Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: February, 2013

Reactionary Atheism: Hagglund, Derrida, and Nooconservatism

by rsbakker

(Belated) Aphorism of the Day: Why break hearts or blow minds when you can rot souls?


The difference between the critic and the apologist in philosophy, one would think, is the difference between conceiving philosophy as refuge, a post hoc means to rationalize and so recuperate what we cherish or require, and conceiving philosophy as exposure, an ad hoc means to mutate thought and so see our way through what we think we cherish or require. Now in Continental philosophy so-called, the overwhelming majority of thinkers would consider themselves critics and not apologists. They would claim to be proponents of exposure, of the new, and deride the apologist for abusing reason in the service of wishful thinking.

But this, I hope to show, is little more than a flattering conceit. We are all children of Hollywood, all prone to faux-renegade affectations. Nowadays ‘critic,’ if anything, simply names a new breed of apologist. This is perhaps inevitable, in a certain sense. The more cognitive science learns regarding reason, the more intrinsically apologetic it seems to become, a confabulatory organ primarily adapted to policing and protecting our parochial ingroup aspirations. But it is also the case that thought (whatever the hell it is) has been delivered to a radically unprecedented juncture, one that calls its very intelligibility into question. Our ‘epoch of thinking’ teeters upon the abyssal, a future so radical as to make epic fantasy of everything we are presently inclined to label ‘human.’ Whether it acknowledges as much or not, all thought huddles in the shadow of the posthuman–the shadow of its end.

I’ve been thumping this particular tub for almost two decades now. It has been, for better or worse, the thematic impetus behind every novel I have written and every paper I have presented. And at long last, what was once a smattering of voices has become a genuine chorus (for reasons quite independent of my tub thumping I’m sure). Everyone agrees that something radical is happening. Also, everyone agrees that this ‘something’ turns on the every-expanding powers of science–and the sciences of the brain in particular. This has led to what promises to become one of those generational changes in philosophical thinking, at least in its academic incarnation. Though winded, thought is at last attempting to pace the times we live in. But I fear that it’s failing this attempt, that, far from exposing itself to the most uncertain future humanity has ever known, materially let alone intellectually, it is rather groping for ways to retool and recuperate a philosophical heritage that the sciences are transforming into mythology as we speak. It is attempting to innoculate thought as it exists against the sweeping transformations engulfing its social conditions. To truly expose thought, I want to argue, is to be willing to let it die…

Or become inhuman.

My position is quite simple: Now that science is overcoming the neural complexities that have for so long made an intentional citadel out of the soul, it will continue doing what it has always done, which is offer sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated, mechanical explanations of what it finds, and so effectively ‘disenchanting’ the brain the way it has the world. This first part, at least, is uncontroversial. The real question has to do with the ‘disenchantment,’ which is to say the degree to which these mechanical explanations will be commensurate with our intentional self-understanding, or what Sellars famously called the ‘manifest image.’ Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding, we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown. Indeed, we already have a growing mountain of evidence trending in this direction. Given our apologetic inclinations, however, it should come as no surprise that the literature is rife with arguments why all things are not equal. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of happy endings, especially where science is concerned (I’m inclined to think it will cut our throats), the difficulty I have with such arguments lies in their reliance on metacognitive intuition. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are in any better position peering into our souls than our ancestors were peering into the heavens. Why should the accumulation of scientific information be any friendlier to our traditional, prescientific assumptions this one time around?

I simply don’t think the human, or for that matter, any of the concepts science has chased from the world into the shadows of the human brain, will prove to be the miraculous exception. Science will rewrite ‘rules’ the way it has orbits, ‘meanings’ the way it has planets, and so on, doing what it has done so many times in the past: take simplistic, narcissistic notions founded on spare and fragmentary information and replacing them portraits of breathtaking causal complexity.

This is why I’m so suspicious of the ongoing ‘materialist turn’ in Continental philosophy, why I see it more as a crypto-apologetic attempt to rescue traditional conceptual conceits than any genuine turn away from ‘experience.’ This is how I read Zizek’s The Parallax View several weeks back, and this is how I propose to read Martin Hagglund’s project in his recent (and quite wonderfully written), Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Specifically, I want to take issue with his materialist characterization of Derrida’s work, even though this seems to be the aspect of his book that has drawn the most praise. Aaron Hodges, in “Martin Hagglund’s Speculative Materialism,” contends that Radical Atheism has “effectively dealt the coup de grace to any understanding of deconstructive logic that remains under the sway of idealist interpretation.” Even John Caputo, in his voluminous counterargument concedes that Hagglund’s Derrida is a materialist Derrida; he just happens to think that there are other Derridas as well.

Against the grain of Radical Atheism’s critical reception, then, I want to argue that no Derrida, Hagglund’s or otherwise, can be ‘materialist’ in any meaningful sense and remain recognizable as a ‘Derrida.’ He simply is not, as Hagglund claims, a philosopher of ‘ultratranscendence’ (as Hagglund defines the term). Derrida is not the author of any singular thought ‘beyond’ the empirical and the transcendental. Nor does he, most importantly, provide any way to explain the fundamental ‘synthesis,’ as Hagglund calls it, required to make sense of experience.

To evidence this last point, I will rehearse the explanation of ‘synthesis’ provided by the Blind Brain Theory (BBT). I will then go on to flex a bit of theoretical muscle, to demonstrate the explanatory power of BBT, the way it can ‘get behind’ and explicate philosophical positions even as notoriously arcane as Husserlian phenomenology or Derridean deconstruction. This provides us with the conceptual resources required to see the extent of Derrida’s noocentrism, the way he remains, despite the apparent profundity of his aleatory gestures, thoroughly committed to the centrality of meaning–the intentional. Far from ‘radical,’ I will contend, Derrida remains a nooconservative thinker, one thoroughly enmeshed in the very noocentric thinking Hagglund and so many others seem to think he has surpassed.

For those not familiar with Radical Atheism, I should note the selective, perhaps even opportunistic, nature of the reading I offer. From the standpoint of BBT, the distinction between deconstruction and negative theology is the distinction between deflationary conceptions of intentionality in its most proximal and distal incarnations. Thus the title of the present piece, ‘Reactionary Atheism.’ To believe in meaning of any sort is to have faith in some version of ‘God.’ Finite or infinite, mortal or immortal, the intentional form is conserved–and as I hope to show, that form is supernatural. BBT is a genuinely post-intentional theoretical position. According to it, there are no meaning makers,’ objective or subjective. According to it, you are every bit as mythological as the God you would worship or honour. In this sense, the contest between atheistic and apophatic readings of Derrida amounts to little more than another intractable theological dispute. On the account offered here, both houses are equally poxed.

My reading therefore concentrates on the first two chapters of Radical Atheism, where Hagglund provides an interpretation of how (as Derrida himself claims) trace and differance arise out of his critique of Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time-consciousness. Since Hagglund’s subsequent defence of ‘radical atheism’ turns on the conclusions he draws from this interpretation–namely, the ‘ultratranscendental’ status of trace and differance and the explanation of synthesis they offer–undermining these conclusions serves to undermine Hagglund’s thesis as a whole.

Horn head

Atheism as traditionally understood, Hagglund begins, does not question the desire for God or immortality and so leaves ‘mortal’ a privative concept. To embrace atheism is to settle for mere mortality. He poses radical atheism as Derrida’s alternative, the claim that the conceptual incoherence of the desire for God and immortality forces us to affirm its contrary, the mortal:

The key to radical atheism is what I analyze as the unconditional affirmation of survival. This affirmation is not a matter of choice that some people make and others do not: it is unconditional because everyone is engaged by it without exception. Whatever one may want or whatever one may do, one has to affirm the time of survival, since it opens the possibility to live on–and thus to want something or to do something–in the first place. This unconditional affirmation of survival allows us to read the purported desire for immortality against itself. The desire to live on after death is not a desire for immortality, since to live on is to remain subjected to temporal finitude. The desire for survival cannot aim at transcending time, since the given time is the only chance for survival. There is thus an internal contradiction in the so-called desire for immortality. Radical Atheism, 2

Time becomes the limit, the fundamental constraint, the way, Hagglund argues, to understand how the formal commitments at the heart of Derrida’s work render theological appropriations of deconstruction unworkable. To understand deconstruction, you need to understand Derrida’s analysis of temporality. And once you understand Derrida’s analysis of temporality, he claims, you will see that deconstruction entails radical atheism, the incoherence of desiring immortality.

Although Hagglund will primarily base his interpretation of deconstructive temporality on a reading of Speech and Phenomena, it is significant, I think, that he begins with a reading of “Ousia and Gramme,” which is to say, a reading of Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s reading of Hegel! In “Ousia and Gramme,” Derrida is concerned with the deconstructive revision of the Heideggerean problematic of presence. The key to this revision, he argues, lies in one of the more notorious footnotes in Being and Time, where Heidegger recapitulates the parallels between Hegel’s and Aristotle’s considerations of temporality. This becomes “the hidden passageway that makes the problem of presence communicate with the problem of the written trace” (Margins of Philosophy, 34). Turning from Heidegger’s reading of Hegel, Derrida considers what Aristotle himself has to say regarding time in Physics (4:10), keen to emphasize Aristotle’s concern with the apories that seem to accompany any attempt to think the moment. The primary problem, as Aristotle sees it, is the difficulty of determining whether the now, which divides the past from the future, is always one and the same or distinct, for the now always seems to somehow be the same now, even as it is unquestionably a different now. The lesson that Derrida eventually draws from this has to do with the way Heidegger, in his attempt to wrest time from the metaphysics of presence, ultimately commits the very theoretical sins that he imputes to Hegel and Aristotle. As he writes: “To criticize the manipulation or determination of any one of these concepts from within the system always amounts, and let this expression be taken with its full charge of meaning here, to going around in circles: to reconstituting, according to another configuration, the same system” (60). The lesson, in other words, is that there is no escaping the metaphysics of presence. Heidegger’s problem isn’t that he failed to achieve what he set out to achieve–How could it be when such failure is constitutive of philosophical thought?–but that he thought, if only for a short time, that he had succeeded.

The lesson that Hagglund draws from “Ousia and Gramme,” however, is quite different:

The pivotal question is what conclusion to draw from the antinomy between divisible time and indivisible presence. Faced with the relentless division of temporality, one must subsume time under a nontemporal presence in order to secure the philosophical logic of identity. The challenge of Derrida’s thinking stems from his refusal of this move. Deconstruction insists on a primordial division and thereby enables us to think the radical irreducibility of time as constitutive of any identity. Radical Atheism, 16-17

If there is one thing about Hagglund’s account that almost all his critics agree on, it is his clarity. But even at this early juncture, it should be clear that this purported ‘clarity’ possesses a downside. Derrida raises and adapts the Aristotelian problem of divisibility in “Ousia and Gramme” to challenge, not simply Heidegger’s claim to primordiality, but all claims to primordiality. And he criticizes Heidegger, not for thinking time in terms of presence, but for believing it was possible to think time in any other way. Derrida is explicitly arguing that ‘refusing this move’ is simply not possible, and he sees his own theoretical practice as no exception. His ‘challenge,’ as Hagglund calls it, lies in conceiving presence as something at once inescapable and impossible. Hagglund, in other words, distills his ‘pivotal question’ via a reading of “Ousia and Gramme” that pretty clearly runs afoul the very theoretical perils it warns against. We will return to this point in due course.

