Ray Brassier in conversation with Thomas Metzinger

A Special Form of Darkness

Picture by Alex Woodward @ Crimson Glow Photography / Arika

Ray Brassier: I am going to begin, first of all, by talking about, or asking Thomas about the concept of transparency. The title of this event A Special Form of Darkness, actually comes from, is a quotation taken from Thomas’ work. The quotation is “The transparency is a special form of darkness.” And transparency in Thomas’ work is the idea that we experience the world through various complicated representational mechanisms. But we never represent these representational mechanisms themselves. We have minimal access to the machinery that conditions our subjective experience. The simplest way to understand transparency is that if you are looking through a window, the plain of glass which frames the optical vision, the optical image that you are contemplating, is not itself registered as an object in the visual field. In other words, the physical frame and a medium through which this visual scene is experienced is not itself part, or a component of the visual experience. So first thing, Thomas, is what I have said an adequate description of the concept of transparency. And why do you think it is such a crucial idea? Why do you think it has very, very, significant implications for understanding the way which we experience ourselves?

Thomas Metzinger: Well, a steep start. A difficult philosophical concept right in the beginning. So, in philosophy there are at least three technical uses of transparency. And the one you have mentioned is phenomenal transparency. So the first thing to notice is that it is a property of conscious states only. Unconscious states are neither transparent nor opaque. But it is not entirely true that all conscious states, all conscious experience, is transparent. If you remind me I will give some examples of opaque conscious states later. So let’s take a simple example, the idea is if you all have this conscious visual perception of this microphone here, right now, there are edges, there is surface, texture, there is a color. And in your conscious mind appears as a bound object. And even if you were to belief what scientist tell us that there are no colored objects in the world, and this is just an internal microphone model that is currently active in your visual system, in your brain, its hard to believe it, because its so ultra realistic. And transparency is about experiential realism. If we would have a picture of the microphone projected to the screen there, then you could say, I’ll go to the screen and look at it closely and I will see little pixels and then I will realize, oh, there is a projector, this is constructed, there is a medium, there is a screen, there is a light beam. With conscious experience you can’t do this. Even if you would believe what this crazy philosopher says that this is all just actually a reality model active in your brain right now. You can look a this microphone as hard as you want to. There are no pixels. And the empirical hypothesis is that the construction process in your brain is so fast and so reliable, optimized by millions of years of evolution that you just get the final product – the content – a microphone in front of me. And this is the reason that this is a transparently active neuronal representation in your brain, right now, that it seems so real to you. That you just cannot believe all this should be, as I’ve sometimes called it, a form of online dreaming. A form of a very complex, multi root simulation, right now. Why is this interesting? First thing, it explains why all of us are according to their own subjective experience, naive realists. I mean, it just feels real. You all, for instance, have the feeling that you’re situated in this room, right now. Embedded, its totally seamless and real, and in a way we know its not true. Could be the same in a dream. It’s determined by internal factors, the neuronal dynamics in your brain, right now. So, I will mention just two applications of this. In my own work the most interesting general step has been that I have applied this to the self model active in your brain, right now. So I have said that human self model is also transparent which means that the system harboring it, developing it, cannot experience it as a model. And that is how the quality of being someone, of selfhood, emerges in a informational processing system. If it operates under transparent self model it will, so to speak, be glued to the content of that self model. For instance, as you probably all right now have the experience that you are just directly in touch with your body, that you feel you body from the inside, you are not. You are introspecting the content of a model of your body. You could have that experience, in principle, as a disembodied brain in a liquid which was perhaps appropriately stimulated, or something like this. So its a local phenomenon in the brain, but the question is how does this super realistic experience A.) of not being in the brain, and B.) being someone, emerges? In a nutshell, my idea has been that this identification, this experience of being infinitely close to your self, that this is because of large parts of the human self model are transparent. There is a second thing – transparency is not only about microphones looking ultra realistic, or your arms feeling ultra realistic, or the whole scene. There are other forms of conscious experience. I will give an example: certainty. If you shake analytical philosopher and say: now what is that, what is certainty? He will say something very boring, for instance, like that this is this knowing that you know. If you know something and you also know that you know it – that is certainty. Now, we all have that, we all know the phenomenology of certainty, right? Sometimes we have these very deep intuitions. And we have this direct experience of certainty. This world exists. I exist. This isn’t asshole, I just looking to his face. Transparent [he clasps], right? And this experience if it’s transparent it feels ultra real but its just an appearance. So, it could be that there are things about which we have this very, very deep and solid experience of certainty, beliefs, intuitions, or something, and there is no certainty involved. You would need a completely independent argument to show that this is knowledge. So things could really feel like knowledge, and things could feel like certainty but they just could be a transparent representations in you brain.

