Thomas Metzinger on ‘mental autonomy’

An interesting article in Aeon by Thomas Metzinger:

Are you sleepwalking now?

Given how little control we have of our wandering minds, how can we cultivate real mental autonomy?

He develops a metaphor of conscious thoughts as dolphins that leap from the water of unconscious processing into the air of conscious awareness, and asks:

The really interesting question then becomes: how do various thoughts and actions ‘surface’, and what’s the mechanism by which we corral them and make them our own? We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.

52 thoughts on “Thomas Metzinger on ‘mental autonomy’

  1. Another apt quote from the article:

    One of the most exciting recent research fields in neuroscience and experimental psychology is mind-wandering – the study of spontaneous or task-unrelated thoughts. Its results have radical implications for politics, education and morality. If we consider the empirical findings, we arrive at a surprising result of profound philosophical significance: cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule. Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime.

    If you want to discover for yourself just how true this is, learn to meditate. It’s an eye-opening (so to speak) experience.

  2. From the article, an interesting twist on “affordances”:

    On closer inspection, the mind-wandering network does not, I believe, actually produce thoughts. It also is not conscious – the person as a whole is. Rather, it creates what I would describe as cognitive affordances, opportunities for inner action… Cognitive affordances are possible mental actions, and they are not perceived with our sensory organs but they are available for introspection: this is a pleasant sexual fantasy I could pursue further, this is a potentially interesting philosophical argument I might develop in my mind, this is a negative feeling caused by a dim memory which I could explore further.

    Cognitive affordances are actually precursors of thoughts, or proto-thoughts, that call out ‘Think me!’ or ‘Don’t miss me – I am the last of my kind!’ Our inner landscape is full of these possibilities, which we must constantly navigate. What mind-wandering does is create a fluid and highly dynamic task-domain. Every spontaneously occurring ‘task-unrelated’ mental event is a potential task in itself, a cognitive affordance, a dynamic state that has the potential to be selected and transformed from unintentional mental behaviour into something subjectively experienced as full-blown mental action.

    One central function of mind-wandering, then, could be to provide us with an internal environment of competing affordances, accompanied by possible mental actions, which have the potential to become an extended process of controlling the content of your own mind.

  3. Hi keiths,

    Here is a portion of one of the quotes above with a bit extra from the article.

    If we consider the empirical findings, we arrive at a surprising result of profound philosophical significance: cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule. Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime. We don’t exactly know when and how children first learn to do it, and it’s plausible that many of us gradually lose it towards the end of our lives. As far as our inner life is concerned, the science of mind-wandering implies that we’re only rarely autonomous persons.

    What Metzinger describes as a surprising result was no surprise to the thinkers of ancient Greece. That is why students were told what they needed to do, and it was to ‘know thyself’. They were aware of how little the average person knew herself or himself.

    Neither was it a surprise to Rudolf Steiner. He taught that we are awake in our thinking, we have a dream level of consciousness in our feeling and we are asleep in our willing. And for the vast majority of the time these three attributes are entwined to various degrees. So when you say that deciding is a form of thinking, there is actually a great deal of willing and feeling in decision making.

    Everyday thinking comes easy to us but pure thinking is something which take a lot of effort to achieve.

  4. CharlieM:

    So when you say that deciding is a form of thinking, there is actually a great deal of willing and feeling in decision making.

    Of course there is. Decision making is a mixture of all those things.

    That doesn’t help Steiner. The only way to rescue his argument (about matter deciding to think) would be if deciding didn’t involve thinking.

  5. keiths:
    How would that rescue Steiner from the logical predicament I pointed out?

    Can you explain the process by which someone comes to the understanding that matter thinks?

  6. CharlieM:

    keiths, do you believe the surprising result Metzinger writes about actually was surprising to anyone?

    Yes, and it continues to surprise people. Most people have the illusion of being far more in control of their thoughts than they actually are.

    Do you meditate, Charlie?

