One of the most certain truths in the world is Descartes' "I think,
therefore I am". Descartes was so certain of the existence of some
kind of essential self that others have coined the term
"Cartesian theater" to describe the sense that we all have of
being the audience enjoying the rich play of our
experiences. The theater metaphor comes naturally to us;
it sure seems
as though there is a show going on, and we feel confident that there are
lots of mechanical maintenance functions that our minds take care of
"backstage". The show is the more or less coherent narrative of whatever
is in the forefront of our attention at any given time. Moreover,
we tend to believe in an enduring
self, independent of our individual percepts.
Sometimes this virtual "self" in our mind, the one sitting in the audience
of the Cartesian theater watching our thoughts and percepts, is
referred to as a homunculus. This is not
necessarily to imply that most of us believe that the self or
homunculus is an identifiable region of the brain like the pineal
gland, just that at some level of organization, we assume that
there is a self that is separate from the stuff that self
experiences, remembers, thinks about, etc.
The Cartesian theater metaphor suggests that some process
dresses up reality in qualitative costumes (or creates reality
presents it to consciousness, or the self, and that the self just
sits back in the audience and watches.
In the real physical world, a child learns from a very young age that
everything within my skin is "me", and everything outside of it is
"not me". There is a
subject/object distinction. There is me, and there is the tree.
When I want to move my arm, it moves, but when, by similar force of
will, I want the tree to move, it stays put. When I smack myself in
the arm it hurts, but when I smack the tree, it does not (or at
least it does not hurt at the place on the tree where I struck it).
It feels natural to carry this
distinction over into the world of our own minds. When we speak of our
percepts and thoughts, we still cast the situation these terms:
"I" perceive the "tree", even when the tree is
one that is created entirely in the mind. I
question the appropriateness of the subject/object distinction in
this case, however. In some sense,
it is the very percept of the tree that is the
"me", or rather it is the process of creation of that percept.
To separate the self from the percept is to invite infinite regress.
For there to be a Cartesian theater with a homunculus in the
audience, sense data must come in from our
sense organs, thoughts must be generated and presented in some fashion to the
homunculus, who then experiences them.
The homunculus, then, has the same Hard Problem relative to this
presentation that we do relative to our sense organs. Any
distinction we can draw between the homunculus and the percepts,
any line between some receptors (functionally construed)
on the homunculus and those aspects of
the percepts that these receptors are sensitive to, serves to push
the whole problem down one more level, but doesn't solve it.
We still have a problem of how the stimuli impinging on the
homunculus come together in its "mind" to form the rich qualitative
field of consciousness that it has. Perhaps it has a homunculus in
its mind too, watching its Cartesian theater, and so on ad
infinitem. Under pain of infinite regress, then, there can
be no homunculus in the audience of the Cartesian theater separate
from whatever is going on onstage. The self is just another part of
our world-model, a hypothesized construct.
We are subject to
what Tor Nørretranders has called The User Illusion. In his book of
same name (1998), he lays out the explanation of the title (pp 291-293):
The engineers who developed the first computers did not put much thought into
the user interface because all the users were professionals. So the
computers looked cryptic and clumsy. Alan Kay writes:
"The user interface was once the last part of the system to be designed.
Now it is the first. It is recognized as being primary because, to
novices and professionals alike, what is presented to one's senses is
one's computer. the 'user illusion,' as my colleagues and I called it at
the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is the simplified myth everyone builds
to explain (and make guesses about) the system's actions and what should
be done next."
The user illusion, then is the picture the user has of the machine.
Kay and his colleagues realized that it does not really matter whether
this picture is accurate or complete, just as long as it is coherent
and appropriate. It is better to have an incomplete, metaphorical
picture of how the computer works than to have no picture at all.
So what matters is not explaining to the user how the computer works
but the creation of a myth that is consistent and appropriate - and
is based on the user, not the computer.
The computer currently recording this word presents the user with a
sequence of texts organized into folders on a desktop. Lousy chapters
get dragged into the trash can at bottom right. When the user wants to
see if a chapter is too long, he can use the pocket calculator in the desk
But there are no folders, trash cans, or pocket calculators inside.
