Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: April, 2013

The Crux

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Give me an eye blind enough, and I will transform guttering candles into exploding stars.


The Blind Brain Theory turns on the following four basic claims:

1) Cognition is heuristic all the way down.

2) Metacognition is continuous with cognition.

3) Metacognitive intuitions are the artifact of severe informatic and heuristic constraints. Metacognitive accuracy is impossible.

4) Metacognitive intuitions only loosely constrain neural fact. There are far more ways for neural facts to contradict our metacognitive intuitions than otherwise.

A good friend of mine, Dan Mellamphy, has agreed to go through a number of the posts from the past eighteen months with an eye to pulling them together into a book of some kind. I’m actually thinking of calling it Through the Brain Darkly: because of Neuropath, because the blog is called Three Pound Brain, and because of my apparent inability to abandon the tedious metaphorics of neural blindness. Either way, I thought boiling BBT down to its central commitments would be worthwhile exercise. Like a picture taken on a rare, good hair day…


1) Cognition is heuristic all the way down.

I take this claim to be trivial. Heuristics are problem-solving mechanisms that minimize computational costs via the neglect of extraneous or inaccessible information. The human brain is itself a compound heuristic device, one possessing a plurality of cognitive tools (innate and learned component heuristics) adapted to a broad but finite range of environmental problems. The human brain, therefore, possesses a ‘compound problem ecology’ consisting of the range of those problems primarily responsible for driving its evolution, whatever they may be. Component heuristics likewise possess problem ecologies, or ‘scopes of application.’


2) Metacognition is continuous with cognition.

I also take this claim to be trivial. The most pervasive problem (or reproductive obstacle) faced by the human brain is the inverse problem. Inverse problems involve deriving effective information (ie., mass and trajectory) from some unknown, distal phenomenon (ie., a falling tree) via proximal information (ie., retinal stimuli) possessing systematic causal relations (ie., reflected light) to that phenomenon. Hearing, for instance, requires deriving distal causal structures, an approaching car, say, on the basis of proximal effects, the cochlear signals triggered by the sound emitted from the car. Numerous detection technologies (sonar, radar, fMRI, and so on) operate on this very principle, determining the properties of unknown objects from the properties of some signal connected to them.

The brain can mechanically engage its environment because it is mechanically embedded in its environment–because it is, quite literally, just more environment. The brain is that part of the environment that models/exploits the rest of the environment. Thus the crucial distinction between those medial environmental components involved in modelling/enacting (sensory media, neural mechanisms) and those lateral environmental components modelled. And thus, medial neglect, the general blindness of the human brain to its own structure and function, and its corollary, lateral sensitivity, the general responsiveness of the brain to the structure and function of its external environments–or in other words, the primary problem ecology of the heuristic brain.

Medial neglect and lateral sensitivity speak to a profound connection between ignorance and knowledge, how sensitivity to distal, lateral complexities necessitates insensitivity to proximal, medial complexities. Modelling environments necessarily exacts what might be called an ‘autoepistemic toll’ on the systems responsible. The greater the lateral fidelity, the more sophisticated the mechanisms, the greater the surplus of ‘blind,’ or medial, complexity. The brain, you could say, is an organ that transforms ‘risky complexity’ into ‘safe complexity,’ that solves distal unknowns that kill by accumulating proximal unknowns (neural mechanisms) that must be fed.

The parsing of the environment into medial and lateral components represents more a twist than a scission: the environment remains one environment. Information pertaining to brain function is environmental information, which is to say, information pertinent to the solution of potential environmental problems. Thus metacognition, heuristics that access information pertaining to the brain’s own operations.

Since metacognition is continuous with cognition, another part of the environment engaged in problem solving the environment, it amounts to the adaptation of neural mechanisms sensitive in effective ways to other neural mechanisms in the brain. The brain, in other words, poses an inverse problem for itself.


3) Metacognitive intuitions are the artifact of severe informatic and heuristic constraints. Metacognitive accuracy is impossible.

This claim, which is far more controversial than those above, directly follows from the continuity of metacognition and cognition–from the fact that the brain itself constitutes an inverse problem. This is because, as an inverse problem, the brain is quite clearly insoluble. Two considerations in particular make this clear:

1) Target complexity: The human brain is the most complicated mechanism known. Even as an external environmental problem, it has taken science centuries to accumulate the techniques, information, and technology required to merely begin the process of providing any comprehensive mechanistic explanation.

2) Target complicity: The continuity of metacognition and cognition allows us to see that the structural entanglement of metacognitive neural mechanisms with the neural mechanisms tracked, far from providing any cognitive advantage, thoroughly complicates the ability of the former to derive high-dimensional information from the latter. One might analogize the dilemma in terms of two biologists studying bonobos, the one by observing them in their natural habitat, the other by being sewn into a burlap sack with one. Relational distance and variability provide the biologist-in-the-habitat quantities and kinds (dimensions) of information simply not available to the biologist-in-the-sack. Perhaps more importantly, they allow the former to cognize the bonobos without the complication of observer effects. Neural mechanisms sensitive to other neural mechanisms* access information via dedicated, as opposed to variable, channels, and as such are entirely ‘captive’: they cannot pursue the kinds of active environmental engagement that permit the kind of high-dimensional tracking/modelling characteristic of cognition proper.

Target complexity and complicity mean that metacognition is almost certainly restricted to partial, low-dimensional information. There is quite literally no way for the brain to cognize itself as a brain–which is to say, accurately. Thus the mind-body problem. And thus a good number of the perennial problems that have plagued philosophy of mind and philosophy more generally (which can be parsimoniously explained away as different consequences of informatic privation). Heuristic problem-solving does not require the high-dimensional fidelity that characterizes our sensory experience of the world, as simpler life forms show. The metacognitive capacities of the human brain turn on effective information, scraps gleaned via adventitious mutations that historically provided some indeterminate reproductive advantage in some indeterminate context. It confuses these scraps for wholes–suffers the cognitive illusion of sufficiency–simply because it has no way of cognizing its informatic straits as such. Because of this, it perpetually mistakes what could be peripheral fragments in neurofunctional terms, for the entirety and the crux.


4) Metacognitive intuitions only loosely constrain neural fact. There are far more ways for neural facts to contradict our metacognitive intuitions than otherwise.

Given the above, the degree to which the mind is dissimilar to the brain is the degree to which deliberative metacognition is simply mistaken. The futility of philosophy is no accident on this account. When we ‘reflect upon’ conscious cognition or experience, we are accessing low-dimensional information adapted to metacognitive heuristics adapted to narrow problem ecologies faced by our preliterate–prephilosophical–ancestors. Thanks to medial neglect, we are utterly blind to the actual neurofunctional context of the information expressed in experience. Likewise, we have no intuitive inkling of the metacognitive apparatuses at work, no idea whether they are many as opposed to one, let alone whether they are at all applicable to the problem they have been tasked to solve. Unless, that is, the task requires accuracy–getting some theoretical metacognitive account of mind or meaning or morality or phenomenology right–in which case we have good grounds (all our manifest intuitions to the contrary) to assume that such theoretical problem ecologies are hopelessly out of reach.

Experience, the very sum of significance, is a kind of cartoon that we are. Metacognition assumes the mythical accuracy (as opposed to the situation-specific efficacy) of the cartoon simply because that cartoon is all there is, all there ever has been. It assumes sufficiency because, in other words, cognizing its myriad limits and insufficiencies requires access to information that simply does not exist for metacognition.

The metacognitive illusion of sufficiency means that the dissociation between our metacognitive intuition of function and actual neural function can be near complete, that memory need not be veridical, the feeling of willing need not be efficacious, self-identity need not be a ‘condition of possibility,’ and so on, and so on. It means, in other words, that what we call ‘experience’ can be subreptive through and through, and still seem the very foundation of the possibility of knowledge.

It means that, all things being equal, the thoroughgoing neuroscientific overthrow our manifest self-understanding is far, far more likely than even its marginal confirmation.

The Introspective Peepshow: Consciousness and the ‘Dreaded Unknown Unknowns’

by rsbakker

On February 12th, 2002, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was famously asked in a DoD press conference about the American government’s failure to provide evidence regarding Iraq’s alleged provision of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. His reply, which was lampooned in the media at the time, has since become something of a linguistic icon:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we don’t know we don’t know.

In 2003, this comment earned Rumsfeld the ‘Foot in Mouth Award’ from the British-based Plain English Campaign. Despite the scorn and hilarity it occasioned in mainstream culture at the time, the concept of unknown unknowns, or ‘unk-unk’ as it is sometimes called, has enjoyed long-standing currency in military and engineering circles. Only recently has it found its way to business and economics (in large part due to the work of Daniel Kahneman), where it is often referred to as the ‘dreaded unknown unknown.’ For enterprises involving risk, the reason for this dread is quite clear. Even in daily life, we speak of being ‘blind-sided,’ of things happening ‘out of the blue’ or coming ‘out of left field.’ Our institutions, like our brains, have evolved to manage and exploit environmental regularities. Since knowing everything is impossible, we have at our disposal any number of rehearsed responses, precooked ways to deal with ‘known unknowns,’ or irregularities that are regular enough to be anticipated. Unknown unknowns refer to those events that find us entirely unprepared–often with catastrophic consequences.

Given that few human activities are quite so sedate or ‘risk free,’ unk-unk might seem out of place in the context of consciousness research and the philosophy of mind. But as I hope to show, such is not the case. The unknown unknown, I want to argue, has a profound role to play in developing our understanding of consciousness. Unfortunately, since the unknown unknown itself constitutes an unknown unknown within cognitive science, let alone consciousness research, the route required to make my case is necessarily circuitous. As John Dewey (1958) observed, “We cannot lay hold of the new, we cannot even keep it before our minds, much less understand it, save by the use of ideas and knowledge we already possess” (viii-ix).

Blind-siding readers rarely pays. With this in mind, I begin with a critical consideration of Peter Carruthers (forthcoming, 2011, 2009a, 2009b, 2008) ‘innate self-transparency thesis,’ the account of introspection entailed by his more encompassing ‘mindreading first thesis’ (or as he calls it in The Opacity of the Mind (2011), Interpretative Sensory-Access Theory (ISA)). I hope to accomplish two things with this reading: 1) illustrate the way explanations in the cognitive sciences so often turn on issues of informatic tracking; and 2) elaborate an alternative to Carruthers’ innate self-transparency thesis that makes, in a preliminary fashion at least, the positive role played of the unknown unknown clear.

Since what I propose subsequent to this first leg of the article can only sound preposterous short of this preliminary, I will commit the essayistic sin (and rhetorical virtue) of leaving my final conclusions unstated–as a known unknown, worth mere curiosity, perhaps, but certainly not dread.


Follow the Information

Explanations in cognitive science generally adhere to the explanatory paradigm found in the life sciences: various operations are ‘identified’ and a variety of mechanisms, understood as systems of components or ‘working parts,’ are posited to discharge them (Bechtel and Abrahamson 2005, Bechtel 2008). In cognitive science in particular, the operations tend to be various cognitive capacities or conscious phenomena, and the components tend to be representations embedded in computational procedures that produce more representations. Theorists continually tear down and rebuild what are in effect virtual ‘explanatory machines,’ using research drawn from as many related fields as possible to warrant their formulations. Whether the operational outputs are behavioural, epistemic, or phenomenal, these virtual machines inevitably involve asking what information is available for what component system or process.

Let’s call this process of information tracking the ‘Follow the Information Game’ (FIG).

In a superficial sense, playing FIG is not all that different from playing detective. In the case of criminal investigations, evidence is assembled and assessed, possible motives are considered, various parties to the crime are identified, and an overarching narrative account of who did what to whom is devised and, ideally, tested. In the case of cognitive investigations, evidence is likewise assembled and assessed, possible evolutionary ‘motives’ are considered, a number of contributing component mechanisms are posited, and an overarching mechanistic account what does what for what is devised for possible experimental testing. The ‘doing’ invariably involves discharging some computational function, processing and disseminating information for subsequent computation. The theorist quite literally ‘follows the information’ from mechanism to mechanism, using a complex stew of evolutionary rationales, experimental results, and neuropathological case studies to warrant the various specifics of the resulting theoretical account.

We see this quite clearly in the mindreading versus metacognition debate, where the driving question is one of how we attribute propositional attitudes to ourselves as opposed to others. Do we have direct ‘metacognitive’ access to our beliefs and desires? Is mindreading a function of metacognition? Is metacognition a function of mindreading? Or are they simply different channels of a singular mechanism? Any answer to these questions requires mapping the flow of information, which is to say, playing FIG. This is why, for example, Peter Carruthers’ “How we know our own minds” and the following Open Peer Commentary read like transcripts of the diplomatic feuding behind the Treaty of Versailles. It’s an issue of mapping, but instead of arguing coal mines in Silesia and ports on the Baltic, the question is one of how the brain’s informatic spoils are divided.

Carruthers holds forth a ‘mindreading first’ account, arguing that our self-attributions of PAs rely on the same interpretative mechanisms we use to ‘mind read’ the PAs of others:

There is just a single metarepresentational faculty, which probably evolved in the first instance for purposes of mindreading… In order to do its work, it needs to have access to perceptions of the environment. For if it is to interpret the actions of others, it plainly requires access to perceptual representations of those actions. Indeed, I suggest that, like most other conceptual systems, the mindreading system can receive as input any sensory or quasi-sensory (eg., imagistic or somatosensory) state that gets “globally broadcast” to all judgment-forming, memory-forming, desire-forming, and decision-making systems. (2009b, 3-4)

In this article, he provides a preliminary draft of the informatic map he subsequently fleshes out in The Opacity of the Mind. He takes Baars (1988) Global Workspace Theory of Consciousness as a primary assumption, which requires him to distinguish between information that is and is not ‘globally broadcast.’ Consistent with the massive modularity endorsed in The Architecture of the Mind (2006), he posits a variety of informatically ‘encapsulated’ mechanisms operating ‘subpersonally’ or outside conscious access. The ‘mindreading system,’ not surprisingly, is accorded the most attention. Other mechanisms, when not directly recruited from preexisting cognitive scientific sources, are posited to explain various folk-psychological categories, such as belief. The tenability of these mechanisms turns on what might be called the ‘Accomplishment Assumption,’ the notion that all aspects of mental life that can be (or as in the case of folk psychology, already are) individuated are the accomplishments of various discrete neural mechanisms.

Given these mechanisms, Carruthers makes a number of ‘access inferences,’ each turning on the kinds of information required for each mechanism to discharge its function. To interpret the actions of others, the mindreading system needs access to information regarding those actions, which means it needs access to those systems dedicated to gathering that information. Given the apparently radical difference between self and other interpretation, Carruthers needs to delineate the kind of access characteristic of each:

Although the mindreading system has access to perceptual states, the proposal is that it lacks any access to the outputs of the belief-forming and decision-making mechanisms that feed off those states. Hence, self-attributions of propositional attitude events like judging and deciding are always the result of a swift (and unconscious) process of self-interpretation. However, it isn’t just the subject’s overt behavior and physical circumstances that provide the basis for the interpretation. Data about perceptions, visual and auditory imagery (including sentences rehearsed in “inner speech”), patterns of attention, and emotional feelings can all be grist for the self-interpretative view. (2009b, 4)

So the brain does possess belief mechanisms and the like, but they are informatically segregated from the suite of mechanisms responsible for generating the self-attribution of PAs. The former, it seems, do not ‘globally broadcast,’ and so their machinations must be gleaned the same way our brains glean the machinations of other brains, via their interpretative mindreading systems. Since, however, the mindreading system has no access to any information globally broadcast by other brains, he has to concede that the mindreading system is privy to additional information in instances of self-attribution, just not any involving direct access to the mechanisms responsible for PAs. So he lists what he presumes is available.

