The Great Brain Hoax

Reviewed by Oded Balaban

The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self
by Thomas Metzinger
Basic Books, 2009, 276 pages.

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René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French thinker, took upon himself a philosophical task of heroic proportions: finding an Archimedean point of certainty, of solid, indisputable truth. In order to do so, Descartes chose to set aside any axiom and belief that might be subject to even the slightest of doubts. After all, as he explained in his well-known Meditations on First Philosophy, one cannot dismiss the possibility that everything that seems real is merely an illusion. He thus proposed the following intellectual experiment:
Accordingly, I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of truth, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me. I will regard the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things as nothing but the bedeviling hoaxes of my dreams, with which he lays snares for my credulity. I will regard myself as not having hands, or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or any senses, but as nevertheless falsely believing that I possess all these things. I will remain resolute and steadfast in this meditation, and even if it is not within my power to know anything true, it certainly is within my power to take care resolutely to withhold my assent to what is false.
Having rid himself of prejudice and preconceived notions and called into question even the validity of the senses, Descartes found what he was looking for in the “thinking I” (cogito): the fixed pillar upon which all possibility of knowledge rests. I can doubt everything, he stated, but not the fact that I am the one who is doubting. I think, therefore I am.
Nearly four hundred years after the presentation of this classic argument, contemporary German philosopher Thomas Metzinger claims that Descartes, when all is said and done, did not venture far enough, and that the final destination of his philosophical journey is just as disputable as the stations along the way. Metzinger replaces the triumphant proclamation “I think, therefore I am” with a completely different one: “I think that I am,” or, more specifically, “not-I thinks that I am.” Descartes would most likely take issue with this statement, asking how not-I can think, even erroneously. And Metzinger would most likely answer that there is indeed a type of “demon” that causes us to believe in the existence of an “I,” who supposedly thinks our alleged thoughts. This demon is no supernatural entity, and does not seek to harm us; it is simply the human brain, creating for us a convenient and useful illusion.
Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, published in 2009, sets forth the provocative thesis that the self does not exist, that “contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self.” A professor of philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Metzinger has already detailed this claim in his meticulous tome Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Now, in The Ego Tunnel, he offers a more accessible version of his theory, although he does not omit a long list of findings in the field of brain research that allegedly support his radical approach. Yet the data he cites, intriguing though it may be, cannot mask the weakness of Metzinger’s ambitious theoretical project; indeed, even an elementary critical examination shows how the tunnel he has excavated is in danger of collapse.
The issues that stand at the core of Metzinger’s book, primarily questions concerning the essence of the self, have occupied modern philosophy from its very inception. As aforementioned, Descartes defined the I—which, following Metzinger, we will identify with the self or the ego—as a “thinking thing.” He went on to explain:
But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives. Assuredly it is not little, if all these properties belong to my nature. But why should they not belong to it? Am I not that very being who now doubts of almost everything; who, for all that, understands and conceives certain things; who affirms one alone as true, and denies the others; who desires to know more of them, and does not wish to be deceived; who imagines many things, sometimes even despite his will; and is likewise percipient of many, as if through the medium of the senses. Is there nothing of all this as true as that I am, even although I should be always dreaming, and although he who gave me being employed all his ingenuity to deceive me? Is there also any one of these attributes that can be properly distinguished from my thought, or that can be said to be separate from myself? For it is of itself so evident that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who desire, that it is here unnecessary to add anything by way of rendering it more clear.
Descartes’s line of thought was pursued by English philosopher John Locke, who argued in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that “it is past controversy, that we have in us something that thinks; our very doubts about what it is, confirm the certainty of its being.” Nevertheless, Locke added that personal identity rests on continuous self-awareness, awareness that I am the same I at all times. The existence of the self, therefore, is not certain; rather, it is dependent on experience. The mechanism that enables this continuity, without which the I has no meaning, is memory. The I is identical to itself as long as it retains a consciousness that it is indeed the same. Loss of memory disrupts the continuity of the self, and total loss of memory means the loss of self. Thus did Locke chink the armor of certainty in which Descartes clad his cogito. Locke’s self is no longer unmediated, but requires the faculty of memory, that is to say, experience.