There are just quantities of 0's and 1's in sequence. Indescribable
quantities: A computers can contain many millions of 0's or 1's. But
this is nothing that bothers the user; all he needs is to extract his work
when he has finished it. The user can be completely indifferent to these
enormous numbers of 0's and 1's. The user is interested only in what
the user illusion presents: pages of a chapter, folders of completed
chapters, folders of loose ends, correspondence, goofed sentences, and
The user illusion is a metaphor, indifferent to the actual 0's and 1's;
instead it is concerned with their overall function.
The claim, then, is that the user illusion is a good metaphor for
consciousness. Our consciousness is our user illusion for ourselves
and the world.
Consciousness is not a user illusion for the whole world or the whole
of oneself. Consciousness is a user illusion for the aspect of the world
that can be affected by oneself and the part of oneself that can be
affected by the consciousness.
The user illusion is one's very own map of oneself and one's possibilities
of intervening in the world. As the British biologist Richard Dawkins
puts it, "Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's
simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model
If consciousness is my user illusion of myself, it must insist that
precisely this user is the user; it must reflect the user's
horizons, not that which is used. Therefore the user illusion operates
with a user by the name of I.
The I experiences that it is the I that acts; that it is the
I that senses; that it is the I that thinks. But it is the
Me that does so. I am my user illusion of myself.
Just as the computer contains loads bits that a user is not interested in,
the Me contains loads of bits the I is not interested in.
The I can't be bothered to know how the heart pumps blood around the
Me - not all the time, at any rate. Nor can the I be bothered
to know how an association occurs in the Me: the I would
much rather know what it involves.
But it is not only the I experienced as our personal identity
and active subject that is an illusion. Even what we actually experience
is a user illusion. The world we see, mark, feel, and experience is an
There are no colors, sounds, or smells out there in the world.
They are things we experience. This does not mean that there is no world,
for indeed there is: The world just is. It has no properties until
it is experienced. At any rate, not properties like color, small, and sound.
I see a panorama, a field of vision, but it is not identical with what
arrives at my senses. It is a reconstruction, a simulation, a
presentation of what my senses receive. An interpretation, a hypothesis.
While I would say that Nørretranders does not seem to address
qualia directly, and it can not be the case that all of consciousness
is a user illusion (the buck has to stop somewhere), and I definitely
disagree with the embedded Dawkins quote, I think Nørretranders
is onto something here. The self that I think of as separate from my
thoughts, percepts, memories, etc. is not quite what it appears to be -
it is a convenient fiction, a simulation. There is still what it is like
to see red, and what it is like to remember that Paris is in France,
and that sort of thing is still mysterious. Its mystery is not dissolved,
as Dawkins thinks it is, and Nørretranders possibly thinks it is,
but the image of the self as audience watching the show has a huge
asterisk next to it, at best.
As William James said,
the thoughts are the thinkers. The memories are the rememberers,
the experiences are the experiencers. While this must be true,
when I see a red apple,
the thought is not of a red apple; it is of an observer seeing a
red apple. The self of which we are aware when we claim to be self-aware
is a simulation, constructed as part of our perceptual and
cognitive apparatus, built into the
percepts. The actors on the stage are the audience.
I am the scene
on the stage of the Cartesian theater. James also suggested that instead of
saying, "I am thinking" it might be more appropriate to say, "it is
thinking", using "it" in the same sense that we use it when we say
"it is raining." I might add to James's suggestion that in
particular, it is thinking you. The sense of this is very
well summed up in a quote by Johann Gottlieb Fichtes that I found
on page 93 of Strawson (2009):
The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it
exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own
existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent
and the product of action; the active, and what the activity
brings about; action and deed are one the same, and hence the
"I am" expresses an act.
Sometimes I imagine the perceiver/self as a gelatinous
pseudopod like thing, forming itself into whatever different thoughts
that it has. This is also part of the motivation behind my comic
book superhero Particle Man,
whose adventures I won't recount here.
This notion also explains, to some extent, the troublesome second-orderlness
of consciousness that motivates
to see red is to know that you are seeing red.
In general, it seems mysterious that experiencing is inseparable from
knowing that you are experiencing, that you can't see the apple without
also having a sense of yourself as an experiencing self.
This mystery goes away if the self is a construct created specifically
to bring about exactly this effect. We call the self into being precisely
to be the subject of our experiencings, to give them an anchor, a
point of view, to make sense of them.