The Philosopher and the Cuckoo’s Nest

by rsbakker

Definition of Day – Introspection: A popular method of inserting mental heads up neural asses.


Question: How do you get a philosopher to shut up?

Answer: Pay for your pizza and tell him to get the hell off your porch.

I’ve told this joke at public speaking engagements more times than I can count, and it works: the audience cracks up every single time. It works because it turns on a near universal cultural presumption of  philosophical impracticality and cognitive incompetence. This presumption, no matter how much it rankles, is pretty clearly justified. Whitehead’s famous remark that all European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato” is accurate so far as we remain as stumped regarding ourselves as were the ancient Greeks. Twenty-four centuries! Keeping in mind that I happen to be one of those cognitive incompetents, I want to provide a sketch of how we theorists of the soul could have found ourselves in these straits, as well as why the entire philosophical tradition as we know it is almost certainly about to be swept away.

In a New York Times piece entitled “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence,” Daniel Kahneman writes of his time in the Psychology Branch of the Israeli Army, where he was tasked with evaluating candidates for officer training by observing them in a variety of tests designed to isolate soldiers’ leadership skills. His evaluations, as it turned out, were almost entirely useless. But what surprised him was the way knowing this seemed to have little or no impact on the confidence with which he and his fellows submitted their subsequent evaluations, time and again. He was so struck by the phenomenon that he would go on to study it as the ‘illusion of validity,’ a specific instance of the general role the availability of information seems to plays in human cognition–or as he would later term it, What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is, or WYSIATI.

The idea, quite simply, is that because you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend, in many contexts, to think you know all that you need to know. As he puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. [Our automatic cognitive system] excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have. (2011, 85)

As Kahneman shows, this leads to myriad errors in reasoning, including our peculiar tendency in certain contexts to be more certain about our interpretations the less information we have available. The idea is so simple as to be platitudinal: only the information available for cognition can be cognized. Other information, as Kahneman says, “might as well not exist” for the systems involved. Human cognition, it seems, abhors a vacuum.

The problem with platitudes, however, is that they are all too often overlooked, even when, as I shall argue in this case, their consequences are spectacularly profound. In the case of informatic availability, one need only look to clinical cases of anosognosia to see the impact of what might be called domain specific informatic neglect, the neuropathological loss of specific forms of information. Given a certain, complex pattern of neural damage, many patients suffering deficits as profound as lateralized paralysis, deafness, even complete blindness, appear to be entirely unaware of the deficit. Perhaps because of the informatic bandwidth of vision, visual anosognosia, or ‘Anton’s Syndrome,’ is generally regarded as the most dramatic instance of the malady. Prigatano (2010) enumerates the essential features of the syndrome as following:

First, the patient is completely blind secondary to cortical damage in the occipital regions of the brain. Second, these lesions are bilateral. Third, the patient is not only unaware of her blindness; she rejects any objective evidence of her blindness. Fourth, the patient offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away any possible evidence of her failure to see (e.g., “The room is dark,” or “I don’t have my glasses, therefore how can I see?”). Fifth, the patient has an apparent lack of concern (or anosodiaphoria) over her neurological condition. (456)

Obviously, the blindness stems from the occlusion of raw visual information. The second-order ‘blindness,’ the patient’s inability to ‘see’ that they cannot see, turns, one might suppose, on the unavailability of information regarding the unavailability of visual information. At some crucial juncture, the information required to process the lack of visual information has gone missing. As Kahneman might say, since our automatic cognitive system is dedicated to the construction of ‘the best possible story’ given only the information it has, the patient confabulates, utterly convinced they can see even though they are quite blind.

Anton’s Syndrome, in other words, can be seen as a neuropathological instance of WYSIATI. And WYSIATI, conversely, can be seen as a non-neuropathological version of anosognosia. What I want to suggest is that philosophers all the way back to the ancient Greeks have in fact suffered from their own version of Anton’s Syndrome–their own, non-neuropathological version of anosognosia. Specifically, I want to argue that philosophy has been systematically deluded into thinking their intuitions regarding the soul in any of its myriad incarnations–mind, consciousness, being-in-the-world, and so on–actually provides a reliable basis for second-order claim-making. The uncanny ease with which one can swap the cognitive situation of the Anton’s patient for that of the philosopher may be no coincidence:

First, the philosopher is introspectively blind secondary to various developmental and structural constraints. Second, the philosopher is not aware of his introspective blindness, and is prone to reject objective evidence of it. Third, the philosopher offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away evidence of his inability to introspect. And fourth, the philosopher often exhibits an apparent lack of concern for his less than ideal neurological constitution.

What philosophers call ‘introspection,’ I want to suggest, provides some combination of impoverished information, skewed information, or (what amounts to the same) information matched to cognitive systems other than those employed in deliberative cognition, without–and here’s the crucial twist–providing information to this effect. As a result, what we think we see becomes all there is to be seen, as per WYSIATI. If the informatic and cognitive limits of introspection are not available for introspection (and how could they be?), then introspection will seem, curiously, limitless, no matter how severe the actual limits may be.

