Leaving It Implicit

by rsbakker

Since the aim of philosophy is not “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” with as little information as possible, I thought it worthwhile to take another run at the instinct to raise firewalls about certain discourses, to somehow immunize them from the plague of scientific information to come. I urge anyone disagreeing to sound off, to explain to me how it’s possible to assert the irrelevance of any empirical discovery in advance, because I am duly mystified. On the one hand, we have these controversial sketches regarding the nature of meaning and normativity, and on the other we have the most complicated mechanism known, the human brain. And learning the latter isn’t going to revolutionize the former?

Of course it is. We are legion, a myriad of subpersonal heuristic systems that we cannot intuit as such. We have no inkling of when we swap between heuristics and so labour under the illusion of cognitive continuity. We have no inkling as to the specific problem-ecologies our heuristics are adapted to and so labour under the illusion of cognitive universality. We are, quite literally, blind to the astronomical complexity of what we are and what we do. I’ve spent these past 18 months on TPB brain-storming novel ways to conceptualize this blindness, and how we might see the controversies and conundrums of traditional philosophy as its expression.

Say that consciousness accompanies/facilitates/enables a disposition to ‘juggle’ cognitive resources, to creatively misapply heuristics in the discovery of exaptive problem ecologies. Traditional philosophy, you might say, represents the institutionalization of this creative misapplication, the ritualized ‘making problematic’ ourselves and our environments. As an exercise in serial misapplication, one must assume (as indeed every individual philosophy does) that the vast bulk of philosophy solves nothing whatsoever. But if one thinks, as I do, that philosophy was a necessary condition of science and democracy, then the obvious, local futility of the philosophical enterprise would seem to be globally redeemed. Thinkers are tinkers, and philosophy is a grand workshop: while the vast majority of the gadgets produced will be relegated to the dustbin, those few that go retail can have dramatic repercussions.

Of course, the hubris is there staring each and every one of us in the face, though its universality renders it almost invisible. To the extent that we agree with ourselves, we all assume we’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery—the conviction, modest or grand, that this gadget here will be the one that reprograms the future.

I’m going to call my collection of contending gadgets, ‘progressive naturalism,’ or more simply, pronaturalism. It is progressive insofar as it attempts to continue the project of disenchantment, to continue the trend of replacing traditional intentional understanding with mechanical understanding. It is naturalistic insofar as it pilfers as much information and as many of its gadgets from natural science as it can.

So from a mechanical problem-solving perspective, words are spoken and actions… simply ensue. Given the systematicity of the ensuing actions, the fact that one can reliably predict the actions that typically follow certain utterances, it seems clear that some kind of constraint is required. Given the utter inaccessibility of the actual biomechanics involved, those constraints need to be conceived in different terms. Since the beginning of philosophy, normativity has been the time-honoured alternative. Rather than positing causes, we attribute reasons to explain the behaviour of others. Say you shout “Duck!” to our golf partner. If he fails to duck and turns to you quizzically instead, you would be inclined to think him incompetent, to say something like, “When I say ‘Duck!’ I mean ‘Duck!’”

From a mechanical perspective, in other words, normativity is our way of getting around the inaccessibility of what is actually going on. Normativity names a family of heuristic tools, gadgets that solve problems absent biomechanical information. Normative cognition, in other words, is a biomechanical way of getting around the absence of biomechanical information.

What else would it be?

From a normative perspective, however, the biomechanical does not seem to exist, at least at the level of expression. This is no coincidence, given that normative heuristics systematically neglect otherwise relevant biomechanical information. Nor is the manifest incompatibility between the normative and biomechanical perspectives any coincidence: as a way to solve problems absent mechanical information, normative cognition will only reliably function in those problem ecologies lacking that information. Information formatted for mechanical cognition simply ‘does not compute.’

From a normative perspective, in other words, the ‘normative’ is bound to seem both ontologically distinct and functionally independent vis a vis the mechanical. And indeed, once one begins taking a census of the normative terms used in biomechanical explanations, it begins to seem clear that normativity is not only distinct and independent, but that it comes first, that it is, to adopt the occult term normalized by the tradition, ‘a priori.’

