The Most Interesting Problem in Philosophy and Science

By Leo Gura - May 14, 2013 | 8 Comments

An explanation of why self-knowledge is critical in personal development, with a fascinating discussion of phenomenology, qualia, and the works of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff.

The Importance of Self-Knowledge

In order to become a different being man must want it very much and for a very long time. A passing desire or a vague desire based on dissatisfaction with external conditions will not create a sufficient impulse.

The evolution of man depends on his understanding of what he may get and what he must give for it. If man does not want it, or if he does not want it strongly enough, and does not make the necessary efforts, he will never develop.

— Peter Ouspensky

Self-knowledge is the bedrock of personal development. If you’re serious about making big changes in your life, especially changes that stick, and if you want massive success, you must take the time to study how your consciousness works and the forces that drive your behaviors.

Self-knowledge happens through self-observation and self-study. This is a study that no scientist, doctor, or psychologist can ever do for you. It can only be done by you.

People who do not understand themselves, people who have not taken the time to methodically study themselves and their experiences, effectively have zero personal power. Their lives stay mostly the same. They suffer the same life problems (shitty job, bad relationships, being overweight, emotional outbursts, stress, constant unhappiness, etc) over and over again.

For me, this is an unacceptable position to be in as a human being. I need to be able to improve myself deliberately.

Unfortunately, most of society is stuck in very low consciousness. Most people run themselves on auto-pilot for years, with rare occasions where circumstances become so dire that a change becomes mandatory. We’ve all experienced this kind of pressure at one point or another, but there is a better way. A conscious way.

It also just so happens that studying consciousness is incredibly fascinating, so let’s jump in!


Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the study of consciousness from the first-person. It has a rich history dating back over 150 years, but what concerns us most is this idea of “first-person”.

There are two ways to study consciousness: from the outside, and from the inside. Whereas a psychologist might design an elaborate experiment and run it on hundreds of subjects, or a neuro-scientist might hook up a bunch of electrodes to your brain to map out neurological activity, a phenomenologist explores his own perceptions and thoughts simply by observing and thinking about them.

This is both an interesting and powerful notion: you can learn a lot about yourself simply from careful observation. Stop and think about this for a minute. How good of an observer are you of yourself? How well do you know the workings for your own mind?

Here’s a quick but vivid example. With a bit of self-observation you can start to notice that your visual field is actually much more limited than you’d tend to assume.

Hold one of your fingers arm’s length out from you and move it to the very edge of your visual field without moving your eyes. Now try to articulate what that finger looks like. It certainly doesn’t look like an in-focus, high-def image of a finger the way you’d assume.

If you spend some time observing what objects look like at the edge of your peripheral vision you will soon discover that they have a certain “indistinctness” to them that you’ve never probably noticed before.

Not a very practical example, but kinda cool, huh? Okay, let’s build on this…

Molyneux’s Problem

In 1688 a Scottish scientist and politician by the name of William Molyneux posed the following thought experiment to philosopher John Locke:

If a man is born blind but then much later in life regains his vision, will he be able to distinguish round objects from squares objects by sight alone?

What do you think? Yes? No? Maybe so?

It’s an interesting question because we intuitively assume he would. Our sense of touch is so closely conjoined with our sense of sight that the two seem inseparable. It’s natural that round objects look round, and square objects look square.

After all, when I run my finger across a visibly hard edge, it feels hard and straight. And when I run my finger across a visibly curved object, it feels smooth. There’s something seemingly consistent about reality. Something inherent to reality must connect sight and touch.

Unfortunately, verifying the Molyneux problem proved tricky. Cases of people born completely blind and then miraculously regaining their vision are extremely rare. Moreover, the test has to be administered just as the sight is regained, before the subject’s new experiences cloud the results. So the debate went on for hundreds of years without any proof.

That is, until 2003, when 5 blind subjects in India were cured of their blindness thanks to modern medical technology. In this experiment the subjects were found to have a 53% chance of distinguishing between square and round objects by sight alone. Which means they were pretty much guessing between the two.

