The Myth of Cognitive Agency |Thomas Metzinger

“The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy” |  Thomas Metzinger


“[G]iven empirical constraints, most of what we call “conscious thought” is better analyzed as a subpersonal process that more often than not lacks crucial properties traditionally taken to be the hallmark of personal-level cognition – such as mental agency, explicit, consciously experienced goal-directedness, or availability for veto control. I claim that for roughly two thirds of our conscious life-time we do not possess mental autonomy (M-autonomy) in this sense…”

“Being mentally autonomous means that all currently ongoing processes can in principle be suspended or terminated. This does not mean that they actually are terminated, it just means that the ability, the functional potential, is given and that the person has knowledge of this fact. M-autonomy is the capacity for causal self-determination on the mental level…”

“The first conclusion to be drawn from this is that, according to our preliminary working concept of M-autonomy, human beings, although phenomenally conscious, are not autonomous mental subjects for roughly two thirds of their lifetime. A second, related conclusion is that conscious thought primarily and predominantly is an automatic subpersonal process, like heartbeat or immune autoregulation—and that on the conceptual level, we should do justice to this fact…”

“For about two thirds of their conscious lifetime, human beings do not possess “M-autonomy”: Rational mental self-control, the ability to terminate ongoing subpersonal mentation at will, or to actively establish individual goal-commitments and to impose rules onto one’s own mental behavior, are comparatively rare phenomena. As the large majority of our mental activity is not driven by explicit, consciously available goal-representations and cannot, while it is unfolding, be inhibited, suspended or terminated, we are not mentally autonomous subjects for about two thirds of our conscious lifetime…”

“Internally, cognitive processing only becomes a personal-level process by being functionally integrated into and actively controlled with the help of a specific form of transparent conscious self-representation, the ‘epistemic agent model’. An important conceptual distinction is the one between conscious self-representation of ongoing cognitive or AA and the passive representation of the ability to act as an epistemic agent, involving the phenomenology of knowing about the potential for mental action without actually realizing it…”

“’Epistemic agent model’ refers to a specific type of conscious self-representation. This simply means that on the level of conscious experience, the self is represented as something that either currently stands in an epistemic relation to the world, in the relation of knowing, thinking, actively guiding attention, or actively trying to understand what is going on its environment, or, more abstractly, as an entity that has the ability to do so…”


4 responses to “The Myth of Cognitive Agency |Thomas Metzinger

  1. “two thirds of our conscious life-time we do not possess mental autonomy”

    For Metzinger, mental autonomy includes “rational mental self-control, the ability to terminate ongoing subpersonal mentation at will, or to actively establish individual goal-commitments and to impose rules onto one’s own mental behavior.” That’s intentionality, no? Metzinger includes sleep as part of our “conscious life-time” — which means that while we’re awake mental autonomy is around 60%. That’s pretty impressive, given that there are some among us who would zero out mental autonomy altogether.

    • Yep. Intentionality by any other name. I was hoping someone would pick that up. He also talks about cognitive routines and organization at the “personal level” which is nothing other than a “self”. I find Metzinger insightful but inconsistent, because at base all these super-reductionist claims (many of which I share) still end up positing some type of coordinating action or ‘structuration’ that takes place within the body which ultimately acts as nexus activation for relative autonomy. Recombinatorial functioning cannot be explained away unless even basic volition is totally denied.

    • Metzinger is a representationalist, not dogmatically (he’s told me it could very well be the problem) but simply because so much of the science is erected around the notion. He believes there’s such a thing as the ‘mental,’ as opposed to seeing it as a sometimes useful postdictive posit. It’s worth remembering simply how hard the ‘argument from operationalization’ is to overcome: if representations aren’t real, somehow, then, why do they carry so much empirical water?

      Short some decisive answer to that question, there’s no reason to take anti-representationalism seriously.

    • “if representations aren’t real, somehow, then, why do they carry so much empirical water?”

      It is a problem: Metzinger emphasizes the role of self-explanatory narrative in constructing a coherent and continuous self, but then he turns around and calls that narrative not just a fiction but a self-deception. So now you’ve got tangible demonstrable effects produced by purportedly imaginary causes. Certainly individual organisms do have material continuity in space and time regardless of the self-narratives and self-images; i.e., I don’t disintegrate when I’m asleep or mind-wandering, I’m not 6 feet tall just because I think I am (actually I might be only 5’11”). But there are studies demonstrating that people who think they aren’t very smart perform better on a standardized intelligence test when told that the test is a kind of puzzle. So yes: either the fictitious representations aren’t efficacious, or they are real, or imaginary entities have effects in the real world.

      Speaking for myself, I find mind-wandering to be a pleasant activity, not unlike wandering physically through the world. Freed from having to figure out a problem or perform a task or decide something, I can just drift, letting things come into and out of awareness, free-associating rather than following linear trajectories. Exercising mental agency can be taxing; while reading Metzinger’s paper I had to stop from time to time and wander for awhile, recharge my attentional capacitors.

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