When we refer to a human being by "I"/"you"/"he"/"she"/"Mary", what do we really mean? The more I think about it, the more confused I get. Do we mean living body or emotional/psychological world or mind? Or do we mean integrity of all of the above?

In other words, what of the following is correct?

  1. I hurt myself on my hand.
  2. I hurt my hand.
  3. My hand belongs to me.
  4. My hand is a part of me.
  5. I am happy.
  6. I feel happy.
  7. I think I have to work, but I feel too happy to dive into this routine work.
  8. My mind says me I have to work, but I don't want to.
  9. My mind belongs to me.
  10. My mind is a part of me.
  11. She has survived by her husband Jones.
  12. Mary is dead, despite the fact, that her brain functions normally, can think and feel emotions, because the integrity of her body is lost. [see below]

I got even more confused, when I watched a short film "Project Kronos". They talk about Sci-Fi project of embedding a human brain into a ball, where it can normally function. Say if we referenced that person, when he/she was alive as Mary, would it be normal to say, that this ball with the brain is Mary? Is Mary dead or alive, when the brain is sent into space and function normally inside the ball?

P.S. The question was originally asked on english.stackexchange.com , but philosophy SE seems to be more appropriate for it.

  • Descartes famously said, "I think therefore I am," from which you might reason that I am, in a sense, my thoughts. So he may agree with the statement that, since I am my thoughts, the question of "I" is also a question of how my thoughts are structured and organized.
    – user72273
    Commented May 16, 2013 at 2:24
  • 2
    As someone noted on English.SE -- grammatical categories are not the same as human beings. --Maybe you could specify a little further what exactly you might be looking for someone to explain to you here? What have you tried? What has your research uncovered so far (what hypotheses might you have formed)?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jun 15, 2013 at 19:30
  • 1
    Next time you have a question that suits an other SE site better, please flag it for moderator attention and ask them to migrate it. Otherwise we'd get many cross-site duplicates :) thanks!
    – user2953
    Commented Jun 15, 2013 at 20:43
  • Heidegger spent his whole life trying to solve this. It was called Dasein. Check it out sometime.
    – Ross Edman
    Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 21:06

5 Answers 5


FEAR NOT confusion is normal, good and you should hold on to it.

You are confused because the words you use are "black boxes" they work, you can compose sentences with them, when you say them to others they get what you refer to, but crusially, you do not know what is inside them. You are just moving them around.

The notion of 'self' is debated wildly in classical philosophy.

Just look at the neat Wiki article on it.

The reason for such debate is because we have yet to quantify our intuitions of 'self'. You and I both know what we refer to, but we have difficulty writing a computer programme that can identify a human being like we do.

You cannot, for instance, categorize self-ness as a state, because always do we change. Every word you read on your screen right now enacts millions of neural reactions in your brain.

You cannot either, categorize self as the body. If we assume all that makes us who we are is found in the chemistry and structure of the brain (which modern science seems to veer towards) then it would in theory be possible to 'transpant' a person into an artificial body. I, for instance, would like an artificial body stronger and safer than my own.

It is indeed difficult, at the level of atoms, molecules, cells, bits and bytes, to separate a human person from the rest of the universe. This problem is an open problem in Friendly Artificial Intelligence research.

The way to solve this problem is very probably through Modern Reductionism.


What does “I” really mean?

As with any word, it means what you are noting with it when you use it, and in different contexts it will mean different things, or even have no meaning at all, ie. being a notation of nothing. For example, "le néant" (nothingness) doesn't denote anything, which have no property, because nothingness doesn't exist. One may easily fall in the trap of attributing the "nothingness representation" which exist in thoughts, to nothingness which doesn't exist.

You may read On denoting by Bertrand Russell for a broader cover of this subject.

Is Mary dead or alive, when the brain is sent into space and function normally inside the ball?

It's a matter of how you define "alive". Current scientific theories may define life as a system whose action causes a local retro-active reduction of entropy.


Your question is connected to several other linked philosophicsl problems. I'll mention two of them:

1) The teleporter paradox: suppose you have a technology like this which can teleport things by destroying their physical bodies and recostructing them in a distant place. If you teleport yourself will you still exist when the process ends?

2) The hardware-software dualism and the location of the self: if you have a perfect copy of one's brain and body there is no way to decide who is the original person and who is the copy, so you might be lead to think that the self is connected to the concrete matter of the brain (and not to the information): if you replace matter, you replace the self. But the brain has a lot of matter which is not strictly necessary in order to make things work, and there is a lot of substitution naturally going on in any brain (cells which born/dies in adult brains) and apparently you cannot identify a "core" where the self could be.

If these issues fascinate you maybe you will enjoy the famous book "The mind's I" by D. Hoftstadter.