Having isolated the ‘pivotal,’ Hagglund turns to the ‘difficult’:

The difficult question is how identity is possible in spite of such division. Certainly, the difference of time could not even be marked without a synthesis that relates the past to the future and thus posits an identity over time. Philosophies of time-consciousness have usually solved the problem by anchoring the synthesis in a self-present subject, who relates the past to the future through memories and expectations that are given in the form of the present. The solution to the problem, however, must assume that the consciousness that experiences time in itself is present and thereby exempt from the division of time. Hence, if Derrida is right to insist that the self-identity of presence is impossible a priori, then it is all the more urgent to account for how the synthesis of time is possible without being grounded in the form of presence. 17

Identity has to come from somewhere. And this is where Derrida, according to Hagglund, becomes a revolutionary part of the philosophical solution. “For philosophical reason to advocate endless divisibility,” he writes, “is tantamount to an irresponsible empiricism that cannot account for how identity is possible” (25). This, Hagglund contends, is Derrida’s rationale for positing the trace. The nowhere of the trace becomes the ‘from somewhere’ of identity, the source of ‘originary synthesis.’ Hagglund offers Derrida’s account of the spacing of time and the temporalizing of space as a uniquely deconstructive account of synthesis, which is to say, an account of synthesis that does not “subsume time under a nontemporal presence in order to secure the philosophical logic of identity” (16).

Given the centrality of the trace to his thesis, critics of Radical Atheism were quick to single it out for scrutiny. Where Derrida seems satisfied with merely gesturing to the natural, and largely confining actual applications of trace and difference to semantic contexts, Hagglund presses further: “For Derrida, the spacing of time is an ‘ultratranscendental’ condition from which nothing can be exempt” (19). And when he says ‘nothing,’ Hagglund means nothing, arguing that everything from the ideal to “minimal forms of life” answers to the trace and differance. Hagglund was quick to realize the problem. In a 2011 Journal of Philosophy interview, he writes, “[t]he question then, is how one can legitimize such a generalization of the structure of the trace. What is the methodological justification for speaking of the trace as a condition for not only language and experience but also processes that extend beyond the human and even the living?”

Or to put the matter more simply, just what is ‘ultratranscendental’ supposed to mean?

Derrida, for his part, saw trace and differance as (to use Gasche’s term) ‘quasi-transcendental.’ Derrida’s peculiar variant of contextualism turns on his account of trace and differance. Where pragmatic contextualists are generally fuzzy about the temporality implicit to the normative contexts they rely upon, Derrida actually develops what you could call a ‘logic of context’ using trace and differance as primary operators. This is why his critique of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena is so important. He wants to draw our eye to the instant-by-instant performative aspect of meaning. When you crank up the volume on the differential (as opposed to recuperative) passage of time, it seems to be undeniably irreflexive. Deconstruction is a variant of contextualism that remains ruthlessly (but not exclusively) focussed on the irreflexivity of semantic performances, dramatizing the ‘dramatic idiom’ through readings that generate creativity and contradiction. The concepts of trace and differance provide synchronic and diachronic modes of thinking this otherwise occluded irreflexivity. What renders these concepts ‘quasi-transcendental,’ as opposed to transcendental in the traditional sense, is nothing other than trace and differance. Where Hegel temporalized the krinein of Critical Philosophy across the back of the eternal, conceiving the recuperative role of the transcendental as a historical convergence upon his very own philosophy, Derrida temporalizes the krinein within the aporetic viscera of this very moment now, overturning the recuperative role of the transcendental, reinterpreting it as interminable deflection, deferral, divergence–and so denying his thought any self-consistent recourse to the transcendental. The concept DIFFERANCE can only reference differance via the occlusion of differance. “The trace,” as Derrida writes, “is produced as its own erasure” (“Ousia and Gramme,” 65). One can carve out a place for trace and differance in the ‘system space’ of philosophical thinking, say their ‘quasi-transcendentality’ (as Gasche does in The Tain of the Mirror, for instance) resides in the way they name both the condition of possibility and impossibility of meaning and life, or one can, as I would argue Derrida himself did, evince their ‘quasi-transcendentality’ through actual interpretative performances. One can, in other words, either refer or revere.

Since second-order philosophical accounts are condemned to the former, it has become customary in the philosophical literature to assign content to the impossibility of stable content assignation, to represent the way performance, or the telling, cuts against representation, or the told. (Deconstructive readings, you could say, amount to ‘toldings,’ readings that stubbornly refuse to allow the antinomy of performance and representation to fade into occlusion). This, of course, is one of the reasons late 20th century Continental philosophy came to epitomize irrationalism for so many in the Anglo-American philosophical community. It’s worth noting, however, that in an important sense, Derrida agreed with these worries: this is why he prioritized demonstrations of his position over schematic statements, drawing cautionary morals as opposed to traditional theoretical conclusions. As a way of reading, deconstruction demonstrates the congenital inability of reason and representation to avoid implicitly closing the loop of contradiction. As a speculative account of why reason and representation possess this congenital inability, deconstruction explicitly closes that loop itself.

Far from being a theoretical virtue, then, ‘quasi-transcendence’ names a liability. Derrida is trying to show philosophy that inconsistency, far from being a distal threat requiring some kind of rational piety to avoid, is maximally proximal, internal to its very practice. The most cursory survey of intellectual history shows that every speculative position is eventually overthrown via the accumulation of interpretations. Deconstruction, in this sense, can be seen as a form of ‘interpretative time-travel,’ a regimented acceleration of processes always already in play, a kind of ‘radical translation’ put into action in the manner most violent to theoretical reason. The only way Derrida can theoretically describe this process, however, is by submitting to it–which is to say, by failing the way every other philosophy has failed. ‘Quasi-transcendence’ is his way of building this failure in, a double gesture of acknowledging and immunizing; his way of saying, ‘In speaking this, I speak what cannot be spoken.’

(This is actually the insight that ended my tenure as a ‘Branch Derridean’ what seems so long ago, the realization that theoretical outlooks that manage to spin virtue out of their liabilities result in ‘performative first philosophy,’ positions tactically immune to criticism because they incorporate some totalized interpretation of critique, thus rendering all criticisms of their claims into exemplifications of those claims. This is one of the things I’ve always found the most fascinating about deconstruction: the way it becomes (for those who buy into it) a performative example of the very representational conceit it sets out to demolish.)

‘Quasi-transcendental,’ then, refers to ‘concepts’ that can only be shown. So what then, does Hagglund mean by ‘utlratranscendental’ as opposed to ‘transcendental’ and ‘quasi-transcendental’? The first thing to note is that Hagglund, like Gasche and others, is attempting to locate Derrida within the ‘system space’ of philosophy and theory more generally. For him (opposed to Derrida), deconstruction implies a distinct position that rationalizes subsequent theoretical performances. As far as I can tell, he views the recursive loop of performance and representation, telling and told, as secondary. The ultratranscendental is quite distinct from the quasi-transcendental (though my guess is that Hagglund would dispute this). For Hagglund, rather, the ultratranscendental is thought through the lense of the transcendental more traditionally conceived:

On the one hand, the spacing of time has an ultratranscendental status because it is the condition for everything all the way up and including the ideal itself. The spacing of time is the condition not only for everything that can be cognized and experienced, but also for everything that can be thought and desired. On the other hand, the spacing of time has an ultratranscendental status because it is the condition for everything all the way down to minimal forms of life. As Derrida maintains, there is no limit to the generality of differance and the structure of the trace applies to all fields of the living. Radical Atheism, 19

The ultratranscendental, in other words, is simply an ‘all the way’ transcendental, as much a condition of possibility of life as a condition of possibility of experience. “The succession of time,” Hagglund states in his Journal of Philosophy interview, “entails that every moment negates itself–that it ceases to be as soon as it comes to be–and therefore must be inscribed as trace in order to be at all.” Trace and differance, he claims, are logical as opposed to ontological implications of succession, and succession seems to be fundamental to everything.

This is what warrants the extension of trace and differance from the intentional (the kinds of contexts Derrida was prone to deploy them) to the natural. And this is why Hagglund is convinced he’s offering a materialist reading of Derrida, one that allows him to generalize Derrida’s arche-writing to an ‘arche-materiality’ consonant with philosophical naturalism. But when you turn to his explicit statements to this effect, you find that the purported, constitutive generality of the trace, what makes it ultratranscendental, becomes something quite different:

This notion of the arche-materiality can accommodate the asymmetry between the living and the nonliving that is integral to Darwinian materialism (the animate depends upon the inanimate but not the other way around). Indeed, the notion of arche-materiality allows one to account for the minimal synthesis of time–namely, the minimal recording of temporal passage–without presupposing the advent or existence of life. The notion of arche-materiality is thus metatheoretically compatible with the most significant philosophical implications of Darwinism: that the living is essentially dependant on the nonliving, that animated intention is impossible without mindless, inanimate repetition, and that life is an utterly contingent and destructible phenomenon. Unlike current versions of neo-realism or neo-materialism, however, the notion of arche-materiality does not authorize its relation to Darwinism by constructing an ontology or appealing to scientific realism but rather articulating a logical infrastructure that is compatible with its findings. Journal of Philosophy

The important thing to note here is how Hagglund is careful to emphasize that the relationship between arche-materiality and Darwinian naturalism is one of compatibility. Arche-materiality, here, is posited as an alternative way to understand the mechanistic irreflexivity of the life sciences. This is more than a little curious given the ‘ultratranscendental’ status he wants to accord to the former. If it is the case that trace and differance understood as arche-materiality are merely compatible with rather than anterior to and constitutive of the mechanistic, Darwinian paradigm of the life sciences, then how could they be ‘ultratranscendental,’ which is to say, constitutive, in any sense? As an alternative, one might wonder what advantages, if any, arche-materiality has to offer theory. The advantages of mechanistic thinking should be clear to anyone who has seen a physician. So the question becomes one of what kind of conceptual work do trace and differance do.

Hagglund, in effect, has argued himself into the very bind which I fear is about to seize Continental philosophy as a whole. He recognizes the preposterous theoretical hubris involved in arguing that the mechanistic paradigm depends on arche-materiality, so he hedges, settles for ‘compatibility’ over anteriority. In a sense, he has no choice. Time is itself the object of scientific study, and a divisive one at that. Asserting that trace and differance are constitutive of the mechanistic paradigm places his philosophical speculation on firmly empirical ground (physics and cosmology, to be precise)–a place he would rather not be (and for good reason!).

But this requires that he retreat from his earlier claims regarding the ultratranscendental status of trace and differance, that he rescind the claim that they constitute an ‘all the way down’ condition. He could claim they are merely transcendental in the Kantian, or ‘conditions of experience,’ sense, but then that would require abandoning his claim to materialism, and so strand him with the ‘old Derrida.’ So instead he opts for ‘compatibility,’ and leaves the question of theoretical utility, the question of why we should bother with arcane speculative tropes like trace and differance given the boggling successes of the mechanistic paradigm, unasked.

