Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

The Unholy Consult

by rsbakker

the-unholy-consult-cover

 

The cover is out as those of you who frequent Wertzone already know. The Unholy Consult, the penultimate book of The Aspect-Emperor, is set to be released this July, ending a story arc that has been my obsession for some thirty years now. I’m far from done with the Three Seas, of course: The Second Apocalypse possesses one final chapter. But this arc was the animating vision, the feverish sequence of glimpses I used to paint the whole.

The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog has it listed among their top twenty ‘can’t wait to read’ 2017 releases, but I find myself growing… not so much reluctant as coy, I think—you know that wariness you get when encountering circumstances you should know, but don’t for some reason. Ever since the catalogue with the cover arrived in the mail everything has felt marginally displaced, troubled by a mismatch between shadows and sources of light. It’ll be strange, for instance, being able to talk candidly about the story. What if I decide I want to remain entombed?

It would be nice if The Unholy Consult pushed the popularity of the series over some kind of threshold, but the entire project has been a slow fuse, so I’m not going to hold my breath. The Great Ordeal made the Fantasy Hotlist’s top ten of 2016, but I’ve found that the reviews take longer to trickle in the deeper I get into the series. Epic Fantasy has become an astonishingly crowded subgenre, blessing these crazy books, I hope, with the distinction belonging to landmarks, even while increasing the number of attractions in between. My guess is that it’ll take time.

By coincidence, I just sent out the final proofs “On Alien Philosophy” to The Journal of Consciousness Studies, so in sense this summer will see my two great artistic and theoretical aspirations simultaneously fulfilled. Cosmos and History, meanwhile, just accepted “From Scripture to Fantasy,” my critique of Continental philosophy a la Adrian Johnston, so you can even throw a little revenge fantasy into the mix! If I were in my early twenties, I would worry that I was developing schizophrenia, so many threads are twining together. Add Trump’s election to the mix, and the fear has to be that I’m actually a character in a L. Ron Hubbard novel…

Not Phillip K. Dick.

Braced for Launch

by rsbakker

Happy New Year all. I greeted 2017 with the Norovirus, so I guess you could say I’m not liking the omens so far. Either I’ll be immune when the shit starts flying in Washington or I’ll fold like a napkin.

I did have occasion to reread my interview of David Roden for Figure/Ground a while back, and I thought it worth linking because I believe the points of contention between us could very well map the philosophy of the future. I think the heuristic dependence of intentional cognition on ancestral cognitive backgrounds means intentional cognition has no hope of surviving the ongoing (and accelerating) technological renovation of those backgrounds. The posthuman, whatever it amounts to, will crash our every attempt to ethically understand it. David thinks my pessimism is premature, that ethical cognition, at least, can be knapped/exapted (via minimal notions of agency and value) into something that can leap the breach between human and posthuman. You decide.

Parental Advisory: Contains Grammatical Violence, Excessive Jargon, and Scenes of Conceptual Nudity.

Snake? I heard he was dead…

by rsbakker

Happy Holidays, all. I came down with the flu a couple days before Christmas, turned me into a pile of lumber, then on Christmas Eve the plumbing backed up, first in the bathroom, then in the kitchen, then in both, meaning, I belatedly realized, in the sewer line, reminding me of the wash-drain in the ‘mudroom’ floor, which was spouting raw sewage like the White Whale, so I grabbed a potato and dove upon the spout the way a braver soldier than I might dive upon a grenade, then jammed the potato into the spout, ripping my thumbnail half off as I did so, then cleaned shivering for fever, before going out to the garage to grab my thirty foot snake, which I dragged into the basement, where I popped the sewer line access, and proceeded to snake, hauling out human feces, which of course whisked across me because the fucking thing was a minion of the Unholy Consult, after which I went upstairs, had a second mudroom holocaust realizing my snaking had been in vain, then discussed the possibility of having to cancel the big family dinner on Christmas Day with my wife, after which I resumed snaking, hauling more mire, even a washcloth, but to no avail, again and again into the wee of night, until finally, damp with effluent, I went to bed, carefully for some retarded reason, as if that would save the linens indignity or something, and I breathed, and I closed my eyes, and I heard my daughter scream, “Santa was here! Santa was here!” at which point, I got up and did not simply make joyous, but was joyous, glazed in my family’s excrement and overwhelmed with fucking gratitude, and my wife texted everyone asking who could host dinner in our stead, and my brother-in-law called back saying he just happened to have (it’s a complicated story) a hundred foot power snake in his basement, a miracle (because let’s face it) that I loaded into the back of my van mere minutes later, and used with his help to pierce the cocksucking Clog of Doom, and my wife drove him home, and I went upstairs and had a long hot shower, crawled into bed, felt like something clasped between palms held in prayer… my every surface thankful, and woke up to a glowing house booming with laughter.

Now that’s a fucking Christmas story, I think.  Of course, the flu just hammered me the next morning. Viruses eat happy endings the same as everything else.

It Is What It Is (Until Notified Otherwise)

by rsbakker

wynnwood-brilliance

 

The thing to always remember when one finds oneself in the middle of some historically intractable philosophical debate is that path-dependency is somehow to blame. This is simply to say that the problem is historical in that squabbles regarding theoretical natures always arises from some background of relatively problem-free practical application. At some point, some turn is taken and things that seem trivially obvious suddenly seem stupendously mysterious. St. Augustine, in addition to giving us one of the most famous quotes in philosophy, gives us a wonderful example of this in The Confessions when he writes:

“What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” XI, XIV, 17

But the rather sobering fact is that this is the case with a great number of the second order questions we can pose. What is mathematics? What’s a rule? What’s meaning? What’s cause? And of course, what is phenomenal consciousness?

So what is it with second order interrogations? Why is ‘time talk’ so easy and effortlessly used even though we find ourselves gobsmacked each and every time someone asks what time qua time is? It seems pretty clear that either we lack the information required or the capacity required or some nefarious combination of both. If framing the problem like this sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it is a no-brainer. The remarkable thing lies in the way it recasts the issue at stake, because as it turns out, the question of the information and capacity we have available is a biological one, and this provides a cognitive ecological means of tackling the problem. Since practical solving for time (‘timing’) is obviously central to survival, it makes sense that we would possess the information access and cognitive capacity required to solve a wide variety of timing issues. Given that theoretical solving for time (qua-time) isn’t central to survival (no species does it and only our species attempts it), it makes sense that we wouldn’t possess the information access and cognitive capacity required, that we would suffer time-qua-time blindness.

From a cognitive ecological perspective, in other words, St. Augustine’s perplexity should come as no surprise at all. Of course solving time-qua-time is mystifying: we evolved the access and capacity required for solving the practical problems of timing, and not the theoretical problem of time. Now I admit if the cognitive ecological approach ground to a halt here it wouldn’t be terribly illuminating, but there’s quite a bit more to be said: it turns out cognitive ecology is highly suggestive of the different ways we might expect our attempts to solve things like time-qua-time to break down.

What would it be like to reach the problem-solving limits of some practically oriented problem-solving mode? Well, we should expect our assumptions/intuitions to stop delivering answers. My daughter is presently going through a ‘cootie-catcher’ phase and is continually instructing me to ask questions, then upbraiding me when my queries don’t fit the matrix of possible ‘answers’ provided by the cootie-catcher (yes, no, and versions of maybe). Sometimes she catches these ill-posed questions immediately, and sometimes she doesn’t catch them until the cootie-catcher generates a nonsensical response.

cootie-catcher-2

Now imagine your child never revealed their cootie-catcher to you: you asked questions, then picked colours or numbers or animals, and it turned out some were intelligibly answered, and some were not. Very quickly you would suss out the kinds of questions that could be asked, and the kinds that could not. Now imagine unbeknownst to you that your child replaced their cootie-catcher with a computer running two separately tasked, distributed AlphaGo type programs, the first trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding causality and nothing else, the second trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding goals and intent. What kind of conclusions would you draw, or more importantly, assume? Over time you would come to suss out the questions generating ill-formed answers versus questions generating well-formed ones. But you would have no way of knowing that two functionally distinct systems were responsible for the well-formed answers: causal and purposive modes would seem the product of one cognitive system. In the absence of distinctions you would presume unity.

Think of the difference between Plato likening memory to an aviary in the Theaetetus and the fractionate, generative memory we now know to be the case. The fact that Plato assumed as much, unity and retrieval, shouts something incredibly important once placed in a cognitive ecological context. What it suggests is that purely deliberative attempts to solve second-order problems, to ask questions like what is memory-qua-memory, will almost certainly run afoul the problem of default identity, the identification that comes about for the want of distinctions. To return to our cootie-catcher example, it’s not simply that we would report unity regarding our child’s two AlphaGo type programs the way Plato did with memory, it’s that information involving its dual structure would play no role in our cognitive economy whatsoever. Unity, you could say, is the assumption built into the system. (And this applies as much to AI as it does to human beings. The first ‘driverless fatality’ died because his Tesla Model S failed to distinguish a truck trailer from the sky.)

Default identity, I think, can play havoc with even the most careful philosophical interrogations—such as the one Eric Schwitzgebel gives in the course of rebutting Keith Frankish, both on his blog and in his response in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage.”

According to Eric, “Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness” presents the phenomenal realist with a dilemma: either they commit to puzzling ontological features such as simple, ineffable, intrinsic, or so on, or they commit to explaining those features away, which is to say, some variety of Illusionism. Since Eric both believes that phenomenal consciousness is real, and that the extraordinary properties attributed to it are likely not real, he proposes a third way, a formulation of phenomenal experience that neither inflates it into something untenable, nor deflates into something that is plainly not phenomenal experience. “The best way to meet Frankish’s challenge,” he writes, “is to provide something that the field of consciousness studies in any case needs: a clear definition of phenomenal consciousness, a definition that targets a phenomenon that is both substantively interesting in the way that phenomenal consciousness is widely thought to be interesting but also innocent of problematic metaphysical and epistemological assumptions” (2).

It’s worth noting the upshot of what Eric is saying here: the scientific study of phenomenal consciousness cannot, as yet, even formulate their primary explanandum. The trick, as he sees it, is to find some conceptual way to avoid the baggage, while holding onto some semblance of a wardrobe. And his solution, you might say, is to wear as many outfits as he possibly can. He proposes that definition by example is uniquely suited to anchor an ontologically and epistemologically innocent concept of phenomenal consciousness.

He has but one caveat: any adequate formulation of phenomenal consciousness has to account or allow for what Eric terms its ‘wonderfulness’:

If the reduction of phenomenal consciousness to something physical or functional or “easy” is possible, it should take some work. It should not be obviously so, just on the surface of the definition. We should be able to wonder how consciousness could possibly arise from functional mechanisms and matter in motion. Call this the wonderfulness condition. 3

He concedes the traditional properties ascribed to phenomenal experience outrun naturalistic credulity, but the feature of begging belief remains to be explained. This is the part of Eric’s position to keep an eye on because it means his key defense against eliminativism is abductive. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, it seems safe to say it is not something easily solved. Any account purporting to solve phenomenal consciousness that leaves the wonderfulness condition unsatisfied is likely missing phenomenal consciousness altogether.

And so Eric provides a list of positive examples including sensory and somatic experiences, conscious imagery, emotional experience, thinking and desiring, dreams, and even other people, insofar as we continually attribute these very same kinds of experiences to them. By way of negative examples, he mentions a variety of intimate, yet obviously not phenomenally conscious processes, such as fingernail growth, intestinal lipid absorption, and so on.

He writes:

Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack. I do think that there is one very obvious feature that ties together sensory experiences, imagery experiences, emotional experiences, dream experiences, and conscious thoughts and desires. They’re all conscious experiences. None of the other stuff is experienced (lipid absorption, the tactile smoothness of your desk, etc.). I hope it feels to you like I have belabored an obvious point. Indeed, my argumentative strategy relies upon this obviousness. 8

Intuition, the apparent obviousness of his examples, is what he stresses here. The beauty of definition by example is that offering instances of the phenomenon at issue allows you to remain agnostic regarding the properties possessed by that phenomenon. It actually seems to deliver the very metaphysical and epistemological innocence Eric needs to stave off the charge of inflation. It really does allow him to ditch the baggage and travel wearing all his clothes, or so it seems.

Meanwhile the wonderfulness condition, though determining the phenomenon, does so indirectly, via the obvious impact it has on human attempts to cognize experience-qua-experience. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, contemplating it provokes wonder.

And so the argument is laid out, as spare and elegant as all of Eric’s arguments. It’s pretty clear these are examples of whatever it is we call phenomenal consciousness. Of course, there’s something about them that we find downright stupefying. Surely, he asks, we can be phenomenal realists in this austere respect?

For all its intuitive appeal, the problem with this approach is that it almost certainly presumes a simplicity that human cognition does not possess. Conceptually, we can bring this out with a single question: Is phenomenal consciousness the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature the examples share, or is it obvious in some other respect? Eric’s claim amounts to saying the recognition of phenomenal consciousness as such belongs to everyday cognition. But is this the case? Typically, recognition of experience-qua-experience is thought to be an intellectual achievement of some kind, a first step toward the ‘philosophical’ or ‘reflective’ or ‘contemplative’ attitude. Shouldn’t we say, rather, that phenomenal consciousness is the most obvious thing or feature these examples share upon reflection, which is to say, philosophically?

This alternative need only be raised to drag Eric’s formulation back into the mire of conceptual definition, I think. But on a cognitive ecological picture, we can actually reframe this conceptual problematization in path-dependent terms, and so more forcefully insist on a distinction of modes and therefore a distinction in problem-solving ecologies. Recall Augustine, how we understand time without difficulty until we ask the question of time qua time. Our cognitive systems have no serious difficulty with timing, but then abruptly break down when we ask the question of time as such. Even though we had the information and capacity required to solve any number of practical issues involving time, as soon as we pose the question of time-qua-time that fluency evaporates and we find ourselves out-and-out mystified.

