Three Pound Brain

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The Liar’s Paradox Naturalized

by rsbakker

Can the Liar’s Paradox be understood in a biologically consilient way?

Say what you will about ‘Truth,’ everyone agrees that truth-talk has something to do with harmonizing group orientations relative to group environments. Whenever we find ourselves at odds either with one another or our environments, we resort to the vocabulary of truth and rectitude. The question is what this talk consists in and how it manages to do what it does.

The idea here is to steer clear presumptions of intentionality and look at the problem in the register providing the most information: biomechanically. Whatever our orientation to our environments consists in, everyone agrees that it is physical in some fundamental respect. Strokes are catastrophic for good reason. So, let’s stipulate that an orientation to an environment, in distinction to, say, a ‘perspective on’ an environment, consists of all physical (high-dimensional) facts underwriting our capacity to behaviourally resolve environments in happy (system conserving) ways.

We all agree that causal histories underwrite communication and cognition, but we have no inkling as to the details of that story, nor the details of the way we solve communicative and cognitive problems absent those details. Heuristic neglect simply provides a way to understand this predicament at face value. No one denies that human cognition neglects the natural facts of cognition; the problem is that everyone presumes this fact has little or no bearing on our attempts to solve the nature of cognition. Even though our own intuitive access to our cognitive capacities, given the complexity of those capacities, elides everything save what our ancestors needed to solve ancestral problems, most everyone thinks that intuitive access, given the right interpretation, provides everything cognitive science needs to solve cognitive scientific problems.

It really is remarkable when you think about it.  Out of sight, out of explanatory paradigm.

Beginning with orientations rather than perspectives allows us to radically reconceptualize a great many traditional philosophical problematics in ‘post-intentional’ terms. The manifest advantage of orientations, theoretically speaking, lies in their environmental continuity, their mediocrity, the way they comprise (unlike perspectives, meanings, norms, and so on) just more environment. Rather than look at linguistic communication in terms of ‘contents,’ the physical conveyance of ontologically inscrutable ‘meanings,’ we can understand it behaviouristically, as orientations impacting orientations via specialized mechanisms, behaviours, and sensitivities. Rather than conceive the function of communication ‘intersubjectively,’ as the coordination of intentional black boxes, we can view it biologically, as the formation of transient superordinate processes, ephemeral ‘superorganisms,’ taking individuals and their environments as component parts.

Granting that human communication consists in the harmonization of orientations relative to social and natural environments amounts to granting that human communication is biological, that it, like every other basic human capacity, possesses an evolutionary history. Human communication, in other words, is in the business of providing economical solutions to various environmental problems.

This observation motivates a dreadfully consequential question: What is the most economical way for two or more people to harmonize their environmental orientations? To communicate environmental discrepancies, while taking preexisting harmonies for granted. I don’t rehash my autobiography when I see my friends, nor do I lecture them on the physiology of human cognition or the evolution of the human species. I ‘dish dirt.’ I bring everyone ‘up to speed.’

What if we were to look at language as primarily a discrepancy minimization device, as a system possessing exquisite sensitivities (via, say, predictive processing) to the desynchronization of orientations?

In such a system, the sufficiency of preexisting harmonies—our shared physiology, location, and training—would go without saying. I update my friends and they update me. The same can be said of the system itself: the sufficiency of language, it’s biomechanical capacity to effect synchronization would also go without saying—short, that is, the detection of discrepancies. I update my friends and they update me, and so long as everyone agrees, nary a word about truth need be spoken.

Taking a discrepancy view, in other words, elegantly explains why truth is the communicative default: the economical thing is to neglect our harmonized orientations—which is to say, to implicitly presume their sufficiency. It’s only when we question the sufficiency of these communications that truth-talk comes into play.

Truth-talk, in other words, is typically triggered when communication observably fails to minimize discrepancies, when operational sufficiency, for whatever reason, ceases to be automatically presumed. Truth-talk harmonizes group orientations relative to group environments in cases of communicative discrepancy, an incompatibility between updates, say.

Neglecting harmonies isn’t simply economical, it’s also necessary, at least to the extent that humans have only the most superficial access to the details of those harmonies. It’s not that I don’t bother lecturing my ingroup on the physiology of human cognition and the evolution of the human species, it’s that, ancestrally speaking, I have no way of doing so. I suffer, as all humans suffer, from medial neglect, an inability to intuit the nature of my cognitive capacities, as well as frame neglect, an inability to put those capacities in natural context.

Neglecting the circumstances and constitution of verbal communication is a condition of verbal communication. Speech is oblivious to its biological and historical conditions. Verbal communication appears ‘extensional,’ as the philosophers of language say, because we have no other way of cognizing it. We have instances of speech and we have instances of the world, and we have no way of intuitively fathoming the actual relations between. Luckily for us, if our orientations are sufficiently isomorphic, we can communicate—harmonize our orientations—without fathoming these relations.

We can safely presume that the most frequent and demanding discrepancies will be environmental discrepancies, those which, given otherwise convergent orientations (the same physiology, location, and training), can be communicated absent contextual and constitutional information. If you and I share the same general physiology, location, and training, then only environmental discrepancies require our communicative attention. Such discrepancies can be resolved while remaining almost entirely ‘performance blind.’ All I need do is ‘trust’ your communication and cognition, build upon your unfathomable relations the same blind way I build upon my own. You cry, ‘Wolf!’ and I run for the shotgun: our orientations converge.

The problem, of course, is that all communicative discrepancies amount to some insufficiency in those ‘actual relations between.’ They require that we somehow fathom the unfathomable.

There is no understanding truth-talk without understanding that it’s in the ‘fathoming the unfathomable’ business. Truth-talk, in other words, resolves communicative discrepancies neglecting the natural facts underwriting those discrepancies. Truth-talk is radically heuristic, insofar as it leverages solutions to communicative problems absent information pertaining to the nature of those communicative problems.

So, to crib the example I gave in my recent Dennett posts: say you and I report seeing two different birds, a vulture versus an albatross, in circumstances where such a determination potentially matters—looking for a lost hunting party, say. An endless number of frame and medial confounds could possibly explain the discrepancy between our orientations. Perhaps I have bad eyesight, or I think albatrosses are black, or I was taught as much by an ignorant father, or I’m blinded by the glare of the sun, or I’m suffering schizophrenia, or I’m drunk, or I’m just sick and tired of you being right all the time, or I’m teasing you out of boredom, or more insidiously, I’m responsible for the loss of the hunting party, and want to prevent you from finding the scene of my crime.

There’s no question that, despite neglect, certain forms of access and capacity regarding the enabling dimension of cognition and communication could provide much in the way of problem resolution. Given the inaccessibility and complexity of the factors involved, however, it follows that any capacity to accommodate them will be heuristic in the extreme. This means that our cognitive capacity to flag/troubleshoot issues of cognitive sufficiency will be retail, fractionate, geared to different kinds of manifest problems:

  • Given the topological dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for positional sufficiency. “Trump is peering through a keyhole.”
  • Given the environmental sensory dependence of our orientations, capacity to solve for the sufficiency of environmental conditions. “Trump is wandering in the dark.”
  • Given the physiological sensory dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for physiological sufficiency. “Trump is myopic.”
  • Given the communal interdependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for social sufficiency, or trust. “Trump is a notorious liar.”
  • Given the experiential dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for epistemic sufficiency. “Trump has no government experience whatsoever.”
  • Given the linearity of verbal communication, capacities to solve for combinatorial or syntactic sufficiency. “Trump said the exact opposite this morning.”

It’s worth pausing here, I think, to acknowledge the way this radically spare approach to truth-talk provides ingress to any number of philosophical discourses on the ‘nature of Truth.’ Heuristic Neglect Theory allows us to see just why ‘Truth’ has so thoroughly confounded humanity despite millennia of ardent inquiry.

The apparent ‘extensionality’ of language, the way utterances and environments covary, is an artifact of frame and medial neglect. Once again, we are oblivious to the astronomical complexities, all the buzzing biology, responsible for the systematic relations between our utterances and our environments. We detect discrepancies with those relations, in other words, without detecting the relations themselves. Since truth-talk ministers to these breakdowns in an otherwise inexplicable covariance, ‘correspondence’ strikes many as a natural way to define Truth. With circumstantial and enabling factors out of view, it appears as though the environment itself sorts our utterances—provides ‘truth conditions.’

Given the abject inability to agree on any formulation of this apparently more than natural correspondence, the turn to circumstantial and enabling factors was inevitable. Perhaps Truth is a mere syntactic device, a bridge between mention and use. After all, we generally only say ‘X is true’ when saying X is disputed. Or perhaps Truth is a social artifact of some description, something conceded to utterances in ‘games of giving and asking for reasons.’ After all, we generally engage in truth-talk only when resolving disputes with others. Perhaps ‘Truth’ doesn’t so much turn on ‘truth conditions’ as ‘assertion conditions.’

The heuristic neglect approach allows us to make sense of why these explanatory angles make the apparent sense they do, why, like the blind swamis and the elephant, each confuses some part for some chimerical whole. Neglecting the machinery of discrepancy minimization not only strands reflection with a strategic sliver of a far more complicated process, it generates the presumption that this sliver is somehow self-sufficient and whole.

Setting the ontological truth of Truth aside, the fact remains that truth-talk leverages life-saving determinations on the neural cheap. This economy turns on ignoring everything that makes truth-talk possible. The intractable nature of circumstantial and enabling factors enforces frame and medial neglect, imposing what might be called qualification costs on the resolution of communicative discrepancies. IGNORE THE MEDIAL is therefore the baseline heuristic governing truth-talk: we automatically ‘externalize’ because, ancestrally at least, our communicative problems did not require cognitive science to solve.

Of course, as a communicative heuristic, IGNORE THE MEDIAL possesses a problem-ecology, which is to say, limits to its applicability. What philosophers, mistaking a useful incapacity for a magical capacity, call ‘aboutness’ or ‘directedness’ or ‘subjectivity,’ is only useful so far.

As the name suggests, IGNORE THE MEDIAL will crash when applied to problems where circumstantial and/or enabling factors either are not or cannot be ignored.

We find this most famously, I think, in the Liar’s Paradox:

The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false.

