Neuroscience as Socio-Cognitive Pollution
Want evidence of the Semantic Apocalypse? Look no further than your classroom.
As the etiology of more and more cognitive and behavioural ‘deficits’ is mapped, more and more of what once belonged to the realm of ‘character’ is being delivered to the domain of the ‘medical.’ This is why professors and educators more generally find themselves institutionally obliged to make more and more ‘accommodations,’ as well as why they find their once personal relations with students becoming ever more legalistic, ever more structured to maximally deflect institutional responsibility. Educators relate with students in an environment that openly declares their institutional incompetence regarding medicalized matters, thus providing students with a failsafe means to circumvent their institutional authority. This short-circuit is brought about by the way mechanical, or medical, explanations of behaviour impact intuitive/traditional notions regarding responsibility. Once cognitive or behavioural deficits are redefined as ‘conditions,’ it becomes easy to argue that treating those possessing the deficit the same as those who do not amounts to ‘punishing’ them for something they ‘cannot help.’ The professor is thus compelled to ‘accommodate’ to level the playing field, in order to be moral.
On Blind Brain Theory, this trend is part and parcel of the more general process of ‘social akrasis,’ the becoming incompatible of knowledge and experience. The adaptive functions of morality turn on certain kinds of ignorance, namely, ignorance of the very kind of information driving medicalization. Once the mechanisms underwriting some kind of ‘character flaw’ are isolated, that character flaw ceases to be a character flaw, and becomes a ‘condition.’ Given pre-existing imperatives to grant assistance to those suffering conditions, behaviour once deemed transgressive becomes symptomatic, and moral censure becomes immoral. Character flaws become disabilities. The problem, of course, is that all transgressive behaviour—all behaviour period, in fact—can be traced back to various mechanisms, begging the question, ‘Where does accommodation end?’ Any disparity in classroom performance can be attributed to disparities between neural mechanisms.
The problem, quite simply, is that the tools in our basic socio-cognitive toolbox are adapted to solve problems in the absence of mechanical cognition—it literally requires our blindness to certain kinds of facts to reliably function. We are primed ‘to hold responsible’ those who ‘could have done otherwise’—those who have a ‘choice.’ Choice, quite famously, requires some kind of fictional discontinuity between us and our precursors, a discontinuity that only ignorance and neglect can maintain. ‘Holding responsible,’ therefore, can only retreat before the advance of medicalization, insofar as the latter involves the specification of various behavioural precursors.
The whole problem of this short circuit—and the neuro-ethical mire more generally, in fact—can be seen as a socio-cognitive version of a visual illusion, where the atypical triggering of different visual heuristics generates conflicting visual intuitions. Medicalization stumps socio-cognition in much the same way the Muller-Lyer Illusion stumps the eye: It provides atypical (evolutionarily unprecedented, in fact) information, information that our socio-cognitive systems are adapted to solve without. Causal information regarding neurophysiological function triggers an intuition of moral exemption regarding behaviour that could never have been solved as such in our evolutionary history. Neuroscientific understanding of various behavioural deficits, however defined, cues the application of a basic, heuristic capacity within a historically unprecedented problem-ecology. If our moral capacities have evolved to solve problems neglecting the brains involved, to work around the lack of brain information, then it stands to reason that the provision of that information would play havoc with our intuitive problem-solving. Brain information, you could say, is ‘non-ecofriendly,’ a kind of ‘informatic pollutant’ in the problem-ecologies moral cognition is adapted to solve.
The idea that heuristic cognition generates illusions is now an old one. In naturalizing intentionality, Blind Brain Theory allows us to see how the heuristic nature of intentional problem-solving regimes means they actually require the absence of certain kinds of information to properly function. Adapted to solve social problems in the absence of any information regarding the actual functioning of the systems involved, our socio-cognitive toolbox literally requires that certain information not be available to function properly. The way this works can be plainly seen with the heuristics governing human threat detection, say. Since our threat detection systems are geared to small-scale, highly interdependent social contexts, the statistical significance of any threat information is automatically evaluated against a ‘default village.’ Our threat detection systems, in other words, are geared to problem-ecologies lacking any reliable information regarding much larger populations. To the extent that such information ‘jams’ reliable threat detection (incites irrational fears), one might liken such information to pollution, to something ecologically unprecedented that renders previously effective cognitive adaptations ineffective.
I actually think ‘cognitive pollution’ is definitive of modernity, that all modern decision-making occurs in information environments, many of them engineered, that cut against our basic decision-making capacities. The ‘ecocog’ ramifications of neuroscientific information, however, promise to be particularly pernicious.
Our moral intuitions were always blunt instruments, the condensation of innumerable ancestral social interactions, selected for their consequences rather than their consistencies. Their resistance to any decisive theoretical regimentation—the mire that is ‘metaethics’—should come as no surprise. But throughout this evolutionary development, neurofunctional neglect remained a constant: at no point in our evolutionary history were our ancestors called on to solve moral problems possessing neurofunctional information. Now, however, that information has become an inescapable feature of our moral trouble-shooting, spawning ad hoc fixes that seem to locally serve our intuitions, while generating any number of more global problems.
A genuine social process is afoot here.
A neglect based account suggests the following interpretation of what’s happening: As medicalization (biomechanization) continues apace, the social identity of the individual is progressively divided into the subject, the morally liable, and the abject, the morally exempt. Like a wipe in cinematic editing, the scene of the abject is slowly crawling across the scene of the subject, generating more and more breakdowns of moral cognition. Becoming abject doesn’t so much erase as displace liability: one individual’s exemption (such as you find in accommodation) from moral censure immediately becomes a moral liability for their compatriots. The paradoxical result is that even as we each become progressively more exempt from moral censure, we become progressively more liable to provide accommodation. Thus the slow accumulation of certain professional liabilities as the years wear on. Those charged with training and assessing their fellows will in particular face a slow erosion in their social capacity to censure—which is to say, evaluate—as accommodation and its administrative bureaucracies slowly continue to bloat, capitalizing on the findings of cognitive science.
