Self-Conscious Reality

April 27, 2012

Life is a concept taken for granted.  Conscious bodies naturally assume a sense of self to experience existence.  The lived experience of existence can only be recognized by a self.  Experiences of self seem to constitute what is and is not living.  This assumption poses a question: what is it to be living?  A problem answering this question arises in attempting to locate the experienced self.  The self appears to be physical in nature, but cannot be restricted to any individual physical manifestation such as a heart or brain.  This limitless physicality creates an intangible sense of self.  Yet without the physicality, the intangibility could not be experienced.

The self’s existence is undeniable through lived experience.  Defining its essence proves a taxing effort, because accepting the self’s existence does not determine what it is.  A definition of self is: a conscious reality by means of experience, remains incomplete as its physical location has yet to be specified.

A clear interpretation of a conscious reality is needed to understand experience of the self.  The reality of consciousness is an awareness of the present moment.  Understanding consciousness requires a phenomenological approach.  Phenomenology is used to describe the way in which the world shows up.  It remains focused on the phenomenon being studied, and tries not to stray away from the subject matter discussed as experience.  Experience is a matter of perception that some identify happening within the brain.  Philosophers who adopt this method of describing experience neither deny, nor affirm the brain’s role in perception.  Rather, they start with experience.  Perceptual experience is more than reception, but requires interpretation.  This can be attributed to the fact that objects which are experienced already have meaning.  The semantic work which one is conscious of is facilitated by the objects, arrangements, and events one encounters (Gallagher and Zahavi, 7).

Separating consciousness from self-consciousness is ineffective when interpreting a conscious reality.  Merleau-Ponty states, ‘consciousness is always affected by itself and that the word consciousness has no meaning independently of this fundamental self-giveness’ (Gallagher and Zahavi, 203).  To have consciousness there must always be a self.  Let’s say you are writing an end-of-term paper.  You can be conscious of the paper as separate from you, but that requires already predetermined notions of self.  Your past experiences mold your conscious understanding of your relation to the paper.  The ability to be conscious of the paper would only be interpretable through a prior self-conscious awareness of experiences.  Even if it wasn’t your paper, but instead a paper you were critiquing—a conscious perception of self-experiences (such as acquiring a language) is necessary for any form of interpretation.  This conscious understanding can only be of the self.

Cassam believes that a creature must be capable of thinking of self-ascribed experiences belonging to one-and-the-same self when determining if an entity is self-conscious (Gallagher and Zahavi, 48).  He means that self-consciousness requires the creature to be conscious of its own identity.  The only way one is capable of consciousness is to have a self.  All things which to be conscious of arise out of experience.  The self is recognized through the conglomeration of experience.  Experiences have an unbreakable bond with self-consciousness.  Cassam is correct when pointing out the necessity of a creature, which may be comprehended to be any body, when settling on what can be conscious.  The physicality of experience is integral to consciousness.  From a phenomenological standpoint, consciousness can only be realized self-consciously.  Separating consciousness apart from a physical self would entail the acceptance of a form of dualism.

Dualists can be segregated into two main categories.  The first being interactionism. Interactionism determines the mind and body are distinct from each other, but interact in both directions (Chalmers, 1); while the other group is defined as epiphenomenal.  Epiphenomenalism holds the distinction between mind and body, but maintains that physical states are able to influence mental states while mental states have no impact on physical states (Chalmers, 1).  The latter shares a similar view held with the religious understandings of souls.

The Cartesian approach of dividing physical experience from a conscious self deserves discussion.  Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy owes its philosophical credibility to the fact the self has yet to be physically located.  Descartes does not deny his self.  It isn’t possible that he who is thinking is not something.  He doesn’t accept identifying solely with his senses for self-experience.  Instead, he believes in the possibility that body, shape, extension, movement and place are hallucinations (Chalmers, 10).  To him the self is a mind or intelligence.  He still recognizes his self but not in a purely physical manner.  The sheer fact that I’m aware of my hand, brain or any other body part makes it understandable why one could imagine one’s self as being of a metaphysical nature.  If I am capable of objectifying physical manifestations, including my own body; it would seem as though I am something beyond the physical realm.  This non-materialized inner being that is to dualists, the essential self, needs and uses the body as a tool belonging to its self as means to imagine corporeal things.  Instead of identifying with the body, its sensory perceptions allotted by nature are simply used to “inform the mind of what is beneficial or harmful for the composite of which the mind is a part” (Chalmers, 18).  In saying this, Descartes unwittingly stresses the importance of a body when realizing a sense of self.  If the mind-self is apart from the body then nothing physical could be harmful or beneficial to it.  The body would just be an object, not an essential part to experiencing self.  Yet without the body, there would be no corporeality to relay sensory information to a self.  Life as we know it would be drastically different.  Challenges to Descartes’ belief are concerned with how exactly physical information is transported to the immaterial self.

