Getting Subpersonal: Should Dennett Rethink the Intentional Stance?

by rsbakker

Don’t you look at my girlfriend,

She’s the only one I got.

Not much of a girlfriend,

Never seem to get a lot.

–Supertramp, “Breakfast in America”


This shows that there is no such thing as the soul–the subject, etc.–as it is conceived in the superficial psychology of the present day.

Indeed a composite soul would no longer be a soul.

–Wittgenstein, 5.5421, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


One way of conceptualizing the ‘problem of meaning’ presently confronting our society is in terms of the personal and the subpersonal. The distinction is one famously made by Wittgenstein (1974) in the Tractatus, where he notes the way psychological claims like ‘knows that,’ ‘believes that,’ ‘hopes that’ involve the individual taken as a whole (5.542).  Here , as in so many other places, Daniel Dennett has been instrumental in setting out the terms of the debate. On his account, the personal refers to what Wittgenstein called the ‘soul’ above, the whole agent as opposed to its parts. The subpersonal, on the other hand, refers to the parts as opposed to the whole, the constitutive components of the whole. Where the personal figures in intentional explanations, enabling the prediction, understanding, and manipulation of our fellows, the subpersonal figures in functional explanations, enabling the prediction, understanding, and manipulation of the neural mechanisms that make us tick.

The personal and the subpersonal, in other words, provide a way of conceptualizing the vexing relation between intentional and functional conceptuality that pertains directly to you. Where the personal level of description pertains to you as an agent, a subject of belief, desire, and so on, the subpersonal level of description pertains to you as an organism, as a biomechanism consisting of numerous submechanisms. In a strange sense, you are your own doppelganger, one that apparently answers to two incommensurable rationalities. This is why your lawyer, when you finally get around to murdering that local television personality, will be inclined to defend the subpersonal you by blaming neural devils that made you do it, while the prosecutor will be hell bent on sending the personal you to the gas chamber. It’s hard to convict subpersonal mechanisms.

As Wittgenstein says, the ‘composite soul’ is no soul. The obvious question is why? Why is the person an indivisible whole? Dennett (2007) provides the following explanation:

The relative accessibility and familiarity of the outer part of the process of telling people what I can see–I know my eyes have to be open, and focused, and I have to attend, and there has to be light–conceals from us the utter blank (from the perspective of introspection or simple self-examination) of the rest of the process. How do you know there’s a tree beside the house? Well, there it is, and I can see that it looks just like a tree! How do you know it looks like a tree? Well, I just do! Do you compare what it looks like to many other things in the world before settling upon the idea that it’s a tree? Not consciously. Is it labeled “tree”? No, I don’t need to ‘see’ a label; besides, if there were a label I’d have to read it, and know that it labelled the thing it was on. I just know it’s a tree. Explanation has to stop somewhere, and at the personal level it stops here, with brute abilities couched in the familiar intentionalistic language of knowing and seeing, noticing and recognizing and the like. (9)

What Dennett is describing here is a kind of systematic neglect, and in terms, no less, that would have made Heidegger proud: What is concealed? An utter blank. This is a wonderful description of what I’ve been calling medial neglect, the way the brain, adapted and dedicated to tracking ‘lateral’ environments, must remain to a profound extent the blindspot in its environment. To paraphrase Heidegger (1949), what is nearest is most difficult to see. The human brain systematically neglects itself, generating, as a result, numerous confusions, particularly when it attempts to cognize itself. We just ‘know without knowing.’ And as Dennett says, this is where explanation has to stop.

