Friday, July 03, 2009

Metzinger: Consciousness technologies and the image of humankind

Abstracted Chapter 8 of "The Ego Tunnel" - Consciousness Technologies and the image of humankind.

The central claim of this book is that the conscious experience of being a self emerges because a large portion of the self-model in your brain is, as philosophers would say, transparent....Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world, and the Ego is merely a complex physical event - an activation pattern in your central nervous system...we are “selfing” organisms: at the very moment we wake up in the morning, the physical system starts the process of “selfing” ...A new chain of conscious events begins; once again, on a higher level of complexity, the life process comes to itself....Today, the key phrase is “dynamical self-organization”.. there is no essence within that stays the same across time...we are selfless ego machines.

We cannot believe this, we are continuously mistaking ourselves for the content of the self model currently activated by our brains. We have only the dynamical self-organization of a new coherent structure, the transparent self-model in the brain, this is what it means to be no one and an Ego Machine at the same time. The conscious self is neither a form of knowledge nor an illusion. It just is what it is.

It is important not to confuse the descriptive (what is a human being?) with the normative (what should it become?). The ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics - and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves...Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons. Religious belief seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state... Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies. A new and comprehensive anthropology must synthesize the knowledge we have gained about ourselves to create a rational basis for normative decision about how we want to be in the future.

The Third Phase of the Revolution...

The first phase is about understanding consciousness as such, as with the ‘ego tunnel’ metaphor. The second phase details the first person perspective, research on agency, free will, emotions, mind-reading, self-consciousness in general. The third phase is dealing with what we want to do with this new knowledge about ourselves, the normative dimension. As with Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” we are now witnessing the disenchantment of the self. We are in a dangerous situation, with an anthropological and ethical vacuum created as neuroscience has dissolved Judeo-Christian images that secured a minimal moral consensus before there is a neuroscientific-philosophical consensus on the nature of the self, free will, mind and brain, what makes a person a person... A vulgar materialism might take hold. “It’s all a crock, I’ll just go on pretending I’m an old-fashioned believer in moral values.”....scientists have an obligation to not just be curious, but confront the normative void they have created by destroying everything humankind has believed in for the past twenty-five hundred years.

Putting aside that most humans are firmly rooted in prescientific cultures, with fundamentalism on the rise due to anxiety over scientific findings, suppose a strong version of materialism develops. We will have to assume that the universe has an intrinsic potential for subjectivity. Not only organisms, but consciousness, world models, evolution of ideas, billions of conscious brains like billions of eyes with which the universe can look at itself as being present.

A consciousness ethics is required to deal with issues of altered states (drugs, meditation), as well as neurotechnology and phenotechnology that can redesign the ego-tunnel.


  1. As an amateur thinker of the nature of human being, I liked Metzenger's book a lot and recommend it; not only is he insightful, his writing is enjoyable to read.

    I think my only disagreement with him, is his conclusion: where he wants to think of a self in terms of a myth (unreal) I would classify a self in terms of an experience (intangible but real).

    Let me illustrate by analogy: A poet recognizes that the reality and power of a poem, though contingent on its underlying text, can't be distilled to its assembly of words, syntax etc. When a poem feels formulaic, a poem fails to achieve that "something else" that poetry is capable of: a poem's reality is intangible- but it is palpable.

    Maybe the question here is: What is the nature of reality that is palpable, compared to the reality that is tangible?

    I recognize that a self is something complex- certainly more than some non-contingent essence. Yet considering a self as something utterly mythical also fails to capture our experienced reality.

    What happens when we consider a self in terms of a poem instead of a myth- or illusion? Any thoughts from you Neuroscientists?

  2. I wouldn't describe him as thinking in terms of anything 'unreal' but rather agreeing with you, along the lines of his comments on the ineffable. The electrical activity that constitutes his 'ego tunnel' that is our subjective "I" is palpable but can't be made tangible, call it what you like.