Ibn Sina’s Floating Man Thought Experiment*

In this post, I’ll discuss one of the topics covered in lecture: Ibn Sina's Floating Man Thought Experiment; and would like to share my thoughts regarding self-awareness, sensory deprivation, and consciousness.

Ibn Sina mentions a thought experiment which he asks us to imagine a man floating in thin air, that had just started to exist, yet fully mature, that has no memory and no sensory input at all. He cannot smell, see, or feel, etc.

Ibn Sina asks what would this man be aware of? And he’s answer is, only of his own existence.

About the claim, I would doubt that people would share the same intuition. According to Ibn Sina self-awareness is fundamental to all of our mental life. Perhaps yes. Although...

It kind of feels like the question contradicts itself. Can this man speak for instance, or have the verbal ability to form thoughts? Because if he’s fully mature, he must; but on the other hand, because he doesn’t have memory, and learning a language requires experience, it’d make more sense that he doesn’t. So, if we conclude that this man -I will call him Ahmad- does not have any verbal knowledge, he cannot think, and therefore, cannot come to the conclusion that he is. As in, he wouldn’t be able to be aware of his own existence. Though, some studies have shown that language is not necessary for self awareness since some apes are able to recognize themselves that they are themselves when they look in the mirror. So, I would claim that Ahmad at least has to have one sensory input. Babies gain self awareness later in life as well. So, some memory is necessary for a sense of self.

About sensory deprivation... Thanks to some studies done, we now do know what happens to human cognition as a result of complete sensory isolation. Studies have repeatedly showed that the brain deteriorates when there is no sensory input. The majority of subjects cannot stand the experiment more than a few days of isolation. Reports say that at some point, they start having hallucinations. So, it’s sort of like our brain can’t take it without inputs and so creates its own reality. Some of the other effects were:

  • extreme difficulty in thinking and in concentrating,

  • some unable to count more than twenty or thirty numbers,

  • extensive day dreaming.

Sensory experience is essential for normal development and mental health, as well as for self awareness. These are not to refute Ibn Sina’s theory, but are merely seen as interesting facts to share. It is plausible to say that self awareness and consciousness come hand in hand, and that our memories, experiences, and ability to speak are essential for these to exist.