Identity Theft

On the 10th of October, 2010, Natasha Mitchell interviewed Thomas Metzinger on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National network program All in the Mind. The show was titled You are not a self! Bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness. The ABC is the Government-financed public broadcaster in Australia. Radio National (RN) is an AM radio network dedicated to cultural and scientific topics that do not get much airplay on commercial radio. Metzinger was introduced on the programme like so:

Professor Metzinger is based at the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz in Germany, and has long collaborated with neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers and others. And in his new book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self he makes the case that there is no such thing as a self.

RN appeals to a an audience more interested in ideas than in celebrity gossip, and more interested in talk about ideas than in music or light entertainment.  Unfortunately, while the natural audience for such a format may be broader, the group of people who make these programs seem to fall into a familiar, narrowly defined demographic. They may be religious, in the sense that Harnack or Bultmann were religious, but in general they are atheist or agnostic. Radio National tends to preach to the converted; that is, to people just like themselves.

This particular interview, in other words, was not exceptional.  Here are some extracts. (Mid-point ellipse ⋅⋅⋅ are mine. Others are in the original transcript. All italics and bolding are mine.)

Thomas Metzinger: Nobody has ever seen a will. ⋅⋅⋅ We don’t find a will in the brain, that’s for sure. What we have is the conscious experience of having free will, of actually deliberating, wanting something, of weighing different goals against each other and so on, and that conscious experience of free will, that will be explained by science.

And the question is…many people in the general public feel an uneasiness with this debate about freedom of the will. Imagine there was no freedom of the will, that if we had a theory that said that, we couldn’t really believe that theory, it would make us sick. I mean, how could you imagine that every thought, every intention you are consciously experiencing right now has been predetermined by something unconscious outside of your reality. The people that have that experience are usually in psychiatric institutions. Our brains were never made for this.


Natasha Mitchell: ⋅⋅⋅ you make the provocative argument that there is no such thing as a self, that there never has been, that there never will be.

Thomas Metzinger: The physical body certainly exists, the organism exists, but organisms are not selves. I don’t deny that there is a self-y feeling. I certainly feel like someone, but there is no such thing. ⋅⋅⋅ What I am interested in is to understand why we just cannot believe that this is so. We have the feeling there is an essence in us, a deepest, inner core. We have this feeling that there must be something that is just not right about neuro-scientific theories about self consciousness, there’s something beyond it.

⋅⋅⋅ a first approximation could be to say what we have called the self in the past is not a thing in the brain and not a thing in some metaphysical realm beyond the brain, but it’s a process…

Natasha Mitchell: So it’s not a little man or woman inside our heads…

Thomas Metzinger: …that looks at pictures. But the experience of looking, of being directed to one’s own feelings or to one’s sensory perceptions of the outside world, this is itself an image.⋅⋅⋅ My⋅⋅⋅big, unintelligible philosophical theory⋅⋅⋅says that we identify with this image of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image. And if my theory is correct, there should be just this one element of global identification and it should be easy to control it experimentally. ⋅⋅⋅ But I must also…one warning, the idea of global ownership for our body as whole is a dangerous idea because it introduces a second self, like a little man that does the owning.

Natasha Mitchell: Exactly. You just can’t get away from this problem, philosophers!

Thomas Metzinger: Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it⋅⋅⋅ Our image of ourselves⋅⋅⋅is changing faster and more dramatically than through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

Natasha Mitchell: You see it as that we’re witnessing a disenchantment of the self, which is interesting because you’ve just banished the self in this conversation.

Thomas Metzinger: Well, who is ready to do that, who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?

I have said that this particular interview was unexceptional. In terms of Metzinger’s underlying assumptions, assumptions which underlie almost all of RN’s programming, it is standard fare.  In the bald statement of the consequences of these assumptions, though, Metzinger goes farther than most of the program’s interviewees would do. Rather as Peter Singer takes certain assumptions which are deeply ingrained in the mindset of most Westerners, and draws from them their logical conclusions, so Metzinger draws the conclusions of materialist neuroscience. In doing so, he says, “…who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean?” Certainly not Metzinger.

For one thing, it means that the personal pronouns no longer have any referent. I, me, my, mine, you, yours, us, our, they, their, theirs, have all been rendered meaningless. For he not only resolves the old question about the existence of other minds, other selves—they do not exist—but he reverses Descartes—”I” am not, therefore “I” do not think. That consequence has no sobering effect on Metzinger’s speculations. He simply carries on as though nothing, really, has changed. He does this even, and especially, when talking about the frightening new reality we are facing.

Thomas Metzinger: It’s also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It’s not only about defending ourselves, it’s also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain?

Most particularly, he continues to talk as though our desires can motivate our rationality to modify our behaviour in order to further enhance our rationality, our autonomy, our personal responsibility.  That is, our minds can be applied to change external circumstances, and even to modify our minds themselves.

Our selves, our minds, are an illusion, a process by which we are deluded into imagining that we exist as autonomous, rational centres of intention and action. Perhaps, though, according to this “big, unintelligible philosophical theory,” I do exist, but not as the illusion that I take myself to be. I am, in fact, a set of neuro-chemical processes which have found it convenient (in an evolutionary sense) to project the illusion of an I, and furthermore, to project onto that I the illusion that it is, in fact, me.  One must beware, of course, of promoting this I-ness into a “little man” to whom all of this projecting makes rational, emotional and operational sense. Such a lapse is absolutely verboten. There is no underlying I receiving the projection of this I that I experience. There are only I-less processes.

Let us hark back to the first quote from Metzinger above, about the non-existence of free will; a quote which in fact opened the radio programme. Imagine that the conversation above is being conducted with a psychiatrist. Imagine further that the psychiatrist has been introduced to Thomas Metzinger, but knows nothing more about him.

The psychiatrist is faced with a person who is convinced of the non-existence of his own self. He seems rational; is clearly intelligent, and yet is unaware of the glaring contradictions in his own disquisition. He continues to talk about his self, his thoughts, his intentions, his actions, and implicitly assigns the same capabilities to everyone else, starting with the psychiatrist. What would the psychiatrist think? What would you think? Now Thomas presents his credentials—Professor Dr Thomas Metzinger, Director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group and Director of the NeuroEthics Section of the Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, and Director of the MIND Group of, and Adjunct Fellow of, the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

There is a moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig is talking to his son Chris about one of Chris’ friends at school. Chris says that the friend has seen a ghost.  Pirsig’s response is sceptical, and then Chris says the friend’s name: a native American name. Most readers, I suspect, share with the author the shock of an unexpected re-orientation of possibilities at that moment. I suppose that for our imaginary psychiatrist the situation would be similar.  Thomas has donned his New Clothes.

The psychiatrist, suspecting an elaborate hoax, as I did, consults the oracle, as I did. And sure enough, he finds a plethora of confirming information on the Internet, as I did.

How is it that someone who insists on the truth these notions, but the non-existence of the self that expresses them, comes to be granted such high academic honours?  How; when for, say, Robert Pirsig to express them at certain times in his life would have resulted in his being committed to an asylum? I am not here casting about for rhetorical effect.  Metzinger has said as much himself.

This is the reductio ad absurdum of materialist neuroscience. This is the philosophy that consumes the selves that embrace it. In the Kingdom of Bedlam, the sane question their sanity. Or to put it another way,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

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