Philosophers such as Singer emphasize self-awareness as essential to consciousness and somehow related to an individual's moral value.

These perspectives don't make a lot of sense to me.

  • Self-awareness is only a particular kind of awareness.
  • Self-awareness is not required to have other kinds of awareness. If you are focusing intently on one activity, "burning all of yourself up" in the activity in the Zen expression, you are not necessarily at that time actively practicing self-awareness.
  • If you have any kind of awareness at all, you are conscious.
  • When viewed as a cognitive function, self-awareness is the maintenance and use of a mental model of your body or mind. All vertebrates do this, at least for the body; for example, they need to have a model of where their feet are in order to walk.

Is there a good, firmly grounded justification for valuing self-awareness over other kinds of awareness, either as essential to consciousness or from a moral perspective?

  • 2
    Your second bullet is disputable. Since Kant self-consciousness is often considered a precondition for having unified conscious experience as such (for which he uses a verbose label of "transcendental unity of apperception"), regardless of whether one "intently focuses" on self or not, see SEP, Consciousness of Self. In any case, the psychological issue of where one's attention is focused is orthogonal to the cognitive issue of the role of self-consciousness in conscious experience, and hence in personhood and moral agency. – Conifold Mar 13 at 0:49
  • @Conifold A potentially defensible perspective, but why is "self consciousness often considered a precondition for having unified conscious experience?" Has anyone clearly articulated a reason? And when one is not focusing on oneself, what basis is there for claiming one still has self-awareness anyway, or claiming that it's still important or central? – causative Mar 13 at 3:41
  • 1
    @Conifold I wonder if philosophers pushing this perspective have simply made the following mistake: any time they are philosophizing about consciousness, they are actively practicing self-awareness. And so they conclude self-awareness must be essential to consciousness. Every time they look inwards for self-awareness they find it, because looking inwards creates it... – causative Mar 13 at 4:38
  • Under the link there are various arguments going back to Kant. In his case, at least, self-introspection and how it is practiced play very little role, if any, the arguments are rather abstract and detached in his usual style. He is rather dismissive of introspective evidence generally, relegating it to empirical psychology. – Conifold Mar 13 at 8:05
  • causative, are you speaking sooner of a cogital/reflective self-awareness (the consciousness which posits the subject, I) or sooner of a pre-cogital/pre-reflective self-awareness not positing the subject? (The 2nd one is more mysterious, but some philosophers claim it exists.) – ttnphns Mar 13 at 8:17

For me self-awareness occurs in one's soul, while other awareness (perception or consciousness) occur somewhere else. You may see some blood flowing around at a battle field and thus aware of it, but later once you realize it's "your" blood bleeding, your reaction will differ a lot and later may save you. This is the importance of self-awareness. In other words, mind without self-awareness is like an army without a true commander...

This was also emphasized in Leibniz's Monadology that a person is composed of infinitely numerous monads of different types, among them is a single dominant soul monad which is the source of vitality, seriousness, and will.

  • You use the example of seeing your own blood flowing. Any vertebrate will be able to react to damage to itself in an effective way - chiefly by getting away from the cause of damage, and perhaps also by avoiding putting too much strain on the injured area (limping) or licking its wounds. This seems to be the animal acting like it is "an army with a commander" as you describe, but do you draw a distinction between this and self-awareness? – causative Mar 13 at 3:54
  • According to monadology, advanced animal such as vertebrate has a self-awareness soul, plants only have perception monads but lacking soul, a stone has only bare monads. And there's no distinction between licking vertebrate' self-awareness and human's self-awareness. My above example just wants to highlight the importance of self-awareness and other common awareness, those flowing into and out of one's soul make dominant impression. The real distinction between human and animal is animal lacks rational mind to operate Platonic realm's knowledge, logic and reasoning which transcend one's soul.. – Double Knot Mar 13 at 4:43
  • ...a much more interesting case involving human only is that sometimes the rational mind will shadow the soul and suppress the sole commander such that one's self-awareness becomes dormant by all its coverings. For example, when I'm indulged in writing rational responses I may become more like a machine. If this case continues for a long time, it may cause depression... – Double Knot Mar 13 at 5:06

We picture intelligence principally, as being able to make accurate predictions, especially as regards problem solving. At the point a complex self-model with intentions can be held in mind (rather than just bodily awareness, proprioception etc) something interesting happens, a feedback loop. If you decide to be this kind of person: you can expect such & such outcomes; if another kind: different outcomes - instead of simply predicting outcomes of actions, adjusting the self-model (character, superego, etc) can change future sets of possible outcomes, and imagining future outcomes of a way of living, can inform how we choose to live. This level of self knowledge is the beginning of choosing how to be, who to be.

To support this, I'd look to Dunbar's Number & how human intelligence seems to have emerged mainly for navigating our social landscape & intentions of others, rather than mainly problem solving (like cephalopods & corvids which are solitary or have small social groups). We jumpstart our learning by mirroring others, using specialised 'mirror neurons'. Looking for intentions, and mirroring behaviours, which gives us intersubjectivity: projecting ourselves into the situation of others, because that helps predict them - and, causes us to need to understand our own intentions, and go beyond mirroring into true understanding of physical activities (chimps who don't creche-rear young seem to have less mirror neurons, and struggle to learn by imitation in adulthood). These are also feedback loops, as illustrated in the Buddhist metaphor Indra's Net.

So, having a self-model which can be changed through volition, is key to being truly responsible for your volitions, and character; to moving beyond conditioning by experience and biology like a meat-robot. Feedback allows novel and unpredictable emergent behaviour to occur, in complex systems of all kinds.

The most compelling model for minds to me, is Hofstadter's strange-loop idea, where feedback loops that include self-models in the way described are crucial.

I go into more detail about the themes and approaches mentioned in this post here

According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?

  • Yes, a high level of self-awareness is important for effective cognitive function in humans. But is it a requirement for consciousness? Does it have moral value? – causative Mar 13 at 6:32
  • I'm relating it to responsibility, autonomy, and intentionality, the basis required for moral actions, and so moral value. A human in a permanent vegetative state can feel physical pain, but not make decisions. Singer would place the moral value of self-aware animals over a non-self-aware human. For me the value arises from self-value/preferenc + intersubjectivity, as expressed eg in the Golden Rule, or Rawl's theory of justice - these appeal as moral guides because of intersubjectivity + our self-worth. Extending intersubjectivity to all humans = moral progress, similarly to capable animals – CriglCragl Mar 13 at 7:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.