My research focuses mainly on the notion of self-consciousness, which is central to several research programs in contemporary philosophy of mind and psychology. A number of philosophers and psychologists have argued that self-consciousness is essential for consciousness in the following sense: necessarily, a subject is self-conscious whenever they have a conscious experience. My doctoral project seeks to examine this claim and assess the nature of the relationship between consciousness and self-consciousness.
The first step is to disambiguate ‘self-consciousness’. In the first part of my dissertation, I distinguish two broad meanings of the term that have been occasionally conflated in the literature, namely ‘consciousness of one’s conscious experience’ and ‘consciousness of oneself’, and subsequently examine each of the resulting claims about the necessity of self-consciousness for consciousness. After laying out and endorsing some foundational claims that plausibly follow from a philosophical elucidatory account of consciousness itself, I argue that statements about the necessity of self-consciousness for consciousness that go beyond these foundational claims are not well motivated.
The idea that self-consciousness, understood as ‘consciousness of one’s conscious experience’, is a necessary component of consciousness in general finds expression in the following claim: a subject’s mental state is a conscious mental state if and only if the subject is conscious of that state. This claim has been influentially defended by several philosophers in recent years (including Dan Zahavi, Uriah Kriegel, Galen Strawson and Michelle Montague). These authors argue that whenever I am in a conscious mental state (e.g. seeing a blue sky), I am conscious not only of the ‘external’ object of that mental state (the blue sky), but also of the mental state itself (my visual experience of the blue sky) in such a way that my consciousness of my mental state makes a contribution to my overall phenomenology (to what I experience). I argue that this is a substantive claim that does not plausibly follow from foundational claims about consciousness. When I see a blue sky, my conscious experience of the blue sky contributes to my overall phenomenology, but I need not be conscious of my conscious experience of the blue sky in such a way that this ‘consciousness of consciousness’ makes a further contribution to my overall phenomenology. After examining arguments for this substantive necessity claim in the literature, I conclude that they rest on implausible premises.
A similar line of reasoning holds for the claim that being conscious of oneself is a necessary component of consciousness. It does plausibility follow from a foundational account of consciousness that there is no experience without a subject of experience. However, this does not entail that every experience is such that its subject is conscious of herself. This is also a substantive claim that goes beyond foundational claims about consciousness, and I argue that it is not adequately motivated as a necessity claim by its proponents.
In the second part of my dissertation, I focus on the second notion of self-consciousness – consciousness of oneself – and consider what kind of claim about its relationship with consciousness is actually warranted by empirical evidence. In particular, I investigate whether being conscious of oneself might be a ubiquitous feature of all conscious experience, even if it is not a necessary component of it.
First, I argue that there are several ways in which one might be conscious of oneself. Thinking about oneself is a paradigmatic example of self-consciousness, but it certainly falls short of ubiquity, since we are not constantly thinking about ourselves. I contend that one may also be conscious of oneself by being aware of one’s body as one’s own (bodily ownership) or by being aware of one’s spatial location with respect to one’s perceived environment as one’s own (self-location). On the basis of new empirical evidence from the study of conscious states induced by psychoactive drugs, meditation and sensory deprivation, whose acquisition I have been involved in, I argue that neither bodily ownership nor self-location is ubiquitous in all conscious experience. Indeed, both can be missing from some conscious states. My analysis of these empirical cases draws upon my published articles discussing the (reversible) effects of certain psychoactive drugs and meditation on self-consciousness, as well as experimental manipulations of bodily ownership and self-location using virtual reality (see my publications). Additionally, my analysis draws upon original data I have collected on bodily ownership and self-location in people who lack both sight and audition (see my work in progress).
Having established that none of these forms of self-consciousness is ubiquitous in all conscious experience, I seek to assess more finely their prevalence in ordinary conscious experience. On the basis of empirical studies of self-related mind wandering and autobiographical memory retrieval, I argue that thinking about oneself occurs frequently in the waking state, but not constantly. The existence of a background sense of bodily ownership in ordinary experience is more controversial; I argue that there are good reasons to think that the sense of bodily ownership waxes and wanes as a function of attention, and indeed may temporarily subside. Finally, I argue that awareness of one’s location relative to one’s perceived environment is a pervasive aspect of ordinary experience, at least for neurotypical adult humans. This completes a ‘real world’ picture of self-consciousness informed by empirical cases: far from being a necessary component of consciousness, self-consciousness comes in many forms, some of which are more pervasive in ordinary conscious experience than others.