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Professor Thomas Metzinger

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Being Noone: Towards a New Science of Consciousness
One the occasion of a lecture by Thomas Metzinger
written by Golfo Maggini, Associate Professor, University of Ioannina

Leading philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett in his influential 1991 book Consciousness explained proclaimed that "consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery". There are, of course, other mysteries for men and women at the end of twentieth century: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity; still, with the mystery of consciousness the most advanced philosophers and scientists seem to remain tongue-tied and confused. After all, mysteries are not just the source of ultimate confusion or fear, but also the source of fun, "what makes life fun", as Dennett admits. So it may even turn out somewhat disappointing to demystify consciousness; yet our world is indeed the world of science, seeking ultimate answers to perennial questions, and consciousness is definitely one of these questions. To be more precise, consciousness is a borderline question: a question – and a problem – that "marks the very limit of human striving for understanding" - I borrow here Professor Metzinger’s own words. The puzzle of consciousness, along with the intellectual challenge it presents to contemporary philosophy and science, could definitely be, according tο him, the beginning of a profound intellectual revolution with great social and cultural impact. The reason for this is rather obvious, if we look closely: to talk about consciousness is to talk about ourselves, because consciousness in the elevated form of self-consciousness is closely connected to self-knowledge. Consequently, much more than, say, the mystery of the universe, or that of time, the mystery of consciousness is directly associated with the fundamental fact that we exist and are alive.

Conscious experience, it appears, is really all that matters with respect to our overall experience of the world. Our whole life is a continuous, extended progression of lived conscious experience. Our subjective world is filled with perceptions, intentions, thoughts, recollections, feelings, emotions, actions – all those are lived experiences, that is, conscious phenomena which flow in the same stream of consciousness which is my consciousness, your consciousness or our consciousness. It is not accidental, therefore, that we all possess some fundamental intuitions about what consciousness is. In reality, the intuitive background of our common perception of consciousness is by no means unimportant from a philosophical as well as from a scientific viewpoint, in other words, it contains a certain degree of factual necessity. As Thomas Metzinger showed in the last part of his groundbreaking 2003 book Being No One. The Self-model Theory of Subjectivity: "The degree of intuitive plausibility for a given theory results from the degree of phenomenal possibility associated with it. Theories describe worlds. Conscious experience models worlds. Beings like ourselves experience all those theories as intuitively plausible that describe worlds that can be phenomenally simulated by us. These worlds then strike us as possible phenomenal experiences we might have – because we can internally model them". Following Thomas Metzinger’s line of thought, those basic intuitions about consciousness and what comes along with it, that is, knowledge of the self, are not just products of an idle mind or of a sick imagination. Our "introspective certainties", especially the intuition related to consciousness perceived as an inner voice, have deep historical roots which account for the "intuitive force" behind many bad arguments about consciousness.

This is the reason why those intuitions have survived and they have been elaborated by philosophers and scientists in the western world since antiquity. The core intuition that pervades both the everyday and the theoretical – philosophical and scientific –understanding of consciousness is designated by a term forged by philosophers – dualism. For dualists, the prevailing so called "solution" to the problem of consciousness is said to lie in the separation between the soul – the old name for consciousness in the premodern world – and the body or between the "inner" and the "outer", that which lies "inside" against what lies "outside". In modern times, from Descartes on, this separation gave rise to the well-known mind/body problem in philosophy and the sciences. It goes without saying that when contemporary philosophers and scientists from all disciplines – cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, brain scientists, neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists – refer to consciousness, they do not go back to the Greeks or to the early Christians – to Aristotle’s psyche or to St Augustine’s anima – but to Descartes’ "thinking thing" (res cogitans). Descartes is the one who made consciousness a prominent topic in philosophy, though he never used the term: in the second of his Meditations on First Philosophy, where he tried to prove that he is a "res cogitans", a disembodied soul, he never uses the latin term conscientia. Nevertheless, by holding that there are two distinct types of substances in the world – extended things like the human body and thinking things like the human mind or soul, Descartes articulated the classical dualist position about consciousness.

