Aphorism of the Day: If science is the Priest and nature is the Holy Spirit, then you, my unfortunate friend, are Linda Blair.
And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” - Mark 5:9
For decades now the Cartesian subject–whole, autonomous and diaphanous–has been the whipping-boy of innumerable critiques turning on the difficulties that beset our intuitive assumptions of metacognitive sufficiency. A great many continental philosophers and theorists more generally consider it the canonical ‘Problematic Ontological Assumption,’ the conceptual ‘wrong turn’ underwriting any number of theoretical confusions and social injustices. Thinkers across the humanities regularly dismiss whole theoretical traditions on the basis of some perceived commitment to Cartesian subjectivity.
My long time complaint with this approach lies in its opportunism. I entirely agree that the ‘person’ as we intuit it is ‘illusory’ (understood in some post-intentional sense). What I’ve never been able to understand, especially given post-structuralism’s explicit commitment to radical contextualism, was the systematic failure to think through the systematic consequences of this claim. To put the matter bluntly: if Descartes’ metacognitive subject is ‘broken,’ an insufficient fragment confused for a sufficient whole, then how do we know that everything subjective isn’t likewise broken?
The real challenge, as the ‘scientistic’ eliminativism of someone like Alex Rosenberg makes clear, is not so much one of preserving sufficient subjectivity as it is one of preserving sufficient intentionality more generally. The reason the continental tradition first lost faith with the Cartesian and Kantian attempts to hang the possibility of intentional cognition from a subjective hook is easy enough to see from a cognitive scientific standpoint. Nietzsche’s ‘It thinks’ is more than pithy, just as his invocation of the physiological is more than metaphorical. The more we learn about what we actually do, let alone how we are made, the more fractionate the natural picture–or what Sellars famously called the ‘scientific image’–of the human becomes. We, quite simply, are legion. The sufficient subject, in other words, is easily broken because it is the most egregious illusion.
But it is by no means the only one. The entire bestiary of the ‘subjective’ is on the examination table, and there’s no turning back. The diabolical possibility has become fact.
Let’s call this the ‘Intentional Dissociation Problem,’ the problem of jettisoning the traditional metacognitive subject (person, mind, consciousness, being-in-the-world) while retaining some kind of traditional metacognitive intentionality–the sense-making architecture of the ‘life-world’–that goes with it. The stakes of this problem are such, I would argue, that you can literally use it to divide our philosophical present from our past. In a sense, one can forgive the naivete of the 20th century critique of the subject simply because (with the marvellous exception of Nietzsche) it had no inkling of the mad cognitive scientific findings confronting us. What is willful ignorance or bad faith for us was simply innocence for our teachers.
It is Wittgenstein, perhaps not surprisingly, who gives us the most elegant rendition of the problem, when he notes, almost in passing (see Tractatus, 5.542), the way so-called propositional attitudes such as desires and beliefs only make sense when attributed to whole persons as opposed to subpersonal composites. Say that Scott believes p, desires p, enacts p, and is held responsible for believing, desiring, and enacting. One night he murders his neighbour Rupert, shouting that he believes him a threat to his family and desires to keep his family safe. Scott is, one would presume, obviously guilty. But afterward, Scott declares he remembers only dreaming of the murder, and that while awake he has only loved and respected Rupert, and couldn’t imagine committing such a heinous act. Subsequent research reveals that Scott suffers from somnambulism, the kind associated with ‘homicidal sleepwalking’ in particular, such that his brain continually tries to jump from slow-wave sleep to wakefulness, and often finds itself trapped between with various subpersonal mechanisms running on ‘wake mode’ while others remain in ‘sleep mode.’ ‘Whole Scott’ suddenly becomes ‘composite Scott,’ an entity that clearly should not be held responsible for the murder of his neighbour Rupert. Thankfully, our legal system is progressive enough to take the science into account and see justice is done.
