Is that us?

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger (2004), University of Mainz, Germany, has been pushing the idea for a while that the Self is a myth, a brain simulation, although, admittedly, quite a useful one. He claims there never was a self. You were born without one and when you die no self dies because it only was a “software simulation” in your brain anyway.

In Metzinger’s books “Being no One: The Self-model Theory of Subjectivity” (2004) and “Ego Tunnel: the Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self” (2010) Metzinger discusses some intriguing evidence supporting his theory. What is the Self? Philosophers like using big words and often define them in particular ways. Could we say, the Self is a computational space created by the neural network of the brain that differentiates between the inside and the outside of an organism? Do dogs have a Self? Probably.

Horror fiction writer and pessimist philosopher Thomas Ligotti, who appears to have read Metzinger’s books, writes,

Wound up like toys by some force — call it Will, élan vital, anima mundi, physiological or psychological processes, nature, or whatever — organisms go on running as they are bidden until they run down. In pessimistic philosophies, only the force is real, not the things activated by it. They are only puppets, and if they have consciousness may mistakenly believe they are self-winding persons who are making a go of it on their own. (Ligotti, 2012)

And he concludes,

“The cat is out of the bag: We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe. … I get the message, and you had better believe I will adjust my behavior to it.”

I would argue that there is one important aspect missing in the analysis. We are not self-winding puppets “who are making a go of it on their own”, as Ligotti claims. Rather, as highly social beings our brains link to each other through direct subconscious processes, through mirror neurones for example (Keysers, 2011). The abstract “puppet masters” of nature materialize as priests, chiefs, and kings, and they use media to pull the strings.

The idea of the zombified embeddedness of human beings in the social fabric relies on the following arguments, that,

  • The conscious self is the result of physical information processing activities of brain cells.
  • Behaviour results primarily from subconscious processes stimulated by sense perception.
  • Humanity is not in control of its destiny because as a complex system its actions are outcomes of self-regulatory processes.

Looking at the first item, we know that visual patterns of light enter the brain through the eye. Acoustic patterns come through the ear. Touch (pressure), taste and smell (chemical information) reach the brain as well. The analogue and parallel processing powers of the brain step in, followed by a course of action, which is the most important, and the most exciting part, of the information processing capacity of living things. According to Spivey (2007),

“Actions take place over time and they continuously alter the stimulus environment, which in turn continuously alters mental activity, which is continuously expressing and revising its inclinations to action. There is a continuous loop whereby data input continuously modifies output, that is action, and action in turn, modifies what and how data is received and how it is processed, again modifying action.”

Therefore, so Spivey (2007),

You are no different from the information that you feel like you are processing. The “you” that feels like it is answering the questions when you introspect and self-reflect (as well as the you that feels like it is asking those questions) is made up of the same informational medium that the rest of the world is made up of. Dynamic patterns of spatiotemporal relationships between elements of physical matter are what compose processes (that we often refer to as things) in the world, and those same kinds of patterns are also what compose your mind-because when it comes down to it, your mind is just another process in the world, like any other.

Spivey (2007) rejects the computer-inspired metaphor for the mind. It’s not useful anymore. In computers, hardware and software are disconnected, although the software does depend on the hardware architecture. For Spivey, the mind is “part and parcel with the data of the world, not a separate thing that processes those data.”

If we take media technology into account, relate it to social networks in man-machinic assemblages of large organizations, corporations, governments, we can see that already “man” has been replaced by the “functionary”, following orders.

The “functionary” is still an individualistic concept, has some personal responsibility, like Hitler’s henchman Eichmann. This concept is not wrong but does not describe this concept sufficiently. It is the 'team’ within a larger organisation that dissolves individuality and renders the individual to a cog in the machine, a piece of machinery that operates under its discourse, its ideologies, its goals and methods, including its moral values. We are quite familiar with being part of such “ teams”. It could be a working team in a corporation, a military unit, a task force, or a SWAT team, for example.

Human beings are easily subjected to an authority under the right circumstances and act according to the will of their superiors, famously demonstrated by Stanley Milgram,

Between 1961 and 1962, Stanley Milgram carried out a series of experiments in which human subjects supposedly were given progressively more painful electro-shocks in a carefully calibrated series to determine to what extent people will obey orders even when they knew them to be painful and immoral — to determine how people will obey authority regardless of consequences. These experiments came under heavy criticism at the time but have ultimately been vindicated by the scientific community. (Wikipedia, 2014)

The dissolution of man, feared by Kafka (2011), completed in the fictional character, Gregory Samsa, becoming an insect, is finding its culmination in the networked society, “alone together” (Turkle, 2012), whereby the “alone” vanishes because one is always already plugged in, plugged to the data stream.

