Dodging the Agent, Tripping into the Swarm

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Whether a question is yummy or yucky usually depends on which way it’s aimed – unlike a lollipop.

[Terrence Blake has been asking some hard questions about BBT over at his blog, Agent Swarm. The following is my reply to “Bakker’s BBT (3): The Spectre of Eliminativism” which I thought, given the eye-crossing nature of the two previous posts, might be worthwhile pasting unedited as a post here.]


Okay, I think I’m finally getting a handle on why we’ve been at cross-purposes. BBT has some very peculiar, very counterintuitive epistemological consequences, which are impractical to raise every time I discuss the theory. For one, it does away with binaries like ‘truth versus illusion,’ ‘fact versus fiction,’ replacing them instead with a continuum of mechanical effectivities. As it stands, however, I get roundly and regularly criticized for being too technical (too reliant on conceptual neologisms) and too obscure (too apt to dive into the inside-out counterintuitivities), so I adopt the standard parlance where it seems to suffice to get my point across. I try to be careful, try to insert qualifying phrases like ‘Taking the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as our cognitive baseline,’ but as I’m sure you’re aware, Terrence, writing blog entries has a dialogic character to it, and you get so you think you don’t need to append such operators–take them as given. But it’s clearly caused some difficulties here.

I just want to say, I appreciate the frustrations, and I understand the suspicion that I’m simply using this as a dodge. All I can say is that this is not *consciously* the case! And I assure you I’m not saying anything here that I have explicitly stated elsewhere. So with this in ‘mind,’ onto your questions:

“The question amounts to : is your BBT a useful heuristic that can guide and explicate philosophical and scientific research or is it a new apodictic foundation, unrevisable in its basic structure?”

It’s heuristic. Like all theory.

“So my question is pluralist: does Bakker admit the value of other quite different approaches that aim at being “continuous with the natural sciences” such as for example Bruno Latour’s or François Laruelle’s? If yes, then great as he is maintaining his pluralism and applying it to himself. If no, then I fear his baby is not only drowning in metaphysical bathwater, it is dissolving in it. Which would be regrettable.”

I read some Latour back in the nineties, but really have no idea what his position amounts to. Laruelle and nonphilosophy, I find deeply interesting. If BBT is scientifically confirmed, then both positions will be scientifically discontinuous the degree to which they embrace intentionality. As it stands, it’s just a hypothetical posit, one that has been tyrannizing my philosophical imagination because of the parsimonious way it seems to dissolve a number of traditional problems, and because of the unexplored vista of ‘post-intentional’ philosophy it seems to open up.

“Bakker is a novelist, and so it should be evident to him too. Yet he persists in affirming the ideal of scientific imperialism (which is not at all science!) that all “good” cognition ( called “knowledge” in other modes of life) is science. I like his work and I am trying to find a “diplomatic” (in Bruno Latour’s sense) way of getting him to include his own writing practice in his image of knowledge, and so to pluralise him a little more.”

But this is precisely the thing I don’t affirm! Scientific cognition *is imperialistic* as a matter of historical fact. I finally realized that you’ve been reading my descriptive claims of what science does when it infiltrates a domain as normative. I’m just saying this is what has historically happened, and no one has yet given me a plausible argument as to why any traditional form of cognizing will prove resistant. So, for instance, I think it is likely inevitable that science and technology will continue driving more and more cultural content (computers already write articles and novels), until the notion of ‘fiction writing’ as a ‘traditional artform’ will have the same condescending twang as ‘traditional crafts.’ And I think this an almost unimaginable tragedy.

So here’s a question: As a pluralist, do you affirm the cognitive status of things like geomancy, fundamental christianity, astrology, or phrenology?

Here’s the thing. I do. Why? Because cognition in its most general sense is about problem-solving, and all these things are capable of solving certain problems in certain problem ecologies. Are any of these things ‘accurate’? Not at all. They are exceedingly low dimensional. Phrenology was a great way to relieve people of their money, but a horrible way to understand human beings. It was subreptive, a way to solve one problem while appearing to solve another.

BBT says that something similar is going on with metacognition.

So, it takes the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as its baseline for ‘accurate’ or high-dimensional cognition. Of course this baseline is contingent. The question I ask, is what else is there? At this time in history, what other species of cognition gives us anything remotely resembling the high-dimensional problem-solving ability of the sciences?

I certainly don’t know, and I’ve arguing and asking this question for a long time (ever since reading Negative Dialectics in the 90s, in fact). And given that our economic system is designed to lavish obscene rewards on problem-solving, I think what I call Akratic Society is pretty much inevitable. I fear BBT may be confirmed (because of its parsimony and comprehensiveness), but even if it lands in the dustbin, I think it’s inevitable that philosophy will be snapped if half, into a subdiscipline of cognitive neuropsychology on the one side, and into New Age fluff on the other.

That’s another depressing upshot I would love to be argued out of. But I fear, short of Adorno’s Messianic moment or Heidegger’s God, we are well and truly screwed. Put another way, Only heuristic X can save us now!