Locke, it must be stressed, cannot dismiss the self: It may be dependent on experience, but it is a precondition for such experience. It is the reference point in which all sensual experience is consolidated. Awareness of this experience guarantees our personal identity, which, in turn, guarantees the unity of our experiences. At this point, however, the existence of the self, as a substance independent of experience, begins to disintegrate. Furthermore, Locke diverts the discussion from the substance to the idea of the substance. He points to the need to retain this idea, without claiming that it necessarily reflects something that exists outside our consciousness.
The gap between the self as a thinking substance and the self as something that exists in reality grows wider with the idealistic theory introduced by Irish philosopher George Berkeley in the eighteenth century. It was not the existence of the self as a substance that Berkeley doubted, but rather the existence of the independent reality it supposedly grasps. Philosophers, in his opinion, tend to confuse general ideas and concrete reality. They contemplate the abstract shape of the triangle, for example, and believe that it also exists in reality. But in actual fact, no general triangle exists, only specific triangles—right-angled, obtuse, acute, and so forth. The general idea has no real existence, as it cannot be perceived by the senses. Berkeley did not discount abstractions, only their perception as actual things. We can consider the concept of length without width, i.e., the general idea of length, but we cannot imagine such an abstraction, since it is not perceivable by the senses—and, in this context, does not exist.
According to Berkeley, then, only what the self perceives exists. The self, however, cannot be perceived. We know only that it is the bedrock of what is perceived, but is itself unknown and unknowable, as it is not recognized by the senses. Thus, Berkeley paves the way, albeit unintentionally, to the subversion of the self that was initiated by Locke. For the same skepticism he applied to perceived reality may also be applied to the I that perceives itself. And this would indeed be done by eighteenth-century Scottish thinker David Hume.
Hume questioned the existence of the self precisely because it cannot be perceived. His basic assumption was that if we have no sensory impressions of something, such as the self, we cannot possibly have an idea of it. We experience senses, feelings, and thoughts—and nothing else. We have no feeling or sense of any self existing beyond all of these, a self to which all sensations, feelings, and thoughts may be attributed. And yet, though the self is not perceived, it serves as a reference point for our sensory impressions. Moreover, it does not exist independently of them. What, then, is the self? Hume attempts to answer this question in A Treatise of Human Nature:
When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate, after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is further requisite to make me a perfect nonentity.
Hume concludes that the self does not exist. But what is it that Hume sought and could not find? What is the self that does not exist? Hume, like Metzinger after him, searches for a self that is isolated from all context, self-contained, immutable, indivisible—that is, a self as a substance or permanent substratum for all the changes taking place within the mind.
In 1781, with the publication of his momentous Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant tilted the philosophical scales back in favor of the existence of the self. It was not Cartesian reasoning that inspired him, but rather the need to reply to Hume’s skepticism. Kant accepted Hume’s argument that we cannot derive the self from experience—yet precisely because of that, he believed, it must be sought in a different place. To understand the conditions of experience, Kant went behind the scenes of Hume’s philosophy; he set out to identify those preconceptions that are necessary for experience without being part of it. One of these preconceptions, he maintained, is the unity of the ego: Experience is logically impossible if it is not unified in a specific self, if it does not belong to an I.
Since Kant, the philosophical discourse regarding the self has split into two different discussions: one ontological and the other epistemological. The ontological debate is concerned with the existence of the self, that is to say, with the question of whether the self may be considered a real entity or not. The epistemological debate focuses less on the self’s existence and more on the way it functions within one’s consciousness. Thomas Metzinger, of course, takes the latter path, as his research deals with the existence—or lack thereof—of the ego, rather than with the essence of self-identity. His book is dedicated to undermining common notions of selfhood, consciousness, and sensory perception. As an alternative to these, Metzinger presents a neuropsychological model grounded in findings from the field of brain research.
Metzinger’s attack on the self owes much of its fervor to the formidable authority granted to scientific methodology in contemporary thought. Pure scientific research, it must be noted, generally shies away from dealing with topics that do not fall within the scope of its strict categories. The ontological status of the self is such a topic, especially if one claims that such a phenomenon does not exist on account of its not being a physical entity. Neuropsychology, in contrast, seeks to engage in a discussion that transcends the objects studied by science, though it uses scientific hypotheses to do so.