The problem, however, is that we are fast approaching the day where any scenario where Scott murders Rupert could be parsed in subpersonal terms and diagnosed as a kind of ‘malfunction.’ If you have any recent experience teaching public school you are literally living this process of ‘subpersonalization’ on a daily basis, where more and more the kinds of character judgements that you would thoughtlessly make even a decade or so ago are becoming inappropriate. Try calling a kid with ADHD ‘lazy and irresponsible,’ and you have identified yourself as lazy and irresponsible. High profile thinkers like Dennett and Pinker have the troubling tendency of falling back on question-begging pragmatic tropes when considering this ‘spectre of creeping exculpation’ (as Dennett famously terms it in Freedom Evolves). In How the Mind Works, for instance, Pinker claims “that science and ethics are two self-contained systems played out among the same entities in the world, just as poker and bridge are different games played with the same fifty-two-card deck” (55)–even though the problem is precisely that these two systems are anything but ‘self-contained.’ Certainly it once seemed this way, but only so long as science remained stymied by the material complexities of the soul. Now we find ourselves confronted by an accelerating galaxy of real world examples where we think we’re playing personal bridge, only to find ourselves trumped by an ever-expanding repertoire of subpersonal poker hands.
The Intentional DissociationProblem, in other words, is not some mere ‘philosophical abstraction;’ it is part and parcel of an implacable science-and-capital driven process of fundamental subpersonalization that is engulfing society as we speak. Any philosophy that ignores it, or worse yet, pretends to have found a way around it, is Laputan in the most damning sense. (It testifies, I think, to the way contemporary ‘higher education’ has bureaucratized the tyranny of the past, that at such a time a call to arms has to be made at all… Or maybe I’m just channelling my inner Jeremiah–again!)
In continental circles, the distinction of recognizing both the subtlety and the severity of the Intentional Dissociation Problem belongs to Ray Brassier, one of but a handful of contemporary thinkers I know of who’ve managed to turn their back on the apologetic impulse and commit themselves to following reason no matter where it leads–to thinking through the implications of an institutionalized science truly indifferent to human aspiration, let alone conceit. In his recent “The View from Nowhere,” Brassier takes as his task precisely the question of whether rationality, understood in the Sellarsian sense as the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ can survive the neuroscientific dismantling of the ontological self as theorized in Thomas Metzinger’s magisterial Being No One.
The bulk of the article is devoted to defending Metzinger’s neurobiological theory of selfhood as a kind of subreptive representational device (the Phenomenal Self Model, or PSM) from the critiques of Jurgen Habermas and Dan Zahavi, both of whom are intent on arguing the priority of the transcendental over the merely empirical–asserting, in other words, that playing normative (Habermas) or phenomenological (Zahavi) bridge is the condition of playing neuroscientific poker. But what Brassier is actually intent on showing is how the Sellarsian account of rationality is thoroughly consistent with ‘being no one.’
As he writes:
Does the institution of rationality necessitate the canonization of selfhood? Not if we learn to distinguish the normative realm of subjective rationality from the phenomenological domain of conscious experience. To acknowledge a constitutive link between subjectivity and rationality is not to preclude the possibility of rationally investigating the biological roots of subjectivity. Indeed, maintaining the integrity of rationality arguably obliges us to examine its material basis. Philosophers seeking to uphold the privileges of rationality cannot but acknowledge the cognitive authority of the empirical science that is perhaps its most impressive offspring. Among its most promising manifestations is cognitive neurobiology, which, as its name implies, investigates the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for generating subjective experience. Does this threaten the integrity of conceptual rationality? It does not, so long as we distinguish the phenomenon of selfhood from the function of the subject. We must learn to dissociate subjectivity from selfhood and realize that if, as Sellars put it, inferring is an act – the distillation of the subjectivity of reason – then reason itself enjoins the destitution of selfhood. (“The View From Nowhere,” 6)
The neuroscientific ‘destitution of selfhood’ is only a problem for rationality, in other words, if we make the mistake of putting consciousness before content. The way to rescue normative rationality, in other words, is to find some way to render it compatible with the subpersonal–the mechanistic. This is essentially Daniel Dennett’s perennial argument, dating all the way back to Content and Consciousness. And this, as followers of TPB know, is precisely what I’ve been arguing against for the past several months, not out of any animus to the general view–I literally have no idea how one might go about securing the epistemic necessity of the intentional otherwise–but because I cannot see how this attempt to secure meaning against neuroscientific discovery amounts to anything more than an ingenious form of wishful thinking, one that has the happy coincidence of sparing the discipline that devised it. If neuroscience has imperilled the ‘person,’ and the person is plainly required to make sense of normative rationality, then an obvious strategy is to divide the person: into an empirical self we can toss to the wolves of cognitive science and into a performative subject that can nevertheless guarantee the intentional.
