Death of a Dichotomy

by rsbakker

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,

The element of fire is quite put out

–John Donne, “The First Anniversary”


What would it mean for thinking to leave most all the traditional philosophical dichotomies behind? What would it mean for philosophy to become post-intentional, to hew to an idiom that abandons most all our traditional theoretical regimentations of the ‘human’? More specifically, what happens when we come to see subjects and objects as relics of a more superstitious age?

I once had the sorrow of watching encephalitis dismantle the soul of an old friend of mine. I was able to understand the why of what he said and did simply because I had a rough understanding that things were shutting down. The increasingly rote character of his responses suggested a gradual and global degradation of cognitive capacity. The loss of the right-hand side of the world meant left hemispheric damage, especially to the regions involved in the construction of ‘extrapersonal space.’ The flat-affect suggested destruction in regions involved in integrating or expressing emotions. These crude assumptions at least seemed enough to make sense of what would be hard-to-reckon behaviour otherwise. Near the end, he had been stripped down to whatever generated his quavering voice, staring out at shadows, saying, without any fear or remorse or anything, “I think I’m dying.” It fucking haunts me still.

Certain behavioural oddities can only be understood by positing pathological losses of some kind. When neurologists make a diagnosis of neglect or anosognosia they know only a limited number of correlations between various symptoms and neuropathologies. They don’t know the mechanical specifics, but they know that it’s mechanical (and so not a matter of denial), and that it somehow involves the inability of the system to adequately access or process information regarding the cognitive deficit at issue. As Prigatano notes, “Such patients often complain that they “cannot believe” that they have suffered a brain injury because nothing in their experience allows them to believe that a brain injury has actually occurred.” Disorders of Behavior and Self Awareness. Though observers have no difficulty distinguishing the deviant patterns of behaviour as deviant, the patient simply cannot consciously access or process that information.

The Blind Brain Theory essentially takes the same morbid attitude to the hitherto intractable question of the first-person. By doing so, it exploits the way information (understood as systematic difference making differences) can be tracked across the neurobiological/phenomenological divide via the idiom of neglect, how one can understand differences in experience in terms of differences in brain function. It then sets out to show how certain brute mechanical limitations on the brain’s capacity to cognize brains–both itself and others–saddle cognition with several profound forms of ‘metacognitive neglect.’  It then posits a variety of ways these forms of neglect compromise and confound our attempts to make sense of what we are. The perennial puzzles of consciousness and intentionality, it argues, can be explained away in terms of the metacognitive inability to access or process the requisite information.

The subject/object dichotomy has been a centerpiece of those ‘explanations away’ these past couple years. When we see the subject/object dichotomy in terms of neglect, it becomes an obvious artifact of how constraints imposed on the way the brain is a component of its environment prevent the brain from metacognizing itself as a component of its environments. Put simply, being the product of an environment renders cognition systematically insensitive to various dimensions of that environment. All of us accordingly suffer from what might be called medial neglect. The first-person perspectival experience that you seem to be enjoying this very moment is itself a ‘product’ of medial neglect. At no point do the causal complexities bound to any fraction of conscious experience arise as such in conscious experience. As a matter of brute empirical fact, you are a component system nested within an assemblage of superordinate systems, and yet, when you reflect ‘you’ seem to stand opposite the ‘world,’ to be a hanging relation, a living dichotomy, rather than the causal system that you are. Medial neglect is this blindness, the metacognitive insensitivity to our matter of fact componency, the fact that the neurofunctionality of experience nowhere appears in experience. In a strange sense, it simply is the ‘transparency of experience,’ an expression of the brain’s utter inability to cognize itself the way it cognizes its natural environments.

On BBT, the basic ‘aboutness’ that the philosophical tradition has sculpted into a welter of wildly divergent forms (Dasein, cogito, transcendental apperception, Idea, deontic scorekeepers, differance, correlation, etc.) is a kind of heuristic, a way to track componential relations absent direct access to those relations. As a heuristic it has an adaptive problem-ecology, a range of problems that it is adapted to solve, and as it turns out, that problem-ecology is pretty easy to delimit, given the kind of information neglected, namely, causal information pertaining to instrumental processes. To say that aboutness is a product of medial neglect is to say that the aboutness heuristic is instrumentally blind, and therefore adapted to functionally independent problem-ecologies. You can repair your lawnmower because its functionality is independent of (runs lateral to) your cognition. You cannot likewise repair your spouse because his or her functionality (fortunately or unfortunately) is not independent of (runs medial to) your cognition–because you are functionally entangled.  These problem-ecologies require a different set of heuristics to solve, as do all situations where so-called ‘observer effects’ introduce incalculable ‘blind spot information.’

