Among a number of interesting features, The Ego Tunnel includes a substantial account of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and similar phenomena. Experiments where the subjects are tricked into mistaking a plastic dummy for their real hand (all done with mirrors), or into feeling themselves to be situated somewhere behind their own head (you need a camera for this) show that our perception of our own body and our own location are generated within our brain and are susceptible to error and distortion; and according to Metzinger this shows that they are really no more than illusions (Is that right, by the way – or are they only illusions when they’re wrong or misleading? The fact that a camera can be made to generate false or misleading pictures doesn’t mean that all photographs are delusions, does it?).
There are many interesting details in this account, quite apart from its value as part of the overall argument. Metzinger briefly touches on four varieties of autoscopic (self-seeing) phenomena, all of which can be related to distinct areas of the brain: autoscopic hallucination, where the subject sees an image of themselves; the feeling of a presence, where the subject has the strong sense of someone there without seeing anyone; the particularly disturbing heautoscopy, where the subject sees another self and switches back and forth into and out of it, unsure which is ‘the real me’; and the better-known OBE. OBEs arise in various ways: often detachment from the body is sudden, but in other cases the second self may lift out gradually from the feet, or may exit the corporeal body via the top of the head. Metzinger tells us that he himself has experienced OBEs and made many efforts to have more (going so far as to persuade his anaesthetist to use ketamine on him in advance of an operation, with no result – I wonder whether the anaesthetist actually kept his word) ; speaking of lucid dreams, another personal interest, he tells the story of having one in which he dreamed an OBE. That seems an interesting bit of evidence: if you can dream a credible OBE, mightn’t they all be dreams? This seems to undercut the apparently strong sense of reality which typically accompanies them.
Interestingly, Metzinger reports that a conversation with Susan Blackmore helped him understand his own experiences. Blackmore is of course another emphatic denier of the reality of the self. I don’t in any way mean to offer an ad hominem argument here, but it is striking that these two people both seem to have had a particular interest in ‘spooky’ dualistic phenomena which their rational scientific minds ultimately rejected, leading on to an especially robust rejection of the self. Perhaps people who lean towards dualism in their early years develop a particularly strong conception of the self, so that when they adopt monist materialism they reject the self altogether instead of seeking to redefine and accommodate it, as many of us would be inclined to do?
On that basis, you would expect Metzinger to be the hardest of hard determinists; his ideas seem to lean in that direction, but not decisively. He suggests that certain brain processes involved in preparing actions are brought up into the Ego Tunnel and hence seem to belong to us. They seem to be our own thoughts, our own goals and because the earlier stages remain outside the Tunnel, they seem to have come from nowhere, to be our own spontaneous creations. There are really no such things as goals in the world, any more than colours, but the delusion that they do exist is useful to us; the idea of being responsible for our own actions enables a kind of moral competition which is ultimately to our advantage (I’m not quite sure exactly how this works). But in this case Metzinger pulls his punch: perhaps this is not the full story, he says, and describes compatibilism as the most beautiful position.
Metzinger pours scorn on the idea that we must have freedom of the will because we feel our actions to be free, yet he does give an important place to the phenomenology of the issue, pointing out that it is more complex than might appear. The more you look at them, he suggests, the more evasive conscious intentions become. How curious it is then, that Metzinger, whose attention to phenomenology is outstandingly meticulous, should seem so sure that we have at all times a robust (albeit delusional) sense of our selves. I don’t find it so at all, and of course on this no less a person than David Hume is with me; with characteristically gentle but devastating scepticism, he famously remarked “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”
Metzinger concludes by considering a range of moral and social issues which he thinks we need to address as our understanding of the mind improves. In his view, for example, we ought not to try to generate artificial consciousness. As a conscious entity, the AI would be capable of suffering, and in Metzinger’s view the chances are its existence would be more painful than pleasant. One reason for thinking so is the constrained and curtailed existence it could expect; another is that we only have our own minds to go on and would be likely to produce inferior, messed-up versions of it. But more alarming, Metzinger argues that human life itself involves an overall preponderance of pain over pleasure; he invokes Schopenhauer and Buddha. With characteristic thoroughness, he concedes that pleasure and pain may not be all that life is about; otherr achievements can justify a life of discomfort. But even so, the chances for an artificial consciousness, he feels are poor.
This is surely too bleak. I see no convincing reason to think that pain outweighs pleasure in general (certainly the Buddhist case, based on the perverse assumption that change is always painful, seems a weak point in that otherwise logical religion), and I see some reasons to think that a conscious robot would be less vulnerable to bad experiences than we are. It’s millions of years of evolution which have ingrained in us a fear of death and the motivating experience of pain: the artificial consciousness need have none of that, but would surely be most likely to face its experiences with superhuman equanimity.
Of course caution is justified, but Metzinger in effect wants us to wait until we’ve sorted out the meaning of life before we get on with living it.
His attempt to raise this and other issues is commendable though; he’s right that the implications of recent progress have not received enough intelligent attention. Unfortunately I think the chances of some of these issues being addressed with philosophic rationality are slim. Another topic Metzinger raises, for example, is the question of what kinds of altered or enhanced mental states, from among the greatly expanded repertoire we are likely to have available in the near future, we ought to allow or facilitate; not much chance that his mild suggestions on that will have much impact.
There’s a vein of pessimism in his views on another topic. Metzinger fears that the progress of science, before the deeper issues have been sorted out, could inspire an unduly cynical, stripped-down view of human nature; a ‘vulgar materialism’, he calls it. Uninformed members of the public falling prey to this crude point of view might be tempted to think:
“The cat is out of the bag. We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe. We have brains but no immortal souls and after seventy years or so the curtain drops. There will never be an afterlife, or any kind of reward or punishment for anyone… I get the message.”
Gosh: do we know anyone vulgar and unsophisticated enough to think like that?