Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

1. Where Is the Self?

Before trying to solve any problem we must first make sure that the problem is properly stated. What are we actually trying to discover? What question do we wish to answer?

My inner world, my soul, my Self, my Ego is something so intimate, so personal, so much a part of me that it may seem strange to speak of it as a riddle. I am I, the Self is me. No wonder Descartes regarded the statement cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) as the first and basic element of knowledge, a proposition that was not to be doubled. The proposition is clear., definite and simple: I think, therefore I am, therefore I exist. How can such a clear and immediate piece of knowledge be the subject of a riddle? Well, we shall see.

When we acknowledge the intuitive clarity of the awareness of our consciousness, we establish only the fact of identity: I am I. But what does this mean? From the fact of self-awareness or, if you like, self-consciousness, we can deduce no definition of this “selfness,” and certainly no definition of the consciousness.

Perhaps to be aware of oneself merely means to be able to see, to touch, to hear, to smell, to feel, to experience emotion and understand? But any ability must always be somebody’s ability. It must always be “I see,” “I hear,” and so on. Language itself brings out the fact that there must be someone who sees and hears. We could not express ourselves otherwise. “I” am the person who understands that this is a tree, and that is a book. A person is born and he becomes a person who calls himself “I”. He feels joy and pain, anger and admiration. He calls himself “I” because he is aware of his own presence in the world and because he sees the world as “not Self,” as that which surrounds him. Now suppose we see this person walking past us, a person who with every justification calls himself “I”. But just a minute. For us a person is a body that acts and thinks and is perceived by us.

Then perhaps, the Self is an “acting and thinking body”? Yes, we say, that’s it. The body is so built that it can be aware of its environment. At school we used to look for the subject in a simple sentence such as “I see.” And the answer was, of course, that the subject is “I”. But what is it that sees? Well, the body, of course. So my body that can see and think is, in fact, the Self that we are looking for!

In other words, the body that becomes aware of itself as something different from other bodies (bodies that are external to it) thereby singles out from all other sensations the sensation of its own particularity, its self-awareness, that which we designate for the sake of brevity by the personal pronoun “I”.

But if the body in its interconnections with other bodies is capable of perceiving them, of understanding them as external to itself, of distinguishing itself from them and thus understanding itself as what the philosophers call in their professional language an “entity,” then perhaps the body is what we should study in order to understand this ability.

In that case the question of what the Self is, what our consciousness and self-consciousness are, would not come within the competence of philosophy and the only place for studying intellectual activity would be the laboratory.

Admittedly philosophers have always believed the solution of the problem of the consciousness to be their own special field and occupation. Many wise books have been written about what the consciousness is, what cognition is, and how knowledge is acquired. But in this day and age can such complex problems be solved merely on the basis of philosophical speculation?

Such doubts are all the more justified in view of the fact that some philosophers clearly follow in the footsteps of physiology and, judging by the results, regard it as their task to translate the clear propositions of real science into “metaphysics,” into the language of speculation, into world concepts.

If this is so, we shall leave it to the physiologists, psychologists, logicians, mathematicians and cyberneticists to solve any problems connected with human mental activity. For surely, when the exact methods of natural science, the rigorous experiments requiring complex apparatus have become an ordinary necessity for studying the phenomena of nature, it would be an anachronism to rely on speculative philosophical reasoning when considering the nature of mind, rather like relying on alchemy in the age of chemistry.

It is not my intention, however, to popularise the recent discoveries of physiology, or to discuss the gaps in that particular science. And if the reader is inclined to believe that the only mysterious thing about the study of the consciousness is that it has not yet been properly investigated by physiology, then he should lend an ear to the following argument between two convinced materialists.

First. The thing that thinks and is thus conscious of the world is obviously the body, our brain. But what is thought? What is a concept? What is knowledge? Can you explain that? It often seems to me that what a close physiological study could reveal in the brain, and what I experience, know and feel, in other words what constitutes my consciousness, are fundamentally different phenomena. After all, the brain is matter, but thought, feeling – can you really call thought matter? Can you actually say that the entirely material processes taking place in the cerebral cortex, the interactions of neurons and so on, are in fact thought?

Second. I agree with you that thinking is not matter, not brain. But thinking is a function of the brain. When we study the brain, we discover what this function is. After all, a function cannot be the thing of which it is a function.

First. But look here, that is not a serious statement at all! What do you mean by “a function of the brain”? When studying the brain, I study perfectly material neurons, their interactions, their complex functions – matter acting upon matter. The function of a thing is material, a natural effect of its elements acting upon each other. The result of such influence must always be tangibly material.

