Three Pound Brain

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Month: April, 2018

Notes Toward a Cognitive Biology of Theoretical Physics

by rsbakker

My favourite example of what I’ve been calling the ‘scandal of self-understanding’ is the remarkable—even gobsmacking—fact that we can explain the origins of the universe itself while remaining utterly unable to explain this explanation. You could say the great, grand blindspot in physics is physics itself. Imagine raising a gothic cathedral absent anything but the murkiest consciousness of hands! What’s more, imagine thinking this incapacity entirely natural, to raise rooves, not only blind to lifting, but blind to this blindness as well. Small wonder so many think knowledge an irreducible miracle.

This blindness to cognitive means reveals a quite odd condition on progress in physics: that it need not understand itself to understand nature. So far, that is.

Certainly, this fact is one worth consideration in its own right. Since heuristic neglect leverages a general, thoroughly naturalistic theory of cognition, its relevance should apply to all of our cognitive endeavours, including the very hinge of Pandora’s Box, physics. Since I have no skin in any academic game, I need not allow ingroup expectations pin my commitments to any institutional blind alley. I’m free to take original assumptions to problems invulnerable to existing assumptions. And even though I lack the technical expertise to make the least dent in the science, I can perhaps suggest novel points of departure for those who do.

Physics is far from alone in suffering this second-order blindness. Biologically speaking, almost all problems are solved absent access to the conditions of problem-solving. Motor cortices ‘know’ as much about themselves as the fingers they control. Cognition is almost always utterly oblivious to the contemporaneous act of cognizing.

Call this trivial fact medial neglect: the congenital insensitivity of cognition to contemporaneous cognizing. A number of dramatic consequences fall out of this empirical platitude. How does human cognition overcome medial neglect? Our brains are, as a matter of fact, utterly insensitive to their own biological constitution. They cannot immediately cognize themselves for what they are. So then how do they cognize their own cognitive capacities?

Obviously, otherwise. In ways that are useful rather than true. In ways that circumvent medial neglect. Heuristically.

Given medial neglect, it simply follows that we must cognize problematic systems assuming what might be called meta-irrelevance, that no substantial knowledge of our knowing is required to leverage knowing. For instance, this present act of communication on my part requires that countless facts obtain, not the least of which is a tremendous amount of biological and historical similarity, that you and I share roughly the same physiology and educational background. If I were suffering psychosis, or you were raised by wolves, then this communicative exchange could only happen if we could somehow repair these discrepancies. Absent such second-order capacity, our communication depends on the absence of such second-order problems, and therefore on the irrelevance of second-order knowledge to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve.

Medial neglect entails meta-irrelevance, the capacity to solve problems absent the capacity to solve for that capacity. We can distinguish between the meta-irrelevance of our frame, the absence of defeating circumstances, and the meta-irrelevance of our constitution, the absence of cognitive incapacities. One of the fascinating things about this distinction is the way the two great theoretical edifices of physics, general relativity and the standard model of particle physics, required overcoming each form of meta-irrelevance. With general relativity, Einstein had to overcome a form of frame neglect to see space and time as part and parcel of the machinery of the universe. With quantum mechanics, Bohr and others had to overcome a form of constitutive neglect and invent a new rationality. When cognizing the universe on the greatest scales, your frame of reference makes a tremendous difference to what you see. When cognizing reality at infinitesimal scales, your cognitive biology makes a tremendous difference to what you see. In each case, you cannot understand the fundamentals short understanding yourself as part of the system cognized.

Our cognitive biology, in other words, is only irrelevant to cognitive determinations in classical (ancestral) problem ecologies. This explains why general relativity was more ‘insight’ driven, while the standard model was much more experimentally driven. General relativity, which belongs to classical mechanics, only strains meta-irrelevance (forces us to consider our cognitive capacities) at its extremes. Quantum mechanics snaps it from the outset. Resolving meta-irrelevance required conceding both methodology and intuition before physicists could report, with numerous provisos, the ‘quantum world.’ Understanding which classical questions can and cannot be asked of quantum mechanics amounts to charting the extent of meta-irrelevance, the degree to which our cognitive biology (in addition to our cognitive history) can be neglected. The limits of classical interrogation are the limits of our cognitive biology vis a vis the microscopic, the point where many (but not all) of our physical intuitions trip into crash space.

The notorious debate between Einstein and Bohr regarding whether quantum mechanics is complete and so reveals an exceptional (classically inconsistent) nature, or incomplete, and so reveals the existence of hidden variables, bears some striking similarities to debates regarding the nature of experience and cognition. If quantum mechanics is complete, as Bohr maintained, then our basic cognitive biology is relevant to our understanding of the microscopic. If quantum mechanics is incomplete, as Einstein maintained, then our basic cognitive biology is irrelevant to our understanding of the microscopic—the problem lies in our cognitive history, which is to say, the kinds of theories we bring to bear. The central issue, in other words, is the same issue structuring debates regarding the nature of knowledge and experience: whether the apparently exceptional nature of the quantum, like the exceptional nature of experience and cognition, isn’t an artifact of any incapacity on our part. The primary question, in other words, is whether our position or constitution is relevant to understanding the conundrums posed, on the one hand, by quantum mechanics, and on the other hand, by knowledge and experience.

