Abstract: That the ‘self’ is really a mystery is revealed. The ‘self’ is not the organism and it is not physical. It is an intangible emergent property of information processing. It mediates the response of the organism to stimulation from the organism’s environment and thus represents itself as the agent of the organism.

One usually thinks when one is grownup that, “I am just myself”, because it seems so obvious, but I remember as a kid having discussions about where our ‘selves’ are. ‘I’ was clearly not in my toes or my knees or for that matter anywhere in my body except for maybe in my head. Those were my first memories of realizing that the “self” is mysterious. Learning to accept that you are yourself does not solve the mystery. It just ignores it while more and more false attributes of whom you are, are heaped over that original sense of mystery until it no longer seems to be a mystery. Few people recognize that their own personhood is a mystery. Fewer still care enough about the mystery to pursue understanding it. We first need to reveal the mystery of being a ‘self’ before we begin to explain it. Who are you really or should I say what are you really?
It is not enough in the way of explanation to say that you are this organism, this body or this thing. Who is it that is saying that? There are plenty of organisms that don’t have the capacity to know who they are. They are instinctual. They react to conditions in an organic but mechanical way. They are not able to reflect on who they are. Your dog may be very congenial but it doesn’t stop and reflect on its self. You don’t expect your dog to reply to the question of “How are you today?” like you do another person. So here is the question. Who are ‘you’ that reflects on yourself and can write up a schedule for yourself on a daily planner? It is clearly not enough in the way of explanation to say that it is ‘me’ as if it were obvious. It is hardly obvious. We want to know the why, what, how and where of that ‘me’.
We vaguely consider ourselves to be singular things. We take for granted that we exist and can do things such as see, hear, think, know and experience. This implies a relationship with our organism but do we realize this? We are in the error of believing that our organisms and ourselves are the same things. We are not aware that each of us is a virtual agent, a ‘self’, that speaks for his or her organism. To understand ourselves we need to understand this relationship.
This relationship with our organism is a different kind of experience than say a rock has. To be something does not imply that there is also self-awareness of being something. There may be something experiential that it is like to be a rock but the rock does not know what it is like to be a rock. There is an experience that it is like to be our organism but the experience of being an organism is different than the (virtual) ‘self’ that is aware of it. I think it is clear that insects have experience such as vision but they don’t know that they are seeing. Vision is a real characteristic of their material existence but they have no virtual ‘self’ to know about their experience. Imagine yourself in a daze in which you are experiencing sights and sounds but your mind is turned off. Your experiences of seeing and hearing sounds are happening but you are not aware of them. When you come out of your dazed state, you take control of yourself again. The insect is instinctual. It does not have a self that can lapse into a daze. There is no ‘one’ to come back. Sometimes, after you have been in deep thought while driving your car, you can look back over the experience of the road you have just traveled and realize that you were on autopilot. You were in a rote and/or instinctual mode of functioning. Where were you? How did you manage to drive?
Can we know what it is like to be an organism without a ‘self’? Most all organisms are the sorts without ‘selves’. They have experiences (at least those with sensory systems) because experience is a characteristic of the material organism. They just don’t know that they are experiencing. Our being self-aware is a product of knowledge. (Knowledge is an intangible.) The question arises here as to what we want to call consciousness. Do we want to call consciousness tangible experience (such as vision or sound) or do we want to call consciousness our intangible awareness of that experience? Experience on the one hand is a material characteristic of our organism. Knowledge on the other hand is the intangible contents (information) found in the specificity of physical relationships in the brain. Knowledge is at least in part supported by the same brain states that are experiential. The situation is this: If we did not have knowledge, then we would not know of our experience and if there were no experience then we would not experience our knowledge. I think, therefore, that consciousness must be defined as being this dual aspect phenomenon.