Second. Not at all. A property, or quality of a thing is not the thing itself. Weight is not a stone, heat is not fire. And it is exactly the same with thinking, which, of course, is not the brain. If we want to know what heat is, we must discover the nature of fire.

First. I have heard such arguments before now. On this basis one argues that weight is not matter, but only a property of matter. As for thought or consciousness, the argument generally runs, “consciousness is non-material in the sense that it is not matter itself; but the fact that consciousness is a property of matter, of the brain just as weight is a property of stone does not make it non-material.” As far as I can see, you are saying the same thing. Such logic, it seems to me, is so naive that one can scarcely take it seriously. Weight or heat, after all, do not exist in themselves. In practice weight is a heavy stone, heat is hot fire. The whole point is that the properties of things are essentially the thing itself. It is only our thinking that can “detach” weight from a heavy stone and regard it as something independent. Your logic is self-defeating. You are trying to prove that thought, consciousness, mental activity is not brain but a property of the brain, but the analogy of weight, heat, and so on, actually brings out the very opposite point. In reality, and not when one is arbitrarily playing with words, weight is a concrete and entirely individual stone under the influence of the earth’s gravity. So thought is nothing else but the thinking brain, my consciousness is my body, and the mental function of the brain is its physiology.

Second. I don’t see anything to be alarmed at in your statement. From one point of view, thinking actually is physiology, it actually is the thinking brain. But thought is not merely a physical property of the brain. Essentially it is reflection. By means of the sense organs the brain reflects the external world. The phenomena of the external world leave their mark on our brain by rearranging the processes that take place in it. The brain has the ability to actively process information coming from outside. It can integrate and analyse the impressions made upon it by objects. And it is this ability that we call thinking. The important thing to remember here is that when we are talking about what is reflected in the matter. of the brain we are talking about the mental, whereas if we are talking about how, in what way external influence is reflected, then we have to do with physiology, with matter. So the activity of the brain is a dialectical unity of the Physiological and the mental. We define it as physiological (material), having the Property of reflecting the objective world, while we call reflection itself mental (ideal). Or to put it another way, we define the activity of the brain as physiological when we study the functions of the matter of the brain, and as mental, when we study the images of objects generated in the process of this activity.

First. I think I would agree with that statement but there is one thing I would question. Some of the ancient philosophers thought that an object influenced the consciousness, the “psyche" ("soul”) in the same way as a seal leaves its imprint on wax. Today, of course, we realise that the mark you have just been speaking of is not an imprint in the literal sense of the word. The nervous apparatus of perception turns the external quality of the object into specific Physiological processes. It codifies the information received through the sense organs. This is why, when a person looks at a tree, no matter how closely we study the physiology of the brain at that moment we discover nothing resembling a tree in the specifically physiological processes that we find there. Isn’t that so?

Second. Yes, I agree. It would be naive in this day and age to imagine that the external appearance of any object is literally imprinted on the brain from the matrix of the organs of reception. It’s all much more complicated, of course. The process is more like this. Let us suppose, for example, that someone is observing a given object for a certain period of time. One could say that in doing so he is experiencing this visual image. A certain neurophysiological process takes place in his cerebral cortex. This process is sparked off by the effect of the object on the organs of vision. A certain neurodynamic system is formed that brings about visual perception, that is to say, gives rise to a visual, subjective image. This system and the subjective image conditioned by it are phenomena taking place at the same time and having the same causes. One is inseparable from the other.

First. I still think your argument implies two processes, or two states. But the thing that matters is not whether they are separable or inseparable from each other. What worries me is something else. There is a neurodynamic system that is responsible for the image perceived or experienced. But at the same time there is also the subjective image itself. And where is it?

We must have a clear and unambiguous answer to this. Either the image is the “system” or the “system” creates it, brings it into being, conditions it, but it does exist as an image and not as a bunch of excited neurons.

Second. Well, you see, this is a special type of interconnection. If you like, this is the same relationship as we have between information and its material vehicle, an image is information about an external object and the neurodynamic system is its vehicle or carrier. Of course, physiology is still lacking in any close study of the question of how the given system presents information to the individual in its subjective form. But, in principle, the question can be answered as follows: a signal containing information about an external object occurs on the level of the retina of the eye. But subjectively this signal is not yet perceived as an image. For information to acquire the form of a subjective (conscious) experience the signal must be transformed not at the level of the retina but at the level of the cerebral cortex, and this is done by the neurodynamic system.

