Metzinger: The Ego Tunnel

With this book, Metzinger furthers an encouraging trend in academia: superstar theoreticians are writing accounts of their work for the layman.

His book is carved into three parts. The first summarizes his theory of consciousness, as rigorously developed in Being No One. The second introduces his theory of self-hood in the context of clinical neuroscience. The third discusses the imminent social conflict that will erupt as the public acquaints itself with the increasingly-surprising results of cognitive science.

Criticisms:

M fails to adequately consider evolutionary mechanisms other than natural selection. Some textual evidence from pg 43: “in principle, consciousness could be a by-product of other traits that paid for themselves, but [its stability] over time suggests that it was adaptive.”

While M excels at presenting cutting-edge research, he often neglects to leave his readers with tools for further research. I kept hoping that he would cite the concepts of “umwelt” and “semiosphere” but he never did. Also, pages 111-113 were stunningly eloquent, but if I had not read the physiological journals beforehand, I would have completely missed the fact that M was describing the theory of pain known as the neuromatrix.

The text is laced with insinuations of consensus. While this is often applicable in surprising ways (scholars agree that thoughts can be inferred from lab equipment), M can cast this authoritative weight inappropriately (his self-less Ego theory is itself immersed in controversy).

Praise:

M’s exceptionally lucid writing style, combined with a compelling bird’s eye view of genuinely pivotal cogsci research, makes this a compelling read. The wealth of illuminating graphics didn’t hurt either.

Three sections stood out as independently valuable. Chapter 2 explores six themes: the One-World Problem, the Now Problem, the Reality Problem, the Ineffability Problem, and the Who Problem. I found this journey to be compelling, and it left me itching to buy M’s magnum opus (Being No One). In addition to this, Chapter 3’s discussion of Out-Of-Body experiences stitched together a fascinating collection of research. Finally, chapter 7 included a well-overdue discussion of the effects of, and viable policy strategies towards, nootropics.

Conclusion:

I warmly recommend this book. A tasty quote to conclude (pg 20):

“The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality. What is really happening is that your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color. Phenomenal color. Appearance.”

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