Who is watching?

The point of this blog is to prepare for the revolution in brain sciences that is happening now. One of the greatest wrenches will be how we will have to look at ourselves. What about our conscious sense of self – the little homunculus, the ghost in the machine? This sense of self comes from many sources.


Most of the time, we are not aware of our consciousness – or of our sense of self. Only when we engage in introspection do we seem to be able to look at our consciousness and our ‘selves’. When we introspect, we set up the internal movie screen, so to speak, or the ‘Cartesian theatre’. We withdraw from consciousness in order to examine it. We now watch our consciousness as a spectator. Some little voice tells us that we are now watching us watching our consciousness and that this is a slippery slope of endless watchers of watchers. There is no reason to believe that the introspective self is anything but an illusion. That particular sense of self is a creation of introspection, for introspection, by introspection (to steal a bit of the Gettysburg Address). How can something be examined except to make it the object of something that does the examination?


There are other ‘selves’. There are our bodies with their vague feelings and their aches and pains. We are usually aware of very little, if any, of the body’s processes. Consciousness is more about our environment then our own bodies. We are aware of our emotions and there is a sense in which that contributes to a sense of self. We are aware of our intentions, at least some of them, and this seems definitely to give us a sense of self through a sense of will. We have a memory of personal history and continuity that is a sense of self. Some of these aspects of these other selves may be illusionary and but not entirely so.


It may even be that we need something to attach our vague fringe feelings to so that they can enter the theatre of consciousness. What is it that is familiar with this place when we have a feeling of deja vu?


When awareness of all these aspects of self are put together with the introspective watcher, we have the perception of a self or an inferred conception of a self that is more elaborate then just the watcher. It is also stronger because of its diverse sources. The nature of this perception of self has been affected for many years by dualistic philosophy. If we are going to understand consciousness we have to lose the notion that there are two realms, the physical and the mental. We have to lose the idea that introspection has some absolute truth about it. ‘I think therefore I am’, has to be seen as a circular argument for a fictional type of self, the introspective self. The statement actually says nothing and proves nothing.


I am not suggesting that any of us do not exist. Of course we exist. I suggest only that we start to consider that our particular experience of ‘self’ may, and probably is, an illusion of consciousness.

One thought on “Who is watching?

  1. It’s true, the particular experience of a unified, single ‘self’ probably is an illusion of self-consciousness. It is a common belief in Buddhism. I found this a bit frightening when I first thought about this.

    JanetK: I am not a Buddhist but I find their open-mindedness about how the brain/mind works so refreshing compared to some other religions and philosophies. I am also somewhat in awe of their mediation skills.

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