Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: June, 2016

A World that Only the Blind Can See

by rsbakker



Overlook has released the third of Jason Deem’s magnificent countdown teasers, as you can see above. The Last Cishaurim, I must say, has special place in my heart. Such water!

The Daily Dot has listed The Second Apocalypse as one of ten series to read while waiting for the next Game of Thrones installment. A recommendation echoed by the Spanish language culture webzine, Conectica.

And last, but certainly not least, Adam has “The History of Earwa, Part 4: The Modern Age” up at the Wertzone.

Reading Adam’s ongoing exegesis, especially while revising and expanding the Encyclopedic Glossary for The Unholy Consult, has got me thinking hard about the significance of world building in fantastic literature, and role of what might be called ‘folk ontologies,’ and the notion of ‘adaptive ignorance.’ I’ll be posting on this in the near future.

On the Irreducible Unity of Language and Ancient Old Souls

by rsbakker



So Overlook has released another one of Jason Deem’s visual interpretations of The Great Ordeal. This time he takes us deep into Ishterebinth, and to the revelation that will transform Sorweel forever.

Adam Whitehead continues his epic recounting with, History of Earwa, Part 3: The Apocalypse. The more I read, the more I want to buy this Bakker guy’s books, largely because I’m a ‘world junkie’ from way back. I’ve been cooking, snorting, smoking, and injecting ontologies for as long as I can bloody remember. Part of what makes Adam’s treatment so cool, of course, is the way he incorporates Jason Deem’s art to visualize his retelling.

And lastly, Mike Hillcoat has opened two subforums on The Second Apocalypse discussion boards, an Author Q&A where I will answer, as best I can, general questions pertaining to the series, and also TGO ARC Author Q&A, where I will do my best to not answer specific questions pertaining The Great Ordeal (and of course, The Unholy Consult), but will do my best to sound generally informative. Bear with me on these. And remember, I love difficult questions. If a zone swallows me up during the day, as is usually the case, then I will try to respond sometime after 10PM, Eastern Standard Time.

Cosmic Darkness…

by rsbakker



The Unholy Consult rewrite has been owning me, of late. But I wanted to share a couple more incredible advance reviews for The Great Ordeal, one from Grimdark Magazine,

It’s everything you expect from a Bakker book: gut-shredding violence, big moral dilemmas, grey and grey and grey, sweeping epic scale, detailed historical world-building, and a sense of horror that eclipses anything else in epic fantasy. Boy oh boy, does The Great Ordeal deliver.

and the other from Kosmos Biblioth, a.k.a., Roger Eichorn, whom I love precisely because he’s never had a problem telling me when things are shite. This time his words are golden:

In sum, Bakker’s latest is both harrowing and thrilling, often simultaneously.  The final chapters are among the most propulsive he’s ever written; they’ll leave you breathless.  They certainly left me gasping.

As an author, dissatisfaction is far and away the safest thing to feel about one’s work. It’s the spur that keeps you working, and even more importantly, keeps you open to continually learning and relearning your craft; it also bridles your hopes, pre-empts the authorial instinct to read your book for your readers, to assume your blinkered estimation, your reading, is the reading that will carry the day.  It almost never is.  This is why I’ve been terrified by my own appraisal of The Great Ordeal, and why that terror subsides a little with each review like these.

So… Who knows? My hope is that these next two years will hoist the series into the mass cultural imagination, that it will scratch the eyes and bruise the hearts of millions, actually do what contemporary literary fiction can only pretend to do.  Pulp is the way forward. Trump supporters are Trump supporters because those who could have broken the me-first spell are too concerned with displaying their anti-me-first credentials to one another, and congratulating themselves for their courage after.

Just believe! This is the ubiquitous moral, the inescapable refrain of our culture. I think it’s safe to say we could use a little more EAMD moving forward.