Let’s call this the ‘Soul-Soul strategy’ in contradistinction to the Soul-First strategies of Habermas and Zahavi (or the Separate-but-Equal strategy suggested by Pinker above). What makes this option so attractive, I think, anyway, is the problem that so cripples the Soul-First and the Separate-but-Equal options: the empirical fact that the brain comes first. Gunshots to the head put you to sleep. If you’ve ever wondered why ‘emergence’ is so often referenced in philosophy of mind debates, you have your answer here. If Zahavi’s ‘transcendental subject,’ for instance, is a mere product of brain function, then the Soul-First strategy becomes little more than a version of Creationism and the phenomenologist a kind of Young-Earther. But if it’s emergent, which is to say, a special product of brain function, then he can claim to occupy an entirely natural, but thoroughly irreducible ‘level of explanation’–the level of us.
This is far and away the majority position in philosophy, I think. But for the life of me, I can’t see how to make it work. Cognitive science has illuminated numerous ways in which our metacognitive intuitions are deceptive, effectively relieving deliberative metacognition of any credibility, let alone its traditional, apodictic pretensions. The problem, in other words, is that even if we are somehow a special product of brain function, we have no reason to suppose that emergence will confirm our traditional, metacognitive sense of ‘how it’s gotta be.’ ‘Happy emergence’ is a possibility, sure, but one that simply serves to underscore the improbability of the Soul-First view. There’s far, far more ways for our conceits to be contradicted than confirmed, which is likely why science has proven to be such a party crasher over the centuries.
Splitting the soul, however, allows us to acknowledge the empirically obvious, that brain function comes first, without having to relinquish the practical necessity of the normative. Therein lies its chief theoretical attraction. For his part, Brassier relies on Sellars’ characterization of the relation between the manifest and the scientific images of man: how the two images possess conceptual parity despite the explanatory priority of the scientific image. Brain function comes first, but:
The manifest image remains indispensable because it provides us with the necessary conceptual resources we require in order to make sense of ourselves as persons, that is to say, concept-governed creatures continually engaged in giving and asking for reasons. It is not privileged because of what it describes and explains, but because it renders us susceptible to the force of reasons. It is the medium for the normative commitments that underwrite our ability to change our minds about things, to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence and correct our understanding when confronted with a superior argument. In this regard, science itself grows out of the manifest image precisely insofar as it constitutes a self-correcting enterprise. (4)
Now this is all well and fine, but the obvious question from a relentlessly naturalistic perspective is simply, ‘What is this ’force’ that ‘reasons’ possess?’ And here it is that we see the genius of the Soul Soul strategy, because the answer is, in a strange sense, nothing:
Sellars is a resolutely modern philosopher in his insistence that normativity is not found but made. The rational compunction enshrined in the manifest image is the source of our ability to continually revise our beliefs, and this revisability has proven crucial in facilitating the ongoing expansion of the scientific image. Once this is acknowledged, it seems we are bound to conclude that science cannot lead us to abandon our manifest self-conception as rationally responsible agents, since to do so would be to abandon the source of the imperative to revise. It is our manifest self-understanding as persons that furnishes us, qua community of rational agents, with the ultimate horizon of rational purposiveness with regard to which we are motivated to try to understand the world. Shorn of this horizon, all cognitive activity, and with it science’s investigation of reality, would become pointless. (5)
Being a ‘subject’ simply means being something that can act in a certain way, namely, take other things as intentional. Now I know first hand how convincing and obvious this all sounds from the inside: it was once my own view. When the traditional intentional realist accuses you of reducing meaning to a game of make-believe, you can cheerfully agree, and then point out the way it nevertheless allows you to predict, explain, and manipulate your environment. It gives everyone what the they want: You can yield explanatory priority to the sciences and yet still insist that philosophy has a turf. Wither science takes us, we need not move, at least when it comes to those ‘indispensable, ultimate horizons’ that allow us to make sense of what we do. It allows the philosopher to continue speaking in transcendental terms without making transcendental commitments, rendering it (I think anyway) into a kind of ‘performative first philosophy,’ theoretically innoculating the philosopher against traditional forms of philosophical critique (which require ontological commitment to do any real damage).
The Soul-Soul strategy seems to promise a kind of materialism without intentional tears. The problem, however, is that cognitive science is every bit as invested in understanding what we do as in describing what we are. Consider Brassier’s comment from above: “It is our manifest self-understanding as persons that furnishes us, qua community of rational agents, with the ultimate horizon of rational purposiveness with regard to which we are motivated to try to understand the world.” From a cognitive science perspective one can easily ask: Is it? Is it our ‘manifest understanding of ourselves’ that ‘motivates us,’ and so makes the scientific enterprise possible?
