Greg's Reviews > The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger
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's review
Aug 01, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy, mind-and-brain

This is quite simply one of the best books on consciousness I've ever read. I really want to do this book justice with a fantastic review, and I don't know if that's possible. But I'm going to do my best.

Consciousness is really the last frontier of neuroscience and philosophy...holy grail might be a more apt terminology. Sure, there are lots of other unanswered questions in the sciences, but besides maybe some questions about the fundamental makeup of our universe, we at least know HOW to go about answering these questions. A comprehensive theory of consciousness has eluded us precisely because even trying to frame the question properly has proven difficult. What exactly is consciousness? Is it wakefulness? Is it awareness? Intentionality? Representation? Subjective experience?

Neuroscience has been slowly chipping away at the problem. And one thing you will often hear from neuroscientists and even some philosophers has to do with finding the neural correlates of consciousness. It's been neuroscientific dogma for some time now that neuronal firing is what leads to and causes conscious experience. This is not an easy statement to disagree with. It seems obvious. Patterns of neuronal firing represent our sensory information, our memories, our emotions. Block neuronal firing in some areas of the brain and your conscious experience is changed. Mental states = brain states, and brain states = neuronal firing. And yet there is something that is being ignored here. Namely, there is nothing inherent in the description of neuronal firing, let alone any physical processes, to explain HOW and WHY neuronal firing causes subjective phenomenal experience. This is what is called the explanatory gap in philosophy. We can all imagine an organism, or even a robot, with the same functional equivalence of systems and processes without the subjective experience that goes along with it. A very complicated computer. There is nothing in the laws of physics or chemistry or biology that lead to the prediction that collections of certain types of matter will experience consciousness, no matter how complex they are. Why do I experience anything? Why is there even a me?

And here is where an important point comes in. Neuroscience has also chipped away at many classical ideas of what a self is. I've always had the sneaking suspicion that the hard problems of consciousness were in some way inextricably tied to the concept of a self. Without stating this explicitly, this is exactly where Metzinger's starting point is. The Ego Tunnel is Metzinger's attempt at explaining both consciousness and the self. Why is consciousness subjective? What is the self? What exactly is it that is reading this book review right now? Metzinger doesn't beat around the bush, and straight off states that there are no such things as, and never have been, any "selves" in the world. And the metaphor Metzinger uses to explain how this is the Ego Tunnel.

What is the Ego Tunnel? No one can be told what the Ego Tunnel is, you have to experience it for yourself. Just kidding...

The ego tunnel is a selective way of representing information. What we see and hear and feel and smell and taste is only a small fraction of what exists "out there" in the world. Our conscious model of reality (if you don't understand that all we experience is a model of reality, this book may not be the best starting point) is a low dimensional projection of an inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding us. Our sensory organs are limited, they evolved for survival, not for depicting objective reality. And so the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an "image of reality" as a "tunnel through it". Whenever our brains succeed in creating this unified and dynamic portrait of reality, we become conscious. And when the organism can generate an inner image of itself as a whole, including the body, psychological states, relationships to the past and future, this internal image is what Metzinger calls the phenomenal ego. An I. A self. A Phenomenal Self Model. By placing this self model within the world, a center is created, which is experienced as a self, as a me, and is what Metzinger calls the Ego Tunnel

There are six problems the Metzinger sees in developing a comprehensive theory of consciousness:

1) The one world problem (or the unity of conscious experience)

This has also been called the binding problem. But it is basically the problem of how so many disparate processes in the brain combine to create the unity of one world. There is no one place in the brain where all the different parts of the visual signal combine and form into a picture, there is no one place in the brain where sight and sound and smell and taste all combine to create a unified sensory experience, there is no one place where these senses combine with memory and emotion and cognition to create the unified experience of consciousness. Yet it happens.

Francis Crick and Christof Koch suggested that this binding happens through the oscillation of the relevant neurons at something like 40-70hz. Metzinger runs with this theory, talking about a "cloud" of neuronal firing. Whatever is in the cloud is conscious information. And whatever isn't, isn't. This binding of various processes allows the world to appear to us.

