A Special Form of Darkness: Metzinger on Subjectivity

Our brains represent ourselves, to ourselves, by means of a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM).  According to Thomas Metzinger, the PSM is characterized by transparency, and a phenomenal quality of ‘mineness.’  Its transparency consists in our unawareness of it as a model.  We look and act ‘right through it’ – we take our models for our real selves.  ‘Mineness’ is a quality that infuses all of our experience which we take to be experience of ourselves.  Although Metzinger uses the terms “mineness” and  “ownership,” it is more than an experience of ownership.  I think “me-ness” aptly captures what Metzinger is after.

But there is more to the experience of being someone than having a PSM.  The full-blown experience of subjectivity – of being a subject and an agent – must include three elements: consciousness (at least the minimal consciousness defined by globality, presentationality, and transparency), the PSM, and a second model, which Metzinger calls the Phenomenal Model of the Intentionality Relation, or PMIR.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 427) These three – consciousness, the PSM and the PMIR – are the fundamental topics of what Metzinger calls  the “The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity,” or SMT.

The Phenomenal Model of the Intentionality Relation

As commonly used, the word “intention” describes a goal-directed mental attitude which gives rise to actions.  In philosophy, the term has a broader use. The intentionality relation is the relation between subject and object.  It includes not only intentions to act, but all other subject-object relations such as perceiving, remembering, believing, desiring, hoping, knowing, intending, feeling, and experiencing.  What these have in common is that each one is an attitude of a subject towards an object.

Metzinger invokes two pathological conditions to neatly illustrate the difference between the PSM and the PMIR: alien hand syndrome and anarchic hand sign. If I have alien hand syndrome, my hand is excluded from my PSM; as a result, I feel that my hand is not part of my body.  If I have anarchic hand sign, my hand is excluded from my PMIR.  My own hand, although not paralyzed, does not obey me – it performs actions that are independent of my will.  I am not an agent with respect to the actions of my hand.

A human PSM can exist unaccompanied by any PMIR, according to Metzinger  (although the converse is not true).  In patients suffering from akinetic mutism:

Bilateral anterior damage to the cingulate gyrus and bilateral medial parietal damage lead to a situation which can be described by, first, the absence of the PMIR, while, second, a coherent conscious model of the world centered by a phenomenal self is retained. (Metzinger, 2004, pp. 417-418)

Metzinger describes these patients as:

… phenomenally embodied beings, but their conscious reality is not an enacted, lived reality in the full sense of the word.  They are not directed.  What the outside observer experiences as a vacuous stare or emotional neutrality is the complete absence of any willed action or communicative intention, the absence of a globally available model of subject-object relations (and as can be seen in lacking the desire to talk, or subject-subject relations as well).  Functionally centred, but phenomenologically aperspectival and self-including models of reality, therefore, are not only conceptual possibilities but, in some tragic cases, actually occurring representational configurations.  They very clearly demonstrate what it means to say that the phenomenal first-person perspective is the decisive factor in turning a mere biological organism into an agent, into a willing subject. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 419)

The sufferer from akinetic mutism is “awake, but not a subject.”

Metzinger describes akinetic mutism as a condition in which his sixth constraint of consciousness, perspectivalness, is not satisfied.  Perspectivalness, he thinks, is the key characteristic which, added to core consciousness and the PSM, gives rise to the PMIR.

Perspectivalness: A Distinction

I think Metzinger’s choice of the term “perspectivalness” is unfortunate, because it blurs a distinction between two aspects of consciousness, one of which is related to perspective – the fact that we experience reality from a point of view centred in the body – the other being concerned with intentionality, as defined above: the subject-object relation.  In Metzinger’s view, the latter aspect, but not the former, is critical to the PMIR.

The first-person perspective of conscious experience stems from the fact that our sense organs are part of our bodies; as a result, our bodies are centrally located in our experience.  Human vision has perspective, the same sort that is captured by a camera lens focussed on an image plane, and which was recognized and transferred to canvas by the Renaissance masters.  Our other senses are also centred to a greater or lesser extent: tactile sensations are experienced in the body itself; smell and taste are experienced at the locations of specific receptors in the body.  Sounds are experienced more diffusely, with less obvious perspective than vision; nonetheless, auditory experience is centred by virtue of the fact that loudness diminishes with distance from the source of sound.

