Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel has been on my list for a while, and specifically it’s on my actual reading list for this year. So it’s nice to finish it off.
I came across Metzinger originally when I was going through the footnotes for Peter Watt’s Blindsight (worth a read). In fact The Ego Tunnel is his light piece; the full, deeper one is Being No One – which I may get to later.
I’m glad I read TET. It’s a slightly awkward book, in that Metzinger tends to wander a little at points, and doesn’t always do a great job of communicating his basic points clearly. Possibly this is a byproduct of it being his pop-science book – possibly the ideas are clearer in the larger one.
Regardless, Metzinger has an interesting set of ideas. The other book that I’ve found useful on consciousness is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. It’s been a while since I read the latter, but one of the ideas that stayed with me was Dennett’s attack on using first-person perspectives as unchallenged or untested evidence. Metzinger, however, has no such qualms. He’s rigorous and draws on what seems to be up-to-date research, but is also happy to draw on first hand accounts of out-of-body experiences, where he thinks they’re useful. That made me a little sceptical at first.
For all that, I think he comes up with an ultimately interesting set of ideas. If I was to try and summarise it, it would be that our sense of a conscious self is the ‘self-model’ that we have in a model of the world. Something like, our brain builds a model of the world from its inputs, as a predictive tool; and a part of that is including a model of ourselves. And given certain properties (a sense of ‘now’, occurring in linear time, and what he calls ‘transparency’ (we can’t tell that we’re analysing our own model)), then our conscious experience is our experience of our interior model of the world.
In a way, this goes further than what I’d read earlier in Dennett. Dennett is thinking very much in terms of experience, a set of ideas about basic perception – from memory (and scanning back quickly through reviews), there’s less of a detailed examination of higher level consciousness. But Metzinger puts together, at least to some extent, a framework for how we might think about consciousness, what it might mean to be conscious. I think the framework of a self-model that is transparent is a useful one, and an interesting one.
A theme that Metzinger pushes throughout is that we should take seriously the implications of developments in psychology/neurology/cognitive sciences; they can change our conceptions of ourselves, which can change society. So he argues that we need to think carefully now, as society is already beginning to change, about the ethics of consciousness; what is a good state of consciousness? How do we examine these issues? I think he’s right.