Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: June, 2013

Truth as Anosognosia

by rsbakker

Our brain marshals cognitive resources, and somehow our image sparks in the blind informatic grind.

Consciousness minimally involves identity in the absence of distinctions. There’s the target of focus, and there’s a blurred and asymptotic either/or threshold, what James called the ‘margin’ of conscious attention. This is what necessitates asking all the old questions from the standpoint of what is lacking: the asymptotic nature of margins means that we suffer any number of ‘natural anosognosias.’ We literally have no inkling of our cognitive limits. Margins are the informatic equivalent of the Non-Euclidean edge of the universe: what lies outside of them does not exist even as an absence. They limn the illusory physics of the first person.

Life evolved on this planet blind to itself … and we are no earth-shattering, evolutionary leap. That feeling of limitlessness you have, the absence of intrinsic constraint, is simply an illusion, a kind of ‘cargo cult effect.’ To focus is to neglect…

To be is to be blind to Being.

All are machines and machines are all. This is the insight science has used to wring the neck of the real. ‘Truth’ is nothing more than a low-dimensional feed on the informatic angle forced on us by evolutionary contingency. Survival entails lateral sensitivity, the systematic ability to neurally recapitulate and manipulate environmental structure. Evolution has machined the brain to track and capture. Lateral sensitivity requires medial neglect, the structural inability to neurally recapitulate the neural recapitulation of environmental structure. Evolution has machined the brain to track systems other than itself. Thus medial neglect entails truth, the most breathtaking heuristic of all. Determinations of adequacy become post hoc, the residuum of sensorimotor loops. We writhe. We convolute. We spontaneously reassemble ourselves, latching onto environmental regularities, raising machines about the machine that we are, componentializing ourselves to componentialize our environments–extract what we need to fuck and eat. And the brain, because it can do this, cannot fathom that it does this, and so conjures us, and all the apparently indubitable chicanery of the intentional. It conjures Truth.

Truth is componency, as seen by the blind. Truth is efficacy whittled down to the ether, so low-dimensional, so informatically impoverished, as to escape environmental cognition altogether, to become as empty as the Abstract and Eternal. Truth is the only native means of making a neural component of what has served as a neural component in a greater environmental machine. Truth is how we metacognize what we cannot see.

Thus, its deflationary nature, why ‘the snow is white’ is true if and only if the snow is white. Truth simply affirms the efficacious componency of some efficacious neural component. Medial neglect occludes the concrete and situated mechanistic truth of Truth, leaving it bereft of where or when, rendering it something that ‘just applies’ anywhere at anytime–apparently. Medial neglect is the literal nowhere that steeps those ‘views from’ we take as the Truth of the true.

Thus the ancient compact between ignorance and certainty. Nowhere doubles as everywhere, and makes Truth immovable, among the most bloated of our ancestral delusions. Thus are fools always the first to crow. To say that truth is nowhere is to say we are blind to the truth of Truth, in precise accord with our mechanistic nature. And to philosophize Truth in the famished terms that Truth offers is to grope blindly in blindness of that blindness, and so, to be convinced we can see. To act out our ancient agnosognosia.

What we experience and conceive as Truth is nothing more than a coin viewed from the edge, a multidimensional, mechanical process–a machine–collapsed into something less than a line.

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Necessary Magic: A Reply to Ben Cain

by rsbakker

First, I wanted to mention some excellent BBT related reflections that I think are worth linking: “The Blind Mind-unmaker” at Speculum Criticum, and “Speculative Posthumanism” at Steven Craig Hickman’s noir-realism (for my money the best post-postie site on the web).

Before beginning this Reply, I need to thank Ben, not only for the uniformly wonderful posts he’s afforded us all, but also for the tremendous amount of work he’s put into critiquing BBT. As much as I disagree with him, he has helped me clarify a myriad of issues, as well as show me where I’m most apt to be troubled in the future. If it weren’t for him throwing tomatoes at the pulpit, I’m sure I would have starved!

My first and most obvious complaint, of course, turns on his use of loaded terminology. ‘Scientism’ is far and away the reflex complaint I receive when discussing BBT, a way to pass intellectual judgment without doing any intellectual work. Ben certainly does some argumentative work, here, but labelling the position with a term taken to be a pejorative by the vast majority of readers is to actively court rhetorical short-circuits, to invite readers to skip any critical consideration of the arguments, and leap straight to the judgment. ‘Absolutist’ is even more loaded in this respect.

So to be clear, BBT is neither ‘scientistic’ nor ‘absolutist’ as either of these terms are commonly understood. It is, rather, naturalistic and skeptical

This is an important distinction. To give an example, one of the reasons I think epic fantasy possesses the ideological significance it does, turns on the fetishization of prescientific historical contexts. One of the reasons it does this, I’ve argued, is not simply to make room for magic, but to recover the cognitive legitimacy of traditional forms of theoretical claim-making. Not only is magic possible, gods are real, and philosophy matters.

My position begins with the problem of theoretical cognition. What is the problem? Namely, that we now know, as a matter of empirical fact, far, far too much about human cognition to trust any traditional, prescientific theorization. Our intuition of correctness is far too unreliable to warrant much in the way of commitment to traditional theoretical discourses. This is probably why we all fucking disagree all the fucking time, why discourses in philosophy largely peter out for want of interest rather than finding any decisive arbitration: our own functioning provides the bottommost baseline for any and all estimates, and it is pretty clearly systematically skewed to deliver the beliefs we want or need to be true.

Philosophers simply possess no reliable means of seeing their way through their myriad blind-spots and biases. I understand why people hate this possibility, but you gotta admit, it seems a pretty damn good bet. Something has to explain the crazy cognitive differences one finds between scientific theorization (with consequences like thermonuclear apocalypse, extended life-expectancy, this web-page, etc.) and other forms of theorization – the difference I call ‘accuracy’ but you can call anything you like. Science is an institutional prosthetic, a great shambling mechanism allowing the successful arbitration of theoretical claims in spite of individual human theoretical incompetence.

