Skip to main content Accessibility help

From Phenomenal Selves to Hyperselves

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2015

Barry Dainton
University of Liverpool
E-mail address:


The claim that we are subjects of experience, i.e. beings whose nature is intimately bound up with consciousness, is in many ways a plausible one. There is, however, more than one way of developing a metaphysical account of the nature of subjects. The view that subjects are essentially conscious has the unfortunate consequence that subjects cannot survive periods of unconsciousness. A more appealing alternative is to hold that subjects are beings with the capacity to be conscious, a capacity which need not always be exercised. But this view can itself be developed in more than one way. The option I defend here is that subjects are nothing more than capacities for consciousness, a view I call the ‘C-theory’. Although the C-theory supplies us with a potentially appealing account of the nature of subjects (and hence ourselves), there are challenges to be overcome. Olson has argued that identifying ourselves with what are, in effect, parts of human organisms leads to a variety of intolerable problems. I suggest that these problems are by no means insuperable. Bayne and Johnston have argued that identifying subjects with experience-producing systems is confronted with a different difficulty. What if these systems can produce multiple streams of consciousness at once. Whatever else they may be, aren't subjects the kind of thing that can have just one stream of consciousness at a time? In response I argue that this is true in one sense, but not in another. Once this is appreciated, the notion that a subject could have several streams of consciousness at once no longer seems absurd, or impossible.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, P. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1690/1975), Book II, chapter 1, §10.Google Scholar

2 Peacocke holds that a subject of experience x is identical with a subject y if and only if x and y have the same S-generator – or in his terms ‘same material integrating apparatus’ (The Mirror of the World, 66). But he does not claim that a subject is numerically identical with an integrating apparatus, since the latter possess properties (such as being spatially localized in the brain) that the subject does not – he takes subjects to be metaphysically basic entities. But for present purposes what matters is that he does hold that ‘the identity of a subject over time consists in the identity of the apparatus that integrates states and events in such a way that a single subject has, or may have, perceptions, sensations, thoughts, action-awareness, and the rest, both at a time and over time.’ (Ibid., 65)

3 Achieving an instantaneous change of parts would be impractical using anything resembling standard surgical techniques, but this does not mean it is physically impossible, just rather improbable. Cosmologists have recently started worrying that the most numerous conscious subjects in the universe might be Boltzmann brains, i.e. brain-like physical systems that are produced by random quantum fluctuations; these systems only enjoy a brief period of experience: shortly after their creation they vanish again, as their particles disperse. The spontaneous creation of experience-sustaining brains is immensely improbable, but if the universe is infinite – as currently seems likely – there will nonetheless be vast numbers of these entities overall. If Boltzmann brains are physically possible, then there is no obvious reason why these same processes couldn't cause a brain at a certain time and location to suddenly vanish, and then – a moment or so later – be replaced by an exact duplicate (this newly created brain does not vanish straight away, but endures). Needless to say, this sequence of events is far less probable than the simple creation of a single briefly-existing Boltzmann brain, but improbable is not the same as impossible. If the universe is infinite, it probably happens from time to time. For more on Boltzmann brains, see Sean Carroll, ‘Boltzmann's Anthropic Brain’, Discover, August 1, 2006.

4 Peacocke, The Mirror of the World, 69.

5 Dainton, Barry, The Phenomenal Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 The identity of an experiential capacity depends on three elements: the kind(s) of experience it produces when triggered, the conditions which trigger it, and the particular ground or base it has. If our own experiential capacities are properties of our brains, then their bases will, I take it, be neural systems of one kind or another. Whether or not the very rapid replacement of one's neurons with exact duplicates leads to a replacement of one's experiential capacities depends on the relationship between capacities (or dispositional properties) in general and their bases. If they are distinct, as some hold, then the original capacities may survive; if they are identical, as others hold, this won't be possible. But irrespective of which of these views is correct, the original subject's existence is not threatened provided there remains in existence an uninterrupted potential for fully continuous consciousness. (By way of analogy, think of the ‘third’ power-carrying rail of a transit system; there can be a continuous electrical potential between two locations x and y irrespective of whether the track in between consists of a single long piece of track, or several shorter laid end to end.) We will be looking at the relationship between capacities and their bases in more detail later on.

7 See my Stream of Consciousness (London: Routledge, 2000/2006)Google Scholar for further elaboration. I respond to some recent challenges to my account of diachronic unity in Flow, Repetitions and Symmetries: Replies to Lee and Pelczar’, in Oaklander, N. (ed.) Debates in the Metaphysics of Time (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 175212.Google Scholar

8 Following Brentano (and ultimately Aristotle) many classical phenomenologists have endorsed the doctrine that consciousness necessarily involves some form of self-consciousness, recent advocates include Zahavi, D., Subjectivity and Selfhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kriegel, U. Subjective Consciousness: A Self-Representational Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For some skeptical doubts see Peacocke, Mirror of Nature, chapters 1–3, and Dainton, The Phenomenal Self , §2.4, §8.2.

