In 2011, Thandie Newton spoke at TED about “Embracing Otherness, embracing myself.” The essence of Thandie’s speech was that we are all in fact connected and that the concept of a self that is separate from everyone else is learnt after birth, and as a consequence, if we all realized this fundamental truth of oneness, then the world would be a more beautiful and peaceful place. Clearly Thandie made a deep connection with the audience at TED and she did so by connecting with their minds, and more importantly, by appealing to their hearts, inviting us all to share in her deeply personal experiences and beliefs about life. Thandie’s story was original, authentic, and most importantly, emotional.
There was much debate in ensuing discussion on the topic of otherness and self (captured in the commentary on TED’s website). Most of the commenters complimented Thandie’s message and eloquent delivery, and agreed with her central argument. What caught my attention was the posting by Felicia Gaddis who was the first to take a substantive contrarian view, stating that “[w]e came here with very distinct likes and dislikes and ‘personalities’.” Though I didn’t find Felicia’s counter argument to be convincing, I was fascinated by the reactions to her statement. It is likely not possible to definitively resolve these types of philosophical questions in an objective way, even if it is entertaining to debate them. That said, we can and should explore these questions, to discover, dissect, and convince ourselves of what we strongly hold to be ideals in life. For example, it would seem that underlying many of the positive responses to Thandie is a deep rooted belief that the idea of single sentient consciousness in the universe is much more desirable to a universe of disconnected, arguably, lonely individuals (or selves). While I admit that I believe that our world could benefit from a lot more of the the type of thinking that Thandie is fostering, I am not necessarily convinced that a universe of a single consciousness is what I would consider to be the ideal. (Perhaps I am in favor of a seemingly paradoxical duality of oneness and separateness.) Rather than making an argument in favor or against what is the ideal, let me pose some questions that may lead you down part of the zigzagging path I have taken:
1. It is noted in Thandie’s speech that babies learn the concept of self. This may imply that in fact the opposite is the more natural and more direct course in life. If so, how should one raise a child to not be self-aware, to be pure and to be effortlessly connected to everyone else? I know some would consider this outcome to be nirvana, but if it is the natural state of being, then should it not be easy to attain?
2. Suppose we could magically attain the realization of connectedness across every being at this very moment (oneness). What then after that? Would this not be a boring state of affairs? Is the next step devolution, back to billions of disconnected pieces?
3. Often it is hard to answer such philosophical questions when thinking about it in relation to one’s person and rooted in the reality of now, so I devised a thought experiment to tackle this question. Let’s suppose that we are in the future and on the brink of inventing artificial intelligence (AI). That is, giving machines consciousness. Would we create one conscious machine or many different consciousnesses? (Perhaps the ardent believers in oneness would argue that it is not posible to create AI or that even if it was possible, the consciousness would simply be the same one, i.e. the machine would be connected to the rest of us. Interesting thought, no?)
4. What place is there for true love (love of another and love that is built on selflessness) in a universe where there is only oneness? Can it even exist?
Admittedly, I may have asked the same question above in different ways, but the intent was to explore different implications to life and existence if there was in fact only oneness.
As with many of the more important philosophical questions in life, there is no definite resolution to be had. I definitely share some of the same beliefs as Thandie holds dear and feel the biggest contribution she has made in this talk is to start people thinking and engaging in dialogue, especially those who would otherwise not contemplate such matters.
P.S.: Thandie, if you ever stumble upon this posting, I would love to hear your responses to my questions and/or thoughts.