Self-reflection tells you that you are a conscious being
that is aware of its own existence in the real world. You are aware of having a
mind and a body. Since you are a thinking being, you have probably worked out that
you exist even when you are not conscious. You have probably also noticed that even
people who claim to believe that the physical world is an illusion tend to
behave as though they believe it is real. For example, you see them walking through
doors rather than walking through walls.
Does the existence of your body indicate that you are an
entity. If I could see you, I would affirm that you look like a being that has
a distinct and independent existence – that is, an entity.
Do you see yourself as an entity? You may think of yourself
as an entity, but how do you think of yourself while you are observing your own
You could think of yourself as an observer watching your thoughts
pass by like leaves
on a stream. Some of the thoughts might be about yourself. If the thought “I
am a thinking entity”, passes your mind, you might observe, “I am having the
thought that I am a thinking entity”. That is an interesting observation. You
can’t deny that you are thinking.
However, if you are an entity, how can you be both the
observer and the object that you are observing? Could you be two entities? I
don’t think so. The observer, who is you, does not exist independently of the object
who is observed, who is also you.
Richard Campbell suggests a way out of this dilemma in his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence. Drop the assumption that you are a fixed, given entity. The alternative he suggests is to perceive yourself as a complex process system. That enables you to perceive of radical reflexivity as a process. He writes:
“If the assumption that there is a fixed, given entity
called ‘the self’ … is rejected, the way
is open to understand consciousness as a flow: a complex, emergent and
interactive process which is radically reflexive”.
As I discussed in a
previous article about Campbell’s book, our observations of
the world tell us that many other animals are also aware of their surroundings.
We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged or evolved to
help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another
step in that evolutionary process. Radical reflexivity - awareness of our own
awareness - has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures
in which we live.
Campbell suggests that the flow of consciousness is
analogous to a river maintaining its identity as it flows though different
places. Your understanding of who you are is informed by the flow of your
consciousness through time. In other words, your sense of identity is informed
by your autobiographical memories. Campbell explains that this sense of
identity also involves an element of projection into the future:
“I am a complex process system continually projecting myself
out of my past into my future, my sense of myself necessarily involves my ‘has
been’ and my ‘not yet’.”
As you think about your “not yet”, you might imagine a
future that is different than your past. That might be just wishful thinking,
or you might be considering what options are available to achieve a vision that
you have for your own future.
You are a being that is consciously aware of its own
existence in the real world. You may think of yourself as an entity – a being
that has a distinct and independent existence. However, that perception is at
odds with the fact that you can observe yourself thinking. A single entity
cannot be both an observer and the object of observation. It makes more sense
to view yourself as a complex process system.