(It’s worth noting, here, that this comparison seems to contradict the way I normally use quantum mechanics to argue the need to abandon biologically entrenched intuitions. But if quantum mechanics is both exceptional (insofar as it violates classical mechanics) and scientifically warranted, cannot the intentionalist claim the same? Where intentionalists use the empirical power of operationalizations of intentional posits (such as beliefs) to argue their objectivity, quantum realists use the empirical power of quantum mechanical postulates (such as wave-functions) to argue their objectivity. But there’s two key differences undermining this apparently happy analogy: first, where intentionalism is nothing if not intuitive, quantum mechanics is, to put it mildly, anything but. And second, quantum mechanics is the most powerful, most applicable theory in the history of science, whereas intentionalism is plagued both by issues of reproducibility within experimental contexts and issues of generalization beyond those contexts.)

With quantum mechanics, the collapse of meta-irrelevance, the need to identify and suspend cognitive reflexes (sort between questions), is compelled by the deep information cognitive ecologies devised by physicists. The more elementary things get, the less applicable the machinery of human cognition becomes. The meta-irrelevance of human cognition, you could say, maps out our ‘scalar neglect-structure,’ the degree to which knowledge and experience are geared to solve the proximate and granular. Science provided the prostheses required to extend our humble capacities to solve the macroscopic. Despite our ancestral neglect-structure, our basic cognitive capacities possessed cosmic applicability—we wanted only for the genius of Einstein to discover how. But when it came to the microscopic, the intuitive became a liability. “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy,” Bohr told Wolfgang Pauli once. “The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

On the view sketched here, the fundamental divide between general relativity and quantum mechanics lies in the latter’s cognitive biological relevance. This suggests that quantum mechanics, if not the more fundamental theory, functions in a problem-ecology where general relativity simply has no application. Most physicists see quantum mechanics as more fundamental but their arguments tend to be formal and ontological as opposed to ecological. As we saw above, the independence heuristic, the presumption of meta-irrelevance, is the default, core to all our cognitive orientations—and this is as true of physicists as it is of anyone. Physicists understand the debate, in other words, with a tendency to overlook the relevance of their cognitive biology, and so presume the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics is merely mathematical or conceptual. The failure of biological irrelevance, however, exposes the physical dimensions of the problem, how the issue lies in the constitution of human cognition.

Theoretical physics has always understood that humans are physical systems, entropic conduits, like all things living. But appreciating the fact of cognitive biology is one thing and appreciating the activity of cognitive biology is quite another. When we sweep away all the second-order clutter, quantum mechanics is something us organisms do, a behavioural product of the very nature quantum mechanics reveals. Our cognitive nature, the ancestral defaults geared to optimize ancestral circumstances, systematically confounds our attempts to cognize nature. Quantum mechanics shows we are natural in such a way as to stymy our attempts to understand nature, short theoretical gerrymandering via robust experimental feedback.

This raises the spectre that human cognition is constitutionally incapable of unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics. It could be the case that a nonclassical macroscopic theory could supplant general relativity and subsume quantum mechanics, but short the kinds of experimental data available to the pioneers of quantum mechanics, we simply have no way of isolating the questions that apply from the questions that don’t, and so sorting signal from noise. The truth could be ‘out there,’ lying somewhere beyond our biological capacities, occupying a space that only our machines can hope to fathom. If the quantum theorization of gravity fails, and it becomes clear that quantum mechanics is only heuristically applicable to classical contexts, then the cognitive biological position outlined here suggests we might have to become something other than what we are to fathom the universe as a whole. Re-engineering neural configurations via learning alone (theory formation) may no longer be enough.

The failure of cognitive biological relevance in quantum mechanics underscores what might be called the problem of diminishing applicability, how the further our constitution is pushed from our ancestral, ecological sweet spots, the systems we evolved to take for granted, the less we can presume meta-irrelevance, the more we should expect our cognitive biological inheritance to require remediation, lest it crash.

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After Yesterday: Review and Commentary of Catherine Malabou’s Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality

by rsbakker

Experiments like the Wason Selection Task dramatically demonstrate the fractionate, heuristically specialized nature of human cognition. Dress the same logical confound in social garb and it suddenly becomes effortless. We are legion, both with reference to our environments and to ourselves. The great bulk of human cognition neglects the general nature of things, targeting cues instead, information correlated to subsequent events. We metacognize none of this.

Insofar as Catherine Malabou concedes the facts of neurobiology she concedes these facts.

In Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality, she attempts to rescue the transcendental via a conception of ‘transcendental epigenesis.’ The book orbits about section 27 (pp. 173-175 in my beaten Kemp-Smith translation) of the Transcendental Deduction in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant considers the vexed question of the source of the agreement of the transcendental and the empirical, conceptuality and experience. Kant considers three possibilities: the agreement is empirically sourced, transcendentally sourced, or fundamentally (divinely) given. Since the first and the third contradict the necessity of the transcendental, he opts for the second, which he cryptically describes as “the epigenesis of pure reason” (174), a phrase which has perplexed Kant scholars ever since.

She examines a cluster of different theories on Kant’s meaning, each pressing Kant toward either empirical or theological contingency, and thus the very contradiction he attempts to avoid with his invocation of ‘epigenesis.’ Malabou undertakes a defense of Kantian transcendental epigenesis in the context of contemporary neurobiology, transforming Kant’s dilemma into a diagnosis of the dilemma she sees confronting Continental philosophy as a whole.