The problem, of course, is that it just doesn’t feel that way. Assumptions of unmediated access or self-transparency, Carruthers writes, “seem to be almost universal across times and cultures” (2011 15), not to mention “widespread in philosophy.” If we are forced to rely on our environmentally-oriented mindreading systems to interpret, as opposed to intuit, the function of our own brains, then why should we have any notion of introspective access to our PAs, let alone the presumption of unmediated access? Why presume an incorrigible introspective access that we simply do not have?

Carruthers offers what might be called a ‘less is more account.’ The mindreading system, he proposes, represents its self-application as direct rather than interpretative,. Our sense of self-transparency is the product of a mechanism. Once we have a mechanism, however, we require some kind of evolutionary story warranting its development. Carruthers argues that the presumption of incorrigible introspective access spares the brain a complicated series of computations pertaining to reliability without any real gain in reliability. “The transparency of our minds to ourselves,” he explains in an interview, “is a simplifying but false heuristic…” Citing Gigarenzer and Todd (1999), he points out that heuristics, even deceptive ones, regularly out-perform more fine-grained computational processes simply because of the relation between complexity and error. So long as self-interpretation via the mindreading system is generally reliable, this ‘Cartesian assumption’ or ‘self-transparency thesis’ (Carruthers 2008) possesses the advantage of simplicity to the extent that it relieves the need for computational estimations of interpretative reliability. The functional adequacy of a direct access model, in other words, more than compensates for its epistemic inadequacy, once one considers the metabolic cost and ‘robustness,’ as they say in ecological rationality circles, of the former versus the latter.

This explanation provides us with a clear-cut example of what I called the Accomplishment Assumption above. Given that ‘direct introspective access’ seems to be a discrete feature of mental life, it seems plausible to suppose that some discrete neural mechanism must be responsible for producing it. But there is a simpler explanation, one that draws out some of the problematic consequences of the ‘Follow the Information Game’ as it is presently played in cognitive science. A clue to this explanation can be found when Eric Schwitzgebel (2011) considers the selfsame problem:

Why, then, do people tend to be so confident in their introspective judgments, especially when queried in a casual and trusting way? Here is my guess: Because no one ever scolds us for getting it wrong about our experience and we never see decisive evidence of our error, we become cavalier. This lack of corrective feedback encourages a hypertrophy of confidence. [emphasis added] 130

Given his skepticism of ‘boxological’ mechanistic explanation (2011, 2012), Schwitzgebel can circumvent Carruthers’ dilemma (the mindreading system represents agent access either as direct or as interpretative) and simply pose the question in a far less structured way. Why do we possess unwarranted confidence in our introspective judgements? Well, no one tells us otherwise. But this simply begs the question of why. Why should we require ‘social scolding’ to ‘see decisive evidence of our error’? Why can’t we just see it on our own?

The easy answer is that, short of different perspectives, the requisite information is simply not available to us. The problem, in Schwitzgebel’s characterization, is that we have only a single perspective on our conscious experience, one lacking access to information regarding the limitations of introspection. In other words, the near universal presumption of self-transparency is an artifact of the near universal lack of any information otherwise. On this account, you could say the traditional, prescientific assumption of self-transparency is not so different from the traditional, prescientific assumption of geocentrism. We experience ‘vection,’ a sense of bodily displacement, whenever a large portion of our visual field moves. Short of that perceived motion (or other vestibular effects), a sense of motionless is the cognitive default. This was why the accumulation of so much (otherwise inaccessible) scientific knowledge was required to overturn geocentrism: not because we possessed an ‘innate representation’ of a motionless earth, but because of the interplay between our sensory limitations and our evolved capacity to detect motion.

The self-transparency assumption, on this account, is simply a kind of ‘noocentrism,’ the result of a certain limiting relationship between the information available and the cognitive systems utilized. The problem with geocentrism was that we were all earthbound, literally limited to what meagre extraterrestrial information our native senses could provide. That information, given our cognitive capacities, made geocentrism intuitively obvious. Thus the revolutionary significance of Galileo and his Dutch Spyglass. The problem with noocentrism, on the other hand, is that we are all brainbound, literally limited to what neural information our introspective ‘sense’ can provide. As it turns out that information, given our cognitive capacities, makes noocentrism intuitively obvious. Why? Because short of any Neural Spyglass, we lack any information regarding the insufficiency of the information at our disposal. We assume self-transparency because there is literally no other assumption to make.

One need only follow the information. Adopting a dual process perspective (Stanovich, 1999; Stanovich and Toplak, 2011), the globally broadcast information accessed for System 2 deliberation contains no information regarding its interpretative (and thus limited) status. Given that global broadcasting or integration operates within fixed bounds, System 2 has no way of testing, let alone sourcing, the information it provides. Thus, one cannot know whether the information available for introspection is insufficient in this or that respect. But since the information accessed is never flagged for insufficiencies (and why should it be, when it is generally reliable?) this suggests sufficiency will always be the assumptive default.

Given that Carruthers’ innate self-transparency account is one that he has developed with great care and ingenuity over the course of several years, a full rebuttal of the position would require an article in its own right. It’s worth noting, however, that many of the advantages that he attributes to his self-transparency mechanism also fall out of the default self-transparency account proposed here, with the added advantage of exacting no metabolic or computational cost whatsoever. You could say it’s a ‘more for even less’ account.

But despite its parsimony, there’s something decidedly strange about the notion of default self-transparency. Carruthers himself briefly entertains the possibility in The Opacity of the Mind, stating that “[a] universal or near-universal commitment to transparency may then result from nothing more than the basic principle or ‘law’ that when something appears to be the case one is disposed to form the belief that it is the case, in the absence of countervailing considerations or contrary evidence” (15). How might this ‘basic principle or law’ be characterized? Carruthers, I think, shies from pursuing this line of questioning simply because it presses FIG into hitherto unexplored territory.

Parsimony alone motivates a sustained consideration of what lies behind default self-transparency. Emily Pronin (2009), for instance, in her consideration of the ‘introspection illusion,’ draws an important connection between the assumption of self transparency and the so-called ‘bias blind spot,’ the fact that biases we find obvious in others are almost entirely invisible to ourselves. She details a number of studies where subjects were even more prone to exhibit this ‘blindness’ when provided opportunities to introspect. Now why are these biases invisible to us? Should we assume, as Carruthers does in the case of self-transparency, that some mechanism or mechanisms are required to represent our intuitions as unbiased in each case? Or should we exercise thrift and suppose that something structural is implicit in each?

In what follows, I propose to pursue the latter possibility, to argue that what I called ‘default sufficiency’ above is an inevitable consequence of mechanistic explanation, or FIG, once we appreciate the systematic role informatic neglect plays in human cognition.


The Invisibility of Ignorance

Which brings us to Daniel Kahneman. In a New York Times (2011, October 19) piece entitled “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence,” he writes of his time in the Psychology Branch of the Israeli Army, where he was tasked with evaluating candidates for officer training by observing them in a variety of tests designed to isolate soldiers’ leadership skills. His evaluations, as it turned out, were almost entirely useless. But what surprised him was the way knowing this seemed to have little or no impact on the confidence with which he and his fellows submitted their subsequent evaluations, time and again. He was so struck by the phenomenon that he would go on to study it as the ‘illusion of validity,’ a specific instance of the general role the availability of information seems to plays in human cognition–or as he later terms it, What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is, or WYSIATI.

The idea, quite simply, is that because you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend, in many contexts, to think you know all that you need to know. As he puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. [Our automatic cognitive system] excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have. (2011, 85)

As Kahneman shows, this leads to myriad errors in reasoning, including our peculiar tendency in certain contexts to be more certain about our interpretations the less information we have available. The idea is so simple as to be platitudinal: only the information available for cognition can be cognized. Other information, as Kahneman says, “might as well not exist” for the systems involved. Human cognition, it seems, abhors a vacuum.

The problem with platitudes, however, is that they are all too often overlooked, even when, as I shall argue in this case, their consequences are spectacularly profound. In the case of informatic availability, one need only look to clinical cases of anosognosia to see the impact of what might be called domain specific informatic neglect, the neuropathological loss of specific forms of information. Given a certain, complex pattern of neural damage, many patients suffering deficits as profound as lateralized paralysis, deafness, even complete blindness, appear to be entirely unaware of the deficit. Perhaps because of the informatic bandwidth of vision, visual anosognosia, or ‘Anton’s Syndrome,’ is generally regarded as the most dramatic instance of the malady. Prigatano (2010) enumerates the essential features of the syndrome as following:

First, the patient is completely blind secondary to cortical damage in the occipital regions of the brain. Second, these lesions are bilateral. Third, the patient is not only unaware of her blindness; she rejects any objective evidence of her blindness. Fourth, the patient offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away any possible evidence of her failure to see (e.g., “The room is dark,” or “I don’t have my glasses, therefore how can I see?”). Fifth, the patient has an apparent lack of concern (or anosodiaphoria) over her neurological condition. (456)

These symptoms are almost tailor-made for FIG. Obviously, the blindness stems from the occlusion of raw visual information. The second-order ‘blindness,’ the patient’s inability to ‘see’ that they cannot see, turns, one might suppose, on the unavailability of information regarding the unavailability of visual information. At some crucial juncture, the information required to process the lack of visual information has gone missing. As Kahneman might say, since System 1 is dedicated to the construction of ‘the best possible story’ given only the information it has, the patient confabulates, utterly convinced they can see even though they are quite blind.

Anton’s Syndrome, in other words, can be seen as a neuropathological instance of WYSIATI. And WYSIATI, conversely, can be seen as a non-neuropathological version of anosognosia. And both, I want to argue, are analogous to the default self-transparency thesis I offered in lieu of Carruthers’ innate self-transparency thesis above. Consider the following ‘translation’ of Prigatano’s symptoms, only applied to what might be called ‘Carruthers’ Syndrome’:

First, the philosopher is introspectively blind to his PAs secondary to various developmental and structural constraints. Second, the philosopher is not aware of his introspective blindness, and is prone to reject objective evidence of it. Third, the philosopher offers plausible, but at times confabulatory responses to explain away evidence of his inability to introspectively access his PAs. And fourth, the philosopher often exhibits an apparent lack of concern for his less than ideal neurological constitution.

Here we see how the default self-transparency thesis I offered above is capable of filling the explanatory shoes of Carruthers’ innate self-transparency thesis: it simply falls out of the structure of cognition. In FIG terms, what philosophers call ‘introspection’ possibly provides some combination of impoverished information, skewed information, or (what amounts to the same) information matched to cognitive systems other than those employed in deliberative cognition, without–and here’s the crucial twist–providing information to this effect. Our sense of self-transparency, in other words, is a kind of ‘unk-unk effect,’ what happens when we can’t see that we can’t see. In the absence of information to the contrary, what is globally broadcast (or integrated) for System 2 deliberative uptake, no matter how attenuated, seems become everything there is to apprehend.

But what does it mean to that say that default self-transparency ‘falls out of the structure of cognition’? Isn’t this, for instance, a version of ‘belief perseverance’? Prima facie, at least, something like Keith Stanovich’s (1999) ‘knowledge projection argument’ might seem to offer an explanation, the notion that “in a natural ecology where most of our prior beliefs are true, projecting our beliefs onto new data will lead to faster accumulation of knowledge” (Sa, 1999, 506). But as the analogy to Kahneman’s WYSIATI and Anton’s Syndrome should make clear, something considerably more profound than the ‘projection of prior beliefs’ seems to be at work here. The question is what.

Consider the following: On Carruthers’ innate self-transparency account, the assumption seems to be that short of the mindreading system telling us otherwise, we would know that something hinky is afoot. But how? To paraphrase Plato, how could we, having never seen otherwise, know that we were simply guessing at a parade of shadows? What kind of cognitive resources could we draw on? We couldn’t source the information back to the mindreading system. Neither could we compare it with some baseline–some introspective yardstick of informatic sufficiency. In fact, it’s actually difficult to imagine how we might come to doubt introspectively accessed information at all, short of regimented, deliberative inquiry.

So then why does Carruthers seem to make the opposite assumption? Why does he assume that we would know short of some representational device telling us otherwise?

To answer this question we first need to appreciate the ubiquity of ‘unk-unk effects’ in the natural world. The exploitation of cognitive scotoma or blind spots has shaped the evolution of entire species, including our own. Consider the apparently instinctive nature of human censoriousness, the implicit understanding that managing the behaviour of others requires managing the information they have available. Consider mimicry or camouflage. Or consider ‘obligate brood parasites’ such as the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds to be raised to maturity by them. Looked at in purely biomechanical terms, these are all examples of certain organic systems exploiting (by operating outside) the detection/response thresholds of other organic systems. Certainly the details of these interactions remain a work in progress, but the principle is not at all mysterious. One might say the same of Anton’s syndrome or anosognosia more generally: disabling certain devices systematically impacts the capacities of the system in some dramatic ways, including deficit detection. The lack of information constrains computation, constrains cognition, period. It seems pretty straightforward, mechanically speaking.

So why, then, does Anton’s jar against our epistemic intuitions the way it does? Why do we want to assume that somehow, even if we experienced the precise pattern of neural damage, we would be the magical exception, we would say, “Aha! I only think I see!”

Because when we are blind to our blindnesses, we think we see, either actually or potentially, all that there is to be seen. Or as Kahneman would put it, because of WYSIATI. We think we would be the one Anton’s patient who would actually cognize their loss of sight, in other words, for the very same reason the Anton’s patient is convinced he can still see! The lack of information not only constrains cognition, it constrains cognition in ways that escape cognition. We possess, not a representational presumption of introspective omniscience, but a structural inability to cognize the limits of metacognition.

You might say introspection is a kind of anosognosiac.

So why does Carruthers assume the mindreading system needs an incorrigibility device? The Accomplishment Assumption forces his hand, certainly. He thinks he has an apparently discrete intuition–self-transparency–that has to be generated somehow. But in explaining away the intuition he is also paradoxically serving it, because even if we agree with Carruthers, we nonetheless assume we would know something is up if incorrigibility wasn’t somehow signalled. There’s a sense, in other words, in which Carruthers’ argument against self-transparency appeals to it!

Now this broaches the question of how informatic neglect bears on our epistemic intuitions more generally. My goal here, however, is to simply illustrate that informatic neglect has to have a pivotal role to play in our understanding of cognition through an account of the role it plays in introspection. Suffice to say the ‘basic principle or law’ that Carruthers considers in passing is actually more basic than the ‘disposition to believe in the absence of countervailing considerations.’ Our cognitive systems simply cannot allow, to use Kahneman’s terms, for information they do not have. This is a brute fact of natural information processing systems.

