What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger
by Michael W. Taft
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.
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.
There is no thing like “the self.” Nobody ever had or was a self.
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.