Ray Brassier: OK. I think the point you’ve just made is very important. The fact that once we understand the notion of transparency we can’t invest phenomenological experience, which is to say, our immediate conscious experience of reality, with the kind of cognitive authority many philosophers want to invest with. In other words, many philosophers think that, you know, Descartes most famously, thinks that obviously you can reasonably doubt a lots of things. You can doubt that the world is, as it seems to be, in fact, you can entertain hypothesis that you’re in fact being systematically deceived about the nature of reality by an evil demon. And it’s plausible to think that you’re the victim of a vast conspiracy which is masking the true nature of reality. But what Descartes then says is the one thing you cannot doubt that you’re doubting, the experience, the subjective experience of bewilderment or of confusion is real, has a kind of an indubitable authority. Which is why Descartes basically argues that you can be wrong about how things are but you can’t be wrong about how thingsseem to you to be. So on this level, immediate conscious experience has, for Descartes, kind of epistemic authority. It means, you do know something, you know about how things seem to you. Now, one of the things that I think is suggested in your work, is that because we’re not entitled to be, because our certainty does not license cognitive certainty, it means that just because we’re absolutely convinced of something it does not mean that it really is … It doesn’t mean that we know about it.

Thomas Metzinger: What you mentioned is just that second notion of transparency: epistemic transparency. I mean, a classical assumption following Descartes for many people was: I cannot be wrong about the contents of my own mind. I can be wrong about the things in the world but I can’t be wrong about what is going on in my own conscious mind. And that is one thing that I think has historically flown out the window through hundred years of scientific neuropsychology in the last century. We know many cases where people are wrong about the contents of their own mind and not able to notice this fact.

Ray Brassier: Could you give some examples? I think this is very helpful …

Thomas Metzinger: There are different forms of the so called anosognosia, where people will have a disease and not be able to experience the fact that they have a disease. For instance, they may have a hemorrhage and their whole left side of the body will be paralyzed. And you come to them and they want to go home and you say how long have you’ve been here? They say, oh two weeks. And why do you think you’ve been here and people say, my left side is paralyzed but its not paralyzed. And you say, could you please take your left index finger and point at the doctors nose? And patient says: yes! And the arm, of course, does not move at all. You say, can you see you own finger in front of the doctor’s nose? And the patient says: yes I see it, right now. We have also extreme psychiatric syndromes like Cotard syndrome which is just basically like the mirror image of Descartes. Descartes said: I am certain that I myself exist because somebody has to think or doubt. And these Cotard patients they have what is called monothematic delusion. You can talk to them pretty well. They’re not completely crazy. But they defend a thesis that they’re dead or that they do not exist. And they demand, you know, take this body and throw it away, get disposed of it, get rid of it. So the have this firm, stable conviction that they do not exist. The first neurologist who diagnosed it, he call it nihilistic delusion. There are so many of these examples. I’ve seen videos with people with certain brain lesion, typically old people who can not recognize themselves in the mirror anymore. Mirror self-recognition, we now know, is – some chimps have it, bottle-nose dolphins have it, some elephants have it. Children develop it between 18 and 25 months – the capacity to recognize themselves on the video tape or in the mirror. And some human beings lose that after brain lesions or old age dementia. They have a problem that there is a stranger in the mirror. There is a strange person there always and they complain. I’ve seen this video where you stand with this patient in front of the mirror and say, so this is not you. And whose the person standing next to the person? That’s you. And I am holding your hand in front of the mirror. Yes, you’re. Do you see this hand in the mirror? Yeah, that’s your hand. And then you touch the patient’s hand and say: whose hand is that? That’s the other person’s hand. The amazing thing is that this, say, loss of self-recognition is so robust or so closed. Philosophers sometime say cognitively impenetrable. It does not help to argue or to explain to the patient. The phenomenal experience: it is not me in the mirror – stays absolutely robust. And that’s the trouble you have when you have transparent model of reality or of your self and something goes wrong. Then you suddenly have certainty that you do not exist. Certainty that there is a stranger in the mirror. Something that we have also learned, through science in the last century, is to finally take this people seriously. Don’t think they’re hysteric, or they try to catch our attention.

