Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites the difficulty we have distinguishing experience from memory as the reason why we retrospectively underrate our suffering in a variety of contexts. Given the same painful medical procedure, one would expect an individual suffering for twenty minutes to report a far greater amount than an individual suffering for half that time or less. Such is not the case. As it turns out duration has “no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain” (380). Retrospective assessments, rather, seem determined by the average of the pain’s peak and its coda.
Absent intellectual effort, the default is to remove the band-aid slowly.
Far from being academic, this ‘duration neglect,’ as Kahneman calls it, places the therapist in something of a bind. What should the physician’s goal be? The reduction of the pain actually experienced, or the reduction of the pain remembered. Kahneman provocatively frames the problem as a question of choosing between selves, the ‘experiencing self’ that actually suffers the pain and the ‘remembering self’ that walks out of the clinic. Which ‘self’ should the therapist serve? Kahneman sides with the latter. “Memories,” he writes, “are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self” (381). As he continues:
“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion—and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.” 381
There’s many, many ways to parse this fascinating passage, but what I’m most interested in is the brand of tyranny Kahneman invokes here. The use is metaphoric, of course, referring to some kind of ‘power’ that remembering possesses over experience. But this ‘power over’ isn’t positive: the ‘remembering self’ is no ‘tyrant’ in the interpersonal or political sense. We aren’t talking about a power that one agent holds over another, but rather the way facts belonging to one capacity, experiencing, regularly find themselves at the mercy of another, remembering.
Insofar as the metaphor obtains at all, you could say the power involved is the power of selection. Consider the sum of your own sensorium this very moment—the nearly sub-audible thrum of walled-away urban environs, the crisp white of the screen, the clamour of meandering worry on your margins, the smell of winter drafts creeping through lived-in spaces—and think of how wane and empty it will have become when you lie in bed this evening. With every passing heartbeat, the vast bulk of experience is consigned to oblivion, stranding us with memories as insubstantial as coffee-rings on a glossy magazine.
It has to be this way, of course, for both brute biomechanical and evolutionary developmental reasons. The high-dimensionality of experience speaks to the evolutionary importance of managing ongoing environmental events. The biomechanical complexity required to generate this dimensionality, however, creates what might be called the Problem of Indisposition. Since any given moment of experience exhausts our capacity to experience, each subsequent moment of experience all but utterly occludes the moment prior. The astronomical amounts of information constitutive of momentary experience is all but lost, ‘implicit’ in the systematic skeleton of ensuing effects to be sure, but inaccessible to cognition all the same.
Remembering, in other words, is radically privative. As a form of subsequent experiencing, the machinery involved generating the experience remembered has been retasked. Accordingly, the question of just what gets selected becomes all important. The phenomenon of duration neglect noted above merely highlights one of very many kinds of information neglected. In this instance, it seems, evolution skimped on the metacognitive machinery required to reliably track and rationally assess certain durations of pain. Remembering the peak and coda apparently packed a bigger reproductive punch.
Kahneman likens remembering to a tyrant because selectivity, understood at the level of agency, connotes power. The automaticity of this selectivity, however, suggests that abjection is actually the better metaphor, that far from being a tyrant, remembering is more a captive to the information available, more a prisoner in Plato’s Cave, than any kind of executive authority.
If any culprit deserves the moniker of ‘tyrant’ here, it has to be neglect. Why do so many individuals choose to remove the band-aid slowly? Because information regarding duration plays far less a roll than information regarding intensity. Since the mechanisms responsible for remembering systematically neglect such information, that information possesses no downstream consequences for the machinery of decision-making. What we have traditionally called memory consists of a fractionate system of automata scattered throughout the brain. What little they cull from experiencing is both automatic and radically heuristic. Insofar as the metaphor of ‘tyrant’ applies at all, it applies to the various forms of neglect suffered by conscious cognition, the myriad scotomas constraining the possibilities of ‘remembering experience’—or metacognition more generally.
Kahneman’s distinction wonderfully illustrates the way the lack of information can have positive cognitive effects. Band-aids get pulled slowly because only a spare, evolutionarily strategic fraction of experiencing can be remembered. We only recall enough of experience, it seems safe to assume, to solve the kinds of problems impacting our paleolithic ancestors’ capacity to reproduce. This raises the general question of just what kinds of problems we should expect metacognition—given the limitations of its access and resources—to be able to solve.
Or put more provocatively, the question that philosophy has spent millennia attempting to evade in the form of skepticism: If we don’t possess the metacognitive capacity to track the duration of suffering, why should we expect theoretical reflection to possess the access and capacity to theoretically cognize the truth of experience otherwise? Given the sheer complexity of the brain, the information consciously accessed is almost certainly adapted to various, narrow heuristic functions. It’s easy to imagine specialized metacognitive access and processing adapting to solve specialized problems possessing reproductive benefits. But it seems hard to imagine why evolution would select for the ability to theoretically intuit experience for what it is. Even worse, theoretical reflection is an exaptation, a cultural achievement. As such, we should expect it to be a naive metacognitive consumer, taking all information absent any secondary information regarding that information’s sufficiency.
In other words, not only should we expect theoretical reflection to be blind, we should also expect it to be blind to its own blindness.
