The Knowledge Illusion Illusion

by rsbakker

 

 

When academics encounter a new idea that doesn’t conform to their preconceptions, there’s often a sequence of three reactions: first dismiss, then reject, then finally declare it obvious. Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion, 255

 

The best example illustrating the thesis put forward in Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s excellent The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone is one I’ve belaboured before, the bereft  ‘well-dressed man’ in Byron Haskin’s 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, dismayed at his malfunctioning pile of money, unable to comprehend why it couldn’t secure him passage out of Los Angeles. So keep this in mind: if all goes well, we shall return to the well-dressed man.

The Knowledge Illusion is about a great many things, everything from basic cognitive science to political polarization to educational reform, but it all comes back to how individuals are duped by the ways knowledge outruns individual human brains. The praise for this book has been nearly universal, and deservedly so, given the existential nature of the ‘knowledge problematic’ in the technological age. Because of this consensus, however, I’ll play the devil’s advocate and focus on what I think are core problems. For all the book’s virtues, I think Steven Sloman, Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, and Philip Fernbach, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, find themselves wandering the same traditional dead ends afflicting all philosophical and psychological discourses on the nature of human knowledge. The sad fact is nobody knows what knowledge is. They only think they do.

Sloman and Fernbach begin with a consideration of our universal tendency to overestimate our understanding. In a wide variety of tests, individuals regularly fail to provide first order evidence regarding second order reports of what they know. So for instance, they say they understand how toilets or bicycles work, yet find themselves incapable of accurately drawing the mechanisms responsible. Thus the ‘knowledge illusion,’ or the ‘illusion of explanatory depth,’ the consistent tendency to think our understanding of various phenomena and devices is far more complete than it in fact is.

This calves into two interrelated questions: 1) Why are we so prone to think we know more than we do? and 2) How can we know so little yet achieve so much? Sloman and Fernbach think the answer to both these questions lies in the way human cognition is embodied, embedded, and enactive, which is to say, the myriad ways it turns on our physical and social environmental interactions. They also hold the far more controversial position that cognition is extended, that ‘mind,’ understood as a natural phenomenon, just ain’t in our heads. As they write:

The main lesson is that we should not think of the mind as an information processor that spends its time doing abstract computation in the brain. The brain and the body and the external environment all work together to remember, reason, and make decisions. The knowledge is spread through the system, beyond just the brain. Thought does not take place on a stage inside the brain. Thought uses knowledge in the brain, the body, and the world more generally to support intelligent action. In other words, the mind is not in the brain. Rather, the brain is in the mind. The mind uses the brain and other things to process information. 105

The Knowledge Illusion, in other words, lies astride the complicated fault-line between cognitivism, the tendency to construe cognition as largely representational and brain-bound, and post-cognitivism, the tendency to construe cognition as constitutively dependent on the community and environment. Since the book is not only aimed at a general audience but also about the ways humans are so prone to confuse partial for complete accounts, it is more than ironic that Sloman and Fernbach fail to contextualize the speculative, and therefore divisive, nature of their project. Charitably, you could say The Knowledge Illusion runs afoul the very ‘curse of knowledge’ illusion it references throughout, the failure to appreciate the context of cognitive reception—the tendency to assume that others know what you know, and so will draw similar conclusions. Less charitably, the suspicion has to be that Sloman and Fernbach are actually relying on the reader’s ignorance to cement their case. My guess is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and that the authors, given their sensitivity to the foibles and biases built into human communication and cognition, would acknowledge as much.

But the problem runs deeper. The extended mind hypothesis is subject to a number of apparently decisive counter-arguments. One could argue a la Adams and Aizawa, for instance, and accuse Sloman and Fernbach, of committing the so-called ‘causal-constitutive fallacy,’ mistaking causal influences on cognition for cognition proper. Even if we do accept that external factors are constitutive of cognition, the question becomes one of where cognition begins and ends. What is the ‘mark of the cognitive’? After all, ‘environment’ potentially includes the whole of the physical universe, and ‘community’ potentially reaches back to the origins of life. Should we take a page from Hegel and conclude that everything is cognitive? If our minds outrun our brains, then just where do they end?

So far, every attempt to overcome these and other challenges has only served to complicate the controversy. Cognitivism remains a going concern for good reason: it captures a series of powerful second-order intuitions regarding the nature of human cognition, intuitions that post-cognitivists like Sloman and Fernbach would have us set aside on the basis of incompatible second-order intuitions regarding that self-same nature. Where the intuitions milked by cognitivism paint an internalist portrait of knowledge, the intuitions milked by post-cognitivism sketch an externalist landscape. Back and forth the arguments go, each side hungry to recruit the latest scientific findings into their explanatory paradigms. At some point, the unspoken assumption seems to be, the abductive weight supporting either position will definitively tip in favour of either one or the other. By time we return to our well-dressed man and his heap of useless money, I hope to show how and why this will never happen.

For the nonce, however, the upshot is that either way you cut it, knowledge, as the subject of theoretical investigation, is positively awash in illusions, intuitions that seem compelling, but just ain’t so. For some profound reason, knowledge and other so-called ‘intentional phenomena’ baffle us in way distinct from all other natural phenomena with the exception of consciousness. This is the sense in which one can speak of the Knowledge Illusion Illusion.

Let’s begin with Sloman and Fernbach’s ultimate explanation for the Knowledge Illusion:

The Knowledge Illusion occurs because we live in a community of knowledge and we fail to distinguish the knowledge that is in our heads from the knowledge outside of it. We think the knowledge we have about how things work sits inside our skulls when in fact we’re drawing a lot of it from the environment and from other people. This is as much a feature of cognition as it is a bug. The world and our community house most of our knowledge base. A lot of human understanding consists simply of awareness that the knowledge is out there. 127-128.

The reason we presume knowledge sufficiency, in other words, is that we fail to draw a distinction between individual knowledge and collective knowledge, between our immediate know-how and know-how requiring environmental and social mediation. Put differently, we neglect various forms of what might be called cognitive dependency, and so assume cognitive independence, the ability to answer questions and solve problems absent environmental and social interactions. We are prone to forget, in other words, that our minds are actually extended.

This seems elegant and straightforward enough: as any parent (or spouse) can tell you, humans are nothing if not prone to take things for granted! We take the contributions of our fellows for granted, and so reliably overestimate our own epistemic were-withal. But something peculiar has happened. Framed in these terms, the knowledge illusion suddenly bears a striking resemblance to the correspondence or attribution error, our tendency to put our fingers on our side of the scales when apportioning social credit. We generally take ourselves to have more epistemic virtue than we in fact possess for the same reason we generally take ourselves to have more virtue than we in fact possess: because ancestrally, confabulatory self-promotion paid greater reproductive dividends than accurate self-description. The fact that we are more prone to overestimate epistemic virtue given accessibility to external knowledge sources, on this account, amounts to no more than the awareness that we have resources to fall back on, should someone ‘call bullshit.’

There’s a great deal that could be unpacked here, not the least of which is the way changing demonstrations of knowledge into demonstrations of epistemic virtue radically impacts the case for the extended mind hypothesis. But it’s worth considering, I think, how this alternative explanation illuminates an earlier explanation they give of the illusion:

So one way to conceive of the illusion of explanatory depth is that our intuitive system overestimates what it can deliberate about. When I ask you how a toilet works, your intuitive system reports, “No problem, I’m very comfortable with toilets. They are part of my daily experience.” But when your deliberative system is probed by a request to explain how they work, it is at a loss because your intuitions are only superficial. The real knowledge lies elsewhere. 84

In the prior explanation, the illusion turns on confusing our individual with our collective resources. We presume that we possess knowledge that other people have. Here, however, the illusion turns on the superficiality of intuitive cognition. “The real knowledge lies elsewhere” plays no direct explanatory role whatsoever. The culprit here, if anything, lies with what Daniel Kahneman terms WYSIATI, or ‘What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is,’ effects, the way subpersonal cognitive systems automatically presume the cognitive sufficiency of whatever information/capacity they happen to have at their disposal.