We’re a bunch of fucking dummies, and we have the abattoir of history to prove it. Whatever the evolutionary impetus ‘to theorize’ was, it certainly had precious little to do with ‘getting things right.’ Fact is, across all traditional cultures theoretical capacity is devoted to cognitive activities that are in no way connected with accuracy. One can make any number of guesses as to the actual functions, but we can be pretty certain ‘truth’ was not on the menu. So when we theorize, in other words, we’re yoking systems that simply were not designed for accuracy.

And so, we cross our fingers. Because as the past has shown, the weight of tradition counts for nothing. And since the happy picture is founded on a conspiracy of intuition and tradition, there’s really nothing the noocentrist can do except hope, despite longer and longer odds, that their horse will somehow pull through.

The point is, I don’t claim that all and only scientific theoretical claims are ‘true.’ Not at all. I’m pretty confident there’s plenty of false claims floating around under the guise of ‘scientific fact’ and plenty of true ones drifting about concealed as ‘philosophical wanking.’ What I claim is that humans are theoretically incompetent, and that science is the one institutional prosthetic that clearly affords them some competence. Science is a vast, shambling wreck that nevertheless works miracles. Ceteris paribus, does all the heavy lifting from this point. All things being equal, when a traditional domain falls within the purview of science, science wins. Astrology may remain an ongoing concern, but it pulls no real institutional levers. Secular society is scientistic society: it provides the space allowing us to make these very claims, debate it’s own legitimacy… And for good reason.

So for those of you following this running debate, take note of what really is a curious fact: Not one of the philosophers taking me to task for ‘scientism’ has actually addressed the main, motivating argument. Not one. Over the years I’ve been accused of scientism more times than I can count, and I’m still waiting for someone to tackle the bloody rub! Given what we have learned from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, why should we trust (as opposed to consider or entertain) theoretical claims outside the sciences.

Because it feels right? Because it’s what we’ve always believed? Because social order depends upon believing it?

Everyone steers clear the theoretical competence argument. The tactic, rather, has been to isolate what seem to be rhetorically vulnerable claims/implications of mine and attack those, or to frame the debate in a very general way on the back of the very assumptions under question. I see this position of mine as a trap – genuinely. I would love to find a way out, find my way back to the kinds conclusions Ben attempts to draw here, but I just don’t see how anything more than ignorance and hope holds positions like his together, at least not anymore.

So Ben simply frames BBT as a scientistic absolutist position. Because of this unfortunate rhetorical posturing, I’ll simply reply in kind, and call any position that denies the kind of radical and exhaustive revisionism suggested by BBT a form of atavism, one that becomes progressively more pollyanna the degree to which it asserts the immunity of tradition, prescientific discourses to this process. Against the scientistic absolutism of BBT, then, we can say Ben is posing a form of pollyanna atavism.

Now Ben and I have been debating these issues back and forth for quite some time, and the primary issue between us, bar none, turns on what might be called the ‘Presupposition Problem,’ which is perhaps most economically and eloquently expressed in the following passage drawn from his piece:

As I said, the scientific picture includes the content of scientific theories but also the practice of science itself that produces them. After all, the point of scientism isn’t just that people will possibly have a complete understanding of nature, but that science alone makes that understanding likely. But at least as understood intuitively, scientific methods involve epistemic, aesthetic, and pragmatic standards that scientists want their theories to meet. So while we presently indulge in the prescientific talk of normativity, the suspicion is that science tends to conflict with our intuitions. And yet if science is the only kind of knowledge, how will scientists understand their scientific practice scientifically, if such methods appear normative? For the statement of scientism to be coherent, that appearance of how science itself works would likewise have to be illusory and so science would have to be part of a natural process that can be understood in purely causal, value-neutral terms.

Now the first thing to note is the way he rhetorically postures the possibility that science is our reliable source of theoretically accurate knowledge into something that ‘just has to be wrong.’ He considers none of the scientific evidence for why this might be so–or as I would argue, why this is obviously so. He simply relies on the likely fact that the majority of readers want or assume that theoretical cognition is possible outside the sciences. One of the reasons we are so theoretically incompetent left to our own intuitive and traditional devices is that we have a genius for believing those things that confirm our preexisting assumptions. But he hasn’t actually given any evidence for supposing theoretical competence, so much as pandered to our assumption that this must be so.

The second thing to note is the way this paragraph actually assumes the very claim that the so-called ‘scientistic absolutist’ is calling into question: namely that our second-order characterizations of so-called intentional terminology are true. Perhaps the terms will be replaced. Perhaps they won’t. What will happen at the very least, however, is that they will be incrementally redefined in light of new scientific information. This is what arguably makes atavistic positions like Ben’s so pollyanna. Does he literally think this process won’t happen, that the traditional speculative discourses that have provided us with our present understanding of terms like ‘right,’ ‘rule,’ ‘aboutness’ and so on enjoy a kind of special immunity to revisionary scientific ‘disenchantment’ that no other traditional speculative discourse has in the course of history?

The last sentence of the passage should read, “For the statement of scientism to be coherent, our present, prescientific understanding of how science itself works will have to turn out to be as wrong as our past prescientific understandings of every other complicated process.” My argument simply asks, What are the chances? What are the chances that we got this one enormously complicated phenomena right?

