Meta-problem vs. Scandal of Self-Understanding

by rsbakker

Let’s go back to Square One.

Try to recall what it was like before what it was like became an issue for you. Remember, if you can, a time when you had yet to reflect on the bald fact, let alone the confounding features, of experience. Square One refers to the state of metacognitive naivete, what it was like when experience was an exclusively practical concern, and not at all a theoretical one.

David Chalmers has a new paper examining the ‘meta-problem’ of consciousness, the question of why we find consciousness so difficult to fathom. As in his watershed “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature,” he sets out to exhaustively map the dialectical and evidential terrain before adducing arguments. After cataloguing the kinds of intuitions underwriting the meta-problem he pays particularly close attention to various positions within illusionism, insofar as these theories see the hard problem as an artifact of the meta-problem. He ends by attempting to collapse all illusionisms into strong illusionism—the thesis that consciousness doesn’t exist—which he thinks is an obvious reductio.

As Peter Hankins points out in his canny Conscious Entities post on the article, the relation between problem reports and consciousness is so vexed as to drag meta-problem approaches back into the traditional speculative mire. But there’s a bigger problem with Chalmer’s account of the meta-problem: it’s far too small. The meta-problem, I hope to show, is part and parcel of the scandal of self-knowledge, the fact that every discursive cork in Square Two, no matter how socially or individually indispensable, bobs upon the foam of philosophical disputation. The real question, the one our species takes for granted but alien anthropologists would find fascinating, is why do humans find themselves so dumbfounding? Why does normativity mystify us? Why does meaning stupefy? And, of course, why is phenomenality so inscrutable?

Chalmers, however, wants you to believe the problem is restricted to phenomenality:

I have occasionally heard the suggestion that internal self-models will inevitably produce problem intuitions, but this seem[s] clearly false. We represent our own beliefs (such as my belief that Canberra is in Australia), but these representations do not typically go along with problem intuitions or anything like them. While there are interesting philosophical issues about explaining beliefs, they do not seem to raise the same acute problem intuitions as do experiences.

and yet in the course of cataloguing various aspects of the meta-problem, Chalmers regularly finds himself referring to similarities between beliefs and consciousness.

Likewise, when I introspect my beliefs, they certainly do not seem physical, but they also do not seem nonphysical in the way that consciousness does. Something special is going on in the consciousness case: insofar as consciousness seems nonphysical, this seeming itself needs to be explained.

Both cognition and consciousness seem nonphysical, but not in the same way. Consciousness, Chalmers claims, is especially nonphysical. But if we don’t understand the ‘plain’ nonphysicality of beliefs, then why tackle the special nonphysicality of conscious experience?

Here the familiar problem strikes again: Everything I have said about the case of perception also applies to the case of belief. When a system introspects its own beliefs, it will typically do so directly, without access to further reasons for thinking it has those beliefs. Nevertheless, our beliefs do not generate nearly as strong problem intuitions as our phenomenal experiences do. So more is needed to diagnose what is special about the phenomenal case.

If more is needed, then what sense does it make to begin looking for this ‘more’ in advance, without understanding what knowledge and experience have in common?

Interrogating the problem of intentionality and consciousness in tandem becomes even more imperative when we consider the degree to which Chalmers’ categorizations and evaluations turn on intentional vocabularies. The hard problem of consciousness may trigger more dramatic ‘problem intuitions,’ but it shares with the hard problem of cognition a profound inability to formulate explananda. There’s no more consensus on the nature of belief than there is the nature of consciousness. We remain every bit as stumped, if not quite as agog.

Not only do intentional vocabularies remain every bit as controversial as phenomenal ones in theoretical explanatory contexts, they also share the same apparent incompatibilities with natural explanation. Is it a coincidence that both vocabularies seem irreducible? Is it a coincidence they both seem nonphysical? Is it a coincidence that both seem incompatible with causal explanation? Is it a coincidence that each implicates the other?

Of course not. They implicate each other because they’re adapted to function in concert. Since they function in concert, there’s a good chance their shared antipathy to causal explanation turns on shared mechanisms. The same can be said regarding their apparent irreducible nonphysicality.

And the same can be said of the problem they pose.

