The Cuckoo in the Nest

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

I want to look at why selfhood, selfish behaviour, and our sense of being selves impedes our ability to solve our collective problems. I will also argue that self and selfhood, whilst crucial to our survival as a species so far, are now unfit for purpose in a world that contains almost eight billion competing selves and subjects.

I will trace the developments in modern cognitive science which reveal the self’s origin in human physiology; and review the developments in modern psychology which show why selfish behaviour arises and why we suffer as a consequence. I will outline the ways in which the self might be undermined and will suggest what kind of identity might take its place, what possibilities hitherto obscured by its blinding presence, might emerge when it is gone. I will aim to show that when we explore these possibilities we will begin to see that many things come into focus- the nature of our identity, the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, and that between natural algorithms and artificial ones- thereby throwing new light on the possibilities and projects that human beings in the twenty-first century might want to embrace. Once we better understand what our identity is, and what it is not, we will be better placed collectively to determine our futures and those of the generations that will follow us.

The debate around the self is at least two-and-a-half thousand years old. The Buddha famously denied that the self possessed any substance; he held that referring to one’s self was merely a useful convention, a way of pointing to this particular body or mind, or to this particular human perspective on the world. There was nothing substantial in selfhood, nothing that amounted to more than a combination of certain physical and psychological characteristics. Jump twenty-five centuries on from the foundation of Buddhism and this interpretation now fits well with the modern perspective on our inherent nature, the perspective which sees us as physical objects in a wholly material universe. If we are survival machines manufactured by nature what else could we be composed of but biological components?

Modern cognitive science describes our bodies and brains as made up of thousands of separate structures which combine to make us what we are. Those that underlie our sense of being selves, and our selfish behaviour, are no different in essence to those that allow us to see, think, digest, walk or talk. The self is just one of many biological mechanisms that enable us to navigate the world. You could compare the self to the human immune system or to the opposable thumb. These and many other underlying networks, structures and competencies combine to make us what we are physically; but it may be a grave mistake to see any one set of these structures, even the self, as what we ‘truly’ are. Once we see selfhood from this biological and evolutionary perspective we might be persuaded that the time has come to stop feeding the cuckoo in our nest.

In his 2009 account of selfhood, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self the philosopher Thomas Metzinger describes how the self evolved over millennia to be the interface between human bodies and the world that those bodies inhabit. He describes how the brain creates two principal models- firstly, one of the world beyond the body and secondly, one of a ‘self’ located in that body, forming a connection or interface between body and world. In this account our experience of the world and of our selves is mediated through models that create what Metzinger calls a ‘tunnel through reality’. There is doubtless a physical world in which our bodies are located, but our experience of that world, and the experience we have of the bodies that occupy it, are best regarded as virtual models or simulations, tunnels or constructed fictions in which we spend all of our conscious moments, our waking hours and our dreams.

What is curious about these representations is that they do not typically appear to us to be representations; we feel that we are in unmediated contact with the world and with our bodies, and that as experiencers of both we are identical with the self-model. Yet rational reflection tells us that this cannot be the case. We know that our experience of the world is mediated through our senses, our intellect and our self-image. Indeed, it is the same with our experience of the body; it is the body image as represented in the brain (rather than the body itself) which is the key to the body’s orientation in space and time and to the subjective experience of the body's place in the world. Moreover, current evidence suggests that a coherent self-model arrives on the scene not in the womb nor at birth, but normally in infancy, when the child begins to direct her attention. Yet even then the self-model is not a model of a real, independently-existing object; rather, the self is a constructed fiction. Metzinger’s key contention is that ‘nobody has ever been, or had a self.’

In this contemporary, and specifically physicalist, view we do not and cannot experience the material world on the basis of all of the data reaching the brain from that world. We can only ever experience an edited version, one that condenses information reaching our senses and intellect in a manner which is advantageous in evolutionary terms. We experience in a manner that augments our ability to survive and reproduce. To aid us in this process each experiencer possesses an embodied self, an adaptive ‘virtual organ’, an organ that evolution has developed in humans and many other species to enhance the phenotype's capacity to survive and bring forth new generations. This virtual organ projects a self-model, a representation of something that is undergoing experience, what in machine language might be described as a virtual interface designed, in this case by natural selection, to appropriate and control a body.

