The Self

The Infinite Regress of the Cartesian Thater

One of the most certain truths in the world is Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". Descartes was so certain of the existence of some kind of essential self that others have coined the term "Cartesian theater" to describe the sense that we all have of being the audience enjoying the rich play of our experiences. The theater metaphor comes naturally to us; it sure seems as though there is a show going on, and we feel confident that there are lots of mechanical maintenance functions that our minds take care of "backstage". The show is the more or less coherent narrative of whatever is in the forefront of our attention at any given time. Moreover, we tend to believe in an enduring self, independent of our individual percepts. Sometimes this virtual "self" in our mind, the one sitting in the audience of the Cartesian theater watching our thoughts and percepts, is referred to as a homunculus. This is not necessarily to imply that most of us believe that the self or homunculus is an identifiable region of the brain like the pineal gland, just that at some level of organization, we assume that there is a self that is separate from the stuff that self experiences, remembers, thinks about, etc. The Cartesian theater metaphor suggests that some process dresses up reality in qualitative costumes (or creates reality completely) and presents it to consciousness, or the self, and that the self just sits back in the audience and watches.

In the real physical world, a child learns from a very young age that everything within my skin is "me", and everything outside of it is "not me". There is a subject/object distinction. There is me, and there is the tree. When I want to move my arm, it moves, but when, by similar force of will, I want the tree to move, it stays put. When I smack myself in the arm it hurts, but when I smack the tree, it does not (or at least it does not hurt at the place on the tree where I struck it). It feels natural to carry this distinction over into the world of our own minds. When we speak of our percepts and thoughts, we still cast the situation these terms: "I" perceive the "tree", even when the tree is one that is created entirely in the mind. I question the appropriateness of the subject/object distinction in this case, however. In some sense, it is the very percept of the tree that is the "me", or rather it is the process of creation of that percept. To separate the self from the percept is to invite infinite regress.

For there to be a Cartesian theater with a homunculus in the audience, information must come in from our sense organs, thoughts must be generated and presented in some fashion to the homunculus, who then experiences them. The homunculus, then, has the same Hard Problem relative to this presentation that we do relative to our sense organs. Any distinction we can draw between the homunculus and the percepts, any line between some receptors (functionally construed) on the homunculus and those aspects of the percepts that these receptors are sensitive to, serves to push the whole problem down one more level, but doesn't solve it. We still have a problem of how the stimuli impinging on the homunculus come together in its "mind" to form the rich qualitative field of consciousness that it has. Perhaps it has a homunculus in its mind too, watching its Cartesian theater, and so on ad infinitem. Under pain of infinite regress, then, there can be no homunculus in the audience of the Cartesian theater separate from whatever is going on onstage. The self is just another part of our world-model, a hypothesized construct.

The User Illusion

We are subject to what Tor Nørretranders has called The User Illusion. In his book of same name (1998), he lays out the explanation of the title (pp 291-293):

The engineers who developed the first computers did not put much thought into the user interface because all the users were professionals. So the computers looked cryptic and clumsy. Alan Kay writes:

"The user interface was once the last part of the system to be designed. Now it is the first. It is recognized as being primary because, to novices and professionals alike, what is presented to one's senses is one's computer. the 'user illusion,' as my colleagues and I called it at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is the simplified myth everyone builds to explain (and make guesses about) the system's actions and what should be done next."

The user illusion, then is the picture the user has of the machine. Kay and his colleagues realized that it does not really matter whether this picture is accurate or complete, just as long as it is coherent and appropriate. It is better to have an incomplete, metaphorical picture of how the computer works than to have no picture at all.

So what matters is not explaining to the user how the computer works but the creation of a myth that is consistent and appropriate - and is based on the user, not the computer.

The computer currently recording this word presents the user with a sequence of texts organized into folders on a desktop. Lousy chapters get dragged into the trash can at bottom right. When the user wants to see if a chapter is too long, he can use the pocket calculator in the desk drawer.

