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Self-consciousness - the consciousness or awareness of the self as an entity of the environment. Related to self-awareness and the "self", and maybe to shadow emergence. No computer has ever been designed that is aware of what it's doing.


Berkeley and Descartes

George Berkeley said there are no mind-independent things or substances, and coined the phrase "Esse est percipi" ("To be is to be perceived"). Rene Descartes supported mind-body dualism, he thought that the mind is a nonphysical substance. He is famous for his "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). If all perceptions are created by us, and if our perceptions and thoughts exist, than we must exist, too, whether the self is some kind of substance or not.

Berkeley argues that our knowledge, including our knowledge of ourselves, must be based on our perceptions. He emphasizes the cognitive and social aspects of self-consciousness: to be or to exist means to be perceived - you exist because other people think you exist. Descartes highlights the logical and religious aspect of self-consciousness: to be or to exist means to think - you exist because you believe that you exist.

What do we get if we mix both philosophers together? Both think that the perception and creation process are closely associated: according to Berkeley, we create a thing by perception: the perception process classifies and creates an object. According to Descartes, all perceptions are created by us. Therefore we get the following chain:


now, if the thing is yourself, then you create yourself by your own perception in a circular regress. Is this self-consciousness? The conscious perception and creation of ourselves?

What is self-consciousness ?

"Ahhh! Woooh! What's happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life?.." (the sperm whale in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy")

There is not a single answer to the question of what self-consciousness is. As Patricia Churchland says, it is more a fabric of answers woven together [1]. It is clearly a complex construct of the brain. When we think, certain patterns are brought into existence. Since a brain contains more than 100 billion neurons, each pattern is a vast collection of nearly invisible little things or processes. When we think of ourselves, a pattern is brought into existence, too. It is the identification of a vast collection of nearly invisible little items with a single thing: yourself. Unfortunately, there is no immaterial "self" hovering over hundred billion flickering neurons except the abstract idea. Dennett, Churchland, Hofstadter, and many others have argued that the "self" is an illusion created by our neural circuits. The brain is able to represent abstract ideas, goals, plans, and beliefs although they don't exist as a real counterpart. If god is a coordinated hallucination of people, then the mind is a coordinated hallucination of neurons - a powerful hallucination used to orchestrate a large group of interacting agents. Religion, the belief in a god, synchronizes brains by periodic rituals to form larger, unified system of behavior. Similarly, the belief in a self synchronizes brain-parts and modules to form a unified system of behavior. In both cases, the belief creates a unifying sense of group agency greater than the sum of the individual agents in the group. The idea of a unified self and the concept of a soul as the originator of the own thoughts is an illusion and hallucination.

Insight in confusion

If the self is an illusion, an imaginary construct of the brain, then you may ask "if the self is unreal, then who is reading this?". So maybe it is more precise to say that the self is a confusing insight or an insightful confusion. At the heart of self-consciousness lies confusion tangled up with insights like a Calabi–Yau manifold. The essence of self-consciousness seems to be this strange combination of insight and confusion. It is an insight which causes confusion, or a confusion combined with an insight. Insights and analogies are like a source or flood of information. Confusions and contradictions are like a sink or drain of information. Because self-consciousness is a strange combination of both, it is best described as a whirl or chaotic mix of neural information flow.

Self-awareness is linked to the recognition of the own existence, which implies feeling of awe and importance. And yet consciousness also allows us to recognize the own death, which implies despartion. Self-awareness menas a sudden feeling of significance, importance and insight followed by and mixed with a long feeling of insignificance, unimportance and confusion. It is therefore linked to a moment of singular importance during countless moments of unimportance, and in this moment we feel a strange

  • insight in confusion
  • awe in desparation

Dan Dennett says it is uncomfortable to understand consciousness. People don't want it explained. They don't want to know that they are just machinery and that their self is a convenient fiction or, in Dennett's words "an imaginary center of narrative gravity" (which would imply to doubt their own existence). That's the paradox of self-consciousness: we become aware of our own existence by inventing a self which does not exist - a self which is only apparent at the level of symbols and thoughts which are represented by a very large number of flickering and fleeting neural assemblies.

What is the secret ingredient ?

Even if the "center of narrative gravity" is an illusion, the experience during moments of consciousness is real. It is characterized by insight in confusion and leaves a taste of mystery. Is there some mysterious process at work? It is the qualitative experience of consciousness which is difficult to explain. David Chalmers has named it the hard problem of consciousness. He asked in his article "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness" (Journal of Consciousness Studies 2:3 (1995) 200-19) what the extra ingredient in the explanation of hard consciousness is. Is there a secret ingredient? Probably not. In the Film "Kung Fu Panda", the main character opens the magic Dragon Scroll only to discover that there is no secret mystery. There is no secret ingredient in the special soup with the secret ingredient. It is the belief that there is a secret ingredient which makes it special. Likewise, there is no mysterious "extra" ingredient in self-consciousness. Something becomes mysterious because we believe that it exists. The confusion responsible for the mysterious taste it leaves arises because we mix up disparate terms. We mix up the imaginary and the real, the collective and the individual, the abstract and the concrete. We try to identify a large collective of distributed agents - the society of mind (Minsky) or the ecology of mind (Bateson) - with an abstract idea of a unified self.

