Who am us, anyway?
by Eileen Gunn
The most engaging and thought-provoking book I read this past year was Thomas Metzinger’s book on the neurology of consciousness, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (Basic Books, New York, 2009). This is a popularization of his much longer, much denser Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2003), but, frankly, neither of them are beach books. You’re going to have to extend some effort to reap the reward: a new perspective on how your own mind works.
The Ego Tunnel is accessible, but not promiscuously so: it’s a discussion of the current state of neurological research into what the mind is and how it works, coupled with advocacy for Dr. Metzinger’s proposed (and not uncontroversial) theory of the self: how our brains construct our reality neurologically, using data about our environment that is collected via our senses, filtered by our nervous system, and assembled by a remarkable set of systems in the body and brain. He also takes a leap forward to assess the ethics of two advancements that he thinks are near, but have not yet been realized: the ability to create self-aware artificial life and the knowledge of how to increase human intelligence and alter the functionality of the brain.
The past few decades have been a rich time for research into the neurology of consciousness, and for the publication of popularized summaries of that research. If you are familiar with the popular, slightly irritating books by Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and other works) and V.S. Ramachandran (The Tell-Tale Brain), or with the late Patrick Wall’s authoritative and remarkably poetic book on the physical and mental processes of pain, Pain: the Science of Suffering, or with any of the many, many popular science books that deal with how human and animal brains function, then you have a hint of the complexity of the subject.
Most books about how the mind works are either too broad and unfocused to be truly informative about current research or too narrow and technical for the lay reader (and I mean me) to get an overview of the subject. Drs. Sacks and Ramachandran discuss in non-technical language the aspects of the brain that they specialize in, but, as medical doctors, they are more practical and experiential than theoretical. Their books are anecdotal in nature: warm-and-fuzzy case histories of patients with brain injuries or anomalies that explain specific details of brain function. It’s sometimes hard to cut through the fuzz.
Dr. Metzinger, however, is not a physician; he is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist, and directs the Theoretical Philosophy Group and the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. He is thus charged with using neurology to examine the larger questions that theoretical philosophy traditionally addresses: what is existence? what is the self? is there a distinction between the mind and the body? and with examining the ethics of changing the human brain and creating artificial intelligences.
Dr. Metzinger first proposes his thesis: there is no such thing as the self. The subjective sense of being a conscious person – the sense of being a self that is distinct from the body and present in a single, unified reality – is not a separate, coherent brain function but rather the result of many different systems running at the same time.
It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical puzzle 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?
At best, he says, it’s a process. The problem is that we have a lot of relevant data on how the brain works, but no big picture of consciousness that integrates all the data. He asks a question that is, in the context of his expertise, rather touching:
Why is there always someone having the experience? Who is the feeler of your feelings and the dreamer of your dreams? [...] Why is your conscious reality your conscious reality?
This is, of course, an old, old question, and contemporary neuroscience has not answered it any more accurately than Plato or Timothy Leary. Dr. Metzinger’s answer is that there is no single entity that is the conscious mind. The good news is that you’re not alone in the universe; the bad news is that you’re not actually there at all.
Then, so that the reader can understand why he dismisses the concept of self, he explains how the brain models external reality using input from the senses, and how proprioception – the feeling of having a specific body, a specific number of hands and feet, etc., a conscious physical self – is made up of brain functions that are located in specific, mapped areas of the brain and can be disrupted by brain malfunction, direct brain stimulation with an electrode, and even simple visual/somatic tricks.
After discussing autoscopy and anomalies of proprioception such as phantom limb syndrome and the rubber hand illusion, Dr. Metzinger explains how religious and mystical phenomena, out-of-body and near-death experiences, supernatural and paranormal manifestations, and symptoms of schizophrenia and dementia can be clearly understood as specific aspects of the function or dysfunction of these systems of consciousness.
I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of autoscopy, in which the self lacks identification with its body, or feels it is moving in and out of two bodies, or seems to be viewing the body at a distance, or feels the presence of an invisible companion. There are various ways of generating autoscopic effects. For instance, stimulating a part of the brain called the angular gyrus can activate two very different autoscopic effects, depending on which side of the brain is stimulated. On the left side, stimulation gave the patient the impression that a shadowy person was lurking behind her; on the right side, it yielded an out-of-body experience, in which the patient was floating below the ceiling and looking down at herself. These effects, which can be demonstrated to take place in the physical brain, could explain how religious or mystical feelings are created, and perhaps why children often have an unshakable belief in having an invisible friend.
The body apparently has its own actions, in which conscious intentionality does not take part, and yet we generally have a feeling that we acted intentionally: we have, in his term, “a feeling of agency.” Dr. Metzinger illustrates this with a description of the well-known alien hand syndrome (familiar to fans of Dr. Strangelove) and presents a good bit of information that, while inconclusive, indicates that people can think they acted deliberately simply because they acted. The feeling that we act out of “free will” could be a necessary illusion that allows us to act.
He discusses certain attributes of dreaming, which he considers a second aspect of consciousness that is generated for the most part without sensory input, a sort of virtual reality. Dreamers are self-aware, but not ordinarily able to focus their attention on details, to have a feeling of agency, or to control their attention consciously.
