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I Seem to be a Membrane

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2023

“My so-called inner world, the ‘I’, contains nothing; it is simple. It admits no change…there is no inner world.”

In the beginning there is I and not-I…and not-not-I. ‘I’ only reveals itself in the context of not-I, and vice versa; like quarks, ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ only occur together, as a pair.

Not-not-I only reveals itself in the context of both I and not-I. In the creedal language of Nicaea, we’d say, “Not-not-I proceeds from I and not-I.” In the dialectical language of Marxism, we’d say, “Synthesis proceeds from Thesis and Antithesis.” 

The ‘I’ aspect of reality never changes; it endures, one and the same, now and forever, throughout the vicissitudes of spacetime experience. This is the famous ‘enduring personal identity’ (‘soul’ in some terminologies) to which we all cling as if to a life raft. 

On one hand, there is only one ‘I’ which we all share. On the other hand, every ‘I’ reflects a specific not-I and every not-I is unique. Any two I’s are exactly the same…and totally different! (In fact, only things which are totally different can ever be the same. Comparability is the enemy of identity.)

‘I’ never changes; it’s not the sort of thing that changes. It can’t change; it’s simple (Aquinas), it’s inert, a ball bearing (Laplace), a Monad (Leibniz), Aletheia (Parmenides): “…what-is is ungenerated and imperishable…whole, single-limbed, steadfast, and complete, nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…” 

Not-I changes continually (Heraclitus); it’s the sort of thing that changes. It’s not simple! Every not-I is composed of every not-I, i.e., everything in heaven and earth, Horatio, except of course, ‘I’. Your not-I and my not-I likely share many (most?) elements. 

What distinguishes ‘yours’ from ‘mine’ is the way the elements are arranged; individuality is mostly a matter of perspective. Our worlds massively overlap, but our perspectives are unique.

‘Not-I’ is Parmenides’ Doxa: “To come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, and to shift place and to exchange bright color.”                                 

My situation (not-I) changes, gradually. These changes create the false impression that I am changing - growing-up, growing-out, growing-old - but ‘I’ never changes. Not-I changes gradually; not-not-I turns over the money changers’ tables in the temple. 

In my younger days, I used to like to visit Las Vegas. Most times, I’d stay at the Bellagio. After a few trips, I learned a secret. The entire casino draws off a common wine inventory. Theoretically, every bottle of wine is available at every restaurant in the casino. Want to pair a 1982 Lafite Rothchild with a bacon cheeseburger? I can make that happen for you!

IRL, however, each restaurant in the casino curates its own wine list, drawing exclusively, of course, from the casino’s master inventory. As a result, the wine list at Picasso looks nothing like the wine list at Michael Mina’s. You’d never know that they draw off a common inventory…unless I told you. Oops!

The universe works the same way. The master set of overlapping not-I’s constitutes the shared inventory of elements (‘multiplicity’). Each not-I is like a restaurant-specific wine list (‘nexus’); not-not-I (‘event’) is what happens when I order a specific bottle off a particular restaurant’s curated list, taste it and pair it with steak tartar…or foie gras

‘I’ is universal, not-I is communal, not-not-I is particular. Not-I is the intersection of ‘I’ and not-not-I, the universal and the particular.

Every not-not-I is sui generis; it’s pure novelty. Not-not-I is ‘not-I’, uniquely apprehended, experienced, and appropriated. Not-not-I becomes an element in not-I and is available to all subsequent not-not-I’s.  

That’s how we communicate: I share my particular ‘not-not-I’ and you share your particular ‘not-not-I’, and we both share through the medium of the common ‘not-I’. We communicate like trees! Trees sink roots into the earth. Through their root systems, Tree A and Tree X exchange fairly complex messages. 

Subject matter includes weather forecasts, predator alerts, disease prophylaxis, and the ‘just’ allocation of scarce resources (water, minerals, even sunlight). (We have no way to know if trees also talk about philosophical concepts; do trees believe in God?) 

However, this arboreal communication is never direct; it occurs through the common medium of unicellular fungi that permeate and enrich the soil that separates and links the roots.  

In the Western philosophical tradition, ontologies habitually fall prey to The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (Whitehead). They fracture the ‘I’ and pretend to create a ‘split personality’; they talk of an ‘inner world’ and an ‘outer world’. 

According to various versions of conventional wisdom, my so-called ‘inner world’ may include my physical body and the cells, tissues and organs that make it up, my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and desires, my plans, my dreams, my dreads, my disappointments, and my disgusts. 

In fact, none of these things is part of any ‘inner world’. They are all firmly located in the ‘not-I’ on their way to becoming ‘not-not-I’ for me. My so-called inner world, the ‘I’, contains nothing; it’s simple. It admits no change.  

Conventional wisdom agrees that I am a membrane, but a membrane that separates my so-called inner world (me) from my outer world (not-me). This ‘inner’ world has even been mapped - by biology (cells, tissues, organs, and organic processes), by chemistry (base pairs, amino acids, RNA), and by psychology (unconscious, pre-conscious, conscious; id, ego, superego).

As usual, conventional wisdom contains a grain of truth: I am a membrane! But, no surprise, it misplaces concreteness. I am not the membrane that exists between my body and its environment. We already have a word for that; it’s called ‘skin’.

I am the membrane that exists between world…and no world! I am like Janus, the Two Faced God. ‘I’ can peer in (to my so-called body/mind) or out (to my so-called environment). Either way, it’s always the same ‘I’ that’s doing the peering and always the same ‘not-I’ that is the object of my leering. 

There is no inner world. I am ‘I’, remember? I am simple, I am incapable of change. Everything else changes. Heraclitus was 99.99% right: Everything flows, except me (and any other ‘I’ that might happen to be ‘eddying’ around with me). 

The me-membrane is not an inanimate barrier; it’s not even organic tissue. It is not a physical or material reality at all. It’s the principle of reflection, an irreducible aspect of Being per se. ‘I’ reflects the world, ‘I’ projects the world, and the world becomes what I project. The world is the collective ‘not-I’, the superimposition of the unique reflections and projections of each ‘I’.

The world is my hodological map. It indicates to me the tasks that are to be accomplished and the tools available to me to accomplish them. Space and time are simply measures of ‘priority’ and ‘on handedness’. 

The world includes my whole body, my whole self - brain, brawn, and blood - and it includes your body, your whole self as well. But it does not include ‘you’. You transcend the world…just as I do. 

Each of us is the primary substance of our own universe. What I call ‘you’ is the in-breaking of your universe into mine. I know that I am not alone because I know ‘you’ (even if I can’t prove it). In fact, “Naught is all else to me save that thou art.” (St. Dallin re: God)

I am the membrane that separates world and no-world…and so are you! 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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