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The arisal of a self

  1. Sep 2, 2006 #1
    How do you guys think the first self arose in nature, conceptually and physically?

    Also what is a good definition of a self?
    How about this one:

    A self is the feeling that some things are part of that which experiences them ánd that other things are not part of that which experiences them. In other words, it is the experience of "this is me, and that is not me".
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2006 #2
    I think the first (and only) self was the first entity to exist. Whether it came into existence at some point out of nothing, or whether it always existed and had no beginning is IMHO an insoluble mystery.
    If, by "physically", you mean made of matter or energy as our physical universe is, I don't think the self is, or ever was, physical. (I am a Cartesian dualist).
    I don't know if you would call this definition good, but I think the self is an entity capable of knowing.
    One problem is that you use the term 'self' (actually you used "urself") in the definition of 'self'. That makes the definition circular and thus it isn't very clear. Also, rather than being a feeling, I think it woud be better to say the self is the thing, or entity, which has the feeling. That seems to be more consistent with the ordinary understanding of the term.

    Another problem is that your definition uses the term 'me'. You haven't defined the term 'me' but it seems reasonable to consider it to be a synonym of 'self'. This brings on more circularity.

    As for my definition, I suppose I better define 'the capability of knowing'. I suspect that each reader of this post knows at least something. This means that each reader must be capable of knowing. So I define 'the capability of knowing' to be what each reader knows it to mean. You know what I mean.

    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  4. Sep 2, 2006 #3
    I wasnt really suggesting it was physical or nonphysical, just wondering at which point it arose in the physical universe.

    I noticed that it was circular just before u replied and quickly replaced 'urself' with 'that which experiences them'. The logic being that those replacing words do not equal a self according to the definition used, so the definition is not circular anymore. For instance, if one only has experiences without making the distinction of some being part of that which experiences them and others not being part of that which experiences them, then there is still something which experiences them but this something doesnt constitute a self anymore when it makes no distinction. In simple words: the 'self' is a feeling had by that which experiences.

    Does this solve the circularness of the definition?

    But i think the self is a mental construct, not a thing or the thing having the experience. In my view if one thinks the sun is part of that which experiences it, then the sun is part of ones self.

    Does knowing equal experiencing? And in ur definition, there is always a self as long as there is knowing (experiencing), correct?

    In my definition there can be experience without a self (though not without a 'that which experiences it').
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  5. Sep 2, 2006 #4
    I think it helps. Your definition boils down to an entity which experiences and which can make a distinction. A pot of water on a hot burner experiences heating, and maybe boiling, but as you observe, it doesn't make any distinction so it is not a self. A thermostat experiences warming, but it can also make a distinction between the temperature being above or below some threshold. Still, I don't think either of us would say a thermostat has (or is) a self. I think the critical capability, in addition to experience and distinction, is that of knowing. I'd say that if the thermostat knew that it had just clicked, it would qualify as a self.
    But doesn't being a mental construct imply that there is (was) some mind which did the constructing?
    Of course it would depend on your definitions. But I would say that they are not the same. I tried to explain the difference above with the thermostat example.
    Correct (except that knowing is not the same as experiencing).
    I'd agree with that, as I explained above.

    Warm regards,

    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  6. Sep 2, 2006 #5
    In the thermostat example, im not saying that any distinction it makes between experiences would make it a self. Something could experience all the things happening in the universe, but unless it experiences any of them as not-part-of-it, then it has no self. The only distinction that would make it a self is between experiences of "this is me, and that is not me".

    So the thermostat could experience a temperature being above or below some threshold, but that doesnt mean it experiences above, below, or the threshold as part or not part of it. If it experienced above, below, and the treshold as all being part of it. Then it has no self.

    Think about when ur sleeping, u may have all kinds of experiences, but (sometimes) there is (at least when i sleep) little or no distinction made between experiences coming from something me or not-me.

    But what is this knowing? Isnt it an experience?

