Man the Meaning-Faker

by rsbakker

Ben has posted an excellent piece on Brassier’s Nihil Unbound and his position on nihilism more generally over at RWUG. “Nihilism,” Ben writes in a pithy summary of Ray’s view, “is the philosophy needed for living with intellectual integrity as one of the living dead.”

I remember when I first read Nihil Unbound what hooked me was Ray’s refusal to buy into any of the traditional Continental prophylactic moves, his insistence that truth trumps meaning no matter how cherished that meaning might be. The want of traditional Continental philosophy has been to adopt various preemptive theoretical attitudes vis a vis science, to insist that science presupposes some kind of x, whether it be an existential interpretation of the Lebenswelt, where experience is asserted as the ontological condition of possibility of science (understood as a mere ‘ontic’ discourse), or some normative interpretation of the institutional context of science, where thought is asserted as the practical condition of possibility of science (understood as one language game among others). I have espoused both of these positions in my day, and no longer find either even remotely convincing, simply because I finally realized that posing a mysterious, never-to-be-arbitrated speculative diagnosis of What Science Is as the grounds for appraising the status of scientific theoretical claims is to simply get things backward in a suspiciously self-serving way. It struck me as using Ted Bundy’s testimony to convict Mother Theresa, and to sentence her to never wave her empirical yardsticks anywhere near my oh-so grandiose and yet fantastically fragile speculative claims. Obviously so.

Nihil Unbound excited me so much because I had thought that Ray had actually managed to move past these prophylactic gestures. The biggest shortcoming of the book, I had thought, was simply the problem faced by all projects that attempt to move past meaning, all attempts at post-intentional philosophy: namely, the inability to account for meaning. It’s one thing to say meaning is bunk, but short of explaining why we find it so compelling, the best one can do is hang upon the perennial incompatibilities between science and meaning, knowledge and experience. Meaning either has to be explained or explained away before anyone can attempt to move on in any remotely convincing fashion. Otherwise, all the old and powerful arguments securing the apparent ineliminability of the semantic remain unanswered.

I was so excited by Nihil Unbound, you could say, because I thought I had the very thing it was missing: a parsimonious and comprehensive way to explain meaning away–the Blind Brain Theory. As it turns out, Ray himself came to the same conclusion regarding the book’s main shortcoming, the problem was (from my perspective at least) he felt the need to turn backward to address it: to seize on a positive account of meaning deflationary enough to seem consistent with disenchantment, but ultimately recuperative all the same–inferentialism. As he explains in his After Nature interview:

[Nihil Unbound] contends that nature is not the repository of 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—consciousness is the basis of thought and the ultimate source of meaning. The absence of any such account is the book’s principal weakness (it has many others, but this is perhaps the most serious). It wasn’t until after its completion that I realized Sellars’ account of thought and meaning offered precisely what I needed. To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals. This distinction between semantic rules and physical regularities is dialectical, not metaphysical.

And so, like a scorned theoretical lover, I find myself writing the odd letter–or post–bent on showing him why his recuperative inferentialism simply will not work.

The irony is that this pretty accurately summarizes my long-standing debate with Ben as well! They both take themselves to be staring the Beast of abject meaninglessness in the eye, but they succumb to their own noocentric intuitions in the end–or so my desolate view has it. Both raise conceptual barricades against the terrifying prospect that they themselves are merely more nature, not nature + x, that the boundary between them and the bottomless universe they both acknowledge is meaningless is simply technical.

What I would like to show is how easily those conceptual barricades can be torn down.


“We should avoid scientism and nihilism, on the one hand,” Ben writes, “and delusion and irresponsible faith, on the other.” He wants our dilemma to be a false one, pines for some third way that is not scientific, but remains rational in some respect. Everything, however, hangs upon this ‘some respect.’ He thinks reason understood as instrument of truth is unworkable, because such reason collapses into scientific reason, which inevitably leads to nihilism. He thinks reason as instrument of interest is also unworkable, because he seems to recognize, as did Adorno, that instrumental rationality is incapable of providing meaning. It can only deliver the goods, never the Good–the how and not the why. You could say the whole of contemporary consumer society attests to the paradox of a rationality that can only serve appetite. Reason, as Ben likes to say, is ‘accursed.’

In this sense, he’s actually working through the classic Continental problematic in the classic Continental way: by positing a variant discursive mode while problematizing the ‘presuppositions’ of science. He’s at pains, for instance, to continually contextualize science, to emphasize the fact that it’s just one set of human practices out of many, then to assert that, as such, it’s adapted to its own institutional ecology. Thus, having characterized What Science Is to this minimal extent, he can then point to all the other ecologies out there, and it seems to simply follow that science simply isn’t applicable. With this picture in place, he can then lay the charge of ‘scientism’ any time anyone applies scientific cognitive standards outside what he deems the proper discursive ecology of science.

