Alien Philosophy (cont’d)

by rsbakker

B: Thespian Souls

Given a convergent environmental and biological predicament, we can suppose our Thespians would have at least flirted with something resembling Aristotle’s dualism of heaven and earth. But as I hope to show, the ecological approach pays even bigger theoretical dividends when one considers what has to be the primary domain of human philosophical speculation: ourselves.

With evolutionary convergence, we can presume our Thespians would be eusocial, [1] displaying the same degree of highly flexible interdependence as us. This observation, as we shall see, possesses some startling consequences. Cognitive science is awash in ‘big questions’ (philosophy), among them the problem of what is typically called ‘mindreading,’ our capacity to explain/predict/manipulate one another on the basis of behavioural data alone. How do humans regularly predict the output of something so preposterously complicated as human brains on the basis of so little information?

The question is equally applicable to our Thespians, who would, like humans, possess formidable socio-cognitive capacities. As potent as those capacities were, however, we can also suppose they would be bounded, and—here’s the thing—radically so. When one Thespian attempts to cognize another, they, like us, will possess no access whatsoever to the biological systems actually driving behaviour. This means that Thespians, like us, would need to rely on so-called ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ to solve each other. [2] That is to say they would possess systems geared to the detection of specific information structures, behavioural precursors that reliably correlate, as opposed to cause, various behavioural outcomes. In other words, we can assume that Thespians will possess a suite of powerful, special purpose tools adapted to solving systems in the absence of causal information.

Evolutionary convergence means Thespians would understand one another (as well as other complex life) in terms that systematically neglect their high-dimensional, biological nature. As suggestive as this is, things get really interesting when we consider the way Thespians pose the same basic problem of computational intractability (the so-called ‘curse of dimensionality’) to themselves as they do to their fellows. The constraints pertaining to Thespian social cognition, in other words, also apply to Thespian metacognition, particularly with respect to complexity. Each Thespian, after all, is just another Thespian, and so poses the same basic challenge to metacognition as they pose to social cognition. By sheer dint of complexity, we can expect the Thespian brain would remain opaque to itself as such. This means something that will turn out to be quite important: namely that Thespian self-understanding, much like ours, would systematically neglect their high-dimensional, biological nature. [3]

This suggests that life, and intelligent life in particular, would increasingly stand out as a remarkable exception as the Thespians cobbled together a mechanical understanding of nature. Why so? Because it seems a stretch to suppose they would possess a capacity so extravagant as accurate ‘meta-metacognition.’ Lacking such a capacity would strand them with disparate families of behaviours and entities, each correlated with different intuitions, which would have to be recognized as such before any taxonomy could be made. Some entities and behaviours could be understood in terms of mechanical conditions, while others could not. So as extraordinary as it sounds, it seems plausible to think that our Thespians, in the course of their intellectual development, would stumble across some version of their own ‘fact-value distinction.’ All we need do is posit a handful of ecological constraints.

But of course things aren’t nearly so simple. Metacognition may solve for Thespians the same ‘fast and frugal’ manner as social cognition, but it entertains a far different relationship to its putative target. Unlike social cognition, which tracks functionally distinct systems (others) via the senses, metacognition is literally hardwired to the systems it tracks. So even though metacognition faces the same computational challenge as social cognition—cognizing a Thespian—it requires a radically different set of tools to do so. [4]

It serves to recall that evolved intelligence is environmentally oriented intelligence. Designs thrive or vanish depending on their ability to secure the resources required to successfully reproduce. Because of this, we can expect that all intelligent aliens, not just Thespians, would possess highdimensional cognitive relations with their environments. Consider our own array of sensory modalities, how the environmental here and now ‘hogs bandwidth.’ The degree to which your environment dominates your experience is the degree to which you’re filtered to solve your environments. We live in the world simply because we’re distilled from it, the result of billions of years of environmental tuning. We can presume our aliens would be thoroughly ‘in the world’ as well, that the bulk of their cognitive capacities would be tasked with the behavioural management of their immediate environments for similar evolutionary reasons.

