Flashlight Philosophy

by rsbakker

I want to believe

Imagine you’re shopping for groceries and this thick, impenetrable fog rolls into town, and the power goes out, and a chorus of screams rings out from the surrounding town, until finally, everything goes eerily quiet. Then people begin disappearing, somehow sucked into the fog roiling just outside the windows. You and the surviving customers rush to the flashlight section, arm yourselves with visibility, in effect, then take turns probing the fog with your lights.

Everyone agrees that something is out there, and that whatever that something is, it’s grabbing shoppers one by one. And lo, almost everyone, peering into the noxious fume, claims they can see what they are up against. But the problem is that no one agrees—everyone sees something completely different. Some see winged creatures, others terrestrial, but everyone insists they see only that type of creature, and that the others must be wrong.

The survivors begin sorting themselves according to the affinities in their views, and soon we find ourselves with three different ‘flashlight tribes,’ those convinced the threat is airborne (though they disagree on morphological specifics), those convinced the threat is terrestrial (though they also disagree on the morphological specifics), and those that think something fishy is going on. People disappear one by one, and the aerial partisans say, “Yes, I saw it! Something swooped down from above and carried them off,” while the terrestrial partisans say, “Yes, I saw it! Something reared up from the ground and carried them off,” and the skeptics say, “C’mon, guys, obviously something fishy is going on here!”

So they alone begin running experiments, rolling beach-balls out into the fog, setting up cameras, doing everything they can to gather more information.

Now consider what Levi Bryant has to say about the “methodology of philosophy”:

Put in Heideggerian terms, we could say that a philosophy of biology interrogates the “alethetic field” through which the bios is open as an object that is given to the investigating biologist. This, of course, requires some knowledge of the field of biology and its present state of knowledge. Often philosophers forget that they need to acquaint themselves with the other disciplines they investigate and therefore end up proceeding on the basis of doxa or the prejudices of folk biology. A philosophy of biology must be familiar with the field that it takes as an object. However, it does something quite different than what is done in this discipline. In making the concepts of this alethetic field its object, it tries to bring these concepts before reflective consciousness, to explore their interdependence, to uncover what is unspoken in them, and it perpetually shuttles back and forth between those beings we refer to as living and this space of conceptuality. In doing so, philosophy often discovers something unspoken in these concepts.

This is about as concise a description of the Myth of Making Explicit as I’ve come across, the comforting idea that philosophy somehow sheds light on what comes before scientific theoretical cognition. We solve things all the time, we humans, but thanks to medial neglect, we have no intuitive means of solving our solving, no way of sourcing our thoughts or behaviours. So what do we do? We invent sources, sets of systematic constraints that rationalize our thoughts and behaviours; we posit things like ‘language games,’ ‘grammars,’ ‘norms,’ ‘conceptual schemes,’ ‘conditions of possibility,’ ‘alethic fields,’ and so on. The problem, however, is that the deliverances of ‘reflective consciousness,’ as Levi calls it, never suffice to arbitrate between any of these formulations. Everybody is left swearing by their own flashlight. More than one hundred generations on everyone is still arguing posits. As a partisan of this methodology, Levi assumes its efficacy, the ability to theoretically cognize the darkness that comes before human thought and behaviour. On the strength of his flashlight, he believes that something terrestrial and/or aerial has to inhabit the impenetrable mists. He literally believes that he and others are making something explicit, as opposed to merely making something up.

And this is the real question behind any question of methodology: How do you know? How do you know you’re making things explicit rather than making things up?

The thing to note, of course, is that Bryant’s answer is no answer. Claiming that philosophy tackles the darkness that comes before cognition in no way answers the question of how philosophy tackles the darkness that comes before cognition. Referencing controversial posits such as ‘concepts,’ or factually unreliable cognitive modes like ‘reflective consciousness’ simply underscores the theoretical plight that he and other traditional philosophers find themselves in. It amounts to saying, “We just aim our flashlights and squint real, real hard.”

But the bigger problem plaguing Bryant’s answer is that it is simply not the case that biology runs into some kind of fundamental limit when it comes to the question of itself. In fact, the one thing we know for sure is that brain function does come before thought and behaviour. Thus the billions being plowed into cognitive scientific research. The image of the ontologically/conceptually blind scientist being led by the ontologically/conceptually sighted philosopher is becoming an ever more preposterous one, an increasingly obvious example of prescientific conceit. With every passing year, it becomes more a matter of the empirically sighted scientist leaving the empirically blind philosopher behind.

“If,” Bryant writes, “it is hopeless to seek a philosophical methodology, then this is because philosophy is a form of thought that precedes anything like the givenness of an object that could then be investigated empirically.” The domain of philosophy, he would have us believe, lies in the darkness that comes before cognition. And yet all across the cognitive sciences one finds researchers tackling this very domain, not simply ‘theorizing,’ but reverse-engineering innumerable cognitive capacities (thus launching us into an engineering future we can scarce imagine). Biology isn’t something passed down from on high, something somehow outside (above, beyond, before) the biological. Biology is itself biological, the physical expression of capacities turning on evolution.

The high dimensional story of biology, the theory or motley of theories arising out of all the data amassed, is the story of the darkness that comes before. It will be the story that sources our thought and our behaviour in an ever complicating (ever empowering) picture.  The “something quite different” that sets philosophy apart, when all is said and done, is the reliance on sparse and ambiguous information (the deliverances of ‘reflective consciousness’) to make theoretical claims without hope of arbitration.

And this leaves us with a far different way to understand what Bryant calls the ‘philosophical situation.’ He refers to the famous quote from the Sophist that Heidegger uses as an epigraph for Being and Time, where the Eleatic stranger reconstructs grounds for demanding some clarification of being, referring to the paradox of knowing how to use the term ‘being’ without understanding being. This ground of perplexity, and the corresponding need for clarification, are what Bryant identifies as the ‘before’ of biological thought. The darkness requiring illumination.

This epigraph so wonderfully illustrates the crisis now embroiling traditional, preemptive philosophical modes. On the one hand it underscores how nothing has been resolved since Plato. Twenty-four centuries of futile inquiry, in my humble opinion, out and out screams that the ‘philosophical situation’ is a kind of cognitive crash space, a place where systems (like intentional cognition) adapted to neglect what’s going on are asked to tell us what’s going on. On the other hand it demonstrates the profundity of our metacognitive innocence, the fact that we are so blind to ourselves as to be everywhere perplexed by what we already know, to be perpetually baffled by the apparent miracle of our understanding.

What are we? The philosopher wants to convince you that only he gets to answer this question in its most fundamental form. Of course, since no philosopher can agree on the answer, this is tantamount to declaring that no one gets to answer this question. And this borders on the farcical, as do all claims to authority (conceptual or otherwise) where no authority is recognized.

Bottomline? Philosophy only has post hoc guesses, and nothing more.

The science, meanwhile, is turning us inside out as you read.

Maybe it’s time to get real, to come to grips with the ugly, as opposed to the flattering.