version of:   August 15, 2004

Chapter 17: Freedom from Identification

Identifications can be dropped. Whatever we have learned to identify with, whether race or gender or nationality or status or special abilities of any kind, we can drop our attachment to all that. Instead of remaining stuck to those identifications, we can learn to wear them lightly, like loosely fitting clothes that we put on and take off, depending on the occasion. We can even drop our attachment to our personal history. And we can go yet further, dropping our identification with being a human being, or even being a being at all.

Experiment 2.5.: What am I?

Ask yourself what you are. Don't force any particular answers, don't try to be philosophical or analytical, don't try to be sophisticated in any way. Just start with whatever comes to mind naturally, in the order in which it appears.

Perhaps your name will be what pops up first, or your body, or your gender, or the fact that you are a child of your parents. Whatever comes up, hold it in your mind for a while, taste it, and then drop it. You can use any of the previous experiments to unglue your identification with whatever has popped up.

For example, seeing everything around you as given in a movie or dream will make it relatively easy to shift toward an attitude that does not take your habitual identification as an ultimate truth. Explore how far you can go in this direction. What is the limit? What stops you? Questioning whatever seems to stop you, are you sure you can't go further? Are you sure it is not your unquestioned assumptions that hem you in?

At first, your attempts will mostly move on the level of fantasies, seemingly powerless in trying to counterbalance the much more heavily ingrained fantasies that have given rise to your closely held identifications. But all that may shift, perhaps surprisingly so. You may encounter a totally unexpected sense of freedom.


Dramatic shifts in our life are often connected with significant breaks in what we identify with. Literature is full of it. Someone suddenly realizes the relativity of a life-long fight for an ideal, from defending a national identity to making a lot of money to wanting to excel in sports or in a hobby. Life seems to come to a screeching halt.

A vast shift in identity can be propelled by a debilitating accident or disease. Suddenly someone has to rearrange his or her whole view of self and world, if they can no longer function in a way taken for granted; yet the surprising thing is the human flexibility to adapt to new positions, situations, weaving new identifications.

At the other end of the scale, every day is full of little shifts in identity. One moment we are a client in a store. The next moment we call a parent and we are recast in the role of a child. Suddenly we wonder where we put our wallet -- ah, there it is; a fleeting wave of identification with money, property, power; and the lack thereof, uncertainty, embarrassment at not being able to pay the bill.

We walk through life on a path of identifications. There are the little pebbles we briefly touch with our feet, the larger stones and slabs we encounter, the rocks we climb over or go around, and the long stretches of paved road that we more easily traverse.


A life without identification would seem worse than being poor, or ill, or handicapped in any way; after all, those conditions each carry their own identifications, with the challenge to learn to live with them. A life that is not carried by identifications may seem like a void, an emptiness, something that is hard even to imagine. If anything, it may give us a sense of undirected angst or dread.

We assume we need an identity in order to operate in this world. And indeed: it is true that operating requires an identity. The question needs to be rephrased, and taken more deeply: can we be in the world without operating?

Operating, manipulating, fabricating, all these ways of doing are defined in terms of changes in identity, based on underlying invariants of identity. A baker bakes bread: the dough changes into a loaf of bread, while the baker remains the baker. This is the logic of our realm.

This logic is so ingrained, so taken for granted, that questioning it would seem absurd. Yet we will question it. But before doing so, let us remind ourselves of a story from the recent history of science, perhaps the most amazing story in its whole history.

The Old World Order

One hundred years ago, science presented us with a picture of the world that was comfortably stable and reliable. The world was given as a collection of material particles within space and time, atoms composed of nuclei and electrons, themselves building blocks for molecules, out of which all material structures were built up.

Each particle had a definite position and velocity, and the whole world was in principle knowable. Reality was like one gigantic game of chess: there was nothing in the laws of physics that prevented you from taking a close look at any particular part of the huge board that was stretching infinitely in all directions.

If you would take a close look, you would find particles interacting, bouncing off each other according to well-defined laws. You would also find electromagnetic waves, forms of pure energy traversing space and interacting with the particles. And for each little part of the game, the position and state of motion of each particle would be measurable.

With those measurements in hand, you could then solve a few compact differential equations, and predict the future as well as postdict the past, as accurately as you would wish; more accuracy only required better measurements and more detailed calculations. The world was, at bottom, a cleanly simple and ordered place.

The Real World!

Reality couldn't be different, it turned out. Within a few short years, in the late nineteen-twenties, this whole clockwork picture of the world was relegated to the status of an amusing historical aberration, an approximation that was reasonably accurate for some applications, not for others, and that had nothing fundamental to tell us about the nature of the world.

In contrast, it had led us to believe exactly the wrong thing about the nature of the world. The whole picture of stable identities, arbitrary precision, fixed roles for particles in any reaction, repeatability of experiments, had dominated the way Europeans looked at the world for more than two hundred years, since the beginning of the Enlightenment. But that picture turned out to be totally false.

