The Falling Person

by Tim Sommers

The Medieval Arabic philosopher Ibn Sina – Avicenna to Europeans – was rivaled in renown as a thinker in the Islamic world only by Al Farabi and hailed as “the leading eminent scholar” (ash-Shaykh ar-Ra¯sı ) of Islam. He worked in virtually every area of philosophy and science and influenced subsequent Jewish and Christian philosophers almost as much as Muslim ones. But he is probably known best for a single image, a heuristic more than a thought-experiment, “the falling person”.

“We say: The one among us must imagine himself as though he is created all at once and created perfect, but that his sight has been veiled from observing external things, and that he is created falling in the air or the void in a manner where he would not encounter air resistance, requiring him to feel, and that his limbs are separated from each other so that they neither meet nor touch. He must then reflect as to whether he will affirm the existence of his self. He will not doubt his affirming his self-existing, but with this he will not affirm any limb from among his organs, no internal organ, whether heart or brain, and no external thing. Rather, he would be affirming his self without affirming for it length, breadth and depth. And if in this state he were able to imagine a hand or some other organ, he would not imagine it as part of his self or a condition for its existence.”

Ibn Sina’s ultimate aim was to prove the existence of the soul. Let’s leave that more complicated task aside and stick to the question of what “the falling person” might tell us just about the existence of a self.

Ibn Sina, by all accounts, didn’t count “the falling person” as proof of the reality of the soul or self. He taught his students a whole chain of sophisticated arguments for that purpose. He described “the falling person” more as “alerting” or “reminding” us of the self. It’s not quite a thought-experiment. It’s not about how you would react. It’s not a puzzle with a solution. It’s a question. And the question is, if you were without a past and shut off from any input external or internal, would you have or be a self? Or, maybe, would a self still be there? Would you, could you, think, I am here? Or I am me. Or I am something.

What would this bare self’s awareness of its self be like?

I picture a hum.

Just to the right of where I sit now there’s a freezer on the other side of a closed door. But I can still hear the hum. It only comes into my awareness when there’s dead silence and my mind goes blank for a moment. But it’s always there. The kind of self that “the falling person” might have, I picture as that hum. No content just…there. But is it really there? Couldn’t the falling man think?

Maybe, Descartes come to mind about now. “Cogito, ergo sum.” “I think, therefore I am.” Doesn’t this prove our bare existence as a thinking self without any impressions or memories or whatever? Not really. Descartes oversold his argument. It doesn’t really prove the existence of a substantial self or any kind of self-like thing, or even the hum, only of occurrent thought. He should have said, “There’s thinking going on here.” The idea that thought requires some kind of thinker doesn’t fall out of Cogito all on its own.

A more constructive parallel is Hume , even though Hume takes exactly the opposite view as Ibn Sina. Hume is a “no-self” kind of guy.

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.”

No hum. I am just a bundle of perceptions and memories. Insensible to the world and myself, I am nothing. And so “the falling person”? No person at all.

Is Hume right? Am I not there in a dreamless sleep or when fully-unconscious – as in a deep enough coma or under full anesthetic?

One way to push back against Hume might be this. Surely, we don’t want to picture people, or ourselves, as flickering in and out of existence. When I wake up from surgery should we say I came back into existence? Of course, what we want or don’t want to say settles nothing.

At a minimum, “the falling person” feels like a potential person, not really there yet. No hum. Not switched on yet. But coming.

Suppose you were in a sensory-deprivation tank. Wouldn’t the hum be there? Sure. But you would still be having internal perceptions. What if you were asleep in a sensory-deprivation tank? One runs out of ideas.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but whenever I think of “the falling person” I think of a scene from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, as a side effect of something called the Improbability Drive, a sperm whale and a potted petunia are suddenly “called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.”

“And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale,” Douglas Adams says, “this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale anymore.”

The whale thinks:
“Ah … ! What’s happening?
Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?”

But “Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was ‘Oh no, not again’.”