The process, then, can be described as one where progressive individual exemption translates into progressive social liability: given our moral intuitions, exemptions for individuals mean liabilities for the crowd. Thus the paradoxical intensification of liability that exemption brings about: the process of diminishing performance liability is at once the process of increasing assessment liability. Censure becomes increasingly prone to trigger censure.
The erosion of censure’s public legitimacy is the most significant consequence of this socio-cognitive short-circuit I’m describing. Heuristic tool kits are typically whole package deals: we evolved our carrot problem-solving capacity as part of a larger problem-solving capacity involving sticks. As informatic pollutants destroy more and more of the stick’s problem-solving habitat, the carrots left behind will become less and less reliable. Thus, on a ‘zombie morality’ account, we should expect the gradual erosion of our social system’s ability to police public competence—a kind of ‘carrot drift.’
This is how social akrasis, the psychotic split between the nihilistic how and fantastic what of our society and culture, finds itself coded within the individual. Broken autonomy, subpersonally parsed. With medicalization, the order of the impersonal moves, not simply into the skull of the person, but into their performance as well. As the subject/abject hybrid continues to accumulate exemptions, it finds itself ever more liable to make exemptions. Since censure is communicative, the increasing liability of censure suggests a contribution, at least, to the increasing liability of moral communication, and thus, to the politicization of public interpersonal discourse.
How this clearly unsustainable trend ends depends on the contingencies of a socially volatile future. We should expect to witness the continual degradation in the capacity of moral cognition to solve in what amounts to an increasingly polluted information environment. Will we overcome these problems via some radical new understanding of social cognition? Or will this lead to some kind of atavistic backlash, the institution of some kind of informatic hygiene—an imposition of ignorance on the public? I sometimes think that the kind of ‘liberal atrocity tales’ I seem to endlessly encounter among my nonacademic peers point in this direction. For those ignorant of the polluting information, the old judgments obviously apply, and stories of students not needing to give speeches in public-speaking classes, or homeless individuals being allowed to dump garbage in the river, float like sparks from tongue to tongue, igniting the conviction that we need to return to the old ways, thus convincing who knows how many to vote directly against their economic interests. David Brookes, protege of William F. Buckley and conservative columnist for The New York Times, often expresses amazement at the way the American public continues to drift to the political right, despite the way fiscal conservative reengineering of the market continues to erode their bargaining power. Perhaps the identification of liberalism with some murky sense of the process described above has served to increase the rhetorical appeal of conservatism…
The sense that someone, somewhere, needs to be censured.
As always, I really enjoy when you tangent.
So lack of recognition (in behavior, for instance) yet toleration of these novel, unshared deviations amounts to socio-cognitive pollution?
We’re in for a rough ride, I’d say.
Extending the logic of this argument really gives you a sense of how much of a ‘desert of the real’ (or ‘zombie’) perspective it provides. ‘Pollution’ is a normatively loaded term, of course: you could say that much of the pollution, so-called, is actually advantageous, insofar as it has allowed us to overcome the kind of violence that characterizes hunter-gatherer societies, for instance. ‘Adaptive’ can mean a whole host of things, many horrific given our modern moral sensibilities. This stuff is the whole reason I find BBT so repugnant and frightening: imagine, the ‘moral progress’ that (as my old teacher John Lachs used to so convincingly argue) characterizes modernity is in point of fact an outcome of the slow expansion of the ‘infosphere’ of human communities, the way different technologies permit the dessemination of ‘ingroup identifying’ information, that cues the application of ingroup (cooperative) as opposed social solving regimes. On this account, ‘pollution’ has made this possible!
Completely understand the choice of a loaded term, just responding in the verbiage of this piece :).
That analogue is simply one of the many reasons I enjoy your perspective so much; once we start adopting this sort of perspective, these “horror of the real” cruxes seem more and more obvious and clear.
Expect a revival of the appeal of eugenics. It’s scientific, or at least pseudoscientific so it allows for moral censure disguised as scientific judgement. Also expect an increase in involuntary confinement in psychiatric hospitals that look suspiciously prison-like.
Well, many eugenics-like paradigms are still with us, like amniocentesis for birth defect screening (and subsequent abortion in some non-trivial percentage of cases). I don’t see anything unscientific (or even immoral) about this.
Not yet, but consider the people described here:
If it becomes possible to spot genetic markers for a tendency to antisocial or psychopathic behavior in the womb would it make sense to have those fetuses aborted, even against the will of the parents? If they are allowed to be born and then come into contact with the medical/criminal justice system would it make sense to sterilize them, even against their will? When science gives us the ability to make genuinely informed choices about which genes will be allowed to reproduce the question of who will make those choices will have to be addressed. Eugenics is a sort of moral/scientific hybrid, and I think a lot of those hybrids will be invented or revived in the not to distance future.
Yea, been reading three new works: Richard Oertun’s “The Nonsense of Free Will”, Bruce Hood’s “The Self Illusion”, and Michael S. Gazzaniga’s new “Who’s in Charge?” … something else has been something connecting to your notion of medicalization… the sense that the framework and terminology is changing again… wit the influx of behavioral economics displacing rational choice theory over the past decade we’re seeing a return to the affective relations world of Spinoza style thinking, whereas before it was all James Buchanan… and their ilk for past 30 years or so… after R.D. Laing and his conquest of the medical system back in the 60’s through numbers and statistics…
Now it seems behaviorism is returning through the back door in neurosciences …
So which side of the fence do you situate yourself in functional vs. modular thinking in neurosciences? Sometimes I get lost in the maze of all these competing systems and explanatory frameworks. 🙂
I’m curious what you think of Hood – lemme know.
I worry about ‘behaviourism’ as a term, since for me it always connotes phenomenalism as well, an insistence on input/output or ‘black box’ interpretations of behaviourism (I actually have a post on the blocks dealing with Chomsky’s famous and devastating review of Skinner’s project). The radical empirical underdetermination of behaviour, the fact that far, far more than mere ‘conditioning’ was going on, underscores the degree to which we rely on socio-cognitive heuristics to even interpret animal behaviour. Short of some biological way of understanding that understanding (such as BBT provides), intentionalism seems to be the immediate and obvious default.
