The “I” – an illusion or a complex dynamical system

In many cultures at various times the idea that the self or I is illusory showed up. The thought that me doesn’t exist happened to be thought by many thinkers. The similarities between these perspectives are striking. Is there a strong argument for seeing the self as an illusion, a misunderstanding of ourselves?

I present an overview of such ideas and a counter proposal. Namely, I propose to regard self as a complex self-organizing system submerged in the mind.


1. Mind and “I”
2. “I” am an illusion
2.1. No-self in Buddhism
2.2. No single self, by Susan Blackmore
2.3. Self, but only as a stream of experiences
2.4. Self as a coherent narrative
3. Critic of the illusionist accounts of “self”
4. Self as a complex system
4.1. Complex and Dynamical Systems – a short overview
4.2. Characterization of “self” as a complex system

Mind and “I”

In a previous post Mind is not an information processor I had written down some general remarks about how the mind can be understood from the perspective complex systems theory (see Complex systems on Wikipedia). Here, I would like to touch on a different, but of course strictly related, topic. In psychology and in philosophical debates we often find references to me who is the subject of experience, my self who has free will, I who am feeling or thinking this or that (see Philosophy of self on Wikipedia). We have an intuitive feeling and concept of self – we view ourselves as persons: subjects with memories, experiences, feelings, plans, who think, perceive, do stuff, etc. I do not think that my perceptions are me, I don’t normally talk about my actions as me, I usually think that I is the source of those actions, thoughts. If not all of them (in cases of reflexes, random thought associations) then at least most of them. Now we can mark a distinction between my self – which is the feeling of a coherent entity in the center of things, with a relatively constant personality – and my mind, which is the whole myriad of mental phenomena, including feelings, perception, memory, and the like. It may seem as I use my mind and my body, and I am submerged in them.

“I” am an illusion

Throughout the ages and cultures there were ideas of self being just an illusion. Some of these ideas are sketched below.

No-self in Buddhism

One of the core tenets of Buddhism (or rather of Buddhisms) is the idea of anatta (see Anatta on Wikipedia) – most commonly interpreted as no self, meaning that there is no such thing (either material or spiritual) that is referred to as self or I. Buddha pointed to different mental phenomena, like perception, feeling, thinking, and exclaimed that one cannot find self in any of these spheres, for they are impermanent, always changing, and self is thought to be constant, impermanent. What follows from this* is that the feeling of self or of ownership of various feelings, the feeling of being the doer of actions, is not essentially different from feelings of fear, of happiness, or various [linguistic] thoughts. It is because this self is not a special essence, but merely a thought that happens to frequently arise in the mind.

No single self, by Susan Blackmore

Sue is a philosopher of mind, strongly influenced by phenomenology and Asian practice of inquiry into the mind – meditation. In her talk titled “The Self Illusion” she presented an argument not for the nonexistence of self, but rather for our misunderstanding of the concept of self.

While one is meditating, one can observe that, even though the plan is just to sit still and focus on one’s breath, various thought arise or just happen, unwittingly. A novice in meditation surely doesn’t decide to think about those disconnected things, the plan is to focus on breathing and to observe what is going on in one’s mind.

A beginner in meditation is thus experiencing different stages, waves of functioning of one’s mind: 1) observation of breathing, 2) random thought, including imagery, linguistic thinking, emotions, 3) recognition of intrusive thought, 4) reorienting to meditation, and sometimes 5) awareness of one’s awareness of breathing. In this mixed stream one can see that thoughts are being thought even though they weren’t willed. I was meditating, but then a thought happened.

What can be speculated on this basis? Well, for example that this I is not something that is always present in the mind. I shows up for a moment, then disappears and a perception, or a thought or something else takes the stage. I go to sleep, I am gone, I disappear. Then I wake up, there is my self again. What follows from this is that there is no one single I, but a succession of extremely similar mes, selves. One of my selves disappears only for another one me to appear.

Self, but only as a stream of experiences

Self was regarded by David Hume as “a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement” (as cited by Wikipedia in Bundle theory of self article). In this perspective, self is cast just as a collection of experiences. I am not the source of will, intentions, thoughts, perceptions, actions, and so on. “I” is just a convenience word to distinguish a bundle of such mental phenomena.

Self as a coherent narrative

There is also another view that does not grant any relevant reality to the self, namely that this self, the sense of who I am, is just a narrative (see the The Illusion of the Self article) – a coherent story that the mind makes up to more effectively govern the behavior of the organism in the environment. Such a story has clear evolutionary advantages: a coherent story line helps the organism in relating to other individuals in the society, to act consistently and to strive for better life and for survival in general. This notion pushes us into seeing me as a hallucination, a beneficial one, but hallucination nonetheless.

Critic of the illusionist accounts of “self”

As Will Wilkinson takes sharply into our attention in his article “The Self Is Not an Illusion” the fact that the self turns out to be something else than we thought it was does not push us unwittingly to the conclusion that the whole notion of self should be abandoned, or that I is an “illusion”. What the mismatch between our intuitions and what the research (philosophical, psychological, neurobiological, etc.) reveals means for the concept of self is that the concept itself ought to be improved. When physicists found out that atoms can be split into even more fundamental particles, we didn’t say that atoms don’t exist or they are an illusion. Our understanding of atoms changed. In the same way, when we find how do our selves are working, how do they break down in certain conditions, what can they do, and what are the limits of their influences, we should try to improve our understanding, modify, update our notions of self.