One could argue, however, that Hagglund has already given us his answer: trace and differance, he contends, allow us to understand how reflexivity arises from irreflexivity absent the self-present subject. This is their signature contribution. As he writes:

The synthesis of the trace follows from the constitution of time we have considered. Given that the now can appear only by disappearing–that it passes away as soon as it comes to be–it must be inscribed as a trace in order to be at all. This is the becoming-space of time. The trace is necessarily spatial, since spatiality is characterized by the ability to remain in spite of temporal succession. Spatiality is thus the condition for synthesis, since it enables the tracing of relations between past and future. Radical Atheism, 18

But as far as ‘explanations’ are concerned it remains unclear as to how this can be anything other than a speculative posit. The synthesis of now moments occurs somehow. Since the past now must be recuperated within future nows, it makes sense to speak of some kind of residuum or ‘trace.’ If this synthesis isn’t the product of subjectivity, as Kant and Husserl would have it, then it has to be the product of something. The question is why this ‘something’ need have anything to do with space. Why does the fact that the trace (like the Dude) ‘abides’ have anything to do with space? The fact that both are characterized by immunity to succession implies, well… nothing. The trace, you could say, is ‘spatial’ insofar as it possesses location. But it remains entirely unclear how spatiality ‘enables the tracing of relations between past and future,’ and so becomes the ‘condition for synthesis.’

Hagglund’s argument simply does not work. I would be inclined to say the same of Derrida, if I actually thought he was trying to elaborate a traditional theoretical position in the system space of philosophy. But I don’t: I think the aporetic loop he establishes between deconstructive theory and practice is central to understanding his corpus. Derrida takes the notion of quasi-transcendence (as opposed to ultratranscendence) quite seriously. ‘Trace’ and ‘differance’ are figures as much as concepts, which is precisely why he resorts to a pageant of metaphors in his subsequent work, ‘originary supplements’ such as spectres, cinders, gifts, pharmakons and so on: The same can be said of ‘arche-writing’ and yes, even ‘spacing’: Derrida literally offers these as myopic and defective ways of thinking some fraction of the unthinkable. Derrida has no transcendental account of how reflexivity arises from irreflexivity, only a myriad of quasi-transcendental ways we might think the relation of reflexivity and irreflexivity. The most he would say is that trace and differance allow us to understand how the irreflexivity characteristic of mechanism operates both on and within the synthesis of experience.

At the conclusion of “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Derrida discusses the ‘radicalization of the thought of the trace,’ adding parenthetically, “a thought because it escapes the binarism and makes binarism possible on the basis of a nothing” (Writing and Difference, 230). This, once again, is what makes the trace and differance ‘quasi-transcendental.’ Our inability to think the contemporaneous, irreflexive origin of our thinking means that we can only think that irreflexivity under ‘erasure,’ which is to say, in terms at once post hoc and ad hoc. Given that trace and differance refer to the irreflexive, procrustean nature of representation (or ‘presence’), the fact that being ‘vanishes’ in the disclosure of beings, it seems to make sense that we should wed our every reference to them with an admission of the vehicular violence involved, the making present (via the vehicle of thought) of what can never be, nor ever has been, present.

In positioning Derrida’s thought beyond the binarism of transcendental and empirical, Hagglund is situating deconstruction in the very place Derrida tirelessly argues thought cannot go. As we saw above, Hagglund thinks advocating ‘endless divisibility’ is ‘philosophically irresponsible’ given the fact of identity (Radical Atheism, 25). What he fails to realize is that this is precisely the point: preaching totalized irreflexivity is a form of ‘irresponsible empiricism’ for philosophical reason. Trace and differance, as more than a few Anglo-American philosophical commentators have noted, are rationally irresponsible. No matter how fierce the will to hygiene and piety, reason is always besmirched and betrayed by its occluded origins. Thus the aporetic loop of theory and practice, representation and performance, reflexivity and irreflexivity–and, lest we forget, interiority and exteriority…

Which is to say, the aporetic loop of spacing. As we’ve seen, Hagglund wants to argue that spacing constitutes a solution to the fundamental philosophical problem of synthesis. If this is indeed the cornerstone of Derrida’s philosophy as he claims, then the ingenious Algerian doesn’t seem to think it bears making explicit. If anything, the sustained, explicit considerations of temporality that characterize his early work fade into the implicit background of his later material. This is because Derrida offers spacing, not as an alternate, nonintentional explanation of synthesis, but rather as a profound way to understand the aporetic form of that synthesis:

Even before it ‘concerns’ a text in narrative form, double invagination constitutes the story of stories, the narrative of narrative, the narrative of deconstruction in deconstruction: the apparently outer edge of an enclosure [cloture], far from being simple, simply external and circular, in accordance with the philosophical representation of philosophy, makes no sign beyond itself, toward what is utterly other, without becoming double or dual, without making itself be ‘represented,’ refolded, superimposed, re-marked within the enclosure, at least in what the structure produces as an effect of interiority. But it is precisely this structure-effect that is being deconstructed here. “More Than One Language,” 267-8

The temporal assumptions Derrida isolates in his critique of Husserl are clearly implicit here, but it’s the theme of spacing that remains explicit. What Derrida is trying to show us, over and over again, is a peculiar torsion in what we call experience: the ‘aporetic loop’ I mentioned above. It’s most infamous statement is “there is nothing outside the text” (Of Grammatology, 158) and its most famous image is that of the “labyrinth which includes in itself its own exits” (Speech and Phenomena, 104). Derrida never relinquishes the rhetoric of space because the figure it describes is the figure of philosophy itself, the double-bind where experience makes possible the world that makes experience possible.

What Hagglund calls synthesis is at once the solution and the dilemma. It relates to the outside by doubling, becoming ‘inside-outside,’ thus exposing itself to what lays outside the possibility of inside-outside (and so must be thought under erasure). Spacing refers to the interiorization of exteriority via the doubling of interiority. The perennial philosophical sin (the metaphysics of presence) is to confuse this folding of interiority for all there is, for inside and outside. So to take Kant as an example, positing the noumenal amounts to a doubling of interiority: the binary of empirical and transcendental. What Derrida is attempting is nothing less than a thinking that remains, as much as possible, self-consciously open to what lies outside the inside-outside, the ‘nothing that makes such binarisms possible.’ Since traditional philosophy can only think this via presence, which is to say, via another doubling, the generation of another superordinate binary (the outside-outside versus the inside-outside (or as Hagglund would have it, the ultratranscendental versus the transcendental/empirical)), it can only remain unconsciously open to this absolute outside. Thus Derrida’s retreat into performance.

Far from any ‘philosophical solution’ to the ‘philosophical problem of synthesis,’ spacing provides a quasi-transcendental way to understand the dynamic and aporetic form of that synthesis, giving us what seems to be the very figure of philosophy itself, as well as a clue as to how thinking might overcome the otherwise all-conquering illusion of presence. Consider the following passage from “Differance,” a more complete version of the quote Hagglund uses to frame his foundational argument in Radical Atheism:

An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject. In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space (temporization). And it is this constitution of the present, as an ‘originary’ and irreducibly nonsimple (and therefore, stricto sensu nonoriginary) synthesis of marks, or traces of retentions and protentions (to reproduce analogically and provisionally a phenomenological and transcendental language that soon will reveal itself to be inadequate), that I propose to call archi-writing, archi-traces, or differance. Which (is) (simultaneously) spacing (and) temporization. Margins of Philosophy, 13

Here we clearly see the movement of ‘double invagination’ described above, the way the ‘interval’ divides presence from itself both within itself and without, generating the aporetic figure of experience/world that would for better or worse become Derrida’s lifelong obsession. The division within is what opens the space (as inside/outside), while the division without, the division that outruns the division within, is what makes this space the whole of space (because of the impossibility of any outside inside/outside). Hagglund wants to argue “that an elaboration of Derrida’s definition allows for the most rigourous thinking of temporality by accounting for an originary synthesis without grounding it in an indivisible presence” (Radical Atheism, 18). Not only is his theoretical, ultratranscendental ‘elaboration’ orthogonal to Derrida’s performative, quasi-transcendental project, his rethinking of temporality (despite its putative ‘rigour’), far from explaining synthesis, ultimately re-inscribes him within the very metaphysics of presence he seeks to master and chastise. The irony, then, is that even though Hagglund utterly fails to achieve his thetic goals, there is a sense in which he unconsciously (and inevitably) provides a wonderful example of the very figure Derrida is continually calling to our attention. The problem of synthesis is the problem of presence, and it is insoluble, insofar as any theoretical solution, for whatever reason, is doomed to merely reenact it.

Derrida does not so much pose a solution to the problem of synthesis as he demonstrates the insolubility of the problem given the existing conceptual resources of philosophy. At most Derrida is saying that whatever brings about synthesis does so in a way that generates presence as deconstructively conceived, which is to say, structured as inside/outside, self/other, experience/world–at once apparently complete and ‘originary’ and yet paradoxically fragmentary and derivative. Trace and differance provide him with the conceptual means to explore the apparent paradoxicality at the heart of human thought and experience at a particular moment of history:

Differance is neither a word nor a concept. In it, however, we see the juncture–rather than the summation–of what has been most decisively inscribed in the thought of what is conveniently called our ‘epoch’: the difference of forces in Nietzche, Saussure’s principle of semiological difference, difference as the possibility of [neurone] facilitation, impression and delayed effect in Freud, difference as the irreducibility of the trace of the other in Levinas, and the ontic-ontological difference in Heidegger. Speech and Phenomena, 130

It is this last ‘difference,’ the ontological difference, that Derrida singles out for special consideration. Differance, he continues, is strategic, a “provisionally privileged” way to track the “closure of presence” (131). In fact, if anything is missing in an exegetical sense from Hagglund’s consideration of Derrida it has to be Heidegger, who edited The Phenomenology of Internal Time-consciousness and, like Derrida, arguably devised his own philosophical implicature via a critical reading of Husserl’s account of temporality. In this sense, you could say that trace and differance are not the result of a radicalization of Husserl’s account of time, but rather a radicalization of a radicalization of that account. It is the ontological difference, the difference between being and beings, that makes presence explicit as a problem. Differance, you could say, startegically and provisionally renders the problem of presence (or ‘synthesis’) dynamic, conceives it as an effect of the trace. Where the ontological difference allows presence to hang pinned in philosophical system space for quick reference and retrieval, differance ‘references’ presence as a performative concern, as something pertaining to this very moment now. Far from providing the resources to ‘solve’ presence, differance expands the problem it poses by binding (and necessarily failing to bind) it to the very kernel of now.

Contra Hagglund, trace and differance do not possess the resources to even begin explaining synthesis in any meaningful sense of the term ‘explanation.’ To think that it does, I have argued, is to misconceive both the import and the project of deconstruction. But this does not mean that presence/synthesis is in fact insoluble. As the above quote suggests, Derrida himself understood the ‘epochal’ (as opposed to ‘ultratranscendental’) nature of the problematic motivating trace and differance. A student of intellectual history, he understood the contingency of the resources we are able to bring to any philosophical problem. He did not, as Adorno did working through the same conceptual dynamics via negative dialectics and identity thinking, hang his project from the possibility of some ‘Messianic moment,’ but this doesn’t mean he didn’t think the radical exposure whose semantic shadow he tirelessly attempted to chart wasn’t itself radically exposed.

And as it so happens, we are presently living through what is arguably the most revolutionary philosophical epoch of all, the point when the human soul, so long sheltered by the mad complexities of the brain, is at long last yielding to the technical and theoretical resources of the natural sciences. What Hagglund, deferring to the life sciences paradigm, calls ‘compatibility’ is a constitutive relation after all, only one running from nature to thought, world to experience. Trace and differance, far from ‘explaining’ the ‘ultratranscendental’ possibility of ‘life,’ are themselves open/exposed to explanation in naturalistic terms. They are not magical.

