The Blind Mechanic
Thus far, the assumptive reality of intentional phenomena has provided the primary abductive warrant for normative metaphysics. The Eliminativist could do little more than argue the illusory nature of intentional phenomena on the basis of their incompatibility with the higher-dimensional view of science. Since science was itself so obviously a family of normative practices, and since numerous intentional concepts had been scientifically operationalized, the Eliminativist was easily characterized as an extremist, a skeptic who simply doubted too much to be cogent. And yet, the steady complication of our understanding of consciousness and cognition has consistently served to demonstrate the radically blinkered nature of metacognition. As the work of Stanislaus Dehaene and others is making clear, consciousness is a functional crossroads, a serial signal delivered from astronomical neural complexities for broadcast to astronomical neural complexities. Conscious metacognition is not only blind to the actual structure of experience and cognition, it is blind to this blindness. We now possess solid, scientific reasons to doubt the assumptive reality that underwrites the Intentionalist’s position.
The picture of consciousness that researchers around the world are piecing together is the picture predicted by Blind Brain Theory. It argues that the entities and relations posited by Intentional philosophy are the result of neglect, the fact that philosophical reflection is blind to its inability to see. Intentional heuristics are adapted to first-order social problem-solving, and are generally maladaptive in second-order theoretical contexts. But since we lack the metacognitive werewithal to even intuit the distinction between any specialized cognitive device, we assume applicability where their is none, and so continually blunder at the problem, again and again. The long and the short of it is that the Intentionalist needs some empirically plausible account of metacognition to remain tenable, some account of how they know the things they claim to know. This was always the case, of course, but with BBT the cover provided by the inscrutability of intentionality disappears. Simply put, the Intentionalist can no longer tie their belt to the post of ineliminability.
Science is the only reliable provender of theoretical cognition we have, and to the extent that intentionality frustrates science, it frustrates theoretical cognition. BBT allays that frustration. BBT allows us to recast what seem to be irreducible intentional problematics in terms entirely compatible with the natural scientific paradigm. It lets us stick with the high-dimensional, information-rich view. In what follows I hope to show how doing so, even at an altitude, handily dissolves a number of intentional snarls.
In Davidson’s Fork, I offered an eliminativist radicalization of Radical Interpretation, one that characterized the scene of interpreting another speaker from scratch in mechanical terms. What follows is preliminary in every sense, a way to suss out the mechanical relations pertinent to reason and interpretation. Even still, I think the resulting picture is robust enough to make hash of Reza Negarestani’s Intentionalist attempt to distill the future of the human in “The Labor of the Inhuman” (part I can be found here, and part II, here). The idea is to rough out the picture in this post, then chart its critical repercussions against the Brandomian picture so ingeniously extended by Negarestani. As a first pass, I fear my draft will be nowhere near so elegant as Negarestani’s, but as I hope to show, it is revealing in the extreme, a sketch of the ‘nihilistic desert’ that philosophers have been too busy trying to avoid to ever really sit down and think through.
A kind of postintentional nude.
As we saw two posts back, if you look at interpretation in terms of two stochastic machines attempting to find some mutual, causally systematic accord between the causally systematic accords each maintains with their environment, the notion of Charity, or the attribution of rationality, as some kind of indispensible condition of interpretation falls by the wayside, replaced by a kind of ‘communicative pre-established harmony’—or ‘Harmony,’ as I’ll refer to it here. There is no ‘assumption of rationality,’ no taking of ‘intentional stances,’ because these ‘attitudes’ are not only not required, they express nothing more than a radically blinkered metacognitive gloss on what is actually going on.
Harmony, then, is the sum of evolutionary stage-setting required for linguistic coupling. It refers to the way we have evolved to be linguistically attuned to our respective environmental attunements, enabling the formation of superordinate systems possessing greater capacities. The problem of interpretation is the problem of Disharmony, the kinds of ‘slippages’ in systematicity that impair or, as in the case of Radical Interpretation, prevent the complex coordination of behaviours. Getting our interpretations right, in other words, can be seen as a form of noise reduction. And since the traditional approach concentrates on the role rationality plays in getting our interpretations right, this raises the prospect that what we call reason can be seen as a kind of noise reduction mechanism, a mechanism for managing the systematicity—or ‘tuning’ as I’ll call it here—between disparate interpreters and the world.
On this account, these very words constitute an exercise in tuning, an attempt to tweak your covariational regime in a manner that reduces slippages between you and your (social and natural) world. If language is the causal thread we use to achieve intersystematic relations with our natural and social environments, then ‘reason’ is simply one way we husband the efficacy of that causal thread.
