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.

God Speaks

In the previous post, Psychology of Belief, perhaps the most interesting of the videos is this one: Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations.

One of the believers in the video said, “God speaks in a whole bunch of different ways”, and there’s the rub. For the believer who avoids inflicting some of the psychological influences on others, do they check to see if they’ve been influenced that way? I think this particular psychological effect is probably the trick that holds it all together, the self-affirmation, the self-reassurance, that all the other psyche effects are in fact valid, because we’ve experienced God speaking to us. But have we?

Being told to listen and God will speak can lead us to interpret that in any way that seems to fit – confirmation bias – and so maybe our own intense feelings are interpreted as God speaking. When we think of how our brains work, using what little we yet know, we have a mechanism that consists of neurons, chemicals and electrical impulses, and out of that come feelings, sub-conscious events, and conscious awareness and thoughts. The latest thinking is that the conscious thoughts we have are the outcome, the awareness that comes to the fore, of other events in the brain; so that conscious thoughts are post-event stories that we use to monitor what the brain is doing and to plan and feedback down to the sub-conscious and the motor areas. This is a mechanism that builds from birth and is something we take from granted as much as speaking – when in the full flow of free conversation we have no idea how the vague notions that we want to express are formed into grammatical words and syntactic sentences, it just happens.

Using this model it seems plausible that we could mistake rising awareness of feelings and sub-conscious thoughts as being from elsewhere. We have so many instances where thoughts just pop into our heads, and if we have the time to consider we sometimes wonder, where did that come from. We notice it most when we’re with someone and we’ve been trying to remember a name but can’t quite get it, so we forget the search, and sometime later up it pops, and we wonder, where did that come from? This particular type of event is so noticeable that we even comment to each other – if I suddenly say the name, ‘out of the blue’, the other person will ask, where did that come from?

Some pop ups have an obvious cause. If I’m thinking about a topic in full concentrations and something comes into my field of vision, or the phone rings, it’s clear that the interruption, the pop up, has an external source. If I suddenly get an itch, or a stomach ache, I know the noticeable has come from my body. But how do we judge were subconscious thoughts and feelings come from. The sudden intense rush of inspiration or insight or overwhelming awe or a divine intervention such as words from God, I think, are all events that occur in the brain through the stimulation of intense thought, the power of stress, or any number neurological stimulations.

That the brain is capable of intense feelings from neurological events is indisputable – that is how the brain works after all. But to put it in context we can think of the images of brain seizures, such as epilepsy, as an extreme case of brain event that is out of control. I’m not say that clinically these inspirational events are the same in any way – I don’t know the neurophysiology of what’s happening – but as an extreme model it seems plausible. The fact that epilepsy has been speculated to be the cause of many recorded events in history is an indication of the similarity, whether it be possession by demons, appearances of visions or words from God.

This video is one in a series on epilepsy. Though this series is focusing on the clinical condition of epilepsy it does give some insight into how the brain can have extreme events; and it’s something like this I’m speculation could be the mode of operation of inspiring brain events – as opposed to real words from God or possession by demons. Which seems more likely? Video #1 is also of interest in this context.

Having a feeling that we are in touch with God, or that we experience God does have a possible neurobiological explanation. There’s the notion of the ‘God module’ in the brain. I missed this Horizon programme. I don’t know to what extent Dr Daniel Giang, neurologist and member of the church, is right in his medical opinion, or to what extent he has confirmation bias. The important point is not that is a module that is specifically for seeing or hearing or experiencing God, but that it is one area of the brain that has several functions, and one apparent effect, possibly a side effect, is that it causes or interprets brain effects as divinely inspired and generally cause the subject to believe in the divine.

The brain has the ability to convince itself of something, even when on another level the subject knows intellectually that his own brain is mistaken. This is a well know example of a woman experiencing a man behind her. Other direct brain stimulations have been recorded as causing familiar songs to be hear in the brain, even though the subject knows there is no music playing. And in another case it has been possible to cause out of body experiences. Out of body experiences can also be induced with VR.

Also, to figure out whether a divine event is real, consider: are you measuring the misses as well as the hits? Or is a cognitive bias persuading you you’re hearing God speak, when it’s your own internal experiences, of yourself. Watch for the auditory illusion towards the end – “You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” To what extent are interpretations of inner messages influenced by religious priming, so that just a ‘feeling’ can be interepreted as divine?

Hearing God speak, either as an auditory signal in the audio cortex, or as a deep emotional experience, doesn’t seem to need divine intervention – the brain can do this all by itself, and convince the subject that it is a divine intervention. If the subject is primed for this it might even be inevitable that the subject is convinced.

Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.