Limitations of Self-Awareness, Self-Knowledge

Why can’t we use inner reflection to identify our real nature, sense every impulse of our working brains, and explain from a first person perspective the inner workings of our minds, or spot the owner of our free-will? How far can meditation take us in our discovery of ourselves? What can we learn about life the universe and everything by just thinking?

This is my current view on these issues.


There are some fundamental problems that we don’t appear to be able to overcome. Any system, no matter how simple or complex, cannot contain a complete description of itself.

When you reduce information to its basic level, the lowest common denominator, the lowest level of representation that allows a distinction between one state and another, it is a binary representation. And in a binary representation the lowest level of physical distinction, the substrate on which the information can be held, is the presence and absence of sub-atomic particles or their states. How far physics takes us down this road is a technical detail. The limits of distinction between states of matter, or perhaps states of space itself, are details for physicists to investigate. But ultimately, information is contained in states of systems.

A corollary of this is that with the heat death of the universe comes the loss of all information, because there is nothing left on which to record the information, there is nothing left from which distinguishable states can form – and of course no one around to read and add meaning to any information there might have been.

Until that time comes we can flip back into our macro current world and consider, for example, a memory device that contains one bit of information – 0 or 1 – and in taking on one of those values it has a state. What would it require for that system to be self aware? At the very least it would need another bit to record the state of the first bit. But to be useful to any degree it would need to be self aware over time. If it was to record the last three states, to have a ‘memory’ of itself, it would need four bits in total – one for the current actual state, and three to record successive prior states. And this is before it starts to process, to think about, itself in any significant way – so far the system is only memorising a finite number of its own states. But already it’s self-awareness is incomplete – it knows now about the state of its main bit over three time periods, but knows nothing about the states of its three other bits.

Expand this to any system: it can contain only limited information about itself. The massive redundancy in some systems allows them to contain information about crucial parts of themselves, parts worth monitoring. Computer systems can be self-checking. But only to a degree – what checks the checkers? Even if we allowed each sub-system to check the other sub-systems in a mutually complete checking system then there would be nothing left, no remaining capacity, to do any actual work. There are limits to how much a system can be self-aware. It is a compromise between doing useful work and being self aware.

Regarding animal brains in this way would mean that any animal in principle could have some degree of self-awareness. If it is able to sense itself, sense it’s internal workings (its ‘thoughts’, which amounts to information about a small part of it’s own processing capabilities), as well as its body and environment, and if it has a memory in which to record data, and a system that can examine that memory and make inferences about the past, the present, and the future, and use those inferences to drive further behaviour, then it is self-aware. But any such animal system is restricted, in the limit, by the basic physics that limits the means of containing information. Information, after all, is nothing more than states of systems.

That’s not to say the brains of humans or any other animal are anything like restricted in this sense to any practical degree. There may well be masses of capacity left in a human brain for self-monitoring. But that’s not to say that capacity can be used, or in fact has evolved to be used.

Low Fidelity Introspection

There is a problem with the fidelity of the information that our brains process – the brain isn’t that good at examining itself, despite our otherwise useful self-awareness. Our best evolutionary inferences suggests the brain is self-aware to the extent that it offers some adaptive advantage in dealing with our environment. It isn’t clear that there is any particular advantage to being more acutely aware of our inner selves. So it doesn’t look like our brains are built for self-awareness to any greater degree than we currently experience.

We can exercise our physical bodies to some extent, and the same is clearly true of our brains – we learn stuff. But just as our physical bodies are limited, so we can’t learn to fly unaided, for example, so then we should expect similar limitations for our brains. Where is the evidence that we can in fact exercise our brains to perform ESP, true transcendentalism, out of body experiences, and so on. There appear to be limits to what the brain can achieve, and without contrary evidence there would appear to be a practical limits on what we can do with self-awareness.

Our bodies and brains have evolved mainly to enable us to survive in our environment. And bodies evolved before brains became significantly complex. So we are mainly physical empirical beings that sense and manipulate our environment; and self-awareness is a late addition, and is restricted to very few species, the most prominent users being, it seems, we humans. Why would we continue to think that it is capable of some of the magic attributed to it by ancient mysticisms.

We don’t have specific sensors, like our eyes or ears, that can look into our brains to examine its state. Though the brain is a system of neurons, it doesn’t actually have any nerves dedicated to sensing itself, in the way we have touch sensors around the body – that’s why some brain operations can be conducted with a conscious patient.

What we appear to have is some rudimentary conscious sub-system that allows us to monitor and manipulate the system as a whole. But as an instrument it’s quite flaky and prone to error. So much so that’s it’s difficult to isolate individual thoughts, to really understand what our concepts are. We have quite a history of philosophy that’s been trying to figure this stuff out; and more recently a psychology that’s been concentrated for the most part on a guessing game about what’s going on inside our brains by reflecting on the meaning of behaviours observed on the outside. The history of the attempts by psychology to second guess what’s happening in the brain is reminiscent of a cold war spy novel – we know something fishy is going on inside the wall, but we don’t quite know what.

