29 April 2011

First Person Perspective

McCory Photography
I've already blogged about Thomas Metzinger a couple of times. In this post I want to write about another of his ideas. His book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self opens with the words "In this book, I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self" and as Buddhists we may immediately feel that this is familiar ground. However Metzinger is not a Buddhist, and sums up the Buddha as a pessimist who posited, "essentially, that life is not worth living". (Ego Tunnel, p.199) Of course I disagree with this summation - the Buddha wasn't a pessimist, and did not say this, although he did place limits on what kind of life is worth living.

In this post I want to look not at Metzinger's book, but at a talk he gave in 2005 as part of the Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul, (available on YouTube) entitled "Being No One" (also the title of a book) which explores the idea of a first person perspective.

Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
I'm not sure where he got these criteria, but after working on the Alagaddūpama Sutta recently I am struck by a parallel. Selfhood in the Pāli texts is often summarised in the phrase:
etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā.
this is mine, I am this, this is my self.
I suggest that:
etaṃ mama = this is mine = mineness.
eso'hamasmi = I am this = centredness.
eso me attā = this is my self = selfhood.
The order is different but the criteria are almost identical. I've recently argued that these are general observations, and not specifically connected with Brahmanical ideas about ātman with which the only minimally overlap.[1] Buddhists will hopefully be familiar with the traditional analytical approach to deconstructing these statements, so I can focus on Metzinger's approach.

Drawing on work by Antonio Damasio and Ronald Melzack, Metzinger proposes we replace the notion of a 'self' with a theoretical entity which he calls a Phenomenal Self Model. This is a representational system, created in the brain, the content of which is us, ourselves. "We" are in fact a simulation. We simulate and emulate ourselves for ourselves, and thereby create what we call consciousness. This model is rooted in our proprioceptive sense (the information derived from muscle tension, inner-ear and other bodily sensations) according to Melzack; and in our bodily systems (especially endocrine, blood and viscera) and emotions according to Damasio. These (probably both) generate a constant input which is modelled in the brain for the purposes of regulation and optimisation. This model is sub-personal, it is not a 'person' in our heads directing our actions (there is no homunculus as it used to be called). What we call our 'self' is in fact simply a representation of our bodily, and mental states, combined with a representation of representing (reflexive awareness).

However this model is transparent to us - we do not understand ourselves to be relating to a model of reality, we understand ourselves to be relating to reality. This is because the processes which generate the model are not available to introspection - they happen too fast, and too seamlessly for us to see them. There was a clear evolutionary advantage to having this ability to model reality and use that model to guide our actions; but there is no advantage in knowing that we are doing this - we see a danger and react, but to complicate things by seeing the picture of a danger in our head as a picture would only slow our reactions down, and we would not survive. For Metzinger the transparency of the Phenomenal Self Model is a strong limit that we cannot break through. It only becomes obvious through detailed analysis of what goes wrong with consciousness in specific brain injuries. We are all naive realists according to Metzinger, i.e we think we interact directly with reality, because that is how it feels. It is probably this naive realism that makes us resistant to reductive explanations of consciousness - whether Buddhist or scientific. The mechanisms of consciousness are not available to introspection, but we feel (want, assume) it to be something more than simple biological processes, and we are baffled by complexity generally so we think of consciousness as something rather magical. We may be wrong.

Metzinger's critique of the idea of a first-person perspective centres on the way that the Phenomenal Self Model can go wrong. In the case of "mineness" for example, we get cases where our thoughts do not seem to under our control, as in schizophrenia. In unilateral hemi-neglect a person may not recognise their limbs as their own. In alien hand syndrome one of the hands appears to act independently of our conscious will. Likewise some delusional people experience everything that happens as caused by their intention - Metzinger relates meeting a person who stood all day looking out the window making the sun move. In the rubber-hand experiment we find that an artificial hand can become included in our body image by confusing the physical and visual senses. Finally he cites the case of a woman born with no arms or legs who never-the-less has phantom limb sensations. Having never had limbs where could such phantoms come from if not the brain itself? The sense of mineness is actually prone to error in many ways which would not be possible if it actually reflected our bodies. The sense of ownership is generated within the Phenomenal Self Model, within the brain.

