What makes me me?

In Spirituality by Johnson DavisLeave a Comment

I was having dinner with friends at a neighbor’s house and, as usually happens towards the end of the evening, the conversation turned towards the unanswerable questions. (Why are we here? Are we supposed to be here? Do you think we are going to get in trouble when our neighbors get home?) This night’s philosophical discussion:

Do we have any intrinsic properties?


Intrinsic, adj.
… belonging to a thing by its very nature: intrinsic merit.

Extrinsic, adj.
… not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality of: facts that are extrinsic to the matter under discussion.

The idea is

Can we all be defined purely in terms of our extrinsic properties? These properties can all be described in terms of relationships:

I have parents named Johnson and Lynn.
I have a wife named Tamara.
I have a son named Xan.
I have love for Johnson, Lynn, Tamara and Xan.
I have a hateful hate for sea urchin sushi.
I have brown hair.
I have a tendency to talk too much.

Although it may not be completely obvious, even the last two indirectly describe relationships. They are simply symptoms of my heredity and how much I like to hear the sound of my own voice. I’ll get back to this symptom thing later.

Heredity as Environment

Also, note that I am not talking about heredity versus environment. Under this ontology, my heredity is just another part of my environment. This means an intrinsic property has to go much deeper than my chromosomes.

In a parallel universe

(Stop me if you’ve heard this…) If Caesar were Brutus and Brutus were Caesar, what would have been different? My friend started the discussion with this question. He had been following a mailing list on semantics where this whole intrinsic/extrinsic discussion has been going on for months. The argument goes that all extrinsic properties are switched in a parallel universe:

Caesar has Brutus’ mother.
Brutus has Caesar’s mother.
Caesar looks like Brutus.
Brutus looks like Caesar.
Caesar walks like Brutus.
Brutus walks like Caesar.
Caesar talks like Brutus.
Brutus talks like Caesar.
Caesar even smells like Brutus.
And, of course, Brutus smells like Caesar.

What has really been switched? The answer, based on this model, is NOTHING! Caesar and Brutus do not actually have any intrinsic properties.

I think

There is a flaw in using this as an argument for the nonexistence of intrinsic properties. It assumes that there is no relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic properties. I contend that all extrinsic properties are, in their simplest forms, only symptoms of intrinsic properties. Therefore, if you switched the intrinsic properties, the extrinsic properties would also change. So you can’t change the extrinsic properties because they are inseparably linked to the intrinsic properties.

Name one…

Defining an intrinsic property, however, is problematic. We have a habit of describing everything in terms of other things. This type of relativistic abstraction has made things like toothpaste and brain surgery possible. Unfortunately, it does not support description of intrinsic properties. In fact, any seemingly successful description of an intrinsic property must, by the very nature of language, only describe symptoms of that property.


So, I believe intrinsic properties exist. I also think that, by definition, they are impossible to describe. They can only be experienced; gnosis, not logic. I guess the next step is to start a religion.  Oh, wait.

Johnson Davis

Johnson DavisI'm a practical animist, so I believe everything has an inner life and our actions should be tempered by ethical thought. And take down all the guard rails. Weee!

Leave a Comment