As stated, Metzinger defines the self, and the world it perceives, as an illusion; in his opinion, only neurophysiological processes really exist. What, then, is the relation between the illusion of the self and the body? And what bearing does it have on the psychophysical problem?
Common sense—that is to say, practical, everyday consciousness—assumes that body and mind are two essentially different but related entities. This assumption comes to bear on countless actions and statements that attribute mental causes to physical events and vice versa. The existence of a causal relationship requires an association—or at least a proximity—between cause and effect. Our common sense presupposes, even if not explicitly, such a connection between body and mind. It is a widely accepted presupposition, one that underlies countless everyday expressions (to say nothing of certain philosophical and even legal maxims), yet it poses insoluble problems for philosophical reflection.
The neuropsychological, or neurophilosophical, approach that may be termed “neurological realism” tends to deny the mental or spiritual aspects of our everyday experiences. The majority of thinkers who subscribe to this position believe that the only way to understand human thought and behavior is as a direct outcome of the activity of the central nervous system. In order to justify this approach, neuropsychologists, and with them many analytic philosophers, criticize Descartes’s understanding of the cogito. The “thinking I,” for all its skills and activities, is reduced to the body, specifically—to the brain.
Metzinger enthusiastically joins this reductionist trend. The testimony of our common sense, which assumes that the body and spirit are separate but connected, is condemned by him as false—not because he believes that correlation between the two is impossible, but because he regards the ego or self as no more than a phantom produced by the brain. In his words, “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.” This statement strikes the reader as a sort of neuropsychological version of David Hume’s argument, though the Scottish philosopher was slightly more cautious than Metzinger. Hume indeed contended that we have no impression of the self, but he was careful not to make any claims regarding that self’s ontological status—i.e., whether it does or does not exist—preferring to confine his analysis to the epistemological aspects of the phenomenon. Moreover, Hume was aware that his discussion on the matter was unsatisfactory, and in the appendix to A Treatise of Human Nature admitted that he had not succeeded in formulating a coherent doctrine of the self. Metzinger, in contrast, states in no uncertain terms that the self is no more than a myth, because neuroscience and its tools of research have not found any trace of such an entity.
If the self is a deception, then it is the brain that is the deceiver, cooking up the mirage of an ego for the purpose of our survival. It is the brain that puts into our head the useful fiction of a self that unites all our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts; it is the brain that gives us the false sense that we have conscious control over our actions, that there is a pilot in the cockpit steering the plane.
At this point, a certain similarity emerges between Metzinger’s theory and the ideas put forward by Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Both view free will as an illusion; both reject the common-sense belief by which volition is the direct cause of most of our actions. Spinoza maintained that people know what they want but cannot conceive of the true reasons for their passions. Metzinger also believes that the source of the illusion of will is our ignorance regarding the true causes of our deeds. Both Spinoza and Metzinger posit the inconceivability that an entity as immaterial as the will can goad the body into action. Yet while Spinoza argued that mental causality and physical causality exist side by side as two attributes of the same substance, for Metzinger the mental is entirely illusory, and only the physical is real.
Let us try to defend Metzinger’s position, obscure as it is, by an argument that is largely accepted among adherents of the neurophysiological approach. This argument rests on the findings of neurologist Benjamin Libet, who discovered that discernible neural activity in the motor and premotor cortex—otherwise known as “readiness potential”—precedes the conscious decision to engage in a volitional act by a few hundred thousandths of a second. Libet’s findings lead to the conclusion that it is unconscious procedures in the brain that “decide” to perform an act, while our consciousness has no significant role in the process. Our impression that we are responsible for our actions is nothing but a delusion, as per Spinoza’s famous remark that if a stone could think, it would believe that it fell to the ground of its own free will. It is only through shrewd self-deception that our brain convinces us that the choices we have made are actually the result of our conscious and volitional decisions.
