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Being No OneReview - Being No One
The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity
by Thomas Metzinger
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Kenneth Einar Himma
May 25th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 21)

In Being No One,Thomas Metzingerdefends a representationalist and functionalist analysis of the first-person phenomenal experience of being someone.  According to Metzinger, the phenomenal self -- i.e., the experience of oneself as a conscious subject with a first person perspective -- is nothing more than the ongoing operations of a complicated information-processing system that simulates, emulates, and represents aspects of the system's states to itself.  Phenomenal selves are not things at all on this view; while it is quite natural that we think of our selves as being entities or substances of some kind, our selves are merely the results of ongoing computational processes that satisfy certain conditions. 

Metzinger's analysis is grounded in two conceptual entities that, taken together, provide a model of subjective phenomenal experience.  The first is the phenomenal self-model (PSM), which incorporates "the content of the conscious self: your current bodily sensations, your present emotional situation, plus all the contents of your phenomenally experienced cognitive processing" (299).  According to Metzinger, a PSM comprises a number of computational processes that make system-related information (e.g., information obtained from the sense organs) available in an integrated form.  The PSM is a self-model in that its operations simulate and emulate abstract properties and states of its own internal information processing.  It is a self-model in the sense that it performs these functional operations for itself and represents their outputs to itself.  Otherwise put, the subject and object of the PSM are the same -- which gives theoretical expression to the important idea that human selves are embodied.

The second necessary conceptual entity is the phenomenal model of the intentionality relation (PMIR), which provides a functionalist model of the experienced subject-object relation that forms the basis for the perspectival dimension of self.  A PMIR depicts a relationship between the system, which is transparently represented to itself, and some (possibly internal) object in the world.  For example, the PMIR currently operative in your body would depict, among other things, your state of being someone who is currently reading a review of Metzinger's book.  PMIRs are usefully thought of as arrows pointing from self-model to object component.     

Both conceptual entities are necessary to fully model consciousness.  As Metzinger points out: "Full-blown conscious experience is more than the existence of a conscious self [which is modeled by the PSM], and it is much more than the mere presence of a world.  It results from the dynamic interplay between this self and the world, in a lived, embodied present" (417).  Thus, while the instantiation of a PSM "forms the central necessary condition for a conscious first-person perspective to emerge on the representational as well as on the functional level of description" (299), it is not sufficient: it is "the existence of the PMIR [that] generates full-blown consciousness" (417).   Full-blown consciousness, Metzinger concludes, requires "the generation of a world-model, the generation of a self-model, and the transient integration of certain aspects of the world-model with the self model" (427).

Metzinger's analysis provides a powerful new framework for understanding the functional and representational characteristics of both normal and pathological subjective experience.  Consider, for example, how this framework contributes to explaining the condition of patients who, despite showing all the functional signs of having lost their sight, continue to insist that they can see:

Under the present theoretical model, there are two possible routes of interpretation.…  [T]he object component of the second-order, cognitive phenomenal model of the intentionality relation (PMIR) (in this case, the transparent model of oneself as a person no longer seeing) [could] simply [be] absent.  Information concerning the deficit simply does not exist.  This could happen when it is impossible for the post lesional brain to update its phenomenal self-model.…  [Or] there could exist an updated self-model in the patient's brain, but this new model could functionally not be globally available for attention.  Deficit-related information would then be active within the system as a whole, but it could never become subjective information, because, for functional reasons, it cannot be represented under a PMIR (430).

Whereas such cases seem impossible to reconcile with traditional frameworks which presuppose that one cannot be mistaken about the contents of one's mind, they are easily and elegantly explained within Metzinger's framework.  Metzinger's three models thus define an analytical framework that can be reconciled with various conditions that undermine traditional frameworks.

It is, however, important to realize that Metzinger's framework is limited with respect to its explanatory power.  No theory of the self, for example, that ultimately explains the existence of self in terms of models that emerge from various computational processes can be fully successful without identifying the neural correlates of the various processes.  And though he believes the neural correlates of these models will be identified at some point, Metzinger concedes, as he must, that "not much is presently known about the neural underpinnings of the transparent self-model in humans" (340). 

Even so, Metzinger believes that he has established some robust results about the nature and character of the self.  Most notably, he believes that his self-model theory of subjectivity implies that "no such things as selves exist in the world" (563).  On his view, the conceptualization of the self as a system that instantiates a PSM and PMIR is sufficient to warrant an ontological claim about the status of selves: "The phenomenal property of selfhood as such is a representational construct; it truly is phenomenal property in terms of being an appearance only" (563).  Selves and subjects are, on his view, the insubstantial outcomes of these processes and hence do not form part of the furniture of the world.

But the self-model theory of subjectivity lacks the right kind of content to justify such sweeping ontological conclusions.  To see this, consider the ontological problem of explaining how particular physical organisms bring particular subjects of experience into existence.  As Thomas Nagel describes the problem:

It isn't easy to absorb the fact that I am contained in the world at all.  It seems outlandish that the centerless universe, in all its spatiotemporal immensity, should have produced me, of all people.…  There was no such thing as me for ages, but with the formation of a particular physical organism at a particular place and time, suddenly there is me, for as long as the organism survives.…  How can the existence of one member of the species have this remarkable consequence (Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 55)?