Truth-talk pertains to the neglected sufficiency of orientations relative to ongoing natural and social environments. Collective ‘noise reduction’ is the whole point. As a component in a discrepancy minimization system, truth-talk is in the business of restoring positional and source neglect, our implicit ‘view from nowhere,’ allowing (or not) utterances originally sourced to an individual performance to update the tacit orientations of everyone—to purge discrepancies and restore synchronization.

Self-reference rather obviously undermines this natural function.

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Reading From Bacteria to Bach and Back III: Beyond Stances

by rsbakker

 

The problem with his user-illusion model of consciousness, Dennett realizes, lies in its Cartesian theatricalization, the reflex to assume the reality of the illusion, and to thence argue that it is in fact this… the dumbfounding fact, the inexplicable explanandum. We acknowledge that consciousness is a ‘user-illusion,’ then insist this ‘manifest image’ is the very thing requiring explanation. Dennett’s de-theatricalization, in other words, immediately invites re-theatricalization, intuitions so powerful he feels compelled to devote an entire chapter to resisting the invitation, only to have otherwise generally sympathetic readers, like Tom Clark, to re-theatricalize everything once again. To deceive us at all, the illusion itself has to be something possessing, minimally it seems, the capacity to deceive. Faced with the question of what the illusion amounts to, he writes, “It is a representation of a red stripe in some neural system of representation” (358), allowing Clark and others to reply, ‘and so possesses content called qualia.’

One of the striking features of From Bacteria to Bach and Back is the degree to which his trademark Intentional Systems Theory (IST) fades into the background. Rather than speak of the physical stance, design stance, and intentional stance, he continually references Sellars tripartite nomenclature from “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” the ‘original image’ (which he only parenthetically mentions), the ‘manifest image,’ and the ‘scientific image.’ The manifest image in particular, far more than the intentional stance, becomes his primary theoretical term.

Why might this be?

Dennett has always seen himself threading a kind of theoretical needle, fending the scientifically preposterous claims of intentionalism on the one hand, and the psychologically bankrupt claims of eliminativism on the other. Where intentionalism strands us with impossible explanatory vocabularies, tools that cause more problems than they solve, eliminativism strands us with impoverished explanatory vocabularies, purging tools that do real work from our theoretical kits without replacing them. It’s not simply that Dennett wants, as so many of his critics accuse him, ‘to have it both ways’; it’s that he recognizes that having it both ways is itself the only way, theoretically speaking. What we want is to square the circle of intentionality and consciousness without running afoul either squircles or blank screens, which is to say, inexplicable intentionalisms or deaf-mute eliminativisms.

Seen in this light, Dennett’s apparent theoretical opportunism, rapping philosophical knuckles for some applications of intentional terms, shaking scientific hands for others, begins to look well motivated—at least from a distance. The global theoretical devil, of course, lies in the local details. Intentional Systems Theory constitutes Dennett’s attempt to render his ‘middle way’ (and so his entire project) a principled one. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back he explains it thus:

There are three different but closely related strategies or stances we can adopt when trying to understand, explain, and predict phenomena: the physical stance, the design stance, in the intentional stance. The physical stance is the least risky but also the most difficult; you treat the phenomenon in question as a physical phenomenon, obeying the laws of physics, and use your hard-won understanding of physics to predict what will happen next. The design stance works only for things that are designed, either artifacts or living things or their parts, and have functions or purposes. The intentional stance works primarily for things that are designed to use information to accomplish their functions. It works by treating the thing as a rational agent, attributing “beliefs” and “desires” and “rationality” to the thing, and predicting that it will act rationally. 37

The strategy is straightforward enough. There’s little doubt that the physical stance, design stance, and intentional stance assist solving certain classes of phenomena in certain circumstances, so when confronted by those kinds of phenomena in those kinds of circumstances, taking the requisite stance is a good bet. If we have the tools, then why not use them?

But as I’ve been arguing for years here at Three Pound Brain, the problems stack up pretty quick, problems which, I think, find glaring apotheosis in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. The first problem lies in the granularity of stances, the sense in which they don’t so much explain cognition as merely divvy it up into three families. This first problem arises from the second, their homuncularity, the fact that ‘stances’ amount to black-box cognitive comportments, ways to manipulate/explain/predict things that themselves resist understanding. The third, and (from the standpoint his thesis) most devastating problem, also turns on the second: the fact that stances are the very thing requiring explanation.

The reason the intentional stance, Dennett’s most famed explanatory tool, so rarely surfaces in From Bacteria to Bach and Back is actually quite simple: it’s his primary explanandum. The intentional stance cannot explain comprehension simply because it is, ultimately, what comprehension amounts to…

Well, almost. And it’s this ‘almost,’ the ways in which the intentional stance defects from our traditional (cognitivist) understanding of comprehension, which has ensnared Dennett’s imagination—or so I hope to show.

What does this defection consist in? As we saw, the retasking of metacognition to solve theoretical questions was doomed to run afoul sufficiency-effects secondary to frame and medial neglect. The easiest way to redress these illusions lies in interrogating the conditions and the constitution of cognition. What the intentional stance provides Dennett is a granular appreciation of the performative, and therefore the social, fractionate, constructive, and circumstantial nature of comprehension. Like Wittgenstein’s ‘language games,’ or Kuhn’s ‘paradigms,’ or Davidson’s ‘charity,’ Dennett’s stances allow him to capture something of the occluded external and internal complexities that have for so long worried the ‘clear and distinct’ intuition of the ambiguous human cylinder.

The intentional stance thus plays a supporting role, popping up here and there in From Bacteria to Bach and Back insofar as it complicates comprehension. At every turn, however, we’re left with the question of just what it amounts to. Intentional phenomena such as representations, beliefs, rules, and so on are perspectival artifacts, gears in what (according to Dennett) is the manifest ontology we use to predict/explain/manipulate one another using only the most superficial facts. Given the appropriate perspective, he assures us, they’re every bit as ‘real’ as you and I need. But what is a perspective, let alone a perspectival artifact? How does it—or they—function? What are the limits of application? What constitutes the ‘order’ it tracks, and why is it ‘there’ as opposed to, say, here?

Dennett—and he’s entirely aware of this—really doesn’t have much more than suggestions and directions when it comes to these and other questions. As recently as Intuition Pumps, he explicitly described his toolset as “good at nibbling, at roughly locating a few ‘fixed’ points that will help us see the general shape of the problem” (79). He knows the intentional stance cannot explain comprehension, but he also knows it can inflect it, nudge it closer to a biological register, even as it logically prevents the very kind of biological understanding Dennett—and naturalists more generally—take as the primary desideratum. As he writes (once again in 2013):

I propose we simply postpone the worrisome question of what really has a mind, about what the proper domain of the intentional stance is. Whatever the right answer to that question is—if it has a right answer—this will not jeopardize the plain fact that the intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method in these and other areas, almost as well as it works in our daily lives as folk-psychologists dealing with other people. This move of mine annoys and frustrates some philosophers, who want to blow the whistle and insist on properly settling the issue of what a mind, a belief, a desire is before taking another step. Define your terms, sir! No, I won’t. that would be premature. I want to explore first the power and the extent of application of this good trick, the intentional stance. Intuition Pumps, 79

But that was then and this is now. From Bacteria to Bach and Back explicitly attempts to make good on this promissory note—to naturalize comprehension, which is to say, to cease merely exploring the scope and power of the intentional stance, and to provide us with a genuine naturalistic explanation. To explain, in the high-dimensional terms of nature, what the hell it is. And the only way to do this is to move beyond the intentional stance, to cease wielding it as a tool, to hoist it on the work-bench, and to adduce the tools that will allows us to take it apart.

By Dennett’s own lights, then, he needs to reverse-engineer the intentional stance. Given his newfound appreciation for heuristic neglect, I understand why he feels the potential for doing this. A great deal of his argument for Cartesian gravity, as we’ve seen, turns on our implicit appreciation of the impact of ‘no information otherwise.’ But sensing the possibility of those tools, unfortunately, does not amount to grasping them. Short explicit thematizations of neglect and sufficiency, he was doomed to remain trapped on the wrong side of the Cartesian event horizon.

On Dennett’s view, intentional stances are homuncular penlights more than homuncular projectors. What they see, ‘reasons,’ lies in the ‘eye of the beholder’ only so far as natural and neural selection provisions the beholder with the specialized competencies required to light them up.

The reasons tracked by evolution I have called ‘free-floating rationales,’ a term that has apparent jangled the nerves of some few thinkers, who suspect I am conjuring up ghosts of some sort. Not at all. Free-floating rationales are no more ghostly or problematic than numbers or centers of gravity. Cubes had eight corners before people invented ways of articulating arithmetic, and asteroids had centers of gravity before there were physicists to dream up the idea and calculate with it. Reasons existed long before there were reasoners. 50

To be more precise, the patterns revealed by the intentional stance exist independent of the intentional stance. For Dennett, the problematic philosophical step—his version of the original philosophical sin of intentionalism—is to think the cognitive bi-stability of these patterns, the fact they appear to be radically different when spied with a first-person penlight versus scientific floodlights, turns on some fundamental ontological difference.

And so, Dennett holds that a wide variety of intentional phenomena are real, just not in the way we have traditionally understood them to be real. This includes reasons, beliefs, functions, desires, rules, choices, purposes, and—pivotally, given critiques like Tom Clark’s—representations. So far as this bestiary solves real world problems, they have to grab hold of the world somehow, don’t they? The suggestion that intentional posits are no more problematic than formal or empirical posits (like numbers and centers of gravity) is something of a Dennettian refrain—as we shall see, it presumes the heuristics involved in intentional cognition possess the same structure as heuristics in other domains, which is simply not the case. Otherwise, so long as intentional phenomena actually facilitate cognition, it seems hard to deny that they broker some kind high-dimensional relationship with the high-dimensional facts of our environment.

So what kind of relationship? Well, Dennett argues that it will be—has to be, given evolution—heuristic. So far as that relationship is heuristic, we can presume that it solves by taking the high-dimensional facts of the matter—what we might call the deep information environment—for granted. We can presume, in other words, that it will ignore the machinery, and focus on cues, available information systematically related to that machinery in ways that enable the prediction/explanation/manipulation of that machinery. In other words, rather than pick out the deep causal patterns responsible it will exploit those available patterns possessing some exploitable correlation to those patterns.

