One of the major questions all philosophies have to wrestle with is “what makes something what it is?”. Some people call this ontology. To but it another way, “Are you defined by what you do or who you are?” (This could go for objects, not just people, but we’ll stick with people for now.)
A simple example would go something like this:
Is a man a painter because he paints, or is he a painter because that is his title? If he makes his living as an artist, certainly he is a painter. But what about the insurance salesman who also paints in his garage in the evenings. Is he a painter? Well, sort of.
Sometimes, black children raised by white parents are shunned by their black peers for not really being “black”. In this case, they aren’t talking about skin color (which obviously can’t be changed), but about a set of behaviors. So in that case, “black” is defined by what you do, how you act.
Seth Godin recently commented on this in relation to online communities and actions:
The neat thing about the online world is that you are judged almost entirely by your actions, usually based on just your fingers.
If you do generous things, people think you are a generous person.
If you bully people, people assume you are a bully.
If you ask dumb questions, people figure you’re dumb.
Answer questions well and people assume you’re smart and generous.
… you get the idea.
This leads to a few interesting insights.
1. If people criticize you, they are actually criticizing your behavior, not you.
2. If you’re not happy with the perception you generate, change the words you type and the messages you send.
3. When you hear from someone, consider the source. Trolls are almost always trolls through and through, which means that you have no obligation to listen, to respond or to placate. On the other hand, if you can find a germ of truth, can’t hurt to consider it.
In this case, he is drawing attention to the fact that the online medium serves to filter out a lot of “who we are” – our facial expressions, tone of voice, what clothes or perfume we are wearing, how tall we are, and even what friends we are seen with. This makes a place where our identity is defined almost entirely by our volitional behavior. If we flame someone in an online forum we didn’t too it by accident, right? This is a liberating prospect for many. I think it can also be a stifling atmosphere for individuals who’s most admirable traits are less tangible.
Theologians have to deal with this all the time. Of course you’ve heard that “We are sinners not because we sin, but we sin because we are a sinner!” Of course this language is kind of confusing. The point is to affirm the doctrine of original sin, that states we are not born innocent, but carry rebellion toward God in our hearts, inherited from our ancestors, Adam and Eve. So we are sinners, period. Telling a lie or murdering someone doesn’t make us any MORE of a sinner than we already were.
This bleeds pretty quickly into the nature/nurture argument as well.
Calvinists of course ascribe our identity entirely to our essense, not our behavior. We are sinners not because we sin. We are not saved by anything good thing we ever did, not even a thought of faith. We are saved because we are elect. Or not. We are husbands because we are married, not because we treat our wives kindly (or not). Yet you can see how you can carry on with this to the point of absurdity.
So we find some kind of balance where we go back to defining ourselves by what we do. If you say something mean, are you a bully? If all you ever say are mean things, can you prove that you aren’t a bully?
Are you in charge of your own identity, destiny even? Or not?
This is one of the great deep problems. You see it everywhere. Look at Victor Hugo: Inspector Javert was the “good” guy, but really destined to be evil, despite his passionate efforts to be just. Valjean was the “bad” guy, but destined to be good, despite having the regularly lie and evade the law.
This is one of the grand, grand themes of life. How will you resolve it? How will you tell the story?
I really only got to musing about this after reading a section in musician John Michael Talbot’s book. He takes a balanced approach, saying: yes, these things define me, but only so far.
I continually witness the connections between my own body, soul, and spirit. I am both a musician and a singer. I am also a teacher. Fulfilling these responsibilities utilizes all aspects of my being. But suppose I wer to lose my hands, so that I could not play the guitar. Would this make me less “me”? Or suppose I lost my voice, so I could neither sing nor teach. Would this make me lose my uniqueness in God’s sight? or suppose I injured a part of my brain, o that my emotions became confused, or I could no longer grasp or teach all the things I currently talk about. Would I lose the essence of myself? Would I no longer be me? Would I no longer have genuine value or worth?
My music is truly me. It communicates something that is central to my being. My teaching is truly me as well, ad through teaching I communicate concepts and visions that are a very important part of who I am. My emotions are also me, and they reflect my own values about life and God. All of these various aspects reflect me, and to some degree, even are me. They are part of what the Eastern Christian mystics call my energies. But they are not the essence of me.
If I were to lose any or all of these energies or abilities, my essence would remain. I would still be me. The core of my being would remain always. The same is true for you.
-John Michael Talbot, The Music of Creation, p.29