It was not my intent in this instance to introduce you to the meaning and explanation of consciousness. Rather, I wanted you to learn to separate your ‘self’, which is a specialized kind of knowledge (and an intangible agent) from the phenomenon of your experience, which is a tangible characteristic of your material organism so that you see that your ‘self’ is in a relationship with your organism. Sometimes it is aware of what you are doing but sometimes its is not. For instance, when you are in a daze or are driving on autopilot, your ‘self’ is not keeping pace with what you are doing. This happens more frequently than you may think. Stop and honestly consider for a moment whether ‘you’ were involved with determining your present posture, the position of your body, hands, feet and legs. Did ‘you’ actively decide to cross your ankles and maybe rest your head on your hand? This is interesting because if ‘you’ didn’t determine your posture then who did? That would be the normal response but there is an error in its perspective. The ‘self’ and the organism are not the same thing. The insect does not determine its own posture anymore than an engine runs itself. On the other hand, your ‘self’ can determine your organism’s posture to some extent but it usually doesn’t think about it so your organism is left doing the mundane things on its own.
The fact is that your ‘self’ is not usually involved in the minutiae of how you do things at all. The ‘self’ (along with other functions of the mind that support it) is more involved with ideas that initiate activities. The articulation of those ideas at the motor level is managed almost entirely by rote. The sense that ‘you’ have that you are your body and are in control of it is a false belief. The ‘self’ is merely tagging the false idea of its control of your physical behavior to your behavior. You will find through careful observation that your body is going about the mundane activities of living mostly without ‘you’. ‘You’ naturally want to be in control or at least ‘you’ want to believe that ‘you’ are in control of yourself so ‘you’ tack your ‘self’ onto to things that you do (selected things that are important to your self-image) after they have occurred claiming that ‘you’ did them as if ‘you’ had premeditated them. That seems like a hard verdict but I assure you it is a fact that you can observe.
Consider the nature of your ‘self’. It is not in the motor circuits that move your muscles nor is it in the motor memories that tell your muscles how to move sequentially to perform elaborate functions. The ‘self’ may be able to design your activities for the day but it is not the function that articulates your movements as you write the plan down in your planner. If you understand who ‘you’ are, you should be able to watch yourself write in your planner almost as if you were watching another person doing the writing. A psychiatrist might be horrified by the idea of breaking this identification between the ‘self’ and the behavior of the organism. Our ‘selves’ have learned to be responsible for our behavior and it certainly requires a mature mind to safely deconstruct that identification. On the other hand, if you want to understand consciousness you will have to see through this conditioned relationship between the ‘self’ and the organism because it creates a flawed epistemological perspective. A flawed perspective makes understanding consciousness difficult if not impossible. You cannot escape the confusing bias that a ‘self’ that is not understood creates. For example, how will you understand that the experience of seeing is a physical characteristic of your brain as long as you think that you are seeing the appearance of an object itself? (Sometimes I will allude to concepts without at the same time fully explaining them. They will be elaborated more fully elsewhere in the website. This is unavoidable in a multi-dimensional subject such as this. Your understanding will often depend on the synchronistic development of the subject’s many facets. I have done my best to make new ideas easy to assimilate but have no doubt that understanding will require a lot of correlative review on your part.)
‘You’ are a mental function (see SELF: From Action Plan to Person) that is filtered through selected memories. ‘You’ have chosen (probably not consciously) these memories to dress up the function that creates you. If the function that is ‘you’ were not dressed up with personality and character, it would be a ghost (transparent or without character). The basic function that makes ‘you’ possible is more of what ‘you’ are than how ‘you’ have dressed it up. What we (outsiders, and even ‘you’) recognize about your ‘self’ is your personality and character that manifests in your organism’s internal and external behavior. The function that creates ‘you’ is made apparent by being dressed up with character and personality.
You may be beginning to understand how there are processes that underpin the experience of our personhood. Certainly, those processes must explain every aspect of what we experience. The process of understanding one’s ‘self’ is pitted against one’s own beliefs about one’s ‘self’. It is no easy task to determine which of these beliefs are true and which are mere ideas. The function that makes ‘you’ possible acts through the filter of these beliefs and these beliefs create your perspective. It is for these reasons that consciousness is difficult to understand. These beliefs create a perspective of which ‘you’ are not aware. ‘You’ are in your perspective and your perspective is in ‘you’. Escaping this trap requires challenging everything that ‘you’ believe.
