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