Updatage: History, Hell, and Thievery

by rsbakker




Check out Jason Deem’s rendition of Kellhus in the Thousand Hells. If you pester him enough, he might spill the beans on his inspiration painting the scene, as well as my inspiration writing it.

Kudos to everyone who contributed to the previous thread: I think I’ve compiled a great list of zingers to send to my new publicist thanks to you.

Just a note of warning to those who think I need neither food nor shelter to write, there’s apparently some phishing sites using The Great Ordeal as click bait. It looks like they’re even lifting material from The Second Apocalypse Forum to lend the appearance of legitimacy.

Also, the inimitable Adam Whitehead has posted A History of Earwa, Part 2: The Age of Man on Wertzone. Very, very cool, especially if you, like me, were bewitched by historical atlases in your youth. Consulting a number of different sources, Adam has pulled together a very interesting interpretation of the overthrow of the Nonmen and the rise of Men to literate civilization. But simply being able to visualize the ebb and flow of nations and empires through the centuries will, I think, help those who feel overwhelmed by my historical references.

And the winners of the Second Apocalypse Forum galley giveaway have been announced. Congratulations to Corky and Litgreg!

If Truth does not shine, then perhaps it glimmers now and again… or blinks like an icon.

Aesthetic Insanity (or insane aesthete)?

by rsbakker



I’ve been trying to force myself to think more in marketing terms, as I’m sure some of you have noticed. It makes for odd bedfellows, pitching free book giveaways one post, then eliminativistic interpretations of observer effects the next. Truth be told, I like the way it jars, the way it renders sensible the boundaries between cultural ingroups. If accusing people of “selling out” doesn’t amount to an ingroup shame mechanism, I’m not sure what does. The same goes for accusations of “pretentiousness” coming the other way. In each case it amounts to shouting, “Objectionable communication!” Personally, I think anyone who wants to write literature—fiction that actually jumps the rails of ever tightening buyer-seller relationships—needs to be perched in some uncomfortable, easy-to-spoof spot like this. You need to find yourself places where others aren’t sure you belong, otherwise you’re simply one of the likeminded writing for the likeminded, and simply pretending that people have been challenged and/or appalled. It’s all ‘genre’ in the pejorative sense, otherwise—algorithmically managed no less!

A commenter mentioned the ‘insane ambition’ of The Second Apocalypse on the previous thread, and that got me thinking about how one would go about estimating the ambition of a literary project. The thing is, I’ve always had an easier time selling the ambition of the project than I have the project itself. The problem with this, of course, is that the world is drowning in grandiose ambitions—I’m pretty sure I only manage to identify myself as a probable manqué when I do this. But what if I could say that The Second Apocalypse was one of the most insanely ambitious literary projects ever undertaken? Does anyone know how a project like this fits in the greater scheme of literary ambition?

Is this worth telling my publicist to use?


Updatage: New Interview and Another Giveaway

by rsbakker

– You’ve previously described The Aspect-Emperor series as ending in a ‘Gordian Knot’ of plots. At which point do you think the reader will have all the pieces to elucidate the problem, let alone the answer?

Plot closure, yes. Thematic closure, not so much. The problem of the books—the problem of ourselves—has no solution, of course. All the things that make fantasy fiction fantastic—the magic, the spirits, the gods, the objective morality, the fate—also happen to be staples of Scripture, be it Christian or ancient Greek or Hindu or what have you. Fantasy celebrates and critiques our most natural way of conceiving the world, a way that has been and continues to be undermined by the findings and proceeds of science. The way I see it, fantastic literature is the dirge of our civilization, a final retelling of our most ancient and primordial songs. The song ends when our voices fall silent. No one knows what follows the song. We can only hope that we’re somehow stronger for the singing.

This is what the best storytelling does, I think: arms us against what we cannot understand. Given my themes, ending any other way would be a betrayal.

