Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: April, 2015

Hugos Weaving

by rsbakker

Red Skull

So the whole idea behind Three Pound Brain, way back when, was to open a waystation between ‘incompatible empires,’ to create a forum where ingroup complacencies are called out and challenged, where our native tendency to believe flattering bullshit can be called to account. To this end, I instigated two very different blog wars, one against an extreme ‘right’ figure in the fantasy community, Theodore Beale, another against an extreme ‘left’ figure, Benjanun Sriduangkaew. All along the idea was to expose these individuals, to show, at least for those who cared to follow, how humans were judging machines, prone to rationalize even the most preposterous and odious conceits. Humans are hardwired to run afoul pious delusion. The science is only becoming more definitive in this regard, I assure you. We are, each and every one of us, walking, talking, yardsticks. Unfortunately, we also have a tendency to affix spearheads to our rules, to confuse our sense of exceptionality and entitlement with the depravity and criminality of others—and to make them suffer.

When it comes to moral reasoning, humans are incompetent clowns. And in an age where high-school students are reengineering bacteria for science fairs, this does not bode well for the future. We need to get over ourselves—and now. Blind moral certainty is no longer a luxury our species can afford.

Now we all watch the news. We all appreciate the perils of moral certainty in some sense, the need to be wary of those who believe too hard. We’ve all seen the ‘Mad Fanatic’ get his or her ‘just desserts’ in innumerable different forms. The problem, however, is that the Mad Fanatic is always the other guy, while we merely enjoy the ‘strength of our convictions.’ Short of clinical depression at least, we’re always—magically you might say—the obvious ‘Hero.’

And, of course, this is a crock of shit. In study after study, experiment after experiment, researchers find that, outside special circumstances, moral argumentation and explanation are strategic—with us being none the wiser! (I highly recommend Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for a roundup of the research). It may feel like divine dispensation, but dollars to donuts it’s nothing more than confabulation. We are programmed to advance our interests as truth; we’d have no need of Judge Judy otherwise!

It is the most obvious invisible thing. But how do you show people this? How do you get humans to see themselves as the moral fool, as the one automatically—one might even say, mechanically—prone to rationalize their own moral interests, unto madness in some cases. The strategy I employ in my fantasy novels is to implicate the reader, to tweak their moral pieties, and then to jam them the best I can. My fantasy novels are all about the perils of moral outrage, the tragedy of willing the suffering of others in the name of some moral verity, and yet I regularly receive hate mail from morally outraged readers who think I deserve to suffer—fear and shame, in most cases, but sometimes death—for having written whatever it is they think I’ve written.

The blog wars were a demonstration of a different sort. The idea, basically, was to show how the fascistic impulse, like fantasy, appeals to a variety of inborn cognitive conceits. Far from a historical anomaly, fascism is an expression of our common humanity. We are all fascists, in our way, allergic to complexity, suspicious of difference, willing to sacrifice strangers on the altar of self-serving abstractions. We all want to master our natural and social environments. Public school is filled with little Hitlers—and so is the web.

And this, I wanted to show, is the rub. Before the web, we either kept our self-aggrandizing, essentializing instincts to ourselves or risked exposing them to the contradiction of our neighbours. Now, search engines assure that we never need run critical gauntlets absent ready-made rationalizations. Now we can indulge our cognitive shortcomings, endlessly justify our fears and hatreds and resentments. Now we can believe with the grain our stone-age selves. The argumentative advantage of the fascist is not so different from the narrative advantage of the fantasist: fascism, like fantasy, cues cognitive heuristics that once proved invaluable to our ancestors. To varying degrees, our brains are prone to interpret the world through a fascistic lens. The web dispenses fascistic talking points and canards and ad hominems for free—whatever we need to keep our clown costumes intact, all the while thunderously declaring ourselves angels. Left. Right. It really doesn’t matter. Humans are bigots, prone to strip away complexity and nuance—the very things required to solve modern social problems—to better indulge our sense of moral superiority.