Since all cognitive capacities are environmentally selected, we can expect whatever basic metacognitive capacity the Thespians possess will also be geared to the solution of environmental problems. Thespian metacognition will be an evolutionary artifact of getting certain practical matters right in certain high-impact environments, plain and simple. Add to this the problem of computational intractability (which metacognition shares with social cognition) and it becomes almost certain that Thespian metacognition would consist of multiple fast and frugal heuristics (because solving on the basis of scarce data requires less, not more, parameters geared to particular information structures to be effective). [5] We have very good reason to suspect the Thespian brain would access and process its own structure and dynamics in ways that would cut far more corners than joints. As is the case with social cognition, it would belong to Thespian nature to neglect Thespian nature—to cognize the cognizer as something other, something geared to practical contexts.

Thespians would cognize themselves and their fellows via correlational, as opposed to causal, heuristic cognition. The curse of dimensionality necessitates it. It’s hard, I think, to overstate the impact this would have on an alien species attempting to cognize their nature. What it means is that the Thespians would possess a way to engineer systematically efficacious comportments to themselves, each other, even their environments, without being able to reverse engineer those relationships. What it means, in other words, is that a great deal of their knowledge would be impenetrable—tacit, implicit, automatic, or what have you. Thespians, like humans, would be able to solve a great many problems regarding their relations to themselves, their fellows, and their world without possessing the foggiest idea of how. The ignorance here is structural ignorance, as opposed to the ignorance, say, belonging to original naivete. One would expect the Thespians would be ignorant of their nature absent the cultural scaffolding required to unravel the mad complexity of their brains. But the problem isn’t simply that Thespians would be blind to their inner nature; they would also be blind to this blindness. Since their metacognitive capacities consistently yield the information required to solve in practical, ancestral contexts, the application of those capacities to the theoretical question of their nature would be doomed from the outset. Our Thespians would consistently get themselves wrong.

Is it fair to say they would be amazed by their incapacity, the way our ancestors were? [6] Maybe—who knows. But we could say, given the ecological considerations adduced here, that they would attempt to solve themselves assuming, at least initially, that they could be solved, despite the woefully inadequate resources at their disposal.

In other words, our Thespians would very likely suffer what might be called theoretical anosognosia. In clinical contexts, anosognosia applies to patients who, due to some kind of pathology, exhibit unawareness of sensory or cognitive deficits. Perhaps the most famous example is Anton-Babinski Syndrome, where physiologically blind patients persistently claim they can in fact see. This is precisely what we could expect from our Thespians vis a vis their ‘inner eye.’ The function of metacognitive systems is to engineer environmental solutions via the strategic uptake of limited amounts of information, not to reverse engineer the nature of the brain it belongs to. Repurposing these systems means repurposing systems that generally take the adequacy of their resources for granted. When we catch our tongue at Christmas dinner, we just do; we ‘implicitly assume’ the reliability our metacognitive capacity to filter our speech. It seems wildly implausible to suppose that theoretically repurposing these systems would magically engender a new biological capacity to automatically assess the theoretical viability of the resources available. It stands to reason, rather, that we would assume sufficiency the same as before, only to find ourselves confounded after the fact.

Of course, saying that our Thespians suffer theoretical anosognosia amounts to saying they would suffer chronic, theoretical hallucinations. And once again, ecological considerations provide a way to guess at the kinds of hallucinations they might suffer.

Dualism is perhaps the most obvious. Aristotle, recall, drew his conclusions assuming the sufficiency of the information available. Contrasting the circular, ageless, repeating motion of the stars and planets to the linear riot of his immediate surroundings, he concluded that the celestial and the terrestrial comprised two distinct ontological orders governed by different natural laws, a dichotomy that prevailed some 1800 years. The moral is quite clear: Where and how we find ourselves within a system determines what kind of information we can access regarding that system, including information pertaining to the sufficiency of that information. Lacking instrumentation, Aristotle simply found himself in a position where the ontological distinction between heaven and earth appeared obvious. Unable to cognize the limits imposed by his position within the observed systems, he had no idea that he was simply cognizing one unified system from two radically different perspectives, one too near, the other too far.

