Happiness: A Theory — Thomas Metzinger and One Kind of Not Knowing

Can we cure what ails us merely by fathoming the nature of consciousness?

If one means of transcending a low mood is to reflect on our incapacity to reliably perceive what we imagine to be the source of our pain, it may help to consider an example of the gap between our perceptions and the vastly richer world to which they attend. In his work, The Ego Tunnel, philosopher and scientist Thomas Metzinger provides us with a clue.

Our awareness of ourselves as having a perception does not include the process of constructing the perception itself. The level at which our mind constructs a model that is then treated by our mind as reality (rather than its more accurate status as a limited model of reality) is “transparent”, says Metzinger. By transparent, he means, our minds don’t even consider the artifice that led to the model.

There is simply no payback for the caloric expenditure that such an awareness would entail, he suggests. Beyond the model itself, we would treat ourselves to a kind of internal Tower of Babel, which, in turn, might capture our attention in ways inimical to survival. “You would lose yourself in the myriad of micro-events taking place in your brain at every millisecond — you would get lost inside yourself.”

There may be evidence that such a meta-awareness plagued at least one of our human cousins. In their book, Big Brain, Gary Lynch and Richard Granger speculate that Boskop man, whose 10,000-year-old remains have been found in southern Africa, with a cortex possibly 30 percent greater than our own, had a vivid internal life, with staggering memory retrieval. Might this fellow have had access to the construction of his perceptions? And, if so, did he become lost in that world, so much so, that only the bones remain?

Speculations — and evidence — of this sort may help to remind us that we do not “know” that something is wrong; and, in this case, not knowing may be something we can feel good about.

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