First. Now just wait a minute. What has come over you? You are getting so “terminological.” Still, we shall have to put up with that, everybody talks about information nowadays. But you have not yet answered my question. The “signal at the level of the retina” is not a subjective image. To put it more simply, no one sees the impression of the object on the retina of the eye. What happens there is a biochemical process or reaction. And that is where the codifying of the information takes place. Is that how I am to understand you?

Second. Well, more or less. Only you mustn’t separate the eye from the brain. The retina would not be able to receive the signal without the neurodynamic brain.

First. I’m not separating them. From me the eye is a feeler for the brain, it is, to borrow a phrase, an “outboard brain.” All I am doing is following you when you say there are two levels, the level of the retina and the level of the brain. At the retina level there is no image. None at all. So there is no one to see it. But then you go on to say literally this: at the level of the brain the neurodynamic systems present the information they carry to the individual. For me this implies a host of contradictions! In the first place, none of these explanations have any bearing on my question. The subjective image of the object has disappeared somewhere behind that little word of yours “information.” Instead of an image we are left with a hieroglyph, a code, or a symbol. If the image is the state of the neurons in a person’s brain or, to put it another way, your “system” itself, then you have at least answered my question quite unambiguously. But then why beat about the bush and discuss how the mental phenomenon is connected with objective cerebral processes? Obviously there is no connection. It is simply one and the same thing. The “subjective image” and the “neurodynamic system responsible for it” are two verbal designations of one and the same cerebral phenomenon. Admittedly it is now a complete mystery why any given neurodynamic system or rather a state of that system should he regarded by the person in question as something outside him (and outside his brain ).

Second. But I am not saying anything of the kind! It looks as if you don’t want to understand me! I said quite plainly that the neurodynamic system as a bearer or vehicle of information (not the information itself but only its vehicle, mind you) transforms the signal reaching the retina of the eye and presents this information in subjective; form to the individual. The neurodynamic system is not an image but the code of the external object that is being reflected!

First. Now don’t get angry. I was just going to mention, the second way of interpreting your statements had the word “secondly” on the tip of my tongue.

So far then, the subjective image is not the neurodynamic system itself. The latter, in coded form, only presents the information for the individual. And information is that which rearranges the system that receives it. Isn’t that what I heard you say?

Second. In general terms, yes. And I would emphasise that this often occurs independently of its material vehicle. For example, the mobile “system” of several lines of cars at a crossroads may be started by the green light of the traffic signal or by ail appropriate gesture from a policeman. The information, the message, in this case is one and the same, although the material vehicles are different.

First. Splendid! So the signal from the retina converted “at the level of the cerebral cortex” (and at this point it is not yet an image, as we have agreed) has in the neurodynamic system become information of a special type that the individual must decodify and turn into an image? Is that it? And who is the individual? Perhaps it is another neurodynamic system converted by information received from the retina and processed in the first system? But in that case we have just another nerve code that someone has got to decodify and eventually see as a subjective image. And it turns out that someone calling himself “I” and located in his own body, as if in an auditorium, must “read” and convert into images all these pulsing curves that appear before him on the oscillograph screens of the neurodynamic systems. You can go on talking to me about codes, information and the neurodynamics of cerebral processes, but that is all just terminological description of the “transmission mechanisms” by which the existing object is turned into the subjective image of the object experienced by the individual. And this happens, mark you, outside the individual. Once again we have the subjective image of the object confronted with the object. The individual and that which is outside it, the subject and the object. When I close my eyes and remember what a triangle looks like, the image of a triangle arises before me and I see it. The brain is the body, the processes that occur in it are purely material, physiological processes. But an image like the objectively existing object itself must be seen by someone. Where then is the “auditorium” located? Where is the “audience” that admires the vistas revealed by the organs of perception? Where, finally, is the screen?

Second. The point is that the property of being aware of oneself, the property of seeing and perceiving the objects of the external world is a specific property of the brain. I have already said that this is the mental side of the higher nervous activity and you are trying to interpret it purely from the standpoint of physiology. That’s why the “audience” has disappeared from your argument.

First. Oh, come now! Merely repeating the words “specific property” ten times over won’t help me to find out what this specific property is.

Well, it looks as if our two materialist philosophers are beginning to depart from the academic tone they maintained at first. We must admit, however, that the “specific property” did sound rather unconvincing. The question of the “audience” or “onlooker” still remains unanswered. And besides, merely to see is not enough. One can talk about consciousness only when what is seen is understood.