Perspective, or centredness, is a characteristic of the experience of conscious living organisms, which share a body-centric way of experiencing the world.  But centredness is not a necessary characteristic of consciousness.  In Chapter 8, Metzinger offers “the little red arrow” as a metaphor for the first-person perspective.  Maps, he points out, come in two kinds: one kind with a little red arrow that means, “You are here,” and the other without one.  Each kind of map has appropriate uses.  Maps which exclude the arrow are portable; they can be used anywhere in the territory they represent.  Maps which include the arrow are meant for use in the location represented by the arrow.  Unlike the arrowless maps, they inform the viewer where she is on the map.   “I claim,” says Metzinger, “that the phenomenal self is the little red arrow in your conscious map of reality.” (Metzinger, 2004, p. 551)

Of course, a map with built-in perspective doesn’t even need an arrow to show the viewer’s location.  The centredness of experience is sufficient to mark the origin of  an organism’s experience within its world-model, representing the organism’s location to itself.   To appreciate this, consider the perspective maps on modern GPS displays.  The little car, representing the viewer’s position, is always in the same position and orientation on the map, and is therefore unnecessary.   Without the little car, the driver could still tell where he is and what direction he’s travelling in.

Although the centredness of experience is a fact for living, embodied organisms, we can easily imagine an artificial being for which it would not be a fact.  Suppose that a distributed computer network became conscious.  Such an entity’s sources of experience need not be clustered together in the spatial confines of anything resembling a single body.  I can think of no reason why such a being should not only be conscious, but experience itself as a subject.  Centredness and perspective in one’s experience is not a necessary condition of selfhood.  Metzinger also acknowledges this possibility:

Distributed beings, having their sensory organs and their possibilities for generating motor output widely scattered across their causal interaction domain within the physical world, might have a multi- or even a noncentered behavioural space (maybe the Internet is going to make some of us eventually resemble such beings; for an amusing early thought experiment, see Dennett 1978a, p. 310 ff.).   I would claim that such beings would eventually develop very different, noncentered phenomenal states as well. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 161)

But he does not say that such beings would lack full-blown subjectivity.  Metzinger’s claim of the central importance of ‘perspectivalness’ is captured in the following passage:

A consciously experienced first-person perspective emerges if a system not only activates a world-model and embeds a self-model in it but as soon as it additionally represents itself as being directed at some aspects of the world.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 545)

‘Directedness’ is the subject-object relation.  The characteristic of conscious experience most critical to the PMIR is not centeredness, but intentionality.

The first defining characteristic of phenomenal models of the intentionality relation is that they depict a certain relationship as currently holding between the system, as transparently represented to itself, and an object component. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 411)

Is the PMIR a phenomenal model?

A difficulty I have with Metzinger’s account is that I am not sure the PMIR is a phenomenal model at all.  To me it seems much more cognitive – a product of thought rather than of direct experience.  If it is, then like other products of thought, it may be influenced by theory – perhaps even by rarely questioned, culturally bolstered metaphysical assumptions.

Metzinger says the PMIR is part of our phenomenal experience – something like “the gustatory experience of cinnamon.”  I would not have said so.  I am still inclined to be Humean on this point.  Hume said, “Self or person … is that to which our … impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference.” (Hume, 1739, p 173; emphasis added) He searched introspectively for some empirical evidence of a self, but found none.  Like Hume, I am unable to introspectively identify any phenomenal element that I’m tempted to describe as the subject of my experience.  When I consider my experience introspectively, much of it is indeed like a map – a three-dimensional map of the world, with myself at its centre, a point on which lines of perspective converge in several perceptual dimensions.  But there is nothing at the centre.  My map doesn’t have anything resembling a little red arrow.  Nor does it need one, any more than my car’s GPS display needs one.

Apparently Metzinger and I differ on this point.  How can our difference be settled?  The question points to a difficulty about reasoning from phenomenological evidence.  First-person phenomenological accounts are not subject to straightforward scientific corroboration.  I often find it hard to judge whether Metzinger’s phenomenological claims are true or not.  To assess them, I can only rely on introspection.  But how can I be sure that my introspection – or Metzinger’s – is not contaminated by the same biases that infect the philosophical intuitions that Metzinger rightly criticizes as giving rise to “very little growth of knowledge in the past twenty-five centuries”?