Sufficiency is the default because information, understood as systematic differences making systematic differences, is effective. This is why, for instance, unknowns must be known, to effect changes in behaviour. And this is what makes research on cognitive biases and the neuropathologies of neglect so unsettling: they clearly show the way we are mere mechanisms, cognitive systems causally bound to the information available. If the informatic and cognitive limits of introspection are not available for introspection (and how could they be?), then introspection will seem, curiously, limitless, no matter how severe the actual limits may be.

The potential severity of those limits remains to be seen.


Introspection and the Bayesian Brain

Since unknown unknowns offer FIG nothing to follow, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the potential relevance of unk-unks has itself remained an unknown unknown in cognitive science. The idea proposed here is that ‘naive introspection’ be viewed as a kind of natural anosognosia, as a case where we think we see, even though we are largely blind. It stands, therefore, squarely in the ‘introspective unreliability’ camp most forcefully defended by Eric Schwitzgebel (2007, 2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2012). Jacob Hohwy (2011, 2012), however, has offered a novel defence of introspective reliability via a sustained consideration of Karl Friston’s (2006, 2012, for an overview) free energy elaboration of the Bayesian brain hypothesis, an approach which has been recently been making inroads due to the apparent comprehensiveness of its explanatory power.

Hohwy (2011) argues that the introspective unreliability suggested by Schwitzgebel is in fact better explained by phenomenological variability. Introspection only appears as unreliable as it does on Schwitzgebel’s account because it assumes a relatively stable phenomenology. “The evidence,” Hohwy writes, “can be summarized like this: everyday or ‘naive’ introspection tells us that our phenomenology is stable and certain but, surprisingly, calm and attentive introspection tells us our phenomenology is not stable and certain, rather it is variable and uncertain” (265). In other words, either ‘attentive introspection’ is unreliable and phenomenology is stable, or ‘naive introspection’ is unreliable and phenomenology is in fact variable.

Hohwy identifies at least three sources of potential phenomenological variability on Friston’s free energy account: 1) attenuation of the ‘prediction error landscape’ through ‘inferences’ that cancel out predictive success and allow unpredicted input to ascend; 2) change through ‘agency’ and movement; and 3) increase in precision and gain via attention. Thus, he argues “[i]f the brain is this kind of inference-machine, then it is a fundamental expectation that there is variability in the phenomenology engendered by perceptual inferences, and to which introspection in turn has access” (270).

The problem with saving introspective reliability by arguing phenomenal variability, however, is that it becomes difficult to understand what in operational terms is exactly being saved. Is the target too quick? Or is the tracking too slow? Hohwy can adduce evidence and arguments for the variability of conscious experience, and Schwitzgebel can adduce evidence and arguments for the unreliability of introspection, but there is a curious sense in which their conclusions are the same: in a number of respects conscious experience eludes introspective cognition.

Setting aside this argument, the real value in Hohwy’s account lies in his consideration of what might be called introspective applicability and introspective interference. Regarding the first, applicability, Hohwy is concerned with distinguishing those instances where the researcher’s request, ‘Please, introspect,’ is warranted and where it is ‘suboptimal.’ He discusses the so-called ‘default mode network,’ the systems of the brain engaged when the subject’s thoughts and imagery are detached from the world, as opposed to the systems engaged when the subject is directly involved with his or her environment. He then argues that the variance in introspective reliability one finds between experiments can be explained by whether the mental tasks involve the default mode as opposed to mental tasks involving the environmental mode. Tasks involving the default mode evince greater reliability when compared to tasks involving the environmental mode, he suggests, simply because the request to introspect is profoundly artificial in the latter.

His argument, in other words, is that introspection, as an adaptive, evolutionary artifact, is not a universally applicable form of cognition, and that the apparent unreliability of introspection is potentially a product of researchers asking subjects to apply introspection ‘out of bounds,’ in ways that it simply was not designed to be used. In ecological rationality terms (Todd and Gigarenzer, 2012), one might say introspection is a specialized cognitive tool (or collection of tools), a heuristic like any other, and as such will only properly function the degree to which it is properly matched to its ‘ecology.’ This possibility raises a host of questions. If introspection, far from being the monolithic, information-maximizing faculty assumed by the tradition, is actually a kind of cognitive tool box, a collection of heuristics adapted to discharge specific functions, then we seem to be faced with the onerous task of identifying the tools and matching them to the appropriate tasks.

Regarding introspective interference, the question, to paraphrase Hohwy is whether introspection changes or leaves phenomenal states as they are (262). In the course of discussing the likelihood that introspection involves a plurality of processes pertaining to different domains, he provides the following footnote:

Another tier can potentially be added to this account, directed specifically at the cognitive mechanisms underpinning introspection itself. If introspection is itself a type of internal predictive inference taking phenomenal states as input, then introspective inference would be subject to the similar types of prediction error dynamics as perceptual inference itself. In this way introspective inference about phenomenality would add variability to the already variable phenomenality. This sketch of an approach to introspection is attractive because it treats introspection as also a type of unconscious inference; however, it remains to be seen if it can be worked out in satisfactory detail and I do not here want to defend introspection by subscribing to a particular theory about it. 270

By ascribing to Friston’s free energy account, Hohwy is committed to an account that conceives the brain as a mechanism that extracts information regarding the causal structure of its environment via the sensory effects of that environment. As Hohwy (2012) puts it, a ‘problem of representation’ follows from this, since the brain is stranded with sensory effects and so has no direct access to causes. As a result it needs to establish causal relations de novo, as he puts it. Sensory input contains patterns as well as noise, the repetition of which allows the formation of predictions, which can be ‘tested’ against further repetitions. Prediction error minimization (PEM) allows the system to automatically adapt to real causal patterns in the environment, which can then be said to ‘supervise’ the system. The idea is that the brain contains a hierarchy of ascending PEM levels, beginning with basic sensory and causal regularities, and with the ‘harder to predict’ signals being passed upward, ultimately producing representations of the world possessing ‘causal depth.’ All these levels exhibit ‘lateral connectivity,’ allowing the refinement of prediction via ‘contextual information.’

Although the free energy account is not an account of consciousness, it does seem to explain what Floridi (2011) calls the ‘one dimensionality of experience,’ the way, as he writes, “experience is experience, only experience, and nothing but experience” (296). If the brain is a certain kind of Bayesian causal inference engine, then one might expect the generative models it produces to be utterly lacking any explicit neurofunctional information, given the dedication of neural structure and function to minimizing environmental surprise. One might expect, in other words, that the causal structure of the brain will be utterly invisible to the brain, that it will remain, out of structural necessity, a dreaded unknown unknown–or unk-unk.

The brain, on this kind of prediction error minimization account, simply has to be ‘blind’ to itself. And this is where, far from ‘attractive’ as Hohwy suggests, the mere notion of ‘introspection’ modelled on prediction error minimization becomes exceedingly difficult to understand. Does introspection (or the plurality of processes we label as such) proceed via hierarchical prediction error minimization from sensory effects to build generative models of the causal structure of the human brain? Almost certainly not. Why? Because as a free energy minimizing mechanism (or suite of mechanisms), introspection would seem to be thoroughly hobbled for at least four different reasons:

  • 1) Functional dependence: On the free energy account, the human brain distills the causal structure of its environments from the sensory effects of that causal structure. One might, on this model, isolate two distinct vectors of causality, one, which might be called the ‘lateral,’ pertaining to the causal structure of the environment, and another, which might be call the ‘medial,’ pertaining to the causal structure of sensory inputs and the brain. As mentioned above, the brain can only model the lateral vector of environmental causal structure by neglecting the medial vector of its own causal structure. This neglect requires that the brain enjoy a certain degree of functional independence from the causal structure of its environment, simply because ‘medial interference’ will necessarily generate ‘lateral noise,’ thus rendering the causal structure of the environment more difficult, if not impossible, to model. The sheer interconnectivity of the brain, however, would likely render substantial medial interference difficult for any introspective device (or suite of devices) to avoid.
  • 2) Structural immobility: Proximity complicates cognition. To get an idea of the kind of modelling constraints any neurally embedded introspective device would suffer, think of the difference between two anthropologists trying to understand a preliterate tribesman from the Amazon, the one ranging freely with her subject in the field, gathering information from a plurality of sources, the other locked with him in a coffin. Since it is functionally implicated–or brainbound–relative to its target, the ability of any introspective device (or suite of devices) to engage in the ‘active inferences’ would be severely restricted. On Friston’s free energy account the passive reception of sensory input is complemented by behavioural outputs geared to maximizing information from a variety of positions within the organism’s environment, thus minimizing the likelihood of ‘perspectival’ or angular illusions, false inferences due to the inability to test predictions from alternate angles and positions. Geocentrism is perhaps the most notorious example of such an illusion. Given structural immobility, one might suppose, any introspective device (or suite of devices) would suffer ‘phenomenal’ analogues to this and other illusions pertaining to limits placed on exploratory information-gathering.
  • 3) Cognitive resources: If we assume that human introspective capacity is a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation, we might expect any introspective device (or suite of devices) to exploit preexisting cognitive resources, which is to say, cognitive systems primarily adapted to environmental prediction error minimization. For instance, one might argue that both (1) and (2) fairly necessitate the truth of something like Carruther’s mindreading account, particularly if (as seems to be the case) mindreading antedates introspection. Functional dependence and structural immobility suggest that we are actually in a better position mechanically to accurately predict the behaviour of others than ourselves, as indeed a growing body of evidence indicates (Carruthers (2009) provides an excellent overview). Otherwise, given our apparent ability to attend to the whole of experience, does it make sense, short of severe evolutionary pressure, to presume the evolution of entirely novel cognitive systems adapted to the accurate modelling second-order, medial information? It seems far more likely that access to this information was incremental across generations, and that it was initially selected for the degree to which it proved advantageous given our preexisting suite of environmentally oriented cognitive abilities.
  • 4) Target complexity: Any introspective device (or suite of devices) modelled on the PEM (or, for that matter, any other mechanistic) account must also cope with the sheer functional complexity of the human brain. It is difficult to imagine, particularly given (1), (2), and (3) above, how the tracking that results could avoid suffering out-and-out astronomical ‘resolution deficits’ and distortions of various kinds.

The picture these complicating factors paint is sobering. Any introspective device (or suite of devices) modelled on free energy Bayesian principles would be almost fantastically crippled: neurofunctionally embedded (which is to say, functionally entangled and structurally imprisoned) in the most complicated machinery known, accessing information for environmentally biased cognitive systems. Far from what Hohwy supposes, the problems of applicability and interference, when pursued through a free energy lens, at least, would seem to preclude introspection as a possibility.

But there is another option, one that would be unthinkable were it not for the pervasiveness and profundity of the unk-unk effect: that this is simply what introspection is, a kind of near blindness that we confuse for brilliant vision, simply because it’s the only vision we know.

The problem facing any mechanistic account of introspection can be generalized as the question of information rendered and cognitive system applied: to what extent is the information rendered insufficient, and to what extent is the cognitive system activated misapplied? This, I would argue, is the great fork in the FIG road. On the ‘information rendered’ side of the issue, informatic neglect means the assumption of sufficiency. We have no idea, as a rule, whether we have the information we need for effective deliberation or not. One need only consider the staggering complexity of the brain–complex enough to stymy a science that has puzzled through the origins of the universe in the meantime–to realize the astronomical amounts of information occluded by metacognition. On the ‘cognitive system applied’ side, informatic neglect means the assumption of universality. We have no idea, as a rule, whether we’re misapplying ‘introspection’ or not. One need only consider the heuristic nature of human cognition, the fact that heuristics are adaptive and so matched to specific sets of problems, to realize that introspective misapplications, such as those argued by Hohwy, are likely an inevitability.

This is the turn where unknown unknowns earn their reputation for dread. Given the informatic straits of introspection, what are the chances that we, blind as we are, have anything approaching the kind of information we require to make accurate introspective judgments regarding the ‘nature’ of mind and consciousness? Given the heuristic limitations of introspection, what are the chances that we, blind as we are, somehow manage to avoid colouring far outside the cognitive lines? Is it fair to assume that the answer is, ‘Not good’?

Before continuing to consider this question in more detail, it’s worth noting how this issue of informatic availability and cognitive applicability becomes out-and-out unavoidable once you acknowledge the problem of the ‘dreaded unknown unknowns.’ If the primary symptom of patients suffering neuropathological neglect is the inability to cognize their cognitive deficits, then how do we know that we don’t suffer from any number of ‘natural’ forms of metacognitive neglect? The obvious answer is, We don’t. Could what we call ‘philosophical introspection’ simply be a kind of mitigated version of Anton’s Syndrome? Could this be the reason why we find consciousness so stupendously difficult to understand? Given millennia of assuming the best of introspection and finding only perplexity, perhaps, finally, the time has come to assume the worst, and to reconceptualize the problematic of consciousness in terms of privation, distortion, and neglect.


Conclusion: Introspection, Tangled and Blind

Cognitive science and philosophy of mind suffer from a profound scotoma, a blindness to the structural role blindness plays in our intuitive assumptions. As we saw in passing, FIG actually plays into this blindness, encouraging theorists and researchers to conceive the relationship between information and experience exclusively in what I called Accomplishment terms. If self-transparency is the ubiquitous assumption, then it follows that some mechanism possessing some ‘self-transparency representation’ must be responsible. Informatic neglect, however, allows us to see it in more parsimonious, structural terms, as a positive, discrete feature of human cognition possessing no discrete neurofunctional correlate. And this, I would argue, counts as a game-changer as far as FIG is concerned. The possibility that certain, various discrete features of cognition and consciousness could be structural expressions of various kinds of informatic neglect not only rewrites the rules of FIG, it drastically changes the field of play.

That FIG needs to be sensitive to informatic neglect I take as uncontroversial. Informatic neglect seems to be one of those peculiar issues that everyone acknowledges but never quite sees, one that goes without saying because it goes unseen. Schwitzgebel (2012), for instance, provides a number of examples of the complications and ambiguities attending ‘acts of introspection’ to call attention to the artificial division of introspective and non-introspective processes, and in particular, to what might be called the ‘transparency problem,’ the way judgments about experience effortlessly slip into judgments about the objects/contents of experience. Given this welter of obscurities, complicating factors, not to mention the “massive interconnection of the brain,” he advocates what might be called a ‘tangled’ account of introspective cognitive processes:

What we have, or seem to have, is a cognitive confluence of crazy spaghetti, with aspects of self-detection, self-shaping, self-fulfilment, spontaneous expression, priming and association, categorical assumptions, outward perception, memory, inference, hypothesis testing, bodily activity, and who only knows what else, all feeding into our judgments about current states of mind. To attempt to isolate a piece of this confluence as the introspective process – the one true introspective process, though influenced by, interfered with, supported by, launched or halted by, all the others – is, I suggest, like trying to find the one way in which a person makes her parenting decisions… 19

Given that you accept his conclusion as a mere possibility (or as I would argue, a distinct probability), you implicitly accept much of what I’m saying here regarding informatic neglect. You accept that introspection could be massively plural while appearing to be unitary. You accept that introspection could be skewed and distorted while appearing to be the very rule. How could this be, short of informatic neglect? Recall Pronin’s (2009) ‘bias blind spots,’ or Hohwy’s (2011) mismatched ‘plurality of processes.’ How could it be that we swap between cognitive systems oblivious, with nothing, no intuition, no feel, to demarcate any transitions, let alone their applicability? As I hope should be clear, this question is simply a version of Carruthers’ question from above: How could it be we once unanimously thought that introspection was incorrigible? Both questions ask the same thing of introspection, namely, To what extent are the various limits of introspection available to introspection?