For me, Theodore Beale (aka, Vox Day) and Benjanun Sriduangkaew (aka, acrackedmoon) demonstrated a moral version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, how the bigger the clown, the more inclined they are to think themselves angels. My strategy with Beale was simply to show the buffoonery that lay at the heart of his noxious set of views. And he eventually obliged, explaining why, despite the way his claims epitomize bias, he could nevertheless declare himself the winner of the magical belief lottery:

Oh, I don’t know. Out of nearly 7 billion people, I’m fortunate to be in the top 1% in the planet with regards to health, wealth, looks, brains, athleticism, and nationality. My wife is slender, beautiful, lovable, loyal, fertile, and funny. I meet good people who seem to enjoy my company everywhere I go.

He. Just. Is. Superior.

A king clown, you could say, lucky, by grace of God.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, on the other hand, posed more of a challenge, since she was, when all was said and done, a troll in addition to a clown. In hindsight, however, I actually regard my blog war with her as the far more successful one simply because she was so successful. My schtick, remember, is to show people how they are the Mad Fanatic in some measure, large or small. Even though Sriduangkaew’s tactics consisted of little more than name-calling, even though her condemnations were based on reading the first six pages of my first book, a very large number of ‘progressive’ individuals were only too happy to join in, and to viscerally demonstrate the way moral outrage cares nothing for reasons or casualties. What’s a false positive when traitors are in our midst? All that mattered was that I was one of them according to so-and-so. I would point out over and over how they were simply making my argument for me, demonstrating how moral groupthink deteriorates into punishing strangers, and feeling self-righteous afterward. I would receive tens of thousands of hits on my posts, and less than a dozen clicks on the links I provided citing the relevant research. It was nothing short of phantasmagorical. I was, in some pathetic, cultural backwoods way, the target of a witch-hunt.

(The only thing I regret is that several of my friends became entangled, some jumping ship out fear (sending me ‘please relent’ letters), others, like Peter Watts, for the sin of calling the insanity insanity.)

It’s worth noting in passing that some Three Pound Brain regulars actually tried to get Beale and Sriduangkaew together. Beale, after all, actually held the views she so viciously attributed to me, Morgan, and others. He was the real deal—openly racist and misogynistic—and his blog had more followers than all of her targets combined. Sriduangkaew, on the other hand, was about as close to Beale’s man-hating feminist caricature as any feminist could be. But… nothing. Like competing predators on the savannah, they circled on opposite sides of the herd, smelling one another, certainly, but never letting their gaze wander from their true prey. It was as if, despite the wildly divergent content of their views, they recognized they were the same.

So here we stand a couple of years after the fray. Sriduangkaew, as it turns out, was every bit as troubled as she sounded, and caused others far, far more grief than she ever caused me. Beale, on other hand, has been kind enough to demonstrate yet another one of my points with his recent attempt to suborn the Hugos. Stories of individuals gaming the Hugos are notorious, so in a sense the only thing that makes Beale’s gerrymandering remarkable is the extremity of his views. How? people want to know. How could someone so ridiculously bigoted come to possess any influence in our ‘enlightened’ day and age?

Here we come to the final, and perhaps most problematic moral clown in this sad and comedic tale: the Humanities Academic.

I’m guessing that a good number of you reading this credit some English professor with transforming you into a ‘critical thinker.’ Too bad there’s no such thing. This is what makes the Humanities Academic a particularly pernicious Mad Fanatic: they convince clowns—that is, humans like you and me—that we need not be clowns. They convince cohort after cohort of young, optimistic souls that buying into a different set of flattering conceits amounts to washing the make-up off, thereby transcending the untutored ‘masses’ (or what more honest generations called the rabble). And this is what makes their particular circus act so pernicious: they frame assumptive moral superiority—ingroup elitism—as the result of hard won openness, and then proceed to judge accordingly.

So consider what Philip Sandifer, “a PhD in English with no small amount of training in postmodernism” thinks of Beale’s Hugo shenanigans:

To be frank, it means that traditional sci-fi/fantasy fandom does not have any legitimacy right now. Period. A community that can be this effectively controlled by someone who thinks black people are subhuman and who has called for acid attacks on feminists is not one whose awards have any sort of cultural validity. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to functional communities. And the fact that it has just happened to the oldest and most venerable award in the sci-fi/fantasy community makes it unambiguously clear that traditional sci-fi/fantasy fandom is not fit for purpose.

Simply put, this is past the point where phrases like “bad apples” can still be applied. As long as supporters of Theodore Beale hold sufficient influence in traditional fandom to have this sort of impact, traditional fandom is a fatally poisoned well. The fact that a majority of voices in fandom are disgusted by it doesn’t matter. The damage has already been done at the point where the list of nominees is 68% controlled by fascists.