So then where, one might ask, do the real patterns pertaining to ‘representation’ lie in this? What part or parts of this machine-solving machinery gainsays the ‘reality’ of representations? Just where do we find the ‘real patterns’ underwriting the content responsible for individuating our reports? It can’t be the cue, the available information happily correlated to the system or systems requiring solution, simply because the cue is often little more than a special purpose trigger. The Heider-Simmel Illusion, for instance, provides a breathtaking example of just how little information it takes. So perhaps we need to look beyond the cue, to the adventitious correlations binding it to the neglected system or systems requiring solution. But if these are the ‘real patterns’ illuminated by the intentional stance, it’s hard to understand what makes them representational—more than hard in fact, since these relationships consist in regularities, which, as whole philosophical traditions have discovered, are thoroughly incompatible with the distinctively cognitive properties of representation. Well, then, how about the high-dimensional machinery indirectly targeted for solution? After all, representations provide us a heuristic way to understand otherwise complex cognitive relationships. This is where Dennett (and most everyone else, for that matter) seems to think the real patterns lie, the ‘order which is there,’ in the very machinery that heuristic systems are adapted—to avoid! Suddenly, we find ourselves stranded with regularities only indirectly correlated to the cues triggering different heuristic cognitive systems. How could the real patterns gainsaying the reality of representations be the very patterns our heuristic systems are adapted to ignore?

But if we give up on the high-dimensional systems targeted for solution, perhaps we should be looking at the heuristic systems cognizing—perhaps this is where the real patterns gainsaying the reality of representations lie, here, in our heads. But this is absurd, of course, since the whole point of saying representations are real (enough) is to say they’re out there (enough), independent of our determinations one way or another.

No matter how we play this discursive shell game, the structure of heuristic cognition guarantees that we’ll never discover the ‘real pattern pea,’ even with intentional phenomena so apparently manifest (because so useful in both everyday and scientific contexts) as representations. There’s real systems, to be sure, systems that make ‘identifying representations’ as easy as directing attention to the television screen. But those systems are as much here as they are there, making that television screen simply another component in a greater whole. Without the here, there is no there, which is to say, no ‘representation.’ Medial neglect assures the astronomical dimensionality of the here is flattened into near oblivion, stranding cognition with a powerful intuition of a representational there. Thanks to our ancestors, who discovered myriad ways to manipulate information to cue visual cognition out of school, to drape optical illusions across their cave walls, or to press them into lumps of clay, we’ve become so accustomed to imagery as to entirely forget the miraculousness of seeing absent things in things present. Those cues are more or less isomorphic to the actual systems comprising the ancestral problem ecologies visual cognition originally evolved to manage. This is why they work. They recapitulate certain real patterns of information in certain ways—as does your, retina, your optic nerve, and every stage of visual cognition culminating in visual experience. The only thing ‘special’ about the recapitulations belonging to your television screen is their availability, not simply to visual cognition, but to our attempts to cognize/troubleshoot such instances of visual cognition. The recapitulations on the screen, unlike, say, the recapitulations captured by our retinas, are the one thing we can readily troubleshoot should they begin miscuing visual cognition. Neglect ensures the intuition of sufficiency, the conviction that the screen is the basis, as opposed to simply another component in a superordinate whole. So, we fetishize it, attribute efficacies belonging to the system to what is in fact just another component. All its enabling entanglements vanish into the apparent miracle of unmediated semantic relationships to whatever else happens to be available. Look! we cry. Representation

Figure 1: This image of the Martian surface taken by Viking 1 in 1976 caused a furor on earth, for obvious reasons.

Figure 2: Images such as this one taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal the former to be an example of facial pareidolia, an instance where information cues facial recognition where no faces are to be found. The “Face on Mars” seems be an obvious instance of projection—mere illusion—as opposed to discovery. Until, that is, one realizes that both of these images consist of pixels cuing your visual systems ‘out of school’! Both, in other words, constitute instances of pareidolia: the difference lies in what they enable.

Some apparent squircles, it turns out, are dreadfully useful. So long as the deception is systematic, it can be instrumentalized any which way. Environmental interaction is the basis of neural selection (learning), and neural selection is the basis of environmental domination. What artificial visual cuing—‘representation’—provides is environmental interaction on the cheap, ways to learn from experience without having to risk or endure experience. A ‘good trick’ indeed!

This brings us to a great fault-line running through the entirety of Dennett’s corpus. The more instrumental a posit, the more inclined he’s to say it’s ‘real.’ But when critics accuse him of instrumentalism, he adverts to the realities underwriting the instrumentalities, what enables them to work, to claim a certain (ambiguous, he admits) brand of realism. But as should now be clear, what he elides when he does this is nothing less than the structure of heuristic cognition, which blindly exploits the systematic correlations between information available and the systems involved to solve those systems as far as constraints on availability and capacity allow.

The reason he can elide the structure of heuristic cognition (and so find his real patterns argument convincing) lies, pretty clearly, I think, in the conflation of human intentional cognition (which is radically heuristic) with the intentional stance. In other words, he confuses what’s actually happening in instances of intentional cognition with what seems to be happening in instances of intentional cognition, given neglect. He runs afoul Cartesian gravity. “We tend to underestimate the strength of the forces that distort our imaginations,” he writes, “especially when confronted by irreconcilable insights that are ‘undeniable’” (22). Given medial neglect, the inability to cognize our contemporaneous cognizing, we are bound to intuit the order as ‘there’ (as ‘lateral’) even when we, like Dennett, should know better. Environmentalization is, as Hume observed, the persistent reflex, the sufficiency effect explaining our default tendency to report medial artifacts, features belonging to the signal, as genuine environmental phenomena, or features belonging to the source.

As a heuristic device, an assumption circumventing the brute fact of medial neglect, the environmentalization heuristic possesses an adaptive problem ecology—or as Dennett would put it, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ applications. The environmentalization heuristic, in other words, possesses adaptive application conditions. What Dennett would want to argue, I’m sure, is that ‘representations’ are no more or less heuristic than ‘centres of gravity,’ and that we are no more justified in impugning the reality of the one than the reality of the other. “I don’t see why my critics think their understanding about what really exists is superior to mine,” he complains at one point in From Bacteria to Bach and Back, “so I demure” (224). And he’s entirely right on this score: no one has a clue as to what attributing reality amounts to. As he writes regarding the reality of beliefs in “Real Patterns”:

I have claimed that beliefs are best considered to be abstract objects rather like centers of gravity. Smith considers centers of gravity to be useful fictions while Dretske considers them to be useful (and hence?) real abstractions, and each takes his view to constitute a criticism of my position. The optimistic assessment of these opposite criticisms is that they cancel each other out; my analogy must have hit the nail on the head. The pessimistic assessment is that more needs to be said to convince philosophers that a mild and intermediate sort of realism is a positively attractive position, and not just the desperate dodge of ontological responsibility it has sometimes been taken to be. I have just such a case to present, a generalization and extension of my earlier attempts, via the concept of a pattern. 29

Heuristic Neglect Theory, however, actually put us in a position to make a great deal of sense of ‘reality.’ We can see, rather plainly, I think, the disanalogy between ‘centres of gravity’ and ‘beliefs,’ the disanalogy that leaps out as soon as we consider how only the latter patterns require the intentional stance (or more accurately, intentional cognition) to become salient. Both are heuristic, certainly, but in quite different ways.

We can also see the environmentalization heuristic at work in the debate between whether ‘centres of gravity’ are real or merely instrumental, and Dennett’s claim that they lie somewhere in-between. Do ‘centres of gravity’ belong to the order which is there, or do we simply project them in useful ways? Are they discoveries, or impositions? Why do we find it so natural to assume either the one or the other, and so difficult to imagine Dennett’s in-between or ‘intermediate’ realism? Why is it so hard conceiving of something half-real, half-instrumental?

The fundamental answer lies in the combination of frame and medial neglect. Our blindness to the enabling dimension of cognition renders cognition, from the standpoint of metacognition, an all but ethereal exercise. ‘Transparency’ is but one way of thematizing the rank incapacity generally rendering environmentalization such a good trick. “Of course, centres of gravity lie out there!” We are more realists than instrumentalists. The more we focus on the machinery of cognition, however, the more dimensional the medial becomes, the more efficacious, and the more artifactual whatever we’re focusing on begins to seem. Given frame neglect, however, we fail to plug this higher-dimensional artifactuality into the superordinate systems encompassing all instances of cognition, thus transforming gears into tools, fetishizing those instances, in effect. “Of course, centres of gravity organize out there!” We become instrumentalists.

If these incompatible intuitions are all that the theoretician has to go on, then Dennett’s middle way can only seem tendentious, an attempt to have it both ways. What makes Dennett’s ‘mild or intermediate’ realism so difficult to imagine is nothing less than Cartesian gravity, which is to say, the compelling nature of the cognitive illusions driving our metacognitive intuitions either way. Squares viewed on this angle become circles viewed on that. There’s no in-between! This is why Dennett, like so many revolutionary philosophical thinkers before him, is always quick to reference the importance of imagination, of envisioning how things might be otherwise. He’s always bumping against the limits of our shackles, calling attention to the rattle in the dark. Implicitly, he understands the peril that neglect, by way of sufficiency, poses to our attempts to puzzle through these problems.

But only implicitly, and as it turns out (given tools so blunt and so complicit as the intentional stance), imperfectly. On Heuristic Neglect Theory, the practical question of what’s real versus what’s not is simply one of where and when the environmentalization heuristic applies, and the theoretical question of what’s ‘really real’ and what’s ‘merely instrumental’ is simply an invitation to trip into what is obviously (given the millennial accumulation of linguistic wreckage) metacognitive crash space. When it comes to ‘centres of gravity,’ environmentalization—or the modifier ‘real’—applies because of the way the posit economizes otherwise available, as opposed to unavailable, information. Heuristic posits centres of gravity might be, but ones entirely compatible with the scientific examination of deep information environments.

Such is famously not the case with posits like ‘belief’ or ‘representation’—or for that matter, ‘real’! The heuristic mechanisms underwriting environmentalization are entirely real, as is the fact that these heuristics do not simply economize otherwise available information, but rather compensate for structurally unavailable information. To this extent, saying something is ‘real’—acknowledging the applicability of the environmentalization heuristic—involves the order here as much as the order there, so far as it compensates for structural neglect, rather than mere ignorance or contingent unavailability. ‘Reality’ (like ‘truth’) communicates our way of selecting and so sorting environmental interactions while remaining almost entirely blind to the nature of those environmental interactions, which is to say, neglecting our profound continuity with those environments.