  7. Thanks for that link — I’m very interested in this idea of “cognitive affordances” and its relevance for mind-wandering.

  8. How would that rescue Steiner from the logical predicament I pointed out?

    CharlieM:

    Can you explain the process by which someone comes to the understanding that matter thinks?

    You didn’t answer the question. How would that rescue Steiner from the logical predicament I pointed out?

  9. KN,

    Thanks for that link — I’m very interested in this idea of “cognitive affordances” and its relevance for mind-wandering.

    Me too. Metzinger has some interesting ideas.

  10. keiths:
    How would that rescue Steiner from the logical predicament I pointed out?

    CharlieM:

    You didn’t answer the question. How would that rescue Steiner from the logical predicament I pointed out?

    He doesn’t insist that matter decides to think, he asks how matter comes to the point where it ponders its own existence.

  11. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    Yes, and it continues to surprise people.Most people have the illusion of being far more in control of their thoughts than they actually are.

    But you agree that it would not have surprised Steiner?

    Do you meditate, Charlie?

    Yes.

  12. keiths:

    Do you meditate, Charlie?

    CharlieM:

    Yes.

    Then you may be able to relate to this. The first form of meditation I learned was focused awareness meditation, with the breath as the object of attention. As a beginner, my mind simply would not stay focused on the breath. It wasn’t surprising that my mind wandered, but it was shocking how quickly it did so, again and again. Until taking up the practice, I had never realized just how little control we actually have over our thoughts.

    Every fellow meditator I’ve consulted has said much the same thing. Was your experience different?

  13. CharlieM:

    But you agree that it would not have surprised Steiner?

    I don’t know, and I can’t be arsed to find out. Steiner has shown himself to be an idiot on other topics, and it doesn’t seem worth it to seek out his opinion on this one.

  14. Thomas Metzinger

    My view is that the mind-wandering network and the DMN (default-mode network) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.

    Here we go again. What is the subject of the illusion? This is what comes from equation the person with the physical body. The consequences of this is the denial of self.

  15. CharlieM:

    What is the subject of the illusion?

    Our conscious awareness.

    The consequences of this is the denial of self.

    Metzinger is unabashed about that:

    I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’. At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers. At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

  16. CharlieM:

    He [Steiner] doesn’t insist that matter decides to think, he asks how matter comes to the point where it ponders its own existence.

    We’ve been over this again and again, Charlie. Here are Steiner’s words:

    How does matter come to think about its own nature? Why is it not simply satisfied with itself and content just to exist?

    Existing is not thinking. Steiner is asking why matter doesn’t just sit there. He supposes that in order for a physicalist to explain how matter comes to think — and then to think about itself — we must suppose that it somehow becomes dissatisfied and decides to think.

    That’s silly, as I’ve already pointed out:

    Matter simply has the properties that it has, Charlie. It doesn’t decide to have them. Arrange matter a certain way, to form a mirror, and it reflects light with high efficiency. Arrange matter a different way, into the form of a pickup truck, and it is capable of carrying cargo down the road. Arrange matter a third way, into the form of a living human body, and a portion of that matter thinks. The matter doesn’t decide to reflect light, or carry cargo, or think. Those simply follow from the properties of matter, arranged in certain ways.

    And then, of course, there’s the logical problem:

    He doesn’t understand the physicalist position, and as I keep pointing out, he’s making an obvious logical mistake. Deciding to think is itself is a form of thinking. Thus Steiner creates an infinite regress and thought never gets off the ground.

    Drawing out the goofy implications:

    1. Matter can’t think without deciding to think.
    2. But deciding is itself a form of thinking.
    3. So matter can’t think without deciding to decide to think.
    4. But deciding is itself a form of thinking.
    5. So matter can’t think without deciding to decide to decide to think.
    6. But deciding is itself a form of thinking.
    7. So matter can’t think without deciding to decide to decide to decide to think.
    etc.

    The problem is obvious, and it’s one created by Steiner himself through his goofy assumption. It’s not a problem for the physicalist, who rejects Steiner’s anthropomorphic view in which matter “decides” to have its properties.