Transparency of the Self-Model

Artificial systems that model themselves exist today.  But they do not experience their self-models as phenomenal selves.  In addition to having a self-model, and satisfying the minimal constraints for conscious experience, the self-model must, according to Metzinger, be transparent in order to be experienced as “a full-blown phenomenal self.” (Metzinger, 2004, p. 331)

Metzinger defines transparency this way:

For any phenomenal state, the degree of phenomenal transparency is inversely proportional to the introspective degree of attentional availability of earlier processing stages. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 165)

If the process by which the phenomenal state came about is concealed, we ‘look right through’ it to the underlying reality.  Attentional unavailability of earlier processing stages prevents the system from recognizing the phenomenal state as internal.  To apply this idea to an internally-generated model: attentional unavailability of earlier processing stages prevents the system from recognizing the model as a model.

The instruments of representation themselves cannot be represented as such anymore, and hence the experiencing system, by necessity, is entangled in a naive realism.  … What is inaccessible to conscious experience is the simple fact of this experience taking place in a medium.  Therefore, transparency of phenomenal content leads to a further characteristic of conscious experience, namely, the subjective experience of immediacy. (Metzinger, 2004,  pp. 169-170)

Transparency “minimizes computational load,” and “creates the most important ‘architectural’ precondition for planning processes.”  Transparency helps keep us alive by making the reality of reality vivid to us.

Conscious experience, for a biological system, generates a simply structured user surface for its own nervous system.  Naïve realism…is an [evolutionary] advantage.  It only confronts the system with the final results of its own processing activity, and it does so by making them available for the control of action while simultaneously protecting the system from losing contact with external reality by getting lost in an introspective exploration of the underlying mechanisms.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 175)

If a conscious system has a self-model, and if that self-model is transparent, then the system experiences it not as a model but as something real – which, according to Metzinger, is the core of the phenomenal self.

The transparency of the self-model is a special form of inner darkness.  It consists in the fact that the representational character of the contents of self-consciousness is not accessible to subjective experience. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 330)

We do not experience the contents of self-consciousness as a model, a mere representation; instead, we mistake the model for our real selves.

I said in my previous post that I have trouble with the fact that, although “transparent” and “opaque” are mutually exclusive terms, our experience does not seem to be ‘either-or’ in the same way.  I can simultaneously see the copy of Hume on my desk and notice my phenomenal visual experience: my particular viewpoint, the parallax between the images from my left and right eyes, a slight shimmering quality which I know is a defect of my vision, not present in the light reflected to my eyes from the book.  At the same time I look  ‘through the window’ I can look at the window, and notice whether it needs washing.

I also have difficulty appreciating the importance of ‘attentional availability of earlier processing stages.’  I don’t see that ‘attentional availability of earlier processing stages’ has much to do with transparency and opacity.  The fact that my visual experience of the copy of Hume is attentionally available in no way weakens my conviction that there is a real book on my desk.  I know that my visual experience depends on earlier processing stages to which I do not have attentional access.  But I don’t think that if I had access to them, the book would seem less real to me.

In his functional account of transparency, Metzinger says:

A transparent world-model is useful, because, for the first time, it allows the internal representation of facticity.  It allows a system to treat information as factual information.  Transparency forces an organism to take the world seriously. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 176)

Opacity also has functional advantages.

As soon as a certain degree of opacity becomes available, a second major functional advantage emerges: The appearance-reality distinction can now be represented.  The fact that some elements of the ongoing flow of conscious experience actually are representational contents, and therefore may be false, becomes globally available.  The difference between appearance and reality itself becomes an element of reality, and it can now be acted upon or thought about, attended to, and made the object of closer inspection.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 176)

Metzinger describes our experience of our own cognitive attitudes as opaque.  If we are sane, we do not mistake our thoughts, plans, imagined scenarios, etc. for external reality.  (If I were schizophrenic, I might do so; the ‘voice in my head’ might become ‘transparent’, indistinguishable in my experience from a real voice.)  But I don’t see how that ‘opacity’ arises from attentional availabilty of earlier processing stages. I often wake up in the morning with ideas, solutions to problems.  I know they are just ideas; they do not represent a reality independent of my mental models.  Such ideas often spring into my consciousness fully formed.   I am sure  they had ‘earlier processing stages,’ although those stages are not attentionally available to me.  I don’t see how ‘attentional availability of earlier processing stages’ distinguishes my ideas, which are opaque, from my transparent visual experience of the copy of Hume.  Earlier processing stages are hidden in both cases.