Eric’s definition by example, as an explicitly conceptual exercise, clearly involves something more than everyday applications of experience talk. The answer intuitively feels as natural as can be—there must be some property X these instances share or exclude, certainly!—but the question strikes most everyone as exceptional, at least until they grow accustomed to it. Raising the question, as Augustine shows us, is precisely where the problem begins, and as my daughter would be quick to remind Eric, cootie-catchers only work if we ask the right question. Human cognition is fractionate and heuristic, after all.

cootie-catcher

All organisms are immersed in potential information, difference making differences that could spell the difference between life and death. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, they often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information organisms have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers adapted to deep information environments, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible.

We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems and the resources required to solve them are wildly disparate, not all access is equal.

Information access, I think, divides cognition into two distinct forms, two different families of ‘AlphaGo type’ programs. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the necessity, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition. Andrei Cimpian’s lab and the work of Klaus Fiedler (as well as that of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally) are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

So what are we to make of Eric’s attempt to innocently (folk psychologically) pose the question of experience-qua-experience in light of this rudimentary distinction?

If one takes the brain’s ability to cognize its own cognitive functions as a condition of ‘experience talk,’ it becomes very clear very quickly that experience talk belongs to a source insensitive cognitive regime, a system adapted to exploit correlations between the information consumed (cues) and the vastly complicated systems (oneself and others) requiring solution. This suggests that Eric’s definition by example is anything but theoretically innocent, assuming, as it does, that our source insensitive, experience-talk systems pick out something in the domain of source sensitive cognition… something ‘real.’ Defining by example cues our experience-talk system, which produces indubitable instances of recognition. Phenomenal consciousness becomes, apparently, an indubitable something. Given our inability to distinguish between our own cognitive systems (given ‘cognition-qua-cognition blindness’), default identity prevails; suddenly it seems obvious that phenomenal experience somehow, minimally, belongs to the order of the real. And once again, we find ourselves attempting to square ‘posits’ belonging to sourceless modes of cognition with a world where everything has a source.

We can now see how the wonderfulness condition, which Eric sees working in concert with his definition by example, actually cuts against it. Experience-qua-experience provokes wonder precisely because it delivers us to crash space, the point where heuristic misapplication leads our intuitions astray. Simply by asking this question, we have taken a component from a source insensitive cognitive system relying (qua heuristic) on strategic correlations to the systems requiring solution to solve, and asked a completely different, source sensitive system to make sense of it. Philosophical reflection is a ‘cultural achievement’ precisely because it involves using our brains in new ways, applying ancient tools to novel questions. Doing so, however, inevitably leaves us stumbling around in a darkness we cannot see, running afoul confounds we have no way of intuiting, simply because they impacted our ancestors not at all. Small wonder ‘phenomenal consciousness’ provokes wonder. How could the most obvious thing possess so few degrees of cognitive freedom? How could light itself deliver us to darkness?

I appreciate the counterintuitive nature of the view I’m presenting here, the way it requires seeing conceptual moves in terms of physical path-dependencies, as belonging to a heuristic gearbox where our numbness to the grinding perpetually convinces us that this time, at long last, we have slipped from neutral into drive. But recall the case of memory, the way blindness to its neurocognitive intricacies led Plato to assume it simple. Only now can we run our (exceedingly dim) metacognitive impressions of memory through the gamut of what we know, see it as a garden of forking paths. The suggestion here is that posing the question of experience-qua-experience poses a crucial fork in the consciousness studies road, the point where a component of source-insensitive cognition, ‘experience,’ finds itself dragged into the court of source sensitivity, and productive inquiry grinds to a general halt.

When I employ experience talk in a practical, first-order way, I have a great deal of confidence in that talk. But when I employ experience talk in a theoretical, second-order way, I have next to no confidence in that talk. Why would I? Why would anyone, given the near-certainty of chronic underdetermination? Even more, I can see of no way (short magic) for our brain to have anything other than radically opportunistic and heuristic contact with its own functions. Either specialized, simple heuristics comprise deliberative metacognition or deliberative metacognition does not exist. In other words, I see no way of avoiding experience-qua-experience blindness.

This flat out means that on a high dimensional view (one open to as much relevant physical information as possible), there is just no such thing as ‘phenomenal consciousness.’ I am forced to rely on experience related talk in theoretical contexts all the time, as do scientists in countless lines of research. There is no doubt whatsoever that experience-talk draws water from far more than just ‘folk psychological’ wells. But this just means that various forms of heuristic cognition can be adapted to various experimentally regimented cognitive ecologies—experience-talk can be operationalized. It would be strange if this weren’t the case, and it does nothing to alleviate the fact that solving for experience-qua-experience delivers us, time and again, to crash space.

One does not have to believe in the reality of phenomenal consciousness to believe in the reality of the systems employing experience-talk. As we are beginning to discover, the puzzle has never been one of figuring out what phenomenal experiences could possibly be, but rather figuring out the biological systems that employ them. The greater our understanding of this, the greater our understanding of the confounds characterizing that perennial crash space we call philosophy.

Breakneck: Review and Critical Commentary of Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

by rsbakker

whiplash-cover

The thesis I would like to explore here is that Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe is at once a local survival guide and a global suicide manual. Their goal “is no less ambitious than to provide a user’s manual to the twenty-first century” (246), a “system of mythologies” (108) embodying the accumulated wisdom of the storied MIT Media Lab. Since this runs parallel to my own project, I applaud their attempt. Like them, I think understanding the consequences of the ongoing technological revolution demands “an entirely new mode of thinking—a cognitive evolution on the scale of a quadruped learning to stand on its hind feet” (247). I just think we need to recall the number of extinctions that particular evolutionary feat required.

Whiplash was a genuine delight for me to read, and not simply because I’m a sucker for technoscientific anecdotes. At so many points I identified with the collection of misfits and outsiders that populate their tales. So, as an individual who fairly embodies the values promulgated in this book, I offer my own amendments to Ito and Howe’s heuristic source code, what I think is a more elegant and scientifically consilient way to understand not only our present dilemma, but the kinds of heuristics we will need to survive them…

Insofar as that is possible.

 

Emergence over Authority

General Idea: Pace of change assures normative obsolescence, which in turn requires openness to ‘emergence.’

“Emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that would benefit the group.” 47

“Unlike authoritarian systems, which enable only incremental change, emergent systems foster the kind of nonlinear innovation that can react quickly to the kind of change of rapid changes that characterize the network age.” 48

Problems: Insensitive to the complexities of the accelerating social and technical landscape. The moral here should be, Does this heuristic still apply?

The quote above also points to the larger problem, which becomes clear by simply rephrasing it to read, ‘emergent systems foster the kind of nonlinear transformation that can react quickly to the kind of nonlinear transformations that characterize the network age.’ The problem, in other words, is also the solution. Call this the Putting Out Fire with Gasoline Problem. I wish Ito and Howe would have spent some more time considering it since it really is the heart of their strategy: How do we cope with accelerating innovation? We become as quick and innovative as we can.

 

Pull over Push

General Idea: Command and control over warehoused resources lacks the sensitivity to solve many modern problems, which are far better resolved by allowing the problems themselves to attract the solvers.

“In the upside-down, bizarre universe created by the Internet, the very assets on your balance sheet—from printing presses to lines of code—are now liabilities from the perspective of agility. Instead, we should try to use resources that can be utilized just in time, for just that time necessary, then relinquished.” 69

“As the cost of innovation continues to fall, entire communities that have been sidelined by those in power will be able to organize themselves and become active participants in society and government. The culture emergent innovation will allow everyone to feel a sense of both ownership and responsibility to each other and to the rest of the world, which will empower them to create more lasting change that the authorities who write policy and law.” 71

Problems: In one sense, I think this chapter speaks to the narrow focus of the book, the degree it views the world through IT glasses. Trump examples the power of Pull. ISIS examples the power of Pull. ‘Empowerment’ is usually charged with positive connotations, until one applies it to criminals, authoritarian governments and so on. It’s important to realize that ‘pull’ runs any which way, rather than directly toward better.

 

Compasses over Maps

General Idea: Sensitivity to ongoing ‘facts on the ground’ generally trumps reliance on high-altitude appraisals of yesterday’s landscape.

“Of all the nine principles in the book, compasses over maps has the greatest potential for misunderstanding. It’s actually very straightforward: a map implies a detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.” 89

Problems: I actually agree that this principle is the most apt to be misunderstood because I’m inclined to think Ito and Howe themselves might be misunderstanding it! Once again, we need to see the issue in terms of cognitive ecology: Our ancestors, you could say, suffered a shallow present and enjoyed a deep future. Because the mechanics of their world eluded them, they had no way of re-engineering them, and so they could trust the machinery to trundle along the way it always had. We find ourselves in the opposite predicament: As we master more and more of the mechanics of our world, we discover an ever-expanding array of ways to re-engineering them, meaning we can no longer rely on the established machinery the way our ancestors—and here’s the important bit—evolved to. We are shallow present, deep future creatures living in a deep present, shallow future world.

This, I think, is what Ito and Howe are driving at: just as the old rules (authorities) no longer apply, the old representations (maps) no longer apply either, forcing us to gerrymander (orienteer) our path.

 

Risk over Safety

General Idea: The cost of experimentation has plummeted to such an extent that being wrong no longer has the catastrophic market consequences it once had.

“The new rule, then, is to embrace risk. There may be nowhere else in this book that exemplifies how far our collective brains have fallen behind our technology.” 116

“Seventy million years ago it was great to be a dinosaur. You were a complete package; big, thick-skinned, sharp-toothed, cold-blooded, long-lived. And it was great for a long, long time. Then, suddenly… it wasn’t so great. Because of your size, you needed an awful lot of calories. And you needed an awful lot of room. So you died. You know who outlived you? The frog.” 120

Problems: Essentially the argument is that risky ventures in the old economy are now safe, and that safe ventures are now risky, which means the argument is actually a ‘safety over risk’ one. I find this particular maxim so interesting because I think it really throws their lack of any theory of the problem they take themselves to be solving/ameliorating into relief. Really the moral here is experimentation pays.


This means the cognitive ecology Ito and Howe are both describing and advocating is in some sense antithetical—and therefore alienating—to our ancestral ways of making sense of ourselves.


 

Disobedience over Compliance

General Idea: Traditional forms of development stifle the very creativity institutions require to adapt to the accelerating pace of technological change.

“Since the 1970’s, social scientists have recognized the positive impact of “positive deviants,” people whose unorthodox behavior improves their lives and has the potential to improve their communities if it’s adopted more widely.” 141

“The people who will be the most successful in this environment will be the ones who ask questions, trust their instincts, and refuse to follow the rules when the rules get in their way.” 141

Problems: Disobedience is not critique, and Ito and Howe are careful to point this out, but they fail to mention what role, if any, criticality plays in their list of principles. Another problem has to do with the obvious exception bias at work in their account. Sure, being positive deviants has served Ito and Howe and the generally successful people they count as their ingroup, but what about the rest of us? This is why I cringe every time I hear Oscar acceptance speeches urging young wannabe thespians to ‘never give up on their dream,’ because winners—who are winners by virtue of being the exception—see themselves as proof positive that it can be done if you just try-try-try… This stuff is what powers the great dream smashing factory called Hollywood—as well as Silicon Valley. All things being equal, I think being a ‘positive deviant’ is bound to generate far more grief than success.

And this, I think, underscores the fundamental problem with the book, which is the question of application. I like to think of myself as a ‘positive deviant,’ but I’m aware that I am often identified as a ‘contrarian flake’ in the various academic silos I piss in now and again. By opening research ingroups to the wider world, the web immediately requires members to vet communications in a manner they never had to before. The world, as it turns out, is filled with contrarian flakes, so the problem becomes one of sorting positive deviants (like myself (maybe)), extra-institutional individuals with positive contributions to make, from all those contrarian flakes (like myself (maybe)).

Likewise, given that every communal enterprise possesses wilful, impassioned, but unimaginative employees, how does a manager sort the ‘positive deviant’ out?

When does disobedience over compliance apply? This is where the rubber hits the road, I think. The whole point of the (generally fascinating) anecdotes is to address this very issue, but aside from some gut estimation of analogical sufficiency between cases, we really have nothing to go on.

 

Practice over Theory

General Idea: Traditional forms of education and production emphasize planning before and learning outside the relevant context of applications, when humans are simply not wired for this, and when those contexts are transforming so quickly.

“Putting practice over theory means recognizing that in a faster future, in which change has become a new constant, there is often a higher cost to waiting and planning that there is to doing and improvising.” 159

“The Media Lab is focussed on interest-driven, passion-driven learning through doing. It is also trying to understand and deploy this form of creative learning into a society that will increasingly need more creative learners and fewer human beings who can solve problems better tackled by robots and computers.” 170

Problems: Humans are the gerrymandering species par excellence, leveraging technical skills into more and more forms of environmental mastery. In this respect it’s hard to argue against Ito and Howe’s point, given the caveats they are careful to provide.

The problem lies in the supercomplex environmental consequences of that environmental mastery: Whiplash is advertised as a how-to environmentally master the consequences of environmental mastery manual, so obviously, environmental mastery, technical innovation, ‘progress’—whatever you want to call it—has become a life and death matter, something to be ‘survived.’

The thing people really need to realize in these kinds of discussions is just how far we have sailed into uncharted waters, and just how fast the wind is about to grow.

 

Diversity over Ability

General Idea: Crowdsourcing, basically, the term Jeff Howe coined referring to the way large numbers of people from a wide variety of backgrounds can generate solutions eluding experts.