  17. keiths: Do you meditate, Charlie?

    (keiths)

    CharlieM: Yes.

    Then you may be able to relate to this. The first form of meditation I learned was focused awareness meditation, with the breath as the object of attention. As a beginner, my mind simply would not stay focused on the breath. It wasn’t surprising that my mind wandered, but it was shocking how quickly it did so, again and again. Until taking up the practice, I had never realized just how little control we actually have over our thoughts.

    Every fellow meditator I’ve consulted has said much the same thing. Was your experience different?

    No, my experience was no different.

    You talk about focusing on the breath. Metzinger writes on the results of neuroscience and experimental psychology:

    If we consider the empirical findings, we arrive at a surprising result of profound philosophical significance: cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule.

    Well I am neither an experimental psychologist nor a neuroscientist and I don’t believe you are either, but I am sure we could both have enlightened the researchers on what they found to be so surprising, that yes, cognitive control is the exception. Just study your breathing and ask yourself (your brain in Metzinger’s case): What percentage of time am I actually aware of my breathing? This would have given them the answer,

  18. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    I don’t know, and I can’t be arsed to find out.Steiner has shown himself to be an idiot on other topics, and it doesn’t seem worth it to seek out his opinion on this one.

    Thankyou for telling us a bit more about yourself.

  19. How about, consciousness is talking to ourselves.

    Perhaps some of you have experienced the phenomenon of solving a problem as a result of trying to explain it to another person.

    When I don’t have another person handy, I try to explain it to myself. I have inner dialogs, taking two or more positions. But there is no reason why two or more people can’t have the same kind of discussion.

  20. keiths:

    CharlieM:

    What is the subject of the illusion?

    Our conscious awareness.

    What do you mean by ‘our’ in that statement?

    CharlieM: The consequences of this is the denial of self.

    Metzinger is unabashed about that:

    I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’. At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers. At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

    The Cheshire cat has the illusion that it exists. 🙂

  21. keiths,

    I will ask you what I think is a perfectly legitimate question. Why do you think about your own existence? As far as we know other animals do not philosophise on their own existence. We do not see ants scratching their heads over these sort of questions and they survive perfectly well. So what drives us to ask these sort of questions? Does your time here at TSZ contribute to your survival?

  22. petrushka:
    How about, consciousness is talking to ourselves.

    Perhaps some of you have experienced the phenomenon of solving a problem as a result of trying to explain it to another person.

    When I don’t have another person handy, I try to explain it to myself. I have inner dialogs, taking two or more positions. But there is no reason why two or more people can’t have the same kind of discussion.

    Well I would say that trying to see things from another’s point of view is a very commendable and worthwhile trait.

    We get closer to reality by studying things from many angles.

  23. GlenDavidson: I’m going to go out on a limb and say language.

    Glen Davidson

    I agree that language has a lot to do with it. Language and rational thinking evolved together. They are the inward and outward expression of one human attribute.

  24. petrushka,

    How about, consciousness is talking to ourselves.

    I would say no, because the conscious experience of seeing a beautiful sunset, for instance, is nothing like the experience of hearing someone talk about one, even if that someone is us.

  25. petrushka,

    Perhaps some of you have experienced the phenomenon of solving a problem as a result of trying to explain it to another person.

    A colleague of mine called it the “wooden Indian effect”, because the other person doesn’t have to do anything but listen. You might as well be explaining your problem to a wooden Indian statue of the kind you used to find in front of tobacco stores.

  26. CharlieM:

    But you agree that it would not have surprised Steiner?

    keiths:

    I don’t know, and I can’t be arsed to find out. Steiner has shown himself to be an idiot on other topics, and it doesn’t seem worth it to seek out his opinion on this one.

    CharlieM:

    Thankyou for telling us a bit more about yourself.

