The Truth Behind the Myth of Correlationism
A wrong turn lies hidden in the human cultural code, an error that has scuttled our every attempt to understand consciousness and cognition. So much philosophical activity reeks of dead ends: we try and we try, and yet we find ourselves mired in the same ancient patterns of disputation. The majority of thinkers believe the problem is local, that they need only tinker with the tools they’ve inherited. They soldier on, arguing that this or that innovative modification will overcome our confusion. Some, however, believe the problem lies deeper. I’m one of those thinkers, as is Meillassoux. I think the solution lies in speculation bound to the hip of modern science, in something I call ‘heuristic neglect.’ For me, the wrong turn lies in the application of intentional cognition to solve the theoretical problem of intentional cognition. Meillassoux thinks it lies in what he calls ‘correlationism.’
Since I’ve been accused of ‘correlationism’ on a couple of occasions now, I thought it worthwhile tackling the issue in more detail. This will not be an institutional critique a la Golumbia’s, who manages to identify endless problems with Meillassoux’s presentation, while somehow entirely missing his skeptical point: once cognition becomes artifactual, it becomes very… very difficult to understand. Cognitive science is itself fractured about Meillassoux’s issue.
What follows will be a constructive critique, an attempt to explain the actual problem underwriting what Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism,’ and why his attempt to escape that problem simply collapses into more interminable philosophy. The problem that artifactuality poses to the understanding of cognition is very real, and it also happens to fall into the wheelhouse of Heuristic Neglect Theory (HNT). For those souls growing disenchanted with Speculative Realism, but unwilling to fall back into the traditional bosom, I hope to show that HNT not only offers the radical break with tradition that Meillassoux promises, it remains inextricably bound to the details of this, the most remarkable age.
What is correlationism? The experts explain:
Correlation affirms the indissoluble primacy of the relation between thought and its correlate over the metaphysical hypostatization or representational reification of either term of the relation. Correlationism is subtle: it never denies that our thoughts or utterances aim at or intend mind-independent or language-independent realities; it merely stipulates that this apparently independent dimension remains internally related to thought and language. Thus contemporary correlationism dismisses the problematic of scepticism, and or epistemology more generally, as an antiquated Cartesian hang-up: there is supposedly no problem about how we are able to adequately represent reality; since we are ‘always already’ outside ourselves and immersed in or engaging with the world (and indeed, this particular platitude is constantly touted as the great Heideggerean-Wittgensteinian insight). Note that correlationism need not privilege “thinking” or “consciousness” as the key relation—it can just as easily replace it with “being-in-the-world,” “perception,” “sensibility,” “intuition,” “affect,” or even “flesh.” Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound, 51
By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5
Correlationism rests on an argument as simple as it is powerful, and which can be formulated in the following way: No X without givenness of X, and no theory about X without a positing of X. If you speak about something, you speak about something that is given to you, and posited by you. Consequently, the sentence: ‘X is’, means: ‘X is the correlate of thinking’ in a Cartesian sense. That is: X is the correlate of an affection, or a perception, or a conception, or of any subjective act. To be is to be a correlate, a term of a correlation . . . That is why it is impossible to conceive an absolute X, i.e., an X which would be essentially separate from a subject. We can’t know what the reality of the object in itself is because we can’t distinguish between properties which are supposed to belong to the object and properties belonging to the subjective access to the object. Quentin Meillassoux,”Time without Becoming“
The claim of correlationism is the corollary of the slogan that ‘nothing is given’ to understanding: everything is mediated. Once knowing becomes an activity, then the objects insofar as they are known become artifacts in some manner: reception cannot be definitively sorted from projection and as a result no knowledge can be said to be absolute. We find ourselves trapped in the ‘correlationist circle,’ trapped in artifactual galleries, never able to explain the human-independent reality we damn well know exists. Since all cognition is mediated, all cognition is conditional somehow, even our attempts (or perhaps, especially our attempts) to account for those conditions. Any theory unable to decisively explain objectivity is a theory that cannot explain cognition. Ergo, correlationism names a failed (cognitivist) philosophical endeavour.
It’s a testament to the power of labels in philosophy, I think, because as Meillassoux himself acknowledges there’s nothing really novel about the above sketch. Explaining the ‘cognitive difference’ was my dissertation project back in the 90’s, after all, and as smitten as I was with my bullshit solution back then, I didn’t think the problem itself was anything but ancient. Given this whole website is dedicated to exploring and explaining consciousness and cognition, you could say it remains my project to this very day! One of the things I find so frustrating about the ‘critique of correlationism’ is that the real problem—the ongoing crisis—is the problem of meaning. If correlationism fails because correlationism cannot explain cognition, then the problem of correlationism is an expression of a larger problem, the problem of cognition—or in other words, the problem of intentionality.