Ray Brassier: They’re having an experience which is impossible or inconceivable if we accept that kind of standard phenomenological model. In other words, we think that the experience of reality of well adjusted, allegedly well adjusted sane, rational, responsible adults is this kind of, this model for the way which all the possibilities of experiencing the world must be understood. And interestingly, with the examples that you’ve just given, we can’t imagine what it is to experience yourself as nonexistent, or not to recognize yourself in the mirror.

Thomas Metzinger: Interesting point. Why can’t we? I think it is because imagining, I mean, also very different people, for instance, people on spiritual path, people interested in meditation, spiritual practice, often would also be interested in actively simulating or emulating a state of no-self or non-centered awareness, or something like that. Why can’t you do it? Because just as you said simulating in that case is a form of inner action. It is not only outer action, there is also inner action like directing your attention, for instance. And running a film in your mind actively and making a plot for that film creates this quality of agency. And there you have a self. So there are certain things that you cannot actively simulate because you get this sense of inner effort: I am doing this, I am controlling this, and there is yourself. So in that sense some things are inconceivable.

Ray Brassier: You talked about the production process that undergirds conscious experience. How much is known about the mechanics of this process, the backstage machinery that generates the phenomenal self model, the experience of reality? The reason I want to ask you about this is because obviously the more we understand the more we can manipulate it.

Thomas Metzinger: First, very little. And having eminent experts in the audience I will not dare to amateurishly explain you the mechanisms. The first thing we have learned is that, what many philosophers didn’t want to believe, is that certain contents of conscious experience can in very isolated and well circumscribed way disappear. You can lose color vision just for one half of your visual field. You can lose the feeling of shame, or guilt and just that after certain brain lesion. We know for instance, some of us strive to be moral or ethically integrated people – we’re very vulnerable in this. If some physical event in our brains happens we will never be able to do that. We will never be able to emulate pains of others or be interested in the damage we do. We learn new things about antisocial personality disorder. You can put people in a scanner who have been diagnosed. I will not go into any details but the ugly truth is you find things, if you put hundred people with antisocial personality disorder in a scanner, you do find things, very localized things in part. And so for many things. We’ve learned a little, a blood vessel that explodes in your brain, a tumor here and this can selectively disappear and that can selectively disappear. And that was actually the basis for scientific neuropsychology because if you know a you can lose a without b, and you can lose bwithout loosing a. These things must be two building blocs functionally dissociable. And from this we get an idea of the architecture of the mind and we have a lot of data about what you can lose. You can lose color vision or just certain kinds of smell or certain aspects of language comprehension. And other things you cannot lose in an isolated fashion. But I think there is in the consciousness community with which I have been very much involved during the last fifteen years, there is something like a basic consensus. Of course, there is no theory, there is no consensus among philosophers, competitive neuroscientists push different models but the general idea is that for every conscious content, say like the blue cap of this bottle here, or something, there is a minimally sufficient neuro correlate. So there is some process in you brain, a set of properties that you cannot make smaller anymore without it disappearing. That’s minimal and sufficient, that brings about that conscious experience. Now this whole notion, people look for the neuro correlate of consciousness. A whole research industry does this for about ten years. This brings other aspects with it. If there are, at least in some cases, locally sufficient causes in the brain you can do all kinds of things with electrodes, with new drugs. Very general thing I could go more into details here but we will able to technically control our conscious minds to a much greater extent in the decades to come than we could have in the past. Human beings have always done this through drumming, through sacred mushrooms, through various magical herbs, through caffeine, opium, religious rituals. Human beings have always tried to engineer and to manipulate their mind. There is a long tradition of consciousness technology in the history of our species. Art, for instance. Now the instruments will get more precise and we will probably also know what we are doing. In the past we were always testing odd stuff and then suddenly we got addicted or something nasty happened.