The answer, quite simply, is that they are not. Introspection is out-and-out blind to its internal structure, its cognitive applicability, and its informatic insufficiencies–let alone to its neurofunctionality. To the extent that we fail to recognize these blindnesses, we are effectively introspective anosognosiacs, simply hoping that things are ‘just so.’ And this is just to say that informatic neglect, once acknowledged, constitutes a genuine theoretical crisis, for philosophy of mind as well as for cognitive science, insofar as their operational assumptions turn on interpretations of information gleaned, by hook or by crook, from ‘introspection.’

Of course, the ‘problem of introspection’ is nothing new (in certain circles, at least). The literature abounds with attempts to ‘sanitize’ introspective data for scientific consumption. Given this, one might wonder what distinguishes informatic neglect from the growing army of experimental confounds already identified. Perhaps the appropriate methodological precautions will allow us to quarantine the problem. Schooler and Schreiber (2004), for instance, offer one such attempt to ‘massage’ FIG in such a way to preserve the empirical utility of introspection. After considering a variety of ‘introspective failures,’ they pin the bulk of the blame on what they call ‘translation dissociations’ between consciousness and meta-consciousness, the idea being that the researcher’s demand, ‘Please, introspect,’ forces the subject to translate information available for introspection into action. They categorize three kinds of translation dissociations: 1) detection, where the ‘signal’ to be introspected is too weak or ambiguous; 2) transformation, where tasks “require intervening operations for which the system is ill-equipped” (32); and 3) substitution, where the information rendered has no connection to the information experimentally targeted. Once these ‘myopias’ are identified, the assumption is, methodologies can be designed to act as corrective lenses.

The problem that informatic neglect poses for FIG, however, is far and away more profound. To see this, one need only consider the dichotomy of ‘consciousness versus metaconsciousness,’ and the assumption that there is some fact of the matter pertaining to the first that is in principle accessible to the latter. The point isn’t that no principled distinction can be made between the two, but rather that even if it can, the putative target, consciousness, is every bit as susceptible to informatic neglect as any metaconscious attempt to cognize it. The assumption is simply this: Information that finds itself globally broadcast or integrated will not, as a rule, include information regarding its ‘limits.’ Insofar as we can assume this, we can assume that informatic neglect isn’t so much a ‘problem of introspection’ as it is a problem afflicting consciousness as whole.

Our sketch of Friston’s Bayesian brain above demonstrated why this must be the case. Simply ask: What would the brain require to accurately model itself from within itself? On the PEM account, the brain is a dedicated causal inference engine, as it must be, given the difficulties of isolating the causal structure of its environment from sensory effects. This means that the brain has no means of modelling its own causal structure, short of either 1) analogizing from brains found in its environment, or 2) developing some kind of onboard ‘secondary inference’ system, one which, as was argued above, we should expect would face a number of dramatic informatic and cognitive obstacles. Functionally entangled with, structurally immured in, and heuristically mismatched to the most complicated machinery known, such a secondary inference system, one might expect, would suffer any number of deficits, all the while assuming itself incorrigible simply because it lacks any direct means of detecting otherwise.

Consciousness could very well be a cuckoo, an imposter with ends or functions all its own, and we would never be able to intuit otherwise. As we have seen, from the mechanistic standpoint this has to be a possibility. And given this possibility, informatic neglect plainly threatens all our assumptions. Once again: What would the brain require to model itself from within itself? What evolutionary demands were answered how? Bracket, as best you can, your introspective assumptions, and ask yourself how many ways these questions can be cogently answered. Far more than is friendly to our intuitive assumptions–these little blind men who wander out of the darkness telling fantastic and incomprehensible tales.

Even apparent boilerplate intuitions like efficacy become moot. The argument that the brain is generally efficacious is trivial. Given that the targets of introspective tracking are systematically related to the function of the brain, informatic neglect (and the illusion of sufficiency in particular) suggests that what we introspect or intuit will evince practical efficacy no matter how drastically its actual neural functions differ or even contradict our manifest assumptions. Neurofunctional dissociations, as unknown unknowns, simply do not exist for metacognition. “[T]he absence of representation,” as Dennett (1991) famously writes, “is not the same as the representation of absence” (359). Since the ‘unk-unk effect’ has no effect, cognition is stranded with assumptive sufficiency on the one hand, and the efficacy of our practices on the other. Informatic neglect, in other words, means that our manifest intuitions (not to mention our traditional assumptions) of efficacy are all but worthless. The question of the efficacy of what philosophers think they intuit or introspect is what it has always been: a question that only a mature neuroscience can resolve. And given that nothing biases intuition or introspection ‘friendly’ outcomes over unfriendly outcomes, we need to grapple with the fact that any future neuroscience is far more likely to be antagonistic to our intuitive, introspective assumptions than otherwise. There are far more ways for neurofunctionality to contradict our manifest and traditional assumptions than to rescue them. And perhaps this is precisely what we should expect, given the dismal history of traditional discourses once science colonizes their domain.

It is worth noting that a priori arguments simply beg the question, since it is entirely possible (likely probable given the free energy account) that evolution stranded us with suboptimal metacognitive capacities. One might simply ask, for instance, from where do our intuitions regarding the a priori come?

Evolutionary arguments, on the other hand, cut both ways. Everyone agrees that our general metacognitive capacities are adaptations of some kind, but adaptations for what? The accurate second-order appraisals of cognitive structure or ‘mind’ more generally? Seems unlikely. As far as we know, our introspective capacities could be the result of very specific evolutionary demands that required only gross distortions to be discharged. What need did our ancestors have for ‘theoretical descriptions of the mental’? Given informatic neglect (and the spectre of ‘Carruthers’ Syndrome’), evolutionary appeals would actually seem to count against the introspectionist, insofar as any story told would count as ‘just so,’ and thus serve to underscore the improbability of that story.

Again, the two question to be asked are: What would the brain require to model itself from within itself? What evolutionary demands were answered how? Informatic neglect, the dreaded unknown unknown, allows us to see how many ways these questions can be answered. By doing so, it makes plain the dramatic extent of our anosognosia, to think that we had won the magical introspection lottery.

Short of default self-transparency, why would anyone trust in any intuitions incompatible with those that underwrite the life sciences? If it is the case that evolution stranded us with just enough second-order information and cognitive resources to discharge a relatively limited repertoire of processes, then perhaps the last two millennia of second-order philosophical perplexity should not surprise us. Maybe we should expect that science, when it finally provides a detailed picture of informatic availability and cognitive applicability, will be able to diagnose most traditional philosophical problematics as the result of various, unavoidable cognitive illusions pertaining to informatic depletion, distortion and neglect. Then, perhaps, we will at last be able to see the terrain of perennial philosophical problems as a kind of ‘free energy landscape’ sustained by the misapplication of various, parochial cognitive systems to insufficient information. Perhaps noocentrism, like biocentrism and geocentrism before it, will become the purview of historians, a third and final ‘narcissistic wound.’



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Lamps Instead of Ladies: The Hard Problem Explained

by rsbakker

This is another repost, this one from 2012/07/04. I like it I think because of the way it makes the informatic stakes of the hard problem so vivid. I do have some new posts in the works, but Golgotterath has been gobbling up more and more of my creative energy of late. For those of you sending off-topic comments asking about a publication date for The Unholy Consult, all I can do is repeat what I’ve been saying for quite some time now: You’ll know when I know! The book is pretty much writing itself through me at this point, and from the standpoint of making good on the promise of this series, I think this is far and away the best way to proceed. It will be done when it tells me it’s done. I would rather frustrate you all with an extended wait than betray the series. If you want me to write faster, cut me cheques, shame illegal downloaders, or simply thump the tub as loud as you can online and in print. So long as The Second Apocalypse remains a cult enterprise, I simply have to continue working on completing my PhD.


The so-called “hard problem” is generally understood as the problem consciousness researchers face closing Joseph Levine’s “explanatory gap,” the question of how mere physical systems can generate conscious experience. The problem is that, as Descartes noted centuries ago, consciousness is so damned peculiar when compared to the natural world that it reveals. On the one hand you have qualia, or the raw feel, the ‘what-it-is-like’ of conscious experiences. How could meat generate such bizarre things? On the other hand you have intentionality, the aboutness of consciousness, as well as the related structural staples of the mental, the normative and the purposive.

In one sense, my position is a mainstream one: consciousness is another natural phenomena that will be explained naturalistically. But it is not just another natural phenomenon: it is the natural phenonmenon that is attempting to explain itself naturalistically. And this is where the problem becomes an epistemological nightmare – or very, very hard.

This is why I espouse what might be called a “Dual Explanation Account of Consciousness.” Any one of the myriad theories of consciousness out there could be entirely correct, but we will never know this because we disagree about just what must be explained for an explanation of consciousness to count as ‘adequate.’ The Blind Brain Theory explains the hardness of the hard problem in terms of the information we should expect the conscious systems of the brain to lack. The consciousness we think we cognize, I want to argue, is the product of a variety of ‘natural anosognosias.’ The reason everyone seems to be barking up the wrong explanatory tree is simply that we don’t have the consciousness we think we do.

Personally, I’m convinced this has to be case to some degree. Let’s call the cognitive system involved in natural explanation the ‘NE system.’ The NE system, we might suppose, originally evolved to cognize external environments: this is what it does best. (We can think of scientific explanation as a ‘training up’ of this system, pressing it to its peak performance). At some point, the human brain found it more and more reproductively efficacious to cognize onboard information – data from itself – as well. In addition to continually sampling and updating environmental information, it began doing the same with its own neural information.

Now if this marks the genesis of human self-consciousness, the confusions we collectively call the ‘hard problem’ become the very thing we should expect. We have an NE system exquisitely adapted over hundreds of millions of years to cognize environmental information suddenly forced to cognize 1) the most complicated machinery we know of in the universe (itself); 2) from a fixed (hardwired) ‘perspective’; and 3) with nary more than a million years of evolutionary tuning.

Given this (and it seems fairly airtight to me), we should expect that the NE system would have enormous difficulty cognizing consciously available information. (1) suggests that the information gleaned will be drastically fractional. (2) suggests that the information accessed will be thoroughly parochial, but also, entirely ‘sufficient,’ given the NE’s rank inability to ‘take another perspective’ relative the gut brain the way it can relative its external environments. (3) suggests the information provided will be haphazard and distorted, the product of kluge-type mutations. [See “Reengineering Dennett” for a more recent consideration of this in terms of ‘dimensionality.’]

In other words, (1) implies ‘depletion,’ (2) implies ‘truncation’ (since we can’t access the causal provenance of what we access), and (3) implies a motley of distortions. Your NE is quite literally restricted to informatic scraps.

This is the point I keep hammering in my discussions with consciousness researchers: our attempts to cognize experience utilize the same machinery that we use to cognize our environments – evolution is too fond of ‘twofers’ to assume otherwise, too cheap. Given this, the “hard problem” not only begins to seem inevitable, but something that probably every other biologically conscious species in the universe suffers. The million dollar question is this: If information privation generates confusion and illusion regarding phenomena within consciousness, why should it not generate confusion and illusion when regarding consciousness itself?

Think of the myriad mistakes the brain makes: just recently, while partying with my brother-in-law on the front porch, we became convinced that my neighbour from across the street was standing at her window glaring at us – I mean, convinced. It wasn’t until I walked up to her house to ask whether we were being too noisy (or noisome!) that I realized it was her lamp glaring at us (it never liked us anyway), that it was a kooky effect of light and curtains. What I’m saying is that peering at consciousness is no different than peering at my neighbour’s window, except that we are wired to the porch, and so have no way of seeing lamps instead of ladies. Whether we are deliberating over consicousness or deliberating over neighbours, we are limited to the same cognitive systems. As such, it simply follows that the kinds of distortions information privation causes in the one also pertain to the other. It only seems otherwise with consciousness because we are hardwired to the neural porch and have no way of taking a different informatic perspective. And so, for us, it just is the neighbour lady glaring at you through the window, even though it’s not.

Before we can begin explaining consciousness, we have to understand the severity of our informatic straits. We’re stranded: both with the patchy, parochial neural information provided, and with our ancient, environmentally oriented cognitive systems. The result is what we call ‘consciousness.’

The argument in sum is pretty damn strong: Consciousness (as it is) evolved on the back of existing, environmentally oriented cognitive systems. Therefore, we should assume that the kinds of information privation effects pertaining to environmental cognition also apply to our attempts to cognize consciousness. (1), (2), and (3) give us good reason to assume that consciousness suffers radical information privation. Therefore, odds are we’re mistaking a good number of lamps for ladies – that consciousness is literally not what we think it is.

Given the breathtaking explanatory successes of the natural sciences, then, it stands to reason that our gut antipathy to naturalistic explanations of consciousness are primarily an artifact of our ‘brain blindess.’

What we are trying to explain, in effect, is information that has to be depleted, truncated, and distorted – a lady that quite literally does not exist. And so when science rattles on about ‘lamps,’ we wave our hands and cry, “No-no-no! It’s the lady I’m talking about.”

Now I think this is a pretty novel, robust, and nifty dissection of the Hard Problem. Has anyone encountered anything similar anywhere? Does anyone see any obvious assumptive or inferential flaws?

Less Human than Human: The Cyborg Fantasy versus the Neuroscientific Real (2012/10/29)

by rsbakker

Since Massimo Pigluicci has reposted Julia Galef’s tepid defense of transhumanism from a couple years back, I thought I would repost the critique I gave last fall, an argument which actually turns Galef’s charge of ‘essentialism’ against transhumanism. Short of some global catastrophe, transhumanism is coming (for those who can afford it, at least) whether we want it to or not. My argument is simply that transhumanists need to recognize that the very values they use to motivate their position are likely among the things our posthuman descendents will leave behind.   


When alien archaeologists sift through the rubble of our society, which public message, out of all those they unearth, will be the far and away most common?

The answer to this question is painfully obvious–when you hear it, that is. Otherwise, it’s one of those things that is almost too obvious to be seen.

Sale… Sale–or some version of it. On sale. For sale. 10% off. 50% off. Bigger savings. Liquidation event!

Or, in other words, more for less.

Consumer society is far too complicated to be captured in any single phrase, but you could argue that no phrase better epitomizes its mangled essence. More for less. More for less. More for less.


Thus the intuitive resonance of “More Human than Human,” the infamous tagline of the Tyrell Corporation, or even ‘transhumanism’ more generally, which has been vigorously rebranding itself the past several months as ‘H+,’ an abbreviation of ‘Humanity plus.’

