6 Jun 2022

The strange phenomenon of consciousness

Posted by jofr

A recent discussion at the FRIAM list with Nicholas S. Thompson and others made me think about the strange phenomenon of consciousness again, the favorite topics of all retired professors (including none less than the discoverer of the DNA, Francis Crick). It is real, and yet it is not real. It is an existential insight, and yet it causes ultimate confusion. The biggest insight into the own existence seems to be linked to the largest confusion. Is the self a thought, an idea or a person? Can a thought be a person? Can my own thought be me? If we can understand our self, does it mean the fish is equal to the net that it catches (Ryle, 1949) ?

Gilbert Ryle, Daniel Dennett (1991) and Jay Garfield (2022) have argued that we do not have a self, at least no self in the sense of an actor in a Cartesian theater. And yet the self is the one subject which we recognize during moments of self-awareness and self-consciousness. How can we experience something which is not real? Consciousness of the own self is not only a fundamental insight, it is also a real experience. It is like an insight (I exist!) in confusion (who am I?) and belief (I think therefore I am!) in doubt (Is this me?).

Consciousness is one of the problems that perplexes people. It is not the only one, as Searle (1984) noticed, but it is a certainly an insight which causes perplexity the more we think about it. It causes perplexity like the magician which draws a rabbit out of his hat. We experience something real but know it can not be real. Do we exist or not? Sartre (1943) says yes, but we have to construct ourselves. Daniel Dennett thinks the self can at best be compared to a rainbow. He recently posted on Twitter a link to a nice article from Keith Frankish : perceiving a rainbow is a real experience of a colored arc, but also an illusion because there is of course no real physical arc at the place where we see it.

Maybe the illusion of the self works indeed in the same way? As whole persons who have bodies and brains we are real, just as raindrops in the sky are real. But when the billions of neurons start to sparkle in the light of conscious thoughts, the experience of a self emerges for a short time like a rainbow which emerges shortly from a million raindrops that bend the light towards the observer.

The paradox thing is that the confusing insight of self-awareness where we perceive an own self (although a thinking self does not exist) can lead ultimately to the construction of the self in form of a personality. I believe Sartre and Garfield are right when they say that we are able to construct ourselves. If we consider a person from a 3rd person point of view, then the personality of a person certainly determines its behavior. Everyone has a self in form of a character or personality. Even if it is illusionary or an unreachable ideal to be a certain type of person, such a type can be approximated through constant training and life-long learning. Our personalities can be considered as embedded abstract person types that we acquire and approximate in the course of time. In this sense we can say we have a self that guides our actions. And this abstract type is independent from us, since it could also be implemented in a sophisticated robot, android or AI in the future.


– Francis Crick, Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Scribner, 1994
– Jay L. Garfield, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self, Princeton University Press, 2022
– Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Co., 1991
– György Buzsáki, The Brain from Inside Out, Oxford University Press, 2019
– Gilbert Ryle, The concept of mind, University Of Chicago Press, 1949
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Routledge, 1943
– John Searle, Minds, Brain and Science, Harvard University Press, 1984

Photo by Guillermo Casales on Unsplash

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2 Responses to “The strange phenomenon of consciousness”

  1. Jochen –
    Thanks for linking us to this, there is a different tone I think you take when you write for “publication” than for a mail-list. This reflects some of Glen (on the list) discussion about each form/forum having it’s own natural utility and mis-using (posting blog-like things as perhaps I do to a mail-list is wrong-headed.

    All that aside, I appreciate your Maunderings on the topic of consciousness which is related to “the hard problem” but not exactly the hard problem (IMO). I also appreciate the extra background and references that your post here offered. It elaborates your rainbow example in a way that helped me appreciate it a bit more.

    I am a big fan of the first-person experience, and my work (nominally in applying virtual reality to scientific/engineering understanding) has been to very deliberately not only break into “first person experience of data/phenomena” but also to allow the shifting back and forth like a Necker Cube illusion, for example.

    Many of us do it with *maps* all the time and on this European Vacation (see Chevy Chase’s bad movie) we are taking, I am using the 1.5 person view on my Android-Auto link from my phone where I would usually use the Map (3rd person) view. I like to (with a little embarrassment) liken navigating an interactive map to a video game… my map-view version is more pac-man and the 1.5 person view (over the shoulder POV) is more like a first-person-shooter, and it changes how I think about my travels and navigation. I find that shifting between the two POVs gives me a *better* understanding of what I’m doing, of the landscape I’m traveling through, where I’m going, etc. Of course, that is true in a trite way, but is it also true in a sublime way?


    steve smith

  2. I have more space here and can add images, pictures and graphics 🙂 I usually try to name all the persons, articles and books that inspired me to write something. This particular blog post was mainly inspired by a post from Nick in the FRIAM list where he mentioned a podcast interview of Sam Harris with Jay Garfield.

    Glen has a blog at https://gepr.wordpress.com/ by the way.

    Blog posts about psychology are often inspired by Nick in one way or the other, especially the ones related to philosophy. Consciousness is in fact really strange. It is not just the confusion between 1st and 3rd person view, it is confusing in general. The self that is perceived in self-awareness is maybe the one thing that the brain does not expect to experience, although it constantly tries to predict what we perceive next.

    Anil Seth argues in his book “Being You: A New Science of Consciousness” from 2021 that “our conscious experience of the world around us is a kind of controlled hallucination created by predictions and revisions that we make”.


    jofr (Jochen)

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