While an increasing number of publications in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience investigate “the self”, “self-consciousness” and “subjectivity”, these ambiguous concepts often remain loosely defined. A number of authors have suggested that there is such a thing as a basic sense of self or self-consciousness in the background of any phenomenally conscious experience (e.g. Zahavi, 2014; Strawson, 1999, p. 102; Damasio, 1999, p. 19). This idea echoes William James’ intuition that “whatever I may be thinking of, I am always at the same time more or less aware of myself” (James, 1961, p. 42). Theoretical discussions of this claim have been hampered by introspective disagreement, and its proponents often appeal to the elusiveness of the basic sense of self to fend off sceptical concerns.
One promising approach to this debate is to investigate real-world cases of altered states of consciousness in which self-consciousness appears to be radically disrupted or altogether missing. On the one hand, the strong claim that a basic form of self-consciousness is necessary for phenomenal consciousness should be falsifiable, meaning that it could in principle be ruled out by empirical counter-examples. On the other hand, the weaker claim that a form of self-consciousness only pervades ordinary conscious states could be clarified by analyzing allegedly selfless states of consciousness. Even if these cases still involved a minimal kind of subjectivity, they might provide a phenomenal contrast to standard cases of self-consciousness that indirectly sheds light on whatever phenomenal property they are lacking. In other words, in order to find out whether there is a basic sense of self in ordinary experience and identify its characteristics and underlying mechanisms, it is helpful to investigate altered states of consciousness in which such sense of self is reported to be radically impaired or completely missing.
Over the past decade, philosophers and scientists have paid close attention to a number of empirical cases portrayed as disruptions of self-consciousness, including schizophrenic thought insertion (e.g. Billon, 2013; López-Silva, 2017; Parrott, 2017), alienation symptoms (e.g. Lane, 2014, 2015), depersonalisation disorder (e.g. Simeon & Abugel, 2006; Sass et al., 2013; Gerrans, 2015), somatoparaphrenia (e.g. Liang & Lane, 2009; de Vignemont, 2013; Gennaro, 2015), autoscopic phenomena (e.g. Blanke et al. 2004; Metzinger, 2013), full-body illusions (e.g. Blanke & Metzinger, 2009; Alsmith, 2010), and identity disorders (e.g. Metzinger, 2003b). However, most if not all of these empirical conditions cannot adequately be described as involving conscious states in which self-consciousness is radically disrupted, let alone altogether missing (Metzinger, 2003a, 2013; Limanowski, 2014). More specifically, such alterations are local, in the sense that they involve disruptions to a single non-necessary feature of self-consciousness such as the sense of agency (e.g., thought insertion) or body ownership (e.g., full-body illusions). By contrast, there is emerging empirical evidence suggesting that some non-ordinary states of consciousness may involve a more dramatic, global dissolution or total loss of self-consciousness. This might be the case during “non-dual awareness” meditation (Josipovic, 2010; Dor-Ziderman et. al., 2013; Berkovich-Ohana et al., 2013), drug-induced ego dissolution (Letheby & Gerrans, 2017; Millière, 2017), dreamless sleep mentation (Thompson, 2015; Windt et al., 2016), acute psychotic episodes (Saks, 2007), and partial epileptic seizures (Johanson et al., 2008).
By bringing key players in the field together, we hope to make progress on these matters and the set the stage for an empirically grounded and conceptually rigorous debate on self-consciousness and its limits. In particular, we invite original contributions investigating radical disruptions of self-consciousness, reflecting on what such alterations mean for our understanding of self-consciousness in ordinary states, and addressing the question of whether there can really be conscious states lacking any kind of self-consciousness whatsoever.
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