Via Foucault, she argues the historicity of transcendence as epigenesis understood as the invention of meaning (which she thinks is irreducible). “[N]o biologist,” she writes, “examines the relation between genetics and epigenetics in terms of meaning.” Via Heidegger (“who is no doubt the deepest of all of Kant’s readers”) she argues that the ecstatic temporality of transcendence reveals the derivative nature of empirical and theological appropriations, which both cover over primordial time (time before time). She ultimately parts with Heidegger on the issue of primordiality, but she takes away the phenomenological interpolation of past, present, and future, building toward the argument that epigenesis is never simply archaeological, but aimed as well—teleological.

Meillasoux seems to overthrow the primordial via reference to the ancestral, the time before the time before time, but he ultimately fails to deliver on the project of contingency. For all the initial praise Malabou expresses for his project, he ultimately provides her with a critical foil, an example of how not to reach beyond the Kantian tradition. (I especially enjoyed her Heideggerean critique of his time before the time before time as being, quite obviously (I think), the time after the time before time).

She ultimately alights on the Critique of Judgment, with a particular emphasis on section 81, which contains another notorious reference to epigenesis. The problem, once again, was that reading ‘the epigenesis of pure reason’ empirically—neurobiologically—obliterates the transcendental. Reading it formally, on the other hand, renders it static and inexplicable. What Malabou requires is some way of squaring the transcendental with the cognitive scientific revolution, lest Continental philosophy dwindle into a museum relic. She uses the mingling of causal and teleological efficacy Kant describes in the Third Critique as her ‘contact point’ between the transcendental and the empirical, since it is in the purposiveness of life that contingency and necessity are brought together.

Combining this with ecstatic temporality on the hand and neurobiological life on the other reveals an epigenesis that bridges the divide between life and thought in the course of explaining the adaptivity of reason without short-circuiting transcendence: “insofar as its movement is also the movement of the reason that thinks it, insofar as there is no rationality without epigenesis, without self-adjustment, without the modification of the old by the new, the natural and objective time of epigenesis may also be considered to be the subjective and pure time of the formation of horizon by and for thought.”

And so is the place of cognitive science made clear: “what neurobiology makes possible today through its increasingly refined description of brain mechanisms and its use of increasingly effective imaging techniques is the actual taking into account, by thought, of its own life.” The epigenetic ratchet now includes the cognitive sciences; philosophical meaning can now be generated on the basis of the biology of life. “What the neurobiological perspective lacks fundamentally,” she writes, “is the theoretical accounting for the new type of reflexivity that it enables and in which all of its philosophical interest lies.” Transcendental epigenesis, Malabou thinks, allows neurobiologically informed philosophy, one attuned to the “adventure of subjectivity,” to inform neurobiology.

She concludes, interestingly, with a defense of her analogical methodology, something I’ve criticized her for previously (and actually asked her about at a public lecture she gave in 2015). I agree that we’re all compelled to resort to cartoons when discussing these matters, true, but the problem is that we have no way of arbitrating whether our analogies render some dynamic tractable, or merely express some coincidental formal homology, short their abductive power, their ability to render domains scrutable. It is the power of a metaphor to clarify more than it merely matches that is the yardstick of theoretical analogical adequacy.

In some ways, I genuinely loved this book, especially for the way it reads like a metaphysical whodunnit, constantly tying varied interpretations to the same source material, continually interrogating different suspects, dismissing them with a handful of crucial clues in hand. This is the kind of book I once adored: an extended meditation on a decisive philosophical issue anchored by close readings of genuinely perplexing texts.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure Malabou’s approach completely misconstrues the nature of the problem the cognitive sciences pose to Continental philosophy. As a result, I fear she obscures the disaster about to befall, not simply her tradition, but arguably the whole of humanity.

When viewed from a merely neurobiological perspective, cognitive systems and environments form cognitive ecologies—their ‘epigenetic’ interdependence comes baked in. Insofar as Malabou agrees with this, she agrees that the real question has nothing to do with ‘correlation,’ the intentional agreement of concept and object, but rather with the question of how experience and cognition as they appear to philosophical reflection can be reconciled with the facts of our cognitive ecologies as scientifically reported. The problem, in other words, is the biology of metacognition. To put it into Kantian terms, the cognitive sciences amount to a metacritique of reason, a multibillion dollar colonization of Kant’s traditional domain. Like so much life, metacognition turns out to be a fractionate, radically heuristic affair, ancestrally geared to practical problem-solving. Not only does this imperil Kant’s account of cognition, it signals the disenchantment of the human soul. The fate of the transcendental is a secondary concern at best, one that illustrates rather than isolates the problem. The sciences have overthrown the traditional discourses of every single domain they have colonized. The burning question is why should the Continental philosophical discourse on the human soul prove an exception?

The only ‘argument’ that Malabou makes in this regard, the claim upon which all of her arguments hang, also comes from Kant:

“In the Critique of Pure Reason, when discussing the schema of the triangle, Kant asserts that there are realities that “can never exist anywhere except in thought.” If we share this view, as I do, then the validity of the transcendental is upheld. Yes, there are realities that exist nowhere but in thought.”

