A Virtual Black Box

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Middle-age is that peaceful epoch between having boners and committing them.

Having read what must be one of the worst reviews of Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One I’ve ever encountered, I just had to respond, particularly given the resonances it has with our awesome debate on Infinite Jest. Graham Harman thinks that Metzinger’s recent influence on Continental Philosophy, which I consider a tremendous breakthrough, is in fact a deplorable development. Why? Primarily because Metzinger thinks thinkers like Harman are simply wasting their time, when Harman thinks they are doing precisely what “any serious philosophy” should do. At stake, then, are two very different conceptions of philosophy: one that draws as much scientific water as possible (Type I), and one that draws its own, conceptually prior water (Type II).

Let me begin with some New Theory disclaimers: First, I admit that I was almost offended by Harman’s introduction, where he cherry picks various texts to paint Metzinger as something of a condescending, sneering prig. Having corresponded with the guy, I know for a fact that he does not confuse his speculation for gospel, that he’s quite willing to chuck any number of his commitments (his representationalism, for instance) for the sake of honestly considering alternatives. He knows how tentative his claims are. That said, he is a philosopher, and as such, prone to make sweeping judgements, and therefore easily accused of any number of character defects. There’s a reason our relatives roll their eyes when we ‘get worked up’ at Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing worse than a critic is a know-it-all, and philosophy requires that one be both. We’re all condescending, sneering prigs!

So be warned, my reading of Harman is probably as motivated as Harman’s reading of Metzinger.

Harman’s critique follows precisely the same pattern I once used in all my critiques back in my Continental Philosophy days: First, you attribute a series of Problematic Ontological Commitments to your victim, then you argue a number of Ontological Corrections. So with Heidegger, most famously, you argue that Philosopher X is trapped within the “Metaphysics of Presence,” an ancient, foundational conceptual mistake that became an implicit assumption in almost all subsequent philosophy – the inferential Wrong Turn that means all subsequent inferences will lead to Dead Ends.

The idea, you see, is that you need to get your assumptions right, if you’re going to have any hope of finding whatever it is you’re hoping to find – Being, in Heidegger’s case. This approach makes philosophy Very Important, because these foundational assumptions are inaccessible to empirical investigation.

The glaring problem, however, is that we have no way of arbitrating between differing sets of ontological assumptions, simply because they don’t admit empirical investigation. Even if you happened to win the “Magical Ontology Lottery,” you could only hope that you might have won, and otherwise assume that over time your ticket would be lost in the shuffle with all the others. 

If philosophers like Metzinger, scientific naturalists, express commitment to a realism they feel no need to defend (because they really don’t take philosophers like Harman all that seriously), they generally do so because they think science implies it. (I personally think it’s a historical artifact – most of the Anglo-American philosophical tradition finds its historical roots in a reaction against Hegelian Idealism – because I don’t see this particular scientific implication). Otherwise naturalists just don’t think human beings are qualified. This is almost certainly the case with Metzinger. And I think it illuminates what it is that Harman finds so objectionable (to the point of larding his paper with the loaded rhetoric noted above) about philosophers of his ilk: their dismissiveness of Type II philosophy.

So here’s the single, simple question I want to pose to Harman: given the abstract ambiguity of his subject matter, and given that he almost certainly suffers from (to crib the list I used for my Nietzsche paper): actor-observer bias (fundamental attribution error), ambiguity effect, anchoring effect, asymmetric insight illusion, attentional bias, availability heuristic, availability cascade, the bandwagon effect, Barnum effect, base-rate neglect, belief bias, black swan effect, clustering illusion, choice bias, confirmation bias, congruence bias, consensus fallacy, contrast effect, control bias, cryptonesia, deprivation bias, distinction bias, Dunnig-Kruger effect, egocentric bias, expectation bias, exception bias, exposure effect, false memory, focusing effect, framing effect, future discounting, gambler’s fallacy, hindsight bias, halo effect, impact bias, ingroup bias, just-world illusion, moral credential effect, moral luck bias, negativity bias, omission bias, outcome bias, outgroup homogeneity bias, planning fallacy, post-hoc rationalization, post-hoc ergo propter hoc, projection bias, observer-expectancy effect, optimism bias, ostrich effect, positive outcome bias, positivity effect, pareidolia, pessimism bias, primacy effect, recency effect, reaction bias, regression neglect, restraint bias, rosy retrospection effect, selective perception, self-serving bias, Semmelweis reflex, social comparison bias, stereotyping, suggestibility, sunk-cost bias, superiority illusion, status-quo bias, trait ascription bias, transparency illusion, unit bias, ultimate attribution error, wishful thinking, zero-risk bias, why should anyone think he’s doing anything other than waving yet another cognitive lottery ticket around?

This was the question that I couldn’t answer, my private road to Damascus.

The fact is, I’m every bit as dismissive as Metzinger is. And I’m dismissive of Metzinger for his occasional (apparent) Type II lapses – much as I’m dismissive of myself! (I think I lapse all the time).

Humans are theoretical incompetents, Dude. Otherwise, we only think you’re silly to the degree you take yourself seriously. I would argue that it has never been more obvious that no one knows what the fuck is going on, and that’s what makes this such an exciting time for speculation: Being No One is a profound, magisterial exploration of several new possibilities that cognitive neuroscience has opened up, an early salvo in what will quickly become a barrage as more and more thinkers try to figure out what all these crazy new facts mean.

The idea isn’t to give up on speculation, just to recognize how bad we are at it – which is just to say, to be self-critical. If you want to start with categorical assumptions, cook up some new Problematic Ontological Assumption to replace, say, ‘Correlation,’ knock yourself out, just please don’t commit to them, and for God’s sake, don’t proselytize. Show a little psychological and historical self-awareness. Is this Problematic Ontological Assumption the One? Pardon me if I say, Not bloody likely.

Those of us looking to the sciences to cook up our assumptions are doing so for good reason: Because we know we’re stupid! We know that, for better or worse, humans are incapable of rationally resolving theoretical debates outside of the institutional framework of the sciences. If we’re out on a limb, you guys are clinging to twigs. And now that science is making real inroads across the humanities, that annoying empirical breeze you feel is about to get a lot more gusty.

The fact remains, science has finally cracked open the Black Box of the soul. If the historical pattern holds true, this means all the old speculative discourses of the soul are are doomed to suffer the fate of other prescientific discourses. It may not seem like it now, but as the steady drip-drip-drip of empirical data points spawns new guesses, new theories (not to mention technologies that utterly reorganize the soul and not just the world), you will find yourself contributing to what is likely just another obscure historical curiosity.