“We’re inclined to believe the smartest, best trained people in a given discipline—the experts—are the best qualified to a solve a problem in their specialty. And indeed, they often are. When they fail, as they will from time to time, our unquestioning faith in the principle of ‘ability’ leads us to imagine that we need to find a better solver: other experts with similarly high levels of training. But it is in the nature of high ability to reproduce itself—the new team of experts, it turns out, trained at the same amazing schools, institutes, and companies as the previous experts. Similarly brilliant, out two sets of experts can be relied on to apply the same methods to the problem, and share as well the same biases, blind spots, and unconscious tendencies.” 183

Problems: Again I find myself troubled not so much by the moral as by the articulation. If you switch the register from ‘ability’ to competence and consider the way ingroup adjudications of competence systematically perceive outgroup contributions to be incompetent, then you have a better model to work with here, I think. Each of us carry a supercomputer in our heads and all cognition exhibits path-dependency and is therefore vulnerable to blind alleys, so the power of distributed problem solving should come as no surprise. The problem, here, rather, is one of seeing though our ingroup blinders, and coming to understand how we instinctively identify competence forecloses on distributed cognitive resources (which can take innumerable forms).

Institutionalizing diversity seems like a good first step. But what about overcoming ingroup biases more generally? And what about the blind-alley problem (which could be called the ‘double-blind alley problem,’ given the way reviewing the steps taken tends to confirm the necessity of the path taken)? Is there a way to suss out the more pernicious consequences of cognitive path-dependency?

 

Resilience over Strength

General Idea: The reed versus the tree.

Problems: It’s hard to bitch about a chapter beginning with a supercool Thulsa Doom quote.

Strike that—impossible.

 

Systems over Objects

General Idea: Unravelling contemporary problems means unravelling complex problems necessitating adoption of the systems view.

“These new problems, whether we’re talking about curing Alzheimer’s or learning to predict volatile weather systems, seem to be fundamentally different, in that they seem to require the discovery of all the building blocks in a complex system.” 220

“Systems over objects recognizes that responsible innovation requires more than speed and efficiency. It also requires a constant focus on the overall impact of new technologies, and an understanding of the connections between people, their communities, and their environments.” 224

Problems: Since so much of Three Pound Brain is dedicated to understanding human experience and cognition in naturally continuous terms, I tend to think that ‘Systems over Subjects’ offers a more penetrating approach. The idea that things and events cannot be understood or appreciated in isolation is already firmly rooted in our institutional DNA, I think. The challenge, here, lies in squaring this way of thinking with everyday cognition, with our default ways of making sense of each other and ourselves. We are hardwired to see simple essences and sourceless causes everywhere we look. This means the cognitive ecology Ito and Howe are both describing and advocating is in some sense antithetical—and therefore alienating—to our ancestral ways of making sense of ourselves.


Algorithms are set to flood this space, to begin cuing social cognition to solve biological brains in the absence of any biological brains.


 

Conclusion

When I decided to post a review on this book, I opened an MSWord doc the way I usually do and began jotting down jumbled thoughts and impressions, including the reminder to “Bring up the problem of theorizing politics absent any account of human nature.” I had just finished reading the introduction by that point, so I read the bulk of Whiplash with this niggling thought in the back of my mind. Ito and Howe take care to avoid explicit political references, but as I’m sure they will admit, their project is political through and through. Politics has always involved science fiction; after all, how do you improve a future you can’t predict? Knowing human nature, their need to eat, to secure prestige, to mate, to procreate, and so on, is the only thing that allows us to predict human futures at all. Dystopias beg Utopias beg knowing what makes us tick.

In a time of radical, exponential social and environmental transformation, the primary question regarding human nature has to involve adaptability, our ability to cope with social and environmental transformation. The more we learn about human cognition, however, the more we discover that the human capacity to solve new problems is modular as opposed to monolithic, complex as opposed to simple. This in turn means that transforming different elements in our environments (the way technology does) can have surprising results.

So for example, given the ancestral stability of group sizes, it makes sense to suppose we would assess the risk of victimization against a fixed baseline whenever we encountered information regarding violence. Our ability to intuitively assess threats, in other words, depends upon a specific cognitive ecology, one where the information available is commensurate with the small communities of farmers and/or hunter-gatherers. This suggests the provision of ‘deep’ (ancestrally unavailable) threat information, such as that provided by the web or the evening news, would play havoc with our threat intuitions—as indeed seems to be the case.

Human cognition is heuristic, through and through, which is to say dependent on environmental invariances, the ancestral stability of different relevant backgrounds. The relation between group size and threat information is but one of countless default assumptions informing our daily lives. The more technology transforms our cognitive ecologies, the more we should expect our intuitions to misfire, to prompt ineffective problem-solving behaviour like voting for ‘tough-on-crime’ political candidates. The fact is technology makes things easy that were never ‘meant’ to be easy. Consider how humans depended on all the people they knew before the industrial concentration of production, and so were forced to compromise, to see themselves as requiring friends and neighbours. You could source your clothes, your food, even your stories and religion to some familiar face. You grew up in an atmosphere of ambient, ingroup gratitude that continually counterbalanced your selfish impulses. After the industrial concentration of production, the material dependencies enforcing cooperation evaporated, allowing humans to indulge egocentric intuitions, the sweet-tooth of themselves, and ‘individualism’ was born, and with it all the varieties of social isolation comprising the ‘modern malaise.’

This cognitive ecological lens is the reason why I’ve been warning that the web was likely to aggravate processes of group identification and counter-identification, why I’ve argued that the tactics of 20th century progressivism had actually become more pernicious than efficacious, and suggested that forms of political atavism, even the rise of demagoguery, would become bigger and bigger problems. Where most of the world saw the Arab Spring as a forceful example of the web’s capacity to emancipate, I saw it as an example of ‘flash civil unrest,’ the ability of populations to spontaneously organize and overthrow existing institutional orders period, and only incidentally ‘for the better.’

If you entertained extremist impulses before the internet, you had no choice but to air your views with your friends and neighbours, where, all things being equal, the preponderance of views would be more moderate. The network constraints imposed by geography, I surmised, had the effect of ameliorating extremist tendencies. Absent the difficulty of organizing about our darker instincts, rationalizing and advertising them, I think we have good reason to fear. Humans are tribal through and through, as prone to acts of outgroup violence as ingroup self-sacrifice. On the cognitive ecological picture, it just so happens that technological progress and moral/political progress have marched hand in hand thus far. The bulk of our prosocial, democratic institutions were developed—at horrendous cost, no less—to maximize the ‘better angels’ of our natures and to minimize the worst, to engineer the kind of cognitive ecologies we required to flourish in the new social and technical environments—such as the industrial concentration of material dependency—falling out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

I readily acknowledge that better accounts can be found for the social phenomena considered above: what I contend is that all of those accounts will involve some nuanced understanding of the heuristic nature of human cognition and the kinds of ecological invariance they take for granted. My further contention is that any adequate understanding of that heuristic nature raises the likelihood, perhaps even the inevitability, that human social cognition will effectively breakdown altogether. The problem lies in the radically heuristic nature of the cognitive modes we use to understand each other and ourselves. Since the complexity of our biocomputational nature renders it intractable, we had to develop ways of predicting/explaining/manipulating behaviour that have nothing to do with the brains behind that behaviour, and everything to do with its impact on our reproductive fortunes. Social problem-solving, in other words, depends on the stability of a very specific cognitive ecology, one entirely innocent to the possibility of AI.

For me, the most significant revelation from the Ashley Madison scandal was the ease with which men were fooled into thinking they were attracting female interest. And this just wasn’t an artifact of the venue: Ito’s MIT colleague Sherry Turkle, in addition to systematically describing the impact of technology on interpersonal relationships, often warns of the ease with which “Darwinian buttons” can be pushed. What makes simple heuristics so powerful is precisely what renders them so vulnerable (and it’s no accident that AI is struggling to overcome this issue now): they turn on cues physically correlated to the systems they track. Break those correlations, and those cues are connected to nothing at all, and we enter Crash Space, the kind of catastrophic cognitive ecological failure that warns away everyone but philosophers.

Virtual and Augmented Reality, or even Vegas magic acts, provide excellent visual analogues. Whether one looks at stereoscopic 3-D systems like Occulus Rift, or the much-ballyhooed ‘biomimetics’ of Magic Leap, or the illusions of David Copperfield, the idea is to cue visual environments that do not exist as effectively and as economically as possible. Goerztal and Levesque and others can keep pounding at the gates of general cognition (which may exist, who knows), but research like that of the late Clifford Nass is laying bare the landscape of cues comprising human social cognition, and given the relative resources required, it seems all but inevitable that the ‘taking to be’ approach, designing AIs focused not so much on being a genuine agent (whatever that is) as cuing the cognition of one, will sweep the field. Why build Disney World when you can project it? Developers will focus on the illusion, which they will refine and refine until the show becomes (Turing?) indistinguishable from the real thing—from the standpoint of consumers.

The differences being, 1) that the illusion will be perspectivally robust (we will have no easy way of seeing through it); and 2) the illusion will be a sociocognitive one. As AI colonizes more and more facets of our lives, our sociocognitive intuitions will become increasingly unreliable. This prediction, I think, is every bit as reliable as the prediction that the world’s ecosystems will be increasingly disrupted as human activity colonizes more and more of the world. Human social cognition turns access to cues into behaviour solving otherwise intractable biological brains—this is a fact. Algorithms are set to flood this space, to begin cuing social cognition to solve biological brains in the absence of any biological brains. Neil Lawrence likens the consequences to the creation of ‘System Zero,’ an artificial substratum for the System 1 (automatic, unconscious) and System 2 (deliberate, conscious) organization of human cognition. He writes:

“System Zero will come to understand us so fully because we expose to it our inner most thoughts and whims. System Zero will exploit massive interconnection. System Zero will be data rich. And just like an elephant, System Zero will never forget.”

Even as we continue attempting to solve it with systems we evolved to solve one another—a task which is going to remain as difficult as it always has, and will likely grow less attractive as fantasy surrogates become increasingly available. Talk about Systems over Subjects! The ecology of human meaning, the shared background allowing us to resolve conflict and to trust, will be progressively exploited and degraded—like every other ancestral ecology on this planet. When I wax grandiloquent (I am a crazy fantasy writer after all), I call this the semantic apocalypse.

I see no way out. Everyone thinks otherwise, but only because the way that human cognition neglects cognitive ecology generates the illusion of unlimited, unconstrained cognitive capacity. And this, I think, is precisely the illusion informing Ito and Howe’s theory of human nature…

Speaking of which, as I said, I found myself wondering what this theory might be as I read the book. I understood I wasn’t the target audience of the book, so I didn’t see its absence as a failing so much as unfortunate for readers like me, always angling for the hard questions. And so it niggled and niggled, until finally, I reached the last paragraph of the last page and encountered this:

“Human beings are fundamentally adaptable. We created a society that was more focussed on our productivity than our adaptability. These principles will help you prepare to be flexible and able to learn the new roles and to discard them when they don’t work anymore. If society can survive the initial whiplash when we trade our running shoes for a supersonic jet, we may yet find that the view from the jet is just what we’ve been looking for.” 250

This first claim, uplifting as it sounds, is simply not true. Human beings, considered individually or collectively, are not capable of adapting to any circumstance. Intuitions systematically misfire all the time. I appreciate how believing as much balms the conscience of those in the innovation game, but it is simply not true. And how could it be, when it entails that humans somehow transcend ecology, which is a far different claim than saying humans, relative to other organisms, are capable of spanning a wide-variety of ecologies. So long as human cognition is heuristic it depends on environmental invariances, like everything else biological. Humans are not capable of transcending system, which is precisely why we need to think the human in systematic terms, and to look at the impact of AI ecologically.

What makes Whiplash such a valuable book (aside from the entertainment factor) is that it is ecologically savvy. Ito and Howe’s dominant metaphor is that of adaptation and ecology. The old business habitat, they argue, has collapsed, leaving old business animals in the ecological lurch. The solution they offer is heuristic, a set of maxims meant to transform (at a sub-ideological level no less!) old business animals into newer, more adaptable ones. The way to solve the problem of innovation uncertainty is to contribute to that problem in the right way—be more innovative. But they fail to consider the ecological dimensions of this imperative, to see how feeding acceleration amounts to the inevitable destruction of cognitive ecologies, how the old meaning habitat is already collapsing, leaving old meaning animals in the ecological lurch, grasping for lies because those, at least, they can recognize.

They fail to see how their local survival guide likely doubles as a global suicide manual.


The meta-heuristics they offer, the new guiding mythologies, are meant to encapsulate the practical bases of evolvability itself… They’re teaching ferns how to grow flowers.


 

PS: The Big Picture

“In the past twenty-five years,” Ito and Howe write, “we have moved from a world dominated by simple systems to a world beset and baffled by complex systems” (246). This claim caught my attention because it is both true and untrue, depending how you look at it. We are pretty much the most complicated thing we know of in the universe, so it’s certainly not the case that we’ve ever dwelt in a world dominated by simple systems. What Ito and Howe are referring to, of course, is our tools. We are moving from a world dominated by simple tools to a world beset and baffled by complex ones. Since these tools facilitate tool-making, we find the great ratchet that lifted us out of the hominid fog clicking faster and faster and faster.

One of these ‘simple tools’ is what we call a ‘company’ or ‘business,’ an institution itself turning on the systematic application of simple tools, ones that intrinsically value authority over emergence, push over pull, maps over compasses, safety over risk, compliance over disobedience, theory over practice, ability over diversity, strength over resilience, and objects over systems. In the same way the simplicity of our physical implements limited the damage they could do to our physical ecologies, the simplicity of our cognitive tools limited the damage they could do to our cognitive ecology. It’s important to understand that the simplicity of these tools is what underwrites the stability of the underlying cognitive ecology. As the growing complexity and power of our physical tools intensified the damage done to our physical ecologies, the growing complexity and power of our cognitive tools is intensifying the damage done to our cognitive ecologies.

Now, two things. First, this analogy suggests that not all is hopeless, that the same way we can use the complexity and power of our physical tools to manage and prevent the destruction of our physical environment, we should be able to use the complexity and power of our cognitive tools to do the same. I concede the possibility, but I think the illusion of noocentrism (the cognitive version of geocentrism) is simply too profound. I think people will endlessly insist on the freedom to concede their autonomy. System Zero will succeed because it will pander ever so much better than a cranky old philosopher could ever hope to.