2) The now problem (the appearance of a lived moment)

An image of a world alone is not enough, we also experience the world consciously through time. In fact, without a sense of time, there would be no consciousness. But ironically, a complete scientific description of the physical universe would not contain the information as to "what time is now". So how does this happen?

Metzinger basically stresses the importance of being able to flag the "now" as real. Being able to differentiate between memories and fantasies and "the real world" is a huge survival advantage. Having a concept of "now" also allowed us to plan future actions, and to compare internal dry runs with given features of the world. Again though, he stresses that this experienced "now" is not real in the sense that we normally think it is. It is itself a representation. Just think about the fact that due to the unavoidable time taken in signal processing and neuronal firing, that what you experience as "now" actually occurred some time in the past...

3) The reality problem (why you were born as a naïve realist)

If you solve the one world problem and the now problem, all you have is a unified picture of the world and a model of the present moment in time in the brain. But consciousness is something more. You are not aware of these representations, or even that they ARE representations, you EXPERIENCE these representations as reality. Here is where Metzinger's concept of transparency becomes vital. For any second order process that occurs at a slower rate than a first order process, that first order process will be necessarily transparent to the second order process. You watch a film and you see fluid motion in front of you. But if the film reel is moving too slowly, you become aware of the individual frames and of the illusion of motion that you have been under falls apart. Because the processes that creates the contents of your conscious experience are transparent, you are constitutionally unable to know they are representations. They appear to you as REAL as opposed to what they are, just the internal contents of brain function.

4) The ineffability problem (what we will never be able to talk about)

Present a person with two very similar shades of green and they will be able to discern a difference between the two colors. But show them one of those shades of green again, and they will be unable to tell you which one it is. We can consciously represent the the difference between colors, but are unable to consciously represent the sameness of an individual color. Even the subjective experience of certainty, is itself only an appearance, just an experience, and not objective fact, because it doesn't exist neuronally. This threatens any comprehensive theory of consciousness, because if there are no concepts for certain objects in one theory, they cannot be reduced to concepts in another one, and I don't think Metzinger really answers this issue as much as talks about it for a while, unless I missed something.

5) The evolution problem (what was consciousness good for)

Consciousness is not cheap from a biological perspective. And here Metzinger evokes the global workspace theory (by some psychologist who's name evades me at the moment). Dan Dennett talks about this in terms of the orienting response, or the all hands on deck theory. What these ideas all in essence say, is that there needs to a process that makes global information available to an organism to further plan motor behavior. Whatever might be relevant to a situation needs to be available for processing. When you don't know what's going to happen next, you need as much relevant information as possible to plan your next move. But what WASN'T evolutionarily beneficial or efficient would be to create another level of complexity and represent the meta nature of the information. It would be way too costly to create a system that informed an organism that a "bear representation" was present in the brain, when all that is needed is to know "there is a bear in front of me".

6) The who problem (what is the entity that has conscious experience)

In the end, Metzinger tells us that what we are is in essence a simulation that the organism runs. This simulation binds disparate information together and creates a world model, flags the now to develop an ongoing experience of now in time, is unable to understand the representational nature of the world due to the transparency of the information, and has the experience of attending to whatever information is currently in the global workspace. Our conscious experience IS the content of the simulation. Nothing more nothing less. We are not our bodies, we are not our brains, we are not the contents of our wallet...we are a simulation that the brain runs to facilitate survival in the world, but due to it's nature we are constitutionally unable to know we are simulation.

This is all in the first third of the book (a pretty short book mind you). Metzinger goes on to talk about lucid dreaming, out of body experiences, hallucinogenic drugs, and more. This area of the book gets more into the territory you might be familiar with if you read V.S. Ramachandran or Oliver Sacks. But while he seems to wander at times, Metzinger always ties these conversations back into his main theory of the Phenomenal Self Model. Towards the end he gets into some pretty interesting stuff about ethics and morality, as what is ethics but prescriptions about different states of consciousness?