It is this question of neurobiological capacity and evolutionary problem-solving that I want to bring to Adrian Johnston’s project to materially square the circle of subjectivity—or as he puts it, to secure “the possibility of a gap between, on the one hand, a detotalized, disunified plethora of material substances riddled with contingencies and conflicts and, on the other hand, the bottom-up surfacing out of these substances of the recursive, self-relating structural dynamics of cognitive, affective, and motivational subjectivity—a subjectivity fully within but nonetheless free at certain levels from material nature” (209).
I’ve considered several attempts by different Continental philosophers to deal with the challenges posed by the sciences of the mind over the past three years: Quentin Meillasoux in CAUSA SUIcide, Levi Bryant in The Ptolemaic Restoration, Martin Hagglund in Reactionary Atheism, and Slavoj Zizek in Zizek Hollywood, each of which has received thousands of views. With Meillasoux I focussed on his isolation of ‘correlation’ as a problematic ontological assumption, and the way he seemed to think he need only name it as such, and all the problems of subjectivity raised by Hume and normativity raised by Wittgenstein could just be swept under the philosophical rug. With Bryant I focussed on the problem of dogmatic ontologism, the notion that naming correlation as a problem somehow warranted a return to the good old preKantian days, where we could make ontological assertions without worrying about our capacity to make such claims. With Hagglund I raised issues with his interpretation of Derrida as an early thinker of ‘ultratranscendental materialism,’ showing how the concepts at issue were intentional through and through, and thus thoroughly incompatible with the natural scientific project. With Zizek I focussed on the way his deflationary ontology of negative subjectivity arising from some ‘gap’ in the real, aside from simply begging all the questions it purported to answer, amounted to an ontologization of what is far more parsimoniously explained as a cognitive illusion.
And, of course, I took the opportunity to demonstrate the explanatory power of the Blind Brain Theory in each case, the way each of these approaches actually exploit various metacognitive illusions to make their case.
Now, having recently completed Johnston’s Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy, I’ve come to realize that these thinkers* are afflicted with the same set of recurring problems, problems which must be overcome if anything approaching a compelling account of the kind Johnston sets as his goal is to be had. These might be enumerated as follows:
Naivete Problem: With the qualified exception of Zizek, these authors seem largely (and in some cases entirely) ignorant of the enormous philosophical literature dealing with the problems intentionality poses for materialism/physicalism. They also seem to have scant knowledge of the very sciences they claim to be ‘grounding.’
No Cognitive Guarantee Problem: These authors take it as given that radical self-deception is simply not a possible outcome of a mature neuroscience–that something resembling subjectivity as remembered is ‘axiomatic.’ In all fairness, this is a common presumption of those critical of the eliminativist implications of the sciences of the brain. Rose and Abi-Rached, for instance, make it the centrepiece of their attempt to defang the neuroscientific threat to social science in their Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. (Their strategy is twofold: on the one hand, they (like some of the authors considered here) give a conveniently narrow characterization of the threat in terms of subjectivity, arguing that the findings of neuroscience in this regard are simply confirming the subject-decentering theoretical insights already motivating much of the social sciences. Then they essentially cherry-pick researchers and commentators in the field who confirm their thesis without giving dissenters a hearing.) The unsettling truth is that wholesale, radical deception regarding who and what we are is entirely possible (evolution only cares about accuracy insofar as it pays reproductive dividends), and actually already a matter of empirical fact regarding a handful of cognitive capacities.
Talk Is Cheap Problem: There is a decided tendency among these authors to presume the effectiveness of metaphysical argumentation, to not only think that ontological claims merit serious attention in the sciences, but that the threat posed is merely ideological and not material. Rehearsing old arguments against determinism (especially when it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics that needs to be refuted) will make no difference whatsoever once the brain ceases to be a ‘grey box’ and becomes continuous with our technology.
Implausible Continuity Problem: All of these authors ignore what I call the Big Fat Pessimistic Induction: the fact that, all things being equal, we should expect science to revolutionize the human as radically as it has revolutionized every other natural domain now that the brain has become empirically tractable. They assume, rather, that the immunity the opacity of the brain had granted their tradition historically will somehow continue.
Metacognitive Reliability Problem: All of these authors overlook the potentially crippling issue of metacognitive deception, despite the mounting evidence of metacognitive unreliability. I should note that this tendency is common in Analytic Philosophy of Mind as well (but less and less so as the years pass).
Intentional Dissociation Problem: All of these authors characterize the cognitive scientific threat in the narrow terms of subjectivity rather than intentionality broadly construed, the far more encompassing rubric common to Analytic philosophy. Given the long Continental tradition of critiquing commonly held conceptions of subjectivity, the attractiveness of this approach is understandable, but no less myopic.
I think Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy suffers from all these problems—clearly so. What follows is not so much a review—I’ll await the final book of his trilogy for that (for a far more balanced consideration see Stephan Craig Hickman’s serial review here, here, here, and here)—as a commentary on the general approach one finds in many Continental materialisms as exemplified by Johnston. What all these authors want is some way of securing—or salvaging—some portion of the bounty of spirit absent spirit. They want intentionality absent theological fantasy, and materialism absent nihilistic horror. What I propose is a discussion of the difficulties any such project must overcome—a kind of prolegomena to Johnston’s Prolegomena—and a demonstration why he cannot hope to succeed short of embracing the very magical thinking he is so quick to deride.