Even more interesting is the extreme instability of the first-person perspective: attention, thinking, and willing are highly unstable, or exist only intermittently, yet the ordinary dreaming Ego does not really care about this, or even notice it. The dream self is like the anosognostic patient who lacks insight into a deficit following a brain injury.
Lucid dreams would seem to be an exception to this. Dr. Metzinger has frequently experienced lucid dreams and has used that lucidity to explore the dream-state as a scientist, investigating it as a state that sheds light on aspects of the conscious experience, on the various elements that create the self: how they are constructed and how they are woven into one’s dream consciousness.
The last few chapters of The Ego Tunnel veer away from neurology itself into a discussion of the ethical and anthropological problems that Dr. Metzinger, as a philosopher and ethicist, anticipates resulting from deep knowledge of human consciousness. He examines the ethical aspects of his thesis of the absence of a self. He considers his theory to have essentially undermined Judeo-Christian ethics, as he believes that he has disproved the existence of a soul, and thus done away with religious and ethical systems based on a belief in it. He seems to claim, without offering evidence, that discoveries in mind science are a completely uncontrolled explosion of knowledge that will create a crisis of faith in religious and ethical systems and the destruction of “everything mankind has believed for the past twenty-five hundred years,” and that it is the obligation of leading mind researchers to guide humanity through the transition to a post-religious era.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with this part of his argument. I expect that his thesis, if true, will do little damage to individual belief in the soul or to ethical systems of any persuasion. I am agnostic on the subject of a personal or impersonal God, but I do not find science incompatible with religious belief, and I do not think that the absence of religious belief necessarily correlates with an absence of ethics. In this day and age, for the thoughtful educated believer, the matter of finding or not finding a soul seated in the brain should be irrelevant to belief in a God. For willfully uneducated believers, people who resist understanding as dangerous to belief, the sum of human knowledge is irrelevant, and one bit more or less will not make a difference in their belief system.
Much of Dr. Metzinger’s concern seems prompted by his desire to communicate an understanding of the neurology of behavior and thought to humanity as a whole, to educate people in “pre-scientific cultures” in order to prepare them for what he sees as a sudden, significant change, and to give them the knowledge needed to resist exploitation and oppression. He believes the universe is entering a phase transition, a change to its physical nature, enabled by human intelligence.
Dr. Metzinger specifically endorses the concept of human exceptionalism, which seems odd to me, as it is also at the core of religious belief. He thinks we are special, and posits that humanity, over the past few millennia, could be the means by which the universe becomes aware of itself, through the creation of self-aware artificial intelligences. These intelligences would be even more special than we are, and he feels we need to consider now the ethics of creating them. He illustrates this with a fictional conversation featuring a future artificial ego machine. Neurologists, in my opinion, should leave science fiction to the professionals.
After this rather wild ride into the future, Dr. Metzinger returns to more practical matters. He finishes with a discussion of the problems he foresees in integrating a new self-image for humanity with humanity itself. He addresses ethical questions that will arise with advances in neuroscience: would it be ethical to create artificial intelligences that can suffer? should we use neurological techniques to quickly and easily make permanent changes in a child’s personality or to create a sense of religious awe? if we can enhance intelligence and control emotions neurologically, who should have control of the techniques and substances that would do that? He cautions that the street will find its uses for new methods of altering the mind, will devise its own techniques, and will distribute them without extensive testing. As with drugs and alcohol, there needs to be some level of government control over these techniques and substances.
At the end of the book, Dr. Metzinger seems to be conducting a one-sided argument with an unseen opponent, who apparently argues that cold and impersonal neuroscience deprives humanity of dignity and self-respect, and that spirituality is somehow completely antithetical to cognitive science. The doctor suggests that advances in understanding and manipulating brain chemistry could be combined with ancient techniques of meditation to introduce humanity to a new universe of self-exploration, and calls for us all to pull together, to create a new cultural context for humanity. Since I find his dichotomy between science and spirituality to be a false premise, I had problems participating on either side of this argument, which seemed to be headed into familiar John C. Lilly/human-potential-movement territory.
In general, I resist philosophy. I flunked philosophy twice at college, two years in a row, because I couldn’t write a paper on Kant. The professor, applying the categorical imperative, considered this an immoral act. So the intricacies of Dr. Metzinger’s discussion of ethics in the final two chapters of the book trigger a fight-or-flight response in me. I want either to flee the argument or to create syllogisms from his premises and knock them over methodically. But the earlier part of the book, in which Dr. Metzinger places the metaphysical problems of philosophy in the context of actual bleeding-edge discoveries in neurology, is reality-based philosophy that questions the nature of reality. And that’s pure catnip, as far as I’m concerned.
Note: The Wikipedia pages I have linked in the text add context to the ideas presented, but should be read, as always, with a certain amount of skepticism. The Ego Tunnel goes way beyond them in discussing current neurological theory and its implications. But you probably guessed that….
Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic. You can follow Eileen on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/eileen_gunn and visit her website here: http://www.eileengunn.com/.