About

What are the roots of the idea of ‘self’?  Is there an important difference between you and a ’mere replica’ who is ‘just like you’?  What is the evolutionary role of the concept of self?  What is known about its neurological underpinnings?  Is the concept of self compatible with a modern scientific view of the world?

Most of us think and act as though the distinction between self and other is both real and important.  There is a huge difference between imagining someone else taking a dream vacation and looking forward to one yourself.   Memories of our own past are coloured by emotions like pride and shame, that are absent when we think about events in our friends’ lives.  And the idea of impending death, even if far in the future, has a peculiar significance which we tend not to attach to the death of others.

The Phantom Self website is intended as a forum to raise questions and advance argument, with the goal of elucidating and reforming the concept of self.  Please use the comment forms for questions and discussion.

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Author Bio

Gordon Cornwall earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Calgary in 1975.  He pursued a varied career in business, technology and software.  From 1998 to 2008, he was President of Industrial Metrics Inc., a B.C. company developing software for railroads.  After selling the company and completing a handover, he is free to pursue a long-dormant philosophical interest in the self.

13 Responses to “About”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your effort.
    Some time ago my personal sense of self lost its opacity.
    Since that perspective is not part of the consensus perception of reality, conversations that factor out the sense subjectivity simply don’t happen.
    I find your writing refreshing.

  2. I appreciate the comment – also your point that it’s hard to find people who will sustain a good conversation about this stuff. I think we’re at an early stage of understanding. But with the progress that’s being made in neuroscience recently, we may not have to be in the dark too much longer. I suspect the 21st century will revolutionize our understanding of the sense of self, and human motivation, as the 20th century revolutionized our understanding of physics.

  3. One thing I have noticed is that all religiosity loses its relevance when the sense of self evaporates.

    God suddenly has nothing and no one over which he can extend his efforts.

    The entire concept of a creator god just appears downright silly.

  4. Gordon says:

    I’ve thought for a long time that God was invented in order to provide much-needed balance to the Self, an idea which had become more powerful than was good for us, as a social species. The major religions of both the East and the West can be seen as a response to Self; Western monotheistic religions assert the existence of a God with the authority, strength, and wisdom to keep the Self in check; whereas Eastern religions (at least in their purer forms) try to weaken the idea of the Self by exposing it as a human artifact of mind that ultimately depends on illusion. Interestingly, it’s the Eastern view that seems the better fit to a modern scientific account of reality.

    If your self seems less real, it’s not surprising that God would seem correspondingly less relevant.

  5. Michael says:

    “Thou shall have no God before ME!”
    LOL

    After your research into the nature of self, you must have intuited it’s essential emptiness.
    Mine disappeared after a catharsis.
    How do you feel about your own self?

    For years I knew intellectually that it had no actual existential reality.
    it appears that something else was needed to actually become a non self.

    Religion is so ubiquitous, that there must be a good reason for it’s evolution.
    Your insights are interesting but I wonder if the answers run too deep for the conceptual mind to grasp.

  6. Speaking personally, I’d say my felt sense of self is almost as strong as ever. The difference is that I no longer take it seriously. Having a better intellectual understanding of why we feel the way we do – experience self-concern in all its unedifying forms (envy, pride, terror, embarrassment…), worry obsessively about our personal futures, anguish about events in the distant past – gives me the freedom to ignore the demands of the self when it blows its own horn too loudly.

    I agree that religion answers some needs of both society and the individual (see my previous comment). But religious answers are getting harder and harder to reconcile with a scientific account of reality. I think we should try to find a new way to address those genuine needs.

    Are the answers too deep to be grasped conceptually? We’ll never know if we don’t try. I’m optimistic that we can get at least a bit further down that path.

  7. Michael says:

    It does not seem to be the nature of self to include the awareness of its own essential emptiness.
    And it appears impossible, to articulate a world view whose origin is not based on it’s private collection of mnemonic debris.
    There is an entirely different way to perceive that is not solely filtered through the sense of I am.
    But it appears not to be an experience that can be shared.
    I suspect that once the self sees through it’s own charade, the illusory quality of all other selves is also seen and the desire to share the insight diminishes because from that perspective, there aren’t any.

  8. Gordon wrote:
    “Are the answers too deep to be grasped conceptually? We’ll never know if we don’t try. I’m optimistic that we can get at least a bit further down that path.”

    There is a fundamental problem that cannot be resolved.
    “Consciousness is in the world.
    The world is in consciousness.”

    “Consciousness” is attempting to understand itself using the only tool it has at its disposal………consciousness.
    The mind searches through its bucket of concepts to answer questions about concepts.
    “Consciousness” is not a thing.
    It cannot be objectified and the conceptual mind cannot “see” anything unless it has converted the ripples it leaves into an object.
    Compound that with the fact that the sense of self emerges downstream from within that process.
    It’s a hell of a problem that never really existed.