    Charlie gets grumpy when someone dares to criticize the Dear Leader. 🙂

  27. Charlie,

    Life is short and there’s far more stuff out there than any single person can consume in a lifetime. We have to be selective. Why would I go out of my way to find out what Steiner thinks about this, when he’s already shown himself to be a crackpot on other topics (including tomatoes and black people)?

    Suppose J-Mac writes a thousand-page tome on quantum mechanics. Who among us would slog through it for anything other than its entertainment value?

  28. CharlieM:

    You talk about focusing on the breath. Metzinger writes on the results of neuroscience and experimental psychology:

    If we consider the empirical findings, we arrive at a surprising result of profound philosophical significance: cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule.

    Well I am neither an experimental psychologist nor a neuroscientist and I don’t believe you are either, but I am sure we could both have enlightened the researchers on what they found to be so surprising, that yes, cognitive control is the exception. Just study your breathing and ask yourself (your brain in Metzinger’s case): What percentage of time am I actually aware of my breathing? This would have given them the answer,

    If they were that sloppy about it, then they could just as well have asked people on the street “How much of the time are you in control of your thoughts?”,
    and they would have arrived at the wrong conclusion.

    Science is about avoiding such pitfalls, Charlie.

  29. CharlieM:

    What is the subject of the illusion?

    keiths:

    Our conscious awareness.

    CharlieM:

    What do you mean by ‘our’ in that statement?

    Belonging to us, as individual human beings. Surely you don’t think Metzinger is denying the existence of individuals, do you?

  30. CharlieM:

    I will ask you what I think is a perfectly legitimate question. Why do you think about your own existence? As far as we know other animals do not philosophise on their own existence. We do not see ants scratching their heads over these sort of questions and they survive perfectly well. So what drives us to ask these sort of questions? Does your time here at TSZ contribute to your survival?

    No, my time at TSZ doesn’t contribute to my survival, except perhaps by keeping me off the street where I might get run over by a bus.

    But let’s ask a more relevant question, which is: Was curiosity adaptive for our ancestors?

    I think the answer is obviously yes, and that this explains our drive to understand things, including things with no apparent relevance to our survival and reproduction.

  31. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    keiths:

    CharlieM:

    Charlie gets grumpy when someone dares to criticize the Dear Leader.

    I don’t get grumpy except very occasionally with my nearest and dearest who I feel comfortable enough to share my grumpiness with. 🙂

  32. keiths:
    Charlie,

    Life is short and there’s far more stuff out there than any single person can consume in a lifetime.We have to be selective.Why would I go out of my way to find out what Steiner thinks about this, when he’s already shown himself to be a crackpot on other topics (including tomatoes and black people)?

    Suppose J-Mac writes a thousand-page tome on quantum mechanics.Who among us would slog through it for anything other than its entertainment value?

    To offer a fair criticism of J-Mac’s or any other person’s writings you would need to read what they wrote about the subject you are criticising. To deal with it in a fair way you should either read it, even if you found it tedious, and then offer your criticism, or decide that you can’t be arsed and refrain from commenting.

  33. keiths:

    CharlieM:

    Well I am neither an experimental psychologist nor a neuroscientist and I don’t believe you are either, but I am sure we could both have enlightened the researchers on what they found to be so surprising, that yes, cognitive control is the exception. Just study your breathing and ask yourself (your brain in Metzinger’s case): What percentage of time am I actually aware of my breathing? This would have given them the answer,

    If they were that sloppy about it, then they could just as well have asked people on the street “How much of the time are you in control of your thoughts?”,
    and they would have arrived at the wrong conclusion.

    Science is about avoiding such pitfalls, Charlie.

    The fact that they found the results to be so surprising is that they had already prejudged with they expected the outcome to be. They need not go to the bother of asking other people. They could have honestly examined their own selves and it would have told them all they needed to know. You had already discovered this through your meditations. Their findings should have been no surprise to you.

    I take it you feel more in control of your thoughts since before you began meditating. Our consciousness of our selves is very limited but it can be extended with effort.

