Alien Philosophy

by rsbakker

[Consolidated, with pretty pictures]

Face on moon

The highest species concept may be that of a terrestrial rational being; however, we shall not be able to name its character because we have no knowledge of non-terrestrial rational beings that would enable us to indicate their characteristic property and so to characterize this terrestrial being among rational beings in general. It seems, therefore, that the problem of indicating the character of the human species is absolutely insoluble, because the solution would have to be made through experience by means of the comparison of two species of rational being, but experience does not offer us this. (Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 225)

Little alien sasquatch


Are there alien philosophers orbiting some faraway star, opining in bursts of symbolically articulated smells, or parsing distinctions-without-differences via the clasp of neural genitalia? What would an alien philosophy look like? Do we have any reason to think we might find some of them recognizable? Do the Greys have their own version of Plato? Is there a little green Nietzsche describing little green armies of little green metaphors?



I: The Story Thus Far

A couple years back, I published a piece in Scientia Salon, “Back to Square One: Toward a Post-intentional Future,” that challenged the intentional realist to warrant their theoretical interpretations of the human. What is the nature of the data that drives their intentional accounts? What kind of metacognitive capacity can they bring to bear?

I asked these questions precisely because they cannot be answered. The intentionalist has next to no clue as to the nature, let alone the provenance, of their data, and even less inkling as to the metacognitive resources at their disposal. They have theories, of course, but it is the proliferation of theories that is precisely the problem. Make no mistake: the failure of their project, their consistent inability to formulate their explananda, let alone provide any decisive explanations, is the primary reason why cognitive science devolves so quickly into philosophy.

But if chronic theoretical underdetermination is the embarrassment of intentionalism, then theoretical silence has to be the embarrassment of eliminativism. If meaning realism offers too much in the way of theory—endless, interminable speculation—then meaning skepticism offers too little. Absent plausible alternatives, intentionalists naturally assume intrinsic intentionality is the only game in town. As a result, eliminativists who use intentional idioms are regularly accused of incoherence, of relying upon the very intentionality they’re claiming to eliminate. Of course eliminativists will be quick to point out the question-begging nature of this criticism: They need not posit an alternate theory of their own to dispute intentional theories of the human. But they find themselves in a dialectical quandary, nonetheless. In the absence of any real theory of meaning, they have no substantive way of actually contributing to the domain of the meaningful. And this is the real charge against the eliminativist, the complaint that any account of the human that cannot explain the experience of being human is barely worth the name. [1] Something has to explain intentional idioms and phenomena, their apparent power and peculiarity; If not intrinsic or original intentionality, then what?

My own project, however, pursues a very different brand of eliminativism. I started my philosophical career as an avowed intentionalist, a one-time Heideggerean and Wittgensteinian. For decades I genuinely thought philosophy had somehow stumbled into ‘Square Two.’ No matter what doubts I entertained regarding this or that intentional account, I was nevertheless certain that some intentional account had to be right. I was invested, and even though the ruthless elegance of eliminativism made me anxious, I took comfort in the standard shibboleths and rationalizations. Scientism! Positivism! All theoretical cognition presupposes lived life! Quality before quantity! Intentional domains require intentional yardsticks!

Then, in the course of writing a dissertation on fundamental ontology, I stumbled across a new, privative way of understanding the purported plenum of the first-person, a way of interpreting intentional idioms and phenomena that required no original meaning, no spooky functions or enigmatic emergences—nor any intentional stances for that matter. Blind Brain Theory begins with the assumption that theoretically motivated reflection upon experience co-opts neurobiological resources adapted to far different kinds of problems. As a co-option, we have no reason to assume that ‘experience’ (whatever it amounts to) yields what philosophical reflection requires to determine the nature of experience. Since the systems are adapted to discharge far different tasks, reflection has no means of determining scarcity and so generally presumes sufficiency. It cannot source the efficacy of rules so rules become the source. It cannot source temporal awareness so the now becomes the standing now. It cannot source decisions so decisions (the result of astronomically complicated winner-take-all processes) become ‘choices.’ The list goes on. From a small set of empirically modest claims, Blind Brain Theory provides what I think is the first comprehensive, systematic way to both eliminate and explain intentionality.

In other words, my reasons for becoming an eliminativist were abductive to begin with. I abandoned intentionalism, not because of its perpetual theoretical disarray (though this had always concerned me), but because I became convinced that eliminativism could actually do a better job explaining the domain of meaning. Where old school, ‘dogmatic eliminativists’ argue that meaning must be natural somehow, my own ‘critical eliminativism’ shows how. I remain horrified by this how, but then I also feel like a fool for ever thinking the issue would end any other way. If one takes mediocrity seriously, then we should expect that science will explode, rather than canonize our prescientific conceits, no matter how near or dear.

But how to show others? What could be more familiar, more entrenched than the intentional philosophical tradition? And what could be more disparate than eliminativism? To quote Dewey from Experience and Nature, “The greater the gap, the disparity, between what has become a familiar possession and the traits presented in new subject-matter, the greater is the burden imposed upon reflection” (Experience and Nature, ix). Since the use of exotic subject matters to shed light on familiar problems is as powerful a tool for philosophy as for my chosen profession, speculative fiction, I propose to consider the question of alien philosophy, or ‘xenophilosophy,’ as a way to ease the burden. What I want to show is how, reasoning from robust biological assumptions, one can plausibly claim that aliens—call them ‘Thespians’—would also suffer their own versions of our own (hitherto intractable) ‘problem of meaning.’ The degree to which this story is plausible, I will contend, is the degree to which critical eliminativism deserves serious consideration. It’s the parsimony of eliminativism that makes it so attractive. If one could combine this parsimony with a comprehensive explanation of intentionality, then eliminativism would very quickly cease to be a fringe opinion.

Alien autopsy


II: Aliens and Philosophy

Of course, the plausibility of humanoid aliens possessing any kind of philosophy requires the plausibility of humanoid aliens. In popular media, aliens are almost always exotic versions of ourselves, possessing their own exotic versions of the capacities and institutions we happen to have. This is no accident. Science fiction is always about the here and now—about recontextualizations of what we know. As a result, the aliens you tend to meet tend to seem suspiciously humanoid, psychologically if not physically. Spock always has some ‘mind’ with which to ‘meld’. To ask the question of alien philosophy, one might complain, is to buy into this conceit, which although flattering, is almost certainly not true.

And yet the environmental filtration of mutations on earth has produced innumerable examples of convergent evolution, different species evolving similar morphologies and functions, the same solutions to the same problems, using entirely different DNA. As you might imagine, however, the notion of interstellar convergence is a controversial one. [2] Supposing the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is one thing—cognition is almost certainly integral to complex life elsewhere in the universe—but we know nothing about the kinds of possible biological intelligences nature permits. Short of actual contact with intelligent aliens, we have no way of gauging how far we can extrapolate from our case. [3] All too often, ignorance of alternatives dupes us into making ‘only game in town assumptions,’ so confusing mere possibility with necessity. But this debate need not worry us here. Perhaps the cluster of characteristics we identify with ‘humanoid’ expresses a high-probability recipe for evolving intelligence—perhaps not. Either way, our existence proves that our particular recipe is on file, that aliens we might describe as ‘humanoid’ are entirely possible.

So we have our humanoid aliens, at least as far as we need them here. But the question of what alien philosophy looks like also presupposes we know what human philosophy looks like. In “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Wilfred Sellars defines the aim of philosophy as comprehending “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (1). Philosophy famously attempts to comprehend the ‘big picture.’ The problem with this definition is that it overlooks the relationship between philosophy and ignorance, and so fails to distinguish philosophical inquiry from scientific or religious inquiry. Philosophy is invested in a specific kind of ‘big picture,’ one that acknowledges the theoretical/speculative nature of its claims, while remaining beyond the pale of scientific arbitration. Philosophy is better defined, then, as the attempt to comprehend how things in general hang together in general absent conclusive information.

All too often philosophy is understood in positive terms, either as an archive of theoretical claims, or as a capacity to ‘see beyond’ or ‘peer into.’ On this definition, however, philosophy characterizes a certain relationship to the unknown, one where inquiry eschews supernatural authority, and yet lacks the methodological, technical, and institutional resources of science. Philosophy is the attempt to theoretically explain in the absence of decisive warrant, to argue general claims that cannot, for whatever reason, be presently arbitrated. This is why questions serve as the basic organizing principles of the institution, the shared boughs from which various approaches branch and twig in endless disputation. Philosophy is where we ponder the general questions we cannot decisively answer, grapple with ignorances we cannot readily overcome.



