How is it possible for me to be conscious of myself? How can a molecule in my brain or foot or whatever feel that it exists? I assume anyone would agree that an atom is not self-conscious, that neither is a rock or a cell or an insect... a baby human? Yet it seems, somewhere along the line of increasing brain capacity one becomes self-conscious. How is it that when a system such as myself becomes complex enough it becomes self-conscious? If we assume that a unit, one thing, can only be conscious of other things, is it that somehow we are many things conscious of each other, who mistakenly think of themselves as one thing. Is self-consciousness just an emergent property? Is it an illusion? These are extremely important questions for me as I think so much hinges on self-consciousness: the concept of soul/spirit and mind-body duality, free will, death.........

You ask specifically about self-consciousness. However, most philosophers would say that the problem of consciousness is posed by consciousness of any kind, and not only by consciousness awareness of the self. After all, it seems natural to suppose that many mammals (and small human babies) are conscious (‘sentient’), in the sense that it is ‘like something’ to be them, even though they are not sophisticated enough to think about their own (or anybody else’s) mental life. The problem of the ‘emergence of consciousness’ seems already to arise for this basic kind of non-reflexive consciousness, even before we get to self-consciousness.

As for the emergence of basic consciousness, I think it makes a crucial different whether or not you think of consciousness as something over and above the material world. Your reference to ‘the concept of soul/spirit and mind-body duality’ suggests that you take consciousness to be non-material. If you do think of consciousness in this dualist way, then it will certainly be puzzling that this extra thing (‘spirit’) should be present in some material systems and not others, and it is hard to see how there can be any alternative to accepting this as a brutely inexplicable fact.

However, dualism is not the only option. An appreciable proportion of analytic philosophers hold that conscious states are one and the same as material states. If you think of conscious states in this way, then there won’t be any puzzle about why material states ‘generate’ or ‘yield’ or ‘give rise to’ consciousness, for the consciousness won’t be something over and above the material states. Still, it’s not clear that this answers all problems about the existence of consciousness--there is an active controversy among contemporary materialists about whether materialism still leaves an ‘explanatory gap’ in our understanding of consciousness.

To the question 'how' corresponds some sort of scientific description of the phenomenon - and many scientists are indeed engaged in trying to understand 'how' the human brain has developed, indeed evolved, the sort of consciousness that enables us to ask questions about ourselves in the first place, what you call "self-consciousness". The work being conducted on that front is importand and you might find it illuminating. But there remains the sense that, by asking the question, we are reaching the very edge of our consciousness, beyond which nothing seems very familiar anymore. Science describes the physical, familiar world; it does not address the sense of unfathomability that arises out of our consciousness of what we do not understand. The "explanatory gap" mentioned by David Papineau above is the gap between the answers we can come up with, within our familiar, physical territory, and the persistence of the question beyond the scientific answer. We tend to reduce reality to our answers - for instance you say that consciousness might be "just" an emergent property, but indeed why "just"? We tend to lock ourselves within the realm of our answers, which is always smaller than the realm of questions. The act of asking the question is already an instance of our self-consciousness; each question of this sort seems to multiply the mirrors amongst which we dwell. This is partly why, in the case of consciousness, it would seem that any 'clear and distinct' answer we come up with will only be indicative of what is possibly true. The "view from nowhere" is philosophically hard to find.

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