Well, there’s a growing body of research that suggests we (whatever we may be) have no direct access to our motives, but rather guess with reference to ourselves using the same cognitive tools we use to guess at the motives of others. Now, the Soul-Soul theorist might reply, ‘Exactly! We only make sense to ourselves against a communal background of rational expectations…’ but they have actually missed the point. The point is, our motivations are occluded, which raises the possibility that our explanatory guesswork has more to do with social signalling than with ‘getting motivations right.’ This effectively blocks ‘motivational necessity’ as an argument securing the ineliminability of the intentional. It also raises the question of what kind of game are we actually playing when we play the so-called ‘game of giving and asking for reasons.’ All you need consider is the ‘spectre’ neuromarketing in the commercial or political arena, where one interlocutor secures the assent of the other by treating that other subpersonally (explicitly, as opposed to implicitly, which is arguably the way we treat one another all the time).
Any number of counterarguments can be adduced against these problems, but the crucial thing to appreciate is that these concerns need only be raised to expose the Soul-Soul strategy as mere make-believe. Sure, our brains are able to predict, explain, and manipulate certain systems, but the anthropological question requiring scientific resolution is one of where ‘we’ fit in this empirical picture, not just in the sense of ‘destitute selves,’ but in every sense. Nothing guarantees an autonomous ‘level of persons,’ not incompatibility with mechanistic explanation, and least of all speculative appraisals (of the kind, say, Dennett is so prone to make) of its ‘performative utility.’
To sharpen the point: If we can’t even say for sure that we exist the way we think, how can we say that our brains nevertheless do the things we think they do, things like ‘inferring’ or ‘taking-as intentional.’
The concept of the subject, understood as a rational agent responsible for its utterances and actions, is a constraint acquired via enculturation. The moral to be drawn here is that subjectivity is not a natural phenomenon in the way in which selfhood is. (32)
But as a doing it remains a ‘natural phenomenon’ nonetheless (what else would it be?). As such, the question arises, Why should we expect that ‘concepts’ will suffer a more metacognitive-intuition friendly fate than ‘selves’? Why should we think the sciences of the brain will fail to revolutionize our traditional normative understanding of concepts, perhaps relegate it to a parochial, but ineliminable shorthand forced upon us by any number of constraints or confounds, or so contradict our presumed role in conceptual thinking as to make ‘rationality’ as experienced a kind of in inter fiction. What we cognize as the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ for all we know, could be little more than the skin of plotting beasts, an illusion foisted on metacognition for the mere want of information.
It forces us to revise our concept of what a self is. But this does not warrant the elimination of the category of agent, since an agent is not a self. An agent is a physical entity gripped by concepts: a bridge between two reasons, a function implemented by causal processes but distinct from them. (32)
Is it? How do we know? What ‘grips’ what how? Is the function we attribute to this ‘gripping’ a cognitive mirage? As we saw in the case of homicidal somnambulism above, it’s entirely unclear how subpersonal considerations bear on agency, whether understood legally or normatively more generally. But if agency is something we attribute, doesn’t this mean the sleepwalker is a murderer merely if we take him to be? Could we condemn personal Scott to death by lethal injection in good conscience knowing we need only think him guilty for him to be so? Or are our takings-as constrained by the actual function of his brain? But then how can we scientifically establish ‘degrees of agency’ when the subpersonal, the mechanistic, has the effect of chasing out agency altogether?
These are living issues. If it weren’t for the continual accumulation of subpersonal knowledge, I would say we could rely on collective exhaustion to eventually settle the issue for us. Certainly philosophical fiat will never suffice to resolve the matter. Science has raised two spectres that only it can possibly exorcise (while philosophy remains shackled on the sidelines). The first is the spectre of Theoretical Incompetence, the growing catalogue of cognitive shortcomings that probably explain why it is only science can reliably resolve theoretical disputes. The second is Metacognitive Incompetence, the growing body of evidence that overthrows our traditional and intuitive assumptions of self-transparency. Before the rise of cognitive science, philosophy could continue more or less numb to the pinch of the first and all but blind to the throttling possibility of the latter. Now however, we live in an age where massive, wholesale self-deception, no matter what logical absurdities it seems to generate, is a very real empirical possibility.
