We are Ego Machines, natural information-processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is a tool—one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behavior and understanding the behavior of others. We each live our conscious life in our own Ego Tunnel, lacking direct contact with outside reality but possessing an inward, first-person perspective. We each have conscious self-models—integrated images of ourselves as a whole, which are firmly anchored in background emotions and physical sensations. Therefore, the world simulation constantly being created by our brains is built around a center. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our selfmodels as models. The Ego Tunnel gives you the robust feeling of being in direct contact with the outside world by simultaneously generating an ongoing “out-of-brain experience” and a sense of immediate contact with your “self.”
We are Ego Machines, but we do not have selves. We cannot leave the Ego Tunnel, because there is nobody who could leave. The Ego and its Tunnel are representational phenomena: They are just one of many possible ways in which conscious beings can model reality. Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world, and the Ego is merely a complex physical event—an activation pattern in your central nervous system.
Strictly speaking, there is no essence within us that stays the same across time, nothing that could not in principle be divided into parts, no substantial self that could exist independently of the body. A “self” in any stronger or metaphysically interesting sense of the word just does not seem to exist. We must face this fact: We are selfless Ego Machines.
It is hard to believe this. You cannot believe it. This may also be the core of the puzzle of consciousness: We sense that its solution is radically counterintuitive. The bigger picture cannot be properly reflected in the Ego Tunnel—it would dissolve the tunnel itself. Put differently, if we wanted to experience this theory as true, we could do so only by radically transforming our state of consciousness.
Obviously, the evolutionary process that created our bodies, our brains, and our conscious minds was not a goal-directed chain of events. We are gene-copying devices capable of evolving conscious selfmodels and creating large societies. We are also capable of creating fantastically complex cultural environments, which in turn shape and constantly add new layers to our self-models. We created philosophy, science, a history of ideas. But there was no intent behind this process—it was the result of blind, bottom-up self-organization. Yes, we have the conscious experience of will, and whenever we engage in philosophy, science, or other cultural activities, we experience ourselves as acting intentionally. But cognitive neuroscience is now telling us that this very engagement may well be the product of a self-less, bottom-up process generated by our brains.
The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognizing they are self-less Ego Machines. The biological imperative to live—indeed, live forever—was burned into our brains, into our emotional self-model, over the course of millennia. But our brand-new cognitive self-models tell us that all attempts to realize this imperative will ultimately be futile. Mortality, for us, is not only an objective fact but a subjective chasm, an open wound in our phenomenal self-model. We have a deep, inbuilt existential conflict, and we seem to be the first creatures on this planet to experience it consciously. Many of us, in fact, spend our lives trying to avoid experiencing it. Maybe this feature of our self-model is what makes us inherently religious: We are this process of trying to become whole again, to somehow reconcile what we know with what we feel should not be so. In this sense, the Ego is the longing for immortality. The Ego results in part from the constant attempt to sustain its own coherence and that of the organism harboring it; thereby arises the constant temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favor of emotional well-being.
The Ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics—and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves. Since our inbuilt existential need for full emotional and physical security can never be fulfilled, we have a strong drive toward delusion and bizarre belief systems. Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons. Whereas spirituality might be defined as seeing what is—as letting go of the search for emotional security—religious faith can be seen as an attempt to cling to that search by redesigning the Ego Tunnel. Religious belief is an attempt to endow your life with deeper meaning and embed it in a positive metacontext—it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home. It is a strategy to outsmart the hedonic treadmill. On an individual level, it seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state—as good as or better than any drug so far discovered. Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies.
Everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened—foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against—not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.
One of the most important philosophical tasks ahead will be to develop a new and comprehensive anthropology—one that synthesizes the knowledge we have gained about ourselves. Such a synthesis should satisfy several conditions. It should be conceptually coherent and free of logical contradictions. It should be motivated by an honest intent to face the facts. It should remain open to correction and able to accommodate new insights from cognitive neuroscience and related disciplines. It must lay a foundation, creating a rational basis for normative decisions—decisions about how we want to be in the future. I predict that philosophically motivated neuroanthropology will become one of the most important new fields of research in the course of this century.
In Western societies, the Judeo-Christian image of humankind—whether you are a believer or not—has secured a minimal moral consensus in everyday life. It has been a major factor in social cohesion. Now that the neurosciences have irrevocably dissolved the Judeo-Christian image of a human being as containing an immortal spark of the divine, we are beginning to realize that they have not substituted anything that could hold society together and provide a common ground for shared moral intuitions and values. An anthropological and ethical vacuum may well follow on the heels of neuroscientific findings.
This is a dangerous situation. One potential scenario is that long before neuroscientists and philosophers have settled any of the perennial issues—for example, the nature of the self, the freedom of the will, the relationship between mind and brain, or what makes a person a person—a vulgar materialism might take hold. More and more people will start telling themselves: “I don’t understand what all these neuroexperts and consciousness philosophers are talking about, but the upshot seems pretty clear to me. The cat is out of the bag: We are gene-copying bio -robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe. We have brains but no immortal souls, and after seventy years or so the curtain drops. There will never be an afterlife, or any kind of reward or punishment for anyone, and ultimately everyone is alone. I get the message, and you had better believe I will adjust my behavior to it. It would probably be smart not to let anybody know I’ve seen through the game. The most efficient strategy will be to go on pretending I’m a conservative, old-fashioned believer in moral values.” And so on.
The current explosion of knowledge in the empirical mind sciences is completely uncontrolled, with a multilevel dynamic of its own, and its speed is increasing. It is also unfolding in an ethical vacuum, driven solely by individual career interests and uninfluenced by political considerations. In the developed countries, it is widening the gap between the academically educated and scientifically well-informed, who are open to the scientific worldview, and those who have never even heard of notions such as “the neural correlate of consciousness” or “phenomenal selfmodel.” There are many people who cling to metaphysical belief systems, fearing that their inner Lebenswelt, or life-world, will be colonized by the new mind sciences. On the global level, the gap between developed and developing countries is widening as well: More than 80 percent of the human beings on this planet, especially those in poorer countries with growing populations, are still firmly rooted in prescientific cultures. Many of them will not even want to hear about the neural correlates of consciousness or the phenomenal self-model. For them especially, the transition will come much too quickly, and it also will come from countries that systematically oppressed and exploited them in the past.
The growing divide threatens to increase traditional sources of conflict. Therefore, leading researchers in the early stages of the Consciousness Revolution have a responsibility to guide us through. Scientists and academic philosophers cannot simply confine themselves to making contributions to a comprehensive theory of consciousness and the self. If moral obligation exists, they must also confront the anthropological and normative void they have created. They must communicate their results in laymen’s language and explain the developments to those members of society whose taxes pay their salaries. They cannot simply put all their ambition and intelligence into their scientific careers while destroying everything humankind has believed in for the past twenty-five hundred years.
Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.