Insofar as this is a blog post, part of a living, real time debate, I heartily encourage partisans of his approach to sound off. I am by no means a scholar of any of these authors, so I welcome corrections of misinterpretations. Strawmen teach few lessons, and learn none whatsoever. But I also admit to a certain curiosity given the optimistic stridency of so much of Johnston’s rhetoric. “From my perspective,” he writes in a recent interview, “these naturalists are overconfident aggressors not nearly as well-armed as they believe themselves to be. And, the anti-naturalists react to them with unwarranted fear, buying into the delusions of their foes that these enemies really do wield scientifically-solid, subject-slaying weapons.” I’m sure everyone reading this would love to see what kind of walk accompanies this talk! From my quite contrary perspective, the only way a book like this could be written is for the lack of any sustained interaction with those holding contrary views. Write for your friends long enough, and your writing becomes friendly.
In my own terms, Johnston is an explicit proponent of what might be called noocentrism, the last bastion, now that geocentrism and biocentrism have been debunked, of the intuition that we are something special. Freud, of course, famously claimed to have accomplished this overthrow, to have inflicted the third great ‘narcissistic wound,’ when he had only camouflaged the breastworks by carving intentionality along different mortices. Noocentrism represents an umbrella commitment to our metacognitive intuitions regarding the various efficacies of experience, and these are the intuitions that Johnston explicitly seeks to vindicate. He is ‘preoccupied,’ as he puts it, “with constructing an ontology of freedom” (204). Since any such ontology contradicts the prevailing understanding of the natural arising out of the sciences–how can freedom arise in a nature where everything is in-between, a cog for indifferent forces?–the challenge confronting any materialism is one of explaining subjectivity in a materially consistent manner. As he puts it in his recent Society and Space interview:
“For me, the true ultimate test of any and every materialism is whether it can account in a strictly materialist (yet non-reductive) fashion for those phenomena seemingly most resistant to such an account. Merely dismissing these phenomena (first and foremost, those associated with subjectivity) as epiphenomenal relative to a sole ontological foundation (whether as Substance, Being, Otherness, Flesh, Structure, System, Virtuality, Difference, or whatever else) fails this test and creates many more problems than it supposedly solves.”
Naturalizing consciousness and intentionality—or in Johnston’s somewhat antiquated jargon, explaining the material basis of subjectivity—is without a doubt the holy grail, not only of contemporary philosophy of mind, but of several sciences as well. And he is quite right to insist, I think, that any such naturalization that simply eliminates intentional phenomena (along the lines of Alex Rosenberg’s position, say) hasn’t actually naturalized anything at all. If consciousness and intentionality don’t exist as we intuit them, then we need some account of why we intuit them as such. Elimination, in other words, has to explain why elimination is required in the first place.
But global eliminativist materialist approaches (such as Rosenberg’s and my own) are actually very rare. In contemporary debates, philosophers and researchers tend to be eliminativists or antirealists about specific intentional phenomena, qualia, content, norms, or so on, rather than all intentional phenomena. This underscores two problems that loom large over Johnston’s account, at least as it stands in this first volume. The first has to do with what I called the Intentional Dissociation Problem above, the fact that the problem of subjectivity is simply a subset of the larger problem of intentionality. It falls far short of capturing the ‘problem space’ that Johnston purports to tackle. Some philosophers (Pete Mandik comes to mind) are eliminativists about subjectivity, yet realists about other semantic phenomena.
The second has to do with the fact that throughout the course of the book he repeatedly references reductive and eliminative materialisms as his primary rhetorical foil without actually engaging any of the positions in any meaningful way. Instead he references Catherine Malabou’s perplexing work on neuroplasticity, stating that “one need not fear that bringing biology into the picture of a materialist theory of the subject leads inexorably to a reductive materialism of a mechanistic and/or eliminative sort; such worries are utterly unwarranted, based exclusively on an unpardonable ignorance of several decades of paradigm-shifting discoveries in the life sciences” (Prolegomena, 29). Why? Apparently because epigenetics and neural plasticity “ensure the openness of vectors and logics not anticipated or dictated by the bump-and-grind efficient causality of physical particles alone” (29).
Comments like these—and one finds them scattered throughout the text—demonstrates a problematic naivete regarding his subject matter. One could point out that quantum indeterminacy actually governs the ‘determinism’ he attributes to physical particles. But the bigger problem—the truly ‘unpardonable ignorance’—is that it shows how little he seems to understand the very problem he has set out to solve. His mindset seems to be as antiquated as the sources he cites. He seems to think, for instance, that ‘mechanism’ in the brain sciences refers to something nonstochastic, ‘clockwork,’ that the spectre of Laplace is what drives the unwarranted claims of reductive/eliminative materialists. ‘Decades of research revealing indeterminacy, and still they speak of mechanisms?’
As hard as it is to believe, Johnston pretty clearly thinks the primary problem materialism poses for subjectivity is the problem of determinism. But the problem, simply put, is nothing other than the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the exceptionless irreflexivity of the natural. Ontological freedom is every bit as incompatible with the probabilistic as it is the determined. The freedom of noise is no freedom at all.
This, without a doubt, is his single biggest argumentative oversight, the one that probably explains his wholesale dismissal of any would-be detractor such as myself. His foe here is entropy, not some anachronistic conception of clockwork determinism. Only an appreciation of this allows an appreciation of the difficulty the task Johnston has set himself. Forget the thousands of years of tradition, the lifetime of familiarity, the system of concepts anchored, forget that Johnston is arguing for the most beloved thing—your exceptionality—set aside all this, and what remains, make no mistake, is a perpetual motion machine, something belonging to reality but obeying laws of its own.
So how does one theoretically rationalize a perpetual motion machine?
The metaphor is preposterous, of course, even though it remains analogous in the most important respect. Johnston literally believes it’s possible to “be a partisan of a really and indissolubly free subject while simultaneously and without incoherence or self-contradiction remaining entirely faithful to the uncompromising atheism and immanentism of the combative materialist tradition” (176). He thinks that certain real, physical systems (you and me, as luck would have it) do not obey physical law, at least not the way every single system effectively explained through the history of natural science obeys physical law.
What makes the metaphor preposterous, however, is the apparent immediacy of subjectivity, the way it strikes us as a source of some kind upon reflection, hemmed not by astronomical neural complexities, but by rules, goals, rationality. In a basic sense, what could be more obvious? This is what we experience!
Or… is it just what we remember?
And here’s the rub. The problem that Johnston has set himself to solve is a dastardly one indeed, far, far more difficult than he seems to imagine. Even with the dazzling assurance of experience, a perpetual motion machine is pretty damn hard thing to explain. The fact that most everyone is dazzled by subjectivity in its myriad guises doesn’t change the fact that they are, quite explicitly, betting on a perpetual motion machine. There’s a reason, after all, why everyone but everyone who’s attempted what Johnston has set out to achieve has failed. “Empty-handed adversaries,” as Johnston claims in the same interview, “do not deserve to be feared.” But if they’re empty-handed, then they must know kung-fu, or something lethal, because so far they’ve managed to kill every single theory such as his!
But when you start interrogating that ‘dazzling assurance,’ when you consider just how much we remember, things become even more difficult for Johnston. Because the fact is, we really don’t remember all that much. Certain things escape memory simply because they escape experience altogether. Our brains, for instance, have no more access to the causal complexities of their own function than they do to those of others, so they rely on powerful, yet imperfect systems, ‘fast and frugal heuristics,’ to solve (explain, predict, and manipulate) themselves and others. When abnormalities occur in these systems, such as those belonging, say, to autism spectrum disorder, our capacity to solve is impaired.
As the history of philosophy attests, we seem to experience next to nothing regarding the actual function of these systems, or at least nothing we can remember in the course of pondering our various forms of intentional problem solving. All we seem to intuit are a series of problem-solving modes that we simply cannot square with the problem-solving modes we use to engineer and understand mechanical systems. And, most importantly, we seem to experience (or remember) nothing of just how little we experience (or remember). And so the armchair perpetually remains a live option.
I say ‘most importantly’ because this means remembering doesn’t simply overlook its incapacities, it neglects them. When it comes to experience, we remember everything there is to be remembered, always. We rarely have any inkling of what’s bent, bleached, or lost. What is lost to the system, does not exist for the system, even as something lost.
Add neglect and suddenly a good number of intentional peculiarities begin to make frightening sense. Why, for instance, should we be surprised that problem solving modes adapted to solve complex causal systems absent causal information cannot themselves make sense of causal information? We are mechanically embedded in our environments in such a way that we cannot cognize ourselves as so embedded, and so are forced to cognize ourselves otherwise, acausally, relying on heuristics that theoretical reflection transforms into rules, goals, and reasons, hazy obscurities at the limits of discrimination.
We are astronomically complicated causal systems that cannot remember themselves as such, amnesiac machines that take themselves for perpetual motion machines for the profundity of their forgetting. At any given moment, what we remember is all there is; there is nothing else to blame, no neuromechanistic background we might use to place our thoughts and experiences in their actual functional context, namely, the machinery that bullets and spirochetes and beta-amyloid plaques can destroy. We do not simply lack the access and the resources to intuit ourselves for what we are (something), we lack the resources intuit this lack of resources. Thus the myth of perpetual motion, our conviction in what Johnston calls the “self-determining spontaneity of transcendental subjects.”
The limits of remembering, in other words, provide an elegant, entirely naturalistic, explanation for our metacognitive intuitions of spontaneity, the almost inescapable sense that thought has to represent some kind of fundamental discontinuity in being. Since we cannot cognize the actual activity of cognition, that activity—the function of flesh and blood neural circuits that would seize were you to suffer a midcerebral arterial stroke this instant—does not exist for metacognition. All the informational dimensions of this medial functionality, the dimensions of the material, vanish into oblivion, stranding us with a now that always seems to be the same now, despite its manifest difference, a life that is always in the mysterious process of just beginning.
But Johnston doesn’t buy this story. For him, we actually do remember everything we need to remember to theoretically fathom experience. For him, the fact of subjectivity is nothing less than an “axiomatic intuition” (204), as dazzling as dazzling can be. He never explains how this magic might be possible, how any brain could possibly possess the access and resources to fathom its structure and dynamics in anything but radically privative ways, but then he’s not even aware this is a problem (or more likely, he assumes Freud and Lacan have already solved this problem for him). For him, self-determining spontaneity—perpetual motion—is simply a positive fact of what we are. Everything is remembered that needs to be remembered.
