I’m hoping that you will not disagree with the fact that you exist. There’s something going on at least, instead of nothing . Don’t you find that the fact there is something rather than nothing intriguing? By-the-way, we all experience nothing during deep dreamless sleep. That is strange too. So we could say that for some period while we are asleep, and experiencing dreamless sleep, we are nothing. We flip-flop between being something and being nothing every day. Looking at our life as a whole, it would seem we were nothing before we were born, something while we live, and then nothing again after death – although this last statement isn’t something we know for definite.
To make things clearer I’m going to get a bit more technical. For any experience to take place we need a subject and an object. The subject is the thing that observes and the object is the thing observed. So when you look at a tree, it is you doing the observing, and the tree that is observed. Remove either of these and there is no experience – no sense of existence. Removing the subject is exactly the same as removing all objects, and I should add that thoughts and bodily sensations are objects too. This gets deep very quickly, but it is very important. If there are no objects there is nothing for you to experience and hence there is no experience – as in deep dreamless sleep or during anesthesia. If this sounds a little dry, just stick with it, because there are many implications. So when your nervous system shuts down at night, the world of physical objects creases to exist for you during sleep. When the system shuts down even further, there are no longer any images presenting themselves in dreams, and all objects, physical and mental, disappear. Because there are no objects there is no experience, and there is no subject. Subject an object are just two sides of the same thing – experience. You cannot get rid of one side without getting rid of the other.
Let’s peel this many layered onion slowly. You are subject – the thing that experiences. You are not your thoughts, because they can be seen, and as such are objects. You are not your body, because that too can be experienced – it is an object, albeit one that you know very intimately. So what are you? You are the eye that sees. Not the physical eye of course, but the eye of consciousness for want of a better word. This tells you something very important. You cannot know what you are, because you are not an object. The eye cannot see itself. Here is a mystery, and mystery and paradox are the stuff of real understanding. Annoying isn’t it. The ego really doesn’t like this, but we’ll have more to say about the ego later.
But then another awkward question raises its head. Where do you go when in dreamless sleep or made unconscious by other means? You no longer exist – at least as the observer that sees. Of course your body exists, but a closed down nervous system means you are not aware of it. It may also be that thoughts and images are still being produced by the brain – but again you are not aware of them. There are no objects for you, and when there is no object there is no subject. Schopenhauer states this very succinctly “That which knows all things and is known by none is the subject.”.
Take five. No more subjects and objects for a while. Your life is given continuity by your memory, a non-volatile data store that presents your history every time you wake up in the morning. But it isn’t just memory that gives us this feeling of continuity. When conscious I definitely have the feeling ‘this is me’. Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese-American neuroscientist and university professor, who takes Spinoza’s notions of mind and body very seriously. He claims that the brain effectively creates a map of the body, and it is this map that tells me every morning when I wake that this is me and not someone else that has awoken. The parts of the brain that perform this mapping can be damaged. In such situations a person has no sense of being someone. So our sense of continuity and identity comes from memory and a map in the brain respectively. When we become unconscious of these things, we once again do not exist, if existence is taken to be synonymous with experience.