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11/1/11

Thomas Metzinger: What Is Behind Our Talk About The Self

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Here is an excerpt of an interview between Ginger Campbell, MD, and Thomas Metzinger, PhD, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

Dr. Campbell: I guess I was really wanting to start with the working definition that you gave in your book. Why in the book did you pick the phrase “consciousness is the appearance of a world” as your working definition? I’m going to assume it’s a working definition, since that’s the way you defined it in the book.

Dr. Metzinger: For a popular accessible book I needed a simple working definition—and “the appearance of a world” is just that. It happens when you wake up in the morning: a world appears to you.

It happens when, from a phase of dreamless deep sleep, you enter a REM phase and you start dreaming: a dream world appears to you. If you have fainted and you wake up again, or if you wake up from anesthesia, the world appears again. If you are not conscious, you do not know that there has ever been a world, that there is anything like a world—or even yourself. . . .

So, the problem of consciousness is, imagine you see a red apple lying in front of you. It appears to you as if there is a red apple on the table in front of you. Now take exactly the same subjective feeling, but you’re hallucinating—there is no apple on the table.

Dr. Campbell: So, even if you’re hallucinating, that’s still a form of consciousness. That’s what you’re really interested in, is how that is happening, not what’s out there.

Dr. Metzinger: Right. So, of course, our mental states give us knowledge, if our perception is a correct perception of the outside, and then we are somehow in contact with the world. But we can have exactly the same conscious feel—the same appearance—even if we’re dreaming or if we’re hallucinating.

Dr. Campbell: Thomas, what sets The Ego Tunnel apart from other attempts to explain consciousness—beside the fact that it’s aimed at a general audience?

Dr. Metzinger: The first thing I have done is, I have put a focus on the self, and I’ve argued that there is no such thing as a self. And I try to show this by some philosophical considerations, and by some experiments I have actually conducted with friends from the neurosciences, myself.

But then, in the end of the book I try also to do something else. I try to widen the horizon and look at the cultural and social consequences all of this may have in the next 20 to 50 years. I try to build a bridge into the ethical issues that are connected to this now booming field of consciousness research.[Mind Shadows emphasis] . . .

I think it has to do with the history of the conscious self. . . . You could imagine animals that work like insects—just like robots that have no coherent model of the world as a whole, and that have no coherent model of their own body.

And then you could imagine a more advanced class of biosystems that actually have an as yet unconscious, but an inner image of how tall am I, how fast can I run? . . .

So, of course, it was useful to have knowledge about your own body. . . .

And another very important thing is what scientists call "selective motor control." You can very clearly show that being conscious makes you more context-sensitive.

But it also allows you to control your own movement—your behavior—in a much more flexible and fine-grained way. You can react to errors, or to challenges of the situation in a better way. . . . More
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Here is an excerpt of an interview between Ginger Campbell, MD, and Thomas Metzinger, PhD, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

Dr. Campbell: I guess I was really wanting to start with the working definition that you gave in your book. Why in the book did you pick the phrase “consciousness is the appearance of a world” as your working definition? I’m going to assume it’s a working definition, since that’s the way you defined it in the book.

Dr. Metzinger: For a popular accessible book I needed a simple working definition—and “the appearance of a world” is just that. It happens when you wake up in the morning: a world appears to you.

It happens when, from a phase of dreamless deep sleep, you enter a REM phase and you start dreaming: a dream world appears to you. If you have fainted and you wake up again, or if you wake up from anesthesia, the world appears again. If you are not conscious, you do not know that there has ever been a world, that there is anything like a world—or even yourself. . . .

So, the problem of consciousness is, imagine you see a red apple lying in front of you. It appears to you as if there is a red apple on the table in front of you. Now take exactly the same subjective feeling, but you’re hallucinating—there is no apple on the table.

Dr. Campbell: So, even if you’re hallucinating, that’s still a form of consciousness. That’s what you’re really interested in, is how that is happening, not what’s out there.

Dr. Metzinger: Right. So, of course, our mental states give us knowledge, if our perception is a correct perception of the outside, and then we are somehow in contact with the world. But we can have exactly the same conscious feel—the same appearance—even if we’re dreaming or if we’re hallucinating.

Dr. Campbell: Thomas, what sets The Ego Tunnel apart from other attempts to explain consciousness—beside the fact that it’s aimed at a general audience?

Dr. Metzinger: The first thing I have done is, I have put a focus on the self, and I’ve argued that there is no such thing as a self. And I try to show this by some philosophical considerations, and by some experiments I have actually conducted with friends from the neurosciences, myself.

But then, in the end of the book I try also to do something else. I try to widen the horizon and look at the cultural and social consequences all of this may have in the next 20 to 50 years. I try to build a bridge into the ethical issues that are connected to this now booming field of consciousness research.[Mind Shadows emphasis] . . .

I think it has to do with the history of the conscious self. . . . You could imagine animals that work like insects—just like robots that have no coherent model of the world as a whole, and that have no coherent model of their own body.

And then you could imagine a more advanced class of biosystems that actually have an as yet unconscious, but an inner image of how tall am I, how fast can I run? . . .

So, of course, it was useful to have knowledge about your own body. . . .

And another very important thing is what scientists call "selective motor control." You can very clearly show that being conscious makes you more context-sensitive.

But it also allows you to control your own movement—your behavior—in a much more flexible and fine-grained way. You can react to errors, or to challenges of the situation in a better way. . . . More
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