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.

6 thoughts on “THE EGO TUNNEL”

  1. I haven’t read Metzinger’s book. In reading this passage, I’m not entirely certain where he is coming from and what he is pointing toward. Does he talk about an egoic consciousness as the cultural, linguistic, and metaphorical process of an interiorized sense of space and temporal experience of narratized self-identity? Or anything along those lines?

    I’m specifically thinking of Julian Jaynes bicameral mind, although there are similar theories such as that of Iain McGilchrist. There are also those like Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore who focus on memetic theory and the bundle theory of mind. I could list many others as well. Does Metzinger draw upon these related theories and connect them with a larger view? Many other thinkers are already attempting to translate the new findings and insights for a general audience, to explain why it matters in our daily lives and in the kind of society we create.

    One of the most fruitful directions is linguistic relativism, with some overlap with Dawkin’s memetics, not to mention Lakoff’s metaphorical framing and Lewis Hyde’s discussion of metonymy. Recent research into language has shown fascinating results. Some great insights can be found by reading books by Daniel Everett and his son, Caleb Everett. Language would be a key component in promoting change, since it is so central to every aspect of our lives. There has been much discussion about how this relates to political rhetoric, media narratives, and public debate. Even for those who are more informed and aware, we are just as stuck in the established linguistic conventions of everyday speech. The habits of the egoic self run deep. If we want to think, perceive and behave differently, at the very least we have to learn to use language differently.

    I’ll read Metzinger’s book one of these days. I’m just curious for the moment how he sees change happening, specifically in connection to to others promoting related views and understandings. How does one make these insights relevant and compelling to a greater number of people? Obviously, these concerns aren’t limited to social scientists and neuroscientists. I’ve spent years obsessing over this topic and I’m just a working class bloke without a college degree. I wouldn’t underestimate the average person’s ability and willingness to recognize the mass failure of modern hyper-individualism. Many people are ripe for a new understanding.

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  2. Hi! thanks for your thoughtful comments! I found Metzinger’s book really interesting, but some of the ‘science’ was a bit over my head (like yourself, I have been obsessing about this for some time but I am no academic, just someone trying to understand himself and the world)… I have just today finished reading Blackmore’s ‘Meme Machine’ and have also recently read Jaynes’ ‘Origin of Consciousness…’ and also D.Everett’s ‘Language: The Cultural Tool’ – All books that have had a huge impact and dramatically shaped the way I think (or want to think).

    For a while now I have been interested in the narrative/linguistic construct of the self (it was Charles Eisenstein that recently set me on this path) and I think Blackmore’s memetics makes a lot of sense alongside this. I am always wary of committing myself to one theory over/or another, rather I feel as though the more ideas I read, the clearer things become (or the muddle lessens, at least). It is so very hard to use words to describe this, as I am sure you understand! I am just about to start reading McGilchrist’s ‘Master and his Emissary’ after stumbling across your blog and being inspired.

    I completely agree that the egoic self runs deep, and, personally, I have not met anyone who would be willing (able to?) to renounce it! Language clearly plays a major part in all of this. With regards to alternatives: One of my favourite writers is Robert Anton Wilson. He talks a lot about Alfred Korzybski’s E-Prime (a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be). Another alternative language I came across recently is Toki Pona I think you’re right that a lot of people have recognized the mass failure of modern hyper-individualism, but I think it is another giant step to acknowledging the need for a different type of consciousness, and the practical implementation of that. To be perfectly honest, most of the people I try and have a conversation about this with end up concerned for my mental well-being… Ha!


    1. I too hold theories lightly. A view is useful to the degree it helps us to question and doubt and hopefully to think and see in new ways. If it accomplishes that, it is a success… whether or not it ends up being entirely true.

      That is what I like about Jaynes, not just his theory but his way of challenging assumptions and being driven by insatiable curiosity. Jayne’s theory is a thought experiment that forces our mind out of the deep ruts of cultural bias. McGilcrhist is also a good thinker, although his thought experiment goes in a different direction, somewhat of an opposite conclusion to that of Jaynes. Both make many good points. If you like this kind of thinking, I’d recommend the collections put out by Marcel Kuijsten. Another related writer is Brian J. McVeigh and he has a new book out.