Why is the problem of meaning an ongoing crisis? In the past six fiscal years, from 2012 to 2017, the National Institute of Health will have spent more than 113 billion dollars funding research bent on solving some corner of the human soul.  And this is just one public institution in one nation involving health related research. If you include the cognitive sciences more generally—research into everything from consumer behaviour to AI—you could say that solving the human soul commands more resources than any other domain in history. The reason all this money is being poured into the sciences rather than philosophy departments is that the former possesses real world consequences: diseases cured, soap sold, politicians elected. As someone who tries to keep up with developments in Continental philosophy, I already find the disconnect stupendous, how whole populations of thinkers continue discoursing as if nothing significant has changed, bitching about traditional cutlery in the shadow of the cognitive scientific tsunami.
Part of the popularity of the critique of correlationism derives from anxieties regarding the growing overlap of the sciences of the human and the humanities. All thinkers self-consciously engaged in the critique of correlationism reference scientific knowledge as a means of discrediting correlationist thought, but as far as I can tell, the project has done very little to bring the science, what we’re actually learning about consciousness and cognition, to the fore of philosophical debates. Even worse, the notion of mental and/or neural mediation is actually central to cognitive science. What some neuroscientists term ‘internal models,’ which monolopolize our access to ourselves and the world, is nothing if not a theoretical correlation of environments and cognition, trapping us in models of models. The very science that Meillassoux thinks argues against correlationism in one context, explicitly turns on it in another. The mediation of knowledge is the domain of cognitive science—full stop. A naturalistic understanding of cognition is a biological understanding is an artifactual understanding: this is why the upshot of cognitive science is so often skeptical, prone to further diminish our traditional (if not instinctive) hankering for unconditioned knowledge—to reveal it as an ancestral conceit…
A kind of arche-fossil.
If an artifactual approach to cognition is doomed to misconstrue cognition, then cognitive science is a doomed enterprise. Despite the vast sums of knowledge accrued, the wondrous and fearsome social instrumentalities gained, knowledge itself will remain inexplicable. What we find lurking in the bones of Meillassoux’s critique, in other words, is precisely the same commitment to intentional exceptionality we find in all traditional philosophy, the belief that the subject matter of traditional philosophical disputation lies beyond the pale of scientific explanation… that despite the cognitive scientific tsunami, traditional intentional speculation lies secure in its ontological bunkers.
Only more philosophy, Meillassoux thinks, can overcome the ‘scandal of philosophy.’ But how is mere opinion supposed to provide bona fide knowledge of knowledge? Speculation on mathematics does nothing to ameliorate this absurdity: even though paradigmatic of objectivity, mathematics remains as inscrutable as knowledge itself. Perhaps there is some sense to be found in the notion of interrogating/theorizing objects in a bid to understand objectivity (cognition), but given what we now know regarding our cognitive shortcomings in low-information domains, we can be assured that ‘object-oriented’ approaches will bog down in disputation.
I just don’t know how to make the ‘critique of correlationism’ workable, short ignoring the very science it takes as its motivation, or just as bad, subordinating empirical discoveries to some school of ‘fundamental ontological’ speculation. If you’re willing to take such a leap of theoretical faith, you can be assured that no one in the vicinity of cognitive science will take it with you—and that you will make no difference in the mad revolution presently crashing upon us.
We know that knowledge is somehow an artifact of neural function—full stop. Meillassoux is quite right to say this renders the objectivity of knowledge very difficult to understand. But why think the problem lies in presuming the artifactual nature of cognition?—especially now that science has begun reverse-engineering that nature in earnest! What if our presumption of artifactuality weren’t so much the problem, as the characterization? What if the problem isn’t that cognitive science is artifactual so much as how it is?
After all, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about this how in the past decades: the idea of dismissing all this detail on the basis of a priori guesswork seems more than a little suspect. The track record would suggest extreme caution. As the boggling scale of the cognitive scientific project should make clear, everything turns on the biological details of cognition. We now know, for instance, that the brain employs legions of special purpose devices to navigate its environments. We know that cognition is thoroughly heuristic, that it turns on cues, bits of available information statistically correlated to systems requiring solution.