Processing stages which are attentionally available to most people, are attentionally unavailable to people with blindsight.   The blindsight patient sincerely claims to be unable to see the ruler which the experimenter holds in the left side of his field of view.  Yet he correctly ‘guesses’ the orientation of the ruler with 98% accuracy.  His experience of the ruler has, it seems, become fully transparent.  He is aware of the orientation of the ruler; but it is not presented in his experience.  The ruler, in its correct orientation, is represented in his world-model, although the perceptual process by which it got there is hidden.  On Metzinger’s theory of transparency, this should make the ruler more real to the blindsight patient than to normal people, whose visual experience of the ruler is attentionally available.  But the opposite is true.  The blindsight patient sincerely denies knowledge of the ruler’s orientation, because he cannot see it.  The information is there, but so weakly represented that he can access it only by guessing – as you or I might hazard a guess about the unspoken motives of a colleague or friend who has been behaving strangely.

I’m not convinced that transparency explains why our self-models feel as real and compelling to us as they do.


Metzinger says the phenomenal property of “mineness” is the unifying quality that “justifies treating all these highly diverse kinds of information and phenomenal representational content as belonging to one entity” (Metzinger, 2004, p. 302)

Taking the phenomenology of ownership seriously means to do justice to the fact that even in normal life the degree to which, for example, you prereflexively experience a certain property of your body or of your emotional personality as your own, or rather as something externally caused and not really belonging to your “true identity,” is highly variable.  It changes, for instance, as you grow older.  And, as philosophers and scientists alike know, the degree to which you actually experience a certain thought or argument as your own certainly depends on the response of your social environment.  If the response to certain parts of your cognitive self is exceedingly positive and gratifying, the chances are high that you will experience it as a deeply original part of yourself, as something that always belonged to you, and as something that never was appropriated from anywhere else. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 608)

The above passage points to the plasticity of self-image.  What I consider myself varies from one time of my life to another, and can even be influenced by social approval and disapproval.  Metzinger thinks, and  I agree, that the roots of the self-model lie in the evolutionary advantage conferred on an organism by the ability to distinguish clearly between what is, and is not, part of its body.  Recognition of the boundary between self and the rest of the world is adaptive in many ways, enhancing the organism’s ability to protect itself, and allowing it to plan paths of movement through a cluttered environment. But even this most basic part of the self-image is plastic, and can be manipulated.   Ramachandran’s mirror therapy for ‘paralyzed’ phantom limbs is one example of such plasticity; another is the trick known as ‘the rubber-hand illusion.’

The subject of the ‘rubber-hand experiment’ sits in front of a table on which is placed an obviously fake hand, such as one from a joke store or a stuffed rubber glove.  (Ramachandran reports success using objects quite unlike a hand, such as a shoe.) (Ramachandran, 1998, p 1855) The subject’s real hand rests nearby, perhaps on the same tabletop, screened from his view.  The experimenter then begins to touch corresponding points on the real and fake hands, in unison.  Touching is often done with artists’ brushes, it can also be done with fingers.  The subject watches the fake hand being touched while feeling the simultaneous, corresponding touches to his real hand.  After a few minutes (usually more than two and less than fifteen), a typical human subject begins to feel that the fake hand – no matter how obviously fake, and detached from his body – is his real hand.

I’ve tried this at home (my wife acting as experimenter) and can report on the experience.  It can, indeed, be aptly described as “feeling that the rubber hand was my own hand.”   The experience was phenomenal, not cognitive; at all times I knew that the hot pink dish-glove, which I had stuffed with lentils and sealed with duct tape, was not my real hand.  The experience was strange.  A little like watching a movie in which one becomes very involved, identifying strongly with a character – for example, the tense scene in Psycho when the investigator climbs the stairs in the house behind the Bates motel.  Intuiting the danger to the character, the viewer feels stressed.  When the attack comes suddenly out of nowhere, the viewer’s somatic responses resemble what they would be if he or she were actually attacked out of the blue: elevated heartrate, sweating, involuntary muscle movements, and so on.  After my rubber-hand illusion took hold, when my wife grasped the middle finger of the dish-glove and bent it backwards to a position that would break a joint, if it were a real hand, I felt a palpable distress.  I winced.  At the same time I laughed because – just as the movie-goer knows that he is no real danger – I knew it was not my hand.  The experiment set up a dissonance between phenomenal experience and cognitive belief.

