Author: Alessia Guarnaccia

In the cognitive sciences, it is “a shared and empirically supported beliefthat humans are the only creatures to have developed, in addition to primary consciousness” (which they share with other animal species), a more developed form of the same, a higher-order consciousness, that is, the consciousness of being conscious“. This would emerge, “thanks to the neural connections produced by organised language and the linguistic symbols developed in social interactions” (Gerald Edelman). Consciousness thus emerged as an epiphenomenon of language, a distinctive feature of the human species.

The term ‘consciousness‘ indicates the “ability of the mind to be present in a waking state in which it becomes aware of objective reality, giving it meaning or significance, achieving a “known unity” of all that is perceived”. The etymological meaning of the word is “to know together”: from the Latin conscientĭa, a derivative of conscīre (“to be aware of”), composed of cum (“together with”) and scīre (“to know”). In this perspective, the word does not refer to the “first stage of the immediate assimilation of an objective reality“, but rather to a knowledge in which theindividual’s awareness of himself and his own mental contents is aggregated, as well as his connection “to the totalityof lived events, at a given time or for a certain period of time“.

Since it is connected with the subject’s awareness of himself as a person, the meaning is assimilated to that of self-awareness, understood as “the reflexive activity of thought by which the self becomes aware of itself, from which it is possible to initiate a process of introspection aimed at the knowledge of the deepest aspects of being‘.

To question human self-awareness is to explore physiological, perceptual and, at the same time, immaterial, spiritual meanders. It is a path of knowledge guided by human self-reflection that has united different historical periodsand cultures.

«Know thyself» (γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnōthi seautón, “nosce te ipsum“), inspired the exhortation engraved on the pediment of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, a warning to man to recognise his own finitude before approaching the divine, and an invitation to inner clarity by turning to the divinity (J. Partsch, Griechisches Bürgschaflsrecht). A maxim of ancient wisdom that became akey point in the thought of Socrates, for whom self-awareness is the “foundation and highest condition of all wisdom”, showing that “only theknowledge of oneself and one’s limitations makes man wise and shows him the way to virtue and the moral precondition of happiness”. Such self-awareness must be found by each individual; the ‘master‘ can only help his disciples to achieve it (maieutica, μαιευτική).

Self-consciousness, which for Plato was a “phenomenon closely linked to the memory of the Ideas” (namely those “eternal foundations of wisdom already present in the human mind but forgotten at birth“), becomes something absolute (“ab+solutus“, “dissolved from”, independent), not dependent on the objects of sensible reality,which have only the task of awakening in us the “dormant self-consciousness“. “To know, then, is to remember“, that is, “to become aware of that inner knowledge, which lies at an unconscious level in our soul and is therefore innate“: it is impossible to construct “certain knowledge on the basis of data obtained solely from experience, in the absence of the free self-consciousness of thought“.

The “thought of thought” (νόησις νοήσεως, nόesis noéseos) as the summit and precondition of knowledge, the search for the first cause, the “Prime Mover” of “becoming reality“; the capacity to perceive ourselves as thinking beings, is “the most divine of all things that appear to us as such” (Aristotle, Metaphysics). It is through self-knowledge, through inner perception, that, according to the Stoics, “the instinct of self-preservation arises, which allows the development of one’s being’, accompanied by the pleasurable feeling of self-satisfaction (oikeiosis), which is the realisation, the ultimate goalof living beings. “Do not come out of yourself, come into yourself: in the innermost part of man dwells the truthAugustine of Hippo; self-consciousness, in Christian philosophical thought, rises even to the most direct and immediate manifestation of the divine.

This particular human reflexive activity has been placed at the highest level of critical knowledge (I. Kant) as the “transcendental apperception”(I think‘) that “gives meaning to our representations of the world‘: by virtue of sensible perception an object of reality is “given” to us, “but it is only through apperception that it is “thought”, through the use of mental categories, without which the subject would be as blind”. “Unification, therefore, is not in objects…, but is only a function of the intellect, which is nothing but the faculty of unifying a priori…the multiplicityof given representations; and this is the supreme principle of all human knowledge“. (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason).

Subjectivity cannot be disregarded: «consciousness is not exhausted in object-oriented intentionality, but reflects upon itself through folding; as such, it is not only consciousness, but self-consciousness. The “I think” and the “I think that I think” coincide in such a way that one cannotexist without the other»(K. Jaspers, Philosophie).

Self-awareness, then, ”as the condition of knowledge”, showing the importance of “coming to oneself before beginning the investigation of absolute truths”: «it seems the simplest thing, and yet it is the most difficult of all»; indeed, «to know oneself is nothing other than to know the nature of the universe» (Anonymous quote from Photius).

In this long journey of discovery of this important faculty, we are also using research techniques developed in scientific fields such as physics, mathematics, psychiatry andneuroradiology, with sophisticated research toolsthat allow increasingly precise functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Roger Penrose (Oxford University) and anaesthetist Stuart Hameroff (University of Arizona) argue that the mind follows a so-called Orch-Or model (‘ORCHestrated Objective Reduction‘), in which consciousness arises in the brain “from a process that takes place within neurons (in the cytoskeleton, particularly in the microtubules), rather than in the interaction between them” (Penrose-Hameroff Theory of Consciousness, formulated in the 1990s and updated in 2014). According to this theory, the human brain would exhibit “processes or physical properties describable not by traditional mathematical formalism, but by quantum mechanics“, and it is precisely the cellular microtubules that would act as quantum computing elements (through the collapse of the wave function), activating states of consciousness. According to this perspective (much debated on the scientific scene, see M. Tegmark), beyond religious interpretations, “the quantum consciousness of any living being would be independent of the body itself and could survive the physical death of the brain” to persist in different forms, being of the same substance as the universe.

For Eastern philosophy, it is only through self-awareness that the true nature of the Self can be discovered and its difference from the ego grasped. The ego is a misleading representation “in which we are falsely led to identify our being“, whereas the Self is “a spiritual principle that is above any possible content of the mind“: among Hindus it is called Ātman (a Sanskrit term for the “essence“, “breath of life“) and “coincides with the universal soul of the world (Brahman, Anima Mundi)”.

Moreover, to delve into the mystery of human self-awareness is to explore the most sensitive point of contact in the relationship between man and machine; understanding it for humans could lead to recognising if and when it will manifest itself in machines, at least in the form we already know. Recent developments in conversational AI have quickly brought the technological debate back to the centrality of language in the creation and use of knowledge and its links to consciousness. The question will soon be whether, as part of the paradigm of machine simulation of human thought (cognitive computing), it is precisely the development of artificial language models that might in the future give rise to a sentient AI (artificial sentience) with consciousness and self-awareness (artificial consciousness – AC). The emergence of such a scenario would not only lead to a “strong AI”, but also to the potential realisation of artificial life (Artificial Life, Alife, A-Life).

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