The ‘Human’: Discovery or Invention?

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:


“A lack of historical sense is the congenital defect of all philosophers. Some unwittingly even take the most recent form of man, as it developed under the imprint of certain religions or even certain political events, as the fixed form from which one must proceed.”

– Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human


Hello, all! I’m Roger Eichorn, a guest-blogger, back from a rather lengthy sojourn in which I did a lot of philosophy, studied German, and started home-recording an album of original music. 2012 was a busy year for me. I expect 2013 to be even busier—but with more pay-offs. To begin with, I have an article on Sextus Empiricus coming out in the journal Ancient Philosophy this spring, which is nice. Looking ahead, my dissertation (on the history of Pyrrhonian skepticism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century German philosophy) should be well on its way to completion by year’s end. In addition, I hope to finish my album and, biggest of all, my fantasy novel, The House of Yesteryear, before celebrating another New Year.

But enough about me. I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Bakker has developed his ‘Blind-Brain Theory’ here at the TPB. I freely admit that I did not follow all his posts last year—but not for lack of interest. For my money, the BBT (given what I understand of it, anyway) is the most promising and philosophically exciting project currently on the philosophy-of-mind market. It emerges from a rare combination of scientific literacy and philosophical virtuosity, the latter in the sense both of (a) a wide-ranging knowledge of the field and (b) the sort of inherent creativity all truly great philosophers possess. Too often, philosophers suffer from a lack of sufficient appreciation for (or ‘fluency in’) science, while scientists’ lack of philosophical sophistication leaves them unable to articulate the philosophical implications of their own discoveries—even when they explicitly set out to do so. (Take, for example, Hawking’s latest book.) It is surprisingly rare, in my experience, to find a thinker willing to approach science philosophically without presuming the superiority of philosophical modes of reflection and to approach philosophy scientifically without taking on board some sort of neutralizing conceptual framework that allows him or her to settle or dismiss intractable philosophical problems with a shrug or a wave of the naïve-epistemic-optimism wand.

The BBT theory suffers from neither of these problems, as far as I can see. It is a monument to Bakker’s intellectual conscience: his willingness to place question-marks over anything and everything, and his restless search for a unified, coherent, and compelling account of the human ontologico–epistemic predicament.

As philosophers—as thinkers—we are all of us, however, at sea on Neurath’s boat, able to repair planks of our ship, but not all of them at once. In order to question, some things must be put beyond question; they must be taken for granted. (I’m intrigued by the idea that this might represent an epistemological parallel to Bakker’s idea of neural ‘informatic occlusion.’) What I want to explore in this post is whether Bakker’s theory incorporates science and philosophy so well at the expense of history, in particular intellectual history (including the history of philosophy). I want, in other words, to see if the BBT stands up to the test of what Nietzsche called ‘historical philosophizing.’

It is tempting, from the perspective of the BBT, to react to the raising of this question by claiming that ‘intellectual history,’ according to the BBT, can be nothing but a tissue of half-truth and outright confabulation. The BBT comes before intellectual history, as it were, and demolishes its foundations. But it can do so only given the truth of elements of our intellectual-historical heritage. This is the sort of double-bind in which the BBT finds itself, for it itself is nothing if not a positive philosophical theory. Most obviously, in order for the BBT to stand up, we need to hold in place an account of (or a blind faith in) science such that its explanatory power can underwrite the data and premises of the BBT. Blind faith is an affront to any healthy intellectual conscience, so we must reject it. Yet there is no satisfactory philosophical account of science. Arguments can be made in science’s favor, of course—loads of them. But any attempt to defend science must eventually, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, run out of reasons. We ask, ‘Why?’, and can find a ‘because’ for a time—but eventually our ‘becauses’ peter out. In the end, we can only point to science’s achievements, its apparent autonomy from (its utter lack of any need for) philosophical underpinning. Science simply marches on, regardless what people at any given time think or say about it. Moreover, science seems to be remarkably successful at shifting intuitions, or altering the way in which we ‘intuitively’ see ourselves and the world, how the world ‘shows up’ for us—regardless, again, of what anyone says or thinks at any given time about science. This is truly remarkable, if you think about it. Generation to generation, science alters our world-pictures without anyone’s consent. As I like to say, you can lock up Galileo, but sooner or later your descendants will exonerate him. Science simply doesn’t care what you think—but you should sure as shit care what it thinks, for it is quite likely that (in general outline, at least) what it thinks represents what future generations will take for granted.

These considerations are enough, in my view, to demolish the objection from the philosophically problematic character of scientific knowledge. Ultimately, the objection misses the point. Yet it suggests a different sort of objection. The efficacy of science is, after all, not the only thing that must be held in place in order for the BBT to do the work Bakker wants it to. We must also hold in place an account of the ‘appearance’ of consciousness. In a sense, this is a different sort of objection from the first, for it does not directly target the epistemic credentials of the BBT; rather, it targets the radicality with which Bakker is eager to credit it. Still, it seems to me that the BBT can only be understood as Bakker would have us understand it if it is understood as being radical. If this is right, then to undermine its radicality is to undermine the theory as Bakker understands it.

Now, the putative radicality of the BBT follows from the way in which it is said to deviate from our ‘intuitive’ understanding of ourselves. In Bakker’s previous post, he refers to “consciousness and intentionality as we intuit them.” It is given the ‘fissure’ that the BBT theory opens up between our ‘knowledge’ of ourselves and our ‘experience’ of ourselves that is prophesied to harbinger the ‘Akratic Culture’ whose coming Bakker ‘mourns.’ Such a culture is ‘akratic’ because our knowledge of ourselves, it is supposed, can never be squared with our experience of ourselves, in which case we will never be able, experientially, to believe what we know about ourselves, i.e., we will never believe we are other-than-we-experience-ourselves-to-be with the sort of lived conviction that only comes from ‘inhabiting’ a fact. Our experience is bound, Bakker claims, to be unmasked as “vacant affirmation and subreptive autonomy.”

But it seems plausible, I want to suggest, that our ‘intuitive experience’ of ourselves and the world is an artifact of a given biological and historico-cultural situation. It is not fixed, not an ‘eternal fact.’ There is, in other words, no stable ‘enemy’ for the BBT to pit itself against. It can, of course, pit itself against our intuitive self-understanding (or self-experience), and that may be radical enough. But why should we think, with Bakker, that “if the [BBT]… turns out to be correct, it will be the last theory in the history of philosophy as traditionally conceived”? That may be true (more on this point in a moment), but let’s consider Bakker’s reasons for advancing this view. The BBT, he claims, will effectively destroy philosophy because it will “transform the great intentional problems of philosophy into the mechanical subject matter of cognitive neuroscience.” This too may well turn out to be true—but it is hardly a necessary consequence of confirming, ‘scientifically,’ the truth of the BBT.

If the argument I made above (regarding the efficacy-of-science objection) is right, then the ‘confirmation’ of the BBT (if confirmed it is destined to be) is likely to be more a matter of a shift in world-picture than of a shift in what scientists or philosophers are willing or able to draw as the conclusions of their arguments. This is why the BBT is a “precursor of the posthuman.” Bakker’s alarming remarks about the possible technological applications of neuroscience, when seen from a ‘posthuman’ perspective, all apply to the nebulous period in which our knowledge outruns our experience in such a way that we are unable to believe what we know. Upon the advent of the posthuman, however, this problem ought to disappear, for there will no longer be a gap between our ‘manifest image’ of ourselves (as ‘humans’ with ‘minds’) and our ‘scientific image’ of ourselves (as ‘machines’). It seems, then, that the ‘akratic culture’ is merely an intermediary stage. Humans used to believe that the sun orbited the earth. We do not believe this any longer, but not because we were ever convinced of the claim that the earth orbits the sun. No, we inherited this belief as part of our world-picture. The menace of the BBT is the idea that the same shift in world-picture is going to occur with regard to ourselves—but with the key difference that, in the case of ourselves, the only way to square our knowledge with our experience entails transforming that experience such that we are no longer ourselves, no longer human.

