Throwing Down the Gauntlet (7): D. Dennet, T. Metzinger on the Hard Problem of Consciousness, and a Call for a Science of Sciences

“We’re all zombies. No one is conscious,” Dennett boldly asserted in his 1992 work Consciousness Explained. In his 2017 work From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett reveals that the philosophical ferment which Chalmers’ formulation of “the hard problem” of consciousness initiated, has done little to alter his position. In the book, Dennett contrasts two paradigms of the world, which he terms the apparent, or “manifest image,” and the “scientific” one. The former is, according to Dennett, the qualitative world as we experience it. It is also an illusion, together with the consciousness that experiences it. Dennett refers to such a situation as a “user-illusion” that demonstrates “competence without comprehension.” He advocates a reconfiguration of the underlying assumptions that generate our manifest image of the world in order to square it with the scientific one, “populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).” In Dennett’ words:

We won’t have a complete science of consciousness until we can align our manifest-image identifications of mental states….with scientific-image identifications of the subpersonal informational structures and events that are causally responsible for generating the details of the user illusion…(337)

By now in our exploration, we have attained sufficient familiarity with the paradigm which the contemporary physical sciences assume that Dennett’s characterisation will not strike us as a surprise. Our consideration will also have disclosed problem with this manner of thinking: despite its pretence of scepticism, factual inquiry, and reason, is actually looking through the wrong end of the telescope. To demand a theoretical explanation for the qualia that are, by definition, experienced directly is exactly the inverse of a sceptical approach. Rather it is almost Procrustean: one is forcing the facts to fit the model and refusing out of hand to consider the ones that do not so fit. In other words, it is hardly scientific to demand theoretical accounts for facts of experience before one is willing to consider them. Aristotle levies a complaint in De Caelo against the followers of Empedocles which is too fitting not to quote:

In fact their explanation of the observations is not consistent with the observations. And the reason is that their ultimate principles are wrongly assumed: they had certain predetermined views, and were resolved to bring everything into line with them…they, owing to their love for their principles, fall into the attitude of men who undertake the defence of a position in argument. In the confidence that the principles are true they are ready to accept any consequence of their application. As though some principles did not require to be judged from their results, and particularly from their final issue!

And that issue, which in the case of productive knowledge is the product, in the knowledge of nature is the unimpeachable evidence of the senses as to each fact. [1]

The above complaints are comparably trivial, however, to the fact that in holding such a position, Dennett bears witness against himself and thereby throws to the wind the very basis of holding a position in the first place. I do not regard Dennett as a zombie—as an entity possessed of “competence without consciousness.” The fact that I bother to quote him demonstrates this fact of my valuation of him, since I would not answer an entity who was not asking a question for the same reason that I do not answer to a stone, which does not ask of me. In this policy, I have born out my statement with my behaviour. I am certain that Dennett does not regard himself or other people as zombies either, since he enjoys meaningful human interactions, amongst which are championing the cause of materialistic science. That he claims that “we are all zombies” only demonstrates that his profession is at odds with his actual beliefs, as they are made manifest in his behaviour. If it were truly a question of  “atoms in a void,” [2] then there would be nothing further to be said or argued for, not the least of reasons for which is that no one would exist to argue for them.

In fact, the philosopher Thomas Metzinger sought to “face up” to the hard problem of consciousness in just this manner: by denying the existence of the subject of experience. In his magisterial 2003 monograph Being No One, Metzinger marshals evidence from diverse fields in philosophy, neuroscience, and neurophenomenology to argue that selfhood is an illusion. “Nobody ever was or had a self,” [3] Metzinger asserts. Some readers will read such a claim with incredulity, though anyone familiar with Buddhist doctrine will immediately recognise a likeness to the principle of anattā (Sanskrit anātman), or “non-self.” From this perspective, no phenomena have intrinsic existence (Sanskrit: svabhāva; Pali: sabhāva, literally “own-being”) and the self is a phenomenon: therefore, per modus ponens, no self has intrinsic existence. On a side-note that is likely no more than an interesting bit of trivia, Metzinger manifestly  “took pains to read again the works of all the philosophers on whom [he] could lay hand” in writing Being No One just as Copernicus testified to have done in respect to the latter’s composition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. For this reason, no mention of Buddha in the former strikes the reader as no less-conspicuous than no mention of Aristarchus in the latter. Returning to the issue at hand, Metzinger explains the etiology of phenomenal selfhood:

All that ever existed were conscious self-models that could not be recognized as models. The phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process—and the subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious information-processing system operates under a transparent self-model. You are such a system right now, as you read these sentences. Because you cannot recognize your self-model as a model, it is transparent: you look right through it. You don’t see it. But you see with it. In other, more metaphorical, words, the central claim of this book is that as you read these lines you constantly confuse yourself with the content of the self-model currently activated by your brain. (16)

