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The Phenomenal Self
Ben Goertzel   Feb 2, 2010   Cosmist Manifesto  

What is this thing called “self”—this inner image of “Ben Goertzel” that I carry around with me (that, in a sense, constitutes “me”), that I use to guide my actions and inferences and structure my memories?

It is nothing more or less than a habitual pattern of organization in the collection of patterns that is my mind, correlated with habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society I habitually associate with.

imageMy “self” keeps telling itself that it is the mind associated with my body ... and in trying to make this story true, it usually succeeds to some degree of approximation (though rarely as high a degree as it thinks it does!) ... but ultimately it is not the mind associated with my body, it is just a portion of that mind which has some overall similarities to the whole.

Thomas Metzinger, in his wonderful “neurophilosophy” book Being No One, uses the term “phenomenal self” which I find to be a good one.

Seeing the self as the self-constructed dynamical phenomenon it is, is one of the main insights that commonly results from meditation practice or psychedelic drug use.

The attachment of primal awareness to self is part of what characterizes our deliberative, reflective consciousness.

Self wishes and acts to preserve itself—this is part of its nature ... connected with the fact that it continues to exist! ... and is also part of the drive some humans feel for immortality.

If the whole mind wants to be immortal, it will be partly satisfied by spawning children, writing books, and so forth—things that extend the patterns constituting it further through time.

If the self wants to be immortal, it doesn’t really care much about offspring or literary works—it wants to keep churning along as a self-creating, self-persisting dynamical subsystem of the mind.

It is unclear the extent to which transhuman minds will have “selves” in the sense that we humans do. Part of “human selfness” seems to be an absurd overestimation, on the part of the self, of the degree to which the self approximates the whole mind. If this overestimation were eliminated, it’s not clear how much of “human selfness” would be left. Some of us will likely find out ... (except the issue of whether it will be “us” that finds out, or some descendant of us, is precisely the question at hand!)

This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.

Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (


It is hard to understand how are we self constructed,  like MC Escher’s hands drawing themselves into existence?  Perhaps self modified, downward causality - rewiring parts of the emergent pattern that gave rise to consciousness, intelligent-redesign of self, possibly an argument for transhumanism in itself, i think therefore i create myself.

It may be that it is some descendant of me that will finish writing this sentence, Dretske’s swamp thing comes to mind - does our identity require a form of history (evolutionary or whatever) and whether or not history is a necessary condition for consciousness.

Given that the mind is like a collection of highly articulated ‘narrow AI’ algorithms, and that the mind can be interpreted as a collaboration of selves -> then transhuman minds, if not limited to current wetware, may be able to entertain individual selves, while also morphing self-patterns into external collective patterns, including patterns seeded from other transhuman minds and AI.

Thank you for the reading…great stuff

I am sorry to say, but I find this article completely incomprehensible.

The author states that the self “is nothing more or less than a habitual pattern of organization in the collection of patterns that is my mind, correlated with habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society I habitually associate with.” (Unfortunately, I can’t replicate the dramatic italics in this comment.)

Take a careful look at what the author says. First, he mentions a “habitual pattern.” But given the meaning of “pattern,” I can’t figure out what the difference is between a mere “pattern” and a “HABITUAL pattern.” What exactly does the word “habitual” add here?

Then we have a “habitual pattern of organization.” Again, I have no idea what “habitual pattern” is adding to “organization.” I.e., what is the difference between the self being a “habitual pattern of organization” and it being a mere “organization” (of phenomena like thoughts and sensations) : or even just a “pattern” (of such phenomena)? As a philosopher once said: “Nothing gives one the impression of profundity like obscurity” (Walter Kaufmann, if memory serves me correctly; here paraphrased). Note that Kaufmann’s claim is both insightful AND clear.

The author then describes the self as being a habitual pattern of organization : where exactly? : located “in the collection of patterns that is my mind.” So, now we have patterns of organization situated WITHIN collections of patterns, where the former is the self and the latter is the mind. The self is apparently inside the mind (which suggests that there are parts of the mind that actually go beyond the self).

Finally, the author states that these habitual patterns of organization inside a collection of patterns is actually correlated with (uh-oh) “habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society I habitually associate with.” Way, way too many prepositions in the sentences in this article about the mind in the head above the body within society on planet Earth in outer space next to Venus near Mercury etc.

