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What is a human subject/self?

  1. Sep 6, 2005 #1
    An unusual proposal for the concept of a human subject is proposed in the thread about Gregg Rosenberg’s book (chapter 12 and chapter 13). I want to discuss it independent of the context of Rosenberg. It is proposed that a (human) subject is: “a thing that experiences a bounded unit of phenomenal qualities”. This possibility excludes the “such-and-such personality, memories, interests, skills, worldviews, and so on” from the concept of the self. All these cognitive items, the “cognitive-self construct” is only like a memory stick that can be read and written and read by the subject that can in principle be plugged in and out of the phenomenal engine (=the subject) without destroying it. I think this proposal has great advantages:
    (1) Phenomenal qualities are more immediate to me as my personality, my wishes and believes are. This concept of the self subject seems to be drawn from live. The cognitive seems to be something secondary and fare of the core person.
    (2) My cognitive processing includes general assumptions like “Dakar is the capitol of Senegal” in the same way as it includes facts of my personality. Hence the unity of my self cannot be defined via cognitive contents as simple as it can be done by private phenomenal qualities.
    (3) Animals belong to the same category of subjects as humans do. Hence the continuity between animals and humans is very good reflected in this conception of the subject.​
    I do not like this proposal anyway. But I’m not sure whether I have a good argument against it: I will try to give one.
    It is a central fact that human subjects are involved in actions. These actions integrate the cognitive processes of the acting subjects. An action in the full sense stands also in some correspondence to the personality I am: (E.g.: This is typical for me or it marks a decision that is a discontinuity to my wishes up to now.) This correspondence is no accidental feature of my subjectivity. I see that a subject understood as united phenomenal qualities also integrates some cognitive qualities. But I think that there are some cognitive features belonging to the essence of the subject. (I’m not sure whether they need a phenomenal component or not.)
    My question is: What is your conception of the human subject? Do you have some arguments concerning the view described above?

    The following texts are quoted from the thread about Gregg Rosenberg’s book “A Place for Consciousness” and illustrate further the problematic concept of a subject.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2005 #2
    I'm not clear about the terms you use. Perhaps some questions would clarify these for me. What is the difference between the self that is a personal cognitive construct and the self that experiences a qualitative field? How is the self better defined by phenomenal qualities than by cognitive qualities? Can one experience phenomenal qualities in the absence of cognitive qualities?
  4. Sep 7, 2005 #3
    Thank you, Canute, for your questions. Regrettably, I cannot argue for all my assumptions because the main issue here is to clarify my question.
    I assume this is possible. I suppose that at least non human animals and human babies experience something without cognition. A further example: Imagine that you experience a pain without thinking "this is a pain" or "my neck is beaten". The phenomenal and qualitative aspect of a property is never cognitive, it is a "what it is like to ..." that is not conceptualized. When we speak of a content of a quality we use a cognitive concept and make a judgement. The making of the judgment also has a qualitative aspect. Perhaps you think of it when you mention "cognitive qualities" in your question.
    The self as experiencing a qualitative field misses memories, interests, skills, worldviews ... of the relevant person insofar as they are not integral element of the qualitative field, i.e. when they are unconscious at the moment of question. On the phenomenal field view of the self/subject the cognitive properties are only contingent for this self. If you put them away the self remains experiencing qualitative properties (but no more qualitative properties of judgments and believes because these are cognitive).

    An analogue: Aristotle defined humans as rational animals. But the essentiality of rationality can be denied. One can argue that rationality is only an accidental property of humans. Similarly one can argue that the cognitive constitution and the cognitive processes are only accidental features of the subject.
    I refer to the quotations from hypnagogue in my first post and the three arguments (1), (2), (3) I tried to give there. Do you see some problems with these arguemts? The main question of this thread is about the best definition of the self.
  5. Sep 8, 2005 #4
    I have some trouble understanding this. Not your fault, I had the same problem with GR, despite Hypnagogues excellent summaries. As for the self I'm with Dan Dennett, this being probably the only topic on which I agree with him. He writes -

    "But the strangest and most wonderful constructions in the whole animal world are the amazing, intricate constructions made by the primate, homo sapiens. Each normal individual of this species makes a self. Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds, and, like the other creatures, it doesn’t have to know what it is doing; it just does it. This web protects it, just like the snails shell, and provides it a livelihood, just like the spider’s web, and advances its prospects for sex, just like the bowerbird’s bower. Unlike a spider, an individual human doesn’t just exude its web; more like a beaver, it works hard to gather the materials out of which it builds its protective fortress."

    Daniel Dennett
    Consciousness Explained

    So maybe the best definition of self is one that does not assume its absolute existence. The idea from psychology that the self is a 'personal construct' seems about right to me. In Buddhism the self is a personal construct in this sense.

    "We should not think that the self is something that was originally there and can be eliminated through meditation. In fact, the self is something that never existed in the first place."