So long as we believe in ‘realities of thought,’ Continental philosophy is assured its domain. But are these ‘realities’ what they seem? Remember Hume: “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries, which discriminate and distinguish them” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 7). The information available to traditional speculative reflection is less than ideal. Given this evidential insecurity, how will the tradition cope with the increasing amounts of cognitive scientific information flooding society?

The problem, in other words, is both epistemic and social. Epistemically, the reality of thought need not satisfy our traditional conceptions, which suggests, all things being equal, that it will very likely contradict them. And socially, no matter how one sets about ontologically out-fundamentalizing the sciences, the fact remains that ‘ontologically out-fundamentalizing’ is the very discursive game that is being marginalized—disenchanted.

Regarding the epistemic problem. For all the attention Malabou pays to section 81 of the Third Critique, she overlooks the way Kant begins by remarking on the limits of cognition. The fact is, he’s dumbfounded: “It is beyond our reason’s grasp how this reconciliation of two wholly different kinds of causality is possible: the causality of nature in its universal lawfulness, with [the causality of] an idea that confines nature to a particular form for which nature itself contains no basis whatsoever.” Our cognition of efficacy is divided between what can be sourced in nature and what cannot be sourced, between causes and purposes, and somehow, someway, they conspire to render living systems intelligible. The evidence of this basic fractionation lies plain in experience, but the nature of its origin and activity remain occluded: it belongs to “the being in itself of which we know merely the appearance.”

In one swoop, Kant metacognizes the complexity of cognition (two wholly different forms), the limits of metacognizing that complexity (inscrutable to reflection), and the efficacy of that complexity (enabling cognition of animate things). Thanks to the expansion of the cognitive scientific domain, all three of these insights now possess empirical analogues. As far as complexity is concerned, we know that humans possess a myriad of specialized cognitive systems. Kant’s ‘two kinds of causality’ correlates with two families of cognitive systems observed in infants, the one geared to the inanimate world, mechanical troubleshooting, the other to the animate world, biological troubleshooting. The cognitive pathologies belonging Williams Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder demonstrate profound cleavages between physical and psychological cognition. The existence of metacognitive limits is also a matter of established empirical fact, operative in any number of phenomena explored by the ecological rationality and cognitive heuristics and biases research programs. In fact, the mere existence of cognitive science, which is invested in discovering those aspects of experience and cognition we are utterly insensitive to, demonstrates the profundity of human medial neglect, our utter blindness to the enabling machinery of cognition as such.

And recent research is also revealing the degree to which humans are hardwired to posit opportunistic efficacies. Given the enormity and complexity of endogenous and exogenous environments, organisms have no hope of sourcing the information constituting its cognitive ecologies. No surprise, neural networks (like the machine learning systems they inspired) are exquisitely adapted to the isolation of systematic correlations—patterns. Neglecting the nature of the systems involved, they focus on correlations between availabilities, isolating those observable precursors allowing the prediction of subsequent, reproductively significant observables such as behaviour. Confusing correlation with causation may be the bane of scientists, but for the rest of us, the reliance of ‘proxies’ often pays real cognitive dividends.

Humans are hardwired to both neglect their own cognitive complexity and to fetishize their environments, to impute efficacies serving local, practical cognitive determinations. Stranded in the most complicated system ever encountered, human metacognition cannot but comprise a congeries of source-insensitive systems geared to the adventitious solution of practical problems—like holding one’s tongue, or having second thoughts, or dwelling on the past, and so on. In everyday contexts, it never occurs to question the sources of these activities. Given neglect of the actual sources, we intuit spontaneity whenever we retask our metacognitive motley with reporting the source of these or any other cognitive activities.

We have very good empirical reasons to believe that the above is true. So, what do we do with transcendental speculation a la Kant? Do we ignore what cognitive science has learned about the fractionation, limits, and default propensities of human metacognition? Do we assume he was onto something distinct, a second, physically inexplicable order enabling cognition of the empirical in addition to the physically explicable (because empirical) order that we know (thanks to strokes, etc.) enables cognition of the empirical? Or do we assume that Kant was onto something dimly, which, given his ignorance of cognitive science, he construed dogmatically as distinct? Do we recognize the a priori as a fetishization of medial neglect, as way to make sense of the fractionate, heuristic nature of cognition absent any knowledge of that nature?

The problem with defending the first, transcendental thesis is that the evidence supporting the second empirical hypothesis will simply continue to accumulate. This is where the social problem rears its head, why the kind of domain overlap demonstrated above almost certainly signals the doom of Malabou’s discursive tradition. Continental philosophers need to understand how disenchantment works, how the mere juxtaposition of traditional and scientific claims socially delegitimizes the former. The more cognitive science learns about experience and cognition, the less relevant and less credible traditional philosophical discourses on the nature of experience and cognition will become.

The cognitive scientific metacritique of reason, you could say, reveals the transcendental as an artifact of our immaturity, of an age when we hearkened to the a priori as our speculative authority. Malabou not only believes in this speculative authority, she believes that science itself must answer to it. Rather than understanding the discursive tools of science epigenetically, refined and organized via scientific practice, she understands them presuppositionally, as beholden to this or that (perpetually underdetermined) traditional philosophical interpretation of conditions, hidden implicatures that must be unpacked to assure cognitive legitimacy—implicatures that clearly seem to stand outside ecology, thus requiring more philosophical interpretation to provide cognitive legitimacy. The great irony, of course, is that scientists eschew her brand of presuppositional ‘legitimacy’ to conserve their own legitimacy. Stomping around in semantic puddles is generally a counterproductive way to achieve operational clarity—a priori exercises in conceptual definition are notoriously futile. Science turns on finding answerable questions in questions answered. If gerrymandering definitions geared to local experimental contexts does the trick, then so be it. The philosophical groping and fumbling involved is valuable only so far as it serves this end. Is this problematic? Certainly. Is this a problem speculative ontological interpretation can solve? Not at all.