    Yes because the self is a feeling had by that which experiences (mind). The feeling can change, expand, or dissappear entirely, but the experiencing entity doesnt have to because it is not the same as the self.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  7. Sep 2, 2006 #6
    I don't think we are very far apart. We just describe it differently. To say that "it experiences any of them as..." seems to imply that "it knows them as...". And, that to experience "this is me" is the same thing as knowing that this is me. Similarly for things that are experienced as "not me" it's the same as saying "I know that is not me." I still think that knowing, in the sense I described earlier, is the key to the self.
    That depends on your definition of 'experience'. I would define 'experience' as something that happens (to the experiencer), and by this definition, heating is experienced by the thermostat. So, by this definition, I would agree with you that the thermostat could experience a temperature being above or below some threshold. And, I think we agree that the thermostat does not experience that temperature as a part, or not a part, of the thermostat. Using my language, I would say that the thermostat does not know that it is warm, or that it crossed a threshold.
    I'm not sure I get what you mean here.
    Here I think you are getting into a very complex and mysterious area, so I don't think it can help us sort out your original question. In my opinion, sleep itself is a baffling mystery which I think science can't begin to explain. Add dreams to that mystery and it only deepens. In the context of sleep and dreams, the very definitions of 'you', 'self', 'consciousness', 'knowing', 'feeling', etc. etc. become ambiguous and a lot messier than they are in a waking state.
    Good question. I think it is a profound question at the heart not only of the question of consciousness, but of epistemology and ontology as well.
    That implies that the self can change, expand, or disappear entirely and the mind endures. It makes more sense to me to define 'self' as the thing that endures and the feelings, which are had by the self, come and go.

    Warm regards,

  8. Sep 2, 2006 #7
    In my definition a self can only exist if there is also an experience of non-self: something that is not part of the experiencer. If u have a thought, then u experience it as part of the thing that experiences, u identify with the thought and it is 'owned' by u. If u had an experiental world entirely consisting of 'owned' experiences like this, then there wouldnt be a self because there is also no non-self.

    What about our human selfs? Do you think they endure?
    I remember u have talked about a primordial consciousness, but if so, then doesnt the spawning of human and animal selfs from that show they these selfs can change, expand, disappear?
  9. Sep 2, 2006 #8
    Being the dualist that I am, I can easily agree with your definition. I'd say, like Descartes would say, that there is the mind, or self, and then there is everything that is not mind, or that is outside of the self. In my view, that other stuff is simply thoughts in the mind of the self. So you have the duality of the knower and the known.
    This is a legitimate and reasonable way of thinking about it. But I think it is just one arbitrary way of using Phaedrus' knife to distinguish and categorize things. You can think of the knower and the known as one, or you can think of them as distinct.
    I think that's a reasonable conclusion. That's just about exactly what the Buddhist's teach: There is no self; there is just the One and a bunch of illusions.
    I'm with the Buddhists here. I don't think there is any such thing as a human self.
    No, because I don't think they exist. But, of course, there is the familiar idea of a human individual, and it is reasonable in vernacular conversation to think of each one as a self. In my view, this "self" is equivalent to Gregg Rosenberg's idea of a "Natural Individual". The idea is that the body is a vehicle through which some outside "self" vicariously experiences what happens to the Natural Individual and which can deliberately control some of the actions of the Natural Individual. In short, the body is a vehicle being driven by the self, or mind. Thus, what we normally refer to as a human self is really a paired combination of a real self and a body. This is analogous to the pairing of a car and driver. This pair acts completely different from a car without driver, or a driver without car. It can accomplish feats that neither could do without the other.

    So, to address the question, the pair does not endure for any longer than the intervals between sleep episodes, and it disappears completely on death of the body. So, if the pair is what you mean by a "human self", then it does not endure. But IMHO the real self, or mind, does indeed endure. I think it has always existed, although not in the same form, and I think it always will.
    Yes. I use the term Primordial Consciousness (PC) to refer both to the one single self, or mind, that animates all conscious entities now, and also to refer to the primordial state of that mind, which I suspect at the very beginning was extremely simple and, well, primordial. As I explained above, the human and animal "selves" appear, change, function, and disappear.

    Warm regards,

    Last edited: Sep 2, 2006
  10. Sep 2, 2006 #9


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    The test that is often used to determine if a creature has a concept of "self" is to see if it is capable of recognizing itself in a mirror as distinct from other creatures. After all, you cannot say "that is me" if you cannot conceive of a "me".

    Basically, the test is accomplished by watching the subject acknowledge the presence of a dot of paint on their own forehead, which they can only see in the mirror.

    Both dolphins and chimps have passed the test. Dogs and cats and others do not.
  11. Sep 2, 2006 #10
    Hi Dave,

    I am not impressed by that test. Neither am I by the Turing test. I just read in a recent "Popular Science" magazine (I think it was), which had a cover story on robots, that someone has built a robot that recognizes itself in a mirror. Whether it can or not, I don't think the robot is conscious and I don't think it has a self in the sense we are talking about.

    As for dogs and cats, I think that anyone who is very familiar with them would agree that they have a strong sense of self exhibited by their concern for their own preservation and safety. My dog is well aware of when his brain is maxed out and he can't figure out how to get his ball out from somewhere where it is stuck. He looks at me with the unmistakable message that he can't get the ball and that he wants me to retrieve it. He knows his own capabilities and limitations and he looks outside himself for help when he needs it. I also think he has absolutely no interest in any dot he might see on anyone's forehead, including his.