III: Evolution and Ecology

A: Thespian Nature

It might seem innocuous enough defining philosophy in privative terms as the attempt to cognize in conditions of information scarcity, but it turns out to be crucial to our ability to make guesses regarding potential alien analogues. This is because it transforms the question of alien philosophy into a question of alien ignorance. If we can guess at the kinds of ignorance a biological intelligence would suffer, then we can guess at the kinds of questions they would ask, as well as the kinds of answers that might occur to them. And this, as it turns out, is perhaps not so difficult as one might suppose.

The reason is evolution. Thanks to evolution, we know that alien cognition would be bounded cognition, that it would consist of ‘good enough’ capacities adapted to multifarious environmental, reproductive impediments. Taking this ecological view of cognition, it turns out, allows us to make a good number of educated guesses. (And recall, plausibility is all that we’re aiming for here).

So for instance, we can assume tight symmetries between the sensory information accessed, the behavioural resources developed, and the impediments overcome. If gamma rays made no difference to their survival, they would not perceive them. Gamma rays, for Thespians, would be unknown unknowns, at least pending the development of alien science. The same can be said for evolution, planetary physics—pretty much any instance of theoretical cognition you can adduce. Evolution assures that cognitive expenditures, the ability to intuit this or that, will always be bound in some manner to some set of ancestral environments. Evolution means that information that makes no reproductive difference makes no biological difference.

An ecological view, in other words, allows us to naturalistically motivate something we might have been tempted to assume outright: original naivete. The possession of sensory and cognitive apparatuses comparable to our own means Thespians will possess a humanoid neglect structure, a pattern of ignorances they cannot even begin to question, that is, pending the development of philosophy. The Thespians would not simply be ignorant of the microscopic and macroscopic constituents and machinations explaining their environments, they would be oblivious to them. Like our own ancestors, they wouldn’t even know they didn’t know.

Theoretical knowledge is a cultural achievement. Our Thespians would have to learn the big picture details underwriting their immediate environments, undergo their own revolutions and paradigm shifts as they accumulate data and refine interpretations. We can expect them to possess an implicit grasp of local physics, for instance, but no explicit, theoretical understanding of physics in general. So Thespians, it seems safe to say, would have their own version of natural philosophy, a history of attempts to answer big picture questions about the nature of Nature in the absence of decisive data.

Not only can we say their nascent, natural theories will be underdetermined, we can also say something about the kinds of problems Thespians will face, and so something of the shape of their natural philosophy. For instance, needing only the capacity to cognize movement within inertial frames, we can suppose that planetary physics would escape them. Quite simply, without direct information regarding the movement of the ground, the Thespians would have no sense of the ground changing position. They would assume that their sky was moving, not their world. Their cosmological musings, in other words, would begin supposing ‘default geocentrism,’ an assumption that would only require rationalization once others, pondering the movement of the skies, began posing alternatives.

One need only read On the Heavens to appreciate how the availability of information can constrain a theoretical debate. Given the imprecision of the observational information at his disposal, for instance, Aristotle’s stellar parallax argument becomes well-nigh devastating. If the earth revolves around the sun, then surely such a drastic change in position would impact our observations of the stars, the same way driving into a city via two different routes changes our view of downtown. But Aristotle, of course, had no decisive way of fathoming the preposterous distances involved—nor did anyone, until Galileo turned his Dutch Spyglass to the sky. [4]

Aristotle, in other words, was victimized not so much by poor reasoning as by various perspectival illusions following from a neglect structure we can presume our Thespians share. And this warrants further guesses. Consider Aristotle’s claim that the heavens and the earth comprise two distinct ontological orders. Of course purity and circles rule the celestial, and of course grit and lines rule the terrestrial—that is, given the evidence of the naked eye from the surface of the earth. The farther away something is, the less information observation yields, the fewer distinctions we’re capable of making, the more uniform and unitary it is bound to seem—which is to say, the less earthly. An inability to map intuitive physical assumptions onto the movements of the firmament, meanwhile, simply makes those movements appear all the more exceptional. In terms of the information available, it seems safe to suppose our Thespians would at least face the temptation of Aristotle’s long-lived ontological distinction.

