Zizek, Hollywood, and the Disenchantment of Continental Philosophy
Aphorism of the Day: At least a flamingo has a leg to stand on.
Back in the 1990’s whenever I mentioned Dennett and the significance of neuroscience to my Continental buddies I would usually get some version of ‘Why do you bother reading that shite?’ I would be told something about the ontological priority of the lifeworld or the practical priority of the normative: more than once I was referred to Hegel’s critique of phrenology in the Phenomenology.
The upshot was that the intentional has to be irreducible. Of course this ‘has to be’ ostensibly turned on some longwinded argument (picked out of the great mountain of longwinded arguments), but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the intentional had to be irreducible because the intentional had to come first, and the intentional had to come first because ‘intentional cognition’ was the philosopher’s stock and trade–and oh-my, how we adore coming first.
Back then I chalked up this resistance to a strategic failure of imagination. A stupendous amount of work goes into building an academic philosophy career; given our predisposition to rationalize even our most petty acts, the chances of seeing our way past our life’s work are pretty damn slim! One of the things that makes science so powerful is the way it takes that particular task out of the institutional participant’s hands–enough to revolutionize the world at least. Not so in philosophy, as any gas station attendant can tell you.
I certainly understood the sheer intuitive force of what I was arguing against. I quite regularly find the things I argue here almost impossible to believe. I don’t so much believe as fear that the Blind Brain Theory is true. What I do believe is that some kind of radical overturning of noocentrism is not only possible, but probable, and that the 99% of philosophers who have closed ranks against this possibility will likely find themselves in the ignominious position of those philosophers who once defended geocentrism and biocentrism.
What I’ve recently come to appreciate, however, is that I am literally, as opposed to figuratively, arguing against a form of anosognosia, that I’m pushing brains places they cannot go–short of imagination. Visual illusions are one thing. Spike a signal this way or that, trip up the predictive processing, and you have a little visual aporia, an isolated area of optic nonsense in an otherwise visually ‘rational’ world. The kinds of neglect-driven illusions I’m referring to, however, outrun us, as they have to, insofar as we are them in some strange sense.
So here we are in 2013, and there’s more than enough neuroscientific writing on the wall to have captured even the most insensate Continental philosopher’s attention. People are picking through the great mountain of longwinded arguments once again, tinkering, retooling, now that the extent of the threat has become clear. Things are getting serious; the akratic social consequences I depicted in Neuropath are everywhere becoming more evident. The interval between knowledge and experience is beginning to gape. Ignoring the problem now smacks more of negligence than insouciant conviction. The soul, many are now convinced, must be philosophically defended. Thought, whatever it is, must be mobilized against its dissolution.
The question is how.
My own position might be summarized as a kind of ‘Good-Luck-Chuck’ argument. Either you posit an occult brand of reality special to you and go join the Christians in their churches, or you own up to the inevitable. The fate of the transcendental lies in empirical hands now. There is no way, short of begging the question against science, of securing the transcendental against the empirical. Imagine you come up with, say, Argument A, which concludes on non-empirical Ground X that intentionality cannot be a ‘cognitive illusion.’ The problem, obviously, is that Argument A can only take it on faith that no future neuroscience will revise or eliminate its interpretation of Ground X. And that faith, like most faith, only comes easy in the absence of alternatives–of imagination.
The notion of using transcendental speculation to foreclose on possible empirical findings is hopeless. Speculation is too unreliable and nature is too fraught with surprises. One of the things that makes the Blind Brain Theory so important, I think, is the way its mere existence reveals this new thetic landscape. By deriving the signature characteristics of the first-personal out of the mechanical, it provides a kind of ‘proof of concept,’ a demonstration that post-intentional theory is not only possible, but potentially powerful. As a viable alternative to intentional thought (of which transcendental philosophy is a subset), it has the effect of dispelling the ‘only game in town illusion,’ the sense of necessity that accompanies every failure of philosophical imagination. It forces ‘has to be’ down to the level of ‘might be’…
You could say the mere possibility that the Blind Brain Theory might be empirically verified drags the whole of Continental philosophy into the purview of science. The most the Continental philosopher can do is match their intentional hopes against my mechanistic fears. Put simply, the grand old philosophical question of what we are no longer belongs to them: It has fallen to science.
For better and for worse, Metzinger’s Being No One has become the textual locus of the ‘neuroscientific threat’ in Continental circles. His thesis alone would have brought him to attention, I’m sure. That aside, the care, scholarship, and insight he brings to the topic provide the Continental reader with a quite extraordinary (and perhaps too flattering) introduction to cognitive science and Anglo-American philosophy of mind as it stood a decade or so ago.
The problem with Being No One, however, is precisely what renders it so attractive to Continentalists, particularly those invested in the so-called ‘materialist turn’: rather than consider the problem of meaning tout court, it considers the far more topical problem of the self or subject. In this sense, it is thematically continuous with the concerns of much Continental philosophy, particularly in its post-structuralist and psychoanalytic incarnations. It allows the Continentalist, in other words, to handle the ‘neuroscientific threat’ in a diminished and domesticated form, which is to say, as the hoary old problem of the subject. Several people have told me now that the questions raised by the sciences of the brain are ‘nothing new,’ that they simply bear out what this or that philosophical/psychoanalytic figure has said long ago–that the radicality of neuroscience is not all that ‘radical’ at all. Typically, I take the opportunity to ask questions they cannot answer.
Zizek’s reading of Metzinger in The Parallax View, for instance, clearly demonstrates the way some Continentalists regard the sciences of the brain as an empirical mirror wherein they can admire their transcendental hair. For someone like Zizek, who has made a career out of avoiding combs and brushes, Being No One proves to be one the few texts able to focus and hold his rampant attention, the one point where his concern seems to outrun his often brutish zest for ironic and paradoxical formulations. In his reading, Zizek immediately homes in on those aspects of Metzinger’s theory that most closely parallel my view (the very passages that inspired me to contact Thomas years ago, in fact) where Metzinger discusses the relationship between the transparency of the Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM) and the occlusion of the neurofunctionality that renders it. The self, on Metzinger’s account, is a model that cannot conceive itself as a model; it suffers from what he calls ‘autoepistemic closure,’ a constitutive lack of information access (BNO, 338). And its apparent transparency accordingly becomes “a special form of darkness” (BNO, 169).
This is where Metzinger’s account almost completely dovetails with Zizek’s own notion of the subject, and so holds the most glister for him. But he defers pressing this argument and turns to the conclusion of Being No One, where Metzinger, in an attempt to redeem the Enlightenment ethos, characterizes the loss of self as a gain in autonomy, insofar as scientific knowledge allows us to “grow up,” and escape the ‘tutelary nature’ of our own brain. Zizek only returns to the lessons he finds in Metzinger after a reading of Damasio’s rather hamfisted treatment of consciousness in Descartes’ Error, as well as a desultory and idiosyncratic (which, as my daughter would put it, is a fancy way of saying ‘mistaken’) reading of Dennett’s critique of the Cartesian Theater. Part of the problem he faces is that Metzinger’s PSM, as structurally amenable as it is to his thesis, remains too topical for his argument. The self simply does not exhaust consciousness (even though Metzinger himself often conflates the two in Being No One). Saying there is no such thing as selves is not the same as saying there is no such thing as consciousness. And as his preoccupation with the explanatory gap and cognitive closure makes clear, nothing less than the ontological redefinition of consciousness itself is Zizek’s primary target. Damasio and Dennett provide the material (as well as the textual distance) he requires to expand the structure he isolates in Metzinger. As he writes:
Are we free only insofar as we misrecognize the causes which determine us? The mistake of the identification of (self-)consciousness with misrecognition, with an epistemological obstacle, is that it stealthily (re)introduces the standard, premodern, “cosmological” notion of reality as a positive order of being: in such a fully constituted positive “chain of being” there is, of course, no place for the subject, so the dimension of subjectivity can be conceived of only as something which is strictly co-dependent with the epistemological misrecognition of the positive order of being. Consequently, the only way effectively to account for the status of (self-)consciousness is to assert the ontological incompleteness of “reality” itself: there is “reality” only insofar as there is an ontological gap, a crack, in its very heart, that is to say, a traumatic excess, a foreign body which cannot be integrated into it. This brings us back to the notion of the “Night of the World”: in this momentary suspension of the positive order of reality, we confront the ontological gap on account of which “reality” is never a complete, self-enclosed, positive order of being. It is only this experience of psychotic withdrawal from reality, of absolute self-contraction, which accounts for the mysterious “fact” of transcendental freedom: for a (self-)consciousness which is in effect “spontaneous,” whose spontaneity is not an effect of misrecognition of some “objective” process. 241-242
For those with a background in Continental philosophy, this ‘aporetic’ discursive mode is more than familiar. What I find so interesting about this particular passage is the way it actually attempts to distill the magic of autonomy, to identify where and how the impossibility of freedom becomes its necessity. To identify consciousness as an illusion, he claims, is to presuppose that the real is positive, hierarchical, and whole. Since the mental does not ‘fit’ with this whole, and the whole, by definition, is all there is, it must then be some kind of misrecognition of that whole–‘mind’ becomes the brain’s misrecognition of itself as a brain. Brain blindness. The alternative, Zizek argues, is to assume that the whole has a hole, that reality is radically incomplete, and so transform what was epistemological misrecognition into ontological incompleteness. Consciousness can then be seen as a kind of void (as opposed to blindness), thus allowing for the reflexive spontaneity so crucial to the normative.
In keeping with his loose usage of concepts from the philosophy of mind, Zizek wants to relocate the explanatory gap between mind and brain into the former, to argue that the epistemological problem of understanding consciousness is in fact ontologically constitutive of consciousness. What is consciousness? The subjective hole in the material whole.
[T]here is, of course, no substantial signified content which guarantees the unity of the I; at this level, the subject is multiple, dispersed, and so forth—its unity is guaranteed only by the self-referential symbolic act, that is,”I” is a purely performative entity, it is the one who says “I.” This is the mystery of the subject’s “self-positing,” explored by Fichte: of course, when I say “I,” I do not create any new content, I merely designate myself, the person who is uttering the phrase. This self-designation nonetheless gives rise to (“posits”) an X which is not the “real” flesh-and-blood person uttering it, but, precisely and merely, the pure Void of self-referential designation (the Lacanian “subject of the enunciation”): “I” am not directly my body, or even the content of my mind; “I” am, rather, that X which has all these features as its properties. 244-245
Now I’m no Zizek scholar, and I welcome corrections on this interpretation from those better read than I. At the same time I shudder to think what a stolid, hotdog-eating philosopher-of-mind would make of this ontologization of the explanatory gap. Personally, I lack Zizek’s faith in theory: the fact of human theoretical incompetence inclines me to bet on the epistemological over the ontological most every time. Zizek can’t have it both ways. He can’t say consciousness is ‘the inexplicable’ without explaining it as such.
Either way, this clearly amounts to yet another attempt to espouse a kind of naturalism without transcendental tears. Like Brassier in “The View from Nowhere,” Zizek is offering an account of subjectivity without self. Unlike Brassier, however, he seems to be oblivious to what I have previously called the Intentional Dissociation Problem: he never considers how the very issues that lead Metzinger to label the self hallucinatory also pertain to intentionality more generally. Certainly, the whole of The Parallax View is putatively given over to the problem of meaning as the problem of the relationship between thought/meaning and being/truth, or the problem of the ‘gap’ as Zizek puts it. And yet, throughout the text, the efficacy (and therefore the reality) of meaning–or thought–is never once doubted, nor is the possibility of the post-intentional considered. Much of his discussion of Dennett, for instance, turns on Dennett’s intentional apologetics, his attempt to avoid, among other things, the propositional-attitudinal eliminativism of Paul Churchland (to whom Zizek mistakenly attributes Dennett’s qualia eliminativism (PV, 177)). But where Dennett clearly sees the peril, the threat of nihilism, Zizek only sees an intellectual challenge. For Zizek, the question, Is meaning real? is ultimately a rhetorical one, and the dire challenge emerging out of the sciences of the brain amount to little more than a theoretical occasion.
So in the passage quoted above, the person (subject) is plucked from the subpersonal legion via “the self-referential symbolic act.” The problems and questions that threaten to explode this formulation are numerous, to say the least. The attraction, however, is obvious: It apparently allows Zizek, much like Kant, to isolate a moment within mechanism that nevertheless stands outside of mechanism short of entailing some secondary order of being–an untenable dualism. In this way it provides ‘freedom’ without any incipient supernaturalism, and thus grounds the possibility of meaning.
But like other forms of deflationary transcendentalism, this picture simply begs the question. The cognitive scientist need only ask, What is this ‘self-referential symbolic act’? and the circular penury of Zizek’s position is revealed: How can an act of meaning ground the possibility of meaningful acts? The vicious circularity is so obvious that one might wonder how a thinker as subtle as Zizek could run afoul it. But then, you must first realize (as, say, Dennett realizes) the way intentionality as a whole, and not simply the ‘person,’ is threatened by the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences. So for instance, Zizek repeatedly invokes the old Derridean trope of bricolage. But there’s ‘bricolage’ and then there’s bricolage: there’s fragments that form happy fragmentary wholes that readily lend themselves to the formation of new functional assemblages, ‘deconstructive ethics,’ say, and then there’s fragments that are irredeemably fragmentary, whose dimensions of fragmentation are such that they can only be misconceived as wholes. Zizek seizes on Metzinger’s account of the self in Being No One precisely because it lends itself to the former, ‘happy’ bricolage, one where we need only fear for the self and not the intentionality that constitutes it.
The Blind Brain Theory, however, paints a far different portrait of ‘selfhood’ than Metzinger’s PSM, one that not only makes hash of Zizek’s thesis, but actually explains the cognitive errors that motivate it. On Metzinger’s account, ‘auto-epistemic closure’ (or the ‘darkness of transparency’) is the primary structural principle that undermines the ‘reality’ of the PSM and the PSM only. The Blind Brain Theory, on the other hand, casts the net wider. Constraints on the information broadcast or integrated are crucial, to be sure, but BBT also considers the way these constraints impact the fractionate cognitive systems that ‘solve’ them. On my view, there is no ‘phenomenal self-model,’ only congeries of heuristic cognitive systems primarily adapted to environmental cognition (including social environmental cognition) cobbling together what they can given what little information they receive. For Metzinger, who remains bound to the ‘Accomplishment Assumption’ that characterizes the sciences of the brain more generally, the cognitive error is one of mistaking a low-dimensional simulation for a reality. The phenomenal self-model, for him, really is something like ‘a flight-simulator that contains its own exits.’
On BBT, however, there is no one error, nor even one coherent system of errors; instead there are any number of information shortfalls and cognitive misapplications leading to this or that form of reflective, acculturated forms of ‘selfness,’ be it ancient Greek, Cartesian, post-structural, or what have you. Selfness, in other words, is the product of compound misapprehensions, both at the assumptive and the theoretical levels (or better put, across the spectrum of deliberative metacognition, from the cursory/pragmatic to the systematic/theoretical).
BBT uses these misconstruals, myopias, and blindnesses to explain the ways intentionality and phenomenality confound the ‘third-person’ mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences. It can explain, in other words, many of the ‘structural’ peculiarities that make the first-person so refractory to naturalization. It does this by interpreting those peculiarities as artifacts of ‘lost dimensions’ of information, particularly with reference to medial neglect. So for instance, our intuition of aboutness derives from the brain’s inability to model its modelling, neglecting, as it must, the neurofunctionality responsible for modelling its distal environments. Thus the peculiar ‘bottomlessness’ of conscious cognition and experience, the way each subsequent moment somehow becomes ground of the moment previous (and all the foundational paradoxes that have arisen from this structure). Thus the metacognitive transformation of asymptotic covariance into ‘aboutness,’ a relation absent the relation.
And so it continues: Our intuition of conscious unity arises from the way cognition confuses aggregates for individuals in the absence of differentiating information. Our intuition of personal identity (and nowness more generally) arises from metacognitive neglect of second-order temporalization, our brain’s blindness to the self-differentiating time of timing. For whatever reason, consciousness is integrative: oscillating sounds and lights ‘fuse’ or appear continuous beyond certain frequency thresholds because information that doesn’t reach consciousness makes no conscious difference. Thus the eerie first-person that neglect hacks from a much higher dimensional third can be said to be inevitable. One need only apply the logic of flicker-fusion to consciousness as a whole, ask why, for instance, facets of conscious experience such as unity or presence require specialized ‘unification devices’ or ‘now mechanisms’ to accomplish what can be explained as perceptual/cognitive errors in conditions of informatic privation. Certainly it isn’t merely a coincidence that all the concepts and phenomena incompatible with mechanism involve drastic reductions in dimensionality.
In explaining away intentionality, personal identity, and presence, BBT inadvertently explains why we intuit the subject we think we do. It sets the basic neurofunctional ‘boundary conditions’ within which Sellars’ manifest image is culturally elaborated–the boundary conditions of intentional philosophy, in effect. In doing so, it provides a means of doing what the Continental tradition, even in its most recent, quasi-materialist incarnations, has regarded as impossible: naturalizing the transcendental, whether in its florid, traditional forms or in its contemporary deflationary guises–including Zizek’s supposedly ineliminable remainder, his subject as ‘gap.’
And this is just to say that BBT, in explaining away the first-person, also explains away Continental philosophy.
Few would argue that many of the ‘conditions of possibility’ that comprise the ‘thick transcendental’ account of Kant, for instance, amount to speculative interpretations of occluded brain functions insofar as they amount to interpretations of anything at all. After all, this is a primary motive for the retreat into ‘materialism’ (a position, as we shall see, that BBT endorses no more than ‘idealism’). But what remains difficult, even apparently impossible, to square with the natural is the question of the transcendental simpliciter. Sure, one might argue, Kant may have been wrong about the transcendental, but surely his great insight was to glimpse the transcendental as such. But this is precisely what BBT and medial neglect allows us to explain: the way the informatic and heuristic constraints on metacognition produce the asymptotic–acausal or ‘bottomless’–structure of conscious experience. The ‘transcendental’ on this view is a kind of ‘perspectival illusion,’ a hallucinatory artifact of the way information pertaining to the limits of any momentary conscious experience can only be integrated in subsequent moments of conscious experience.
Kant’s genius, his discovery, or at least what enabled his account to appeal to the metacognitive intuitions of so many across the ages, lay in making-explicit the occluded medial axis of consciousness, the fact that some kind of orthogonal functionality (neural, we now know) haunts empirical experience. Of course Hume had already guessed as much, but lacking the systematic, dogmatic impulse of his Prussian successor, he had glimpsed only murk and confusion, and a self that could only be chased into the oblivion of the ‘merely verbal’ by honest self-reflection.
Brassier, as we have seen, opts for the epistemic humility of the Humean route, and seeks to retrieve the rational via the ‘merely verbal.’ Zizek, though he makes gestures in this direction, ultimately seizes on a radical deflation of the Kantian route. Where Hume declines the temptation of hanging his ‘merely verbal’ across any ontological guesses, Zizek positions his ‘self-referential symbolic act’ within the ‘Void of pure designation,’ which is to say, the ‘void’ of itself, thus literally construing the subject as some kind of ‘self-interpreting rule’–or better, ‘self-constituting form’–the point where spontaneity and freedom become at least possible.
But again, there’s ‘void,’ the one that somehow magically anchors meaning, an then there’s, well, void. According to BBT, Zizek’s formulation is but one of many ways deliberative metacognition, relying on woefully depleted and truncated information and (mis)applying cognitive tools adapted to distal social and natural environments, can make sense of its own asymptotic limits: by transforming itself into the condition of itself. As should be apparent, the genius of Zizek’s account is entirely strategic. The bootstrapping conceit of subjectivity is preserved in a manner that allows Zizek to affirm the tyranny of the material (being, truth) without apparent contradiction. The minimization of overt ontological commitments, meanwhile, lends a kind of theoretical immunity to traditional critique.
There is no ‘void of pure designation’ because there is no ‘void’ any more than there is ‘pure designation.’ The information broadcast or integrated in conscious experience is finite, thus generating the plurality of asymptotic horizons that carve the hallucinatory architecture of the first-person from the astronomical complexities of our brain-environment. These broadcast or integration limits are a real empirical phenomenon that simply follow from the finite nature of conscious experience. Of BBT’s many empirical claims, these ‘information horizons’ are almost certain to be scientifically vindicated. Given these limits, the question of how they are expressed in conscious experience becomes unavoidable. The interpretations I’ve so far offered are no doubt little more than an initial assay into what will prove a massive undertaking. Once they are taken into account, however, it becomes difficult not to see Zizek’s ‘deflationary transcendental’ as simply one way for a fractionate metacognition to make sense of these limits: unitary because the absence of information is the absence of differentiation, reflexive because the lack of medial temporal information generates the metacognitive illusion of medial timelessness, and referential because the lack of medial functional information generates the metacognitive illusion of afunctional relationality, or intentional ‘aboutness.’
Thus we might speak of the ‘Zizek Fallacy,’ the faux affirmation of a materialism that nevertheless spares just enough of the transcendental to anchor the intentional…
A thread from which to dangle the prescientific tradition.
So does this mean that BBT offers the only ‘true’ route from intentionality to materialism. Not at all.
BBT takes the third-person brain as the ‘rule’ of the first-person mind simply because, thus far at least, science provides the only reliable form of theoretical cognition we know. Thus it would seem to be ‘materialist,’ insofar as it makes the body the measure of the soul. But what BBT shows–or better, hypothesizes–is that this dualism between mind and brain, ideal and real, is itself a heuristic artifact. Given medial neglect, the brain can only model its relation to its environment absent any informatic access to that relation. In other words, the ‘problem’ of its relation to distal environments is one that it can only solve absent tremendous amounts of information. The very structure of the brain, in other words, the fact that the machinery of predictive modelling cannot itself be modelled, prevents it, at a certain level at least, from being a universal problem solver. The brain is itself a heuristic cognitive tool, a system adapted to the solution of particular ‘problems.’ Given neglect, however, it has no way of cognizing its limits, and so regularly takes itself to be omni-applicable.
The heuristic structure of the brain and the cognitive limits this entails are nowhere more evident than in its attempts to cognize itself. So long as the medial mechanisms that underwrite the predictive modelling of distal environments in no way interfere with the environmental systems modelled–or put differently, so long as the systems modelled remain functionally independent of the modelling functions–then medial neglect need not generate problems. When the systems modelled are functionally entangled with medial modelling functions, however, one should expect any number of ‘interference effects’ culminating in the abject inability to predictively model those systems. We find this problem of functional entanglement distally where the systems to be modelled are so delicate that our instrumentation causes ‘observation effects’ that render predictive modelling impossible, and proximally where the systems to be modelled belong to the brain that is modelling. And indeed, as I’ve argued in a number of previous posts, many of the problems confronting the philosophy of mind can be diagnosed in terms of this fundamental misapplication of the ‘Aboutness Heuristic.’
This is where post-intentionalism reveals an entirely new dimension of radicality, one that allows us to identify the metaphysical categories of the ‘material’ and the ‘formal’ (yes, I said, formal) for the heuristic cartoons they are. BBT allows us to finally see what we ‘see’ as subreptive artifacts of our inability to see, as low-dimensional shreds of abyssal complexities. It provides a view where not only can the tradition be diagnosed and explained away, but where the fundamental dichotomies and categories, hitherto assumed inescapable, dissolve into the higher dimensional models that only brains collectively organized into superordinate heuristic mechanisms via the institutional practices of science can realize. Mind? Matter? These are simply waystations on an informatic continuum, ‘concepts’ according to the low-dimensional distortions of the first-person and mechanisms according to the third: concrete, irreflexive, high-dimensional processes that integrate our organism–and therefore us–as componential moments of the incomprehensibly vast mechanism of the universe. Where the tradition attempts, in vain, to explain our perplexing role in this natural picture via a series of extraordinary additions, everything from the immortal soul to happy emergence to Zizek’s fortuitous ‘void,’ BBT merely proposes a network of mundane privations, arguing that the self-congratulatory consciousness we have tasked science with explaining simply does not exist…
That the ‘Hard Problem’ is really one of preserving our last and most cherished set of self-aggrandizing conceits.
It is against this greater canvas that we can clearly see the parochialism of Zizek’s approach, how he remains (despite his ‘merely verbal’ commitment to ‘materialism’) firmly trapped within the hallucinatory ‘parallax’ of intentionality, and so essentializes the (apparently not so) ‘blind spot’ that plays such an important role in the system of conceptual fetishes he sets in motion. It has become fashion in certain circles to impugn ‘correlation’ in an attempt to think being in a manner that surpasses the relation between thought and being. This gives voice to an old hankering in Continental philosophy, the genuinely shrewd suspicion that something is wrong with the traditional, understanding of human cognition. But rather than answer the skepticism that falls out of Hume’s account of human nature or Wittgenstein’s consideration of human normativity, the absurd assumption has been that one can simply think their way beyond the constraints of thought, simply reach out and somehow snatch ‘knowledge at a spooky distance.’ The poverty of this assumption lies in the most honest of all questions: ‘How do you know?’ given that (as Hume taught us) you are a human and so cursed with human cognitive frailties, given that (as Wittgenstein taught us) you are a language-user and so belong to normative communities.
‘Correlation’ is little more than a gimmick, the residue of a magical thinking that assumes naming a thing gives one power over it. It is meant to obscure far more than enlighten, to covertly conserve the Continental tradition of placing the subject on the altar of career-friendly critique, lest the actual problem–intentionality–stir from its slumber and devour twenty-five centuries of prescientific conceit and myopia. The call to think being precritically, which is to say, without thinking the relation of thought and being, amounts to little more than an conceptually atavistic stunt so long as Hume and Wittgenstein’s questions remain unanswered.