      Oh yeah, Robert Anton Wilson. His books were some of the first I read that set me on this path. I began reading him maybe in the mid-1990s, after graduating from high school. That was the psychedelic period of my life. Reading RAW and imbibing psychedelics, a fruitful combination. It was back then when I had my first introduction to linguistic relativism, but I don’t remember where I read about it. RAW certainly discusses language quite a bit. I should revisit RAW’s books for it has been a while.

      I’m somewhat familiar with Korzybski. I forget what RAW wrote about him, but he also came up in writings by and about William S. Burroughs. His being influenced by Korzybski was closely related to his interest in Scientology. It was all part of his focus on word virus, cut-up technique, etc. I was reading about this recently, from a number of books. There is a collection of writings, Word Virus, that includes a short intellectual biography about Burroughs (“The Name Is Burroughs” by James Grauerholz) and two pieces by Burroughs (“Electronic Revolution” & “Immortality”) that mention Korzybski (Scientology also gets discussed a fair bit). I would note that ‘word virus’ was one of the precursors to memetics, a general idea that has been floating around for a while.

      I’ve never heard of Toki Pona. I do know that a number of invented languages like that exist, but I’ve never explored the topic to any great extent.

      As for your well-being, if your sanity is to be questioned, you are in good company. Some highly respected thinkers going back centuries have challenged conventional egoic identity. But no doubt even those great thinkers had their sanity questioned by quite a few. I could imagine how crazy Hume sounded to his contemporaries when he suggested the bundle theory of mind. Then again, the first guy to suggest the egoic theory of mind in bicameral society problem wasn’t treated all that well either. That is how it always is with each new worldview that threatens to transform identity.

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    2. The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will
      by Paul Breer
      Kindle Locations 806-835

      Throughout Western culture, the belief that we are the causes of our own behavior is implanted early in life and reinforced by every institution in society. That belief is supported, above all, by the language we use. We rarely speak without affirming agency: I think, I know, I have decided, I am sorry – the words force us to assume the existence of an agent separate from and responsible for the thought or feeling in which it is engaged. And yet, behavior can be separated from its agent, Nietzsche said,

      “only owing to the seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a “subject.” . . . But there is no such substratum; there is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; the “doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.” 9

      It is built into the metaphysics of our language that every action must have a doer, that every choice is made by an inner agent. The more forceful the action and the more difficult the choice, the more clearly we seem to feel the presence of the doer, but that presence is very likely no more than an artifact of the way we have defined our relationship to the world.

      In describing French psychoanalyst Lacan’s theory of mind, social commentator Sherry Turkle says that it is

      “impossible to express such a radically “anti-ego” theory in ordinary language: the language’s pronoun structure reflects our culturally embedded notions about subjectivity. From the moment that we begin to write or speak, we are trapped in formulations such as “I want,” “I do,” “I desire.” ” 10

      The problem is not limited to psychology. At the root of the agency assumption is a cognitive distortion, the effects of which extend throughout much of scientific inquiry. As Nietzsche put it a hundred years ago,

      “All its coolness, its freedom from emotion notwithstanding, our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of that little changeling, the “subject” (the atom, for example, is such a changeling, as is the Kantian “thing-in-itself”).” 11

      The test I employed in the last chapter to differentiate between person and agent can be used to illustrate how language reinforces the illusion that the agent is real. Consider for a moment how you feel when you say, “I made a great decision today.” Do you feel anything different when you substitute, “A great decision arose here today”? The second way of saying it removes all traces of agency. It is now the person talking. The decision took place here, in this body, on its own. There is no inner agent that can be credited with having made it happen, hence no pride to be taken in your having done it. Any shift in feeling you might have experienced as a result of the change in wording confirms the importance of language. It suggests that your sensation of being an agent owes much to the words you use and to the assumptions implicit in those words; by itself, however, that sensation proves nothing about the reality of an agent/I.

