The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

[From Metapsychology Online Reviews; a more detailed review can be found here]

Review – The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger

Basic Books, 2009

Review by Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D.

Oct 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 41)

Thomas Metzinger, one of the leading philosophers in theoretical philosophy and a prominent figure in the philosophical discussions of consciousness, in his new book, The Ego Tunnel, tackles with the same problem David Hume dealt with centuries ego which is whether the self exists. Following the footsteps of Hume, Metzinger, in this stunningly original exploration of human consciousness, provides fascinating evidence that the self does not really exist.

Metzinger, in the first sentence of the book, states his aim straightforwardly as “to convince us that there is no such thing as a self” because, “contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self” (p. 1). Metzinger believes strongly that it is possible to solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness only if we come to understand 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. Thus, highlighting a series of groundbreaking experiments in neuroscience, virtual reality and robotics, and his own pioneering research into the phenomenon of the “out-of-body” experience, Metzinger reveals how our brains construct our reality. According to him, our deepest sense of self is completely dependent on our brain functioning.

Metzinger rightly points out the fact that much of the empirical data from neurological and cognitive sciences and from artificial intelligence which are often directly relevant to philosophical issues have been ignored and that also a second aspect, phenomenology has also been neglected as well due to the fact that the strongest contributions to the field have come from analytical philosophers of mind. Whereupon, what we currently lack, says Metzinger is a more general framework we can work with, which can give us the big picture. In The Ego Tunnel, Metzinger goes about doing just this– to tell a new story, a provocative and perhaps a shocking one: the story of the Ego Tunnel, the central metaphor used throughout the book to illustrate how we can be not just the building blocks but a unified whole.

The Ego Tunnel metaphor is a metaphor for conscious experience, that is, conscious experience is like a tunnel. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information. 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.

The internal image of the person-as-a-whole is the phenomenal Ego, the “I” or “self” as it appears in conscious experience. The phenomenal Ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image, namely, the conscious self-model. Metzinger claims that by placing the self-model within the world-model, a center, which we experience as ourselves, the Ego, is created. But, as Metzinger himself admits, one has to dissolve the problem of the subjectivity of consciousness if one wants to have the big picture. The ego tunnel is a consciousness tunnel that has evolved the additional property of creating a robust first person perspective, a subjective view of the world. It is a consciousness tunnel plus an apparent self. But, this is the challenge Metzinger takes in order to understand how a genuine sense of selfhood appears.

In The Ego Tunnel, Metzinger examines recent evidence that people born without arms or legs can experience a sensation that they do in fact have limbs–and how we can actually feel a human touch in a rubber hand placed on a desk in front of us. Similarly, he reveals how the state of our experiential self changes when we become lucid while we are dreaming, and how our sense of self can even be transposed into a three-dimensional computer-generated image of our body in a cyber space simply by using virtual reality goggles, creating a conflict between the seeing self and the feeling self. He also goes on to discuss the latest research on free will, machine consciousness and the evolution of empathy.

Highlighting these examples and also the possibility of postbiotic Ego machines, Metzinger asserts that if our self is created by our brain mechanisms and it is possible to alter our subjective reality, then this creates not only a deeper understanding of consciousness, but a need for a new approach to ethics.  Our sense of self, our spatial understanding, and the feeling of embodiment can be manipulated and even controlled. Using new kinds of medication, we can even enhance cognition and fine-tune emotional layers of self-consciousness. But, what in an ethical sense, are valuable forms of self-experience in the first place, in other words, what is a good state of consciousness?

Metzinger ultimately argues that we must be willing to engage with serious and pressing ethical questions as well as cultural consequences that will result from a new image of the “self” and the emerging neuro-technology of consciousness. In a time when the science of cognition is becoming a controversial as evolution, The Ego Tunnel provides a highly innovative take on the mystery of the mind.

Metzinger tackles some very complicated issues in such an imaginative and lively fashion that makes this book very enjoyable, yet at the same time very informative. One of the unique characteristics of this book is the conversations with the leading figures in the field that are included at the end of three sections to complement the discussion. The first appendix is at the end of chapter two on the tour of the Ego Tunnel, which is titled Unity of Consciousness: A Conversati,on with Wolf Singer. The second appendix is titled Dreaming: A Conversation with Allan Hobson comes as a complement to the fifth chapter on philosophical psychonautics and lucid dreaming. The last one is titled The Shared Manifold: A Conversation with Vittorio Gallese which is an appendix to the sixth chapter on the emphatic ego.  The Ego Tunnel, as he himself explicitly states at the beginning of the book is not written for philosophers or scientists, instead it was aimed at introducing a wider public to what he thinks are the truly important issues in consciousness research today. He also states at the outset that he “hopes this book will give interested lay readers a realistic view of the picture of self-consciousness and the human mind now emerging–and of the accompanying challenges all of us will have to face in the future” (p. ix).

I believe that his hope is more than fulfilled and that, as a matter of fact, this book really fills the need — given the recent upsurge in theoretical and empirical interest in consciousness– for an account of the subjective or phenomenal dimension of consciousness that is accessible to researchers and students from variety of disciplines.

Kamuran Godelek (Assoc. Prof. Dr.), Mersin University, School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy, Ciftlikkoy, Mersin, Turkey

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