The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Illusion of the Self

However, the self is not a simple concept.  The US biologist Ulric Neisser identified five kinds of self-knowledge: the ecological self (situated in the environment), the "interpersonal self" (situated in the society of selves), both based on perception, the private self, the conceptual self and the narrative (or "remembered") self. 

The US neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet discovered that the "readiness potential" precedes movement by about half a second, and awareness of this "decision to act" follows by about 300 milliseconds ("Subjective Referral of the Timing for a Conscious Sensory Experience", 1979). In other words, the brain decides unconsciously to act, before we are aware of having decided to act. We become aware of the action only if the neural event lasts about 500 milliseconds. A way to interpret this is that we are conscious only of electric field patterns in the brain that last about half a second. The scary notion, of course, is that a) we are not conscious of many "decisions" that our brain makes (anything that occurs in less than half a second) and we are conscious of "our" decisions only "after" the brain has already decided them. This can be interpreted as proof that free will is an illusion, or that free will has about 200 milliseconds to "veto" what the brain wants to do.

By the same token, the US psychologist Daniel Wegner showed that it is relatively easy to trick people into believing that they decided to do something when in fact someone else had; a fact that to him proved the "illusion of control".

Robert Ornstein thinks that different regions of the brain behave independently of consciousness, as proved by the fact that sometimes consciousness realizes what has been decided after it has already happened.  The self is only a part of our “mental” life, and not always connected with the rest of it. The self shares the brain with other selves. Selves take hold of consciousness depending on the needs of the moment. Each self tends to run the organism for as long as possible. The self only occasionally notices what is going on. Continuity of the self is an illusion: we are not the same person all the time.  Different selves within the brain fight for control over the next action.

Michael Gazzaniga believes that the self is only an "interpreter" of the conclusions that the various brain processes have reached.

Daniel Dennett also has difficulties with the self. In his “multiple draft” theory, the self is simply the feeling of the overall brain activity. Whichever draft, whichever "narrative" dominates is my current "i". But the dominant draft could be changing every second. Dennett is opposed to the idea that there is an enduring self because it would imply that there is a place in the brain where that self resides. He thinks that such "Cartesian theater" is absurd and that our conscious life is implemented by multiple parallel drafts.

The British philosopher Derek Parfit believes that the self "is" the brain state. As the brain state changes all the time, the self cannot be the same: there cannot be a permanent "self". "i" do not exist. What exists is a brain state that right now is "me". The next brain state will also be a self, distinct from the previous one. There is a chain of successive selves, each somehow linked through memory to the previous one. Each self is distinct from the previous ones and future ones. The "i" is a mere illusion. There is no person that all those selves share. Derek Parfit believes in a Buddhist-like set of potential “consciousnesses”, each with its own flow of feelings, although at each time the one which dominates gives me the illusion of having only one consciousness and one identity.

The US neurophysiologist Paul Nunez interprets Libet's experiments as showing that a) it takes about half a second to become aware of something because that awareness is due to some global brain activity with a lot of loops; and b) the conscious and the unconscious are in continuous communication, a feedback loop of its own.


The Solipsistic Brain

The US neurophysiologist Walter Freeman discovered that the neural activity due to sensory stimuli disappears in the cortex and in lieu of it an apparently unrelated pattern appears, as if the brain created its own version of what happens in the world. Most of the sensory input is basically wasted. Freeman came to believe that "a form of epistemological solipsism isolates brains from the world". The brain creates patterns that have little or nothing to do with the real world: these patterns yield a world that is consistent and complete, based on (basically) computational efficiency, not on accuracy. Each brain creates its own world, which is internally consistent and complete.

Contrary to a popular paradigm, perception does not consist of information reception, processing, storage, and recall. Perception is the creation of meaning, a very "subjective" process.

These "solipsistic" brains communicate, basically, by "unlearning": unlearning is a process by which a brain must give up its beliefs and learn new ones through "socially cooperative" actions.


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