The Metacritique of Reason
Whether the treatment of such knowledge as lies within the province of reason does or does not follow the secure path of a science, is easily to be determined from the outcome. For if, after elaborate preparations, frequently renewed, it is brought to a stop immediately it nears its goal; if often it is compelled to retrace its steps and strike into some new line of approach; or again, if the various participants are unable to agree in any common plan of procedure, then we may rest assured that it is very far from having entered upon the secure path of a science, and is indeed a merely random groping. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, 17.
The moral of the story, of course, is that this description of Dogmatism’s failure very quickly became an apt description of Critical Philosophy as well. As soon as others saw all the material inferential wiggle room in the interpretation of condition and conditioned, it was game over. Everything that damned Dogmatism in Kant’s eyes now characterizes his own philosophical inheritance.
Here’s a question you don’t come across everyday: Why did we need Kant? Why did philosophy have to discover the transcendental? Why did the constitutive activity of cognition elude every philosopher before the 18th Century? The fact we had to discover it means that it was somehow ‘always there,’ implicit in our experience and behaviour, but we just couldn’t see it. Not only could we not see it, we didn’t even realize it was missing, we had no inkling we needed to understand it to understand ourselves and how we make sense of the world. Another way to ask the question of the inscrutability of the ‘transcendental,’ then, is to ask why the passivity of cognition is our default assumption. Why do we assume that ‘what we see is all there is’ when we reflect on experience?
Why are we all ‘naive Dogmatists’ by default?
It’s important to note that no one but no one disputes that it had to be discovered. This is important because it means that no one disputes that our philosophical forebears once uniformly neglected the transcendental, that it remained for them an unknown unknown. In other words, both the Intentionalist and the Eliminativist agree on the centrality of neglect in at least this one regard. The transcendental (whatever it amounts to) is not something that metacognition can readily intuit—so much so that humans engaged in thousands of years of ‘philosophical reflection’ without the least notion that it even existed. The primary difference is that the Intentionalist thinks they can overcome neglect via intuition and intellection, that theoretical metacognition (philosophical reflection), once alerted to the existence of the transcendental, suddenly somehow possesses the resources to accurately describe its structure and function. The Eliminativist, on the other hand, asks, ‘What resources?’ Lay them out! Convince me! And more corrosively still, ‘How do you know you’re not still blinkered by neglect?’ Show me the precautions!
The Eliminativist, in other words, pulls a Kant on Kant and demands what amounts to a metacritique of reason.
The fact is, short of this accounting of metacognitive resources and precautions, the Intentionalist has no way of knowing whether or not they’re simply a ‘Stage-Two Dogmatist,’ whether their ‘clarity,’ like the specious clarity of the Dogmatist, isn’t simply the product of neglect—a kind of metacognitive illusion in effect. For the Eliminativist, the transcendental (whatever its guise) is a metacognitive artifact. For them, the obvious problems the Intentionalist faces—the supernaturalism of their posits, the underdetermination of their theories, the lack of decisive practical applications—are all symptomatic of inquiry gone wrong. Moreover, they find it difficult to understand why the Intentionalist would persist in the face of such problems given only a misplaced faith in their metacognitive intuitions—especially when the sciences of the brain are in the process of discovering the actual constitutive activity responsible! You want to know what’s really going on ‘implicitly,’ ask a cognitive neuroscientist. We’re just toying with our heuristics out of school otherwise.
We know that conscious cognition involves selective information uptake for broadcasting throughout the brain. We also know that no information regarding the astronomically complex activities constitutive of conscious cognition as such can be so selected and broadcast. So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that the constitutive activity responsible for experience and cognition eludes experience and cognition—that the ‘transcendental,’ so-called, had to be discovered. More importantly, it should come as no surprise that this constitutive activity, once discovered, would be systematically misinterpreted. Why? The philosopher ‘reflects’ on experience and cognition, attempts to ‘recollect’ them in subsequent moments of experience and cognition, in effect, and realizes (as Hume did regarding causality, say) that the information available cannot account for the sum of experience and cognition: the philosopher comes to believe (beginning most famously with Kant) that experience does not entirely beget experience, that the constitutive constraints on experience somehow lie orthogonal to experience. Since no information regarding the actual neural activity responsible is available, and since, moreover, no information regarding this lack is available, the philosopher presumes these orthogonal constraints must conform to their metacognitive intuitions. Since the resulting constraints are incompatible with causal cognition, they seem supernatural: transcendental, virtual, quasi-transcendental, aspectual, what have you. The ‘implicit’ becomes the repository of otherworldly constraining or constitutive activities.
Philosophy had to discover the transcendental because of metacognitive neglect—on this fact, both the Intentionalist and the Eliminativist agree. The Eliminativist simply takes the further step of holding neglect responsible for the ontologically problematic, theoretically underdetermined, and practically irrelevant character of Intentionalism. Far from what Kant supposed, Critical Philosophy—in all its incarnations, historical and contemporary–simply repeats, rather than solves, these sins of Dogmatism. The reason for this, the Eliminativist says, is that it overcomes one metacognitive illusion only to run afoul a cluster of others.
