17 November 2011

Metzinger: So Far So Good

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:45 pm

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.



  1. Ktismatics:
    Although Aristotle thought that the brain was for cooling the body the questions that he raised concerning causal closure between brain and mind are still valid today. Are we bound to accept interaction or correlation even if we can’t understand how they could be? Is it a matter of build a theory and the facts will come?

    It seems obvious that there must be an intimate/close/parallel/identity between the brain and the mind because when we suffer lesion injury we forget names or verbs or algebra etc and become devious, cunning sociopaths. Bergson in Matter and Memory masterfully picked apart this data and though he didn’t know about MRI and so forth his questions stand.

    Can monism be characterised as either exclusively materialist or idealist when all interactions even between inert objects are informational?

    Just some thoughts from my shabby den-chair.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 18 November 2011 @ 2:51 am

  2. Aristotle, Bergson, monism — I waved at them as they passed by my armchair, exchanged a few words, never really engaged them in extended conversation.

    Metzinger may be an idealist at heart (or in his head), using brain research to buttress his a priori contention that we interact only with representations of the world and never with the world itself. I don’t think that’s it though. It’s hard to imagine a strategy for debunking the theory that what I see is an internal representation of the world rather than the world itself. And as Metzinger points out, this internal representation is only a meager subset of what’s actually out there; i.e., we don’t have functioning receivers to extract most of the information available in the world. What Metzinger contends — a contention that’s not particularly contentious — is that it’s possible to map all of the objects and information and pathways and processes that link the internal representation to the external world. So even if there is no direct contact of something called “mind” with the external world, there are direct informational connections between our bodies and brains with the world. But when we think consciously about the world, we think about the representation of the world that our brain has assembled from the information it extracts from the world. So, e.g., we don’t think about the variety and pattern of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the world that impinges on our retinas; we think about colors.

    As is well known, the colors we think about aren’t properties of the world. Rather, they are properties of our representations of the world, for which our brains use the wavelengths as informational input. As Metzinger points out, it’s possible to create a subjective awareness of a particular color by stimulating specific areas of the brain, absent the externally-generated wavelengths ordinarily corresponding to this color.You mention brain lesions as demonstrating the close connections between mind and brain. Metzinger uses many examples from brain probes and lesions to illustrate his points — this is also the sort of data that neuroscientists use to generate data for modifying their theories.

    Regarding matter and memory, in a chapter I’ve not yet read Metzinger writes about memory’s function in the internal representational process. I believe he’s going to contend that memory of prior states gives the representation a temporal component that recognizes change — an ego tunnel through time as it were.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 November 2011 @ 7:34 am

  3. In my post I said this: “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.” It turns out he doesn’t go in this direction. He says that through cognitive science we can gain a more accurate understanding of how the ego tunnel operates. He doesn’t, however, write about how science also lets us understand how the ego tunnel can distort our understanding of the world it penetrates, enabling us to compensate for these phenomenological biases. My expectation that he would delve into scientific realism probably reflects the fact that I found out about Metzinger’s book not from cognitive scientists but from ontologists.

    I find myself generally satisfied with M’s book, both for the variety of empirical findings he brings into consideration and for the speculative ways in which he assembles these findings. Ultimately I’m not persuaded by his introductory contention that there is no such thing as a self. Sure, there is no immaterial essence of my being that captains my body and my brain. But the phenomenal sense of self-awareness that’s part of consciousness: M acknowledges that it serves various functions. He regards consciousness as a “tool” and an “organ” self-generated by the brain. It enables the individual human to monitor activities in the world, in the body, and in the brain. But consciousness does more than watch: it intervenes. Through selective attention and intention it enables the human to achieve a flexible agency that’s unavailable to strictly instinctual organisms. This agency applies not only to acting in the world and in moving the body but also, presumably, in directing brain states. If that’s true, then consciousness does function in ways that correspond to our subjective sense of selfhood.

    As is often the case when I read philosophers writing about scientific work, my interest in looking more directly and intently at the science is enhanced. Metzinger makes too many inferential leaps beyond the evidence for my comfort. He might be characterized as “scientistic” by philosophers who don’t like his approach, but from the working scientist’s POV Metzinger seems overly metaphysical.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 November 2011 @ 6:22 pm

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