Neurophilosophy does not presume to describe or explain free will. Instead, it suffices with an attempt to discover what happens in our brain when we go through so-called volitional experiences. According to Metzinger and other reductionist neuropsychologists, conscious experience not only is accompanied by neural processes, but stems directly and exclusively from them. In other words, it is not I but my brain that directs my fingers to type these words. At first glance, this may seem like a far-reaching claim, but upon close examination, we may well wonder if it is as radical as it purports to be. After all, this assertion does not really negate free will; it only transfers it from the self to the brain, which according to this approach “makes decisions” freely, in a manner that cannot be explained through further reduction.
After establishing that I have no possession of my experiences, since I do not exist as a self, Metzinger asks: Who, then, feels my feelings? Who commits my acts, dreams my dreams, thinks my thoughts? For it is not me. The alternative Metzinger suggests for the self is the “Ego Tunnel.” The phenomenal self, he argues, is the product of internal imaging. The brain provides us with a model of the self within a model of the world—a core that seemingly unites all experiences. “That center is what we experience as ourselves,” writes Metzinger. Yet we are left to wonder: For whom is the model created? Is it not my ego, which is able to relate to itself? It appears that Metzinger has difficulty ridding himself of the ego, but he does not admit it, as he has established strict criteria for what may be recognized as real. Besides, it seems that he is more interested in explicating the ontological status of phenomena than in actually understanding them.
The mental deception that Metzinger describes encompasses all of human experience. Our sense of self is, in his opinion, a sort of virtual simulation located within a greater simulation of external reality. Of course, “actual” external reality is far broader than the simulation we perceive. According to Metzinger, we are not aware of our being inside an illusion. Our psychobiological hardware fools us like Descartes’s evil demon. But for Metzinger, the tricks of the demon—the brain—are intended for our benefit, that is, for our survival. The phantom of the self created for us by the brain, says Metzinger, is one of the best inventions of nature (and it is hard to dismiss the impression that the author regards nature as the subject, with human beings as objects of its “will”).
Metzinger believes that his conclusions follow from empirical findings. Consequently, he criticizes philosophers who, in his opinion, belittle these findings. But in fact, he himself—if he indeed exists—rejects empirical data all too readily, denying the immediate impressions of our consciousness, its original experience. His intellectual flight of fancy sends him into a metaphysical tailspin, in which imagination overpowers reality. Ironically, Metzinger’s call to return to empirical data, to the phenomena, is revealed as the complete opposite—as the negation of experience in the name of “scientific” introspection, producing hypotheses in the guise of facts.
Every part of the book is directed at corroborating this problematic interpretation. The first two chapters introduce basic concepts in the study of consciousness and the model of the Ego Tunnel. Later on, Metzinger discusses out-of-body experiences, manipulations of body image, phantom limbs, daydreaming, and even a rare mental disorder that causes patients to deny their own existence. All of these atypical cases, he argues, reveal the virtual nature of regular consciousness. For if it is within the power of the consciousness to bring about experiences of distorted selfhood and transposed physicality, who can say that it is not misleading us even in “normal” situations?
The Ego Tunnel is not a decision-making, thinking, feeling entity. It is essentially passive, no more than a product of other forces that control it. To clarify his argument, Metzinger repeatedly evokes the effective, albeit overused, image of a computer. We, he explains to the reader, function much like a very sophisticated computer and, like a computer, are also made up of two elements: hardware (body) and software (mind). The user, however, is conveniently left out of the picture; the computer, the parable presupposes, has an independent existence, and what motivates it to act—in the absence of a user—is the hardware, not the software.
For utilitarian reasons, the hardware deceives the software. The human being experiences thoughts, feelings, and senses as if they were his own. He fancies himself a free agent, but in fact another authority is making the decisions for him. The illusion created by the brain turns us into thinkers of thoughts and readers of other people’s minds. It also gives us the erroneous impression that we come into contact with the outside world, when we are in fact trapped within ourselves—within the Ego Tunnel. In fact, Metzinger’s model robs us of any unmediated access to reality as is:
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 sensory organs are limited: They evolved for reasons of survival, not for depicting the enormous wealth and richness of reality in all its unfathomable depth. Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality.
Bearing in mind the allegedly self-contained nature of the self-illusion, we may well ask: How, then, did Metzinger uncover the deception? How does he know that there is a reality outside of the Ego Tunnel? How did he learn the truth behind the hoax perpetrated by brain activity? The answer lies in a supreme force that breaks through the walls of the ego’s prison: science. According to Metzinger, science, with its strict methodology and hypotheses, is not just another way to think about reality. It is the purest form of knowledge, and it is within its power, to use Plato’s terms, to draw us out of the darkness of ignorance and into the sunlight of truth.