What I want to do is drop a few rocks into the hungry woodchipper of transhumanist enthusiasm. Transhumanism has no shortage of critics, but given a potent brand and some savvy marketing, it’s hard not to imagine the movement growing by leaps and bounds in the near future. And in all the argument back and forth, no one I know of (with the exception of David Roden, whose book I eagerly anticipate) has really paused to consider what I think is the most important issue of all. So what I want to do is isolate a single, straightforward question, one which the transhumanist has to be able to answer to anchor their claims in anything resembling rational discourse (exuberant discourse is a different story). The idea, quite simply, is to force them to hold the fingers they have crossed plain for everyone to see, because the fact is, the intelligibility of their entire program depends on research that is only just getting under way.

I think I can best sum up my position by quoting the philosopher Andy Clark, one the world’s foremost theorists of consciousness and cognition, who after considering competing visions of our technological future, good and bad, writes, “Which vision will prove the most accurate depends, to some extent, on the technologies themselves, but it depends also–and crucially–upon a sensitive appreciation of our own nature” (Natural-Born Cyborgs, 173). It’s this latter condition, the ‘sensitive appreciation of our own nature,’ that is my concern, if only because this is precisely what I think Clark and just about everyone else fails to do.

First, we need to get clear on just how radical the human future has become. We can talk about the singularity, the transformative potential of nano-bio-info-technology, but it serves to look back as well, to consider what was arguably humanity’s last great break with its past, what I will here call the ‘Old Enlightenment.’ Even though no social historical moment so profound or complicated can be easily summarized, the following opening passage, taken from a 1784 essay called, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” by Immanuel Kant, is the one scholars are most inclined to cite:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of the enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (“An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” 54)

Now how modern is this? For my own part, I can’t count all the sales pitches this resonates with, especially when it comes to that greatest of contradictions, the television commercial. What is Enlightenment? Freedom, Kant says. Autonomy, not from the political apparatus of the state (he was a subject of Frederick the Great, after all), but from the authority of traditional thought–from our ideological inheritance. More new. Less old. New good. Old bad. Or in other words, More better, less worse. The project of the Enlightenment, according to Kant, lies in the maximization of intellectual and moral freedom, which is to say, the repudiation of what we were and an openness to what we might become. Or, as we still habitually refer to it, ‘Progress.’ The Old Enlightenment effectively rebranded humanity as a work in progress, something that could be improved–enhanced–through various forms of social and personal investment. We even have a name for it, nowadays: ‘human capital.’

The transhumanists, in a sense, are offering nothing new in promising the new. And this is more than just ironic. Why? Because even though the Old Enlightenment was much less transformative socially and technologically than the New will almost certainly be, the transhumanists nevertheless assume that it was far more transformative ideologically. They assume, in other words, that the New Enlightenment will be more or less conceptually continuous with the Old. Where the Old Enlightenment offered freedom from our ideological inheritance, but left us trapped in our bodies, the New Enlightenment is offering freedom from our biological inheritance–while leaving our belief systems largely intact. They assume, quite literally, that technology will deliver more of what we want physically, not ideologically.

More better

Of course, everything hinges upon the ‘better,’ here. More is not a good in and of itself. Things like more flooding, more tequila, or more herpes, just for instance, plainly count as more worse (although, if the tequila is Patron, you might argue otherwise). What this means is that the concept of human value plays a profound role in any assessment of our posthuman future. So in the now canonical paper, “Transhumanist Values,” Nick Bostrom, the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, enumerates the principle values of the transhumanist movement, and the reasons why they should be embraced. He even goes so far as to provide a wish list, an inventory of all the ways we can be ‘more human than human’–though he seems to prefer the term ‘enhanced.’ “The limitations of the human mode of being are so pervasive and familiar,” he writes, “that we often fail to notice them, and to question them requires manifesting an almost childlike naiveté.” And so he gives us a shopping list of our various incapacities: lifespan; intellectual capacity; body functionality; sensory modalities, special faculties and sensibilities; mood, energy, and self-control. He characterizes each of these categories as constraints, biological limits that effectively prevent us from reaching our true potential. He even provides a nifty little graph to visualize all that ‘more better’ out there, hanging like ripe fruit in the garden of our future, just waiting to be plucked, if only–as Kant would say–we possess the courage.

As a philosopher, he’s too sophisticated to assume that this biological emancipation will simply spring from the waxed loins of unfettered markets or any such nonsense. He fully expects humanity to be tested by this transformation–”[t]ranshumanism,” as he writes, “does not entail technological optimism”–so he offers transhumanism as a kind of moral beacon, a star that can safely lead us across the tumultuous waters of technological transformation to the land of More-most-better–or as he explicitly calls it elsewhere, Utopia.

And to his credit, he realizes that value itself is in play, such is the profundity of the transformation. But for reasons he never makes entirely clear, he doesn’t see this as a problem. “The conjecture,” he writes, “that there are greater values than we can currently fathom does not imply that values are not defined in terms of our current dispositions.” And so, armed with a mystically irrefutable blanket assertion, he goes on to characterize value itself as a commodity to be amassed: “Transhumanism,” he writes, “promotes the quest to develop further so that we can explore hitherto inaccessible realms of value.”

Now I’ve deliberatively refrained from sarcasm up to this point, even though I think it is entirely deserved, given transhumanism’s troubling ideological tropes and explicit use of commercial advertising practices. You only need watch the OWN channel for five minutes to realize that hope sells. Heaven forbid I inject any anxiety into what is, on any account, an unavoidable, existential impasse. I mean, only the very fate of humanity lies in the balance. It’s not like your netflix is going to be cancelled or anything.

For those unfortunates who’ve read my novel Neuropath, you know that I am nowhere near as sunny about the future as I sound. I think the future, to borrow an acronym from the Second World War, has to be–has to be–FUBAR. Totally and utterly, Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Now you could argue that transhumanism is at least aware of this possibility. You could even argue, as some Critical Posthumanists (as David Roden classifies them) do, that FUBAR is exactly what we need, given that the present is so incredibly FU. But I think none of these theorists really has a clear grasp of the stakes. (And how could they, when I so clearly do?)

Transhumanism may not, as Nick Bostrom says, entail ‘technological optimism,’ but as I hope to show you, it most definitely entails scientific optimism. Because you see, this is precisely what falls between the cracks in debates on the posthuman: everyone is so interested in what Techno-Santa has in his big fat bag of More-better, that they forget to take a hard look at Techno-Santa, himself, the science that makes all the goodies, from the cosmetic to the apocalyptic, possible. Santa decides what to put in the bag, and as I hope to show you, we have no reason whatsoever to trust the fat bastard. In fact, I think we have good reason to think he’s going to screw us but good.

As you might expect, the word ‘human’ gets bandied about quite a bit in these debates–we are, after all, our own favourite topic of conversation, and who doesn’t adore daydreaming about winning the lottery? And by and large, the term is presented as a kind of given: after all, we are human, and as such, obviously know pretty much all we need to know about what it means to be human–don’t we?

Don’t we?


This is essentially Andy Clark’s take in Natural-born Cyborgs: Given what we now know about human nature, he argues, we should see that our nascent or impending union with our technology is as natural as can be, simply because, in an important sense, we have always been cyborgs, which is to say, at one with our technologies. Clark is a famous proponent of something called the Extended Mind Thesis, and for more than a decade he has argued forcefully that human consciousness is not something confined to our skull, but rather spills out and inheres in the environmental systems that embed the neural. He thinks consciousness is an interactionist phenomena, something that can only be understood in terms of neuro-environmental loops. Since he genuinely believes this, he takes it as a given in his consideration of our cyborg future.

But of course, it is nowhere near a ‘given.’ It isn’t even a scientific controversy: it’s a speculative philosophical opinion. Fascinating, certainly. But worth gambling the future of humanity?

My opinion is equally speculative, equally philosophical–but unlike Clark, I don’t need to assume that it’s true to make my case, only that it’s a viable scientific possibility. Nick Bostrom, of all people, actually explains it best, even though he’s arrogant enough to think he’s arguing for his own emancipatory thesis!

“Further, our human brains may cap our ability to discover philosophical and scientific truths. It is possible that the failure of philosophical research to arrive at solid, generally accepted answers to many of the traditional big philosophical questions could be due to the fact that we are not smart enough to be successful in this kind of enquiry. Our cognitive limitations may be confining us in a Platonic cave, where the best we can do is theorize about “shadows”, that is, representations that are sufficiently oversimplified and dumbed-down to fit inside a human brain.” (“Transhumanist Values”)

Now this is precisely what I think, that our ‘cognitive limitations’ have forced us to make do with ‘shadows,’ ‘oversimplified and dumbed-down’ information, particularly regarding ourselves–which is to say, the human. Since I’ve already quoted the opening passage from Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” it perhaps serves, at this point, to quote the closing passage. Speaking of the importance of civil freedom, Kant concludes: “Eventually it even influences the principles of governments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who is more than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity” (60). Kant, given the science of his day, could still assert a profound distinction between man, the possessor of values, and machine, the possessor of none. Nowadays, however, the black box of the human brain has been cracked open, and the secrets that have come tumbling out would have made Kant shake for terror or fury. Man, we now know, is a machine–that much is simple. The question, and I assure you it is very real, is one of how things like moral dignity–which is to say, things like value–arise from this machine, if at all.

It literally could be the case that value is another one of these ‘shadows,’ an ‘oversimplified’ and ‘dumbed-down’ way to make the complexities of evolutionary effectiveness ‘fit inside a human brain.’ It now seems pretty clear, for instance, that the ‘feeling of willing’ is a biological subreption, a cognitive illusion that turns on our utter blindness to the neural antecedents to our decisions and thoughts. The same seems to be the case with our feeling of certainty. It’s also becoming clear that we only think we have direct access to things like our beliefs and motivations, that, in point of fact, we use the same ‘best guess’ machinery that we use to interpret the behaviour of others to interpret ourselves as well.

The list goes on. But the only thing that’s clear at this point is that we humans are not what we thought we were. We’re something else. Perhaps something else entirely. The great irony of posthuman studies is that you find so many people puzzling and pondering the what, when, and how of our ceasing to be human in the future, when essentially that process is happening now, as we speak. Put in philosophical terms, the ‘posthuman’ could be an epistemological achievement rather than an ontological one. It could be that our descendants will look back and laugh their gearboxes off, the notion of a bunch of soulless robots worrying about the consequences of becoming a bunch of soulless robots.

So here’s the question I would ask Mr. Bostrom: Which human are you talking about? The one you hope that we are, or the one that science will show us to be?

Either way, transhumanism as praxis–as a social movement requiring real-world action like membership drives and market branding, is well and truly ‘forked,’ to use a chess analogy: ‘Better living through science’ cannot be your foundational assumption unless you are willing to seriously consider what science has to say. You don’t get to pick and choose which traditional illusion you get to cling to.

Transhumanism, if you think about it, should be renamed transconfusionism, and rebranded as X+.

In a sense what I’m saying is pretty straightforward: no posthumanism that fails to consider the problem of the human (which is just to say, the problem of meaning and value) is worthy of the name. Such posthumanisms, I think anyway, are little more than wishful thinking, fantasies that pretend otherwise. Why? Because at no time in human history has the nature of the human been more in doubt.

But there has to be more to the picture, doesn’t there? This argument is just too obvious, too straightforward, to have been ‘overlooked’ these past couple decades. Or maybe not.

The fact is, no matter how eloquently I argue, no matter how compelling the evidence I adduce, how striking or disturbing the examples, next to no one in this room is capable of slipping the intuitive noose of who and what they think they are. The seminal American philosopher Wilfred Sellars calls this the Manifest Image, the sticky sense of subjectivity provided by our immediate intuitions–and here’s the thing, no matter what science has to say (let alone a fantasy geek with a morbid fascination with consciousness and cognition). To genuinely think the posthuman requires us to see past our apparent, or manifest, humanity–and this, it turns out, is difficult in the extreme. So, to make my argument stick, I want to leave you with a way of understanding both why my argument is so destructive of transhumanism, and why that destructiveness is nevertheless so difficult to conceive, let alone to believe.

Look at it this way. The explanatory paradigm of the life sciences is mechanistic. Either we humans are machines, or everything from Kreb’s cycle to cell mitosis is magical. This puts the question of human morality and meaning in an explanatory pickle, because, for whatever reason, the concepts belonging to morality and meaning just don’t make sense in mechanistic terms. So either we need to understand how machines like us generate meaning and morality, or we need to understand how machines like us hallucinate meaning and morality.

The former is, without any doubt, the majority position. But the latter, the position that occupies my time, is slowly growing, as is the mountain of counterintuitive findings in the sciences of the mind and brain. I have, quite against my inclination, prepared a handful of images to help you visualize this latter possibility, what I call the Blind Brain Theory.

Imagine we had perfect introspective access, so that each time we reflected on ourselves we were confronted with something like this:

We would see it all, all the wheels and gears behind what William James famously called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of conscious life. Would their be any ‘choice’ in this system? Obviously not, just neural mechanisms picking up where environmental mechanisms have left off. How about ‘desire’? Again, nothing we really could identify as such, given that we would know, in intimate detail, the particulars of the circuits that keep our organism in homeostatic equilibrium with our environments. Well, how about morals, the values that guide us this way and that? Once again, it’s hard to understand what these might be, given that we could, at any moment, inspect the mechanistic regularities that in fact govern our behaviour. So no right or wrong? Well, what would these be? Of course, given the unpredictability of events, the mechanism would malfunction periodically, throw its wife’s work slacks into the dryer, maybe have a tooth or two knocked out of its gears. But this would only provide information regarding the reliability of its systems, not its ‘moral character.’

Now imagine dialling back the information available for introspective access, so that your ability to perfectly discriminate the workings of your brain becomes foggy:

Now imagine a cost-effectiveness expert (named ‘Evolution’) comes in, and tells you that even your foggy but complete access is far, far too expensive: computation costs calories, you know! So he goes through and begins blacking out whole regions of access according to arcane requirements only he is aware of. What’s worse, he’s drunk and stoned, and so there’s a whole haphazard, slap-dash element to the whole procedure, leaving you with something like this:

But of course, this foggy and fractional picture actually presumes that you have direct introspective access to information regarding the absence of information, when this is plainly not the case, and not required, given the rigours of your paleolithic existence. This means, you can no longer intuit the fractional nature of your introspection intuitions, that the far-flung fragments of access you possess actually seem like unified and sufficient wholes, leaving you with:

This impressionistic mess is your baseline. Your mind. But of course, it doesn’t intuitively seem like an impressionistic mess–quite the opposite, in fact. But this is simply because it is your baseline, your only yardstick. I know it seems impossible, but consider, if dreams lacked the contrast of waking life, they would be the baseline for lucidity, coherence, and truth. Likewise, there are degrees of introspective access–degrees of consciousness–that would make what you are experiencing this very moment seem like little more than a pageant of phantasmagorical absurdities.

The more the sciences of the brain discover, the more they are revealing that consciousness and its supposed verities–like value–are confused and fractional. This is the trend. If it persists, then meaning and morality could very well turn out to be artifacts of blindness and neglect–illusions the degree to which they seem whole and sufficient. If meaning and morality are best thought of as hallucinations, then the human, as it has been understood down through the ages, from the construction of Khufu to the first performance of Hamlet to the launch of Sputnik, never existed, and, in a crazy sense, we have been posthuman all along. And the transhuman program as envisioned by the likes of Nick Bostrom becomes little more than a hope founded on a pipedream.

And our future becomes more radically alien than any of us could possibly conceive, let alone imagine.