“The recognition that there are two levels of explanation,” he  writes, “gives birth to the burden of relating them” (1969, 20). In “Mechanism and Responsibility” (1981) he attempts to discharge this burden by isolating and defeating the various ‘incompatibility intuitions’ that lead to stark appraisals of the intentional/mechanical divide. So for instance, if you idealize rational agency, then any mechanical consideration of the agent will seem to shatter the illusion. But, if you accept that humans are always and only imperfectly rational, and that the intentional and mechanical are two modes of making sense of complex systems, then this extreme incompatibility dissolves. “What are we to make of the hegemony of mechanical explanation over intentional explanation?” he writes. “Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it is misdescribed if we suppose that whenever the former are confirmed, they drive out the latter” (246). Passages like these, I think, highlight a perennial tension between Dennett’s pragmatic and realist inclinations. The ‘hegemony,’ he often seems to imply, is pragmatic: the mechanical merely allows us to go places the intentional cannot. In this case, the only compatibility that matters is the compatibility of our explanations with our purposes. But when he has his realist hat on, the hegemony becomes metaphysical, the product of the way things are. And this is where his compatibilism begins to wobble.

So for instance, adopting Dennett’s pragmatic scheme means that intentional explanations will be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the context. As our needs change, so will the utility of the intentional stance. “All that is the case,” he writes, “is that we, as persons, cannot adopt exclusive mechanism (by eliminating the intentional stance altogether)” (254). If we were, as he puts it, “turned into zombies next week” (254) all bets would be off. It’s arguments like these that wear so many scowls into the brows of so many readers of Dennett. All it means to be an intentional system, he argues, is to be successfully understood in intentional terms. There is no fact of the matter, no ‘original intentionality.’ But if this is the case, how could we be turned into (as opposed to ‘taken as’) zombies next week?

Dennett, remember, wants to  be simultaneously a realist about mechanism and a pragmatist about intentionality. So isn’t he really just saying we are zombies (mere mechanisms) all the time, and that ‘persons’ are simply an artifact of the way we zombies are prone (perhaps given informatic neglect) to interpret one another? This certainly seems to be the most straightforward explanation. If it were simply a matter of ‘taking as,’ why would the advance of the life sciences (and the mechanistic paradigm) constitute any sort of threat? In other words, why would the personal need fear the future? As Dennett writes:

All this says nothing about the impossibility of dire depersonalization in the future. Wholesale abandonment of the intentional is in any case a less pressing concern than partial erosion of the intentional domain, an eventuality against which there are no conceptual guarantees at all. If the growing area of success in mechanistic explanation of human behaviour does not in of itself rob us of responsibility, it does make it more pragmatic, more effective or efficient, for people on occasion to adopt less than the intentional stance toward others. Until fairly recently the only well-known generally effective method of getting people to do what you wanted them to was to treat them as persons. (255)

That was 1971 (when Dennett presented the first draft of “Mechanism and Responsibility” at Yale), and this is 2012, some 41 years later, a time when you could say this ‘dire’ process of incremental depersonalization has finally achieved ‘economies of scale.’ What I want to consider is the possibility that history has actually outrun the Dennett’s arguments for the intentional stance.

Consider NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing corporation that I’ve critiqued in the past, and that now bills itself as the premier neuromarketer in the world. In a summary of the effectiveness of various ads televised over the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they describe their methodology thus:

NeuroFocus conducts brainwave-based research employing high density EEG (electroencephalographic) sensor technology, coupled with pixel-level eye movement tracking and GSR (galvanic skin response) measurements. The company captures brainwave activity across as many as 128 different sectors of the brain, at 2000 times a second for each of these locations. NeuroFocus’ patented brainwave monitoring technology produces results that are far more accurate, reliable and actionable than any other form of research.

The thing to note is that all three of these channels–brain waves, saccades, and skin conductance–are involuntary. None of these pertain, in other words, to you as a person. In fact, the person is actually the enemy in neuromarketing, in terms of both assessing and engineering ad effectiveness. Using these subpersonal indices, NeuroFocus measures what they call ‘Brand Perception Lift,’ the degree to which a given spot influences subconscious brand associations, and ‘Commercial Performance Lift,’ the degree to which it subconsciously induces consumers to make purchases. As the Advertising Research Foundation notes in a recent report:

The human mind is not well equipped to probe its own depths, to explain itself to itself, let alone to others. Many of the approaches used in traditional advertising research are focused on rational, conscious processes and are, therefore, not well suited to understanding emotion and the unconscious. Regardless of our comfort level, we have to explore approaches that are fundamentally different—indirect or passive approaches to measuring and understanding emotion and its impact.