Ray Brassier: Why do you think now we’re in a better position to understand what we’re doing? Consciousness technology seem to have existed as long as human cultural civilization in some form or another. But clearly there is a phase transition here. Now that we understand, know more about the machinery, neurological machinery that generates conscious experience we can intervene directly on the level of the neurological machinery itself. But in what sense we’re better informed now about what kinds of conscious states are desirable or undesirable?

Thomas Metzinger: Not at all! That’s a completely different issue. I mean, with every science, technology follows on its heels and the ugly thing is, I don’t know how to say this in English. It gets coupled to a capitalist logic of exploitation and marketing, right? Typically the technologies are not developed in a way of how would they do us good. Its under a profit or also dominance oriented general idea where these technologies are developed and marketed. And now we have this word neurotechnology and its actually one of the things that I do with the group. Applied ethics for neurotechnology. So we have brain implants, people develop new so called cognitive enhancers. One question – just to make this concrete – people are discussing is what would happen if we had safe way without side effects to do something like moral enhancement? If we develop a kind of pill that wouldn’t make you addicted but which would increase altruism and prosocial behavior or your capacity for empathy or your capacity for insight in ethical issues. Somebody I think would come and say: OK everybody who wants to act ethical at all, knows that he is constantly failing and wants to improve his own ethical integrity. If new tools are available there is even an obligation to improve your own morality so to speak. If new instruments come along. This could happen in the next two, three, five decades. There are first pilot studies to show that this could be done pharmacologically. Somebody is going to say: take the role of the government, say, we want prosocial behavior, don’t we? We all want it, don’t you? That’s one example. Another example, there are brain implants, there are all kinds of new ideas around the area of medical neurotechnology. There are new and better ways to help people with epilepsy, serious brain damage, Parkinson that couldn’t be treated. Depression. In 2006 we had these cases where patients who had a really severe depression that cannot be treated by anything known. Nothing works. And then they tried directly stimulating with an electrode and the immediately reported about a disappearance of the painful void, as they they call it. This utter emotional emptiness that hurts. And even the visual detail become more crisp in the room. I don’t know how many people know these avatar experiments I was involved in myself? So in 2007 some people, Swedish scientist have done these experiments where you would see an image of yourself, you were filmed from behind, and it would in virtual reality [goggles]. You would be synchronously stroke on your back and see while your own body is standing in front of you was being stroked. For some people this generates the experience of jumping into the avatar. So the phenomenal experience is: “I am this” jumps there. The phenomenology of identification you can identify with an avatar. This has been widely over-reported in the press. I was at a press conference in London myself, I’ve never experienced something like that. We were hunted by the world press four days and they all told people: out of body experiences in the lab. But it’s not true because in an out of body experience you really see from an elevated perspective. In these experiments you don’t see out of the eyes of the avatar. But everybody think: no! Video games are going to be really cool and addictive. And now this is it we are going to go in through the screen. What is just totally false. This effect is very weak, it doesn’t work for everybody and it works just in a passive condition. But now there is another project. Just to give you one example where this may go, where this may effect society. Its called the VERA group, scientists from different countries, I am in the group too. And they going to built … its called virtual embodiment and robotic re-embodiment. The idea to enter with your sense of self either an avatar in virtual environment or a robot while it senses and moves. My official position is this will never work. For serious reasons. But I am also impressed with what these kids are doing for only two years. So ten days ago I was at the Weizmann Institute in Telaviv and there for the first time people in the scanner can control an avatar directly with the fMRI signal in the scanner. This is something called motor imagery brain-computer interface (BCI). So what you do is you imagine you do a movement with your right hand and then directly the computer takes this signal from the scanner and wirelessly robot will move, or an avatar in a virtual scene, will move to the right. You imagine I move my left hand and the avatar will turn left and you imagine I shuffle my feet and the thing moves forward. Of course it’s much more complex than that. But what we have now is for instance one video I saw already couple of months ago – you sit there with glasses on and just with your thoughts, so to speak, by moving the self model in your own brain you control this humanoid robot. It’s about that high. And you make it walk. This robot has a cameras in its eyes and you’ve got this glasses on and you see through the robot’s eyes while you control it just by imagining body motions of yourself. So this is already a sense of active embodiment. But then the funny thing is the subject made turn the robot around and looked at himself. So where is yourself? Where is it in this moment, you tell me? So what I saw last week in Israel is that they did this from Israel to France. So somebody lies in a scanner and robot is in France and lab goes through the internet and he can just see with the eyes of a robot in France and just control it just lying in a scanner in Israel, so to speak, by his thoughts alone. Maybe this goes anywhere. I still think there are major technical obstacles for fully embodying the sense of self in second bodies, third bodies. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe in thirty years all those smart people will overcome these obstacles.