But here we come up against something rather strange. There is nothing beneath the human skull except a completely material brain and the material processes taking place inside it. Nature does not leave any room at all for an “audience” that could see the world and understand what it has seen. But human beings do both these things. And whereas we can still say that the images of objects of the external world are in some way “imprinted” on the receiving “apparatuses” of the body, to talk about the “location” of concepts in the brain – ideal copies of the invisible essence of things – sounds something completely mystical.

So the first advice of the common sense that natural science was guided by for many years while constantly warning of the dangers of philosophy, ran approximately as follows. If you want to know what consciousness is, study the brain. But we have considerable doubts on this very point.

Let us try to approach the question from another angle. Let us define what knowledge is and how we obtain it. Here, too, common sense suggests a line of investigation that generations of natural scientists have worn threadbare in their efforts to study the process of the human acquisition of knowledge without bothering about philosophy.

2. “I” See and “I” Understand

The notion of cognition usually adopted by the natural scientist who takes the common sense approach boils down to the following. The process of the acquisition of knowledge involves a reception of sensations, perceptions, representations, their comparison, analysis, synthesis, and other operations carried out by the brain. And it is this internal processing of sense perceptions that produces a person’s concept of things. Thus knowledge is a result of sensuous reflection, and the sense organs are the key object that has to be studied. The eminent physiologist Johannes Müller set himself this task about 100 years ago. The task, incidentally, was to be purely physiological. But so much the better. From Müller’s point of view in an experiment any phenomena should be studied on the basis of specific material and without any general arguments. Müller thought that the so-called philosophical problems would be solved at the same time. If by rigorous scientific experiment one could get to the bottom of how the sense organs worked, one would also answer the question of how man cognised the world.

The crude but persuasive belief that the key to reason lies in the sensations compels the physiologist to get rid of all “extraneous questions” and concentrate entirely on the sense organs. And what else can he do if all the rest (perceptions, conceptions, and the activity guided by concepts) depends on how effectively the organ reflects reality. Where does philosophy come into it? Not much philosophy is needed to make a concrete physiological study of the workings of the sense organs and generalise the facts thus accumulated. The main thing is the fact, positive knowledge, and all other general arguments are a more waste of precious time. Facts are stubborn things and this is where one should begin.

Let us try to begin in this way. Here is the first fact. A source of light (in modern terminology, electromagnetic waves) exerts a momentary effect on the eye. What does a man feel? Light. So far so good. Here is the second fact. The eye is affected by a weak galvanic current (application of an electrode). What does a man feel then? Light. The same thing again? The irritant (cause) is different but the sensation (consequence) is the same.

How odd! And suppose we try a mechanical effect, suppose we strike the eye lightly? A light blow produces “sparks” on the eye thus tested. What then is the sensation experienced by the individual? Light. It may be a fainter light than in the second case but it is nevertheless a small flare of light. And there we have fact three. Perhaps that is enough?

Now let us try to operate on different sense organs with one and the same irritant. If we do so the sensations will be different. The eye will see, the ear will hear, the fingers will feel, and so on.

What conclusion can be drawn without my philosophy about the results of the experiment? The obvious conclusion is that the quality of the sensation does not depend on the quality of the irritant.

So facts lead us to the conclusion that the sensations experienced by the individual depend on the individual himself, on the specific energy with which the given sense organ functions. According to Müller’s conceptions, the sensation reflects the internal state of the nerves and not the properties of external things. Strangely enough, “without any philosophy” we and Johannes Müller have reached a quite definite philosophical conclusion: the world is uncognisable, human reason in principle (science, physiology has proved it!) can never deal with the objective properties of things; its function is merely to register the “internal state of the nerves.” But the difficulties involved in the common sense approach to cognition do not end here. “Common sense” told us that to bring about cognition there must be direct sensuous contact between the individual and the objects of the natural and social environment. The sensations caused by the action of objects on the sense organs tell us about certain specific properties of things. Perceptions (combinations of sensations) tell us about the external appearance of a thing as a whole, and representations retain its image in the memory. Thus making it possible, without direct contact with the object itself, to analyse its external appearance, compare it with other images, notice the general recurrent features, discover the essential ones, and so on.

It works out that knowledge is contained in the very first sense perceptions, that to see is to know, to understand what you see, because in the final analysis understanding itself boils down to our attitude to that which we see or feel, an attitude that depends on the comparison of what is perceived with what we have perceived before. If knowledge can come only from experience, if the source of knowledge is sensations, then the source itself, pure and unadulterated, should reveal to us what we call the content of our conceptions – the essence of things, objects, and so on.

Then it is enough for a person to see something to understand what it is? But wait a minute. When a person looks at a familiar object, he naturally sees and understands what he has seen. In this case it is not because he sees that he understands but because he sees an object as something that is known to him already. This is why he understands what the object is. The same is true of an unfamiliar thing in which understanding allows us to detect, to see something familiar and already known.

