Wednesday, September 16, 2015

FAQs on the "Self"

Q: Who am I?

A: You are a carrier/propagator of DNA inherited from your parents.  You (as a carrier of a unique DNA) came into existence at soon after the moment of your "conception".  You were ejected out of your mother's womb (or equivalent) at the time of your "birth".  You cease to exist at the moment of your "death".

You are many things:

(a) A physical body which has an aggregate continuity through its lifetime, and which can be identified by its unique DNA.  This disintegrates at death.

(b) A set of memories stored in your brain cells.  Since these memories are stored as patterns in physical cells, they cease to exist as-such when your body disintegrates after your death.  It is possible for you to transcribe/describe these memories to other people or to other media and they can thus outlive your physical body.

(c) A set of external characteristics (especially your name, your face and your voice) that other people recognize as yours.  There are also certain higher level characteristics, such as your educational credentials, your credit history, your criminal history, your citizenship, etc. which are useful to certain institutions.  You can change or update some of these characteristics as you go through life, but taken together they are your "identity".

(d) A set of internal characteristics which exhibit themselves as patterns of thinking and behavior.  These characteristics usually derive from a combination of your DNA traits, your upbringing and your experiences/memories.

Q: What about consciousness?

A: Consciousness is a general term for denoting the "feeling" of brain activity when the brain is processing information or otherwise "buzzing", or "experiencing".  As a corollary, there is negligible consciousness in deep sleep.  There is only autonomic activity and no conscious activity at that time.  (see http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/sleep/articles/2012/brain-activity-during-sleep/)

In consciousness, there can be experiences of sensory inputs, as well as of one's thoughts and memories and internal body phenomena.  As a human infant grows, its brain becomes capable of higher-order experiencing: linguistic/abstract thought, thinking about thinking, thinking about consciousness, and so on.

Q: What is self-awareness and isn't that unique to humans?

A: Self-awareness is to think about oneself and is primarily a consequence of the capacity for abstract thought.  To think about one's past or future, or to reflect on one's present affairs, or to think about mortality, the "self", one's identity, one's reputation, etc. are all abstract activities, which animal brains are not sophisticated enough to indulge in.  There is nothing called "pure awareness" without there being an object of awareness.  All awareness is of something.  An awareness of almost-total brain silence (e.g. in a long meditation session) happens concurrently with the thought of "what silence!" or something similar. 

It is conceivable in near future that an advanced computer, by scouring internet literature about computing machinery and by analyzing its own logs, deduces a few things about itself and makes an improvement in its functioning.  For example, by discovering that a bug has been discovered in its web server software, it starts running that web server in a sandbox high-security mode.  Or by discovering that a new, faster, network interface card is available in the market, orders it from the factory and logs a ticket for the technician (could be a robot) to install it.  Such self-improvement and self-reflection is not far from human self-awareness.

Self-awareness is, till now, quite uniquely human, but it is not a mystical phenomenon.

14 comments:

observer said...

Consciousness is a general term for denoting the "feeling" of brain activity.

It is not the feeling that is consciousness but the feeler who feels this feeling. The feelings can change but not the feeler.
In the analogy of the computer: mind is software body is hardware and consciousness is electricity.

Harmanjit Singh said...

> It is not the feeling that is consciousness but the feeler who feels this feeling.

That's the illusion. There is only feeling and its experiencing. There is no "feeler", but just the interaction of that feeling (e.g. "anger", which is a category of feelings with a specific neurochemistry) with other parts in the brain.

As an analogy of a human body consider a self-driving car which has a programmed computer and GPS memory, and which works with solar energy and a battery. When the motor is running, the wheels "feel" the motor through the drivetrain, the computer "feels" the wheels turning through its sensors. That is consciousness.

An easy way to understand this is to ask: can the so-called "feeler" exist without a feeling? Can this "consciousness" exist without an object of consciousness?

The answer is no.

Anonymous said...

An easy way to understand this is to ask: can the so-called "feeler" exist without a feeling? Can this "consciousness" exist without an object of consciousness?

Yes consider the dream world it exists purely because of consciousness. When consciousness goes away the dream world with its space time and matter disappears, but the consciousness does not change because of the objects of the dream world, it comes back in the "real world".

In fact the dream world is the best analogy for the real world, all these other metaphors or cars/computers are way off.

Harmanjit Singh said...

> Yes consider the dream world it exists purely because of consciousness.

"Purely"?

No, it doesn't. The phenomena of "dream world" is because of memories and random neural firings which, when they happen, lead to the state of "dreaming" or dream consciousness.

> When consciousness goes away the dream world with its space time and matter disappears, but the consciousness does not change because of the objects of the dream world, it comes back in the "real world".

Consciousness does change, and massively so, when the neural firings, leading to a hallucination called the "dream world", end. Consciousness too disappears. You are then in a state of deep sleep, unconscious of the real world or of any "dream world" or of anything else.

Anonymous said...

Your post does not answer "Who" it tries to answer "What am I"?

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous:

> Your post does not answer "Who" it tries to answer "What am I"?

It does answer both. "Who" presupposes a "ghost in the machine", while "what" is more agnostic.

For example, if you ask someone: "Who are you?", this post will answer that question. "Who am I" is just you asking that question to yourself.

Pankaj said...

w.r.t your "ghost in the machine" reference, thought you might want to see this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0

i think its clumsy to compare a machine's "awareness" with human "awareness". you could design a mechanical computer with recursive operations which capture some rudimentary "learning". is the computer "aware" - what exactly is "aware" - the cogs? the iron casing?

Venkat said...

Harman, when one is dreaming one is unconscious (of the outside world). Yet, one is conscious of the feelings experienced in the dream ( hence nightmares and sweet dreams), correct? So would you say that it's something like pseudo- consciousness? Because one is aware of the experience, but it's a false experience

Harmanjit Singh said...

@venkat, there is random brain activity and other neurons might react to that activity with appropriate biochemicals signifying fear, joy, arousal, etc. That is, in summary, dreaming and its consciousness.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@pankaj, :-) in human beings, what exactly is aware? The skull, the brain neurons, the heart muscles?

Venkat said...

@Harman- yes, I now see. There is, in a dream,an awareness of both the random brain activity (thoughts, images, words) and the neurochemicals resulting from it (emotions). I know see what you mean by the impossibility of consciousness without an object. Even in a dream, one is conscious of both the above processes although they happen only in one's brain.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@venkat, you continue to put consciousness apart from both the processes. The neural process itself is consciousness. There is no consciousness other than the process of neurons firing and other neurons reacting to that firing.

Venkat said...

Right, so as I understand you - there is no observer/observed and feeler/feeling dichotomy? The observed/the feeling gives the impression of a observer/feeler because of the neurochemical processes involved. Similar to a chair having a centre of gravity due to its mass (as was referenced in your essay)

Harmanjit Singh said...

@venkat, yes you're right. The "feeling" of being an observer is just some neurons being able to process other neural inputs. Such feedback loops are more pronounced in human beings than in most other species (hence, though they too are alive and conscious, they probably don't have the same kind of self-reflection that we have).