Metzinger calls this invisibility of the self-model to consciousness “auto-epistemic closure.” Without calling into question the caliber of Metzinger’s scholarship, it is obvious that his thesis is not the only one that could be drawn from the facts at hand. It is indeed the only one that (no)one could draw if one first assumes the tenets of metaphysical materialism together with the methods of modern science in an apodeictic manner. This, however, is begging the question since at issue in the first place is whether such methods will ever deliver us from the hard problem of consciousness. On top of this, the methods of acceptable science themselves undergo changes through history. To affirm, therefore, contemporary methods as the exclusive proper approach to science is a position that ensures its own falsification. If a theory is virtually false already, there is no reason to assert it as more than an hypothesis to save the appearances, which was, as we noted in section IV, was a traditional notion of theory. Much better than falling into inevitable methodo-logical hypocrisy is to hold methods lightly and logic faithfully, which is to say, to embrace the Goethe’s notion of “Zarte Empirie”, or “delicate empiricism.” [4]

To reject, therefore, the existence of a self for the reason that it is not empirically or neurophenomenologically verifiable only reveals the truth about the self relative to that method of inquiry, and it is a question for us to decide whether that method is the only one we wish to employ, and the nature of the phenomenon under study ought to determine this decision. Even if one should choose to assume to tenets of naturalism without qualification, one would still have to possess a very determinate idea of what one was looking for in order to empirically or neurophenomenologically determine its absence.

One of the inquiries of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume will likely strike the reader as a prototype of Metzinger’s undertaking, though the Scotsman shares with Buddha the peculiar honour of omission from Metzinger’s otherwise comprehensive text (perhaps it is meant as a bit of philosophical irony given the subject at hand). Hume, for instance, stumbled on the same lack of determinacy in his introspective analysis. In A Treatise on Human Nature in 1738, for instance, he writes:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

It is unclear what sort of thing Hume was looking for but the fact of his looking for it seems to put his argument in a difficult position. Indeed, the same introspective testimony from above which Hume interpreted as evidence for the non-existence of a self could arguably serve better as evidence for its existence out of sheer logical necessity in order to avoid a performative contradiction (i.e. ostensibly, someone had to check whether or not their was a self if the claim is to be affirmed as grounded in evidence; as grounded in evidence; if no one checked, then what are we talking about?). This was sufficient reason for Descartes, for example, to assume the existence of a self as the Archimedean point of certainty beyond all doubt. Aristotle similarly took perception and consciousness of that perception to be just what it is to exist:

When a man sees, he is aware that he is seeing; when he hears, he is aware that he hears; when he walks, he is aware that he walks. Similarly in all other activities there is a faculty in us that is aware that we are active; we perceive that we perceive, we understand that we understand, and in this we perceive and understand that we exist. For existence was defined as perception or thought. [5]

Finally, Metzinger claims in the excerpt quoted above that “the phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process,” and takes this to constitute evidence of its absence. In this manner, he nearly summarises another of “the three marks of existence” according to Buddhist doctrine, the other of which was anatta or “non-self.” Anicca (Pāli) or “impermanence” (Sanskrit: anitya) means just what the name would imply. In itself, it is a perfectly sensible conception. Heraclitus purportedly propounded a similar doctrine with the enigmatic phrase πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei, “everything flows”). [6] Metzinger further claims, however that “you constantly confuse yourself with the content of the self-model currently activated by your brain.” This is no longer a sensible conception, since the ephemerality of the phenomenal self cannot serve as evidence for its non-existence without drawing the same conclusion in respect to all other objects, including the brain which is supposed to “activate” it together with all of the laboratory equipment which establishes these correlations, etc… In short, to claim “the phenomenal self is not a thing but a process” establishes a false dichotomy in that it fails to account for the fact that things are processes too.


I have little expectation that my points above would exert the slightest influence on the opinions of Dennett and Metzinger. After all, if “we are all zombies” or a “conscious information-processing system [that] operates under a transparent self-model,” then what exactly do I have in mind to accomplish? By this point, the situation may begin to appear rather bleak. Given the “incommensurability of paradigms,” is not all dialogue reduced to a power struggle between pawns of conflicting paradigmata? [7] I am left to conclude that the only way to make true progress on such questions is for us to become increasingly conscious, and also conscientious, of our own methods of theorising even as we engage in them. Anything else can only constitute sophistry, or arguing under a banner of intellectual partisanship under the pretence of philosophy. For example, to the question which the philosophers quoted above broached, one approach that they did not take is to inquire “what sort of thing must the self be, given that I can’t see it with my eye, kick it with my foot, or isolate it in an fMRI scan, etc…?” Who understands the relation of the theorising mind to the objects of its theory is in the position to grasp the secrets of existence, but none other. Metzinger could have said “now I grasp my true nature, as neither a subject nor an object but the one who is conscious of himself as a thinking that thinks itself ad perpetranda miracula rei unius…et sic mundus creatus est.