Deconstruction can be naturalized.


So what then is synthesis? How does reflexivity arise from irreflexivity?

Before tackling this question we need to remind ourselves of the boggling complexity of the world as revealed by the natural sciences. Phusis kruptesthai philei, Heraclitus allegedly said, ‘nature loves hiding.’ What it hides ‘behind’ is nothing less than our myriad cognitive incapacities, our inability to fathom complexities that outrun our brain’s ability to sense and cognize. ‘Flicker fusion’ in psychophysics provides a rudimentary and pervasive example: when the frequency of a flickering light crosses various (condition-dependent) thresholds, our experience of it will ‘fuse.’ What was a series of intermittent flashes becomes continuous illumination. As pedestrian as this phenomena seems, it has enormous practical and theoretical significance. This is the threshold that determines, for instance, the frame rate for the presentation of moving images in film or video. Such technologies, you could say, actively exploit our sensory and cognitive bottlenecks, hiding with nature beyond our ability differentiate.

Differentiations that exceed our brain’s capacity to sense/cognize make no difference. Or put differently, information (understood in the basic sense of systematic differences making systematic differences) that exceeds the information processing capacities of our sensory and cognitive systems simply does not exist for those systems–not even as an absence. It simply never occurs to people that their incandescent lights are in fact discontinuous. Thus the profundity of the Heraclitean maxim: not only does nature conceal itself behind the informatic blind of complexity, it conceals this concealment. This is what makes science such a hard-won cultural achievement, why it took humanity so long (almost preposterously so, given hindsight) to see that it saw so little. Lacking information pertaining to our lack of information, we assumed we possessed all the information required. We congenitally assumed, in other words, the sufficiency of what little information we had available. Only now, after centuries of accumulating information via institutionalized scientific inquiry, can we see how radically insufficient that information was.

Take geocentrism for instance. Lacking information regarding the celestial motion and relative location of the earth, our ancestors assumed it was both motionless and central, which is to say, positionally self-identical relative to itself and the cosmos. Geocentrism is the result of a basic perspectival illusion, a natural assumption to make given the information available and the cognitive capacities possessed. As strange as it may sound, it can be interpreted as a high-dimensional, cognitive manifestation of flicker fusion, the way the absence of information (differences making differences) results in the absence of differentiation, which is to say, identity.

Typically we construe ‘misidentifications’ with the misapplication of representations, as when, for example, children call whales fish. Believing whales are fish and believing the earth is the motionless centre of the universe would thus seem to be quite different kinds of mistakes. Both are ‘misrepresentations,’ mismatches between cognition and the world, but where the former mistake is categorical, the latter is empirical. The occult nature of this ‘matching’ makes it difficult to do much more than classify them together as mistakes, the one a false identification, the other a false theory.

Taking an explicitly informatic view, however, allows us to see both as versions of the mistake you’re making this very moment, presuming as you do the constancy of your illuminated computer screen (among other things). Plugging the brain into its informatic environment reveals the decisive role played by the availability of information, how thinking whales are fish and thinking the earth is the motionless centre of the universe both turn on the lack of information, the brain’s inability to access the systematic differences required to differentiate whales from fish or the earth’s position over time. Moreover, it demonstrates the extraordinarily granular nature of human cognition as traditionally conceived. It reveals, in effect, the possibility that our traditional, intentional understanding of cognition should itself be seen as an artifact of information privation.

Each of the above cases–flicker fusion, geocentrism, and misidentification–involve our brain’s ability to comprehend its environments given its cognitive resources and the information available. With respect to cognizing cognition, however, we need to consider the brain’s ability to cognize itself given, once again, its cognitive resources and the information available. Much of the philosophical tradition has attributed an exemplary status to self-knowledge, thereby assuming that the brain is in a far better position to cognize itself than its environments. But as we saw in the case with environmental cognition, the absence of information pertaining to the absence of information generates the illusion of sufficiency, the assumption that the information available is all the information there is. A number of factors, including the evolutionary youth of metacognition, the astronomical complexity of the brain, not to mention the growing mountain of scientific evidence indicating rampant metacognitive error, suggest that our traditional assumptions regarding the sufficiency theoretical metacognition need to be set aside. It’s becoming increasingly likely that metacognitive intuitions, far from constituting some ‘plenum,’ are actually the product of severe informatic scarcity.

Nor should we be surprised: science is only just beginning to mine the informatic complexities of the human brain. Information pertaining to what we are as a matter of scientific fact is only now coming to light. Left to our own devices, we can only see so much of the sky. The idea of our ancient ancestors looking up and comprehending everything discovered by modern physics and cosmology is, well, nothing short of preposterous. They quite simply lacked the information. So why should we think peering at the sky within will prove any different than the sky above? Taking the informatic perspective thus raises the spectre of noocentrism, the possibility that our conception of ourselves as intentional is a kind of perspectival illusion pertaining to metacognition not unlike geocentrism in the case of environmental cognition.

Thus the Blind Brain Theory, the attempt to naturalistically explain intentional phenomena in terms of the kinds and amounts of information missing. Where Hagglund claims ‘compatibility’ with Darwinian naturalism, BBT exhibits continuity: it takes the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as its basis. To the extent that it can explain trace and difference, then, it can claim to have naturalized deconstruction.

According to BBT, the intentional structure of first-person experience–the very thing phenomenology takes itself to be describing–is an artifact of informatic neglect, a kind of cognitive illusion. So, for instance, when Hagglund (explaining Husserl’s account of time-consciousness) writes “[t]he notes that run off and die away can appear as a melody only through an intentional act that apprehends them as an interconnected sequence” (56) he is literally describing the way that experience appears to a metacognition trussed in various forms of neglect. As we shall see, where Derrida, via the quasi-transcendentals of trace and differance, can only argue the insufficiencies plaguing such intentional acts, BBT possesses the resources to naturalistically explain, not only the insufficiencies, but why metacognition attributes intentionality to temporal cognition at all, why the apparent paradoxes of time-consciousness arise, and why it is that trace and differance make ‘sense’ the way they do. ‘Brain blindness’ or informational lack, in other words, can not only explain many of the perplexities afflicting consciousness and the first-person, it can also explain–if only in a preliminary and impressionistic way–much of the philosophy turning on what seem to be salient intentional intuitions.

Philosophy becoming transcendentally self-conscious as it did with Hume and Kant can be likened to a kid waking up to the fact that he lives in a peculiar kind of box, one not only walled by neglect (which is to say, the absence of information–or nothing at all), but unified by it as well. Kant’s defining metacognitive insight came with Hume: Realizing the wholesale proximal insufficiency of experience, he understood that philosophy must be ‘critical.’ Still believing in reason, he hoped to redress that insufficiency via his narrow form of transcendental interpretation. He saw the informatic box, in other words, and he saw how everything within it was conditioned, but assuming the sufficiency of metacognition, he assumed the validity of his metacognitive ‘deductions.’ Thus the structure of the empirical, the conditioned, and the transcendental, the condition: the attempt to rationally recuperate the sufficiency of experience.

But the condition is, as a matter of empirical fact, neural. The speculative presumption that something resembling what we think we metacognize as soul, mind, or being-in-the-world arises at some yet-to-be naturalized ‘level of description’–noocentrism–is merely that, a speculative presumption that in this one special case (predictably, our case) science will redeem our intentional intuitions. BBT offers the contrary speculative presumption, that something resembling what we think we metacognize as soul, mind, or being-in-the-world will not arise at some yet-to-be naturalized ‘level of description’ because nothing resembles what we think we metacognize at any level. Cognition is fractionate, heuristic, and captive to the information available. The more scant or mismatched the information, the more error prone cognition becomes. And no cognitive system faces the informatic challenges confronting metacognition. The problem, simply put, is that we lack any ‘meta-metacognition,’ and thus any intuition of the radical insufficiency of the information available relative to the cognitive resources possessed. The kinds of low-dimensional distortions revealed are therefore taken as apodictic.

There are reasons why first-person experience appears the way it does, they just happen to be empirical rather than transcendental. Transcendental explanation, you could say, is an attempt to structurally regiment first-person experience in terms that take the illusion to be real. The kinds of tail-chasing analyses one finds in Husserl literally represent an attempt to dredge some kind of formal science out of what are best understood as metacognitive illusions. The same can be said for Kant. Although he deserves credit for making the apparent asymptotic structure of conscious experience explicit, he inevitably confused the pioneering status of his subsequent interpretations–the fact that they were, for the sake of sheer novelty, the ‘only game in town’–for a kind of synthetic deductive validity. Otherwise he was attempting to ‘explain’ what are largely metacognitive illusions.

According to BBT, ‘transcendental interpretation’ represents the attempt to rationalize what it is we think we see when we ‘reflect’ in terms (intentional) congenial to what it is we think we see. The problem isn’t simply that we see far too little, but that we are entirely blind to the very thing we need to see: the context of neurofunctional processes that explains the why and how of the information broadcast to or integrated within conscious experience. To say the neurofunctionality of conscious experience is occluded is to say metacognition accesses no information regarding the actual functions discharged by the information broadcast or integrated. Blind to what lies outside its informatic box, metacognition confuses what it sees for all there is (as Kahneman might say), and generates ‘transcendental interpretations’ accordingly. Reasoning backward with inadequate cognitive tools from inadequate information, it provides ever more interpretations to ‘hang in the air’ with the interpretations that have come before.

‘Transcendental,’ in other words, simply names those prescientific, medial interpretations that attempt to recuperate the apparent sufficiency of conscious experience as metacognized. BBT, on the other hand, is exclusively interested in medial interpretations of what is actually going on, regardless of speculative consequences. It is an attempt to systematically explain away conscious experience as metacognized–the first-person–in terms of informatic privation and heuristic misadventure.

This will inevitably strike some readers as ‘positivist,’ ‘scientistic,’ or ‘reductive,’ terms that have become scarce more than dismissive pejoratives in certain philosophical circles, an excuse to avoid engaging what science has to say regarding their domain–the human. BBT, in other words, is bound to strike certain readers as chauvinistic, even imperial. But, if anything, BBT is bent upon dispelling views grounded in parochial sources of information–chauvinism. In fact, it is transcendental interpretation that restricts itself to nonscientific sources of information under the blanket assumption of metacognitive sufficiency, the faith that enough information of the right kind is available for actual cognition. Transcendental interpretation, in other words, remains wedded to what Kant called ‘tutelary natures.’ BBT, however, is under no such constraint; it considers both metacognitive and scientific information, understanding that the latter, on pain of supernaturalism, simply has to provide the baseline for reliable theoretical cognition (whatever that ultimately turns out to be). Thus the strange amalgam of scientific and philosophical concepts found here.

If reliable theoretical cognition requires information of the right kind and amount, then it behooves the philosopher, deconstructive or transcendental, to take account of the information their intentional rationales rely upon. If that information is primarily traditional and metacognitive–prescientific–then that philosopher needs some kind of sufficiency argument, some principled way of warranting the exclusion of scientific information. And this, I fear, has become all but impossible to do. If the sufficiency argument provided is speculative–that is, if it also relies on traditional claims and metacognitive intuitions–then it simply begs the question. If, on the other hand, it marshals information from the sciences, then it simply acknowledges the very insufficiency it is attempting to fend.

