Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher who holds the position of director of the theoretical philosophy group at the department of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. That is impressive. Metzinger is recognized for his ability to meld science and philosophy, though one would think that would almost be a requirement these days – philosophy cannot stand without biology, and science cannot stand without a metaphysical meta-language. In Metzinger’s universe, it’s all one big happy
Metzinger postulates that there is no such thing as self (one of his earlier books is titled
Being No One). How can there be, when each of us is a huge swirling cosmos of atoms, mucous, memories and those tricky things known as feelings? Our personal universe is constantly rubbing up against and indeed rudely entering the universes of others and the bigger universe, the big undifferentiated universe, which is, again, merely a construct of our several minds, or what we like to call minds.
Metzinger has dealt with this perplexing interplay by imagining the ego as a tunnel through larger reality, continually interacting with the larger sphere. Judging by what seems to be signified by his conception of the tunnel, I would more liken it to a tornado that picks up and drops off what it encounters in its blind twirling path. Whatever image you choose, the fact is that perception of our body and its environment represents a kind of ownership, or control, and without it we would be lost, perhaps insane. Yet it is only perception, is it not? Yours, mine, everybody else’s, are all different. How can this be? Metzinger believes that until we know who “you” are, we cannot know anything: “If we want the big picture, we need to know how a genuine sense of selfhood appears.”
I found this book to be a gold mine of anecdotal information, such as that blind people dream in pictures not significantly different from those of seeing people, and that people born with no limbs (not those who have had and lost them) still believe they can feel the missing appendages. Have you ever heard of Alien Hand Syndrome, in which a part of your body will not only do what it wants but actually fight with the rest of the body as it seeks to dominate? Metzinger uses these and other examples to support his thesis that we are not in control and that our perception of who we are is actually shaped and altered by the interplay of biology, chemistry and neurology. Such advances as robotics and virtual environments give the lie to our false notion that we exist in a fixed universe.
I have to disclose, however, that years ago in experimenting with psychedelic drugs, I reached much the same conclusions as Metzinger. Metzinger admits that such drugs (whose use I do not now advocate) should not be illegal (a position I share) and, barring psychotic accidents, can, in his estimation, open doors to one’s “phenomenal state-space” – a truly fascinating term for the mind in all its glory.
I did not always solidly grasp Metzinger’s theories as a whole, however. This is disturbing because it’s clear he wants to be a popular writer who brings a nicely articulated set of ideas to people like me. However, the deficiency may be in my biology or my psychology. That is to say, maybe I just don’t have the smarts to thoroughly understand Metzinger’s book. But I hope “you” do, whoever “you” may be…