To see the rubber hand ‘abused’ was distressing in a way that it would not have been if I had not gone through the experimental experience.  The description that I ‘incorporated the rubber glove into my phenomenal self-model’ seems apt, as does ‘my phantom limb invaded the glove.’  But what is the phenomenal content of the experience?  I would describe it as primarily emotional.  I came to feel about the rubber glove, emotionally, as I normally feel about my own hand.  The experience is largely dispositional.  In feeling that way about the glove, I was disposed to react with shock, and to reflexively pull back, if I saw someone suddenly swinging a mallet down on ‘my’ rubber hand.

Metzinger offers a different account, equally interesting and suggestive, of how the experience of “mineness” – the ‘felt’ distinction between inner and outer – might be generated.

…one important aspect of possessing a self-model consists in forward-modeling, in running self-simulations, which can then be compared to incoming proprioceptive and kinesthetic input.  Especially for fast and goal-directed movements, such a forward-model could serve to make the likely consequences of an action, for example, the generation of speech, globally available before actual sensory feedback from the completed action arrives.  The generation of a consciously experienced self-world border, which underlies the distribution of the phenomenal property of “mineness,” could be functionally anchored in a process detecting mismatches between the process of forward self-simulations and ongoing self-representation based on ongoing sensory feedback. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 448)

Internal self-simulations constantly generate expectations of experience, which then are compared to the actual experiences that follow.  If this idea is extended to a longer time scale, it is like my idea that our memories of anticipated experience, which we constantly compare with actual experience, provide the most compelling phenomenological ‘evidence’ of being the same person over time.

Consciousness Without Self – Cotard’s Syndrome

Normal human subjects can learn about themselves by better understanding those who are not normal.  A great strength of Metzinger’s theory of mind lies in its ability to encompass and explain deviations from the neuropsychological norm.  Chapter 7 of Being No One contains the most thorough and interesting account of Cotard’s syndrome I have read, under the heading “Ich-Störungen: Identity Disorders and Disintegrating Self-Models.”

Ich-Störungen” is translated as “ego disturbance.”  Metzinger asks whether identity disorders can be analyzed in a more satisfactory manner under SMT than under “classic phenomenological and transcendentalist approaches.”   (Metzinger, 2004, p. 438)

Cotard’s, like most of the pathological conditions Metzinger describes in this chapter, is very difficult for a normal human being to understand “from the inside,” as it were.  Metzinger’s explanation of this – which I find illuminating – is that:

…healthy persons are constitutionally unable to run the respective self-simulations.  The corresponding regions of phenomenal state space are, as it were, forbidden territory for beings like ourselves.  Therefore it is hard for us to even imagine what the internal landscape of these regions, defined as “off-limits” by psychological evolution, actually looks like. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 429)

Cotard’s patients think they are dead, or in extreme cases, even deny their own existence.

Patients may explicitly state not only that they are dead but also that they don’t exist at all.  In other words, something that seems an a priori impossibility on logical grounds—a conscious subject truthfully denying its own existence—turns out to be a phenomenological reality. (Metzinger, 2004, p. 455)

By “truthfully,” Metzinger means “sincerely.”  Cotard’s delusion is remarkably “immune to rational revision.”  Yet the patient is not “crazy;” he can still reason. The thought-processes of Cotard’s patients are as bent on preserving internal consistency as those of most of us.  When his finger was pricked and a drop of blood appeared, a Cotard’s victim concluded, not that he was alive, but that, contrary to his previous belief, dead people can bleed. (Ramachandran 2004, p 91)

Research indicates that Cotard’s is largely an emotional disorder, with severe depression reported in 89% of subjects, and anxiety in 65%.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 456) The patient loses the sense, that healthy people have, that his own body and its normal functions are important.  Emotional affect is no longer attached to his internal representations of his own bioregulatory processes.  He stops caring whether he is dead or alive.  Because his emotions…

…are completely flattened out, the patient forms a hypothesis.  This hypothesis, given his current internal sources of information, is absolutely coherent: he must be a dead object resembling a human being.  The existence of this object, although experienced as the origin of a PMIR, does not affectively matter to the patient in any way.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 458)

But, says Metzinger:

…there is more to Cotard’s syndrome than emotional disembodiment….  Claiming to be dead—in terms of a dead body—is not the same as claiming to be nonexistent(Metzinger, 2004, p. 459)

Sixty-nine percent of Cotard’s patients exhibit existence denial. Some patients drop the use of first-person pronouns, substituting locutions like “it” and “Madam Zero.”  Metzinger draws a fascinating comparison between Cotard’s syndrome and spiritual experiences induced by meditation.