Ben never tackles this question. BBT represents a theoretical worst-case scenario, one where the evolutionary serendipities of human cognition have rendered us incoherent. It is a viable empirical possibility that we evolved in such a way that we cannot function short of any number of systematic deceptions. Subreption, or the control of behaviour via deception, is rife throughout the natural world. Nothing exempts us, least of all our intuitions to the contrary. By continually implying the extreme difficulty if not the out-and-out impossibility of living life according to a causal-mechanical theoretical self-understanding, Ben is merely outlining the shape of the dilemma predicted by BBT. As soon as he takes the further step of using these implications to argue the falsehood or ‘incoherence’ of BBT, he is at best missing the point and at worst begging the question. What he sees as conceptual disqualification, I see as exemplification of our very real straits.

Since the dilemma is a very real empirical possibility, one that Ben himself admits, it becomes difficult to understand what he thinks he has accomplished. Is his argument empirical? Is he adducing scientific evidence against BBT, showing us how, contrary to my claims, accurate metacognition is not only computationally possible, it’s also probable? Or is he, rather, arguing from a certain abstract altitude, looking for ways to make BBT look bad from a rational or transcendental standpoint, which is to say, the very standpoint it threatens to empirically undermine?

I fear I can see no way in which the latter approach fails to beg the question!

He writes, “we’ve evolved mental modules that compel us to read psychological and social patterns into data, thus compelling us to survive by working in groups.” I’m not sure what he means by ‘mental modules,’ so I’ll replace this with ‘neural mechanisms’–something we have evolved as a matter of empirical fact. The question then becomes one of how this counts against the meaning skepticism evinced by BBT. It’s not as though these neural mechanisms are themselves ‘psychological’ or ‘social’. Or put differently, it’s not as though the work they do is anything other than mechanistic, or merely natural.

So when he continues to say, “[t]his means the absolutist must show that there’s currently no benefit to thinking of science in normative terms, that this way of thinking really is just an idle, illusory byproduct,” his problem becomes quite stark. BBT isn’t saying that we don’t possess compulsory neural mechanisms geared to troubleshooting other brains. BBT agrees that, given our existing neurobiology, we have to rely on this ‘psychosocial toolbox’ to mechanistically resolve psychosocial problems. The machinery of the brain does all the work–after all, what else is there? What he calls ‘thinking of science in normative terms’ is a mechanistic enterprise, something our brains do. Since metacognition is all but blind to the mechanistic nature of the brain, it cognizes cognition otherwise, in nonmechanical, acausal, magical terms. Normative judgements, intentional relations, and so on: these are simply ways our brain naturally mischaracterizes its own activity.

Again, statements like the above either miss the point or beg the question. Ben is banking on your default assumptions here, relying on the fact that your immersion in noocentric culture will incline you to assent to his arguments and criticisms. And he skates over the rather important question of what is doing all the work, if not assemblages of neuromechanisms. And if its mechanisms doing all the work, then what work, if any, does normativity qua normativity do?

Or consider his critique of ‘function talk,’ and the perplexing insistence that ‘function’ must mean what he thinks it means, namely something that necessarily (?) involves teleology. Again, Why? Because it ‘just seems that way’? I define ‘neural functions’ in terms of structurally fixed patterns of neural activity. Where’s the telos in this? In fact, the whole literature of biosemantics, a philosophical domain as beset with controversy and discursive deadlock as any other, arose as an attempt to resolve the inability of previous philosophical positions to naturally square the circle of normativity! Does it succeed? How could it, when it provides no criteria by which success could be adjudicated.

Ben goes even further out on his precarious philosophical limb when he begins mulling the metaphoric nature of language, and the philosophical mysteries pertaining to causality. This is actually a common strategy, one that skeptics (like TPB’s other regular guest-blogger, Roger) are all too familiar with. Problematize philosophical speculation on what seem to be fairly direct, platitudinal grounds, and the philosopher is bound to throw more speculation at you, telling you What Skepticism Really Is and why therefore, it can be ignored. Just as the skeptic need only shrug and say, How do you know? BBT need only shrug and say, Why should anyone care? Cause is an unexplained explainer, sure. It’s not clear how this impugns the theoretical power of science in any way whatsoever. Should we say, ‘Shit. No wonder my lawnmower doesn’t work!’ Of course not. It’s even less clear how this tack bears on BBT in particular. If taking down science as a whole is a precondition for taking down BBT, then that would actually seem to redound in the theory’s favour.

As for the problems posed by the metaphorics of language, it seems pretty clear that Ben has wandered into the very self-undermining mire that he wants to foist on BBT–a position that actually provides a way of empirically understanding why such issues are so baffling! Whose metaphors are problematic from the standpoint of cognition? The one’s arising in BBT, which admits theoretical adjudication, or the one’s arising in his argument? Are metaphors somehow antithetical to mechanistic explanation, but amenable to intentional speculation?

Perhaps the issue is neither here nor there regarding the dispute between us.

Or consider: “But now we arrive at a mere definitional matter, because this so-called illusion is the way that mammals like us tend to perceive things as a basis for understanding them.” No. The cognitive illusions isolated by BBT are not the way ‘mammals like us’ tend to perceive things as a basis for understanding. The understanding comes first, I fear, and the philosopher and his myriad confusions (arising from the aforementioned cognitive illusions) comes next, attempting, and notoriously failing, to ‘understand’ this understanding. Our brains are remarkably efficacious mechanisms, as their evolutionary pedigree suggests they would have to be. What we call ‘understanding’ is as much a product of its activity as anything else in the ambit of experience. And when all is said and done, that understanding will be understood in mechanical, not normative or intentional, terms. Fact is, we’ve already travelled quite some distance down this road. Suffering a sudden cognitive impairment? Dollars to doughnuts the doctor is going to give you a mechanical explanation.

“Recall,” Ben writes toward his conclusion, “that scientism is the prediction that science will eclipse the arts when it comes to telling us about the real world.” Prediction? More like observation! Find a funny growth on your skin? A lump on your breast and/or testicle? Car won’t start? Computer won’t connect to the internet? Mechanism and more mechanism. And as the sciences grow in power and intricacy, this list continues to grow. A kid in your class has difficulty with impulse control? Can’t call them ‘lazy’ any more. A parent starts behaving bizarrely? Can’t call them ‘crazy’ anymore. A commercial for product X is incredibly successful? A politician is swept into office? You turn to your right instead of your left at the mall?