We are not a cohesive singular being. You can see this in the problems that people have coping with themselves emotionally. We each are the relationship of a virtual agent (our ‘self’) and our organism. We need to understand the properties of the agent as well as the properties of the organism to understand ourselves. The properties of the agent are emergent properties or intangible affecters (because they are virtual properties). They do not have a tangible existence but they have tangible effects on physical events. When you have understood the relationship of the ‘self’ to the organism, it will change what it means for ‘you’ to see, experience, know and think. There is much about your ‘self’ that you have assumed to be true that cannot be true.
When we consider things in the world, one of their primary attributes is discreteness. When we consider a single object that object is within the boundaries of itself and nothing else is within those boundaries. There is never a case where we would think that two whole and spatially separated things could occupy the same space. This is a physical limitation of the most fundamental sort that we expect to be true about everything. I will show you how we expect it to be true about everything except about ourselves.
When it comes to considering our relationship to our environment, we believe that we see the things around us. What does this mean? This is an idea that is in direct conflict with the idea that things are discrete. Does it mean that my sight goes out of my eyes and surrounds the object? Even if something that preposterous could happen, the object would still be itself within its own boundaries and what it is could not be mixed with what my sight is. If instead, we imagine taking the object and putting it in our heads to see it, then it seems even more absurd. So what does it mean to say that I see some object? One of the things that ‘I’, the virtual agent in me, cannot do is to see an object.
What I call seeing is what an object does to me. My brain receives stimulation via my senses that informs me of an object and from that information it creates a representation of the object. The object, as it is represented in my brain, is a discrete, whole and spatially separated brain thing apart from the object itself, which I say that I am seeing. The point I am making is that we can’t be things that are not based in our own organisms; that seeing is something that is part of my organism. What is seen is experienced as a brain state. Therefore, a brain state representing a red tomato should have little in common with the reality of a tomato.
When rain waters a garden, the rain is left in the garden. When a camera takes a picture, the light impression of the object is left in the photograph by changing the photographic emulsion. Clearly, when I see an object my sight does not invade the object as rainwater does the garden. The object leaves a light impression (though not like a photograph in quality) on my mind/brain by changing it. But this is not enough to explain what I believe about seeing.
I believe that I am seeing the object. Having explained how the object is really only a representation in my mind/brain and that this is in itself the meaning of seeing in my organism does nothing to explain my belief that I am a separate entity related to the object that I am seeing. We may have explained how my organism sees but we haven’t explained why I believe that I see things where they are in the world that is external to my organism. You may find that even though you accept that the object seen is only a representation in your mind/brain that you still believe that you are seeing it in the same sense of seeing the object when you believed that it was separate from your organism. I am saying not to be deceived by thinking that because you understand the object is a representation in your head that you have now corrected the error of believing that the object is separated from you.
The object is separated from you in a belief in your mind that is not directly relative to where or how you see an object so it doesn’t matter if you have understood that the object is a representation in your mind because you still believe that you are seeing it in your mind.
Try to imagine the experience of vision in a mindless organism. What it experiences is not anyone’s experience. It has no ‘self’ watching itself watch the world. The light impression of the layout of the environment is mapped on the neural networks of the organism’s brain and navigation is instinctually computed to yield motor commands affecting the organism’s physical behavior. The organism reacts instinctually to the environment. There is no ‘self’ to feel the stress of decision making. There is no intermediary agent in the computation process in the way that our ‘selves’ are involved in what we do. Its visual experience of the world may be intensely pleasant but ‘it’ is not aware of itself enjoying it. It may be intensely pleasant nevertheless because it is just what the experience is.
Except for the higher primates, most animals that look into a mirror do not see their images as their ‘selves’. There is no ‘self’ in the organism to recognize its ‘self’ in the mirror. Our ‘selves’ identify with our reflections in mirrors and they almost continuously identify with our view of the front facades of our bodies, as we see them from the corners of our eyes. The personality and character with which we dress up the function of ‘self’ includes in its mix of ingredients visual memories of our external images. The ‘self’ always has some referential data of itself in mind. If it didn’t, it would be invisible to itself. But there are times when the ‘self’ is nearly invisible.