The epoch of intentional philosophy is at an end. It will deny and declaim–it can do nothing else–but to little effect. Like all prescientific domains of discourse it can only linger and watch its credibility evaporate into New Age aether as the sciences of the brain accumulate ever more information and refine ever more instrumentally powerful interpretations of that information. It’s hard to argue against cures. Any explanatory paradigm that restores sight to the blind, returns mobility to the crippled, not to mention facilitates the compliance of the masses, will utterly dominate the commanding heights of cognition.

Far more than mere theoretical relevance is at stake here.

On BBT, all traditional and metacognitive accounts of the human are the product of extreme informatic poverty. Ironically enough, many have sought intentional asylum within that poverty in the form of apriori or pragmatic formalisms, confusing the lack of information for the lack of substantial commitment, and thus for immunity against whatever the sciences of the brain may have to say. But this just amounts to a different way of taking refuge in obscurity. What are ‘rules’? What are ‘inferences’? Unable to imagine how science could answer these questions, they presume either that science will never be able to answer them, or that it will answer them in a manner friendly to their metacognitive intuitions. Taking the history of science as its cue, BBT entertains no such hopes. It sees these arguments for what they happen to be: attempts to secure the sufficiency of low-dimensional, metacognitive information, to find gospel in a peephole glimpse.

The same might be said of deconstruction. Despite their purported radicality, trace and differance likewise belong to a low-dimensional conceptual apparatus stemming from a noocentric account of intentional sufficiency. ‘Mystic writing pad’ or no, Derrida remains a philosopher of experience as opposed to nature. As David Roden has noted, “while Derrida’s work deflates the epistemic primacy of the ‘first person,’ it exhibits a concern with the continuity of philosophical concepts that is quite foreign to the spirit of contemporary naturalism” (“The Subject”). The ‘advantage’ deconstruction enjoys, if it can be called such, lies in its relentless demonstration of the insufficiency plaguing all attempts to master meaning, including its own. But as we have seen above, it can only do such from the fringes of meaning, as a ‘quasi-transcendentally’ informed procedure of reading. Derrida is, strangely enough, like Hume in this regard, only one forewarned of the transcendental apologetics of Kant.

Careful readers will have already noted a number of striking parallels between the preceding account of BBT and the deconstructive paradigm. Cognition (or the collection of fractionate heuristic subsystems we confuse for such) only has recourse to whatever information is available, thus rendering sufficiency the perennial default. Even when cognition has recourse to supplementary information pertaining to the insufficiency of information, information is processed, which is to say, the resulting complex (which might be linguaformally expressed as, ‘Information x is insufficient for reliable cognition’) is taken as sufficient insofar as the system takes it up at all. Informatic insufficiency is parasitic on sufficiency, as it has to be, given the mechanistic nature of neural processing. For any circuit involving inputs and outputs, differences must be made. Sufficient or not, the system, if it is to function at all, must take it as such.

(I should pause to note a certain temptation at this juncture, one perhaps triggered by the use of the term ‘supplementary.’ One can very easily deconstruct the above set of claims the way one can deconstruct any set of theoretical claims, scientific or speculative. But where the deconstruction of speculative claims possesses or at least seems to possess clear speculative effects, the deconstruction of scientific claims does not, as a rule, possess any scientific effects. BBT, recall, is an empirical theory, and as such stands beyond the pale of decisive speculative judgment (if indeed, there is such a thing).)

The cognition of informatic insufficiency always requires sufficiency. To ‘know’ that you are ‘wrong’ is to be right about being wrong. The positivity of conscious experience and cognition follows from the mechanical nature of brain function, the mundane fact that differences must be made. Now, whatever ‘consciousness’ happens to be as a natural phenomenon (apart from our hitherto fruitless metacognitive attempts to make sense of it), it pretty clearly involves the ‘broadcasting’ or ‘integration’ of information (systematic differences made) from across the brain. At any given instant, conscious experience and cognition access only an infinitesimal fraction of the information processed by the brain: conscious experience and cognition, in other words, possess any number of informatic limits. Conscious experience and cognition are informatically encapsulated at any given moment. It’s not just that huge amounts of information are simply not available to the conscious subsystems of the brain, it’s that information allowing the cognition of those subsystems for what they are isn’t available. The positivity of conscious experience and cognition turns on what might be called medial neglect, the structural inability to consciously experience or cognize the mechanisms behind conscious experience and cognition.

Medial neglect means the mechanics of system are not available to the system. The importance of this observation cannot be overstated. The system cannot cognize itself the way it cognizes its environments, which is to say, causally, and so must cognize itself otherwise. What we call ‘intentionality’ is this otherwise. Most of the peculiarities of this ‘cognition otherwise’ stem from the structural inability of the system to track its own causal antecedents. The conscious subsystems of the brain cannot cognize the origins of any of its processes. Moreover, they cannot even cognize the fact that this information is missing. Medial neglect means conscious experience and cognition are constituted by mechanistic processes that structural escape conscious experience and cognition. And this is tantamount to saying that consciousness is utterly blind to its own irreflexivity.

And as we saw above, in the absence of differences we experience/cognize identity.

On BBT, then, the ‘fundamental synthesis’ described by Hagglund is literally a kind of flicker fusion,’ a metacognitive presumption of identity where there is none. It is a kind of mandatory illusion: illusory because it egregiously mistakes what is the case, and mandatory because, like the illusion of continuous motion in film, it involves basic structural capacities that cannot be circumvented and so ‘seen through.’ But where with film environmental cognition blurs the distinction between discrete frames into an irreflexive, sensible continuity, the ‘trick’ played upon metacognition is far more profound. The brain has evolved to survive and exploit environmental change, irreflexivity. First and foremost, human cognition is the evolutionary product of the need to track environmental irreflexivity with enough resolution and fidelity to identify and avoid threats and identify and exploit opportunities. You could say it is an ensemble of irreflexivities (mechanisms) parasitic upon the greater irreflexitivity of its environment (or to extend Craver’s terms, the brain is a component of the ‘brain/environment’). Lacking the information required to cognize temporal difference, it perceives temporal continuity. Our every act of cognition is at once irrevocable and blind to itself as irrevocable. Because it is blind to itself, it cannot, temporally speaking, differentiate itself from itself. As a result, such acts seem to arise from some reflexive source. The absence of information, once again, means the absence of distinction, which means identity. The now, the hitherto perplexing and inexplicable fusion of distinct times, becomes the keel of subjectivity, something that appears (to metacognition at least) to be a solitary, reflexive exception in an universe entirely irreflexive otherwise.

This is the cognitive illusion that both Kant and Husserl attempted to conceptually regiment, Kant by positing the transcendental unity of apperception, and Husserl via the transcendental ego. This is also the cognitive illusion that stands at the basis of our understanding of persons, both ourselves and others.

When combined with sufficiency, this account of reflexivity provides us with an elegant way to naturalize presence. Sufficiency means that the positivity of conscious experience and cognition ‘fills the existential screen’: there is nothing but what is experienced and cognized at any given moment. The illusion of reflexivity can be seen as a temporalization of the illusion of sufficiency: lacking the information required to relativize sufficiency to any given moment, metacognition blurs it across all times. The ‘only game in town effect’ becomes an ‘only game in time effect’ for the mere want of metacognitive information–medial neglect. The target of metacognition, conscious experience and cognition, appears to be something self-sustaining, something immediately, exhaustively self-present, something utterly distinct from the merely natural, and something somehow related to the eternal.

And with the naturalization of presence comes the naturalization of the aporetic figure of philosophy that so obsessed Derrida for the entirety of his career. Sufficiency, the fact that conscious experience and cognition ‘fills the screen,’ means that the limits of conscious experience and cognition always outrun conscious experience and cognition. Sufficiency means the boundaries of consciousness are asymptotic, ‘limits with only one side.’ The margins of your visual attention provide a great example of this. The limits of seeing can never be seen: the visual information integrated into conscious experience and cognition simply trails into ‘oblivion.’ The limits of seeing are thus visually asymptotic, though the integration of vision into a variety of other systems allows those limits to be continually, effortlessly cognized. Such, however, is not the case when it comes to the conscious subsystems of the brain as a whole. They are, once again, encapsulated. Conscious experience and cognition only exists ‘for’ conscious experience and cognition ‘within’ conscious experience and cognition. To resort to the language of representation favoured by Derrida, the limits of representation only become available via representation.

And all this, once again, simply follows from the mechanistic nature of the human brain, the brute fact that the individual mechanisms engaged in informatically comporting our organism to itself and its (social and natural) environments, are engaged and so incapable of systematically tracking their own activities let alone the limitations besetting them. Sufficiency is asymptosis. Such tracking requires a subsequent reassignation of neurocomputational resources–it must always be deferred to a further moment that is likewise mechanically incapable of tracking its own activities. This post hoc tracking, meanwhile, literally has next to nothing that it can systematically comport itself to (or ‘track’). Thus each instant of functioning blots the instant previous, rendering medial neglect all but complete. Both the incalculably intricate and derived nature of each instant is lost as is the passage between instants, save for what scant information is buffered or stored. And so are irreflexive repetitions whittled into anosognosiac originals.

Theoretical metacognition, or philosophical reflection, confronts the compelling intuition that it is originary, that it stands outside the irreflexive order of its environments, that it is in some sense undetermined or free. Precisely because it is mechanistic, it confuses itself for ‘spirit,’ for something other than nature. As it comes to appreciate (through the accumulation of questions (such as those posed by Hume)) the medial insufficiency of conscious experience as metacognized, it begins to posit medial prosthetics that dwell in the asymptotic murk, ‘conditions of possibility,’ formal rationalizations of conscious experience as metacognized. Asymptosis is conceived as transcendence in the Kantian sense (as autoaffection, apperceptive unity, so on), forms that appeal to philosophical intuition because of the way they seem to conserve the illusions compelled by informatic neglect. But since the assumption of metacognitive identity is an artifact of missing information, which is to say, cognitive incapacity, the accumulation of questions (which provide information regarding the absence of information) and the accumulation of information pertaining to irreflexivity (which, like external relationality, always requires more information to cognize), inevitably cast these transcendental rationalizations into doubt. Thus the strange inevitability of deconstruction (or negative dialectics, or the ‘philosophies of difference’ more generally), the convergence of philosophical imagination about the intuition of some obdurate, inescapable irreflexivity concealed at the very root of conscious experience and cognition.

Deconstruction can be seen as a ‘low resolution’ (strategic, provisional) recognition of the medial mechanicity that underwrites the metacognitive illusion of ‘meaning.’ Trace and differance are emissaries of irreflexivity, an expression of the neuromechanics of conscious experience and cognition given only the limited amount of information available to conscious experience and cognition. As mere glimmers of our mechanistic nature, however, they can only call attention to the insufficiencies that haunt the low-dimensional distortions of the soul. Rather than overthrow the illusions of meaning, they can at most call attention to the way it ‘wobbles,’ thus throwing a certain image of subjective semantic stability and centrality into question. Deconstruction, for all its claims to ‘radicalize,’ remains a profoundly noocentric philosophy, capable of conceiving the irreflexive only as the ‘hidden other’ of the reflexive. The claim to radicality, if anything, cements its status as a profoundly nooconservative mode of philosophical thought. Deconstruction becomes, as we can so clearly see in Hagglund, a form of intellectual hygiene. ‘Deconstructed’ intentional concepts begin to seem like immunized intentional concepts, ‘subjects’ and ‘norms’ and ‘meanings’ that are all the sturdier for referencing their ‘insufficiency’ in theoretical articulations that take them as sufficient all the same. Thus the oxymoronic doubling evinced by ‘deconstructive ethics’ or ‘deconstructive politics.’

