In simple terms, the question isn’t really that complex. It starts out as – “Who am I?”
The question could have a simple answer if I am sufficiently satisfied with knowing my name and address and perhaps a few facts about my personal history. But, I was me before I had a history. I was me before I lived in this place. I was me before I had my name. So, the question remains – Who am I?
I have had this question nagging at me since before I was able to talk, let alone be able to express it. I tried to ask it when I was young, and before I realized that it was a philosophical question. I had this question in my mind before I knew about Rene Decartes and before I knew that other people might be trying to answer the same question on their own terms. I may have asked my parents when I was young, but I had already known that the answer would be disappointing by the time I was a teenager. The problem always was that, the answers, know matter who came up with them were always disappointing.
The problem was that the question in itself assumed that the words “who” “am” and “I” were predefined and held a certain understanding in themselves. They “sort of” defined themselves in the way we define them. Therefore the abstraction of these words always defined what the answer to the question was before it was asked. In order to answer the “real” question one needs to redefine what these words mean in a more complex and specific fashion. We need to understand that “who” does not really mean “which person?” out of any available persons. Instead, “who” means the entity of being and existing as distinguished from the rest of the universe. The “who” is the distinction made between being and not being. The “who” is the distinction made between my being and your essence of being which is different from the matter that I occupy currently. In fact, I could take each atom of carbon in my body and exchange it for another completely different atom of carbon from a completely different location in space. I could continue to do this with every type of atom that makes up my body and I contend that I would still be me even if all my matter were replaced. That is because we believe that every single atom is exactly the same as every other atom of the same type. Nothing distinguishes one carbon 12 atom from another carbon 12 atom. They could all be exchanged. And such is the case for every other type of particle in our bodies. So, the “who” I refer to is an abstraction that means more than any single body that “I” may occupy.
And, while I am at it, we have problem with the ways in which the words “am” and “I” are abstracted in our thoughts. What do we mean by “am?” Am in English is a manifestation of the being verb. Being is a short cut for describing our existence. And, the heart of this question lies in the fundamental reality our existence. How do I exist? How is it that I exist? What does it mean to exist? All of these questions mean address slightly different aspects of the idea of existence even though none of us has any way of knowing anything other than existence. Why is it that I exist here and I don’t exist there? Why is it that I exist now and I don’t exist then? Will I exist again after I have exist now? This idea of existence becomes the abstraction for the concept of Heaven and Hell. When I exist after I have existed then I will exist in another place and time for eternity. Or, so we are lead to believe. The entire idea of the word “am” is caught up in the complex abstraction our understanding of being and not being.
And finally the reflexive understand of “I” is asked with the abstract understanding of the “I” that we refer to. I is understood to be the one asking the question. However, the I asking the question is no longer the same I after the question is asked. The whole abstraction of who the questioning I is is caught up in the belief that an entity exists longer than an instance. However, we all know that we change in time. We are no longer the same person that we were 1, 5, 10 years ago. The fact is that we really can never be the person we were a moment after we make a choice and we are those choices moment after moment. In fact the totalness of our story from birth until now are need to understand who the "I" refers to.
Even though the question “who am I?” seems like a simple easy six letter question in English it is perhaps the most complex question that we will ever ask. It is the personal accumulation of a life’s work. The question may never be answered because the effects that we have on those around us may effect generations. We can answer the question with a name and an address because that name and address are a place holder or an abstraction for who we are and the effect that we may have on the future. But the true answer is still left to be written.