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  3. When I find myself being drawn into a system of thought (it happens all the time) I remind myself of RAW’s mantra “belief is the death of intelligence…”, the variations on the “map is not the territory” and also Alan Watts’ Chinese Farmer:

    I completely agree about Jaynes… I liked his “this essay is no exception” summary. I have Kuijsten and McVeigh on my amazon wishlist for the near future. I like to try and have a fiction and a non-fiction on the go at the same time, so I am about to start McGilchrist’s Master and his Emissary and I am also reading Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before. I watched McGilchrist’s Ted Talk again last night and I like what he says about context a lot, especially the example from music: the notes on their own have no meaning, neither the silences between, it is only the whole context that does. I feel as though the ‘whole’ (entire) context is forever out of reach, it is Heraclitus’ “everything flows” and also The Tao. I think Blackmore’s memetics fits with this nicely. One can assimilate an ‘enlightenment meme’ but, at least at the moment, I feel as though it is probably impossible to be free of all memes. As you mention above, it is frustratingly “impossible to express such a radically “anti-ego” theory in ordinary language…” I have not come across Paul Breer before but I have added that book to my wishlist too!

    I have read some Burroughs, but not extensively. He came up in my research again recently too: “the ticket that exploded” (which now, having read the wikipedia page, I see is to do with everything you mention above). Another one for the wishlist (I am yet to move to a kindle type device and my library is bordering on taking over my living space…)


    1. We should be kind and forgiving, both to ourselves and others. That is what I strive for, though falling short more often than I’d prefer. Even our failures at expressing kindness and forgiveness are in need of kindness and forgiveness. Life is tough enough without our endlessly beating ourselves up for being imperfect humans.

      It isn’t necessary to try to be free of all memes, as that easily becomes yet another ego game. RAW was more of the epistemological anarchist view that we have to choose our illusion, for exiting one reality tunnel seems to always lead to entering another one, but the key insight is that not all reality tunnels are equal and besides its useful learning how to shift one’s view. This resonates with Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way, seeking neither to affirm nor deny the ego, simply loosening one’s grip. It’s like weak atheism with its withholding of belief altogether, not believing in a god nor believing in a lack of a god.

      Balancing fiction and non-fiction is a good practice. I do try to keep some fiction on hand, although I read it more sporadically. The fiction book I’ve been reading at work lately is The Rage of Achilles by Terence Hawkins, partly informed by Julian Jaynes ( ). Also, the other day I picked up a graphic novel of Buddha’s life, just for the heck of it; it’s by Kieron Moore and Rajesh Naglaonda.

      But I get some of my fiction fix from a few of the higher quality tv shows. I saw The Handmaid’s Tale won an award and it deserves it. Man in the High Castle is great as well (I’m a big PKD fan), although I’m presently boycotting Amazon. I’ve enjoyed two new tv shows: Damnation that is about the populist farmer revolts in the 1920s (I wrote a post about it). And Happy! that is based on a comic series by Grant Morrison (I love his work). One of my most favorite recent shows is Westworld, as it delves deeply into Jaynes’ bicameral mind.

      About Burroughs, the best introduction to his work is his own readings. There are a lot of them out there. He had such an amazing voice that will permanently get stuck in your head. Similarly, Terence McKenna’s voice is also infectious, something I know from having listened to him for so many years as a guest on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM. McKenna, by the way, is an amusing person with crazy ideas. There is a lot of overlap between many of these people, which some of them acknowledged in mentioning the others. Curious and crazy minds think alike.

      I’ve sought a less harsh attitude toward all of this. With all the ways others seek to manipulate us with rhetoric and how many harmful memes are floating around, it’s easy to become cynical and mistrusting. Burrough’s and PKD took on somewhat of a Gnostic attitude, which I’ve been drawn to at times. Like Burroughs, I can have a severe mistrust of language as ‘word virus’ — McKenna has an interesting take on this. But I don’t want to live in a worldview of fear in struggling to keep the world at bay.

      I try to remember and emphasize the playful attitude many of these thinkers expressed, even Burroughs’ with his dark bent. In the end, the world is play, Lila. That might be the most important lesson we can learn.


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