The title of this post is identical to a Feature article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the 1 April 2016 issue of the New Scientist. As Anil writes, We are within ourselves, so any attempt to build a full picture is fraught with our own cognitive biases and problems of self-reference. Moreover a big part of our self perception is tied up with how others see us, yet we can never now the biases that cloud their perception.
Philosophical investigation and scientific observation of human behavior allow us to delineate the question of what the self is a little more sharply. There are several ways of doing this.
There is the phenomenal self. This corresponds to our signs of existing, and that there is a distinct entity in our mind that experiences this existence. The self is very real to each of us: it’s a sense of being a body situated in the here and now, and also of being a person existing over time. Unfortunately, this is not always a reliable source of true knowledge. There is a rate neurological disorder Cotard’s syndrome in which the individual has the distinct and disturbing experience of non existence—a subjective self-knowledge clearly at odds with the truth. There are also people who do not feel that parts of their bodies, say particular limbs, are not theirs. And when we dream we have a robust sense of self while being completely deluded about who and where we are.
The epistemic self is a more sophisticated type of self-knowledge. The epistemic self is a sense of self that knows it knows. The epistemic self is aware of the working of the phenomenal self, and can make us more aware of our motivations. It is a new way of relating to oneself.
Imagine you are sitting in a mind-numbing meeting and start fantasying about an exotic vacation. Your phenomenal self wanders with you into this dream world, but as you snap back to the reality of your meeting and become aware you’ve been daydreaming, your epistemic self flashes into action, only to disappear again as you mind focuses (or wanders) once more.
The aim of mindfulness and meditation is to enhance the epistemic self. Doing so gives us greater mental autonomy, “the capacity to stop or better control what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing.” There are many healthy memory posts on mindfulness and meditation.