The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger is one of those books I should have read when it came out in 2009. But, like many of the books I read, I came to it by chance, in this case when a philosopher friend moved and had to leave some books behind. One of them was The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek mentioned Metzinger in a way that had me intrigued, so I bought The Ego Tunnel.
As an aside–I do recall around 2009 hearing about a philosopher who argued that conscious machines would be the future of humanity. At the time it sounded like science fiction to me. But ten years is a long time and now, especially after reading The Ego Tunnel, it no longer strikes me as implausible. Metzinger does not make such an argument but he suggests the possibility, and I find it compelling. I think a more likely scenario for our future is that we won’t have one. We will have killed ourselves by virtually ignoring the global ecological destruction we had helped bring about. But even if we survive, our ecological problems will probably be severe, and there will probably be a small group of people with power and money who will use technology to make their offspring into a group of superhumans superior to us in every way. This endeavor may include the creation of conscious machines or hybrid bio-mechanical beings. And these machines will eventually be so far advanced that from their point of view traditional humans will appear as brutish hunks of meat. Think of how we currently treat the other creatures of the earth to get a glimpse of what humanity might receive from these super-intelligent beings.
But back to The Ego Tunnel. The value of the book for me–and the reason I don’t feel stupid imagining the above scenarios–is that Metzinger has done all the science homework. But there is one factor he has glossed over: people have been hip to what he calls “the ego tunnel” for a long time, and they didn’t need science to see it. My point isn’t to downplay the importance of science. Again, what I personally value in his book is the fact that he shows me the science. But surely it is significant (and should be to a scientist) that I have been hip to “the ego tunnel” for most of my adult life without being cognizant of the findings of neuroscience. I did it through nothing more than meditation and reflection: consciousness itself. That means that one can become aware of the phenomenon (if it is that) or fact (if science eventually bears it out conclusively) of “the ego tunnel” without recourse to science. That also means that the “transparency” Metzinger writes about is not as absolute as he suggests it is. Yes, scientific knowledge can give us a cognitive insight into it. But so can ordinary reflection. I have known for many years that when I have tried to look within myself as deeply as possible I have had the sensation of falling and falling and falling–as into a tunnel–only to come out on the other end exactly where I began–with (or within) my regular orientation to the world. In other words when I tried to find the deepest core of “me” I came to a window onto the world. This told me that there was in fact no “me” inside. “I” did not exist outside of consciousness itself. “I” and my consciousness were one and the same. There was no “me” directing my consciousness. True, I could not directly “see” that I and my consciousness were one, but I understood that consciousness was being constructed in my brain. I understood it in the same sense that I am not capable, without mirrors or cameras, of seeing the back of my head. I had reached precisely the same conclusion as Metzinger. Except that he did it with science and I did it with consciousness itself.
I’m not the only one. The kind of insight that I had can be traced at least as far back as people who stopped believing in God. When Nietzsche declared that God was dead and Darwin showed that the creation story wasn’t quite what we thought it was, and when large numbers of people began to think this way, the stage was set for losing faith in something like an eternal soul, existing before and beyond our physical selves. Yes, I know, Darwin is science. I did in fact have science when I looked deeply into myself. I was born with that knowledge embedded in my culture. It was passed onto me and became embedded in my consciousness. But trust me, my scientific knowledge is pretty damn meager! I can write a mean poem but I’d flunk an SAT.
There are many others. I don’t know what Pessoa thought of Nietzsche or Darwin, but surely his life was a vivid example that when it came to some kind of eternal self no one was home. Can you tell me who the real Fernando Pessoa was? I can’t. And, even if he was a “naive realist” (as well as a profoundly schizoid person), Jerry Lewis taught, in every single one of his movies, that “being a man” is a highly uncertain thing, very hard to separate from role playing. And isn’t it at the very heart of Judith Butler’s teaching that we are all malleable, that we are always in the process of making ourselves and one another because, for one thing, there is no eternal unchangeable “me” inside of us? True, biological survival has constructed us, Metzinger writes, such that our ego structures are pretty stable and hard to change. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t, that we don’t, or that we shouldn’t. It also helps explain, to my mind, why those of a far right political persuasion are so afraid of trans people. It’s a fear of losing a stable hold on themselves. But when you’ve been there and you know that when you fall you’re not going to crash and die you just might be able to learn to fly.
Anyway, I think Metzinger has exaggerated the potency of transparency. It might be that there are many different flavors of consciousness. Jackson Pollock once said that he felt like he was born without skin. I don’t know what it was like to be Jackson Pollock, but I imagine that, much of the time, it wasn’t very fun. And I can imagine that when he was in the middle of one of his paint-dances he may have been trying to connect the dots between his suffering body and the cosmos he found himself in. His vision of himself in the world may not have looked or felt like yours or mine. People like Pollock, Butler, Jerry Lewis, Pessoa–countless artists–suggest that the walls of Metzinger’s “tunnel” are like swiss cheese–full of holes. What comes in, and what peers out of those holes? What’s in your tunnel?