Mechanistic explanations are–quite obviously, I think–the rising tide. Art? Machines are already writing novels and articles, painting pictures. Cognitive neuroscience has already made explanatory inroads into issues of composition and reception. Is this a trend that is set to retreat, or continue?

The myth that Ben would have you buy into is nothing other than the myth I would dearly love to be able to affirm: the notion that our metacognitive sense of self and beauty and morality and meaning (talk about undefined terms!) is not only ‘more than enough,’ it is somehow magically immune to the slow onslaught of accumulating mechanical information. All BBT does is place these notions on an informatic gradient, high dimensional at one end, and low dimensional on the other. It denies them their atavistic claim to autonomous adequacy across domains, and shows how they are continuous with the rest of the natural world. And guess what? In doing so it makes us very small and painfully contingent, and in a manner eerily consistent with the overthrow of geocentrism and biocentrism. Like earth or homo sapiens, the brain only looks special from certain, parochial perspective, the very kind of limited perspective that the sciences enable us to overcome.

The myth of noocentrism.

Which brings us to the most telling shortcoming of Ben’s critique. I’ve mentioned the way he fails to consider any of the evidence of human theoretical incompetence, and really only assumes the opposite. I’ve mentioned the way he repeatedly begs the question, arguing the incoherence of BBT by supposing it must rely on the very intentionality it explains away. I’ve called attention to the vacuousness of problematizing science’s unexplained explainers, and how it’s not clear that the problems pertaining to metaphor aren’t even more debilitating to his position. But far and away, the biggest weakness lies in his failure to provide any positive account of just what it is he’s defending. In a sense, he’s simply relying on exhaustion to do his work for him, the fact that the signature failure of philosophy to ‘clarify’ any intentional term has become such old news it is scarce worth mentioning. The fact that BBT has a very parsimonious strategy for explaining these failures he passes over in silence. In fact, he’s careful to cast his net just wide enough to catch BBT in his implicature without having to consider its theoretical virtues in any detailed manner – and without, he thinks, obligating himself to provide a positive account of his own. He wants intentionality to be both necessary and magic, to belong to this family of things that for reasons never made clear simply cannot be mechanically explained–or in other words, natural.

A great many of our intuitions lead us astray. What we need to do is gerrymander those that don’t in a way that allows us to avoid running afoul those that do. This is what science does: allows us to sort the intuitive wheat from the intuitive chaff. Does Ben really think that intuition can theoretically bootstrap itself absent science, that one can transcendentally guarantee the autonomy and the adequacy of the intentional? Does he really believe the flood of neuroscientific information is going to leave this one family of things untouched, that, despite staring at ourselves through informatic peepholes, we nevertheless somehow managed to get ourselves right?

This is a tall, tall order. As I think he’s beginning to realize…

I’m certainly at a loss.

Scientism and the Artistic Side of Knowledge (by Benjamin Cain)

by rsbakker

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How should someone who accepts the scientific picture think of the relation between the arts and the sciences? By “scientific picture” I mean the content of scientific theories, of course, but also the scientific methods of explanation and the questions that can be answered by those methods. One option, which I’ll call “scientism,” is to say that scientific explanations are the only stories worth telling, that if a statement can’t be tested or translated into precise, mathematical language, the statement should have no part in our view of what’s real. I’ll call a defender of scientism a scientific absolutist, since this defender says the scientific picture of reality is complete in that it exhausts everything we should say about the world; plus, “scientific imperialist,” which is sometimes used here, is pejorative and “scientist” is taken. Scientism is opposed to what I’ll call “pluralism,” to the view that scientific methods aren’t the only worthwhile ways of talking about the real world.

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Is Scientism Coherent?

There’s some reason to think that scientism isn’t a stable option, after all. The question is how exactly the scientistic thesis should be formulated. Let’s assume, for example, that the scientific picture includes Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory or at least some theory in cognitive science that fulfills our worst fear about the conflict between what scientists say we are and what we intuitively, traditionally assume we are. In particular, let’s assume that the folk ideas of meaning and values are incompatible with science. That is to say, symbols don’t relate to the world in the way we naively think they do and nothing is really good or bad. On the contrary, let’s assume that cognitive scientists will soon be able to explain precisely how these folk illusions arise, in terms of biochemical processes. And we can even assume, then, that that knowledge will be disseminated in the business community, enabling the elites to exploit those processes as far as the law will allow. Just as scientists have no need of the God hypothesis, there will be no scientific reason to speak of the meaning of symbols, the truth of statements, or the value of anything. These folk ways of speaking will be deflated. To be sure, they might persist, just as there are still theists long after the dawn of the Age of Reason, but the folk concepts won’t add to the scientific picture of reality, they’ll make no sense within that picture, and they’ll be undercut by the scientific explanation of their appearance.

Notice that were the scientific way of speaking of the folk concepts to presuppose those concepts, scientism would undercut itself more than anything else. By “presuppose” here I mean to assume as part of scientism’s story of what’s going on. A scientific absolutist can grant that so-called meanings and values exist (as well as consciousness, freewill, and the other elements of the folk view of us), but the absolutist can’t endorse the folk way of speaking of these things. (In philosophy of language jargon, the absolutist can grant the extension but not the intension of “meaning,” “value,” and so on, which is to say that she can grant that those words apply to something, without subscribing to the way those words picture that thing.) So instead of saying that a symbol’s meaning is its representational relationship to what the symbol’s about, the absolutist might say that that relationship is an illusion caused by the brain’s ability only to caricature its real, neurological processes when the brain resorts to intuition or to any discourse that posits something other than a field of causally interacting material bodies.