The problem, he’s convinced, doesn’t lie with us. So in order to pass his own test, to craft a materialism absent cryptotheological elements that nevertheless explains (as opposed to explains away) all the perplexing phenomena of intentionality, he needs some different account of nature.
He’s not alone in this regard. The vast majority of theorists who tackle the many angles of this problem are intentional realists of some description. But for many, if not most of them, the tactic is to posit empirical ignorance: though we presently cannot puzzle through the conundrums of intentional phenomena, proponents of so-called ‘spooky emergence’ contend, advances in cognitive neuroscience (and/or physics) will somehow vindicate our remembering. Consciousness and intentionality, they believe, are emergent phenomena, novel physical properties pertaining to as yet unknown natural mechanisms.
Johnston also appropriates the term ‘emergentism’ to describe his project, but it’s hard to see it as much more than a ‘cool by association’ ploy. Emergentism provides a way for physicalists (materialists) to redeem something ‘perpetual enough’ short of committing to ontological pluralism. Emergentists, in other words, are naturalists, convinced that “philosophy can and should limit itself to a deontologized epistemology with nothing more than, at best, a complex conception of the cognizing mental apparatus” (204).
This ‘article of faith,’ however, is one that Johnston explicitly rejects, claiming that “thought cannot indefinitely defer fulfilling its duty to build a realist and materialist ontology” (204). So be warned, no matter how much he helps himself to the term, Johnston is no ‘emergentist’ in the standard sense. He’s an avowed ontologist, as he has to be, given the Zizekian frame he uses to mount his theoretical chassis. “[A] theory of the autonomous negativity of self-relating subjectivity always is accompanied, at a minimum implicitly, by the shadow of a picture of being (as the ground of such subjectivity) that must be made explicit sooner or later” (204). Elsewhere, he writes, “I am tempted to characterize my transcendental materialism as an emergent dual-aspect monism, albeit with the significant qualification that these ‘aspects’ and their eradicable divisions (such as mind and matter, the asubjective and subjectivity, and the natural and the more-than-natural) enjoy the heft of actual existence” (180), that is, he’s a kind of dual-aspect monist so long as the dualities are not aspectual!
Insofar as perpetual motion machines (like autonomous subjects) pretty clearly violate nature as science presently conceives it, one might say that Johnston’s ontological emergentism is honest in a manner that naturalistic emergentism is not. As an eliminative naturalist who finds the notion of systems that violate the laws of physics arising as a consequence of those laws ‘spooky,’ I’m inclined to think so. But in avoiding one credibility conundrum he has simply inherited another, namely, our manifest inability to arbitrate ontological claim-making.
Johnston himself recognizes this problem of ontological credibility, insofar as he makes it the basis of his critiques of Badiou and Meillassoux, who suffer, he argues, “from a Heideggerean hangover, specifically, an acceptance unacceptable for (dialectical) materialism of the veracity of ontological difference, or a clear-cut distinction between the ontological and the ontic” (170). ‘Genuine materialism,’ as he continues, “does not grant anyone the low-effort luxury of fleeing into the uncluttered, fact-free ether of ‘fundamental ontology’ serenely separated from the historically shifting stakes of ontic disciplines” (171). And how could it, now that the machinery of human cognition itself lies on the examination table? He continues, “Although a materialist philosophy cannot be literally falsifiable as are Popperian sciences, it should be contestable as receptive, responsive, and responsible vis-a-vis the sciences” (171).
This, for me, is the penultimate line of the book, the thread from which the credibility of Johnston’s whole project hangs. As Johnston poses the dilemma:
“… the quarrels among the prior rationalist philosophers about being an sich are no more worth taking philosophically seriously than silly squabbles between sci-fi writers about whose concocted fantasy-world is truer or somehow more ‘superior’ than the others; such quarrels are nothing more than fruitless comparisons between equally hallucinatory apples and oranges, again resembling the sad spectacle of a bunch of pulp fiction novelists bickering over the correctness-without-criteria of each others’ fabricated imaginings and illusions.” 170
And yet nowhere could I find any explanation of how his own ontology manages to avoid this ‘fantasy world trap,’ to be ‘receptive’ or ‘responsive’ or ‘responsible’ to any of the sciences—to be anything other than another fundamental ontology, albeit one that rhetorically approves of the natural scientific project. The painful, perhaps even hilarious fact of the matter is that Johnston’s picture of intentionally rising from the cracks and gaps of an intrinsically contradictory reality happens to be the very ontological trope I use to structure the fantasy world of The Second Apocalypse!
There can be little doubt that he believes his picture somehow is receptive, responsive, and responsible, thinking, as he does, that his account
“… will not amount merely to compelling philosophy and psychoanalysis, in a lopsided, one-way movement, to adapt and conform to the current state of the empirical, experimental sciences, with the latter and their images of nature left unchanged in the bargain. Merging philosophy and psychoanalysis with the sciences promises to force profound changes, in a two-way movement, within the latter at least as much as within the former.” 179
Given the way science has ideologically and materially overrun every single domain it has managed to colonize historically, this amounts to a promise to force a conditional surrender with words—unless, that is, he has some gobsmacking way to empirically motivate (as opposed to verify) his peculiar brand of ontological emergentism.