Technocracy, Buddhism, and Technoscientific Enlightenment (by Benjamin Cain)

by rsbakker

In “Homelessness and the Transhuman” I used some analogies to imagine what life without the naive and illusory self-image would be like. The problem of imagining that enlightenment should be divided into two parts. One is the relatively uninteresting issue of which labels we want to use to describe something. Would an impersonal, amoral, meaningless, and purposeless posthuman, with no consciousness or values as we usually conceive of them “think” at all? Would she be “alive”? Would she have a “mind”? Even if there are objective answers to such questions, the answers don’t really matter since however far our use of labels can be stretched, we can always create a new label. So if the posthuman doesn’t think, maybe she “shminks,” where shminking is only in some ways similar to thinking. This gets at the second, conceptual issue here, though. The interesting question is whether we can conceive of the contents of posthuman life. For example, just what would be the similarities and differences between thinking and shminking? What could we mean by “thought” if we put aside the naive, folk psychological notions of intentionality, truth, and value? We can use ideas of information and function to start to answer that sort of question, but the problem is that this taxes our imagination because we’re typically committed to the naive, exoteric way of understanding ourselves, as R. Scott Bakker explains.

One way to get clearer about what the transformation from confused human to enlightened posthuman would entail is to consider an example that’s relatively easy to understand. So take the Netflix practice described by Andrew Leonard in “How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets.” Apparently, more Americans now watch movies legally streamed over the internet than they do on DVD or Blu-Ray, and this allows the stream providers to accumulate all sorts of data that indicate our movie preferences. When we pause, fast forward or stop watching streamed content, we supply companies like Netflix with enormous quantities of information which their number crunchers explain with a theory about our viewing choices. For example, according to Leonard, Netflix recently spent $100 million to remake the BBC series House of Cards, based on that detailed knowledge of viewers’ habits. Moreover, Netflix learned that the same subscribers who liked that earlier TV show also tend to like Kevin Spacey, and so the company hired Kevin Spacey to star in the remake.

So the point isn’t just that entertainment providers can now amass huge quantities of information about us, but that they can use that information to tailor their products to maximize their profits. In other words, companies can now come much closer to giving us exactly what we objectively want, as indicated by scientific explanations of our behaviour. As Leonard says, “The interesting and potentially troubling question is how a reliance on Big Data [all the data that’s now available about our viewing habits] might funnel craftsmanship in particular directions. What happens when directors approach the editing room armed with the knowledge that a certain subset of subscribers are opposed to jump cuts or get off on gruesome torture scenes or just want to see blow jobs. Is that all we’ll be offered? We’ve seen what happens when news publications specialize in just delivering online content that maximizes page views. It isn’t always the most edifying spectacle.”

So here we have an example not just of how technocrats depersonalize consumers, but of the emerging social effects of that technocratic perspective. There are numerous other fields in which the fig leaf of our crude self-conception is stripped away and people are regarded as machines. In the military, there are units, targets, assets, and so forth, not free, conscious, precious souls. Likewise, in politics and public relations, there are demographics, constituents, and special interests, and such categories are typically defined in highly cynical ways. Again, in business there are consumers and functionaries in bureaucracies, not to mention whatever exotic categories come to the fore in Wall Street’s mathematics of financing. Again, though, it’s one thing to depersonalize people in your thoughts, but it’s another to apply that sophisticated conception to some professional task of engineering. In other words, we need to distinguish between fantasy- and reality-driven depersonalization. Military, political, and business professionals, for example, may resort to fashionable vocabularies to flatter themselves as insiders or to rationalize the vices they must master to succeed in their jobs. Then again, perhaps those vocabularies aren’t entirely subjective; maybe soldiers can’t psych themselves up to kill their opponents unless they’re trained to depersonalize and even to demonize them. And perhaps public relations, marketing, and advertising are even now becoming more scientific.


The Double Standard of Technocracy

Be that as it may, I’d like to begin with just the one, pretty straightforward example of creating art to appeal to the consumer, based on inferences about patterns in mountains of data acquired from observations of the consumer’s behaviour. As Leonard says, we don’t have to merely speculate on what will likely happen to art once it’s left in the hands of bean counters. For decades, producers of content have researched what people want so that they could fulfill that demand. It turns out that the majority of people in most societies have bad taste owing to their pedestrian level of intelligence. Thus, when an artist is interested in selling to the largest possible audience to make a short-term profit, that is, when the artist thinks purely in such utilitarian terms, she must give those people what they want, which is drivel. And if all artists come to think that way, the standard of art (of movies, music, paintings, novels, sports, and so on) is lowered. Leonard points out that this happens in online news as well. The stories that make it to the front page are stories about sex or violence, because that’s what most people currently want to see.

So entertainment companies that will use this technoscience (the technology that accumulates data about viewing habits plus the scientific way of drawing inferences to explain patterns in those data) have some assumptions I’d like to highlight. First, these content producers are interested in short-term profits. If they were interested in long-term ones and were faced with depressing evidence of the majority’s infantile preferences, the producers could conceivably raise the bar by selling not to the current state of consumers but to what consumers could become if exposed to a more constructive, challenging environment. In other words, the producers could educate or otherwise improve the majority, suffering the consumers’ hostility in the short-term but helping to shape viewers’ preferences for the better and betting on that long-term approval. Presumably, this altruistic strategy would tend to fail because free-riders would come along and lower the bar again, tempting consumers with cheap thrills. In any case, this engineering of entertainment is capitalistic, meaning that the producers are motivated to earn short-term profit.

Second, the producers are interested in exploiting consumers’ weaknesses. That is, the producers themselves behave as parasites or predators. Again, we can conclude that this is so because of what the producers choose to observe. Granted, the technology offers only so many windows into the consumer’s preferences; at best, the data show only what consumers currently like to watch, not the potential of what they could learn to prefer if given the chance. Thus, these producers don’t think in a paternalistic way about their relationship with consumers. A good parent offers her child broccoli, pickles, and spinach rather than just cookies and macaroni and cheese, to introduce the child to a variety of foods. A good parent wants the child to grow into an adult with a mature taste. By contrast, an exploitative parent would feed her daughter, say, only what she prefers at the moment, in her current low point of development, ensuring that the youngster will suffer from obesity-related health problems when she grows up. Likewise, content producers are uninterested in polling to discern people’s potential for greatness, by asking about their wishes, dreams, or ideals. No, the technology in question scrutinizes what people do when they vegetate in front of the TV after a long, hard day on the job. The content producers thus learn what we like when we’re effectively infantilized by television, when the TV literally affects our brain waves, making us more relaxed and open to suggestion, and the producers mean to exploit that limited sample of information, as large as it may be. Thus, the producers mean to cash in by exploiting us when we’re at our weakest, to profit by creating an environment that tempts us to remain in a childlike state and that caters to our basest impulses, to our penchant for fallacies and biases, and so on. So not only are the content producers thinking as capitalists, they’re predators/parasites to boot.

Finally, this engineering of content depends on the technoscience in question. Acquiring huge stores of data is useless without a way of interpreting the data. The companies must look for patterns and then infer the consumer’s mindset in a way that’s testable. That is, the inferences must follow logically from a hypothesis that’s eventually explained by a scientific theory. That theory then supports technological applications. If the theory is wrong, the technology won’t work; for example, the streamed movies won’t sell.

The upshot is that this scientific engineering of entertainment is based on only a partial depersonalization: the producers depersonalize the consumers while leaving their own personal self-image intact. That is, the content producers ignore how the consumers naively think of themselves, reducing them to robots that can be configured or contained by technology, but the producers don’t similarly give up their image of themselves as people in the naive sense. Implicitly, the consumers lose their moral, in not their legal, rights when they’re reduced to robots, to passive streamers of content that’s been carefully designed to appeal to the weakest part of them, whereas the producers will be the first to trumpet their moral and not just their legal right to private property. The consumers consent to purchase the entertainment, but the producers don’t respect them as dignified beings; otherwise, again, the producers would think more about lifting these consumers up instead of just exploiting their weaknesses for immediate returns. Still, the producers think of themselves, surely, as normatively superior. Even if the producers style themselves as Nietzschean insiders who reject altruistic morality and prefer a supposedly more naturalistic, Ayn Randian value system, they still likely glorify themselves at the expense of their victims. And even if some of those who profit from the technocracy are literally sociopathic, that means only that they don’t feel the value of those they exploit; nevertheless, a sociopath acts as an egotist, which means she presupposes a double standard, one for herself and one for everyone else.


From Capitalistic Predator to Buddhist Monk

What interests me about this inchoate technocracy, this business of using technoscience to design and manage society, is that it functions as a bridge to imagining a possible posthuman state. To cross over in our minds to the truly alien, we need stepping stones. Netflix is analogous to enlightened posthumanity in that Netflix is part of the way toward that destination. So when we consider Netflix we stand closer to the precipice and we can ask ourselves what giving up the rest of the personal self-image would be like. So suppose a content provider depersonalizes everyone, viewing herself as well as just a manipulable robot. On this supposition, the provider becomes something like a Buddhist who can observe her impulses and preferences without being attached to them. She can see the old self-image still operating in her mind, sustained as it is by certain neural circuits, but she’s trained not to be mesmerized by that image. She’s learned to see the reality behind the illusion, the code that renders the matrix. So she may still be inclined in certain directions, but she won’t reflexively go anywhere. She has the capacity to exploit the weak and to enrich herself, and she may even be inclined to do so, but because she doesn’t identify with the crudely-depicted self, she may not actually proceed down that expected path. In fact, the mystery remains as to why any enlightened person does whatever she does.

This calls for a comparison between the posthuman’s science-centered enlightenment and the Buddhist kind. The sort of posthuman self I’m trying to imagine transcends the traditional categories of the self, on the assumption that these categories rest on ignorance owing to the brain’s native limitations in learning about itself. The folk categories are replaced with scientific ones and we’re left wondering what we’d become were we to see ourselves strictly in those scientific terms. What would we do with ourselves and with each other? The emerging technocratic entertainment industry gives us some indication, but I’ve tried to show that that example provides us with only one stepping stone. We need another, so let’s try that of the Buddhist.

Now, Buddhist enlightenment is supposed to consist of a peaceful state of mind that doesn’t turn into any sort of suffering, because the Buddhist has learned to stop desiring any outcome. You only suffer when you don’t get what you want, and if you stop wanting anything, or more precisely if you stop identifying with your desires, you can’t be made to suffer. The lack of any craving for an outcome entails a discarding of the egoistic pretense of your personal independence, since it’s only when you identify narrowly with some set of goals that you create an illusion that’s bound to make you suffer, because the illusion is out of alignment with reality. In reality, everything is interconnected and so you’re not merely your body or your mind. When you assume you are, the world punishes you in a thousand degrees and dimensions, and so you suffer because your deluded expectations are dashed.

Here are a couple of analogies to clarify how this Buddhist frame of mind works, according to my understanding of it. Once you’ve learned to drive a car, driving becomes second nature to you, meaning that you come to identify with the car as your extended body. Prior to that identification, when you’re just starting to drive, the car feels awkward and new because you experience it as a foreign body. When you’ve familiarized yourself with the car’s functions, with the rules of the road, and with the experience of driving, sitting in the driver’s seat feels like slipping on an old pair of shoes. Every once in a while, though, you may snap out of that familiarity. When you’re in the middle of an intersection, in a left turn lane, you may find yourself looking at cars anew and being amazed and even a little scared about your current situation on the road: you’re in a powerful vehicle, surrounded by many more such vehicles, following all of these signs to avoid being slammed by those tons of steel. In a similar way, a native speaker of a language becomes very familiar with the shapes of the symbols in that language, but every now and again, when you’re distracted perhaps, you can slip out of that familiarity and stare in wonder at a word you’ve used a thousand times, like a child who’s never seen it before.

What I’m trying to get at here is the difference between having a mental state and identifying with it, which difference I take to be central to Buddhism. Being in a car is one thing, identifying with it is literally something else, meaning that there’s a real change that happens when driving becomes second nature to you. Likewise, having the desire for fame or fortune is one thing, identifying with either desire is something else. A Buddhist watches her thoughts come and go in her mind, detaching from them so that the world can’t upset her. But this raises a puzzle for me. Once enlightened, why should a Buddhist prefer a peaceful state of mind to one of suffering? The Buddhist may still have the desire to avoid pain and to seek peace, but she’ll no longer identify with either of those or with any other desire. So assuming she acts to lessen suffering in the world, how are those actions caused? If an enlightened Buddhist is just a passive observer, how can she be made to do anything at all? How can she lean in one direction or another, or favour one course of action rather than another? Why peace rather than suffering?

Now, there’s a difference between a bodhisattva and a Buddha: the former harbours a selfless preference to help others achieve enlightenment, whereas the latter gives up on the rest of the world and lives in a state of nirvana, which is passive, metaphysical selflessness. So a bodhisattva still has an interest in social engagement and merely learns not to identify so strongly with that interest, to avoid suffering if the interest doesn’t work out and the world slams the door in her face, whereas a Buddha may extinguish all of her mental states, effectively lobotomizing herself. Either way, though, it’s hard to see how the Buddhist could act intelligently, which is to say exhibit some pattern in her activities that reflects a pattern in her mind and acts at least as the last step in the chain of interconnected causes of her actions. A bodhisattva has desires but doesn’t identify with them and so can’t favor any of them. How, then, could this Buddhist put any morality into practice? Indeed, how could she prefer Buddhism to some other religion or worldview? And a Buddha may no longer have any distinguishable mental states in the first place, so she would have no interests to tempt her with the potential for mental attachments. Thus, we might expect full enlightenment in the Buddhist sense to be a form of suicide, in which the Buddhist neglects all aspects of her body because she’s literally lost her mind and thus her ability to care or to choose to control herself or even to manage her vital functions. (In Hinduism, an elderly Brahmin may choose this form of suicide for the sake of moksha, which is supposed to be liberation from nature, and Buddhism may explain how this suicide becomes possible for the enlightened person.)

The best explanation I have of how a Buddhist could act at all is the Taoist one that the world acts through her. The paradox of how the Buddhist’s mind could control her body even when the Buddhist dispenses with that mind is resolved if we accept the monist ontology in which everything is interconnected and so unified. Even if an enlightened Buddha loses personal self-control, this doesn’t mean that nothing happens to her, since the Buddhist’s body is part of the cosmic whole, and so the world flows in through her senses and out through her actions. The Buddhist doesn’t egoistically decide what to do with herself, but the world causes her to act in one way or another. Her behaviour, then, shouldn’t reflect any private mental pattern, such as a personal character or ego, since she’s learned to see through that illusion, but her actions will reflect the whole world’s character, as it were.


From Buddhist Monk to Avatar of Nature

Returning to the posthuman, the question raised by the Buddhist stepping stone is whether we can learn what it would be like to experience the death of the manifest image, the absence of the naive, dualistic and otherwise self-glorifying conception of the self, by imagining what it would be like to be the sun, the moon, the ocean, or just a robot. That’s how a scientifically enlightened posthuman would conceive of “herself”: she’d understand that she has no independent self but is part of some natural process, and if she’d identify with anything it would be with that larger process. Which process? Any selection would betray a preference and thus at least a partial resurrection of the ghostly, illusory self. The Buddhist gets around this with metaphysical monism: if everything is interconnected, the universe is one and there’s no need to choose what you are, since you’re metaphysically everything at once. So if all natural processes feed into each other, nature is a cosmic whole, and the posthuman sees very far and wide, sampling enough of nature to understand the universe’s character so that she’d presumably understand her actions to flow from that broader character.

