Persons Cannot Be Concretely Defined For the Present Moment or the Future



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    8-15

ABSTRACT:  Because of the ever changing nature of each human being, no human being can be defined concretely or completely in a lasting way.  The limits of such definition are briefly explored.

KEY WORDS:  person, personality

In order to be successful in life, each of us must “understand” to some degree the persons around him or her.  We must anticipate others’ behavior through intuiting their feelings as well as knowing the contextual cues for various behaviors.  Some of this prediction is in the form of ascribed characteristics, such as smart, lucky, or pretty.  Many people believe that heredity helps in these predictions, since in that view heredity determines some embedded characteristics such as criminality or hot-headedness.

While we think of ourselves and others as knowable entities with continuity in time (I’m the same person I was yesterday), it is also true that to some degree we are not the same.  Some of our cells have died and been replaced overnight.  Our food and drink intake has changed our blood chemistry somewhat.  We are always aging—not by much, but by enough that our systems have a different vitality and different biochemical characteristics every day (even if we can’t sense the difference between one day and the next).  These changes, plus the addition to our systems of various bacteria and viruses, ensure that our emotional state is at least slightly different in the morning than it was last night.  We say that we look the same on successive days, but since we can see significant changes between our young selves, our middle aged selves, and our elderly selves, we look “the same” tomorrow as today simply because we cannot detect the daily changes, which add up little by little.

Even if one believes that he or she has something inside that is eternal or unchanging (such as a soul) even though our bodies are changing, everyone has some awareness of thinking or feeling differently about certain things today than ten or twenty years ago, so the argument for impermanence is the same.  It is possible, of course, that there is a part of us that is eternal and unchanging, but then it would seem that this part does not interact with our daily thoughts and emotions (or does so only rarely).

We each think of ourselves as having continuity—as being the same person throughout our history—and in a sense we are.  We were the person we remember being (at least as far as our memories are accurate), but we are no longer that exact person.  Most of us have some awareness of changing over time as a person, such as having felt differently in the past about some past event than we feel about it now.  Our stream of consciousness, never being the same moment to moment, illustrates also how we are constantly changing.  So, we have continuity physically and in our memories, but we are never exactly the same as we have ever been at any moment in the past.

It is worth noting also that we ourselves do not “know” our complete status in any moment, since our consciousness can only attend to some of the stimuli, both internal and external, that impinge on us in any moment.  A considerable amount of our functioning is done through unconscious or semi-conscious processing, and we could not describe this even if we wanted to.

Even if we attempted a very complex definition of ourselves for a present moment, by the time we had completed it, the moment would have passed, and it would no longer be applicable, and we would have to start over.  The fact that we are constantly changing in our perceptions, feelings, and bodily states means that any attempt to define us with status reports (weight, height, feelings at the moment, energy level, behavioral potentials, etc.) will in the next instant be a somewhat incorrect report if we expect it to describe us in a future moment.  We could attempt to describe ourselves in terms of potentials (the probability that in any given moment we will do such and such a behavior or have such and such a feeling), but this would require both an exact description of ourselves and an exact description of our circumstances in that moment, and if we even try to conceptualize describing our circumstances exactly, we realize immediately that it would be impossible.

We do attempt this sort of behavior prediction by identifying behavior potentials that describe what we call personality, thinking of ourselves (or being described by others) as generally happy or moody or as dependable in obeying the law, etc.  However, these generalities are only likelihoods and may or may not be true about us in any specific moment, depending on our multifaceted state at that moment as well as our circumstances.  Our understanding of behavior likelihoods does help us in relating to others (and we will continue, of course, to try to understand others and predict their behavior), but these are relatively gross predictors and are often incorrect.

This fact of our indefinability has implications for our concept of self.  Our constant process of change means that we are in fact a different self in each moment.  This may seem unsettling or disturbing at first, but on the other hand it allows us to take a more positive attitude toward change and possibilities, since in any moment we could decide to change course.  This potential for change applies to others as well as to ourselves, of course, so we can be slightly more hopeful about the possibility of societal progress.  Changing habits is not easy, but choosing our environments and the stimuli that we receive and from time to time directing our focus can make a cumulative and significant difference over time.

This indefinability has implications also for psychotherapists, who should not pretend that they ever completely understand a client.  No therapist can know or integrate all of the variables that would completely describe a human being, and even if he could, that understanding would be inaccurate in the next moment.  One key to effective therapy, then, is for therapists to be working to identify and understand those variables that have the greatest potential for helping the therapist to help the client.  Therapists can be useful in helping clients get a grasp on their own behavior and status, insofar as we can do this, but it will always be partial (for both client and therapist).

Human beings are totally dynamic entities, with a great number of parts and functions, all of which influence or potentially influence all of the other parts (take, for example, all of the changes your body goes through when you get a “cold”) and interact moment-to-moment with our ever changing circumstances (both responding to our circumstances and acting to change them).  Our cognitive processes are partially aware of our status (both body and experience) but are not in control of very much, yet we can divine and formulate goals and purposes, and we can roughly guide this ship (imagine guiding a ship in the ocean or a spaceship, when you have only partial control) in its peregrinations down the tunnel of time!