But there are no folders, trash cans, or pocket calculators inside. There are just quantities of 0's and 1's in sequence. Indescribable quantities: A computers can contain many millions of 0's or 1's. But this is nothing that bothers the user; all he needs is to extract his work when he has finished it. The user can be completely indifferent to these enormous numbers of 0's and 1's. The user is interested only in what the user illusion presents: pages of a chapter, folders of completed chapters, folders of loose ends, correspondence, goofed sentences, and unorganized thoughts.

The user illusion is a metaphor, indifferent to the actual 0's and 1's; instead it is concerned with their overall function.

The claim, then, is that the user illusion is a good metaphor for consciousness. Our consciousness is our user illusion for ourselves and the world.

Consciousness is not a user illusion for the whole world or the whole of oneself. Consciousness is a user illusion for the aspect of the world that can be affected by oneself and the part of oneself that can be affected by the consciousness.

The user illusion is one's very own map of oneself and one's possibilities of intervening in the world. As the British biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself."

If consciousness is my user illusion of myself, it must insist that precisely this user is the user; it must reflect the user's horizons, not that which is used. Therefore the user illusion operates with a user by the name of I.

The I experiences that it is the I that acts; that it is the I that senses; that it is the I that thinks. But it is the Me that does so. I am my user illusion of myself.

Just as the computer contains loads bits that a user is not interested in, the Me contains loads of bits the I is not interested in. The I can't be bothered to know how the heart pumps blood around the Me - not all the time, at any rate. Nor can the I be bothered to know how an association occurs in the Me: the I would much rather know what it involves.

But it is not only the I experienced as our personal identity and active subject that is an illusion. Even what we actually experience is a user illusion. The world we see, mark, feel, and experience is an illusion.

There are no colors, sounds, or smells out there in the world. They are things we experience. This does not mean that there is no world, for indeed there is: The world just is. It has no properties until it is experienced. At any rate, not properties like color, small, and sound.

I see a panorama, a field of vision, but it is not identical with what arrives at my senses. It is a reconstruction, a simulation, a presentation of what my senses receive. An interpretation, a hypothesis.

While I would say that Nørretranders does not seem to address qualia directly, and it can not be the case that all of consciousness is a user illusion (the buck has to stop somewhere), and I definitely disagree with the embedded Dawkins quote, I think Nørretranders is onto something here. The self that I think of as separate from my thoughts, percepts, memories, etc. is not quite what it appears to be - it is a convenient fiction, a simulation. There is still what it is like to see red, and what it is like to remember that Paris is in France, and that sort of thing is still mysterious. Its mystery is not dissolved, as Dawkins thinks it is, and Nørretranders possibly thinks it is, but the image of the self as audience watching the show has a huge asterisk next to it, at best.

The Players Are The Audience

As William James said, the thoughts are the thinkers. The memories are the rememberers, the experiences are the experiencers. While this must be true, when I see a red apple, the thought is not of a red apple; it is of an observer seeing a red apple. The self of which we are aware when we claim to be self-aware is a simulation, constructed as part of our perceptual and cognitive apparatus, built into the percepts. The actors on the stage are the audience. I am the scene on the stage of the Cartesian theater. James also suggested that instead of saying, "I am thinking" it might be more appropriate to say, "it is thinking", using "it" in the same sense that we use it when we say "it is raining." I might add to James's suggestion that in particular, it is thinking you. The sense of this is very well summed up in a quote by Johann Gottlieb Fichtes that I found on page 93 of Strawson (2009):

The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the activity brings about; action and deed are one the same, and hence the "I am" expresses an act.

Sometimes I imagine the perceiver/self as a gelatinous pseudopod like thing, forming itself into whatever different thoughts that it has. This is also part of the motivation behind my comic book superhero Particle Man, whose adventures I won't recount here.

This notion also explains, to some extent, the troublesome second-orderliness of consciousness that motivates HOT theories: to see red is to know that you are seeing red. In general, it seems mysterious that experiencing is inseparable from knowing that you are experiencing, that you can't see the apple without also having a sense of yourself as an experiencing self. This mystery goes away if the self is a construct created specifically to bring about exactly this effect. We call the self into being precisely to be the subject of our experiencings, to give them an anchor, a point of view, to make sense of them.