Don’t get me wrong, our brains are equipped to perform some pretty amazing conceptual generalisations. We can go far and wide in our imaginations. But one of the complaints often made about neuroscience is that its tools, such as fMRI scans, are nowhere near precise enough or informative enough to tell us anything useful about consciousness. But when did you last use your own introspective mind to scan itself for tumors, potential aneurysms, or which part of your brain is being used during speech?

Our introspection is limited to a very cursory examination of our ongoing experiences, the vague recollections of some of our memories, and creating generalised plans for the future. When we think we are achieving something really clever with our minds you can bet we are using external enhancements to aid us – making notes, recording thoughts as audible messages, sketching diagrams. And when we want to create some complex plan we figure it out over time, recording steps, manipulating and fine tuning the plan, and finally executing it step by step by referring to our documentation. We can’t hold a detailed complex plan in our heads.

Nor can we claim any truth to expansive imagined entities, like God, since all our ideas about God are concocted inside limited human minds. The fact that a finite human brain can conceive of some supposed infinite being, as some Muslims like to portrait God, is not evidence that such an entity exists or could exist. Thhis conception is only a fuzzy idea inside a human brain and has no correspondence in reality – unless of course there is independent empirical evidence that such a being exists. So some of the proofs of God’s existence we often come across are bogus from this point of view alone.

Illusions of Personal Experience

Our brains are concept mashup machines. Thoughts whirl around our brains, often with little directed control. Some of us are more spontaneous than others (read ‘erratic minds’), but even the most well practiced meditating monk can’t control their thought processes so easily, and that’s after years of practice. You might get a few control freaks who think they are in total control of their own minds, but what is more likely is that their straight jacketed minds are in control of them.

Some people are fooled by concepts like ‘the infinite’, and think that because we can hold these vague concepts in our heads they actually give us access to the content of those concepts in some way, as if we really can grasp the infinite. But we need to acknowledge that the human brain is a limited capacity physical system. It has many constraints on what information it can hold. Everything it knows about the external world is an approximation.

Personal experiences, like sunsets, are internal experiences. The total experience of a sunset is still occurring inside a human head, still within the limits of the information that the brain can contain and process. The awe inspiring feelings of wonder, of being at one with the universe, are still contained within that physical head. The feelings of pain that humans suffer is still the internal representation of the action of the nervous system and its effect on the body – and even then the effect on the body is only meaningful in that the body’s response is also, in turn, detected by the sensory system. All brain activity, including massive seizures and other overwhelming mental phenomena are still constrained by the physics of the brain in action. Out of body experiences are contained imaginary experiences inside a human head. There is no evidence that they represent or correspond to any actual mechanism for viewing ones own body from a location, other than from within, looking out. Transcendental experiences are fuzzy events in the brain. There is no evidence that any transcending of any other kind is actually occurring.

Prospects for Self-Awareness

It may be possible for animals, in principle, to be far more self aware than humans are now. Despite the fundamental limitations of self-aware systems I wouldn’t think even human have reached full capacity to know ourselves. Perhaps the introspection of meditation is a small step in that direction. But though it does give access to first person data, it doesn’t have the fidelity of scientific instruments, such as those of neuroscience. Meditation is pretty vague in what it tells us about ourselves, though it does seem to gives us greater autonomous control, to a limited degree.

Perhaps transhumanism can enhance human brains to allow us to do better. We already enhance ourselves, directly, with spectacles, walking sticks, crutches, artificial limbs. With a stethoscope I can listen to my own heart beat with greater fidelity than relying on feeling my pulse. Some blind people can be given rudimentary sight by having a camera system stimulate the tongue with electrical impulses (which causes adaptations in the brain to interpret the sensory signals as vision). There’s plenty of scope for enhancing human physical and mental capabilities for the purpose of increasing our self-awareness abilities.

We already enhance our brains externally. The collective fields of science allow us to combine millions of tiny increments in knowledge into vast repositories of data and engineering capability. Could humans ever have designed and built a 747 without the repository that has accumulated over the last few centuries? Could a single brain ever do it even given all those resources? Team work, in the present and over generations, is how we currently play out a limited transhumanism – we already ‘transcend’ (here in a very practical sense) the basic biological humans that we once were. What we haven’t achieved yet is the enhancement of our self-awareness by enhancing our brains. Though there are chemical means of achieving some improvement now, through psychotropic drugs, it’s not a permanent enhancement, as might be a biological or genetic change.

Maybe there’s hope for us to become more usefully self-aware and even more self-controlled, and hence even more autonomous. But that autonomy is not the traditional free-will we often feel it is.

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