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invisible man wearing black bowler, surreal concept of absence of identity
invisible man wearing black bowler, surreal concept of absence of identity

Philosopher: I’m Neither Me, Myself nor I… Yet I Give Interviews!

Theoretical philosopher Thomas Metzinger tells his interviewer “Nobody ever had or was a self. Selves are not part of reality.”

It’s remarkable that given the abysmal logical state of modern neuroscience, modern philosophy of mind seems to be in a heated contest to be even more absurd. Secular meditation teacher Michael W. Taft interviewed leading theoretical philosopher Thomas Metzinger. Here is one set of Taft’s and Metzinger’s questions and answers, and my observations:

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. Selves are not something that endures over time. The first person pronoun “I” doesn’t refer to an object like a football or a bicycle, it just points to the speaker of the current sentence. There is no thing in the brain or outside in the world, which is us. We are processes… the self is not a thing but a process.

What could Metzinger possibly mean by “there is no thing like ‘the self’”? Myself is the term I use to refer to me. I (and my self) are very much a part of reality, and I most certainly endure over time. I am an object like a football — in a sense — in that I exist in the world, I have mass and shape, and I have come into existence and will someday go out of existence in this world. Obviously, I have many abilities that a football doesn’t have — I have a sum of powers (physiological, sensory, motor, emotional, mnemonic, and rational) that comprise my soul. I am a composite of matter and soul, just as all things in the world are composites of matter and form.

Thomas Metzinger

And Metzinger’s claim that we are not selves (“things”) but processes is unintelligible. A process is a state of change, and change presupposes a being that exists continuously through the process of changing.

This was the philosopher Aristotle’s seminal insight into the nature of change: Change presupposes the continuity of an underlying substrate. A process requires a real persisting object that undergoes it.

I certainly change over time, but it is I that change. I am a substantial real thing that persists through the change. After all, if I didn’t persist, it would be nonsensical to say I changed. If I didn’t persist, that would mean that I went into and out of existence at every moment. That would be the creation and destruction of an infinite series of human beings, not the change of a human being.

There’s a hilarious irony in Metzinger’s absurd claim that there is no self and that we are merely processes. Here’s what Taft says about him by way of introduction in the article:

Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher. As of 2011 he holds the position of director of the theoretical philosophy group at the department of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and on the advisory board of the Giordano Bruno Foundation. From 2008 to 2009 he served as a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; from 2014 to 2019 he is a Fellow at the Gutenberg Research College.

How could Metzinger “hold” any position (academic or otherwise) if he is an evanescent process without substantial enduring reality? I noted same gaffe in the theories of Susan Blackmore, who also denies the reality of the self.

The real test of a “theoretical philosopher” (as distinguished from an ‘actual’ philosopher) is on payday. Does Metzinger refuse to pick up his paycheck, on the grounds that it was not him, but various evanescent selves, that came to work last week?

I’ll take these lunatic denials of the self seriously when those who peddle them take them seriously enough to act on them.

You may also wish to read: Interview with a woman (or women) formerly called Susan Blackmore. A professor of psychology argues that there is no continuity between our present selves and our past selves. If her denial of personal continuity made sense, the video interview would be with Susan Blackmores or with countless women, one of whom was Susan Blackmore.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Philosopher: I’m Neither Me, Myself nor I… Yet I Give Interviews!