All of the ideas of self being an illusion show that what we thought self should be is not what we find in ourselves. There may be no illusion, no hallucination, but just a misunderstanding. And misunderstanding can be corrected. We can improve.

Know Thyself.

Self as a complex system

These view have one thing in common – they regard self as illusory, unreal, or at least unimportant or irrelevant. There is, however, another way of looking at the matter. A perspective that regards interacting bundles of elements as real in the sense that they collectively behave, react, act and cause changes in their environments. The perspective of complex systems.

Complex and Dynamical Systems – a short overview

Complex systems (see Complex systems on Wikipedia) are aggregates of interacting elements, in which high level structures and behaviors emerge. For example, ant colony is a system of individual ants that, through interactions among each other, exhibit complex, higher order behaviors such as building bridges from ants for others to cross. Critical to characterization of complex systems are the properties of self-organization (see Self-organization on Wikipedia) and emergence (see Emergence on Wikipedia). Systems self-organize, that is the global behavior and structure arises out of mostly local information between the elements of the system, none of which controls the whole system. In this way, the system is built from bottom up. The global organization of the system then constrains the elements effectively acting as a cause for their behavior. This is called downward causation (see George Ellis’ talk On the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems).

Dynamical system (see Dynamical systems theory on Wikipedia) is a system of components, that as a whole exhibits sophisticated patterns of behavior – dynamics. Natural systems of this kind are continuously active (see Lotka–Volterra equation on Wikipedia). External influences are not simple inputs, but perturbations (see Perturbation theory on Scholarpedia) to the system, that change the dynamics of the system, so that the system adapts. Examples of such systems include: climate, predator-pray model (see Predator-prey model on Scholarpedia).

Characterization of “self” as a complex system

From the perspective of complex systems theory the self is a fairly stable system, or network, of connected regions of the mind/brain, that exhibits unique and coherent pattern of organization and activity. Self is thus regarded as a self-organizing subsystem of the mind. Processes of dynamics of the mind allow for the self to dissolve and re-emerge.

Although one can not find self or I in a feeling are any other qualia, self is a collective system of interacting thoughts, memories, feelings, etc. etc. that exhibit emergent behavior and is thus irreducible to the components it is made of. What is important in the characterization of self is the coherent pattern, the organization and activity of the system. System can disorganize, but when it self-organizes itself at a later time, the fact that the pattern and organization is preserved entitles us to postulate its identity, even if in the scientific, practical meaning, and not ontological understanding of “identity”.

As a complex dynamical system the self can cause behavior of the elements that constitute it and elements associated with it – the self can cause thoughts and actions of the human being by the mechanism of downward causation. Hence, self is not only made up of various elements of the mind, but is also an active, causal structure of mental life.

*) The interpretation of anatta as I have just presented is not the only possible one, but the goal of this thread is not to discuss the validity of said interpretation.

References and Further reading

Encyclopedia articles

Anatta. (2014, September 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:27, September 16, 2014, from

Complex systems. (2014, September 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:15, September 8, 2014, from

Dynamical systems theory. (2014, July 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:15, September 8, 2014, from

Emergence. (2014, September 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:19, September 17, 2014, from

Lotka–Volterra equation. (2014, September 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:18, September 16, 2014, from

Meditation. (2014, September 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:43, September 16, 2014, from

Perturbation theory (dynamical systems). In Scholarpedia.

Philosophy of self. (2014, August 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:00, September 16, 2014, from

Predator-prey model. In Scholarpedia.

Self-concept. (2014, August 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:00, September 16, 2014, from

Self-organization. (2014, July 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:19, September 17, 2014, from

Videos, talks

Blackmore, Susan. (2002). The Self Illusion.

Ellis, George F.R. (2012). On the Nature of Causality in Complex Systems.

Popular articles

Sam Woolfe. The Illusion of the Self. In Philosophy Now.

Will Wilkinson. The Self Is Not an Illusion. In Big Think.

Papers, books

Bassett, Danielle S. et al. (2011). Understanding complexity in the human brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

David Papo, Javier M. Buldú, Stefano Boccaletti, Edward T. Bullmore. (2014). Introduction: Complex network theory and the brain. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0520 1471-2970

Hotton, S. and Yoshimi, J. (2011). Extending Dynamical Systems Theory to Model Embodied Cognition. Cognitive Science, 35: 444–479. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01151.x

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. I, IV, vi

Spivey, M. (2007). The continuity of mind. Oxford University Press, USA.

Tognoli, E. and Kelso, JAS. (2014). Enlarging the scope: grasping brain complexity. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 8:122. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00122



    1. Hi, thanks. Your paper is interesting, but I couldn’t get a clear grasp of what “self” or “I” is, except for the idea that it is a concrete bundle of neurons.
      In my post I have tried to point to things we normally associate with “self” such as agency. Your article doesn’t get into this problem, so one can’t really say much about how do “I” decide or believe in anything, assuming the retinoid system. The I-Token seems to be very similar to Baars’ global workspace.

      I have proposed to think of “self” as a specific neuronal organization (a re-emerging pattern of connections, activities, modes of acting) from the neuroscientific perspective and as a coherent pattern of thoughts, desires, etc. from phenomenological, psychological perspectives. “Self” regarded in this way gains some autonomy and is not just a stage for things (thoughts, emotions, etc.) to happen.


      1. Baars’ global workspace gives no account of the brain mechanism that constitutes our egocentric space/subjectivity. You have to distinguish between the core self (I!) and what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self model (PSM). It might help to read “Space, self, and the theater of consciousness” and “Two arguments for a pre-reflective core self …”on my Research Gate page.


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