‘You’ quite literally have no clear sense as to how ads effect your attitudes and behaviours. This disconnect between what a person self-reports and what a person actually does has always meant that marketing was as much art as science. But since Coca Cola began approaching brain researchers in the early 1990’s, neuromarketing in America has ballooned into an industry consisting of a dozen companies and dozens more consultancies. This is just to say that no matter what one thinks of the effectiveness of neuromarketing techniques as they stand (the ARF report linked above details several ‘ROI’ efficiencies and predicts more as the technology and techniques improve), a formidable, and growing, array of resources have been deployed in the pursuit of the subpersonal consumer.

NeuroFocus is by no means alone, and neuromarketing is becoming more and more ubiquitous. Consider the show Intervention. Concerned that advertisers were avoiding the show due to its intense emotional content (because let’s face it, the trials and tribulations of addiction make the concerns motivating most consumer products, things like hemorrhoids or dandruff, almost tragically trivial) A&E contracted NeuroFocus to see how viewers were actually responding to ads on their show. Their results?

Because neurological testing probes the deep subconscious mind for this data, advertisers can rely on these findings with complete confidence. The results of this study provide scientific evidence that when a company decides to advertise in reality programming that contains the kind of powerful and gripping content that Intervention features, there is no automatic downside to that choice. Instead, there is an opportunity to engage viewers’ subconscious minds in equally, and often even more powerful and gripping ways.

In other words, extreme emotional content renders viewers more susceptible to commercial messaging, not less. Note the way the two kinds of communication, the personal and the subpersonal, seem to be blurred in this passage. The ‘powerful and gripping content’ of the show, one would like to assume, entails A&E taking a personal stance toward their viewers, whereas the ‘powerful and gripping content’ of the commercials entails advertisers taking a subpersonal stance toward their viewers. The problem, however, is that the question is the effectiveness of Intervention as a vehicle for commercial advertising, a question that NeuroFocus answers by targeting the subpersonal. A&E has hired them, in effect, to assess the subpersonal effectiveness of Intervention as a vehicle for subpersonal commercial messaging.

In other words, the best way to maximize ROI (‘return on investment’) is to treat viewers as mechanisms, as machines to be hacked via multiple messaging mechanisms, one overtly commercial (advertising), the other covertly (Intervention). The dismal irony here of course, is that the covert messaging mechanism features ‘real life’ narratives featuring addicts trying to recover–what else?–personhood!

Make no mistake, the ‘Age of the Subpersonal’ is upon us. Now a trickle, soon a deluge. Dennett, of course, is famous (or infamous) for his strategy of ‘interpretative minimization,’ his tendency to explain away apparent conflicts between the intentional and the mechanical, the personal and the subpersonal. But he is by no means so cavalier as to confuse the theoretical dilemmas manufactured by philosophers bent on “answering the ultimate ontological question” (2011) with the kind of practical dilemma posed by the likes of NeuroFocus. “There is a real crisis,” Dennett (2006) admits, “and it needs our attention now, before irreparable damage is done to the fragile environment of mutually shared beliefs and attitudes on which a precious conception of human dignity does indeed depend for its existence” (1).

The ‘solution’ he offers requires us to appreciate the way our actions will impact communal expectations. He gives the (not-so-congenial) example of the respect we extend to corpses:

Even people who believe in immortal immaterial souls don’t believe that human “remains” harbor a soul. They think that the soul has departed, and what is left behind is just a body, just unfeeling matter. A corpse can’t feel pain, can’t suffer, can’t be aware of any indignities–and yet still we feel a powerful obligation to handle a corpse with respect, and even with ceremony, and even when nobody else is watching. Why? Because we appreciate, whether acutely or dimly, that how we handle this corpse now has repercussions for how other people, still alive, will be able to imagine their own demise and its aftermath. Our capacity to imagine the future is both the source of our moral power and a condition of our vulnerability. (6)

