December 07, 2005

Being No One

Allan Hobson
PSYCHE June 2005: VOLUME 11 ISSUE 5 2
I praise Thomas Metzinger's book On Being No One by calling my essay "Finally Some One" meaning that I am pleased to see a first rate philosopher so carefully reading the neurobiological literature. Especially as it pertains to sleep and dreaming.
2. How to read Being No One
How to read a book that is 634 pages long? My answer is to browse (as if this were a reference book) looking for a discussion of subjects that you know well enough to appreciate Metzinger’s analysis and then venture into more unfamiliar territory. Another answer is to emphasize the readability of Thomas Metzinger’s discussion of even the most obscure philosophical concepts. It is a pleasure to report that every page indeed every line of the book is well written and understandable.
3. The book itself
Having refreshingly introduced the questions he wants to answer (Part I) and the tools (Part II) he uses to answer them, Thomas Metzinger then lists eleven constraints upon theneural functions that could qualify as phenomenal representations (Part III). I found this section of the book to be annoyingly obscure and abstract. It blocks the reader’s access tothe more interesting discussion of neurophenomological case studies in Part III. And it is in Part IV that the clinician and the experimentalist will feel most at home. The same cycle recurs in the second half of the book. Opaque and abstract discussions of Tools (Part IV), Representational deep structure (Part VII) proceed a second pass at Neurophenomenological case studies (Part VII) before the conclusion (Part VIII). I found myself most at home in Part VII.
On balance it may seem gratuitous to fault such a tour de force. In this book Metzinger covers just about everything. He is remarkably eclectic and balanced in his treatment of the philosophical and cognitive neuroscience literature. He proposes his own models which are original and interesting. What doesn’t he do? Metzinger doesn’t tell us that we need a more tactical approach to collecting first person data and a more strategic approach to correlating it with third person data. He doesn’t take seriously enough the charge of Anti Revonsuo (and David Chalmers for that matter) that the time is ripe for breaking down both the institutional and the methodological walls that divide the fields of philosophy, psychology and physiology and the tasks of consciousness science. I hope this essay will goad him into taking further step in this direction.
4. Why I like the book
The book is alive with the clarity and openness of Metzinger’s mind. From my initial reading I was so sure that Metzinger was authentic and sincere that I called him up to say so. Thomas Metzinger may be "No One" in the sense that there is no self without a brain but he is surely some one in the sense of a fully embodied self, a brain with a transparent (my meaning) motivation and interest in the truth. I have never read such a complete and penetrating analysis of my own scientific field: the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and dreaming. In this, as in other parts of the book that I understand well enough to comment, Metzinger cuts to the heart of the matter.
I have always thought that the scientific study of sleep and dreaming was relevant to a science of consciousness. Metzinger endorses this view and brings to our field his own way of understanding the relationship of mind to body. Metzinger fully understands the state dependence of conscious experience and appreciates how much we can learn from an examination of the alterations in phenomenal experience that accompany the now well understood changes in brain function during sleep. In particular, he appreciates that the robust differences between dreaming and waking consciousness (such as the visuomotor hallucinosis, the delusional belief that one is awake, the distinctive defects in cognition, the heightened emotionality, and the poor memory) have their neural correlates in the altered neural activation pattern of REM sleep.
Thus it is all the more surprising to note that Thomas Metzinger does not consider first person reports of conscious experience to be data. The importance of sleep and dreaming to understanding consciousness is a key point upon which Metzinger and I agree. So does Anti Revonsuo who goes so far as to suggest in his chapter Neural Correlates of Consciousness that a vigorous and sophisticated scientific assault on consciousness might well focus on dreaming as a virtual reality simulation that illustrates the brain’s intrinsic capacity to create a self and a world that are off-line but richly detailed.
5. What I don’t like about the book
Metzinger doesn’t tell us he himself is a lucid dreamer. Is this because he doesn’t trust first person data? On page 591 he states: "My politically incorrect conclusion is that first person data do not exist."

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