To my knowledge there is only one other phenomenal state class in which speakers sometimes consistently refer to themselves without using the pronoun “I,” namely, during mystical or spiritual experiences.  What seems to be common to both classes is that the phenomenal property of selfhood is not instantiated any more, while a coherent model of reality is still in existence.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 459)

Metzinger asks what could possibly explain a person’s sincere denial of her own existence, and refusal to use the personal pronoun “I”.  He offers three possible explanations.

His first hypothesis invokes the ideas of transparency and opacity discussed earlier.

The conscious experience of existence is coded via phenomenal transparency…. Phenomenally, we are beings experiencing the content of a certain active representations as real if and only if earlier processing stages of this representation are attentionally unavailable to us.  This leads to the prediction that if a human being’s self-model became fully opaque, then this person would  experience herself as nonexistent—the phenomenal property of selfhood would not be instantiated anymore.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 460)

Metzinger takes this to be the “natural explanation” for existence denial from persons who have altered their experience through spiritual practices.   However, it has no clear application to Cotard’s.

Metzinger next considers the hypothesis that the reason Cotard’s patients deny their existence is that their PSM does not exist – presumably destroyed by their disease.  He rejects this as unlikely, on the grounds that Cotard’s patients “exhibit a high degree of sensorimotor integration, of coherent speech, and so forth,” abilities for which the PSM is functionally necessary.

The third possibility, then, is that a transparent, conscious self-model is in place, but it is not a subject-model anymore, only an object-model.  Something still exists, something that looks like the model of a person, but something that is utterly unfamiliar, not alive, and not a phenomenal self in the act of living, perceiving, attending, and thinking.  The PSM has lost the emotional layer.  The PMIR in such a case would not be a model of a subject-object relation, but only one of an object-object relation.  It would not constitute a phenomenal first-person­ perspective, but rather a first-object perspective.  The “first object,” for purely functional reasons, persists as the invariant centre of reality, because it is tied to an invariant source of internally generated input.  Phenomenally, this functional centre is the place where things happen, but all of them—as well as the centre itself—are not owned.  The phenomenal property of “mineness” has disappeared from the patient’s reality.  As Philip Gerrans (2000) puts it:

In this type of case the patient conceives of herself as nothing more than a locus, not of experience—because, due to the complete suppression of affect, her perceptions and cognitions are not annexed to her body—but of the registration of the passage of events.  (Metzinger, 2004, p. 460)

Notice the central role played by emotions in this account.  When the PSM loses its “emotional layer,” the PMIR is no longer “a model of a subject-object relation.”  The Cotard’s patient experiences himself ‘as an object’ – one that remains the centre of experience, but lacks the experience of mineness, or ‘me-ness’ – which, if I am right, is best understood in terms of active emotion and emotional dispositions.  Philip Gerrans’ idea that emotional affect is responsible for ‘annexing’ perceptions and cognitions to oneself is another interesting wrinkle on this theme.  The suggestion is that the Cotard’s patient experiences himself as ‘one damn thing after another.’

It seems to me possible that “the loss of the emotional layer” is key to the spiritual experience as well as to Cotard’s.  I suggest, though, that it is not the whole “emotional layer,” but a specific class of emotions, those of self-concern, that matters.  Clearly, the means of achieving an ‘egoless’ state are very different in the two cases.  I understand that the type of meditation which induces such spiritual states does involve paying attention to the phenomenal show as phenomenal show, which would make those experience ‘opaque,’ in Metzinger’s terms (and possibly tend to make earlier processing stages attentionally available as well).  The key question is, does such ‘opacity’ cause a loss of the sense of self as subject?   I think Metzinger’s emphasis on ‘opacity’ is misleading, because awareness of sensations as sensations does not necessarily entail any loss of conviction in, or of the sense of reality of, the objects sensed.  However, it’s possible that increased awareness of the self-model as a model has the effect of making the self seem less real.  I find it hard to be sure, because I don’t know what the ‘sense of self as subject’ is, if it does not consist in emotional affect.  And if it does consist in emotional affect – in the emotions of self-concern – then loss of that affect may fully explain the experience of being no one.