To protect the fragility of the person from the zombie described by science we need recall–the corpse! (The problem, of course, is that we have possible subpersonal explanations for post-mortem care-taking rituals as well, such as those proposed, for instance, by Pascal Boyer (2001)). The idea he develops calls for us to begin managing our traditional ‘belief environments’ the way we manage any other natural environment threatened by science and its consequences. And the best way to do this, he suggests, is to begin encouraging a person-friendly, doxastic ecological mind-set:  “If we want to maintain the momentousness of all decisions about life and death, and take the steps that elevate the decision beyond the practicalities of the moment, we need to secure the appreciation of this very fact, and enliven the imaginations of people so that they can recognize, and avoid wherever possible, and condemn, activities that would tend to erode the public trust in the presuppositions about what is–and should be–unthinkable.”

A slippery slope couched in moral indignation: the approach that failed when employed against evolution (against the mechanization of our origin),  and will almost certainly fail against the corresponding mechanization our soul. Surely any real solution to the problem of ‘getting too subpersonal’ has to turn on the reason why the subpersonal so threatens the personal. We’re simply tossing homilies to the wind, clucking-clucking in disapproval, otherwise. No. It’s clear the problem must be understood. And once again, the obvious explanation seems to be that the ‘hegemony of mechanistic explanation,’ as Dennett calls it, is real in a way intentionality is not. How for instance, should one interpret the situation I describe above? As a grift, a collection of unscrupulous persons manipulating another collection of unwitting persons? This certainly has a role to play in the kinds of ‘moral intuitions’ violated. But couldn’t the executives plea obligation? They have been charged, after all, with maximizing their shareholder’s ROI, and if mechanistic messaging is more effective than intentional messaging, if no laws are broken and no individuals are harmed, then what on earth could be the problem? Does potential damage to the manifest or traditional ‘belief environment,’ as Dennett has it, trump that obligation? Good luck convincing the most powerful institutions on the planet of that.

Otherwise, if it is the case that the mechanistic trumps the intentional (as neuromarketing, let alone myriad other subpersonal approaches to the human are making vividly clear), why are we talking about morality at all? Morality presumes persons, and this situation would seem to suggest there are no such things, not really, not now, not ever. Giving Occam his due, why not say no persons were harmed in this (or any other) case because no persons existed outside the skewed, parochial assumptions of the zombies involved: the smart zombies on the corporate side hacking the stupid zombies on the audience side?

What the hell is going on here? Seriously. Have we really been reduced to honouring corpses?

The sad fact is, this situation looks an awful lot like a magic show, where the illusion ticks along seamlessly only so long as certain information remains occluded. Various lapses (or as Dennett (1978) calls them, ‘tropisms’) can be tolerated, odd glimpses behind the curtain, hands too lethargic to fool the eye, but at some point, the assumptive economy that makes the illusion possible falls apart, and we witness the dawning of a far less magical aspect–a more desolate yet far more robust ‘level of explanation.’ In this picture, the whole of the human race is hardwired relative to themselves, chained before the magician of their own brain, seeing only what every other human being can see, and so remaining convinced they see everything that needs to be seen. Since the first true homo sapiens, the show has been seamless, save for the fact that none of it can be truly explained. But now that science has as last surmounted the complexities of the brain, more and more nefarious souls have begun sneaking peaks behind the curtain in the hope of transforming the personal show into a subpersonal scam…

Intentionality, in other words, depends on ignorance. This is what makes Dennett’s rapprochement between the personal and the subpersonal a matter of context, something dependant upon the future. Information accumulates given language and culture. The ‘compatibility’ he describes (accurately, I think, though more coyly than I would wish) is the compatibility of a magician watching his crosstown rival’s show, the compatibility of seeing the magic, because it is flawless performed, yet knowing the mechanics of the illusion all the same.