So let’s start from scratch, scratch. What do evolved, biomechanical systems such as humans need to coordinate astronomically complex covariational regimes with little more than sound? For one, they need ways to trigger selective activations of the other’s regime for effective behavioural uptake. Triggering requires some kind of dedicated cognitive sensitivity to certain kinds of sounds—those produced by complex vocalizations, in our case. As with any environmental sensitivity, iteration is the cornerstone, here. The complexity of the coordination possible will of course depend on the complexity of the activations triggered. To the extent that evolution rewards complex behavioural coordination, we can expect evolution to reward the communicative capacity to trigger complex activations. This is where the bottleneck posed by the linearity of auditory triggers becomes all important: the adumbration of iterations is pretty much all we have, trigger-wise. Complex activation famously requires some kind of molecular cognitive sensitivity to vocalizations, the capacity to construct novel, covariational complexities on the slim basis of adumbrated iterations. Linguistic cognition, in other words, needs to be a ‘combinatorial mechanism,’ a device (or series of devices) able to derive complex activations given only a succession of iterations.
These combinatorial devices correspond to what we presently understand, in disembodied/supernatural form, as grammar, logic, reason, and narrative. They are neuromechanical processes—the long history of aphasiology assures us of this much. On BBT, their apparent ‘formal nature’ simply indicates that they are medial, belonging to enabling processes outside the purview of metacognition. This is why they had to be discovered, why our efficacious ‘knowledge’ of them remains ‘implicit’ or invisible/inaccessible. This is also what accounts for their apparent ‘transcendent’ or ‘a priori’ nature, the spooky metacognitive sense of ‘absent necessity’—as constitutive of linguistic comprehension, they are, not surprisingly, indispensible to it. Located beyond the metacognitive pale, however, their activities are ripe for post hoc theoretical mischaracterization.
Say someone asks you to explain modus ponens, ‘Why ‘If p, then q’?’ Medial neglect means that the information available for verbal report when we answer has nothing to do with the actual processes involved in, ‘If p, then q,’ so you say something like, ‘It’s a rule of inference that conserves truth.’ Because language needs something to hang onto, and because we have no metacognitive inkling of just how dismal our inklings are, we begin confabulating realms, some ontologically thick and ‘transcendental,’ others razor thin and ‘virtual,’ but both possessing the same extraordinary properties otherwise. Because metacognition has no access to the actual causal functions responsible, once the systematicities are finally isolated in instances of conscious deliberation, those systematicities are reported in a noncausal idiom. The realms become ‘intentional,’ or ‘normative.’ Dimensionally truncated descriptions of what modus ponens does (‘conserves truth’) become the basis of claims regarding what it is. Because the actual functions responsible belong to the enabling neural architecture they possess an empirical necessity that can only seem absolute or unconditional to metacognition—as should come as no surprise, given that a perspective ‘from the inside on the inside,’ as it were, has no hope of cognizing the inside the way the brain cognizes its outside more generally, or naturally.
I’m just riffing here, but it’s worth getting a sense of just how far this implicature can reach.
Consider Carroll’s “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” The reason Achilles can never logically compel the Tortoise with the statement of another rule is that each rule cited becomes something requiring justification. The reason we think we need things like ‘axioms’ or ‘communal norms’ is that the metacognitive capacity to signal for additional ‘tuning’ can be applied at any communicative juncture. This is the Tortoise’s tactic, his way of showing how ‘logical necessity’ is actually contingent. Metacognitive blindness means that citing another rule is all that can be done, a tweak that can be queried once again in turn. Carroll’s puzzle is a puzzle, not because it reveals that the source of ‘normative force’ lies in some ‘implicit other’ (the community, typically), but because of the way it forces metacognition to confront its limits—because it shows us to be utterly ignorant of knowing, how it functions, let alone what it consists in. In linguistic tuning, some thread always remains unstitched, the ‘foundation’ is always left hanging simply because the adumbration of iterations is always linear and open ended.
The reason why ‘axioms’ need to be stipulated or why ‘first principles’ always run afoul the problem of the criterion is simply that they are low-dimensional glosses on high-dimensional (‘embodied’) processes that are causal. Rational ‘noise reduction’ is a never ending job; it has to be such, insofar as noise remains an ineliminable by-product of human communicative coordination. From a pitiless, naturalistic standpoint, knowledge consists of breathtakingly intricate, but nonetheless empirical (high-dimensional, embodied), ways to environmentally covary—and nothing more. There is no ‘one perfect covariational regime,’ just degrees of downstream behavioural efficacy. Likewise, there is no ‘perfect reason,’ no linguistic mechanism capable of eradicating all noise.