Just a snippet from my latest interview on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

Also Grimdark Magazine is hosting its own Advance Reading Copy giveaway of The Great Ordeal. To enter, simply name your favourite character in the series and explain why–there’s already several pages of fascinating explanations. My favourite character overall has to be the Great Ordeal itself, simply because it embodies all the contradictions of aspiration and appetite on the scale of epic endeavour. It also has the least dialogue. Nothing worse than a prolix holy war.

Updatage: History and Luck

by rsbakker

Kellhus by Jason Deem

Wertzone has posted “A History Earwa, Part One: The Fall of the Ark and the Cuno-Inchoroi Wars,” a gobsmacking entry that draws on a number of sources (including correspondence with myself), and features artwork from Jason Deem’s catalogue on unearthly Earwan imagery (my favourite is above) . The idea, for me, has always been to create just such a World as Adam relates, one that lives parallel to our own in the imaginations of others. This is narrative transcendence in spades—where literature lives among the people, and not the choir. Check. It. Out.

In concert with Overlook, Andy (aka bakkerfans) is running a giveaway contest for two Advanced Reader Copies of The Great Ordeal. To enter, you need only:

  1. Go to
  2. Register an account (which is easy, never fear)
  3. Navigate to the thread entitled, “The Great Ordeal ARC Giveaway” in the The Great Ordeal subforum.
  4. Post the most burning question you hope The Great Ordeal will answer.

The winners will be randomly selected next week!

I’m an obsessive soul, prone to follow one ball so closely as to drop all the others. I have a bunch of stuff coming up, interviews in print and video, all organized by others, and I wanted to take time out to thank all those who’s efforts allow me to continue obsessively mining these twin veins of gold, fictional and philosophical. If you know anyone with a thoughtful bent who perhaps once loved fantasy but has given up, or who is simply exhausted by high culture hypocrisy and is ready to see the profundities that pulp has always housed, always shouted, then send them the trailer.

If they think they’re smarter than genre, then send them to Three Pound Brain. We got scales, here, you see…

To Ping or Not to Ping: Physics, Phenomenology, and Observer Effects

by rsbakker

Xray movie poster


JAMES XAVIER: Sam, what’s the range of human vision?

SAM BRANT: Distance?

JAMES XAVIER: No, wavelength.

SAM BRANT: Between 4000 angstrom units and 7800 angstrom units.* You know that.

JAMES XAVIER: Less than one-tenth of the actual wave spectrum. What could we really see if we had access to the other ninety-percent? Sam, we are virtually blind, all of us. You tell me my eyes are perfect, well they’re not. I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

SAM BRANT: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

JAMES XAVIER: My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.


What happens when we begin to see too much? Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes poses this very question. At first the dividends seem to be nothing short of fantastic. Dr. Xavier can see through pockets, sheets of paper, even the clothes of young men and women dancing. What’s more, he discovers he can look through the bodies of the ill and literally see what needs to be done to save them. The problem is that the blindness of others defines the expectations of others: Dr. Xavier finds himself a deep information consumer in a shallow information cognitive ecology. So assisting in surgery he knows the senior surgeon is about to kill a young girl because he can see what’s truly ailing her. He has to usurp his superior’s authority—it is the only sane thing to do—and yet his subsequent acts inevitably identify him as mad.

The madness, we discover, comes later, when the information becomes so deep as to overwhelm his cognitive biology. The more transparent the world becomes to him, the more opaque he becomes to others, himself included. He begins by nixing his personal and impersonal social ecologies, finds respite for a time as first a carnival mystic and then a quasi-religious faith healer, but even these liminal social habitats come crashing down around him. In the end, no human community can contain him, not even the all-embracing community of God. A classic ‘forbidden knowledge’ narrative, the movie ends with the Biblical admonition, “If an eye offends thee…” and Dr. Xavier plucking out his own eyes—and with remarkable B-movie facility I might add!

