Identity Crisis

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

An interesting conversation took place at work, over lunch. In general it had to do with different phenomena contributing to the world’s status quo. Our lunch table was occupied by a Dane, a French, an Indian, and myself a Sri Lankan. Despite our similar, and at times diverging perspectives and conclusions, there were fundamental issues which none of us could ignore. One such issue is a crisis inevitably taking place; broadly speaking, a crisis in Identity.

The evolution of the meaning, and source of individual identity has been somewhat parallel to the rapid yet profound changes in society and culture over the last millennium. In particular, the rise of modernist individualism may have inverted our source of identity and how we view the individual. While it has become incredibly complex to define the process by which identities are formed or assumed by individuals and groups today, the result is much more apparent. The western political sphere for example, is roughly polarized into the left and right, and identity formation also seems to follow this polarization. Those who belong to the extreme right, hold to a more conventional sense of communal identity, retained by virtue of conservative religion. The American right wing is a case in point. Conversely, the extreme left has a more fluid and what could be called a ‘post-postmodern’ basis for defining their identity.

Concerning the latter, issues on gender identity have gained a lot of media prominence. Apart from the familiar traditional genders, each individual is at liberty to create their own gender or lack thereof, notwithstanding the gender pronouns that follow each of these. Going further, appropriation of ethnic identities where a white woman “identifies” as black, a white Brit identifying as Korean, a person born a female after many surgeries now identifying as an “alien”, and the list goes on. On an individual level, these self-assumptions of identity pose no threat, so long as the process itself does not affect others. There is no real harm to the rest of the world if an individual identifies as a different ethnicity or some non-existent species for that matter. The problem however, lies in the fact that a large following of those who subscribe to an aspect-based-identity-ideology, define themselves to the rest of the world purely in terms of these aspects of their person, i.e. gender, color, – and dare I mention – body fat percentage, etc. The situation is then exacerbated by supplementary movements and “influencers” who feel the need to over-validate an individual’s feelings that are bound to change due to infinite external and internal factors, with no stake in their lives whatsoever.

It wouldn’t do much to philosophize the issue or even try to understand the mechanics of it here, simply because it’s near-impossible to keep up with the non-stop novelty. However, there is an all too real ground reality that can be observed. Prior to the shifts that led to what we understand as modern times, people largely relied on their communities and social structures which made up the cultural ethos to define their place in the world and in life: the social class of the family, profession, geographical region, birthplace, political affiliations, and most of all religion. All these components of society and more, in synergy helped define identity, be it for an individual or any social entity. Religion in particular provided a transcendent basis, something larger than life from which people derived a sense of identity. For example, ancient Jews believed themselves to be chosen by God as a nation, and this narrative fueled and complemented the lives of different subgroups, be it the priesthood, the ruling elite, or the ordinary citizen. Further down the line with the advent of Christianity, the Roman Catholic church, and Islam, the general locus of identity rested on the church, empire, caliphate, or the dominant political structure with which religion was inextricably linked. This locus defined morals, ethics, and the boundaries of the spirit of society.

Religion acted, and still acts as a theory of identity; a theory based not on experiment and formulae, but on narrative, ritual, and daily experience. The collective experience was based on organizing in groups, communities, derived from the social bonds of history. And so for better or worse, the individual identity was rooted in the more or less solid ground of their historical heritage. There was little to no self reflection necessary in order to define one’s identity, until the likes of the 15th century under which this superstructure of western civilization started to crack. With the likes of religious reformers, renaissance artists and philosophers, and scholars setting the stage for the rise of the individual, the strict dominance of larger organizations over public life was waning. This led to the flourishing of new ideas, a renaissance of science and inquiry that was free of institutional bonds that opened the human mind into a universe that was unimaginably vast and fundamentally different from that of the past. This much needed leap into the future is still in flux, but it has inevitably led to an identity crisis for the modern man.

This old system of the world is all but gone. What’s left is highly politicized, but also marginalized due to a sense of irrelevance and an apparent inability to address the twenty first century human condition. The rise of secularism has indeed broken the power and potential of religious hegemony, and it continues to stand guard against extant religious extremism. But the people of planet earth are certainly in a period of muddy transition where the ground of identity that was once provided by the old world has been pulled out from under out feet. In a highly individualized culture, identity formation is fragmented and has run lose. We have no more narratives nor communal beliefs to unite us. For a large and vocal percentage of the population, identities depend on whim and rhetoric, where the sole ground becomes individual feeling.

