Notes from 10/24/2011 Meeting of The Neurosciences and the Humanities Working Group at Kent State

At the meeting on October 24 ,2011 of the Neurosciences and the Humanities Workgroup at Kent State University, we discussed Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (2009). These are my notes from the meeting and the ensuing discussion.

“ego machines” (207) “arose from evolution on this planet” “world simulation built around a center” [this material might be useful for my chapter on Philip K. Dick]

ego machines without self

self as process > self stabilization > Asimov’s robots? [more notes on Asimov chapter]

“selfing organisms”

“dynamical self-organization”

limitation of metaphors > other ways of thinking about self, but cannot ignore the “illusion” that is not an illusion

no one and a self simultaneously

“it is what it is” > is there no way to conceptualize this emergent self-that-is-not-a-self?

“embodied simulation” [connects to the first point above]

this is not strictly a scientific book > ethics and philosophy

argues we should not create an ego machine [this would be useful for my chapter on Richard Powers and Galatea 2.2]

his position is that we should not create suffering. therefore, we should not create an ego machine.


chemical alterations to the brain > effect on society and individual > each consciousness is unique

analytic philosopher, not perspective on neuroscience

Out of body experience, OBE > not much money for research into this, not popular in the sciences as a field of study

humanities to Metzinger serves a middle ground, neutral, not vying for the same funding as other neurosciences

cognitive science > from the molecule on up, think about more fundamental sciences and forces: physics, etc.

is the Ego Tunnel too simple a metaphor for the brain

the brain is a galaxy of machines, more than a single machine [more metaphors]

how does Metzinger account for Freud?

are Metzinger’s models too computer-like or computer metaphor oriented?

does this build on the beginning of the modern era of cognitive science?

a dynamical system does not mean that it is computationalist in origin

are the ways that Metzinger aligns his view with robots and AI?

how does he argue that we should not build AI/ego machines to reduce suffering? Should we not have children any longer? Should we kill everyone to end all suffering?

what about absence of consciousness like going under anesthesia?

David Chalmers > “the hard problem”

the ego is an illusion, not consciousness

the ego is quite an achievement, evolutionarily

separate noise from signal

create unity

evolutionary advantage > if you knew that the ego is an illusion, then it doesn’t work > the advantage is based on sustaining the illusion

implications for education

self in process, absence of the self

Stanley Fish > sacrosanct soul that we dare not mess with

the self as entity does not exist, but as a process it does exist

phenomenon that arises from complex processes

every little thing has/can have effect on the self

constantly changing the self > ethical and practical considerations as educators

NYT’s article this past weekend > Israeli psychologist > difficulty changing people’s minds, opinions, paradigms > create enough experiences to transform a person’s opinion or approach

Stanley Fish’s attack on Professor Bracher > “character transplants” > Bracher teaching empathy through literary studies > taboo in the humanities to change opinions, improve character, etc. > Metzinger’s evidence seems to support Bracher’s position

Ego tunnel > narrowing and dark > superstitions on limitations on the self > sinfulness and darkness > resonate with the simple metaphor

suggestive as a metaphor > not the limitation of what it actually is

Fourier transformations

predictability > patterns and pattern recognition > eyes closed/blinking > blind spot in the center of vision > focus blindspot > compensating for what we do and do not see

prefontal cortex and the visual system > temperature, orientation, etc. > we cannot control our experience of these

computing process model > memory based model, active memory based model, top-down vs. bottom-up

causal reasoning, needed to explain a looped memory that is missing, ego seems to be involved in this

highly skilled readers > do they read words or images/pictures?

cognitive neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology, etc. > neuroscience

neuroscience and cognitive science are not the same thing, many hard and fast divisions

neuropsychology > broader

cognitive psychology > focused on meaning > is this where the humanities can best engage the neurosciences?

overlap of philosophy and literary modernism

Jonah Lehrer – Proust was a Neuroscientist

consider Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

discovery of a consciousness

self is not a soul, essential component that predates everything

Woolf also uses metaphor of “tunneling,” but in a different way

tunneled through consciousness to where all the other consciousnesses meet up > opposite kind of solipsism

humanities education > how can anyone say what is good and what is not good? how can any of this lead us to a good kind of consciousness to promote?

proposing states of consciousness > read this and think about that

what is it about humanities departments that we debate/think about ethics? musicians don’t debate ethics of what they do–or do they? they do want to get it “right”

humanities > not do we do philosophy or not, but whether we do it good or badly

produce practical results without scattershot method

how do you get in the tunnel and work within it?

Woolf and the neurosciences > what is it that enabled her to come to her insights? she didn’t read “brain books.” system or genre of the novel > Woolf refelecting back the very system of the novel > the novel itself has something to do with this reflection, introspection

do we want out of the tunnel? doesn’t this predispose that the tunnel is a bad thing? is the tunnel sustainable? should we get out of the tunnel?

reasoning with heuristics > bad probabilistic reasoners

David Chalmers > consciousness is irreducible entity, stop reducing it and figure out what we are going to do with it

ego and consciousness

scientists teaching literature > encroaching on other domains or interdisciplinarity?

issues of criticism, bad neuroscience, neuroscience writing, neuroscientific approaches for next time

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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