The post-intentional philosophy that follows from BBT, however, belongs to the self-same skeptical tradition of disclosing the contextual contingencies that constrain thought’s attempt to cognize being. As opposed to the brute desperation of simply ignoring subjectivity or normativity, it seizes upon them. Intentional concepts and phenomena, it argues, exhibit precisely the acausal ‘bottomlessness’ that medial neglect, a structural inevitability given a mechanistic understanding of the brain, forces on metacognition. A great number of powerful and profound illusions result, illusions that you confuse for yourself. You think you are more a system of levers rather than a tangle of wiretaps. You think that understanding is yours. The low-dimensional cartoon of you standing within and apart from an object world is just that, a low-dimensional cartoon, a surrogate, facile and deceptive, for the high-dimensional facts of the brain-environment.
Thus is the problem of so-called ‘correlation’ solved, not by naming, shaming, and ersatz declaration, but rather by passing through the problematic, by understanding that the ‘subjective’ and the ‘normative’ are themselves natural and therefore amenable to scientific investigation. BBT explains the artifactual nature of the apparently inescapable correlation of thought and being, how medial neglect strands metacognition with an inexplicable covariance that it must conceive otherwise–in supra-natural terms. And it allows one to set aside the intentional conundrums of philosophy for what they are: arguments regarding interpretations of cognitive illusions.
Why assume the ‘design stance,’ given that it turns on informatic neglect? Why not regularly regard others in subpersonal terms, as mechanisms, when it strikes ‘you’ as advantageous? Or, more troubling still, is this simply coming to terms with what you have been doing all along? The ‘pragmatism’ once monopolized by ‘taking the intentional stance’ no longer obtains. For all we know, we could be more a confabulatory interface than anything, an informatic symbiont or parasite–our ‘consciousness’ a kind of tapeworm in the gut of the holy neural host. It could be this bad–worse. Corporate advertisers are beginning to think as much. And as I mentioned above, this is where the full inferential virulence of BBT stands revealed: it merely has to be plausible to demonstrate that anything could be the case.
And the happy possibilities are drastically outnumbered.
As for the question, ‘How do you know?’ BBT cheerfully admits that it does not, that it is every bit as speculative as any of its competitors. It holds forth its parsimonious explanatory reach, the way it can systematically resolve numerous ancient perplexities using only a handful of insights, as evidence of its advantage, as well as the fact that it is ultimately empirical, and so awaits scientific arbitration. BBT, unlike ‘OOO’ for instance, will stand or fall on the findings of cognitive science, rather than fade as all such transcendental positions fade on the tide of academic fashion.
And, perhaps most importantly, it is timely. As the brain becomes ever more tractable to science, the more antiquated and absurd prescientific discourses of the soul will become. It is folly to think that one’s own discourse is ‘special,’ that it will be the first prescientific discourse in history to be redeemed rather than relegated or replaced by the findings of science. What cognitive science discovers over the next century will almost certainly ruin or revolutionize fairly everything that has been assumed regarding the soul. BBT is mere speculation, yes, but mere speculation that turns on the most recent science and remains answerable to the science that will come. And given that science is the transformative engine of what is without any doubt the most transformative epoch in human history, BBT provides a means to diagnose and to prognosticate what is happening to us now–even going so far as to warn that intentionality will not constrain the posthuman.
What it does not provide is any redeeming means to assess or to guide. The post-intentional holds no consolation. When rules become regularities, nothing pretty can come of life. It is an ugly, even horrifying, conclusion, suggesting, as it does, that what we hold the most sacred and profound is little more than a subreptive by-product of evolutionary indifference. And even in this, the relentless manner in which it explodes and eviscerates our conceptual conceits, it distinguishes itself from its soft-bellied competitors. It simply follows the track of its machinations, the algorithmic grub of ‘reason.’ It has no truck with flattering assumptions.
And this is simply to say is that the Blind Brain Theory offers us a genuine way out, out of the old dichotomies, the old problems. It bids us to moult, to slough off transcendental philosophy like a dead serpentine skin. It could very well achieve the dream of all philosophy–only at the cost of everything that matters.
And really. What else did you fucking expect? A happy ending? That life really would turn out to be ‘what we make it’?
Whatever the conclusion is, it ain’t going to be Hollywood.