If you want to, “we” can become as easy as “I”
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Thinking about the Social Amoeba (Dictyostelid) might change your view of what is real in this world.
Amoeba are, by definition, single-celled organisms. When food is available, individual amoeba feed and behave normally. However, under situations of distress, they aggregate in massive numbers and form a multi-cellular organism. This collection behaves like a slug which can move to another area and exhibits many behaviors commonly ascribed to multi-cellular organisms. Once food is found, the amoeba disassociate and return to previous behavior. So what is the organism, the individual amoeba or the slug?
We humans see ourselves as a single organism made out of a large number of cells. But the individual human is the organism. We didn’t invent this way of looking at ourselves, it is a fact of Nature, right?
However, we do come together to form groups. We form partnerships of two, families, communities, ethnic groups, corporations and nations. Are these just individuals who are coordinating or is the partnership an organism too? Is there such a thing as the United States that does this or that on the world stage or is that just a loose way of talking. If nations are “only” socially constructed concepts, is the individual too?
In Hannah Arendt’s (a Holocaust survivor) book “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, she writes of the “Banality of Evil”. While she was severely criticized for this, she explains that she was very struck by the figure of this mass murderer who presented as no more than a top bureaucrat, banal in his total lack of understanding of the horror of the machine he helped coordinate.
I suggest that her conclusions are distorted by the core assumption of modern thinking, that it is the individual who is the subject of moral understanding. It seems to me as wrong as studying and judging the arm of murderer and wondering about its banality. It is the totality of the group that coordinates and bears moral responsibility for its actions. (We must not confuse this question with how we punish the crimes of a group or how to allocate individual sanction or the fact that it is not equally distributed among the group.)
So do only individual humans “exist” and lower or higher organisms are just social constructions or do partnerships exist as much as an individual. Either way, a construct is a critical tool for understanding and acting in the world and while there are always alternatives, some are more useful than others. Also, once we think our thoughts and feel our emotions about these “objects”, we normally are not able to think otherwise.
So saying “I” is not the only option. We experience the “I” but we can also experience the “we”. We may say “I think therefore I am”, but “We act” and “We think” are also valid.