The most pernicious hallucination, after all, is the hallucination that claims to have been seen through.

The present account, however, does not suffer happy endings, no matter how aleatory or conditional. According to BBT, nothing has nor ever will be ‘represented.’ Certainly our brains mechanically recapitulate myriad structural features of their environments, but at no point do these recapitulations inherit the occult property of aboutness. With BBT, these phantasms that orthogonally double the world become mere mechanisms, environmentally continuous components that may or may not covary with their environments, just more ramshackle life, the product of over 3 billion years of blind guessing. We become lurching towers of coincidence, happenstance conserved in meat. Blind to neurofunctionality, the brain’s metacognitive systems have no choice but to characterize the relation between the environmental information accumulated and those environments in acausal, nonmechanical terms. Sufficiency assures that this metacognitive informatic poverty will seem a self-evident plenum. The swamp of causal complexity is drained. The fantastically complicated mechanistic interactions constituting the brain/environment vanish into the absolute oblivion of the unknown unknown, stranding metacognition with the binary cartoon of a ‘subject’ ‘intending’ some ‘object.’ Statistical gradations evaporate into the procrustean discipline of either/or.

This, if anything, is the image I want to leave you with, one where the traditional concepts of philosophy can be seen for the granular grotesqueries they are, the cartoonish products of a metacognition pinioned between informatic scarcity and heuristic incapacity. I want to leave you with, in effect, an entirely new way to conceive philosophy, one adequate to the new and far more terrifying ‘Enlightenment’ presently revolutionizing the world around us. Does anyone really think their particular, prescientific accounts of the soul will escape unscathed or emerge redeemed by what sciences of the brain will reveal over the coming decades? Certainly one can argue points with BBT, a position whose conclusions are so dismal that I cannot myself fully embrace them. What one cannot argue against is the radical nature of our times, with the fact that science has at long last colonized the soul, that it is, even now, doing what it always does when it breaches some traditional domain of discourse: replace our always simplistic and typically flattering assumptions with portraits of bottomless intricacy and breathtaking indifference. We are just beginning, as a culture, to awaken to the fact that we are machines. Throw words against this prospect if you must. The engineers and the institutions that own them will find you a most convenient distraction.

Wire Finger

Reengineering Dennett: Intentionality and the ‘Curse of Dimensionality’

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A headache is one of those rare and precious things that is both in your head and in your head.


In a few weeks time, Three Pound Brain will be featuring an interview with Alex Rosenberg, who has become one of the world’s foremost advocates of Eliminativism. If you’re so inclined, now would be a good time to pick up his Atheist’s Guide to Reality, which will be the focus of much of the interview.

The primary reason I’m mentioning this has to do with a comment of Alex’s regarding Dennett’s project in our back and forth, how he “has long sought an account of intentionality that constructs it out of nonintentional resources in the brain.” This made me think of a paper of Dennett’s entitled “A Route to Intelligence: Oversimplify and Self-Monitor” that is only available on his website, and which he has cryptically labelled, ‘NEVER-TO-APPEAR PAPERS BY DANIEL DENNETT.’ Now maybe it’s simply a conceit on my part, given that pretty much everything I’ve written falls under the category of ‘never-to-appear,’ but this quixotic piece has been my favourite Dennett article every since I first stumbled upon it. In the note that Dennett appends to the beginning, he explains the provenance of the paper, how it was written for a volume that never coalesced, but he leaves its ‘never-to-be-published’ fate to the reader’s imagination. (If I had to guess, I would say it has to do with the way the piece converges on what is now a dated consideration of the frame problem).

Now in this paper, Dennett does what he often does (most recently, in this talk), which is to tell a ‘design process’ story that begins with the natural/subpersonal and ends with the intentional/personal. The thing I find so fascinating about this particular design process narrative is the way it outlines, albeit in a murky form, what I think actually is an account of how intentionality arises ‘out of the nonintentional resources of the brain,’ or the Blind Brain Theory. What I want to do is simply provide a close reading of the piece (the first of its kind, given that no one I know of has referenced this piece apart from Dennett himself), suggesting, once again, that Dennett was very nearly on the right track, but that he simply failed to grasp the explanatory opportunities his account affords in the proper way. “A Route to Intelligence” fairly bowled me over when I first read it a few months ago, given the striking way it touches on so many of the themes I’ve been developing here. So what follows, then, begins with a consideration of the way BBT itself follows from certain, staple observations and arguments belonging to Dennett’s incredible oeuvre. More indirectly, it will provide a glimpse of how the mere act of conceptualizing a given dynamic can enable theoretical innovation.

Dennett begins with the theme of avoidance. He asks us to imagine that scientists discover an asteroid on a collision course with earth. We’re helpless to stop it, so the most we can do is prepare for our doom. Then, out of nowhere, a second asteroid appears, striking the first in the most felicitous way possible saving the entire world. It seems like a miracle, but of course the second meteor was always out there, always hurtling on its auspicious course. What Dennett wants us to consider is the way ‘averting’ or ‘preventing’ is actually a kind of perspectival artifact. We only assumed the initial asteroid was going to destroy earth because of our ignorance of the subsequent: “It seems appropriate to speak of an averted or prevented catastrophe because we compare an anticipated history with the way things turned out and we locate an event which was the “pivotal” event relative to the divergence between that anticipation and the actual course of events, and we call this the “act” of preventing or avoiding” (“A Route to Intelligence,” 3).

In BBT terms, the upshot of this fable is quite clear: Ignorance–or better, the absence of information–has a profound, positive role to play in the way we conceive events. Now coming out of the ‘Continental’ tradition this is no great shakes: one only need think of Derrida’s ‘trace structure’ or Adorno’s ‘constellations.’ But as Dennett has found, this mindset is thoroughly foreign to most ‘Analytic’ thinkers. In a sense, Dennett is providing a peculiar kind of explanation by subtraction, bidding us to understand avoidance as the product of informatic inaccessibility. Here it’s worth calling attention to what I’ve been calling the ‘only game in town effect,’ or sufficiency. Avoidance may be the artifact of information scarcity, but we never perceive it as such. Avoidance, rather, is simply avoidance. It’s not as if we catch ourselves after the fact and say, ‘Well, it only seemed like a close call.’

Academics spend so much time attempting to overcome the freshman catechism, ‘It-is-what-it-is!’ that they almost universally fail to consider how out-and-out peculiar it is, even as it remains the ‘most natural thing in the world.’ How could ignorance, of all things, generate such a profound and ubiquitous illusion of epistemic sufficiency? Why does the appreciation of contextual relativity, the myriad ways our interpretations are informatically constrained, count as a kind of intellectual achievement?

Sufficiency can be seen as a generalization of what Daniel Kahneman refers to as WYSIATI (‘What You See Is All There Is’), the way we’re prone to confuse the information we have for all the information required. Lacking information regarding the insufficiency of the information we have, such as the existence of a second ‘saviour’ asteroid, we assume sufficiency, that we are doomed.  Sufficiency is the assumptive default, which is why undergrads, who have yet to be exposed to information regarding the insufficiency of the information they have, assume things like ‘It-is-what-it-is.’

The concept of sufficiency (and its flip-side, asymptosis) is of paramount importance. It explains why, for instance, experience is something that can be explained via subtraction. Dennett’s asteroid fable is a perfect case in point: catastrophe was ‘averted’ because we had no information regarding the second asteroid. If you think about it, we regularly explain one another’s experiences, actions, and beliefs by reference to missing information, anytime we say something of the form, So-and-so didn’t x (realize, see, etc.) such-and-such, in fact. Implicit in all this talk is the presumption of sufficiency, the ‘It-is-what-it-is! assumption,’ as well as the understanding that missing information can make no difference–precisely what we should expect of a biomechanical brain. I’ll come back to all this in due course, but the important thing to note, at this juncture at least, is that Dennett is arguing (though he would likely dispute this) that avoidance is a kind of perspectival illusion.

Dennett’s point is that the avoidance world-view is the world-view of the rational deliberator, one where prediction, the ability to anticipate environmental changes, is king. Given this, he asks:

Suppose then that one wants to design a robot that will live in the real world and be capable of making decisions so that it can further its interests–whatever interests we artificially endow it with. We want in other words to design a foresightful planner. How must one structure the capacities–the representational and inferential or computational capacities–of such a being? 4

The first design problem that confronts us, he suggests, involves the relationship between response-time, reliability, and environmental complexity.

No matter how much information one has about an issue, there is always more that one could have, and one can often know that there is more that one could have if only one were to take the time to gather it. There is always more deliberation possible, so the trick is to design the creature so that it makes reliable but not foolproof decisions within the deadlines naturally imposed by the events in its world that matter to it. 4

Our design has to perform a computational balancing act: Since the well of information has no bottom, and the time constraints are exacting, our robot has to be able to cherry-pick only the information it needs to make rough and reliable determinations: “one must be designed from the outset to economize, to pass over most of the available information” (5). This is the problem now motivating work in the field of rational ecology, which looks at human cognition as a ‘toolbox’ filled with a variety of heuristics, devices adapted to solve specific problems in specific circumstances–‘ecologies’–via the strategic neglect of various kinds of information. On the BBT account, the brain itself is such a heuristic device, a mechanism structurally adapted to walk the computational high-wire between behavioural efficiency and environmental complexity.

And this indeed is what Dennett supposes:

How then does one partition the task of the robot so that it is apt to make reliable real time decisions? One thing one can do is declare that some things in the world of the creature are to be considered fixed; no effort will be expended trying to track them, to gather more information on them. The state of these features is going to be set down in axioms, in effect, but these are built into the system at no representational cost. One simply designs the system in such a way that it works well provided the world is as one supposes it always will be, and makes no provision for the system to work well (“properly”) under other conditions. The system as a whole operates as if the world were always going to be one way, so that whether the world really is that way is not an issue that can come up for determination. 5

So, for instance, the structural fact that the brain is a predictive system simply reflects the fundamental fact that our environments not only change in predictable ways, but allow for systematic interventions given prediction. The most fundamental environmental facts, in other words, will be structurally implicit in our robot, and so will not require modelling. Others, meanwhile, will “be declared as beneath notice even though they might in principle be noticeable were there any payoff to be gained thereby” (5). As he explains:

The “grain” of our own perception could be different; the resolution of detail is a function of our own calculus of wellbeing, given our needs and other capacities. In our design, as in the design of other creatures, there is a trade-off in the expenditure of cognitive effort and the development of effectors of various sorts. Thus the insectivorous bird has a trade-off between flicker fusion rate and the size of its bill. If it has a wider bill it can harvest from a larger volume in a single pass, and hence has a greater tolerance for error in calculating the location of its individual prey. 6

Since I’ve been arguing for quite some time that we need to understand the appearance of consciousness as a kind of ‘flicker fusion writ large,’ I can tell you my eyebrows fairly popped off my forehead reading this particular passage. Dennett is isolating two classes of information that our robot will have no cause to model: environmental information so basic that it’s written into the structural blueprint or ‘fixed’, and environmental information so irrelevant that it is ignored outright or ‘beneath notice.’ What remains is to consider the information our robot will have cause to model:

If then some of the things in the world are considered fixed, and others are considered beneath notice, and hence are just averaged over, this leaves the things that are changing and worth caring about. These things fall roughly into two divisions: the trackable and the chaotic. The chaotic things are those things that we cannot routinely track, and for our deliberative purposes we must treat them as random, not in the quantum mechanical sense, and not even in the mathematical sense (e.g., as informationally incompresssible), but just in the sense of pseudo-random. These are features of the world which, given the expenditure of cognitive effort the creature is prepared to make, are untrackable; their future state is unpredictable. 6-7

Signal and noise. If we were to design our robot along, say, the lines of a predictive processing account of the brain, its primary problem would be one of deriving the causal structure of its environment on the basis of sensory effects. As it turns out, this problem (the ‘inverse problem’) is no easy one to solve. We evolved sets of specialized cognitive tools, heuristics with finite applications, for precisely this reason. The ‘signal to noise ratio’ for any given feature of the world will depend on the utility of the signal versus the computational expense of isolating it.