  34. keiths:

    CharlieM:

    What do you mean by ‘our’ in that statement?

    Belonging to us, as individual human beings. Surely you don’t think Metzinger is denying the existence of individuals, do you?

    What do you see as the difference between “myself” and the “individual that is me”? In what way can Metzinger deny the self but not deny the individual?

  35. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    No, my time at TSZ doesn’t contribute to my survival, except perhaps by keeping me off the street where I might get run over by a bus.

    But let’s ask a more relevant question, which is:Was curiosity adaptive for our ancestors?

    I think the answer is obviously yes, and that this explains our drive to understand things, including things with no apparent relevance to our survival and reproduction.

    I don’t think we can separate out individual characteristics and features from the context of the animal or group in which they belong. You ask if curiosity was adaptive in our ancestors. Well what about caution, was that adaptive? Surely when we look at humans as a group we see a wide spectrum between individuals who are very cautious and fearful to those who are curious to the point of recklessness. But intraspecific animals show a more limited range of these traits.

    So why do you think about your own existence?

  36. CharlieM,

    To offer a fair criticism of J-Mac’s or any other person’s writings you would need to read what they wrote about the subject you are criticising. To deal with it in a fair way you should either read it, even if you found it tedious, and then offer your criticism, or decide that you can’t be arsed and refrain from commenting.

    We were talking about Metzinger’s views, not Steiner’s. You were the one who asked about Steiner and whether he would be surprised by the findings, and I told you correctly that I couldn’t be arsed to find out.

    I’ve already read enough of Steiner to know that he is a twit. Life is short, and I can’t be bothered to seek out the opinion of every twit on every topic.

    Is it possible that I’ll miss out on some rare gem of insight from Steiner, amidst the horseshit? Sure, it’s logically possible, just as it’s logically possible that J-Mac will come up with a similar gem. But the odds are pretty slim, to say the least.

    I’ll place my bets on folks who can deliver better odds than Steiner and J-Mac.

  37. CharlieM,

    The fact that they found the results to be so surprising is that they had already prejudged with they expected the outcome to be. They need not go to the bother of asking other people.

    They did something far better, and investigated the question scientifically. Science is a far more sophisticated approach to gaining knowledge than simply “asking other people.”

    Keep in mind that while Steiner was engaged in his masturbatory “clairvoyant investigations”, producing horseshit like this…

    Whereas in endeavouring to fathom the mysteries of the universe we should turn to the Moon in vain, whereas we must win the confidence of the Moon Beings if we are to learn anything from them about cosmic mysteries, this is not necessary with Saturn. With Saturn, all that is necessary is to be open to receive the spiritual. And then, to the eyes of spirit and soul, Saturn becomes a living historian of the planetary system. Nor does he withhold the stories he can tell of what has come to pass in the planetary system. In this respect Saturn is the exact opposite of the Moon. Saturn speaks unceasingly of the past of the planetary system with such inner warmth and zest that intimate acquaintance with what he says can be dangerous.

    …scientists were off learning actual truths about the world.

  38. Metzinger:

    My view is that the mind-wandering network and the DMN (default-mode network) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.

    [emphasis added]

    CharlieM:

    What is the subject of the illusion?

    keiths:

    Our conscious awareness.

    CharlieM:

    What do you mean by ‘our’ in that statement?

    keiths:

    Belonging to us, as individual human beings. Surely you don’t think Metzinger is denying the existence of individuals, do you?

    CharlieM:

    What do you see as the difference between “myself” and the “individual that is me”? In what way can Metzinger deny the self but not deny the individual?

    I would rephrase that as “my self” instead of “myself”, and Metzinger makes his meaning quite clear in the quote above, where he refers to the “sense of self” and “the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”

    He elaborates:

    I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’. At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers. At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

  39. keiths:

    But let’s ask a more relevant question, which is:Was curiosity adaptive for our ancestors?

    I think the answer is obviously yes, and that this explains our drive to understand things, including things with no apparent relevance to our survival and reproduction.