And just here we reach a difference between Eastern (if not specifically Buddhist) and technoscientific enlightenment. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is atheistic, I think, but some forms of Buddhism are pantheistic, meaning that some Buddhists personify the interconnected whole. If we suppose that technoscience will remain staunchly atheistic, we must assume only that there are patterns in nature and not any character or ghostly Force or anything like that. Thus, if a posthuman can’t identify with the traditional myth of the self, with the conscious, rational, self-controlling soul, and yet the posthuman is to remain some distinct entity, I’m led to imagine this posthuman entity as an avatar of lifeless nature. What does nature do with its forces? It evolves molecules, galaxies, solar systems, and living species. The posthuman would be a new force of nature that would serve those processes of complexification and evolution, creating new orders of being. The posthuman would have no illusion of personal identity, because she’d understand too well the natural forces at work in her body to identify so narrowly and desperately with any mere subset of their handiwork. Certainly, the posthuman wouldn’t cling to any byproduct of the brain, but would more likely identify with the underlying, microphysical patterns and processes.

So would this kind of posthumanity be a force for good or evil? Surely, the posthuman would be beyond good or evil, like any natural force. Moral rules are conventions to manage deluded robots like us who are hypnotized by our brain’s daydream of our identity. Values derive from preferences of some things as better than others, which in turn depend on some understanding of The Good. In the technoscientific picture of nature, though, goodness and badness are illusions, but this doesn’t imply anything like the Satanist’s exhortation to do whatever you want. The posthuman would have as many wants as the rain when the rain falls from the sky. She’d have no ego to flatter, no will to express. Nevertheless, the posthuman would be caused to act, to further what the universe has already been doing for billions of years. I have only a worm’s understanding of that cosmic pattern. I speak of evolution and complexification, but those are just placeholders, like an empty five-line staff in modern musical notation. If we’re imagining a super-intelligent species that succeeds us, I take it we’re thinking of a species that can read the music of the spheres and that’s compelled to sing along.

A Material Churl in A Material World

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The cup of ego always but always leaks on the doily of theory. Thus the philosophical tendency to embroider in black.



I’d like to thank Roger for introducing a little high-altitude class into TPB while I was undergoing intense tequila retoxification treatment in Mexico. I’ll be providing my own naturalistic gloss on his metaphilosophical observations at some point over the ensuing weeks. In the meantime, however, I need to do a little spring cleaning…

Since I plan on shortly rowing back into more Analytic waters I thought I would fire a couple of more broadsides across the Continental fleet as I bring my leaky rowboat about. The (at times heated) debate we had following “The Ptolemaic Restoration,” has left me more rather than less puzzled by the ongoing ‘materialistic turn’ in Continental circles. Object Oriented Ontology has left me particularly mystified, especially in the wake of Levi Bryant’s claim that ‘object orientation’ need not concern itself with the question of meaning, even though, historically speaking, this question has always posed the greatest challenge to materialist accounts. As Ray Brassier acknowledges in his 2012 After Nature interview:

[Nihil Unbound] contends that nature is not the repository or purpose and that consciousness is not the fulcrum of thought. The cogency of these claims presupposes an account of thought and meaning that is neither Aristotelian–everything has meaning because everything exists for a reason–nor phenomenological–conscious is the basis of thought and the ultimate source of meaning. The absence of any such account is the book’s principal weakness…

What is truth? What is meaning? What is subjectivity? In short, What is intentionality? These are absolutely pivotal philosophical questions for any philosophy that purports to be ‘materialist.’ Why? Because if we actually had some way of naturalizing these perplexities, then we could plausibly claim that everything is material. And yet Bryant, when pressed on this selfsame issue, responds:

I’m not working on issues of intentionality. Asking me to have a detailed picture of intentionality is a bit like asking a neurologist to have a detailed picture of quantum mechanics or black holes. It’s just not what neurologists are doing. I’ll leave it to the neurologists to give that account of intentionality” (Comments to “The Ptolemaic Restoration,” March 14, 2013 6:45pm)

I fear the analogy escapes me. Asking him to have some picture of intentionality, given his claim that ontology is flat, is asking him how he has managed to smooth out the wrinkles that have hitherto nixed every attempt to flatten ontology in the manner he attempts. It is ‘like’ asking a materialist to respond to the traditional challenge to their position, nothing more or less. His inability to do this would suggest a gaping hole in his position, and thus the need to either retract his claim that ontology is flat, or to explore remedial strategies to shore up his position. But his unwillingness to do this seems to suggest he’s not interested in developing anything approximating a serious philosophical view. Failing some accounting of this issue, his brand of object orientation simply will not be taken seriously, not in the long run. The questions are just too basic, too immediate, to indefinitely ignore. If ontology is ‘flat,’ if ‘objects’ exhaust ontology, the most obvious perplexity becomes, What is this very moment now? A concatenation of objects? Our living perspectives, we are told, are some kind of material process. So then, What the hell are they? What kind of objects or units could they be? If soul or mind or being-in-the-world or what have you is ‘really’ a material process, then why, as Descartes so notoriously pointed out, does it so clearly seem to be anything but?

Leibniz, of course, gives us the most historically resonant image of the problem faced by object-oriented attempts to explain this-very-moment-now with his windmill:

One is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or in the machine, that one must look for perception. Monadology, §17

It’s not that it merely seems difficult to imagine how any organization of material things, any mechanism (no matter how complicated), could possibly result in something like this-very-moment-now, it seems downright unfathomable. And this pertains as much to its intentional structure as to its phenomenal content. As Brentano famously writes:

Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 68

In a more contemporary context, David Chalmers summarizes the problem with characteristic elegance and clarity:

First: Physical descriptions of the world characterize the world in terms of structure and dynamics. Second: From truths about structure and dynamics, one can deduce only further truths about structure and dynamics. And third: truths about consciousness are not truths about structure and dynamics. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature

For whatever reason, soul, mind, being-in-the-world, whatever they are, seem dramatically incompatible with objects (whatever they are). Now the attraction of the so-called ‘materialist turn’ in Continental circles is obvious enough: it aligns speculation with the sciences, and thus (apparently) affords it a relevance and theoretical credibility that prior Continental philosophy so obviously lacked. The problem, of course, is that Continental materialisms are by no means content with those limits. Though they repudiate the discourses that preceded them, they refuse to relinquish the domains those discourses took as their natural habitat. Ethics. Politics. Not to mention the human condition more generally. These are the things Continental philosophy takes itself to be primarily about. So even though science–historically at least–has been shut out of the domain of the intentional, these materialisms continue to theorize these domains. But where Brassier or Roden, for instance, advert to an Anglo-American tradition that, because it never abandoned its scientific affiliations, managed to develop sophisticated responses to the question of meaning, others reference vague compatibilities or occult formulations or worse yet, simply stomp their feet.

This is why for me so much of the speculative materialist turn in Continental philosophy strikes me as an exercise in ignorance, wilful or accidental. Historically speaking, soul or mind or being-in-the-world have constituted the great bete noire of all materialist philosophies, and yet these object oriented newcomers, these ‘realists,’ think they can scrupulously theorize things like the materiality of language while completely ignoring the mystery of how that materiality comes to mean.

And this, I’m afraid to say, makes it difficult to see these positions as anything other than sophistry, ingroup language games where the difficult questions, the very questions upon which the bulk of philosophy are raised, are dismissed or wilfully ignored to better facilitate a kind of claim-making possessing no real cognitive constraints whatsoever. A kind of make-believe philosophy.

Some hard words, I know–but these are ideas, not relatives, we’re talking about. Meanings. I encourage anyone who takes umbrage, or just anyone merely sympathetic to Bryant’s (or Hagglund’s or Zizek’s) account, to show me the short-circuit in my thinking. As I’ve said before, I’m just a tourist. When I find issues that seem this glaring, this damning, I can’t shake the feeling that I have to be missing something. Lord knows it’s happened before. In fact, it’s the only reason I occupy the miserable position I hold now… Being wrong.

Metaphilosophical Reflections V: Some Concluding Thoughts

by reichorn

“Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Preface)

“The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.”

– Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


This is the fifth and final post in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first four posts can be found here and here and here and here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  Sections from my novel can be found here.


1.  The Skeptical Inversion

In my previous post, I argued that the skeptical dialectic returns us to the common life from which we set out on our search for truth, knowledge, or reality.  The return has a twofold origination, one that’s both logical and psychological.

Logically, the negative-epistemological arguments that drive us to nihilism are self-refuting in the sense that they depend on rational and normative commitments that themselves fall prey to the very negative-epistemological arguments they underwrite.  For thousands of years, but especially since Descartes, skepticism has tended to be associated not with doubt or suspension of judgment, but with denial; it is taken, primarily by those who are hostile to it, to be a substantive philosophical position, one that denies that we have (sometimes even that it is possible for us to have) knowledge either in some specific domain (e.g., religion, metaphysics, ethics) or globally, in all domains.  The latter is full-blown philosophical skepticism.  The philosophical-skeptical conclusion is that no one knows anything.  As philosophers have been pointing out for millennia, the problem with this claim is that, when applied to itself, it’s self-refuting.  If no one knows anything, then this proposition too must be something no one knows.

The self-refutation (peritropē) charge is typically deployed as part of an anti-skeptical argument.  Now, if it were true that skepticism is a philosophical position committed to the truth of self-refuting claims, then skepticism would indeed be in trouble.  (Note, however, that, even in that case, showing that the negative-epistemological conclusion is self-refuting does not suffice to demonstrate  that someone does after all know something.)  As a matter of fact, though, genuine skepticism—meaning the tradition that goes back to the original skeptics in Hellenistic times—is not committed to any self-refuting philosophical conclusions.  Rather, self-refutation is internal to genuine skepticism; it is, as we’ve seen, a ‘moment’ (that is, a phase) of the skeptical dialectic, not its end-point.

Ancient skepticism (Pyrrhonism in particular) is best understood—to borrow a helpful distinction from Robert Fogelin—not as a kind of philosophical skepticism, but rather as skepticism about philosophy.  What does it mean to be skeptical of philosophy?  As we’ve seen, ‘philosophy’ as such is not a specialized domain of inquiry with its own distinctive subject-matter and presupposition-set.  It is rather that mode of questioning that allows for even the most radical questions to be asked; it is where our childish wonder is given free rein, where no ‘Why?’ can be simply dismissed.  To be skeptical of philosophy, then, is to be skeptical of human reason as such, of its ability to achieve rational satisfaction solely on the basis of its own resources (i.e., without seeking justificatory shelter in tradition, or common sense, or the irrational or arational).  Positive dogmatists claim to have discovered the truth and thereby to have achieved rational satisfaction.  Negative dogmatists (i.e., philosophical ‘skeptics’) claim that the truth cannot be discovered.  This too affords us with a kind of rational satisfaction, for negative dogmatism is still a dogmatism; it still claims to expound a truth.  It may be an ugly or distasteful truth, but it’s satisfying to the extent that it settles the matter.  As Nietzsche says in a different context, it is “a basic fact of human will” that “it prefers to will nothingness rather than not will” (On the Genealogy of Morals, §3.1).  In epistemological terms, Nietzsche’s insight is that the human drive toward rational satisfaction is such that we prefer to know that knowledge is impossible than to suspend our judgment, to admit our ignorance and thereby leave open the possibility of knowledge.  Since the upshot of genuine skepticism is precisely suspension of judgment (epochē) rather than denial, we can recast Nietzsche’s insight: Human beings prefer nihilism to skepticism.

“What am I to choose?” Montaigne wonders.  “What you like, provided you choose!  There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).

But nihilism’s ability to provide rational satisfaction depends on inconsistency, in particular a self-reflexive failure, i.e., the failure to apply its negative-epistemological arguments to itself.  The mature skeptic goes further than the nihilist, by calling into question nihilism’s own rationalistic presuppositions.  By doing so, the nihilistic conclusion is transformed from, “No one knows anything,” to “Relative to these rational standards, no one knows whether or not anyone knows anything.”  The difference between these two claims is enormous, especially given that skepticism calls into question the rational standards it has made explicit.

The result is the return to common life.  But why?  Here we get the other half of the answer.  Psychologically, human beings are such that we naturally believe all sorts of things, usually for no good reason whatsoever.  (Note that there is an important difference between having a reason to believe something and believing something because of that reason.)  As such, achieving a belief-free state is either impossible or else the result of some sort of intervention in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  The skeptical dialectic, animated by a commitment to what I called, in my previous post, the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm, gradually rids us of beliefs by eroding their rational foundation.  This process is either merely ideal, in the sense that we don’t actually cease to believe (even if we claim otherwise), or it is psychologically actual.  (I imagine real-life cases would be a mix of the two: we cease to believe some things, while maintaining other beliefs though recognizing their questionability.)  Either way, the process is predicated on certain epistemic standards and doxastic norms, which are taken, either implicitly or explicitly, to belong to the framework of any ‘search for the truth.’  But in the end, skepticism undermines these very standards and norms, thereby eliminating them as obstructions in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  We end up more or less where we started, at least regarding the content of our beliefs.

The Pyrrhonian claim—the basis of its ‘philosophical therapy’—is that, having undergone this process for ourselves, we will no longer assent to our beliefs dogmatically.  We’ll acquire a philosophical attitude toward our own beliefs, in something like the colloquial sense: calm, somewhat detached, thoughtful, perhaps slightly reticent, slow to denounce, open to contradiction.  (More precisely, the Pyrrhonian will claim only that the skeptical therapy seems to have had this effect on certain people and that it may have a similar effect on you.)

Some people have claimed that Pyrrhonism would doom us, at best, to an entirely ‘passive’ intellectual life.  Pyrrhonians, having suspended judgment on all their beliefs, can have no recourse to reason.  They’ll simply ‘go along’ with whatever external force is acting upon them at the time.  The charge, in other words, is that the Pyrrhonians’ version of ‘giving themselves up to nature’ entails giving up on reason, rational agency, etc.—all those features of human beings that are traditionally supposed to distinguish us from lesser animals.  These claims are frequently leveraged in arguments to the effect that Pyrrhonism is “morally pernicious”: the Pyrrhonian may act morally, but only by accident; we cannot count on the Pyrrhonian (e.g.) to oppose tyranny and stand up for human rights.

These charges—both the ‘impassivity’ and the ‘immorality’ charges—are based on the same misunderstanding of the practical upshot of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy.  The misunderstanding follows from failing to appreciate the richness of the Pyrrhonian notion of ‘appearances.’  Sextus Empiricus tells us that mature skeptics will live “in accordance with appearances.”  The life adoxastōs is precisely such a life.  To understand what this means, we need to understand the following.

