The Ego Tunnel and the Dumbass
There’s Something About Mary That Ain’t Quite Right
By David Heitfield
We live in an age of naive realism. Your brain lies to you, quite purposefully. You are a dumbass who willingly flaunts your dumbassedness from the moment you arise to the moment you go into the mini-death state we call “sleep.” Ignorance just isn’t bliss – ignorance is life as we know it.
Thomas Metzinger tells the story of Mary, a fictional character in a thesis known as the Knowledge Argument, which (crudely speaking) stands for the idea that you can’t know something until you’ve walked a mile in its shoes. First-person knowledge (or phenomenal knowledge or subjective knowledge) is some thing that must be accounted for, a source of information that cannot be measured physically, i.e., scientifically.
Mary, as the story credited to Australian philosopher Frank Jackson goes, is a brilliant brain scientist who learns everything there is to know about color – how we process color, how we see color, what color represents, all the physical properties involved in color. Mary learns all this while being deprived of color– she’s in a cave or a room with a monochrome monitor on her computer and a black-and-white TV.
So, the question is, once Mary learns everything about color, but then steps outside and experiences color for the first time, does she learn anything new? Jackson’s original answer, which he has since recanted, was yes – she obviously has new information about reality now that she has subjectively experienced “color” for the first time, proving there is something to color besides the physical properties of color.
Metzinger, a German philosopher, not only answers with an emphatic “no” – the subjective experience just makes Mary another self-deluded dumbass – but claims that there is now almost universal support for his answer among brain scientists. In fact, the most famous review of Metzinger’s new book, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, complains that Metzinger is simply rehashing old ideas that are now well-settled. Like, of course we know the self doesn’t really exist. Duh!
What makes The Ego Tunnel so fascinating, then, is for those of us who are not philosophers or brain scientists; we get an understanding of just how far-reaching are the implications of the current science. Metzinger says he wrote The Ego Tunnel for a lay audience – it’s the dumbass version of his 2003 work, Being No One. Although you should be warned, while misanthropists should find it delicious, others might have trouble wading through Metzinger’s still waters. I have no doubt you’d be rewarded for the effort, though.
To wit: Metzinger is fond of saying no one is ever born, and no one ever dies. This is because the “self” is not a thing, but a process: It is a self-model that has evolved to make sense of the world around you. Whether the sense it makes is literally true or not is beside the point. Because this self-model is necessarily transparent to you, “you” are essentially a system that constantly confuses itself with its own self-model.
Metzinger proposes several ways of making his counterintuitive ideas more concrete, including just noticing that the process of “waking up” in the morning is literally your brain looking for its self-model mask, lucid dreaming and studies involving people who “feel” limbs they have lost. You can even do an experiment at home with the help of another person and an artificial hand: Put your arm on a table and cover it up with a box, with the false arm sitting on the table next to it. Have someone stimulate both your arm (under the box, so you can’t see it) and the fake arm at the same time. You look at the fake arm being stroked. After about a minute, while your weird friend keeps stroking the fake arm, you will continue to “feel” the stimulation from your real arm, even though it is no longer being touched, making you feel like a dumbass.
Astronauts lose their sense of “up” and “down” in space, and only get reoriented after a fellow astronaut taps the bottom of the foot so he reorients to what is “down” – to Metzinger, proving that the “self” is purely contextual, or virtual.
The implications of this are profound when you think about it. For instance, how much of good mental health today is associated with a “strong sense of self”? Maybe there is something to the idea that the crazy people are the sane ones. Losing your sense of self or having low self-esteem might be contextually bad today, but that all might change in 50 years, so that (just as you long suspected, admit it) your SUV-driving, church-going, career-climbing neighbor is the delusional one. Those drug experiences you had when you were younger, causing an epiphany, might have been closer to the truth than you think. Those times when you feel lost or depressed or need to find yourself? Good instincts, all. You’re a dumbass, and your attempts to make yourself feel better about being a dumbass should feel profoundly disappointing and false. I now have hope that someday soon all people with high self-esteem will be put to death. The meek will inherit the earth after all; and man! they’re gonna be pissed off when they do.
Metzinger is a leader in the emerging neuroethics field, and the last part of his book might be the most urgent to read, in which he sees a very near future where our rapidly expanding knowledge of neuroscience collides with capitalism, resulting in people seeking altered states of consciousness, be it through LSD-like drugs or simply brain stimulation that results in spiritual or other-worldly experiences. Ethics itself will evolve from concerning what is “correct actions” to what is “correct consciousness,” with powerful implications in all spheres of culture, and it’s an issue we need to start thinking about now.
While “dignity” is a loaded term, Metzinger offers as good a definition as any: “the unconditional will to self-knowledge, veracity, and facing the facts. Dignity is the refusal to humiliate oneself by simply looking the other way or escaping to some metaphysical Disneyland.” Somewhat paradoxically, Metzinger argues that, as our sense of “self” transforms, our societal goal “should always be to maximize the autonomy of the citizenry.” This includes the moral imperative that we “should not increase the overall amount of conscious suffering in the universe unless we have compelling reasons to do so.”
Lest some of this – “no self” and “do no harm” — sound vaguely Buddhist, the book ends by predicting that our greatest theoretical challenge we will have to face is whether and how intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled. It is a question for the future, but one can’t help but think Metzinger’s answer would be the same answer he gave to Mary.