Philosophy and Psychology24 Apr 2010 04:51 pm

What appears to distinguish humans from the other life which we come into contact with is the degree to which we are self-conscious. Recently we have found evidence that other “higher” animals have impressive levels of self-awareness such as apes and dolphins. Yet, the degree to which humans are aware of their thoughts and feelings seems to be light years beyond all other earthly life.

No matter how intelligent a person is their existence is dominated by self-awareness. Thoughts and feelings make up our life world, are the basis of our human experience. Our current and future decisions are always influenced by our history of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

The quality of our life is determined to a high degree by what we feel and think, when we feel and think, where we feel and think, how we feel and think, and even who we feel and think.

Though some of us are more reflective than others we are all interested in becoming a better person, in right action or in some form of personal development and growth. We all want to be better, smarter, wiser, happier or kinder today then we were yesterday and even more tomorrow than we are today. This overarching desire to grow, improve and develop seems part and parcel of the human experience.

Scientific research seems to support the idea that a new born does not immediately begin experiencing the world and itself as being separate. There is light, sound and sensation, but there is no I and the world. Yet, rather quickly an infant starts to distinguish between itself and mom, the breast or objects in general.

In this emerging world of human experience an infant starts to develop a sense of self. Many post modern thinkers are fond of saying that we construct our sense of self. Many of these thinkers go on to say that our sense of self is an illusion or a fiction.

While I agree that to a high degree we do develop, and acquire our sense of self (ego), I think it is inaccurate to say that the ego is a fiction. When one claims the ego is a fiction, I usually wonder who that person feels is sharing this insight with me if not their own ego (sense of self).

While it may be true that we do not begin life with a self-awareness or sense of self, it is also true that we do not create the ability to be self-aware. A person or infant doesn’t one day think to himself, “hmm I really think I would get on better in life if I viewed myself as a distinct subject amidst a world”. The ability to have an ego or a sense of self and to divide the world into subject and object is hard wired into us.

Likewise, we do not decide to have language and speech, that ability is inherent in us before our sense of self, and makes that sense of self (self-awareness, consciousness) possible. It would make sense that I and mom or (the breast) come into existence at the same moment. The object of mom is not possible unless I have some inkling of separateness, and the subject of one desiring a breast is not possible until one is aware that the breast exists outside and separate of oneself.

Those who view the ego as a fiction often emphasize that the perception that one is a self-contained, self-enclosed psychological unit is an illusion. I would say that such a viewpoint is an exaggeration for we are never totally complete nor separate from the world. Where we end and the world begins is not a fixed point, and our sense of self is always influenced by our environment.

Similarly, where our consciousness ends and the thoughts of others begin is not set. No man is an island and our thoughts, feelings and opinions are often created and altered by the conflicts and validations of others. Yet, just because there is no true consistent boundary does not mean a person and their sense of self does not exist.

On a biological level my body does not have a harsh and consistent boundary. At each moment heat and moisture leave my body or form a fluctuating energy halo beyond my flesh. Therefore, in many ways my body does not end at my skin. Yet, this fact does not make my body a fiction, but rather just points out that nothing about being human is absolute or final.

On an atomic level the boundaries of every object are in flux and do not conform to their visual forms. Every object and body are forever exchanging electrons and the like. Yet, all these biochemical reactions do not negate the existence of objects, but only speak to the way they exist.

Those critics of the ego often point out how often we misperceive things or the important role the “unconscious” plays in our lives. Yet, the most common way I know that a misconception has occurred, or that I have had a misperception is through an additional thought (concept) or perception. I only know something was an illusion by a new experience (perception, thought) which exposes the previous fallacy or misperception. I only know something was previously unconscious by a conscious recognition of this fact.

A new found insight or perception will stand as true as long as it works or until a better more universal one is found. The human world is one of development and change. Our conscious perceptual existence is neither random nor perfect, but always in a state of increased knowledge and familiarity. These ideas regarding human limitation and consciousness are addressed in length in my book Exploring Intimacy which you can read on this site by going into the Words section.

We are a growth driven, intimate self-correcting mechanism that experiences things from a self-conscious perspective. We have a sense of personal history which makes our concept of life possible, as well as provide us with a sense of meaning and satisfaction. Without our sense of time and space, experience would be impossible. Without limits and boundaries we could not feel growth, anticipation, satisfaction nor meaning. Yet, despite this fact our religious and scientific worlds always seek absolute and eternal truth. No only do they seek Truth, but they try to found all meaning of life on these unattainable ideals.

Like everything about conscious human experience it is temporal. We are finite and so therefore our truth is temporal. It appears to be a factual truth that human beings need oxygen to survive. Now maybe someday human beings and our environment may evolve in such a way that we will not need oxygen to live. Yet, this possibility does not destroy our current temporal necessity for oxygen.

The temporal nature of human truth does not make everything arbitrary. A possibility of humans living one day without oxygen does not make life arbitrary or even oxygen arbitrary. It just means that temporal truths are more human than absolute eternal ones.

Our entire existence and consciousness is made possible by the very fact that we are not complete, perfect or eternal. Our consciousness and self-awareness is more of a process than a thing. In this way the ego, and the unconscious are fictions because they are not objects but processes.There is no ego or unconscious to point to and they are not separate entities housed in different areas of the body.

I am amazed at how often we still refuse to accept and embrace our humanity. We often demonize our humanity or try to find a way to overcome it. Instead of finding happiness, meaning and satisfaction in our temporal self-conscious life world, we seek eternal truth in our science, religion and spirituality which are contrary to the very way we live and experience life.

Four thousand years ago the majority of humans thought many of their most powerful thoughts and feelings came to them from the outside or were a gift from the gods. Though most people experienced their mundane perceptions as their own, they did not see themselves as the true author of their experience. To me it seems a shame that we spend so much of our time and energy attacking and denying the sense of self (ego) we have slowly and valiantly constructed over the eons.

Jim Guido

The following paragraph is written for those with a philosophical background.
Anyone who uses a logically consistent application of phenomenological, existential, or gestalt oriented principles is acutely aware of the practical shortcomings of a positivist world view. Therefore, there is no need to deny or view our sense of self as a fiction. The fiction is an absolute and static sense of self. Yet, any absolute is contrary to anything that lives, feels or thinks.
Eternal consciousness is an oxymoron, for anything that thinks exists and anything that exists is temporal and finite.

3 Responses to “Life Conscious of Itself”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Power by Carleton and David Bortman, Richard Miller. Richard Miller said: GuidoWorld » Life Conscious of Itself […]

  2. on 18 Apr 2012 at 8:08 pm Warren

    Can I post your post to my wordpress blog? I’ll add a one-way link to your forum. That’s one actually nice post.

  3. on 18 Apr 2012 at 9:30 pm Guido


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