Modularity is true to some extent, and functionalism (so long as the functions are natural and not spooky) is simply a given. I’m actually with Carruthers to the extent that I think ‘general cognition’ is a cobble of specialized cognitions: I actually tend to think human consciousness (among other things) is a kind of ‘exaptation device,’ a way to submit novel problems to existing learned and evolved problem-solving devices. I don’t think BBT requires ‘massive modularity,’ however.
Sounds more like the black box of the mind makes for allowances without caveats. I mean, if someone loses their dominant hand, do we take it that because he can’t press buttons with that abscence he can’t press buttons at all.
So when it comes to ADHD or whatever other condition…well, without a practical vector to measure just what they can and can’t help*, that’s one factor, the second being all the various authorities who like to be seen as good guys at dinner parties (as well as it keeping them in various wages rather than hounded out of work by the politicall correct/politcally aspirant) who will simply exempt people with a condition from responsibility. And just how much can anyone argue with them with the mind being a black box (while the unfortunate amputee is far easier to argue)
More and more gutless authorities and more and more unarguable black box stuff.
Mind you, how do the various studies of smacking a child on the bum go? Back and forth but perhaps mostly forth towards not doing it? And then you can watch some parent holding a small child, the child smacking the parent full on in the face. Because we’d rather be misstreated than the dreadful bad guy…?
* And the scientists who investigated such conditions have SFA idea about social ramifications as they’ve been trained to avoid all that subjective shit, even as authority for who avoids responsibility is essentially being indirectly thrown onto their shoulders.
Exemption does seem to be becoming an industry, that’s for damn sure.
Let go and be free, observing the observable will in the end make our lives less meaningful and to observe to counteract and observation, whether it be psychological cognitive or work related, is to urinate in your own drinking water
If the corporations and politicians would refrain from observring, then that could be somewhat viable (or atleast make the observation go the slow human way, over centuries or millenia)
There’s an alternative explanation of this medicalization of the academy, which has to do with postmodernism and what Erich Fromm called the escape from freedom. Instead of seeing the neural mechanisms as legitimately undermining morality and subjectivity, spoiled postmodern young folks use whatever they can to rationalize their weaknesses and to get ahead in a more competitive marketplace. The taboo on holding people accountable for their screw-ups or shortcomings falls out of postmodern relativism, multiculturalism, and the loss of faith in modern metanarratives of absolute reason, truth, and freedom.
There’s also the feminization of culture due to feminism and the increase of women in the marketplace. Women may not be as aggressive or competitive as men, or at least they’re inclined to be more cooperative than cut-throat, so they look for ways to help people up instead of knocking them down. They’re also taught to be more in touch with their emotions, as opposed to identifying with their abstract image of themselves. Thus, they turn to body issues as excuses. But these feminine values have shaped all postmodern Western cultures.
Semiotic approaches don’t do much for me, I fear. It’s important to realize that no one ‘sees morality undermined’: the information simply cues a different courses of action. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand how ‘loss of faith in traditional metanarratives’ could be the big mover here (opposed to an aggravating background condition, perhaps). The medicalization of education is a quite distinctive process: many of these kids are identified in the public system and so arrive pre-medicalized.
The larger moral that frames your point, though, which is that the issue is a genuinely supercomplicated one, the expression of an impossible number of factors, certainly bears repeating: all social theoretical speculation is cartoonish in the extreme, BBT inspired or not. What I would argue, however, is that the age of semiotic cartoons is coming to an end. Why? Because each interpretation represents an analytic dead end and so an interpretative abyss (because of the utter absence of regress enders). The interpretation I provide here, though high altitude in the extreme, begs for all kinds of experimentation. It could be disconfirmed, unlike theses regarding metanarratives.
I was reading that new set of essays by Huw Price, with Brandom and others… of course Price is trying to establish a global expressivist anti-representationalist neopragmatist practice, Brandom a little more modest chooses a local version with his inferentialist methodological pragmatism combining Rorty’s notions of vocabularies (what you term heuristics) with Sellar’s ‘space of reasons’, etc.
Brandom’s base is that we’re all trapped in specific vocabularies, and that we cannot uncover our own vocabularies through epistemic means but only through expressive or making them explicit as metaheuristic data:
“My principle aim here has been to clarify the state of play that I understand as resulting from that recontextualisation, to indicate how some of my own work on expressive roles and pragmatic metavocabularies might contribute to greater analytic clarity on these issues and finally to say something about the challenges for further research that confront us as we try to discern and navigate the next level of fine structure in the relations between expression and representation, and between pragmatics and semantics generally.”
Price, Huw; Blackburn, Simon; Brandom, Robert (2013-04-30). Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism (p. 111). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
I’ve seen you work with several different metavocabularies or metaheuristic approaches trying to make your own BBT theory more explicit to those who read your blog. Sometimes I get exasperated wanting to turn to a dictionary or link of terms that would explain – not what you mean by the terms, but what these terms are ‘doing’ in your sentences, as well as why these terms rather than others are used.
In some ways the ‘information pollution’ is centered on the global elite who through capital can control, modify, and repurpose the multifarious vocabularies and heuristic toolsets institutionally in academic, think tanks, corporate, ngo’s, etc… Whereas the singular citizen of First or Third World countries are usually locked into one specific vocabulary – a monovision or cultural blindfold that keeps them blinded to other heuristic devices. I sometimes think that is what Marx really intended by raising the consciousness of people, was to wake them up out of their straitjackets and show them other possible vocabularies, thereby the notion of other forms of life as well.
Let’s face it philosophical naturalism was intended to clarify the conceptual tools of science, be a handmaiden while at the same time differing to science in the realm of experiential affairs. We are animals that were never intended for such massive socio-cultural complexity, and have become infested with as you say too much information pollution that no longer affords us the survival and reproductive strategies our natural systems need to live. We’re becoming something else, but have no real guides to weed through all the pollution. And, of course, as you’ve iterated: being blind to our own medial neglect, we don’t even know that we don’t know and blindly think we know what we don’t. lol tautology of tautologies 🙂
‘Metavocabularies’ are Brandom’s way to deflate his transcendentalism, a way of saying that the truth of God lies in the act of prayer, and so play the praying atheist. The key term in the quote is ‘next level of fine structure’: What is this ‘next level’? Where does it reside? What is this level such that it possesses structure? How is this structure cognized? How can we reliably distinguish reliable from unreliable cognition (decisively determine whether Price or Brandom are right, say)? Superordinate vocabularies may sound innocuous enough, but it’s normative metaphysics all the same.
Even still, the book sounds worth a read…
I prefer the first and second-order distinction to ‘metavocabularies’ simply because I think it’s more honest to the biological continuity of cognition. We solve problems, and among the problems we solve is the problem of problem solving. ‘Metavocabularies’ are, among other things, an attempt to slam the door on this continuity.
If any of my terms trouble you, by all means sound off. This is all a work in progress, an open notebook, and the more resistance I encounter the better!
Oh, no, I usually come around to understanding the terms easy enough. I was just commenting on the multiplicity and how your terms have changed over time on the blog, picking up things – I assume, from other newer neurosciences thinkers along the way.
Yea, what’s really weird in the work of McDowell, Brandom, Price, Sellars … is the convoluted path to their otherwise simple message between expressive and representational dichotomy. They take reams of paper to somehow make subtle nuanced reckonings between each others otherwise compatible works. All of it coming down to a pragmatics that speaks about what one is choosing to say at a second or meta remove: the choosing of these meta-vocabularies, and what one is going to ‘do’ with these vocabularies rather than what they will ‘describe’. This distinction between what one is doing with a heuristic device rather than its content or description.
It was this expressive anti-representationalism that Deleuze’s work comes in for me, since he was against such expressive tendencies and tended to believe there were certain powers and capacities in things that disposed them toward other objects, things, entities, etc.
Most of modern philosophy comes down to those who follow Hume and those against him in this believe in powers and capacities and the bundle theory.
It’s like whittling away in a black box not knowing what one is making; or, more correctly what is making one… The old adage: am I whittling or being whittled. You might know it better from its Chinese origins: Am I a butterfly dreaming it is a man, or a man dreaming its a butterfly. – Chang’tze (?)
I have to admit why I’m puzzled with Brandom is that otherwise original thinkers like Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani, both of whom in their earlier works were both coming out of ultra-nihilisms have suddenly shifted grounds from darker worlds of materialism and toward this nominalist and normative world of ‘give and take’ reasons that is almost Platonic in its need of an autonomous realm or ‘Space of Reasons’ (very Platonic and Kantian)?
I’ve seen other nihilists, such as Nick Land in his Thirst for Annihilation move from leftward thinking and into far right ideological neo-reactionary thought forms: Outside In blog, etc.
I think all of us went through some form of the nihilist stage either negative or positive and pushed through it to some type of stable relation to the meaninglessness of things, but why the rightward turn in so many … of course, Brassier and Negarestani would like you to believe they are still on the Left, but this normative bric-a-brac is theological through and through… and from that series of essays from Negarestani one gets the feeling of a dictatorship of technological Reason and normative practices. If that isn’t a turn to the right what is?
I’m more in you camp of sticking with the sciences that have over the centuries – out of skepticism of rationalist thought produced a steady stream of empirical and testable constructions of aspects of this thing we term ‘reality’ or the ‘real’. Philosophy has never done that – ever… Even the so to speak speculative realist turn is nothing more than a return to Idealist presuppositions in materialism and other forms of realist traditions stemming from Kant. None of it relevant to current scientific theory and practice. I guess I’m getting closer and closer to just chunking most of philosophy into the dust bin as an exercise in futility. Why? Because it seems that it will never have the explanatory power of the sciences, yet it presumes to think it can keep on creating the illusion of concepts as some kind of superior interface between reality and the brain. It’s seems to be a dead end. I think that’s what you’ve been saying for a long while now.
I know, I know… I keep beating my head against the metaphysical wall like a pong pong boyo… I keep thinking one of these days I’ll have to throw in the towel and accept that you’re right after all. haha… my problem is that then we’ll have to rethink every aspect of knowledge, power, and civilization within the neuroscientific models. Even Floridi in his information model leaves out the obvious connection to the most significant changes in the sciences and tries to hold onto some connection to philosophical bricolage. dang…
I’m liking what Hood is doing … his baseline is that we assume a self, but it is an illusion of memory and brain function, and that the brain needs this illusion as a form of interface and focal point in social relations since our sense of self is built up from early childhood on through our interactions with others rather than as some innate essentialist or Platonic notion. For him self is a function of the brain… but not the only one: their are a multiplicity of decisional processes below the surface of consciousness, but only one decision finally surfaces through the focal point. This breaks down in many cases like mental illness, old age, accidents, etc. It’s when the brain breaks down that much of our knowledge of these processes are discovered, but now with the advent of many of the new technologies of imaging we’re able to understand the ‘process’ itself in real time to some extent in humans, and to a greater extent in testable applications with lab animals. It seems a lot of these attacks o free will and the illusion of self are more about understanding the actual processes that create this illusion of self rather than dismissing the common sense feeling of self, which is obviously something even the hard core neuroscientists admit too. So its not so much trying to explain away this sense of self as it is to understand the underlying processes that invent it moment by moment and shape it over time….. I haven’t finished it yet, but will do a write up at some point.
The grounds for such philosophical pessimism have always been more powerful than the grounds for any individual philosophical point-of-view, I think. I see BBT as an empirical theory that, if confirmed, evidences ancient, Pyrrhonian skepticism. But the times, they are a-changing, and the generational philosophical heave-ho seems particularly anachronistic nowadays, with the sciences reengineering us as we speak. We’ve simply run out of time for salon idylls. That said, noocentrism will never cease commanding the mainstream, people will never stop trying to come up with ways to assert the reality of ghosts, be they fractionate and functional, or whole and anthropomorphic. It’s all of a piece, the need to make the neural watering hole that consciousness is into the supernatural spring that tradition and metacognitive intuition insist it must be. Opting for the worst-case scenario is bound to marginalize you. What use is a philosopher if they can’t even tell you what you want to hear?
Hood is in the basket!
I am wondering what the argument for absolutes in reality is. I am generally of the belief that the world exists in its observation. Just a question.
Beautiful write up of a fascinating subject. Not sure I agree with your premises or conclusions here:
What neuroscientific facts or explication of causal mechanisms? What we have at best are correlations pointing at the conclusion that we are our brains. At this point an intelligent open minded person should subscribe to that point of view, hence not be swayed by this or that new study correlating a this or that brain network with some “cognitive function”.
If one’s “essence” caused one to act or fail to act what does it matter if that “essence” is a brain or a soul? If we had no knowledge whatsoever of the underlying “essences” it obviously shouldn’t. And we don’t, in olden times of souls (cause they don’t exist 😛 ) , and these days of brains (because we’ve only started scratching the surface.). Mostly we just take stuff on faith as ascribed to us by authorities and institution. Hence, the difference derives from metaphysical baggage, superstition, or however you want to call the underlying biases.
I take this to mean that still as a culture, dualistic notions are very much well trenched.
Hopefully, we’ll move on/back to a workable notion of “subject” and responsibility soon.
That said, and interesting twist might kick in if neuroenhancement lives up to the hype: for example, imagine that one were able to enforce ones sexual tendencies through some NE device. What would we think of a paedophile then? Would we ascribe blame because he failed to PROGRAM the device?
Welcome to TPB, TF! The evidence that experience is intimately linked to brain function is nothing less than stupendous. What do we have suggesting we are more than our brain?
Brains and souls, it turns out, are drastically different items, each belonging to two entirely different ways of cognizing the world (one causal, the other intentional). Unfortunately, it matters a great deal ‘what causes us to act.’
This book deals with this question, I plan on getting around to reading it eventually.
So, im beginning to see what you are talking about. You are talking about meta cognition. I think you are asking what does science say about meta-cognition. And the aftermath these cognitive defects coming up against reality.
“If one’s “essence” caused one to act or fail to act what does it matter if that “essence” is a brain or a soul?”
Using the word essence to equate the causality of a physical brain with that of an immaterial soul reminds me of how anti-abortionists call a fertilized egg a baby and equate “living human tissue” with a “living human person”. A question about the brain “being” an essence is the same as a question about zygotes “having” an essence. Those utilizing causal cognition can find agreement on what would change their minds about the world. The only thing those utilizing intentional cognition can agree on is that nothing would change their minds.
That was more of less my point 🙂 The fact that someone juxtaposes results of say a neuroimaging study and the term causality within a sentence doesn’t make for an argument about our cognitive economy.
1) causality is a very complicated term, even when we only consider physics: e.g. the difference between billiard balls, chaotic systems, and particles (statistical mechanics). Nevertheless in philosophical augments people seem to assume the former.
2) even if we put that aside, mental causality is far more complicated, and actually a dubious notion. The reason being of course that our concepts are lousy at describing not only physical actions, but actually psychological ones as well.
3) (system) neuroscience is for the most part about correlations, therefore even if you would disregard 1 and 2 people treat these correlations as if the real science had been carried out.
So when we apply the results of neurosicence to ethics we are mostly mind fucking ourselves, still very much entrapped in generic soul body dualism.
Free will as a concept has holes in it regardless of the metaphysics as far as i can see (as of course does the classical notion of determinism as 20th century physic shows us but i don’t want to go there). Does that mean that it is not a meaningful psychological (phenomenological) construct that is more than sufficient for ethics? I for one think that our experience of the process of choice can be understood and modelled in a way that will do justice to (at least some of) our intuitions, even though it won’t paint us as being truly free (because what the fuck does that even mean?).
I’m not sure I understand your take here, TF. Are you saying the relation between transcranial stimulation, various neuropathologies, and so on and various kinds of experiences are only ‘correlations’? Or are you generalizing from the thetic difficulties of imaging studies to cognitive science as a whole? Or are you assuming that mechanism here isn’t understood stochastically, but in some crude deterministic sense? Like I said, the evidence that experience is causally dependant on brain function is about as conclusive as can be.
‘Causality’ is a complicated term for philosophers, certainly, but for scientists, not so much. One reason I prefer the term ‘mechanism’ is simply that this is generally what scientists see themselves cognizing in the life sciences. Given the success of those sciences, I’ll take their understanding over a philosopher’s any day.
well whatever it is I was trying to say i obviously fell short of the mark 🙂
tCS does indeed come closer to actually working in the framework of causality – which is why i’m all for it. However tCS is far from being textbook material at this point (and everybody is immediately doing tCS in conjunction with decision making or something and not the fucking basic science – e.g. how tCS effects brain dynamics – which is not helping). For the most part studies that do the nature->NYT->the collective consciousness track are mostly neuroimaging ones.
Be that as it may, the notion of causality applied in quantum mechanics (say in this computer) and in clinical trials for drugs are really distant cousins. One could certainly make the point that until we have subdecimal precision of predictions derived from definite equations we are still only doing phenomenology/correlations.
As I said, i personally don’t see the point to debate the notion that we are our brains. We knew that before say the last decade of neuroscience however. Will the neurosciences transform out perception of man (or should i say person 🙂 ), change the world and all that – sure! are we there yet, no!
[and BTW who cares what scientist think of what they do – it’s the praxis that counts]
so to reiterate my point, “soul” and “brain” (given what we know) are currently very poor explanatory mechanisms when it comes to explaining cognition, or as engines for moralizing. because brain science is more hype than science (or promise if one is shooting for benevolence), people are in fact integrating what findings it has to offer in the previous judeo-christian dualism framework. hence the nonsensical conclusions/actions in current moral actions which were so astutely underscored in the initial post. just my two cents
So where should accommodation end, in your view?
The diagnosis is terminal, I fear. I haven’t the foggiest what can be done.
A good, likable answer. I approve of the serenity of it. Even the most terrible news can take some comfort and consolation in knowing that there was nothing that could have been done (or, more cynically, that you don’t have to do anything. But to anyone who says it’s too passive, an answer might be “look where active has got us”).
It seems to me that it should lead to a utilitarian system of ethics, in which the notions of blame, intentionality and accountability do not exist. Policies are set that seek to maximize some measure of utility to the public. For example, the justice system in the US could change from being excessively (pointlessly) punitive, to restorative, as seems to be the case in much of Europe. Restorative, not because forgiveness/rehabilitation are determined to be morally good, but because empirically this seems to produce good outcomes for society.
In The Asimov Illusion you wrote
“Make no mistake, our dependence on machine intelligences will continue to grow and grow and grow. The more human inefficiencies are purged from the system, the more reliant humans become on the system.”
The confusion between competing moral instincts you describe is exactly the sort of inefficiency that one would expect to be purged. I doubt that machine intelligences will be politically correct, so this may only be a problem in the short term.
This is the big point about BBTs debunking humanism: it means that all bets are off for the future. Do we install versions of our own socio-cog heuristics in our machines? Let them flounder as much as we do? I doubt it.
Likewise, would they want us installed in them?
I posted the follownig link in the comments to the “Future of Literature in the Age of Information” essay and now that I’ve read this post, I think it is applicable to post it here.
Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0
Whoosh… I’m about as extreme Left as you can get… but I’m more worried about all this stuff it down your throat ‘political correctness’ normativity: it’s as if some on the progressive agenda have become more reactionary than the Moral Majority Right. It’s as if the old style liberatory modernism of with Henry Miller, the Beats, Burroughs, etc. had never happened. The new moral world seems to be turning round to Victorian Age morality rather than the earlier forms of progressive sexuality and expressiveness.
This notion of triggers, etc. is an agenda to force and conform… this is coercion and tending toward forms of fascist domination of our codes and behavior which I’m as an old school Lefty totally against.
Not that I disagree with the following, but I couldn’t help but read this and think of this blog post.
“Second, in asking whether poverty reinforces itself through psychological channels, we are not suggesting that the poor bear blame for their poverty. Rather, an environment of poverty into which one happens to have been born can trigger processes that reinforce poverty. ”
That was in a review called “On the psychology of poverty”, authored by Haushofer and Fehr. It appeared in this week’s issue of science.
No one is to blame for anything. Not the poor, not alcoholics, or wife beaters. Not Mason, not Hitler, not that guy in Connecticut that raped two women then set them on fire.
Yes, I can see how this line of reasoning would lead many to conclude that academic cognitive science has gone batshit, and we must return to the Old Ways.
I’d say that both is blaming them (‘It’s your psychology, man! It’s not that it takes money to make money – it’s your psychology! You’re thinking all wrong!’) and I don’t know how that extends to exempting wife beaters and so on?
Though I was wondering about the ‘poor can’t be blamed for their position’ idea that I think has been brought up here once or twice and how do we go from blaming students for incapacity to that idea? Bit of a [scene missing] inbetween.
But I wasn’t sure, as academia has a boardgame like structure while the wild open world has no game structure (or little to no game structure).
But what if neuroscience could actually fix the problems it finds? We might agree that pedophilia should be ‘fixed’ but what about for instance homosexuality or autism? In general who will exercise the power that brain-machine interfaces, machine intelligence, neuro and nanotechnology and the like will provide? In Rants Within the Undead God Ben Cain discusses psychopath god-kings and the rise of civilization. What might a megalomaniac accomplish with the technology we seem likely to have in fifty years? It is quite possible that fifty years from now human beings will no longer have morals or moral quandaries as we know them today. As human beings adjust to a world run by machines and investor-psychopaths many of the things that we think of as the essence of what it means to be human will come to seem inessential.
So what rationalizes sanction or censure in a post-intentional morality? The fascinating thing about this question is that it’s impossible to answer (and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t even occur for a machine intelligence!). Sanction or censure would be the product of environmental cues/communications, background conditions engineered to foster certain behavioural convergences, on the back of a stack of similar such processes reaching back 3 billion years. Certain swathes of those processes we’ve webbed together relying on intentional heuristics whose covariational dividends cannot be decomposed and cashed out in higher grain terms. We’ve used this rough and ready, nondecomposable, metacognitively opaque cognitive system to reliably manage and navigate astronomically complicated environments (and beyond this, to perpetually stymy anyone cursed with philosophical inclinations) since the bloody beginning. It’s not going anywhere soon. If anything they’ll keep finding ways to keep us compliant and numb (like the pharmaceutical industry has), convince us to pay them to hack away those parts pinched by the auto-altering pants of techno-social transformation. This is what I think Adorno grasped all those years ago: the dream of finding a new form of social cognition is messianic in a number of senses. I think they’ll just hack the one we have to senseless jelly first.
Perhaps morality is intentional all the way through, and post-intentional morality is a contradiction. In a zero-sum, machine dominated but still capitalist world perhaps morality will be replaced by game theory. Actions will be profit making or loss making, not good or evil.
Perhaps – but it will be as illusory as current morality when you consider that cognitive science has exposed game theory’s assumptions about rationality to be preposterously wrong.
cognitive science has exposed game theory’s assumptions about rationality to be preposterously wrong.
How did they prove that? Maybe I don’t understand game theory, but if you aren’t rationale, then you lose* (or are more likely to lose). Like Dave Sirlin talking about scrub players who think throws in the street fighter video game are cheap – he calls them scrubs because of this irrational attitude about throws*.
Maybe it’s some other kind of game theory because what I understand of it it isn’t overturned if someone is just bad at games?
* Which brings us to games having safety nets…
* Not that Dave hasn’t done some irrationality on his forums – installing ranking buttons because of someone who swore alot – then twisting their intent to say he hoped someone who said something that he dissagreed with had their post downrated into oblivion. Who disagreed with him – well, who else 😉 (ps: It was about street fighter and ‘cheat’ character Akuma breaking the game – he didn’t want to hear that)
Human beings are not usually rational in the way defined by game theory, however it’s possible that machine intelligences will be rational in the game-theoretic sense. If machine intelligences are rational in the game theoretic sense and if human beings turn over more authority to machine intelligences it seems reasonable to expect game theory rationality to supercede human morailty.
Have there been any updates to game theory because there are thousands of co-operative games out there and game theory seems entirely focused on poker or such, where every man is out for himself.
It’s entirely rational for the cleric to spend his turn healing the fighter instead of fighting off a monster on the cleric, and it’s entirely rational for the fighter to attack a monster that’s on the cleric. Otherwise when the fighter dies the cleric inherits all the monsters that survived the fighter and if the cleric dies the fighter loses his source of healing he might need to escape back to civilisation or even the healing he needs to survive this fight.
The question is whether such acts occur in each player because of nieve reflexive cooperativeness or from calculated, ruthless pragmatism. Though I believe in cooperative play the latter often bleeds over into the former. Come to think of it, it might be interesting to force sociopaths into such game roles, see what happens.
If game theory isn’t covering this already and just nievely fixated on the every man for himself model – well, gosh, what happened?
As the end of this clip:
points out, the only people who play the game rationally are economists and psychopaths, the very people who are runnng the economy today and who seem likely to run it in the future. Perhaps all human beings will have to become more economic/psychopathic to function in the coming world. Our intelligent machines will remake us in their image, which, because the machines will be made by capitalists, will be economic/psychopathic. Perhaps the future will be like Thomas Hobbes’ imagined past, a war of all against all.
Thing is that machines have been co-evolving with us for thousands of years, so in that sense we’ve been making them and they’ve in kind done the same to us. Think on it: the greatest machine humans never created was ‘FIRE’; yet, if we had not discovered the process by which to make this natural machine and harness it for our own use things would be much different. But once we did harness it then it reshape the very infrastructure of humanity and enabled a complete revamping of our social realms, etc. It’s like we think we can put the genie back into the bottle, but we brought the genie out of our own being: so maybe that tells us more about who we are than the threats that machines hold for us in the future. We are ourselves machines of a different order: biomechanical creatures who process the sun’s energy just like all other creatures on this good earth.
Will the machines of our future be continuous with the machines of our past? Willl the machines of our future be able to do things other than what human beings instruct them to do? If that becomes the case our experience with the machines of our past will cease to be useful.
If you replace cleric with Navy Corpsman, fighter with U. S. Marine rifleman and monster with Taliban fighter you see that combat is about as zero-sum a game as there is. That having been said, you’re right that game theory is unable to explain why men die for each other in battle. I think that is because game theory is unable to explain how men come to identify with things larger than themselves. If you believe Scott or the game theorists the beliefs that inspire heroism are all bullshit anyway, and there are no values, only prices.
Actually, BBT implies a kind of perverse fatalism, if anything, not egoism.
There’s a kind of game theory in that though, Michael – why would it be bullshit? Okay, so you’re doing X labour in hope of the Y treasure that’s in the treasure chest. But the treasure chest turns out to be empty. Sure, game theory says that’s a bust.
So does there have to be a full treasure chest out there to pay for heroism?
Hi! Just wanted to let you know that me and the admins at second-apocalypse.com have a Bakker Twitter Fan thing going. We’ll be posting links to the forum and news and enthusiasms. Is there anything you’d like to see? May I have your permission to link to your Earwa pictures? Cheers!
Most definitely! I’m not very savvy when it comes to the Twitter thing, I fear. (I have a hard enough time keeping on top of email!) I just enter the definitions on Tweetdeck and that’s it.
I know your busy, but you might want to direct some of your twitter followers to
I’m doing most of the tweets, but Madness, Wilshire, and Francis Buck from TSA forum are in on it too. If we could get some of your followers over to the TSA forum that would be awesome.
If you want, you can just copy and paste this:
Fans – The people at @Bakker_Fanatics
It’s free PR boss!
The scariest thing about philosophy is how it is misused by politics. I am not an expert on Friedrich Nietzsche but I’m pretty certain there is nothing genocidal in his writings. Philosophers, like scientists, deny moral responsibility for the misuses to which their work is put but it is at least worthwhile to consider those kinds of worst case scenarios.
[…] https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/neuroscience-as-socio-cognitive-pollution/ […]
Do you think you will have some news to post regarding The Unholy Consult soon?
Blog is good
Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.
Very well said, obviously you have been able to avoid the pitfalls of modernism in education. God bless you for trying to stem the tide of the rising neurostatic society.
The premise of “science destroying our judgment” grabbed me like a sumo wrestler. Since the day God asked Cain about the brother he had murdered men have dodged their moral responsibilities as if it were a plague. We do not want to “own up” for our naturally bankrupt tendencies. We do not want to be keepers for our brothers welfare if it means detracting from our own “four and no more” mind set. Since the dawn of time when ever men lived amongst others with equally desperate weaknesses and propensities men have shown our utter savagery over others we deemed as obstacles to our peculiar standards.
Another tact used to reduce blame is to discredit and renounce guilt by qualifying the perpetrator as a victim themselves. The first I heard of such were in public schools where obnoxious or head strong students were excused for their behavior simply on a premise of equality! Rather than correct or deal with the inappropriate behavior the students who were there to learn were punished by having to tolerate and accept the trouble makers!
Now “neuroscience” (or should I say pseudoscience?) is further clouding and confusing normal norms by redefining social patterns and dynamics for the sake of eliminating our Creators original intent! Why should man bother to adhere to good conscience if he can get a medical excuse for his deviant behavior?