Similarly the sense of selfhood is prone to malfunction. Various disorders of the dissociative type show that what R. D. Laing called 'ontological security' is by no means assured, and some people experience a complete breakdown of their sense of being a self, while remaining conscious. Or we may, through delusion, wrongly identify ourselves as some other person.

The first person perspective also capable of being disrupted: in out of body experiences for instance (which Metzinger has vivid experience of); and in mystical experiences of oneness with the universe. Compare Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her stroke in which the left-hemisphere of her brain shut down. (TED) Taylor's description of the breakdown of the first person perspective is similar to the mystical experience sometimes called oceanic boundary loss that is described by mystics of many traditions. Note that Taylor lost all language, the ability to speak, memory of who she was, and the ability to walk, but she did not lose consciousness nor the ability to make intentions or memories. However Taylor associates "I am" with the left hemisphere of the brain which "shut down" during here stroke - she remained conscious and aware, but with no sense of "I am".

So Metzinger argues that all of this plasticity and bugginess [my choice of terms] in the three qualities tells us that they do not exist as such, but are elements of a simulation. Consciousness, self-consciousness is a virtual reality. He sums up the idea with an annotated statement about the process of cognition.
I myself [the content of the currently active transparent self model] am seeing this object [the content of the transparent object-representation] and I am seeing it right now [as an element within a virtual window of presence (i.e. working memory)] with my own eyes [the simple story about "direct" sensory perception, which suffices for the evolutionary purposes of the brain].
He says "of course you don't see with your eyes!" We see with our visual perception systems. But we cannot experience these systems working, we just experience seeing. In the final part of the lecture two questions emerge from the the title of the lecture series which concerns the question of "the immortality of the soul". The first is: is the self an illusion? "For the self to be an illusion," says Metzinger, "there would have to be someone whose illusion it was, and there is no one," thus: "if it is an illusion, it is no one's illusion". The second question relates to immortality, and to this idea he says: "strictly speaking nobody is ever born, and nobody ever dies". His phrasing perhaps suggests a Vedanta outlook (we know he meditates but not in what tradition).

Having begun with the familiar and traversed some unfamiliar territory, we find ourselves back on familiar ground with these last statements. It sounds a lot like Buddhism - from a non-Buddhist scientific philosopher. But note that Metzinger is saying that the process is transparent, that it is not available to introspection - he does not seem to allow for a radical change in consciousness like bodhi. In traditional Buddhist terms there is no possibility of direct contact with reality - this becomes a contradiction in terms because consciousness is only a simulation. In my own terms, which derive mainly from the writing of Sue Hamilton, he does not allow for access to the khandhas, the apparatus of experience: he allows for no insight into the creation of a first person perspective which might allow for liberation from it in a positive sense. I believe, to some extent I know, that in meditation the Self Model becomes opaque and available to introspection.

In The Ego Tunnel Metzinger explores some of the ethical and even spiritual implications of his theory, and here he says some very interesting and attractive things which I will try to write about at some point. For more on Metzinger's theory see the self-model page on Scholarpedia.

  1. In making this claim I am consciously and explicitly contradicting both K. R. Norman and Richard Gombrich who see this particular phrase as a specific echo of the early Upaniṣads - Chāndogya in the case of Norman, and Bṛhadāranyaka for Gombrich. Part of my rebuttal is précised in the post Early Buddhists-and ātman/brahman - while the whole argument is set out in a longer but not quite finished essay. Suffice it to say, I do see a connection of a sort, but nothing to indicate that the Buddha had any direct contact with Upaniṣadic sages or was directly dealing with issues central to their texts. The papers I am thinking of are:
    • Gombrich, Richard. (1990) 'Recovering the Buddha’s Message.' The Buddhist Forum: Seminar Papers 1987-88. Ed. T. Skorupski, London, SOAS.
    • Norman, K. R. (1981) 'A note on attā in the Alagaddūpama-sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy (Memorial volume for Pandit Sukhlaji Sanghvi), Ahmedabad, pp. [Reprinted in Collected Papers, Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1991; vol. ii, p.200-209.]

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