At this point, we come across a fundamental difference between Metzinger’s view and, for instance, Kant’s. Kant also maintained that our recognition of the world is limited to certain patterns forced upon us by our consciousness, and his distinction between the thing-in-itself (“noumenon”) and the thing as it appears to us (“phenomenon”) underlies Metzinger’s theory. But in contrast to Kant, who claimed that we could never observe the world as it is, that our perception of reality will always be mediated by the categories of our understanding, Metzinger believes that science can accomplish the impossible: it can travel beyond the Ego Tunnel and bring back the truth about what lies “outside” (or, in our case, “inside”). As an aside, I should add that Kant did not view the perceptual processing accomplished by our consciousness as deception. Can anyone grasp anything unmediated by one conceptual pattern or another? Under such circumstances, the consciousness would become the object it perceives—a situation altogether inconceivable.
In general, Metzinger does not offer us philosophy of science, but rather scientific philosophy, that is, philosophy that professes to speak in the name of science. He does not discuss the way science operates, i.e., its methodology, but puts on “scientific” glasses through which he presumably apprehends reality. Science, for Metzinger, is not the object of philosophical research, but the highest authority, which has the upper hand whenever it clashes with common sense. And indeed, scientific interpretation—of the type suggested by Metzinger, in any event—tends to belittle the ability of common sense to know and to comprehend what it thinks it knows and comprehends. Metzinger takes this interpretation to the extreme, and claims that the common-sense point of view is utterly erroneous. The deception of the brain is so complete that we are unable to recognize that our seeing and touching, hearing and smelling, is merely a simulation (with the exception of what is perceived by the “senses” of science, of course). And one cannot but wonder: Who here is being fooled? It must be one of the two: Either the self does not exist and therefore cannot be deceived, or the brain creates the false image of the self and then deceives this fiction by piling other false images upon it. Indeed, a genuine predicament. When the skeptical mind of David Hume drove him to contemplate similarly strange notions, he sought respite in the warm embrace of everyday experience:
Most fortunately… nature herself… cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. 
Metzinger, it would seem, lacks such a natural guide, which brings relief to an intellect entangled in the webs of its own spinning. When reading his arguments, the reader is confronted with a slew of nagging questions: Why is common sense trapped in the tunnel while science is liberated from it? How can science see the tunnel from the outside? Is not scientific thought also a product of the human mind, or is it endowed with exalted, superhuman qualities? Metzinger does not deal with these problems, which suggests that he assumes that regular consciousness is guilty of making presuppositions (thus allowing itself to be “deceived”), whereas science is free of them. But this, after all, is a presupposition of which Metzinger himself is guilty: He believes in science as devoutly as a religious person believes in God. This faith is not supported by scientific investigation but rather precedes it. It does not require proof; there is no way to test it. And Metzinger, so it seems, is as unaware of this belief as we are ignorant, according to his theory, of the existence of a reality beyond our distorted perception. He is imprisoned in a tunnel of his own, very much like the tunnel in which he has imprisoned us, but does not see it.
Metzinger’s science is a strange one. He casually does away with one of the greatest accomplishments of modern science since the Renaissance—neutrality in research. Neutral research requires that we recognize the object as it is, not as it should be. Metzinger, however, relates to the object of his investigation—human consciousness and its sensory data—in a purely judgmental manner. In order to argue with these data, he enlists allegedly scientific criteria taken from the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology. Yet the tools with which these disciplines are equipped are suitable for the description and analysis of physical, chemical, and biological processes—and not necessarily for the study of consciousness. The following quote attests to the problem:
The conscious brain is a biological machine—a reality engine—that purports to tell us what exists and what doesn’t. It is unsettling to discover that there are no colors out there in front of your eyes. The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality. What is really happening is that the visual system in your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process is painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color. Phenomenal color. Appearance. For your conscious eyes only.