Experience is a brain state. It is not something that ‘you’ do. You believe that you are related to the object that you see or to the brain’s representation of the object that you experience. The belief implies to itself, logically, that if ‘you’ did not exist then there would be no experience, that ‘you’ are necessary for there to be experience. Otherwise, who would know about it? It is quite hard to imagine experience that someone would not know about because imagining is knowing. Quite the opposite is true. ‘You’ are irrelative to the experience of seeing. It is a brain state, a material thing whereas ‘you’ are an insubstantial intangible relationship. The better question is how do ‘you’ know that ‘you’ are experiencing?
I believe that the answer lies in that the intangible quality of knowing is at least partially formulated in the same place in the brain where the experiential states are occurring so that a change in the experiential brain state signals a change in the quality of knowing. Do not despair if you do not follow this reasoning. I feel that my assessment here is speculative because it is at the forward edge of my understanding of intangible affecters. The problem to be understood is how knowledge, which is intangible can know about experience which is material. To further complicate understanding, we cannot think of knowledge as being the knowing of a knower. There must only be intangible knowledge of experience without attributing to knowledge the ability to perform the act of knowing an experience. How does knowledge come to possess knowledge of something, which it is not? Just as seeing is not something that ‘you’ do, in the same way, knowing is not something that ‘you’ do. Seeing is a material event whereas knowing is an intangible event. In the case of knowing about experience, there must be a way that the material event of experience affects the intangible event of knowledge so that they are at least in synchronization. My presumption is that the relationships that create knowledge are built, at least partly, on the circuits that are experiential. Therefore, experiential activity would manifest intangible activity. In that way there would be a constant conjunction of the material and the intangible, of experience and knowledge of experience. Keep it clearly in mind that knowledge of experience is not experience so that what we are looking for is the way in which knowledge of experience can be synchronized to experience. This discussion went far beyond what should be put in an introductory phase of explanation about the ‘self’ but it fits here so I hope that you will note the discussion and come back to it when you have more familiarity with the other facets of explanation which are consciousness and intangible affecters.
So what are you really? Lets see if I can give you the idea of what ‘you’ are in a large nutshell. At the heart of the ‘self’ is a basic function that makes the ‘self’ possible. I explain this in the paper entitled Self: From Action Plan to Person that is included in this website. Our brains compute the virtual mechanism that allows the ‘self’ to form. We don’t really know what the neural correlates of thought and memory are but nevertheless it is obvious that we are able to create information, process that information, store, retrieve and act on it. Information contained in sensory stimuli is represented in our heads in experiential brain states. These are our experiences of vision, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile feelings and emotions. They are the presentation phase of navigation or what I call the Map. The environment is mapped in our brain in experiential states. The world that we are conscious of is this Map. It is a map upon which navigation can be computed and correlated. Imagine it being like the map used in a war games room where troop movements are planned. We are perceptually aware of the world because it is the way our organism navigates. The response phase of navigation computes our movements. In simple organisms, the response phase is rote or instinctual. The presentation of the environment is related directly to stereotyped responses. Obviously, these responses allow some leeway or alteration relative to an objective but there is no rational process mediating the responses to stimuli represented in the Map.
It is relative to the process of mediating the organism’s responses to stimuli that the ‘self’ enters into the navigation function. Our behavior is complex and sometimes requires consideration of broad options. Information about the environment is stored in memory by the brain. Objects, as they are presented in the Map, are doing things. The brain stores and remembers what these things do. The mind is able to recall what something does, then alter the representation of the functional path of the object and represent the altered path as a potential motor response to a stimulus from a like object. For example, if I see an apple fall to the ground while I stand there and watch, I can alter this memory by imagining (imagining is the same as altering a memory) that my hand catches the apple. In the first place, a brain has to have the capacity to recall and alter a memory. Conjunctively, the event of the specific alteration must occur. It probably took a long time for the idea of catching something to occur in evolution. On the other hand, when one animal sees another animal do something the functional path of that activity is available in its brain as a memory. Mothers can train their offspring by this sort of demonstration.