9 Snowdon, Paul, ‘Persons, Animals and Ourselves’, in Gill, C. (ed.), The Person and the Human Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 83107 Google Scholar. Olson, Eric, The Human Animal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; An Argument for Animalism’, in Barresi, J. and Martin, R. (eds), Personal Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).Google Scholar

10 For a fuller exposition see The Phenomenal Self , §7.7; I also suggest a solution along these lines in my Review of Eric Olson's The Human Animal , in Mind 107, (1998), 679–82Google Scholar. Galen Strawson adopts the same position in The Self and the SESMET’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6:4, (1999), 99135.Google Scholar

11 Parfit, D., ‘We Are Not Human Beings’, Philosophy, 87:1 (2012), 528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Olson, E., ‘The Nature of People’, in Luper, S. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death (Cambridge University Press 2014, 3046)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; also his On Parfit's View That We Are Not Human Beings’, in O'Hear, A. (ed.), Mind, Self and Person (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar

13 ‘On Parfit's View That We Are Not Human Beings’, this volume.

14 In The Phenomenal Self (§8.1–8.3) I broach the question of how simple a subject of experience could possibly be. Could there be a subject with a mind so primitive that it possesses the capacity for just a single simple form of sensation? An issue anticipated by Hume: ‘We can conceive a thinking being to have either many or a few perceptions. Suppose the mind to be reduc'd even below the life of an oyster. Suppose it to have only one perception, as of thirst or hunger. Consider it in that situation’ ( A Treatise of Human Nature, (ed.) Selby-Bigge, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1739/1978: 634Google Scholar) I argue that such minds may well be (logically) possible. If so, then the entirely isolated experiential capacities envisaged by Olson would constitute subjects of experience in their own right – or at least, they would if (as we are assuming) each produces an entirely separate stream of consciousness.

15 The issue of precisely how C-systems are related to brains is bound up with several very general metaphysical questions concerning (a) the relationship between objects and their properties, and (b) the nature of dispositional properties. To illustrate, for anyone inclined to identify dispositional properties with their physical bases it will be an option to maintain that in the human case, experiential capacities are identical with certain neural systems. On the resulting view, C-systems will almost certainly be proper parts of human brains, rather than properties of them. But irrespective of whether C-systems are parts of brains, or properties of them, it remains the case that they are less than entire brains, and so not identical with them.

16 Here I paraphrase a passage from Johnston's Surviving Death (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 143Google Scholar.

17 Bayne, T., The Unity of Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Ibid., 288.


19 Such as his The Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

20 Strawson, G., Selves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Strawson, notoriously, also holds that subjects only last a fraction of a second, as measured by clock time – but this is because he believes that our streams of consciousness are much briefer than most of us tend to think.

21 It is not completely uncontroversial. There are those – causal structuralists, for example – who hold that there can be capacities or dispositions which are not grounded in properties of a non-dispositional sort. Whether ‘bare dispositions’ are possible is an interesting question, but as far as I can see it is largely irrelevant to the present issue – for reasons which will emerge.

22 Armstrong, D., ‘Dispositions are Causes’, Analysis 30 (1969), 23–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mellor, H., ‘The Semantics and Ontology of Dispositions’, Mind, 109 (2000), 757780).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Prior, E.M., Pargetter, R., Jackson, F., ‘Three Theses about Dispositions’, American Philosophical Quartely, 19 (1982), 251257.Google Scholar

24 Heil, J., From an Ontological Point of View, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

25 Mumford, S., Dispositions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).Google Scholar

26 The complexity of some of the time travel scenarios devised by philosophers easily match the complexity of those devised by most Hollywood scriptwriters. In his ‘Who was Dr Who's Father?’ MacBeath defends the logical possibility of a case (devised by Jonathan Harrison) which implies ‘that a man can be his own father, that he can eat himself (that is, eat himself up), and that he can die before he is born.’ See MacBeathWho Was Dr Who's Father?’, Synthese 51 (1982), 397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Lewis, D., ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’, American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976), 145152.Google Scholar

28 Ibid., 70


29 For two experiences E1 and E2 to be synchronically co-conscious it is not enough for them simply to be experienced simultaneously, i.e. be experienced at the same moment of ordinary objective time. E1 and E2 are only synchronically co-conscious if they are experienced together, i.e. unified in the same distinctive way as the current contents of your stream of consciousness.

30 For comments on earlier drafts and discussion of the ideas therein, my thanks to Thomas Jacobi, Galen Strawson and Tom Winfield.

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 4
Total number of PDF views: 71 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-77fc7d77f9-vchrx Total loading time: 0.255 Render date: 2021-01-17T17:13:11.566Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags last update: Sun Jan 17 2021 16:54:39 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time) Feature Flags: { "metrics": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "peerReview": true, "crossMark": true, "comments": true, "relatedCommentaries": true, "subject": true, "clr": true, "languageSwitch": true, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false, "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

From Phenomenal Selves to Hyperselves
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

From Phenomenal Selves to Hyperselves
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

From Phenomenal Selves to Hyperselves
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *