Brain Science and the Self

By A. C. Grayling
New Scientist, March 20, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

The Ego Tunnel: The science of the mind and the myth of the self
By Thomas Metzinger
Basic Books, 288 pages

In 1690, the philosopher John Locke argued that a person's identity over time resides in their consciousness (he coined this term) of being the same self at a later time as at an earlier, and that the mechanism that makes this possible is memory. A person is only the same through time if he or she is self-aware of being so. Memory loss interrupts identity, and complete loss of memory is therefore loss of the self.

In 1739, David Hume stated that there is no such thing as the self, for if one conducts the empirical inquiry of introspecting to see what there is apart from current sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts, one does not find an extra something, a self, over and above these things, which owns them and endures beyond them.

In 1781, Immanuel Kant argued that logic requires a concept-imposing self to make experience possible, and the Romantics made the self the centre of each individual's universe: "I am that which began," wrote Swinburne, "Out of me the years roll, out of me God and Man."

So fundamental is the idea of the self to modern human consciousness that one would expect developments in neuroscience to have a direct bearing on it. And as Thomas Metzinger argues in his stimulating new book The Ego Tunnel, that is exactly what is happening.

This is how the new book starts: "Consciousness is the appearance of a world."


By Owen Flanagan

Edited by Andy Ross

What is the self? One answer is that it is the diamond in the rough that is you, the unique, immutable and indestructible jewel that makes each person who they are, the being amidst the becoming, the unfluxable within the flux. Kant called it the Transcendental Ego, which stands behind experience as the condition of its possibility. An alternative view endorsed by Buddha, Heraclitus, John Locke, David Hume, and William James is that the self does not exist.

The consensus among contemporary philosophers and mind scientists is that the self is a forensic concept, not a scientific one, and therefore not a member of the ontological table of elements. In The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger offers this explanation:

The phenomenal Ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image. ... By placing the self-model within the world-model, a center is created. That center is what we experience as ourselves, the Ego. ... What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there. ... The ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality.

Metzinger argues that coming to terms with the non-existence of the self is required if we are to solve the philosophical problem of consciousness. But even if there are people who still believe in the existence of a self, I doubt they believe in the dopey idea that the self is an actual homunculus. More widespread than the self illusion is the view that humans have souls, but Metzinger does nothing to explain how belief in personal immortality may or may not be tied to views about the self.

There is no need for a "stunningly original" theory of the self. Pitching the idea that "we are self-less ego machines" gets Kant off Metzinger's back, but the rest of us were already content with the notion that there is no transcendental ghost in our heads.

Finally Some One

By Allan Hobson
Psyche 11 (5), June 2005

Review edited by Andy Ross

Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity
By Thomas Metzinger
MIT Press, 713 pages (2003)

I am pleased to see a first rate philosopher so carefully reading the neurobiological literature. Metzinger is comprehensive and comprehending. I have never read such a complete and penetrating analysis of my own scientific field: the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and dreaming. In this, as in other parts of the book that I understand well enough to comment, Metzinger cuts to the heart of the matter.

Metzinger insists that "data are things that are extracted from the physical world by technical measuring devices like telescopes, electrodes, or functional MRI scanners." In addition, "first person access to one's own mental states" does not fulfill the intersubjectivity criterion of data since group mediation of independent verification does not exist.

While it is refreshing to read a scientifically critical book that is completely free of nitpicking and character assassination, it is alarming to see Metzinger so comfortable with ideas that are incomplete and probably wrong. I refer to the theory of Rodolfo Llinas that dreaming consciousness is simply off-line waking consciousness.

A great strength of Metzinger's book is the insistence upon an aggressive and thorough attack on phenomenology. One place where Metzinger shines out particularly brilliantly is in his discussion of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is phenomenologically valid because it occurs in and is reported by many sensible people.

Thomas Metzinger is at least as aware as I am of a need for a systematic empirical study of phenomenology. In failing to reveal his own conscious experiences he is not really "no one" but more exactly a third person half-some-one.


"Being No One is Kantian in its scope, intelligence and depth. Steeped in contemporary neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, the book gives the unsolved Kantian problems of inner self and outer world a new look, a new life, and a new route to solution. Metzinger's story is understandable, compelling, and, quite simply, very very smart."
— Patricia and Paul Churchland, University of California, San Diego

"Being No One is a superb and indispensable book. Thomas Metzinger's intelligence, open-minded honesty, and knowledge combine to produce the most complete and satisfying discussion of the problem of self currently available."
— Antonio and Hanna Damasio, Professors of Neurology, University of Iowa College of Medicine


Video: Thomas Metzinger "Being No One" (57 min)

In six bite-sized parts:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


AR I first met Thomas Metzinger at the Brain and Self Workshop in Elsinore, Denmark, in 1997. I was immediately struck by the quality of his philosophical intellect and by his mastery of the relevant scientific work. I met him again several times over the years. I loved his big book Being No One but found it heavy going, so I suggested he should write a shorter, more popular book on the same subject. I am delighted to report that he has now done so.