Now the stakes of this claim are so far-reaching that I’m sure it will have to seem preposterous to anyone with the slightest sympathy for philosophers and their cognitive plight. Accusing philosophers of suffering introspective anosognosia is basically accusing them of suffering a cognitive disability (as opposed to mere incompetence). So, in the interests of making my claim somewhat more palatable, I will do what philosophers typically do when they get into trouble: offer an analogy.

The lowly cuckoo, I think, provides an effective, if peculiar, way to understand this claim. Cuckoos are ‘obligate brood parasites,’ which is to say, they exclusively lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, relying on them to raise their chick (who generally kills the host bird’s own offspring) to reproductive age. The entire species, in other words, relies on exploiting the cognitive limitations of birds like the reed warbler. They rely on the inability of the unwitting host to discriminate between the cuckoo’s offspring and their own offspring. From a reed warbler’s standpoint, the cuckoo chick just is its own chick. Lacking any ‘chick imposter detection device,’ it simply executes its chick rearing program utterly oblivious to the fact that it is perpetuating another species’ genes. The fact that it does lack such a device should come as no surprise: so long as the relative number of reed warblers thus duped remains small enough, there’s no evolutionary pressure to warrant the development of one.

What I’m basically saying here is that humans lack a corresponding ‘imposter detection device’ when it comes to introspection. There is no doubt that we developed the capacity to introspect to discharge any number of adaptive behaviours. But there is also no doubt that ‘philosophical reflection on the nature of the soul’ was not one of those adaptive behaviours. This means that it is entirely possible that our introspective capacity is capable of discharging its original adaptive function while duping ‘philosophical reflection’ through and through. And this possibility, I hope to show, puts more than a little heat on the traditional philosopher.

‘Metacognition’ refers to our ability to know our knowledge and our skills, or “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” as Flavell puts it. One can imagine that the ability of an organism to model certain details of its own neural functions and thus treat itself as another environmental problem requiring solution would provide any number of evolutionary benefits. It pays to assess and revise our approaches to problems, to ask what it is we’re doing wrong. It likewise pays to ‘watch what we say’ in any number of social contexts. (I’m sure everyone has that one friend or family member who seems to lack any kind of self-censor). It pays to be mindful of our moods. It pays to be mindful of our actions, particularly when trying to learn some new skill.

The issue here isn’t whether we possess the information access or the cognitive resources required to do these things: obviously we do. The question is whether the information and cognitive resources required to discharge these metacognitive functions comes remotely close to providing us with what we need to answer theoretical questions regarding mind, consciousness, or being-in-the-world.

This is where the shadow cast by the mere possibility of introspective anosognosia becomes long indeed. Why? Because it demonstrates the utter insufficiency of our intuition of introspective sufficiency. It demonstrates that what we conceptualize as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘being-in-the-world’ could very well be a ‘theoretical cuckoo,’ even if the information it accesses is ‘warbler enough’ for the type of metacognitive practices described above. Is a theoretically accurate conception of ‘consciousness’ required to assess and revise our approaches to problems, to self-censor, to track or communicate our moods, to learn some new skill?

Not at all. In fact, for all we know, the grossest of distortions will do.

So how might we be able to determine whether the consciousness we think we introspect is a theoretical cuckoo as opposed to a theoretical warbler? Since relying on introspection simply begs the question, we have to turn to indirect evidence. We might consider, for instance, the typical symptoms of insufficient information or cognitive misapplication. Certainly the perennial confusion, conundrum, and intractable debate that characterize traditional philosophical speculation on the soul suggest that something is missing. You have to admit the myriad explananda of philosophical reflection on the soul smack more than a little of Rorschach blots: everybody sees something different–astoundingly so, in some cases. And the few experiential staples that command any reasonable consensus, like intentionality or nowness, continue to resist analysis, let alone naturalization. One need only ask, What would the abject failure of transcendental philosophy look like? A different kind of perennial confusion, conundrum, and intractable debate? Sounds pretty fishy.

In other words, it’s painfully obvious that something has gone wrong. And yet, like the Anton’s patient, the philosopher insists they can still see! “What of the apriori?” they cry. “What of conditions of possibility?” Shrug. A kind of low-dimensional projection, neural interactions minus time and space? But then that’s the point: Who knows?

Meanwhile it seems very clear that something is rotten. The audience’s laughter is too canny to be merely ignorant. If you’re a philosopher, you feel it I suspect. Somehow, somewhere… something…

But the truly decisive fact is that the spectre of introspective anosognosia need only be plausible to relieve traditional philosophy of its transcendental ambitions. This particular skeptical ‘How do you know?’ unlike those found in the tradition, is not a product of the philosopher’s discursive domain. It’s an empirical question. Like it or not, we have been relegated to the epistemological lobby: Only cognitive neuroscience can tell us whether the soul we think we see is a cuckoo or not.

For better or worse, this happens to be the time we live in. Post-transcendental. The empirical quiet before the posthuman storm.

In retrospect, it will seem obvious. It was only a matter of time before they hung us from hooks with everything else in the packing plant.

Fuck it. The pizza tastes just as good, either way.