    CharlieM:

    I don’t think we can separate out individual characteristics and features from the context of the animal or group in which they belong. You ask if curiosity was adaptive in our ancestors. Well what about caution, was that adaptive?

    Of course, and any successful human will exhibit both. If someone’s curiosity leads her to jump off a cliff, just to see what it’s like, then she’s less likely to produce future offspring. On the other hand, if she starves to death in a cave because she’s too cautious to venture out and look for food, then she’s also less likely to reproduce. There has to be a balance.

    So why do you think about your own existence?

    I already told you. It’s because I’m curious, and curiosity was a trait favored in my ancestors by evolution.

  40. keiths:

    I would rephrase that as “my self” instead of “myself”, and Metzinger makes his meaning quite clear in the quote above, where he refers to the “sense of self” and “the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”

    He elaborates:

    I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’. At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers. At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

    It is through experience that we recognise that we are self which persists over time, it is an illusion to believe that we possess the same physical body over time.

    In the following quote from Metzinger, he claims that the the ego is a mental representation. But he treats the brain as the real source of thinking. This is unjustified. He is no less obliged to treat the brain and central nervous system as a mental representation.

    Mental and phenomenal models of the external world, however, can always turn out to be results of entirely misrepresentational processes or of pure, nonintended simulations. Ultimately, the system does not possess any kind of epistemic anchor in extradermal reality, preventing it from mistakenly ascribing referential character to some of its internal states. Self-representation, on the other hand, in principle possesses a higher degree of epistemic certainty and this is the modern, naturalistic formulation of the Cartesian intuition regarding the epistemic transparency of the cognitive subject to itself. As opposed to Descartes, who in the eighth paragraph of his Second Meditation could discover thought as inseparable from the ego, and from the perspective of the current theoretical model, the ego now itself becomes a thought, a very special kind of mental representation, which is functionally inseparable from the physical system unintentionally thinking it. It is this system, for example, the central nervous system of a biological organism, which really is the thinking thing.

    Ron Brady do not fall into the same trap as Metzinger. He writes:

    But it should also be obvious, at least after a moment’s reflection, that this ability to doubt is founded upon the prior ability to distinguish the concepts of appearance and reality, and that, in turn, the distinction between appearance and reality is made possible by the prior distinction between subject and object. The concept of appearance requires a distinction between what is appearing and to whom it is appearing. After all, we must have somewhere for the veil of the metaphor to go. Without a distinction between observer and observed, we have no place to put the action of the veil, which is supposed to occlude the latter from the former. The same point is recognized in the concept of experience, through which we distinguish our “experience” of a reality from that reality “in itself,” and thereby recognize that experiencial appearances are all “for us” — for an observer distinct from the observed. The ability to doubt, therefore, rests upon the subject-object distinction, without which thinking would simply be unaware of itself. If we propose that “I-ness” is an “illusion” it would seem that the argument is a nonstarter. An “illusion” is, by definition, an appearance which seems other than it is. In order for this to happen, something must appear to a subject in a veiled manner, leading that observer to “mistake” the object.

    Well, if “I-ness,” by which I mean a self-conscious thinking process, is an illusion, who is deceived by it? And if no subject, or individual thinking process exists, what made the mistake? We cannot have it both ways. If an illusion exists at all, then a correspondent thinking process must exist to perform the mis-taking. And if the “I” concept is thinking’s grasp of itself, then this grasp cannot itself be an illusion, but is rather the necessary ground on which we postulate the difference between thinking and being, appearance and reality. To call it illusion is to fall into self-contradiction.

    Well, since it turns out that the presence of an “I” is the very ground upon which we detect the possibility of illusion, we may now drop any challenge to the reality of “I-ness,” understanding that all such challenges could only be mounted from the very platform they propose to question.

  41. CharlieM,

    Your Brady quote misses the mark, because you’ve failed to grasp what Metzinger is saying. Brady asks:

    And if no subject, or individual thinking process exists, what made the mistake?

