Everyone uses “I” every day. This self-reference is an odd construct. It derives from an awareness of experiences, both past and present. It is the word that points to an object deep inside the mind, some kind of central reference point from which all decisions flow and towards which all experiences are directed. And yet, despite the overwhelming sense of truth that accompanies the use of the word, it appears to be little more than an illusory concept.
The experience of having a self at all seems so fundamental to human existence that the more typical question is not whether the “I” is an actual entity, but is a question that asks for details about the “I” that is “obviously” there. We go on voyages of self-discovery. We give up something in order to find ourselves. We spend small fortunes talking with psychologists so that we can understand this “I” to which we have become attached.
But really, this idea that there is a substance or an object somewhere inside the mind is something of a trick that we play on ourselves. As experience after experience saturates our minds, the brain is forced to deal with multiple experiences placed next to each other. The memory of one next to the memory of another – a stream of experiences – creates a history in the brain. It is the capacity of the human brain to store memories that gives us a sense of time, of continued existence. The same brain has recorded various experiences and recalls them, not as specific instances, but as a general recollection until one gets the focus.
Even in our knowledge of each other we deceive ourselves just the same. A man may know a great many things about his wife, through experiences with her, through stories told by her friends, through photographs in the family album, and yet the moment he walks out of the room there is something about her that he does not know because he has not experienced it through any medium. He can never have a complete mental picture of her. However, based on his experience of her he will create in his mind a mental representation of her. Each new experience will add to the mental representation that he has. It will never be complete, but it will always be current.
The same is true of self-knowledge. Although the depth and breadth of self-experience is greater than other-experience, there will always be gaps. Various states of semi-consciousness or unconsciousness will cloud it. Forgetfulness or amnesia will distort it. The mental representation of ourselves is gained only through the experiences that we have had with ourselves. Detailed they might be, but they are not a discovery of an object hidden deep inside the mind. They are merely a series of experiences, one after the other, each adding to the mental representation of the self by being stored in (and always-already accessed from) the memory.
In the middle of it all is not an object, but a void. By looking at the experiences that surround it we imply that there is something there that ties it all together, and yet there is ultimately nothing there but a void around which all the experiences are located. It is not an empty space waiting to be filled – just an illusion created by a series of experiences.