Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger

Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel is a provocative look at the nature of consciousness. Metzinger takes an innovative approach to the questions and raises some interesting issues without seeming to have a strong grasp of the subject.

Metzinger's project is to explore the nature of consciousness by examining two neglected states of awareness: out-of-body experiences (OOBEs), and lucid dreaming. He argues that studying these phenomena will illuminate the problem of consciousness and make everything clear. I'll agree that the exploration was intriguing, but I don't think we learned anything important over what Dennett made clear in Consciousness Explained. At the end, Metzinger heads out to left field for some completely ungrounded speculations about AI and ethics. In these areas, he's clearly way out of his depth. He doesn't understand what's been done in AI, or what's possible, and his claims about the "obvious" rights of artificial creatures and how it wouldn't be moral to treat them is unconvincing.

When introducing the idea of studying unusual states of consciousness, Metzinger makes the reasonable point that there is enough consistency in the experiences reported during OOBEs and lucid dreaming that it makes sense to take a look at them and see whether the commonalities are instructive. I thought he did a good job of drawing some clear lines around what it feels like to be conscious in comparison to other states in which there is awareness without self-awareness. The title comes from his metaphor of an "Ego Tunnel" as a constrained mental space encompassing the limited set of things that one is aware of at a moment in time. Metzinger points to recent fMRI work and claims that neurophysiologists are finding a neural correlate of consciousness, which they can identify in the brain, and so they can conclusively say that lucid dreaming and OOBEs are conscious states. It's not clear to me that whatever the MRIs are finding really corresponds to the same thing we mean by consciousness, but the argument that these are conscious states is convincing enough without that evidence. He brings up the idea of mirror neurons, and points toward an interesting argument that this feature of our brain is responsible for our being able to model ourselves as an active agent like others we can observe. This argument only occupied a couple of pages, and ended (I thought) inconclusively.

Unfortunately, Metzinger's identification of these mental states as reasonably corresponding to consciousness doesn't enable him to say any more about what consciousness is, what survival-related purpose it serves, or anything coherent about consequences. He tries to talk about AI and ethics, but his justification doesn't get beyond the level of our responsibility for our creations, and the primacy of experience. For him, it's obvious that it would be immoral to turn off anything that has experiences, so in his view, we shouldn't even explore the creation of artificial creatures, since we can't establish a theoretical lower bound for what it would mean to have experiences. This is a much deeper subject than he seems aware of, and he barely brushed the surface of it. With his (apparently) shallow understanding of the issues, his speculations are hard to take very seriously.

I thought the first two thirds of the book were worth reading for their exploration and presentation of how OOBEs and lucid dreaming relate to consciousness. The fMRI and other studies of these states may add significantly to our understanding of how the brain works and eventually to a clearer explanation of what's happening in the neurons during thought and consciousness.

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