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OPINION article

Front. Psychol., 21 December 2018
Sec. Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology
This article is part of the Research Topic Philosophical and Ethical Aspects of a Science of Consciousness and the Self View all 28 articles

It's Hard Work Being No One

  • Department of Psychology, Director, Institute for Prospective Cognition, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, United States

It's hard work Being No One

Trying so hard to erase

the indelible trace

the sun leaves on my face

It's hard work Being No One

Trying so hard to forget the HEs and SHEs

and the THEYs and the WEs

and the glorious YOUs and MEs

I got a ticket on the next train to OZ

Gotta see that crazy wizard because

even tin man was an I, just had no heart

scarecrow was an I, just not that smart

and the lion, he's a coward, but at least he's an I

me, I'm just a guy who has to deny he's an I

oh I wish that I could depart

this lonely land of Descartes

It's hard work Being No One

So why don't we

just agree

to find our Is and WEs

in the midst of you and me

It's hard work Being No One

So why don't we just start a religion

live in contradiction

and sustain our addiction

to wanting to be

to wanting to be

wanting to be

just wanting to be


I wrote this song (It's Hard Work Being No One, Supplementary Audio 1) for Thomas Metzinger during the winter of 2006. We were part of a research team investigating Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, organized by Ipke Wachsmuth and Guenther Knoblich. And while the song might seem a criticism of Thomas' self-model theory of subjectivity (SMTS—Metzinger, 2003), actually, it's a tribute to the most scientifically informed position on consciousness and the self, to date.

It's hard work Being No One. The song is also an Eric Idle-esque “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” at differences that exist between SMTS and Wild Systems Theory (WST—Jordan and Ghin, 2006; Jordan, 2013). WST follows the lead of Odum (1988) and conceptualizes living systems as multi-scale nestings of self-sustaining, energy-transformation systems. Such systems are self-sustaining because their work (i.e., energy expenditures) produces products (e.g., catalysts) that feedback into and, ultimately sustain the work. This principle has been discovered at many levels of scale, including chemical systems (autocatalysisKauffman, 1995), the single-cell (autopoiesisMaturana and Varela, 1980), neural networks (the cell assemblyHebb, 1949), behavior (reinforcement theorySkinner, 1974), and ecologies in general (Odum, 1988).

The indelible trace the sun leaves on my face. Self-sustaining systems persist because their work generates and maintains permeable borders. In the case of a neuron, the border is a lipid bilayer. In the case of a conscious self, the border is a phenomenal self-model (PSM—Metzinger, 2003), that entails transparent, representational content of a, “…preattentive self-world border” (p. 307).

While SMTS and WST agree the generation and sustainment of a PSM border affords the existence of “mineness,” their differing approaches to “representation” lead to divergent accounts of why “mineness” entails the conscious sense of being someone.

The lonely land of Descartes. Theories of how representations acquire their “aboutness” are rather varied (Dretske, 1981; Fodor, 1981; Anderson and Rosenberg, 2008), perhaps reflecting the difficulty of grounding the existence of meaning (i.e., “aboutness”) in the confines of contemporary naturalism, where “…the harshness of naturalist metaphysics exactly consists in the point that nothing has intrinsic value” (Metzinger, 2017, p. 18).

WST bypasses naturalism's “grounding problem” (Harnad, 1990) because self-sustaining systems emerge from the energy transformation contexts (i.e., ecologies) in which they sustain themselves (Jordan and Ghin, 2006). As a result, they are naturally and necessarily about these contexts. Said another way, self-sustaining systems (i.e., organisms) constitute embodiments of context, or embodied aboutness. They are aspects of reality (i.e., context) whose activity (i.e., work) gives rise to and sustains a border between the system and the context in which it sustains itself.

According to the notion of embodied context, our neuromuscular architecture can be conceptualized as a multi-scale embodiment (i.e., representation) of the constraints that have to be addressed to propel a mass, as a whole, through a gravity field. Given that muscles, bones, and brains constitute embodiments of context, WST argues they entail what traditional theories of representation refer to as representational content (i.e., “aboutness”). They are embodiments of context that are “about” the contexts they embody.

Given this embodied-context approach to “aboutness” versus the traditional representational-content approach, WST proposes that subjectivity, phenomenology, and consciousness constitute forms of embodied aboutness that evolved from lower forms of embodied aboutness such as single- and multi-cell organisms. In the case of a conscious self, WST agrees with the SMTS assertion that a PSM, “…generates a pre-attentive self-world border…” (p. 307). According to WST however, the “aboutness” isn't so much an informational aspect of a physical brain, as it is the contextual emergence of a globally available pattern of neural dynamics whose activity (i.e., “work”) generates and sustains a coherent activation border between itself and the brain as a whole (i.e., activation and inhibition patterns across a large-scale, multi-module network). Consistent with SMTS, WST asserts that the “aboutness” of a conscious self comes to be as a particular pattern of self-sustaining neural dynamics emerges within the context of the type of representational (i.e., “aboutness”) context specified by SMTS. Thus, in the end, it seems the biggest difference between SMTS and WST is their ontology, not their science. SMTS begins with a physical-driven naturalism, while WST begins something a bit more Spinozan and conceptualizes all phenomena as embodiments of context, what Spinoza referred to as finitudes.

The glorious YOUs and MEs. It's glorious being someone. And whether it's an illusion in an inherently meaningless, physical reality, or a perpetually arduous journey through a reality constituted of ubiquitous aboutness, coherence demands that Thomas' SMTS be part of the content entailed in my own self-model of the science of consciousness. Thanks, Thomas, for your hard work. I am a more coherent someone because of it.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


I would like to thank the editors and their reviewers for their extremely valuable comments on this manuscript. I'd also like to thank Ipke Wachsmuth and Guenther Knoblich for inviting me to participate in the research group where I had the opportunity to work with Thomas. Finally, special thanks to Jennifer Windt for allowing me to include a recording of the song, and to the musicians at Illinois State University who performed it with me and helped record it: Isaac Soares, Miles Bohlman, Sam Tedeschi, and Derek Zimmerman. See Supplementary Data Sheet 1 for detailed acknowledgements.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at:


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Keywords: embodiment, Wild Systems Theory, self-sustaining systems, representation, naturalism, self-model

Citation: Jordan JS (2018) It's Hard Work Being No One. Front. Psychol. 9:2632. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02632

Received: 09 March 2018; Accepted: 06 December 2018;
Published: 21 December 2018.

Edited by:

Jennifer Michelle Windt, Monash University, Australia

Reviewed by:

Ipke Wachsmuth, Bielefeld University, Germany

Copyright © 2018 Jordan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: J. Scott Jordan,

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