Translated by Rumia Bose
This article has been published previously on October 26, 2017
There has been quite a commotion around the claims by some neuroscientists that the Ego does not exist, or that it is merely a construct, a creation of the brain. Not surprisingly, the idea that the Ego does not exist upsets a lot of people, because we think that our will, intentions, consciousness, actions and decisions come forth from that Ego[note]The idea for this post came to me from, amongst others, Episode 3 of Dutch journalist Bas Heijne’s television series De Volmaakte Mens (The Perfect Human) and his column Er is geen ‘ik’ ( There is no “ I “ ) in the 27th May 2015 edition of the NRC, a Dutch national newspaper.[/note]. And where does that leave us if the Ego does not exist, or is merely a creation of our brain?
The ego is a construct of the brain
Does the ego not exist? Metzinger is one of the scientists who talks about this in his book The Ego Tunnel. He claims that the ego is a construct of the brain. It is a mechanism by which the brain makes a model of the reality. The brain does this with everything. What you see is a construct of the brain, rather than a photo or film of what is really out there1See also What you see is….. The ego is one of a series of mechanisms that the brain uses to make a model of reality, and this is the basis of our adequate functioning. All of the following are constructs of our brain: our sensory perceptions, thought, memory, body image, consciousness, free will and even our ego.
…….but where in the brain?
But the conclusion that the ego does not exist is incorrect. Metzinger does not claim this, rather he says that the ego is a construct. Where is this construct then? Where in the brain is it to be found? It in fact may or may not be found in the brain, but certainly not if we use the kind of searchlight employed by brain researchers at present. The ego is not a thing, but a process. Perhaps I can explain this with a metaphor2After G. Ryle. The Concept of Mind, Pg. 6 . Professor Ryle in Oxford once has a foreign visitor. He offers to show him Oxford University. His offer is taken up eagerly by his guest. The guest gets to see Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum, and a number of colleges, laboratories, sporting grounds, administrative buildings. He shakes hands with or nods at many employees at the University. When this is over, he thanks Professor Ryle for the extensive tour. He is very impressed, and says, “These buildings are beautiful, the people learned and friendly, but where is the University?” I hope this makes you laugh, because naturally you understand that “showing him the University” is a metaphor. You can’t show someone the University in the way that you show them buildings. The University consists of what he has seen and a lot more. It is the organisation of all of this, and everything which that organisation produces. And although it is called Oxford University, you can also find it outside Oxford, for example in scientific journals, presentations by Oxford scholars or those arranged by the University abroad, and even in instruments built using applications of discoveries and inventions made from this University.
The category mistake
The same applies to the ego. Though it originates in the brain, it is absurd to ask where in the brain it is located. The ego is of a different order than the brains, the physical substrate. This seems like a return to Cartesian dualism, which is based on the premise of a mind which is separated from the body. But that is not so. Oxford University does not stand alone and separate from the buildings, people and other institutions. On the contrary, if you speak of Oxford University then this is related to these very buildings, people and institutions. But Oxford University is of a different order than these material and visible components. Likewise, the ego does not stand alone and separate from the brain. On the contrary, if you speak of the ego, then it is definitely related to the brain, but the ego is without physical substance.
Metzinger and others call the ego an illusion. But they do not mean this in the sense of mistaking something which is false for the real thing. This is the standard definition of an illusion and would mean that the ego does not exist. What he and the others really mean is that the ego is something different to what most people think. It is not a tangible thing, something you can point out or physically grasp. But yes, the ego does exist.
What is it that upsets people when they are confronted with the suggestion that the ego is a construct of the brain? Perhaps because it gives rise to the logical conclusion that the ego is fluid and changeable. Or, in the words of essayist Bas Heijne, “I may like to think that I am at heart the same person as the three year old Bas, but that is nothing more than a trick of my brains”. Or is it because it takes away your illusion of controlling your own actions? Because there is indeed no central controller, an Ego, that decides what you do, want, think3see also Who directs the brain? Or is it the hope of immortality that is shattered, because the death of the brain leads to the disappearance of the ego.
All this indeed sounds threatening. Let me end with something positive. Bas Heijne is afraid that we will act unethically if we accept that there is no Ego. But the opposite may be true. Metzinger refers to the Buddha who says that let go of our Ego leads us to achieve love, compassion and equanimity.
The Ego as the centre of our will, intentions, consciousness, actions and decisions does not exist. But the ego as integrating mechanism for that which for our organism constitutes reality, does exist. The Ego is dead, long live the ego.
Seth AK, Tsakiris M (2018): Being a Beast Machine: The Somatic Basis of Selfhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22:969–981.
Letheby C, Gerrans P (2017): Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience. Neuroscience of Consciousness 2017. DOI: 10.1093/nc/nix016
Hohwy J, Michael J (2017): Why should any body have a self?; in de Vignemont F, Alsmith A (eds): The Subject’s Matter; Self-Consciousness and the Body. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-03683-2
Sui J, Humphreys GW (2015): The Integrative Self: How Self-Reference Integrates Perception and Memory. Trends Cogn Sci (Regul Ed) 19:719–728.
Northoff, G. (2013). “Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account.” Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 7(1): 28.
Metzinger, T. (2009). The ego tunnel; the science of the mind and the myth of the self. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-04567-9.
Hofstadter, D.R. (2007): I am a strange loop. New York, Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00837-7, Ch. 13
Ryle, G. (1949 (2009)). The Concept of Mind; 60th anniversary edition, Routledge. ISBN 0-203-87585-0.
The problem is that where “Oxford University” is is just a matter of convention or semantics. There is no objective fact of the matter about where (or what) “Oxford University” is, any more than there’s an objective fact of the matter about what the squiggles arranged “CAT”-wise on a page mean; they mean whatever we, conscious beings, choose to agree that they mean.
In contrast, that *my* conscious experience exists is not just a matter of convention–at least not in *my* case. *I* am the experiencer of *my* experiences, and that is as much an undeniable, OBJECTIVE fact about reality as the existence of reality itself is. If someone tells me that there is no objectively real experiencer (or self) experiencing my experiences, then I have no clue what that person could mean by those words, but they definitely aren’t referring to quite the same things that I am when I use those same words.
Perhaps people who deny the ontic reality of experience or experiencer, as such, are philosophical zombies. Or perhaps they’re just failing to grasp the nature of the “Hard Problem”–I didn’t “see” it until I was 35, almost completely out of the blue one day, years before I’d ever heard of the Hard Problem.
Or perhaps they are simply in the iron grip of a physicalist dogma–also something that would have described me until sometime after age 35.
But that’s just my very humble opinion.
I am afraid you missed the point of the article.
Chris Frith’s email: Great piece. I have facebooked it.