  9. Michael, you present as a dilemma:

    There is a fundamental problem that cannot be resolved.
    “[premise 1] Consciousness is in the world.
    [premise 2] The world is in consciousness.”

    We can escape from the dilemma by being realists about the world. I think the world exists independently of my mind. So, I deny premise 2.

    I recognize that my knowledge of the world is ultimately limited by my consciousness can sustain, but that is only a limit to my knowledge, not to the world itself. I have a very limited experience of a much broader reality. Do our limitations make the goal of self-understanding hopeless? Again, I’m not prepared to give up without going a lot further down that path.

    There is an element of bootstrapping, to which I think you are alluding, in this quest. Although to pick oneself up by one’s own bootstraps seems impossible, when we first think of it, there are precedents in human discovery which may inspire us to think again. Until 1931, it was generally thought that for a mathematical statement to be true was the same thing as for it to be provable in mathematics – that mathematics was a closed system of rules which, in effect, defined its own truth. Then Kurt Godel came up with an ingenious method for making arithmetical expressions refer to arithmetical expressions. Using this ‘boot-strapping’ self-referential technique, he devised an arithmetical statement that said of itself that it is not provable in arithmetic. (That is, he reproduced the famous Liar’s Paradox in arithmetic!) Is the statement false? If so, then a false statement is provable in arithmetic (and arithmetic is inconsistent). Is it true then? Well, then at least one true arithmetical statement is not provable in arithmetic.

    We can perhaps make faintly analogous progress in the domain of the self, but not without working at it.

  10. Michael, you present as a dilemma:

    There is a fundamental problem that cannot be resolved.
    “[premise 1] Consciousness is in the world.
    [premise 2] The world is in consciousness.”

    We can escape from the dilemma by being realists about the world. I think the world exists independently of my mind. So, I deny premise 2.

    (M)
    The world may indeed exist independently of the mind; but the mind could never know that.

    I recognize that my knowledge of the world is ultimately limited by my consciousness can sustain, but that is only a limit to my knowledge, not to the world itself.

    (M)
    The conceptual mind, and its spurious self, is limited to its own descriptions and labels.
    It mistakes its own overlay for reality.

    I have a very limited experience of a much broader reality. Do our limitations make the goal of self-understanding hopeless?

    (M)
    Yes.
    Assuming that there is no such thing as self, self-understanding is a contradiction in terms.

    The only understanding possible is that there is no such thing as understanding.

    In a broader sense, what do we “understand” about electricity, magnetism, gravity or light?
    What we call understanding is merely describing.

    The human mind evolved to look for and make connections.
    It falls into a morass when it attempts to understand connections between those things that exist only as ideations.

    I am suggesting that there might be a way for the mind to exist in the simplicity of not-knowing…. adrift in the awe and mystery of being aware of being aware.

    Again, I’m not prepared to give up without going a lot further down that path.

    (M)

    There is nothing wrong with probing the nature of reality.
    We have to do something.
    I am suggesting that ultimately all paths lead nowhere.
    Or……we are the path.

    There is an element of bootstrapping, to which I think you are alluding, in this quest. Although to pick oneself up by one’s own bootstraps seems impossible, when we first think of it, there are precedents in human discovery which may inspire us to think again. Until 1931, it was generally thought that for a mathematical statement to be true was the same thing as for it to be provable in mathematics – that mathematics was a closed system of rules which, in effect, defined its own truth. Then Kurt Godel came up with an ingenious method for making arithmetical expressions refer to arithmetical expressions. Using this ‘boot-strapping’ self-referential technique, he devised an arithmetical statement that said of itself that it is not provable in arithmetic. (That is, he reproduced the famous Liar’s Paradox in arithmetic!) Is the statement false? If so, then a false statement is provable in arithmetic (and arithmetic is inconsistent). Is it true then? Well, then at least one true arithmetical statement is not provable in arithmetic.

    (M)
    LOL
    We are not going to think our way through a conundrum that exists only in thought.
    We are ourselves a product of conceptual thought.
    It would be like trying to find your true self in your dreams at night.

    We can perhaps make faintly analogous progress in the domain of the self, but not without working at it.

    (M)
    It’s a circular journey that always travels back to own center.
    It’s funny as hell when that is seen.

  11. Karin S. Fester says:

    Hello Gordon, this is an excellent blog. I am also a phlosopher who focuses on personal identity issues etc etc…. I always love to read and engage with discussion on the subject.
    Karin

  12. Thanks, Karin. If you’d like to discuss any of these topics, I’ll be more than happy to participate. Please challenge me on anything doubtful or unclear. That’s the only way we’ll get to the bottom of the subject.
    – Gordon

  13. Copernicus says:

    Hi Gordon.
    Are you still working on the no-self? I’ve been following Metzinger for a while now. Interested in the no-self as a path to spiritual enlightenment. It would be interesting to exchange notes with someone like you.

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