Thomas Metzinger
The Ego Tunnel

The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self
Perseus Books 2009

In this book, I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as a self. Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self...
To the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences.

The appearance of a world

Consciousness is the appearance of a world. The essence of the phenomenon of conscious experience is that a single and unified reality becomes present: if you are conscious, a world appears to you. This is true in dreams as well as the waking state, but in dreams as deep sleep, nothing appears: the fact that there is a reality out there and that your present in it is unavailable to you; you do not even know that you exist.


Conscious experiences are full-blown mental models in the representational space opened up by the gigantic neural network in our heads - and because this space is generated by a person possessing a memory and moving forward in time, it is a tunnel.
If something like this is taking place all the time, why don't we ever become aware of it? Antti Revonsuo invokes the world simulation model to explain why the sense of presence you are enjoying right now is only an inner, subjective kind of presence. The idea is that the content of consciousness is the content of a simulated world in our brains, in the sense of being there is itself a simulation.

Consciousness is a new kind of organ. Biological organisms evolved to different kinds of organs. One kind, such as the liver or the heart, forms part of organism’s hardware. Organs of this type or permanently realised. Then there are virtual organs – feelings (courage, anger, desire) and a phenomenal experience of seeing coloured objects or hearing music or having a certain episodic memory. The immune response, which is realised only when needed, is another example of a virtual organ. Vital organs are like physical organs in that they fulfil a specific function; they are coherent assemblies of functional properties that allow you to do new things. Though part of the behavioural repertoire on the macro level of observable traits, they can also be seen as composed of billions of concerted micro events - immune cells or neurons firing away.

We are Ego Machines, natural information processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is the tool - one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behaviour and understanding the behaviour 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 the centre. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our self- models 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”.
The conscious experience of being a self emerges because a large portion of the self-model in your brain is, as philosophers would say, transparent.
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 meta-context - it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home.
We will now have to assume that the universe has an intrinsic potential for subjectivity. We will suddenly understand that the physical universe evolved not only life and biological organisms with nervous systems but also consciousness, world models, and robust first person perspectives, thereby opening the door to what might be called the social universe: to high-level symbolic communication, to the evolution of ideas.

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