From the mechanical perspective, these are natural mistakes to make given that mechanical information systematically eludes theoretical metacognition as well. As I said, we are blind to the astronomical complexities of what we are and what we do. Whenever a normative philosopher attempts to ‘make explicit’ our implicit sayings and doings they are banking on the information and cognitive resources they happen to have available. They have no inkling that they’re relying on any heuristics at all, let alone a variety of them, let alone any clear sense of the narrow problem-ecologies they are adapted to solve. They are at best groping their way to a possible solution in the absence of any information pertaining to what they are actually doing.

From the mechanical perspective, in other words, the normative philosopher has only the murkiest idea of what’s going on. They theorize ‘takings as’ and ‘rules’ and ‘commitments’ and ‘entitlements’ and ‘uses’—they develop their theoretical vocabulary—absent any mechanical information, which is to say, absent the information underwriting the most reliable form of theoretical cognition humanity has ever achieved.

The normative philosopher is now in a bind. Given that the development of their theoretical vocabulary turns on the absence of mechanical information, they have no way of asserting that what they are ‘making explicit’ is not actually mechanical. If the normativity of the normative is not given, then the normative philosopher simply cannot assume normative closure, that the use of normative terms—such as ‘use’—implicitly commits any user to any kind of theoretical normative realism, let alone this or that one. This is the article of faith I encounter most regularly in my debates with normative types: that I have to be buying into their picture somehow, somewhere. My first order use of ‘use’ no more commits me to any second-order interpretation of the ‘meaning of use’ as something essentially normative than uttering the Lord’s name in vain commits me to Christianity. The normative philosopher’s inability to imagine how it could be otherwise certainly commits me to nothing. Evolution has given me all these great, normative gadgets—I would be an idiot not to use them! But please, if you want to convince me that these gadgets aren’t gadgets at all, that they are something radically different from anything in nature, then you’re going to have to tell me how and why.

It’s just foot-stomping otherwise.

And this is where I think the bind becomes a garrotte, because the question becomes one of just how the normative philosopher could press their case. If they say their theoretical vocabulary is merely ‘functional,’ a way to describe actual functions at a ‘certain level’ you simply have to ask them to evidence this supposed ‘actuality.’ How can you be sure that your ‘functions’ aren’t, as Craver and Piccinini would argue, ‘mechanism sketches,’ ways to rough out what is actually going on absent the information required to know what’s actually going on? It is a fact that we are blind to the astronomical complexity of what we are and what we do: How do you know if the rope you keep talking about isn’t actually an elephant’s tail?

The normative philosopher simply cannot presume the sufficiency of the information at their disposal. On the one hand, the first-order efficacy of the target vocabulary in no way attests to the accuracy of their second-order regimentations: our ‘mindreading’ heuristics were selected precisely because they were efficacious. The same can be said of logic or any other apparently ‘irreducibly normative’ family of formal problem-solving procedures. Given the relative ease with which these procedures can be mechanically implemented in a simple register system, it’s hard to understand how the normative philosopher can insist they are obviously ‘intrinsically normative.’ Is it simply a coincidence that our brains are also mechanical? Perhaps it is simply our metacognitive myopia, our (obvious) inability to intuit the mechanical complexity of the brain buzzing behind our eyeballs, that leads us to characterize them as such. This would explain the utter lack of second-order, theoretical consensus regarding the nature of these apparently ‘formal’ problem solving systems. Regardless, the efficacy of normative terms in everyday contexts no more substantiates any philosophical account of normativity than the efficacy of mathematics substantiates any given philosophy of mathematics.

Normative intuitions, on the other hand, are equally useless. If ‘feeling right’ had anything but a treacherous relationship with ‘being right,’ we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Not only are we blind to the astronomical complexities of what we are and what we do, we’re blind to this blindness as well! Like Plato’s prisoners, normative philosophers could be shackled to a play of shadows, convinced they see everything they need to see simply for want of information otherwise.