The problem, Sandifer argues, is institutional. Beale’s antics demonstrate that the institution of fandom is all but dead. The implication is that the science fiction and fantasy community ought to be ashamed, that it needs to gird its loins, clean up its act.

Many of you, I’m sure, find Sandifer’s point almost painfully obvious. Perhaps you’re thinking those rumours about Bakker being a closet this or that must be true. I am just another clown, after all. But catch that moral reflex, if you can, because if you give in, you will be unable—as a matter of empirical fact—to consider the issue rationally.

There’s a far less clownish (ingroupish) way to look at this imbroglio.

Let’s say, for a moment, that readership is more important than ‘fandom’ by far. Let’s say, for a moment, that the Hugos are no more or less meaningful than any other ingroup award, just another mechanism that a certain bunch of clowns uses to confer prestige on those members who best exemplify their self-regarding values—a poor man’s Oscars, say.

And let’s suppose that the real problem facing the arts community lies in the impact of technology on cultural and political groupishness, on the way the internet and preference-parsing algorithms continue to ratchet buyers and sellers into ever more intricately tuned relationships. Let’s suppose, just for instance, that so-called literary works no longer reach dissenting audiences, and so only serve to reinforce the values of readers…

That precious few of us are being challenged anymore—at least not by writing.

The communicative habitat of the human being is changing more radically than at any time in history, period. The old modes of literary dissemination are dead or dying, and with them all the simplistic assumptions of our literary past. If writing that matters is writing that challenges, the writing that matters most has to be writing that avoids the ‘preference funnel,’ writing that falls into the hands of those who can be outraged. The only writing that matters, in other words, is writing that manages to span significant ingroup boundaries.

If this is the case, then Beale has merely shown us that science fiction and fantasy actually matter, that as a writer, your voice can still reach people who can (and likely will) be offended… as well as swayed, unsettled, or any of the things Humanities clowns claim writing should do.

Think about it. Why bother writing stories with progressive values for progressives only, that is, unless moral entertainment is largely what you’re interested in? You gotta admit, this is pretty much the sum of what passes for ‘literary’ nowadays.

Everyone’s crooked is someone else’s straight—that’s the dilemma. Since all moral interpretations are fundamentally underdetermined, there is no rational or evidential means to compel moral consensus. Pretty much anything can be argued when it comes to questions of value. There will always be Beales and Sriduangkaews, individuals adept at rationalizing our bigotries—always. And guess what? the internet has made them as accessible as fucking Wal-Mart. This is what makes engaging them so important. Of course Beale needs to be exposed—but not for the benefit of people who already despise his values. Such ‘exposure’ amounts to nothing more than clapping one another on the back. He needs to be exposed in the eyes of his own constituents, actual or potential. The fact that the paths leading to bigotry run downhill makes the project of building stairs all the more crucial.

‘Legitimacy,’ Sandifer says. Legitimacy for whom? For the likeminded—who else? But that, my well-educated friend, is the sound-proofed legitimacy of the Booker, or the National Book Awards—which is to say, the legitimacy of the irrelevant, the socially inert. The last thing this accelerating world needs is more ingroup ejaculate. The fact that Beale managed to pull this little coup is proof positive that science fiction and fantasy matter, that we dwell in a rare corner of culture where the battle of ideas is for… fucking… real.

And you feel ashamed.

Reason, Bondage, Discipline

by rsbakker

We can understand all things by her; but what she is we cannot apprehend.

–Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1652


So I was rereading Ray Brassier’s account of Churchland and eliminativism in his watershed Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction the other day and I thought it worth a short post given the similarities between his argument and Ben’s. I’ve already considered his attempt to rescue subjectivity from the neurobiological dismantling of the self in “Brassier’s Divided Soul.” And in “The Eliminativistic Implicit II: Brandom in the Pool of Shiloam,” I dissected the central motivating argument for his brand of normativism (the claim that the inability of natural cognition to substitute for intentional cognition means that only intentional cognition can theoretically solve intentional cognition), showing how it turns on metacognitive neglect and thus can only generate underdetermined claims. Here I want to consider Brassier’s problematic attempt to domesticate the challenge posed by scientific reason, and to provision traditional philosophy with a more robust sop.

In Nihil Unbound, Brassier casts Churchland’s eliminativism as the high water mark of disenchantment, but reads his appeal to pragmatic theoretical virtues as a concession to the necessity of a deflationary normative metaphysics. He argues (a la Sellars) that even though scientific theories possess explanatory priority over manifest claims, manifest claims nevertheless possess conceptual parity. The manifest self is the repository of requisite ‘conceptual resources,’ what anchors the ‘rational infrastructure’ that makes us intelligible to one another as participants in the game of giving and asking for reasons—what allows, in other words, science to be a self-correcting exercise.

What makes this approach so attractive is the promise of providing transcendental constraint absent ontological tears. Norms, reasons, inferences, and so on, can be understood as pragmatic functions, things that humans do, as opposed to something belonging to the catalogue of nature. This has the happy consequence of delimiting a supra-natural domain of knowledge ideally suited to the kinds of skills philosophers already possess. Pragmatic functions are real insofar as we take them to be real, but exist nowhere else, and so cannot possibly be the object of scientific study. They are ‘appearances merely,’ albeit appearances that make systematic, and therefore cognizable, differences in the real world.

Churchland’s eliminativism, then, provides Brassier with an exemplar of scientific rationality and the threat it poses to our prescientific self-understanding that also exemplifies the systematic dependence of scientific rationality on pragmatic functions that cannot be disenchanted on pain of scuttling the intelligibility of science. What I want to show is how in the course of first defending and then critiquing Churchland, Brassier systematically misconstrues the challenge eliminativism poses to all philosophical accounts of meaning. Then I want to discuss how his ‘thin transcendentalism’ actually requires this misconstrual to get off the ground.

The fact that Brassier treats Churchland’s eliminativism as exemplifying scientific disenchantment means that he thinks the project is coherent as far as it goes, and therefore denies the typical tu quoque arguments used to dismiss eliminativism more generally. Intentionalists, he rightly points out, simply beg the question when accusing eliminativists of ‘using beliefs to deny the reality of beliefs.’

“But the intelligibility of [eliminative materialism] does not in fact depend upon the reality of ‘belief’ and ‘meaning’ thus construed. For it is precisely the claim that ‘beliefs’ provide the necessary form of cognitive content, and that propositional ‘meaning’ is thus the necessary medium for semantic content, that the eliminativist denies.” (15)

The question is, What are beliefs? The idea that the eliminativist must somehow ‘presuppose’ one of the countless, underdetermined intentionalist accounts of belief to be able to intelligibly engage in ‘belief talk’ amounts to claiming that eliminativism has to be wrong because intentionalism is right. The intentionalist, in other words, is simply begging the question.

The real problem that Churchland faces is the problem that all ‘scientistic eliminativism’ faces: theoretical mutism. Cognition is about getting things right, so any account of cognition lacking the resources to explain its manifest normative dimension is going to seem obviously incomplete. And indeed, this is the primary reason eliminative materialism remains a fringe position in psychology and philosophy of mind today: it quite simply cannot account for what, pretheoretically, seems to be the most salient feature of cognition.

The dilemma faced by eliminativism, then, is dialectical, not logical. Theory-mongering in cognitive science is generally abductive, a contest of ‘best explanations’ given the intuitions and scientific evidence available. So far as eliminativism has no account of things like the normativity of cognition, then it is doomed to remain marginal, simply because it has no horse in the race. As Kriegel says in Sources of Intentionality, eliminativism “does very poorly on the task of getting the pretheoretically desirable extension right” (199), fancy philosopher talk for ‘it throws the baby out with the bathwater.’

But this isn’t quite the conclusion Brassier comes to. The first big clue comes in the suggestion that Churchland avoids the tu quoque because “the dispute between [eliminative materialism] and [folk psychology] concerns the nature of representations, not their existence” (16). Now although it is the case that possessing an alternative theory makes it easier to recognize the question-begging nature of the tu quoque, the tu quoque is question-begging regardless. Churchland need only be skeptical to deny rather than affirm the myriad, underdetermined interpretations of belief one finds in intentional philosophy. He no more need specify any alternative theory to use the word ‘belief’ than my five-year old daughter does. He need only assert that the countless intentionalist interpretations are wrong, and that the true nature of belief will become clear once cognitive science matures. It just so happens that Churchland has a provisional neuroscientific account of representation.

