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An Interview with Thomas Metzinger: What Is the Self?

You Are Not Who You Think You Are
Michael Taft

Thomas Metzinger, Ph.D. Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz Thomas Metzinger is currently Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and an Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study (FIAS). He is also Director of the Neuroethics Research Unit in Mainz and Director of the MIND Group at the FIAS.


Michael W. Taft:  You’ve written at great length about the experience of selfhood in human beings. So let’s start off by asking, What is the self?

Thomas Metzinger: The first thing to understand, I believe, is that there is no thing like “the self.” Nobody ever had or was a self. Selves are not part of reality, in the sense of elementary building blocks that endure over time. The first person pronoun “I” doesn’t refer to an individual object like a football or a bicycle, or to some mysterious category of invisible things—it just points to the speaker of the current sentence. The speaker simply is the person as a whole.

A self also couldn’t be something you “have” (as we might say it), because then there would be another little man hiding behind it and owning the self. It also couldn’t be something deep inside yourself, because the you would be identical with only one of your constituting parts. We are living systems, embodied, dynamic. In short, there is no thing in the brain or outside in the world, which is us. We are processes.

Selves are a very interesting and vivid and robust element of conscious experience in some animals. This is a conscious experience of selfhood, something philosophers call a phenomenal self, and how this self subjectively appears to the organism as a whole is entirely determined by local processes in the brain, at every instant, from moment to moment. Ultimately, it’s a physical process. Today, the best way to describe self consciousness still is as a representational process: an image that is sometimes generated in the brain, an internal placeholder for the system as a whole, a neurocomputational tool. Sometimes it’s not generated, for example in dreamless, deep sleep. It’s a very fragile and vulnerable, intermittent phenomenon, but there is no metaphysical entity such as the self which exists independently of the brain.

Michael W. Taft: Yet the experience of being a self, of being someone, is very persistent.

Thomas Metzinger: Absolutely—that is the amazing part of it: Something virtual is experienced as a reality, the system’s currently best hypothesis about itself becomes something that feels substantial a lived reality. It’s the robust phenomenology of the self—the very convincing sense that we are somebody—that makes this naïve misunderstanding so very easy for beings like us.  I think the self is an intermittent and complex process, but not a thing. This is not provocative at all, a dramatic statement or dramatic new theory. I would guess that most cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and almost all philosophers today would subscribe to the idea that is there no thing or metaphysical substance like the self that can exist independently of the brain. In science and philosophy, the concept of such a metaphysical self is long gone.

But somehow for our life, and in our biological history, the feeling of being a self is and was very important, and for many reasons. Complex organisms do not only have to predict the world, but also their own future behavior—they have to minimize surprise on all levels. They have to successfully control themselves, as a whole. A conscious self-model is a perfect tool to achieve this. If an animal or a child wants to learn how to develop future planning, control momentary impulses, delay rewards and so on, then it is critical that it has an inner image of itself—however delusional—that tells it: “It is you who will reap the fruits in the future; it is yourself who will get lung cancer if you keep on smoking; your preferences will remain stable and it will be your very own joy, satisfaction, your own suffering and regret!” One thing we are all beginning to understand is how self-deception can be adaptive. Probably evolution has built some stable forms of self-deception right into our conscious self-models. One important function is mortality denial, I guess. We like to believe in an innermost essence or core, because it allows us to deny our finitude, or at least leave an open door of hope for life after death. And that’s also why it’s not going to go away. I think the folk-psychological, folk-metaphysical notion of self is going to stay in our everyday life and in our culture.

Michael W. Taft: If the self is some kind of transient mental representation, what is its function?

Thomas Metzinger: The body and the mind are constantly changing. Nothing in us is ever really the same from one moment to the next. Yet the self represents a very strong phenomenal experience of sameness, and it’s clear this would be adaptive or helpful for a biological organism that needs to plan for the future. If you want to hide some food for winter or you want to save some money in your bank accounts or work on your reputation, you’re planning for future success and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t have the very strong feeling that it’s going to be the same entity that gets the reward in the future. That it was the same entity in the past that got cheated, injured, hurt by someone, and that is now longing for retaliation, revenge, or something like that. Obviously, for the evolution of culture, a fiction of personal identity was also necessary. Just think about responsibility and culpability in the context of evolving a legal system; or of the need to build a reputation in larger, growing groups of early human history. A self-model is not something in the brain or in philosophy, it is also something social and public. Personal websites and Facebook accounts are public self-models too—they have a function, and they make something happen.

So obviously in a biological or bodily context it may be good to have this experience that all of this, the reaping of the fruits, is going to happen to the same person. But again, strictly speaking, it’s never really happening to the same person, but it’s also not true that there is nobody there. Of course, there is a sufficient similarity over time, the organism survives, genes are copied, books are written. We don’t arbitrarily change and it’s kind of a flux. I like very much the image the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once used.

He said you could have a rope—a long rope made of very different strings of different color. And no string, neither the red string nor the blue nor the green one, would go through the whole length of the rope. Yet the rope could be very robust, strong, and stable, even though there is not one thread that goes through it from beginning to end. I think that’s a good image for how we are on the bodily level, as well as on a psychological level.

Despite this, we have robust experiences of autonomy and self-determination. We have the subjective experience of controlling our behavior, and we also have an experience of mental self- determination, controlling our attention, our mental state and all of these things. As modern science shows, some of these inner experiences may not be fully veridical, but just adaptive. Perhaps some of them are also efficient self-fulfilling prophecies. It may be functional to have the robust experience that you are in control, but from the thirdperson perspective of science, it seems that such experiences may not reflect the truth of our nature. What really happens is perhaps best described as an agent-free process of dynamical self-organization. This process has many layers – from the bodily to the social – and it manifests itself in itself, through conscious experience. Whenever we don’t understand something, we hallucinate a little man right into reality: a computer that suddenly “acts up”, weather gods causing thunder and throwing down lightning bolts, invisible demons causing diseases, Cartesian Egos that deliberately think their very own thoughts. It may work for a while, but it also causes considerable confusion. The self is not a thing, but a process.


Clarence McKinney
5 years ago

I wonder what is the difference between the self that Mr. Metzinger is referring to, and the physical organism—the human being—that obviously does exist.

Karen Wilmarth
5 years ago

This interview brings to mind the quote "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." But I still feel a definite kinship with my past self, even if we're not exactly identical, and I have trouble thinking of my self as not "real".

I think the only self that exists, exists on the level of clarity/pure awareness that underlies all consciousness. Our sense of an individual self exists merely as a wave on that ocean. Nondualism is not a new idea, but one that's finding new expression in some of the teachers alive today: Ekhardt Tolle, Adyashanti, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Candice O'Denver (my personal favorite), to name just a few.

Lindsay Starke
5 years ago

The self: humankind's most remarkable tool?

Ernest Barker
5 years ago

Self says I, "What do you think? Self, self ....  where did you go?". Oh no, self has left me. "Come back self, come back.  I promise to good, please come back, I need someone to talk to".  I must admit that I also think that self is a process, but at the same time it is a thing.  And, I do enjoy a little solitude, alone with the process of self. I see very little difference in a process and a thing.  A program running in the hardware of a computer is nothing more than a process and at the sametime it is a thing, I can interacte some programs just as I do with self. This comment is nothing more than the process of me writing my thoughts.  Yet this is a real thing, you are reading a real comment.

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