Interesting finding. It seems that our sense of touch and sense of sight are distinct after all, despite how conjoined these seem.

So what does this have to do with self development? Aside from simply being a fascinating thought experiment, to me the Molyneux problem pulls back some of the curtain. It’s like a glitch in the Matrix that gives away the illusion of it all.

Just how much of “reality” is coming to us from the outside versus being projected by us from the inside? Definitely more than it initially seems!

The more I study myself the more I see that my emotions, reactions, habits, mindsets, beliefs, and feelings are generated largely from within, not from without.

It’s an empowering yet scary realization. On the one hand it implies a new sense of freedom and control. On the other hand it implies a new sense of responsibility.

This realization — that you have MUCH more control over your results and happiness than you ever realized — takes time to develop and accept. With patience and practice it becomes possible to change any of your beliefs and gain mastery over your emotions in a way that makes you seem super-human. You can accomplish orders of magnitude more success and get more fulfillment and peace out of life. And it all starts with self-knowledge.

The Inverted Spectrum

Another phenomenological mind-fuck is the inverted spectrum problem, which goes like this:

How can we be certain that what I perceive in my consciousness as red is in fact the same in your consciousness? What if your red is my blue? What if I walk around seeing the world in the exact opposite colors from you?

Think about it! You really have absolutely no right to assume that others experience the same color of “red” at a stop-light as you do. It’s entirely possible that you and I experience totally different colors but simply agree on the label “red”. And even though we both say “red”, in fact your red is my blue!

Kinda freaky, huh? Another example of pulling the curtain back.

The Question of Qualia

“Qualia” is philosophical jargon for perceptions as they are experienced in the first-person. For example, your experience of the color “red”, or your experience of thinking a sad thought, are qualia.

The fascinating thing about qualia is that you can only know your own. There is no way, even in theory, to compare two sets of qualia to each other. I cannot take my experience of red and compare it, side-by-side, with your experience of red.

The fascinating thing about phenomenology is that things you can study from the first-person are completely different from those you can study via 3rd-person methods, like lab experiments.

Consciousness is inherently 1st-person. No one has access to your consciousness but you. A scientist can run all the experiments he wants but he will never be able to get an understanding of your perception of red, the taste of salt, the glory of winning a race, or the urge to eat a piece of moist chocolate cake. These qualia are only accessible to you.

Think about this long enough and you come to the ultimate question: What the hell are qualia anyway? What is their meta-physical status? Modern neuro-science makes it clear that consciousness arises from neurological activity in the brain, but it doesn’t even come close to addressing what qualia are.

The simple fact remains that no matter how much we try to reduce conscious experience to material activity in the external world, the quality of consciousness doesn’t lend itself to reduction. You can either deny that qualia exist, or you can are faced with explaining their meta-physical status, which is very slippery.

I personally think this question of qualia is the most interesting problem left for science to answer. Current scientific models largely ignore the issue of consciousness by reducing it to electrical signals in the brain, but in doing so science basically denies that first-person experiences are real.

Eventually I see science expanding out to incorporate a full explanation of qualia and consciousness, even to the point where laws are discovered for how to physically generate every possible type of conscious experience. Imagine what might be possible if such laws could be discovered.

Ouspensky: Controlling the Inner World

In the early 1900’s Peter Ouspensky — a colleague of the European mystic Gurdjieff — wrote several books and lectures about how to achieve personal evolution.

At the core of Ouspensky’s and Gurdjieff’s model is the idea that you are not as conscious as you think you are. The fundamental problem is that you deceive yourself into thinking you have powers over yourself that you actually don’t have, and as a result, you never undertake the study necessary to develop these powers.

Here’s what Ouspensky says on the matter in his Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution:

Man must acquire faculties and powers which he does not possess, but which he ascribes to himself; that is, he thinks he knows them and can use and control them.