This is the sense in which Blind Brain Theory can be seen as completing as much as overthrowing the Kantian project. Though Kant took cognitive dogmatism, the assumption of cognitive simplicity and passivity, as his target, he nevertheless ran afoul metacognitive dogmatism, the assumption of metacognitive simplicity and passivity. He thought—as his intellectual heirs still think—that philosophical reflection possessed the capacity to apprehend the superordinate activity of cognition, that it could accurately theorize reason and understanding. We now possess ample empirical grounds to think this is simply not the case. There’s the mounting evidence comprising what Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin has termed the ‘Introspection Illusion,’ direct evidence of metacognitive incompetence, but the fact is, every nonconscious function experimentally isolated by cognitive science illuminates another constraining/constitutive cognitive activity utterly invisible to philosophical reflection, another ignorance that the Intentionalist believes has no bearing on their attempts to understand understanding.
One can visually schematize our metacognitive straits in the following way:
This diagram simply presumes what natural science presumes, that you are a complex organism biomechanically synchronized with your environments. Light hits your retina, sound hits your eardrum, neural networks communicate and behaviours are produced. Imagine your problem-solving power set on a swivel and swung 360 degrees across the field of all possible problems, which is to say problems involving lateral, or nonfunctionally entangled environmental systems, as well as problems involving medial, or functionally entangled enabling systems, such as those comprising your brain. This diagram, then, visualizes the loss and gain in ‘cognitive dimensionality’—the quantity and modalities of information available for problem solving—as one swings from the third-person lateral to the first-person medial. Dimensionality peaks with external cognition because of the power and ancient evolutionary pedigree of the systems involved. The dimensionality plunges for metacognition, on the other hand, because of medial neglect, the way structural complicity, astronomical complexity, and evolutionary youth effectively renders the brain unwittingly blind to itself.
This is why the blue line tracking our assumptive or ‘perceived’ medial capacity in the figure peaks where our actual medial capacity bottoms out: with the loss in dimensionality comes the loss in the ability to assess reliability. Crudely put, the greater the cognitive dimensionality, the greater the problem-solving capacity, the greater the error-signalling capacity. And conversely, the less the cognitive dimensionality, the less the problem-solving capacity, the less the error-signalling capacity. The absence of error-signalling means that cognitive consumption of ineffective information will be routine, impossible to distinguish from the consumption of effective information. This raises the spectre of ‘psychological anosognosia’ as distinct from the clinical, the notion that the very cognitive plasticity that allowed humans to develop ACH thinking has led to patterns of consumption (such as those underwriting ‘philosophical reflection’) that systematically run afoul medial neglect. Even though low dimensionality speaks to cognitive specialization, and thus to the likely ineffectiveness of cognitive repurposing, the lack of error-signalling means the information will be routinely consumed no matter what. Given this, one should expect ACH thinking–reason–to be plagued with the very kinds of problems that plague theoretical discourse outside the sciences now, the perpetual coming up short, the continual attempt to retrace steps taken, the interminable lack of any decisive consensus…
Or what Kant calls ‘random groping.’
The most immediate, radical consequence of this 360 degree view is that the opposition between the first-person and third-person disappears. Since all the apparently supernatural characteristics rendering the first-person naturalistically inscrutable can now be understood as artifacts of neglect—illusions of problem-solving sufficiency—all the ‘hard problems’ posed by intentional phenomena simply evaporate. The metacritique of reason, far from pointing a way to any ‘science of the transcendental,’ shows how the transcendental is itself a dogmatic illusion, how cryptic things like the ‘apriori’ are obvious expressions of medial neglect, sources of constraint ‘from nowhere’ that baldly demonstrate our metacognitive incapacity to recognize our metacognitive incapacity. For all the prodigious problem-solving power of logic and mathematics, a quick glance at the philosophy of either is enough to assure you that no one knows what they are. Blind Brain Theory explains this remarkable contrast of insight and ignorance, how we could possess tools so powerful without any decisive understanding of the tools themselves.
The metacritique of reason, then, leads to what might be called ‘pronaturalism,’ a naturalism that can be called ‘progressive’ insofar as it continues to eschew the systematic misapplication of intentional cognition to domains that it cannot hope to solve—that continues the process of exorcising ghosts from the machinery of nature. The philosophical canon swallowed Kant so effortlessly that people often forget he was attempting to put an end to philosophy, to found a science worthy of the name, one which grounded both the mechanical and the ghostly. By rendering the ghostly the formal condition of any cognition of the mechanical, however, he situated his discourse squarely in the perpetually underdetermined domain of philosophy. His failure was inevitable.
The metacritique of reason makes the very same attempt, only this time anchored in the only real credible source of theoretical cognition we possess: the sciences. It allows us to peer through the edifying fog of our intentional traditions and to see ourselves, at long last, as wholly continuous with crazy shit like this…