Source: DeviantArt: Madspetersen

The data stream could be coming from your superiors, or social media like Facebook or Twitter, already under tight surveillance by spy networks. The subconscious lost its power to revolt because there is “information terror”, similar to the operations of religious sects, yet potentially much more powerful due to the sophistication and scope of the apparatus. This apparatus is not the machine. It is a conglomerate of bodies, steel, and silicone, bound together by optical fibers, spanning the globe, and ensuring that the money always flows upwards. Mads Peitersen’s (2014) images symbolize man becoming a machine, machines becoming man, whereby the machine itself symbolized communication with all these communication devices that Mads uses in his paintings.

“I communicate, therefore I am” is the warrior’s cry in the desert, “embedded” communication devices for the Imperial troops, a far cry from the early 19th century explorers that used compass and camels.

A short-lived reward is a heroic fulfillment, a medal, a pat on the shoulder. Most likely, however, the veteran will end up as a homeless victim in the gutter, battling PTSD. There is only value in the unit, not in the individual, because the individual=man is already dead, a zombie. It is the man-machine conglomerate that exudes invincibility.

I disagree with Kittler. Machine intelligence is helpless without the human flesh and vice versa. Indeed, it is the conglomerate that is Nietzsche’s Overman, without any Nietzschean moral qualities. It is a pure monstrosity in the service of capital accumulation, and its backyard is a vast cemetery of skulls that once thought they were human. However, I concede that the singularity is a possibility, a networked artificial intelligence that exceeds our ability to control it (Armstrong, 2014).

How did “they” do it? Man’s Other, the unconscious, has always been accessible in tightly knit societies through religion and law. Mass society, however, was more difficult to handle as we have seen in the French revolution. Something else was required, such as powerful mass media. The subconscious then became accessible and manipulable through Freud’s ideas about the subconscious that later Eddie Bernays turned into a successful propaganda instrument, calling it public relations (Curtis, 2002). In 1928 Bernays (2005) published his seminal work “Propaganda” where he outlined that,

We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million — who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world. (Bernays & Miller, 2005)

The moment “they” control desire and consumption the Ego becomes helpless, seeking solace in the herd, not realizing that the herd likewise falls prey to propaganda. The masses have been rendered psychotic, and today the little devices that we carry with us, the “smart” phones, ensure that it stays that way. We become addicted to our digital pets, they feed us our daily toxins of schizophrenia, render gun violence, abuse, misogyny, and racism, as normal. The addicts themselves become the heroes of the other, pornography of information. As Foucault said “modern thought has never, in fact, been able to propose a morality” (1994, p. 328), and “for modern thought, no morality is impossible.” Mass behaviour, no matter how vile, is shaped by forces beyond individual control through direct access to the neural machinery of the cognitive apparatus.


Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.

Armstrong, S. (2014). Smarter than us: The rise of machine intelligence. Berkeley, CA: Publisher: Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Bernays, E. L., & Miller, M. C. (2005). Propaganda. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ig Pub.

Curtis, A. (Producer), Curtis, A. (Writer) (2002). The century of the self [Television broadcast]. United Kingdom: BBC Four.

deviant art. (2014). Madspeitersen. Retrieved from https://www.deviantart.com/madspeitersen/gallery/

Foucault, M. (1994). The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (Vintage Books ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Kafka, F., & Johnston, I. (2011). The metamorphosis. Lindenhurst, NY: Tribeca Books.

Keysers, C. (2011). The empathic brain: how the discovery of mirror neurons changes our understanding of human nature. Lexington, KY: Social Brain Press.

Ligotti, T. (2012). The conspiracy against the human race. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press.

Metzinger, T. (2004). Being no one: the self-model theory of subjectivity (1. MIT Press paperback ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford Book.

Metzinger, T. (2010). Ego tunnel: the science of the mind and the myth of the self. New York: BasicBooks.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. London: Tavistock.

Spivey, M. (2007). The continuity of mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Wikipedia. (2014). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obedience_to_Authority:_An_Experimental_View