Ray Brassier: Are these obstacles simply empirical obstacles, or like technological obstacles or you say fundamental …

Thomas Metzinger: I think there is principled problem that human self model, self model that is active in your brain right now which you think you are. You, the system as a whole, who confuses itself with the model in its brain, right now. In our case this is anchored in gut feelings, in introception, in proprioception, in this massive feedback from your body. And how would one cut that connection to transpose it into a robot or into an avatar? So far these avatars, they will soon give haptic feedback. You get suits and vibrators and things that you will actually feel you touch something when you act in a virtual world. But how are you going to get this whole inner world of feelings. How should any avatar feed that back to you? So I think this will not work. We will always be strangely disembodied in this virtual world. But I maybe just wrong. You know, I am just a stupid philosopher. And there are those all smart young neuroscientists and programmers. Now, that’s an example. Imagine in thirty years that would work. Merging virtual reality technology with neurotechnology. What would that do to our culture? To our societies? What would it do to people who still want to believe in an immortal soul?

Ray Brassier: You’ve mentioned something very important. You say that basic norms, the ethical and moral norms that we prize and we try to inculcate in others especially in children. So for instance empathy, responsibility, etc., etc. Now, one offshoot of what you’ve just said is that if a brain lesion can morally incapacitate someone, if someone is simply incapable of responding in what we consider to be an appropriate ethical way, simply because like of your logical deficits… Then there is this divide between the isand ought [D. Hume], between reality and the norms in terms that we judge things to be good or bad. And if it turns out that our evaluations, our basic fundamental moral categories are simply a function of having the relevant neurological functioning organization… Does this mean that any attempt to give morality or ethics some kind of – the word that philosophers usually use is transcendental – some kind of status that is irreducible to the physical and biological domain – does this completely destroy this kind of …

Thomas Metzinger: Well, I have so much to say to this that I don’t know where to start … The simple thing that has become very clear is that moral behavior has not always been here on this planet. There had been millions of years where there was not moral behavior. Second, many animals have moral behavior too. For instance, monkies if you offer them a bad deal – if you see the other guy gets raisin and I just get a piece of cucumber – they throw the cucumber at the experimenter’s head. Which is irrational self-damaging behavior. It would be in a evolutionary setting better to take keep that and eat it. Some animals represent the interests of the whole group and they punish, I guess perpetrators is the English word (the free riders) – that’s not human. We have a long history of the evolution of moral behavior, group cohesion, and in us it taken completely different dimension. But there are many aspects to this. One aspect is that we know there is an evolution of morality. We know that there is a big difference between, saying, it is simply some neuro tadada … or saying there is also a neural description or that there are neural conditions to make moral behavior possible. That’s an important distinction. Human being can be describe on many levels of description at the same time. And I think many descriptions as a person, subpersonally, brain – they can all be true at the same time. So we should be very careful with this “nothing but” reflex. This is often a mistake but still – as you’ve said earlier – there is also an ugly mirror image. If I can lose my capacity for perspective taking, for empathy, for prosocial behavior, for altruism by microscopic events in my brain. It could also be that saints or people who are very good at this, people who have founded religions were in any interesting sense responsible for what they did. Recently somebody has calculated that there were about 106 milliard human have lived on this planet. And there have been people who were two meters forty tall, people at that size, people were enormously fat, athletes, super intelligent people. It’s only natural that among these milliards of peoples that some have emerged with brains, just by chance perhaps, who were so enormously empathic or full of loving kindness, whatever, prosocial, that they just looked like saints to everybody else or divine. This is not my position but there is for instance a temporal lobe epilepsy theory of religious experiences. There are some ultra reductionist people that say that those people who founded religions because they had visions of god were actually a specific kind of epileptics. I think that this is scientifically false but you could see where it could go. You could find a neuro correlates not only of this turquoise here but also the neuro correlates of religious ecstasy for instance.