As an eliminativist, having a theoretical horse in the race effectively blocks the intuition that you must be riding one of the myriad intentional horses on the track, but the intuition is faulty all the same. Having a theory of meaning is a dialectical advantage, not a logical necessity. And yet nowhere does Brassier frame the problem in these terms. At no point does he distinguish the logical and dialectical aspects of Churchland’s situation. On the contrary, he clearly thinks that Churchland’s neurocomputational alternative is the only thing rescuing his view. In other words, he conflates the dialectical advantage of possessing an alternate theory of meaning with logical necessity.

And as we quickly discover, this oversight is instrumental to his larger argument. Brassier, it turns out, is actually a fan of the tu quoque—and a rather big one at that. Rather than recognizing that Churchland’s problem is abductive, he frames it more abstrusely as a “latent tension between his commitment to scientific realism on the one hand, and his adherence to a metaphysical naturalism on the other” (18). As I mentioned above, Churchland finds himself in a genuine dialectical bind insofar as accounts of cognition that cannot explain ‘getting things right’ (or other apparent intentional properties of cognition) seems to get the ‘pretheoretically desirable extension’ wrong. This argumentative predicament is very real. Pretheoretically, at least, ‘getting things right’ seems to be the very essence of cognition, so the dialectical problem posed is about as serious as can be. So long as intentional phenomena as they appear remain part of the pretheoretically desirable extension of cognitive science, then Churchland is going to have difficulty convincing others of his view.

Brassier, however, needs the problem to be more than merely dialectical. He needs some way of transforming the dialectically deleterious inability to explain correctness into warrant for a certain theory of correctness—namely, some form of pragmatic functionalism. He needs, in other words, the tu quoque. He needs to show that Churchland, whether he knows it or not, requires the conceptual resources of the manifest image as a condition of understanding science as an intelligible enterprise. The way to show this requirement, Brassier thinks, is to show—you guessed it—the inability of Churchland’s neurocomputational account of representation to explain correctness. His inability to explain correctness, the assumption is, means he has no choice but to utilize the conceptual resources of the manifest image.

But as we’ve seen, the tu quoque begs the question against the eliminativist regardless of their ability to adduce alternative explanations for the phenomena at issue. Possessing an alternative simply makes the tu quoque easier to dismiss. Churchland is entirely within his rights to say, “Well, Ray, although I appreciate the exotic interpretation of theoretical virtue you’ve given, it makes no testable predictions, and it shares numerous family resemblance to countless other such, chronically underdetermined theories, so I think I’m better off waiting to see what the science has to say.”

It really is as easy as that. Only the normativist is appalled, because only they are impressed by their intuitions, the conviction that some kind of intentionalist account is the only game in town.

So ultimately, when Brassier argues that “[t]he trouble with Churchland’s naturalism is not so much that it is metaphysical, but that it is an impoverished metaphysics, inadequate to the task of grounding the relation between representation and reality” (25) he’s mistaking a dialectical issue with an inferential and ontological one, conflating a disadvantage in actual argumentative contexts (where any explanation is preferred to no explanation) with something much grander and far more controversial. He thinks that lacking a comprehensive theory of meaning automatically commits Churchland to something resembling his theory of meaning, a deflationary normative metaphysics, namely his own brand of pragmatic functionalism.

For the naturalist, lacking answers to certain questions can mean many different things. Perhaps the question is misguided. Perhaps we simply lack the information required. Perhaps we have the information, but lack the proper interpretation. Maybe the problem is metaphysical—who the hell knows? When listing these possibilities, ‘Perhaps the phenomena is supra-natural,’ is going to find itself somewhere near, ‘Maybe ghosts are real,’ or any other possibility that amounts to telling science to fuck off and go home! A priori claims on what science can and cannot cognize have a horrible track record, period. As Anthony Chemero wryly notes, “nearly everyone working in cognitive science is working on an approach that someone else has shown to be hopeless, usually by an argument that is more or less purely philosophical” (Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, 3).

Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition, a way to cognize systems without cognizing the operations of those systems. What Brassier calls ‘conceptual parity’ simply pertains to the fact that intentional cognition possesses its own adaptive ecologies. It’s a ‘get along’ system, not a ‘get it right’ system, which is why, as a rule, we resort to it in ‘get along’ situations. The sciences enjoy ‘explanatory priority’ because they cognize systems via cognizing the operations of those systems: they solve on the basis of information regarding what is going on. They constitute a ‘get it right’ system. The question that Brassier and other normativists need to answer is why, if intentional cognition is the product of a system that systematically ignores what’s going on, we should think it could provide reliable theoretical cognition regarding what’s going on. How can a get along system get itself right? The answer quite plainly seems to be that it can’t, that the conundrums and perpetual disputation that characterize all attempts to solve intentional cognition via intentional cognition are exactly what we should expect.

Maybe the millennial discord is just a coincidence. Maybe it isn’t a matter of jamming the stick to find gears that don’t exist. Either way, the weary traveller is entitled to know how many more centuries are required, and, if these issues will never find decisive resolution, why they should continue the journey. After all, science has just thrown down the walls of the soul. Billions are being spent to transform the tsunami of data into better instruments of control. Perhaps tilting yet one more time at problems that have defied formulation, let alone solution, for thousands of the years is what humanity needs…

Perhaps the time has come to consider worst case scenarios–for real.

Which brings us to the moral: You can’t concede that science monopolizes reliable theoretical cognition then swear up and down that some chronically underdetermined speculative account somehow makes that reliability possible, regardless of what the reliability says!  The apparent conceptual parity between manifest and scientific images is something only the science can explain. This allows us to see just how conservative Brassier’s position is. Far from pursuing the “conceptual ramifications entailed by a metaphysical radicalization of eliminativism” (31), Brassier is actually arguing for the philosophical status quo. Far from following reason no matter where it leads, he is, like so many philosophers before him, playing another version of the ‘domain boundary game,’ marshalling what amounts to a last ditch effort to rescue intentional philosophy from the depredations of science. Or as he himself might put it, devising another sop.

As he writes,

“At this particular historical juncture, philosophy should resist the temptation to install itself within one of the rival images… Rather, it should exploit the mobility that is one of the rare advantages of abstraction in order to shuttle back and forth between images, establishing conditions of transposition, rather than synthesis, between the speculative anomalies thrown up within the order of phenomenal manifestation, and the metaphysical quandaries generated by the sciences’ challenge to the manifest order.” 231

Isn’t this just another old, flattering trope? Philosophy as fundamental broker, the medium that allows the dead to speak to the living, and the living to speak to the dead? As I’ve been arguing for quite sometime, the facts on the ground simply do not support anything so sunny. Science will determine the relation between the manifest and the scientific images, the fate of ‘conceptual parity,’ because science actually has explanatory priority. The dead decide, simply because nothing has ever been alive, at least not the way our ancestors dreamed.

Bleaker than Bleak (by Paul J. Ennis)

by rsbakker

Bleak theory accepts that it itself is almost entirely wrong. However, precisely on the basis that it accepts humans are almost always wrong about how it goes with the world and so what are the chances of this theory being right? In this paradoxical, confused sense it is a theory of human fallibility. Or the inability of humans to see themselves for what they are, even when, as per contemporary neuroscience, we kind of know (have you not yet heard the “good” news that you are not what you think you are?). We kind of know because we are beginning to see ourselves from the third-person perspective. Subjectivity is devolving into objectivity and objectivity entails seeing things clearly, even if not transparently. That opacity, always there in the subject-object distinction, is collapsing and the consequences are bleak. The second reality-appearance “appeared” as a crack we cracked. It has been going on ever since. Consider the insanity of the entire post-Kantian tradition and the in-itself – is it not just an expression of what it feels like when you recognise what was once a “transparent cage” (Sartre) of looking directly at the world is a hallucination, a real one, all the same.

We cannot outpace this very blindspot that renders us a self or a subject. We are deluded about our beliefs or intentions (a given, so to speak), but more significantly we are deluded that somehow we can ‘recursively’ leap ‘over our own shoulders’ and see not just the trick, as Bakker might put it, but something substantial. Rather than just a model or a process withholding information from “you” yourself. Your own brain lies to you. It hides noise (‘data-reduction’) so that you do not collapse into a schizophrenia of buzzing information. This much Bergson, Deleuze, and Meillassoux have suggested is a most horrifying possibility. If all the data of the world flowed in you would be at one with matter, but what would you hear? Do you even want to countenance what that might involve? Hell is all around you. Your brain is just trying its best to stop you being lit on fire.