Second, notice how this analogy transforms the nature of the problem confronting that old animal, business, in the light of radical ecological change. Ancestral human cognitive ecology possessed a shallow present and a deep future. For all his ignorance, a yeoman chewing his calluses in the field five hundred years ago could predict that his son would possess a life very much resembling his own. All the obsolete items that Ito and Howe consider are artifacts of a shallow present. When the world is a black box, when you have no institutions like science bent on the systematic exploration of solution space, the solutions happened upon are generally lucky ones. You hold onto the tools you trust, because it’s all guesswork otherwise and the consequences are terminal. Authority, Push, Compliance, and so on are all heuristics in their own right, all ways of dealing with supercomplicated systems (bunches of humans), but selected for cognitive ecologies where solutions were both precious and abiding.

Oh, how things have changed. Ambient information sensitivity, the ability to draw on everything from internet search engines, to Big Data, to scientific knowledge more generally, means that businesses have what I referred to earlier as a deep present, a vast amount of information and capacity to utilize in problem solving. This allows them to solve systems as systems (the way science does) and abandon the limitations of not only object thinking, but (and this is the creepy part) subject thinking as well. It allows them to correct for faulty path-dependencies by distributing problem-solving among a diverse array of individuals. It allows them to rationalize other resources as well, to pull what they need when they need it rather than pushing warehoused resources.

Growing ambient information sensitivity means growing problem-solving economy—the problem is that this economy means accelerating cognitive ecological transformation. The cheaper optimization becomes, the more transient it becomes, simply because each and every new optimization transforms, in ways large or small but generally unpredictable, the ecology (the network of correlations) prior heuristic optimizations require to be effective. Call this the Optimization Spiral.

This is the process Ito and Howe are urging the business world to climb aboard, to become what might be called meta-ecological institutions, entities designed in the first instance, not to build cars or to mediate social relations or to find information on the web, but to evolve. As an institutionalized bundle of heuristics, a business’s ability to climb the Optimization Spiral, to survive accelerating ecological change, turns on its ability to relinquish the old while continually mimicking, tinkering, and birthing with the new. Thus the value of disobedience and resilience and practical learning: what Ito and Howe are advocating is more akin to the Precambrian Explosion or the rise of Angiosperms than simply surviving extinction. The meta-heuristics they offer, the new guiding mythologies, are meant to encapsulate the practical bases of evolvability itself… They’re teaching ferns how to grow flowers.

And stepping back to take the systems view they advocate, one cannot but feel an admixture of awe and terror, and wonder if they aren’t sketching the blueprint for an entirely unfathomable order of life, something simultaneously corporate and corporeal.

Real Systems

by rsbakker

THE ORDER WHICH IS THERE

Now I’ve never had any mentors; my path has been too idiosyncratic, for the better, since I think it’s the lack of institutional constraints that has allowed me to experiment the way I have. But if I were pressed to name any spiritual mentor, Daniel Dennett would be the first name to cross my lips—without the least hesitation. Nevertheless, I see the theoretical jewel of his project, the intentional stance, as the last gasp of what will one day, I think, count as one of humanity’s great confusions… and perhaps the final one to succumb to science.

A great many disagree, of course, and because I’ve been told so many times to go back to “Real Patterns” to discover the error of my ways, I’ve decided I would use it to make my critical case.

Defenders of Dennett (including Dennett himself) are so quick to cite “Real Patterns,” I think, because it represents his most sustained attempt to situate his position relative to his fellow philosophical travelers. At issue is the reality of ‘intentional states,’ and how the traditional insistence on some clear cut binary answer to this question—real/unreal—radically underestimates the ontological complexity charactering both everyday life and the sciences. What he proposes is “an intermediate doctrine” (29), a way of understanding intentional states as real patterns.

I have claimed that beliefs are best considered to be abstract objects rather like centers of gravity. Smith considers centers of gravity to be useful fictions while Dretske considers them to be useful (and hence?) real abstractions, and each takes his view to constitute a criticism of my position. The optimistic assessment of these opposite criticisms is that they cancel each other out; my analogy must have hit the nail on the head. The pessimistic assessment is that more needs to be said to convince philosophers that a mild and intermediate sort of realism is a positively attractive position, and not just the desperate dodge of ontological responsibility it has sometimes been taken to be. I have just such a case to present, a generalization and extension of my earlier attempts, via the concept of a pattern. My aim on this occasion is not so much to prove that my intermediate doctrine about the reality of psychologcal states is right, but just that it is quite possibly right, because a parallel doctrine is demonstrably right about some simpler cases. 29

So what does he mean by ‘real patterns’? Dennett begins by considering a diagram with six rows of five black boxes each characterized by varying degrees of noise, so extreme in some cases as completely obscure the boxes. He then, following the grain of his characteristic genius, provides a battery of different ways these series might find themselves used.

This crass way of putting things-in terms of betting and getting rich-is simply a vivid way of drawing attention to a real, and far from crass, trade-off that is ubiquitous in nature, and hence in folk psychology. Would we prefer an extremely compact pattern description with a high noise ratio or a less compact pattern description with a lower noise ratio? Our decision may depend on how swiftly and reliably we can discern the simple pattern, how dangerous errors are, how much of our resources we can afford to allocate to detection and calculation. These “design decisions” are typically not left to us to make by individual and deliberate choices; they are incorporated into the design of our sense organs by genetic evolution, and into our culture by cultural evolution. The product of this design evolution process is what Wilfrid Sellars calls our manifest image, and it is composed of folk physics, folk psychology, and the other pattern-making perspectives we have on the buzzing blooming confusion that bombards us with data. The ontology generated by the manifest image has thus a deeply pragmatic source. 36

The moral is straightforward: the kinds of patterns that data sets yield are both perspectival and pragmatic. In each case, the pattern recognized is quite real, but bound upon some potentially idiosyncratic perspective possessing some potentially idiosyncratic needs.

He then takes this moral to Conway’s Game of Life, a computer program where cells in a grid are switched on or off in successive turns depending on the number of adjacent cells switched on. The marvelous thing about this program lies in the kinds of dynamic complexities arising from this simple template and single rule, subsystems persisting from turn to turn, encountering other subsystems with predictable results. Despite the determinism of this system, patterns emerge that only the design stance seems to adequately capture, a level possessing “it’s own language, a transparent foreshortening of the tedious descriptions one could give at the physical level” (39).

For Dennett, the fact that one can successfully predict via the design stance clearly demonstrates that it’s picking out real patterns somehow. He asks us to imagine transforming the Game into a supersystem played out on a screen miles wide and using the patterns picked out to design a Turing Machine playing chess against itself. Here, Dennett argues, the determinacy of the microphysical picture is either intractable or impracticable, yet we need only take up a chess stance or a computational stance to make, from a naive perspective, stunning predictions as to what will happen next.

And this is of course as true of life life as it is the Game of Life: “Predicting that someone will duck if you throw a brick at him is easy from the folk-psychological stance; it is and will always be intractable if you have to trace the photons from brick to eyeball, the neurotransmitters from optic nerve to motor nerve, and so forth” (42). His supersized Game of Life, in other words, makes plain the power and the limitations of heuristic cognition.

This brings him to his stated aim of clarifying his position vis a vis his confreres and Fodor. As he points out, everyone agrees there’s some kind of underlying “order which is there,” as Anscombe puts it in Intention. The million dollar question, of course, is what this order amounts to:

Fodor and others have claimed that an interior language of thought is the best explanation of the hard edges visible in “propositional attitude psychology.” Churchland and I have offered an alternative explanation of these edges… The process that produces the data of folk psychology, we claim, is one in which the multidimensional complexities of the underlying processes are projected through linguistic behavior, which creates an appearance of definiteness and precision, thanks to the discreteness of words. 44-45

So for traditional realists, like Fodor, the structure beliefs evince in reflection and discourse expresses the structure beliefs must possess in the head. For Dennett, on the other hand, the structure beliefs evince in reflection and discourse expresses, among other things, the structure of reflection and discourse. How could it be otherwise, he asks, given the ‘stupendous scale of compression’ (42) involved?

As Haugeland points out in “Pattern and Being,” this saddles Dennett’s account of patterns with a pretty significant ambiguity: if the patterns characteristic of intentional states express the structure of reflection and discourse, then the ‘order which is there’ must be here as well. Of course, this much is implicit in Dennett’s preamble: the salience of certain patterns depends on the perspective we possess on them. But even though this implicit ‘here-there holism’ becomes all but explicit when Dennett turns to Radical Translation and the distinction between his and Davidson’s views, his emphasis nevertheless remains on the order out there. As he writes:

Davidson and I both like Churchland’s alternative idea of propositional-attitude statements as indirect “measurements” of a reality diffused in the behavioral dispositions of the brain (and body). We think beliefs are quite real enough to call real just so long as belief talk measures these complex behavior-disposing organs as predictively as it does. 45-46

Rhetorically (even diagrammatically if one takes Dennett’s illustrations into account), the emphasis is on the order there, while here is merely implied as a kind of enabling condition. Call this the ‘epistemic-ontological ambiguity’ (EOA). On the one hand, it seems to make eminent sense to speak of patterns visible only from certain perspectives and to construe them as something there, independent of any perspective we might take on them. But on the other hand, it seems to make jolly good sense to speak of patterns visible only from certain perspectives and to construe them as around here, as something entirely dependent on the perspective we find ourselves taking. Because of this, it seems pretty fair to ask Dennett which kind of pattern he has in mind here. To speak of beliefs as dispositions diffused in the brain seems to pretty clearly imply the first. To speak of beliefs as low dimensional, communicative projections, on the other hand, seems to clearly imply the latter.

Why this ambiguity? Do the patterns underwriting belief obtain in individual believers, dispositionally diffused as he says, or do they obtain in the communicative conjunction of witnesses and believers? Dennett promised to give us ‘parallel examples’ warranting his ‘intermediate realism,’ but by simply asking the whereabouts of the patterns, whether we will find them primarily out there as opposed to around here, we quickly realize his examples merely recapitulate the issue they were supposed to resolve.

 

THE ORDER AROUND HERE

Welcome to crash space. If I’m right then you presently find yourself strolling through a cognitive illusion generated by the application of heuristic capacities outside their effective problem ecology.

Think of how curious the EOA is. The familiarity of it should be nothing short of gobsmacking: here, once again we find ourselves stymied by the same old dichotomies: here versus there, inside versus outside, knowing versus known. Here, once again we find ourselves trapped in the orbit of the great blindspot that still, after thousands of years, stumps the wise of the world.

What the hell could be going on?

Think of the challenge facing our ancestors attempting cognize their environmental relationships for the purposes of communication and deliberate problem-solving. The industrial scale of our ongoing attempt to understand as much demonstrates the intractability of that relationship. Apart from our brute causal interactions, our ability to cognize our cognitive relationships is source insensitive through and through. When a brick is thrown at us, “the photons from brick to eyeball, the neurotransmitters from optic nerve to motor nerve, and so forth” (42) all go without saying. In other words, the whole system enabling cognition of the brick throwing is neglected, and only information relevant to ancestral problem-solving—in this case, brick throwing—finds its way to conscious broadcast.

In ancestral cognitive ecologies, our high-dimensional (physical) continuity with nature mattered as much as it matters now, but it quite simply did not exist for them. They belonged to any number of natural circuits across any number of scales, and all they had to go on was the information that mattered (disposed them to repeat and optimize behaviours) given the resources they possessed. Just as Dennett argues, human cognition is heuristic through and through. We have no way of cognizing our position within any number of the superordinate systems science has revealed in nature, so we have to make do with hacks, subsystems allowing us to communicate and troubleshoot our relation to the environment while remaining almost entirely blind to it. About talk belongs to just such a subsystem, a kluge communicating and troubleshooting our relation to our environments absent cognition of our position in larger systems. As I like to say, we’re natural in such a way as to be incapable of cognizing ourselves as natural.

About talk facilitates cognition and communication of our worldly relation absent any access to the physical details of that relation. And as it turns out, we are that occluded relation’s most complicated component—we are the primary thing neglected in applications of about talk. As the thing most neglected, we are the thing most presumed, the invariant background guaranteeing the reliability of about talk (this is why homuncular arguments are so empty). This combination of cognitive insensitivity to and functional dependence upon the machinations of cognition (what I sometimes refer to as medial neglect) suggests that about talk would be ideally suited to communicating and troubleshooting functionally independent systems, processes generally insensitive to our attempts to cognize them. This is because the details of cognition make no difference to the details cognized: the automatic distinction about talk poses between cognizing system and the system cognized poses no impediment to understanding functionally independent systems. As a result, we should expect about talk to be relatively unproblematic when it comes to communicating and troubleshooting things ‘out there.’

Conversely, we should expect about talk to generate problems when it comes to communicating and troubleshooting functionally dependent systems, processes somehow sensitive to our attempts to cognize them. Consider ‘observer effects,’ the problem researchers themselves pose when their presence or their tools/techniques interfere with the process they are attempting to study. Given medial neglect, the researchers themselves always constitute a black box. In the case of systems functionally sensitive to the activity of cognition, as is often the case in psychology and particle physics, understanding the system requires we somehow obviate our impact on the system. As the interactive, behavioural components of cognition show, we are in fact quite good (though far from perfect) at inserting and subtracting our interventions in processes. But since we remain a black box, since our position in the superordinate systems formed by our investigations remains occluded, our inability to extricate ourselves, to gerrymander functional independence, say, undermines cognition.