More importantly, intentionality depends on ignorance of mechanism, which is to say, the very ignorance science is designed to overcome. Only now are we seeing the breakdown in compatibility he feared in 1971. Why? Because mechanistic knowledge is progressive in a way that intentional knowledge is not, and so pays ever greater dividends. The sciences of the brain are allowing more and more people to leave the audience and climb onto the stage. The show is becoming more and more discordant, more difficult to square with the illusion of seeing everything there is to see.

The manifest image is becoming more and more inchoate. Neuromarketing is beginning to show, on a truly massive scale, how to see past the illusion of the person.

Why illusion? Throughout his corpus, Dennett adamantly insists on the objectivity of the intentional stance, that it’s predictive and explanatory power means that it picks out ‘real patterns’ (1991). Granting this is so (because one could argue that the only ‘intentional stance’ is the one belonging to philosophers attempting to cognize what amounts to scraps of metacognitive information), the patterns ‘picked out’ are both blinkered and idiosyncratic. Dennett acknowledges as much, but thinks this parochial objectivity licenses second-order, pragmatic justifications. He is honest enough to his pragmatism to historicize these justifications, to acknowledge that a day may come. Likewise, he is honest enough to the theoretical power of science to resist contextualism tout court, to avoid the hubris of transforming the natural into a subspecies of the cultural on the strength of something so unreliable as philosophical speculation.

But now that the inevitability of that ‘day’ seems to be clearly visible, it becomes more difficult to see how his second-order pragmatism isn’t tendentious, or even worse, question-begging. Dennett wants us to say we are mechanisms (what else would we be?) that take ourselves for persons for good reason. When arguing against ‘greedy reduction’ (Dennett, 1995), he leans hard on that last phrase, and only resorts to the predicate when he has to. He relentlessly emphasizes the pragmatic necessity of the personal. When arguing against original intentionality, he reverses emphasis, showing how the subpersonal grounds the personal, how the ‘skyhooks’ of tradition are actually ‘cranes’ (1995), or how the explaining the ‘magic of consciousness’ amounts to explaining a certain evolutionary trick (2003, 2005).

This ‘reversal of emphasis’ strategy has served him, not to mention philosophy and cognitive science, well (See, Elton, 2003) over some 40 plus years. But with the rise of industries like neuromarketing, I submit that the contextual grounds that warrant his intentional emphasis are dissolving beneath his feet simply because they are dissolving beneath everybody’s feet. Does he really think treating the intentional as an ‘endangered ecology’ will allow us to prevent, let alone resolve, problems like neuromarketing? The simple need to become proactive about our belief environment, to institute regimes of explicit and implicit ‘make-think,’ demonstrates–rather dramatically one would think–that we have crossed some kind of fundamental threshold, the very one, in fact, that he worried about early in his philosophical career.

Things are simply getting too subpersonal. Dennett wants us to say we are mechanisms that take ourselves for persons for good reason. What he really should say at this point, as a naturalist opposed to a pragmatist, is that we are mechanisms that take ourselves for persons, for reasons science is only begin to learn.

The more subpersonal information that becomes available, the more isolated and parochial the person will seem to become. Quine’s ‘dramatic idiom’ is set to be come increasingly hysterical unless employed as a shorthand for the mechanical. Why? Because the sciences, for better or worse, monopolize theoretical cognition–it’s all mere philosophy otherwise. This is why Dennett referred to the prospect of depersonalization as ‘dire’ in 1971, and why his call to become stewards of our doxastic ecology rings so hollow in 2006. No matter how prone philosophers are to mistake rank speculation for knowledge, one can rely on science to show them otherwise. This is what I’ve elsewhere referred to as the ‘Big Fat Pessimistic Induction.’ The power of mechanism, the power of the subpersonal, will continue to grow as scientific knowledge progresses–period.

This is also the scenario I sketch in my novel Neuropath, a near-future where the social and cultural dissociation between knowledge and experience has become obviously catastrophic, an illustration of the Semantic Apocalypse and the kind of ‘Akratic Culture’ we might expect to rise in its wake. Dennett uses the corpse analogy above to impress the importance of doxastic consequences, the idea that failing to honour corpses as para-persons undermines the ecology that demands we honour persons as well. But what if this particular ecological collapse is going to happen regardless? Throwing verbiage at science, no matter how eloquent, how incendiary, will not make it stop, which means intentional conservatism, no matter how well ‘intentioned,’ will only serve to drag out the inevitable.

