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.