So far so good. Dennett has provided four, explicitly informatic categories–fixed, beneath notice, trackable, and chaotic–‘design decisions’ that will enable our robot to successfully cope with the complexities confronting it. This is where Dennett advances a far more controversial claim: that the ‘manifest image’ belonging to any species is itself an artifact of these decisions.

Now in a certain sense this claim is unworkable (and Dennett realizes as much) given the conceptual interdependence of the manifest image and the mental. The task, recall, was to build a robot that could tackle environmental complexity, not become self-aware. But his insight here stands tantalizingly close to BBT, which explains our blinkered metacognitive sense of ‘consciousness’ and ‘intentionality’ in the self-same terms of informatic access.

And things get even more interesting, first with his consideration of the how the scientific image might be related to the manifest image thus construed:

The principles of design that create a manifest image in the first place also create the loose ends that can lead to its unraveling. Some of the engineering shortcuts that are dictated if we are to avoid combinatorial explosion take the form of ignoring – treating as if non-existent – small changes in the world. They are analogous to “round off error”in computer number-crunching. And like round-off error, their locally harmless oversimplifications can accumulate under certain conditions to create large errors. Then if the system can notice the large error, and diagnose it (at least roughly), it can begin to construct the scientific image. 8

And then with his consideration of the constraints facing our robot’s ability to track and predict itself:

One of the pre-eminent varieties of epistemically possible events is the category of the agent’s own actions. These are systematically unpredictable by it. It can attempt to track and thereby render predictions about the decisions and actions of other agents, but (for fairly obvious and well-known logical reasons, familiar in the Halting Problem in computer science, for instance) it cannot make fine-grained predictions of its own actions, since it is threatened by infinite regress of self-monitoring and analysis. Notice that this does not mean that our creature cannot make some boundary-condition predictions of its own decisions and actions. 9

Because our robot possesses finite computational resources in an informatically bottomless environment, it must neglect information, and so must be heuristic through and through. Given that heuristics possess limited applicability in addition to limited computational power, it will perforce continually bump into problems it cannot solve. This will be especially the case when it comes the problem of itself–for the very reasons that Dennett adduces in the above quote. Some of these insoluble problems, we might imagine, it will be unable to see as problems, at least initially. Once it becomes aware of its informatic and cognitive limitations, however, it could begin seeking supplementary information and techniques, ways around its limits, allowing the creation of a more ‘scientific’ image.

Now Dennett is simply brainstorming here–a fact that likely played some role in his failure to pursue its publication. But “A Route to Intelligence” stuck with him as well, enough for him to reference it on a number of occasions, and to ultimately give it a small internet venue all of its own. I would like to think this is because he senses (or at least once sensed) the potential of this general line of thinking.

What makes this paper so extraordinary, for me, is the way he explicitly begins the work of systematically thinking through the informatic and cognitive constraints facing the human brain, both with respect to its attempts to cognize its environment and itself. For his part, Dennett never pursues this line of speculative inquiry in anything other than a piecemeal and desultory way. He never thinks through the specifics of the informatic privation he discusses, and so, despite many near encounters, never finds his way to BBT. And it this failure, I want to argue, that makes his pragmatic recovery of intentionality, the ‘intentional stance,’ seem feasible–or so I want to argue.

As it so happens, the import and feasibility of Dennett’s ‘intentional stance,’ has taken a twist of late, thanks to some of his more recent claims. In “The Normal Well-tempered Mind,” for instance, he claims that he was (somewhat) mistaken in thinking that “the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine,” the problem being that “each neuron, far from being a simple switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.” For all his critiques of original intentionality in the heyday of computationalism, Dennett’s intentional apologetics have become increasingly strident and far-reaching. In what follows I will argue that his account of the intentional stance, and the ever expanding range of interpretative applicability that he accords it actually depends on his failure to think through the informatic straits of the human brain. If he had, I want to suggest, he would have seen that intentionality, like avoidance, is best explained in terms of missing information, which is to say, as a kind of perspectival illusion.

Diagram cube 1

Now of course all this betrays more than a little theoretical vanity on my part, the assumption that Dennett has to be peering, stumped, at some fragmentary apparition of my particular inferential architecture. But this presumption stands high among my motives for writing this post. Why? Because for the life of me I can’t see any way around those inferences–and I distrust this ‘only game in town’ feeling I have.

But I’ll be damned if I can find a way out. As I hope to show, as soon as you begin asking what cognitive systems are accessing what information, any number of dismal conclusions seem to directly follow. We literally have no bloody clue what we’re talking about when begin theorizing ‘mind.’

To see this, it serves to diagram the different levels of information privation Dennett considers:

Levels of information privation

The evolutionary engineering problem, recall, is one of finding some kind of ‘golden informatic mean,’ extracting only the information required to maximize fitness given the material and structural resources available and nothing else. This structurally constrained select-and-neglect strategy is what governs the uptake of information from the sum of all information available for cognition and thence to the information available for metacognition. The Blind Brain Theory is simply an attempt to think this privation through in a principled and exhaustive way, to theorize what information is available to what cognitive systems, and the kinds of losses and distortions that might result.

Information is missing. No one I know of disputes this. Each of these ‘pools’ are the result of drastic reductions in dimensionality (number of variables). Neuroscientists commonly refer to something called the ‘Curse of Dimensionality,’ the way the difficulty of finding statistical patterns in data increases exponentially as the data’s dimensionality increases. Imagine searching for a ring on a 100m length of string, which is to say, in one dimension. No problem. Now imagine searching for that ring in two dimensions, a 100m by 100m square. More difficult, but doable. Now imagine trying to find that ring in three dimensions, in a 100m by 100m by 100m cube. The greater the dimensionality, the greater the volume, the more difficult it becomes extracting statistical relationships, whether you happen to be a neuroscientist trying to decipher relations between high-dimensional patterns of stimuli and neural activation, or a brain attempting to forge adaptive environmental relations.

For example, ‘semantic pointers,’ Eliasmith’s primary innovation in creating SPAUN (the recent artificial brain simulation that made headlines around the world) are devices that maximize computational efficiency by collapsing or inflating dimensionality according to the needs of the system. As he and his team write:

Compression is functionally important because low-dimensional representations can be more efficiently manipulated for a variety of neural computations. Consequently, learning or defining different compression/decompression operations provides a means of generating neural representations that are well suited to a variety of neural computations. “A Large-Scale Model of the Functioning Brain,” 1202

The human brain is rife with bottlenecks, which is why Eliasmith’s semantic pointers represent the signature contribution they do, a model for how the brain potentially balances its computational resources against the computational demands facing it. You could say that the brain is an evolutionary product of the Curse, since it is in the business of deriving behaviourally effective ‘representations’ from the near bottomless dimensionality of its environment.

Although Dennett doesn’t reference the Curse explicitly, it’s implicit in his combinatoric characterization of our engineering problem, the way our robot has to suss out adaptive patterns in the “combinatorial explosion,” as he puts it, of environmental variables. Each of the information pools he touches on, in other words, can be construed as solutions to the Curse of Dimensionality. So when Dennett famously writes:

I claim that the intentional stance provides a vantage point for discerning similarly useful patterns. These patterns are objective–they are there to be detected–but from our point-of-view they are not out there entirely independent of us, since they are patterns composed partly of our own “subjective” reactions to what is our there; they are the patterns made to order for our narcissistic concerns. The Intentional Stance, “Real Patterns, Deeper Facts, and Empty Questions,” 39

Dennett is discussing a problem solved. He recognizes that the solution is parochial, or ‘narcissistic,’ but it remains, he will want to insist, a solution all the same, a powerful way for us (or our robot) to predict, explain, and manipulate our natural and social environments as well as ourselves. Given this efficacy, and given that the patterns themselves are real, even if geared to our concerns, he sees no reason to give up on intentionality.

On BBT, however, the appeal of this argument is largely an artifact of its granularity. Though Dennett is careful to reference the parochialism of intentionality, he does not do it justice. In “The Last Magic Show,” I turned to the metaphor of shadows at several turns trying to capture something of the information loss involved in consciousness, unaware that researchers, trying to understand how systems preserve functionality despite massive reductions of dimensionality, had devised mathematical tools, ‘random projections,’ that take the metaphor quite seriously:

To understand the central concept of a random projection (RP), it is useful to think of the shadow of a wire-frame object in three-dimensional space projected onto a two dimensional screen by shining a light beam on the object. For poorly chosen angles of light, the shadow may lose important information about the wire-frame object. For example, if the axis of light is aligned with any segment of wire, that entire length of wire will have a single point as its shadow. However, if the axis of light is chosen randomly, it is highly unlikely that the same degenerate situation will occur; instead, every length of wire will have a corresponding nonzero length of shadow. Thus the shadow, obtained by this RP, generically retains much information about the wire-frame object. (Ganguli and Sompolinsky, “Sparsity and Dimensionality,” 487)

On the BBT account, mind is what the Curse of Dimensionality looks like from the inside. Consciousness and intentionality, as they appear to metacognition, can be understood as concatenations of idiosyncratic low-dimensional ‘projections.’ Why idiosyncratic? Because when it comes to ‘compression,’ evolution isn’t so much interested in the ‘veridical conservation’ as in scavenging effective information. And what counts as ‘effective information’? Whatever facilitates genetic replication–period. In terms of the wire-frame analogy, the angle may be poorly chosen, the projection partial, the light exceedingly dim, etc., and none of this would matter so long as the information projected discharged some function that increased fitness. One might suppose that only compression will serve in some instances, but to assume that only compression will serve in all instances is simply to misunderstand evolution. Think of ‘lust’ and the biological need to reproduce, or ‘love’ and the biological need to pair-bond. Evolution is opportunistic: all things being equal, the solutions it hits upon will be ‘quick and dirty,’ and utterly indifferent to what we intuitively assume (let alone want) to be the case.

Take memory research as a case in point. In the Theaetetus, Plato famously characterized memory as an aviary, a general store from which different birds, memories, could be correctly or incorrectly retrieved. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when Hermann Ebbinghaus began tracking his own recall over time in various conditions, that memory became the object of scientific investigation. From there the story is one of greater and greater complication. William James, of course, distinguished between short and long term memory. Skill memory was distinguished from long term memory, which Endel Tulving famously decomposed into episodic and semantic memory. Skill memory, meanwhile, was recognized as one of several forms of nondeclarative or implicit memory, including classical conditioning, non-associative learning, and priming, which would itself be decomposed into perceptual and conceptual forms. As Plato’s grand aviary found itself progressively more subdivided, researchers began to question whether memory was actually a discrete system or rather part and parcel of some larger cognitive network, and thus not the distinct mental activity assumed by the tradition. Other researchers, meanwhile, took aim at the ‘retrieval assumption,’ the notion that memory is primarily veridical, adducing evidence that declarative memory is often constructive, more an attempt to convincingly answer a memory query than to reconstruct ‘what actually happened.’

