Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: April, 2017

Visions of the Semantic Apocalypse: James Andow and Dispositional Metasemantics

by rsbakker

The big problem faced by dispositionalist accounts of meaning lies in their inability to explain the apparent normativity of meaning. Claims that the meaning of X turns on the disposition to utter ‘X’ requires some way to explain the pragmatic dimensions of meaning, the fact that ‘X’ can be both shared and misapplied. Every attempt to pin meaning to natural facts, even ones so low-grained as dispositions, runs aground on the external relationality of the natural, the fact that things in the world just do not stand in relations of rightness or wrongness relative one another. No matter how many natural parameters you pile onto your dispositions, you will still have no way of determining the correctness of any given application of X.

This problem falls into the wheelhouse of heuristic neglect. If we understand that human cognition is fractionate, then the inability of dispositions to solve for correctness pretty clearly indicates a conflict between cognitive subsystems. But if we let metacognitive neglect, our matter of fact blindness to our own cognitive constitution, dupe us into thinking we possess one big happy cognition, this conflict is bound to seem deeply mysterious, a clash of black cows in the night. And as history shows us, mysterious problems beget mysterious answers.

So for normativists, this means that only intentional cognition, those systems adapted to solve problems via articulations of ‘right or wrong’ talk, can hope to solve the theoretical nature of meaning. For dispositionalists, however, this amounts to ceding whole domains of nature hostage to perpetual philosophical disputation. The only alternative, they think, is to collect and shuffle the cards yet again, in the hope that some articulation of natural facts will somehow lay correctness bare. The history of science, after all, is a history of uncovering hidden factors—a priori intuitions be damned. Even still, it remains very hard to understand how to stack external relations into normative relations. Ignorant of the structure of intentional cognition, and the differences between it and natural (mechanical) cognition, the dispositionalist assumes that meaning is real, and that since all real things are ultimately natural, meaning must have a natural locus and function. Both approaches find themselves stalled in different vestibules of the same crash space.

For me, the only way to naturalize meaning is to understand it not as something ‘real out there’ but as a component of intentional cognition, biologically understood. The trick lies in stacking external relations into the mirage of normative relations: laying out the heuristic misapplications generating traditional philosophical crash spaces. The actual functions of linguistic communication turn on the vast differential systems implementing it. We focus on the only things we apparently see. Given the intuition of sufficiency arising out of neglect, we assume these form autonomous systems. And so tools that allow conscious cognition to blindly mediate the function of vast differential systems—histories, both personal and evolutionary—become an ontological nightmare.

In “Zebras, Intransigence & Semantic Apocalypse: Problems for Dispositional Metasemantics,” James Andow considers the dispositionalist attempt to solve for normativity via the notion of ‘complete information.’ The title alone had me hooked (for obvious reasons), but the argument Andow lays out is a wry and fascinating one. Where dispositions to apply terms are neither right nor wrong, dispositions to apply terms given all relevant information seems to enable the discrimination of normative discrepancies between performances. The problem arises when one asks what counts as ‘all relevant information.’ Offloading determinacy onto relevant information simply raises the question of determinacy at the level of relevant information. What constrains ‘relevance’? What about future relevance? Andow chases this inability to delimit complete information to the most extreme case:

It seems pretty likely that there is information out there which would radically restructure the nature of human existence, make us abandon technologies, reconsider our values and place in nature, information that would lead us to restructure the political organization of our species, reconsider national boundaries, and the ‘artificial divisions’ which having distinct languages impose on us. The likely effect of complete information is semantic apocalypse. (Just to be clear—my claim here is not that it is likely we will undergo such a shift. Who is to say what volume of information humankind will become aware of before extinction? Rather, the claim is that the probable result of being exposed to all information which would alter one’s dispositions, i.e., complete information, would involve a radical overhaul in semantic dispositions).

This paragraph is brilliant, especially given the grand way it declares the semantic apocalypse only to parenthetically take it all back! For my money, though, Andow’s throwaway question, “Who is to say what volume of information humankind will become aware of before extinction?” is far and away the most pressing one. But then I see these issues in light of a far different theory of meaning.

What is the information threshold of semantic apocalypse?

Dispositionalism entails the possibility of semantic apocalypse to the degree the tendencies of biological systems are ecologically dependent, and so susceptible to gradual or catastrophic change. This draws out the importance of the semantic apocalypse as distinct from other forms of global catastrophe. A zombie apocalypse, for instance, might also count as a semantic apocalypse, but only if our dispositions to apply terms were radically transformed. It’s possible, in other words, to suffer a zombie apocalypse without suffering a semantic apocalypse. The physical systems underwriting meaning are not the same as the physical systems underwriting modern civilization. So long as some few of us linger, meaning lingers.