The means by which physical sensory information becomes a conscious reality for the dualist’s immaterial self creates a nexus problem.  There must be a linked connection if the body ever wishes to experience the self (or vice versa).  The question of self would still be looming even if a link can be identified in some manner.  A belief in a nexus link only furthers the incapability of defining the self.  A third variable is brought into an already complicated philosophical equation which isn’t getting us anywhere.  Sensory information collected by the body to be transferred by way of a connection to a metaphysical self for meaningful interpretation only explains what the self is able to be conscious of, and leaves an empty definition of its essence.  One may argue that the nexus link is the true essence in determining the self– opposed to a body or mind explanation– because the nexus link has the ability to make the mind-self consciously aware of perceptual experiences.

Before advances in neuroscience and biology, it’s been said that the tie between mind and body could be located obscurely within the body.  The body’s deterioration would eventually lead to the release of the mind-self to continue on into eternity.  This situates the nexus link to be a physical entity as well.  When the physically recognizable images of our bodies cease to exist in their original syntactical format, the nonmaterial self will have no means of experiencing a consciousness of the self.  This is not to say living can only be embraced by restricted syntactical structures, nor is it intended to say the self can be defined exclusively in terms of behavioral patterns of sensory stimulation.

The lived self isn’t confined to a limited biological syntactic structure.  A particular structure may have advantages and disadvantages comparably to others, but is nevertheless capable of playing a role in cognition.  The self depends on surrounding environmental factors for a lived conscious reality.  The surrounding environment contains ‘external’ objects of which to become conscious.  Experience of these objects is the fashion by which cognition evolves the realizable consciousness.  Cognition involves a display of meaning, an interpretation, and expression of semantic value by a conscious being.

For example, suppose you work at a pet store.  The day is boring and monotonous until a teenager pokes her fingers through the parrot cage.  You see this happening, but are reluctant to mention anything because you want to suppose she knows what she’s doing.  You turn away to check if there’s a line at the register, and within a matter of seconds you hear a piercing squawk and a shrill scream.  You look to see the teenage girl has blood all over her hands, and begins having a tantrum.  Immediately you reach for paper towels to hand to the girl then run to the back office to find peroxide and bandages.  Upon your return you see the girl with a concerned older man by her side.  You infer that it’s her father.  You find out quickly that your inference was correct when he begins to blame you for the teenage girl’s idiotic accident.  You begin to nod your head without speaking (only to find out that this angers the father even more).  The girl’s tantrum begins to escalate.  The father is threatening to sue the company, but you can’t say anything because on your first day the boss said never admit responsibility of action if someone is unintentionally injured.  The scenario could play on.

The entire experience was self-conscious through externalized cognition.  The self realized itself consciously throughout the event.  Just before the girl was bit, the recognized self felt bored by the repetitiveness of the day.  This feeling of boredom could only have meaning distinguishable by previous experiences involving boredom not of that moment.  The girl whom stuck her fingers in the cage exemplified her cognitive understanding of big birds.  This unfortunate cognitive act led to an upset bird, a disfigured daughter and a fuming father.  These states of consciousness all contributed to a self-experiencing act of externalism.  Clark and Chalmers define active externalism as ‘the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes’ (Chalmers, 643).  The entire experience pertaining to the day at the pet store was not simply a result of a causal chain of a skin/skull boundary classification of self, but was actively playing a crucial role in a presently-conscious reality (only to be recognized by an extended self).

The extended self remains physical by nature even if it goes beyond the skin/skull boundary.  The objects perceived create experiences to be realized consciously.  It can be confusing to identify a conscious self if it is not limited to a skin/skull bodily boundary.  Yet, it is the boundary that gives rise to self-consciousness.  The events which led to the memory of your first day at work were all dependent upon the external physical environment in relation to self.  The external environment set the stage for the self to recognize squawking and screaming as; something to be avoided, a father’s infuriation, and an uncertainty of what to do next.  The way in which this process of cognition occurs is an unfolding mystery which identity theorists attempt to explain.