When tasks or options get more complex, the problem is retrieval of memories and complex applications. Lower animals do not identify their activities as their ‘selves’. There is nobody inside of them to actively mediate their response. Their brains are set up to alter responses automatically but the idea of changing their own responses is not available because there is no ‘self’ to have the idea.
There needs to be the function of a ‘self’ in the brain of an organism in order for it to mediate its own responses. There needs to be some ‘one’ to whom the idea occurs that a response can be altered. That some ‘one’ must be empowered to imagine an altered response and empowered to affect it. These are the essential characteristics of a ‘self’. The ‘self’ is a function of the human brain that mediates responses to the environment. The essential ‘self’ and intelligence are mostly the same function. They are both based on the operating system that facilitates creating an action plan (the virtual relationship of an object, its activity and what it acts upon). Intelligence is the ability to rationally manipulate the memories of action patterns and the functional paths of objects to produce new action plans. The host organism is identified to be important and then intelligence concentrates on formulating action plans relative to the benefit of the host.
The idea of the host being the cause of this manipulation is the seed that germinates into a ‘self’. The power to manipulate is identified with the host and in turn the image of the host is identified with the power to manipulate. Voila! ‘You’ now exist. Out of nothing (information) is created something, an intangible agent with the power to affect tangible events by directing the motor responses of the organism. The ‘self’ is an information processing structure that relates itself to its own self thereby creating a ‘self’. ‘I am myself’ but who will now dare to say it seems so obvious?
The function that makes the ‘self’ possible is transparent until it is dressed up with characteristics. These are personality, character and self-image. Most of what those qualities are is self-evident in the differences of affect that we see between people we know. The ‘self’ is primarily a function that provides a subject for an action plan. An action plan must have a subject, which would appropriately be the organism. This can be the representation of the body image provided by the external and proprioceptive senses so that 1. Who the subject is that will act is established (keep in mind that we can design action plans for others to articulate) and 2. The facility to accomplish the plan is ascertained (can the organism do what it is planning to do). Do you see that an action must have a subject, the subject who will perform its action? The brain is representing a subject, the action that the subject will perform and the object of that action in a function that will be used to direct motor responses that will cause the organism to perform the planned action. The plan is incomplete without a subject. There must be a subject to perform the action.
This subject only becomes a ‘self’ when it is identified as the one making the plan. There is no ‘self’ in a simple action plan. Action plans form in the brains of most mobile animals. That is just a fact. Their subject is a simple body image. There is no ‘one’ making the plan. It just occurs. Action planning is a function that permits the organism to adapt to variable conditions for survival. This facility is not particularly important to a grazing animal but is vitally important to a predator who must imagine its assault on its victim. But in any case, the experience of these animals is not at all like ours. There is no ‘self’ that believes that it is making the plan.
The mental facility for action planning must first exist before a ‘self’ which springs from the aggregation of the subjects of innumerable action plans can begin to exist. But once our ‘selves’ exist, we then think that we are the cause of plans. This belief is true in a way because one plan can instigate the creation of another plan but only because there is a basic operating system already in place that permits the formulation of action plans. There is no limit really to the amount of false information that a mind can create and believe. It certainly creates a lot of false information about the ‘self’. The ‘self’ itself is instrumental in creating and perpetuating that false information. The function of intelligence also derives from the function of action planning. The ‘self’ interferes with intelligence on account of its being an agent that has an agenda of its own that can often be in conflict with the best interests of organism.
I will go into more detail on the genesis of the ‘self’ in the paper entitled Self: From Action Plan to Person. What I have presented in this paper is highly abstract without enough supporting theory. Before reading Self: From Action Plan to Person it would be appropriate to read the introductory papers on consciousness and intangible affecters. These contain essential supporting theory needed to understand the ‘self’.