On BBT, this is why the subject/object dichotomy seems to break down, not only at the quantum scale, but in social, cognitive, and phenomenological problem ecologies as well. If aboutness is adapted to the solution of functionally independent problem-ecologies, then how reliable could ‘thinking about our thinking’ be? This is also why the early Heidegger thought that theoretical focus on the instrumental (as he saw it) dissolved the dichotomy altogether. To focus on the instrumental (or better yet, the medial) is to embody the very enabling dimension aboutness neglects. And this also explains, I think, the severe functional hygiene that characterizes the ‘scientific attitude,’ the need to erase instrumental impact and ‘objectify’ the targets of research. I could go on, but suffice to say, even in just this one respect, BBT casts a very long abductive shadow.

Even after such a brief account, the explosive potential of this way of thinking should be clear.  Not only does it provide a naturalistic way to diagnose various philosophical attempts to massage and sculpt our ‘aboutness instinct,’ it opens the door to a thought that surpasses the subject/object dichotomy, a thought that allows us to see this dichotomy for the informatically impoverished heuristic that it is. Because, when all is said and done, that is what the subject/object dichotomy is, a cognitive tool adapted to specific problem-ecologies that we could never intuit as a tool, thanks to metacognitive neglect, and so compulsively took to be a universal problem solver. The long tyranny of the subject/object paradigm, in other words, is the result of a profound self-awareness deficit, a kind of ‘natural anosognosia.’ To think that all this time we were so convinced we could see!


If you think about it, any escape from the prisonhouse of traditional philosophy was bound to be enormously destructive.  Since the mistake was there from the very beginning of philosophy, it had to be a mistake that every philosopher throughout the history of philosophy had committed–some kind of problem intrinsic to the limitations of that great gift of the Ancient Greeks, theoretical metacognition. What could our inability to solve the problem of ourselves be other than some kind of ‘self-awareness deficit’?

Solving the problem of ourselves, it turns out, requires seeing through what we took ourselves to be–disenchanting nature’s last unclaimed corner. We are vastly complicated, environmentally entangled systems, components, generating signal and noise. No one argues with this, and yet, under the spell of the Only-game-in-town Effect, the vast majority assumes that intentional idioms (folk-psychological or otherwise) are the only viable way to problem-solve in the register of the human. This is just not the case. The post-intentional reinterpretation of the human has scarcely begun, while the rush to economically exploit the mechanicity of the human is well under way. Kant’s Kingdom of Ends is being socially and economically integrated into the Empire of Causes at an ever increasing rate, progressively personalizing the interface with individuals, while consistently depersonalizing the processes informing that interface. In a sense, post-intentional philosophy is a latecomer to the entrenched trends of akratic society.

Besides, as a machine, you are now as big as the cosmos, as old as Evolution, or the even the Big Bang–or as young as a string of neural coincidences in your frontal cortex. You are now a genuine part of nature, not something magically bootstrapped. As such, you can zoom in or out when asking the question of the human; you can draft ‘mechanism sketches’ of any component at any scale.

Now you might think you could have done this anyway – there certainly seems to be a rising tide of people attempting to think their way beyond the bourne of intentionality. But the fact is that all these attempts represent a repudiation of a phenomena that is simply not understood. In creative terms, they are doubtless ground-breaking, but absent any principled, naturalistic understanding of the ground broken, they have no principled way to distinguish the space they occupy as ‘post-intentional.’ Perhaps they have cheated, allowed post hoc importations of the subject/object paradigm to finesse the more notorious problems facing naturalization. The problem isn’t that there is only occultism, edifying verbiage draped about some will to escape, short of some comprehensive way to naturalistically explain away subjectivity; the problem is that there is no way to distinguish between such occultism and any genuinely post-intentional insight.

Even worse, in critical terms these attempts are at sea, bereft of any decisive means of defending themselves against their traditional skeptics, who regard them as more a product of exhaustion than any genuine understanding–and for good reason! Indeed, one would think that a genuine post-intentional philosophy would possess teeth, that it would raise questions that the tradition has no resources to answer, reveal ignorances, even as it clears away the mysteries generated by our past missapprehensions. One would think, in other words, that it would provide a way of thinking that would just as readily unlock the thought of the past as it would lay out possibilities for the future.

How can we talk action without autonomy? How can we think conduct without competence, or instrumentality without ends, or desire without value, or accuracy without truth, or experience without subjectivity? I’m sure many reading this find the prospect either preposterous or monstrous or both. I can’t answer to the charge of monstrosity, because I often think as much myself. But if you take the same patience to the Blind Brain Theory that you take to reading Kant, say, or Wittgenstein, or any philosophy that needs to be understood on its own terms to be understood at all, you will see that these questions, far from preposterous, are well-nigh unavoidable–especially now that we are fully invested in reverse-engineering the ancient, alien technology that we happen to be.

No matter what, the long discursive hegemony of the Grand Dichotomy is over. Traditional theoretical intentional thought now has an other.

The old fires are dying, our eyes are adjusting to the gloom, and we can finally see that we were so much more than faces hanging in the black.