I’m drawn to the view that loss of the emotions of self-concern explains ‘dissolution of the self’ in both cases – Cotard’s and spiritual enlightenment – and that no more complex and subtle theory, such as Metzinger’s “special form of darkness,” is needed.  My view has the advantage of simplicity.  It fits both medical reports of severe depression in Cotard’s patient, and spiritual practioners’ commonly-stated goal of ending the suffering caused by attachment.


Dennett, D. (1978), Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Bradford Books.

Gerrans, P. (2000), “Refining the Explanation of Cotard’s delusion,” in Pathologies of Belief, ed Coltheart and Davies, Oxford: Blackwell.

Hume, David (1739),  A Treatise of Human Nature in The Philosophy of David Hume, Random House, Modern Library edition (1963).

Metzinger, T. (2004),  Being No One.  MIT Press.

Ramachandran, V.S. (1998) “Consciousness and body image: lessons from phantom limbs…”, The Royal Society.

Ramachandran, V.S. (2004), A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, Pi Press.

Return to the Phantom Self home page.

5 Responses to “A Special Form of Darkness: Metzinger on Subjectivity”

  1. JSG says:

    For some reason the reply that I entered last night did not post, so here is the Cliff Notes version of my understanding of Metzinger’s key points:

    1. The human mind consists of a bundle of globally connected representations that may or may not be veridical in varying degrees.

    2. One such representation is “selfhood” characterized by the sense of ownership and agency.

    3. This representation is non-veridical and can be dissolved through observation of its underpinnings.

    4. Such dissolution would result in the experience of “being no one.”

    5. Your own observation that mystics may have arrived at a similar experience through contemplation seems well-taken.

  2. Gordon says:

    Sorry for the slow response – I’ve been off the grid.

    I like your summary very much, although I’m not sure Metzinger would agree that it summarizes his theory, which I suspect you think, as I do, is over-complicated.

    I paused over your point 3. Let me try to restate it. “This representation is non-veridical, i.e. it is a model only; there is no real thing of which it is a model. The conviction that it is a model of something real can be dissolved through observation of its underpinnings.” Does that capture it?

    I use the word ‘conviction’ because I’m not sure that the experience of the self-model ever entirely dissolves. Instead, the model is experienced differently, as one might still experience a hallucination while knowing it is only a hallucination. In the case of the self-model, if I am right, the main change that occurs when the conviction of the self’s reality dissolves, is loss of emotional attachment.

  3. JSG says:

    Yes, I think your rephrasing is right on. And the loss of emotional attachment to the “self” appears to be what veteran meditators and perhaps even Gautama himself have experienced.

    But I do think that there is ambiguity in the notion of observing one’s underpinnings as Metzinger uses it. On the one hand, one can be aware that one is having a hallucination, or that one is dreaming as in a lucid-dream state. This does not seem problematic.

    On the other hand, dissolving what Metzinger calls the “autoepistemic closure” by observing the neuronal underpinnings of the self-representation would seem to be impossible—as I believe Metzinger acknowledges—because the loss of representation would mean the loss of awareness itself. So I agree that it’s hard to see how the self model ever entirely dissolves if there is to be a well-functioning state of awareness.

    Metzinger tries to get around this problem by suggesting that what he calls a postbiotic consciousness might somehow solve it. Maybe so, but this amounts to a leap into science fiction.

  4. JSG says:

    Another result of the notion that the phenomenal self-representation is a function of underlying processes rather than a bearer of consciousness is apt to be increased empathy toward others. One is better able to stand in someone else’s shoes, in other words.

    For example, if one accepts that conscious intentions bubble up from underlying processes, as Metzinger argues, this could increase awareness of some of these processes in oneself and others. So by understanding-cum-empathizing with Metzinger’s point we may do a better job of empathizing with others.

    It’s suggestive that both Schopenhauer and the Buddha would seem to agree on the importance of compassion as a state of mind. Compassion for Schopenhauer is one of the two releases from what he calls the will to life—the insensate grasping for survival—with the other release being music. And compassion for Mahayana Buddhists is the cardinal virtue.

    Compassion and empathy are not quite the same thing, of course, but they would seem to be closely related.

  5. It’s interesting that you draw the link to empathy and compassion. I think that understanding the self as an artifact of consciousness rather than its source does open a path to increased empathy and compassion towards others – mostly by means of weakening the emotions of self-concern. To believe the self to be a real substance, an ontological primitive, is to believe that the demands of self concern are rationally compelling. Without that extra support, the self-regarding emotions have no greater claim on us than our other-regarding emotions. So empathy and compassion are more likely to sway us.

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