The Ockham Society (Week 6, TT18)

Ockham Society

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"Are there degrees of self-consciousness?"

It is widely assumed that ordinary conscious experience involves some form of sense of self or consciousness of oneself. Moreover, this claim is often restricted to a “thin” or “minimal” notion of self-consciousness, or even “the simplest form of self-consciousness” (Blanke & Metzinger, 2009), as opposed to more sophisticated forms of self-consciousness which are not deemed ubiquitous in ordinary experience. This suggests that self-consciousness is a graded phenomenon which comes in degrees. I will argue that there are several issues with this assumption.

First, there is no obvious metric to determine whether one creature is more self-conscious than another creature at a given time, or whether the same creature is more self-conscious at one time than at another time. Secondly, there are several ways in which a creature can be self-conscious. Aside from thinking about oneself, there are good reasons to believe that there are other forms of self-consciousness which may not depend on the possession of a first-person concept, such as the sense of agency, bodily awareness, and spatial self-location.

The distinction between minimal and complex forms of self-consciousness could be motivated in principle by the discovery of systematic relations between these experiential features, such that some are necessary for others. However, there is empirical evidence to the contrary. Subjects are often aware of their body, action or location without thinking about themselves; they can lack a sense of agency without lacking bodily awareness or self-location (e.g., in thought insertion or alien hand syndrome); they can be aware of their location without being aware their body (e.g., in bodiless dreams, asomatic out-of-body experiences or certain drug-induced states); conversely, they can be aware of their body but not of their location (e.g., in vestibular disorders, deafblindness or meditation).

I will conclude that self-consciousness is best understood as a multidimensional construct rather than a graded phenomenon.


Chair: Alasdair Craig

Ockham Society Convenor: Charlotte Figueroa