So, the question is, do we confabulate cognitive independence because subpersonal cognitive processing lacks the metacognitive monitoring capacity to flag problematic results, or because such confabulations facilitated ancestral reproductive success, or because our blindness to the extended nature of knowledge renders us prone to this particular type of metacognitive error?

The first two explanations, at least, can be combined. Given the divide and conquer structure of neural problem-solving, the presumptive cognitive sufficiency (WYSIATI) of subpersonal processing is inescapable. Each phase of cognitive processing turns on the reliability of the phases preceding (which is why we experience sensory and cognitive illusions rather than error messages). If those illusions happen to facilitate reproduction, as they often do, then we end up with biological propensities to commit things like epistemic attribution errors. We both think and declare ourselves more knowledgeable than we in fact are.

Blindness to the ‘extended nature of knowledge,’ on this account, doesn’t so much explain the knowledge illusion as follow from it.

The knowledge illusion is primarily a metacognitive and evolutionary artifact. This actually follows as an empirical consequence of the cornerstone commitment of Sloman and Fernbach’s own theory of cognition: the fact that cognition is fractionate and heuristic, which is to say, ecological. This becomes obvious, I think, but only once we see our way past the cardinal cognitive illusion afflicting post-cognitivism.

Sloman and Fernbach, like pretty much everyone writing popular accounts of embodied, embedded, and enactive approaches to cognitive science, provide the standard narrative of the rise and fall of GOFAI, standard computational approaches to cognition. Cognizing, on this approach, amounts to recapitulating environmental systems within universal computational systems, going through the enormous expense of doing in effigy in order to do in the world. Not only is such an approach expensive, it requires prior knowledge of what needs to be recapitulated and what can be ignored—tossing the project into the infamous jaws of the Frame Problem. A truly general cognitive system is omni-applicable, capable of solving any problem in any environment, given the requisite resources. The only way to assure that ecology doesn’t matter, however, is to have recapitulated that ecology in advance.

The question from a biological standpoint is simply one of why we need to go through all the bother of recapitulating a problem-solving ecology when that ecology is already there, challenging us, replete with regularities we can exploit without needing to know whatsoever. “This assumption that the world is behaving normally gives people a giant crutch,” as Sloman and Fernbach put it. “It means that we don’t have to remember everything because the information is stored in the world” (95). All cognition requires are reliable interactive systematicities—cognitive ecologies—to steer organisms through their environments. Heuristics are the product of cognitive systems adapted to the exploitation of the correlations between regularities available for processing and environmental regularities requiring solution. And since the regularities happened upon, cues, are secondary to the effects they enable, heuristic systems are always domain specific. They don’t travel well.

And herein lies the rub for Sloman and Fernbach: If the failure of cognitivism lies in its insensitivity to cognitive ecology, then the failure of post-cognitivism lies in its insensitivity to metacognitive ecology, the fact that intentional modes of theorizing cognition are themselves heuristic. Humans had need to troubleshoot claims, to distinguish guesswork from knowledge. But they possessed no access whatsoever to the high-dimensional facts of the matter, so they made do with what was available. Our basic cognitive intuitions facilitate this radically heuristic ‘making do,’ allowing us to debug any number of practical communicative problems. The big question is whether they facilitate anything theoretical. If intentional cognition turns on systems selected to solve practical problem ecologies absent information, why suppose it possesses any decisive theoretical power? Why presume, as post-cognitivists do, that the theoretical problem of intentional cognition lies within the heuristic purview of intentional cognition?