Trapped in a similar structural bind vis a vis themselves, our navel-gazing Thespians would almost certainly mistake properties pertaining to neglect with properties pertaining to what is, distortions in signal, for facts of being. Once again, since the posits possessing those properties belong to correlative cognitive systems, they would resist causal cognition. No matter how hard Thespian philosophers tried, they would find themselves unable to square their apparent functions with the machinations of nature more generally. Correlative functions would appear autonomous, as somehow operating outside the laws of nature. Embedded in their environment in a manner that structurally precludes accurately intuiting that embedment, our alien philosophers would conceive themselves as something apart, ontologically distinct. Thespian philosophy would have its own versions of ‘souls’ or ‘minds’ or ‘Dasein’ or ‘a priori’ or what have you—a disparate order somehow ‘accounting’ for various correlative cognitive modes, by anchoring the bare cognition of constraint in posits (inherited or not) rationalized on the back of Thespian fashion.

Dualisms, however, require that manifest continuities be explained, or explained away. Lacking any ability to intuit the actual machinations binding them to their environments, Thespians would be forced to rely on the correlative deliverances of metacognition to cognize their relation to their world—doing so, moreover, without the least inkling of as much. Given theoretical anosognosia (the inability to intuit metacognitive incapacity), it stands to reason that they would advance any number of acausal versions of this relationship, something similar to ‘aboutness,’ and so reap similar bewilderment. Like us, they would find themselves perpetually unable to decisively characterize ‘knowledge of the world.’ One could easily imagine the perpetually underdetermined nature of these accounts convincing some Thespian philosophers that the deliverances of metacognition comprised the whole of existence (engendering Thespian idealism), or were at least the most certain, most proximate thing, and therefore required the most thorough and painstaking examination (engendering a Thespian phenomenology)…

Could this be right?

This story is pretty complex, so it serves to review the modesty of our working assumptions. The presumption of interstellar evolutionary convergence warranted assuming that Thespian cognition, like human cognition, would be bounded, a complex bundle of ‘kluges,’ heuristic solutions to a wide variety of ecological problems. The fact that Thespians would have to navigate both brute and intricate causal environments, troubleshoot both inorganic and organic contexts, licenses the claim that Thespian cognition would be bifurcated between causal systems and a suite of correlational systems, largely consisting of ‘fast and frugal heuristics,’ given the complexity and/or the inaccessibility of the systems involved. This warranted claiming that both Thespian social cognition and metacognition would be correlational, heuristic systems adapted to solve very complicated ecologies on the basis of scarce data. This posed the inevitable problem of neglect, the fact that Thespians would have no intuitive way of assessing the adequacy of their metacognitive deliverances once they applied them to theoretical questions. This let us suppose theoretical anosognosia, the probability that Thespian philosophers would assume the sufficiency of radically inadequate resources—systematically confuse artifacts of heuristic neglect for natural properties belonging to extraordinary kinds. And this let us suggest they would have their own controversies regarding mind-body dualism, intentionality, even knowledge of the external world.

As with Thespian natural philosophy, any number of caveats can be raised at any number of junctures, I’m sure. What if, for instance, Thespians were simply more pragmatic, less inclined to suffer speculation in the absence of decisive application? Such a dispositional difference could easily tilt the balance in favour of skepticism, relegating the philosopher to the ghettos of Thespian intellectual life. Or what if Thespians were more impressed by authority, to the point where reflection could only be interrogated refracted through the lens of purported revelation? There can be no doubt that my account neglects countless relevant details. Questions like these chip away at the intuition that the Thespians, or something like them, might be real

Luckily, however, this doesn’t matter. The point of posing the problem of xenophilosophy wasn’t so much to argue that Thespians are out there, as it was, strangely enough, to recognize them in here

After all, this exercise in engineering alien philosophy is at once an exercise in reverse-engineering our own. Blind Brain Theory only needs Thespians to be plausible to demonstrate its abductive scope, the fact that it can potentially explain a great many perplexing things on nature’s dime alone.

So then what have we found? That traditional philosophy something best understood as… what?

A kind of cognitive pathology?

A disease?


IV: Conclusion

It’s worth, I think, spilling a few words on the subject of that damnable word, ‘experience.’ Dogmatic eliminativism is a religion without gods or ceremony, a relentlessly contrarian creed. And this has placed it in the untenable dialectical position of apparently denying what is most obvious. After all, what could be more obvious than experience?