But I think it’s difficult to sustain a counterintuitive way of speaking of folk concepts. For example, how would the absolutist define “illusion”? The intuitive, folk way would be to say that an illusion is a part of reality that a creature’s naturally led to misunderstand. Thus, when a stick in water appears bent, the appearance is an illusion because the stick is really straight and so there’s a mismatch between the perception and the reality. Now it’s just that sort of alleged mismatch which the absolutist is trying to call an illusion, which is to say that the absolutist needs a causal, counterintuitive idea of illusion to explain away the representational and normative folk understanding of the difference between reality and illusory (erroneous, misleading) appearance. So while the folk psychologist has the (seemingly unscientific) concepts of meaning, truth, and value at her disposal, the absolutist dispenses with those concepts, perhaps by redefining the relation between reality and illusion. So what would that redefinition entail?

Presumably, the absolutist would be able to explain how an illusion arises in causal terms. But even if we know exactly how the appearance of the bent stick in water is caused, in terms of how the brain processes the light that refracts as it passes through the water, do we thereby know everything there is to know about the effect of that process, that is, the appearance of that stick? Suppose our scientific knowledge of that process enabled us to predict how that appearance in turn would affect the creature that labours under it. Would this complete account of where an illusion lies in the causal nexus tell us what an illusion is? Whether that causal account would satisfy our curiosity or exhaust everything there is to say about the reality of illusions is a separate issue, to which I’ll soon turn. My worry at present is just about whether the scientific absolutist needs more than a causal understanding of illusions to formulate scientism as the thesis that the scientific picture of reality is the complete picture. In particular, if all we’re entitled to say about illusions is that they’re caused in a certain way and that they have certain effects, we certainly can’t infer that illusions are bad or therefore that a story which speaks favourably of illusions is necessarily worse than any other story.

Of course, as defined, the scientific theory of us would have no business speaking of the difference between “better or worse” or indeed of the act of “speaking of something” in the first place–at least, not if the theory were to employ those notions as they’re intuitively understood. The scientific picture would either eliminate those normative and semantic concepts or replace them with radically different ones. But can the scientific absolutist afford to be so radical? How can we formulate the exclusiveness of the scientific picture–indeed its completeness or its superiority to the intuitive one–without falling back on the normative and semantic notions? From the scientific viewpoint which presents only impersonal causes and effects, nothing would be superior to anything else nor would anything be complete in the sense of being an adequate representation. So is scientism itself a necessarily intuitive idea? How can we speak of the threat that science poses to the commonsense view of ourselves, once we accept the scientific picture which dispenses with the very notions that seem instrumental in making the relevant distinctions?

Well, we can start by looking at history and appreciating that there’s certainly been some conflict between our naive worldview and the one that scientists have developed. We can then induce that because scientific progress has left behind plenty of wreckage in the form of abandoned intuitions about how the world works, eventually no such intuitions will be left standing; that is, there will be nothing left merely for us to intuit, because the complete scientific story of what causes what will be at our fingertips–assuming our species survives long enough to complete the scientific picture, of course. In that case, the scientific account will eventually be the only one that’s actually used. Notice how this formulation avoids the normative talk of science’s superiority. Instead of saying that the scientific picture is a better representation than the prescientific one, a comparison to which the scientific absolutist isn’t entitled, we can say that as a matter of sheer causality, one way of talking will endure while all others will be left behind. This is to say only that science will persist in the natural process in which we engage with the world, whereas nonscientific narratives will not last as long. Crudely put: in a pissing contest, science wins.

Now if that’s all scientism amounts to, I see no illicit presuppositions in it, no hidden appeals to prescientific notions that are no part of the scientific picture. However, we’re not out of the woods yet, since now we should wonder whether that scientific picture of reality would be complete. If we know that all prescientific accounts would eventually be abandoned as a result of the unfolding of a natural process, do we thereby know why that would happen? We’d know that one thing would lead to another and some material bodies in the universe (naively thought of as persons) would stop engaging in some form of behaviour (talking about meaning and value), but would this be a complete theory of what’s going on in that part of the world?

Of course, our intuitions scream “No!” because we’ve evolved the instinct of seeing psychological and social patterns wherever we look, and thus, given just that dry causal story of science’s ultimate victory, we’d beg to be told why those future people would choose to favour the scientific picture to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. And then Pandora’s Box would be opened and out would fly all the intuitive concepts: would science prove to be better than all other viewpoints according to some epistemic or aesthetic ideals (the values of truth, simplicity, elegance, fruitfulness, and so on)? Would science be superior in pragmatic terms, empowering people more than any other viewpoint and more efficiently satisfying their desires? But those questions about the reasons why a process turns out as it does call for answers framed by the intuitive concepts. Therefore, someone looking just at the scientific picture would be as dismissive of those questions as she’d be of those concepts. If you think it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be so dismissive rather than seeing the point of asking the epistemic or folk psychological questions, you doubt scientism and may be in the grip of the illusion our species is destined to see past. In any case, the scientific absolutist must maintain that any semantic, normative, or pragmatic reason why science would outlast intuition is as excluded from the scientific theory as is any other prescientific notion.

So if scientism is the contention that science potentially provides us with the complete theory of the real world, we should interpret this as saying not just that science is the way of completing the causal account of the world, but that the causal account is the final one offered by a sufficiently intelligent and long-lived species, since any such species is part of a natural process that compels it to abandon intuition in favour of science.