However, whilst the represented external world really exists, and we (that is, our bodies) are part of that reality, and represent at least a portion of it, the self-model is not independently ‘real’; it is never more than a functional framework or simulation for what is experienced. As such it can be viewed in much the same way as the immune system is regarded, namely as a complex of physical processes which are activated when the body requires them. As with the immune system, there is no 'entity' distinct from the physical, bodily events. Rather, in the case of selfhood, it is the activation of these physical processes that creates the sense that we have of being selves in immediate contact with a world inhabited by those selves.

In this way the self-model is a product of complex patterns arising in our brains. It is itself located within the world model and in being so creates a centre, a viewpoint from which the world can be experienced. Of course, my sense of that view is that I don’t just represent the world outside the body, rather I experience it directly. Each one of us has a unique inner perspective which is firmly rooted in our bodily sensations and feelings. Because of this we are unable to experience and recognise our self-models as models; they are transparent and we are unaware of them as models. The ego is a transparent mental image; the physical organism sees through it. It is a form of representational content, a specific way in which the brain processes information and one that is switched on permanently, except in deep sleep (and whilst awake deactivated only in some rare forms of brain disorder).

It is this phenomenal transparency which turns the representation of a single world and a single moment into a transparent presence. It seems then that a subject cannot experience either the world or itself as anything but a transparent unity. This transparency, itself the consequence of physical brain processes, lies at the core of human experience. From a scientific, third-person perspective we are computational modellers, machines made of flesh, but due to the transparency of the representations that our bodies make we are each one of us a conscious individual directed at a world that is experienced in an unmediated fashion.

The brain constantly creates the experience that I (an embodied self) am present in a world outside that brain. One perhaps has to pause for a moment to consider what a remarkable fact that is. If such an experience were not wholly transparent my body would have the sensation of experiencing my embodied self as an object rather than a subject. Such transparency is likely to be common to many non-human species, including other mammals, birds and sentient creatures. It makes us and them into ‘naive realists’, creatures which see potential predators as predators (rather than as information about shape, size, colour, and movement that arises to a self-model) and our bodies and brains into selves having direct contact with the world, thus giving us a unique and irreducible point of view. One of the chief aspects of such transparency is the fact that the subject is unaware that experience is taking place in the body/brain medium; instead a subjective impression of immediacy is created.

There are doubtless good evolutionary reasons for this- making the world and a self appear directly and transparently in an organism’s brain amounts to an adaptive computational strategy. It circumnavigates the potential problems of coping with the excessive information flows that might arise from a lengthy and potentially infinite regress where a representation of an external reality appears to a creature that recognises both itself and its world view as yet another representation. Moreover, it allows animals to represent that a state of affairs actually is the case, thereby distinguishing that state from mere thoughts or hypotheses, which whilst themselves potentially advantageous in aiding planning and simulation, have to be distanced from what is happening ‘now’ to be of benefit. For good evolutionary reasons this transparency has to be non-transcendable and in so being affords a stable basis against which hypotheses can be made and evaluated.

At the same time transparency creates our sense of the ‘now’. The ego tunnel is also a time tunnel and human consciousness is inwardness in time, a tunnel of presence. Doubtless too there are good selective reasons for this- creatures that survive need to be able to flag the dangerous present moment, ensuring that the appropriate skill- whether it be attention, cognition, motor reflex or recall- are activated at that moment. Objectively speaking our 'now’ is a remembered present, a frame of reference that proved adaptive for our ancestors acting under the selective pressures of a specific biological environment. The present moment is thus a unique first-person experience- a representation or window on the world and of the self’s place in that world, the moving window of the conscious. In this way, consciousness itself comes to be what it feels like from the inside to be making successive transparent representations in an experienced ‘now’.

But the crucial feature in all of this is that the self is collection of physical processes in brain and body that combine to create it. The self is embodied; it is not an immaterial entity or force. It is just one aspect of the body at work, but an important one because it directs and controls much of our behaviour. And because it is transparent to our perception it appears to be what we are at the most basic level. But appearances, as we know, can often be misleading; and in the case of the self they are dangerously so.