“Is it true that the self is an illusion? I think it is not true because it contains a logical mistake. On the level on which we are talking there is no such thing as truth or falsity. There is nobody who could have an illusion in this system. So, if you really wanted to stay with the idea that the self is an illusion you would have to say that it is an illusion which is no one’s illusion. If it is true that the self is not a thing but a process, as I have described it, then it is also true that the tragedy of the ego dissolves because strictly speaking nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies.”
This radical and seemingly absurd statement is the conclusion to a lecture given by contemporary philosopher Thomas Metzinger at UC Berkeley in 2005. This lengthy lecture is an excellent overview and summary to Metzinger’s reductionist philosophy of mind and consciousness. I became aware of Metzinger back in 2004 when I purchased his book Being No One from MIT Press. MIT is famous for its publication of reductionist and materialist philosophy, such as the work of Paul Churchland, who I admire quite a bit though I don’t fully buy in to this perspective.
There are books in my library that I have started but took years to actually finish as I have mentioned before with Joyce and Proust, for example. Metzinger’s work fits this category. Being No One was completely forgotten by me until a couple of weeks ago when I was sifting through a section of my shelves where the books are double stacked. I immediately recognized the soft colors of the simple cover design and wondered how this recent, complex philosophical treatise could have slipped from my memory. It is rather fitting that I forgot it, in a way, given the subject matter.
I picked up the book and leafed through the first 150 pages or so which I had highlighted in my previous reading. Wow. Some heavy stuff here. The fact I had not only abandoned it but discarded from memory was a little surprising…and disconcerting. But it is what it is. The passages I had highlighted probably 8-9 years ago seemed interesting and not too intellectually taxing. I have not seriously considered the reductionist perspective in years. So, I decided to give it another try.
There were still a lot of scientific and theoretical examples to wade through in order for Metzinger to support his conclusions. I reread the Preface and noticed that the author recommended that if the book seems too difficult just skip to the final chapter and refer back to the earlier sections referenced there, if you want. So, I skimmed ahead, reading short sections, to the concluding chapter. It was fascinating in and of itself. My initial thought was that this was a similar endpoint with a lot of Buddhist practice and perspective. For example, and I realize this is a simplification, one of Buddhism’s fundamental disagreements with the Hindu religion out of which it emerged is that there is no permanent atman. The atman is critical to Hinduism’s reincarnation project. Buddhism, so I thought, would be more aligned to Metzinger’s philosophy than Hinduism though, of course, the philosopher himself is in no way Buddhist. He poses no morality or ethics or universal truths based upon his philosophy of mind, for example.
Still, it is of interest to note that Metzinger mentions Buddhism in the section reviewing the possibility of a selfless consciousness. The philosopher considers it a possiblity "but there will always be a phenomenal self experienced as doing the imagining. The view from nowhere always is your view - or it could not be an element of your autobiographical memory about which you could later report." (page 567) So it turns out Metzinger is perhaps more Hindu than Buddhist. He would say there is an atman. Only he would say this is a naive understanding, much ado about nothing.
The fact that Metzinger’s work offers really no practical or ethical implications (How do I deal with the stresses of life? What brings enrichment to my day? How can I cooperate with these people that I don’t truly respect?), but is only useful as the basis for further philosophical development on the nature of consciousness is one reason I stopped reading the book to begin with, along with its vast technical prose. I have little use, other than intellectual amusement, for theoretical perspectives without specific application to what happens between awaking and returning to sleep each day. My intimate spiritual needs are different from just knowing abstract “truths” about consciousness. Nevertheless, I don’t want to discount Metzinger’s work too much. It is entertaining to me as, if nothing else, a thought experiment.
As always with me, one thing leads to another. In rediscovering the book I googled Metzinger to see what was out there on this guy. Several useful youtube videos are among the philosopher’s presence in cyberspace. There is a shorter, more recent, lecture of note from 2009. Metzinger's work is definitely in the Now. Rather than mention the highlights from his academically styled text I will examine his perspective as presented in the nearly one-hour lecture delivered as part of the Berkeley series on “The Immortality of the Soul” in 2005.
“There is a very important term, the notion of a first-person perspective and the notion of a self from which this first-person perspective originates. In philosophy today it is very fashionable to say things like third-person facts are not reducible to first-person facts. But nobody ever asks what a first-person perspective is and what a self actually is.”
Metzinger calls this the “phenomenal first-person perspective.” This contains three elements. 1) Mineness – “We refer to this private, subjective property from public space using linguistic representations.” This is my leg. These are my emotions. He references the rubber hand illusion as an example of how the brain can trick itself into qualities of ownership that are, in fact, untrue. 2) Selfhood – “The way to be intimately close to yourself before you start any cognitive activity.” I am a coherent whole. I am identical through time. 3) Perspectivalness – “The structural property of your experiential space as a whole.” My experience possesses an immovable center or vortex.
“Now, here is the mystery. For each one of you, it is true that you are this center yourself. To be phenomenally aware means to possess an inward perspective and to take on this perspective in the subjective experience of the world and of your own mental states. But, if you say ‘I am this center myself’ you don’t really understand what you are saying. This is where the puzzle occurs when you flip from a third-person description of a property of conscious space into a first-person description by using a concept like ‘myself’.”
Metzinger proceeds to attribute these qualities to the Phenomenal Self Model (PSM). “It is only episodically active, it is a representational entity, and the content of that representation is that very system in which it appears. You can distinguish three classes of information processing systems.” Simulation, emulation, and self-modeling. “So what I am saying is that you all as you are sitting here are systems that simulate and emulate themselves for themselves….This is not a little man in the head. It is a sub-personal functional state….What happens when you wake up in the morning, when you come to yourself, the organism which you are has to achieve complex sensory-motor integration. You have to go to the refrigerator or to the toilet and then it meets this…self-model and it just switches it on. This is the moment when you wake up, when you come into existence as a conscious being.”
