The Phenomenal Self

What is this thing called "self"? -- this inner image of "Ben Goertzel" that I carry around with me (that, in a sense, constitutes "me"), that I use to guide my actions and inferences and structure my memories?

It is nothing more or less than a habitual pattern of organization in the collection of patterns that is my mind ...

... which is correlated with certain habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society I habitually associate with.

My "self" keeps telling itself that it is the mind associated with my body ... and in trying to make this story true, it usually succeeds to some degree of approximation (though rarely as high a degree as it thinks it does!) ... but ultimately it is not the mind associated with my body, it is just a portion of that mind which has some overall similarities to the whole.

Thomas Metzinger, in his wonderful "neurophilosophy" book Being No One, uses the intriguing term "phenomenal self" ...

Seeing the self as the self-constructed dynamical phenomenon it is, is one of the main insights that commonly results from meditation practice or psychedelic drug use.

The attachment of primal awareness to self is part of what characterizes our deliberative, reflective consciousness.

Self wishes and acts to preserve itself -- this is part of its nature ... and is also part of the intense aversion many humans feel toward death, and the intense drive some humans feel for immortality.

If the whole mind wants to be immortal, it will be partly satisfied by spawning children, writing books, and so forth -- things that extend the patterns constituting it further through time. (Woody Allen's charming quip "I don't want to be immortal through my works -- I want to be immortal through not dying" notwithstanding!)

If the self wants to be immortal, it doesn't really care much about offspring or literary works -- it just wants to keep churning along as a self-creating, self-persisting dynamical subsystem of the mind.

It is unclear the extent to which transhuman minds will have "selves" in the sense that we humans do. Part of "human selfness" seems to be an absurd overestimation, on the part of the self, of the degree to which the self approximates the whole mind. If this overestimation were eliminated, it's not clear how much of "human selfness" would be left. Some of us will likely find out ... ( -- although, the issue of whether it will be "us" that finds out, or some descendant of us, is precisely the question at hand!)


  1. Hi Ben

    I believe there is some generalized confusion regarding the Self as involving patterns.

    You say the phenomenal self is "a habitual pattern of organization in the collection of patterns that is my mind, correlated with habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society I habitually associate with"

    My opinion is that there exists no Self per se.
    what you call deliberative reflective consciousness is an aspect of the self-referrential process, or, better said, self-actualization process going on in our brains.

    In this self-actualization process, the patterns that are updated are objectified and externalized relative to the core process. The memories are the stuff with which and on which the Self works. The memories are not integral part of the Self.

    The sum total of our memories are not part of the Self but merely the closest environment in which the Self is set.

    The Self is the self-actualization process itself. This is because the sense of Self, perceived to be localized between our ears, arises only when the higher cognitive functions are active.

    The sense of Self appears automatically in any conscious self-aware machine.

    The patterns are secondary as it is easyly observable from the volatile nature of our memories.

    For the duration in which the machine is switched off (deep sleep, anesthesia, death) there is no Self allthough the patterns are there as long as the brain maintains its structure. There is just nothing there to work on them (to update the patterns).

    Take the amnesic person: Most if not all memories are lost but as the conscious functions kick in, the sense of Self is as intense as it was before the event that caused the amnesia.

    From this follows, in my humble opinion, that the Self is in fact a process as a function of our brains not something physical like a pattern on a substrate. The patterns are just the incidental information that are processed by the self-actualization function.

    As a process, the Self is engraved in time. It is not recoverable in any situation in which the machine is switched off and then turned back on.

    This is the reason why resurrection is useless.

  2. Spooky stuff for those among us who are very self-interested and unhappy with the idea of dying. Continuity is pretty much good enough for me. I'm completely different than I was even 10 years ago. I've also noticed some changes in my cognitive function for the worse, as I've aged. If continuity is present, I'll be happy to regain functionality, and even perhaps gain entirely new functionality. If need be, after a cryonics "nap".

  3. Hi Ben,

    Looking at Thomas Metzinger’s definition of reality and its interaction with self, I would propose condensation of our reality out of a plenum of awareness potential rather than using the tunnel metaphor. You use different metaphors and it can re-set your whole perspective. I have my own reasons of why condensation is a bitter term, partly based on actual experience and partly on my understanding of thermodynamics, plasma behavior etc. Alireza

  4. Jake, no worries :)

    While dead there is no whish for resurrection nor regrets about what could be.

    Resurrection is a problem only of the living...

    In death there is no suffering. there is nothing, just like before you were born, remember?