To grasp one’s own cognitive participation in the objects of one’s cognition is not a typical state of consciousness. On the contrary, even a philosopher of Metzinger’s caliber approaches the question from a set of fixed ideas which constitute a paradigm that is “transparent” to him in the same meaning of that word as he employs it in respect to the self-model in its “auto-epistemic closure.” In his words, “you don’t see it. But you see with it.” That he can recognise this fact in respect to the self-model, however, proves Metzinger is capable to recognise it of other models as well; he is fit to see the ox he is riding on, as it were. “[M]ost of us believe that these theories [of modern physics] are among the best mankind has so far created. Basically, we trust those physicists,” Metzinger writes, indicating the paradigm that he assumes as his departure point for any inquiry to the apparent detriment of the objectivity which he seems so keenly to seek. Indeed just such an awareness of the correlation between the departure point as the alpha and eventual termini as the omega is a necessarily condition of realistic inquiry. By the same token, no realistic conclusions will be forthcoming from an inquiry whose paradigm is invisible or “transparent” to it, in Metzinger’s usage of the that word. [8] This is the same point we meant to stress above in the discussion of theory and evidence, and just such an awareness of the standard paradigm of today is what we have sought to provide for with this investigation.

Metzinger continues to expand his scope to philosophy and its iconic origins at the temple to Apollo at Delphi: “The contribution cognitive neuroscience finally makes to the philosophical projects of humanity will be a significant one, because, at its core, cognitive neuroscience is the project of self-knowledge.” But such a sweeping statement is premature given the relatively “transparency” of his model to his inquiry. Again, Metzinger has tacitly indicated that he presumes the self to be the kind of substance which could be falsified through the methods of contemporary physical science. As we have attempted to show, however, this can only strike one as a foregone conclusion.  To recapitulate, in pith, the reason: experimental results will always supervene on experimental method. The same paradigm, therefore, that fails to account for the experience of other qualia as more than epiphenomena of physical process and natural consequences of Darwinian ones, will be ill-equipped, in principle, to account for the experience of selfhood.

Continuing in this vein, the reason that it even strikes us remotely feasible that purely physical or material process could account for any of these things is that we actually begin with these things as the basic facts of our experience. When we imagine to derive qualitative experience in terms of non-qualitative processes, it is only because we are actually working our way back to where we are starting from in the first place. In fact, we never really accomplish this. Immediate experience is a limiting case for any method of inquiry that is even remotely empirical. The reason that one can never entirely reconstitute the origin is that, as per our method, we had to abstract away aspects of the whole experience in order to represent it in terms of physics or naturalism. Thus, just as you can study a cube from a salt crystal, but not saltiness from a cube, so explaining consciousness from unconsciousness is impossible without an unrealistic appeal to psychoneurophysical alchemy from constituents that fail to contain even the rudiments of those phenomena that one seeks to explain with them, in which case it would have been better not to insist on seeking the explanation in those terms in the first place. It is superstitious to hypothesise that consciousness will spontaneously emerge from physical processes, and no appeal to complexity or near infinite time changes this fact. That this expectation persists only proves that forces external to science are exerting an incommensurate influence on the direction of inquiry in this field. All scientific revolutions of the past received their spark from the friction between the contemporary paradigm and actual observations. This then captures the essence of the scientific enterprise—as a marriage of reason and experience—as well as its crucial dynamo: the endeavour to “save the appearances” in a satisfactory manner. In the hard problem of consciousness, a phenomenon has been identified for which human dignity demands a recognition and integration by the contemporary scientific paradigm. In a manner, one of us has to go.

Dennett and Metzinger “face up” to the hard problem of consciousness by shouldering the burden of their own existential nothingness. Metzinger conveys the spirit of this heroic nihilism in the most expressive manner in a recent interview with Michael Taft:

It is, of course, very exciting to follow the old philosophical ideal of self-knowledge and to be ready and have the guts to really face the facts, and to make use of the enormous new tools we have in cognitive neuroscience right now. But what I think many people, including many professional philosophers, don’t understand is that nobody ever said self-knowledge is emotionally attractive, or that it cannot also have sobering or outright depressing effects on you.