Even if we necessarily neglect our positions in superordinate systems, we need some way of managing the resulting vulnerabilities, to appreciate that patterns may be artifacts of our position. This suggests one reason, at least, for the affinity of mechanical cognition and ‘reality.’ The more our black box functions impact the system to be cognized, the less cognizable that system becomes in source sensitive terms. We become an inescapable source of noise. Thus our intuitive appreciation of the need for ‘perspective,’ to ‘rise above the fray’: The degree to which a cognitive mode preserves (via gerrymandering if not outright passivity) the functional independence of a system is the degree to which that cognitive mode enables reliable source sensitive cognition is the degree to which about talk can be effectively applied.

The deeper our entanglements, on the other hand, the more we need to rely on source insensitive modes of cognition to cognize target systems. Even if our impact renders the isolation of source signals impossible, our entanglement remains nonetheless systematic, meaning that any number of cues correlated in any number of ways to the target system can be isolated (which is really all ‘radical translation’ amounts to). Given that metacognition is functionally entangled by definition, it becomes easy to see why the theoretical question of cognition causes about talk to crash the spectacular ways it does: our ability to neglect the machinations of cognition (the ‘order which is here’) is a boundary condition for the effective application of ‘orders which are there’—or seeing things as real. Systems adapted to work around the intractability of our cognitive nature find themselves compulsively applied to the problem of our cognitive nature. We end up creating a bestiary of sourceless things, things that, thanks to the misapplication of the aboutness heuristic, have to belong to some ‘order out there,’ and yet cannot be sourced like anything else out there… as if they were unreal.

The question of reality cues the application of about talk, our source insensitive means of communicating and troubleshooting our cognitive relation to the world. For our ancient ancestors, who lacked the means to distinguish between source sensitive and source insensitive modes of cognition, asking, ‘Are beliefs real?’ would have sounded insane. HNT, in fact, provides a straightforward explanation for what might be called our ‘default dogmatism,’ our reflex for naive realism: not only do we lack any sensitivity to the mechanics of cognition, we lack any sensitivity to this insensitivity. This generates the persistent illusion of sufficiency, the assumption (regularly observed in different psychological phenomena) that the information provided is all the information there is.

Cognition of cognitive insufficiency always requires more resources, more information. Sufficiency is the default. This is what makes the novel application of some potentially ‘good trick,’ as Dennett would say, such tricky business. Consider philosophy. At some point, human culture acquired the trick of recruiting existing metacognitive capacities to explain the visible in terms of the invisible in unprecedented (theoretical) ways. Since those metacognitive capacities are radically heuristic, specialized consumers of select information, we can suppose retasking those capacities to solve novel problems—as philosophers do when they, for instance, ‘ponder the nature of knowledge’—would run afoul some pretty profound problems. Even if those specialized metacognitive consumers possessed the capacity to signal cognitive insufficiency, we can be certain the insufficiency flagged would be relative to some adaptive problem-ecology. Blind to the heuristic structure of cognition, the first philosophers took the sufficiency of their applications for granted, much as very many do now, despite the millennia of prior failure.

Philosophy inherited our cognitive innocence and transformed it, I would argue, into a morass of competing cognitive fantasies. But if it failed to grasp the heuristic nature of much cognition, it did allow, as if by delayed exposure, a wide variety of distinctions to blacken the photographic plate of philosophical reflection—that between is and ought, fact and value, among them. The question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ became more a bona fide challenge than a declaration of insanity. Given insensitivity to the source insensitive nature of belief talk, however, the nature of the problem entirely escaped them. Since the question of reality cues the application of about talk, source insensitive modes of cognition struck them as the only game in town. Merely posing the question springs the trap (for as Dennett says, selecting cues is “typically not left to us to make by individual and deliberate choices” (36)). And so they found themselves attempting to solve the hidden nature of cognition via the application of devices adapted to ignore hidden natures.

Dennett runs into the epistemic-ontological ambiguity because the question of the reality of intentional states cues the about heuristic out of school, cedes the debate to systems dedicated to gerrymandering solutions absent high-dimensional information regarding our cognitive predicament—our position within superordinate systems. Either beliefs are out there, real, or they’re in here, merely, an enabling figment of some kind. And as it turns out, IST is entirely amenable to this misapplication, in that ‘taking the intentional stance’ involves cuing the about heuristic, thus neglecting our high-dimensional cognitive predicament. On Dennett’s view, recall, an intentional system is any system that can be predicted/explained/manipulated via the intentional stance. Though the hidden patterns can only be recognized from the proper perspective, they are there nonetheless, enough, Dennett thinks, to concede them reality as intentional systems.

Heuristic Neglect Theory allows us to see how this amounts to mistaking a CPU for a PC. On HNT, the trick is to never let the superordinate systems enabling and necessitating intentional cognition out of view. Recall the example of the gaze heuristic from my prior post, how fielders essentially insert—functionally entangle—themselves into the pop fly system to let the ball itself guide them in. The same applies to beliefs. When your tech repairs your computer, you have no access to her personal history, the way thousands of hours have knapped her trouble-shooting capacities, and even less access to her evolutionary history, the way continual exposure to problematic environments has sculpted her biological problem-solving capacities. You have no access, in other words, to the vast systems of quite natural relata enabling her repair. The source sensitive story is unavailable, so you call her ‘knowledgeable’ instead; you presume she possesses something—a fetish, in effect—possessing the sourceless efficacy explaining her almost miraculous ability to make your PC run: a mass of true beliefs (representations), regarding personal computer repair. You opt for a source insensitive means that correlates with her capacities well enough to neglect the high-dimensional facts—the natural and personal histories—underwriting her ability.

So then where does the ‘real pattern’ gainsaying the reality of belief lie? The realist would say in the tech herself. This is certainly what our (heuristic) intuitions tell us in the first instance. But as we saw above, squaring sourceless entities in a world where most everything has a source is no easy task. The instrumentalist would say in your practices. This certainly lets us explain away some of the peculiarities crashing our realist intuitions, but at the cost of other, equally perplexing problems (this is crash space, after all). As one might expect, substituting the use heuristic for the about heuristic merely passes the hot potato of source insensitivity. ‘Pragmatic functions’ are no less difficult to square with the high-dimensional than beliefs.

But it should be clear by now that the simple act of pairing beliefs with patterns amounts to jumping the same ancient shark. The question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ was a no-brainer for our preliterate ancestors simply because they lived in a seamless shallow information cognitive ecology. Outside their local physics, the sources of things eluded them altogether. ‘Of course beliefs are real!’ The question was a challenge for our philosophical ancestors because they lived in a fractured shallow information ecology. They could see enough between the cracks to appreciate the potential extent and troubling implications of mechanical cognition, it’s penchant to crash our shallow (ancestral) intuitions. ‘It has to be real!’

With Dennett, entire expanses of our shallow information ecology have been laid low and we get, ‘It’s as real as it needs to be.’ He understands the power of the about heuristic, how ‘order out there’ thinking effects any number of communicative solutions—thus his rebuttal of Rorty. He understands, likewise, the power of the use heuristic, how ‘order around here’ thinking effects any number of communicative solutions—thus his rebuttal of Fodor. And most importantly, he understands the error of assuming the universal applicability of either. And so he concludes:

Now, once again, is the view I am defending here a sort of instrumentalism or a sort of realism? I think that the view itself is clearer than either of the labels, so I shall leave that question to anyone who stills find [sic] illumination in them. 51

What he doesn’t understand is how it all fits together—and how could he, when IST strands him with an intentional theorization of intentional cognition, a homuncular or black box understanding of our contemporary cognitive predicament? This is why “Real Patterns” both begins and ends with EOA, why we are no closer to understanding why such ambiguity obtains at all. How are we supposed to understand how his position falls between the ‘ontological dichotomy’ of realism and instrumentalism when we have no account of this dichotomy in the first place? Why the peculiar ‘bi-stable’ structure? Why the incompatibility between them? How can the same subject matter evince both? Why does each seem to inferentially beg the other?

 

THE ORDER

The fact is, Dennett was entirely right to eschew outright realism or outright instrumentalism. This hunch of his, like so many others, was downright prescient. But the intentional stance only allows him to swap between perspectives. As a one-time adherent I know first-hand the theoretical versatility IST provides, but the problem is that explanation is what is required here.

HNT argues that simply interrogating the high-dimensional reality of belief, the degree to which it exists out there, covers over the very real system—the cognitive ecology—explaining the nature of belief talk. Once again, our ancestors needed some way of communicating their cognitive relations absent source-sensitive information regarding those relations. The homunculus is a black box precisely because it cannot source its own functions, merely track their consequences. The peculiar ‘here dim’ versus ‘there bright’ character of naive ontological or dogmatic cognition is a function of medial neglect, our gross insensitivity to the structure and dynamics of our cognitive capacities. Epistemic or instrumental cognition comes with learning from the untoward consequences of naive ontological cognition—the inevitable breakdowns. Emerging from our ancestral, shallow information ecologies, the world was an ‘order there’ world simply because humanity lacked the ability to discriminate the impact of ‘around here.’ The discrimination of cognitive complexity begets intuitions of cognitive activity, undermines our default ‘out there’ intuitions. But since ‘order there’ is the default and ‘around here’ the cognitive achievement, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of apparently presuming ‘order there’ when making ‘around here’ claims. Since ‘order there’ intuitions remain effective when applied in their adaptive problem-ecologies, we find speculation splitting along ‘realist’ versus ‘anti-realist’ lines. Because no one has any inkling of any of this, we find ourselves flipping back and forth between these poles, taking versions of the same obvious steps to trod the same ancient circles. Every application is occluded, and so ‘transparent,’ as well as an activity possessing consequences.

Thus EOA… as well as an endless parade of philosophical chimera.

Isn’t this the real mystery of “Real Patterns,” the question of how and why philosophers find themselves trapped on this rickety old teeter-totter? “It is amusing to note,” Dennett writes, “that my analogizing beliefs to centers of gravity has been attacked from both sides of the ontological dichotomy, by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are useful fictions, and by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are perfectly real” (27). Well, perhaps not so amusing: Short of solving this mystery, Dennett has no way of finding the magic middle he seeks in this article—the middle of what? IST merely provides him with the means to recapitulate EOA and gesture to the possibility of some middle, a way to conceive all these issues that doesn’t deliver us to more of the same. His instincts, I think, were on the money, but his theoretical resources could not take him where he wanted to go, which is why, from the standpoint of his critics, he just seems to want to have it both ways.

On HNT we can see, quite clearly, I think, the problem with the question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ absent an adequate account of the relevant cognitive ecology. The bitter pill lies in understanding that the application conditions of ‘real’ have real limits. Dennett provides examples where those application conditions pretty clearly seem to obtain, then suggests more than argues that these examples are ‘parallel’ in all the structurally relevant respects to the situation with belief. But to distinguish his brand from Fodor’s ‘industrial strength’ realism, he has no choice but to ‘go instrumental’ in some respect, thus exposing the ambiguity falling out of IST.

It’s safe to say belief talk is real. It seems safe to say that beliefs are ‘real enough’ for the purposes of practical problem-solving—that is, for shallow (or source insensitive) cognitive ecologies. But it also seems safe to say that beliefs are not real at all when it comes to solving high-dimensional cognitive ecologies. The degree to which scientific inquiry is committed to finding the deepest (as opposed to the most expedient) account, should be the degree to which it views belief talk as components of real systems and views ‘belief’ as a source insensitive posit, a way to communicate and troubleshoot both oneself and one’s fellows.

This is crash space, so I appreciate the kinds of counter-intuitiveness involved in this view I’m advancing. But since tramping intuitive tracks has hitherto only served to entrench our controversies and confusions, we have good reason to choose explanatory power over intuitive appeal. We should expect synthesis in the cognitive sciences will prove every bit as alienating to traditional presumption as it was in biology. There’s more than a little conceit involved in thinking we had any special inside track on our own nature. In fact, it would be a miracle if humanity had not found itself in some version of this very dilemma. Given only source insensitive means to troubleshoot cognition, to understand ourselves and each other, we were all but doomed to be stumped by the flood of source sensitive cognition unleashed by science. (In fact, given some degree of interstellar evolutionary convergence, I think one can wager that extraterrestrial intelligences will have suffered their own source insensitive versus source sensitive cognitive crash spaces. See my, “On Alien Philosophy,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies, (forthcoming))

IST brings us to the deflationary limit of intentional philosophy. HNT offers a way to ratchet ourselves beyond, a form of critical eliminativism that can actually explain, as opposed to simply dispute, the traditional claims of intentionality. Dennett, of course, reserves his final criticism for eliminativism, perhaps because so many critics see it as the upshot of his interpretivism. He acknowledges the possibility that “that neuroscience will eventually-perhaps even soon-discover a pattern that is so clearly superior to the noisy pattern of folk psychology that everyone will readily abandon the former for the latter (50),” but he thinks it unlikely:

For it is not enough for Churchland to suppose that in principle, neuroscientific levels of description will explain more of the variance, predict more of the “noise” that bedevils higher levels. This is, of course, bound to be true in the limit-if we descend all the way to the neurophysiological “bit map.” But as we have seen, the trade-off between ease of use and immunity from error for such a cumbersome system may make it profoundly unattractive. If the “pattern” is scarcely an improvement over the bit map, talk of eliminative materialism will fall on deaf ears-just as it does when radical eliminativists urge us to abandon our ontological commitments to tables and chairs. A truly general-purpose, robust system of pattern description more valuable than the intentional stance is not an impossibility, but anyone who wants to bet on it might care to talk to me about the odds they will take. 51

The elimination of theoretical intentional idiom requires, Dennett correctly points out, some other kind of idiom. Given the operationalization of intentional idioms across a wide variety of research contexts, they are not about to be abandoned anytime soon, and not at all if the eliminativist has nothing to offer in their stead. The challenge faced by the eliminativist, Dennett recognizes, is primarily abductive. If you want to race at psychological tracks, you either enter intentional horses or something that can run as fast or faster. He thinks this unlikely because he thinks no causally consilient (source sensitive) theory can hope to rival the combination of power and generality provided by the intentional stance. Why might this be? Here he alludes to ‘levels,’ suggest that any causally consilient account would remain trapped at the microphysical level, and so remain hopelessly cumbersome. But elsewhere, as in his discussion of ‘creeping depersonalization’ in “Mechanism and Responsibility,” he readily acknowledges our ability to treat with one another as machines.

