Neuroscience as Socio-Cognitive Pollution

by rsbakker

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.

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