By 1930 it had become clear that the very building blocks of matter are governed by quantum mechanics. Reality is more like a card game than a board game, and then with most cards showing different faces at different times. The consequences were profound. Most interactions between particles simply have no predictable outcome at all; the best thing you can do is calculate statistical probabilities. Repeatability went out the window. Determinism went out the window.

It is hard to convey the beauty of quantum mechanics with a few strokes of a pen, mostly because our culture has not yet come to grips with it. It should be the main thing to be taught in science classes in high school, obligatory material for all, and presented with clear and intuitive illustrations.

Shocking Beauty

Among the consequences of quantum mechanics are the fact that no particle has an identity until you ask it a question, forcing it to make a choice, but only a choice for that measurement: ask it a different question, then repeat the first question again, and chances are large that you will get a different answer than what you got earlier to that same question.

You might object that classical clockwork particles could also be perturbed by a series of measurements, and as a result could give a different answer. But quantum mechanics is different. The difference runs deep and is fundamental. No matter how hard you try to minimize the effects of your measurements, you cannot get a particle to behave `consistently' -- in the sense of the illusionary consistency that classical mechanics talked about.

The shocking beauty of the intrinsic spontaneity of quantum mechanics goes even deeper than that. Not only can you not measure intrinsic properties of particles that could be thought to belong to a particle, the way a position and velocity belongs to a classical particle. You cannot even postulate such intrinsic properties.

As John Bell showed, more than thirty years ago, any choice of objective properties for a particle is refuted by subsequent measurements. A particle cannot have an objective ontology, based on fixed values for its properties, not even when they are hidden. The pictures on the cards we are playing with keep changing.

No Identity

The shock waves of the discovery of quantum mechanics have still not died down. All physicists agree on the mathematical rules of quantum mechanics, and their applications to calculate statistical properties of physical effects. But opinions are still divided as to what it all means.

Some physicists interpret Bell's theorem, that excludes the presence of so-called hidden variables, in complicated ways, postulating that there is something ontological there after all, while shifting the magic to the measuring process and the non-local behavior of other elements of the picture. Others postulate the actual existence of many different worlds, splitting off from our world with any type of quantum mechanical choice anywhere, at any time.

The easiest and most straightforward interpretation of what quantum mechanics is trying to tell us is this: nature at bottom does not carry the type of identity that we have been leaning on as crutches in our neatly ordered classical world view. Identification is something provisional, something dynamic and temporary, useful for particular purposes but not fundamental in any sense. And identification can function without underlying identity.

The Real World?

One hundred years ago, we saw the real world as a clockwork mechanism. In the mean time we have learned to see the material world as something only partly determined, something intrinsically responsive, willing to answer our questions, but answering with a large dose of capriciousness, of intrinsic spontaneity.

We now consider the quantum world as the real world. How interesting it would be to have a peek in the future, at how we will see the world a hundred years hence -- or a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand years into the future! Who knows how we would see the world then?

Just from the fact that science has witnessed this tremendous revolution in what it considers material stuff to be, only in the last century, it would be prudent to be careful, and not to conflate our current picture of the material world with reality itself.

Who knows how much more fantastic reality will turn out to be? How many similar revolutions are lying in wait for us? How many of those may even be more shocking that the quantum revolution? The latter has started to mix even potentiality and actuality. What will future revolutions mix, among concepts that we now still regard as mutually incompatible?

Future Science

A future science may mature sufficiently to be able to deal with the complexities of life and consciousness, to the point of being able to come to grips with all aspects of life, subject and object, and what goes beyond that polarity. As long as science stays alive as an ongoing enterprise of exploration, this conclusion seems hard to avoid.

And if history is any guide at all, this future science will give us a far more unified view of reality, embracing aspects of reality that currently seem almost totally disconnected. Who could have guessed, in the nineteenth century, that one day space and time would be seen as intimately related, as different projections of one spacetime continuum; or that matter and energy, so seemingly different, are nothing but aspects of the same `thing'?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the wonderful discovery of the world of quantum mechanics must be a prelude for even more wonderful discoveries, yet to come. In addition, the wonderful freedom from clockwork shackles that quantum mechanics presents is likely to be a harbinger of further and wider freedoms yet be unveiled.

In this way, without any further speculation, without any guess as to the exact nature and character of future developments in science, this much seems to be a pretty good bet: the partial freedom from identification that quantum mechanics already has shown us is only a first glimpse into the nature of reality, which will be followed by deeper and richer glimpses. An asymptotic understanding of reality in terms of a total freedom from identifications is at least compatible with the historic path that science has taken, and more than that, it is the most straightforward extrapolation of that path into the far future.

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