Top positive review
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A work of science and philosophy that is both profound and 'spiritual'
on 8 March 2011
'Profound' is a much overused word but, with reference to Thomas Metzinger's book, 'The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self', it is wholly appropriate. This is a book that extends far below the surface of things, beyond the external and the superficial, that penetrates to the depth of our being and which touches, as a result, on the very things that many people hold to be the essence of what it is to be 'human'. Metzinger, in fact, does far more than merely touch on such things - he reaches right inside your guts, up to his shoulder and beyond, and roots about as though he's trying to turn you inside out; undoubtedly, many people won't appreciate having many of their most sacred notions challenged in quite this forceful a manner but this book encompasses both the sacred *and* the profane without being, I hasten to add, in the least bit contemptuous of those religious ideas, or mores, that it might appear to render utterly obsolete. If you're fired-up by the idea of discovering just how fantastically, mind-bogglingly, counter-intuitive reality 'really' is - or probably is - then this book is most certainly for you.
Metzinger succeeds, in my opinion, in two key respects: Firstly, in showing why the broad sweep of his own thinking, with regards to the reductionist 'science of mind', is most certainly both reasonable and plausible - given the evidence in front of us - and even quite probable. Secondly, he succeeds, brilliantly, in identifying and clarifying many of the implications, or perceived implications, of that thinking, should it turn out to be, in its essence, correct. For example, Metzinger writes (p.130):
"If one takes the scientific worldview seriously, no such things as goals exist, and there is nobody who selects or specifies an action. There is no process of "selection" at all; all we really have is dynamical self-organization. Moreover, the information-processing taking place in the human brain is not even a rule-based kind of processing. Ultimately, it follows the laws of physics. The brain is best described as a complex system continuously trying to settle into a stable state, generating order out of chaos."
So, whilst some might perceive this book, and the work that went into it, as an act of, quite literally, 'stripping away' our humanity, I suggest that this book is, in fact, a work of deep humanity since it amply exhibits much of what is best and greatest about humanity - superb intellect, tremendous critical thinking, a deep and abiding curiosity and last, but not least, a pervasive sense of empathy, warmth and humor. I, personally, was 'moved' as well as 'awed'; not bad for a work of science and philosophy, written by a mere academic.
Consider also the following (pp.130-131):
"According to the purely physical background assumptions of science, nothing in the universe possesses an inherent value or is a goal in itself; physical objects and processes are all there is. That seems to be the point of the rigorous reductionist approach - and exactly what beings with self-models like ours cannot bring themselves to believe. Of course, there can be goal representations in the brains of biological organisms, but ultimately - if neuroscience is to take its own background assumptions seriously - they refer to nothing."
In addition to the scientific theorizing, such as the above, Thomas Metzinger is clearly very interested in the reality of 'who we are', and is fully cognizant of the fact that reality may be such that "certain types of answers will not only be emotionally disturbing but ultimately impossible to integrate into our conscious self-models." Wrap your head around that, if you are willing and able. Some ideas, such as those under discussion, are (I suggest) difficult for all of us and profoundly (there's that word again) disturbing to many. This is precisely the direction, however, in which cutting edge science of mind seems, inexorably, to be leading us, yet Metzinger takes our questions and fears seriously and is never dismissive nor contemptuous.
Metzinger is both a professional 'scientist' and also a philosopher and, over this rocky terrain, he guides us with a sure hand, first as one and then as the other, to great overall effect. He is equally able when discussing with us both 'how' the world is - e.g. "The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality." (p.20) - as when discussing with us why it is that we see things the way we do, because "...we were all born as naïve realists [and have] the robust illusion of being directly in touch with the outside world..." (p.44).
There is, of course, much more that I could say about this book, and more quotes that I could provide, but, to summarize, Metzinger builds the case that the 'Ego', and the concomitant sense of 'self', is a construct of the human brain, an outgrowth of the evolutionary process, which enables us to integrate the imagining of an action with the carrying-out of the action itself and he accomplishes this, and so much more, in a way that is lively, engaging, compulsively readable and - above all - humane.