But the closest he comes to genuinely explaining the difference between his ‘good’ ontologism and the ‘bad’ ontologism of those he critiques comes near the end of the text, where he espouses what might be called a qualified Darwinianism, one where “the chasm dividing unnatural humanity from natural animality is … not a top-down imposition inexplicably descending from the enigmatic heights of an always-already there ‘Holy Spirit’ … but, instead a ‘gap’ signalling a transcendence-in-immanence” (178). To advert to Dennettian terms, one might suggest that Johnston sees the bad ontologism of Badiou and Meillasoux as offering ‘skyhooks,’ unexplained explainers set entirely outside the blind irreflexivity of nature. His own good ontologism, on the other hand, he conceives phylogenetically, which is to say more in terms of what Dennett would call ‘cranes,’ a complicating continuity of natural processes and mechanisms culminating in ‘virtual machines’ that we then mistake for skyhooks.
Or perhaps we should label them ‘crane-hooks,’ insofar as Johnston envisions a ‘gap’ or ‘contradiction’ written into the very fundamental structure of existence, a wedge that bootstraps subjectivity as remembered…
A perpetual motion machine.
The charitable assumption to make at this point is that he’s saving this bombshell for the ensuing text. But given the egregious way he mischaracterizes the difficulties of his project at the beginning of the text, it’s hard to believe he has much in the way combustible material. As we saw, he flat out equivocates the concrete mechanistic threat—the way the complexities of technology are transforming the complexities of life into more technology—with the abstract philosophical problem of determinism. Creeping depersonalization–be it the medicalization of individuals in numerous institutional (especially educational) contexts, or the ‘nudge’ tactics ubiquitously employed throughout commercial society, or institutional reorganization based on data mining techniques–is nothing if not an obvious social phenomenon. When does it stop? Is there really some essential ‘gap’ between you and all the buzzing, rumbling systems about you, the negentropic machinery of life, the endless lotteries that comprise evolution, the countless matter conversion engines that are stars? Does mechanism, engineered or described, eventually bump into the edge of mere nature, bounce from some redemptive contradiction in the fabric of being? One that just happens to be us?
Are we the perpetual motion machine we’ve sought in vain for millennia?
The fact is, one doesn’t have to look far to conclude that Johnston’s ontologism is just more bad ontology, the same old empty cans strung in a different configuration. After all, he takes the dialectical nature of his materialism quite seriously. As he writes:
“… naturalizing human being (i.e., not allowing humans to stand above-and-beyond the natural world in some immaterial, metaphysical zone) correlatively entails envisioning nature as, at least in certain instances, being divided against itself. An unreserved naturalization of humanity must result in a defamiliarization and reworking of those most foundational and rudimentary proto-philosophical images contributing to any picture of material nature. The new, fully secularized materialism (inspired in part by Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis) to be developed and defended in Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism is directly linked to this notion of nature as the self-shattering, internally conflicted existence of a detotalized material immanence.” 19-20
What all this means is that nature, for Johnston, is intrinsically contradictory. Now contradictions are at least three things: first, they logically entail everything; second, they’re analytically difficult to think; and third, they’re conceptually semantic, which is to say, intentional through and through. Setting aside the way the first two considerations raise the spectres of obscurantism and sophistry (where better hide something stolen?), the third should set the klaxons wailing for even those possessing paraconsistent sympathies. Why? Simply because saying that reality is fundamentally contradictory amounts to saying that reality is fundamentally intentional. And this means that what we have here, in effect, is pretty clearly a kind of anthropomorphism, the primary difference being, jargon aside, that it’s a different kind of anthropos that is being externalized, namely, the fragmented, decentred, and oh-so-dreary ‘postmodern subject.’
I don’t care how inured to a discourse’s foibles you become, this has to be a tremendous problem. Johnston writes, “a materialist theory of the subject, in order to adhere to one of the principal tenets of any truly materialist materialism (i.e., the ontological axiom according to which matter is the sole ground), must be able to explain how subjectivity emerges out of materiality—and, correlative to this, how materiality must be configured in and of itself so that such an emergence is a real possibility” (27). Now empirically speaking, we have no clue ‘how materiality must be configured’ because we do not, as yet, understand the mechanisms underwriting consciousness and intentionality. Johnston, of course, rhetorically dismisses this ongoing, ever advancing empirical project, as an obvious nonstarter. He has determined, rather, that the only way subjectivity can be naturally understood is if we come to see that nature itself is profoundly subjective…
I can almost hear Spinoza groaning from his grave on the Spui.
If the contradiction of the human can only be ‘explained’ by recourse to some contradiction intrinsic the entire universe, then why not simply admit that the contradiction of the human cannot be explained? Just declare yourself a mysterian of some kind–I dunno. Johnston devotes considerable space critiquing Meillasoux for using ‘hyperchaos’ as an empty metaphysical gimmick, a post hoc way to rationalize the nonmechanistic efficacy of intentional phenomena. And yet it’s hard to see how Johnston gives his reader even this much, insofar as he’s simply taken the enigma of intentionality and painted it across the cosmos—literally so!