The problem here is to explain how the body that presently sits in front of my computer at this moment, rather than some other body, gives rise to me as a subject of experience with a first-person point of view that is unique in the world.  Qua subject of conscious experience (and hence qua self), I did not exist until this particular body came into the world.  How could the existence of this particular body give rise to my existence qua subject of conscious experience?

This is not a problem that can be solved by empirical means.  Even if the neural correlates for every one of my conscious states could be identified and described, this simply provides a map from the set of my brain states to the set of my conscious states.  Such a map can't explain why these brain states bring my self, rather than some other self, into existence.  At bottom, to put the matter in Chalmersian terms, the "hard" ontological problem of explaining selves is a philosophical problem -- and not an empirical problem.

Metzinger's framework does little more than change the terms of the question.  If, as Metzinger believes, my self is my self-model, then the task is to provide an explanation of how and why it is that the existence of my self-model, rather than some other, arises from this particular body.  While it might be that conceiving of selves this way makes it easier to explain how particular selves arise from particular bodies (because it, unlike other conceptions, is logically compatible with relevant phenomena), much more is needed to resolve the problem: merely equating selves with self-models says nothing about why particular self-models arise from particular organisms (or embodied information processing systems). 

The ontological status of selves is related to the hard problem in the following way.  If it can be shown that the instantiation of the relevant processes by, say, this particular body is sufficient to bring my self into existence (which requires solving the hard problem), that would be a reason to think that the relevant processes fully constitute my self so that there is nothing more, ontologically speaking, to my self than those processes.  But if this can't be shown, then there is little reason to think that I neither am nor possess a substantial self. After all, no reasonably sophisticated dualist would deny that my conscious states supervene on my brain states.  What the dualist argues is that the postulation of a mental substance is needed to explain why those conscious states are mine: they are mine because I am the mental substance that is thesubject of those conscious states.

While Metzinger argues that the "contingency intuition [that I could have been someone else] is not even based on a phenomenal possibility" (597), this is not enough to justify thinking that the ontology of the world does not include selves.  Even if it is not phenomenally possible for me to coherently imagine that I could have been Immanuel Kant, it remains true on Metzinger's account that my existence qua subject (and hence qua self) is contingent in the sense that it depends on the existence of the particular body (or embodied information processing system) that presently sits in front of my computer.  And this remarkable linkage demands much more by way of explanation than merely equating my self with the self-model that is instantiated by my brain.

Part of the problem here is that the self-model theory of subjectivity is conceptualin nature.  Although Metzinger develops his models with an eye towards various empirical phenomena, his methodology is largely conceptual.  The models he provides are, on his own characterization, theoretical entities that "may form the decisive conceptual link between first-person and third-person approaches to the conscious mind" (9).  Elsewhere he describes them as "conceptual prototypes" (107), "working concepts" (208), and "conceptual devices" (303).  The various models and the self-model theory to which they give rise are the fruits of a methodology that is self-consciously conceptual in character.  

But one can't solve substantive ontological problems by just doing conceptual analysis.  For example, the fact that we call a particular arrangement of mereological simples arranged in the form of a chair "an object" doesn't imply that the ontology of the world includes chairs in addition to the mereological simples that are arranged in the form of chairs.  (For a discussion of the issue, see, e.g., Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings, Cornell University Press, 1990).  The issue of whether the world includes composite material objects like chairs is a deep and difficult philosophical issue that can't be resolved merely by moving concepts around.  Whether there really are chairs in the world doesn't depend in any simple way on our conceptual practices with respect to words like "chairs" and "objects."

Nor has conceptual analysis solved many substantive problems in the philosophy of mind.  Physicalists, for example, are no closer to understanding how mental states cause physical states in virtue of having rejected the dualist claim that mind is a substance.  The only conceptual theory that, by itself, would solve the mind-body problem does so at the cost of falsifying much ordinary talk about mental states: the identity theory "solves" the problem of how mental states cause physical states by conceptually identifying the two (mental states are brain states), but renders problematic much of what we commonly predicate of mental states (e.g., the property of being pleasant is not sensibly attributed to brain states).  As long as we conceptualize mental states as non-spatial and unextended, we will face prohibitive conceptual difficulties explaining how such states can cause brain states that are spatial and extended.  Denying substance dualism -- which is partly a conceptual move (i.e., mental entities are "states" but not "substances") -- does nothing to ameliorate these difficulties.

Even if I am correct in thinking that Metzinger's framework is limited in these ways, however, this does not diminish the value or importance of the book.  Although an explanation of self seems fundamental to an explanation of consciousness, philosophers of mind have devoted comparatively little space to explaining self, focusing instead on problems that presuppose it has already been explained.   To my knowledge, Being No One is the first comprehensive attempt to articulate and solve the problems associated with explaining the self.  The analysis is deep, detailed, nuanced, challenging, and nearly exhaustive in scope.  That Metzinger's framework enables us to make sense of many pathological conditions that have eluded other traditional theories and frameworks provides a compelling reason, on my view, to think that it is fundamentally correct.  If it doesn't succeed in solving the hard problems of consciousness, neither has any other theory.

Being No One is indispensable reading for anyone who wants to understand the experience of being a phenomenal subject and self.  It is clearly a contribution of enduring value to philosophy of mind.

 

© 2003 Kenneth Einar Himma

Ken Himma received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and is a lecturer in the Information School and the Philosophy Department.


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