What do I mean by ‘experience’? Well, the first thing I generally think of is Holocaust, and the palpable power of the Survivor.

Blind Brain Theory paints a theoretical portrait wherein experience remains the most obvious thing in practical, correlational ecologies, while becoming a deeply deceptive, largely chimerical artifact in high-dimensional, causal ones. We have no inkling of tripping across ecological boundaries when we propose to theoretically examine the character of experience. What was given to deliberative metacognition in some practical context (ruminating upon a social gaffe, say) is now simply given to deliberative metacognition in an artificial one—‘philosophical reflection.’ The difference between applications is nothing if not extreme, and yet conclusions are drawn assuming sufficiency, again and again and again—for millennia.

Think of the difference between your experience and your environment, say, in terms of the difference between concentrating on a mental image of your house and actually observing it. Think of how few questions the mental image can answer compared to the visual image. Where’s the grass the thickest? Is there birdshit on the lane? Which branch comes closest to the ground? These questions just don’t make sense in the context of mental imagery.

Experience, like mental imagery, is something that only answers certain questions. Of course, the great, even cosmic irony is that this is the answer that has been staring us in the fucking face all along. Why else would experience remain an enduring part of philosophy, the institution that asks how things in the most general sense hang together in the most general sense without any rational hope of answer?

Experience is obvious—it can be nothing but obvious. The palpable power of the Holocaust Survivor is, I think, as profound a testament to the humanity of experience as there is. Their experience is automatically our own. Even philosophers shut up! It correlates us in a manner as ancient as our species, allows us to engineer the new. At the same time, it cannot but dupe and radically underdetermine our ancient, Sisyphean ambition to peer into the soul through the glass of the soul. As soon as we turn our rational eye to experience in general, let alone the conditions of possibility of experience, we run afoul illusions, impossible images that, in our diseased state, we insist are real.

This is what our creaking bookshelves shout in sum. The narratives, they proclaim experience in all its obvious glory, while treatise after philosophical treatise mutters upon the boundary of where our competence quite clearly comes to an end. Where we bicker.


At least we have reason to believe that philosophers are not alone in the universe.



[1] In the broad sense proposed by Wilson in The Social Conquest of the Earth.

[2] This amounts to taking a position in the mindreading debate that some theorists would find problematic, particularly those skeptical of modularity and/or with representationalist sympathies. Since the present account provides a parsimonious means of explaining away the intuitions informing both positions, it would be premature to engage the debate regarding either at this juncture. The point is to demonstrate what heuristic neglect, as a theoretical interpretative tool, allows us to do.

[3] The representationalist would cry foul at this point, claim the existence of some coherent ‘functional level’ accessible to deliberative metacognition (the mind) allows for accurate and exhaustive description. But once again, since heuristic neglect explains why we’re so prone to develop intuitions along these lines, we can sidestep this debate as well. Nobody knows what the mind is, or whatever it is they take themselves to be describing. The more interesting question is one of whether a heuristic neglect account can be squared with the research pertaining directly to this field. I suspect so, but for the interim I leave this to individuals more skilled and more serious than myself to investigate.

[4] In the literature, accounts that claim metacognitive functions for mindreading are typically called ‘symmetrical theories.’ Substantial research supports the claim that metacognitive reporting involves social cognition. See Carruthers, “How we know our own minds: the relationship between mindreading and metacognition,” for an outstanding review.

[5] Gerd Gigerenzer and the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group have demonstrated that simple heuristics are often far more effective than even optimization methods possessing far greater resources. “As the amount of data available to make predictions in an environment shrinks, the advantage of simple heuristics over complex algorithms grows” (Hertwig and Hoffrage, “The Research Agenda,” Simple Heuristics in a Social World, 23).

[6] “Quid est enim tempus? Quis hoc facile breuiterque explicauerit? Quis hoc ad uerbum de illo proferendum uel cogitatione comprehenderit? Quid autem familiarius et notius in loquendo commemoramus quam tempus? Et intellegimus utique cum id loquimur, intellegimus etiam cum alio loquente id audimus. Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quærat, scio; si quærenti explicare uelim, nescio.