Its manifest inapplicability, I think, can be clearly discerned in The Knowledge Illusion. Consider Sloman and Fernbach’s contention that the power of heuristic problem-solving turns on the ‘deep’ and ‘abstract’ nature of the information exploited by heuristic cognitive systems. As they write:

Being smart is all about having the ability to extract deeper, more abstract information from the flood of data that comes into our senses. Instead of just reacting to the light, sounds, and smells that surround them, animals with sophisticated large brains respond to deep, abstract properties of the that they are sensing. 46

But surely ‘being smart’ lies in the capacity to find, not abstracta, but tells, sensory features possessing reliable systematic relationships to deep environments. There’s nothing ‘deep’ or ‘abstract’ about the moonlight insects use to navigate at night—which is precisely why transverse orientation is so easily hijacked by bug-zappers and porch-lights. There’s nothing ‘deep’ or ‘abstract’ about the tastes triggering aversion in rats, which is why taste aversion is so easily circumvented by using chronic rodenticides. Animals with more complex brains, not surprisingly, can discover and exploit more tells, which can also be hijacked, cued ‘out of school.’ We bemoan the deceptive superficiality of political and commercial marketing for good reason! It’s unclear what ‘deeper’ or ‘more abstract’ add here, aside from millennial disputation. And yet Sloman and Fernbach continue, “[t]he reason that deeper, more abstract information is helpful is that it can be used to pick out what we’re interested in from an incredibly complex array of possibilities, regardless of how the focus of our interest presents itself” (46).

If a cue, or tell—be it a red beak or a prolonged stare or a scarlet letter—possesses some exploitable systematic relationship to some environmental problem, then nothing more is needed. Talk of ‘depth’ or ‘abstraction’ plays no real explanatory function, and invites no little theoretical mischief.

The term ‘depth’ is perhaps the biggest troublemaker, here. Insofar as human cognition is heuristic, we dwell in shallow information environments, ancestral need-to-know ecologies, remaining (in all the myriad ways Sloman and Fernbach describe so well) entirely ignorant of the deeper environment, and the super-complex systems comprising them. What renders tells so valuable is their availability, the fact that they are at once ‘superficial’ and systematically correlated to the neglected ‘deeps’ requiring solution. Tells possess no intrinsic mark of their depth or abstraction. It is not the case that “[a]s brains get more complex, they get better at responding to deeper, more abstract cues from the environment, and this makes them ever more adaptive to new situations” (48). What is the case is far more mundane: they get better at devising, combining, and collecting environmental tells.

And so, one finds Sloman and Fernbach at metaphoric war with themselves:

It is rare for us to directly perceive the mechanisms that create outcomes. We experience our actions and we experience the outcomes of those actions; only by peering inside the machine do we see the mechanism that makes it tick. We can peer inside when the components are visible. 73

As they go on to admit, “[r]easoning about social situations is like reasoning about physical objects: pretty shallow” (75).

The Knowledge Illusion is about nothing if not the superficiality of human cognition, and all the ways we remain oblivious to this fact because of this fact. “Normal human thought is just not engineered to figure out some things” (71), least of all the deep/fundamental abstracta undergirding our environment! Until the institutionalization of science, we were far more vulture than lion, information scavengers instead of predators. Only the scientific elucidation of our deep environments reveals how shallow and opportunistic we have always been, how reliant on ancestrally unfathomable machinations.

So then why do Sloman and Fernbach presume that heuristic cognition grasps things both abstract and deep?

The primary reason, I think, turns on the inevitably heuristic nature of our attempts to cognize cognition. We run afoul these heuristic limits every time we look up at the night sky. Ancestrally, light belonged to those systems we could take for granted; we had no reason to intuit anything about its deeper nature. As a result, we had no reason to suppose we were plumbing different pockets of the ancient past whenever we paused to gaze into the night sky. Our ability to cognize the medium of visual cognition suffers from what might be called medial neglect. We have to remind ourselves we’re looking across gulfs of time because the ecological nature of visual cognition presumes the ‘transparency’ of light. It vanishes into what it reveals, generating a simultaneity illusion.