At least as traditionally (intentionally) conceived, reality does not belong to the real, though reality-talk is quite real, and very useful. It pays to communicate the applicability of environmentalization, if only to avoid the dizzying cognitive challenges posed by the medial, enabling dimensions of cognition. Given the human circuit, truth-talk can save lives. The apparent paradox of such declarations—such as saying, for instance, that it’s true that truth does not exist—can be seen as a direct consequence of frame and medial neglect, one that, when thought carefully through step by empirically tractable step, was pretty much inevitable. We find ourselves dumbfounding for good reason!

The unremarkable fact is that the heuristic systems we resort to when communicating and trouble-shooting cognition are just that: heuristic systems we resort to when communicating and trouble-shooting cognition. And what’s more, they possess no real theoretical power. Intentional idioms are all adapted to shallow information ecologies. They comprise the communicative fraction of compensatory heuristic systems adapted not simply to solve astronomically complicated systems on the cheap, but absent otherwise instrumental information belonging to our deep information environments. Applying those idioms to theoretical problems amounts to using shallow resources to solve the natural deeps. The history of philosophy screams underdetermination for good reason! There’s no ‘fundamental ontology’ beneath, no ‘transcendental functions’ above, and no ‘language-games’ or ‘intentional stances’ between, just the machinations of meat, which is why strokes and head injuries and drugs produce the boggling cognitive effects they do.

The point to always keep in mind is that every act of cognition amounts to a systematic meeting of at least two functionally distinct systems, the one cognized, the other cognizing. The cognitive facts of life entail that all cognition remains, in some fundamental respect, insensitive to the superordinate system explaining the whole let alone the structure and activity of cognition. This inability to cognize our position within superordinate systems (frame neglect) or to cognize our contemporaneous cognizing (medial neglect) is what renders the so-called first-person (intentional stance) homuncular, blind to its own structure and dynamics, which is to say, oblivious to the role here plays ordering ‘there.’ This is what cognitive science needs to internalize, the way our intentional and phenomenal idioms steer us blindly, absent any high-dimensional input, toward solutions that, when finally mapped, will bear scant resemblance to the metacognitive shadows parading across our cave walls. And this is what philosophy needs to internalize as well, the way their endless descriptions and explanations, all the impossible figures—squircles—comprising the great bestiary of traditional reflection upon the nature of the soul, are little more than illusory artifacts of their inability to see their inability to see. To say something is ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘factual’ or ‘represents,’ or what have you is to blindly cue blind orientations in your fellows, to lock them into real but otherwise occluded systems, practically and even experimentally efficacious circuits, not to invoke otherworldly functions or pick out obscure-but-real patterns like ‘qualia’ or ‘representations.’

The question of ‘reality’ is itself a heuristic question. As horribly counter-intuitive as all this must sound, we really have no way of cognizing the high-dimensional facts of our environmental orientation, and so no choice but to problem-solve those facts absent any inkling of them. The issue of ‘reality,’ for us, is a radically heuristic one. As with all heuristic matters, the question of application becomes paramount: where does externalization optimize, and where does it crash? It optimizes where the cues relied upon generalize, provide behavioural handles that can be reverse-engineered—‘reduced’—absent reverse-engineering us. It optimizes, in other words, wherever frame and medial neglect do not matter. It crashes, however, where the cues relied upon compensate, provide behavioural handles that can only be reverse-engineered by reverse-engineering ourselves.

And this explains the ‘gobsmacking fact’ with which we began, how we can source the universe all the way back to first second, and yet remain utterly confounded by our ability to do so. Short cognitive science, compensatory heuristics were all that we possessed when it came to question of ourselves. Only now do we find ourselves in a position to unravel the nature of the soul.

The crazy thing to understand, here, the point Dennett continually throws himself toward in From Bacteria to Bach and Back only to be drawn back out on the Cartesian tide, is that there is no first-person. There is no original or manifest or even scientific ‘image’: these all court ‘imaginative distortion’ because they, like the intentional stance, are shallow ecological artifacts posturing as deep information truths. It is not the case that, “[w]e won’t have a complete science of consciousness until we can align our manifest-image identifications of mental states by their contents with scientific-image identifications of the subpersonal information structures and events that are causally responsible for generating the details of the user-illusion we take ourselves to operate in” (367)—and how could it be, given our abject inability to even formulate ‘our manifest-image identifications,’ to agree on the merest ‘detail of our user-illusion’? There’s a reason Tom Clark emphasizes this particular passage in his defense of qualia! If it’s the case that Dennett believes a ‘complete science of consciousness’ requires the ‘alignment’ of metacognitive reports with subpersonal mechanisms then he is as much a closet mysterian as any other intentionalist. There’s simply too many ways to get lost in the metacognitive labyrinth, as the history of intentional philosophy amply shows.

Dennett needs only continue following the heuristic tracks he’s started down in From Bacteria to Bach and Back—and perhaps recall his own exhortation to imagine—to see as much. Imagine how it was as a child, living blissfully unaware of philosophers and scientists and their countless confounding theoretical distinctions and determinations. Imagine the naïveté, not of dwelling within this or that ‘image,’ but within an ancestral shallow information ecology, culturally conditioned to be sure, but absent the metacognitive capacity required to run afoul sufficiency effects. Imagine thinking without ‘having thoughts,’ knowing without ‘possessing knowledge,’ choosing without ‘exercising freedom.’ Imagine this orientation and how much blinkered metacognitive speculation and rationalization is required to transform it into something resembling our apparent ‘first-person perspective’—the one that commands scarcely any consensus beyond exceptionalist conceit.

Imagine how much blinkered metacognitive speculation and rationalization is required to transform it into the intentional stance.

So, what, then, is the intentional stance? An illusory artifact of intentional cognition, understood in the high-dimensional sense of actual biological mechanisms (both naturally and neurally selected), not the low-dimensional, contentious sense of an ‘attitude’ or ‘perspective.’ The intentional stance represents an attempt to use intentional cognition to fundamentally explain intentional cognition, and in this way, it is entirely consonant with the history of philosophy as a whole. It differs—perhaps radically so—in the manner it circumvents the metacognitive tendency to report intentional phenomena as intrinsic (self-sufficient), but it nevertheless remains a way to theorize cognition and experience via, as Dennett himself admits, resources adapted to their practical troubleshooting.

The ‘Cartesian wound’ is no more than theatrical paint, stage make-up, and so something to be wiped away, not healed. There is no explanatory gap because there is no first-person—there never has been, apart from the misapplication of radically heuristic, practical problem-solving systems to the theoretical question of the soul. Stripped of the first-person, consciousness becomes a natural phenomenon like any other, baffling only for its proximity, for overwriting the very page it attempts to read. Heuristic Neglect Theory, in other words, provides a way for us to grasp what we are, what we always have been: a high-dimensional physical system possessing selective sensitivities and capacities embedded in other high-dimensional physical systems. This is what you’re experiencing now, only so far as your sensitivities and capacities allow. This, in other words, is this… You are fundamentally inscrutable unto yourself outside practical problem-solving contexts. Everything else, everything apparently ‘intentional’ or ‘phenomenal’ is simply ‘seems upon reflection.’ There is no manifest image,’ only a gallery of competing cognitive illusions, reflexes to report leading to the crash space we call intentional philosophy. The only ‘alignment’ required is that between our shallow information ecology and our deep information environments: the ways we do much with little, both with reference to each other and with ourselves. This is what you reference when describing a concert to your buddies. This is what you draw on when you confess your secrets, your feelings, your fears and aspirations. Not a ‘mind,’ not a ‘self-model,’ nor even a ‘user illusion,’ but the shallow cognitive ecology underwriting your brain’s capacity to solve and report itself and others.

There’s a positively vast research project buried in this outlook, and as much would become plain, I think, if enough souls could bring themselves see past the fact that it took an institutional outsider to discover. The resolutely post-intentional empirical investigation of the human has scarcely begun.

Reading From Bacteria to Bach and Back II: The Human Squircle

by rsbakker

The entry placing second (!!) in the 2016 Illusion of the Year competition, the Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion, blew up on Reddit for good reason. What you’re seeing below is an instance where visual guesswork arising from natural environmental frequencies have been cued ‘out of school.’ In this illusion, convex and concave curves trick the visual system into interpreting a ‘squircle’ as either a square or a circle—thus the dazzling images. Ambiguous cylinders provide dramatic illustration of a point Dennett makes many times in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: “One of the hallmarks of design by natural selection,” he writes, “is that it is full of bugs, in the computer programmer’s sense: design flaws that show up only under highly improbable conditions, conditions never encountered in the finite course of R&D that led to the design to date, and hence not yet patched or worked around by generations of tinkering” (83). The ‘bug’ exploited in this instance could be as much a matter of neural as natural selection, of course—perhaps, as with the Muller-Lyer illusion, individuals raised in certain environments are immune to this effect. But the upshot remains the same. By discovering ways to cue heuristic visual subsystems outside their adaptive problem ecologies, optical illusionists have developed a bona fide science bent on exploring what might be called ‘visual crash space.’

One of the ideas behind Three Pound Brain is to see traditional intentional philosophy as the unwitting exploration of metacognitive crash space. Philosophical reflection amounts to the application of metacognitive capacities adapted to trouble-shooting practical cognitive and communicative issues to theoretical problems. What Dennett calls ‘Cartesian gravity,’ in other words, has been my obsession for quite some time, and I think I have a fair amount of wisdom to share, especially when it comes to philosophical squircles, things that seem undeniable, yet nevertheless contradict our natural scientific understanding. Free will is perhaps the most famous of these squircles, but there’s really no end to them. The most pernicious squircle of all, I’m convinced, is the notion of intentionality, be it ‘derived’ or ‘original.’

On Heuristic Neglect Theory, Cartesian gravity boils down to metacognitive reflexes, the application of heuristic systems to questions they have no hope of answering absent any inkling of as much. The root of the difficulty lies in neglect, the way insensitivity to the limits of felicitous application results in various kinds of systematic errors (what might be seen as generalized versions of the WYSIATI effects discovered by Daniel Kahneman).