    Warm regards,

  12. Sep 3, 2006 #11
    I think the test probably is a good way to tell if some animals have a self. However i dont think it can be used to determine whether animals that do not pass the test have no self. This test is based on visual experience and compares the animal response to a human response. The self being tested by the test is the already well advanced human form, but i think that other (perhaps all) animals have a less evolved and less testable form of a self. Also, i think any type of experience should count, whether it is seen, heard, felt, thought, etc.

    Im going to mention an extreme example which u probably wont agree with: the bacteria. It can recognise a virus as not being part of itself, and other bacteria or the colony as being part of/similar to itself. Id say that if this recognition is based on experience, then the bacteria has a self, because it recognises a non-self. However the self here is so weak that it doesnt look anything like our human self. Maybe our human self is a much more complex self/non-self recognition system?
  13. Sep 3, 2006 #12
    Does the PC have a self according to the definition i gave? Does it experience/know/make a distinction that some things are and other things are not part of it?
  14. Sep 3, 2006 #13


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    You are mistaking the word 'test' for the word 'definition'.

    Computers can be programmed to simulate all sorts of life-like or intelligent behaviours, none of which cause us to question whether the computer could be considerd alive or truly intelligent.
  15. Sep 3, 2006 #14


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    The 'self' I'm talking about, is really 'self as distinct from others'.

    There's a passage in Jay Ingram's book 'Theatre of the Mind' that defines four stages of awareness. I think this is it:

    I know.
    I know I know.
    I know you know.
    I know you know I know.

    It has to do with the recognition of, first, one's self [step 2], and then the realization that others are equivalent, yet distinct [step 3]. It also leads to the concept of deliberate deception [step 4], inasmuch as a critter can 'anticipate' anothers' thoughts, (such as "he saw me bury that bit of food here") Some intelligent birds have been tested and shown to demonstrate this behaviour, and it's not just instinct.

    Anyway, the point is, a critter that sees a dot of paint on its paw will tend to try to lick it off. A critter that sees a dot of paint on its forehead will also tend to pay attention to it - but only if it recognizes that that self is itself.
  16. Sep 3, 2006 #15
    GOOD question!!!! I don't think there is a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer to your question, but I think by addressing the implications of the question and possible answers, some of the complexity of reality might be glimpsed. Here's how I see it. (Bear in mind that all my speculation is based on my premise of a single consciousness in all of reality. Also keep in mind that by now, PC is extremely evolved and the label of 'PC' is really a misnomer; PC is no longer Primordial.)

    PC is the only entity in reality that can think, but nonetheless much (if not most) of PC's thinking is done vicariously. That is, some of PC's thinking is done by using human brains as devices to gather information about parts of physical reality and also, possibly, to store information about the history of experiences of that particular human. So just this gives us about six billion different modes of thinking for PC in its "current" state. Add to that all the other animals, organisms on other planets, people and animals that lived in other times and are now long since dead, the possibility of other Natural Individuals existing in dimensions outside of our physical reality, and you can see that the various modes of PC's thought are very complex indeed. And finally there is a possibility that PC can think independently of any of the "crutches" of these Natural Individuals.

    So to answer your question, we would have to be specific about which of these modes of thought are we talking about? For example, if we were talking about a specific human Natural Individual, as the vehicle used by PC in his/her/its thought, and that individual, say, is a person who is an enlightened Buddhist, then the answer would probably be that the PC would make no distinction between self and other, or between inside and outside, or any other distinction. In this case, PC would declare that there is no self.

    On the other hand, if the particular human Natural Individual was someone of the persuasion of, say, Daniel Dennett, PC may conclude and declare that there was only the outside and there is really no self at all.

    But if the particular human was more typical of the normal mix, PC would probably declare that, yes there is a self, bounded by the skin of the human organism, and everything outside that skin is the outside world.

    Warm regards,

  17. Sep 3, 2006 #16
    I want to know if your PC has/had a self in:

    1. in its most primal form. Or:
    2. its its most-knowing form (perhaps allknowing), which would be a PC that can access all experiences like a one way mirror: the PC can experience the human experiences (as well as everything else), but the humans and other parts cant experience the PC's other experiences.

    Do u think either of those forms of PC exist and have a self?