I can remember when I thought all this was just a no-brainer! As clear as yesterday…

Where he differs from most historical Continental approaches to this problem is that he maintains, as most Analytically trained thinkers do, a wary respect for the Cognitive Difference, the fact that science isn’t just another discursive institution, it is the objective discursive institution. This is what forces him to the brink of nihilism with Brassier: the fact that he must concede all of the natural world to science. This is what he means by ‘delusion and irresponsible faith’ above: those forms of theoretical claim-making that refuse to concede this ecology–one might say the ‘ecology ecology’–to science.

Now, back in the old days, it was easy for Continental thinkers to believe science to be ecologically constrained, to be necessarily limited to its domain, and to thus secure the cognitive legitimacy of their discourses against its boggling power. The days of that profound theoretical sleep, I fear, are over. As I said above, the hard fact is that science was really only ever technically constrained, that the complexities of the human–particularly those belonging to the brain–allowed the discourses of the human to carry on with business as usual. As cognitive science develops, however, the technical obstructions fall–it really is only a question of how far this process will go. I personally think ‘all the way’ is far and away the most probable answer.

Both Ben and Ray, however, want to draw two different types of lines in the sand. For Ray, the line lies in Sellarsian notion of ‘parity’ between the conceptual level of giving and asking for reasons and the ontological level of scientific explanation. Insofar as he recognizes the Cognitive Difference, he concedes the ontological priority of science. The possibility of parity lies in

the recognition that the manifest image furnishes us with the fundamental framework in terms of which we understand ourselves as ‘concept mongers,’ creatures continually engaged in giving and asking for reasons. But we are able to do things with concepts precisely insofar as concepts are able to do things to us. It is this capacity to be gripped by concepts that makes us answerable to conceptual norms. And it is this susceptibility to norms that makes us subjects. (“The View from Nowhere”)

The ontological priority of science over meaning flips into conceptual parity simply because meaning provides the condition of science understood as a self-correcting practice. Short of meaning, Ray contends, we can neither motivate nor make sense of our scientific practice. What prevents this account from lapsing into the traditional Continental mould is the refusal to give the conceptual superordinance of meaning an ontological interpretation. Meaning, on Ray’s Sellarsian account, is made. Science monopolizes cognition of the natural, and the natural exhausts ontology–the devil is given its due. Meaning arises out of practical necessity as an invented how that is conceptually incompatible to the natural what, but indispensable for the cognition of that what all the same.

Essentially, this is the great trick of pragmatic naturalism. And like many such tricks it unravels quickly if you simply ask the right questions. Since the vast majority of scientists don’t know what inferentialism is, we have to assume this inventing is implicit, that we play ‘the game of giving and asking for reasons’ without knowing. But why don’t we know? And if we don’t know, who’s to say that we’re ‘playing’ any sort of ‘game’ at all, let alone the one posited by Sellars and refined and utilized by the likes of Ray? Perhaps we’re doing something radically different that only resembles a ‘game’ for want of any substantive information. This has certainly been the case with the vast majority of our nonscientific theoretical claims.

This certainly provides ample ground to be skeptical of inferentialism. But how are we to know one way or another for sure?

This is where the wave flops up and washes Ray’s particular line in the sand away. The only way to know is to gather information and test our various interpretations–to do the science. Given that Ray has already conceded the incompatibility between the conceptual regimes of science and meaning, the prospects don’t look all that good. Science has a pesky tendency to revolutionize.

For Ben, on the other hand, the line in the sand lies more in the possibility of subjective capacity than in the necessity of normative constraint. Indeed, his primary issue with Nihil Unbound lies with how Ray, as he sees it, systematically denigrates this capacity. As he writes:

I agree with Brassier that rationality by itself leads to nihilism, disenchantment, angst, and so forth. Reason is accursed. But I don’t think the two perspectives are incommensurable so that the choice between them must be arbitrary. On the contrary, the perspectives are themselves naturally interrelated. We can speak of objective and subjective truth. The former is the trauma of learning that nature is fundamentally physical, that in itself, prior to our transformation of it, the universe is a harsh, mostly barren wasteland that’s doomed to destruction. By contrast, subjective truth is the feeling of rightness that results when instead of keeling over in horror after the world’s physicality slaps us in the face, we creatively undo that loathsome undeadness and surround ourselves with a more palatable version of the world that’s full of concrete vessels of purpose and ideality. So subjective truth is a salve for the trauma of objective truth, even as objective truth is a check on the vices of irrationality brought on by a wholesale escape into our fantasy worlds. The fact is we must live with both inclinations and we should avoid their opposite pitfalls.

Ben also thinks that science is inescapably wedded to meaning. Like Ray, he believes that its origins in human practice are important, but more as proof against lapsing into naive scientism than as the ‘fundamental (but fictional) frame’ that Ray makes of it. He realizes the difficulty of preempting the cognitive authority of science on speculative grounds in a way that Ray does not. For Ben, the key relation between science and meaning isn’t preemptive and authoritarian, it is consequential and creative. The important fiction, for him, lies in our response to the scientific monopolization of the natural–the Undead God, as he puts it.

Since the creativity simply follows from the straits imposed by the scientific monopolization of the natural, it’s the consequence that becomes the most crucial. Whimsey is creative, as is madness. Bigotry can be creative as well. Ben, in a sense, reverses the authority gradient posited by Ray, arguing that science needs to be the constraint on meaning, what prevents human meaning creation from lapsing into ‘delusion and irresponsible faith.’ Meaning, in other words, requires science to be rational.