The centrality of neglect (understood as an insensitivity that escapes our sensitivity) underwrites my reference to the ‘Grand Inversion’ in the previous installment. As an ecological artifact, human cognition trivially possesses what might be called a neglect structure: we are blind to the vast bulk of the electromagnetic spectrum, for instance, because sensing things like gamma radiation, infrared, or radio waves paid no ancestral dividends. If fact, one can look at the sum of scientific instrumentation as mapping out human ‘insensitivity space,’ providing ingress into all those places our ancestral sensitivities simply could not take us. Neglect, in other words, allows us to quite literally invert our reflexive ways of comprehending comprehension, not only in a wholesale manner, but in a way entirely compatible with what Dennett calls, following Sellars, the scientific image.

Simply flipping our orientation in this way allows us to radically recharacterize Dennett’s project in From Bacteria to Bach and Back as a matter of implicitly mapping our human neglect structure by filling in all the naturalistic blanks. I say implicit because his approach remains primarily focused on what is neglected, rather than neglect considered in its own right. Despite this, Dennett is quite cognizant of the fact that he’s discussing a single phenomenon, albeit one he characterizes (thanks to Cartesian gravity!) in positive terms:

Darwin’s “strange inversion of reasoning” and Turing’s equally revolutionary inversion form aspects of a single discovery: competence without comprehension. Comprehension, far from being a god-like talent from which all design must flow, is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence… (75)

The problem with this approach is one that Dennett knows well: no matter how high you build your tower of natural processes, all you’ve managed to do, in an important sense, is recapitulate the mystery you’ve set out to solve. No matter how long you build your ramp, talk of indefinite thresholds and ‘emergent effects’ very quickly reveals you’re jumping the same old explanatory shark. In a sense, everyone in the know knows at least the moral of the story Dennett tells: competences stack into comprehension on any Darwinian account. The million-dollar question is how ‘all that’ manages to culminate in this

Personally speaking, I’ve never had an experience quite like the one I had reading this book. Elation, realizing that one of the most celebrated minds in philosophy had (finally!) picked up on the same trail. Urgency, knowing I had to write a commentary, like, now. And then, at a certain point, wonder at the sense of knowing, quite precisely, what it was tantalizing his intuitions: the profound connection between his Darwinian commitments and his metaphilosophical hunches regarding Cartesian gravitation.

Heuristic Neglect Theory not only allows us to economize Dennett’s bottom-up saga of stacking competences, it also provides a way to theorize his top-down diagnosis of comprehension. It provides, in other words, the common explanatory framework required to understand this… in terms of ‘all that.’ No jumps. No sharks. Just one continuous natural story folding comprehension into competence (or better, behaviour).

What applies to human cognition applies to human metacognition—understood as the deliberative derivation of endogenous or exogenous behaviour via secondary (functionally distinct) access to one’s own endogenous or exogenous behaviour. As an ecological artifact, human metacognition is fractionate and heuristic, and radically so, given the complexity of the systems it solves. As such, it possesses its own neglect structure. Understanding this allows us to ‘reverse-engineer’ far more than Dennett suspects, insofar as it lets us hypothesize the kinds of blind spots we should expect to plague our attempts to theorize ourselves given the deliverances of philosophical reflection. It provides the theoretical basis, I think, for understanding philosophy as the cognitive psychological phenomenon that it is.

It’s a truism to say that the ability to cognize any system crucially depends on a cognitive system’s position relative to that system. But things get very interesting once we begin picking at the how and why. The rationality of geocentrism, for instance, is generally attributed to the fact that from our terrestrial perspective, the sky does all the moving. We remain, as far as we can tell, motionless. Why is motionlessness the default? Why not assume ignorance? Why not assume that the absence of information warranted ‘orbital agnosticism’? Basically, because we lacked the information to determine our lack of information.

Figure 1: It is a truism to state that where we find ourselves within a system determines our ability to cognize that system. ‘Frame neglect’ refers to our cognitive insensitivity, not only to our position within unknown systems, but to this insensitivity.

Figure 2: Thus, the problem posed by sufficiency, the automatic presumption that what we see is all there is. The ancients saw the stars comprising Orion as equidistant simply because they lacked the information and theory required to understand their actual position—because they had no way of knowing otherwise.

Figure 3: It is also a truism to state that the constitution of our cognitive capacities determines our ability to cognize systems. ‘Medial neglect’ refers to our cognitive insensitivity, not only to the constitution of our cognitive capacities, but to this insensitivity. We see, but absent any sensitivity to the machinery enabling sight.

Figure 4: Thus, once again, the problem posed by sufficiency. Our brain interprets ambiguous cylinders as magical squircles because it possesses no sensitivity to the kinds of heuristic mechanisms involved in processing visual information.

Generally speaking, we find these ‘no information otherwise’ justifications so intuitive that we just move on. We never ask how or why the absence of sensible movement cues reports of motionlessness. Plato need only tell us that his prisoners have been chained before shadows their whole lives and we get it, we understand that for them, shadows are everything. By merely conjuring an image, Plato secures our acknowledgment that we suffer a congenital form of frame neglect, a cognitive insensitivity to the limits of cognition that can strand us with fantastic (and so destructive) worldviews—and without our permission, no less. Despite the risk entailed, we neglect this form of neglect. Though industry and science are becoming ever more sensitive to the problems posed by the ‘unknown unknown,’ it remains the case that each of us at once understands the peril and presumes we’re the exception, the system apart from the systems about us. The motionless one.

Frame neglect, our insensitivity to the superordinate systems encompassing us, blinds us to our position within those systems. As a result, we have no choice but to take those positions for granted. This renders our cognitive orientations implicit, immune to deliberative revision and so persistent (as well as vulnerable to manipulation). Frame neglect, in other words, explains why bent orientations stay bent, why we suffer the cognitive inertia we do. More importantly, it highlights what might be called default sufficiency, the congenital presumption of implicit cognitive adequacy. We were in no position to cognize our position relative the heavens, and yet we nevertheless assumed that we were simply because we were in no position to cognize the inadequacy of our position.

Why is sufficiency the presumptive default? The stacking of ‘competences’ so brilliantly described by Dennett requires that every process ‘do its part’: sufficiency, you could say, is the default presumption of any biological system, so far as its component systems turn upon the iterative behaviour of other component systems. Dennett broaches the notion, albeit implicitly, via the example of asking someone to report on a nearby house via cell phone:

Seeing is believing, or something like that. We tacitly take the unknown pathways between his open eyes and speaking lips to be secure, just like the requisite activity in the pathways in the cell towers between his phone and ours. We’re not curious on the occasion about how telephones work; we take them for granted. We also don’t scratch our heads in bafflement over how he can just open his eyes and then answer questions with high reliability about what is positioned in front of him in the light, because we can all do it (those of us who are not blind). 348-349

Sufficiency is the default. We inherit our position, our basic cognitive orientation, because it sufficed to solve the kinds of high-frequency and/or high impact problems faced by our ancestors. This explains why unprecedented circumstances generate the kinds of problems they do: it’s always an open question whether our basic cognitive orientation will suffice when confronted with a novel problem.

When it comes to vision, for instance, we possess a wide range of ways to estimate sufficiency and so can adapt our behaviour to a variety of lighting conditions, waving our hand in fog, peering against glares, and so on. Darkness in particular demonstrates how the lack of information requires information, lest it ‘fall off the radar’ in the profound sense entailed by neglect. So even though we possess myriad ways to vet visual information, squircles possess no precedent and so no warning, the sufficiency of the information available is taken for granted, and we suffer the ambiguous cylinder illusion. Our cognitive ecology plays a functional role in the efficacy of our heuristic applications—all of them.

From this a great deal follows. Retasking some system of competences always runs the risk of systematic deception on the one hand, where unprecedented circumstances strand us with false solutions (as with the millennia-long ontological dualism of the terrestrial and the celestial), and dumbfounding on the other, where unprecedented circumstances crash some apparently sufficient application in subsequently detectable ways, such as ambiguous for human visual systems, or the problem of determinism for undergraduate students.

To the extent that ‘philosophical reflection’ turns on the novel application of preexisting metacognitive resources, it almost certainly runs afoul instances of systematic deception and dumbfounding. Retasked metacognitive channels and resources, we can be assured, would report as sufficient, simply because our capacity to intuit insufficiency would be the product of ancestral, which is to say, practical, applications. How could information and capacity geared to catching our tongue in social situations, assessing what we think we saw, rehearsing how to explain some disaster, and so on hope to leverage theoretical insights into the fundamental nature of cognition and experience? It can’t, no more than auditory cognition, say, could hope to solve the origin of the universe. But even more problematically, it has no hope of intuiting this fundamental inability. Once removed from the vacuum of ecological ignorance, the unreliability of ‘philosophical reflection,’ its capacity to both dumbfound and to systematically deceive, becomes exactly what we should expect.

This follows, I think, on any plausible empirical account of human metacognition. I’ve been asking interlocutors to provide me a more plausible account for years now, but they always manage to lose sight of the question somehow.

On the availability side, we should expect the confusion of task-insufficient information with task-sufficient information. On the capacity side, we should expect the confusion of task-insufficient applications with task-sufficient applications. And this is basically what Dennett’s ‘Cartesian gravity’ amounts to, the reflexive deliberative metacognitive tendency to confuse scraps with banquets and hammers with swiss-army knives.

But the subtleties secondary to these reflexes can be difficult to grasp, at least at first. Sufficiency means that decreases in dimensionality, the absence of kinds and quantities of information, simply cannot be cognized as such. Just over two years ago I suffered a retinal tear, which although successfully repaired, left me with a fair amount of debris in my right eye (‘floaters,’ as they call them, which can be quite distracting if you spend as much time staring at white screens as I do). Last autumn I noticed I had developed a ‘crimp’ in my right eye’s field of vision: apparently some debris had become attached to my fovea, a mass that accumulated as I was passed from doctor to doctor and thence to the surgeon. I found myself with my own, entirely private visual illusion: the occluded retinal cells were snipped out of my visual field altogether, mangling everything I tried to focus on with my right eye. The centre of every word I looked at would be pinched into oblivion, leaving only the beginning and ending characters mashed together. Faces became positively demonic—to the point where I began developing a Popeye squint for equanimity’s sake. The world had become a grand bi-stable image: things were fine when my left eye predominated, but then for whatever reason, click, my friends and family would be eyeless heads of hair. Human squircles.