Meaning, in other words, can survive radical ecological destruction. (This is one of the reasons we remain, despite all our sophistication, largely blind to the issue of cognitive ecology: so far it’s been with us through thick and thin). The advantage of dispositionalist approaches, Andow thinks, lies in the way it anchors meaning in our nature. One may dispute how ‘meanings’ find themselves articulated in intentional cognition more generally, while agreeing that intentional cognition is biological; a suite of sensitivities attuned to very specific sets of cues, leveraging reliable predictions. One can be agnostic on the ontological status of ‘meaning’ in other words, and still agree that meaning talk turns on intentional cognition, which turns on heuristic capacities whose development we can track through childhood. So long as a catastrophe leaves those cues and their predictive power intact, it will not precipitate a semantic apocalypse.

So the question of the threshold of the semantic apocalypse becomes the question of the stability of a certain biological system of specialized sensitivities and correlations. Whatever collapses this system engenders the semantic apocalypse (which for Andow means the global indeterminacy of meanings, and for me the global unreliability of intentional cognition more generally). The thing to note here, however, is the ease with which such systems do collapse once the correlations between sensitivities and outcomes cease to become reliable. Meaning talk, in other words, is ecological, which is to say it requires its environments be a certain way to discharge ancestral functions.

Suddenly the summary dismissal of the genuine possibility of a semantic apocalypse becomes ill-advised. Ecologies can collapse in a wide variety of ways. The form any such collapse takes turns on the ‘pollutants’ and the systems involved. We have no assurance that human cognitive ecology is robust in all respects. Meaning may be able to survive a zombie apocalypse, but as an ecological artifact, it is bound to be vulnerable somehow.

That vulnerability, on my account, is cognitive technology. We see animals in charcoal across cave walls so easily because our visual systems leap to conclusions on the basis of so little information. The problem is that ‘so little information’ also means so easily reproduced. The world is presently engaged in a mammoth industrial research program bent on hacking every cue-based cognitive reflex we possess. More and more, the systems we evolved to solve our fellow human travellers will be contending with artificial intelligences dedicated to commercial exploitation. ‘Deep information,’ meanwhile, is already swamping the legal system, even further problematizing the folk conceptual (shallow information) staples that ground the system’s self-understanding. Creeping medicalization continues unabated, slowly scaling back warrant for things like character judgment in countless different professional contexts. The list goes on.

The semantic apocalypse isn’t simply possible: it’s happening.

No results found for “cognitive psychology of philosophy”.

by rsbakker

That is, until today.

The one thing I try to continuously remind people is that philosophy is itself a data point, a telling demonstration of what has to be one of the most remarkable facts of our species. We don’t know ourselves for shit. We have been stumped since the beginning. We’ve unlocked the mechanism for aging for Christ’s sake: there’s a chance we might become immortal without having the faintest clue as to what ‘we’ amounts to.

There has to be some natural explanation for that, some story explaining why it belongs to our nature to be theoretically mystified by our nature, to find ourselves unable to even agree on formulations of the explananda. So what is it? Why all the apparent paradoxes?

Why, for instance, the fascination with koans?

Take the famous, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Apparently, the point of pondering this lies in realizing the koan is at once the questioning and the questioned, and coming to see oneself as the sound. For many, the pedagogical function of koans lies in revealing one’s Buddha nature, breaking down the folk reasoning habits barring the apprehension of the identity of subject and object.

Strangely enough, the statement I gave you in the previous post could be called a koan, of sorts:

It is true there is no such thing as truth.

But the idea wasn’t so much to break folk reasoning habits as to alert readers to an imperceptible complication belonging to discursive cognition: a complication that breaks the reliability of our folk-reasoning habits. The way deliberative cognition unconsciously toggles between applications and ontologizations of truth talk can generate compelling cognitive illusions—illusions so compelling, in fact, as to hold the whole of humanity in their grip for millennia.

Wittgenstein, and the pragmatists glimpsed the fractionate specialization of cognition, how it operated relative various practical contexts. They understood the problem in terms of concrete application, which for them was pragmatic application, a domain generally navigated via normative cognition. Impressed by the inability of mechanical cognition to double as normative cognition, they decided that only normative cognition could explain cognition, and so tripped into a different version of the ancient trap: that of using intentional cognition to theoretically solve intentional cognition.