Most all systems in our environment shed information enabling the prediction of subsequent behaviours absent the mechanical particulars of that information. The human brain is exquisitely tuned to identify and exploit the correlation of information available and subsequent behaviours. The artifactuality of biology is an evolutionary one, and as such geared to the thrifty solution of high impact problems. To say that cognition (animal or human) is heuristic is to say it’s organized according to the kinds of problems our ancestors needed to solve, and not according to those belonging to academics. Human cognition consists of artifactualities, subsystems dedicated to certain kinds of problem ecologies. Moreover, it consists of artifactualities selected to answer questions quite different from those posed by philosophers.
These two facts drastically alter the landscape of the apparent problem posed by ‘correlationism.’ We have ample theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that mechanistic cognition and intentional cognition comprise two quite different cognitive regimes, the one dedicated to explanation via high-dimensional (physical) sourcing, the other dedicated to explanation absent that sourcing. As an intentional phenomena, objectivity clearly belongs to the latter. Mechanistic cognition, meanwhile, is artifactual. What if it’s the case that ‘objectivity’ is the turn of a screw in a cognitive system selected to solve in the absence of artifactual information? Since intentional cognition turns on specific cues to leverage solutions, and since those cues appear sufficient (to be the only game in town where that behaviour is concerned), the high-dimensional sourcing of that same behavior generates a philosophical crash space—and a storied one at that! What seems sourceless and self-evident becomes patently impossible.
Short magic, cognitive systems possess the environmental relationships they do thanks to super-complicated histories of natural and neural selection—evolution and learning. Let’s call this their orientation, understood as the nonintentional (‘zombie’) correlate of ‘perspective.’ The human brain is possibly the most complex thing we know of in the universe (a fact which should render any theory of the human neglecting that complexity suspect). Our cognitive systems, in other words, possess physically intractable orientations. How intractable? Enough that billions of dollars in research has merely scratched the surface.
Any capacity to cognize this relationship will perforce be radically heuristic, which is to say, provide a means to solve some critical range of problems—a problem ecology—absent natural historical information. The orientation heuristically cognized, of course, is the full-dimensional relationship we actually possess, only hacked in ways that generate solutions (repetitions of behaviour) while neglecting the physical details of that relationship.
Most significantly, orientation neglects the dimension of mediation: thought and perception (whatever they amount to) are thoroughly blind to their immediate sources. This cognitive blindness to the activity of cognition, or medial neglect, amounts to a gross insensitivity to our physical continuity with our environments, the fact that we break no thermodynamic laws. Our orientation, in other words, is characterized by a profound, structural insensitivity to its own constitution—its biological artifactuality, among other things. This auto-insensitivity, not surprisingly, includes insensitivity to the fact of this insensitivity, and thus the default presumption of sufficiency. Specialized sensitivities are required to flag insufficiencies, after all, and like all biological devices, they do not come for free. Not only are we blind to our position within the superordinate systems comprising nature, we’re blind to our blindness, and so, unable to distinguish table-scraps from a banquet, we are duped into affirming inexplicable spontanieties.
‘Truth’ belongs to our machinery for communicating (among other things) the sufficiency of iterable orientations within superordinate systems given medial neglect. You could say it’s a way to advertise clockwork positioning (functional sufficiency) absent any inkling of the clock. ‘Objectivity,’ the term denoting the supposed general property of being true apart from individual perspectives, is a deliberative contrivance derived from practical applications of ‘truth’—the product of ‘philosophical reflection.’ The problem with objectivity as a phenomenon (as opposed to ‘objectivity’ as a component of some larger cognitive articulation) is that the sufficiency of iterable orientations within superordinate systems is always a contingent affair. Whether ‘truth’ occasions sufficiency is always an open question, since the system provides, at best, a rough and ready way to communicate and/or troubleshoot orientation. Unpredictable events regularly make liars of us all. The notion of facts ‘being true’ absent the mediation of human cognition, ‘objectivity,’ also provides a rough and ready way to communicate and/or troubleshoot orientation in certain circumstances. We regularly predict felicitous orientations without the least sensitivity to their artifactual nature, absent any inkling how their pins lie in intractable high-dimensional coincidences between buzzing brains. This insensitivity generates the illusion of absolute orientation, a position outside natural regularities—a ‘view from nowhere.’ We are a worm in the gut of nature convinced we possess disembodied eyes. And so long as the consequences of our orientations remain felicitous, our conceit need not be tested. Our orientations might as well ‘stand nowhere’ absent cognition of their limits.
Thus can ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ be naturalized and their peculiarities explained.
The primary cognitive moral here is that lacking information has positive cognitive consequences, especially when it comes to deliberative metacognition, our attempts to understand our nature via philosophical reflection alone. Correlationism evidences this in a number of ways.