What we have here is an image of reason and knowledge as ‘rattling machinery,’ which is to say, as actual and embodied. On this account, reason enables various mechanical efficiencies; it allows groups of humans to secure more efficacious coordination for collective behaviour. It provides a way of policing the inevitable slippages between covariant regimes. ‘Truth,’ on this account, simply refers to the sufficiency of our covariant regimes for behaviour, the fact that they do enable efficacious environmental interventions. The degree to which reason allows us to converge on some ‘truth’ is simply the degree to which it enables mechanical relationships, actual embodied encounters with our natural and social environments. Given Harmony—the sum of evolutionary stage-setting required—it allows collectives to maximize the efficiencies of coordinated activity by minimizing the interpretative noise that hobbles all collective endeavours.
Language, then, allows humans to form superordinate mechanisms consisting of ‘airy parts,’ to become components of ‘superorganisms,’ whose evolved sensitivities allow mere sounds to tweak and direct, to generate behaviour enabling intersystematicities. ‘Reason,’ more specifically, allows for the policing and refining of these intersystematicities. We are all ‘semantic mechanics’ with reference to one another, continually tinkering and being tinkered with, calibrating and being calibrated, generally using efficacious behaviour, the ability to manipulate social and natural environments, to arbitrate the sufficiency of our ‘fixes.’ And all of this plays out in the natural arena established by evolved Harmony.
Now this ‘rattling machinery’ image of reason and knowledge is obviously true in some respect: We are embodied, after-all, causally embroiled in our causal environments. Language is an evolutionary product, as is reason. Misfires are legion, as we might expect. The only real question is whether this rattling machinery can tell the whole story. The Intentionalist, of course, says no. They claim that the intentional enjoys some kind of special functional existence over and above this rattling machinery, that it constitutes a regime of efficacy somehow grasped via the systematic interrogation of our intentional intuitions.
The stakes are straightforward. Either what we call intentional solutions are actually mechanical solutions that we cannot intuit as mechanical solutions, or what we call intentional solutions are actually intentional solutions that we can intuit as intentional solutions. What renders this first possibility problematic is radical skepticism. Since we intuit intentional solutions as intentional, it suggests that our intuitions are deceptive in the extreme. Because our civilization has trusted these intuitions since the birth of philosophy, they have come to inform a vast portion of our traditional understanding. What renders this second possibility problematic is, first and foremost, supernaturalism. Since the intentional is incompatible with the natural, the intentional must consist either in something not natural, or in something that forces us to completely revise our understanding of the natural. And even if such a feat could be accomplished, the corresponding claim that it could be intuited as such remains problematic.
Blind Brain Theory provides a way of seeing Intentionalism as a paradigmatic example of ‘noocentrism,’ as the product of a number of metacognitive illusions analogous to the cognitive illusion underwriting the assumption of geocentrism, centuries before. It is important to understand that there is no reason why our normative problem-solving should appear as it is to metacognition—least of all, the successes of those problem-solving regimes we call intentional. The successes of mathematics stand in astonishing contrast to the failure to understand just what mathematics is. The same could be said of any formalism that possesses practical application. It even applies to our everyday use of intentional terms. In each case, our first-order assurance utterly evaporates once we raise theoretically substantive, second-order questions—exactly as BBT predicts. This contrast of breathtaking first-order problem solving power and second-order ineptitude is precisely what one might expect if the information accessible to metacognition was geared to domain specific problem-solving. Add anosognosia to the mix, the inability to metcognize our metacognitive incapacity, and one has a wickedly parsimonious explanation for the scholastic mountains of inert speculation we call philosophy.
(But then, in retrospect, this was how it had to be, didn’t it? How it had to end? With almost everyone horrifically wrong. A whole civilization locked in some kind of dream. Should anyone really be surprised?)
Short of some unconvincing demand that our theoretical account appease a handful of perennially baffling metacognitive intuitions regarding ourselves, it’s hard to see why anyone should entertain the claim that reason requires some ‘special X’ over and above our neurophysiology (and prostheses). Whatever conscious cognition is, it clearly involves the broadcasting/integration of information arising from unknown sources for unknown consumers. It simply follows that conscious metacognition has no access whatsoever to the various functions actually discharged by conscious cognition. The fact that we have no intuitive awareness of the panoply of mechanisms cognitive science has isolated demonstrates that we are prone to at least one profound metacognitive illusion—namely ‘self-transparency.’ The ‘feeling of willing’ is generally acknowledged as another such illusion, as is homuncularism or the ‘Cartesian Theatre.’ How much does it take before we acknowledge the systematic unreliability of our metacognitive intuitions more generally? Is it really just a coincidence, the ghostly nature of norms and the ghostly nature of perhaps the most notorious metacognitive illusion of all, souls? Is it mere happenstance, the apparent acausal autonomy of normativity and our matter of fact inability to source information consciously broadcast? Is it really the case that all these phenomena, these cause-incompatible intentional things, are ‘otherworldly’ for entirely different reasons? At some point it has to begin to seem all too convenient.
Make no mistake, the Rattling Machinery image is a humbling one. Reason, the great, glittering sword of the philosopher, becomes something very local, very specific, the meaty product of one species at one juncture in their evolutionary development.
On this account, ‘reason’ is a making-machinic machine, a ‘devicing device’—the ‘blind mechanic’ of human communication. Argumentation facilitates the efficacy of behavioural coordination, drastically so, in many instances. So even though this view relegates reason to one adaptation among others, it still concedes tremendous significance to its consequences, especially when viewed in the context of other specialized cognitive capacities. The ability to recall and communicate former facilitations, for instance, enables cognitive ‘ratcheting,’ the stacking of facilitations upon facilitations, and the gradual refinement, over time, of the covariant regimes underwriting behaviour—the ‘knapping’ of knowledge (and therefore behaviour), you might say, into something ever more streamlined, ever more effective.
The thinker, on this account, is a tinker. As I write this, myriad parallel processors are generating a plethora of nonconscious possibilities that conscious cognition serially samples and broadcasts to myriad other nonconscious processors, generating more possibilities for serial sampling and broadcasting. The ‘picture of reason’ I’m attempting to communicate becomes more refined, more systematically interrelated (for better or worse) to my larger covariant regime, more prone to tweak others, to rewrite their systematic relationship to their environments, and therefore their behaviour. And as they ponder, so they tinker, and the process continues, either to peter out in behavioural futility, or to find real environmental traction (the way I ‘tink’ it will (!)) in a variety of behavioural contexts.
Ratcheting means that the blind mechanic, for all its misfires, all its heuristic misapplications, is always working on the basis of past successes. Ratcheting, in other words, assures the inevitability of technical ‘progress,’ the gradual development of ever more effective behaviours, the capacity to componentialize our environments (and each other) in more and more ways—to the point where we stand now, the point where intersystematic intricacy enables behaviours that allow us to forego the ‘airy parts’ altogether. To the point where the behaviour enabled by cognitive structure can now begin directly knapping that structure, regardless of the narrow tweaking channels, sensitivities, provided by evolution.
The point of the Singularity.
For some time now I’ve been arguing that the implications of the Singularity already embroil us—that the Singularity can be seen, in fact, as the material apotheosis of the Semantic Apocalypse, insofar as it is the point where the Scientific Image of the human at last forecloses on the Manifest Image.
This brings me to Reza Negarestani’s, “The Labor of the Inhuman,” his two-part meditation on the role we should expect—even demand—reason to play in the Posthuman. He adopts Brandom’s claim that sapience, the capacity to play the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ distinguishes humans as human. He then goes on to argue that this allows us, and ultimately commits us, to seeing the human as a kind of temporally extended process of rational revision, one that ultimately results in the erasure of the human—or the ‘inhuman.’ Ultimately, what it means to be human is to be embroiled in a process of becoming inhuman. He states his argument thus:
The contention of this essay is that universality and collectivism cannot be thought, let alone attained, through consensus or dissensus between cultural tropes, but only by intercepting and rooting out what gives rise to the economy of false choices and by activating and fully elaborating what real human significance consists of. For it is, as will be argued, the truth of human significance—not in the sense of an original meaning or a birthright, but in the sense of a labor that consists of the extended elaboration of what it means to be human through a series of upgradable special performances—that is rigorously inhuman.
In other words, so long as we fail to comprehend the inhumanity of the human, this rational-revisionary process, we fail to understand the human, and so have little hope of solving problems pertaining to the human. Understanding the ‘truth of human significance,’ therefore requires understanding what the future will make of the human. This requires that Negarestani prognosticate, that he pick out the specific set of possibilities constituting the inhuman. The only principled way to do that is to comprehend some set of systematic constraints operative in the present. But his credo, unlike that of the ‘Hard SF’ writer, is to ignore the actual technics of the natural, and to focus on the speculative technics of the normative. His strategy, in other words, is to predict the future of the human using only human resources—to see the fate of the human, the ‘inhuman,’ as something internal to the intentionality of the human. And this, as I hope to show in the following installment, is simply not plausible.