Identity theory claims brain states are identical to mind states.  Experience by Smart’s standards can be recognized as a brain process.  He opposes a dualist stance when defining mental/brain states because he believes that everything is composed of something (Chalmers, 66).  This is fair enough concerning brain processes or even acts of cognition– though deciding that everything is composed of some sort of matter still leaves the self undefined.  Cognition and brain processes only account for why and how particular mind states are reached.  They don’t answer what the mind states are.  Mind states cannot be entirely attributed to the brain.  A brain without a body has no method of ever experiencing a self; it lacks the sensory sensations required.  Smart points out that the brain is quite important when it comes to consciousness, but without an extended cognition theory, Smart’s, Troubles with Functionalism, falls short accurately defining a conscious self.  If mind states can be equated to brain states then the self is left to be whatever process that causes self-consciousness.  The conscious reality experienced to be the self, by the self is not merely the ability to draw correlations between what is so comparatively to what looks so, but rather, relies on a current collective cognitive process.

A variety of methodical approaches can be employed to surpass the actuality that self is indefinable.  Sartre associates the term ‘ego’ to the self.  Overall he adopts a no-self doctrine.  He claims as long as one is absorbed in an experience (such as reading a story) no ego will appear (Gallagher and Zahavi, 199). Metzinger refers to the ego as a representational construct. That is to say the ego has the potential to be possessed by a biological organism with a self-model, but the no-self doctrine asserts that such self-models are not truly selves, but instead, complex brain states (Gallagher and Zahavi, 199).  In any case, the no-self doctrine still is unable to define the self even through denial.  The falsehood of the self is still an experience of a conscious reality.

The self has the capability to arrive on the scene by way of narrative construction.  MacIntyre words the unity of the self as residing ‘in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as a narrative beginning to middle to end’ (Gallagher and Zahavi, 201).  This does not negate the claim that the experienced self is a conscious reality.  One must presently be conscious of the experiences being discussed to create or interpret a narrative of any sort.  A narrative of the self is no different.

The commonality shared by experiences is an awareness of mineness.  So even though a pet store worker appears physically separated from a teenage girl or an enraged father, the complete experience of the bird-biting phenomenon will contain a sense of mineness for each self to realize consciously.

Although the self has remained undefined because of locative inabilities, it is still important to understand it.  The self as a conscious reality forms the concept of life to be separate from plainly existing (if even possible).  Self is needed to incorporate life into existence.  It provides a purpose to being-in-the-world.  The unrealized self is nothing of conscious significance.  The only means by which we recognize life living is through our selves.  It also entertains the possibility of death and mortality.  I have only experienced conscious realization through a lived self.  The self I experience does not recall living before my biological structure was thrust into the world.  So when my biological structure deteriorates into dust it is quite possible that the self being experienced will cease to live, but the essence in which it was physically derived will continue existing through ever-evolving structures.  This might mean that physicality is immortal, and death is the loss of the self’s capacity to be conscious.  To be conscious is a verb that requires a subject (Perry, 385).  The problem in conceiving the experience of death lies in the inability to realize consciously a self without a physical subject.  It is true that bodies are never fixed.  They continuously change alongside physical existence.  Cells regenerate, neural chemicals alter composition, external cognition alters mind states, and entire senses of being develop throughout a lifetime.  Perry’s, Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, suggests the physicality we experience is the ‘outer wrapping’ from which we infer what is inside (Perry, 387).  The character, Gretchen, reminds us there is no possible method to observe the sameness of body and self.   If the body is continuously changing its structure and if we reject the idea of an immaterial self, the thought of death will forever escape us until experienced.  That’s if it’s even a possible phenomenon to experience.  Self-consciousness has needed a body to be experienced.  We can admit the body is used to experience the self is not the same body today that it was five years ago.  The conceptualization of self is then not dependent on any fixed bodily structure.  The undeniable self is realized without willingness.  It does not require extensive meditation and thought.  It has been sensed through our bodies for as long as memory permits.  So if a body’s composition of mass and energy is always in flux while self-consciously living, maybe it’s possible that death does not exist.  The flowing body proves that the self is adaptable to physical change.  Physically, death is only a re-disbursement of the mass and energy which currently make up our skin/skull boundary.  I do recognize the conscious reality experienced through self is a conglomeration of all things past converging here-and-now.  So this leaves open the future possibility for the redistribution of mass and energy to a more evolved self, physically and mentally.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David John. “Foundations.” Introduction. Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

“Dualism: Meditations on First Philosophy (II and VI).” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Comp. David John Chalmers. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. “Consciousness and Self-Consciousness.” The Phenomenological Mind: an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. London [u.a.: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. “Introduction: Philosophy of Mind, Cognitive Science, and Phenomenology.” Introduction. The Phenomenological Mind: an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. London [u.a.: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. “Self and Person.” The Phenomenological Mind: an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. London [u.a.: Routledge, 2009. Print.

“The Identity Theory: Sensations and Brain Processes.” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Comp. David John Chalmers. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

“Internalism and Externalism: The Extended Mind.” Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Comp. David John Chalmers. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Perry, John. A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1977. Blackboard. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

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