And again, we see how the limited resources of IST have backed him into a philosophical corner—and a traditional one at that. On HNT, his claim amounts to saying that no source sensitive theory can hope to supplant the bundle of source insensitive modes comprising intentional cognition. On HNT, in other words, we already find ourselves on the ‘level’ of intentional explanation, already find ourselves with a theory possessing the combination of power and generality required to eliminate a particle of intentional theorization: namely, the intentional stance. A way to depersonalize cognitive science.

Because IST primarily provides a versatile way to deploy and manage intentionality in theoretical contexts rather than any understanding of its nature, the disanalogy between ‘center of gravity’ and ‘beliefs’ remains invisible. In each case you seem to have an entity that resists any clear relation to the order which is there, and yet finds itself regularly and usefully employed in legitimate scientific contexts. Our brains are basically short-cut machines, so it should come as no surprise that we find heuristics everywhere, in perception as much as cognition (insofar as they are distinct). It also should come as no surprise that they comprise a bestiary, as with most all things biological. Dennett is comparing heuristic apples and oranges, here. Centers of gravity are easily anchored to the order which is there because they economize otherwise available information. They can be sourced. Such is not the case with beliefs, belonging as they do to a system gerrymandering for the want of information.

So what is the ultimate picture offered here? What could reality amount to outside our heuristic regimes? Hard to think, as it damn well should be. Our species’ history posed no evolutionary challenges requiring the ability to intuitively grasp the facts of our cognitive predicament. It gave us a lot of idiosyncratic tools to solve high impact practical problems, and as a result, Homo sapiens fell through the sieve in such a way as to be dumbfounded when it began experimenting in earnest with its interrogative capacities. We stumbled across a good number of tools along the way, to be certain, but we remain just as profoundly stumped about ourselves. On HNT, the ‘big picture view’ is crash space, in ways perhaps similar to the subatomic, a domain where our biologically parochial capacities actually interfere with our ability to understand. But it offers a way of understanding the structure and dynamics of intentional cognition in source sensitive terms, and in so doing, explains why crashing our ancestral cognitive modes was inevitable. Just consider the way ‘outside heuristic regimes’ suggests something ‘noumenal,’ some uber-reality lost at the instant of transcendental application. The degree to which this answer strikes you as natural or ‘obvious’ is the degree you have been conditioned to apply that very regime out of school. With HNT we can demand those who want to stuff us into this or that intellectual Klein bottles define their application conditions, convince us this isn’t just more crash space mischief.

It’s trivial to say some information isn’t available, so why not leave well enough alone? Perhaps the time has come to abandon the old, granular dichotomies and speak in terms of dimensions of information available and cognitive capacities possessed. Imagine that

Moving on.

Dennett’s Black Boxes (Or, Meaning Naturalized)

by rsbakker

“Dennett’s basic insight is that there are under-explored possibilities implicit in contemporary scientific ideas about human nature that are, for various well understood reasons, difficult for brains like ours to grasp. However, there is a familiar remedy for this situation: as our species has done throughout its history when restrained by the cognitive limitations of the human brain, the solution is to engineer new cognitive tools that enable us to transcend these limitations. ”

—T. W. Zadwidzki, “As close to the definitive Dennett as we’re going to get.”

So the challenge confronting cognitive science, as I see it, is to find some kind of theoretical lingua franca, a way to understand different research paradigms relative to one another. This is the function that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in the biological sciences, that of a common star chart, a way for myriad disciplines to chart their courses vis a vis one another.

Taking a cognitive version of ‘modern synthesis’ as the challenge, you can read Dennett’s “Two Black Boxes: a Fable” as an argument against the need for such a synthesis. What I would like to show is the way his fable can be carved along different joints to reach a far different conclusion. Beguiled by his own simplifications, Dennett trips into the same cognitive ‘crash space’ that has trapped traditional speculation on the nature of cognition more generally, fooling him into asserting explanatory limits that are apparent only.

Dennett’s fable tells the story (originally found in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 412-27) of a group of researchers stranded with two black boxes, each containing a supercomputer with a database of ‘true facts’ about the world, one in English, the other in Swedish. One box has two buttons labeled alpha and beta, while the second box has three lights coloured yellow, red, and green. Unbeknownst to the researchers, the button box simply transmits a true statement from the one supercomputer when the alpha button is pushed, which the other supercomputer acknowledges by lighting the red bulb for agreement, and a false statement when the beta button is pushed, which the bulb box acknowledges by lighting the green bulb for disagreement. The yellow bulb illuminates only when the bulb box can make no sense of the transmission, which is always the case when the researcher disconnect the boxes and, being entirely ignorant of any of these details, substitute signals of their own.

The intuitive power of the fable turns on the ignorance of the researchers, who begin by noting the manifest relations above, how pushing alpha illuminates red, pushing beta illuminates green, and how interfering with the signal between the boxes invariably illuminates yellow. Until the two hackers who built the supercomputers arrive, they have no way of explaining why the three actions—alpha pushing, beta pushing, and signal interfering—illuminate the lights they do. Even when they crack open the boxes and begin reverse engineering the supercomputers within, they find themselves no closer to solving the problem. This is what makes their ignorance so striking: not even the sustained, systematic application of mechanical cognition paradigmatic of science can solve the problem. Certainly a mechanical account of all the downstream consequences of pushing alpha or beta or interfering with the signal is possible, but this inevitably cumbersome account nevertheless fails to explain the significance of what is going on.

Dennett’s black boxes, in other words, are actually made of glass. They can be cracked open and mechanically understood. It’s their communication that remains inscrutable, the fact that no matter what resources the researchers throw at the problem, they have no way of knowing what is being communicated. The only way to do this, Dennett wants to argue, is to adopt the ‘intentional stance.’ This is exactly what Al and Bo, the two hackers responsible for designing and building the black boxes, provide when they finally let the researchers in on their game.

Now Dennett argues that the explanatory problem is the same whether or not the hackers simply hide themselves in the black boxes, Al in one and Bo in the other, but you don’t have to buy into the mythical distinction between derived and original intentionality to see this simply cannot be the case. The fact that the hackers are required to resolve the research conundrum pretty clearly suggests they cannot simply be swapped out with their machines. As soon as the researchers crack open the boxes and find two human beings are behind the communication the whole nature of the research enterprise is radically transformed, much as it is when they show up to explain their ‘philosophical toy.’

This underscores a crucial point: Only the fact that Al and Bo share a vast background of contingencies with the researchers allows for the ‘semantic demystification’ of the signals passing between the boxes. If anything, cognitive ecology is the real black box at work in this fable. If Al and Bo had been aliens, their appearance would have simply constituted an extension of the problem. As it is, they deliver a powerful, but ultimately heuristic, understanding of what the two boxes are doing. They provide, in other words, a black box understanding of the signals passing between our two glass boxes.

The key feature of heuristic cognition is evinced in the now widely cited gaze heuristic, the way fielders fix the ball in their visual field while running to keep the ball in place. The most economical way to catch pop flies isn’t to calculate angles and velocities but to simply ‘lock onto’ the target, orient locomotion to maintain its visual position, and let the ball guide you in. Heuristic cognition solves problems not via modelling systems, but via correlation, by comporting us to cues, features systematically correlated to the systems requiring solution. IIR heat-seeking missiles, for instance, need understand nothing of the targets they track and destroy. Heuristic cognition allows us to solve environmental systems (including ourselves) without the need to model those systems. It enables, in other words, the solution of environmental black boxes, systems possessing unknown causal structures, via known environmental regularities correlated to those structures.

This is why Al and Bo’s revelation has the effect of mooting most all of the work the researchers had done thus far. The boxes might as well be black, given the heuristic nature of their explanation. The arrival of the hackers provides a black box (homuncular) ‘glassing’ of the communication between the two boxes, a way to understand what they are doing that cannot be mechanically decomposed. How? By identifying the relevant cues for the researchers, thereby plugging them into the wider cognitive ecology of which they and the machines are a part.

The communication between the boxes is opaque to the researchers, even when the boxes are transparent, because it is keyed to the hackers, who belong to the same cognitive ecology as to the researchers—only unbeknownst to the researchers. As soon as they let the researchers in on their secret—clue (or ‘cue’) them in—the communication becomes entirely transparent. What the boxes are communicating becomes crystal clear because it turns out they were playing the same game with the same equipment in the same arena all along.

Now what Dennett would have you believe is that ‘understanding the communication’ is exhausted by taking the intentional stance, that the problem of what the machines are communicating is solved as far as it needs to be solved. Sure, there is a vast, microcausal story to be told (the glass box one), but it proves otiose. The artificiality of the fable facilitates this sense: the machines, after all, were designed to compare true or false claims. This generates the sense of some insuperable gulf segregating the two forms of cognition. One second the communication was utterly inscrutable, and the next, Presto! it’s transparent.

“The debate went on for years,” Dennett concludes, “but the mystery with which it began was solved” (84). This seems obvious, until one asks whether plugging the communication into our own intentional ecology answers our original question. If the question is, ‘What do the three lights mean?’ then of course the question is answered, as well it should be, given the question amounts to, ‘How do the three lights plug into the cognitive ecology of human meaning?’ If the question is, ‘What are the mechanics of the three lights, such that they mean?’ then the utility of intentional cognition simply provides more data. The mystery of the meaning of the communication is dissolved, sure, but the problem of relating this meaning to the machinery remains.

What Dennett is attempting to provide with this analogy is a version of ‘radical interpretation,’ an instance that strips away our preconceptions, and forces us to consider the problem of meaning from ‘conceptual scratch,’ you might say. To see the way his fable is loaded, you need only divorce the machines from the human cognitive ecology framing them. Make them alien black-cum-glass boxes and suddenly mechanical cognition is all our researchers have—all they can hope to have. If Dennett’s conclusions vis a vis our human black-cum-glass boxes are warranted, then our researchers might as well give up before they begin, “because there really is no substitute for semantic or intentional predicates when it comes to specifying the property in a compact, generative, explanatory way” (84). Since we don’t share the same cognitive ecology as the aliens, their cues will make no implicit or homuncular sense to us at all. Even if we could pick those cues out, we would have no way of plugging them into the requisite system of correlations, the cognitive ecology of human meaning. Absent homuncular purchase, what the alien machines are communicating would remain inscrutable—if Dennett is to be believed.

Dennett sees this thought experiment as a decisive rebuttal to those critics who think his position entails semantic epiphenomenalism, the notion that intentional posits are causally inert. Not only does he think the intentional stance answers the researchers’ primary question, he thinks it does so in a manner compatible (if not consilient) with causal explanation. Truthhood can cause things to happen:

“the main point of the example of the Two Black Boxes is to demonstrate the need for a concept of causation that is (1) cordial to higher-level causal understanding distinct from an understanding of the microcausal story, and (2) ordinary enough in any case, especially in scientific contexts.” “With a Little Help From my Friends,” Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment, 357

The moral of the fable, in other words, isn’t so much intentional as it is causal, to show how meaning-talk is indispensible to a certain crucial ‘high level’ kind of causal explanation. He continues:

“With regard to (1), let me reemphasize the key feature of the example: The scientists can explain each and every instance with no residual mystery at all; but there is a generalization of obviously causal import that they are utterly baffled by until they hit upon the right higher-level perspective.” 357

Everything, of course, depends on what ‘hitting upon the right higher level perspective’ means. The fact is, after all, causal cognition funds explanation across all ‘levels,’ and not simply those involving microstates. The issue, then, isn’t simply one of ‘levels.’ We shall return to this point below.

With regard to (2), the need for an ‘ordinary enough’ concept of cause, he points out the sciences are replete with examples of intentional posits figuring in otherwise causal explanations:

“it is only via … rationality considerations that one can identify or single out beliefs and desires, and this forces the theorist to adopt a higher level than the physical level of explanation on its own. This level crossing is not peculiar to the intentional stance. It is the life-blood of science. If a blush can be used as an embarrassment-detector, other effects can be monitored in a lie detector.” 358

Not only does the intentional stance provide a causally relevant result, it does so, he is convinced, in a way that science utilizes all the time. In fact, he thinks this hybrid intentional/causal level is forced on the theorist, something which need cause no concern because this is simply the cost of doing scientific business.

Again, the question comes down to what ‘higher level of causal understanding’ amounts to. Dennett has no way of tackling this question because he has no genuinely naturalistic theory of intentional cognition. His solution is homuncular—and self-consciously so. The problem is that homuncular solvers can only take us so far in certain circumstances. Once we take them on as explanatory primitives—the way he does with the intentional stance—we’re articulating a theory that can only take us so far in certain circumstances. If we confuse that theory for something more than a homuncular solver, the perennial temptation (given neglect) will be to confuse heuristic limits for general ones—to run afoul the ‘only-game-in-town-effect.’ In fact, I think Dennett is tripping over one of his own pet peeves here, confusing what amounts to a failure of imagination with necessity (Consciousness Explained, 401).

Heuristic cognition, as Dennett claims, is the ‘life-blood of science.’ But this radically understates the matter. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, we often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information humans have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems (including ourselves) relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible (and we are presently hellbent on creating tools that can do the same).

Humans are encircled, engulfed, by the inverse problem, the problem of isolating causes from effects. We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems are wildly disparate, not all access is equal. ‘Isolating causes,’ it turns out, means different things for different kinds of problem solving.

Information access, in fact, divides cognition into two distinct families. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the indispensability, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition (see, “On the Interpretation of Artificial Souls“). Andrei Cimpian, Klaus Fiedler, and the work of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

Now then, what Dennett is claiming is first, that instances of source insensitive cognition can serve source sensitive cognition, and second, that such instances fulfill our explanatory needs as far as they need to be fulfilled. What triggers the red light? The communication of a true claim from the other machine.