Although there had been dualists before Descartes, the most prominent being Plato himself – Aristotle being opposed to Platonic dualism adopting a position on the soul which is close to today’s functionalist theories of consciousness – Descartes was the first to make the important point that, if we are composed of two totally different substances, we reach a point where we cannot easily account for their coming together. For him, a mysterious organ, the pineal gland, was that meeting place; However, Descartes’ solution gave rise to more difficulties than those it was supposed to resolve. The modern history of consciousness begins with Descartes’ aporia. A wide range of philosophers, and from the 19th century on, of scientists, from Baruch Spinoza to William James and Franz Brentano tried to reshape the Cartesian theory of consciousness, often strongly criticizing it. Still, what Daniel Dennett characterized somewhat ironically the "Cartesian Theater" - that is the image of the mind as a private theatre where I am located as an audience experiencing all mental states as the "contents of my consciousness" - seems to be deeply rooted both in our everday and in our philosophical intuitions. It took a whole intellectual revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, along with the rise of the analytical philosophy of mind, in order for the "Cartesian Theater" to gradually fade and finally vanish. Positivism, along with its offspring in the realm of the social sciences, behaviorism, challenged the existence of "mental states", as they both didn’t want to bother with any inner occurrences: the organism was merely a "black box", the behavior of which was to be predicted on the basis of physical stimuli. Dualism was accused of strong antiscientism and pathetic defeatism. The leading trend of the first decades of 20th century was most certainly materialist. The idea of mind as distinct from the brain, composed not of ordinary matter but of some other, special kind of stuff, was considered unacceptable. It was Gilbert Ryle who, in his classic attack on Cartesian dualism as the "dogma of the ghost in the machine" in The Concept of Mind (1949), vividly illustrated the intellectual climate of those times.

Still, materialism presented the study of consciousness with an insurmountable difficulty. Though anti-dualist theories allowed the sciences into the philosophical debate on consciousness, their strong reductionist tendency did not provide us with novel insight on the nature of consciousness. As Daniel Dennett argued: "Adopting materialism does not by itself dissolve the puzzles about consciousness, nor do they fall to any straightforward inferences from brain science. Somehow the brain must be the mind, but unless we can come to see in some detail how this is possible, our materialism will not explain consciousness, but only promise to explain it, some sweet day". The philosophical inquiry into the nature of consciousness as what is irreducibly inner, was then ascribed uniquely to philosophical movements outside the mainstream philosophy of mind, namely phenomenology, which defined itself right from the start, in the work of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, as the "science of consciousness".

The next phase in the evolution of the debate on consciousness came to challenge some of the basic assumptions of mainstream reductionist materialism. Its main representatives could be designated as functionalists with respect to their approach to consciousness. In functionalism, mental states are individuated by pointing to their causal, that is, functional role. Consciousness, for a functionalist, ought to be identified as that state that has certain definite causal relations to the input or sensory stimulation, other definite causal relations to other mental states (like memories), and also definite causal relations to the output, that is, the behavior of the organism. This special kind of functionalism acted as an accelerator for the study of consciousness in all aspects; one of its forms is computer functionalism or computationalism, that is, the idea that the ontological relation between a computer to its program is the same as the relation of brain to mind. It is indeed as an offspring of functionalism that a new interdisciplinary research program emerged, namely cognitive science. The great merit of cognitive science is, undoubtedly, that is has allowed a new kind of interaction to take place between philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. If functionalism, as well as materialism before it, seemed to leave consciousness out, the great merit of cognitive science is that it triggered the return of consciousness in philosophy as well as in the relevant scientific disciplines. The questions of intentionality and subjectivity were no longer considered the remainders of an outdated philosophical tradition. Perhaps the most remarkable landmark of the return of consciousness, along with that of subjectivity, as the main focus of the philosophy of mind, but also of the sciences related to this domain of interest, was the publication of Thomas Nagel’s classic article "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" in 1974.