First, ‘appearances’ (phainomena) must be contrasted with ‘reality’ (ousia).  In the first instance, ‘appearances’ are associated with the sensory realm (the kosmos aisthetos), whereas ‘reality’ belongs to the intelligible realm (the kosmos noetos; later Kant’s ‘noumenal’).  We have access to appearance simply by virtue of our natural embodiment, but our access to the intelligible is a gift of our reason.  The most influential statement of the appearance–reality distinction in the history of Western philosophy is to be found in Plato’s Republic, in the sections that include his discussion of the Divided Line.

Divided Line 2

The Divided Line has both ontological and epistemological implications.  Ontologically, the ordo essendi (order of being) goes top-down: the highest section of the Divided Line, which contains the invisible, immaterial, noumenal Forms (of which the multiplicity of phenomenal objects are mere copies), are the ontological ground of appearances.  Epistemologically, although the ordo cognoscendi (order of understanding) goes bottom-up, from the appearances to reality, the order of justification follows the ordo essendi.  We only get knowledge at the top of the Line.  The world of appearances affords us, at best, with mere belief (pistis, a subdivision of doxa).  Thus, until and unless we ascend to the top of the Line, we will have no knowledge, no justification; we will be sunk in “a kind of morass of philistinism” (533d), unable to distinguish true beliefs from false.

Few philosophers are Platonists these days, nor have they been for some time; but elements of these metaphysico-epistemological commitments continue to live on in a great deal of philosophical thinking.  Indeed, I’ve suggested that something like this picture is intrinsic to philosophical inquiry as such, for, as we saw in my second post, is it part of Plato’s conception of justification that it must be presuppositionless, which requires, according to him, that we go top-down on the Divided Line.  The rejection of ‘appearances’ corresponds with the rejection of ‘common life’ I discussed in my third post.  The move from pistis to dianoia corresponds to the point at which skeptical challenges become sophisticated enough to call into question common life as a whole.  The example I used involved calling into question the senses as a whole, and it’s precisely that which Plato has in mind.  At the bottom of the line are mere images (eikōni), by which Plato has in mind shadows, reflections, etc.  One step up, we have physical objects, which are the source of those images.  The move from the sensory world to the intelligible world involves coming to treat physical objects (qua objects-of-sense) as mere images of a truer reality behind or above them; it is to reject the appearances altogether.

I argued in my second post that philosophy as such is predicated on a ‘social skepticism’ that calls into question the epistemic and practical authority of common life in favor of autonomous reason.  This move involved an inversion of the order of explanation.  Where before, appearances (common life) was the ground of explanation, now that ground is sought in some immaterial rational order.  This philosophical inversion engenders a host of rational and normative commitments that have proven difficult—to say the least—to live up to.  The skeptic is in the business of righting the inverted world, of seeing appearances as ontological and epistemological ground, with the ‘higher’ levels of the Divided Line as abstractions from the world of appearances, abstractions that, as such, grow increasingly tenuous the further they move from the relatively solid ground of common life.

This is the skeptical inversion.  Skepticism of philosophy leads to the restoration of the appearances.  For Sextus, ‘appearance’ is no longer the anemic notion we find in Plato; the notion is freed from its pejorative connotations that accrue to it in philosophical discourse.  As Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes have written,

When the Pyrronists talk of appearances or of how things appear they are not indulging in technical philosophical jargon…  There is no suggestion that ‘appearances’ are somehow entities distinct from the objects which purportedly produce them.  The Pyrrhonists are not assuming that when we attend to ‘the appearances’ we are attending to a peculiar sort of entity, a mental image of a sense-datum, say,  On the contrary, to attend to the appearances is simply to attend to the way things appear…  Appearing is not something which only perceptible objects can do: music may sound, and hence appear, loud; sandpaper may feel, and hence appear, rough; but equally an argument may appear valid, a statement may appear true, an action may appear unwarranted…  To say how things appear is to say how they impress us or how they strike us…  (Modes of Scepticism, p. 23)

The life lived in accordance with appearances, then, is normally rich in intellectual and moral content, regardless of the ontological (e.g., physiological) facts of the matter with respect to ‘rational agency’ and so on.  Continuing to refer to appearances as ‘appearances’ has a twofold purpose: first, it is a characteristically undogmatic mode of assertion, in that it does not make definite claims about the way things necessarily are; and more specifically, second, it serves to establish distance between the assertions of mature skeptics and the assertions of philosophical dogmatists who would claim access to some supersensible beyond, some privileged ontologico-epistemic ground that raises their proclamations above those of others.

The nihilist as well as the dogmatist insist on maintaining the appearance–reality distinction.  As Jay Garfield puts it, “the nihilist challenges us to explain the apparently problematic [i.e., appearances] by reference to what, according to the reificationist [i.e., the dogmatist], should be the unproblematic [i.e., reality], and argues that we cannot.  The skeptic grants the force of this argument but demonstrates that in fact the explanans [i.e., reality]… is what is problematic and obscure.  Moreover, the skeptic argues, the very reality—such as it is—of that explanans is in fact grounded in what was originally problematized by the skeptical challenge [i.e., the appearances]” (Jay Garfield, “Epochē and Śūnyatā,” p. 10).  (Montaigne makes a similar observation about philosophical dogmatists when he points out that we try to use our reason “to arrive at apparent things from things obscure.”)  Consider the case of causation.  Garfield describes the skeptical inversion of casual explanation this way: “The reificationist with regard to causation argues that the regularities we observe in nature are to be explained by a fundamental causal power that causes have to bring about their effects—a necessary connection.  The nihilist argues that because we can have no clear idea of such a causal power or natural necessity, causal explanation is impossible.  The skeptical solution to the problem thus posed regarding the possibility of scientific explanation… is, rather than to understand regularity as vouchsafed by causation, to understand causal explanation as grounded in regularities” (p. 8).

Garfield clearly recognizes the sense in which the skeptical inversion involves a return to common life.  He writes that “an appeal to social conventions is central to the skeptical reconstruction of our heretofore metaphysically or epistemologically confused discourse” (p. 11).  But the upshot of Pyrrhonism, on this view, is not naively to accept social conventions, but “to understand the conventional as conventional, and as [apparently] empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention” (p. 12), i.e., to invert the Divided Line.

Moreover, Garfield recognizes that what he calls ‘reificationism’ is both an ‘everyday’ as well as a ‘philosophical’ phenomenon: “… reificationism comes in two versions.  We might call these… ‘ordinary’ and ‘philosophical.’  For arguably, the person on the street thinks of the physical as substantial, thinks of causation as a real force, thinks of personal identity as grounded in a soul, and so forth.  But these views are probably in the typical case rather inchoate.  Philosophical reificationism can be seen as a careful conceptual refinement of this fallacy of everyday metaphysics.  It is the job of the skeptic to cure both the ordinary and the sophisticated form of the disease” (p. 262–3).  I would add that this relationship goes both ways: yes, philosophical reflection refines everyday metaphysics, but the everyday is itself shot through with metaphysics derived from philosophical reflection.  Thus, the two ‘inversions’ form a kind of recursive loop.  It is impossible to trace this back to its earliest beginnings.  My diagram of the skeptical dialectic suggests that when skepticism overthrows everyday dogmatism, it gives rise to the philosophical inversion, and that when it overthrows philosophical dogmatism, it gives rise to the skeptical inversion.  But now we can see that ‘philosophy’ and ‘common life’ intertwine, so that there is no pure ‘philosophical’ or ‘skeptical’ inversion: each inversion is partly one, partly the other.


2.  Science, Truth, and Life

In this final section, I will at long last address the question of science.  I will do so much too quickly and to the satisfaction of few if any readers of this blog, I am sure.

The short answer is simply this:  When we try to think ‘philosophically’ about science or mathematics—when we try to account for their success, etc.—we reach the point where we just don’t know what to say.

There is no satisfactory philosophical account of science.  Philosophizing about science falls into the same sorts of aporia as any other philosophical inquiry.  Science is simply not something we can make sense of—except in the sort of descriptive way in which I’ve attempted to make sense of philosophy in these posts.  That is, we can try to look at what it does, see how it works, and try to find the best means of conceptualizing it.  The most convincing conceptualization of science with which I’m familiar is Scott’s: that science is best thought of as a prosthetic for our Stone Age brains.  It provides a systematic, institutionalized means of attempting, as far as possible, to bypass or short-circuit the quagmire of everyday human cognition.  The emphasis here has to be placed on ‘systematic’ and ‘institutionalized,’ for science’s impressiveness is inversely related to how closely one investigates it.  But, contra sociologists of knowledge and the like, this is merely part of what makes science as a whole so impressive: the fact that, up close, it’s precisely the god-awful mess you would expect from any human intellectual endeavor… and yet it works.

So when it comes to accounting for science’s success, my response is that there is no accounting for it, not in any rationally satisfying way.  (Notice that philosophy doesn’t present us with this problem: my metaphilosophical account can be rationally satisfying, for there are no conspicuous successes that it must account for.  Indeed, its primary purpose is to account for philosophy’s failures.)

In closing, I’d like to make some further remarks about science as it relates to issues I’ve brought up in these posts.

First, modern history has demonstrated the extent to which science is capable of transforming ‘common life’ in a way that is (a) out of anyone’s control, and (b) not strictly rational.  This is, potentially, a deeply troubling trend.  It relates to the point I just made about the ‘recursive loop’ between common life and philosophy.  The beliefs of common life—the ‘world-picture’ it provides us with—is for the most part something we simply inherit.  Thus, it is shot through with various dogmas that have filtered down from various specialized domains of inquiry.  It is commonly claimed, for instance, that contemporary Westerners are commonsense Cartesian dualists.  I think this is probably accurate.  The way we think about ourselves, our ‘minds’ or ‘souls’ and their relation to our bodies, is shaped and conditioned by centuries- (or millennia-)old philosophizing of which most people are entirely unaware.  These once ‘hard-won’ conclusions becomes common sense, what ‘everybody knows.’  These views filter down into common life not because they’re true or because everyone agreed, but because they somehow spread through the intellectual world of our forebears, like a virus—one that has been passed on to us.

Science, I want to suggest, exerts this same sort of influence over common life.  It works generation-by-generation such that it is not a matter of convincing people, but of waiting for the old to die and the young to be born into the new world science has created.  As I often put it, you can lock up Galileo, but sooner or later your descendants will exonerate him.  Science alters our view of the world in astounding—and sometimes frightening—ways, and these changes are in an important sense irrational even if the scientific enterprise as a whole is rational; indeed, even if the views themselves are correct.  For it is possible to believe what is true for irrational reasons—and hence not to know that it is true.

The question is: What further changes does science have in store?


I’m going to end, as I so often do, with Nietzsche.

The ethics of skepticism, I would argue, is the ethics of life.  It is an ethics that is built up out of our lived experience in the world.  Emidio Spinelli has convincingly argued that Sextus’s “polemical targets” in the moral sphere are “the dogmatists” who insist that a moral theory or action “can be counted as legitimate if and only if it rests on strong theoretical conclusions regarding the nature of reality” (“Beyond the Theoretikos Bios,” p. 102).  The skeptic “places [his] trust not in the strength of any philosophical logos or in the rigid norms of theoretical rationality; rather, [he] makes [his] choices and rejections on the basis of non-philosophical observances…  This sensibility arises in accordance with [his] repeated and consolidated experiences” (p. 112).  The skeptic will not make any claims of necessity here, but it is plausible to suppose that this kind of ‘moral skepticism’ will tend to lead one to embrace ‘moral naturalism’—a morality rooted in our experience as embodied creatures, not one subservient to some otherworldly ideal.

It was precisely this sort of subservience that disgusted Nietzsche everywhere he found it.  Just as I’ve spoken of nihilism as committed to rational norms, Nietzsche too smells morality everywhere.  And not just any morality, but the rot-stink of life-opposing moralities.  He lumps these together under the heading of the ‘ascetic ideal.’  He associates the ascetic ideal most strongly with Judaism and Christianity, but he argues that it has reached into virtually every facet of human life, most conspicuously every facet of human intellectual life, including the life of science.

In my previous post, I argued that nihilism was covertly rational, in that it depends on maintaining commitments that it itself ought to call into question.  Nietzsche adopts a similar strategy, by which I mean that he approaches the problem of science—the problem of its disenchanting of the world, its “unchaining of this earth from its sun”—by asking the question that science does not, and perhaps cannot, ask: What is the value of truth?

The will to truth that still seduces us into taking so many risks, this famous truthfulness that all philosophers so far have talked about with veneration: what questions this will to truth has already laid before us!  What strange, terrible, questionable questions!…  Is it any wonder if we finally become suspicious, lose patience, turn impatiently away?  That we ourselves are also learning from this Sphinx to pose questions?  Who is it really that questions us here?  What in us really wills the truth?  In fact, we paused for a long time before the question of the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete standstill in front of an even more fundamental question.  We asked about the value of this will.  Granted, we will truth: why not untruth instead?  And uncertainty?  Even ignorance?  (Beyond Good and Evil, §1.1)

Indeed, why not?  Because, Nietzsche argues, we are committed to the ascetic ideal: “[T]he compulsion towards [truth], that unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even if, as an unconscious imperative, make no mistake about it,—it is the faith in a metaphysical value, a value as such of truth as vouched for and confirmed by that ideal alone (it stands and falls by that ideal)…  From the very moment that faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, there is a new problem as well: that of the value of truth. —The will to truth needs a critique—let us define our own task with this—, the value of truth is tentatively to be called into question” (Genealogy of Morals, §3.24).

If we abandon truth as our goal, our yardstick, our ideal, how do we find our way about?  If not truth, what should we strive for?  In what direction should be pour the energy that we previously expended in our will to truth?  Nietzsche’s answer: Life.  The problem with science, with ‘truth,’ is that it seems to tear us away from life.  “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.”  Nietzsche’s notoriously indeterminate appeals to ‘life,’ and his many cryptic remarks about what awaits us on the other side of the ‘ascetic ideal’ and the ‘will to truth,’ can be understood, I would argue, in terms of precisely the picture I’ve presented in this and previous posts, as the return to common life adoxastōs that results from questioning further even than the ‘skeptics’ (i.e., the nihilists).

The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one sullen. Even love of life is still possible—only one loves differently…  [T]he attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an X, is so great in highly spiritual, spiritualized people such as these that this delight flares up like bright embers again and again over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover.  We know a new happiness…  (Gay Science, Preface, §3)

Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…  [W]e have grown sick of this bad taste, this will to truth, to ‘truth at any price’, this youthful madness in the love of truth: we are too experienced, too serious, too jovial, too burned, too deep for that…  We no longer believe that truth remains truth when one pulls off the veil; we have lived too much to believe this.  Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, to be present everywhere, to understand and ‘know’ everything.  ‘Is it true that God is everywhere?’ a little girl asked her mother; ‘I find that indecent!’—a hint for philosophers!  One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties.  Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds?

We must learn from the Greeks.

They knew how to live: what is needed for that is to stop bravely at the surface, the fold, the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in shapes, tones, words—in the whole Olympus of appearance!…  Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!  And is not this precisely what we are coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of current thought and looked around from up there, looked down from up there?  Are we not just in this respect—Greeks?  Worshippers of shapes, tones, words?  And therefore—artists?  (Gay Science, Preface, §4)

Why truth?  Why not—art?  The return to appearances (to shapes, tones , words), to sensation and celebration and life?  This choice lies before us, to whatever extent it does, precisely because the will to truth is itself questionable.