Everything is pretty patterns (Ladyman and Ross) and you are too. The problem with patterns is that sometimes they clash. If the brain has been hacked together it’s bound to be buggy as hell. Look at your computer. One subpersonal process goes askew and you need it fixed. The technician tries a few things, maybe it works, or maybe it does not. Maybe, as in severe cases of schizophrenia or depression, you just have a crappy system. I’ve said before that consciousness is the holocaust of happiness, meant sincerely, not lightly, and by this I mean that if the conditions or constraints that created a self never came together, in just the way it has for us, there would never have been any conscious suffering. Consciousness is the final correlate of all human suffering. You can blame almost anything else, but had “we” (is it really “us”) never believed we should be stable, integrated selves none of the bugs that followed would have appeared. Our world would have been a beautiful, empty, unthinking collection of material patterns: perhaps even a heaven of unthinking noise?

Chaos, as I am sure you have heard, is a ladder, but so too is evolution. Lifted up from the dregs of biology into cultural evolution we came to see what nothing else could see. Some foolishly believed this was a gift. Civilisation was realised. When in reality each one was built on war. Philosophers know how to dance around this problem: we can think our way, collectively, toward a more rational, constrained future. Except collective intelligence most often works best when deployed toward destructive ends: where do you find the most creative minds? The war-room. ‘War, everywhere I look…’ (Tormentor). To make it explicit, so to speak, if you want new masters, as Lacan said, you will find them. Look into the dead eyes of those who desire freedom and there rests fear. Fear that they will build a palace of reason only for the stability so hard fought for to collapse under the weight of the chronic irrationalism of the baser human aspect, untameable, unpredictable, and unknowable. History books are the evidence you stack up to adduce this, but at least today we have learnt enough to include the accelerated process of decline into our calculations. We no longer fight our enemies. We kiss them on the mouth and ask if we can join them in the decadent decline in advance.

I know I should not speak like this. What a waste to spend your time reasoning about the impossibility of one day sticking the hook in and indexing some little part of reality that, Tetris-like, delivers temporary respite. Only, of course, here comes more bricks. As I feel, always in my very bones, what I know is coming, the far-off end (it is never close enough), bleak theory morphs into even and ever bleaker theory, sometimes just bleak, once bleaker than black, but now bleaker than bleak. Rust Cohle, in True Detective, at one points let’s his interrogators know: ‘I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that.’ It is the most paradoxical of victories. The “pyrrhic” victory of traditional philosophy, found in thinkers as diverse as Husserl and Meillassoux, where one gains a foothold on the world after a long struggle. The question bleak theory asks, adrift the perennial tradition, is whether knowing who we are will result in precisely the inverse of the oldest goal of philosophical self-knowledge: we cannot understand ourselves except as that entity which cannot truly know itself. Know thyself? Perhaps all along it has been the wrong question.

The tradition of philosophy always hinges on a subtle revision of position and orientation. This is the generative process whereby, for instance, the ambiguity of postmodern philosophy culminates in a counter-revolution of rational normativity. This is our contemporary example, but it is found everywhere. Heidegger ontologising phenomenology. Hegel gobbling up the Kantian noumena. Today there is possibly another: one that, again to evoke Rust Cohle, means to ‘start asking the right fucking questions.’ Not about what we are, but what we are not: “transcendental egos,” “subjects,” or “selves.” Perhaps not even “agents,” but I leave that problem for other minds to debate. I know what I am, a ‘disinterested onlooker’ (Husserl), but deluded that I am unconcerned.

True madness lies ahead for our species. Normativity, humanism, anti-reductionism, anything not bathed in the acid of neuroscience are all contributing to a sharpening of the knives. Building dams to keep the coming dissolution at bay they will render the shattering of the illusion that much harsher, harder. We are not going to Mars. We are going to go out of our minds.


[ Dr. Paul J. Ennis is a Research Fellow in the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of Continental Realism (Zero Books, 2011), co-editor with Peter Gratton of the Meillassoux Dictionary (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) and co-editor with Tziovanis Georgakis of Heidegger in the Twenty-First Century (Springer, 2015). A version of bleak theory, ‘Bleak,’ first appeared in the DVD booklet for A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (Soda Pictures, 2014).]