The idea, ultimately, isn’t so much that ignorance is bliss as it’s adaptive. The great bulk of human cognition is heuristic, turning not so much on what’s going on as cues systematically related to what’s going on. This dependence on cues is what renders human cognition ecological, a system functionally dependent upon environmental invariants. Change the capacity adapted to those cues, or change the systems tracked by these cues, and we find ourselves in crash space. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes provides us with catastrophic and therefore dramatic examples of both.

Humans, like all other species on this planet, possess cognitive ecologies. And as I hope to show below, the consequences of this fact can be every bit as subtle and misleading in philosophy as they are disastrous and illuminating in cinema.

We belong to the very nature we’re attempting to understand, and this has consequences for our capacity to understand. At every point in its scientific development, humanity has possessed a sensitivity horizon, a cognitive range basically, delimiting what can and cannot detected, let alone solved. Ancestrally, for instance, we were sensitive only to visible light and so had no way of tracking the greater spectrum. Once restricted to the world of ‘middle-sized dry goods,’ our sensitivity horizons now delve deep into the macroscopic and microscopic reaches of our environment.

The difference between Ernest Rutherford’s gold foil experiment and the Large Hadron Collider provides a dramatic expression of the difficulties entailed by extending this horizon, how the technical challenges tend to compound at ever more distal scales. The successor to the LHC, the International Linear Collider, is presently in development and expected cost 10 billion dollars, twice as much as the behemoth outside Geneva.[1] Meanwhile the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble and the Spitzer, has been projected to cost 8 billion dollars. Increasingly, cutting edge science is an industrial enterprise. We talk about searching for objects, signals, and so forth, but what we’re actually doing is engineering ever more profound sensitivities, ways to mechanically relate to macroscopic and microscopic scales.

When it comes to microscopic sensitivity horizons, the mechanical nature of this relation renders the problem of so-called ‘observer effects’ all but inevitable. The only way to track systematicities is to physically interact with them in some way. The more diminutive those systematicities become, the more sensitive they become, the more disruptive our physical interactions become. Intractable observational interference is something fundamental physics was pretty much doomed to encounter.

Now every account of observer effects I’ve encountered turns on the commonsensical observation that intervening on processes changes them, thus complicating our ability to study that process as it is. Observer effects, therefore, knock target systems from the very pins we’re attempting to understand. Mechanical interaction with a system scrambles the mechanics of that system—what could be more obvious? Observer effects are simply a consequence of belonging to the same nature we want to know. The problem with this formulation, however, is that it fails to consider the hybrid system that results. Given that cognition is natural, we can say that all cognition turns on the convergence of physical systems, the one belonging to the cognizer, the other belonging to the target. And this allows us to distinguish between kinds of cognition in terms of the kinds of hybrid systems that result. And this, I hope to show, allows us not only to make more sense of intentionality—‘aboutness’—but also why particle physics convinces so many that consciousness is somehow responsible for reality.

Unless you believe knowledge is magical, supernatural, claiming that our cognitive sensitivity to environmental systematicities has mechanical limits is a no-brainer. Blind Brain Theory amounts to little more than applying this fact to deliberative metacognition, or reflection, and showing how the mystery of human meaning can be unravelled in entirely naturalistic terms. On Blind Brain Theory, the first-person is best understood as an artifact of various metacognitive insensitivities. The human brain is utterly insensitive to the mechanics of its physical environmental relations (it has to be for a wide variety of reasons); it has no alternative but to cognize those relations in a radically heuristic manner, to ignore all the mediating machinery. As BBT has it, what philosophers call ‘intentionality’ superficially tracks this specialized cognitive tool—fetishizes it, in fact.

Does the brain possess the capacity to cognize its own environmental relations absent cognition of the actual physical relations obtaining? Yes. This is a simple empirical fact. So what is this capacity? Does it constitute some intrinsically inexplicable pocket of reality, express some fundamental rupture in Being, or is it simply heuristic? Since inexplicable pockets and fundamental ruptures entail a wide variety of perpetually speculative commitments, heuristics have to be the only empirically plausible alternative.

Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition. As such, it possesses a corresponding problem ecology, which is to say, a limited scope of effective application. Heuristic cognition always requires that specific background conditions obtain, some set of environmental invariants.[2] Given our insensitivity to these limits, our ‘autoinsensitivity’ (what I call medial neglect elsewhere), it makes sense we would run afoul misapplications. Blind Brain Theory provides a way of mapping these limits, of understanding how and where things like the intentionality heuristic might lead us astray.

Anyone who’s watched or read The Red October knows about the fundamental distinction drawn between active and passive modes of detection in the military science of warning systems. So with sonar, for instance, one can ‘ping’ to locate their potential enemy, transmit an acoustic pulse designed to facilitate echoic location. The advantage of this active approach is that reliably locates enemies, but it does so at the cost of alerting your enemy to your presence. It reliably detects, but it changes the behaviour of what it detects—a bona fide observer effect. You know where your enemy is, sure, but you’ve made them more difficult to predict. Passive sonar, on the other hand, simply listens for the sounds your enemy is prone to make. Though less reliable at detecting them, it has the advantage of leaving the target undisturbed, thus rendering your foe more predictable, and so more vulnerable. this.

Human cognition cleaves along very similar lines. In what might be called passive cognition, the cognitive apparatus (our brain and other enabling media) has a negligible or otherwise irrelevant impact on the systematicities tracked. Seeing a natural process, for instance, generally has no impact on that process, since the photons used would have been reflected whether or not they were subsequently intercepted by your retinas. With interactive cognition, on the other hand, the cognitive apparatus has a substantial impact on the systematicities tracked. Touching a natural process, for example, generally interferes with that process. Where the former allows us to cognize functions independent of our investigation, the latter does not. This means that interactive cognition always entails ignorance in a way that passive cognition does not. Restricted to the consequences of our comportments, we have no way of tracking the systematicities responsible, which means we have no way of completely understanding the system. In interactive cognition, we are constitutive of such systems, so blindness to ourselves effectively means blindness to those systems, which is why we generally learn the consequences of our of interference, and little more.[3] Of course passive cognition suffers the identical degree of autoinsensitivity; it just doesn’t matter given how the passivity of the process preserves the functional independence of the systematicities involved. Things do what they would have done whether you had observed them or not.

We should expect, then, that applications of the intentionality heuristic—‘aboutness’—will generally facilitate cognition when our targets exhibit genuine functional independence, and generally undermine cognition when they do not. Understanding combustion engines requires no understanding of the cognitive apparatus required to understand combustion engines. The radically privative schema of knower and known, subject and object, works simply because the knowing need not be known. We need possess no comportment to our comportments in instances of small engine repair, which is a good thing, given the astronomical neural complexities involved. Thinking in terms of ‘about’ works just fine.

The more interactive cognition becomes, however, the more problematic assumptive applications of the intentionality heuristic are likely to become. Consider phenomenology, where the presumption is that the theorist can cognize experience itself, and not simply the objects of experience. It seems safe to say that experience does not enjoy the functional independence of, say, combustion engines. Phenomenologists generally rely on the metaphorics of vision in their investigations, but insofar as both experience and cognition turn on one and the same neural system, the suspicion has to be that things are far more tactile than their visual metaphors lead them to believe. The idea of cognizing experience absent any understanding of cognition is almost comically farfetched, if you think about it, and yet this is exactly what phenomenologists purport to do. One might wonder what two things could be more entangled, more functionally interdependent, than conscious experience and conscious cognition. So then why would anyone entertain phenomenology, let alone make it their vocation?