Often things appear very mysterious if they don't exist: for example the missing content of the great pyramid of Giza or the lost ark of the covenant. The great pyramid for example is empty, it is so huge that there must have been a real purpose in building it. That's what makes it mysterious. But there was no good purpose, it was just foolish. The grave chamber is empty, and it looks mysterious too. Probably there have never been extraordinary things here, either. It is mysterious because you wonder what's there. There's nothing there until you actually wonder what's there.

An equation that can't be solved

"For twenty years I have mistrusted consciousness. It is the name of a non-entity and has no right place among first principles.." William James, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 1 (1904) 477-491

How brain processes produce self-consciousness is one of the greatest un­solved questions and mysteries in science. Self-consciousness is something which becomes more mysterious and harder to understand the more you think about it. As a real mystery, we can believe that there is a solution, but we don't really understand it. We only get used to it when we grow older. Why do we have a constant feeling of staying the same person, although we are constantly changing, and the experiences from our former "selves" form us as a person in the first place ? How is it possible to be aware of "oneself" if there is no such thing as a mental "self", soul or spirit ?

The mind receives a myriad impressions each day, and one of these impressions is the idea of yourself - this idea is nothing compared to the vast flood of impressions, but it is everything to you. In a state of self-consciousness, everything seems to equal nothing, sense seems to equal nonsense, understanding seems to equal confusion,..

What is if self-consciousness is based on an equation that can not be solved, because it contains imagination and wishful illusions on one side and harsh reality on the other side ? An equation which is only true for 'imaginary' units ? Then we can not find an explanation because there is none. The square root of "-1" does not exist among the real numbers, so we invent an imaginary number "i" which solves the equation, but lives in the world of complex numbers. In the same way we might invent an imaginary self to make sense of the world.

A single personality disorder

If something defies all explanations, often a wrong expectation or ill posed problem is the reason. The "self" could be a social construct to ease socialization and a pleasant illusion to prevent us from becoming mad - the wrong expectation that the inner voice belong to a single speaker, just like a real voice belongs to a real person. The imaginary belief that a physical body is inhabited by a kind of mental body, soul or spirit.

Some persons suffer from Multiple personality disorder, or MPD. MPD is defined as a condition in which "two or more distinct identities or personality states" alternate in controlling the patient's consciousness and behavior. May the idea of a single self is a kind of disorder, too: a "single personality disorder".

A strange loop

Douglas Hofstadter argues in his book "I Am a Strange Loop" that the self is exactly what the book title says: a strange loop.

Can the material brain produce an immaterial consciousness by the incredibly complex interactions of 100 billion neurons? No. But a material brain can implement, realize and reproduce an immaterial idea. Certainly 100 billion neurons are capable of forming intricate patterns of feedback loops. Yet in real brains these loops are damped to prevent total chaos and over excitation. If it exists, then the intricate patterns of feedback loops is mainly a reverberation. Therefore these loops are only responsible for the strange, short-lived feelings associated with self-consciousness. Probably it is so difficult to explain consciousness in neural terms, because there is no single neural correlate of consciousness.. It is more like a fabric of all neural assemblies woven together in a strange way for a short moment.

Self-conscious is both: the strange, confusing, and short-lived feeling associated with intricated patterns of feedback loops which arise if inconsistent items are related to each other: everything is related to nothing, real to unreal, inside to outside, material to immaterial, important to unimportant, etc. And it is the insight associated with the continuous identification of the self in the ever-changing environment. Self-consciousness is like a whirl in the steam of consciousness related to insight (I am this!) in confusion (who am I?) and belief (the self exist!) in doubt (how can it be possible?).

Evolution of self-consciousness

According to Julian Jaynes and his book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", humans were not always conscious of themselves. He argues that people in ancient times heard voices which told them what to do: the own thoughts were experienced as coming from outside of them, from disembodied voices, spirits or gods. The argument is simple: having language but lacking full self-consciousness, prehistoric man's actions were often governed by voices, which are in many ways similar to certain forms of schizophrenia. If men and women in very ancient cultures were more or less directed by these godlike voices, then it is true that in (pre)-biblical times, gods interacted with people in a very different way than today.

In those times there were no concepts like individuality, personality, freedom, and human-rights as we know them today, and people were not socialized to become independent self-aware individuals. There was no newspaper and no TV, and books only started to appear. Today, people with schizophrenia who hear voices in their head are considered as ill, while people who identify their inner voice as themselves are considered as normal. In ancient times, it was maybe different: people who heart voices in their head were considered as normal, while people who identified their inner voice as themselves were the exception (the king and the prophets who proposed new laws and pretended to be like god).



Dr. V.S. Ramachandran about green consciousness, qualia, and self "The rrreason is very simple. I can rrreflect on my qualia.." Ramachandran Video on YouTube

David Chalmers about the "Science of Consciousness" David Chalmers Video on YouTube

Dan Dennett: Can we know our own minds? Dan Dennett Video on YouTube

More Daniel Dennett videos about consciousness: lecture on consciousness in 6 parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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