    Tenzin Gyatso
    The Dalai Lama
  6. Sep 12, 2005 #5
    Hi canute, thank you for proposing a third proposition that there is no self but only a (cognitive?) self-construct.
    I have some problems with your thesis. Who does your actions (regarding the PC screen, typing a post...) - if it is not the self? Do actions exist?
  7. Sep 15, 2005 #6
    Hi Tychic,
    I've been thinking about your proposal of human suject/self. Still I fail to see it as too different from Rosenberg's, or, in general, from any proposal that considers a subjective aspect in phenomenal experience.
    The difference, I think, lies more in the value one gives to the cognitive elaboration of that subjective (perhaps a proto-self instance) aspect.
    But maybe I'm missing the point you are trying to highlight.

    I think, anyway, that it might be interesting to explore a bit that aspect of subjectiveness of phenomenal experience. Probably when we talk about phenomenal consciousness (vs. acces consciousness, in Block's sense) not everybody would agree that it involves that subjective aspect, sticking simply to its qualitative aspect. However, I see difficult too avoid subjectiveness, and consider only qualitativeness, when analizing phenomenal experience.

    A different question would be how highly elaborated or sophisticated can be the self construction through cognitive mechanisms in humans (or in animals or individuals in general). As Hypnagogue points out in the quotes you provide, this would be rather part of the 'easier' problems.
  8. Sep 16, 2005 #7
    Hi antfm, nice to hear from you,
    Perhaps you are right and there is only a small difference between the two positions I discuss. I excluded some interesting models from the beginning. Catute’s proposal that the self is not existing and the proposal that the self is primarily the cognitive self construct known from reflecting on yourself.
    My question whether the cognitive is essential to the human subject is not so clear. In some sense animals are also cognitive (see the following quote from hypnagogue in the thread of chapter 6):
    From this perspective it seems that the difference between the two models is only gradually. But there might be some reasons to deny this:
    I like Rosenberg's proposal: qualitative (phenomenal) properties are not experiential in itself or of itself, but the experiential is identical with the integration of the qualitative properties into an individual. So I do not deny that pure phenomenal subjects may exist and I also do not deny that humans belong to these phenomenal subjects. (Similarly, I do not deny that humans are animals.)

    But I think a second kind of integration of the qualitative (phenomenal) properties happens also when some of these properties are cognitive (in a high level sense). Memories e.g. can be integrated unconsciously in the actions of an experiencing subject. But that is not the typical case. Hypnagogue’s proposal also allows that memories are integrated in the experiencing individual when they are conscious.
    But I think conscious memories contribute in a second way because they are conscious and the unity of a cognitive individual has a new quality. Some candidates for the glue of this new connection could be:
    - cognitive connectivity of contents
    - reflective availability
    - the feeling of being an actor
    - possibility to voluntarily refute to integrate some experiences (which may only be possible to a small degree)
    - the integration of different times into the self (a non cognitive self can perhaps only exist at one moment)
    Do you think that one of these or something other makes a qualitative difference for a subject or do you assume that all these features can be found by non cognitive animals (which exhibit no cognitive self construct) also (in smaller degree)? (-- I'm not sure of the quality of my proposal at this point.)
    I think the cognitive side of the subjectivity is also a hard problem. Intentionality is a hard problem in the philosophy of mind and also is the cognitive binding of the contents of cognitive consciousness if this binding is not a gradual higher form of the experiential binding of a great pain experience, e.g.
  9. Sep 22, 2005 #8
    Excuse me Tychic. I've been a bit busy and couldn't follow the discussion.

    First of all, I'd like to clarify if possible wether you see a difference between the terms subject and self.

    I think that the term subject, when applied to humans, is commonly used as synonym of body or individual, in great part through the grammatical subject identification. Paradoxically, we might be considering a subject even if there is apparently no subjective experience involved (e.g., we think of a subject even during deep sleep, coma or anesthesia).

    On the other hand, the term self seems to me to be more related to the integral subjective experience, but as such I think it constitutes a more fuzzy entity (e.g., the Humean idea of the self as 'a bundle of perceptions').
    What I want to point out is that it is a much more fleeting entity. The self would be very variable from moment to moment (according to the particular feelings, memories, moods, thoughts, beliefs, etc which arise during a determined time). It could also be supposedly absent (examples mentioned of deep sleep, coma or anesthesia) or present in different degree (e.g., dreaming sleep, hypnagogic state, waking state). In general, it would be absent in unconscious states and present (in different degree) in conscious states. But this already presupposes consciousness, or rather subjective experience, as a somehow gradual phenomenon rather than an all or nothing one, and also presupposes of course the integration of all the features of a human cognitive set, and the characterization of the self as a cognitive construct.

    I think it is this aspect of the whole functioning of the human cognitive equippment which you are addressing in this thread:
    I agree that those features make a qualitative difference, but I also think that the particular features, according to their particular cognitive sets, of animals also make a difference for them. And we are not too sure about where to draw the line of absence or presence of cognition, or consequently of the existence or not of self construct.

    But as I said, all these problems of cognition seem not to be refered to as the 'hard' problem of consciousness of theorists. It doesn't mean in my case that I see those other problems as easy ones. Far from it. I do not see easy anything at all. You mention, for instance:
    I would mention on my behalf the question of the graduality of consciousness (from unconsciousness to higher levels of consciousness), and the question of mental causation (I was already arguing a bit about that point with Hypnagogue in the Rosenberg's book discussion).
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