What applies to vision applies to all our cognitive apparatuses. Medial neglect, in other words, characterizes all of our intuitive ways of cognizing cognition. At fairly every turn, the enabling dimension of our cognitive systems is consigned to oblivion, generating, upon reflection, the metacognitive impression of ‘transparency,’ or ‘aboutness’—intentionality in Brentano’s sense. So when Sloman and Fernbach attempt to understand the cognitive nature of heuristic selectivity, they cue the heuristic systems we evolved to solve practical epistemic problems absent any sensitivity to the actual systems responsible, and so run afoul a kind of ‘transparency illusion,’ the notion that heuristic cognition requires fastening onto something intrinsically simple and out there—a ‘truth’ of some description, when all our brain need to do is identify some serendipitously correlated cue in its sensory streams.

This misapprehension is doubly attractive, I think, for the theoretical cover it provides their contention that all human cognition is causal cognition. As they write:

… the purpose of thinking is to choose the most effective action given the current situation. That requires discerning the deep properties that are constant across situations. What sets humans apart is our skill at figuring out what those deep, invariant properties are. It takes human genius to identify the key properties that indicate if someone has suffered a concussion or has a communicable disease, or that it’s time to pump up a car’s tires. 53

In fact, they go so far as to declare us “the world’s master causal thinkers” (52)—a claim they spend the rest of the book qualifying. As we’ve seen, humans are horrible at understanding how things work: “We may be better at causal reasoning than other kinds of reasoning, but the illusion of explanatory depth shows that we are still quite limited as individuals in how much of it we can do” (53).

So, what gives? How can we be both causal idiots and causal savants?

Once again, the answer lies in their own commitments. Time and again, they demonstrate the way the shallowness of human cognition prevents us from cognizing that shallowness as such. The ‘deep abstracta’ posited by Sloman and Fernbach constitute a metacognitive version of the very illusion of explanatory depth they’re attempting to solve. Oblivious to the heuristic nature of our metacognitive intuitions, they presume those intuitions deep, theoretically sufficient ways to cognize the structure of human cognition. Like the physics of light, the enabling networks of contingent correlations assuring the efficacy of various tells get flattened into oblivion—the mediating nature vanishes—and the connection between heuristic systems and the environments they solve becomes an apparently intentional one, with ‘knowing’ here, ‘known’ out there, and nothing in between. Rather than picking out strategically connected cues, heuristic cognition isolates ‘deep causal truths.’

How can we be both idiots and savants when it comes to causality? The fact is, all cognition is not causal cognition. Some cognition is causal, while other cognition—the bulk of it—is correlative. What Sloman and Fernbach systematically confuse are the kinds of cognitive efficacy belonging to the isolation of actual mechanisms with the kinds of cognitive efficacy belonging to the isolation of tells possessing unfathomable (‘deep’) correlations to those mechanisms. The latter cognition, if anything, turns on ignoring the actual causal regularities involved. This is what makes it both so cheap and so powerful (for both humans and AI): it relieves us of the need to understand the deeper nature of things, allowing us to focus on what happens next.

Although some predictions turn on identifying actual causes, those requiring the heuristic solution of complex systems turn on identifying tells, triggers that are systematically correlated precursors to various significant events. Given our metacognitive neglect of the intervening systems, we regularly fetishize the tells available, take them to be the causes of the kinds of effects we require. Sloman and Fernbach’s insistence on the causal nature of human cognition commits this very error: it fetishizes heuristic cues. (Or to use Klaus Fiedler’s terminology, it confuses pseudocontingencies for genuine contingencies, or to use Andrei Cimpian’s, it fails to recognize a kind of ‘inherence heuristic’ as heuristic).

The power of predictive reasoning turns on the plenitude of potential tells, our outright immersion in environmental systematicities. No understanding of celestial mechanics is required to use the stars to anticipate seasonal changes and so organize agricultural activities. The cost of this immersion, on the other hand, is the inverse problem, the problem of isolating genuine causes as opposed to mere correlations on the basis of effects. In diagnostic reasoning, the sheer plenitude of correlations is the problem: finding causes amounts to finding needles in haystacks, sorting systematicities that are genuinely counterfactual from those that are not. Given this difficulty, it should come as no surprise that problems designed to cue predictive deliberation tend to neglect the causal dimension altogether. Tells, even when imbued with causal powers, fetishized, stand entirely on their own.

