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Aaron Blaisdell 01/28/09 1

A Biological Definition of Self

Psychology as a science grew out of a branch of philosophy concerned with

understanding the mind. William James' Principles of Psychology (1890) defined psychology as

the study of Mental Life, which includes feelings, desires, reasoning, cognition, etc. These

phenomena could be studied by collecting data through verbal report and introspection. James

was not so concerned with the validity of these types of data as a "window" into consciousness.

He decided to leave the metaphysical question "what is consciousness?" to the philosophers.

Though James realized that the problem was not solved by sweeping it under the carpet, he

wished to put off empirical investigation of such metaphysical musings until a future date. By

the beginning of the following century, empirical psychologists went even further than James in

claiming that consciousness and mental life could not be investigated scientifically at all.

Rather, they claimed that overt behavior provided the only phenomena that could be objectively

studied, and that our theoretical interpretations should be concerned only with the explanation of

such behavior.

However, with the renewed interest in cognition in humans and animals beginning in the

1930s and 1940s with Tolman in learning theory and Koehler and (later) Gibson in Gestalt

psychology, the study of mental life in general, and consciousness in particular has become

fashionable again. The reason for this reintroduction of consciousness was not due to the

abandonment of behaviorism, but from relaxing the strict constraints initially imposed by the

early behaviorists on the investigation of observable behavior. We still agree that overt

(including muscular, verbal, neuronal, sensory, etc.) behavior provides us with the only data

from which to construct and test psychological theories; however, we can infer intervening

variables or hypothetical constructs that are presumed to mediate input to output such that we

can explain large sets of data with few variables, and can make predictions regarding the effects

of intended manipulations.
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With the return of consciousness to the scientific playing field, more than ever our

understanding of what consciousness is or even how to study it is impeded by a good definition

(even operational) of consciousness. I am not going to attempt a definition of consciousness

here; rather I will attempt to provide a useful definition of what a “self” is. The reason I have

chosen to work on the problem of self is because such a concept is integral to any definition of

consciousness, which is currently tightly linked in both philosophy and psychology to the idea of

intentions. To take an intentional stance (i.e., to attribute intentions or rational goals to oneself

or others) implies a concept of self and, for higher-order intentional systems, other selves from

the standpoint of the observer taking the intentional stance.

I will attempt to show the usefulness of defining self from a biological perspective and

how such a concept may illuminate how we should think about consciousness. I must first be

up front in stating that I am a physical monist, and that I believe our senses are a filtered

window into a single "real world" (though perceptions may be potentially infinitely variable) of

which anything can be explained in terms of matter, energy, and their interaction. Accepting

these assumptions, we must define self (and consciousness and, ultimately, phenomenology)

within these constraints. I am going to ground the biological definition of self in the process of

evolution by natural selection (Darwin, 1859) and the origin of life.

Imagine the origin of the very first nucleotide sequences that were able to replicate.

There are many possible ways for such an event to occur. The replicating nucleotide sequence

(hereafter called "replicators") need only replicate that part of its physical structure necessary to

produce more replicators. That is, replicator A could just replicate its molecular machinery such

that the products of replication, B and C, have the potential to themselves replicate. However,

this machinery is subject to degradation due to environmental factors, such as the medium in

which the replicator resides, energy entering the medium from outside (e.g., radiation), the

decay or errors of the elements and molecules making up the replicator, and other chemical

reactions, etc. Now let's imagine a replicator that not only replicates the machinery necessary
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for replication, but also machinery that is capable of producing substances (e.g., proteins) that

increase the integrity and constitution of the replicator (i.e., reduce the rate or probability of

degradation and protect it from disruptive environmental factors). For example, a protective

coating in which the replicator is housed (e.g., a membrane around the nucleic acids) would

reduce the corrosive effects of the environment on the nucleotide sequence. However, the

protective coating itself is subject to wear and tear; thus, the newly housed replicator could

evolve repair machinery that would repair damaging alterations to the protective coating. It

should be noted that such repair machinery could evolve that would repair deleterious

alterations (i.e., mutations) to the nucleotide sequence. Such machinery does in fact exist (see

Sinha & Hader, 2002, for a review).

We now have, in this historical hypothesis, a replicating machine that is well on its way

to becoming the recognizable beasts (plant, animal, bacteria, etc.) that we call life. Many

biologists would list replication as one of the defining properties of life. I would go even further

in claiming that replication is perhaps the defining feature of life. I must emphasize that this

definition of life precludes our drawing any absolute boundaries between life and non-life.