What we intuit regarding reason and agency is almost certainly the product of compound neglect and cognitive illusion to some degree. It could be the case that we are not intentional in such a way that we must (short of the posthuman, anyway) see ourselves and others as intentional. Or even worse, it could be the case that we are not intentional in such a way that we can only see ourselves and others as intentional whenever we deliberate on the scant information provided by metacognition–whenever we ‘make ourselves explicit.’ Whatever the case, whether intentionality is a first or second-order confound (or both), this means that pursuing reason no matter where it leads could amount to pursuing reason to the point where reason becomes unrecognizable to us, to the point where everything we have assumed will have to be revised–corrected. And in a sense, this is the argument that does the most damage to Sellar’s particular variant of the Soul-Soul strategy: the fact that science, having obviously run to the limits of the manifest image’s intelligibility, nevertheless continues to run, continues to ‘self-correct’ (albeit only in a way that we can understand ‘under erasure’), perhaps consigning its wannabe guarantor and faux-motivator to the very dust-bin of error it once presumed to make possible.
In his recent After Nature interview, Brassier writes:
[Nihil Unbound] contends that nature is not the repository of purpose and that consciousness is not the fulcrum of thought. The cogency of these claims presupposes an account of thought and meaning that is neither Aristotelian—everything has meaning because everything exists for a reason—nor phenomenological—consciousness is the basis of thought and the ultimate source of meaning. The absence of any such account is the book’s principal weakness (it has many others, but this is perhaps the most serious). It wasn’t until after its completion that I realized Sellars’ account of thought and meaning offered precisely what I needed. To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals. This distinction between semantic rules and physical regularities is dialectical, not metaphysical.
Having recently completed Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, I entirely concur with Brassier’s diagnosis of Nihil Unbound’s problem: any attempt to lay out a nihilistic alternative to the innumerable ‘philosophies of meaning’ that crowd every corner of intellectual life without providing a viable account of meaning is doomed to the fringes of humanistic discourse. Rosenberg, for his part, simply bites the bullet, relying on the explanatory marvels of science and its obvious incompatibilities with meaning to warrant dispensing with the latter. The problem, however, is that his readers can only encounter his case through the lense of meaning, placing Rosenberg in the absurd position of using argumentation to dispel what, for his interlocutors, lies in plain sight.
Brassier, to his credit, realizes that something must be said about meaning, that some kind of positive account must be given. But in the absence of any positive, nihilistic alternative–any means of explaining meaning away–he opts for something deflationary, he turns to Sellars (as did Dennett), and the presumption that meaning pertains to a different, dialectical order of human community and interaction. This affords him the appearance of having it both ways (like Dennett): deference to the priority of mechanism, while insisting on the parity of meaning and reason, arguing, in effect, that we have two souls, one a neurobiological illusion, the other a ‘merely functional’ instrument of enormous purport and power…
Or so it seems.
What I’ve tried to show is that cognitive science cares not a whit whether we characterize our commitments as metaphysical or dialectical, that it is just as apt to give lie to metacognitively informed accounts of what we do as to metacognitively informed accounts of what we are. ‘Inferring’ is no more immune to radical scientific revision than is ‘willing’ or ‘believing’ or ‘taking as’ or what have you. So for example, if the structures underwriting consciousness in the brain were definitively identified, and the information isolated as ‘inferring’ could be shown to be, say, distorted low-dimensional projections, jury-rigged ‘fixes’ to far different evolutionary pressures, would we not begin, in serious discussions of cognition or what have you, to continually reference these limitations to the degree they distort our understanding of the actual activity involved? If it becomes a scientific fact that we are a far different creature in a far different environment than what we take ourselves to be, will that not radically transform any discourse that aspires to be cognitive?
Of course it will.
Perhaps the post-intentional philosophy of the future will see the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons’ as a fragmentary shadow, a comic strip version of our actual activity, more distortion than distillation because neither the information nor the heuristics available for deliberative metacognition are adapted to the needs of deliberative metacognition.
This is one reason why I think ‘natural anosognosia’ is such an apt way to describe our straits. We cannot get past the ‘only game in town sense’, or agency, primarily because there’s nothing else to be got. This is the thing about positing ‘functions’: the assumption is that what we experience does what we think it does the way we think it should. There is no reason to assume this must be the case once we appreciate the ubiquity and the consequences of informatic neglect (and our resulting metacognitive incompetence). We have more than enough in the way of counterintuitive findings to worry that we are about to plunge over a cliff–that the soul, like the sky, might simply continue dropping into an ever deeper abyss. The more we learn about ourselves, the more post hoc and counterintuitive we become. Perhaps this is astronomically the case.
