The Ego Tunnel and the Nature of Reality

Thomas Metzinger’s new book The Ego Tunnel weaves research in out-of-body experiences, lucid dreaming, phantom limbs and other extraordinary human occurrences with leading edge neuroscience to create a convincing picture of how neural activity constantly creates what we experience as reality. Our entire experience of what is; our bodily sensations, our identity and our experience of the world ‘out there’ is generated, according to Metzinger, by our magnificent brains. This central thesis is not dissimilar from some of the foundational ideas about reality forwarded by the American Pragmatist philosopher William James.

Typically we experience ourselves as entities – things – living in a world. We have been taught to imagine ourselves as having sense organs that take in information about the outside world through our experience of sight, taste, sound, touch and smell. From this information about the world our brain puts together a coherent picture of that world and ourselves in it. We generally assume that everything that we experience as real is real, at least to a significant extent. We assume without question that there is an actual world, full of trees, and buses and other people, etc. We believe generally without question that there really is a ‘me’ with a body who experiences the actual world through my senses.

Experimental research and our most recent understanding of how our brains work seem to point to a very different possibility. The brain itself creates everything that we experience as real. Somehow the snap, crackle and pop of electrical synapses in our heads produces a continuous experience of a world out there, an entity in here that is experienced as an “I”, and every other perception that this entity called “I” sees as real.

Fundamentally Metzinger is challenging what is called a representational view of the mind and brain. The origins of that particular view of the mind can be traced most strongly back to Renee Descartes. In that view the job of the mind is to take in sensory data and create a representational picture of the real world as it exists outside of us. The American Pragmatists, along with other early 20th century philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, were also challenging this representational view of reality and its inherent mind/world duality.

According to Metzinger we are not entities with bodies living in a world as we have assumed. We are, in fact, living in a tunnel of pure experience created by our brains – an ego tunnel. Those who have watched the TV series Star Trek, The Next Generation will recognize this as the holodeck. The significant difference between Metzinger’s Ego Tunnel and the holodeck aboard the starship Enterprise is that in the holodeck we are in a room having a virtual experience. In the ego tunnel even our experience of ourselves is part of a virtual experience. It is the holodeck without the deck.

The one philosophical problem I can’t quite get my head around yet in this view is the privileged place that my brain takes among all other real objects. According to the view put forward in the book everything that I am not experiencing is being produced by my brain. My waking reality is more like a dream than a reality. The only thing that is not part of the dream then is the brain itself that is producing the experience. The fingers that are typing on my keyboard right now our merely an experience of fingers typing. Everything else in the room is similarly an unreal projection of my mind. Everything except the mind itself; it has to be real because it is creating the projection. It seems to me that the Cartesian duality of mind and matter still needs to be dealt with.

William James put forward a similar conception of reality and he spoke of human beings as that ‘trains of pure experience.’ James went one step further and said that everything is made entirely of pure experience. Experience is the only “stuff” of reality James stated and anything and everything else that exists only exists as an experience. There is nothing but experience in reality.

In either case – I believe that challenging a purely representational model of the mind and reality is one of the most important philosophical projects of our time. And I will devote a few more blog posts to Metzinger’s book and James’ philosophy so that we can get clearer about why it is so important.