I've been thinking about this topic in relation to artificial consciousness. Specifically self-awareness.

(I can define terms precisely if requested, but usually prefer to be as general as possible:)

Essentially I'm defining this as asking the question "what is the self?" is a requirement of self-awareness. If the question can be definitively answered, there is no need to ask or contemplate the self.

It's the process of asking the question that constitutes self-awareness.

This relates to the Delphic maxim to "know thyself" and Socrates subsequent affirmation, but also to the Buddhist concept of impermanence, where an implication is that we're a product of change, and that which constitutes the self is never static.

It was the concept of consciousness as a recursive function that got me thinking about it this, and it turns out this concept has been well defined:

At the phenomenal level, consciousness can be described as a singular, unified field of recursive self-awareness, consistently coherent in a particular way; that of a subject located both spatially and temporally in an egocentrically-extended domain, such that conscious self-awareness is explicitly characterized by I-ness, now-ness and here-ness. The psychological mechanism underwriting this spatiotemporal self-locatedness and its recursive processing style involves an evolutionary elaboration of the basic orientative reference frame which consistently structures ongoing spatiotemporal self-location computations as i-here-now. Cognition computes action-output in the midst of ongoing movement, and consequently requires a constant self-locating spatiotemporal reference frame as basis for these computations. Over time, constant evolutionary pressures for energy efficiency have encouraged both the proliferation of anticipative feedforward processing mechansims, and the elaboration, at the apex of the sensorimotor processing hierarchy, of self-activating, highly attenuated recursively-feedforward circuitry processing the basic orientational schema independent of external action output. As the primary reference frame of active waking cognition, this recursive i-here-now processing generates a zone of subjective self-awareness in terms of which it feels like something to be oneself here and now. This is consciousness.
SOURCE: Peters, Frederic Consciousness as Recursive, Spatiotemporal Self-Location

While most of us don't go around asking the big question "what is the self?" constantly, there's a case to be made that all kinds of autonomic functions are asking the type of questions Peters refers to on a continual basis, until we cease functioning.

Which leads to my question:

  • Has there been any formal philosophical exploration of the idea of the self as a necessary conundrum?

Here I'm talking about the idea of mystery in a religious context to make the point that human consciousness can be deemed miraculous, where miraculous is used without the normal religious context. What I am really meaning here by mystery is something that is never completely knowable, and appears miraculous.

I suspect it relates to inescapable nature of subjectivity in our everyday phenomenal reality: no subjectivity, no self.

  • self is that which is not other or environment. What's the conundrum?
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 0:48
  • @Mr.Kennedy nice. but what constitutes the self aside from the distinction with the system or other subjectivities? (My main interest is in artificial consciousness, and how we define it or would acknowledge it.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 0:58
  • I'm not sure I grasp the question having tried to read it several times. Simplest level, what are you asking?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 4:32
  • 1
    It'll help to disambiguate your use of "artificial" and for consciousness see page 3 section III here
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 4:49
  • @virmaior essentially, "is selfhood partly dependent on continually having to evaluate the self?" Why is "know thyself?" such a central question? (Re: the sphinx's riddle to Oedipus, there is the idea that there is only one riddle because this is the only question truly worth asking;) "Is it the process of continually trying to know the self that validates, if not constitutes, selfhood?"
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


I suspect your question is a bit more broad than can be easily answered here. In the context of artificial intelligence, you'll probably want to distinguish between the "easy" problems of consciousness (how to model the behavior and cognition of conscious beings) from the "hard" problem of consciousness (about the nature and origin of subjective experience).

However, if you identify self with consciousness, and consciousness with subjective experience, this is somewhat familiar territory for philosophy of mind. For instance, mysterianism presents consciousness and subjective experience as potentially unknowable from an objective or materialist perspective. If you're interested in reading some philosophy of mind to explore these questions, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" by Thomas Nagel might be a good place to start.

  • Mysterianism is definitely the sort of answer I'm looking for! (Still want to keep the net cast, but this would be a suitable accepted answer I think.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 3:51

There seems to be a confusion here between self and consciousness, as if they are the same phenomenon. It may be noted that the self is explained thoroughly in the Wisdom literature and is not said to be a conundrum. It is definitely a conundrum in modern phil. of mind and in scientific consciousness studies but this is a local problem. Peters seems to assume that consciousness requires a spatio-temporal location which is an odd idea, but maybe I'm misreading him.

There is a vast literature on this topic. Among modern writers I'd recommend Alan Watts and Rupert Spira, both of whom chat on youtube, but the discussion in the ancient Upanishads or the Corpus Hermeticum won't say anything different. The mystics have been explaining the relationship between conciousness and the self for at least three millenia now. Whether they are right or wrong is a decision for you to make.

Note that mysterianism is the view that we cannot know about these things and as such is exactly the opposite of mysticism.

  • Thanks for bringing up thinkers like Watts and Spira. I'm not convinced identity can be divorced from consciousness. If there is nothing to perceive the self, how can there be a self?
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 20:48
  • 1
    @DukeZhou - Good thinking. As the Upanishads ask, Who is there to know the knower or understand the understander?
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 10:00

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