable becomes cold and distant. The tension cuts through the atmosphere so you decide to part ways. You leave the coffee shop both in a state of relief and distress: relieved you dodged a bullet but distressed to learn how wolves can hide beneath sheepskins.
If you could view your coffee shop experience on a chronological timeline, you’d see that multiple external identities exist until you select a point in time. The context in a specific point in time activates the identity in your mind.
Internal identities share this same characteristic. A personal revelation or new experience could change your disposition. Think about the progression of drug addiction. Every user begins as a substance virgin before imbibing in their drug of choice. Then they reach an inflection point where they become a casual user, eventually an abuser, and if all goes well, back to abstinent and triumphant over their battle. Of course we can’t forget everything in between those identities as well, the ups and downs.
Implications of Quantum Identities
This exposition on the different types of identities and context dependencies begs us to gaze into the rabbit hole of our initial premise, does identity exhibit von Neumann or Heisenberg quantum properties? Let’s consider the implications of each.
If we peer into the lens of space-dependency, the question of the underlying quantum mechanics boils down to the question of objectivity. If the apple’s identities are dependent upon the mental space you occupy, what does that passive or true, objective, unobserved state look like? If quantum mechanics follows von Neumann’s theory, the apple’s true objective state is a blend of all possible perceptions it shares; it changes when you select a mental space. Perhaps a more relatable example: two of your friends have an argument and separately share their side of the story with you. Thing 1’s headspace has one perception of the situation while Thing 2 presents it differently. The von Neumann approach would be to accept that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Heisenberg’s theory differs - there is no one passive state for the apple or your friend’s feud. Meaning, both perspectives are true - their validity changes depending on the mental space you occupy. Heisenberg would suggest Thing 1 and Thing 2 are both right since they operate from different reality tunnels.
Heisenberg and von Neumannian identities look similar in the time domain and offer similar answers to the question of objectivity across time. Heisenberg says all identities are true while von Neumann says the answer lies in the middle of them. More interestingly though, let’s dig into the implications if the passive and active identities interact with one another, much like how subatomic particles can interact with each other across space-time through a phenomenon called quantum entanglement.
If we assigned a color to each identity we wear over time, the von Neumannian passive identity would resemble a gray void. Perhaps this is the void that Taoist and Buddhist religions refer to - the void or nirvana that can be reached through intense meditation and dissociation from the present ego.
If we return to our timeline view to contemplate Heisenberg, all identities that have ever or will ever become active simultaneously exist until we select a point in time. It is unclear how subatomic particles behave in this passive state since we cannot observe them, but I’ll venture to assume the characteristics of the passive state somehow interact with the active state. Perhaps the passive and active quantum states are akin to the unconscious and conscious mind, where the unconscious quietly influences our conscious behaviors, or as Iain McGilchrist has theorized, the mute right brain communicates through the vocal left brain.
If we extrapolate such a concept to identities, it suggests that past and future (passive) identities influence the present (active) identity despite our inability to consciously observe this interaction. In other words, precognition is possible with quantum identities. Scary enough, there is some literature that supports this unconventional notion in another context.
The possibilities of precognition are intriguing, but I am skeptical to jump to its logical conclusion of predeterminism since the human mind can overcome any influence with enough willpower. Take gravity for instance - we overcame gravity through our aviation technology; it just required a dose (or twelve) of ingenuity. Is quantum mechanics the next invisible influence we will learn to overcome? Perhaps we already have this answer in meditation if von Neumann is correct.
We will close out by leveraging The Placebo Mindset and asking my favorite question: how can we use this information to our advantage? If identity is dependent on context, we can manipulate the context of our inner and outer world to change the disposition of ourselves, worldview, and others.
I propose a counterintuitive approach since the internal and external are mirror images of each other. To influence one, you must focus on the other. Thinking yourself in circles is not the most efficient way to change your view of yourself. Rather, changing your external context and observing your reaction is much more fruitful. For example, if you regard yourself as a lazy specimen, the way to change is by placing yourself in a new environment - i.e. the gym or an office. Likewise, if you view yourself as a selfish person, simple engagement in selfless acts will change this. The internal identity reflects its external context.
Changing your external environment is the easiest way to change how you view yourself internally.
In a similar vein, the outer world is a reflection of your internal world or the identities you foster. If you think the world is an awful place, it will continue to show you evidence of such a belief. If you view yourself as a doormat, you will 1) let people treat you like one in malicious circumstances and 2) find evidence of this belief in benign encounters.
As Leon Castillo said, “One can make themselves happy or sad by choosing the meaning attached to conscious experience.” Perhaps this sheds light on the previously posed Depression Problem. Quite simply, we can cull existential depression if we can find a source of meaning for our actions and experiences. This could explain why orienting yourself towards a goal or defined life purpose is so meaningful - because all experience exists within a new paradigm of extreme personal significance.
How can you choose the meaning attached to an experience? Could you find meaning through self-reflection? Would this self-reflection be circumstantial to an experience or a routine? In your reflections, would you consider how mimetic influences shape your worldview? If those influences shape an ugly portrait of the world, would an attention diet transform your worldview? Could you discover a clear purpose for yourself if an attention diet removed detrimental mimetic influences?
Changing the internal is how we change our view of the external.
Action begets internal change while reflection begets external change. To piece this together, reflecting on what’s meaningful to you - what you desire the most - and acting towards such a motive may be the most efficient way to effect change on identity.
Without haste, I leave you with one last question to ponder surrounding these quantum identities:
“Who is the you that is living right now?”
- Robert Anton Wilson
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I have no data to back this theory up - strictly intuition. Proceed at your own risk!
My hope is that this wouldn’t be the case after digesting this essay. Belief in a fixed identity may not be in your best interest