But again, we bump into a simple question that seems to unravel the whole. The problem of meaning is primarily the problem of the incompatibility of meaning and science. Given this incompatibility, what kind of constraint is science supposed to provide? How can it constrain something it simply cannot cognize as real in any manner we find intuitively recognizable? The tempting answer, the one that certainly seems to accord with the way science is actually used in debates regarding meaning, is that such constraints are opportunistic at best.

For Ray, embracing meaning in this sense amounts to embracing irrationalism, and the corresponding inability to sort outright delusion from ‘meaning proper.’ But Ben can bite this bullet and defer, I think, acknowledge that it’s simply part and parcel of the collective debate on which meanings our society should aspire to. The fact that this debate is open-ended no way impugns the subjective truth of any given meaning, the fact that, as unreal as it may be for the universe, it remains ‘true for me.’ He can, in other words, continue to claim that “[i]f nihilism is the view that the universe is absolutely meaningless, nihilism is false because there is plenty of meaning on our planet.”

Can’t he? Not at all, really.

The first thing to note is that simply positing subjective truth as a solution to the problem of meaning is question-begging. The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is also the question of whether there is any such thing as ‘subjective truth.’ The only real warrant he could have for resorting to it is the notion that it is conceptually primitive, somehow, that it poses an inescapable boundary condition of intelligible thought.

But if it seems this way–and I appreciate that it does for great number of thinkers–then it is for the simple want of alternatives. On the Blind Brain Theory, for instance, meaning as both Ray and Ben theorize it is a metacognitive illusion through and through–which means that Ben’s subjective truth is also the product of our metacognitive incapacity. The argument for why this is the case is quite direct, no matter how counter-intuitive the conclusions may seem. Science tells us that human cognition is heuristic all the way down. This means that the subject-object dyad is also heuristic, which is to say, a way to make sense in the absence of certain kinds of information. As such, it necessarily relies on the information structure of a given problem ecology to effectively resolve problems. So the question immediately becomes: is the subject-object dyad applicable to the problem of meaning?

Well, as the problem of circularity I adduced above might suggest, we have good reason to think not. Once you appreciate the heuristic peculiarities of meaning concepts the explanation for the prevailing incompatibility between science and meaning that both Ray and Ben acknowledge becomes quite clear in naturalistic outline at least. So where science conceives the human as organic subsystems within larger environmental systems, the subject-object dyad conceives the human as a subject set over and against a world of objects. It occludes, and therefore problem solves, without the benefit of the very mechanical systematicity that science has revealed. Small wonder it suffers compatibility issues! The subject-object dyad elides the mechanistic facts of perception (the role played by sensory media), provides us with gross mechanical information regarding the ‘object,’ and yields next to no mechanical information about its own operations–we have to rely on metacognition for that! Both thoroughly occlude what we are in fact–which I fear is far more akin to the red dot on Jupiter than any notional ‘subject.’ If science is to exercise any substantive constraint, both subject and object have to be seen as cross-sections, lower dimensional projections, of something far more complicated than any Lebenswelt. Applying them as conceptual boundary conditions the way Ben does is not so different from using naive physics to argue quantum field theory.

The thing is, once you realize that the subject-object paradigm is heuristic, then it simply isn’t a matter of subjectivity versus objectivity, so much as systems which are neither. There is no ‘objective subjective,’ for instance: the binary simplicity of the formulation should tip us to the fact that something’s fishy. ‘Subjective truth’ is a heuristic misapplied twice. Now this is an admittedly difficult way to think: the problem-ecologies of our metacognitive heuristics are not intuitively available to us, let alone the fact that we swap between numerous varieties of heuristic tools whenever we tackle questions such as Ben’s and Ray’s. Only neglect makes our dim inklings seem ‘obvious.’ Only neglect makes ‘subjective truth’ seem universal and self-evidential. Only neglect lends normative contexts like ‘the game of giving and asking for reasons’ their veneer of preemptive necessity.

But as I keep saying: all of this is about to be revolutionized. The apparent universal applicability of these ways of thinking will be relegated to the scholastic dustbin soon enough.

The thing to realize about my argument is that it doesn’t need to be scientifically vindicated to have a powerful impact on Ben’s position. The subject-object paradigm is either heuristic, or… If it is heuristic it has an effective ecology. The onus accordingly falls on him to argue the applicability of his boundary conditions. Given the abject inability of philosophy to resolve any of its issues, something has to be holding things up. Could it be that traditional philosophy of meaning is planked with serial missapplications?

Well, it’s very possible! That’s the problem, the fact that this is so very possible. This is where reason bottoms out, consumes its own tail, and is remade as something alien to the metacognitive intuitions both Ray and Ben are seeking to preserve, even if in attenuated, deflationary forms.

And really, why should we think these particular prescientific inklings would end any other way? That Man the Meaning-Maker, the human we concocted in the absence of any substantial scientific information about ourselves, would be the one blinkered posit to be vindicated?