As soon as the problem of cognition is characterized as the problem of thought and being, it becomes insoluble. Intentional cognition is heuristic: it neglects the nature of the systems involved, exploiting cues correlated to the systems requiring solution instead. The application of intentional cognition to theoretical explanation, therefore, amounts to the attempt to solve natures using a system adapted to neglect natures. A great deal of traditional philosophy is dedicated to the theoretical understanding of cognition via intentional idioms—via applications of intentional cognition. Thus the morass of disputation. We presume that specialized problem-solving systems possess general application. Lacking the capacity to cognize our inability to cognize the theoretical nature of cognition, we presume sufficiency. Orientation, the relation between neural systems and their proximal and distal environments—between two systems of objects—becomes perspective, the relation between subjects (or systems of subjects) and systems of objects (environments). If one conflates the manifest artifactual nature of orientation for the artifactual nature of perspective (subjectivity), then objectivity itself becomes a subjective artifact, and therefore nothing objective at all. Since orientation characterizes our every attempt to solve for cognition, conflating it with perspective renders perspective inescapable, and objectivity all but inexplicable. Thus the crash space of traditional epistemology.
Now I know from hard experience that the typical response to the picture sketched above is to simply insist on the conflation of orientation and perspective, to assert that my position, despite its explanatory power, simply amounts to more of the same, another perspectival Klein Bottle distinctive only for its egregious ‘scientism.’ Only my intrinsically intentional perspective, I am told, allows me to claim that such perspectives are metacognitive artifacts, a consequence of medial neglect. But asserting perspective before orientation on the basis of metacognitive intuitions alone not only begs the question, it also beggars explanation, delivering the project of cognizing cognition to never-ending disputation—an inability to even formulate explananda, let alone explain anything. This is why I like asking intentionalists how many centuries of theoretical standstill we should expect before that oft advertised and never delivered breakthrough finally arrives. The sin Meillassoux attributes to correlationism, the inability to explain cognition, is really just the sin belonging to intentional philosophy as a whole. Thanks to medial neglect, metcognition, blind to both its sources and its source blindness, insists we stand outside nature. Tackling this intuition with intentional idioms leaves our every attempt to rationalize our connection underdetermined, a matter of interminable controversy. The Scandal dwells on eternal.
I think orientation precedes perspective—and obviously so, having watched loved ones dismantled by brain disease. I think understanding the role of neglect in orientation explains the peculiarities of perspective, provides a parsimonious way to understand the apparent first-person in terms of the neglect structure belonging to the third. There’s no problem with escaping the dream tank and touching the world simply because there’s no ontological distinction between ourselves and the cosmos. We constitute a small region of a far greater territory, the proximal attuned to the distal. Understanding the heuristic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity,’ I restrict their application to adaptive problem-ecologies, and simply ask those who would turn them into something ontologically exceptional why they would trust low-dimensional intuitions over empirical data, especially when those intuitions pretty much guarantee perpetual theoretical underdetermination. Far better trust to our childhood presumptions of truth and reality, in the practical applications of these idioms, than in any one of the numberless theoretical misapplications ‘discovering’ this trust fundamentally (as opposed to situationally) ‘naïve.’
The cognitive difference, what separates the consequences of our claims, has never been about ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity,’ but rather intersystematicity, the integration of ever-more sensitive orientations possessing ever more effectiveness into the superordinate systems encompassing us all. Physically speaking, we’ve long known that this has to be the case. Short actual difference making differences, be they photons striking our retinas or compression waves striking our eardrums or so on, no difference is made. Even Meillassoux acknowledges the necessity of physical contact. What we’ve lacked is a way of seeing how our apparently immediate intentional intuitions, be they phenomenological, ontological, or normative, fit into this high-dimensional—physical—picture.
Heuristic Neglect Theory not only provides this way, it also explains why it has proven so elusive over the centuries. HNT explains the wrong turn mentioned above. The question of orientation immediately cues the systems our ancestors developed to circumvent medial neglect. Solving for our behaviourally salient environmental relationships, in other words, automatically formats the problem in intentional terms. The automaticity of the application of intentional cognition renders it apparently ‘self-evident.’
