Take a guess: was the following written by (A) a Zen master, or (B) a philosopher of neuroscience?
Here's the answer.
Thomas Metzinger has a great title, "Director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group at the Department of Philosophy of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany." He's also head of a Neurophilosophy Section there.
Not surprisingly, Metzinger is capable of writing some pretty involved stuff -- such as this summary of a previous book, "Being No One."
Download Being No One
I browsed that precis until I got to some lines that I could understand. Or at least, believe that I understood. (SMT stands for Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity.)
Metzinger's new book is "The Ego Tunnel." Thankfully, it makes the same basic points as "Being No One," but in a more readable fashion (it's billed as his first popular book aimed at general readers).
A few chapters in, I'm enjoying it.
I hesitated before ordering "The Ego Tunnel" from Amazon after reading a review in New Scientist. The reviewer's big criticism was that no reputable neuroscientist believes in the "self," so Metzinger was tearing down a straw man.
OK. But most people do believe they have a self -- some mysterious ineffable essence, often termed soul, that inhabits their bodies and survives physical death.
Metzinger debunks this notion with philosophical precision, grounding his arguments in solid neuroscience. After the sentences I began with, he goes on to say:
But it is not just that the modern philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience together are about to shatter the myth of the self. It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical problem of consciousness -- that is, how it can arise in the brain, which is a purely physical object -- if we don't come to terms with this simple proposition: that to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity, that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences?
I haven't read far enough to fully understand Metzinger's answer to that question.
Since elsewhere he's said, "Strictly speaking, nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies," I'm pretty sure he's going to say that the entity I call me is No One (good guess, since that's in the title of his previous book).
The New Scientist reviewer thought the ego tunnel is a "forgetable metaphor." Well, I like it. This isn't a new idea, that our brains selectively pick out bits and pieces of information which become conscious experience, but Metzinger explains it clearly:
This is why it is a tunnel: What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there. Our conscious model of reality is a low-dimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us... Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality.
Yet we have excessive self-confidence in what appears on the walls of our ego tunnel (including the mistaken notion that a "self" is doing the observing) because it isn't possible to recognize the process by which the tunnel is being dug.
So my ego tunnel seems absolutely real to me, as does yours to you, and we end up arguing about our subjective representations of reality, each of us wanting our own ego tunnel to be considered as really real -- failing to understand that, in Metzinger's words, "We see only what our reality tunnel allows us to see, and most of us are completely unaware of this fact."
This doesn't mean, though, that reality is entirely subjective. I can't claim that I grasp everything Metzinger is saying here, but I like his concluding simple idea.
To form a successful theory of consciousness, we must match first-person phenomenal content to third-person brain content. We must somehow reconcile the inner perspective of the experiencing self with the outside perspective of science.
And there will always be many of us who intuitively think this can never be done. Many people think consciousness is ontologically irreducible (as philosophers say), because first-person facts cannot be reduced to third-person facts. It is more likely, however, that consciousness is epistemically irreducible (as philosophers say).
The idea is simple: One reality, one kind of fact, but two kinds of knowledge: first-person knowledge and third-person knowledge. Even though consciousness is a physical process, these two different forms of knowing can never be conflated.
Knowing every last thing about a person's brain states will never allow us to know what they are like for the person herself.
Reality is subjective. Reality is objective. One reality, two ways of knowing it. That idea resolves a lot of knotty philosophical and metaphysical problems.
As does the idea that there is no self. My self, or soul, doesn't have to be saved if it doesn't exist. Nor do I have to worry about self-realization, self-understanding, or self-actualization.
I can simply merrily burrow along in my ego tunnel, along with everyone else in the world -- who are doing their own burrowing. We can share the third-person knowledge Metzinger speaks of (2 + 2 = 4; July 4 is Independence Day) but not what it is like for us to know.
Difference and similarity. Togetherness and separateness. Unity and duality. One reality, several ways of knowing it.