Nobody has Ever Been or Had a Self
‘I will try and convince you that there is no such thing as a self. Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self’
So starts Thomas Metzinger’s staggeringly good, The Ego Tunnel – the Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.
As much to embed and internalize (in what, I don’t now know :-) as well as to evangelise the content of his book, I am writing this as the start of a series of posts highlighting my highlights.
He continues (in the Introduction that took me nearly a week to absorb):
‘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?’
He raises the ‘one central question we have to confront head on: 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?’
His assertion is that by exploring and paying attention to ‘the fine-grained and careful description of inner experience as such’: phenomenology, we will be equipped with more tools to understand the evidence that ‘strongly suggests the purely experiential nature of the self’
For me, the first mind stretching/ idea glueing starts at this point, and for this reason I’ll keep these series of posts fairly short and bullet-like:
Metzinger calls the ‘conscious model of the organism as a whole that is activated by the brain’, the ‘phenomenal self-model (PSM)’. He explains that ‘”Phenomenal” is used here, and throughout, in the philosophical sense, as pertaining to what is known purely experientially, through the way in which things subjectively appear to you. The content of the PSM is the Ego’
This then becomes nicely grounded for me in the ‘why’: ‘the PSM of Homo sapiens is probably one of nature’s best inventions. It is an efficient way to allow a biological organism to consciously conceive of itself (and others) as a whole’
‘Our evolved type of conscious self-model is unique to the human brain, in that by representing the process of representation itself, we can catch ourselves … “in the act of knowing” (Antonio Damasio)’
The evolutionary ‘why’ provides the foundations: ‘This ability turned us into thinkers of thoughts and readers of minds, and it allowed biological evolution to explode into cultural evolution’ The Ego has ‘helped us understand one another through empathy and mind-reading’
‘Finally, by allowing us to externalise our minds through cooperation and culture, the ego has enabled us to form complex societies’