Square Two, then, our theoretical self-understanding, is mired in theoretical disputation. Every philosopher (the present one included) will be inclined to think their understanding the exception, but this does nothing to change the fact of disputation. If we characterize the space of theoretical self-understanding—Square Two—as a general controversy space, we see that Chalmers, as an intentionalist, has taken a position in intentional controversy space to explicate phenomenal controversy space.

Consider his preferred account of the meta-problem:

To sum up what I see as the most promising approach: we have introspective models deploying introspective concepts of our internal states that are largely independent of our physical concepts. These concepts are introspectively opaque, not revealing any of the underlying physical or computational mechanisms. We simply find ourselves in certain internal states without having any more basic evidence for this. Our perceptual models perceptually attribute primitive perceptual qualities to the world, and our introspective models attribute primitive mental relations to those qualities. These models produce the sense of acquaintance both with those qualities and with our awareness of those qualities.

While the gist of this picture points in the right direction, the posits used—representations, concepts, beliefs, attributions, acqaintances, awarenesses—doom it to dwell in perpetual underdetermination, which is to say, discursive ground friendly to realists like Chalmers. It structures the meta-problem according to a parochial rationalization of terms no one can decisively formulate, let alone explain. It is assured, in other words, to drag the meta-problem into the greater scandal of self-knowledge.

To understand why Square Two has proven so problematic in general, one needs to take a step back, to relinquish their countless Square Two prejudices, and reconsider things from the standpoint of biology. Why, biologically speaking, should an organism find cognizing itself so difficult? Not only is this the most general form of the question that Chalmer’s takes himself to be asking, it is posed from a position outside the difficulty it interrogates.

The obvious answer is that biology, and cognitive biology especially, is so fiendishly complicated. The complexity of biology all but assures that cognition will neglect biology and fasten on correlations between ‘surface irritations’ and biological behaviours. Why, for instance, should a frog cognize fly biology when it need only strike at black dots?

The same goes for metacognitive capacities: Why metacognize brain biology when we need only hold our tongue at dinner, figure out what went wrong with the ambush, explain what happened to the elders, and so on? On any plausible empirical story, metacognition consists in an opportunistic array of heuristic systems possessing the access and capacity to solve various specialized domains. The complexity of the brain all but assures as much. Given the intractability of the processes monitored, metacognitive consumers remain ‘source insensitive’—they solve absent any sensitivity to underlying systems. As need-to-know consumers adapted to solving practical problems in ancestral contexts, we should expect retasking those capacities to the general problem of ourselves would prove problematic. As indeed it has. Our metacognitive insensitivity, after all, extends to our insensitivity: we are all but oblivious to the source-insensitive, heuristic nature of metacognition.

And this provides biological grounds to predict the kinds of problems such retasking might generate; it provides an elegant, scientifically tractable way to understand a great number of the problems plaguing human self-knowledge.


We should expect metacognitive (and sociocognitive) application problems. Given that metacognition neglects the heuristic limits of metacognition, all novel applications of metacognitive capacities to new problem ecologies (such as those devised by the ancient Greeks) run the risk of misapplication. Imagine rebuilding an engine with invisible tools. Metacognitive neglect assures that trial-and-error provides our only means of sorting between felicitous and infelicitous applications.

We should expect incompatibility with source-sensitive modes of cognition. Source-insensitive cognitive systems are primed to solve via information ecologies that systematically neglect the actual systems responsible. We rely on robust correlations between the signal available and the future behaviour of the system requiring solution–‘clues’ some heuristic researchers call them. The ancestral integration of source-sensitive and source-insensitive cognitive modes (as in narrative, say, which combines intentional and causal cognition) assures at best specialized linkages. Beyond these points of contact, the modes will be incompatible given the specificity of the information consumed in source-insensitive systems.

We should expect to suffer illusions of sufficiency. Given the dependence of all cognitive systems on the sufficiency of upstream processing for downstream success, we should expect insensitivity to metacognitive insufficiency to result in presumptive sufficiency. Systems don’t need a second set of systems monitoring the sufficiency of every primary system to function: sufficiency is the default. Retasking metacognitive capacities to theoretical problems, we can presume, deploys as sufficient despite almost certainly being insufficient. This can be seen as a generalization of WYSIATI, or ‘what-you-see-is-all-there-is,’ the principle Daniel Kahneman uses to illustrate how certain heuristic mechanisms do not discriminate between sufficient and insufficient information.