The moral of this story is as simple as it should be sobering: the ‘memory’ arising out of casual introspection (monolithic and veridical) and the memory arising out of the scientific research (fractionate and confabulatory) are at drastic odds, to the point where some researchers suggest the term ‘memory’ is itself deceptive. Memory, like so many other cognitive capacities, seems to be a complex of specialized capacities arising out of non-epistemic and epistemic evolutionary pressures. But if this is the case, one might reasonably wonder how Plato could have gotten things so wrong. Well, obviously the information available to metacognition (in its ancient Greek incarnation) falls far short the information required to accurately model memory. But why would this be? Well, apparently forming accurate metacognitive models of memory was not something our ancestors needed to survive and reproduce.

We have enough metacognitive access to isolate memory as a vague capacity belonging to our brains and nothing more. The patterns accessed, in other words, are real patterns, but it seems more than a little hinky to take the next step and say they are “made to order for our narcissistic concerns.” For one, whatever those ‘concerns’ happen to be, they certainly don’t seem to involve any concern with self-knowledge, particularly when the ‘concerns’ at issue are almost certainly not the conscious sort–which is to say, concerns we could be said to be ‘ours’ in any straightforward way. The concerns, in fact, are evolutionary: Metacognition, for reasons Dennett touched on above and that I have considered at length elsewhere, is a computational nightmare, more than enough to necessitate the drastic informatic compromises that underwrite Plato’s Aviary.

And as memory goes, I want to suggest, so goes intentionality. The fact is, intentional patterns are not “made to order for our narcissistic concerns.” This is a claim that, while appearing modest, characterizes intentionality as an instrument of our agency, and so ‘narcissistic’ in a personal sense. Intentional patterns, rather, are ad hoc evolutionary solutions to various social or natural environmental problems, some perhaps obvious, others obscure. And this simply refers to the ‘patterns’ accessed by the brain. There is the further question of metacognitive access, and the degree to which the intentionality we all seem to think we have might not be better explained as a kind of metacognitive illusion pertaining to neglect.

Asymptotic. Bottomless. Rules hanging with their interpretations.

All the low-dimensional projections bridging pool to pool are evolutionary artifacts of various functional requirements, ‘fixes,’ multitudes of them, to some obscure network of ancestral, environmental problems. They are parochial, not to our ‘concerns’ as ‘persons,’ but to the circumstances that saw them selected to the exclusion of other possible fixes. To return to Dennett’s categories, the information ‘beneath notice,’ or neglected, may be out-and-out crucial for understanding a given capacity, such as ‘memory’ or ‘agency’ or what have you, even though metacognitive access to this information was irrelevant to our ancestor’s survival. Likewise, what is ‘trackable’ may be idiosyncratic, information suited to some specific, practical cognitive function, and therefore entirely incompatible with and so refractory to theoretical cognition–philosophy as the skeptics have known it.

Why do we find the notion of a fractionate, non-veridical memory surprising? Because we assume otherwise, namely, that memory is whole and veridical. Why do we assume otherwise? Because informatic neglect leads us to mistake the complex for the simple, the special purpose for the general purpose, and the tertiary for the primary. Our metacognitive intuitions are not reliable; what we think we do or undergo and what the sciences of the brain reveal need only be loosely connected. Why does it seem so natural to assume that intentional patterns are “made to order for our narcissistic concerns”? Well, for the same reason it seems so natural to assume that memory is monolithic and veridical: in the absence of information to the contrary, our metacognitive intuitions carry the day. Intentionality becomes a personal tool, as opposed to a low-dimensional projection accessed via metacognitive deliberation (for metacognition), or a heuristic device possessing a definite evolutionary history and a limited range of applications (for cognition more generally).

So to return to our diagram of ‘information pools’:

Levels of information privation

we can clearly see how the ‘Curse of Dimensionality’ is compounded when it comes to theoretical metacognition. Thus the ‘blind brain’ moniker. BBT argues that the apparent perplexities of consciousness and intentionality that have bedevilled philosophy for millennia are artifacts of cognitive and metacognitive neglect. It agrees with Dennett that the relationship between all these levels is an adaptive one, that low-dimensional projections must earn their keep, but it blocks the assumption that we are the keepers, seeing this intuition as the result of metacognitive neglect (sufficiency, to be precise). It’s no coincidence, it argues, that all intentional concepts and phenomena seem ‘acausal,’ both in the sense of seeming causeless, and in the sense of resisting causal explanation. Metacognition has no access whatsoever to the neurofunctional context of any information broadcast or integrated in consciousness, and so finds itself ‘encapsulated,’ stranded with a profusion of low-dimensional projections that it cannot cognize as such, since doing so would require metacognitive access to the very neurofunctional contexts that are occluded. Our metacognitive sense of intentionality, in other words, depends upon making a number of clear mistakes–much as in the case of memory.

The relations between ‘pools’ it should be noted, are not ‘vehicles’ in the sense of carrying ‘information about.’ All the functioning components in the system would have to count as ‘vehicles’ if that were the case, insofar as the whole is required for that information that does find itself broadcast or integrated. The ‘information about’ part is simply an artifact of what BBT calls medial neglect, the aggregate blindness of the system to its ongoing operations. Since metacognition can only neglect the neural functions that make a given conscious experience possible–since it is itself invisible to itself–it confuses an astronomically complex systematic effect for a property belonging to that experience.

The very reason theorists like Dretske or Fodor insist on semantic interpretations of information is the same reason those interpretations will perpetually resist naturalistic explanation: they are attempting to explain a kind of ‘perspectival illusion,’ the way the information broadcast or integrated exhausts the information available for deliberative cognition, so generating the ‘only-game-in-town-effect’ (or sufficiency). ‘Thoughts’ (or the low-dimensional projections we confuse for them) must refer to (rather than reliably covary with) something in the world because metacognition neglects all the neurofunctional and environmental machinery of that covariance, leaving only Brentano’s famous posit, intentionality, as the ‘obvious’ explanandum–one rendered all the more ‘obvious’ by thousands of largely fruitless years of intentional conceptual toil.

Aboutness is magic, in the sense that it requires the neglect of information to be ‘seen.’ It is an illusion of introspection, a kind of neural camera obscura effect, ‘obvious’ only because metacognition is a captive of the information it receives. This is why our information pool diagram can be so easily retooled to depict the prevailing paradigm in the cognitive sciences today:

Levels of intentionality

The vertical arrows represent medial functions (sound, light, neural activity) that are occluded and so are construed acausally. The ‘mind’ (or the network of low-dimensional projections we confuse as such) is thought to be ‘emergent from’ or ‘functionally irreducible to’ the brain, which possesses both conscious and nonconscious ‘representations of’ or ‘intentional relations to’ the world. No one ever pauses to ask what kind of cognitive resources the brain could bring to bear upon itself, what it would take to reliably model the most complicated machinery known from within that machinery using only cognitive systems adapted to modelling external environments. The truth of the brain, they blithely assume, is available to the brain in the form of the mind.

Or thought.

But this is little more than wishful ‘thinking,’ as the opaque, even occult, nature of the intentional concepts used might suggest. Whatever emergence the brain affords, why should metacognition possess the capacity to model it, let alone be it? Whatever function the broadcasting or integration of a given low-dimensional projection provides, why should metacognition, which is out-and-out blind to neurofunctionality, possess the capacity to reliably model it, as opposed to doing what cognition always does when confronted with insufficient information it cannot flag as insufficient, leap to erroneous conclusions?

All of this is to say that the picture is both more clear and yet less sunny than Dennett’s ultimately abortive interrogation of information privation would lead us to believe. Certainly in an everyday sense it’s obvious that we take perspectives, views, angles, standpoints, and stances vis a vis various things. Likewise, it seems obvious that we have two broad ways in which to explain things, either by reference to what causes an event, or by virtue of what rationalizes an event. As a result, it seems natural to talk of two basic explanatory perspectives or stances, one pertaining to the causes of things, the other pertaining to the reasons for things.

The question is one of how far we can trust our speculations regarding the latter beyond this platitudinous observation. One might ask, for instance, if intentionality is a heuristic, which is to say, a specialized problem solver, then what are its conditions of applicability? The mere fact that this is an open question means that things like the philosophical question of knowledge, to give just one example, should be divided into intentional and mechanical incarnations–at the very least. Otherwise, given the ‘narcissistic idiosyncrasy’ of the former, we need to consider whether the kinds of conundrums that have plagued epistemology across the ages are precisely what we should expect. Chained to the informatic bottleneck of metacognition, epistemology has been trading in low-dimensional projections all along, attempting time and again to wring universality out of what amount to metacognitive glimpses of parochial cognitive heuristics. There’s a very real chance the whole endeavour has been little more than a fool’s errand.

The real question is one of why, as philosophers, we should bother entertaining the intentional stance. If the aim of philosophy really is, as Sellars has it, “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” if explanatory scope is our goal, then understanding intentionality amounts understanding it in functional terms, which is to say, as something that can only be understood in terms of the information it neglects. What is the adaptive explanatory ecology of any given intentional concept? What was it selected for? And if it is ‘specialized,’ would that not suggest incompatibility with different (i.e., theoretical) cognitive contexts? Given what little information we have, what arbitrates our various metacognitive glimpses, our perpetually underdetermined interpretations, allowing us to discriminate between any stage on the continuum of the reliable and the farcical?

Short of answers to these questions, we cannot even claim to be engaging in educated as opposed to mere guesswork. So to return to “The Normal Well-tempered Mind,” what does Dennett mean when he says that neurons are best seen as agents? Does he mean that cellular machinery is complicated machinery, and so ill-served when conceptualized as a ‘mere switch’? Or does he mean they really are like little people, organized in little tribes, battling over little hopes and little crimes? I take it as obvious that he means the former, and that his insistence on the latter is more the ersatz product of a commitment he made long ago, one he has invested far too much effort in to relinquish.

‘Feral neurons’ are a metaphoric conceit, an interesting way to provoke original thought, perhaps, a convenient facon de parler in certain explanatory contexts, but more an attempt to make good on an old and questionable argument than anything, one that would have made a younger Dennett, the one who wrote “Mechanism and Responsibility,” smile and scowl as he paused to conjure some canny and critical witticism. Intentionality, as the history of philosophy should make clear, is an invitation to second-order controversy and confusion. Perhaps what we have here is a potential empirical basis for the infamous Wittgensteinian injunction against philosophical language games. Attributing intentionality in first-order contexts is not only well and fine, it’s unavoidable. But as soon as we make second-order claims on the basis of metacognitive deliberation, say things like, ‘Knowledge is justified, true belief,’ we might as well be playing Monopoly using the pieces of Risk, ‘deriving’ theoretical syntaxes constrained–at that point–by nothing ‘out there.’

On BBT, ‘knowledge’ simply is what it has to be if we agree that the life science paradigm cuts reality as close to the joints as anything we have ever known: a system of mechanical bets, a swarm of secondary asteroids following algorithmic trajectories, ‘miraculously’ averting disaster time and again.

Breathtakingly complex.