In this book I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self.
Thomas Metzinger begins The Ego Tunnel (2009) with a bang that sounds suspiciously like the hollow clangor of “eliminativism.” Having read only second-hand, generally critical accounts, I presumed that the notoriously “scientistic” Metzinger would argue that only brain-body physiology is real, and that subjective epiphenomena generated by and emerging from neural states and processes — perception, cognition, self-awareness — are illusions. But that’s not what he says. He’s aware of his own notoriety and he responds to it. After briefly documenting the recent explosion in empirically-supported knowledge about consciousness, Metzinger acknowledges the backlash:
We have learned how great the fear of reductionism is, in the humanities as well as among the general public, and how immense the market is for mysterianism. The straightforward philosophical answer to the widespread fear that philosophers or scientists will “reduce consciousness” is that reduction is a relationship between theories, not phenomena. No serious empirical researcher and no philosopher wants to “reduce consciousness”; at best, one theory about how the contents of conscious experience arose can be reduced to another theory. Our theories about phenomena change, but the phenomena stay the same. A beautiful rainbow continues to be a beautiful rainbow even after it has been explained in terms of electromagnetic radiation. Adopting a primitive scientistic ideology would be just as bad as succumbing to mysterianism. Furthermore, most people would agree that the scientific method is not the only way of gaining knowledge.
I’ve just started reading Metzinger’s book, but I suspect that his opening salvo is more of an attention-grabber than a thesis statement, sort of like asserting two hundred years ago that there is no soul. The book focuses largely on what might be deemed component parts of selfhood: consciousness, the internal representation of the external world, the sense of being centered in one’s own body, self-reflexivity. Briefly, Metzinger argues that it’s not particularly useful to think in terms of “selfhood” as a holistic entity that we are or that we have within us. Instead he proposes the concept of a “phenomenological self-model” — a continually refreshed simulation by which the human monitors his environment, his body, and his cognitive processes. Metzinger contends that this self-model simulation is not really a subjective image of the internal and external environments in which we function; rather, it is a tunnel through which we encounter these environments. Even here, though, Metzinger seems overly dramatic in his rhetoric. Immediately after introducing the metaphor of the tunnel, he asserts that we do generate images or representations of our environment and of our internal state — that in fact we encounter the world and ourselves only through these representations. Does this make Metzinger a “correlationist”? We’ll see. I have a sense that later in the book he’s going to claim that empirical science enables us to get out of the tunnel in order to have more direct encounters with the outer and inner environments.
I like the way he begins the book, not because of the controversies he seems bent on provoking but because he purports to take empirical science seriously. Many non-scientific theorists weed through the jungle of scientific findings in order to extract a few “proof texts” that support their a priori ideas. Metzinger seems more willing to “let the data speak,” allowing empirical findings to shape and revise theory.
Unlike many of my philosopher colleagues, I think that empirical data are often directly relevant to philosophical issues and that a considerable part of academic philosophy has ignored such data for much too long.
I find this approach more comprehensible, more compatible with my own inclinations and educational background, and more likely to be true than the so-called armchair philosophy practiced by introspectors, sophists, antiquarians and other creative geniuses whose insights and literary flourishes often seem indistinguishable from bullshit.
I may have more to report from Metzinger’s book as I go along.