Growing up, and being philosophically trained in the Western world, means that one has heard, on many occasions, the wisdom passed down by Rene Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” Descartes began from a point of “complete” skepticism. Doubting everything around him as well as his own existence. His goal was to justify existence. Why does something (anything) exist, and why do we exist. So, he doubted everything in order to justify why he, and thus all of us, exist. His answer: because he, the individual, had the ability to think, then he must exist. One’s ability to think, then, justifies one’s own existence as an autonomous individual. This means one does not need anyone else to explain or justify their existence. Existence then comes, or is justified, from the internal process of thought without any external justification. It is put solely on the individual, unconnected, and alone. One’s sense of self is dependent on one’s self.
On the other hand, there is an African philosophical concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu means, “I am because we are”. I have been thinking a lot about this concept lately, and how it seems closer to lived experience than, “I think therefore I am”.
“I am because we are” means that our sense of self does not depend solely on one’s self, but that it is intertwined with our relationships with others. One’s sense of self is molded through one’s relationships and the roles one plays in them. In fact, it recognizes our inherent connection to others.
When life begins, we do not sprout independently of others. When life begins our relationships begin. We become a daughter or a son and a grandchild. You may even become a cousin, a sibling, a niece or nephew and so on and so forth. In short, when life begins, we are never alone. We are born into a web of relationships.
These relationships do not even speak to the past relationships that had to occur for one to come into existence. As we know, the rule of causation tells us that in order for there to be a result, there must be a cause for that result. In terms of the causation of a single person, there must have been certain circumstances which caused the existence of that person. Those causes, or the relationships that had to happen for one to come into existence, are the relationships of our ancestors. In Buddhism, this is called Dependent Origination.
We can do some simple ancestor math to get an idea of how many relationships had to occur for a single human to exist. In order to be born one needs: 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 2g grandparents, 32 3g grandparents, 64 4g grandparents, 128 5g grandparents, 256 6g grandparents, 512 7g grandparents, 1024 8g grandparents, 2048 9g great grandparents, and 4096 10g grandparents. There is certainly a pattern here, each generation doubles. This is only going 10 generations back, so there are even more. However, by only going back 10 generations we know that it took at least 4096 people to find each other, form relationships of some kind, and procreate in order for one person to exist here and now. The formula is X=2n. X is the number of direct line, blood ancestors you have. n is the generation back from you.
These are the relationships we can generally track; we know that they were necessary in order for us to happen. But, what about the other relationships we cannot track, like all of our great grandparents’ relationships, their friends, families, and communities that helped to form their senses of self? Our ancestors, like us, belonged to different communities and had many relationships, and roles to fulfill, each of which influenced their sense of self, their ideas, their perceptions of the world etc. This tells us, that although we may not be able to prove or track these relationships, if we look at our own webs of relationships, we get an idea of how vast that which caused us really is.
I will, use my web as an example, and will probably forget some relationships or communities. I belong to a family (genetic) in which I am a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, aunt, and cousin. In my non-genetic family, I am a partner and a friend. I live within a community in which I am a neighbor, activist, and organizer actively working to improve that community. In addition, in my professional relationships, I am an advisee, a philosopher, an intellectual, a writer, an artist, an adviser, educator, and a teacher. I am also live in a country and the global community and have relationships within those realms, whether they are direct or indirect. Each of these relationships, and my belonging to these communities, influences my sense of self and have helped me to perceive the world in certain ways as well as influence my daily life and decisions. In fact, I met my partner through other friends, which means without their relationships with him and my relationships with them, we may not have connected when and how we did.
This shows us that the number 4096 is conservative, even for 10 generations. So, while Descartes justifies and proves his own existence as an untethered individual, Ubuntu, on the other hand, acknowledges the 4096+ ancestors and their relationships. “We” gets bigger and bigger the more we think about what “we” means.
What about the rest of the “we”? We have relationships and are dependent upon outside of human animals. The plant and animal life that we need in order to survive, not only as nutrients, but the ecosystems and habitats they create that make up our world. All of these influence our environment and how we live in the world. If plant and animal life had not evolved as it has then none of us would exist, the way we do now.