Something new is needed. Something radical, not in the sense of discursive novelty, but in a way that existentially threatens the tradition—and offends accordingly.

I agree entirely when Malabou writes:

“Clearly, it is of the utmost necessity today to rethink relations between the biological and the transcendental, even if it is to the detriment of the latter. But who’s doing so? And why do continental philosophers reject the neurobiological approach to the problem from the outset?”

This was the revelation I had in 1999, attempting to reconcile fundamental ontology and neuroscience for the final chapter of my dissertation. I felt the selfsame exhaustion, the nagging sense that it was all just a venal game, a discursive ingroup ruse. I turned my back on philosophy, began writing fiction, not realizing I was far from alone in my defection. When I returned, ‘correlation’ had replaced ‘presence’ as the new ‘ontologically problematic presupposition.’ At long last, I thought, Continental philosophy had recognized that intentionality—meaning—was the problem. But rather than turn to cognitive science to “search for the origin of thinking outside of consciousness and will,” the Speculative Realists I encountered (with the exception of thinkers like David Roden) embraced traditional vocabularies. Their break with traditional Kantian philosophy, I realized, did not amount to a break with traditional intentional philosophy. Far from calling attention to the problem, ‘correlation’ merely focused intellectual animus toward an effigy, an institutional emblem, stranding the 21st century Speculative Realists in the very interpretative mire they used to impugn 20th century Continental philosophy. Correlation was a hopeful, but ultimately misleading diagnosis. The problem isn’t that cognitive systems and environments are interdependent, the problem is that this interdependence is conceived intentionally. Think about it. Why do we find the intentional interdependence of cognition and experience so vexing when the ecological interdependence of cognitive systems and environments is simply given in biology? What is it about intentionality?

Be it dogmatically or critically conceived, what we call ‘intentionality’ is a metacognitive artifact of the way source-insensitive modes of cognition, like intentional cognition, systematically defer the question of sources. A transcendental source is a sourceless source—an ‘originary repetition’ admitting an epigenetic gloss—because intentional cognition, whether applied to thought or the world, is source-insensitive cognition. To apply intentional cognition to the question of the nature of intentional cognition, as the tradition does compulsively, is to trip into metacognitive crash space, a point where intuitions, like those Malabou so elegantly tracks in Before Tomorrow, can only confound the question they purport to solve.

Derrida understood, at least as far as his (or perhaps any) intentional vocabulary could take him. He understood that cognition as cognized is a ‘cut-out,’ an amnesiac intermediary, appearing sourceless, fully present, something outside ecology, and as such doomed to be overthrown by ecology. He, more-so than Kant, hesitates upon the metacognitive limit, full-well understanding the futility of transgressing it. But since he presumed the default application of intentional cognition to the problem of cognition necessary, he presumed the inevitability of tripping into crash space as well, believing that reflection could not but transgress its limits and succumb to the metaphysics of presence. Thus his ‘quasi-transcendentals,’ his own sideways concession to the Kantian quagmire. And thus deconstruction, the crashing of super-ecological claims by adducing what must be neglected—ecology—to maintain the illusion of presence.

And so, you could say the most surprising absence in Malabou’s text is her teacher, who whispers merely from various turns in her discourse.

“No one,” she writes, “has yet thought to ask what continental philosophy might become after this “break.” Not true. I’ve spent years now prospecting the desert of the real, the post-intentional landscape that, if I’m right, humanity is doomed to wander into and evaporate. I too was a Derridean once, so I know a path exists between her understanding and mine. I urge her to set aside the institutional defense mechanisms as I once did: charges of scientism or performative contradiction simply beg the question against the worst-case scenario. I invite her to come see what philosophy and the future look like after the death of transcendence, if only to understand the monstrosity of her discursive other. I challenge her to think post-human thoughts—to understand cognition materially, rather than what traditional authority has made of it. I implore her to see how the combination of science and capital is driving our native cognitive ecologies to extinction on an exponential curve.

And I encourage everyone to ask why, when it comes to the topic of meaning, we insist on believing in happy endings? We evolved to neglect our fundamental ecological nature, to strategically hallucinate spontaneities to better ignore the astronomical complexities beneath. Subreption has always been our mandatory baseline. As the cognitive ecologies underwriting those subreptive functions undergo ever more profound transformations, the more dysfunctional our ancestral baseline will become. With the dawning of AI and enhancement, the abstract problem of meaning has become a civilizational crisis.

Best we prepare for the worst and leave what was human to hope.

Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man

by rsbakker

 

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. –Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

 

What I would like to do is show how Sellars’ manifest and scientific images of humanity are best understood in terms of shallow cognitive ecologies and deep information environments. Expressed in Sellars’ own terms, you could say the primary problem with his characterization is that it is a manifest, rather than scientific, understanding of the distinction. It generates the problems it does (for example, in Brassier or Dennett) because it inherits the very cognitive limitations it purports to explain. At best, Sellars take is too granular, and ultimately too deceptive to function as much more than a stop-sign when it comes to questions regarding the constitution and interrelation of different human cognitive modes. Far from a way to categorize and escape the conundrums of traditional philosophy, it provides yet one more way to bake them in.