My visual centres simply neglected the missing information, and muddled along assuming the sufficiency of the information that was available. I understood the insufficiency of what I was seeing. I knew the prisoners were there, chained in their particular neural cave with their own particular shadows, but I had no way of passing that information upstream—the best I could do was manage the downstream consequences.

But what happens when we have no way of intuiting information loss? What happens when our capacity to deliberate and report finds itself chained ‘with no information otherwise’? Well, given sufficiency, it stands to reason that what metacognition cannot distinguish we will report as same, that what it cannot vet we will report as accurate, that what it cannot swap we will report inescapable, and that what it cannot source we will report as sourceless, and so on. The dimensions of information occluded, in other words, depend entirely on what we happen to be reporting. If we ponder the proximate sources of our experiences, they will strike us as sourceless. If we ponder the composition of our experiences, they will strike us simple. Why? Because human metacognition not only failed to evolve the extraordinary ability to theoretically source or analyze human experience, it failed to evolve the ability to intuit this deficit. And so, we find ourselves stranded with squircles, our own personal paradox (illusion) of ourselves, of what it is fundamentally like to be ‘me.’

Dialectically, it’s important to note how this consequence of the Grand Inversion overturns the traditional explanatory burden when it comes to conscious experience. Since it takes more metacognitive access and capacity, not less, to discern things like disunity and provenance, the question Heuristic Neglect Theory asks of the phenomenologist is, “Yes, but how could you report otherwise?” Why think the intuition of apperceptive unity (just for instance) is anything more than a metacognitive cousin of the flicker-fusion you’re experiencing staring at the screen this very instant?

Given the wildly heuristic nature of our metacognitive capacities, we should expect to possess the capacity to discriminate only what our ancestors needed to discriminate, and precious little else. So, then, how could we intuit anything but apperceptive unity? Left with a choice between affirming a low-dimensional exception to nature on the basis of an empirically implausible metacognitive capacity, and a low-dimensional artifact of the very kind we might expect given an empirically plausible metacognitive account, there really is no contest.

And the list goes on and on. Why think intuitions of ‘self-identity’ possess anything more than the information required to resolve practical, ancestral issues involving identification?

One can think of countless philosophical accounts of the ‘first-person’ as the product of metacognitive ‘neglect origami,’ the way sufficiency precludes intuiting the radical insufficiency of the typically scant dimensions of information available. If geocentrism is the default simply for the way our peripheral position in the solar system precludes intuiting our position as peripheral, then ‘noocentrism’ is the default for the way our peripheral position vis a vis ourselves precludes intuiting our position as peripheral. The same way astrophysical ignorance renders the terrestrial the apparently immovable anchor of celestial motion, metacognitive neglect renders the first-person the apparently transcendent anchor of third-person nature. In this sense, I think, ‘gravity’ is a well-chosen metaphor to express the impact of metacognitive neglect upon the philosophical imagination: metacognitive neglect, like gravity, isn’t so much a discrete force as a structural feature, something internal to the architecture of philosophical reflection. Given it, humanity was all but doomed to wallow in self-congratulatory cartoons once literacy enabled regimented inquiry into its own nature. If we’re not the centres of the universe, then surely we’re the centre of our knowledge, our projects, our communities—ourselves.

Figure 5: The retasking of deliberative metacognition is not unlike discovering something practical—such as ‘self’ (or in this case, Brian’s sandal)—in apparently exceptional, because informationally impoverished, circumstances.

Figure 6: We attempt to interpret this practical deliverance in light of these exceptional circumstances.

Figure 7: Given neglect, we presume the practical deliverance theoretically sufficient, and so ascribe it singular significance.

Figure 8: We transform ‘self’ into a fetish, something both self-sustaining and exceptional. A squircle.

Of all the metacognitive misapplications confounding traditional interpretations of cognition and experience, Dennett homes in on the one responsible for perhaps the most theoretical mischief in the form of Hume’s ‘strange inversion of reasoning’ (354-358), where the problem, as we saw in the previous post, lies in mistaking the ‘intentional object’ of the red stripe illusion for the cause of the illusion. Hume, recall, notes our curious propensity to confuse mental determinations for environmental determinations, to impute something belonging to this… to ‘all that.’ Dennett notes that the problem lies in the application: normally, this ‘confusion’ works remarkably well; it’s only in abnormal circumstances, like those belonging to the red stripe illusion, where this otherwise efficacious cognitive reflex leads us astray.

The first thing to note about this cognitive reflex is the obvious way it allows us to neglect the actual machinery of our environmental relations. Hume’s inversion, in other words, calls attention to the radically heuristic nature of so-called intentional thinking. Given the general sufficiency of all the processes mediating our environmental relationships, we need not cognize them to cognize those relationships, we can take them for granted, which is a good thing, because their complexity (the complexity cognitive science is just now surmounting) necessitates they remain opaque. ‘Opaque,’ in this instance, means heuristically neglected, the fact that all the mad dimensionalities belonging to our actual cognitive relationships appear nowhere in cognition, not even as something missing. What does appear? Well, as Dennett himself would say, only what’s needed to resolve practical ancestral problems.

Reporting environments economically entails taking as much for granted as possible. So long as the machinery you and I use to supervise and revise our environmental orientations is similar enough, we can ignore each other’s actual relationships in communication, focusing instead on discrepancies and how to optimize them. This is why we narrate only those things most prone to vary—environmentally and neurally sourced information prone to facilitate reproduction—and remain utterly oblivious to the all the things that go without saying, the deep information environment plumbed by cognitive science. The commonality of our communicative and cognitive apparatuses, not to mention their astronomical complexity, assures that we will suffer what might be called, medial neglect, congenital blindness to the high-dimensional systems enabling communication and cognition. “All the subpersonal, neural-level activity is where the actual causal interactions happen that provide your cognitive powers, but all “you” have access to is the results” (348).

From Bacteria to Bach and Back is filled with implicit references to medial neglect. “Our access to our own thinking, and especially to the causation and dynamics of its subpersonal parts, is really no better than our access to our digestive processes,” Dennett writes; “we have to rely on the rather narrow and heavily edited channel that responds to our incessant curiosity with user-friendly deliverances, only one step closer to the real me than the access to the real me that is enjoyed by my family and friends” (346).

Given sufficiency, “[t]he relative accessibility and familiarity of the outer part of the process of telling people what we can see—we know our eyes have to be open, and focused, and we have to attend, and there has to be light—conceals from us the other blank from the perspective of introspection or simple self-examination of the rest of the process” (349). The ‘outer part of the process,’ in other words, is all that we need.

Medial neglect may be both necessary and economical, but it remains an incredibly risky bet to make given the perversity of circumstance and the radical interdependency characterizing human communities. The most frequent and important discrepancies will be environmental discrepancies, those which, given otherwise convergent orientations (the same physiology, location, and training), can be communicated absent medial information, difference making differences geared to the enabling axis of communication and cognition. Such discrepancies can be resolved while remaining almost entirely ‘performance blind.’ All I need do is ‘trust’ your communication and cognition, build upon it the same blind way I build upon my own. You cry, ‘Wolf!’ and I run for the shotgun: our orientations converge.

But as my example implies, things are not always so simple. Say you and I report seeing two different birds, a vulture versus an albatross, in circumstances where such a determination potentially matters—looking for a lost hunting party, say. An endless number of medial confounds could possibly explain our sudden disagreement. Perhaps I have bad eyesight, or I think albatrosses are black, or I’m blinded by the glare of the sun, or I’m suffering schizophrenia, or I’m drunk, or I’m just sick and tired of you being right all the time, or I’m teasing you out of boredom, or more insidiously, I’m responsible for the loss of the hunting party, and want to prevent you from finding the scene of my crime.

There’s no question that, despite medial neglect, certain forms of access and capacity regarding the enabling dimension of cognition and communication could provide much in the way of problem resolution. Given the stupendous complexity of the systems involved, however, it follows that any capacity to accommodate medial factors will be heuristic in the extreme. This means that our cognitive capacity to flag/troubleshoot issues of sufficiency will be retail, fractionate, geared to different kinds of high-impact, high-frequency problems. And the simplest solution, the highest priority reflex, will be to ignore the medial altogether. If our search party includes a third soul who also reports seeing a vulture, for instance, I’ll just be ‘wrong’ for ‘reasons’ that may or not be determined afterward.

The fact of medial neglect, in other words, underwrites what might be called an environmentalization heuristic, the reflexive tendency to ‘blame’ the environment first.

When you attempt to tell us about what is happening in your experience, you ineluctably slide into a metaphorical idiom simply because you have no deeper, truer, more accurate knowledge of what was going on inside you. You cushion your ignorance with a false—but deeply tempting—model: you simply reproduce, with some hand waving and apologies, your everyday model of how you know about what is going on outside you. 348

Because that’s typically all that you need. Dennett’s hierarchical mountain of competences is welded together by default sufficiency, the blind mechanical reliance of one system upon other systems. Communicative competences not only exploit this mechanical reliance, they extend it, opening entirely novel ecosystems leveraging convergent orientation, brute environmental parallels and physiological isomorphisms, to resolve discrepancies. So long as those discrepancies are resolved, medial factors potentially impinging on sufficiency can be entirely ignored, and so will be ignored. Communications will be ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ ‘true’ or ‘false.’ We remain as blind to the sources of our cognitive capacities as circumstances allow us to be. And we remain blind to this blindness as well.

When I say from the peak of my particular competence mountain, “Albatross…” and you turn to me in perplexity, and say from the peak of your competence mountain, “What the hell are you talking about?” your instance of ‘about-talk’ is geared to the resolution of a discrepancy between our otherwise implicitly convergent systems. This is what it’s doing. The idea that it reveals an exceptional kind of relationship, ‘aboutness,’ spanning the void between ‘albatross’ here and albatrosses out there is a metacognitive artifact, a kind of squircle. For one, the apparent void is jam-packed with enabling competences—vast networks of welded together by sufficiency. Medial neglect merely dupes metacognition into presuming otherwise, into thinking the apparently miraculous covariance (the product of vast histories of natural and neural selection) between ‘sign’ (here) and ‘signified’ (out there) is indeed some kind of miracle.

