Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self


Man has lived a long time on earth and with the passing of centuries and epochs his notions of himself and his abilities to think have changed. At each new departure it seems to him that the time of real knowledge has come, and that people have till now roamed in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. But as a poet once said, superstitions are but the ruins of old truths! Everything that is new brings with it a new confidence in the idea that the time of superstition is past, and that we have now begun to penetrate the mysteries of existence and our own mysteriousness as thinking creatures.

And today, once again we seem to be on the threshold of the truest possible knowledge of the soul, of consciousness. Do not many people today believe that not the abstract speculations of philosophers but precise mathematical calculation based on cybernetics and information theory, electronics and the intricacies of integral circuits are about to show us that there is now a real possibility of constructing an artificial intellect? But to make a soul, to make a Reason, even an artificial one, we must first discover its nature and essence, the principle of a device that can think. From this standpoint all the truths discovered by philosophers must once again appear to be mere superstitions.

But do we really know the principles on which the reason works? There is no simple answer to this question.

Some natural scientists, unwittingly extending their professional methods of studying the spatial interaction of bodies to the study of man and his consciousness believe that this principle is already known and that only a few, albeit important particulars of its application and realisation in the machine called man have yet to be discovered. They take a very sceptical view of all forms of philosophising and are convinced that in this day and age the question of the soul, of consciousness, of the Self now falls within the domain of natural science. And even philosophy itself is regarded by such scientists as at best something derivative of "real, scientific knowledge", knowledge of phenomena and processes existing outside man and his consciousness. Philosophy, they believe, can develop only by generalising that which science discovers in the world of objects. Man and his consciousness are for them just as much an object as any others, and the same methods by which science today studies matter may be applied to them. If the mind in general and human consciousness in particular are a fit subject for scientific research, the riddle of consciousness will be solved by positive science, and philosophy will have nothing to do with it.

And "space-corporeal" reductionism in the theories of mind and consciousness are by no means a local phenomenon.

A survey of the latest works of some Western scientists who seek to research cerebral processes at the modern level (by means of cybernetics and information theory) and to present the task of creating an artificial intellect as the final solution to the riddle of the Self assures us that, one, the desire is definitely global, and two, it is based not simply on a certain group of facts, but on a certain way of theorising. It was this situation that prompted me to write the present book on the problems of consciousness. I wanted to draw attention to the actual way the problem of the human soul is being treated. And also I wanted to show that consciousness (like matter itself) is a philosophical category that requires above all philosophical knowledge for its interpretation.

In the time of Descartes it became clear to many philosophers and natural scientists that our Self, our Ego is something fundamentally different from the phenomena caused by the interaction of ready-made structures studied by ordinary methods, phenomena depending only on the structures themselves. The human mind can encompass in thought millions of kilometres and years, but thought itself has no extension; it is not a body, it is part of the soul, the ideal. This is the fundamental difference between the "spiritual principle", human consciousness, and the mechanical interactions of bodies (physical, chemical and others that have spatial extent).

The question of consciousness, of its relation to being cannot in principle be reduced to a particular scientific problem of the correlation of mental and physiological processes or to a problem of the reception, processing and production of information. The essence of this problem is not what happens under my skull when I calculate the trajectory of a flight to the stars, but what in philosophy is called the question of the identity of thought and being. How is it possible that a person can mentally chart the road to the stars? How and why can he, in his thoughts, conceive of the existence of the Universe? How can the infinity of time and space be contained in the instant of their realisation in consciousness? This is the key question of the human ability to set goals. And unless one knows one's way through the two thousand years history of solutions to this question, one will have little chance of even framing a correct approach to any particular problem of the relation between mind and brain.

That is why I have called this book The Riddle of the Self. By suggesting that the Self, the Ego presents a riddle I imply that there may be many different ways of tackling it.

This book is not a calm and consistent academic exposition of compiled knowledge. It is more like a not very good transcript of a heated debate. And it is not in itself the answer to the riddle, but a discussion of how the problem should be stated. It is about the method that should be used in the search.

Contents | Introduction