 

Cognitive Images

Things begin, for Sellars, in the original image, our prehistorical self-understanding. The manifest image consists in the ‘correlational and categorial refinement’ of this self-understanding. And the scientific image consists in everything discovered about man beyond the limits of correlational and categorial refinement (while relying on these refinements all the same). The manifest image, in other words, is an attenuation of the original image, whereas the scientific image is an addition to the manifest image (that problematizes the manifest image). Importantly, all three are understood as kinds of ‘conceptual frameworks’ (though he sometime refers to the original image as ‘preconceptual.’

The original framework, Sellars tells us, conceptualizes all objects as ways of being persons—it personalizes its environments. The manifest image, then, can be seen as “the modification of an image in which all the objects are capable of the full range of personal activity” (12). The correlational and categorial refinement consists in ‘pruning’ the degree to which they are personalized. The accumulation of correlational inductions (patterns of appearance) undermined the plausibility of environmental agencies and so drove categorial innovation, creating a nature consisting of ‘truncated persons,’ a world that was habitual as opposed to mechanical. This new image of man, Sellars claims, is “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world” (6). As such, the manifest image is the image interrogated by the philosophical tradition, which given the limited correlational and categorial resources available to it, remained blind to the communicative—social—conditions of conceptual frameworks, and so, the manifest image of man. Apprehending this would require the scientific image, the conceptual complex “derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction,” yet still turning on the conceptual resources of the manifest image.

For Sellars, the distinction between the two images turns not so much on what we commonly regard to be ‘scientific’ or not (which is why he thinks the manifest image is scientific in certain respects), but on the primary cognitive strategies utilized. “The contrast I have in mind,” he writes, “is not that between an unscientific conception of man-in-the-world and a scientific one, but between that conception which limits itself to what correlational techniques can tell us about perceptible and introspectable events and that which postulates imperceptible objects and events for the purpose of explaining correlations among perceptibles” (19). This distinction, as it turns out, only captures part of what we typically think of as ‘scientific.’ A great deal of scientific work is correlational, bent on describing patterns in sets of perceptibles as opposed to postulating imperceptibles to explain those sets. This is why he suggests that terming the scientific image the ‘theoretical image’ might prove more accurate, if less rhetorically satisfying. The scientific image is postulational because it posits what isn’t manifest—what wasn’t available to our historical or prehistorical ancestors, namely, knowledge of man as “a complex physical system” (25).

The key to overcoming the antipathy between the two images, Sellars thinks, lies in the indispensability of the communally grounded conceptual framework of the manifest image to both images. The reason we should yield ontological priority to the scientific image derives from the conceptual priority of the manifest image. Their domains need not overlap. “[T]he conceptual framework of persons,” he writes, “is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it” (40). To do this, we need to “directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living” (40).

Being in the ‘logical space of reasons,’ or playing the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ requires social competence, which requires sensitivity to norms and purposes. The entities and relations populating Sellars normative metaphysics exist only in social contexts, only so far as they discharge pragmatic functions. The reliance of the scientific image on these pragmatic functions renders them indispensable, forcing us to adopt ‘stereoscopic vision,’ to acknowledge the conceptual priority of the manifest even as we yield ontological priority to the scientific.

 

Cognitive Ecologies

The interactional sum of organisms and their environments constitutes an ecology. A ‘cognitive ecology,’ then, can be understood as the interactional sum of organisms and their environments as it pertains to the selection of behaviours.

A deep information environment is simply the sum of difference-making differences available for possible human cognition. We could, given the proper neurobiology, perceive radio waves, but we don’t. We could, given the proper neurobiology, hear dog whistles, but we don’t. We could, given the proper neurobiology, see paramecia, but we don’t. Of course, we now possess instrumentation allowing us to do all these things, but this just testifies to the way science accesses deep information environments. As finite, our cognitive ecology, though embedded in deep information environments, engages only select fractions of it. As biologically finite, in other words, human cognitive ecology is insensitive to most all deep information. When a magician tricks you, for instance, they’re exploiting your neglect-structure, ‘forcing’ your attention toward ephemera while they manipulate behind the scenes.

Given the complexity of biology, the structure of our cognitive ecology lies outside the capacity of our cognitive ecology. Human cognitive ecology cannot but neglect the high dimensional facts of human cognitive ecology. Our intractability imposes inscrutability. This means that human metacognition and sociocognition are radically heuristic, systems adapted to solving systems they otherwise neglect.

Human cognition possesses two basic modes, one that is source-insensitive, or heuristic, relying on cues to predict behaviour, and one that is source-sensitive, or mechanical, relying on causal contexts to predict behaviour. The radical economies provided by the former is offset by narrow ranges of applicability and dependence on background regularities. The general applicability of the latter is offset by its cost. Human cognitive ecology can be said to be shallow to the extent it turns on source-insensitive modes of cognition, and deep to the extent it turns on source-sensitive modes. Given the radical intractability of human cognition, we should expect metacognition and sociocognition to be radically shallow, utterly dependent on cues and contexts. Not only are we blind to the enabling dimension of experience and cognition, we are blind to this blindness. We suffer medial neglect.