    As for the human examples:
    Do u really think Dennett has no self?
    He may reason that we dont, but he still experiences being a human.
  18. Sep 3, 2006 #17
    After thinking about this for many years, my guess is that, No. PC in its most primal form did not have a self according to your definition of being aware of, or being able to make, a distinction between itself and other. In my opinion, the most primal PC was simply a rudimentary ability to know, but with nothing whatsoever known. I think of it sort of like a primal pure energy field (which is some people's favorite ontological primitive). The field, being energy, is the ability to do work, but in that primal state, no work has yet been done. Once some work starts getting done, the universe can begin unfolding. In my view, instead of that ability to do work, the origin of reality was instead the ability to know. And once something -anything at all- became known, then knowledge began to accumulate and the universe began unfolding. Somewhere down the line, after the construction and recognition of many bits of knowledge (known information), the capability to distinguish between something and something else developed. Only after this capability was used to identify some part of reality as "self" and then to distinguish between that and other, did a notion of self come to be. But it is only a notion and it only exists and makes sense in some context of assumptions. That is why there is no absolute answer to the question, Is there a self? As I pointed out before, from some points of view there is, and from other points of view, there is not.
    I think that identifying that "most-knowing form" might be hard to do. How would you judge? For example, who is the most-knowing human? Is it the most published scientist? The most successful evangelist? The most tenured philosopher? The most enlightened guru? The most successful businessman? The person with the highest IQ? Someone who just emerged from an NDE and who "saw it all"? Who? Since IMHO these are all PC in various modes of thought, they are all candidates for your question. But, in addition to human Natural Individuals, there is the possibility of other modes for PC thoughts. So if we are asking who knows the most about our particular physical reality, maybe one of those human individuals would be the answer. But if the question were who knows the most about the greater reality including hyperdimensional space, human knowledge might look pretty puny. On the other hand, it might be possible that knowledge decreases, at least in detail, as you move through levels beyond our 4D spacetime. It might be, as the Wizard of Oz sort of hints at, that if you finally get to that ultimate Natural Individual at the very top of the hierarchy, it might not know anything at all. Maybe all knowledge is distributed among the Natural Individuals throughout the hierarchy with the most acute and detailed knowledge occurring down at the bottom with us humans. Who knows?
    Yes. I'm not sure if you mean the same thing I do, but IMHO PC is the only thing that can experience, so what we think of as human experience is really the vicarious experience of PC.
    Yes, I think they exist, but whether they have a self or not is nothing more than a semantic question. It all depends on how you define self. As I have tried to explain, the answer is sometimes 'yes' and sometimes 'no'.
    I think he has the same self that you and I do. It is the same self shared by all humans, animals, PC, and anything else that might seem to have a self.
    In my view, it is really PC having the experiences of being Daniel Dennett regardless of what the vocal cords of Dennett's body might utter.

    Warm regards,

    Last edited: Sep 3, 2006
  19. Sep 3, 2006 #18
    So Paul, your PC as a thing that exists outside human self, even outside and prior to known universe--how does this differ from the concept of god ?
  20. Sep 3, 2006 #19
    Several ways:

    1. PC is not omniscient. It only knows what it has painstakingly learned over time by experience. At the very beginning, it knew absolutely nothing.

    2. PC is not eternal. Either PC itself had a beginning, or the very first bit it ever knew marked the beginning of time when it first became known.

    3. PC is not omnipotent. It cannot, for example, violate the laws of physics. It cannot interfere with the unitary evolution of QM unless it stays under the HUP threshold.

    4. PC is not perfect. The fossil record here on earth shows the horrendous trial and error pattern of the development of modern flora and fauna. Individual species also contain many design flaws and poor choices of structural material.

    5. PC is not infinite. It had a finite beginning and the result of the evolution of reality is now, and always will be, finite in extent and duration.

    6. PC is not wholly good (omni-benevolent). Since PC is the driver of all organisms, it follows that PC was also the driver of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot.

    7. PC is not immutable. PC has been evolving since the beginning, learning all the while.

    8. PC is not complete. Being finite and growing, PC still has a long way to go.

    9. PC is limited. PC has a difficult time communicating the knowledge it has gained from one Natural Individual to another. PC can't avert natural disasters like volcanos, hurricanes, asteroid impacts, etc. that cause a lot of trouble for life.

    10. PC did not do the things attributed to God, like stop the sun, part the Red Sea, flood the earth, etc.

    11. PC is us, with all our frailty and power.

    I hope that helps clear things up.

    Warm regards,

    Last edited: Sep 3, 2006
  21. Sep 4, 2006 #20
    Well, at least I now know that PC not= god and that god must be prior to PC, thus PC must be created by god (that is, god creates potential as well as actual). From classical physics we have the equation H = T + V where H = a Hamiltonian function which is the total energy of a system, T = kinetic energy and V = potential energy. So, next question, would it be correct to think of your "PC" concept as being the "V", thus PC = V ?
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