Sloman and Fernbach’s explanation of ‘alternative cause neglect’ thoroughly illustrates, I think, the way cognitivism and post-cognitivism have snarled cognitive psychology in the barbed wire of incompatible intuitions. They also point out the comparative ease of predictive versus diagnostic reasoning. But where the above sketch explains this disparity in thoroughly ecological terms, their explanation is decidedly cognitivist: we recapitulate systems, they claim, run ‘mental simulations’ to explore the space of possible effects. Apparently, running these tapes backward to explore the space of possible causes is not something nature has equipped us to do, at least easily. “People ignore alternative causes when reasoning from cause to effect,” they contend, “because their mental simulations have no room for them, and because we’re unable to run mental simulations backward in time from effect to cause” (61).

Even setting aside the extravagant metabolic expense their cognitivist tack presupposes, it’s hard to understand how this explains much of anything, let alone how the difference between these two modes figures in the ultimate moral of Sloman and Fernbach’s story: the social intransigence of the knowledge illusion.

Toward the end of the book, they provide a powerful and striking picture of the way false beliefs seem to have little, if anything, to do with the access to scientific facts. The provision of reasons likewise has little or no effect. People believe what their group believes, thus binding generally narcissistic or otherwise fantastic worldviews to estimations of group membership and identity. For Sloman and Fernbach, this dovetails nicely with their commitment to extended minds, the fact that ‘knowing’ is fundamentally collective.

Beliefs are hard to change because they are wrapped up with our values and identities, and they are shared with our community. Moreover, what is actually in our own heads—our causal models—are sparse and often wrong. This explains why false beliefs are so hard to weed out. Sometimes communities get the science wrong, usually in ways supported by our causal models. And the knowledge illusion means that we don’t check our understanding often or deeply enough. This is a recipe for antiscientific thinking. 169

But it’s not simply the case that reports of belief signal group membership. One need only think of the ‘kooks’ or ‘eccentrics’ in one’s own social circles (and fair warning, if you can’t readily identify one, that likely means you’re it!) to bring home the cognitive heterogeneity one finds in every community, people who demonstrate reliability in some other way (like my wife’s late uncle who never once attended church, but who cut the church lawn every week all the same).

Like every other animal on this planet, we’ve evolved to thrive in shallow cognitive ecologies, to pick what we need when we need it from wherever we can, be it the world or one another. We are cooperative cognitive scavengers, which is to say, we live in communal shallow cognitive ecologies. The cognitive reports of ingroup members, in other words, are themselves powerful tells, correlations allowing us to predict what will happen next absent deep environmental access or understanding. As an outgroup commentator on these topics, I’m intimately acquainted with the powerful way the who trumps the what in claim-making. I could raise a pyramid with all the mud and straw I’ve accumulated! But this has nothing to do with the ‘intrinsically communal nature of knowledge,’ and everything to do with the way we are biologically primed to rely on our most powerful ancestral tools. It’s not simply that we ‘believe to belong,’ but because, ancestrally speaking, it provided an extraordinarily metabolically cheap way to hack our natural and social environments.

So cheap and powerful, in fact, we’ve developed linguistic mechanisms, ‘knowledge talk,’ to troubleshoot cognitive reports.

And this brings us back to the well-dressed man in The War of the Worlds, left stranded with his useless bills, dumbfounded by the sudden impotence of what had so reliably commanded the actions of others in the past. Paper currency requires vast systems of regularities to produce the local effects we all know and love and loathe. Since these local, or shallow, effects occur whether or not we possess any inkling of the superordinate, deep, systems responsible, we can get along quite well simply supposing, like the well-dressed man, that money possesses this power on its own, or intrinsically. Pressed to explain this intrinsic power, to explain why this paper commands such extraordinary effects, we posit a special kind of property, value.