This provides a parsimonious alternative to understanding the structure and development of human self-understanding. We began in an age of what might be called ‘medial innocence,’ when our cognitive ecologies were almost exclusively shallow, incorporating causal determinations only to cognize local events. Given their ignorance of nature, our ancestors could not but cognize it via source-insensitive modes. They did not so much ‘personalize’ the world, as Sellars claims, as use source-insensitive modes opportunistically. They understood each other and themselves as far as they needed to resolve practical issues. They understood argument as far as they needed to troubleshoot their reports. Aside from these specialized ways of surmounting their intractability, they were utterly ignorant of their nature.

Our ancestral medial innocence began eroding as soon as humanity began gaming various heuristic systems out of school, spoofing their visual and auditory systems, knapping them into cultural inheritances, slowly expanding and multiplying potential problem-ecologies within the constraints of oral culture. Writing, as a cognitive technology, had a tremendous impact on human cognitive ecology. Literacy allowed speech to be visually frozen and carved up for interrogation. The gaming of our heuristics began in earnest, the knapping of countless cognitive tools. As did the questions. Our ancient medial innocence bloomed into a myriad of medial confusions.

Confusions. Not, as Sellars would have it, a manifest image. Sellars calls it ‘manifest’ because it’s correlational, source-insensitive, bound to the information available. The fact that it’s manifest means that it’s available—nothing more. Given medial innocence, that availability was geared to practical ancestral applications. The shallowness of our cognitive ecology was adapted to the specificity of the problems faced by our ancestors. Retasking those shallow resources to solve for their own nature, not surprisingly, generated endless disputation. Combined with the efficiencies provided by coinage and domestication during the ‘axial age,’ literacy did not so much trigger ‘man’s encounter with man,’ as Sellars suggests, as occasion humanity’s encounter with the question of humanity, and the kinds cognitive illusions secondary to the application of metacognitive and sociocognitive heuristics to the theoretical question of experience and cognition.

The birth of philosophy is the birth of discursive crash space. We have no problem reflecting on thoughts or experiences, but as soon as we reflect on the nature of thoughts and experiences, we find ourselves stymied, piling guesses upon guesses. Despite our genius for metacognitive innovation, what’s manifest in our shallow cognitive ecologies is woefully incapable of solving for the nature of human cognitive ecology. Precisely because reflecting on the nature of thoughts and experiences is a metacognitive innovation, something without evolutionary precedent, we neglect the insufficiency of the resources available. Artifacts of the lack of information are systematically mistaken for positive features. The systematicity of these crashes licenses the intuition that some common structure lurks ‘beneath’ the disputation—that for all their disagreements, the disputants are ‘onto something.’ The neglect-structure belonging to human metacognitive ecology gradually forms the ontological canon of the ‘first-person’ (see “On Alien Philosophy” for a more full-blooded account). And so, we persisted, generation after generation, insisting on the sufficiency of those resources. Since sociocognitive terms cue sociocognitive modes of cognition, the application of these modes to the theoretical problem of human experience and cognition struck us as intuitive. Since the specialization of these modes renders them incompatible with source-sensitive modes, some, like Wittgenstein and Sellars, went so far as to insist on the exclusive applicability of those resources to the problem of human experience and cognition.

Despite the profundity of metacognitive traps like these, the development of our sourcesensitive cognitive modes continued reckoning more and more of our deep environment. At first this process was informal, but as time passed and the optimal form and application of these modes resolved from the folk clutter, we began cognizing more and more of the world in deep environmental terms. The collective behavioural nexuses of science took shape. Time and again, traditions funded by source-insensitive speculation on the nature of some domain found themselves outcompeted and ultimately displaced. The world was ‘disenchanted’; more and more of the grand machinery of the natural universe was revealed. But as powerful as these individual and collective source-sensitive modes of cognition proved, the complexity of human cognitive ecology insured that we would, for the interim, remain beyond their reach. Though an artifactual consequence of shallow ecological neglect-structures, the ‘first-person’ retained cognitive legitimacy. Despite the paradoxes, the conundrums, the interminable disputation, the immediacy of our faulty metacognitive intuitions convinced us that we alone were exempt, that we were the lone exception in the desert landscape of the real. So long as science lacked the resources to reveal the deep environmental facts of our nature, we could continue rationalizing our conceit.

 

Ecology versus Image

As should be clear, Sellars’ characterization of the images of man falls squarely within this tradition of rationalization, the attempt to explain away our exceptionalism. One of the stranger claims Sellars makes in this celebrated essay involves the scientific status of his own discursive exposition of the images and their interrelation. The problem, he writes, is that the social sources of the manifest image are not themselves manifest. As a result, the manifest image lacks the resources to explain its own structure and dynamics: “It is in the scientific image of man in the world that we begin to see the main outlines of the way in which man came to have an image of himself-in-the-world” (17). Understanding our self-understanding requires reaching beyond the manifest and postulating the social axis of human conceptuality, something, he implies, that only becomes available when we can see group phenomena as ‘evolutionary developments.’