Here’s the funny thing: the naturalistic fundamentals are exceedingly clear. Humans are information systems that coordinate via communicated information. The engineering (reverse or forward) challenges posed by this basic picture are enormous, but conceptually, things are pretty clear–so long as you keep yourself off-screen.
We are the only ‘fundamental mystery’ in the room. The problem of meaning is the problem of us.
In addition to Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality I also recently completed reading Plato’s Camera by Churchland and The Cognitive Science of Science by Thagard and I found the contrast… bracing, I guess. Rosenberg made stark the pretence (or more charitably, promise) marbled throughout Churchland and Thagard, the way they ceaselessly swap between the mechanistic and the intentional as if their descriptions of the first, by the mere fact of loosely correlating to our assumptions regarding the latter, somehow explained the latter. Thagard, for instance, goes so far as to claim that the ‘semantic pointer’ model of concepts that he adapts from Eliasmith (of recent SPAUN fame) solves the symbol grounding problem without so much as mentioning how, when, or where semantic pointers (which are eminently amenable to BBT) gain their hitherto inexplicable normative/intentional properties. In other words, they simply pretend there’s no real problem of meaning–even Churchland! “Ach!” they seem to imply, “Details! Details!”
Rosenberg will have none of it. But since he has no way of explaining ‘us,’ he attempts the impossible: he tries to explain us away without explaining us at all, arguing that we are a problem for neuroscience, not for scientism (the philosophical hyper-naturalism that he sees following from the sciences). He claims ‘we’ are philosophically irrelevant because ‘we’ are inconsistent with the world as described by science, not realizing the ease with which this contention can be flipped into the claim that the sciences are philosophically irrelevant so long as they remain inconsistent with us…
Theoretical dodge-ball will not do. Brassier understands this more clearly than any other thinker I know. The problem of meaning has to be tackled. But unlike Jesus, we have cannot cast the subpersonal out into two thousand suicidal swine. ‘Going dialectical,’ abandoning ‘selves’ for the perceived security of ‘rational agency’ ultimately underestimates the wholesale nature of the revisionary/eliminative threat posed by the cognitive sciences, and the degree to which our intentional self-understanding relies on ignorance of our mechanistic nature. Any scientific account of physical regularities that explains semantic rules in terms that contradict our metacognitive assumptions will revolutionize our understanding of ‘rational agency,’ no matter what definitional/theoretical prophylactics we have in place.
Habermas’ analogy of “a consciousness that hangs like a marionette from an inscrutable criss-cross of strings” (“The Language Game or Responsible Agency and the Problem of Free Will,” 24) seems more and more likely to be the case, even at the cost of our ability to make metacognitive sense of our ‘selves’ or our ‘projects.’ (Evolution, to put the point delicately, doesn’t give a flying fuck about our ability to ‘accurately theorize’). This is the point I keep hammering via BBT. Once deliberative theoretical metacognition has been overthrown, it’s anybody’s guess how the functions we attribute to ourselves and others will map across the occluded, orthogonal functions of our brain. And this simply means that the human in its totality stands exposed to the implacable indifference of science…
I think we should be frightened–and exhilarated.
Our capacity to cognize ourselves is an evolutionary shot in the neural dark. Could anyone have predicted that ‘we’ have no direct access to our beliefs and motives, that ‘we’ have to interpret ourselves the way we interpret others? Could anyone have predicted the seemingly endless list of biases discovered by cognitive psychology? Or that the ‘feeling of willing’ might simply be the way ‘we’ take ownership of our behaviour post hoc? Or that ‘moral reasoning’ is primarily a PR device? Or that our brains regularly rewrite our memories? Think, Hume, the philosopher-prophet, and his observation that Adam could never deduce that water drowns or fire burns short of worldly experience. What we do, like what we are, is a genuine empirical mystery simply because our experience of ourselves, like our experience of earth’s motionless centrality, is the product of scant and misleading information.
The human in its totality stands exposed to the implacable indifference of science, and there’s far, far more ways for our intuitive assumptions to be wrong as opposed to right. I sometimes imagine I’m sitting around this roulette wheel, with fairly everyone in the world ‘going with their gut’ and stacking all their chips on the zeros, so there’s this great teetering tower swaying on intentional green, leaving the rest of the layout empty… save for solitary corner-betting contrarians like me and, I hope, Brassier.