Skip to content

What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger

what is the self

by Michael W. Taft

what is the selfThomas 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.


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.

[x_blockquote type=”center”]There is no thing like “the self.” Nobody ever had or was a self.[/x_blockquote]

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 is entirely determined by local processes in the brain at every instant. Ultimately, it’s a physical process. The best way to describe self consciousness is as a representational process: an image that is sometimes generated in the brain. 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 could exist independently of the brain.

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

Thomas Metzinger: It’s the robust phenomenology of the self—the very convincing sense that we are somebody—that makes this 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 a dramatic statement or dramatic 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 substance like the self that can exist independently of the brain. In science and philosophy, the a concept of such a metaphysical self is long gone.

But somehow for our life in the world, the feeling of being a self is very important. 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 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.

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. 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 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, these experiences may not be fully veridical, but just adaptive. It may be functional to have the robust experience that you are in control, but from an from the third person perspective of science, it seems that such experiences may not reflect the truth of our nature. The self is not a thing, but a process.


Follow Thomas Metzinger on Twitter


Read more about the deconstruction of the sense of self here


12 thoughts on “What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger”

  1. Michael, I think Tom is wrong. From his comments, he seems to be a philosophical materialist. To be brief, how does one explain abstract thought in materialistic terms. Take for example, the concept of justice. We do not have any picture of that concept, yet it is very real. In other words, reality cannot be explained solely in material terms. I spell this out some more in my book, “The Most Important Crisis Facing the 21st. Century”.

    1. Thomas is definitely a materialist to the nth degree. And if you listen to his latest podcast with Sam Harris, it’s clear that he feels the so-called “hard problem” is not a real difficulty at all. According to Thomas, the mystery of consciousness will be solved by 2050, and will involve nothing more than neurons in the brain meat.

      1. (Not sure if I’m messing up the order of comments or if I’m supposed to tag the person I’m replying to. This one is to MWT.)

        Your take on this is a bit odd to me, because I find that I agree with what he is saying, but I don’t see how it dismisses the hard problem of consciousness, even if Thomas himself doesn’t think there is a hard problem. The hard problem is very real, and will not merely involve figuring out how neurons do it, in my opinion.

        1. Just saying that the hard problem is very real won’t make Thomas agree with that, however. He doesn’t think it’s a problem at all. He’s not alone in that opinion, either.

          1. Sorry for a late comment. I really liked Thomas explanations, very clear and to the point, and I totally agree with them. Just wanted to point that the problem of “Self” (whether “Self” is an independent reality or just a mental construct) has nothing to do with materialism. I personally belong to the David Chalmer’s camp and believe that the hard problem is real. But the question whether the consciousness can or can not be generated by matter has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of Self. Even if the consciousness (as an ability to have a conscious experience of qualia) is ontological and can not be reduced to matter, it does not mean that it has any “Self”.

            I agree with Thomas statement: “the self represents a very strong phenomenal experience of sameness”. But it’s the sameness of the experiencing ability of consciousness that we mistakenly ascribe to the “Self”. In other words, we thing that there is “something”, an “entity”, that is always present and always the same in our experience. But in fact it’s only the ability to experience qualia (consciousness in Chalmers terms) that is always present and never changes in our experience.

            Buddists were first to discover this some ~15 centuries before modern philosophers and called this ability to experience “the nature of mind”, “Buddha’s nature”, Rigpa and so on. That was not the part of the original Buddha’s teaching by the way, it’s a later discovery of Buddhism and seems to be influenced by the development of Advaita in India. But Advaita was never able to differentiate between the concept of “Self” and the consciousness while the Buddhists realized that the “Self” has nothing to do with the “nature of mind”. Possibly the Buddha’s original teaching of anatta (non-reality of self) helped them to get to that realization.

      2. What you say about the concept of justice is interesting to me since I have had several discussions about the nature of concepts in relation to reality. I think that concepts are not real things in the sense that material objects are. They are real only as far as we can imagine and intend them to represent aspects of our conscious experience.

        1. Your position is Cartesian duality, in which the “soul” is completely and forever separate from the material world. But concepts certainly exist and are real in the sense that they represent a constellation of information in the physical neurons of a brain. Information is not imaginary.

          1. I don’t see how you figure that I’m a Cartesian dualist. I don’t believe in the existence of a “soul”, or any soul-like entity.

            1. The hard problem (in short) says that consciousness cannot be generated by the brain—or at least there’s no likely explanation for how consciousness arises from the “meat.” Most people (perhaps not you) use this as an “explanation” for why consciousness has to be something “more” than meat-based.

    Let us know what you think