Here, Metzinger’s has identified the third mark of existence according to Buddhist doctrine: dukkha. Naturally, we must assume that he is referring to the generic milktoast Mr. Nobody who hadn’t yet realised his own nature as a non-self which could not, in principle, be a subject of depressing effects or any other experience. We can also excuse his nihilistic outlook since no one exists to hold it. Obviously, these things are hard to talk about and one inevitably lands one(non)self in contradiction.

Still, our dismissal of the materialist theory of consciousness on purely logical ground may seem premature. After all, it is undeniable that brain states affect consciousness, and that to a significant degree. At what point must one indeed concede that “no one is conscious” or that “we’re all zombies?” Certainly a demonstration that apparently free action were in fact predetermined by brain processes would constitute sufficient reason to capitulate to the materialist theory. And indeed, ever since the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s experiments on free will in the 1980s, claims by the likes of Dennett and Metzinger appear to have experimental corroboration. Stephen Hawking summed up what is at stake very concisely in 2010: “Though we feel that we can choose what we do, understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biologi­cal processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets.” If this is true, Hawking’s claim in 2011 that “philosophy is dead…” [9] seems to follow as a matter of course. After all, if consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain activity and brain activity follows deterministic laws of physics, it would indeed appear that the reader’s time were better spent drafting an eulogy for the Queen of the Sciences than an apologia for her. Still, let us briefly consider whether such experiments indeed prove what they seem to do.

A recent experiment seems to demonstrate just this fact, and its design bears sufficient similarity to Libet’s experiment of forty years ago that they raise the same philosophical issues and therefore can be addressed at the same time. The results of an experiment published in Nature on 5 March 2019 [10] reveal researchers’ ability to predict, from brain activity, subjects’ decision up to 11 seconds before their conscious exercise of that volition! In other words, brain chemistry has already determined the choice that subjects later decide to make. Dennett’s quote suddenly strikes one as peculiarly apropos: “we’re all zombies.” But let us consider the nature of these experiments in slightly more depth before we throw up our hands and surrender to the whims of our neurology and endocrine glands. In the 2019 experiment, 14 participants viewed two patterns on a screen in front of them and then “freely chose which of two images to imagine.” Their “free” choice was between horizontal red stripes and vertical green ones. Once had chosen, they pushed a button, whose colour was not specified, to indicate this. Throughout the process, the blood flow in their brains was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging device (fMRI). Researchers discovered that they could predict the decision of the participants up to 11 seconds before the subjects themselves waxed conscious of it. As startling as this sounds, it has been a consensus within the field of neuroscience since at least Libet’s day that “your brain makes decisions before you do,” so to speak, and that the experience of freedom, ergo, is illusory.

But here we are granted yet another case-study of the polar correlation between theory and evidence. Put another way, the verdict above supervenes upon the materialist-physicalist-naturalistic paradigm that it appears to corroborate. Barring a foregone prejudice between the meaningless patterns that they were presented withal, subjects of the experiment had no reason for which they “freely chose” one or the other. This is a confusion of concepts, however, between freedom, which is performed in consciousness of one’s motives and is a function of reason, and liberty, which indicates an absence of external constraint and is a function of license. After all, to “freely choose something for no reason” is not freedom, but arbitrariness. That these terms are often confused does not mean they cannot be distinguished. At least since Plato’s time, philosophers have understood that a person is least free when she does what she wants, because in this instance she is a slave to her “desiring-soul” (ἐπιθυμητικόν), whose appetites she did not choose but which arise spontaneously. [11] Indeed, one should even be happy to have been prevented by an external constraint to carry out a desire that was contrary to one’s better judgement. When Odysseus, for instance, had himself tied to a mast to resist the siren-songs, this was a temporary restriction on his liberty and not his freedom.

That the paradigm of contemporary natural science does not bother with such philosophical quiddities does not diminish their necessity. Indeed an “head-in-the-sand” ethos interferes with the integral relation of reason and observation which is the essential crux of science as such. Conceptual clarity is a sine qua non for realistic science, and indispensable for any reasonable interpretation of experimental findings. The experiment above demonstrates that physiological activity can predict decisions made for no reason, but one hardly needs a scientific experiment to tell us this. After all, no one feels it is an affront to their freedom when they indulge the spontaneous impulse to blink, or to heave a sigh of relief after finishing such an immense and consummately-researched ode to neurophenomenological nihilism as Metzinger’s magnum opus. On a serious note, question of freedom is also the question of consciousness, since unconscious freedom is a contradiction in terms. It is also a moral question, since there is no morality in rocks or in brain processes.


Thank you to all of my readers. The next section will conclude this exploration.