But aside from intuition (or whatever it is that disposes us to affirm certain ‘inferences’ more than others), just what does inform normative theoretical vocabularies?

Good question!

On the mechanical perspective, normative cognition involves the application of specialized heuristics in specialized problem-ecologies—ways we’ve evolved (and learned) to muddle through our own mad complexities. When I utter ‘use’ I’m deploying something mechanical, a gadget that allows me to breeze past the fact of my mechanical blindness and to nevertheless ‘cognize’ given that the gadget and the problem ecologies are properly matched. Moreover, since I understand that ‘use,’ like ‘meaning,’ is a gadget, I know better than to hope that second-order applications of this and other related gadgets to philosophical problem-ecologies will solve much of anything—that is, unless your problem happens to be filling lecture time!

So when Brandom writes, for instance, “What we could call semantic pragmatism is the view that the only explanation there could be for how a given meaning gets associated with a vocabulary is to be found in the use of that vocabulary…” (Extending the Project of Analysis, 11), I hear the claim that the heuristic misapplications characteristic of traditional semantic philosophy can only be resolved via the heuristic misapplications characteristic of traditional pragmatic philosophy. We know that normative cognition is profoundly heuristic. We know that heuristics possess problem ecologies, that they are only effective in parochial contexts. Given this, the burning question for any project like Brandom’s has to be whether the heuristics he deploys are even remotely capable of solving the problems he tackles.

One would think this is a pretty straightforward question deserving a straightforward answer—and yet, whenever I raise it, it’s either passed over in silence or I’m told that it doesn’t apply, that it runs roughshod over some kind of magically impermeable divide. Most recently I was told that my account refuses to recognize that we have ‘perfectly good descriptions’ of things like mathematical proof procedures, which, since they can be instantiated in a variety of mechanisms, must be considered independently of mechanism.

Do we have perfectly good descriptions of mathematical proof procedures? This is news to me! Every time I dip my toe in the philosophy of mathematics I’m amazed by the florid diversity of incompatible theoretical interpretations. In fact, it seems pretty clear that we have no consensus-compelling idea of what mathematics is.

Does the fact that various functions can be realized in a variety of different mechanisms mean that those functions must be considered independently of mechanism altogether? Again, this is news to me. As convenient as it is to pluck apparently identical functions from a multiplicity of different mechanisms in certain problem contexts, it simply does not follow that one must do the same for all problem contexts. For one, how do we know we’ve got those functions right? Perhaps the granularity of the information available occludes a myriad of functional differences. Consider money: despite being a prototypical ‘virtual machine’ (as Dennett calls it in his latest book), there can be little doubt that the mechanistic details of its instantiation have a drastic impact on its function. The kinds of computerized nanosecond transactions now beginning to dominate financial markets could make us pine for good old ‘paper changing hands’ days soon enough. Or consider normativity: perhaps our blindness to the heuristic specificity of normative cognition has led us to theoretically misconstrue its function altogether. There’s gotta be some reason why no one seems to agree. Perhaps mathematics baffles us simply because we cannot intuit how it is instantiated in the human machine! We like to think, for instance, that the atemporal systematicity of mathematics is what makes it so effective—but how do we know this isn’t just another ‘noocentric’ conceit? After all, we have no way of knowing what function our conscious awareness of mathematical cognition plays in mathematical cognition more generally. All that seems certain is that it is not the whole story. Perhaps our apparently all-important ‘abstractions’ are better conceived as low-dimensional shadows of what is actually going on.

And all this is just to say that normativity, even in its most imposing, formal guises, isn’t something magical. It is an evolved capacity to solve specific problems given limited resources. It is natural— not normative. As a natural feature of human cognition, it is simply another object of ongoing scientific inquiry. As another object of ongoing scientific inquiry, we should expect our traditional understanding to be revolutionized, that positions such as ‘inferentialism’ will come to sound every bit as prescientific as they in fact are. To crib a conceit of Feynman’s: the more we learn, the more the neural stage seems too big for the normative philosopher’s drama.