Reblogged this on Broken and Blessed and commented:
Though I can’t claim to understand the more technical aspects of this article, I do understand the concepts and I agree that this is not sustainable. Let’s try to bring back the idea that we are still responsible for our own behavior and stop making excuses for ourselves and others. Part of loving each other, as every parent knows, is holding each other and ourselves accountable.
Most interesting…thank you…Claudio *
Reblogged this on Pharma Life Science and commented:
Reblogged to http://pharmalifescience.wordpress.com
Reblogged this on reymarklamac.
This is a very interesting article. I am intrigued as I am just beginning my journey as a blogger, having gone through a year of trying to heal my brain from Tbi.
I can see where you are coming from. But what about those students who are truly in need of accommodation? While these services have been greatly abused, there is still a real percentage of students who need the help.
Reblogged this on Modern Issues: Psychology and commented:
Reblogged this on Elephants Need Elephants and People Need Art and commented:
This is exactly what I find has happened to the Edmonton Valley Zoo and their self righteous , idiot
determination to keep this elephant and the tag along masses supporting them.
After writing this 3 times I am reluctant to trust my erring computer, however this is exactly the condition I find happening as I seek an understanding that is blocking my goal of freeing Lucy thee elephant to a sanctuary. I feel this is an exact behavioral insight into the thought process
and beliefs of the Edmonton Valley zoo.
Reblogged this on Nanobyte and commented:
[…] really any surprise that causal information would scuttle problem-solving adapted to solve in its absence? And given our blindness to the heuristic nature of the systems involved, is it any surprise that […]
Interesting. Times are changing.
Loved this piece, even though, I’m not sufficiently educated in the sphere to understand some of the more esoteric medical terms, but there was one thought running through my head, as I read and think about the male/female relationships I’ve read about and encountered in the almost 50years, since I became interested in the opposite sex…
If behaviours are the result of complex genetic and bio-chemical processes, what part do hormones play in our natural behaviours, and should we as citizens of the world anticipate, accept and tolerate them?
“behaviour once deemed transgressive becomes symptomatic” – yet the feminists take the reverse judgement, as the moral argument for men’s behaviours, assuming that because a man is attracted to a woman’s form (heterosexual men anyway), that that is objectifying them (which they hate), because that forces them to compete and/or behave in ways that men like (which they also hate).
We have to realise that evolutionary biology has a major role to play, and our chromosomes, genetics, and hormones turn us into the adults we become. If we are slightly more accepting of “Sexist” behaviour, from both sides of the gender divide, is that such a bad thing, as long as we don’t institutionalise it?
Telling a boy he has to sit down to pee is merely reducing him to a plaything in the minds of feminist middle-aged women, whose looks have faded, and seem the most vocal, and yet fail to see how the gender differences are there for perfectly sensible, and logical biological reasons, designed by selection over 3million years to perform a function that has almost become unnecessary these days, but it is not social conditioning, but biological selection that it is the result of.
– “Sex and the Brain” by Jo Durden-Smith, and Diane de-Simone
– “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” – Dr John Gray
– “Why Men Don’t Iron” by Bill Smith and (I forget the other co-writer)
– “Sperm Wars”
– “Some Girls Do”
– “I’m FAT – So?”
And any women’s magazine of the last fifteen to twenty years.
And the thousand and one other books that seem to have been ignored by the feminist movement.
Or just observe the countless men standing outside Next, Primark, Marks & Spencer on a Saturday afternoon, shuffling their feet while their women-folk are inside doing what they enjoy, to notice that men and women are as different as Chalk and Concrete.
We need to rid the legal system of its bias, but we also need to rid the feminist movement of its ignorance.
[…] computational challenges posed by other brains and organisms. Although raising a whole host of dire issues, the fact that causal cognition generally cannot mimic socio-cognitive functions (distinguish […]
[…] come down to defining words, let’s talk about this one in particular! A while ago, there was an article by R. S. Bakker which people were arguing about on tumblr [content warning for linked article: made […]
Dammit Scott, I am on the verge on suicide and this is not helping . Please tell me there is something to look forward to in this fucking life.
If you are on the verge, then you need to speak to people who have experience with that verge, not hanging out on bullshit theoretical websites. This is all about POSSIBILITIES. It’s guesswork.
[…] causes systematic dysfunction within an originally adaptive cognitive ecology. As I’ve argued elsewhere, neuroscience can be seen as a source of socio-cognitive pollutants. We have evolved to solve […]
[…] deep information environments. As targeted, shallow information consumers we require two things: 1) certain kinds of information hygiene, and 2) certain kinds of background invariance. (1) is already in a state of free-fall, I think, […]
[…] causes systematic dysfunction within an originally adaptive cognitive ecology. As I’ve argued elsewhere, neuroscience can be seen as a source of socio-cognitive pollutants. We have evolved to solve […]
[…] But he fails to see the systematic nature of the neglect involved, and therefore the explanatory power it affords. Our ignorance of ourselves, in other words, determines not simply the applicability, but the solvency of intentional cognition as well. Intentional cognition allowed our ancestors to navigate opaque or ‘black box’ social ecologies. The role causal information plays in triggering intuitions of exemption is tuned to the efficacy of this system overall. By and large our ancestors exempted those individuals in those circumstances that best served their tribe as a whole. However haphazardly, moral intuitions involving causality served some kind of ancestral optimization. So when actionable causal information regarding our behaviour becomes available, we have no choice but to exempt those behaviours, no matter what kind of large scale distortions result. Why? Because it is the only moral thing to do. […]
[…] In some ways the ‘information pollution’ is centered on the global elite who through capital can control, modify, and repurpose the multifarious vocabularies and heuristic toolsets institutionally in academic, think tanks, corporate, ngo’s, etc… Whereas the singular citizen of First or Third World countries are usually locked into one specific vocabulary – a monovision or cultural blindfold that keeps them blinded to other heuristic devices. I sometimes think that is what Marx really intended by raising the consciousness of people, was to wake them up out of their straitjackets and show them other possible vocabularies, thereby the notion of other forms of life as well. (Three Pound Brain) […]