    Far from being the clincher that you take it to be, Brady’s question merely reaffirms what Metzinger says:

    It is this system, for example, the central nervous system of a biological organism, which really is the thinking thing.

    Metzinger doesn’t claim that there is no “thinking thing”. He simply argues that the “thinking thing” hosts a false representation of the self:

    But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

  42. keiths: Far from being the clincher that you take it to be, Brady’s question merely reaffirms what Metzinger says:

    It is this system, for example, the central nervous system of a biological organism, which really is the thinking thing.

    Metzinger doesn’t claim that there is no “thinking thing”. He simply argues that the “thinking thing” hosts a false representation of the self:

    But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future.

    Anyone who reads the Brady article will see that he does not speculate on a “thinking thing”. He explains that by the concept “I” is meant “a thinking that refers to itself…Any further meaning of the term such as ‘I am a man, living in France, etc. . . .’ is still to be demonstrated, as Descartes noted. The cogito argument points only to the irreducible minimum of I-ness.”.

    To say that “I am a brain which thinks” is to make the assumption that the “I” is reducible to the brain.

    At the end of the article Brady writes:

    The Cartesian “split,” by which I mean the separation of mind from its objects after the manner of separation of objects, has been the basis of Western thought since the eighteenth century, with few exceptions. The Romantic rebellion attempted to overthrow it, German Idealism found ways to correct it, modern phenomenology has taken up cudgels again, but it is still alive and well in most quarters of Western intellect, and twentieth century science has become its bastion. The irony of the situation becomes particularly acute when we find concerned scientists, like Comfort himself and a number of others whose uneasiness with the Cartesian world is becoming known, attempting to pass beyond Cartesian limitations with Cartesian tools. The habit of objectification is not easily shaken, and cannot be shaken at all until it is targeted. Once this happens, it becomes obvious that further movement depends upon the development of a form of thought which can investigate the intentional realm immediately, since the mediation of modeling, for instance, simply reintroduces the objectification we are seeking to transcend. This task is not within the provinces of “normal consciousness,” but since that consciousness is merely a historically locatable form of thought, I see no reason why that point should give us pause. Conventional models lose the advantage of conquered ground and begin to act as prisons when we forget that we may depart from them.

    I would advice you to read the complete article.

  43. keiths,

    Thomas Metzinger

    I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’.

    Who is this “I” that doesn’t believe?

    At best, we have an inner image or representation of ourselves as a whole, made up of many functional modules and layers. At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst.

    What is it that loses consciousness each night and then picks up where it left off the night before?

    On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future. (I think that it was exactly the impression of transtemporal identity that turned into one of the central factors in the emergence of large human societies, which rely on the understanding that it is I who will be punished or rewarded in the future.

    In what way does the brain communicate with itself and tell itself things? Is it the whole brain that tells itself stories and makes up models? Or do the individual brain cells conspire together to produce the illusion of an individual self?

    Only as long as we believe in our own continuing identity does it make sense for us to treat our fellow human beings fairly, for the consequences of our actions will, in the end, always concern us.)

    What does he mean by “our” and “us”? Is this use of personal pronouns just a fiction produced by a lump of spongy flesh?

    Do you agree with Metzinger, keiths? Does your brain believe that there is a made up model called “you” who has an identity because this made up model convinces itself that it has one? The brain has fooled itself but it understands that it has fooled itself but it still continues to act as if it is fooling itself.

  44. CharlieM,

    Who is this “I” that doesn’t believe?

    Why must I keep explaining this to you, Charlie? Metzinger doesn’t deny that we are individual thinking entities:

    It is this system, for example, the central nervous system of a biological organism, which really is the thinking thing.

    And as I noted earlier:

    I would rephrase that as “my self” instead of “myself”, and Metzinger makes his meaning quite clear in the quote above, where he refers to the “sense of self” and “the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”

    It’s clear that you don’t want to understand Metzinger, but why? Why does this idea of an illusory self-model spook you so?

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