Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Who are We? The Phantomness of 'Self' among other things...

The last I heard a philosopher speak at a public event, was at Minneapolis in 2005. Peter Koestenbaum spoke of courage, will, ethics and reality from a business standpoint. A businessperson’s philosopher, I valued his perspective on guilt as a product of choice, and man’s essence as a chooser. His treatment of anxiety as the tunnel of growth left a mark from the relatively diminutive frame in which such sagely sense embodied itself.
Thomas Metzinger

Last evening I heard a German speak of the Phenomenal-self model (PSM). Thomas Metzinger says being a philosopher, he needs to wrestle conventional boundaries of the discipline as he traverses the neuro-sciences evenas he holds a chair on Theoretical Philosophy. The contrast for me between Koestenbaum and Metzinger had already been sharp.  Seeking neural correlates of the conscious self is a venture that modern day observations make possible through technology like virtual reality and even the relatively inexpensive $5 magic box of Viliyanur Ramachandran’s phantom limb fame.  

The brain as it turns out from Metzinger’s expositions yesterday has the capacity for self-deception too. The rubber hand illusion that constructs for us the sense of ‘ownership’ is one such piece of evidence. Hence Being No One is at once illusory and yet real. That robots can be designed to have a self-consciousness is something that scientists are already working on, as also constructing extension of this line of experiments via the internet.

Even if George Moore wrote early on the Refutation of Idealism, the transparency of our perceptions is composite now in the integrated internal representation of the organism as a whole – in the Transparent Phenomenal Self-Model. While this took me back immediately to System 1 and System 2 representations that Kanhemann talks of in terms of behavioural economics, the thin line between fantasy and constructionism began to develop meaning for me. Simultaneously, the following held sway in my mind.

1.       Marshall Mcluhan famously said nobody in the electric age will consider it sane to have a point of view, as one will pay attention to several aspects at the same time. Is the message the medium at all?
2.       What strange twist of attentional focus that I chose to look at Andre Beteille from the lens of philosophy itself?
3.       When virtual reality constructs images of the self technologically to confirm or disconfirm workings in the brain, parental re-imprinting and future pacing that we engage in NLP seem so much like cousins of the curiosity family with the connectedness gene.
4.       VERE experiments (Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment) hinge so closely to neuro-ethics, that the bias to watch for may continue to be a product of the optimism bias. Are researchers in this genre males, supremely confident of themselves, and held back in advance merely by the introceptive anchors in our body?
5.       The phenomenology of Immediacy and Identification or infinite proximity, may lunge us forward in hedonistic somnambulance, at the cost of reflective wholesomeness. Philosophy seems to be both urgent and important in this way to our times.

Like with the nature of paradoxes, the one that really resonates with me is this – that self-organising systems as may be in our body, may not have a physical correlate. Yet the self as subjectively experienced, or as psychologically constructed may contain the following elements :

1.       Temporal patterns of neural activity
2.       A neuro-biological self
3.       A representationalist self
4.       An unconscious self (although the relationship between psyche and soma is not yet clear)
5.       An Innate core – perhaps pre-existing even before we realise identity
6.       An evolutionary self that provides us with a body model for the self
7.       A Functionalist self

Metzinger’s work is both prolific and an invitation in empirical work to substantiate phenomenal experience. What struck me in the Bangalore audience was this. Questions were begging points of view from Thomas Metzinger, as in philosophical propositional logic. Like first-order conversations, while meaning requires second-order conversation especially if as in Metzinger’s work, evidence liberates us from convenient biases. There’s a pattern in our socialisation perhaps, that the arduous aspects of scientific enterprise are weighed down by a na├»ve self-understanding of the self. When in India would we ask questions of science?

Thanks again to the Azim Premji University, that I will now set my sight on Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, one of several tunnels in which I may be right now. In the meanwhile, let us brace ourselves for the optimism bias of democracy in India, where again, the supremacy of male over-confidence would hold sway in an uncritical socialisation of sentiment.


  1. Wonderful. It is a pleasure reading your blog and the value add you do by relevant comparisons. Keep it up

  2. Very kind of you, Sir. Intent to read brings you here. My fortune to have you here often.