Whether or not this is “good”, depends on the observer’s perspective. Those retaining strands of the past, long for what was but never will be, and the ones trying to “break free” do so providing no solid ground for those to follow. But to criticize the past on skewed ideology for our current woes is to entertain alternate history and abdicate responsibility, which has no practical benefit. To criticize the present while holding onto things that are bound to disappear, is arrogance and foolishness. The push towards a hyper-rational society devoid of the old traditions has had the unintended consequence of leaving a void which is constantly being filled with temporary, and mostly reactive ideology that provides no lasting benefit to society.

We must ask ourselves if as societies, are we self aware of the cultural and societal upheavals that are taking place? The ancients envisioned such upheavals as the end of an age. We may not need “ancient wisdom” to address our own situation although, we must arrive at a point of brutal self awareness in order to understand why society is changing the way it does. One prominent clue may lie in the fact that we have no solid ground for identity anymore. The former theory of identity is not as effective as it was, at least not en masse. We need a new theory of identity, possibly combining the rigor of modern science as well as the spirit and aesthetic of the former. Basing our identities on reactive social movements that almost always originate on a negative premise, have rarely solved real problems. Rather what’s required is a thoughtful, systematic, and preferably an organic solution starting on a positive premise to inform us and provide solid ground for any further progress to be rooted in.

Our lunch conversation ended with a somewhat unrelated suggestion for a social experiment where we would start a cult in order to test the dynamics of cultic ideology from a position of authority, but then decided otherwise either due to lack of confidence in our skills to sustain one, or our overconfidence in thinking we had the charisma to attract people. We could at least agree on this.

Understanding Reality: From Then to Now in Summary

Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam_(cropped)

The idea of “unification” has been part of the human enterprise till as far back as we can possibly think. What do I mean by “unification”? I’d summarize it as follows:

The attempt at unifying ourselves and what we know about the world in tandem with what we do not know. In other words, a model of explanation for everything.

This has explicitly been the case since the scientific renaissance starting in the 15th century where it replaced medieval concepts of the world, and the science of that day. A turning point in our understanding of the universe came about with the Copernican theory of the heliocentric model which showed the Sun to be the center of a body of orbiting planets including earth. This was in stark opposition to the established wisdom of the day championed by the Christian church, where the earth occupied the center of the universe. All of this leading through what’s called the age of enlightenment, we arrive at where we are now where science tries to make the ultimate unification of the theories which describe reality the best so far.

The current scientific attempts at unification however do not stand isolated from the rest of the human experience, it’s rather a continuation of something we may not have overtly thought of. Even the most ancient of religions were exercises in a form of unification; as opposed to scientific theories as we understand them today, these attempts were by virtue of appeals to an extra layer of reality that were either just beyond the clouds, or coexisting alongside us but barred from our vision, or at least some sort of fundamental “life force” that possessed even what we’d call a dumb rock. These attempts took the form of stories, and eventually turned into comprehensive narratives which explained a unified whole consisting of us, the world we perceived, and a world we did not. As a result we have epics of myth, legend, poetry, songs, leading to entire control systems taking root in communities that explained the universe as they knew it.

Depending on the times and regions, particular stories about gods and monsters would dominate. And in a world where the ruling class of a community or an empire had the patronage of a powerful god worshiped by those who were ruled, this type of story had the power to both control and establish a worldview for its people. No matter the politics and power struggles that are apparent in much of these stories we are ever so familiar with, unifying the unseen world of the gods, with the world we experience, right down to our own sense of self has been at the center of the human experience throughout our imaginable past.

The many narratives derived from the texts of the Bible to a large extent explain these three components of the self, the world, and the unknown with particular actors. In essence, I’d argue that fundamentally, the Bible is a portrayal of the historical struggle of Israel grappling with this “other” reality in relation to their own highly religious and politicized lives nuanced by their own context and culture (sometimes intermixed with other cultures), a narrative in which God is an actor as much as Israel was. This story permeated the life of Israel well beyond the personal into describing what their community meant in the larger scale of things in relation to other nations, their ongoing struggles and consequences of their actions as a nation, all the way to a faceted Age to Come envisioned by the prophets. Although from a modern hyper-rational perspective these stories are reduced to arcane nonsense, they were also real in the sense that the stories were lived through the lives of these communities and driven by a subconscious that attempted to unify the different layers of reality. This was further enabled by traditions, rituals, and the gathering of communities in acts of preaching and prayer.