In this article, Nagel analyzed what it means for an organism to have conscious experiences: "An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something it is like to be that organism; something it is like for the organism". Moreover, he argued that the various attempts to reduce mental states to this or that had all been unsuccessful, because they all ignored the subjective character of conscious mental experiences. Now from the side of neuroscience, a number of significant experiments including the direct excitation of the cortex and split-brain studies touched upon human consciousness so closely that many neuroscientists, neurologists and neuropsychologists were virtually compelled to study philosophy of mind. Conceptual puzzles involving consciousness stopped being just an activity exclusively reserved for philosophers and essentially entered the wide interdisciplinary field of the sciences of consciousness. The marriage of philosophy and empirical science seemed inevitable and gave birth to what Owen Flanagan successfully called "a unified theory of consciousness", which was viewed no more as an idle fantasy: "…evidence suggests that conscious phenomena display coherence. First, despite the truth of the heterogeneity thesis, all conscious mental events share the property of being conscious, of being in awareness, of there being something it is like to be in one of the relevant states. Second, whereas the subsets that make up a hodge-podge make it up precisely because they lack any interesting systematic connection to each other, all conscious phenomena bear the interesting systematic relation of being phenomena of mind".

Where exactly does Thomas Metzinger’s work stand within this wide field of interdisciplinary research? In his own words, his aim is to develop an interdisciplinary representationalist theory of consciousness, which aspires to reconcile the first-person perspective, usually allocated to philosophy, with the third-person perspective, usually allocated to empirical science. His "phenomenology of consciousness" starts with the fundamental conviction that consciousness is a "cluster concept": "Large amounts of data do not yet constitute knowledge, and for particularly rich domains and target phenomena the conceptual landscape corresponding to those data may not only be a complicated logical terrain but also eventually turn out to be only decomposable into a rather messy bundle of subregions" But decomposition is exactly what his self-model theory wants to avoid. Professor Metzinger first wants to help dissolve intuitive fallacies – of which the most persistent one is that of Cartesianism in its various versions, even the most unexpected ones, like Thomas Nagel’s "hidden Cartesianism" - and second to develop a clearly structured and maximally simple set of conceptual tools and working concepts purported to provide an answer to the problem of the phenomenal first-person perspective.

Thomas Metzinger’s ultimate goal, however, is to preserve the phenomenological wealth of our inner experience, of what he calls "phenomenological internality", of the consciously experienced quality of inwardness accompanying bodily sensations, emotional states and cognitive contents as a sort of "prereflexive intimacy". Two are the fundamental theoretical entities or working concepts for Thomas Metzinger’s phenomenal self-model of subjectivity: the phenomenal self-model (PSM) and the phenomenal model of the intentionality relation (PMIR), whereas the levels at which his analysis rests runs from the most differentiated to the simplest manifestations of conscious experience, from the phenomenological level through the representationalist level, the informational level and the functional level to the physical-neurobiological level. Prof. Metzinger develops thoroughly this phenomenal model in his 2004 Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity and gives its simplified version in his 2009 The Ego Tunnel. The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self but I wouldn’t like to go any deeper on this matter, since I presume he is going to explain it to us himself. Still what I would like to do is highlight some issues in relation to his theory.

A key feature of Professor Metzinger’s phenomenal self-model is its strong anti-reductionist flair: "what in philosophy of mind is called the "phenomenal self" and what in scientific or folk psychological contexts frequently is simply referred to as "the self" is the content of a phenomenally transparent self-model…We do not experience the contents of our self-consciousness as the contents of a representationalist process, and we do not experience them as some sort of causally active internal placeholder of the system in the system’s all-inclusive model of reality, but simply as ourselves, living in the world right now ". What then is that makes conscious experience subjective experience? It is not introspection that guarantees the subjectivity of subjective experience, a type of subjectivity that Thomas Metzinger qualifies as phenomenal subjectivity. In order to pave the way for the understanding of phenomenal subjectivity, he introduces and describes phenomenologically throughout Being No One a set of features such as holism, coherence, dynamicity, perspectivalness, centerdness, intensity, homogeneity, adaptivity and last, but not least, transparency. Transparency used here as a phenomenological concept has nothing to do with Descartes’ "epistemic transparency": "Transparency is a special form of darkness. With regard to the phenomenology of visual experience transparency means that we are not able to see something, because it is transparent. We don’t see the window, but only the bird flying by. Phenomenal transparency in general, however, means that something particular is not accessible to subjective experience, namely, the representational character of the contents of conscious experience". In simple terms, we cannot conceive or represent the subjectivity of conscious experience, because we simply conceive or represent through it: the instruments for representing cannot be themselves represented, therefore, they are phenomenally transparent. In The Ego Tunnel Metzinger illustrates further this idea: the ego is a transparent mental image, it is a tool for a dynamic self-organization on many levels, we live with it, and through it. The "ego tunnel" – a term Metzinger borrows from the study of virtual reality and its "reality tunnels" - is a consciouness tunnel that has evolved the additional property of creating what philosophers designate as a first-person perspective, that is a phenomenal self. Still does this mean that there is a "self" in the way philosophy – even 20th century analytical philosophy and phenomenology - and science perceive it? Metzinger’s reply is straightforward: "The phenomenal ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image – namely, the conscious self-model, or PSM… We are not in direct contact with outside reality or with ourselves, but we do have an inner perspective. We can use the word "I". We live our conscious lives in the Ego Tunnel".