Ray Brassier: Why, given that you don’t accept “nothing but” reductionism. You don’t accept what Dennett sometimes called greedy reductionism. So why not, why is do you think it would be a mistake to infer from that identification of neuro correlates for empathy, responsibility, etc.,etc. the claim that these ethical norms are nothing but physical states. Why is that identification illegitimate?

Thomas Metzinger: OK. There will be a story about how moral behavior emerged. I think that it doesn’t say anything about ethics, in a first place. There will also be a story about how religious behavior evolved. These are good ideas. People are working on it. I think it does not speak to the question of god, if it exist or not. It just speaks to the question why so many people believe in god. So I think these are distinct questions but I tell you about a conflict I have, for instance. I have very strong ethical intuitions. For instance, I think we must think about what valuable states of consciousness are. We shouldn’t only think like in a tradition we did – what is a good action but now that we will be able to manipulate, amplify and inhibit our conscious experience, to better and better degrees, technologically we should also have something like a normative psychology. We should think about in what states of mind do we want to live? What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? What states of consciousness is it ethical to inflict upon animals? What stages of consciousness would we eventually like to die in? I don’t not if anybody have thought about that? What state of consciousness would you like to die in? Maybe neuroscience can help you when you’ve made a decision? So on the one hand I think we should think hard about an ethics for consciousness. Its necessary in this historical transition. On the other hand as a philosopher my official position is: normative sentences have no truth values. So what does that mean? Some sentences have no truth values, for instance, sentences in literature, in poems. They’re not true or false. Sentences like: You should not kill or You should think about what a good state of consciousness is, might also be sentences of this kind. There is no knowledge in them because the world in just silent. We kind of ask the world: what is a good action? And the world stays quiet. In a nutshell there could be no ethical facts in reality that make sentences like, you should not kill, true or false. This seems likely to me on philosophical grounds. Its called non-cognitivism. I hated it. I am a philosopher who hates a lot of his own official positions. But if that were ultimately true, right, that there is, strictly speaking, nothing like ethical knowledge in an interesting sense, that we can not know what a good action is, why should we …

Ray Brassier: But given the logic of your own account, that no one can help us when it comes to constructing norms or like deciding what’s right or wrong. If, and I completely agree with you, it’s a mistake to think we can read norms of nature. The world is silent. The world does not tell us what to do or not to do. Then isn’t it a mistake to claim that moral judgments or our devoided truth values, simply because the world is silent, you looking in a wrong place. The world is not the place to look for truths or falsity of those normative claims.

Thomas Metzinger: Where should I look?

Ray Brassier: The claim would be that there are … perhaps truth is no always about correspondence. There are alternative kinds of truths which is to say that you can be justified in claiming that something is true and the justification for that claim is about the internal consistency of set of beliefs or thoughts. So this is what’s called coherentism in philosophy. But the claim is that when thinking – and here I want to ask you about the distinction between thinking or rationality and consciousness – now, I think that it is absolutely imperative to distinguish thinking from consciousness. I think that consciousness is a natural phenomenon. I don’t think that thinking is a natural phenomenon. The ability to deploy concepts rationally is not a supernatural phenomena either but it emerges on a different level. Now, first of all, do you accept some version of that distinction or do you think it is untenable? Secondly, if you don’t accept any such distinction then in many ways like given that if you’re really thoroughgoing naturalist … the claim is that ultimately you become … evolution doesn’t care, evolution will simply inculcate whatever amplifies adaptation. In other words, whether its chimpanzees or bonobos or humans, whatever is, evolution will simply select for those characteristics which are beneficial. The consequence of that is to say just forget about right and wrong altogether. It’s just about survival, adaptation, reproduction, and then, some kind of thoroughgoing nihilism would follow. That there is no right or wrong. Its all an illusion. All there is is reproduction, survival, adaptation. And if it so happened that cruelty, ruthlessness, unscrupulousness are maximally adaptive then who are we to tell what is desirable or undesirable?