The completeness of the scientific theory therefore isn’t a matter of semantic adequacy or of normative superiority, but of finality and endurance, which are matters merely of measurement. Take any sequence of causes and effects and you have the potential to measure which properties last longer than others. For example, have a look at those sped-up videos of people walking through a city, so that the individuals are blurred together, allowing the viewer to pick up on patterns such as whether brown hair is more prevalent than blonde in that region or how often people stop at a certain spot. This must be the sort of comparison that’s left to the scientific absolutist when she says that science threatens not just theism but all our commonsense notions, including our notions of meaning and morality. What she must mean isn’t that science is closest to the Truth or even that science is more useful than commonsense. If she appeals to those intuitions as part of what the scientific picture alone will compel us to say, she contradicts what she says about the counterintuitiveness of science. No, scientism as I’ve defined it implies only that the denuded, amoral, meaningless scientific picture is our destiny, our final portal on the world because of the natural process we’ve been part of all along.

And so the horror of scientific progress is that through science, nature inexorably dehumanizes us, stripping us of our cherished intuitions so that we’re blinded to illusions and we come to think like a computer that’s capable only of calculations and quantitative measurements, not of qualitative judgments. This is the old romantic complaint about science, except that instead of saying that science robs the world of its beauty, the scientistic point is that the real world is neither beautiful nor ugly and that that world will force us to behold that neutrality. Our illusions that we prop up with intuitions and cognitive biases are fantasies we distract ourselves with even as nature’s impersonality is all around us. Not even our personal identity will preserve us from that dread vision of the undead god, which is the mindlessly evolving natural plenum, the field of colliding material bodies, if our personhood too is an illusion of which science will relieve us.

Finally, there’s one more objection along these lines. As I said, the scientific picture includes the content of scientific theories but also the practice of science itself that produces them. After all, the point of scientism isn’t just that people will possibly have a complete understanding of nature, but that science alone makes that understanding likely. But at least as understood intuitively, scientific methods involve epistemic, aesthetic, and pragmatic standards that scientists want their theories to meet. So while we presently indulge in the prescientific talk of normativity, the suspicion is that science tends to conflict with our intuitions. And yet if science is the only kind of knowledge, how will scientists understand their scientific practice scientifically, if such methods appear normative? For the statement of scientism to be coherent, that appearance of how science itself works would likewise have to be illusory and so science would have to be part of a natural process that can be understood in purely causal, value-neutral terms.

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Intuition and Analogy: The Artistic Side of Knowledge

So much on the coherence of scientism. One objection that now presents itself is whether we should think it likely that science will be the last narrative standing, given that science is a product of brains like ours, brains of mammals that evidently enjoy and perhaps even need our illusions to survive long enough to complete the scientific picture. If we are as cognitive scientists describe, our rationality is quite imperfect; we’ve evolved numerous mental shortcuts, called “heuristics,” which produce cognitive biases and these are innate so they persist even as we’ve evidently learned to circumvent them with scientific methods. This is to say that the induction outlined above may be flawed. Yes, science has refuted a great many of our intuitive speculations, but this doesn’t mean science has made us more rational on the whole. One by one, our speculations are exposed as fallacious or delusory, but what if our capacity for such speculation is inexhaustible? What if the conflict between science and intuition isn’t zero-sum? Just because science advances, that needn’t mean intuition retreats. Indeed, most people are still religious even after the Scientific Revolution and the spread of the internet and communications technologies. Perhaps the growth of Islam is only a temporary backlash, but the larger point remains that although most people today are at least potentially better informed than the majority of any other period, that doesn’t mean we’re less attached to our delusions. Indeed, our delusions are still manifold and plentiful, be they religious, political, cultural, or personal (self-directed).

Notice the reason this doubt is relevant to scientism as defined: to ensure that scientism is coherent, I’ve had to reduce that thesis to a prediction about how we would all be talking, were our species to survive long enough to complete science. This is strictly a matter of probability, of what will likely be left at the end of a causal chain, ceteris paribus. We’ve had to eliminate folk notions of the truth or usefulness of science since although we may presently indulge in such illusions, the scientific absolutist is interested in science’s ultimate relation to rival conceptions of the world and in the final analysis, were only science left standing, the suspicion is that the finished scientific picture will provide no grounds for intuiting science’s superiority, since those naturalists will understand everything in terms of pure causality. Therefore, scientism is weak if its prediction is unlikely, and we have plenty of reasons to doubt that prediction–indeed, sterling scientific reasons. As I said, we’ve evolved mental modules that compel us to read psychological and social patterns into data, thus compelling us to survive by working together in groups. This is why we personify our surroundings and why we see ghosts, goblins, and gods around every corner. Mind you, we also have evidence in favour of scientism, including the fact that modern science is still a relatively young discipline and there’s also the transhuman prospect of using technology to alter our brains or genes, so that we’ll come to prefer the scientific picture to the illusions.

This point about transhumanism raises another problem with scientism, though, which is that the prediction is less interesting if it posits a future that’s radically different from the present, because the prediction might as well then invoke a miracle. The induction motivating the fear that science conflicts with our commonsense self-image says that because science–as commonly understood–has steadily undermined so many intuitions, science will eventually undermine them all. There’s no longer any such induction if “science” in the conclusion refers to posthuman science which is dissimilar from the present-day kind, since induction rests on our confidence that the future will be like the past. (That’s why miracles are improbable, according to the philosopher David Hume.) So the scientific absolutist must assume that the science responsible for completing the counterintuitive picture of the world will work like present-day science.

That may imply that we should have at least an inkling of how present-day science can be understood in strictly causal terms, without positing the ideals that motivate research and experimentation. We now understand scientific methods–both at the individual and social levels–in terms of certain epistemic, aesthetic, and pragmatic values that govern certain processes. For example, we think science is eminently rational and this calls to mind a normative view of logical rules we think we ought to follow. Perhaps this view of rationality is illusory and what’s really going on is that our concept of a rule is just a low-resolution caricature of actual neural processes. Perhaps, but I think the absolutist has a burden of proof here to show that the intuitive picture of science doesn’t add to our present understanding of science. The absolutist can’t appeal to a gulf between present and finished science, because that spoils the induction which is a key piece of evidence for the scientistic prediction that science and not any of the normative arts tells us all there is to know about reality. This means the absolutist must show that there’s currently no benefit to thinking of science in normative terms, that this way of thinking really is just an idle, illusory byproduct.