The answer is neglect. Since phenomenologists suffer the same profound autoinsensitivity as the rest of the human species, they have no way of distinguishing between those experiential artifacts genuinely observed and those manufactured—between what they ‘see’ and what they ‘handle.’ Since they have no inkling whatsoever of their autoinsensitivity, they are prone to assume, as humans generally do when suffering neglect, that what they see is all there is,[4] despite the intrinsically theoretically underdetermined nature of their field. As we have seen, the intentionality heuristic presumes functional independence, that we need not know much of anything about our cognitive capacities to solve a given system. Apply this presumption to instances of interactive cognition, as phenomenologists so obviously do, and you will find yourself in crash space, plain and simple.

Observer effects, you could say, flag the points where cognitive passivity becomes interactive—where we must ping our targets to track them. Given autoinsensitivity, our brains necessarily neglect the enabling (or medial) mechanical dimension of their own constitution. They have no way, therefore, of tracking anything apart from the consequences of their cognitive determinations. This simply follows from the mechanical nature of consciousness, of course—all cognition turns on deriving, first and foremost, predictions from mechanical consequences, but also manipulations and explanations. The fact that we can only cognize the consequences of cognition—source neglect—convinces reflection that we somehow stand outside nature, that consciousness is some kind of floating source as opposed to what it is, another natural system embedded in a welter of natural systems.[5] Autoinsensitivity is systematically mistaken for autosufficiency, the profound intuition that conscious experience somehow must come first. It becomes easy to suppose that the collapse of wave-functions is accomplished by the intervention of consciousness (or some component thereof) rather than the interposition of another system. We neglect the system actually responsible for decoherence and congratulate the heuristic cartoon that evolution has foisted upon us instead. The magically floating, suspiciously low-dimensional ‘I’ becomes responsible, rather than the materially embedded organism we know ourselves to be.

Like Deepak Chopra, Donald Hoffman and numerous others insisting their brand of low-dimensional hokum is scientifically grounded, we claim that science entails our most preposterous conceit, that we are somehow authors of reality, rather than just another thermodynamic waystation.

*The typical human eye is actually sensitive to 3900 to 7000 angstroms.



[1] Baer, Howard, Barger, Vernon D., and List, Jenny. “The Collider that Could Save Physics,” Scientific American, June, 2016. 8.

[2] Sometimes it can be gerrymandered to generate understanding in novel contexts, sometimes not. In those cases where it can be so adapted, it still relies on some kind invariance between the cues accessed, and the systems solved.

[3] Absent, that is, sophisticated theoretical and/or experimental prostheses. A great deal needs to be said here regarding the various ‘hacks’ we’ve devised to suss out natural processes via a wild variety of ingenious interventions. (Hacking’s wonderful Representing and Intervening is replete with examples). But none of these methods involve overcoming medial neglect, which is to say all of them leverage cognition absent autocognition.

[4] Blind Brain Theory can actually be seen as a generalization Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI (‘What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is’) effects in his research.

[5] This is entirely consonant with an exciting line of research (one of multiple lines converging on Blind Brain Theory) involving ‘inherence heuristics.’ Andrei Cimpian and Erika Saloman write:

we propose that people often make sense of [environmental] regularities via a simple rule of thumb–the inherence heuristic. This fast, intuitive heuristic leads people to explain many observed patterns in terms of the inherent features of the things that instantiate these patterns. For example, one might infer that girls wear pink because pink is a delicate, inherently feminine color, or that orange juice is consumed for breakfast because its inherent qualities make it suitable for that time of day. As is the case with the output of any heuristic, such inferences can be–and often are–mistaken. Many of the patterns that currently structure our world are the products of complex chains of historical causes rather than being simply a function of the inherent features of the entities involved. The human mind, however, may be prone to ignore this possibility. If the present proposal is correct, people often understand the regularities in their environments as inevitable reflections of the true nature of the world rather than as end points of event chains whose outcomes could have been different.

See, Andrei Cimpian and Erika Saloman, “The inherence heuristic: An intuitive means of making sense of the world and a potential precursor to psychological essentialism,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37 (2014), 461-462.