Can instances of source insensitive cognition serve source sensitive cognition (or vice versa)? Can there be such a thing as source insensitive/source sensitive hybrid cognition? Certainly seems that way, given how we cobble to two modes together both in science and everyday life. Narrative cognition, the human ability to cognize (and communicate) human action in context, is pretty clearly predicated on this hybridization. Dennett is clearly right to insist that certain forms of source insensitive cognition can serve certain forms of source sensitive cognition.

The devil is in the details. We know homuncular forms of source insensitive cognition, for instance, don’t serve the ‘hard’ sciences all that well. The reason for this is clear: source insensitive cognition is the mode we resort to when information regarding actual physical constraints isn’t available. Source insensitive idioms are components of wide correlative systems, cue-based cognition. The posits they employ cut no physical joints.

This means that physically speaking, truth causes nothing, because physically speaking, ‘truth’ does not so much refer to ‘real patterns’ in the natural world as participate in them. Truth is at best a metaphorical causer of things, a kind of fetish when thematized, a mere component of our communicative gear otherwise. This, of course, made no difference whatsoever to our ancestors, who scarce had any way of distinguishing source sensitive from source insensitive cognition. For them, a cause was a cause was a cause: the kinds of problems they faced required no distinction to be economically resolved. The cobble was at once manifest and mandatory. Metaphorical causes suited their needs no less than physical causes did. Since shallow information neglect entails ignorance of shallow information neglect—since insensitivity begets insensitivity to insensitivity—what we see becomes all there is. The lack of distinctions cues apparent identity (see, “On Alien Philosophy,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies (forthcoming)).

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that our ancestors, as shallow information consumers, required nothing more. The source sensitive/source insensitive cobble they possessed was the source sensitive/source insensitive cobble their ancestors required. Things only become problematic as more and more ancestrally unprecedented—or ‘deep’— information finds its way into our shallow information ambit. Novel information begets novel distinctions, and absolutely nothing guarantees the compatibility of those distinctions with intuitions adapted to shallow information ecologies.

In fact, we should expect any number of problems will arise once we cognize the distinction between source sensitive causes and source insensitive causes. Why should some causes so effortlessly double as effects, while other causes absolutely refuse? Since all our metacognitive capacities are (as a matter of computational necessity) source insensitive capacities, a suite of heuristic devices adapted to practical problem ecologies, it should come as no surprise that our ancestors found themselves baffled. How is source insensitive reflection on the distinction between source sensitive and source insensitive cognition supposed to uncover the source of the distinction? Obviously, it cannot, yet precisely because these tools are shallow information tools, our ancestors had no way of cognizing them as such. Given the power of source insensitive cognition and our unparalleled capacity for cognitive improvisation, it should come as no surprise that they eventually found ways to experimentally regiment that power, apparently guaranteeing the reality of various source insensitive posits. They found themselves in a classic cognitive crash space, duped into misapplying the same tools out of school over and over again simply because they had no way (short exhaustion, perhaps) of cognizing the limits of those tools.

And here we stand with one foot in and one foot out of our ancestral shallow information ecologies. In countless ways both everyday and scientific we still rely upon the homuncular cobble, we still tell narratives. In numerous other ways, mostly scientific, we assiduously guard against inadvertently tripping back into the cobble, applying source insensitive cognition to a question of sources.

Dennett, ever the master of artful emphasis, focuses on the cobble, pumping the ancestral intuition of identity. He thinks the answer here is to simply shrug our shoulders. Because he takes stances as his explanatory primitives, his understanding of source sensitive and source insensitive modes of cognition remains an intentional (or source insensitive) one. And to this extent, he remains caught upon the bourne of traditional philosophical crash space, famously calling out homuncularism on the one side and ‘greedy reductionism’ on the other.

But as much as I applaud the former charge, I think the latter is clearly an artifact of confusing the limits of his theoretical approach with the way things are. The problem is that for Dennett, the difference between using meaning-talk and using cause-talk isn’t the difference between using a stance (the intentional stance) and using something other than a stance. Sometimes the intentional stance suites our needs, and sometimes the physical stance delivers. Given his reliance on source insensitive primitives—stances—to theorize source sensitive and source insensitive cognition, the question of their relation to each other also devolves upon source insensitive cognition. Confronted with a choice between two distinct homuncular modes of cognition, shrugging our shoulders is pretty much all that we can do, outside, that is, extolling their relative pragmatic virtues.

Source sensitive cognition, on Dennett’s account, is best understood via source insensitive cognition (the intentional stance) as a form of source insensitive cognition (the ‘physical stance’). As should be clear, this not only sets the explanatory bar too low, it confounds the attempt to understand the kinds of cognitive systems involved outright. We evolved intentional cognition as a means of solving systems absent information regarding their nature. The idea then—the idea that has animated philosophical discourse on the soul since the beginning—that we can use intentional cognition to solve the nature of cognition generally is plainly mistaken. In this sense, Intentional Systems Theory is an artifact of the very confusion that has plagued humanity’s attempt to understand itself all along: the undying assumption that source insensitive cognition can solve the nature of cognition.

What do Dennett’s two black boxes ultimately illuminate? When two machines functionally embedded within the wide correlative system anchoring human source insensitive cognition exhibit no cues to this effect, human source sensitive cognition has a devil of a time understanding even the simplest behaviours. It finds itself confronted by the very intractability that necessitated the evolution of source insensitive systems in the first place. As soon as those cues are provided, what was intractable for source sensitive cognition suddenly becomes effortless for source insensitive cognition. That shallow environmental understanding is ‘all we need’ if explaining the behaviour for shallow environmental purposes happens to be all we want. Typically, however, scientists want the ‘deepest’ or highest dimensional answers they can find, in which case, such a solution does nothing more than provide data.

Once again, consider how much the researchers would learn were they to glass the black boxes and find the two hackers inside of them. Finding them would immediately plug the communication into the wide correlative system underwriting human source insensitive cognition. The researchers would suddenly find themselves, their own source insensitive cognitive systems, potential components of the system under examination. Solving the signal would become an anthropological matter involving the identification of communicative cues. The signal’s morphology, which had baffled before, would now possess any number of suggestive features. The amber light, for instance, could be quickly identified as signalling a miscommunication. The reason their interference invariably illuminated it would be instantly plain: they were impinging on signals belonging to some wide correlative system. Given the binary nature of the two lights and given the binary nature of truth and falsehood, the researchers, it seems safe to suppose, would have a fair chance of advancing the correct hypothesis, at least.

This is significant because source sensitive idioms do generalize to the intentional explanatory scale—the issue of free will wouldn’t be such a conceptual crash space otherwise! ‘Dispositions’ are the typical alternative offered in philosophy, but in fact, any medicalization of human behaviour examples the effectiveness of biomechanical idioms at the intentional level of description (something Dennett recognizes at various points in his oeuvre (as in “Mechanism and Responsibility”) yet seems to ignore when making arguments like these). In fact, the very idiom deployed here demonstrates the degree to which these issues can be removed from the intentional domain.

The degree to which meaning can be genuinely naturalized.

We are bathed in consequences. Cognizing causes is more expensive than cognizing correlations, so we evolved the ability to cognize the causes that count, and to leave the rest to correlations. Outside the physics of our immediate surroundings, we dwell in a correlative fog, one that thins or deepens, sometimes radically, depending on the physical complexity of the systems engaged. Thus, what Gerd Gigerenzer calls the ‘adaptive toolbox,’ the wide array of heuristic devices solving via correlations alone. Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is far better understood as a collection of these tools, particularly those involving social cognition, our ability to solve for others or for ourselves. Rather than settling for any homuncular ‘attitude taking’ (or ‘rule following’), we can get to the business of isolating devices and identifying heuristics and their ‘application conditions,’ understanding both how they work, where they work, and the ways they go wrong.

Some New Reviews of The Great Ordeal

by rsbakker

greatordeal

In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, the late Clifford Nass presents research using ‘computer confederates’ to study, among many other things, the way introverts and extroverts respond to self-promotion: it turns out introverts prefer self-deprecation, whereas extroverts prefer self-glorification. Since the last post was a shameless exercise in the latter, I was hoping to throw a blanket of self-deprecation over it with the following post. But alas, nothing fitting that description has come to fruition, so I thought I might as well be truly shameless and post links to the latest batch of reviews from a wide variety of venues around the web… The first one is truly special, I think.

Welcome to the Night Vale

Speculiction

The Otherlander’s Blog

Frigid Reads

A Sky of Books and Movies

Donald Trump and the Failure of 20th Century Progressive Culture

by rsbakker

baltimore

In the middle of an economic expansion, America has elected a bigot and a misogynist as their president. Why pretend otherwise? Unity? Tell me, how does one unify behind a bigot and a misogynist? Millions of white Americans have poured the world’s future into a cracked bowl, and now we all hold our breath and wonder what comes next, while the wonks scramble looking for excuses for what went wrong. Everyone is certain to blame the economics of deindustrialization, but the polling data suggests that Trump supporters are actually more affluent than Clinton supporters. This suggests the issue is actually more cultural than economic—which is a sobering thought. Even if economics had been the primary driving factor, Donald Trump would represent an almost unimaginable failure of progressive culture.

Since this is a failure I have been ranting about for a long time, I’m going to be really pious, and play the part of pompous Canadian observer (as if there were any other kind). We have our own Donald up here, you know, our own Mr. Tell-it-how-it-is, both beloved and despised. His name is Donald Cherry and he’s famous in these parts for saying, You heard it here first!

I told you so.

It’s been surreal watching the past few days unfold. I mean, my whole artistic project turns on working against the very processes we have witnessed these past 18 mos. Christ, I even waged blog war against the alt-right, convinced that they lay at the root of the very cultural transformation we’ve witnessed now. How is it possible to feel at once smug and horrified?

Because I do.

For years now I’ve been shouting from the fringe, shouting, warning about the political and social consequences of academic ingroup excesses. I’ve been telling humanities academics that what they called ‘critical thinking’ was primarily an ingroup conceit, a way to be both morally and intellectually self-righteous at once, and that this, inevitably, was contributing to a vast process of counter-identification, actually stoking the very racism and sexism they claimed to be combating. Trump is what happens when you claim to be whipping yourself while leaving only welts on those (apparently) lacking the ability to defend themselves in academic contexts. For more than a decade now I’ve been telling literary writers that ‘literature’ that challenges no one real is quite simply not literature, but genre. For years now I’ve been warning about the way the accelerating pace of change increases the appeal of atavism, how the web allows these atavisms to incubate, to immunize themselves from rational appeal, how only a creative class that despises ingroup insularity could have any hope of spanning these growing divides. The need for real literary creation, narratives (in all media) that both challenge and reach out.

Ingroup artistic creation needs to be identified as part of the social short circuit operating here. Ingroup producers either must set their empty emancipatory rhetoric aside, embrace their ingroup function, or fundamentally reinvent themselves and their art… the way I’ve been trying to do.

Donald Trump’s success is the failure of progressive culture is the vindication, I think, of the very kind of radical revaluation propounded here at Three Pound Brain. Your cultural insularity is only as laudable as its cultural consequences. It’s the arrogance I’ve personally encountered countless times pounding at the door, the idea that these parochial enclaves of likeminded tastes are the only places that matter, the only places where merit could find ‘serious’ adjudication. And remaining ‘serious,’ you thought, was the way to serve your culture best.

But this was just another flattering ingroup illusion. All along you were serving your subculture—yourselves—merely, no different than any other human institution, really, except you thought ‘critical thinking’ rendered you more or less exempt. All along, you’ve had no idea how pedestrian you look from the outside, a particularly egregious outgroup competitor, intoxicated by the self-evidence of your moral standing.

I tried to warn you, tried to tell you that the ecosystem of art has been irrevocably changed by technology. But hey, I’m just a fantasy author. Never mind the fact that my books actually provoke controversy, actually make their way into the hands of Trump supporters…

Now you have a preening, sneering authoritarian sociopath as your president. This is what happens when you find one another so interesting and agreeable that you forget the people who make you possible, the people who have always made you possible. You are delivered a true-blue demagogue in a time of economic expansion.

Now we’re about to see just how frail or robust the American democratic system proves to be in this, the opening stages of the internet age.

Here’s my guess at what will happen. Donald has a fantastic narrative in his head, a grandiose image of the heroic kind of President he will prove to be—bold, effective, bringing his business acumen to bear—and this will lead to a brief Republican honeymoon, and legislation virtually institutionalizing aristocracy in America will be passed. (His argument, remember, is that the easier it is for he and his buddies to get rich, the better things will be for you decent, hardworking folk). The White House will be a circus—I mourn those Americans who always prized the dignity of the institution. He will kill climate change progress. The first conflict of interest scandals will rock him. The white working poor will cheer as their infrastructure rots and their entitlements are stripped away. More tapes and sexual misconduct accusations will surface. He will stack the Supreme Court with Scalia clones. Obamacare will be set to be revoked, but the legislation will be perpetually hung by a Congress articulating competing corporate interests. Irresistibly drawn to what flatters, Trump will begin avoiding the media, reaching directly out to his base for feedback, growing more verbally extreme in efforts to chase the fading cheer. A young black man will be shot, and Trump will drop the hammer on protesters. He will accept no responsibility for anything. There will be marches on Washington and tense standoffs. Trade sabres will be rattled, but nothing will happen because Trump is a billionaire who is up to his eyeballs in other billionaires—and has left his children as hostages in their world. He will drive wedges between Americans, simply because he is racist and misogynistic. He will reward fools with positions of power. He will attempt to install his children in positions of power. The bullshit gaffes will continue piling on, the media conspiracy will become ‘disgusting and traitorous to America,’ and not a thing will be done about immigration, outside shutting the door. His approval ratings will tank and he will start a war somewhere… and lord knows what kinds of convenient exigencies he might derive from this.