Frankly, what gives me pause here is the persistence with which the intuitive notions crop up even in the scientific picture, and to anticipate a bit, I see this pattern in roughly Kantian terms. For example, the scientistic fear is that science opposes our intuitions, so that our normative view of reason is belied by the cognitive scientific account of so-called neurofunctions, which are naturally selected processes in the brain. I am very suspicious of the biological talk of functions, since I think Darwin showed why the appearance of teleology in organic processes is illusory. And yet the talk persists; indeed, it’s irresistible. But without an intelligent designer, the cryptoteleological talk of biofunctions is misleading. Natural selection means only that environmental conditions don’t kill off the hosts of certain genes so that those genes keep replicating body types that have certain traits which enable them to cope with those conditions. That’s the real causal story in evolutionary biology, so we needn’t appeal to the metaphor of functionality when speaking of neural processes, such as those the brain can’t intuit well and so can only drastically simplify without doing science. The metaphor is a comparison of the relation between a person and a human-designed artifact, and that between God and all his creatures. Now, that metaphor may be undermined by Darwin, but it does speak to a ubiquitous practice we have of using metaphors for the cognitive purpose of exploiting our grasp of the familiar.

This is why even scientific theories are littered with metaphors. Just as the talk of biofunctions is anthropocentric, so too is the talk of mechanisms. The metaphor of the mechanism derives from the deistic assumption that nature is a deterministic machine built by God. Quantum mechanics has undermined the deterministic view of causality and thus the clockwork metaphor, just as natural selection has undermined teleological functionalism. And with the loss of determinism, our concept of causality might have to change. Most physicists think of causality in platonic terms, as reflecting a timeless, mathematical order, as though laws of nature were spelled out in a Book of Nature. Without a lawgiver, the very notion of a law of nature too becomes an anthropocentric metaphor, an outdated comparison of natural laws with social ones. Perhaps physical laws aren’t timeless but they evolve as the physicist Lee Smolin theorizes. In any case, his picture would require yet another metaphorical stretch of the imagination, a comparison of the evolution of life on our planet with the evolution of universes in a multiverse. Even the concept of a heuristic in cognitive science is a metaphor from computing that mixes up natural and social laws, when applied to modules in the brain. A heuristic is a programmed rule of thumb or educated guess, which acts as a fall-back plan so that the computer doesn’t have to follow every step of an algorithm when searching for a solution in a poorly understood domain. Certain neural processes are at best similar to heuristics in intelligently-programmed computers.

A scientific absolutist will want to remark at this point that these metaphors all betray intuitions that science will eventually overrun, but I think this misses the point. Again, our experience is that the metaphors and intuitions disappear only serially, one by one, but the reservoir of intuition seems bottomless. Moreover, we oversimplify matters when we contrast science with commonsense intuition, since metaphors which build on commonsense are found in science itself. Now, the absolutist can say that intuitions keep popping up in our theories because we evolved to fall prey to the cognitive illusion of projecting our naive self-image onto the unfamiliar. But this raises the question of just what knowledge is supposed to be such that science is the only source of it, according to scientism.

There seem to be at least two sides of knowledge. There’s the quantification side, the ability to measure a phenomenon, to describe it with great precision, which may allow us to predict how the phenomenon will change. If we can predict what something will do under certain conditions, that’s often a sign we understand the thing, but there’s a second side of knowledge which is harder to put into words because it’s just understanding itself. Measuring and predicting how a system works isn’t the same as identifying what the system is in reality. We might encounter an extraterrestrial artifact and be able to predict what it will do if we push one button rather another, after sufficient trial and error with the object, but we might still not know what the artifact was intended to do. What is it then to understand something, to know what it really is? More to the point, does a complete causal account of nature suffice for understanding?

If we can predict everything that will happen in the world, because we have a complete induction based on past experience of which observations followed which other ones as natural processes unfolded, do we understand what’s happening? The computer in philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room argument can appear to speak a language by following algorithms for displaying certain messages when shown certain other ones, but the computer doesn’t speak the language at the semantic level. The computer blindly follows the algorithms while lacking the concepts that a natural language speaker would typically associate with the language’s vocabulary. The computer can calculate which messages should follow other ones, but it doesn’t understand what’s being said. Moreover, quantum mechanics furnishes us with an impeccable example of how measurement and prediction aren’t the same as understanding. Physicists can measure with great accuracy what happens at the subatomic level, but they have barely any idea what’s really going on there; they interpret the results of the experiments with a number of models (the multiverse, quantum logic, Copenhagen interpretation, and so on), and if any of these models offers a hope that physicists can understand the bizarre findings, that’s because the model translates the exotic mathematical statements into intuitive, natural language.

I think, then, that if the complete scientific picture were to include only a map of all natural processes, without any intuitive metaphors to classify the patterns, the picture would enable scientists to predict and to control processes but not to understand them. The scientific absolutist will say that any so-called understanding supplied by semantics, by usefully categorizing phenomena according to certain cognitive criteria is yet more illusion which science is bound to overcome. But now we arrive at a mere definitional matter, because this so-called illusion is the way that mammals like us tend to perceive things as a basis for understanding them. The illusion in which a stick appears bent in water isn’t exactly like the illusion of using metaphors to personify alien phenomena, because there’s no interesting variety in the way all our brains process the light exiting from the water, whereas there’s a rich variety in the way we use metaphors and other analogies. This is why translating an advanced use of language is so difficult, because mental associations link together in a network of subtle connotations that encompasses a whole cultural way of interpreting the world and you’re either in a culture or you’re not. Science is more universal and yet is sufficiently subjective that the metaphors in scientific theories express human experience.

