The Myth of the Nonexistent Variable

by rsbakker

Noocentrism is the intuitive presumption of ‘hanging efficacy,’ the kind of acausal constraint metacognition attributes to aboutness or willing or rule-following or purposiveness.

Metacognitive neglect means that we ‘float’ through our environments blind to the causal systems that actually constrain us and–crucially–blind to this blindness as well. We are thus forced to rely on the various heuristic systems we’ve evolved to manage our environments absent this information, systems that metacognition, in its present acculturated form, tracks as aboutness, willing, rule-following, and purposiveness. Since metacognition cannot track these heuristic systems for the specialized ecomechanisms they in fact are,  it assumes a singular cognitive and metacognitive capacity possessing universal scope. Thus the dogmatists and the early modern faith in the adequacy of metacognition. The history of philosophy is the history of throwing ourselves into the metacognitive breach time and again, groping our way forward primarily by our failure to agree. In the Western philosophical tradition, Hume was the first to definitively isolate the constructed nature of experience, and thus the first to make explicit the implicit performative dimension of the first-person. Kant was the first to raise a whole Weltanschaung about it, and an extravagant one at that. Because this is so obviously ‘the way it is’ in philosophy, the tendency is to be blind to what is a truly extraordinary fact: that untutored metacognition is blind to the implicit performative dimension of all thought and experience. What was an inert blank found itself populated by performative blurs. And now, thanks to the sciences of the brain, those blurs are coming into sharper and sharper focus at last.

The third variable problem is the problem of hidden mechanisms. Given the systematicy of our environments, correlations abound. Given the complexity or our environments, the chances of mistaking correlation for causation are high. You fuel gauge indicates empty and your car coughs to a stop and so you assume you’ve run out of gas not knowing that your fuel pump has died. Researchers note a correlation between violent behaviour in youth and broken homes and so assume broken homes primarily cause violent behaviour, not knowing that association with other violent youth is the primary cause. The crazy thing to note here is how the problem of metacognitive neglect is also a problem of hidden mechanisms. In a very real sense, what is presently coming into focus are all the third variables of experience, all the mechanisms actually constraining our thought and behaviour.

In this sense, noocentrism is the myth of the nonexistent variable. The innumerable third variable processes that traverse the whole of conscious experience simply do not exist for conscious experience. Since metacognition is blind to these mechanisms, it can only posit constraints orthogonal to this activity, those belonging, as we saw above, to aboutness, willing, rule-following, and purposiveness. Since metacognition is blind to this orthogonality, the fact that it is positing constraints in the absence of any information regarding what is actually constraining thought and behaviour, the constraints posited suffer a profound version of the Only-game-in-town Effect. Given the mechanical systematicity of the brain, correlations abound in thought and behaviour: conscious experience appears to possess its own orthogonal, noocentric systematicity. Given neglect of the brain’s mechanical systematicity, those correlations appear to be the only game in town, to at once ‘autonomous,’ and the only way the systematicity of thought and behaviour can possibly be cognized. Historically, the bulk of philosophy has been given over to the task of properly describing that orthogonal noocentric systematicity using only the dregs of metacognitive intuition–or ‘reflection.’

Only now, thanks to the fount of information provided by the cognitive sciences, can we see the hopelessness of such a project. Decisions can be tracked prior to a subject’s ability to report them. The feeling of willing can be readily duped and is therefore interpretative. Memory turns out to be fractionate and nonveridical. Moral argumentation is self-promotional rather than truth-seeking. Attitudes appear to be introspectively inaccessible. The feeling of certainty has a dubious connection to rational warrant. The more we learn, the more faulty our traditional intuitions become. It’s as if our metacognitive portrait had been painted across a canvas concealing myriad, intricate folds, and whose kinks and dimensions can only now be teased into visibility. Only now are we discovering just how many of our traditional verities turn on ignorance. The myth of the nonexistent variable can no longer be sustained.

We must learn to intellectually condition our metacognitive sense of ourselves, to dim the bright intuitions of sufficiency and efficacy, and to think thought for what it is, a low-dimensional inkling bound to the back of far more high-dimensional processes. We must appreciate how all thought and behaviour is shot through with hidden variables, how this very exercise pitches within some tidal unknown. And we must see noocentrism as the latest of the great illusions to be overturned by the scientific discovery of the unseen machinery of things.