Understanding cognition in terms of heuristic neglect lets us frame the problem subpersonally, to look at what’s going on in statements like the above in terms of possible neurobiological systems recruited. The fact that human cognition is heuristic, fractionate, and combinatory means that we should expect koans, puzzles, paradoxes, apories, and the like. We should expect that different systems possessing overlapping domains will come into conflict. We should expect them in the same way and for the same reason we should expect to encounter visual, auditory, and other kinds of systematic illusions. Because the brain picks out only the correlations it needs to predict its environments, cues predicting the systems requiring solution the way they need to be predicted to be solved. Given this, we should begin looking at traditional philosophy as a rich, discursive reservoir of pathologies, breakdowns providing information regarding the systems and misapplications involved. Like all corpses, meaning will provide a feast for worms.

In a sense, then, a koan demonstrates what a great many seem to think it’s meant to demonstrate: a genuine limit to some cognitive modality, a point where our automatic applications fail us, alerting us both to their automaticity and their specialized nature. And this, the idea would be, draws more of the automaticity (and default universal application) of the subject/object (aboutness) heuristic into deliberative purview, leading to… Enlightenment?

Does Heuristic Neglect Theory suggest a path to the Absolute?

I suppose… so long as we keep in mind that ‘Absolute’ means ‘abject stupidity.’ I think we’re better served looking at these kinds of things as boundaries rather than destinations.

The Point Being…

by rsbakker

Louie Savva has our podcast interview up over at Everything is Pointless. It was fun stuff, despite the fact that this one time farm boy has devolved into a complete technical bumbleclad.

It also really got me thinking about the most challenging whirlpool at the heart of my theory, and how to best pilot understanding around it. Say the human brain possessed two cognitive systems A and X, the one dedicated to prediction absent access to sources, the other dedicated to prediction via access to sources. And say the brain had various devious ways of combining these systems to solve even more problems. Now imagine the conscious subsystem mediating these systems is entirely insensitive to this structure, so that toggling between them leaves no trace in experience.

Now consider the manifest absurdity:

It is true that there is no such thing as truth.

If truth talk belonged to system A, and such thing talk belonged to system X, then it really could be true that there’s no such thing as truth. But given conscious insensitivity to this, we would have no way of discerning the distinct cognitive ecologies involved, and so presume One Big Happy Cognition by default. If there is no such thing as truth, we would cry, then no statement could be true.

How does one argue against that? short knowledge of the heuristic, fractionate structure of human cognition. Small wonder we’ve been so baffled by our attempts to make sense of ourselves! Our intuitions walk us into the same traps over and over.



April Fool’s Update

by rsbakker

Jorge linked this, and for transparent reasons I thought it worth linking again. I can almost see the idol of Ajokli, laughing.

Life was so much simpler back when children could just pull the legs off insects.

I’m doing a Q&A on Reddit Fantasy beginning next Monday morning, April 3rd. With The Unholy Consult completed I’m looking forward to talking more freely about the World (trying to be mindful, of course, of any potential spoilers). Spread the word. The organizers recommended I keep the intro jaunty and light, so I decided to begin with, “If God is dead, then fantasy is His grave.”

I’m also scheduled to do a couple podcast interviews, one for Everything is Pointless, and another for Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My hope is to keep doing as many interviews, media pieces, as I can running up to the release of The Unholy Consult. Ideas are always appreciated.

I’ve also accumulated a fair number of book related links, thanks to emails sent and comments posted. Barnes and Nobles had a readout of Book Three, The Great Ordeal, which The Fantasy Faction selected for their Best of 2016 list (weird, isn’t it, the way everything ‘pre-Trump’ seems ancient and naive). The Great Ordeal was also given a rave review for SFF Den by silentroamer, who can see the narrative lens drawing into tighter focus. JP Gowdner offers an excellent aesthetic assessment of the series so far, though he finds himself morally troubled by many of my apparent decisions. For those hemming and hawing about starting The Aspect-Emperor, I heartily recommend Leona Henry’s eloquent review of The Judging Eye. I’ve noticed, lately, that almost all reviews of my books concede that they may inaccessible to the tastes of some readers, and even though this is undoubtedly true, the whole point of writing fantasy, for me, is to challenge actual readers as opposed to ‘ideal philistines,’ to confront folks with an unfamiliar (and probably uncomfortable) story-telling sensibility. If the election has taught us anything, I think, it’s that we desperately need to create a culture dedicated to spanning ingroup boundaries. We need to be urging one another to take risks, to drink from strangers’ glasses instead of hogging the same old straw for the entirety of our lives. We need to shame our most talented communicators back into honest dialogue with the communities that make their ingroup luxury possible.

Next up for TPB, someone not only stumbles across the semantic apocalypse in complete independence from my work, they even end up calling it the ‘semantic apocalypse.’