Man must acquire qualities which he thinks he already possesses, but about which he deceives himself.

Man does not know himself.

He does not know his own limitations and his own possibilities. He does not even know to how great an extent he does not know himself.

— Peter Ouspensky

The chief problem is that you think you are conscious when in fact you behave mechanically most of the time.

Consciousness can be made continuous and controllable by special efforts and special study.

— Peter Ouspensky

If I stop you randomly at some point in your day and ask you if you are conscious, you will of course say, “Yes!”, but this is deceptive because in stopping you I triggered your self-awareness. Had I not stopped you, you would have likely plugged along, doing whatever mechanical activity you were doing, thinking whatever mechanical thoughts you were thinking, without any self-awareness.

If you take the time to actually inspect your daily routine — especially the thoughts that run through your mind — you will start to see what Ouspensky is talking about.

In fact, try it right now! Look at your watch right now and focus on the thought, “My name is [insert your name].” Keep your conscious focus on your yourself for as long as you can. How long can you last? 1 minute? 2 minutes? This is the extent of your consciousness.

The simple fact is that you’re not self-aware throughout most of your day and so you do things that your higher self might not want you to do, like snacking on junk food, thinking in negative ways about things you don’t want to have happen to you, etc.

Ouspensky’s point is that until you realize just how robotic you are, you cannot begin true personal development.


Firstly, because changing habits and behaviors requires conscious effort.

Secondly, because there is enormous personal power in being able to consciously choose what you’re doing at any given moment, and this power expands as your ability to stay conscious expands.

You Are a Puppet

The big takeaway from Ouspensky is that you have more in common with a puppet than you are comfortable admitting:

Man is a marionette pulled here and there by invisible strings. If he understands this, he can learn more about himself. If he does not wish to accept this fact, he can learn nothing more, and things cannot change for him.

— Peter Ouspensky

As grim as this sounds, the situation isn’t hopeless. You can become a marionette that sees itself for what it is and starts to control its own strings. But if you don’t gain this awareness, if you don’t see the strings, you will forever be controlled by your psychology.

The answer lies in developing more awareness around how you think and what you do on a daily basis.

Know Thyself

There are two ways in which you can know yourself. Both increase your personal power.

The first way is to learn about your tastes. Know your deepest likes and dislikes, who you are, what is good and what is bad for you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, where you’re going, and what your mission is in life.

This is important because it exposes your values and allows you to make decisions about what opportunities you choose to pursue. This way you can focus your time expressing your true self.

The second way is to learn about yourself as a machine. This is what Ouspensky focuses on. Know about your habits, the various levels of consciousness that you’re in, the base biological forces that compel you to act in certain ways, your tendencies to think about certain subjects in certain ways, and the fact that various parts of you want various things.

This is important because you gain more self-mastery as you see the strings that control you. Awareness of your mechanical nature, your animal nature, allows you to evolve to the truly human level.

Degrees of Consciousness

If you start to closely observe yourself throughout your day you will notice that consciousness comes in degrees. It’s less like an on-off switch and more like a dial. I think the most accurate model of consciousness is that of a continuum, but I also think it’s useful to simplify it down to 4 levels:

No consciousness: Basic sleep state. In this state you are not aware at all. This would include sleep, napping, fainting, being in a coma, death, or your consciousness before you were born and up to the age of 3 or 4, when you first started to have memories and developed a ego. This is often a state attributed to animals.

Low-Consciousness: Auto-pilot mode. In this state you think you are self-aware but you’re actually running off of habit and stimulus/response. You tend to think you have “normal” consciousness. Good examples of this include your morning ritual of showering, drying, brushing teeth, and combing hair, or your morning commute to the office. You experience many thoughts in this state but they tend to be scattered. You’re susceptible to emotional reactions, negative thinking, and instant gratification.