What the well-dressed man illustrates, in other words, is the way shallow cognitive ecologies generate illusions of local sufficiency. We have no access to the enormous amount of evolutionary, historical, social, and personal stage-setting involved when our doctor diagnoses us with depression, so we chalk it up to her knowledge, not because any such thing exists in nature, but because it provides us a way to communicate and troubleshoot an otherwise incomprehensible local effect. How did your doctor make you better? Obviously, she knows her stuff!

What could be more intuitive?

But then along comes science, and lo, we find ourselves every bit as dumbfounded when asked to causally explain knowledge as (to use Sloman and Fernbach’s examples) when asked to explain toilets or bicycles or vaccination or climate warming or why incest possessing positive consequences is morally wrong. Given our shallow metacognitive ecology, we presume that the heuristic systems applicable to troubleshooting practical cognitive problems can solve the theoretical problem of cognition as well. When we go looking for this or that intentional formulation of ‘knowledge’ (because we cannot even agree on what it is we want to explain) in the head, we find ourselves, like the well-dressed man, even more dumbfounded. Rather than finding anything sufficient, we discover more and more dependencies, evidence of the way our doctor’s ability to cure our depression relies on extrinsic environmental and social factors. But since we remain committed to our fetishization of knowledge, we conclude that knowledge, whatever it is, simply cannot be in the head. Knowledge, we insist, must be nonlocal, reliant on natural and social environments. But of course, this cuts against the very intuition of local sufficiency underwriting the attribution of knowledge in the first place. Sure, my doctor has a past, a library, and a community, but ultimately, it’s her knowledge that cures my depression.

And so, cognitivism and post-cognitivism find themselves at perpetual war, disputing theoretical vocabularies possessing local operational efficacy in everyday or specialized experimental contexts, but perpetually deferring the possibility of any global, genuinely naturalistic understanding of human cognition. The strange fact of the matter is that there’s no such thing or function as ‘knowledge’ in nature, nothing deep to redeem our shallow intuitions, though knowledge talk (which is very real) takes us a long way to resolve a wide variety of practical problems. The trick isn’t to understand what knowledge ‘really is,’ but rather to understand the deep, supercomplicated systems underwriting the optimization of behaviour, and how they underwrite our shallow intuitive and deliberative manipulations. Insofar as knowledge talk forms a component of those systems, we must content ourselves with studying ‘knowledge’ as a term rather than an entity, leaving intentional cognition to solve what problems it can where it can. The time has come to leave both cognitivism and post-cognitivism behind, and to embrace genuinely post-intentional approaches, such as the ecological eliminativism espoused here.

The Knowledge Illusion, in this sense, provides a wonderful example of crash space, the way in which the introduction of deep, scientific information into our shallow cognitive ecologies is prone to disrupt or delude or simply fall flat altogether. Intentional cognition provides a way for us to understand ourselves and each other while remaining oblivious to any of the deep machinations actually responsible. To suffer ‘medial neglect’ is to be blind to one’s actual sources, to comprehend and communicate human knowledge, experience, and action via linguistic fetishes, irreducible posits possessing inexplicable efficacies, entities fundamentally incompatible with the universe revealed by natural science.

For all the conceits Sloman and Fernbach reveal, they overlook and so run afoul perhaps greatest, most astonishing conceit of them all: the notion that we should have evolved the basic capacity to intuit our own deepest nature, that hunches belonging to our shallow ecological past could show us the way into our deep nature, rather than lead us, on pain of systematic misapplication, into perplexity. The time has come to dismantle the glamour we have raised around traditional philosophical and psychological speculation, to stop spinning abject ignorance into evidence of glorious exception, and to see our millennial dumbfounding as a symptom, an artifact of a species that has stumbled into the trap of interrogating its heuristic predicament using shallow heuristic tools that have no hope of generating deep theoretical solutions. The knowledge illusion illusion.

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