We should expect to suffer illusions of simplicity (or identity effects). Given metacognitive insensitivity to its insensitivity, it remains blind to artifacts of that insensitivity as artifacts. The absence of distinction will be intuited as simplicity. Flicker-fusion as demonstrated in psychophysics almost certainly possesses cognitive and metacognitive analogues, instances where the lack of distinction reports as identity or simplicity. The history of science is replete with examples of mistaking artifacts of information poverty with properties of nature. The small was simple prior to the microscope and the discovery of endless subvisibilia. The heavens consisted of spheres.

We should expect to suffer illusions of free-floating efficacy. The ancestral integration of source-insensitive and source-sensitive cognition underwrites fetishism, the cognition of sources possessing no proximal sources. In his cognitive development research, Andrei Cimpian calls these ‘inherence heuristics,’ where, in ignorance of extrinsic factors, we impute an intrinsic efficacy to cognize/communicate local effects. We are hardwired to fetishize.

We should expect to suffer entrenched only-game-in-town effects. In countless contexts, ignorance of alternatives fools individuals into thinking their path necessary. This is why Kant, who had no inkling of the interpretive jungle to come, thought he had stumbled across a genuine synthetic a priori science. Given metacognitive insensitivity to its insensitivity, the biological parochialism of source-insensitive cognition is only manifest in applications. Once detected, neglect assures the distinctiveness of source-insensitive cognition will seem absolute, lending itself to reports of autonomy. So where Kant ran afoul the only-game-in-town effect in declaring his discourse apodictic, he also ran afoul a biologically entrenched version of the same effect in declaring cognition transcendental.

We should expect misfires will be systematic. Generally speaking, rules of thumb do not cease being rulish when misapplied. Heuristic breakdowns are generally systematic. Where the system isn’t crashed altogether, the consequences of mistakes will be structured and iterable. This predictability allows certain heuristic breakdowns to become valuable tools. The Pleistocene discovery that applying pigments to surfaces could cue the (cartoon) visual cognition of nearly anything examples one, particularly powerful instrumentalization of heuristic systematicity. Metacognition is no different than visual cognition in this regard: like visual heuristics, cognitive heuristics generate systematic ‘illusions’ admitting, in some cases, genuine instrumentalizations (things like ‘representations’ and functional analyses in empirical psychology), but typically generating only disputation otherwise.

We should expect to suffer performative interference-effects (breakdowns in ‘meta-irrelevance’). The intractability of the enabling axis of cognition, the inevitability of medial neglect, forces the system to presume its cognitive sufficiency. As a result, cognition biomechanically depends on the ‘meta-irrelevance’ of its own systems; it requires that information pertaining to its functioning is not required to solve whatever the problem at hand. Nonhuman cognizers, for instance, are comparatively reliant on the sufficiency of their cognitive apparatus: they can’t, like us, raise a finger and say, ‘On second thought,’ or visit the doctor, or lay off the weed, or argue with their partner. Humans possess a plethora of hacks, heuristic ways to manage cognitive shortcomings. Nevertheless, the closer our metacognitive tools come to ongoing, enabling access—the this-very-moment-now of cognition—the more regularly they will crash, insofar as these too require meta-irrelevance.

We should expect chronic underdetermination. Metacognitive resources adapted to the solution of ancestral practical problems have no hope of solving for the nature of experience or cognition.

We should expect ontological confusion. As mentioned, cognition biomechanically depends on the ‘meta-irrelevance’ of its own systems; it requires that information pertaining to its functioning is not required to solve whatever the problem at hand. Metacognitive resources retasked to solve for these systems flounder, then begin systematically confusing artifacts of medial neglect for the dumbfounding explananda of cognition and experience. Missing dimensions are folded into neglect, and metacognition reports these insufficiencies as sufficient. Source insensitivity becomes source independence. Complexity becomes simplicity. Only a second ‘autonomous’ ontology will do.