Let’s hope that ‘provoke a constitutional crisis’ and ‘launch nuclear weapons’ doesn’t find its way into there. Let’s hope you’ve merely found your own Berlusconi and nothing more disastrous.

If that happens, I promise I will spare you the Donald Cherry routine. I genuinely love you America, Trump supporters and all. I want to help you build the kind of culture you will need to survive the even greater upheavals to come. The technological revolution is just beginning and already progressive culture is foundering.

 

The Death of Wilson: How the Academic Left Created Donald Trump

by rsbakker

Tim and Wilson 2

People need to understand that things aren’t going to snap back into magical shape once Trump becomes archive footage. The Economist had a recent piece on all the far-right demagoguery in the past, and though they stress the impact that politicians like Goldwater have had subsequent to their electoral losses, they imply that Trump is part of a cyclical process, essentially more of the same. Perhaps this might have been the case were this anything but the internet age. For all we know, things could skid madly out of control.

Society has been fundamentally rewired. This is a simple fact. Remember Home Improvement, how Tim would screw something up, then wander into the backyard to lay his notions and problems on his neighbour Wilson, who would only ever appear as a cap over the fence line? Tim was hands on, but interpersonally incompetent, while Wilson was bookish and wise to the ways of the human heart—as well as completely obscured save for his eyes and various caps by the fence between them.

This is a fantastic metaphor for the communication of ideas before the internet and its celebrated ability to ‘bring us together.’ Before, when you had chauvinist impulses, you had to fly them by whoever was available. Pre-internet, extreme views were far more likely to be vetted by more mainstream attitudes. Simple geography combined with the limitations of analogue technology had the effect of tamping the prevalence of such views down. But now Tim wouldn’t think of hassling Wilson over the fence, not when he could do a simple Google and find whatever he needed to confirm his asinine behaviour. Our chauvinistic impulses no longer need to run any geographically constrained social gauntlet to find articulation and rationalization. No matter how mad your beliefs, evidence of their sanity is only ever a few keystrokes away.

This has to have some kind of aggregate, long-term effect–perhaps a dramatic one. The Trump phenomenon isn’t the manifestation of an old horrific contagion following the same old linear social vectors; it’s the outbreak of an old horrific contagion following new nonlinear social vectors. Trump hasn’t changed anything, save identifying and exploiting an ecological niche that was already there. No one knows what happens next. Least of all him.

What’s worse, with the collapse of geography comes the collapse of fences. Phrases like “cretinization of the masses” is simply one Google search away as well. Before, Wilson would have been snickering behind that fence, hanging with his friends and talking about his moron neighbour, who really is a nice guy, you know, but needs help to think clearly all the same. Now the fence is gone, and Tim can finally see Wilson for the condescending, self-righteous bigot he has always been.

Did I just say ‘bigot’? Surely… But this is what Trump supporters genuinely think. They think ‘liberal cultural elites’ are bigoted against them. As implausible as his arguments are, Murray is definitely tracking a real social phenomenon in Coming Apart. A good chunk of white America feels roundly put upon, attacked economically and culturally. No bonus this Christmas. No Christmas tree at school. Why should a minimum wage retail worker think they somehow immorally benefit by dint of blue eyes and pale skin? Why should they listen to some bohemian asshole who’s both morally and intellectually self-righteous? Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved on all sides, economically and culturally disenfranchised?

Who celebrates them? Aside from Donald Trump.

Trump

You have been identified as an outgroup competitor.

Last week, Social Psychological and Personality Science published a large study conducted by William Chopik, a psychologist out of Michigan State University, showing the degree to which political views determine social affiliations: it turns out that conservatives generally don’t know Clinton supporters and liberals generally don’t know any Trump supporters. Americans seem to be spontaneously segregating along political lines.

Now I’m Canadian, which, although it certainly undermines the credibility of my observations on the Trump phenomenon in some respects, actually does have its advantages. The whole thing is curiously academic, for Canadians, watching our cousins to the south play hysterical tug-o-war with their children’s future. What’s more, even though I’m about as academically institutionalized as a human can be, I’m not an academic, and I have steadfastly resisted the tendency of the highly educated to surround themselves with people who are every bit as institutionalized—or at least smitten—by academic culture.

I belong to no tribe, at least not clearly. Because of this, I have Canadian friends who are, indeed, Trump supporters. And I’ve been whaling on them, asking questions, posing arguments, and they have been whaling back. Precisely because we are Canadian, the whole thing is theatre for us, allowing, I like to think, for a brand of honesty that rancour and defensiveness would muzzle otherwise.

When I get together with my academic friends, however, something very curious happens whenever I begin reporting these attitudes: I get interrupted. “But-but, that’s just idiotic/wrong/racist/sexist!” And that’s when I begin whaling on them, not because I don’t agree with their estimation, but because, unlike my academic confreres, I don’t hold Trump supporters responsible. I blame them, instead. Aren’t they the ‘critical thinkers’? What else did they think the ‘cretins’ would do? Magically seize upon their enlightened logic? Embrace the wisdom of those who openly call them fools?

Fact is, you’re the ones who jumped off the folk culture ship.

The Trump phenomenon falls into the wheelhouse of what has been an old concern of mine. For more than a decade now, I’ve been arguing that the social habitat of intellectual culture is collapsing, and that the persistence of the old institutional organisms is becoming more and more socially pernicious. Literature professors, visual artists, critical theorists, literary writers, cultural critics, intellectual historians and so on all continue acting and arguing as though this were the 20th century… as if they were actually solving something, instead of making matters worse.

See before, when a good slice of media flushed through bottlenecks that they mostly controlled, the academic left could afford to indulge in the same kind of ingroup delusions that afflict all humans. The reason I’m always interrupted in the course of reporting the attitudes of my Trump supporting friends is simply that, from an ingroup perspective, they do not matter.

More and more research is converging upon the notion that the origins of human cooperation lie in human enmity. Think Band of Brothers only in an evolutionary context. In the endless ‘wars before civilization’ one might expect those groups possessing members willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their fellows would prevail in territorial conflicts against groups possessing members inclined to break and run. Morality has been cut from the hip of murder.

This thesis is supported by the radical differences in our ability to ‘think critically’ when interacting with ingroup confederates as opposed to outgroup competitors. We are all but incapable of listening, and therefore responding rationally, to those we perceive as threats. This is largely why I think literature, minimally understood as fiction that challenges assumptions, is all but dead. Ask yourself: Why is it so easy to predict that so very few Trump supporters have read Underworld? Because literary fiction caters to the likeminded, and now, thanks to the precision of the relationship between buyer and seller, it is only read by the likeminded.

But of course, whenever you make these kinds of arguments to academic liberals you are promptly identified as an outgroup competitor, and you are assumed to have some ideological or psychological defect preventing genuine critical self-appraisal. For all their rhetoric regarding ‘critical thinking,’ academic liberals are every bit as thin-skinned as Trump supporters. They too feel put upon, besieged. I gave up making this case because I realized that academic liberals would only be able to hear it coming from the lips of one of their own, and even then, only after something significant enough happened to rattle their faith in their flattering institutional assumptions. They know that institutions are self-regarding, they admit they are inevitably tarred by the same brush, but they think knowing this somehow makes them ‘self-critical’ and so less prone to ingroup dysrationalia. Like every other human on the planet, they agree with themselves in ways that flatter themselves. And they direct their communication accordingly.

I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened. Wilson was dead. My efforts to eke out a new model, to surmount cultural balkanization, motivated me to engage in ‘blog wars’ with two very different extremists on the web (both of whom would be kind enough to oblige my predictions). This experience vividly demonstrated to me how dramatically the academic left was losing the ‘culture wars.’ Conservative politicians, meanwhile, were becoming more aggressively regressive in their rhetoric, more willing to publicly espouse chauvinisms that I had assumed safely buried.

The academic left was losing the war for the hearts and minds of white America. But so long as enrollment remained steady and book sales remained strong, they remained convinced that nothing fundamental was wrong with their model of cultural engagement, even as technology assured a greater match between them and those largely approving of them. Only now, with Trump, are they beginning to realize the degree to which the technological transformation of their habitat has rendered them culturally ineffective. As George Saunders writes in “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” in The New Yorker:

Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the other only “Game of Thrones.” What is the meaning, to the collective “we,” of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it. You, the other knight, strike me as bafflingly ignorant, a little unmoored. In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional.

The first, most significant thing to realize about this passage is that it’s written by George Saunders for The New Yorker, a premier ingroup cultural authority on a premier ingroup cultural podium. On the view given here, Saunders pretty much epitomizes the dysfunction of literary culture, an academic at Syracuse University, the winner of countless literary awards (which is to say, better at impressing the likeminded than most), and, I think, clearly a genius of some description.

To provide some rudimentary context, Saunders attends a number of Trump rallies, making observations and engaging Trump supporters and protesters alike (but mostly the former) asking gentle questions, and receiving, for the most part, gentle answers. What he describes observation-wise are instances of ingroup psychology at work, individuals, complete strangers in many cases, making forceful demonstrations of ingroup solidarity and resolve. He chronicles something countless humans have witnessed over countless years, and he fears for the same reasons all those generations have feared. If he is puzzled, he is unnerved more.

He isolates two culprits in the above passage, the ‘intellectual and emotional weakening brought about by degraded public discourse,’ and more significantly, the way the contemporary media landscape has allowed Americans to ideologically insulate themselves against the possibility of doubt and negotiation. He blames, essentially, the death of Wilson.

As a paradigmatic ‘critical thinker,’ he’s careful to throw his own ‘subject position’ into mix, to frame the problem in a manner that distributes responsibility equally. It’s almost painful to read, at times, watching him walk the tightrope of hypocrisy, buffeted by gust after gust of ingroup outrage and piety, trying to exemplify the openness he mistakes for his creed, but sounding only lyrically paternalistic in the end–at least to ears not so likeminded. One can imagine the ideal New Yorker reader, pursing their lips in empathic concern, shaking their heads with wise sorrow, thinking…

But this is the question, isn’t it? What do all these aspirational gestures to openness and admissions of vague complicity mean when the thought is, inevitably, fools? Is this not the soul of bad faith? To offer up portraits of tender humanity in extremis as proof of insight and impartiality, then to end, as Saunders ends his account, suggesting that Trump has been “exploiting our recent dullness and aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.”

Academics… averse to calling stupidity stupid? Trump taking advantage of this aversion? Lordy.

This article, as beautiful as it is, is nothing if not a small monument to being precious, to making faux self-critical gestures in the name of securing very real ingroup imperatives. We are the sensitive ones, Saunders is claiming. We are the light that lets others see. And these people are the night of American democracy.

He blames the death of Wilson and the excessive openness of his ingroup, the error of being too open, too critically minded…

Why not just say they’re jealous because he and his friends are better looking?

If Saunders were at all self-critical, anything but precious, he would be asking questions that hurt, that cut to the bone of his aggrandizing assumptions, questions that become obvious upon asking them. Why not, for instance, ask Trump supporters what they thought of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline? Well, because the chances of any of them reading any of his work aside from “CommComm” (and only then because it won the World Fantasy Award in 2010) were virtually nil.

So then why not ask why none of these people has read anything written by him or any of his friends or their friends? Well, he’s already given us a reason for that: the death of Wilson.

Okay, so Wilson is dead, effectively rendering your attempts to reach and challenge those who most need to be challenged with your fiction toothless. And so you… what? Shrug your shoulders? Continue merely entertaining those whom you find the least abrasive?

If I’m right, then what we’re witnessing is so much bigger than Trump. We are tender. We are beautiful. We are vicious. And we are capable of believing anything to secure what we perceive as our claim. What matters here is that we’ve just plugged billions of stone-age brains chiselled by hundreds of millions of years of geography into a world without any. We have tripped across our technology and now we find ourselves in crash space, a domain where the transformation of our problems has rendered our traditional solutions obsolete.

It doesn’t matter if you actually are on their side or not, whatever that might mean. What matters is that you have been identified as an outgroup competitor, and that none of the authority you think your expertise warrants will be conceded to you. All the bottlenecks that once secured your universal claims are melting away, and you need to find some other way to discharge your progressive, prosocial aspirations. Think of all the sensitive young talent sifting through your pedagogical fingers. What do you teach them? How to be wise? How to contribute to their community? Or how to play the game? How to secure the approval of those just like you—and so, how to systematically alienate them from their greater culture?

So. Much. Waste. So much beauty, wisdom, all of it aimed at nowhere… tossed, among other places, into the heap of crumpled Kleenexes called The New Yorker.

Who would have thunk it? The best way to pluck the wise from the heart of our culture was to simply afford them the means to associate almost exclusively with one another, then trust to human nature, our penchant for evolving dialects and values in isolation. The edumacated no longer have the luxury of speaking among themselves for the edification of those servile enough to listen of their own accord. The ancient imperative to actively engage, to have the courage to reach out to the unlikeminded, to write for someone else, has been thrust back upon the artist. In the days of Wilson, we could trust to argument, simply because extreme thoughts had to run a gamut of moderate souls. Not so anymore.

If not art, then argument. If not argument, then art. Invade folk culture. Glory in delighting those who make your life possible–and take pride in making them think.

Sometimes they’re the idiot and sometimes we’re the idiot–that seems to be the way this thing works. To witness so many people so tangled in instinctive chauvinisms and cartoon narratives is to witness a catastrophic failure of culture and education. This is what Trump is exploiting, not some insipid reluctance to call stupid stupid.

I was fairly bowled over a few weeks back when my neighbour told me he was getting his cousin in Florida to send him a Trump hat. I immediately asked him if he was crazy.

“Name one Donald Trump who has done right by history!” I demanded, attempting to play Wilson, albeit minus the decorum and the fence.

Shrug. Wild eyes and a genuine smile. “Then I hope he burns it down.”

“How could you mean that?”

“I dunno, brother. Can’t be any worse than this fucking shit.”

Nothing I could say could make him feel any different. He’s got the internet.