Radicalism is the only way forward. Rather than squandering our critical resources on attempts to salvage the show, perhaps we need to shoo it from the stage, get down to the hard work of reinventing ourselves.

If intentionality is like a magic trick, then the accumulation of information regarding the neurofunctional specifics of consciousness will render it progressively more incoherent. Intentionality, in other words, requires the Only-game-in-town-effect at the level of praxis. When it becomes systematically rational for a person to treat others, even themselves, as mechanisms, Dennett lacks the ‘contextual closure’ he requires to convincingly promote compatibility. It is not always best to treat others as persons. Given the way the subpersonal trumps the personal, it pays to put ‘persons’ on notice even in the absence of lapses of rationality–perhaps especially in the absence of lapses. The other guy, after all, could be doing the same with you. There is a gaping difference, in other words, between the intentional stance we necessarily take and the intentional stance we conditionally take. Certainly we are forced to continue relying on intentional idioms, as I have throughout this very post, but we all possess some understanding of the cognitive limitations of that idiom, the fact that we, in some unnerving fashion, are speaking from a kind of conceptual dream. In Continental philosophical terms, you might say we’re speaking ‘under erasure.’ We communicate understanding we are mechanisms that take ourselves to be persons for reasons we are only beginning to learn.

What might those reasons look like? I’ve placed my chits on the Blind Brain Theory. The ‘apparent wholeness’ of the person is a result of generalized informatic neglect–or ‘adaptive anosognosia.’ Our deliberative cognitive systems (themselves at some level ‘subpersonal’) are oblivious to the neural functions they discharge–they suffer a kind of WYSIATI (Kahneman, 2012) writ large. So as a result they confuse their parochial glimpse for the entire show. Call it the ‘Metonymic Error,’ or ‘ME,’ a sort of ‘mereological fallacy’ (Bennett and Hacker, 2006) in reverse, the cognitive illusion that leads fragmentary, subpersonal assemblages to mistake themselves for something singular and whole.

And as I hope should be clear, it is a mistake. ‘Apparent wholeness’ (sufficiency) is a cognitive illusion in the same manner asymmetric insight is a cognitive illusion. The fact that both are adaptive doesn’t change this. Discharging subreptive functions doesn’t make misconceptions less illusory (any more than does the number of people labouring under it). The real difference is simply the degree our discourses seem to depend on the veracity of the former, the way my use of ‘mistake’ above, for instance, seems to beg the very intentionality I’m claiming is discredited. But, given that I’m deploying the term ‘under erasure,’ all this speaks to is the exhaustive nature of the illusion–which is to say, to our mutual cognitive anosognosia. Accusing me of performative contradiction not only begs the question, it makes the above examples regarding ‘subpersonalization’ very, very difficult to understand. I need only ask for an account for why mechanism trumps intentionality while leaving it intact.

But given that this is a form of nonpathological anosognosia we are talking about, which is to say, a cognitive deficit regarding cognitive deficits, people are bound to find it exceedingly difficult to recognize. As I’ve learned first hand, the reflex is to simply fall back on the manifest image, the way pretty much everyone in philosophy and cognitive science seems inclined to do, and to incessantly repeat the question: How could persons be illusions if they feature in so much ‘genuine understanding’?

The question no one wants to ask is, What else could they feature in?

Or to put the question differently: Imagine it were the case we had a thoroughly fragmentary, distorted, depleted intentional understanding, but we possessed brains that had nevertheless evolved myriad ways to successfully anticipate and coordinate with others, What would our cognition look like?

Idiosyncratic. Baffling… And yet mysteriously effective all the same.

Some crazy shit, I know. All these years our biggest worry was that we were digging our grave with science, never suspecting we might find our own corpse before hitting bottom.




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