Philosophers dwell among general descriptions and explanations: this is why they have difficulty appreciating that naïveté generally consists in having no ‘image,’ no ‘view,’ regarding this or that domain. They habitually overlook the oxymoronic implication of attaching any ‘ism’ to the term ‘naïve.’ Instances of ‘about-talk’ do not implicitly presume ‘intentionality’ even in some naïve, mistaken sense. We are not born ‘naïve intentionalists’ (any more than we’re ‘naïve realists’). We just use meaning talk to solve what kinds of problems we can where we can. Granted, our shared metacognitive shortcomings lead us, given different canons of interrogation, into asserting this or that interpretation of ‘intentionality,’ popular or scholastic. We’re all prone to see squircles when prompted to peer into our souls.

So, when someone asks, “Where does causality lie?” we just point to where we can see it, out there on the billiard table. After all, where the hell else would it be (given medial neglect)? This is why dogmatism comes first in the order of philosophical complication, why Kant comes after Descartes. It takes time and no little ingenuity to frame plausible alternatives of this ‘elsewhere.’ And this is the significance of Hume’s inversion to Cartesian gravity: the reflexive sufficiency of whatever happens to be available, a sufficiency that may or may not obtain given the kinds of problem posed. The issue has nothing to do with confusing normal versus abnormal attributions of causal efficacy to intentional objects, because, for one, there’s just no such thing as ‘intentional objects,’ and for another, ‘intentional object-talk’ generates far more problems than it solves.

Of course, it doesn’t seem that way to Dennett whilst attempting to solve for Cartesian gravity, but only because, short theoretical thematizations of neglect and sufficiency, he lacks any real purchase on the problem of explaining the tendency to insist (as Tom Clark does) on the reality of the illusion. As a result, he finds himself in the strange position of embracing the sufficiency of intentionality in certain circumstances to counter the reflexive tendency to assume the sufficiency of phenomenality in other circumstances—of using one squircle, in effect, to overcome another. And this is what renders him eminently vulnerable to readings like Clark’s, which turns on Dennett’s avowal of intentional squircles to leverage, on pain of inconsistency, his commitment to phenomenal squircles. This problem vanishes once we recognize ourselves for the ambiguous cylinders we have always been. Showing as much, however, will require one final installment.

Reading From Bacteria to Bach and Back I: On Cartesian Gravity

by rsbakker

ABDUCTION AND DIAGNOSIS

Problem resolution generally possesses a diagnostic component; sometimes we can find workarounds, but often we need to know what the problem consists in before we can have any real hope of advancing beyond it. This is what Daniel Dennett proposes to do in his recent From Bacteria to Bach and Back, to not only sketch a story of how human comprehension arose from the mindless mire of biological competences, but to provide a diagnostic account of why we find such developmental stories so difficult to credit. He hews to the slogan I’ve oft repeated here on Three Pound Brain: We are natural in such a way that we find it impossible to intuit ourselves as natural. It’s his account of this ‘in such a way,’ that I want to consider here. As I’ve said many times before, I think Dennett has come as close as any philosopher in history to unravelling the conjoined problems of cognition and consciousness—and I am obliged to his acumen and creativity in more ways than I could possibly enumerate—but I’m convinced he remains entangled, both theoretically and dialectically, by several vestigial commitments to intentionalism. He remains a prisoner of ‘Cartesian gravity.’ Nowhere is this clearer than in his latest book, where he sets out to show how blind competences, by hook, crook, and sheer, mountainous aggregation, can actually explain comprehension, which is to say, understanding as it appears to the intentional stance.

Dennett offers two rationales for braving the question of comprehension, the first turning on the breathtaking advances made in the sciences of life and cognition, the second anchored in his “better sense of the undercurrents of resistance that shackle our imaginations” (16). He writes:

I’ve gradually come to be able to see that there are powerful forces at work, distorting imagination—my own imagination included—pulling us first one way and then another. If you learn to see these forces too, you will find that suddenly things begin falling into place in a new way. 16-17

The original force, the one begetting subsequent distortions, he calls Cartesian gravity. He likens the scientific attempt to explain cognition and consciousness to a planetary invasion, with the traditional defenders standing on the ground with their native, first-person orientation, and the empirical invaders finding their third-person orientation continually inverted the closer they draw to the surface. Cartesian gravity, most basically, refers to the tendency to fall into first-person modes of thinking cognition and consciousness. This is a problem because of the various, deep incompatibilities between the first-person and third-person views. Like a bi-stable image (Dennett provides the famous Duck-Rabbit as an example), one can only see the one at the expense of seeing the other.

Cartesian gravity, in other words, refers to the intuitions underwriting the first-person side of the famed Explanatory Gap, but Dennett warns against viewing it in these terms because of the tendency in the literature to view the divide as an ontological entity (a ‘chasm’) instead of an epistemological artifact (a ‘glitch’). He writes:

[Philosophers] may have discovered the “gap,” but they don’t see it for what it actually is because they haven’t asked “how it got that way.” By reconceiving of the gap as a dynamic imagination-distorter that has arisen for good reasons, we can learn to traverse it safely or—what may amount to the same thing—make it vanish. 20-21

It’s important, I think, to dwell on the significance of what he’s saying here. First of all, taking the gap as a given, as a fundamental feature of some kind, amounts to an explanatory dereliction. As I like to put it, the fact that we, as a species, can explain the origins of nature down to the first second and yet remain utterly mystified by the nature of this explanation is itself a gobsmacking fact requiring explanation. Any explanation of human cognition that fails to explain why humans find themselves so difficult to explain is woefully incomplete. Dennett recognizes this, though I sometimes think he fails to recognize the dialectical potential of this recognition. There’s few better ways to isolate the sound of stomping feet from the speculative cacophony, I’ve found, than by relentlessly posing this question.

Secondly, the argumentative advantage of stressing our cognitive straits turns directly on its theoretical importance: to naturalistically diagnose the gap is to understand the problem it poses. To understand the problem it poses is to potentially resolve that problem, to find some way to overcome the explanatory gap. And overcoming the gap, of course, amounts to explaining the first-person in third-person terms—to seize upon what has become the Holy Grail of philosophical and scientific speculation.

The point being that the whole cognition/consciousness debate stands balanced upon some diagnosis of why we find ourselves so difficult to fathom. As the centerpiece of his diagnosis, Cartesian gravity is absolutely integral to Dennett’s own position, and yet surveying the reviews From Bacteria to Bach and Back has received (as of 9/12/2017, at least), you find the notion is mentioned either in passing (as in Thomas Nagel’s piece in The New York Review of Books), dismissively (as in Peter Hankin’s review in Conscious Entities), or not at all.

Of course, it would probably help if anyone had any clue as to what ‘first-person’ or ‘third-person’ actually meant. A gap between gaps often feels like no gap at all.

ACCUMULATING MASS

“The idea of Cartesian gravity, as so far presented, is just a metaphor,” Dennett admits, “but the phenomenon I am calling by this metaphorical name is perfectly real, a disruptive force that bedevils (and sometimes aids) our imaginations, and unlike the gravity of physics, it is itself an evolved phenomenon. In order to understand it, we need to ask how and why it arose on the planet earth” (21). Part of the reason so many reviewers seem to have overlooked its significance, I think, turns on the sheer length of the story he proceeds to tell. Compositionally speaking, it’s rarely a good idea to go three hundred pages—wonderfully inventive, controversial pages, no less—without substantially revisiting your global explanandum. By time Dennett tells us “[w]e are ready to confront Cartesian gravity head on” (335) it feels like little more than a rhetorical device—and understandably so.

The irony, of course, is that Dennett thinks that nothing less than Cartesian gravity has forced the circuitous nature of his route upon him. If he fails to regularly reference his metaphor, he continually adverts to its signature consequence: cognitive inversion, the way the sciences have taken our traditional, intuitive, ab initio, top-down presumptions regarding life and intelligence and turned them on their head. Where Darwin showed how blind, bottom-up processes can generate what appear to be amazing instances of design, Turing showed how blind, bottom-up processes can generate what appear to be astounding examples of intelligence, “natural selection on the one hand, and mindless computation on the other” (75). Despite some polemical and explanatory meandering (most all of it rewarding), he never fails to keep his dialectical target, Cartesian exceptionalism, firmly (if implicitly) in view.

A great number of the biological examples Dennett adduces in From Bacteria to Bach and Back will be familiar to those following Three Pound Brain. This is no coincidence, given that Dennett is both an info-junkie like myself, as well as constantly on the lookout for examples of the same kinds of cognitive phenomena: in particular, those making plain the universally fractionate, heuristic nature of cognition, and those enabling organisms to neglect, and therefore build-upon, pre-existing problem-solving systems. As he writes:

Here’s what we have figured out about the predicament of the organism: It is floating in an ocean of differences, a scant few of which might make a difference to it. Having been born to a long lineage of successful copers, it comes pre-equipped with gear and biases for filtering out and refining the most valuable differences, separating the semantic information from the noise. In other words, it is prepared to cope in some regards; it has built-in expectations that have served its ancestors well but may need revision at any time. To say that it has these expectations is to say that it comes equipped with partially predesigned appropriate responses all ready to fire. It doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out from first principles what to do about an A or a B or a C. These are familiar, already solved problems of relating input to output, perception to action. These responses to incoming simulation of its sensory systems may be external behaviors: a nipple affords sucking, limbs afford moving, a painful collision affords retreating. Or they may be entirely covert, internal responses, shaping up the neural armies into more effective teams for future tasks. 166

Natural environments consist of regularities, component physical processes systematically interrelated in ways that facilitate, transform, and extinguish other component physical processes. Although Dennett opts for the (I think) unfortunate terminology of ‘affordances’ and ‘Umwelts,’ what he’s really talking about are ecologies, the circuits of selective sensitivity and corresponding environmental frequency allowing for niches to be carved, eddies of life to congeal in the thermodynamic tide. With generational turnover, risk sculpts ever more morphological and behavioural complexity, and the life once encrusting rocks begins rolling them, then shaping and wielding them.