Professor Metzinger’s PSM theory aims clearly at remedying a fundamental asymmetry: the asymmetry between the first-person perspective of philosophy and the third-person perspective of the empirical sciences: "Mental self-representation is an ongoing process. The self-representatum generated in the course of this process is a time slice, the content of the self-representational process at TIME t. In principle, we could now once again commit the typical grammatical error characterizing the folk psychology of self-consciousness by treating the content of a singular time-slice of the process of self-representation as an object. There is, in other words, a special variant of the phenomenological fallacy related to self-consciousness: describing the contents of phenomenal self-representation as literal properties of an internal and nonphysical object – namely, the subject". Cognitive science, especially cognitive psychology, stood in the middle between the two, as it is the first to propose, not just in terms of "armchair philosophy" but also of a concrete scientific project, a "counterintuitive" theory of the self, that is, a theory that goes against the strongest of our intuitions about the self, the intuition of the irreducibility of the self to the world. In this way, a theory of consciousness like the one proposed by the PSM theory goes beyond the naïve naturalism of "hard" empirical sciences, the "scholasticism" of 20th century analytical philosophy of mind with its sole focus on the issue of language, finally, the reification of the self through introspection in continental phenomenology; it thus constitutes, in Metzinger’s own terms, "an experiment in interdisciplinary philosophy". A brilliant illustration of the interdisciplinariness of his theory lies in the way in which Professor Metzinger exploits the recent neurological research on conscious experience shedding a new light on a number of "off-limits" situations, such as anosognosia, identity disorders, hallucinated selves, phantom limbs, lucid dreams[,] but also on the widely known - due to VR technologies – phenomenon of "multiples selves". Those are neurophenomenological cases that illustrate "deviant phenomenal models of the self" which, according to Professor Metzinger, have never been seriously treated by philosophers: "Many classic theories of mind, from Descartes to Kant, will have to count as having been refuted, even after consideration of the very first example [that is, the first pathological case]. The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is that all the theories operate under the "epistemic transparency" assumption of self-consciousness: they assume that within the self the light of knowledge shines through and through, thereby making unnoticed errors about the content of one’s own mind logically impossible".

Nevertheless, what I would like to consider as the most fascinating and philosophically fertile instance of Thomas Metzinger’s work lies is his recurring challenging interpretation of the well-know myth of the cave in Plato’s Republic, VII. Its most brilliant account is given in chapter 8 of Being No One. Here is the way in which he reappropriates the platonic metaphor: the cave in which we live our conscious lives is formed by our global, phenomenal model of reality, whereas we all resemble neurophenomenological cavemen. The cave is, according to Plato, a subterranean place, which Metzinger reinterprets to mean that it is determined by the properties of our central nervous system. In Plato’s metaphor, the captives in the cave are chained down by their thighs and necks. They are prevented by their fetters from turning their heads and they have never seen anything of themselves and each other except the shadows cast behind them to the opposite wall of the cave, and which they take for real objects.