So the absolutist is free to define “knowledge” in a way that excludes the work done by intuitions and analogies, but I think this violates the above principle about the need to preserve the scientistic induction by not appealing to posthumanity. There is, after all, a counter-induction, which is that because new intuitions always arise to replace the old ones (even in science), our knowledge will never be intuition-free. The Kantian point about knowledge, then, is that if we tend to anthropomorphize things, to understand them by extending our intuition-based caricature of a self-image onto less familiar parts of the world, using analogies to bridge the emotional gap and to make us comfortable with the alien Other, this tendency is a cognitive faculty in its own right. Our capacities for intuition, speculation, and anthropomorphic prejudgment are filters through which we interpret the world. You can call these interpretations laughable illusions, if you like, but that would be like calling even the finished scientific picture an illusion because that picture is something offered merely by a creature that does what it does rather than doing something else. We mammals do what we do, and that includes cognizing the world at emotional and analogical levels.

Where you have metaphors you have art and thus you have aesthetic ideals, and this is a serious problem for the scientific absolutist. Recall that scientism is the prediction that science will eclipse the arts when it comes to telling us about the real world. The assumption is that the arts, including philosophy and religion, deal with meaning and values, and so the absolutist infers that knowledge doesn’t require meaning or value. Again, perhaps if you confine knowledge to the abilities to measure, predict, and control, knowledge can be meaningless and amoral, and so fit for dehumanized automata, such as the drones that might make for efficient workers in a crony capitalistic dystopia. But knowledge as it’s been produced all around the world, including in Europe during the Scientific Revolution and since the very beginning of our rational endeavours, has been classified and so understood in intuitive, emotionally comforting terms. We understand things by humanizing them, by looking for patterns and seeing ourselves in those patterns, so that we can feel we’re not so alone after all, we’re similar somehow to everything that’s knowable by us. Our theories contain metaphors that express intuitive leaps of imagination that identify such similarities, and so our theories are stories we tell. That’s why scientists and mathematicians insist that elegance in theory-building counts in their fields. We’re mammals that enjoy telling each other stories, and this is where scientists benefit from an artistic sensibility, which is developed in the humanities, to create new theories, new leaps of imagination, and to evaluate which story establishes the best paradigm in revolutionary times. Knowledge isn’t just bean-counting, after all. Reason has an artistic, emotional side; the European Renaissance in the arts set the stage for the modern Scientific Revolution. We’re driven to understand the world in the first place, long after our evolutionary fitness has been secured, because we’re irrationally curious or greedy or we want to minimize our existential angst.

What about the scientific, mechanistic picture which seems to mock our manifest image, our intuitive view of ourselves as rational, free, conscious persons? Here we need to distinguish between elimination and reduction. If science shows that our personal qualities don’t really exist at all, we’ll be in big trouble, but this is next to impossible. Even at the end of Cartesian doubt, if we imagine we’re really brains in vats being tricked by a demon, we’re content to be pragmatic in assuming that such metaphysical reality doesn’t matter, because we live in the apparent world in which we’re rational, free, conscious people. Science has undermined our superstitious prejudices not so much by showing that what our ancestors were talking about was nothing at all, but by explaining the phenomena in more useful ways. Instead of thinking your house is haunted, think of shifts in the earth that make the walls creak. Instead of thinking the sun goes around the Earth, think of it the other way around. Instead of God, have a Big Bang quantum fluctuation. And instead of an immaterial spirit created by God, we have a complex natural history of causes and effects that evolved our brain which gives us certain abilities such as limited rationality, freedom, and consciousness. A mechanistic story about how intuitions form doesn’t eliminate intuitions from the face of the earth; instead, the story redescribes the origin of something that our ancestors spoke of in terms of simple dualism. Indeed, if nature were to build a person, we should expect there’d be a causal story about the process of evolution, but that story wouldn’t supplant the philosophical or religious one that just takes the natural origin for granted as at least a stage in some larger process, a process perceived by mammals that prefer the comfort of illusions.

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The Remaining Horrors of Scientific Progress

What I’ve just said in the last section amounts to a defense of pluralism. Still, even a pluralist should fear horrors of scientific progress, besides the potential for technological blowback. First, this pluralism shows at best that the scientistic prediction is improbable, but there’s a readily-understood way for the mechanistic picture to be the last one standing, after all. We might forget the artistic side of our thinking. As Nietzsche said, metaphors become concretized over time so that they lose their freshness and they’re eventually taken as literal rather than figurative. We forget the comparisons that gave rise to the metaphors that are implicit in the meaning of our words, and so we think our natural language gives us a transparent window on the world, whereas that language expresses human biases at every turn. Scientists prefer artificial languages that aren’t so burdened by parochial experiences, so even if their theories remain metaphorical, perhaps we’ll stop speaking natural languages, influenced as we are by the computers we interact with more and more. Maybe our imagination, emotion, intuition, and creativity will atrophy as our habits continue to be shaped by our artificial environments. Then again, we’d be looking not so much at a scientific revelation of what we’ve always really been, but at a transformation of human nature for the worse.

Second, although the mechanistic picture needn’t conflict with the intuitive one, since the former can explain how the latter emerges, the two may nevertheless conflict in certain instances. Not all values, ideals, meanings, and metaphors are equal, and so there’s a need for them to cohere with science’s causal picture of how things work. Thus, science continues to challenge our lazy, obsolete intuitions which aren’t so much falsified by the causal theory, but rendered counterproductive and uninspiring in philosophical or religious terms. Ancient myths of supernatural, personal dimensions and vain conceits of our centrality to the world are exceedingly hard to maintain alongside the scientific picture. I don’t think this means we should settle just for the scientific, causal point of view; instead, we should create better myths to satisfy our artistic side.