The reason the critique of correlationism and speculative realism suffer all the problems of underdetermination their proponents attribute to correlationism is that they take this very same wrong turn. How is Meillassoux’s ‘hyper-chaos,’ yet another adventure in a priori speculation, anything more than another pebble tossed upon the heap of traditional disputation? Novelty alone recommends them. Otherwise they leave us every bit as mystified, every bit as unable to accommodate the torrent of relevant scientific findings, and therefore every bit as irrelevant to the breathtaking revolutions even now sweeping us and our traditions out to sea. Like the traditions they claim to supersede, they peddle cognitive abjection, discursive immobility, in the guise of fundamental insight.
Theoretical speculation is cheap, which is why it’s so frightfully easy to make any philosophical account look bad. All you need do is start worrying definitions, then let the conceptual games begin. This is why the warrant of any account is always a global affair, why the power of Evolutionary Theory, for example, doesn’t so much lie in the immunity of its formulations to philosophical critique, but in how much it explains on nature’s dime alone. The warrant of Heuristic Neglect Theory likewise turns on the combination of parsimony and explanatory power.
Anyone arguing that HNT necessarily presupposes some X, be it ontological or normative, is simply begging the question. Doesn’t HNT presuppose the reality of intentional objectivity? Not at all. HNT certainly presupposes applications of intentional cognition, which, given medial neglect, philosophers pose as functional or ontological realities. On HNT, a theory can be true even though, high-dimensionally speaking, there is no such thing as truth. Truth talk possesses efficacy in certain practical problem-ecologies, but because it participates in solving something otherwise neglected, namely the superordinate systematicity of orientations, it remains beyond the pale of intentional resolution.
Even though sophisticated critics of eliminativism acknowledge the incoherence of the tu quoque, I realize this remains a hard twist for many (if not most) to absorb, let alone accept. But this is exactly as it should be, both insofar as something has to explain why isolating the wrong turn has proven so stupendously difficult, and because this is precisely the kind of trap we should expect, given the heuristic and fractionate nature of human cognition. ‘Knowledge’ provides a handle on the intersection of vast, high-dimensional histories, a way to manage orientations without understanding the least thing about them. To know knowledge, we will come to realize, is to know there is no such thing, simply because ‘knowing’ is a resolutely practical affair, almost certainly inscrutable to intentional cognition. When you’re in the intentional mode, this statement simply sounds preposterous—I know it once struck me as such! It’s only when you appreciate how far your intuitions have strayed from those of your childhood, back when your only applications of intentional cognition were practical, that you can see the possibility of a more continuous, intersystematic way to orient ourselves to the cosmos. There was a time before you wandered into the ancient funhouse of heuristic misapplication, when you could not distinguish between your perspective and your orientation. HNT provides a theoretical way to recover that time and take a radically different path.
As a bona fide theory of cognition, HNT provides a way to understand our spectacular inability to understand ourselves. HNT can explain ‘aporia.’ The metacognitive resources recruited for the purposes of philosophical reflection possess alarm bells—sensitivities to their own limits—relevant only to their ancestral applications. The kinds of cognitive apories (crash spaces) characterizing traditional philosophy are precisely those we might expect, given the sudden ability to exercise specialized metacognitive resources out of school, to apply, among other things, the problem-solving power of intentional cognition to the question of intentional cognition.
As a bona fide theory of cognition, HNT bears as much on artificial cognition as on biological cognition, and as such, can be used to understand and navigate the already radical and accelerating transformation of our cognitive ecologies. HNT scales, from the subpersonal to the social, and this means that HNT is relevant to the technological madness of the now.
As a bona fide empirical theory, HNT, unlike any traditional theory of intentionality, will be sorted. Either science will find that metacognition actually neglects information in the ways I propose, or it won’t. Either science will find this neglect possesses the consequences I theorize, or it won’t. Nothing exceptional and contentious is required. With our growing understanding of the brain and consciousness comes a growing understanding of information access and processing capacity—and the neglect structures that fall out of them. The human brain abounds in bottlenecks, none of which are more dramatic than consciousness itself.
Cognition is biomechanical. The ‘correlation of thought and being,’ on my account, is the correlation of being and being. The ontology of HNT is resolutely flat. Once we understand that we only glimpse as much of our orientations as our ancestors required for reproduction, and nothing more, we can see that ‘thought,’ whatever it amounts to, is material through and through.
The evidence of this lies strewn throughout the cognitive wreckage of speculation, the alien crash site of philosophy.
 This includes, in addition to the neurosciences proper, research into Basic Behavioral and Social Science (8.597 billion), Behavioral and Social Science (22.515 billion), Brain Disorders (23.702 billion), Mental Health (13.699 billion), and Neurodegenerative (10.183 billion). https://report.nih.gov/categorical_spending.aspx 21/01/2017