Neither Separate, Nor Equal

by rsbakker

Aphorisim of the Day: Some argue against yesterday. Some argue against tomorrow. But everyone kisses ass when it comes to today.

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‘Continuity bias’ is a term I coined years back to explain how it could be that so many people could remain so unaware of the kinds of fundamental upheaval that are about to engulf human civilization. I sit with my three year-old daughter watching little robots riding bicycles, walking tightropes, doing dance routines and so on, thinking how when I was her age the world was electrified by the first handheld calculators. So I ask myself, with more than a little apprehension, I assure you, What can my daughter expect?

The only remotely plausible answer to this question is almost entirely empty, and yet all the more consequential for it: What can my daughter expect? Something radically different than this…

Something fundamentally discontinuous.

To crib concepts used by Reinhart Kosselleck to characterize Neuzeit, or modernity, we are living in an age where our ‘horizon of expectation’ has all but collapsed into our ‘space of experience.’ My daughter will live through an age when the traditional verities of human experience will likely be entirely discredited by neuroscientific fact, and where the complexities and capacities of our machines will almost certainly outrun our own complexities and capacities. And this, as much as anything else, is the reason why I find any kind of principled defence of traditionalism at once poignant and alarming: poignant because I too belonged to that tradition and I too mourn its imminent passing, and alarming because it does not bode well when the change at issue is so fundamental that the very institutions charged with critiquing the tradition are now scrambling to rationalize its defence.

So it was I found myself shaking my head while reading Jason Bartulis’s recent defence of nooconservativism on Nonsite.org. I decided to write on it because of the way it exemplifies what I’ve been calling the ‘separate-but-equal strategy’ and how it tends to devolve into question-begging and special pleading. But since head-shaking whilst reading is never a good sign, I encourage people to challenge my interpretation, particularly if you find Bartulis’s position appealing. Maybe I am overlooking something. Against all reason, thousands of people are now reading these posts, more than enough for me to become sensitive to the consequences of any oversights on my part.

Bartulis summarizes his position thus:

I’ve been arguing …. that engineering questions can only be answered in engineering terms. Conversely, I’ve tracked the infelicities attending the importation of the explanatory vocabulary of the natural sciences into human sciences to demonstrate why engineering explanations can’t work as explanations to normative questions. Thinking they can is one way of committing, not the Intentional, but the Naturalistic Fallacy in (literary) epistemology and in the philosophy of mind that subtends most attempts to make cognition a category for literary and cultural analysis.

Now since I once defended a position similar to this, I understand the straightforward (if opportunistic) nature of its appeal: ‘Your cognition has its yardsticks, my cognition has mine, therefore keep your yardstick away from my cognition.’ But it really is a peculiar argument, if you think about. For instance, it’s a given that functional explanations and intentional explanations are conceptually incommensurable. This has been part of the problem all along. And yet Bartulis (like Zizek, only less dramatically) has convinced himself that this problem is itself the solution.

Bartulis is arguing that because the functional and the intentional are incommensurable, the traditional intentional discursive domain is secure. Why? Because once you acknowledge the cognitive autonomy of intentional discourse, you can label any functional explanatory incursion into that discourse’s domain as ‘fallacious,’ a version of G. E Moore’s ‘Naturalistic Fallacy,’ to be precise. A kind of ‘category mistake.’ And why should we acknowledge the cognitive autonomy of intentional discourse? Well, because only it can cognize its domain. As he puts it:

My point, of course, is an anti-reductionist one. No amount of mapping of which synaptic vectors alight when can explain why I think that I should interpret a passage (or character, or author) one way rather than another. Nor can visual mapping, in and of itself, explain what I mean to do by interpreting a passage one way rather than another. And that’s because neither normative significance nor meaning is something that synapses, simply, have, and so normative significance and meaning aren’t things that we can, simply, see. Stating the position a bit more carefully: at least in the case of human perception—say, listening to a work of art or, more ordinarily, conversing with a familiar foe—there certainly are cases when normative significance and meaning can be seen and heard straightaway. Moreover, there are interpretive contexts when would-be explainers immediately perceive, and so can intelligibly claim to know, that a given subject is herself immediately perceiving the meaning of some object. But our best account of those instances proceeds…by placing those instances in the space of reasons.

Here we can clearly see how the separate but equal strategy requires that the nooconservative make a virtue out of ignorance and the failure of imagination. I could pick this passage apart phrase by phrase, fault Bartulis for cherry-picking neurofunctional elements that rhetorically jar with traditional conceits (as opposed to ‘tracking infelicities’), or I could take him at his word, and devise the very interpretations that he finds unimaginable, argue–along lines at least as plausible as his own–that ‘normative significance’ is something that only neurofunctional accounts will allow us to cognize. Why, for instance, should the subpersonal prove any less appropriate than the psychoanalytic?

But all I really need to do is invoke the what I’ve called the Big Fat Pessimistic Induction: Given that, throughout its historical metastasis, science (and functional explanation) has utterly revolutionized every discursive domain it has colonized, why should we presume the soul will prove to be any different? What plucks us from the sum of natural explanation, and so guarantees the cognitive autonomy of your tradition?

The fact that Bartulis needs to recognize is that these are questions that only science can decisively answer. The only way we have of knowing whether the brain sciences will revolutionize the humanities is to wait and see whether the brain sciences will revolutionize the humanities. He and innumerable other traditionalists will float claim after territorial claim only to watch them vanish over the cataract of academic fashion, while the sciences of the brain will continue their grim and inexorable march, leveraging techniques and technologies that will command public and commercial investment, not to mention utterly remake the ‘human.’ Once again, it’s a given that functional explanations and intentional explanations are conceptually incommensurable. This is a big part of the problem. The other part lies in the power of functional explanations, the fact that they, unlike the ‘dramatic idiom’ of intentionality, actually allow us to radically remake the natural world–of which we happen to be a part. The sad fact is that Bartulis and his ilk are institutionally overmatched, that the contest was never equal, but only appeared so, simply because the complexities of the brain afforded their particular prescientific discourse a prolonged reprieve from the consequences of scientific inquiry.

“How uncanny,” Bartulis writes of those bemoaning scientific literacy in the humanities, “to find the language of change, force, and progress surfacing in an intellectual domain whose defining critical gesture, for better or worse, have involved critiques of those very terms as they operate in liberal discourse and other Enlightenment ideologies.” But this is simply a canard. He thinks he’s rapping critical knuckles–‘You should know better!’–when in point of fact he’s underscoring his own ignorance. Personally, I think science will cut our collective throats (using, of course, enough anaesthesia to confound the event with bliss and transcendence). Science builds, complicates, empowers, no matter what one thinks of Old Enlightenment ideologies. And the fact that it does so blindly does more to impugn his nooconservative stance than support it.

So, to return to the quote above: Yes, it is the case that we often, in those instances, enjoy the ‘feeling of knowing.’ But we now know the feeling itself is an indicator of nothing (fools, after all, have their convictions). We also now know that deliberative metacognition is severely limited: veridical auto-theorization is clearly not something our brains evolved to do. And we have no clue whatsoever whether ‘our best account of those instances proceeds by placing those instances in the space of reasons.’

‘But you’re arguing in the space of reasons now!’ Bartulis would almost certainly cry, assuming that I necessarily mean what he means when I use concepts like ‘use’ (even though I do not).

To which, I need only shrug and say, ‘It’s a long shot, but you could be right.’

I wanna believe, but traditions and their centrisms generally don’t fare that well once science jams its psychopathic foot in the door.