Thomas Metzinger: I really agree on this distinction between intentional content and phenomenal content. Although they overlap, consciousness and thinking are not the same things. One difference for instance is that we know that conscious experience is a locally determined phenomenon in the brain. To have visual experience you do not need eyes. You all have visual experience at night when you’re dreaming, when your eyes are shut. So in some ways it’s a local phenomenon. I am quite convinced that almost all forms of thinking are things that are distributed processes that we do together. We’re thinking together, right now. The conscious reality models are in our brains right now. But what really connects us, or maybe it’s just like a distributed process running on us, maybe there is no ownership for thoughts. I think this is also one of the reasons why Descartes was wrong. It’s just not true if you take your phenomenology seriously that there is “I think”. Thoughts are there – that’s the phenomenological truth if you look closely, that they are like a moving clouds in the sky. So I think that human intelligence, rational thought is almost always an extended process, social process, an intersubjective process. Of course we can simulate that internally. Sometimes we can sit in our armchair, in our room at home, and think: Yeah, but Ray said that! So I simulate a social situation. I think rationality is probably to a large extent something above brains. It’s a group phenomenon. Just as is science and philosophy. There is something as a history of theories. That is something that no animal has created before us. We have a history of thought, a history of theories. We’re all connected to each other through books, the internet. And it’s a conversation that actually runs over centuries. It’s a completely new phenomenon. And that conversation can come to conclusions and find out things. Like, most of your conscious experience is transparent, and by the way, the paradigm example for me in normal states for conscious experience that is not transparent is the experience of thinking. When you think thoughts the experience is one of operating with mental representations, as philosophers say, that might be true or false. This transparent microphone is not true or false. It’s just bloody real, you know. The contents of my body image, that is always real. I have not doubts, there is this certainty about it. The rational thought, or something that have just come very recently in evolution, it is so slow that we can introspect the construction process. And that is how we suddenly realize that this is something that is happening in me. Something that creates a medium, that might be a crack in the window, or spots on the window. It might be false, and that is also what enabled us human beings to distance ourselves. I think many animals probably just have a fully transparent model of reality which means, in a certain sense, they’re caught. They may have rich, dense experience, maybe richer than us, in smell, or body perception, or also anger and rage and pain. But they cannot distance themselves. Because this process of representing while you know that you’re representing hasn’t yet started, it’s not running on these animals. Andy Clark’s active externalism is a current philosophical term for it, right now. There are many very good English philosophers working in this domain of distributed cognition. I remember when eleven years ago I came San Diego for the first time for a year as a German philosopher. And a first person I met was this PhD student in philosophy department. Deborah, I said, so what are you working on? She said, I just came back from Nigeria, I’ve been living in tents for a nine months … I said, for philosophy PhD? Yeah, she said, I was observing and filming chimps in a jungle. Troops of chimpanzees. And I asked her, what are you writing your thesis on? A distributed social cognition. And then for the first time I realized, ah, philosophy is bit different here than in an old fashion Germany. That was a baffling experiencefor me – a young philosopher goes to observe chimpanzees for months, to write about that process.

Ray Brassier: One final question. I want to come back to this issue about this distinction between transparency and opacity, which you just explained, emphasized … what distinguishes thinking from mere consciousness, in other words, the capacity to represent your own representation. To be able to have this reflexive distance, so that your representational world is not simply transparent vehicle but something that is itself represented. Precisely this distancing, which makes thinking in philosophical sense possible. And I want to ask you then, why is transparency … if transparency is a special form of darkness then consciousness itself or brute consciousness is darkness. Animals live in darkness. Precisely because their world is completely transparent.