Johnston references the ‘sad spectacle of a bunch of pulp fiction novelists’ arguing their worlds’ (170), but as someone who’s actually participated in that (actually quite hilarious) spectacle, I can assure everyone that we, unlike the sad spectacle of Continental materialists arguing their worlds, know we’re arguing fictions. What makes such spectacles sad is the presumption to a cognitive authority that simply does not exist. Arguing the intrinsically dialectical nature of materiality is of a par with arguing intelligent design, save that the intuitions motivating intelligent design are more immediate (they require nowhere near as much specialized training to appreciate), and that its proponents have done a tremendous amount of work to make their position appear receptive, responsive, and responsible to the sciences they would, in the spirit of share-and-share alike, ‘complement with a deeper understanding.’
A contradictory materiality is an anthropomorphic materiality. It provides redemption, not understanding of some decentred-me-friendly world that science has been unable to find. In his attempt to materially square the circle of subjectivity, Johnston invents a stripped down, intellectualized fantasy world, and then embarks on a series of ‘fruitless comparisons between equally hallucinatory apples and oranges’ (170). And how could it be any other way when all of these pulp philosophy thinkers are trapped arguing memories?
Vivid ones to be sure, but memories all the same.
The vividness, in fact, is a large part of the whole bloody problem. It means that no matter how empty our metacognitive intuitions regarding experience are, they generally strike us as sufficient: What, for instance, could be more obvious than our normative understanding of rules? But there’s powerful evidence suggesting our feeling of willing is only contingently connected to our actions (a matter of interpretation). There’s irrefutable evidence that our episodic memory is not veridical. Likewise, there is powerful evidence suggesting our explanations of our behaviour are only contingently related to our actions (a matter of interpretation). Even if you dispute the findings (with laboratory results, one would hope), or think that psychoanalysis is somehow vindicated by these findings (rather than rendered empirically irrelevant), the fact remains that none of the old assumptions can be trusted.
Do you have any metacognitive sense of the symphony of subpersonal heuristic systems operating inside your skull this very instant, the kinds of problems they’ve adapted to solve versus the kinds of problems that can only generate impasse and confusion? Of course not. The titanic investment in time and resources required to isolate what little we have isolated wouldn’t have been required otherwise. We are almost entirely blind to what we are and what we do. But because we are blind to that blindness, we confuse what little we do see with everything to be seen. We therefore become the ‘object’ that cannot be an ‘object,’ the thing that cannot be intuitively cognized in time and space, that strikes us with the immediacy of this very moment, that appears to somehow stand outside a nature that is all-encompassing otherwise.
The system outside the picture, somehow belonging and not belonging…
Or as I once called it, the ‘occluded frame.’
And this just follows from our mechanical nature. For a myriad of reasons, any system originally adapted to systematically engage environmental systems will be structurally incapable of systematically engaging itself in the same manner. So when it develops the capacity to ask, as we have developed the capacity to ask, ‘What am I?’ it will have grounds to answer, ‘Of this world, and not of this world.’
To say, precisely because it is a mechanism, ‘I am contradiction.’
As with the crude thumbnail given above, the Blind Brain Theory attempts to naturalistically explain away the peculiarities of intentionality and phenomenality in terms of neglect. Since we cannot intuit our profound continuity with our environments, we intuit ourselves otherwise, as profoundly discontinuous with our environments. This discontinuity, of course, is the cornerstone of the problem of understanding what we are. Before, when the brain remained a black box, we could take it for granted, we could leverage our ignorance in ways that catered to our conceits, especially our perennial desire to be the great exception to the natural. So long as the box remained sealed, we could speak of beetles without fear of contradiction.
Now that the box has been cracked open with nary a beetle to be found, all those speculative discourses reliant upon our historical ignorance find themselves scrambling. They know the pattern, even if they are loath to speak of it or, like Johnston, prone to denial. Nevertheless, science is nothing if not imperial and industrial. It displaces aboriginal discourses, delegitimizes them in the course of revolutionizing any given domain. Humans, meanwhile, are hardwired to rationalize their interests. When their claims to status and authority are threatened, the moral and intellectual deficiencies of their adversary simply seems obvious. So it should come as no surprise that specialists in those discourses are finally rousing themselves from their ingroup slumber to defend what they must consider manifest authority and hard-earned privileges.
But they face a profound dilemma when it comes to prosecuting their case against science—a dilemma not one of these Continentalists has yet to acknowledge. Before, in the good old black box days, they could rely on simple pejoratives like ‘positivism’ and ‘scientism’ to do all the heavy lifting, simply because science reliably fell silent when it came to issues within their domain. The bind they find themselves in now, however, could scarce be more devious. The most obvious problem lies in the revolutionary revision of their subject matter—the thinking human. But the subject matter of the human is also the subject of the matter, the activity that makes the understanding of any subject matter possible. Continentalists, of course, know this, because it provides the basis for their ontological priority claims. They are describing, so they think, what makes science possible. This is what grants them diplomatic transcendental immunity when they take up residence in scientific domains. But Johnston isolates the dilemma—his dilemma—himself when he points out the empty nature of the Ontological Difference.