As with his book, the lecture gets fairly technical and rationally analytical and there is a tendency to lose Metzinger through his maze of logic mixed with neuroscientific research. But, he offers two concrete examples to help us out. First, there is a well-known problem of astronauts not being able to orient themselves in terms of up and down in space. This makes it difficult to do basic things like swallow their food because they have no sense of down. They can get choked. The trick is to hit very hard on your heel and immediately the body experiences its orientation again. “So what that shows is that the human self-model is just (a simulation) a virtual self-model. It depicts a possibility as a reality.”
Secondly, there is the phantom limb syndrome. Vilayanur Ramachandran, who Metzinger knows very well, discovered of how activating mirror neurons assists patents with phantom limb pain. According to Metzinger our innate PSM is precisely revealed in this treatment technique. It is another way of tricking the person into thinking they have a limb that is not actually there and the pain goes away.
Other neuropsychological conditions Metzinger mentions as proof that human beings work in a PSM include: hemispatial neglect, alien hand syndrome, depersonalization disorder, and monomania. Personally, this is another area I would question in reductionism as it seems that much of its proofs are based on the received wisdom of mental illness. I’m not sure such illnesses reveal anything useful about human consciousness as a whole. I remain skeptical but open to the possibility of that which Metzinger accepts as an unquestioned background assumption of his theory. Admittedly, these mental states suggest the possibility of the self-model being advocated. Metzinger claims these conditions confirm that “mineness” is part of the self-model.
Likewise, various forms of agnosia are offered as examples of the part “selfhood” plays in the self-model. Blind people that aren’t really blind. Dissociative identity disorder is another example given of where selfhood plays a fundamental role in the self-model. With perspectivalism, the third quality of the self-model, we are offered bipolar disorder and mystical experiences as revelations of the function this aspect plays in the overall self-model.
Metzinger then asks which of these aspects of the self-model are clearly not explained by or components of the PSM as he proposes it? “There is something in your conscious experience now that is so invariant that it is almost unconscious. And it has something to do with the background sensation of your own body.” Metzinger reviews some of the rather complex work of his neurological colleagues, as well as his own empirical hypotheses, and drives home the point of “…how self-modeling, the process of becoming self-aware, is actually anchored in molecular dynamics.” For Metzinger everything discussed is best explained by the PSM.
So he poses a second inquiry. Is there a necessary connection between all the mental properties discussed? If so, what is this connection? Metzinger’s answer is "phenomenal transparency." “Just look at these flowers here. We would say as philosophers that this is a phenomenally transparent representation because…you cannot recognize the fact that this is all a state in your visual system. You cannot see the representational state itself. That is why you are a naïve realist. You have the faith that you are in direct and immediate contact with reality. We are systems that, so to speak, look through their own representational structures as if they were in direct and immediate contact with their content.”
So we are naïve realists. This is because the workings of consciousness happen so fast and are generally so reliable (confirmed by the ordinary decisions we make moment by moment) that they have become taken for granted by us. Also, on a larger time-scale, there has never been any evolutionary pressure to call attention to these processes, they work for the good of our survival and are never questioned. “We have only reacted to the fact that there is a wolf there or there is a bear there. We did not need to represent the fact there is an active wolf representation in my brain now….For the functional properties we needed to survive we didn’t need to distance ourselves from ourselves.”
“I am claiming we are systems which are not able to recognize their own sub-symbolic self-model as a self-model. Therefore, we operate under the condition of what I would call a ‘naïve-realistic self misunderstanding’: We necessarily experience ourselves as being in direct and immediate epistemic contact with ourselves. So to speak, as you are listening to me right now what I am saying is that, metaphorically speaking, you are a system that constantly confuses itself with the content of its own self-model.”
That’s all well and good, I guess, but what exactly is subject experience? Metzinger purposes human consciousness is best classified as the Phenomenal Model of the Intentionality Relation (PMIR). “We are systems that co-represent the representational relations while they represent. The PMIR is a dynamical and transparent model of self in the act of knowing.”
“Of course you don’t see with your eyes. I hope nobody believes that. You see with your visual system. But on the user surface, so to speak, on the top level there is this abbreviated short story the system tells to itself that it sees with its eyes. It creates this little avatar, which you are, a phenomenal self-model. This avatar doesn’t know it has a visual cortex, it just sees with its eyes. It doesn’t know it has a motor cortex. It just acts with its hands. So, my final claim will be that to have a phenomenal first-person perspective is to possess a transparent PMIR.”
To represent the world as a representation is nothing new. This dates all the way back to Plato's "The Cave" allegory and is a fundamental tenet of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. I agree with this; there is an inherent distance between the objects of experience and the experiencing agent – whether you want to refer to that agent as a self or atman or soul or process. Though I am in some ways skeptical of his perspective, I find Metzinger worthy of serious consideration. I do not find his point-of-view inherently anti-spiritual. At least it does not trouble my intimate spiritual quest. Rather, it can potentially inform my spirituality.
I do not believe you and I possess such a thing as a “mind” though I often use that term as a linguistic convenience. I hesitate to use the word “system” to describe anything human (it seems too mechanistic and overly influenced by our interaction with technology) but I do think that the singularity we experience as our self is in fact a multiplicity. So to say "the self" is actually a collection of brain processes does not bother me. I am glad that I stumbled across Being No One again and got reacquainted with it. Metzinger is someone I will make more of an effort to keep an eye on; assuming, of course, that I don’t forget all about him again in the stream of processes otherwise known (to me) as Keith.