Thomas Metzinger: In a certain sense, especially the transparent self model, the transparent conscious self model, is one of the nastiest inventions of mother nature. It is because it forces an organism to …, how to say it in English, to irrevocably appropriate their own pains and needs and fears, and whatever, impulses. They cannot distance themselves from it. We cannot from many of these internal states. Because they’re transparent they are not just “hunger,” or “jealousy,” or “horniness.” They are my“hunger,” or “jealousy,” or “horniness” and they are real. If anything is real that’s pain, for instance. I mean that is real. That fully transparent. That’s owned and it’s not easy. I guess, no philosopher has managed to distance himself from his own pain. So it glues animals to the logic of survival in a very nasty way by not creating not only joy and pleasure and reward but also suffering. Maybe it is evolutionary accident that something like us appeared for various reasons. Some of us at least behave strangely – instead of trying to have children, try to understand a process as a whole, which was not meant to happened, or write books and things … or, you know, shave heads and become monks and have no children – no animal does something like this. I think that one fact that many of us repress is that the evolution of consciousness on this planet has been like an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion. And it’s not funny. Many things just happened that are actually not funny. Like the evolution of predators. Why should animals evolve that have absolutely like all of us transparent urge to survive and the only way to do this is, like philosopher Schopenhauer said, to become the living grave of hundreds of other sentient beings. That’s not nice! Some of these naturalists have a tendency to glorify the process of evolution. I really respect Richard Dawkins and there is truth in the greatest show on Earth but this show have really two sides. Something I find interesting for philosophers in that respect is that the conscious self model as many of us think has become ever and ever and ever better in evolution. We have better bodies, we introspect on more brain states but it can actually be shown that was also an evolution of self deception. That is to have self models with false content is really adequate. I’ll give you some simple examples. Like you can show that all parents directly, not cognitively, directly perceive their own children as more pretty and intelligent than everybody else. There was a famous study in the seventies: of you ask American college professors if they are average or over-average, ninety six percent of them have the firm conviction that they are over-average in their achivements. They all know that it cannot be true. It’s unlikely. But, you know, it’s good when for instance you want to pick up a fight with somebody, or impress somebody, to enter a delusionary state for certain time, when you actually believe that you’re stronger than this guy. So you don’t give of any subliminal cues. If you’re politician and your job is to lie to thousands of people all of the time and you know that all of these people have developed cheater detector modules. They look at your body language, at every move you make – what kind of guy it is? The solution to it is to develop a delusional self model, to at least in moments when your public appearance peak, to actually believe it. Because then nobody can detect the cheating or the deliberate lying. There is this new scientific approach developing, showing that self deception is not only something to protect yourself – you know, denial – from things that you don’t want to know, past failures, but it is actually a strategy of aggression. To become momentarily deluded. Statistically strongest effect if you look at human catastrophes it is overconfident males. Many people have believes that we know are false. For instance that children make you happy. It’s not true. If you put buzzers to peoples arms and just let them report: how do you feel now? Happy or unhappy? And you do it with people who don’t have children. It’s very clear parents are more often unhappy and stressed. If you do interviews with them there is this robust self description that their life has become so much meaningful and happier since they have children. It’s clear that these forms of delusion would have been evolutionarily successful. These people were our ancestors. People who became monks and didn’t have children they were not our ancestors. You’ve got the general idea.

Ray Brassier: One final question. Given the pressures on us to deceive, given how useful, how advantageous the self deception is, how do we measure …, is it possible that…, someone like Scott Bakker who has written a book entitled Neuropath about this blind brain theory of consciousness, says he take the stance that we’re systematically deluded about ourselves and the world we inhabit. And that our predicament is truly desperate because everything we confidently believe about ourselves and the world we inhabit is almost certainly false. The problem is how do we measure, how is it possible to measure the discrepancy between the world as it really is and the world as we misperceive it in order to reproduce better, to adapt better, to do things?

Thomas Metzinger: Well, first of all, he can say something like that. He can write books like that. We can do science about this. And there is an enormous knowledge about the different biases human beings have. We know statistics that are well researched. And it looks like either we delete an information – if it was painful or something or it destroys our self image – or we keep it unconscious and we use the conscious self model for action control but in a crisis. And suddenly this unconscious knowledge pops up…


More on the subject @ Social Ecologies & Speculative Heresy

ArikaFebruary 2012.

4 thoughts on “Ray Brassier in conversation with Thomas Metzinger

  1. Pingback: The Future History of a Non-Reductive Philosophical Agenda | Senselogi©

  2. Pingback: Xmas Dies; or: Starting to Sketch a Mad Marxism | surface effects

  3. Pingback: Cosmology – Strange Rider

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