For Metzinger, what Plato perceives as shadows on the wall is what he designates as "phenomenal self-model" through which we see ourselves. What we have actually seen is nothing of ourselves, but just our own shadow on the opposite wall. There are two questions to be asked here: first, could we ever free ourselves from this attachment to our own shadow, that is, to this inner image of ourselves? And second and even more important question is the following: is there someone who could escape from the cave, is there someone who, in Socrates’s words, could "stand up suddently and turn his head around and walk…and lift up his eyes to the light"? Metzinger’s answer to both questions is negative: no, we cannot escape from our own shadow and no, there is no one who can go out of the cave, see the light of the sun and return to the cave. In fact, there is no one in the cave: "We must imagine Plato’s cave differently if we are to understand the neurophenomenological caveman’s true situation. There are low-dimensional phenomenal shadows of external perceptual objects dancing on the neural user surface of the caveman’s brain. So much is true. There certainly is a phenomenal self-shadow as well. But what is this shadow the low-dimensional projection of? I claim that it is a shadow not of a captive person, but of the cave as a whole. It is the physical organism as whole, including all of its brain, its cognitive activity, and its social relationships, that is projecting inward, from all directions at the same time, as it were. There is no true subject or homunculus in the cave that could confuse itself with anything. It is the cave as a whole, which episodically, during phases of waking and dreaming, projects a shadow of itself onto one of its many internal walls. The cave shadow is there. The cave itself is empty". The "cave shadow" is no more than the "phenomenal self model" but, of course, a phenomenal self-model is not a self: "From all we know today, the flow of conscious experience is an idiosyncratic trajectory through phenomenal state space, a highly selective projection shaped by the contingencies of biological evolution on this planet – something much more resembling a reality tunnel through an inconceivably high-dimensional reality".

The question to ask is inevitable: Should we change the "neurophemenological caveman’s" situation? Professor Metzinger’s answer is that, yes, we should change it, however, the situation cannot change by us running out of the cave, because simply we have never been in the cave.There is no little man in the cave. In fact, there is no one in the cave. Plato’s cave is empty. From this daring reinterpretation of the classic Platonic parable Metzinger reaches his central ontological claim, which happens to be the topic of tonight’s lecture: "No such things as selves exist in the world. All that exist are certain information-processing systems meeting the constraints for phenomenality while operating under a transparent self-model. At least for all conscious beings so far known to us, it is true that they neither have or are a self… For all scientific and philosophical purposes, the notion of a self - as a theoretical entity – can be safely eliminated". The working concept of the "phenomenal self" is a product of a deficit, of a "blind spot" in self-knowledge or of what Metzinger eloquently calls "autoepistemic closure" or "epistemic opacity": we have no direct introspective access to ourselves, and this is due mostly to the fact that there is no self to be introspectively accessed: the "phenomenal self-shadow" is just a representational property, an appearance, whereas consciousness itself is "selfless", that is, there is no self to be represented in it.

The no-self thesis is undoubtedly the focal point of Thomas Metzinger’s theory of consciousness so far. Metzinger himself argues in many cases that the progress in the study of consciousness is still quite slow and that a lot remains to be said about consciousness: "mankind is still in the prehistoric age – not in terms of theoretical knowledge and technology, but in terms of phenomenological knowledge and technology". What is necessitated by the ongoing research on consciousness is, first and foremost, interdisciplinariness as a "middle course" between the hard sciences and philosophy "of a yet-to-be-discovered nature". This is at present encouraged by what he calls the "motivational mirror image" of those who study the phenomenon of consciousness: cognitive scientists as well as neuroscientists have a deep understanding for epistemological and metatheoretical issues related to the empirical research on consciousness and, on the other side, philosophers take into account the results of empirical research acknowledging its seriousness and methodological rigor.

But still someone cannot but reply repeating Daniel Dennett’s words: "Perhaps consciousness really can’t be explained, but how will we know till someone tries?...Those who would defend the Mind against Science should wish me luck with this attempt, since if they are right, my project is about to fail, but if I do the job about as well as it could be done, my failure ought to shed light on just why science will always fall short. They will at last have their argument against science, and I will have done all the dirty work for them".

Professor Thomas Metzinger