The Decline and Fall of the Noocentric Empire
The Semantic Apocalypse debate winds on, with Ben Cain over at Rants Within the Undead God, and Stephen Craig Hickman over at noir-realism. The irony is that although we three actually don’t disagree about that much, the disputed remainder is nothing less than the whole of human aspiration since the Enlightenment.
Philosophically wounded souls disputing existential salvage rights? Or narcissistic dogs fighting over hyperintellectualized scraps?
One way to look at what I’m arguing is in terms of the ‘third variable problem’ in psychology. When presented with a statistical correlation, say between the availability of contraception and a high rate of teen promiscuity, the impulse is to assume some causal connection between the two, even though any number of third variables–‘unknown unknowns‘–could be responsible, say, the ubiquity of pornography or what have you. Once again, it comes down to the invisibility of ignorance, the way the availability of information constrains cognition. Absent information pertaining to third variables, cognition generally operates as if no such information existed, not even as an absence–precisely as we should expect, given that we are biomechanisms.
So I think we all agree on the following three premises:
1) Our traditional notion of the human (the ‘manifest image’) substantially turns on the information available to metacognition.
2) Historically, information regarding the human available to metacognition has been dramatically constrained.
3) The sciences of the brain are presently generating immense quantities of hitherto unavailable information regarding the human.
The dispute lies in our respective assessments of this situation. For my money, the most crucial claim is the following:
4) Absent information pertaining to the absence of information, cognition assumes the adequacy of the information available, no matter how inadequate it may be.
This is what I generally call ‘sufficiency’ (or elsewhere, the ‘Principle of Informatic Adumbration’ (PIA)). What sufficiency essentially means is that metacognition is very nearly theoretically useless as a mode for cognizing what we are. Certainly it discharges a myriad of these functions–it is a metabolically expensive adaptation after all–but the provison accurate theoretical cognition of ‘subjectivity’ is almost certainly not among them. Given the informatically impoverished status of metacognition, or (2), sufficiency means that the flood of information asserted by (3) could reveal a potentially bottomless parade of third variable confounds despite any intuitions to the contrary, that the first person could genuinely feel like the most certain, indubitable thing in the world, and still be utterly illusory. This means that metacognition, contrary to the assumption of the tradition, is no better placed than cognition more generally when it comes to theoretically modelling nature absent the institutional prostheses of science.
And this suggests that the flood of scientific information in the domain of the human is going to do what such floods have done in every other domain of human inquiry: wash every thing away, and reveal something utterly indifferent to our cherished traditional conceits. Something inhuman…