Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

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.

The Zuckerberg Illusion

by rsbakker

obama-wired

So the special issue of Wired Magazine edited by Barack Obama has just come out, and I wanted to draw attention to Mark Zuckerberg’s response to the President’s challenge to “ensure that artificial intelligence helps rather than hurts us.” Somehow, someway, this issue has to move away from the ‘superintelligence’ debate and toward a collective conversation on the impact of AI on human cognitive ecology. Zuckerberg’s response betrays a tragic lack of understanding from the man who, arguably, has already transformed our social cognitive ecologies more radically than any other individual in the history of the human race. Anyone knowing some way of delivering this message from steerage up to the bridge, forward the bloody thing, because the combination of this naivete with the growing ubiquity of AI is becoming, ahem, a little scary. The more baked-in the existing trends become, the harder the hard decisions will become.

Zuckerberg begins his response to Obama’s challenge sounding very much like a typical American industrialist: only the peculiarity of his product makes his claim remarkable.

“People have always used technology as a lever to improve lives and increase productivity. But at the beginning of every cycle of invention, there’s a temptation to focus on the risks that come with a new technology instead of the benefits it will bring.

Today we are seeing that happen with artificial intelligence.”

What he wants to do in this short piece is allay the fears that have arisen regarding AI. His strategy for doing so is to show how our anxieties are the same overblown anxieties that always occasion the introduction of some new technology. These too, he assures us, will pass in time. Ultimately, he writes:

“When people come up with doomsday scenarios about AI, it’s important to remember that these are hypothetical. There’s little basis outside science fiction to believe they will come true.”

Of course, one need only swap out ‘AI’ with ‘industrialization’ to appreciate that not all ‘doomsday scenarios’ are equal. By any comparison, the Anthropocene already counts as one of the great extinction events to befall the planet, an accomplished ‘doomsday’ for numerous different species, and an ongoing one for many others. The reason for this ongoing extinction has to do with the supercomplicated systems of interdependency comprising our environments. Everything is adapted to everything else. Like pouring sand into a gas tank, introducing unprecedented substances and behaviours (such as farming) into existing ecologies progressively perturbs these systems, until eventually they collapse, often taking down other systems depending on them.

Malthus is the first on record predicting the possibility of natural environmental collapse in the 18th century, but the environmental movement only really got underway as the consequences of industrialization became evident in the 19th century. The term pollution, which during the Middle-ages meant defilement, took on its present meaning as “unnatural substance in natural systems” at the turn of the 20th century.

Which begs the question: Why were our ancestors so long in seeing the peril presented by industrialization? Well, for one, the systems comprising ecologies are all, in some way or another, survivors of prior ecological collapses. Ecologies are themselves adaptive systems, exhibiting remarkable resilience in many cases—until they don’t. The supercomplicated networks of interdependence constituting environments only became obvious to our forebears when they began really breaking down. Once one understands the ecological dimension of natural environments, the potentially deleterious impact of ecologically unprecedented behaviours and materials becomes obvious. If the environmental accumulation of industrial by-products constitutes an accelerating trend, then far from a science fiction premise, the prospect of accelerating ecological degradation of environments becomes a near certainty, and the management of ecological consequences an absolute necessity.

Which begs a different, less obvious question: Why would these networks of ecological interdependence only become visible to our ancestors after they began breaking down? Why should humans initially atomize their environments, and only develop complex, relational schemes after long, hard experience? The answer lies in the ecological nature of human cognition, the fact that we evolved to take as much ‘for granted’ as possible. The sheer complexity of the deep connectivity underwriting our surrounding environments renders them computationally intractable, and thus utterly invisible to us. (This is why the ecology question probably seemed like such an odd thing to ask: it quite literally goes without saying that we had to discover natural ecology). So cognition exploits the systematic correlations between what information is available and the systems requiring solution to derive ecologically effective behaviours. The human penchant for atomizing and essentializing their environments enables them to cognize ecology despite remaining blind to it.

What does any of this have to do with Zuckerberg’s optimistic argument for plowing more resources into the development of AI? Well, because I think it’s pretty clear he’s labouring under the very same illusion as the early industrialists, the illusion of acting in a grand, vacant arena, a place where unintended consequences magically dissipate instead of radiate.

The question, recall, is whether doomsday scenarios about AI warrant widespread alarm. It seems pretty clear, and I’m sure Zuckerberg would agree, that doomsday scenarios about industrialization do warrant widespread alarm. So what if what Zuckerberg and everyone else is calling ‘AI’ actually constitutes a form of cognitive industrialization? What will be the cognitive ecological impact of such an event?

We know that human cognition is thoroughly heuristic, so we know that human cognition is thoroughly ecological. The reason Sherry Turkle and Deidre Barrett and others worry about the ease with which human social cognition can be hacked turns on the fact that human social cognition is ecological through and through, dependent on the stable networks of interdependence. The fact is human sociocognition evolved to cope with other human intelligences, to solve on the basis of cues systematically correlated to other human brains, not to supercomputers mining vast data sets.  Take our love of flattery. We evolved in ecologies where our love for flattery is balanced against the inevitability of criticism. Ancestrally, pursuing flattery amounts to overcoming—i.e., answering—criticism. We generally hate criticism, but given our cognitive ecology, we had no choice but ‘to take our medicine.’

And this is but one of countless examples.

The irony is that Zuckerberg is deeply invested in researching human cognitive ecology: computer scientists (like Hector Levesque) can rail against ‘bag of tricks’ approaches to cognition, but they will continue to be pursued because behaviour cuing behaviour is all that’s required (for humans or machines, I think). Now Zuckerberg, I’m sure, sees himself exclusively in the business of providing value for consumers, but he needs to understand how his dedication to enable and delight automatically doubles as a ruthless quest to demolish human cognitive ecology. Rewriting environments ‘to make the user experience more enjoyable’ is the foundation all industrial enterprise, all ecological destruction, and the AI onslaught is nothing if not industrial.

Deploying systems designed to cue human social cognition in the absence of humans is pretty clearly a form of deception. Soon, every corporate website will be a friend… soulful, sympathetic,  utterly devoted to our satisfaction, as well as inhuman, designed to exploit, and knowing us better than any human could hope to, including ourselves. And as these inhuman friends become cheaper and cheaper, we will be deluged by them, ‘junk intelligences,’ each of them so much wittier, so much wiser, than any mundane human can hope to appear.

“At a very basic level, I think AI is good and not something we should be afraid of,” Zuckerberg concludes. “We’re already seeing examples of how AI can unlock value and improve the world. If we can choose hope over fear—and if we advance the fundamental science behind AI—then this is only the beginning.”

Indeed.

obama-worried

Snuffing the Spark: A Nihilistic Account of Moral Progress

by rsbakker

sparkman

 

If we define moral progress in brute terms of more and more individuals cooperating, then I think we can cook up a pretty compelling naturalistic explanation for its appearance.

So we know that our basic capacity to form ingroups is adapted to prehistoric ecologies characterized by resource scarcity and intense intergroup competition.

We also know that we possess a high degree of ingroup flexibility: we can easily add to our teams.

We also know moral and scientific progress are related. For some reason, modern prosocial trends track scientific and technological advance. Any theory attempting to explain moral progress should explain this connection.

We know that technology drastically increases information availability.

It seems modest to suppose that bigger is better in group competition. Cultural selection theory, meanwhile, pretty clearly seems to be onto something.

It seems modest to suppose that ingroup cuing turns on information availability.

Technology, as the homily goes, ‘brings us closer’ across a variety of cognitive dimensions. Moral progress, then, can be understood as the sustained effect of deep (or ancestrally unavailable) social information cuing various ingroup responses–people recognizing fractions of themselves (procedural if not emotional bits) in those their grandfathers would have killed.  The competitive benefits pertaining to cooperation suggest that ingroup trending cultures would gradually displace those trending otherwise.

Certainly there’s a far, far more complicated picture to be told here—a bottomless one, you might argue—but the above set of generalizations strike me as pretty solid. The normativist would cry foul, for instance, claiming that some account of the normative nature of the institutions underpinning such a process is necessary to understanding ‘moral progress.’ For them, moral progress has to involve autonomy, agency, and a variety of other posits perpetually lacking decisive formulation. Heuristic neglect allows us to sidestep this extravagance as the very kind of dead-end we should expect to confound us. At the same time, however, reflection on moral cognition has doubtless had a decisive impact on moral cognition. The problem of explaining ‘norm-talk’ remains. The difference is we now recognize the folly of using normative cognition to theoretically solve the nature of normative cognition. How can systems adapted to solving absent information regarding the nature of normative cognition reveal the nature of normative cognition? Relieved of these inexplicable posits, the generalizations above become unproblematic. We can set aside the notion of some irreducible ‘human spark’ impinging on the process in a manner that makes them empirically inexplicable.

If only our ‘deepest intuitions’ could be trusted.

The important thing about this way of looking at things is that it reveals the degree to which moral progress depends upon its information environments. So far, the technical modification of our environments has allowed our suite of social instincts, combined with institutionally regimented social training, to progressively ratchet the expansion of the franchise. But accepting the contingency of moral progress means accepting vulnerability to radical transformations in our information environment. Nothing guarantees moral progress outside the coincidence of certain capacities in certain conditions. Change those conditions, and you change the very function of human moral cognition.

So, for instance, what if something as apparently insignificant as the ‘online disinhibition effect’ has the gradual, aggregate effect of intensifying adversarial group identifications? What if the network possibilities of the web gradually organizes those possessing authoritarian dispositions, renders them more socially cohesive, while having the opposite impact on those possessing anti-authoritarian dispositions?

Anything can happen here, folks.

One can be a ‘nihilist’ and yet be all for ‘moral progress.’ The difference is that you are advocating for cooperation, for hewing to heuristics that promote prosocial behaviour. More importantly, you have no delusions of somehow standing outside contingency, of ‘rational’ immunity to radical transformations in your cognitive environments. You don’t have the luxury of burning magical holes through actual problems with your human spark. You see the ecology of things, and so you intervene.

Visions of the Semantic Apocalypse: A Critical Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus

by rsbakker

homo-deus-na

“Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past,” Yuval Noah Harari writes. “It enables us to turn our heads this way and that, and to begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine” (59). Thus does the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind rationalize his thoroughly historical approach to question of our technological future in his fascinating follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. And so does he identify himself as a humanist, committed to freeing us from what Kant would have called, ‘our tutelary natures.’ Like Kant, Harari believes knowledge will set us free.

Although by the end of the book it becomes difficult to understand what ‘free’ might mean here.

As Harari himself admits, “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend” (46). Now if you’re interested in mapping the conceptual boundaries of comprehending the posthuman, I heartily recommend David Roden’s skeptical tour de force, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Homo Deus, on the other hand, is primarily a book chronicling the rise and fall of contemporary humanism against the backdrop of apparent ‘progress.’ The most glaring question, of course, is whether Harari’s academic humanism possesses the resources required to diagnose the problems posed by the collapse of popular humanism. This challenge—the problem of using obsolescent vocabularies to theorize, not only the obsolescence of those vocabularies, but the successor vocabularies to come—provides an instructive frame through which to understand the successes and failures of this ambitious and fascinating book.

How good is Homo Deus? Well, for years people have been asking me for a lay point of entry for the themes explored here on Three Pound Brain and in my novels, and I’ve always been at a loss. No longer. Anyone surfing for reviews of the book are certain to find individuals carping about Harari not possessing the expertise to comment on x or y, but these critics never get around to explaining how any human could master all the silos involved in such an issue (while remaining accessible to a general audience, no less). Such criticisms amount to advocating no one dare interrogate what could be the greatest challenge to ever confront humanity. In addition to erudition, Harari has the courage to concede ugly possibilities, the sensitivity to grasp complexities (as well as the limits they pose), and the creativity to derive something communicable. Even though I think his residual humanism conceals the true profundity of the disaster awaiting us, he glimpses more than enough to alert millions of readers to the shape of the Semantic Apocalypse. People need to know human progress likely has a horizon, a limit, that doesn’t involve environmental catastrophe or creating some AI God.

The problem is far more insidious and retail than most yet realize.

The grand tale Harari tells is a vaguely Western Marxist one, wherein culture (following Lukacs) is seen as a primary enabler of relations of power, a fundamental component of the ‘social apriori.’ The primary narrative conceit of such approaches belongs to the ancient Greeks: “[T]he rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall,” Harari writes. “While the attempt to upgrade humans into gods takes humanism to its logical conclusion, it simultaneously exposes humanism’s inherent flaws” (65). For all its power, humanism possesses intrinsic flaws, blindnesses and vulnerabilities, that will eventually lead it to ruin. In a sense, Harari is offering us a ‘big history’ version of negative dialectic, attempting to show how the internal logic of humanism runs afoul the very power it enables.

But that logic is also the very logic animating Harari’s encyclopedic account. For all its syncretic innovations, Homo Deus uses the vocabularies of academic or theoretical humanism to chronicle the rise and fall of popular or practical humanism. In this sense, the difference between Harari’s approach to the problem of the future and my own could not be more pronounced. On my account, academic humanism, far from enjoying critical or analytical immunity, is best seen as a crumbling bastion of pre-scientific belief, the last gasp of traditional apologia, the cognitive enterprise most directly imperilled by the rising technological tide, while we can expect popular humanism to linger for some time to come (if not indefinitely).

Homo Deus, in fact, exemplifies the quandary presently confronting humanists such as Harari, how the ‘creeping delegitimization’ of their theoretical vocabularies is slowly robbing them of any credible discursive voice. Harari sees the problem, acknowledging that “[w]e won’t be able to grasp the full implication of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence if we don’t know what minds are” (107). But the fact remains that “science knows surprisingly little about minds and consciousness” (107). We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.

Humanity as yet lacks any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience. For Harari this means the bastion of academic humanism, though besieged, remains intact, at least enough for him to advance his visions of the future. Despite the perplexity and controversies occasioned by our traditional vocabularies, they remain the only game in town, the very foundation of countless cognitive activities. “[T]he whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences,” Harari writes, “and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities” (116). Even though his posits lie nowhere in the natural world, they nevertheless remain subjective realities, the necessary condition of solving countless problems. “If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant,” Harari writes, “their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience” (116).

This is the classic humanistic challenge posed to naturalistic accounts, of course, the demand that they discharge the specialized functions of intentional cognition the same way intentional cognition does. This demand amounts to little more than a canard, of course, once we appreciate the heuristic nature of intentional cognition. The challenge intentional cognition poses to natural cognition is to explain, not replicate, its structure and dynamics. We clearly evolved our intentional cognitive capacities, after all, to solve problems natural cognition could not reliably solve. This combination of power, economy, and specificity is the very thing that a genuinely naturalistic theory of meaning (such as my own) must explain.

 

“… fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

 

So moving forward it is important to understand how his theoretical approach elides the very possibility of a genuinely post-intentional future. Because he has no natural theory of meaning, he has no choice but to take the theoretical adequacy of his intentional idioms for granted. But if his intentional idioms possess the resources he requires to theorize the future, they must somehow remain out of play; his discursive ‘subject position’ must possess some kind of immunity to the scientific tsunami climbing our horizons. His very choice of tools limits the radicality of the story he tells. No matter how profound, how encompassing, the transformational deluge, Harari must somehow remain dry upon his theoretical ark. And this, as we shall see, is what ultimately swamps his conclusions.

But if the Hard Problem exempts his theoretical brand of intentionality, one might ask why it doesn’t exempt all intentionality from scientific delegitimation. What makes the scientific knowledge of nature so tremendously disruptive to humanity is the fact that human nature is, when all is said and down, just more nature. Conceding general exceptionalism, the thesis that humans possess something miraculous distinguishing them from nature more generally, would undermine the very premise of his project.

Without any way out of this bind, Harari fudges, basically. He remains silent on his own intentional (even humanistic) theoretical commitments, while attacking exceptionalism by expanding the franchise of meaning and consciousness to include animals: whatever intentional phenomena consist in, they are ultimately natural to the extent that animals are natural.

But now the problem has shifted. If humans dwell on a continuum with nature more generally, then what explains the Anthropocene, our boggling dominion of the earth? Why do humans stand so drastically apart from nature? The capacity that most distinguishes humans from their nonhuman kin, Harari claims (in line with contemporary theories), is the capacity to cooperate. He writes:

“the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.” 131

He poses a ‘shared fictions’ theory of mass social coordination (unfortunately, he doesn’t engage research on groupishness, which would have provided him with some useful, naturalistic tools, I think). He posits an intermediate level of existence between the objective and subjective, the ‘intersubjective,’ consisting of our shared beliefs in imaginary orders, which serve to distribute authority and organize our societies. “Sapiens rule the world,” he writes, “because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning; a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination” (149). This ‘intersubjective web’ provides him with theoretical level of description he thinks crucial to understanding our troubled cultural future.

He continues:

“During the twenty-first century the border between history and biology is likely to blur not because we will discover biological explanations for historical events, but rather because ideological fictions will rewrite DNA strands; political and economic interests will redesign the climate; and the geography of mountains and rivers will give way to cyberspace. As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.” 151

The way Harari sees it, ideology, far from being relegated to prescientific theoretical midden, is set to become all powerful, a consumer of worlds. This launches his extensive intellectual history of humanity, beginning with the algorithmic advantages afforded by numeracy, literacy, and currency, how these “broke the data-processing limitations of the human brain” (158). Where our hunter-gathering ancestors could at best coordinate small groups, “[w]riting and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms” (158).

Harari then turns to the question of how science fits in with this view of fictions, the nature of the ‘odd couple,’ as he puts it:

“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, but it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind. Science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before.” 179

Science is what renders objective reality compliant to human desire. Storytelling is what renders individual human desires compliant to collective human expectations, which is to say, intersubjective reality. Harari understands that the relationship between science and religious ideology is not one of straightforward antagonism: “science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions,” he writes. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave” (188). Though science has plenty of resources for answering means type questions—what you ought to do to lose weight, for instance—it lacks resources to fix the ends that rationalize those means. Science, Harari argues, requires religion to the extent that it cannot ground the all important fictions enabling human cooperation (197).

Insofar as science is a cooperative, human enterprise, it can only destroy one form of meaning on the back of some other meaning. By revealing the anthropomorphism underwriting our traditional, religious accounts of the natural world, science essentially ‘killed God’—which is to say, removed any divine constraint on our actions or aspirations. “The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power” (199). Like stage-actors, we had a plan, but our role was fixed. Unfixing that role, killing God, made meaning into something each of us has to find for ourselves. Harari writes:

“Since there is no script, and since humans fulfill no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us, or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.’” 200

The absence of a script, however, means that anything goes; we can play any role we want to. With the modern freedom from cosmic constraint comes postmodern anomie.

“The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” 201

Or to give it the Adornian spin it receives here on Three Pound Brain: the madness of a society that has rendered means, knowledge and capital, its primary end. Thus the modern obsession with the accumulation of the power to accumulate. And thus the Faustian nature of our present predicament (though Harari, curiously, never references Faust), the fact that “[w]e think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal without paying the price” (201). Even though physical resources such as material and energy are finite, no such limit pertains to knowledge. This is why “[t]he greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.” (212): it spurred the development of systematic inquiry, and therefore the accumulation of knowledge, and therefore the accumulation of power, which, Harari argues, cuts against objective or cosmic meaning. The question is simply whether we can hope to sustain this process—defer payment—indefinitely.

“Modernity is a deal,” he writes, and for all its apparent complexities, it is very straightforward: “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” (199). For me the best way of thinking this process of exchanging power for meaning is in terms of what Weber called disenchantment: the very science that dispels our anthropomorphic fantasy worlds is the science that delivers technological power over the real world. This real world power is what drives traditional delegitimation: even believers acknowledge the vast bulk of the scientific worldview, as do the courts and (ideally at least) all governing institutions outside religion. Science is a recursive institutional ratchet (‘self-correcting’), leveraging the capacity to leverage ever more capacity. Now, after centuries of sheltering behind walls of complexity, human nature finds itself the intersection of multiple domains of scientific inquiry. Since we’re nothing special, just more nature, we should expect our burgeoning technological power over ourselves to increasingly delegitimate traditional discourses.

Humanism, on this account, amounts to an adaptation to the ways science transformed our ancestral ‘neglect structure,’ the landscape of ‘unknown unknowns’ confronting our prehistorical forebears. Our social instrumentalization of natural environments—our inclination to anthropomorphize the cosmos—is the product of our ancestral inability to intuit the actual nature of those environments. Information beyond the pale of human access makes no difference to human cognition. Cosmic meaning requires that the cosmos remain a black box: the more transparent science rendered that box, the more our rationales retreated to the black box of ourselves. The subjectivization of authority turns on how intentional cognition (our capacity to cognize authority) requires the absence of natural accounts to discharge ancestral functions. Humanism isn’t so much a grand revolution in thought as the result of the human remaining the last scientifically inscrutable domain standing. The rationalizations had to land somewhere. Since human meaning likewise requires that the human remain a black box, the vast industrial research enterprise presently dedicated to solving our nature does not bode well.

But this approach, economical as it is, isn’t available to Harari since he needs some enchantment to get his theoretical apparatus off the ground. As the necessary condition for human cooperation, meaning has to be efficacious. The ‘Humanist Revolution,’ as Harari sees it, consists in the migration of cooperative efficacy (authority) from the cosmic to the human. “This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world” (221). Rather than scripture, human experience becomes the metric for what is right or wrong, and the universe, once the canvas of the priest, is conceded to the scientist. Harari writes:

“As the source of meaning and authority was relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe—hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls—became empty space. The interior world—hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions—became deep and rich beyond measure” 234

This re-sourcing of meaning, Harari insists, is true whether or not one still believes in some omnipotent God, insofar as all the salient anchors of that belief lie within the believer, rather than elsewhere. God may still be ‘cosmic,’ but he now dwells beyond the canvas as nature, somewhere in the occluded frame, a place where only religious experience can access Him.

Man becomes ‘man the meaning maker,’ the trope that now utterly dominates contemporary culture:

“Exactly the same lesson is learned by Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard as they travel the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, by Huckleberry Finn and Jim as they sail down the Mississippi, by Wyatt and Billy as they ride their Harley Davidson’s in Easy Rider, and by countless other characters in myriad other road movies who leave their home town in Pennsylvannia (or perhaps New South Wales), travel in an old convertible (or perhaps a bus), pass through various life-changing experiences, get in touch with themselves, talk about their feelings, and eventually reach San Francisco (or perhaps Alice Springs) as better and wiser individuals.” 241

Not only is experience the new scripture, it is a scripture that is being continually revised and rewritten, a meaning that arises out of the process of lived life (yet somehow always managing to conserve the status quo). In story after story, the protagonist must find some ‘individual’ way to derive their own personal meaning out of an apparently meaningless world. This is a primary philosophical motivation behind The Second Apocalypse, the reason why I think epic fantasy provides such an ideal narrative vehicle for the critique of modernity and meaning. Fantasy worlds are fantastic, especially fictional, because they assert the objectivity of what we now (implicitly or explicitly) acknowledge to be anthropomorphic projections. The idea has always been to invert the modernist paradigm Harari sketches above, to follow a meaningless character through a meaningful world, using Kellhus to recapitulate the very dilemma Harari sees confronting us now:

“What then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design, or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?” 277

And so Harari segues to the future and the question of the ultimate fate of human meaning; this is where I find his steadfast refusal to entertain humanistic conceit most impressive. One need not ponder ‘designer experiences’ for long, I think, to get a sense of the fundamental rupture with the past it represents. These once speculative issues are becoming ongoing practical concerns: “These are not just hypotheses of philosophical speculations,” simply because ‘algorithmic man’ is becoming a technological reality (284). Harari provides a whirlwind tour of unnerving experiments clearly implying trouble for our intuitions, a discussion that transitions into a consideration of the ways we can already mechanically attenuate our experiences. A good number of the examples he adduces have been considered here, all of them underscoring the same, inescapable moral: “Free will exists in the imaginary stories we humans have invented” (283). No matter what your philosophical persuasion, our continuity with the natural world is an established scientific fact. Humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature. If humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature, then the human mastery of nature amounts to the human mastery of humanity.

He turns, at this point, to Gazzaniga’s research showing the confabulatory nature of human rationalization (via split brain patients), and Daniel Kahneman’s account of ‘duration neglect’—another favourite of mine. He offers an expanded version of Kahneman’s distinction between the ‘experiencing self,’ that part of us that actually undergoes events, and the ‘narrating self,’ the part of us that communicates—derives meaning from—these experiences, essentially using the dichotomy as an emblem for the dual process models of cognition presently dominating cognitive psychological research. He writes:

“most people identify with their narrating self. When they say, ‘I,’ the mean the story in their head, not the stream of experiences they undergo. We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns. It doesn’t matter that the plot is filled with lies and lacunas, and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps from even beyond the grave). This gives rise to the questionable liberal belief that I am an individual, and that I possess a consistent and clear inner voice, which provides meaning for the entire universe.” 299

Humanism, Harari argues, turns on our capacity for self-deception, the ability to commit to our shared fictions unto madness, if need be. He writes:

“Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning. Modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.” 305

Social self-deception is our birthright, the ability to believe what we need to believe to secure our interests. This is why the science, though shaking humanistic theory to the core, has done so little to interfere with the practices rationalized by that theory. As history shows, we are quite capable of shovelling millions into the abattoir of social fantasy. This delivers Harari to yet another big theme explored both here and Neuropath: the problems raised by the technological concretization of these scientific findings. As Harari puts it:

“However, once heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we—or our heirs—will probably require a brand new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism [the dominant variant of humanism] is threatened not by the philosophical idea that there are no free individuals but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?” 305-6

harari

The first problem, as Harari sees it, is one of diminishing returns. Humanism didn’t become the dominant world ideology because it was true, it overran the collective imagination of humanity because it enabled. Humanistic values, Harari explains, afforded our recent ancestors with a wide variety of social utilities, efficiencies turning on the technologies of the day. Those technologies, it turns out, require human intelligence and the consciousness that comes with it. To depart from Harari, they are what David Krakauer calls ‘complementary technologies,’ tools that extend human capacity, as opposed to ‘competitive technologies,’ which render human capacities redundant).

Making humans redundant, of course, means making experience redundant, something which portends the systematic devaluation of human experience, or the collapse of humanism. Harari calls this process the ‘Great Decoupling’:

“Over the last decades there has been an immense advance in computer intelligence, but there has been exactly zero advance in computer consciousness. As far as we know, computers in 2016 are no more conscious than their prototypes in the 1950s. However, we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.” 311

He’s quick to acknowledge all the problems yet confronting AI researchers, insisting that the trend unambiguously points toward every expanding capacities As he writes, “these technical problems—however difficult—need only be solved once” (317). The ratchet never stops clicking.

He’s also quick to block the assumption that humans are somehow exceptional: “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking” (319). He provides the (I think) terrifying example of David Cope, the University of California at Santa Cruz musicologist who has developed algorithms whose compositions strike listeners as more authentically human than compositions by humans such as J.S. Bach.

The second problem is the challenge of what (to once again depart from Harari) Neil Lawrence calls ‘System Zero,’ the question of what happens when our machines begin to know us better than we know ourselves. As Harari notes, this is already the case: “The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane choices” (345). Facebook can now guess your preferences better than your friends, your family, your spouse—and in some instances better than you yourself! He warns the day is coming when political candidates can receive real-time feedback via social media, when people can hear everything said about them always and everywhere. Projecting this trend leads him to envision something very close to Integration, where we become so embalmed in our information environments that “[d]isconnection will mean death” (344).

He writes:

“The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within. Today corporations and governments pay homage to my individuality and promise to provide medicine, education and entertainment customized to my unique needs and wishes. But in order to do so, corporations and governments first need to break me up into biochemical subsystems, monitor these subsystems with ubiquitous sensors and decipher their workings with powerful algorithms. In the process, the individual will transpire to be nothing but a religious fantasy.” 345

This is my own suspicion, and I think the process of subpersonalization—the neuroscientifically informed decomposition of consumers into economically relevant behaviours—is well underway. But I think it’s important to realize that as data accumulates, and researchers and their AIs find more and more ways to instrumentalize those data sets, what we’re really talking about are proliferating heuristic hacks (that happen to turn on neuroscientific knowledge). They need decipher us only so far as we comply. Also, the potential noise generated by a plethora of competing subpersonal communications seems to constitute an important structural wrinkle. It could be the point most targeted by subpersonal hacking will at least preserve the old borders of the ‘self,’ fantasy that it was. Post-intentional ‘freedom’ could come to reside in the noise generated by commercial competition.

The third problem he sees for humanism lies in the almost certainly unequal distribution of the dividends of technology, a trope so well worn in narrative that we scarce need consider it here. It follows that liberal humanism, as an ideology committed to the equal value of all individuals, has scant hope of squaring the interests of the redundant masses against those of a technologically enhanced superhuman elite.

 

… this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour.

 

Under pretty much any plausible scenario you can imagine, the shared fiction of popular humanism is doomed. But as Harari has already argued, shared fictions are the necessary condition of social coordination. If humanism collapses, some kind of shared fiction has to take its place. And alas, this is where my shared journey with Harari ends. From this point forward, I think his analysis is largely an artifact of his own, incipient humanism.

Harari uses the metaphor of ‘vacuum,’ implying that humans cannot but generate some kind of collective narrative, some way of making their lives not simply meaningful to themselves, but more importantly, meaningful to one another. It is the mass resemblance of our narrative selves, remember, that makes our mass cooperation possible. [This is what misleads him, the assumption that ‘mass cooperation’ need be human at all by this point.] So he goes on to consider what new fiction might arise to fill the void left by humanism. The first alternative is ‘technohumanism’ (transhumanism, basically), which is bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of nature much as humanism was bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of tradition. Where humanists are free to think anything in their quest to actualize their desires, technohumanists are free to be anything in their quest to actualize their desires.

The problem is that the freedom to be anything amounts to the freedom to reengineer desire. So where the objective meaning, following one’s god (socialization), gave way to subjective meaning, following one’s heart (socialization), it remains entirely unclear what the technohumanist hopes to follow or to actualize. As soon as we gain power over our cognitive being the question becomes, ‘Follow which heart?’

Or as Harari puts it,

“Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers human will the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign our will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet once we have such control, techno-humanism will not know what to do with it, because the sacred human will would become just another designer product.” 366

Which is to say, something arbitrary. Where humanism aims ‘to loosen the grip of the past,’ transhumanism aims to loosen the grip of biology. We really see the limits of Harari’s interpretative approach here, I think, as well as why he falls short a definitive account of the Semantic Apocalypse. The reason that ‘following your heart’ can substitute for ‘following the god’ is that they amount to the very same claim, ‘trust your socialization,’ which is to say, your pre-existing dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain contexts. The problem posed by the kind of enhancement extolled by transhumanists isn’t that shared fictions must be ‘sacred’ to be binding, but that something neglected must be shared. Synchronization requires trust, the ability to simultaneously neglect others (and thus dedicate behaviour to collective problem solving) and yet predict their behaviour nonetheless. Absent this shared background, trust is impossible, and therefore synchronization is impossible. Cohesive, collective action, in other words, turns on a vast amount of evolutionary and educational stage-setting, common cognitive systems stamped with common forms of training, all of it ancestrally impervious to direct manipulation. Insofar as transhumanism promises to place the material basis of individual desire within the compass of individual desire, it promises to throw our shared background to the winds of whimsy. Transhumanism is predicated on the ever-deepening distortion of our ancestral ecologies of meaning.

Harari reads transhumanism as a reductio of humanism, the point where the religion of individual empowerment unravels the very agency it purports to empower. Since he remains, at least residually, a humanist, he places ideology—what he calls the ‘intersubjective’ level of reality—at the foundation of his analysis. It is the mover and shaker here, what Harari believes will stamp objective reality and subjective reality both in its own image.

And the fact of the matter is, he really has no choice, given he has no other way of generalizing over the processes underwriting the growing Whirlwind that has us in its grasp. So when he turns to digitalism (or what he calls ‘Dataism’), it appears to him to be the last option standing:

“What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information.” 366

Meaning has to be found somewhere. Why? Because synchronization requires trust requires shared commitments to shared fictions, stories expressing those values we hold in common. As we have seen, science cannot determine ends, only means to those ends. Something has to fix our collective behaviour, and if science cannot, we will perforce turn to be some kind of religion…

But what if we were to automate collective behaviour? There’s a second candidate that Harari overlooks, one which I think is far, far more obvious than digitalism (which remains, for all its notoriety, an intellectual position—and a confused one at that, insofar as it has no workable theory of meaning/cognition). What will replace humanism? Atavism… Fantasy. For all the care Harari places in his analyses, he overlooks how investing AI with ever increasing social decision-making power simultaneously divests humans of that power, thus progressively relieving us of the need for shared values. The more we trust to AI, the less trust we require of one another. We need only have faith in the efficacy of our technical (and very objective) intermediaries; the system synchronizes us automatically in ways we need not bother knowing. Ideology ceases to become a condition of collective action. We need not have any stories regarding our automated social ecologies whatsoever, so long as we mind the diminishing explicit constraints the system requires of us.

Outside our dwindling observances, we are free to pursue whatever story we want. Screw our neighbours. And what stories will those be? Well, the kinds of stories we evolved to tell, which is to say, the kinds of stories our ancestors told to each other. Fantastic stories… such as those told by George R. R. Martin, Donald Trump, myself, or the Islamic state. Radical changes in hardware require radical changes in software, unless one has some kind of emulator in place. You have to be sensible to social change to ideologically adapt to it. “Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer,’” Harari writes, “but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day lose their ability even to understand the questions being asked” (269). But why should incomprehension or any kind of irrationality disqualify the appeal of Islam, if the basis of the appeal primarily lies in some optimization of our intentional cognitive capacities?

Humans are shallow information consumers by dint of evolution, and deep information consumers by dint of modern necessity. As that necessity recedes, it stands to reason our patterns of consumption will recede with it, that we will turn away from the malaise of perpetual crash space and find solace in ever more sophisticated simulations of worlds designed to appease our ancestral inclinations. As Harari himself notes, “Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first century data flows” (388). And here we come to the key to understanding the profundity, and perhaps even the inevitability of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition turns on cues which turn on ecological invariants that technology is even now rendering plastic. The issue here, in other words, isn’t so much a matter of ideological obsolescence as cognitive habitat destruction, the total rewiring of the neglected background upon which intentional cognition depends.

The thing people considering the future impact of technology need to pause and consider is that this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour. Suddenly a system that leveraged cognitive capacity via natural selection will be leveraging that capacity via neural selection—behaviourally. A change so fundamental pretty clearly spells the end of all ancestral ecologies, including the cognitive. Humanism is ‘disintegrating from within’ because intentional cognition itself is beginning to founder. The tsunami of information thundering above the shores of humanism is all deep information, information regarding what we evolved to ignore—and therefore trust. Small wonder, then, that it scuttles intentional problem-solving, generates discursive crash spaces that only philosophers once tripped into.

The more the mechanisms behind learning impediments are laid bare, the less the teacher can attribute performance to character, the more they are forced to adopt a clinical attitude. What happens when every impediment to learning is laid bare? Unprecedented causal information is flooding our institutions, removing more and more behaviour from the domain of character, why? Because character judgments always presume individuals could have done otherwise, and presuming individuals could have done otherwise presumes that we neglect the actual sources of behaviour. Harari brushes this thought on a handful occasions, writing, most notably:

“In the eighteenth century Homo sapiens was like a mysterious black box, whose inner workings were beyond our grasp. Hence when scholars asked why a man drew a knife and stabbed another to death, an acceptable answer said: ‘Because he chose to…” 282

But he fails to see the systematic nature of the neglect involved, and therefore the explanatory power it affords. Our ignorance of ourselves, in other words, determines not simply the applicability, but the solvency of intentional cognition as well. Intentional cognition allowed our ancestors to navigate opaque or ‘black box’ social ecologies. The role causal information plays in triggering intuitions of exemption is tuned to the efficacy of this system overall. By and large our ancestors exempted those individuals in those circumstances that best served their tribe as a whole. However haphazardly, moral intuitions involving causality served some kind of ancestral optimization. So when actionable causal information regarding our behaviour becomes available, we have no choice but to exempt those behaviours, no matter what kind of large scale distortions result. Why? Because it is the only moral thing to do.

Welcome to crash space. We know this is crash space as opposed to, say, scientifically informed enlightenment (the way it generally feels) simply by asking what happens when actionable causal information regarding our every behaviour becomes available. Will moral judgment become entirely inapplicable? For me, the free will debate has always been a paradigmatic philosophical crash space, a place where some capacity always seems to apply, yet consistently fails to deliver solutions because it does not. We evolved to communicate behaviour absent information regarding the biological sources of behaviour: is it any wonder that our cause-neglecting workarounds cannot square with the causes they work around? The growing institutional challenges arising out of the medicalization of character turns on the same cognitive short-circuit. How can someone who has no choice be held responsible?

Even as we drain the ignorance intentional cognition requires from our cognitive ecologies, we are flooding them with AI, what promises to be a deluge of algorithms trained to cue intentional cognition, impersonate persons, in effect. The evidence is unequivocal: our intentional cognitive capacities are easily cued out of school—in a sense, this is the cornerstone of their power, the ability to assume so much on the basis of so little information. But in ecologies designed to exploit intentional intuitions, this power and versatility becomes a tremendous liability. Even now litigators and lawmakers find themselves beset with the question of how intentional cognition should solve for environments flooded with artifacts designed to cue human intentional cognition to better extract various commercial utilities. The problems of the philosophers dwell in ivory towers no more.

First we cloud the water, then we lay the bait—we are doing this to ourselves, after all. We are taking our first stumbling steps into what is becoming a global social crash space. Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition. Since heuristic cognition turns on shallow information cues, we have good reason to assume that our basic means of understanding ourselves and our projects will be incompatible with deep information accounts. The more we learn about cognition, the more apparent this becomes, the more our intentional modes of problem-solving will break down. I’m not sure there’s anything much to be done at this point save getting the word out, empowering some critical mass of people with a notion of what’s going on around them. This is what Harari does to a remarkable extent with Homo Deus, something which we may all have cause to thank him.

Science is steadily revealing the very sources intentional cognition evolved to neglect. Technology is exploiting these revelations, busily engineering emulators to pander to our desires, allowing us to shelter more and more skin from the risk and toil of natural and social reality. Designer experience is designer meaning. Thus the likely irony: the end of meaning will appear to be its greatest blooming, the consumer curled in the womb of institutional matrons, dreaming endless fantasies, living lives of spellbound delight, exploring worlds designed to indulge ancestral inclinations.

To make us weep and laugh for meaning, never knowing whether we are together or alone.

Autumnal Update

by rsbakker

I had some luck at the craps tables in Vegas, finishing $10 ahead, which is nothing short of a miracle. I made several others a small fortune shooting. Vegas, as far as I’m concerned, is the holiest city in the world, just edging out Jerusalem and Mecca, and leaving Rome in the dust. Why? Because of the living monumentality, all of it dedicated to the simulation of exceptionalism.

Just a few fiction related tidbits from the web (thanks to those of you who sent me links):

The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography has published an enthusiastic review of The Great Ordeal. My favourite blurb is,

“If you are waiting for George R.R. Martin’s next book to come out, make sure to read some R. Scott Bakker. It’s epic fantasy of an entirely different flavor, alien and grimdark, convoluted and terrifyingly beautiful.”

Dan Smyth over at Elitist Book Reviews has posted a decidedly less enthusiastic review (but still, a sight better than the personal offence he felt reading The White-Luck Warrior). When it comes to books, some people are prone to shout “poison!” when you serve them the wrong brand of tea.

Fantlab.ru, the biggest SF&F website in Russia, has posted a Russian translation of “The False Sun,” the preeminent Atrocity Tale, I think it’s safe to say.

Omni has listed Neuropath among the “Best Philosophically Driven Sci-Fi Books” in their Buyer’s Guide. My first experience with Omni came in grade seven, when Mr. Allen (who once gave me some Pascal to take home!) read “Sandkings” aloud to our class, convincing me there was something with staples cooler than comic books. So I guess you could say this closes an ancient circuit, wonder to wonder.

Look! Up in the sky!

by rsbakker

supertoke