Consciousness: “Normal” conscious state. You are clear-minded, aware of your surroundings, not sleepy, and you are likely to introspect about yourself. Your thoughts are focused and you are not as emotionally reactive. This is the state you typically think you’re in, but you’re actually not. This might be the state you attain when you’re studying or reading a challenging book. Even though we think of this as “Normal” consciousness, it’s by far not that common for most people.

High-Consciousness: A peak experience of abnormal self-awareness. You are extra clear-minded and fully alert. Your thoughts are laser focused and 100% constructive. You typically feel great in your body and connected with reality on a deep level. It feels like a clean high. In this state you’re not emotionally reactive at all. You feel powerful and in full control, but this state is usually short-lived and occurs rarely.

Two important questions come out of this model:

#1: Which of these states is most conducive for getting stuff done? Which state would you rather be in if you wanted to make a big change in your life, like starting a business or losing 50 pounds of fat?

#2: Which of these states is most enjoyable to be in?

For me the answer to both is unquestionably High-consciousness. The great thing of being highly conscious is that you’re MUCH more productive, creative, and self-disciplined, AND you feel fully alive.

One of the aims of personal development for me is getting into the state of high-consciousness more consistently and staying in it for longer and longer periods of time. Ouspensky was after the same thing.

Bottom Line: You have much more control over your inner world than you’ve ever thought. Tapping into your full potential requires self-observation and self-study.

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rachel says:

hi leo,

i have been examining myself carefully, and i have discovered that one thing i care about is inspiring other people/reaching out/ helping. When i think about this, it seems too ideal. How do i know if this is really one of my passion, or just my ego wanting acceptance/gratification brought by engagement in good deeds/ activities. Really want to discover myself, without being influenced by my past big ego.

Leo Gura says:

It’s probably a bit of both. You won’t really know until you get rid of the ego for good. Helping others is pretty natural for enlightened folk.

Gerardo says:

Great article! Leo, would you say one has to have a solid understanding of (internal)psychology to be able to disable the ego and reach enlightenment?

Mayur Ghule says:

I love this ! This video goes through my heart and takes me to cloud 9 !
Just listening to this feels awesome applying would be awesomer…

Thank you Leo !

Leo Gura says:

Man… this video is OLD.

Glad it’s still useful to some.

Alexander Chiki says:

Well, it’s even older now.

Max Gron says:

I’m a very difficult machine to figure out, I’m controlled by my most recent former beliefs, and it’s difficult to change that, I have stopped and made a reflection on whether or not I should be normal or different, the normal I’ve done for a long time, I don’t possess the quality of differentness except in Leo’s kind of quirky content. I also asked myself why I’m struggling having difficulty staying normal and trying to crush my individuality, the answer is fear that the doctor as he medicates me now will continue to medicate me in the healthy act of even attempting to be different. It’s not really that simple but anti-perfectionism and normalcy is being normal the doctor’s way, does anyone have any advice if this is the way I should be?

Max Gron says:

Although Leo lies about anti-perfectionism, God, and irrationality/post-rationalism, he’s telling the “truth” about most things. This is how it is: philosophy’s the search for truth without facts, that’s what distinguishes it from science, it’s not convincing because philosophy’s not a fact, it’s a pre-scientific, semi-primitive ideology of contemplation and meditation, that’s why Buddhism’s a philosophy, even though it’s not a religion but with spirituality, it’s secular if you can believe that, people mistake it for a religion, a religion without God? It’s my opinion but religion without God is wrong, it’s sacrilegious. The Buddha was eccentric, his cult wasn’t lack of desire on his part, he desired to found his own spirituality. Buddhism is a simplistic indistinct story of the universe, oh yeah, Buddhism wasn’t meant to be stories, because only religion is a story, it was meant to be a teaching, and secularism, and also nihilism, literally becoming his own God. Truth isn’t fact, not if religion is defined as the truth, it’s actually a mediaeval man’s version of the truth as religion is mediaevalist. The true God is a man like any other god, it’s mythology, there’s no mystery that God is a person, he looks like my elderly friends at Miller Place, since we’re all “in God’s image”.

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