Foucault actually provides the most striking image of this that I know of with his analysis of the ‘emprico-transcendental doublet called man’ in The Order of Things. What is transpiring today can be seen as a battle for the soul of the darkness that comes before thought. Is it ontological as so much of philosophy insists? Or is it ontic as science seems to be in the process of discovering? So long as our ontic conditions remained informatically impoverished, so long as the brain remained a black box, then the dazzling vividness of our remembering could easily overcome our abstract, mechanistic qualms. We could rely on the apparent semantic density of ‘lived life’ or ‘conditions of possibility’ or ‘language games’ or ‘epistemes’ or so on (and so on) to silence the rumble of an omnivorous science. We could dwell in the false peace of trench warfare, a stalemate between two general, apparently antithetical claims to one truth. As Foucault writes:
“… either this true discourse finds its foundation and model in the empirical truth whose genesis in nature and in history it retraces, so that one has an analysis of the positivist type (the truth of the object determines the truth of the discourse that describes its foundation); or the true discourse anticipates the truth whose nature and history it defines; it sketches it out in advance and foments it from a distance, so that one has a discourse of the eschatological type (the truth of the philosophical discourse constitutes the truth in formation).” 320
Foucault, of course, has stacked the deck in this characterization of epistemological modes—simply posing the (historically contingent) problem of the human in terms of an ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’ is to concede authority to the transcendental—but he was nevertheless astute–or at least evocative–in his assessment of the form of the problem (as seen from within the subject/object heuristic). Again, as he writes:
“The true contestation of positivism and eschatology does not lie, therefore, in a return to actual experience (which rather, in fact, provides them with confirmation by giving them roots); but if such a contestation could be made, it would be from the starting-point of a question which may well seem aberrant, so opposed is it to what has rendered the whole of our thought historically possible. This question would be: Does man really exist?” 322
A question that was both prescient in his day and premature, given that the empirical remained, for most purposes, locked out of the black box of the human. For all his historicism, Foucault failed to look at this dilemma historically, to realize (as Adorno arguably did) that short of some form reason capable of contesting scientific claims on the human, the domain of the human was doomed to be overrun by scientific reason, and that discourses such as his would eventually be reduced to the status of alchemy or astrology or religion.
And herein lies the rub for Johnston. He thinks the key to a viable Continental materialism turns on getting the ontological nature of the what right, when the problem resides in the how. He says as much himself: anybody can cook up and argue a fantasy world. In my own lectures on fantasy, the most fictional of fictions, I always stress how the anthropomorphic ‘secondary worlds’ depicted could only be counted as ‘fantastic’ given the cognitive dominion of science. This, I think, is the real anxiety lurking beneath his work (despite all his embarrassing claims about ‘empty handed foes’). The only thing preventing the obvious identification of his secondary worlds as fantastic was the scientific inscrutability of the human. Now that the human is becoming empirically scrutable across myriad dimensions, now that the informatic floodgates have been cranked open—now that his claims have a baseline of comparison—the inexorable processes that rendered the anthropomorphic fantastic across external nature are beginning to render internal meaning fantastic as well.
Why do pharmaceuticals impact us? Man is a machine. Why do cochlear implants function? Man is a machine. Why do head injuries so profoundly reorganize experience? Man is a machine. The Problem of Mechanism is material first and only secondarily philosophical. Given what I know about the human capacity for self-deception (having followed the science for years now), I have no doubt that the vast majority of people will find refuge in ‘mere words,’ philosophical or theological rationalization of this or that redeeming ‘axiomatic posit.’ This is what makes the Singularity so bloody crucial to these kinds of debates (and what puts thinkers like David Roden so tragically far ahead of his peers). When we become indistinguishable from our machinery, or when our machines make kindergarten scribbles of our greatest works of genius, will we persist insisting on our ontological exceptionality then?
Or will the ‘human’ merely refer to some eyeless, larval stage? Will noocentrism be seen as last of the three great Centripetal Conceits?
Short of discovering some Messianic form of reason—a form of cognition capable of overpowering a scientific cognition that can cure blindness and vaporize cities—attempts to argue Messianic realities a la Continental materialism are doomed to fail before they even begin. Both the how and the what of the traditional humanities are under siege. As it stands, the profundity of this attack can still be partially hidden, so long as one’s audience wants to be reassured and has no real grasp of the process. A good number of high profile researchers are themselves apologists for the humanistic status quo, so one can, as defenders of various religious beliefs are accustomed, pluck many heartening quotes from the enemy’s own mouth. But since it is the rising tide of black-box information that has generated this legitimacy crisis, it seems more than a little plausible to presume that it will deepen and deepen, until finally it yawns abyssal, no matter how many well-heeled words are mustered to do battle against it.
Not matter how many Johnston’s pawn their cryptotheological perpetual motion machines.
Our only way to cognize our experiencing is via our remembering. The thinner this remembering turns out to be—and it seems to be very thin—the more we should expect to be dismayed and confounded by the sciences of the brain. At the same time we should expect a burgeoning market for apologia, for rationalizations that allow for the dismissal and domestication of the threats posed. Careers will be made, celebrated ones, for those able to concoct the most appealing and slippery brands of theoretical snake-oil. And meanwhile the science will trundle on, the incompatible findings will accumulate, and those of us too suspicious to believe in happy endings will be reduced to arguing against our hopes, and for the honest appraisal of the horror that confronts us all.
Because the bandage of our traditional self-conception will be torn away quicker than you think.
* POSTSCRIPT (17/01/2014): Levi Bryant, it should be noted, is an exception in several respects, and it was remiss of me to include him without qualification. A concise overview of his position can be found here.