Yet—and here’s my main point—what does it mean to be ‘human’? A survey of intellectual history suggests not only that the ‘intuitive’ conception of the human against which Bakker pits the BTT is a contingent artifact of a particular cultural tradition, but also that it is in fact a relative novelty in human history. It is a novelty not so much in its particulars as in the purity of their expression. Some of the most prominent traits of our self-understanding include autonomy and agency, intentionality and individuality. These ideas, it seems, go back to what Karl Jaspers called ‘the Axial Age,’ the original flowering of intellectual enlightenment—simultaneously yet independently—in Greece, India, and China. The Axial Age saw the emergence of a conception of the human that our more recent Western enlightenment spent several centuries refining. Prior to the Axial Age, it seems that ‘consciousness’ did not ‘appear’ to human beings the way it is said to ‘appear’ to us today. Even more recently—and still today, in most places—the enlightenment conception was typically diluted with something more like a pre-enlightenment conception.

The easiest way to differentiate the two conceptions is with respect to their views regarding practical agency. Bruno Snell argued, in his fascinating book The Discovery of the Mind, that “Homer’s man does not yet regard himself as the source of his own decisions; that development was reserved for tragedy… [P]rimitive man… has not yet roused himself to an awareness of his own freedom.” We can of course quibble endlessly over the accuracy of Snell’s claims; but if we take evolution seriously, then we’re bound to suppose that there is some similar sort of story to be told. The important point here is that Snell’s book is an account of the discovery of our enlightened natures: the discovery that we are free, autonomous individuals, ‘in the world but not of the world’ (or ‘locally nonlocal,’ as Bakker would say). In a reversal with astounding implications, the pre-enlightened ‘manifest image’ of Snell’s Homeric humanity, which once-upon-a-time gave way (at least in part) to a ‘scientific image’ that was given voice by tragedians and was later refined by philosophers and theologians—thereby becoming, in time, a new manifest image—is now itself giving way to a ‘scientific image’ that can be seen as a reversion to something much closer to the ‘manifest image’ of Homer’s time!

The enlightened conception of the human, it seems, was in all likelihood not a discovery at all, but an invention—and an artistic invention, at that. As this broad historical sketch makes plain, abandoning the invented enlightenment conception of the human does not entail endorsing the conception of the human that is said to follow from the BBT. To claim otherwise is to open oneself to the ‘efficacy-of-science’ objection I discussed above. It seems, then, that the apocalyptic overtones of the BBT depend ultimately on predictions regarding possible technological applications of neuroscience that are capable of transforming the way our brains work. There may be a host of excellent arguments to support such predictions, but the fact (if it is a fact) that the supposed radicality of the BBT depends on such predictions renders it tenuous.

Demonstrating the falsity of the enlightenment conception of the human is not sufficient to determine its replacement conception, especially given the fact that there are a great many alternatives conceptions—ones far more congenial to the BBT—already in existence. Alan Watts, for instance, begins his book The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by claiming that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.” What we need, Watts argues, is “a new experience—a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.’” Why should we not think that such ‘new experiences’—such new ‘appearances of consciousness’—might arise? Looked at from an intellectual-historian’s perspective, we might say: Why should we not think that the BBT, far from being the last theory in the history of philosophy, is merely a doorway to a new kind of philosophizing? Doesn’t it remain an open question, even given the BBT, just how exactly we conceive of ourselves? It seems to me that the answer to this question is yes, in which case the ‘radicality’ of the BBT is either (a) dependent on possible future events (viz., regarding technological applications of neuroscience) going a particular way, with particular results, or (b) the implausible notion that there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ that can be ‘discovered’ by means of any known scientific or philosophical techniques. If our experience of ourselves is instead a sort of invention, then though the BBT theory may close down some inventive options, it is bound to open up new ones—or, as the case may be, old ones.

Watts characterizes the self-experience afforded by Eastern religious practices in the following way: “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.” Strip away the poetry and we’re left with a picture that strikes me as surprisingly congenial to the BBT. My point is not that Watts—or Hinduism generally—is right; I use him merely as an example of a different sort of self-conception, one that, like Snell’s ‘Homeric man,’ seems less at odds with the BBT than is our modern, ‘enlightened’ self-conception.

Poetry can be writ slantwise across even the ugliest and most prosaic facts—and, in doing so, can even be ‘enlightening,’ though it lies.