Imagine that, in the not-so-distant future, we are able to copy our brains and all the information contained in them and store them on chips much like the CPU of computer. Then, let's say that you have a device on/in you that sends updates of your life, emotions, memories, etc., can detect when you die, and, upon death, sends a signal to activate the robo-copy's chip. Would this robo-copy be you? Or it would it be a robo-copy of you? Then again, are "you" defined as what people perceive of you? Thus, if you died and everyone knew, would "you" be the dead person and the robo-copy would be viewed as just your robo-copy? Likewise, if you died and no one knew, would "you" still be alive but instead as the robo-copy that no one knows is the robo-copy? However, let's look at this from "your" point of view. Because you copied your brain, your robo-copy will still have all of your memories, ways of behavior, emotions, etc. So in technicality, "you" would still be alive. However, this brings up another question: what would one feel in between their death and the robo-copy's chip being activated? I believe the answer is: nothing. You would feel nothing. Why would you feel nothing? Because it would be similar to the turning off and on of a computer. When the computer gets turned off, it is off. It can not compute as it does when it is on. However, once turned on, the computer can continue to compute. So, when you die, you are being turned off. When the chip gets activated, you are being turned back on. This then brings us back to the question of what exactly is "you." It also kind of answers the question, too. "You" are defined by your memories, your experiences, and everything else that has built up to "you." If you had, for example, more girlfriends than you did in this life, your view on everything else, as well as people's view on you, would be drastically changed. However, this does not mean that "you" are a combination of what people perceive of you and what you perceive of other people, rather only the latter. There are two "you"s in this world: the real you, and the you other people believe to be you. Only you know who you really are. Therefore, "you" can be defined as what you think and believe deep, deep down, and your beliefs and thoughts were developed and affected by your memories, experiences, and everything else that has built up to be "you."

  • This is a Gedankenexperiment, but not really an answer, that is supposed to be more than opinion or examples but to provide sources and recources.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 11:47

It is a brilliant question - perhaps the only question. Buddhism - particularly Zen Buddhism this is essentially the only inquiry. The Greeks spent much time with this and expounded many ideas - your question has some of the flavor of a Socratic Dialogue. Many, many Philosophers have spent their entire lives working on such a question; The Existentialists, Camus, Kierkegaard to some degree - in fact - I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that any philophy that devlves into human discourse,thinking,emotion,action,etc. is fundamentally only finding new ways to ask this question. So you're not alone.

Moreover, given the proliferation of great minds who have dedicated themselves to this, it seems unlikely that someone will provide some new conclusive answer in a StackExchange thread - just saying. But, what is possible is that someone can offer up a view - a way of looking at the question that gives whoever reads it a new thread to pull at while investigating the question for themselves.

Zen Quote:

No One's Mouth Is Big Enough To Say The Whole Thing!

So I have no intention of trying. One way to look at this question is - without dwelling upon the origins of this phenomenom - is that we have a broken (at best constrained) way of thinking, because we have a broken/limited way of talking. Our speech has trained us to relate to the world in such a way that all action must have an actor - anything existing must follow from that which gave it existence - and we give everything an origin and forget that we have done so. No matter how absurd we recognize our notions to be - we as a species are anchored to looking at the world from the perspective of the way our language is constructed.

The "Doer" flaw is everywhere - not just in relationship to the "I" illusion, but in relationship to everything with which we interact. Examples:

  1. It is raining.
  2. It has been a rotten day. (It has?)
  3. The Waves are thrashing on the beach.

etc. Those were just a few hasty examples, but they illuminate our confusion.

Something else that is an interesting corrolary in the field of social psychology is the fundamental attribution error.

[The fundamental attribution error] is people's tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.


The flip side of this error is the actor–observer bias, in which people tend to overemphasize the role of a situation in their behaviors and underemphasize the role of their own personalities


As a simple example, consider a situation where Alice, a driver, is about to pass through an intersection. Her light turns green and she begins to accelerate, but another car drives through the red light and crosses in front of her. The fundamental attribution error may lead her to think that the driver of the other car was an unskilled or reckless driver. This will be an error if the other driver had a good reason for running the light, such as rushing a patient to the hospital.

Consider how we use language to slice the world into abstract objects we see (we don't consider ourselves objects). We might interact with another person for a day, and say to ourselves "I don't like him"; and say it so fast we almost don't realize we have done it.

We mostly don't stop to think about what we've done: 1. We have placed judgement on a person as if he were a thing that was and will always be only that way. 2. We've assigned ourselves omniscience of perspective - we can correctly assess a collection of personal impressions formed rapidly about this peron; come to the right conclusion about what they mean; and then convert them into traits that dictate who that person can and shall be.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. But, what's most fundamental is that you only know who that person is when he's being who he be's when you're there.

Said another way. You only see him as he occurrs while he is in relationship with you. Perhaps you get shy, because you think he is being mean to you. However, you grant him not that same opportunity. You are effected by him as he is an it in the world, and it affected you - you know, like when it rains.

We also grant him - as we do to some degree all its - a sort of omnipotence of intent. In other words - the way he is is something he is completely in control of and at the source of - and his motivations for the way he was being were something he way completely in control of and we're completely clear to him.

And here is one place where language solidifies things. What happened was merely a moment - moments; maleable seas of experience wherein the mind latches on to one particular notion - or one context - and gave that particular context solid existence that can now be distinguished from other parts of existence. The problem with this is that everything is in motion at all times - there is no "one way" that things happened that day any more than there is one permanent anything. Praise Hereclitus (sp?) for saying:

It is not possible to step in the same river twice.

Any reference to the self in language is always a reference to a particular sensaton, emotion, state of being, thought, memory etc. Our language transforms fluid sensations into solid sates, TRUTHS, preference,etc and then promptly forgets that it has done so. Things like "I am funny" or "I don't like her" are merely frozen thoughts that have been sitting around and examined and polished over time. There is nothing to point to.

And still this is just the tip of the tip..But it's enough now. No one can offer an answer to the question "What Is I?" But what almost anyone can do if they deliberate for just a second or two is to point to "What Is Not I". Maybe mastery in the game called - being aware of "What I is not" - leads to something like seeing "What I is".

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