[1] De Caelo iii.7:

Συμβαίνει δὲ περὶ τῶν φαινομένων λέγουσι μὴ ὁμολογούμενα λέγειν τοῖς φαινομένοις. Τούτου δ’ αἴτιον τὸ μὴ καλῶς λαβεῖν τὰς πρώτας ἀρχάς, ἀλλὰ πάντα βούλεσθαι πρός τινας δόξας ὡρισμένας ἀνάγειν…Οἱ δὲ διὰ τὴν τούτων φιλίαν ταὐτὸ ποιεῖν ἐοίκασι τοῖς τὰς θέσεις ἐν τοῖς λόγοις διαφυλάττουσιν ἅπαν γὰρ ὑπομένουσι τὸ συμβαῖνον ὡς ἀληθεῖς ἔχοντες ἀρχάς, ὥσπερ οὐκ ἐνίας δέον κρίνειν ἐκ τῶν ἀποβαινόντων, καὶ μάλιστα ἐκ τοῦ τέλους.
Τέλος δὲ τῆς μὲν ποιητικῆς ἐπιστήμης τὸ ἔργον, τῆς δὲ φυσικῆς τὸ φαινόμενον ἀεὶ κυρίως κατὰ τὴν αἴσθησιν.

[2] The pre-Socratic Thracian philosopher Democritus famously enunciated the earliest formulation of atomism in the fifth century B.C.:

By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, colour is colour; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.

(trans. Durant 1939), Ch. XVI, §II, p. 353; citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, “Fragment O” (Diels), p. 60

νόμωι (γάρ φησι) γλυκὺ καὶ νόμωι πικρόν, νόμωι θερμόν, νόμωι ψυχρόν, νόμωι χροιή, ἐτεῆι δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν

(Tetralogies of Thrasyllus, 9; Sext. Emp. adv. math. VII 135)

[3] In Metzinger’s words:

Phenomenal selfhood results from autoepistemic closure in a self-representing system; it is a lack of information. The prereflexive, preattentive experience of being someone results directly from the contents of the currently active self-model being transparent…no such things as selves exist in the world. Under the general principle of ontological parsimony, it is not necessary (or rational) to assume the existence of selves, because as theoretical entities they fulfill no indispensable explanatory function. What exists are information-processing systems engaged in the transparent process of phenomenal self-modeling. 337.

[4] “There is a sensitive empiricism (“zarte Empirie”), which joins itself in identify with its object and therewith become true theory.” My translation of Goethe:

 “Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird. Diese Steigerung des geistigen Vermögens aber gehört einer hochgebildeten Zeit an.” (Maximen und Reflexionen 509, 1833).

[5] My own laborious translation of Aristotle’s text:

ὁ δ’ ὁρῶν ὅτι ὁρᾷ αἰσθάνεται καὶ ὁ ἀκούων ὅτι ἀκούει καὶ ὁ βαδίζων ὅτι βαδίζει, καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἄλλων ὁμοίως ἔστι τι τὸ αἰσθανόμενον ὅτι ἐνεργοῦμεν, ὥστε ἂν αἰσθανώμεθ’, ὅτι αἰσθανόμεθα, κἂν νοῶμεν, ὅτι νοοῦμεν, τὸ δ’ ὅτι αἰσθανόμεθα ἢ νοοῦμεν, ὅτι ἐσμέν τὸ γὰρ εἶναι ἦν αἰσθάνεσθαι ἢ νοεῖν (Nicomachean Ethics IX.9, 1170a29-b1)

[6] Cf. Plato’s Cratylus 402a for a discussion of this doctrine. Cratylus ostensibly hailed from the school of enigmatic Ephesians.

[7] Cf. Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities (ἀρχάς, “Archai”), against powers (ἐξουσίας, “Exousiai”), against the rulers (κοσμοκράτορας, “Cosmocratoroi”)…

[8] Jean Gebser’s notion of diaphaneity suggests the alternative to Metzinger’s transparency. See the former’s magnum opus, The Ever Present Origin (1949-1953

[9] “Philosophy is dead…[since philosophers] have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, 2011)

[10] Roger Koenig-Robert & Joel Pearson. “Decoding the contents and strength of imagery before volitional engagement.” Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 3504

[11] Plato’s tripartite soul from book IV of the Republic includes the λογιστικόν (logistykon, logical), the θυμοειδές (thymoeides, spirited, passionate) and the (epithymetikon, appetitive, desiring). The first is compared to the chariot and the charioteer, and the latter to two horse. Plato affirms that, for the soul in harmony, the steers do not steer the charioteer, as it were.

Interview cited about was titled: What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger, Interview by Michael W. Taft.

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