Rather, the varieties of life can be thought of as existing along a continuum upon which we

arbitrarily make relative distinctions between non-life and life. This allows us to call beavers and

clams life, and ice crystals (which exist only transiently under certain conditions) and photocopy

machines (which depend upon design by the sky-hook of human intention) non-life. However,

recognize that these are fundamentally arbitrary distinctions, because life as we know it is also

transient, exists only under certain conditions, and is entirely mechanical in physical nature and

processing (under my starting assumptions).

It has become clear through the preceding discussion that replicators probably started

out as relatively simple things and became more and more complex through the workings of

natural selection continually shaping replicator phenotypes (and their transmission) generation

after generation. After roughly 3.5 billion years we have humans along with a myriad of other
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life forms on this planet, some of which claim to be conscious and to have selves. So what are

these selves? Was there a transition point or threshold reached during evolution where the first

self evolved and started producing new selves? Not at all! In the view I have been

constructing, I am trying to show that a self is a property of life that is defined by the replicator's

ultimate objective, that is, replication. What does the replicator want to replicate? The most

obvious answer is: "Itself"! But can we define self without resorting in circular fashion to the

term self? I think so. From our biological perspective, self is a propensity (conscious or non-

conscious) of a replicator to protect a boundary within which the replicating machinery is

contained. (For each individual, there exist many boundaries at many levels, of which the

replicator has a keen [self] interest in monitoring, modulating, and protecting.) Thus, the

simplest self is a piece of replicating machinery, such as the first nucleotide sequences to ever

replicate. These nucleotide sequences had selves (using our definition) because the product of

replication was essentially identical to the initial replicator. That is, a successful replicator didn't

replicate just any nucleotide sequence (like a random number generator), but had an extremely

high probability of replicating its own nucleotide sequence (i.e., it maintained construct validity or

a central tendency). I believe that this statistical and biological sense of self is the best

empirical way to define what self is. More complex selves began replicating "themselves" (allow

me some teleological language, since it is clear that I do not imply actual teleology, but talk in

merely descriptive "as if" terms) and constructing barriers between the nucleotide machinery

and the medium in which the nucleotide sequence existed (usually such barriers are selectively

permeable to stuff in the medium to the benefit of the replicator). Very complex selves such as

eukaryotes, not only replicate "themselves" and construct selectively permeable barriers around

"themselves", but also set up barriers around barriers each which selectively allows different

molecules to pass through them. Incredibly complex selves, such as arthropods and

vertebrates construct barriers that they "themselves" can cross over, but that are defined as part

of their self because they will defend it from other selves (i.e., other replicators). A bird will
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sometimes protect its territory from some intruders (predators, competitors, etc). Finally,

humans (at least) have selves that change over time (e.g., epithelial tissue, clothing, girlfriends),

but that also have many central tendencies that remain relatively constant across the lifetime of

the self (e.g., teeth, social security numbers, offspring, and the goals of survival and replication).

Grounded in biology, the idea of self, although much more loosely defined than many

philosophers or scientists would like, becomes a very useful concept. It frees us from the

constraints under which previous attempts to define consciousness were made. We now have

an understanding that there is no single "point" at which a thought, idea, feeling, perception, or

sensation enters into consciousness or awareness (see Dennett, 1991). We have a much

clearer idea, when taking the intentional stance, of who the intender is or how we should define

the intender. And most important, we can construct an operational definition of self for the

purpose of empirical investigation, based on observable responses elicited and emitted by the

subject who's "self" we wish to define (with the full understanding that there can be many

selves, depending on how we wish to measure them, or what responses we are interested in

observing. This becomes most apparent with split brain patients, but also exists at many subtler

levels in "normal" individuals). For example, we can ask: What is the individual willing to

defend? We can probe its boundaries by exploring were it will and will not permit us to invade.

And to connect more closely with the investigation of consciousness, we can ask what kinds of

cognitive systems have evolved to monitor self, and what are they designed to protect or

pursue? (This last question is directly analogous to the way immunologists study the evolution,

functioning, and comparative distribution of immune systems.) While the definition of self I have

attempted to construct is not definitive, it provides a foothold on which arguments and

experiments can be made. Even if we ultimately reject the above definition, it will have had

heuristic value in furthering our search for self.