Remember Sellars’ caveats regarding ‘correlational science’ and the sense in which the manifest image can be construed as scientific? (7) Here, we see how that leaky demarcation of the manifest (as correlational) and the scientific (as theoretical) serves his downstream equivocation of his manifest discourse with scientific discourse. If science is correlational, as he admits, then philosophy is also postulational—as he well knows. But if each image helps itself to the cognitive modes belonging to the other, then Sellars assertion that the distinction lies between a conception limited to ‘correlational techniques’ and one committed to the ‘postulation of imperceptibles’ (19) is either mistaken or incomplete. Traditional philosophy is nothing if not theoretical, which is to say, in the business of postulating ontologies.

Suppressing this fact allows him to pose his own traditional philosophical posits as (somehow) belonging to the scientific image of man-in-the-world. What are ‘spaces of reasons’ or ‘conceptual frameworks’ if not postulates used to explain the manifest phenomena of cognition? But then how do these posits contribute to the image of man as a ‘complex physical system’? Sellars understands the difficulty here “as long as the ultimate constituents of the scientific image are particles forming ever more complex systems of particles” (37). This is what ultimately motivates the structure of his ‘stereoscopic view,’ where ontological precedence is conceded to the scientific image, while cognition itself remains safely in the humanistic hands of the manifest image…

Which is to say, lost to crash space.

Are human neuroheuristic systems welded into ‘conceptual frameworks’ forming an ‘irreducible’ and ‘autonomous’ inferential regime? Obviously not. But we can now see why, given the confounds secondary to metacognitive neglect, they might report as such in philosophical reflection. Our ancestors bickered. In other words, our capacity to collectively resolve communicative and behavioural discrepancies belongs to our medial innocence: intentional idioms antedate our attempts to theoretically understand intentionality. Uttering them, not surprisingly, activates intentional cognitive systems, because, ancestrally speaking, intentional idioms always belonged to problem-ecologies requiring these systems to solve. It was all but inevitable that questioning the nature of intentional idioms would trigger the theoretical application of intentional cognition. Given the degree to which intentional cognition turns on neglect, our millennial inability to collectively make sense of ourselves, medial confusion, was all but inevitable as well. Intentional cognition cannot explain the nature of anything, insofar as natures are general, and the problem ecology of intentional cognition is specific. This is why, far from decisively resolving our cognitive straits, Sellars’ normative metaphysics merely complicates it, using the same overdetermined posits to make new(ish) guesses that can only serve as grist for more disputation.

But if his approach is ultimately hopeless, how is he able to track the development in human self-understanding at all? For one, he understands the centrality of behaviour. But rather than understand behaviour naturalistically, in terms of systems of dispositions and regularities, he understands it intentionally, via modes adapted to neglect physical super-complexities. Guesses regarding hidden systems of physically inexplicable efficacies—’conceptual frameworks’—are offered as basic explanations of human behaviour construed as ‘action.’

He also understands that distinct cognitive modes are at play. But rather than see this distinction biologically, as the difference between complex physical systems, he conceives it conceptually, which is to say, via source-insensitive systems incapable of charting, let alone explaining our cognitive complexity. Thus, his confounding reliance on what might be called manifest postulation, deep environmental explanation via shallow ecological (intentional) posits.

And he understands the centrality of information availability. But rather than see this availability biologically, as the play of physically interdependent capacities and resources, he conceives it, once again, conceptually. All differences make differences somehow. Information consists of differences selected (neurally or evolutionarily) by the production of prior behaviours. Information consists in those differences prone to make select systematic differences, which is to say, feed the function of various complex physical systems. Medial neglect assures that the general interdependence of information and cognitive system appears nowhere in experience or cognition. Once humanity began retasking its metacognitive capacities, it was bound to hallucinate a countless array of ‘givens.’ Sellars is at pains to stress the medial (enabling) dimension of experience and cognition, the inability of manifest deliverances to account for the form of thought (16). Suffering medial neglect, cued to misapply heuristics belonging to intentional cognition, he posits ‘conceptual frameworks’ as a means of accommodating the general interdependence of information and cognitive system. The naturalistic inscrutability of conceptual frameworks renders them local cognitive prime movers (after all, source-insensitive posits can only come first), assuring the ‘conceptual priority’ of the manifest image.

The issue of information availability, for him, is always conceptual, which is to say, always heuristically conditioned, which is to say, always bound to systematically distort what is the case. Where the enabling dimension of cognition belongs to the deep environments on a cognitive ecological account, it belongs to communities on Sellars’ inferentialist account. As result, he has no clear way of seeing how the increasingly technologically mediated accumulation of ancestrally unavailable information drives the development of human self-understanding.

The contrast between shallow (source-insensitive) cognitive ecologies and deep information environments opens the question of the development of human self-understanding to the high-dimensional messiness of life. The long migratory path from the medial innocence of our preliterate past to the medial chaos of our ongoing cognitive technological revolution has nothing to do with the “projection of man-in-the-world on the human understanding” (5) given the development of ‘conceptual frameworks.’ It has to do with blind medial adaptation to transforming cognitive ecologies. What complicates this adaptation, what delivers us from medial innocence to chaos, is the heuristic nature of source-insensitive cognitive modes. Their specificity, their inscrutability, not to mention their hypersensitivity (the ease with which problems outside their ability cue their application) all but doomed us to perpetual, discursive disarray.

Images. Games. Conceptual frameworks. None of these shallow ecological posits are required to make sense of our path from ancestral ignorance to present conundrum. And we must discard them, if we hope to finally turn and face our future, gaze upon the universe with the universe’s own eyes.