But supposing there is nothing familiar to us in the object. Suppose we have no knowledge that helps us to see something familiar in it, certain familiar features of a certain class of things? Can the mere contemplation of a thing, the seeing of it, tell us what it is?

Let us suppose, though this may be difficult, that we have before us an object without any features that are familiar to us. What will catch our eye? Such and such a thing may be black, something else may be round, something else soft, and so on. But what is it? As usual the eye seeks something familiar and understandable. “Black,” “soft,” “round,” and so on, are not merely sensations in themselves. They mean something to us, they say something to our consciousness. And this is why the eye perceives even the object seen for the first time with some “foreknowledge.” As long as we are talking about human beings we must reckon with the fact that they have consciousness, that at any given moment they treat what they see with understanding.

Now we find ourselves in a kind of vicious circle. In order to acquire knowledge we must see, perceive with our senses, the objects of our environment. But we can know only if we have pre-knowledge, if we can see something familiar, understandable, known in the things we see. So before we see we must know something. We don’t seem to be getting very far!

But the argument does not end here. It is said that man acquires knowledge from experience. But from the standpoint of common sense experience is primarily action in relation to things, in the process of which a person senses or perceives them. So it seems quite impossible to explain how even the most ordinary concept of an object arises? After all, a concept always contains knowledge of something fundamental, essential, and any sense impression registers only the external appearance of individual objects, a set of their individual and often accidental properties. Every concept comprises something that we cannot acquire by the personal experience of contemplating an object, namely: generality, necessity, and essence.

Normally this does not worry “common sense.” What is so difficult about cognition? In the first place, I know quite a lot already and my knowledge seldom lets me down. Therefore cognition is quite possible and I cognise correctly. But what about the concepts in which my knowledge is contained? No problem here either. I see, hear, perceive, imagine things. For convenience I call the things thus represented by different names. And I put these names in two groups, to which I again give various names. Naturally, there are several states and transitions in the naming of things that are far removed from the external image of the thing and I cannot always remember or imagine the individual objects that were given the primary names. When I say “furniture,” I cannot always imagine all the types of chairs, tables and so on. But in general terms I am fairly well oriented. My brain associates the term “furniture” with all these images and I know what I am talking about. It is rather more complicated with the abstract concepts of science, but here too the same principle applies. Somewhere at the bottom of the pyramid whose summit is the scientific concept lies the image of the thing, then its name, and then the name of the name, and so on.

It is quite true that the usual concept of cognition, of the structure of acquired knowledge resembles a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid there is a broad platform of all kinds of impressions and sense perceptions. Fleeting, accidental, they constantly supply us with knowledge about the transitory phenomena of the reality we perceive. There are huge numbers of them. Throughout our lives they accumulate and form the basis of our emotions, feelings and thoughts. Memory sorts out what is similar and repetitive into types, kinds, and classes, thus forming a new step in cognition, and a new layer of knowledge about the world. And because these generalised notions embrace a huge number of individual impressions, the new layer is both higher and much less extensive than the first. So the pyramid of knowledge grows. The next layer consists of names designating the generalised types, kinds, classes and notions. Above that there is a layer of more general names, and because these are naturally fewer in number, this layer forms a new tier in the pyramid. And so it goes on to the very top, which has the one all-embracing name of “being,” a name that also seems to radiate the concept of consciousness.

In the course of our argument we shall constantly use the simile of the pyramid of knowledge. But the attempts already made to assess man’s path in the acquisition of knowledge put us into a difficult position. The very foundation of the pyramid has been shaken! It turns out that it rested on the unstated assumption: “I see” means that I already understand something. But if this is not so, if in order to understand we must do more than perceive and name the images of perception, must the pyramid of knowledge then collapse? As a rule, common sense will not hear of any such thing. “That is all philosophy! Useless speculation! Knowing means knowing and I have no doubt as to what I know.”

But while common sense amuses itself by contemplating the splendid pyramids beneath which the “insoluble riddles of cognition” are entombed, the philosophy that is referred to so disparagingly by “common sense” has never stopped trying to find a way of solving those riddles. The philosophical schools, from ancient times to the present day, are tunnels dug by science and forming a labyrinth of wise and sometimes brilliant conjectures, of misleading sidetracks, and agnostic dead ends.

And the philosopher who first found “Ariadne’s thread” and followed it deep into the foundations of the pyramid, to its very heart, and there solved the riddle, was Karl Marx.

Contents | Chapter 1