I say ‘temptation,’ because certainly any number of caveats can be raised here. Heliocentrism, for instance, is far more obvious in our polar latitudes (where the earth’s rotation is as plain as the summer sun in the sky), so there are observational variables that could have drastically impacted the debate even in our own case. Who knows? If it weren’t for the consistent failure of ancient heliocentric models to make correct predictions (the models assumed circular orbits), things could have gone differently in our own history. The problem of where the earth resides in the whole might have been short-lived.

But it would have been a problem all the same, simply because the motionlessness of the earth and the relative proximity of the heavens would have been our (erroneous) default assumptions. Bound cognition suggests our Thespians would find themselves in much the same situation. Their world would feel motionless. Their heavens would seem to consist of simpler stuff following different laws. Any Thespian arguing heliocentrism would have to explain these observations away, argue how they could be moving while standing still, how the physics of the ground belongs to the physics of the sky.

We can say this because, thanks to an ecological view, we can make plausible empirical guesses as to the kinds of information and capacities Thespians would have available. Not only can we predict what would have remained unknown unknowns for them, we can also predict what might be called ‘unknown half-knowns.’ Where unknown unknowns refer to things we can’t even question, unknown half-knowns refer to theoretical errors we cannot perceive simply because the information required to do so remains—you guessed it—unknown unknown.

Think of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The chained prisoners confuse the shadows for everything because, unable to move their heads from side to side, they just don’t ‘know any different.’ This is something we understand so intuitively we scarce ever pause to ponder it: the absence of information or cognitive capacity has positive cognitive consequences. Absent certain difference making differences, the ground will be cognized as motionless rather than moving, and celestial objects will be cognized as simples rather than complex entities in their own right. The ground might as well be motionless and the sky might as well be simple as far as evolution is concerned. Once again, distinctions that make no reproductive difference make no biological difference. Our lack of radio telescope eyes is no genetic or environmental fluke: such information simply wasn’t relevant to our survival.

This means that a propensity to theorize ‘ground/sky dualism’ is built into our biology. This is quite an incredible claim, if you think about it, but each step in our path has been fairly conservative, given that mere plausibility is our aim. We should expect Thespian cognition to be bounded cognition. We should expect them to assume the ground motionless, and the constituents of the sky simple. We can suppose this because we can suppose them to be ignorant of their ignorances, just as we were (and remain). Cognizing the ontological continuity of heaven and earth requires the proper data for the proper interpretation. Given a roughly convergent sensory predicament, it seems safe to say that aliens would be prone as we were to mistake differences in signal with differences in being and so have to discover the universality of nature the same as we did.

But if we can assume our Thespians—or at least some of them—would be prone to misinterpret their environments the way we did, what about themselves? For centuries now humanity has been revising and sharpening its understanding of the cosmos, to the point of drafting plausible theories regarding the first second of creation, and yet we remain every bit as stumped regarding ourselves as Aristotle. Is it fair to say that our Thespians would suffer the same millennial myopia?

Would they have their own version of our interminable philosophy of the soul?

Hitler and alien


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, [5] 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. [6] 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. [7]

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. [8]

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). [9] 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? [10] 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?

Ripley's nightmare


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.

Alien role-reversal



[1] The eliminativism at issue here is meaning eliminativism, and not, as Stich, Churchland, and many others have advocated, psychological eliminativism. But where meaning eliminativism clearly entails psychological eliminativism, it is not at all obvious the psychological eliminativism entails meaning eliminativism. This was why Stich found himself so perplexed by the implications of reference (see his, Deconstructing the Mind, especially Chapter 1). To assume that folk psychology is a mistaken theory is to assume that folk psychology is representational, something that is true or false of the world. The critical eliminativism espoused here suffers no such difficulty, but at the added cost of needing to explain meaning in general, and not simply commonsense human psychology.

[2] See Kathryn Denning’s excellent, “Social Evolution in Cosmic Context,”

[3] Nicolas Rescher, for instance, makes hash of the time-honoured assumption that aliens would possess a science comparable to our own by cataloguing the myriad contingencies of the human institution. See Finitude, 28, or Unknowability, “Problems of Alien Cognition,” 21-39.

[4] Stellar parallax, on this planet at least, was not measured until 1838.

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

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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).

[10] “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.