I can't recommend this book enough. I have only two caveats worth mentioning:

1) This is maybe not the best intro book to consciousness studies. It helps to have some background and understanding of neuroscience or psychology or philosophy to really understand the significant nature of the problems Metzinger addresses. I think you can probably read the book and enjoy it without this knowledge, but knowing how and why these problems are so difficult gives you a finer appreciation for the task Metzinger has set for himself.

2) He still hasn't REALLY explained subjective experience in my mind. But I'm too tired to explain why right now. Sufficed to say he does the best job out of anyone I've ever read. And he DOES manage to explain the self. Right or wrong he certainly doesn't sidestep the issue.
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Reading Progress

August 1, 2010 – Started Reading
August 1, 2010 – Shelved
August 1, 2010 – Shelved as: philosophy
August 1, 2010 – Shelved as: mind-and-brain
September 1, 2010 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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La pointe de la sauce I get the feeling you weren't blown away by it eventhough you seemed to be at the beginning of the review.
I've got a question though and it ties into the subject of evolution - At a specific point an organism begins to develop or evolve by 'tunneling' into reality by developing eyes that can percieve a certain range of wavelengths, and ears to percieve compressions in the air and so on. What Darwin conceded and other scientists have failed to properly research is how is it that an organism which is completely unaware of a certain stimulus/reality begins to develop/evolve to take advantage of it.
The 'tunneling' phrase used in the book is apt, it's almost as if these organisms begin to grow an antennae just to pick up the sports channel on sky, how is this possible?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the concept of evolution or consciousness but you must admit that when looking at the complete nature of concsiousness and evolution the only thing we know is that 'it works'. How it actually works is question which is far from being answered.

message 2: by Greg (last edited Sep 02, 2010 07:32PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg I think you're presupposing something, which is that the existence of sense organs necessitates the existence of some sort of conscious experience.

I think it's more likely, and what many neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists would argue, that an organism can have sense organs and be conscious of nothing. Sense organs allow an organsims to take information from the outside world and act on it. But no one has to be home so to speak to take advantage of this data. synaptic change occurs, motor behavior is initiated, the organism either survives or doesn't. If it survives it passes on its genes, which may contain encoding information to build an organism that allows it to better navigate its environment.

For the organism to be "aware" of these stimuli, there has to be a someone or a something that does the understanding. what many neuroscientists and philosophers will tell you is that there is no such thing. there is no "self". What Metzinger does in this book is talk about the necessary and sufficient conditions to allow a "self" to emerge from dynamically self organizing systems. i.e. - an organism can take advantage of stimuli, but not have any idea it's taken advantage of anything...or doing anything. to do that, there has to be a model of the world, a sense of the now, a transparent perspective, etc...and that is what you are. a model created by the organism.

Greg I vaguely remember reading that last year!

I agree with Rama to a large degree in that I think the problem of qualia cannot be solved without solving the problem of the self. He seems to think that the self problem needs to be (or can be) solved first, with the qualia problem to follow. I think that the qualia problem doesn't even make sense except in light of our understanding of the self.

Upon reflection, it really is the self problem and not the qualia problem that Metzinger tackles in The Ego Tunnel.

La pointe de la sauce Forgive me for my crazy ravings on your other review, its just that I most strongly believe that you are not really conscious even though I'm sure you are reasonably intelligent I can't say for sure whether you are actually 'aware' or 'conscious' but it doesn't matter, as long as you think you are, that's what matters.

Anyway, I am fascinated by this new 'self problem', if you could sum it up in one or two lines.

Tyler You don't have to be sure, just have a peek at your mirror neurons. Better yet, have a peek at someone having a peek at your mirror neurons.

Greg La Pointe, before I actually answer your question...are you serious? Or messing with me? Just want to be sure, it's tough to tell with you sometimes!

Oh, also, I take back my strong claims in regards to the relationship between the qualia problem and the self problem. Upon some reflection, I realized that's silly. I was speaking in the heat of the moment.

message 8: by Joel (new)

Joel Very well done review. Thank you .

message 9: by Kate (new) - added it

Kate Verotsky Thank you so much!

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