Fist, I have absolutely no idea why society has a mind : and a mind in exactly the same sense that we have minds (i.e., “a collection of patterns” = the mind). That seems outrageously untrue, at least without significant further argumentation. Second, note that it’s not society per se that has a mind, but “the portion of society I habitually associate with.” Presumably, then, society has multiple minds : maybe as many minds as there are people in that society, since maybe it’s the case that no two people associate with EXACTLY the same “portion of society.” (Although this would obiously depend on how one defines the vague term “portion of society.”)

And second, does this mean that someone who doesn’t habitually associate with any portion of society not have a self? (That is, since the self is defined as being correlated with ... etc.) Surely extreme loners, ascetics, feral children, Robinson Crusoes, and so on, each still have a self, even though such individuals have no (or virtually no) connection to society. Indeed, it is entirely unclear WHY the self would need to be correlated with habitual patterns of organization in the collection of patterns that is the mind of the portion of society one habitually associates with. What is this adding to the conception of the self previously sketched out?

I am extremely interested in the subject of the self, but this article (and a few other related articles) seem like “nothing more or less than a habitual pattern of gibberish.”

@Fritz: I can appreciate your concerns, but I don’t think Ben was being wordy. To me that’s completely acceptable use of language that serves to convey the states of his mind.

In all these “me” constructs we carry around in our heads are nasty buggers - at best relatively harmless nuisances, at worst mental pathology of the worst kind. Get rid of the me, get rid of roughly 100% social problems = most problems in the world.

As for “me”, “I” don’t habitually associate with any portion of society and have indeed gradually lost my sense of having a self. Last time “I” checked, “I” didn’t notice “myself” at all. There just wasn’t anything to think about, or to focus on, no “me” since I have no personal matters or desires. If this sounds incredible to you, just ask some monks. It’s very doable, actually easy, if you learn - through knowledge and rationality, no mumbojumbo - to “see through the veil of Maya.” I consider this “me”-phenomenon a mere natural process, an extension of nature, which it, of course, is, nothing more. It does what its nature wishes it to do, and there’s no “me” to stand in its way. And that, of course, is to bring about a positive Singularity, ASAP!

It may be difficult to rationalise-away the notion of “Self” completely, and the absorption into some transcendent or meditation state may be essential for the ultimate realisation that is required to overcome : or rather understand - the “Self” as illusion. However, we still need to rationalise when we attempt to understand and seek the answers to this ultimate question and “Self” enquiry. I too appear to have been experiencing for some months now, this strange transition and realisation that my “Self” is merely a machination, and rather than being a negative experience, it appears mostly as a new and exciting revelation and likewise embraced with light-hearted release.

Is this because some load has been lifted from my mind, my ego? Or because I have become more open to the realisation that ultimately causality and sub-conscious volitions, (and my social experiences), are driving my motivations? That this illusion of complete control and freewill, which leads me into all sorts of lamp-posts and pitfalls, is of no control of mine, and thus I am not so much at fault for my own failures and negative emotions? Whatever this feeling is, a weight has certainly been lifted and I view my “Self” with less severity and more compassion that previously.

Is it all as simple as chanting “neti.. neti!”, (“not this.. not this!”), or similar? Certainly this rationalisation has its merits and can be engrossing and enlightening, but we must take care not to delude ourselves. All beliefs are founded on some kind of “voluntary” mind control technique. In other words we are easily susceptible to believe what we want to believe, and thus we must take care not to loose sight of the goal of truth in our “Self-realisation”.

Imagine the consequences of the world-view changing and the world becoming more knowledgeable together, both with an understanding of the psychological viewpoint of the “Self”, and with the scientific understandings of the mind and of sub-conscious volitions. This can only lead to our positive evolution and understanding of the human condition, and thus guide our philosophy and ethics to include all these trans-human and post-human goals that may be achieved.

Five years ago, I believed my “Soul” was a real entity. Now my viewpoint is entirely different, yet my feelings, my experience of reality and perceptions are no less profound than before. I am no less real and no less a person than I was before, and nothing has been taken away from “me”. In fact I have found out more and understand myself to greater value.

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