However, the larger story of history dominates the rest, more like a god allegiant to no people. With the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70CE, the Jewish story which now included the new sub plot of Christianity went in a different direction. The story that once envisioned and foretold the destruction of the Roman empire ended up in the empire’s conversion in subsequent centuries. This conversion came at a price. It wasn’t just the stories, but the telling of stories itself was at an end. There was no more need for aspirations of a new age. The state backed religion was now at the helm of civilization with both priest and emperor at its head, well on its way to becoming the Holy Roman Empire under the banner of the Christ. Narrative grounded in history was reduced to universalized creeds and doctrines; a framework of belief that either included or excluded people and communities based on their belief. This had both religious and political advantage, but whether it contributed to the progress of civilization and humanity is questionable.

Subsequently the next millennium to follow would be called the “dark ages” by later scholars, a time arguably beset with famine, disease, deterioration of culture, and lack of progress until the renaissance of art and science. The world seemed to come out of an age dominated by feudalism, religio-political conquest, delusional religious superstition, and the established church’s antagonism towards the advancement of science and culture that was once pioneered by the ancient Greeks and Romans. We hear stories of the likes of Giodarno Bruno, Galileo Galilei, martyrs of progress crushed by an all too powerful religious institution that would later have no choice but to catch up and begrudgingly concede some ground to the world’s progress.

This emergence going through multiple eras dubbed the renaissance, revolution, and the age of enlightenment exponentially sped up progress to where we are today. Within just the last few centuries, we have discovered and rediscovered the fundamentals of life and reality over and over again on many levels through the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Darwin, Einstein, etc. Unification is back in the game however, in a different form. What was once narrative story telling has been succeeded by the method of formal scientific inquiry; observation, hypothesis, test, and theory. Metaphysical philosophies of figures such as Thales, Anaximander, Plato, Aristotle, and their later intellectual descendants deserve an honorable mention because they were a result of a scientific method however different from our own times.

As far as current attempts at explaining the universe go, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (GR) explains the empirical world, the theory of Quantum Mechanics (QM) explains a world we cannot see or directly experience although it’s at the root of reality as we know it. It’s safe to say that one of the great pursuits, if not the greatest in modern theoretical physics and cosmology is to unify these theories so we’d have one coherent theory explaining all of reality at the smallest and largest levels. What this really entails is so much more complex than merely stating it as I have. But being able to understand reality for what it truly is, would enhance and revolutionize our view of life and the universe no matter what our preconceptions might be.

In fact, the present day scientific approach apart from its applications in fields such as physics, cosmology, biology, is even applied to the components that constitute these narratives so as to give us a better understanding of the ancient understandings of the universe.

While the continuation or reinvention of the same narratives of ancient times may still have their place, the scientific method is doubtless at the head of the project of discovering and explaining objective reality. It has proven to be the new unifier of the known and unknown. This does not, and never meant that all predictions and theories pan out, but the whole process is an exercise in making progress. Every disproven theory is a step towards a better theory. The genome, penicillin, electricity, evolution, thermodynamics, GR, QM, discovery of the Higgs Boson, all were a result of this very same process. This list or a subset of it might sound like gibberish to some, and possibly irrelevant. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a mistake to dismiss science as the domain of the intellectual elite, even by the most scientifically illiterate. Not having the aptitude to comprehend the details of a theory is one matter, but dismissing it as irrelevant is an entirely different matter, unwarranted, and is a typical example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Never throw out the baby!

The religious and philosophical narratives that underlie society and our history have proven to be useful tools in their own right. While these were once used as explanatory tools, one could argue that the purpose of these stories have changed for the modern world. Now however, when it comes to pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and experience, the scientific method of inquiry has and is and deserves to be at the fore and possesses the driving force to do just this. Knowledge from these discoveries of reality can be as cathartic as religion once was. The fundamental component of the narrative called “God” is unchanged, what has changed are the stories we tell about it and our relation to it. The old symbols while helping us stay grounded, are not adequate anymore. There’s that deep seated feeling that what science describes using theories while looking forward to the grand unified theory which explains all of reality, will be a symbol (maybe a better and updated one) pointing to a fundamental reality that used to be, and maybe will continue to be called God by some.