What Metzinger offers here is not a scientific interpretation of the content of consciousness. He does not predicate our perception of color on the properties of objects of color, such as the sky and the sun. He simply denies the phenomenon by proclaiming it to be an illusion. True, science—albeit not the science Metzinger purports to represent—interprets the data of sensory perception, but it does not go so far as to establish its interpretation in place of the original experience. Deceived or not, what we see is surely color—not a mathematical formula or diagram. Metzinger here makes the common mistake of confusing the perceived color with its scientific expression—a wave of a certain length.
Metzinger confidently argues that the discoveries of brain research clash with the impressions of human consciousness. As he prefers the findings of science to those of consciousness (in what he considers to be a dispute between them), he finds himself in conflict with the very object of his research. Imagine an ichthyologist who maintains that fish swim incorrectly. Metzinger is so convinced of the truth of his approach that he declares that all theories of the mind must explain why things do not appear to us as science “sees” them—that is, as he believes they should be seen.
At the same time, Metzinger demonstrates a rather selective attitude toward the scientific data he so reveres. He quotes findings that testify to the direct influence of neurophysiological processes on mental states, but ignores evidence that points to the opposite causality, that is, cases in which mental states affect the brain. Studies of maternal deprivation in mice, for instance, have found that the absence of a mother causes noticeable changes in the brain of the orphan. Psychophysical complexity such as this—even though it, too, is verified by science—does not apparently fit into the picture that Metzinger wishes to paint.
If that were not enough, Metzinger readily pulls out of his hat scientific evidence that does not yet exist (although, in his defense, he openly admits it). He bases his theory on this evidence, even though he can only hope that it might be discovered in the future. He tells us, for instance, that “by 2050 we will have found the gncc, the global neural correlate of consciousness,” and predicts that “in the process we will discover a series of technical problems that may not be so easy to solve.”
Metzinger’s imagination does indeed carry him far. He promises us that in the future we will be able to decipher and map out the correlation between specific contents of consciousness and the neural activity of brain cells. This will enable the development of a neurotechnology that will allow for the stimulation of specific neurons in order to arouse certain impressions, sensations, and thoughts in our brains. Each repeated stimulus will produce the same outcome, in the same way. In such a manner, it will be possible to force on me thoughts that I do not want. And Metzinger does not stop there:
One can envision a future in which people will no longer play video games or experiment with virtual reality just for entertainment; instead they will explore the universe of altered states of consciousness in a quest for meaning, using the latest neurotechnological tools. Perhaps they will have their temporal lobes tickled on street corners, or abandon their churches and synagogues and mosques in favor of new Centers for Transpersonal Hedonic Engineering and Metaphysical Tunnel Design.
In light of the discoveries and technologies whose development he predicts, Metzinger envisages a futuristic ethics that will need to deal with the new possibilities:
A core problem for neuroethics in the near future will be protecting the individual’s right to privacy. Is our mental inner world, the contents of our Ego Tunnel, untouchable, an area to which the state should have no access?… Or should anything that can be revealed by modern neuroscience be at the disposal of political decisions? Will we soon need a new version of the United Kingdom’s Data Protection Act for the human brain? Again, the technologies are coming, they are gradually getting better, and looking the other way will not help.
One may debate the merits of Metzinger as a philosopher, but reading these words, one may wonder if he actually missed his calling as a successful writer of science fiction.
Metzinger’s book is not devoid of merit. It is lucid, rich in fascinating detail, and certainly thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the study of consciousness will no doubt find it absorbing. But its patent faults must serve as a warning sign, because Metzinger’s arguments are not that unique. He represents, albeit in a rather extreme fashion, a wider trend.
Indeed, the ideas presented in The Ego Tunnel are not unusual in today’s philosophical climate. They are grounded in an approach that has no small number of supporters amongst analytic philosophers who engage in the philosophy of science. This approach regards scientific discourse as the yardstick by which everything should be measured. It views science not as an interpretation of reality, but as an absolute—and perhaps even exclusive—representation of it. Metzinger, it seems, believes in this metaphysical dogma with all his heart, and therefore allows himself to sail far beyond the boundaries established by the scientific hypotheses themselves. It is this fervent belief that drives him to mock the self that eludes the scientific net and declare it “nonexistent.”


Oded Balaban teaches philosophy at the University of Haifa.

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