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Saturday, January 13, 2024

Consciousness does not require a self

James Coook
Originally published 14 DEC 23

Here is an excerpt:

Beyond the neuroscientific study of consciousness, phenomenological analysis also reveals the self to not be the possessor of experience. In mystical experiences induced by meditation or psychedelics, individuals typically enter a mode of experience in which the psychological self is absent, yet consciousness remains. While this is not the default state of the mind, the presence of consciousness in the absence of a self shows that consciousness is not dependent on an experiencing subject. What is consciousness if not a capacity of an experiencing subject? Such an experience reveals consciousness to consist of a formless awareness at its core, an empty space in which experience arises, including the experience of being a self. The self does not possess consciousness, consciousness is the experiential space in which the image of a psychological self can appear. This mode of experience can be challenging to conceptualise but is very simple when experienced – it is a state of simple appearances arising without the extra add-on of a psychological self inspecting them.

We can think of a conscious system as a system that is capable of holding beliefs about the qualitative character of the world. We should not think of belief here as referring to complex conceptual beliefs, such as believing that Paris is the capital of France, but as the simple ability to hold that the world is a certain way. You do this when you visually perceive a red apple in front of you, the experience is one of believing the apple to exist with all of its qualities such as roundness and redness. This way of thinking is in line with the work of Immanuel Kant, who argued that we never come to know reality as it is but instead only experience phenomenal representations of reality [9]. We are not conscious of the world as it is, but as we believe it to be.

Here is my take:

For centuries, we've assumed consciousness and the sense of self are one and the same. This article throws a wrench in that assumption, proposing that consciousness can exist without a self. Imagine experiencing sights, sounds, and sensations without the constant "me" narrating it all. That's what "selfless consciousness" means – raw awareness untouched by self-reflection.

The article then posits that our familiar sense of self, complete with its stories and memories, isn't some fundamental truth but rather a clever prediction concocted by our brains. This "predicted self" helps us navigate the world and interact with others, but it's not necessarily who we truly are.

Decoupling consciousness from the self opens a Pandora's box of possibilities. We might find consciousness in unexpected places, like animals or even artificial intelligence. Understanding brain function could shift dramatically, and our very notions of identity, free will, and reality might need a serious rethink. This is a bold new perspective on what it means to be conscious, and its implications are quite dramatic.