A reductionist explanation of the self

Prepared for the 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference

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The "I" is the central problem of consciousness. Even if we eventually explain how conscious experience arises from the electrochemical processes of the brain, even if we discovered some kind of "proto-consciousness" that gets combined to form emotions and feelings, we still need to show how and why that set of emotions and feelings becomes a "I". That matter can feel emotions is a mystery enough. But what we feel is even stranger: it is not that each part of our body, each molecules feels emotions. It is "I" that feel those emotions. A body is made of parts that interact, and each one has its own life. But a consciousness is an "I" that feels all of the emotions related to that body. My consciousness is not distributed the same way that matter is distributed in my body. Let us assume that everything is conscious to some degree. Every atom, every molecule, every tissue, every organ, every being is "conscious". And that "I" is just what I am conscious of. If I were born a finger, I would only be conscious of what a finger does. "I" happen to be born the part of the brain that is conscious of what I am conscious.
The "I" that is writing this sentence is not the conscious part of the foot or of the nail, it is the conscious part of a part of the brain. I am not conscious of my foot's consciousness, because "I" am the consciousness of something else (a part of the brain). And I am not conscious of the consciousness of any other parts of the brain because "I" (the one who is writing right now) am not those parts. "I" am the consciousness of a part of the brain, and it turns out "I" (this particular consciousness) receive information from several parts of the body and direct order to several parts of the body. For example, it is likely that the "consciousnesses" associated with my fingers are conscious of typing on the keyboard. They have to, because the brain tells them to. "I" (the consciousness of that part of the brain) am only aware of sending them the order to type. Because of the organization of the body, the brain controls other organs. Because each part is associated with a consciousness, each part is aware of what it is doing. But "I", the consciousness associated with this part of the brain, identify with the whole body.
"I" am actually not conscious of everything. There is a consciousness associated with my liver and one with my intestine and one with each of millions of minuscule parts. "I" am not aware any of those parts. I cannot feel that I because "I" am not that I. Evolution has decreed which parts are connected to the part of the brain that is associated with "I". "I" am aware only of those parts. The main difference between "I" and other "consciousnesses" inside this body is that "I" (or the brain part associated with that "I") can tell fingers to type this sentence, and can tell the mouth to utter words. Of course, there could be another consciousness (another I) that is conscious of parts of my body that I am not conscious of. Maybe there is a consciousness (another I) that is directing me to think what I am thinking and directing me to direct the fingers to type what they are typing. I cannot be conscious of this "super-consciousness" or of any other consciousness associated with my body, because "I" am not it or them.
The reason things don't get out of control is that the structure of "consciousnesses" must mirror the structure of the body, so that an order issued by a consciousness cannot conflict with the order issued by another consciousness.
Finally, it is not necessary that "consciousnesses" be truly directing anything. Each consciousness could simply be the "phenomenal" aspect of a physical process: any action by a body part also yields a conscious experience that presumes of being the cause of that action.
Whether it is consciousness that directs the body or viceversa is another issue. The basic point I am making is that the body is made of parts, each part being made of parts and so forth all the way down to elementary particles.
Each of those parts, all the way down to elementary particles, also has a phenomenal aspect that I call "consciousness".
The consciousness that is writing this sentence is "I". There are countless consciousnesses that share this body, each of them conscious of what one part of the body is doing. They may all be convinced of having free will, just like I am. There may be consciousnessed that share this body and direct "I" to do what "I" am doing.
"I" cannot feel any other consciousness than "I", because that is what "I" am.
See my website for more details and bibliography.
The 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference