Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Alienating Philosophies

by rsbakker

I still have no dates to report for The Unholy Consult, but I’m hoping that all the pieces will begin falling together this week. As soon as I know, I will post, I promise. In the meantime, for those interested, I do have some linkage to share.

Buzzfeed Books were kind enough to include The Prince of Nothing in their Top 51 Fantasy Series Ever Written a few days back, proving yet again why I need to get off my ass and get some real publicity shots.

As well, my “Alien Philosophy” piece from the previous two weeks has garnered some thoughtful responses both from Peter Hankins at Conscious Entities, and from Rick Searle at both Utopia or Dystopia and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. The discussion is just getting warmed up, so by all means, join in!

I didn’t want to say anything until the post had a chance to be judged on its own merits, but “Alien Philosophy” is actually an extract from my attempt to write a “reader friendly” introduction to Through the Brain Darkly. Though I think it works well enough as a stand alone article, I’ve all but given up on it as intro material, and quite frankly, feel like a fool for ever thinking it possibly could be. Soooooo it’s back to the drawing board for me…

Alien Philosophy (cont’d)

by rsbakker

B: Thespian Souls

Given a convergent environmental and biological predicament, we can suppose our Thespians would have at least flirted with something resembling Aristotle’s dualism of heaven and earth. But as I hope to show, the ecological approach pays even bigger theoretical dividends when one considers what has to be the primary domain of human philosophical speculation: ourselves.

With evolutionary convergence, we can presume our Thespians would be eusocial, [1] displaying the same degree of highly flexible interdependence as us. This observation, as we shall see, possesses some startling consequences. Cognitive science is awash in ‘big questions’ (philosophy), among them the problem of what is typically called ‘mindreading,’ our capacity to explain/predict/manipulate one another on the basis of behavioural data alone. How do humans regularly predict the output of something so preposterously complicated as human brains on the basis of so little information?

The question is equally applicable to our Thespians, who would, like humans, possess formidable socio-cognitive capacities. As potent as those capacities were, however, we can also suppose they would be bounded, and—here’s the thing—radically so. When one Thespian attempts to cognize another, they, like us, will possess no access whatsoever to the biological systems actually driving behaviour. This means that Thespians, like us, would need to rely on so-called ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ to solve each other. [2] That is to say they would possess systems geared to the detection of specific information structures, behavioural precursors that reliably correlate, as opposed to cause, various behavioural outcomes. In other words, we can assume that Thespians will possess a suite of powerful, special purpose tools adapted to solving systems in the absence of causal information.

Evolutionary convergence means Thespians would understand one another (as well as other complex life) in terms that systematically neglect their high-dimensional, biological nature. As suggestive as this is, things get really interesting when we consider the way Thespians pose the same basic problem of computational intractability (the so-called ‘curse of dimensionality’) to themselves as they do to their fellows. The constraints pertaining to Thespian social cognition, in other words, also apply to Thespian metacognition, particularly with respect to complexity. Each Thespian, after all, is just another Thespian, and so poses the same basic challenge to metacognition as they pose to social cognition. By sheer dint of complexity, we can expect the Thespian brain would remain opaque to itself as such. This means something that will turn out to be quite important: namely that Thespian self-understanding, much like ours, would systematically neglect their high-dimensional, biological nature. [3]

This suggests that life, and intelligent life in particular, would increasingly stand out as a remarkable exception as the Thespians cobbled together a mechanical understanding of nature. Why so? Because it seems a stretch to suppose they would possess a capacity so extravagant as accurate ‘meta-metacognition.’ Lacking such a capacity would strand them with disparate families of behaviours and entities, each correlated with different intuitions, which would have to be recognized as such before any taxonomy could be made. Some entities and behaviours could be understood in terms of mechanical conditions, while others could not. So as extraordinary as it sounds, it seems plausible to think that our Thespians, in the course of their intellectual development, would stumble across some version of their own ‘fact-value distinction.’ All we need do is posit a handful of ecological constraints.

But of course things aren’t nearly so simple. Metacognition may solve for Thespians the same ‘fast and frugal’ manner as social cognition, but it entertains a far different relationship to its putative target. Unlike social cognition, which tracks functionally distinct systems (others) via the senses, metacognition is literally hardwired to the systems it tracks. So even though metacognition faces the same computational challenge as social cognition—cognizing a Thespian—it requires a radically different set of tools to do so. [4]

It serves to recall that evolved intelligence is environmentally oriented intelligence. Designs thrive or vanish depending on their ability to secure the resources required to successfully reproduce. Because of this, we can expect that all intelligent aliens, not just Thespians, would possess highdimensional cognitive relations with their environments. Consider our own array of sensory modalities, how the environmental here and now ‘hogs bandwidth.’ The degree to which your environment dominates your experience is the degree to which you’re filtered to solve your environments. We live in the world simply because we’re distilled from it, the result of billions of years of environmental tuning. We can presume our aliens would be thoroughly ‘in the world’ as well, that the bulk of their cognitive capacities would be tasked with the behavioural management of their immediate environments for similar evolutionary reasons.

Since all cognitive capacities are environmentally selected, we can expect whatever basic metacognitive capacity the Thespians possess will also be geared to the solution of environmental problems. Thespian metacognition will be an evolutionary artifact of getting certain practical matters right in certain high-impact environments, plain and simple. Add to this the problem of computational intractability (which metacognition shares with social cognition) and it becomes almost certain that Thespian metacognition would consist of multiple fast and frugal heuristics (because solving on the basis of scarce data requires less, not more, parameters geared to particular information structures to be effective). [5] We have very good reason to suspect the Thespian brain would access and process its own structure and dynamics in ways that would cut far more corners than joints. As is the case with social cognition, it would belong to Thespian nature to neglect Thespian nature—to cognize the cognizer as something other, something geared to practical contexts.

Thespians would cognize themselves and their fellows via correlational, as opposed to causal, heuristic cognition. The curse of dimensionality necessitates it. It’s hard, I think, to overstate the impact this would have on an alien species attempting to cognize their nature. What it means is that the Thespians would possess a way to engineer systematically efficacious comportments to themselves, each other, even their environments, without being able to reverse engineer those relationships. What it means, in other words, is that a great deal of their knowledge would be impenetrable—tacit, implicit, automatic, or what have you. Thespians, like humans, would be able to solve a great many problems regarding their relations to themselves, their fellows, and their world without possessing the foggiest idea of how. The ignorance here is structural ignorance, as opposed to the ignorance, say, belonging to original naivete. One would expect the Thespians would be ignorant of their nature absent the cultural scaffolding required to unravel the mad complexity of their brains. But the problem isn’t simply that Thespians would be blind to their inner nature; they would also be blind to this blindness. Since their metacognitive capacities consistently yield the information required to solve in practical, ancestral contexts, the application of those capacities to the theoretical question of their nature would be doomed from the outset. Our Thespians would consistently get themselves wrong.

Is it fair to say they would be amazed by their incapacity, the way our ancestors were? [6] Maybe—who knows. But we could say, given the ecological considerations adduced here, that they would attempt to solve themselves assuming, at least initially, that they could be solved, despite the woefully inadequate resources at their disposal.

In other words, our Thespians would very likely suffer what might be called theoretical anosognosia. In clinical contexts, anosognosia applies to patients who, due to some kind of pathology, exhibit unawareness of sensory or cognitive deficits. Perhaps the most famous example is Anton-Babinski Syndrome, where physiologically blind patients persistently claim they can in fact see. This is precisely what we could expect from our Thespians vis a vis their ‘inner eye.’ The function of metacognitive systems is to engineer environmental solutions via the strategic uptake of limited amounts of information, not to reverse engineer the nature of the brain it belongs to. Repurposing these systems means repurposing systems that generally take the adequacy of their resources for granted. When we catch our tongue at Christmas dinner, we just do; we ‘implicitly assume’ the reliability our metacognitive capacity to filter our speech. It seems wildly implausible to suppose that theoretically repurposing these systems would magically engender a new biological capacity to automatically assess the theoretical viability of the resources available. It stands to reason, rather, that we would assume sufficiency the same as before, only to find ourselves confounded after the fact.

Of course, saying that our Thespians suffer theoretical anosognosia amounts to saying they would suffer chronic, theoretical hallucinations. And once again, ecological considerations provide a way to guess at the kinds of hallucinations they might suffer.

Dualism is perhaps the most obvious. Aristotle, recall, drew his conclusions assuming the sufficiency of the information available. Contrasting the circular, ageless, repeating motion of the stars and planets to the linear riot of his immediate surroundings, he concluded that the celestial and the terrestrial comprised two distinct ontological orders governed by different natural laws, a dichotomy that prevailed some 1800 years. The moral is quite clear: Where and how we find ourselves within a system determines what kind of information we can access regarding that system, including information pertaining to the sufficiency of that information. Lacking instrumentation, Aristotle simply found himself in a position where the ontological distinction between heaven and earth appeared obvious. Unable to cognize the limits imposed by his position within the observed systems, he had no idea that he was simply cognizing one unified system from two radically different perspectives, one too near, the other too far.

Trapped in a similar structural bind vis a vis themselves, our navel-gazing Thespians would almost certainly mistake properties pertaining to neglect with properties pertaining to what is, distortions in signal, for facts of being. Once again, since the posits possessing those properties belong to correlative cognitive systems, they would resist causal cognition. No matter how hard Thespian philosophers tried, they would find themselves unable to square their apparent functions with the machinations of nature more generally. Correlative functions would appear autonomous, as somehow operating outside the laws of nature. Embedded in their environment in a manner that structurally precludes accurately intuiting that embedment, our alien philosophers would conceive themselves as something apart, ontologically distinct. Thespian philosophy would have its own versions of ‘souls’ or ‘minds’ or ‘Dasein’ or ‘a priori’ or what have you—a disparate order somehow ‘accounting’ for various correlative cognitive modes, by anchoring the bare cognition of constraint in posits (inherited or not) rationalized on the back of Thespian fashion.

Dualisms, however, require that manifest continuities be explained, or explained away. Lacking any ability to intuit the actual machinations binding them to their environments, Thespians would be forced to rely on the correlative deliverances of metacognition to cognize their relation to their world—doing so, moreover, without the least inkling of as much. Given theoretical anosognosia (the inability to intuit metacognitive incapacity), it stands to reason that they would advance any number of acausal versions of this relationship, something similar to ‘aboutness,’ and so reap similar bewilderment. Like us, they would find themselves perpetually unable to decisively characterize ‘knowledge of the world.’ One could easily imagine the perpetually underdetermined nature of these accounts convincing some Thespian philosophers that the deliverances of metacognition comprised the whole of existence (engendering Thespian idealism), or were at least the most certain, most proximate thing, and therefore required the most thorough and painstaking examination (engendering a Thespian phenomenology)…

Could this be right?

This story is pretty complex, so it serves to review the modesty of our working assumptions. The presumption of interstellar evolutionary convergence warranted assuming that Thespian cognition, like human cognition, would be bounded, a complex bundle of ‘kluges,’ heuristic solutions to a wide variety of ecological problems. The fact that Thespians would have to navigate both brute and intricate causal environments, troubleshoot both inorganic and organic contexts, licenses the claim that Thespian cognition would be bifurcated between causal systems and a suite of correlational systems, largely consisting of ‘fast and frugal heuristics,’ given the complexity and/or the inaccessibility of the systems involved. This warranted claiming that both Thespian social cognition and metacognition would be correlational, heuristic systems adapted to solve very complicated ecologies on the basis of scarce data. This posed the inevitable problem of neglect, the fact that Thespians would have no intuitive way of assessing the adequacy of their metacognitive deliverances once they applied them to theoretical questions. This let us suppose theoretical anosognosia, the probability that Thespian philosophers would assume the sufficiency of radically inadequate resources—systematically confuse artifacts of heuristic neglect for natural properties belonging to extraordinary kinds. And this let us suggest they would have their own controversies regarding mind-body dualism, intentionality, even knowledge of the external world.

As with Thespian natural philosophy, any number of caveats can be raised at any number of junctures, I’m sure. What if, for instance, Thespians were simply more pragmatic, less inclined to suffer speculation in the absence of decisive application? Such a dispositional difference could easily tilt the balance in favour of skepticism, relegating the philosopher to the ghettos of Thespian intellectual life. Or what if Thespians were more impressed by authority, to the point where reflection could only be interrogated refracted through the lens of purported revelation? There can be no doubt that my account neglects countless relevant details. Questions like these chip away at the intuition that the Thespians, or something like them, might be real

Luckily, however, this doesn’t matter. The point of posing the problem of xenophilosophy wasn’t so much to argue that Thespians are out there, as it was, strangely enough, to recognize them in here

After all, this exercise in engineering alien philosophy is at once an exercise in reverse-engineering our own. Blind Brain Theory only needs Thespians to be plausible to demonstrate its abductive scope, the fact that it can potentially explain a great many perplexing things on nature’s dime alone.

So then what have we found? That traditional philosophy something best understood as… what?

A kind of cognitive pathology?

A disease?

 

IV: Conclusion

It’s worth, I think, spilling a few words on the subject of that damnable word, ‘experience.’ Dogmatic eliminativism is a religion without gods or ceremony, a relentlessly contrarian creed. And this has placed it in the untenable dialectical position of apparently denying what is most obvious. After all, what could be more obvious than experience?

What do I mean by ‘experience’? Well, the first thing I generally think of is Holocaust, and the palpable power of the Survivor.

Blind Brain Theory paints a theoretical portrait wherein experience remains the most obvious thing in practical, correlational ecologies, while becoming a deeply deceptive, largely chimerical artifact in high-dimensional, causal ones. We have no inkling of tripping across ecological boundaries when we propose to theoretically examine the character of experience. What was given to deliberative metacognition in some practical context (ruminating upon a social gaffe, say) is now simply given to deliberative metacognition in an artificial one—‘philosophical reflection.’ The difference between applications is nothing if not extreme, and yet conclusions are drawn assuming sufficiency, again and again and again—for millennia.

Think of the difference between your experience and your environment, say, in terms of the difference between concentrating on a mental image of your house and actually observing it. Think of how few questions the mental image can answer compared to the visual image. Where’s the grass the thickest? Is there birdshit on the lane? Which branch comes closest to the ground? These questions just don’t make sense in the context of mental imagery.

Experience, like mental imagery, is something that only answers certain questions. Of course, the great, even cosmic irony is that this is the answer that has been staring us in the fucking face all along. Why else would experience remain an enduring part of philosophy, the institution that asks how things in the most general sense hang together in the most general sense without any rational hope of answer?

Experience is obvious—it can be nothing but obvious. The palpable power of the Holocaust Survivor is, I think, as profound a testament to the humanity of experience as there is. Their experience is automatically our own. Even philosophers shut up! It correlates us in a manner as ancient as our species, allows us to engineer the new. At the same time, it cannot but dupe and radically underdetermine our ancient, Sisyphean ambition to peer into the soul through the glass of the soul. As soon as we turn our rational eye to experience in general, let alone the conditions of possibility of experience, we run afoul illusions, impossible images that, in our diseased state, we insist are real.

This is what our creaking bookshelves shout in sum. The narratives, they proclaim experience in all its obvious glory, while treatise after philosophical treatise mutters upon the boundary of where our competence quite clearly comes to an end. Where we bicker.

Christ.

At least we have reason to believe that philosophers are not alone in the universe.

 

Notes

[1] In the broad sense proposed by Wilson in The Social Conquest of the Earth.

[2] This amounts to taking a position in the mindreading debate that some theorists would find problematic, particularly those skeptical of modularity and/or with representationalist sympathies. Since the present account provides a parsimonious means of explaining away the intuitions informing both positions, it would be premature to engage the debate regarding either at this juncture. The point is to demonstrate what heuristic neglect, as a theoretical interpretative tool, allows us to do.

[3] The representationalist would cry foul at this point, claim the existence of some coherent ‘functional level’ accessible to deliberative metacognition (the mind) allows for accurate and exhaustive description. But once again, since heuristic neglect explains why we’re so prone to develop intuitions along these lines, we can sidestep this debate as well. Nobody knows what the mind is, or whatever it is they take themselves to be describing. The more interesting question is one of whether a heuristic neglect account can be squared with the research pertaining directly to this field. I suspect so, but for the interim I leave this to individuals more skilled and more serious than myself to investigate.

[4] In the literature, accounts that claim metacognitive functions for mindreading are typically called ‘symmetrical theories.’ Substantial research supports the claim that metacognitive reporting involves social cognition. See Carruthers, “How we know our own minds: the relationship between mindreading and metacognition,” for an outstanding review.

[5] Gerd Gigerenzer and the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group have demonstrated that simple heuristics are often far more effective than even optimization methods possessing far greater resources. “As the amount of data available to make predictions in an environment shrinks, the advantage of simple heuristics over complex algorithms grows” (Hertwig and Hoffrage, “The Research Agenda,” Simple Heuristics in a Social World, 23).

[6] “Quid est enim tempus? Quis hoc facile breuiterque explicauerit? Quis hoc ad uerbum de illo proferendum uel cogitatione comprehenderit? Quid autem familiarius et notius in loquendo commemoramus quam tempus? Et intellegimus utique cum id loquimur, intellegimus etiam cum alio loquente id audimus. Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quærat, scio; si quærenti explicare uelim, nescio.

Alien Philosophy

by rsbakker

The highest species concept may be that of a terrestrial rational being; however, we shall not be able to name its character because we have no knowledge of non-terrestrial rational beings that would enable us to indicate their characteristic property and so to characterize this terrestrial being among rational beings in general. It seems, therefore, that the problem of indicating the character of the human species is absolutely insoluble, because the solution would have to be made through experience by means of the comparison of two species of rational being, but experience does not offer us this. (Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 225)

 

Are there alien philosophers orbiting some faraway star, opining in bursts of symbolically articulated smells, or parsing distinctions-without-differences via the clasp of neural genitalia? What would an alien philosophy look like? Do we have any reason to think we might find some of them recognizable? Do the Greys have their own version of Plato? Is there a little green Nietzsche describing little green armies of little green metaphors?

 

I: The Story Thus Far

A couple years back, I published a piece in Scientia Salon, “Back to Square One: Toward a Post-intentional Future,” that challenged the intentional realist to warrant their theoretical interpretations of the human. What is the nature of the data that drives their intentional accounts? What kind of metacognitive capacity can they bring to bear?

I asked these questions precisely because they cannot be answered. The intentionalist has next to no clue as to the nature, let alone the provenance, of their data, and even less inkling as to the metacognitive resources at their disposal. They have theories, of course, but it is the proliferation of theories that is precisely the problem. Make no mistake: the failure of their project, their consistent inability to formulate their explananda, let alone provide any decisive explanations, is the primary reason why cognitive science devolves so quickly into philosophy.

But if chronic theoretical underdetermination is the embarrassment of intentionalism, then theoretical silence has to be the embarrassment of eliminativism. If meaning realism offers too much in the way of theory—endless, interminable speculation—then meaning skepticism offers too little. Absent plausible alternatives, intentionalists naturally assume intrinsic intentionality is the only game in town. As a result, eliminativists who use intentional idioms are regularly accused of incoherence, of relying upon the very intentionality they’re claiming to eliminate. Of course eliminativists will be quick to point out the question-begging nature of this criticism: They need not posit an alternate theory of their own to dispute intentional theories of the human. But they find themselves in a dialectical quandary, nonetheless. In the absence of any real theory of meaning, they have no substantive way of actually contributing to the domain of the meaningful. And this is the real charge against the eliminativist, the complaint that any account of the human that cannot explain the experience of being human is barely worth the name. [1] Something has to explain intentional idioms and phenomena, their apparent power and peculiarity; If not intrinsic or original intentionality, then what?

My own project, however, pursues a very different brand of eliminativism. I started my philosophical career as an avowed intentionalist, a one-time Heideggerean and Wittgensteinian. For decades I genuinely thought philosophy had somehow stumbled into ‘Square Two.’ No matter what doubts I entertained regarding this or that intentional account, I was nevertheless certain that some intentional account had to be right. I was invested, and even though the ruthless elegance of eliminativism made me anxious, I took comfort in the standard shibboleths and rationalizations. Scientism! Positivism! All theoretical cognition presupposes lived life! Quality before quantity! Intentional domains require intentional yardsticks!

Then, in the course of writing a dissertation on fundamental ontology, I stumbled across a new, privative way of understanding the purported plenum of the first-person, a way of interpreting intentional idioms and phenomena that required no original meaning, no spooky functions or enigmatic emergences—nor any intentional stances for that matter. Blind Brain Theory begins with the assumption that theoretically motivated reflection upon experience co-opts neurobiological resources adapted to far different kinds of problems. As a co-option, we have no reason to assume that ‘experience’ (whatever it amounts to) yields what philosophical reflection requires to determine the nature of experience. Since the systems are adapted to discharge far different tasks, reflection has no means of determining scarcity and so generally presumes sufficiency. It cannot source the efficacy of rules so rules become the source. It cannot source temporal awareness so the now becomes the standing now. It cannot source decisions so decisions (the result of astronomically complicated winner-take-all processes) become ‘choices.’ The list goes on. From a small set of empirically modest claims, Blind Brain Theory provides what I think is the first comprehensive, systematic way to both eliminate and explain intentionality.

In other words, my reasons for becoming an eliminativist were abductive to begin with. I abandoned intentionalism, not because of its perpetual theoretical disarray (though this had always concerned me), but because I became convinced that eliminativism could actually do a better job explaining the domain of meaning. Where old school, ‘dogmatic eliminativists’ argue that meaning must be natural somehow, my own ‘critical eliminativism’ shows how. I remain horrified by this how, but then I also feel like a fool for ever thinking the issue would end any other way. If one takes mediocrity seriously, then we should expect that science will explode, rather than canonize our prescientific conceits, no matter how near or dear.

But how to show others? What could be more familiar, more entrenched than the intentional philosophical tradition? And what could be more disparate than eliminativism? To quote Dewey from Experience and Nature, “The greater the gap, the disparity, between what has become a familiar possession and the traits presented in new subject-matter, the greater is the burden imposed upon reflection” (Experience and Nature, ix). Since the use of exotic subject matters to shed light on familiar problems is as powerful a tool for philosophy as for my chosen profession, speculative fiction, I propose to consider the question of alien philosophy, or ‘xenophilosophy,’ as a way to ease the burden. What I want to show is how, reasoning from robust biological assumptions, one can plausibly claim that aliens—call them ‘Thespians’—would also suffer their own versions of our own (hitherto intractable) ‘problem of meaning.’ The degree to which this story is plausible, I will contend, is the degree to which critical eliminativism deserves serious consideration. It’s the parsimony of eliminativism that makes it so attractive. If one could combine this parsimony with a comprehensive explanation of intentionality, then eliminativism would very quickly cease to be a fringe opinion.

 

II: Aliens and Philosophy

Of course, the plausibility of humanoid aliens possessing any kind of philosophy requires the plausibility of humanoid aliens. In popular media, aliens are almost always exotic versions of ourselves, possessing their own exotic versions of the capacities and institutions we happen to have. This is no accident. Science fiction is always about the here and now—about recontextualizations of what we know. As a result, the aliens you tend to meet tend to seem suspiciously humanoid, psychologically if not physically. Spock always has some ‘mind’ with which to ‘meld’. To ask the question of alien philosophy, one might complain, is to buy into this conceit, which although flattering, is almost certainly not true.

And yet the environmental filtration of mutations on earth has produced innumerable examples of convergent evolution, different species evolving similar morphologies and functions, the same solutions to the same problems, using entirely different DNA. As you might imagine, however, the notion of interstellar convergence is a controversial one. [2] Supposing the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is one thing—cognition is almost certainly integral to complex life elsewhere in the universe—but we know nothing about the kinds of possible biological intelligences nature permits. Short of actual contact with intelligent aliens, we have no way of gauging how far we can extrapolate from our case. [3] All too often, ignorance of alternatives dupes us into making ‘only game in town assumptions,’ so confusing mere possibility with necessity. But this debate need not worry us here. Perhaps the cluster of characteristics we identify with ‘humanoid’ expresses a high-probability recipe for evolving intelligence—perhaps not. Either way, our existence proves that our particular recipe is on file, that aliens we might describe as ‘humanoid’ are entirely possible.

So we have our humanoid aliens, at least as far as we need them here. But the question of what alien philosophy looks like also presupposes we know what human philosophy looks like. In “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Wilfred Sellars defines the aim of philosophy as comprehending “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (1). Philosophy famously attempts to comprehend the ‘big picture.’ The problem with this definition is that it overlooks the relationship between philosophy and ignorance, and so fails to distinguish philosophical inquiry from scientific or religious inquiry. Philosophy is invested in a specific kind of ‘big picture,’ one that acknowledges the theoretical/speculative nature of its claims, while remaining beyond the pale of scientific arbitration. Philosophy is better defined, then, as the attempt to comprehend how things in general hang together in general absent conclusive information.

All too often philosophy is understood in positive terms, either as an archive of theoretical claims, or as a capacity to ‘see beyond’ or ‘peer into.’ On this definition, however, philosophy characterizes a certain relationship to the unknown, one where inquiry eschews supernatural authority, and yet lacks the methodological, technical, and institutional resources of science. Philosophy is the attempt to theoretically explain in the absence of decisive warrant, to argue general claims that cannot, for whatever reason, be presently arbitrated. This is why questions serve as the basic organizing principles of the institution, the shared boughs from which various approaches branch and twig in endless disputation. Philosophy is where we ponder the general questions we cannot decisively answer, grapple with ignorances we cannot readily overcome.

 

III: Evolution and Ecology

A: Thespian Nature

It might seem innocuous enough defining philosophy in privative terms as the attempt to cognize in conditions of information scarcity, but it turns out to be crucial to our ability to make guesses regarding potential alien analogues. This is because it transforms the question of alien philosophy into a question of alien ignorance. If we can guess at the kinds of ignorance a biological intelligence would suffer, then we can guess at the kinds of questions they would ask, as well as the kinds of answers that might occur to them. And this, as it turns out, is perhaps not so difficult as one might suppose.

The reason is evolution. Thanks to evolution, we know that alien cognition would be bounded cognition, that it would consist of ‘good enough’ capacities adapted to multifarious environmental, reproductive impediments. Taking this ecological view of cognition, it turns out, allows us to make a good number of educated guesses. (And recall, plausibility is all that we’re aiming for here).

So for instance, we can assume tight symmetries between the sensory information accessed, the behavioural resources developed, and the impediments overcome. If gamma rays made no difference to their survival, they would not perceive them. Gamma rays, for Thespians, would be unknown unknowns, at least pending the development of alien science. The same can be said for evolution, planetary physics—pretty much any instance of theoretical cognition you can adduce. Evolution assures that cognitive expenditures, the ability to intuit this or that, will always be bound in some manner to some set of ancestral environments. Evolution means that information that makes no reproductive difference makes no biological difference.

An ecological view, in other words, allows us to naturalistically motivate something we might have been tempted to assume outright: original naivete. The possession of sensory and cognitive apparatuses comparable to our own means Thespians will possess a humanoid neglect structure, a pattern of ignorances they cannot even begin to question, that is, pending the development of philosophy. The Thespians would not simply be ignorant of the microscopic and macroscopic constituents and machinations explaining their environments, they would be oblivious to them. Like our own ancestors, they wouldn’t even know they didn’t know.

Theoretical knowledge is a cultural achievement. Our Thespians would have to learn the big picture details underwriting their immediate environments, undergo their own revolutions and paradigm shifts as they accumulate data and refine interpretations. We can expect them to possess an implicit grasp of local physics, for instance, but no explicit, theoretical understanding of physics in general. So Thespians, it seems safe to say, would have their own version of natural philosophy, a history of attempts to answer big picture questions about the nature of Nature in the absence of decisive data.

Not only can we say their nascent, natural theories will be underdetermined, we can also say something about the kinds of problems Thespians will face, and so something of the shape of their natural philosophy. For instance, needing only the capacity to cognize movement within inertial frames, we can suppose that planetary physics would escape them. Quite simply, without direct information regarding the movement of the ground, the Thespians would have no sense of the ground changing position. They would assume that their sky was moving, not their world. Their cosmological musings, in other words, would begin supposing ‘default geocentrism,’ an assumption that would only require rationalization once others, pondering the movement of the skies, began posing alternatives.

One need only read On the Heavens to appreciate how the availability of information can constrain a theoretical debate. Given the imprecision of the observational information at his disposal, for instance, Aristotle’s stellar parallax argument becomes well-nigh devastating. If the earth revolves around the sun, then surely such a drastic change in position would impact our observations of the stars, the same way driving into a city via two different routes changes our view of downtown. But Aristotle, of course, had no decisive way of fathoming the preposterous distances involved—nor did anyone, until Galileo turned his Dutch Spyglass to the sky. [4]

Aristotle, in other words, was victimized not so much by poor reasoning as by various perspectival illusions following from a neglect structure we can presume our Thespians share. And this warrants further guesses. Consider Aristotle’s claim that the heavens and the earth comprise two distinct ontological orders. Of course purity and circles rule the celestial, and of course grit and lines rule the terrestrial—that is, given the evidence of the naked eye from the surface of the earth. The farther away something is, the less information observation yields, the fewer distinctions we’re capable of making, the more uniform and unitary it is bound to seem—which is to say, the less earthly. An inability to map intuitive physical assumptions onto the movements of the firmament, meanwhile, simply makes those movements appear all the more exceptional. In terms of the information available, it seems safe to suppose our Thespians would at least face the temptation of Aristotle’s long-lived ontological distinction.

I say ‘temptation,’ because certainly any number of caveats can be raised here. Heliocentrism, for instance, is far more obvious in our polar latitudes (where the earth’s rotation is as plain as the summer sun in the sky), so there are observational variables that could have drastically impacted the debate even in our own case. Who knows? If it weren’t for the consistent failure of ancient heliocentric models to make correct predictions (the models assumed circular orbits), things could have gone differently in our own history. The problem of where the earth resides in the whole might have been short-lived.

But it would have been a problem all the same, simply because the motionlessness of the earth and the relative proximity of the heavens would have been our (erroneous) default assumptions. Bound cognition suggests our Thespians would find themselves in much the same situation. Their world would feel motionless. Their heavens would seem to consist of simpler stuff following different laws. Any Thespian arguing heliocentrism would have to explain these observations away, argue how they could be moving while standing still, how the physics of the ground belongs to the physics of the sky.

We can say this because, thanks to an ecological view, we can make plausible empirical guesses as to the kinds of information and capacities Thespians would have available. Not only can we predict what would have remained unknown unknowns for them, we can also predict what might be called ‘unknown half-knowns.’ Where unknown unknowns refer to things we can’t even question, unknown half-knowns refer to theoretical errors we cannot perceive simply because the information required to do so remains—you guessed it—unknown unknown.

Think of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The chained prisoners confuse the shadows for everything because, unable to move their heads from side to side, they just don’t ‘know any different.’ This is something we understand so intuitively we scarce ever pause to ponder it: the absence of information or cognitive capacity has positive cognitive consequences. Absent certain difference making differences, the ground will be cognized as motionless rather than moving, and celestial objects will be cognized as simples rather than complex entities in their own right. The ground might as well be motionless and the sky might as well be simple as far as evolution is concerned. Once again, distinctions that make no reproductive difference make no biological difference. Our lack of radio telescope eyes is no genetic or environmental fluke: such information simply wasn’t relevant to our survival.

This means that a propensity to theorize ‘ground/sky dualism’ is built into our biology. This is quite an incredible claim, if you think about it, but each step in our path has been fairly conservative, given that mere plausibility is our aim. We should expect Thespian cognition to be bounded cognition. We should expect them to assume the ground motionless, and the constituents of the sky simple. We can suppose this because we can suppose them to be ignorant of their ignorances, just as we were (and remain). Cognizing the ontological continuity of heaven and earth requires the proper data for the proper interpretation. Given a roughly convergent sensory predicament, it seems safe to say that aliens would be prone as we were to mistake differences in signal with differences in being and so have to discover the universality of nature the same as we did.

But if we can assume our Thespians—or at least some of them—would be prone to misinterpret their environments the way we did, what about themselves? For centuries now humanity has been revising and sharpening its understanding of the cosmos, to the point of drafting plausible theories regarding the first second of creation, and yet we remain every bit as stumped regarding ourselves as Aristotle. Is it fair to say that our Thespians would suffer the same millennial myopia?

Would they have their own version of our interminable philosophy of the soul?

 

Notes

[1] The eliminativism at issue here is meaning eliminativism, and not, as Stich, Churchland, and many others have advocated, psychological eliminativism. But where meaning eliminativism clearly entails psychological eliminativism, it is not at all obvious the psychological eliminativism entails meaning eliminativism. This was why Stich, found himself so perplexed by the implications of reference (see his, Deconstructing the Mind, especially Chapter 1). To assume that folk psychology is a mistaken theory is to assume that folk psychology is representational, something that is true or false of the world. The critical eliminativism espoused here suffers no such difficulty, but at the added cost of needing to explain meaning in general, and not simply commonsense human psychology.

[2] See Kathryn Denning’s excellent, “Social Evolution in Cosmic Context,” http://www.nss.org/resources/library/spacepolicy/Cosmos_and_Culture_NASA_SP4802.pdf

[3] Nicolas Rescher, for instance, makes hash of the time-honoured assumption that aliens would possess a science comparable to our own by cataloguing the myriad contingencies of the human institution. See Finitude, 28, or Unknowability, “Problems of Alien Cognition,” 21-39.

[4] Stellar parallax, on this planet at least, was not measured until 1838.

Stuff to Blow your… Brains.

by rsbakker

Helen de Cruz, a philosopher of religion and cognitive science at VU Amsterdam, has posted her interview of me in Philosophical Percolations. I’d like to thank Helen for both her interest and her questions, which are designed to air different philosopher’s views of the importance of fiction to philosophy.

Also, the Consult Skin Spies were recently featured as the ‘Monster of the Week’ over at Stuff to Blow your Mind. Many thanks to bakkerfans for spying that one!

The way cool StarShipSofa has published an audio version of Reinstalling Eden, the short story that Eric Schwitzgebel and I published in Nature. My thanks to Jeremy Szal for that one (and also my apologies for posting this link so late).

And lastly, I spoke to Erik Hane, my US editor, last week, and he asked me to assure everyone that Overlook is very committed to the series, so there’s no reason to plague them with calls (apparently someone tweeted their phone number!). Publication dates, as well as some big announcements regarding the future of the series, will be made soon. I have to tell you, I feel like Achamian most of the time: it’s hard to express just how gratifying it is to be believed now and again. Seriously, thanks to you all.

The Kosmos Biblioth

by reichorn

Hey all!  Roger here.  I wanted to let you guys know that I now have an author blog of my own, called the Kosmos Biblioth.  I hope you’ll drop by and say hello, tell me what you think.

Posthuman Life Goes Live

by rsbakker

I just returned from the deep north… with any luck I’ll have my old routines up and running within a week or two.

Figure/Ground has published my interview of David Roden on his seminal Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. It’s pretty wank at turns, but I wanted to see just how far out on the edge David was willing to go! For those interested, Craig Hickman has an excellent series of posts reviewing the book chapter by chapter over at Dark Ecologies, but I urge fellow wankers to read the book itself. David has provided what is the most concise picture of the academic posthumanities we’re likely to see for some time, and I think the adoption of his terminology, if not his views, will allow the debate to rise above the confusion. The fine folks at Philosophical Percolations have been quick to recognize the book’s importance, and have already begun what promises to be a fascinating summer reading group.

If you have any questions, hash them out there, or here, or on David’s own blog, the always excellent Enemy Industry, where many of the articles developing his argument can also be found.

The Lesser Sound and Fury

by rsbakker

So a storm blew through last Tuesday night, a real storm, the kind we haven’t seen in a couple of years at least. I was just finishing up a disastrous night of NHL 13 (because NHL 14 is a rip off) on PS3 (because my PS4 is a paperweight) with my buds out back in the garage. Frank fled. Ken strolled. ‘Good night, Motherfucker.’ ‘Goodnight.’ The sky was alive, strobes glimpsed through the Dark Lord’s laundry, thunder rattling the teeth of the world, booming across houses lined up like molars. I sat on the front porch to watch, squinting more for the booze than for the wind. There had been talk of tornados, but I wasn’t buying it, having lived in Tennessee. No, just a storm. We just don’t get the parking lot heat they need to germinate, let alone to feed. The air lacked the required energy.

The rain fell like gravel. Straight down. Euclidean rain, I thought.

But there was nothing linear about the lightning. The first strike ripped fabric too fundamental to be seen. The second had me out of my stupor as much as out of my seat, blinking for the instantaneous execution of night and shadow. Everything revealed God’s way: too quick to be grasped by eyes so small as these.

I stood, another animal floating in solution. I laughed the laugh of monkeys too stupid to cower. I thought of ancient fools.

The rain fell like gravel, massing across all the terrestrial surfaces, hard enough to shatter into sand, hanging like dust across ankles in summer fields. Then it faded, trailed into silence with analogue perfection, and I found myself standing in a glazed nocturnal world, everything turgid… shivering for the high-altitude chill.

I locked up the house, crawled into bed. I lay in bed listening to the passage of thunder… the far side of some cataclysmic charge. I watched white splash across the skylights.

And then came the blitz.

BOOM!

Something—an artillery shell pilfered from some World War I magazine from the sounds of it—exploded just a few blocks over. The house shook everyone awake.

BOOM!

Closer than the last—even nature believes in the strategic value of carpet bombing.

We huddled together, our small family of three, grinning for terror and wonder. I spoke brave words I can no longer remember.

BOOM!

Loud enough to crack wood, to swear in front of little children.

The next morning I awoke to the smell of a five year old farting. It seemed a miracle that everything was intact and sodden—no hoary old trees torn from their sockets, no branches hanging necks broken from powerlines. It seemed miraculous that a beast so vast could stomp through our neighbourhood with nary a casualty. Not a shrub. Not one drowned squirrel.

Only my fucking modem, and a week to remember what it was like, back before all this lesser sound and fury.

In the Shadow of Summer…

by rsbakker

Just an update, given that the inevitable summer disruption of my habitual routines seems to have already commenced.

First, SFF World aficionados were kind enough to include The Prince of Nothing in their top twenty all time best fantasy series.

Second, I gave a version of a science fiction novella I wrote entitled White Rain Country to my agent, who loves it. Hopefully, I should have some publication news soon.

I also submitted the short story solicited by the esteemed Midwest Studies in Philosophy for their special issue on philosophy and science fiction. Apparently there’s some worries about the ‘uncooked’ nature of the content, so some kind revisions might be necessary.

And lastly, things keep dragging on with my publishers regarding The Unholy Consult. My delay turning the manuscript in and the quick turnover of editorial staff in the industry means that no one was up to speed on the series–but six months on from submission, and still we have no word. My fear (not my agent’s) is that they might be re-evaluating their commitment to the series–the way all publishers are reviewing their commitments to their midlist authors. I know for a fact that other publishers are interested in snapping the series up, so there’s no need to organize a wake, but who knows what kind of delay would result. Perhaps shooting them emails explaining why they should believe this series will continue growing might help? I dunno.

The market only grows more and more crowded, and still there’s nothing quite like The Second Apocalypse. Distinction is key in this day and age…

I hope!

A Bestiary of Future Literatures (Reprise)

by rsbakker

[Apropos my presentation in Denmark, I thought it worthwhile reposting this little gem from the TPB vault…]

With the collapse of mainstream literary fiction as a commercially viable genre in 2036 and its subsequent replacement with Algorithmic Sentimentalism, so-called ‘human literature’ became an entirely state and corporate funded activity. Freed from market considerations, writers could concentrate on accumulating the ingroup prestige required to secure so-called ‘non-reciprocal’ sponsors. In the wake of the new sciences, this precipitated an explosion of ‘genres,’ some self-consciously consolatory, others bent on exploring life in the wake of the so-called ‘Semantic Apocalypse,’ the scientific discrediting of meaning and morality that remains the most troubling consequence of the ongoing (and potentially never-ending) Information Enlightenment.

Amar Stevens, in his seminal Muse: The Exorcism of the Human, famously declared this the age of ‘Post-semanticism,’ where, as he puts it, “writers write with the knowledge that they write nothing” (7). He maps post-semantic literature according to its ‘meaning stance,’ the attitude it takes to the experience of meaning both in the text and the greater world, dividing it into four rough categories: 1) Nostalgic Prosemanticism, which he describes as “a paean to a world that never was” (38); 2) Revisionary Prosemanticism, which attempts “to forge new meaning, via forms of quasi-Nietzschean affirmation, out of the sciences of the soul” (122); 3) Melancholy Antisemanticism, which “embraces the death of meaning as an irredeemable loss” (243); and 4) Neonihilism, which he sees as “the gleeful production of novel semantic illusions via the findings of cognitive neuroscience” (381).

Stevens ends Muse with his famous declaration of the ‘death of literature’:

“For the sum of human history, storytelling, or ‘literature,’ has framed our identity, ordered our lives, and graced our pursuits with the veneer of transcendence. It seemed to be the baseline, the very ‘sea-level’ of what it meant to be human. But now that science has drained the black waters, we can see we have been stranded on lonely peaks all along, and that the wholesome family of meaning was little more than an assemblage of unrelated strangers. We were as ignorant of literature as you are ignorant of the monstrous complexities concealed by these words. Until now, all literature was confabulation, lies that we believed. Until now, we could enthral one another in good conscience. At last we can see there was never any such thing as ‘literature,’ realize that it was of a piece with the trick of perspective we once called the soul” (498)

Algorithmic Sentimentalism: Freely disseminated computer-generated fiction based on the neuronarrative feedback work of Dr. Hilary Kohl, designed to maximize the possibilities of product placement while engendering the ‘mean peak narrative response,’ or story-telling pleasure. Following the work of neurolinguist Pavol Berman, whose ‘Whole Syntax Theory’ is credited with transforming linguistics into a properly natural science, Kohl developed the imaging techniques that allowed her to isolate what she called Subexperiential Narrative Grammar (SNG), and so, like Berman before her, provided narratology with its scientific basis. “Once we were able to isolate the relevant activation architecture, the grammar and its permutations became clear as a road map,” she explained in a 2035 OWN interview. “Then it was simply a matter of imaging people while they read the story-telling greats, and deriving the algorithms needed to generate new heart-touching and gut-wrenching novels.

In 2033, she founded the publishing startup, Muse, releasing algorithmically produced novels for free and generating revenue through the sale of corporate product placements. Initial skepticism was swept away in 2034, when Imp, the story of a small boy surviving the tribulations of ‘social sanctioning’ in a Haitian public school, won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and was short-listed for the Man Booker. In 2040, Muse purchased Bertelsmann to become the largest publisher in the world.

In a recent Salon interview, Kohl claimed to have developed what she called Submorphic Adaptation Algorithms that could “eventually replace all literature, even the so-called avante garde fringe.” In a rebuttal piece that appeared in the New York Times, she outraged academics by claiming “Shakespeare only seems deep because we can’t see past the skin of what is really going on, and what has been all along.”

Mundane Fantasy (aka, the ‘mundane fantastic’ or ‘nostalgic realism’ in academic circles): According to Stevens, the primary nostalgic prosemantic genre, the “vestigial remnant of what was once the monumental edifice of mainstream literary fiction” (39).

Technorealism: According to Stevens, the primary revisionary pro-semantic genre, where the traditional narrative form remains as “something to be gamed and/or problematized” (Muse, 45) in the context of “imploding social realities” (46).

Neuroexperimentalism: Movement founded by Gregor Shin, which uses data-mining to isolate so-called ‘orthogonalities,’ a form of lexical and sentential ‘combinetrics’ that generate utterly novel semantic effects.

Impersonalism: A major literary school (commonly referred to as ‘It Lit’) centred around the work of Michel Grant (who famously claims to be the illegitimate son of the late Michel Houellebecq, even though DNA evidence has proved otherwise), which has divided into a least two distinct movements, Hard Impersonalism, where no intentional concepts are used whatsoever, and Soft Impersonalism, where only the so-called ‘Intentionalities of the Self’ are eschewed.

New Absurdism: A growing, melancholy anti-semantic movement inspired by the writing of Tuck Gingrich, noted for what Stevens calls, “its hysterical anti-realism.” Mira Gladwell calls it the ‘meta-meta’ – or ‘meta-squared’ – for the way it continually takes itself as its object of reference. In “One for One for One,” a small position piece published in The New Yorker, the famously reclusive Gingrich seems to argue (the text is notoriously opaque) that “meta-inclusionary satire” constitutes a form of communication that algorithmic generation can never properly duplicate. To date, neither Muse nor Penguin-Narratel have managed to disprove his claim. A related genre called Anthroplasticism has recently found an enthusiastic audience in literary science departments across eastern China and, ironically enough, the southern USA.

Extinctionism: The so-called ‘cryptic school’ thought by many to be algorithmic artifacts, both because of the volume and anonymity of texts available. However, Sheila Siddique, the acclaimed author of Without, has recently claimed connection to the school, stating that the anonymity of authorship is crucial to the authenticity of the genre, which eschews all notions of agency.

Writing After the Death of Meaning

by rsbakker

[Presented June 2nd, 2015, for the Posthuman Aesthetics Research Group at Aarhus University]

Abstract: For centuries now, science has been making the invisible visible, thus revolutionizing our understanding of and power over different traditional domains of knowledge. Fairly all the speculative phantoms have been exorcised from the world, ‘disenchanted,’ and now, at long last, the insatiable institution has begun making the human visible for what it is. Are we the last ancient delusion? Is the great, wheezing heap of humanism more an artifact of ignorance than insight? We have ample reason to think so, and as the cognitive sciences creep ever deeper into our biological convolutions, the ‘worst case scenario’ only looms darker on the horizon. To be a writer in this age is stand astride this paradox, to trade in communicative modes at once anchored to our deepest notions of authenticity and in the process of being dismantled or worse, simulated. If writing is a process of making visible, communicating some recognizable humanity, how does it proceed in an age where everything is illuminated and inhuman? All revolutions require experimentation, but all too often experimentation devolves into closed circuits of socially inert production and consumption. The present revolution, I will argue, requires cultural tools we do not yet possess (or know how to use), and a sensibility that existing cultural elites can only regard as anathema. Writing in the 21st century requires abandoning our speculative past, and seeing ‘literature’ as praxis in a time of unprecedented crisis, as ‘cultural triage.’ Most importantly, writing after the death of meaning means communicating to what we in fact are, and not to the innumerable conceits of obsolescent tradition.

So, we all recognize the revolutionary potential of technology and the science that makes it possible. This is just to say that we all expect science will radically remake those traditional domains that fall within its bailiwick. Likewise, we all appreciate that the human is just such a domain. We all realize that some kind of revolution is brewing…

The only real question is one of how radically the human will be remade. Here, everyone differs, and in quite predictable ways. No matter what position people take, however, they are saying something about the cognitive status of traditional humanistic thought. Science makes myth of traditional ontological claims, relegates them to the history of ideas. So all things being equal we should suppose that science will make myth of traditional ontological claims regarding the human as well. Declaring that traditional ontological claims regarding the human will not suffer the fate of other traditional ontological claims more generally, amounts to declaring that all things are not equal when it comes to the human, that in this one domain at least, traditional modes of cognition actually tell us what is the case.

Let’s call this pole of argumentation humanistic exceptionalism. Any position that contends or assumes that science will not fundamentally revolutionize our understanding of the human supposes that something sets the human apart. Not surprisingly, given the underdetermined nature of the subject-matter, the institutionally entrenched nature of the humanities, and the human propensity to rationalize conceit and self-interests, the vast majority of theorists find themselves occupying this pole. There are, we now know, many, many ways to argue exceptionalism, and no way whatsoever to decisively arbitrate between any them.

What all of them have in common, I think it’s fair to say, is the signature theoretical function they accord to meaning. Another feature they share is a common reliance on pejoratives to police the boundaries of their discourse. Any time you encounter the terms ‘scientism’ or ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ deployed without any corresponding consideration of the case against traditional humanism, you are almost certainly reading an exceptionalist discourse. One of the great limitations of committing to status-quo underdetermined discourses, of course, is the infrequency with which adherents encounter the limits of their discourse, and thus run afoul the same fluency and only game in town effects that render all dogmatic pieties self-perpetuating.

My artistic and philosophical project can be fairly summarized, I think, as a sustained critique of humanistic exceptionalism, an attempt to reveal these positions as the latest (and therefore most difficult to recognize) attempts to intellectually rationalize what are ultimately run-of-the-mill conceits, specious ways to set humanity—or select portions of it at least—apart from nature.

I occupy the lonely pole of argumentation, the one that says humans are not ontologically special in any way, and that accordingly, we should expect the scientific revolution of the human to be as profound as the scientific revolution of any other domain. My whole career is premised on arguing the worst case scenario, the future where humanity finds itself every bit as disenchanted—every bit as debunked—as the cosmos.

I understand why my pole of the debate is so lonely. One of the virtues of my position, I think anyway, lies in its ability to explain its own counter-intuitiveness.

Think about it. What does it mean to say meaning is dead? Surely this is metaphorical hyperbole, or worse yet, irresponsible alarmism. What could my own claims mean otherwise?

‘Meaning,’ on my account, will die two deaths, one theoretical or philosophical, the other practical or functional. Where the first death amounts to a profound cultural upheaval on a par with, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the second death amounts to a profound biological upheaval, a transformation of cognitive habitat more profound than any humanity has ever experienced.

‘Theoretical meaning’ simply refers to the endless theories of intentionality humanity has heaped on the question of the human. Pretty much the sum of traditional philosophical thought on the nature of humanity. And this form of meaning I think is pretty clearly dead. People forget that every single cognitive scientific discovery amounts to a feature of human nature that human nature is prone to neglect. We are, as a matter of empirical fact, fundamentally blind to what we are and what we do. Like traditional theoretical claims belonging to other domains, all traditional theoretical claims regarding the human neglect the information driving scientific interpretations. The question is one of what this naturally neglected information—or ‘NNI’—means.

The issue NNI poses for the traditional humanities is existential. If one grants that the sum of cognitive scientific discovery is relevant to all senses of the human, you could safely say the traditional humanities are already dwelling in a twilight of denial. The traditionalist’s strategy, of course, is to subdivide the domain, to adduce arguments and examples that seem to circumscribe the relevance of NNI. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it completely misconstrues the challenge that NNI poses. The traditional humanities, as cognitive disciplines, fall under the purview of cognitive sciences. One can concede that various aspects of humanity need not account for NNI, yet still insist that all our theoretical cognition of those aspects does…

And quite obviously so.

The question, ‘To what degree should we trust ‘reflection upon experience’?’ is a scientific question. Just for example, what kind of metacognitive capacities would be required to abstract ‘conditions of possibility’ from experience? Likewise, what kind of metacognitive capacities would be required to generate veridical descriptions of phenomenal experience? Answers to these kinds of questions bear powerfully on the viability of traditional semantic modes of theorizing the human. On the worst case scenario, the answers to these and other related questions are going to systematically discredit all forms of ‘philosophical reflection’ that fail to take account of NNI.

NNI, in other words, means that philosophical meaning is dead.

‘Practical meaning’ refers to the everyday functionality of our intentional idioms, the ways we use terms like ‘means’ to solve a wide variety of practical, communicative problems. This form of meaning lives on, and will continue to do so, only with ever-diminishing degrees of efficacy. Our everyday intentional idioms function effortlessly and reliably in a wide variety of socio-communicative contexts despite systematically neglecting everything cognitive science has revealed. They provide solutions despite the scarcity of data.

They are heuristic, part of a cognitive system that relies on certain environmental invariants to solve what would otherwise be intractable problems. They possess adaptive ecologies. We quite simply could not cope if we were to rely on NNI, say, to navigate social environments. Luckily, we don’t have to, at least when it comes to a wide variety of social problems. So long as human brains possess the same structure and capacities, the brain can quite literally ignore the brain when solving problems involving other brains. It can leap to conclusions absent any natural information regarding what actually happens to be going on.

But, to riff on Uncle Ben, with great problem-solving economy comes great problem-making potential. Heuristics are ecological; they require that different environmental features remain invariant. Some insects, most famously moths, use ‘transverse orientation,’ flying at a fixed angle to the moon to navigate. Porch lights famously miscue this heuristic mechanism, causing the insect to chase the angle into the light. The transformation of environments, in other words, has cognitive consequences, depending on the kind of short cut at issue. Heuristic efficiency means dynamic vulnerability.

And this means not only that heuristics can be short-circuited, they can also be hacked. Think of the once omnipresent ‘bug zapper.’ Or consider reed warblers, which provide one of the most dramatic examples of heuristic vulnerability nature has to offer. The system they use to recognize eggs and offspring is so low resolution (and therefore economical) that cuckoos regularly parasitize their nests, leaving what are, to human eyes, obviously oversized eggs and (brood-killing) chicks that the warbler dutifully nurses to adulthood.

All cognitive systems, insofar as they are bounded, possess what might be called a Crash Space describing all the possible ways they are prone to break down (as in the case of porch lights and moths), as well as an overlapping Cheat Space describing all the possible ways they can be exploited by competitors (as in the case of reed warblers and cuckoos, or moths and bug-zappers).

The death of practical meaning simply refers to the growing incapacity of intentional idioms to reliably solve various social problems in radically transformed sociocognitive habitats. Even as we speak, our environments are becoming more ‘intelligent,’ more prone to cue intentional intuitions in circumstances that quite obviously do not warrant them. We will, very shortly, be surrounded by countless ‘pseudo-agents,’ systems devoted to hacking our behaviour—exploiting the Cheat Space corresponding to our heuristic limits—via NNI. Combined with intelligent technologies, NNI has transformed consumer hacking into a vast research programme. Our social environments are transforming, our native communicative habitat is being destroyed, stranding us with tools that will increasingly let us down.

Where NNI itself delegitimizes traditional theoretical accounts of meaning (by revealing the limits of reflection), it renders practical problem-solving via intentional idioms (practical meaning) progressively more ineffective by enabling the industrial exploitation of Cheat Space. Meaning is dead, both as a second-order research programme and, more alarmingly, as a first-order practical problem-solver. This—this is the world that the writer, the producer of meaning, now finds themselves writing in as well as writing to. What does it mean to produce ‘content’ in such a world? What does it mean to write after the death of meaning?

This is about as open as a question can be. It reveals just how radical this particular juncture in human thought is about to become. Everything is new, here folks. The slate is wiped clean.

[I used the following possibilities to organize the subsequent discussion]

Post-Posterity Writing

The Artist can no longer rely on posterity to redeem ingroup excesses. He or she must either reach out, or risk irrelevance and preposterous hypocrisy. Post-semantic writing is post-posterity writing, the production of narratives for the present rather than some indeterminate tomorrow.

High Dimensional Writing

The Artist can no longer pretend to be immaterial. Nor can they pretend to be something material magically interfacing with something immaterial. They need to see the apparent lack of dimensionality pertaining to all things ‘semantic’ as the product of cognitive incapacity, not ontological exceptionality. They need to understand that thoughts are made of meat. Cognition and communication are biological processes, open to empirical investigation and high dimensional explanations.

Cheat Space Writing

The Artist must exploit Cheat Spaces as much as reveal Cheat Spaces. NNI is not simply an industrial and commercial resource; it is also an aesthetic one.

Cultural Triage

The Artist must recognize that it is already too late, that the processes involved cannot be stopped, let alone reversed.  Extremism is the enemy here, the attempt to institute, either via coercive simplification (a la radical Islam, for instance) or via technical reduction (a la totalized surveillance, for instance), Orwellian forms of cognitive hygiene.

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