Now for Dennett, the crucial point is to see the facts of human comprehension in continuity with the histories that make it possible, all the while understanding why the appearance of human comprehension systematically neglects these self-same conditions. Since his accounts of language and cultural evolution (via memes) warrant entire posts in their own right, I’ll elide them here, pointing out that each follow this same incremental, explanatory pattern of natural processes enabling the development of further natural processes, tangled hierarchies piling toward something recognizable as human cognition. For Dennett, the coincidental appearance of La Sagrada Familia (arguably a paradigmatic example of top-down thinking given Gaudi’s reputed micro-managerial mania) and Australian termite castles expresses a profound continuity as well, one which, when grasped, allows for the demystification of comprehension, and inoculation against the pernicious effects of Cartesian gravity. The leap between the two processes, what seems to render the former miraculous in a way the latter does not, lies in the sheer plasticity of the processes responsible, the way the neurolinguistic mediation of effect feedback triggers the adaptive explosion we call ‘culture.’ Dennett writes:

Our ability to do this kind of thinking [abstract reasoning/planning] is not accomplished by any dedicated brain structure not found in other animals. There is no “explainer nucleus” for instance. Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines. The goal of delineating and explaining this stack of competences via bottom-up neuroscience alone (without the help of cognitive neuroscience) is as remote as the goal of delineating and explaining the collection of apps on your smart phone by a bottom-up deciphering of its hardware circuit design and the bit-strings in memory without taking a peek at the user interface. The user interface of an app exists in order to make the competence accessible to users—people—who can’t know, and don’t need to know, the intricate details of how it works. The user-illusions of all the apps stored in our brains exist for the same reason: they make our competences (somewhat) accessible to users—other people—who can’t know, and don’t need to know, the intricate details. And then we get to use them ourselves, under roughly the same conditions, as guests in our own brain. 341

This is the Dennettian portrait of the first-person, or consciousness as it’s traditionally conceived: a radically heuristic point of contact and calibration between endogenous and exogenous systems, one resting on occluded stacks of individual, collective, and evolutionary competence. The overlap between what can be experienced and what can be reported is no cosmic coincidence: the two are (likely) coeval, part of a system dedicated to keeping both ourselves and our compatriots as well informed/misinformed—and as well armed with the latest competences available—as possible.

We can give this strange idea an almost paradoxical spin: it is like something to be you because you have been enabled to tell us—or refrain from telling us—what it’s like to be you!

When we evolved into in us, a communicating community of organisms that can compare notes, we became the beneficiaries of a system of user-illusions that rendered versions of our cognitive processes—otherwise as imperceptible as our metabolic processes—accessible to us for purposes of communication. 344

Far from the phenomenological plenum the (Western) tradition has taken it to be, then, consciousness is a presidential brief prepared by unscrupulous lobbyists, a radically synoptic aid to specific, self-serving forms of individual and collective action.

our first-person point of view of our own minds is not so different from our second-person point of view of others’ minds: we don’t see, or hear, or feel, the complicated neural machinery turning away in our brains but have to settle for an interpreted, digested version, a user-illusion that is so familiar to us that we take it not just for reality but also for the most indubitable and intimately known reality of all. That’s what it is like to be us. 345

Thus, the astounding problem posed by Cartesian gravity. As a socio-communicative interface possessing no access whatsoever to our actual sources, we can only be duped by our immediate intuitions. Referring to John Searle’s Cartesian injunction to insist upon a first-person solution of meaning and consciousness, Dennett writes:

The price you pay for following Searle’s advice is that you get all your phenomena, the events and things that have to be explained by your theory, through a channel designed not for scientific investigation but for handy, quick-and-dirty use in the rough and tumble of time-pressured life. You can learn a lot about how the brain it—you can learn quite a lot about computers by always insisting on the desk-top point of view, after all—but only if you remind yourself that your channel is systematically oversimplified and metaphorical, not literal. That means you must resist the alluring temptation to postulate a panoply of special subjective properties (typically called qualia) to which you (alone) have access. Those are fine items for our manifest image, but they must be “bracketed,” as the phenomenologist’s say, when we turn to scientific explanation. Failure to appreciate this leads to an inflated list of things that need to be explained, featuring, preeminently, a Hard Problem that is nothing but an artifact of the failure to recognize that evolution has given us a gift that sacrifices literal truth for utility. 365-366

Sound familiar? Human metacognitive access and capacity is radically heuristic, geared to the solution of practical ancestral problems. As such, we should expect that tasking that access and capacity, ‘relying on the first-person,’ with solving theoretical questions regarding the nature of experience and cognition will prove fruitless.

It’s worth pausing here, I think, to emphasize just how much this particular argumentative tack represents a departure from Dennett’s prior attempts to clear intuitive ground for his views. Nothing he says here is unprecedented: heuristic neglect has always lurked in the background of his view, always found light of day in this or that corner of this or that argument. But at no point—not in Consciousness Explained, nor even in “Quining Qualia”—has it occupied the dialectical pride of place he concedes it in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Prior to this book, Dennett’s primary strategy has been to exploit the kinds of ‘crashes’ brought about by heuristic misapplication (though he never explicitly characterizes them as such). Here, with Cartesian gravity, he takes a gigantic step toward theorizing the neurocognitive bases of the problematic ‘intuition pumps’ he has targeted over the years. This allows him to generalize his arguments against first-person theorizations of experience in a manner that had hitherto escaped him.

But he still hasn’t quite found his way entirely clear. As I hope to show, heuristic neglect is far more than simply another tool Dennett can safely store with his pre-existing commitments. The best way to see this, I think, is to consider one particular misreading of the new argument against qualia in Chapter 14.

GRAVITY MEETS REALITY

In “Dennett and the Reality of Red,” Tom Clark presents a concise and elegant account of how Dennett’s argument against the reality of qualia in From Bacteria to Bach and Back turns upon a misplaced physicalist bias. The extraordinary thing about his argument—and the whole reason we’re considering it here—lies in the way he concedes so much of Dennett’s case, only to arrive at a version of the very conclusion Dennett takes himself to be arguing against:

I’d suggest that qualia, properly understood, are simply the discriminable contents of sensory experience – all the tastes, colors, sounds, textures, and smells in terms of which reality appears to us as conscious creatures. They are not, as Dan correctly says, located or rendered in any detectable mental medium. They’re not located anywhere, and we are not in an observational or epistemic relationship to them; rather they are the basic, not further decomposable, hence ineffable elements of the experiences we consist of as conscious subjects.

The fact that ‘Cartesian gravity’ appears nowhere in his critique, however, pretty clearly signals that something has gone amiss. Showing as much, however, requires I provide some missing context.

After introducing his user-illusion metaphor for consciousness, Dennett is quick to identify the fundamental dialectical problem Cartesian gravity poses his characterization:

if (as I have just said) your individual consciousness is rather like the user-illusion on your computer screen, doesn’t this imply that there is a Cartesian theatre after all, where this portrayal happens, where the show goes on, rather like the show you perceive on the desktop? No, but explaining what to put in place of the Cartesian theatre will take some stretching of the imagination. 347

This is the point where he introduces a third ‘strange inversion of reasoning,’ this one belonging to Hume. Hume’s inversion, curiously enough, lies in his phenomenological observation of the way we experience causation ‘out there,’ in the world, even though we know given our propensity to get it wrong that it belongs to the machinery of cognition. (This is a canny move on Dennett’s part, but I think it demonstrates the way in which the cognitive consequences of heuristic neglect remain, as yet, implicit for him). What he wants is to ‘theatre-proof’ his account of conscious experience as a user-illusion. Hume’s inversion provides him a way to both thematize and problematize the automatic assumption that the illusion must itself be ‘real.’

The new argument for qualia eliminativism he offers, and that Clark critiques, is meant to “clarify [his] point, if not succeed in persuading everybody—as Hume says, the contrary notion is so riveted in our minds” (358). He gives the example of the red afterimage experienced in complementary colour illusions.

The phenomenon in you that is responsible for this is not a red stripe. It is a representation of a red stripe in some neural system of representation that we haven’t yet precisely located and don’t yet know how to decode, but we can be quite sure it is neither red nor a stripe. You don’t know exactly what causes you to seem to see a red stripe out in the world, so you are tempted to lapse into Humean misattribution: you misinterpret your sense (judgment, conviction, belief, inclination) that you are seeing a red stripe as arising from a subjective property (a quale, in the jargon of philosophy) that is the source of your judgment, when in fact, that is just about backward. It is your ability to describe “the red stripe,” your judgment, your willingness to make the assertions you just made, and your emotional reactions (if any) to “the red stripe” that is the source of your conviction that there is a subjective red stripe. 358-359

The problem, Dennett goes on to assert, lies in “mistaking the intentional object of a belief for its cause” (359). In normal circumstances, when we find ourselves in the presence of an apple, say, we’re entirely justified in declaring the apple the cause of our belief. In abnormal circumstances, however, this reflex dupes us into thinking that something extra-environmental—‘ineffable,’ supernatural—has to be the cause. And thus are inscrutable (and therefore perpetually underdetermined) theoretical posits like qualia born, giving rise to scholastic excesses beyond numbering.

Now the key to this argument lies in the distinction between normal and abnormal circumstances, which is to say the cognitive ecology occasioning the application of a certain heuristic regime—namely the one identified by Hume. For Clark, however, the salient point of Dennett’s argument is that the illusory red stripe lies nowhere.

Dan, a good, sophisticated physicalist, wants everything real to be locatable in the physical external world as vetted by science. What’s really real is what’s in the scientific image, right? But if you believe that we really have experiences, that experiences are specified in terms of content, and that color is among those contents, then the color of the experienced afterimage is as real as experiences. But it isn’t locatable, nor are any of the contents of experience: experiences are not observables. We don’t find them out there in spacetime or when poking around in the brain; we only find objects of various qualitative, quantitative and conceptual descriptions, including the brains with which experiences are associated. But since experiences and their contents are real, this means that not all of what’s real is locatable in the physical, external world.

Dennett never denies that we have experiences, and he even alludes to the representational basis of those experiences in the course of making his red stripe argument. A short time later, in his consideration of Cartesian gravity, he even admits that our ability to report our experiences turns on their content: “By taking for granted the content of your mental states, by picking them out by their content, you sweep under the rug all the problems of indeterminacy or vagueness of content” (367).

And yet, even though Clark is eager to seize on these and other instances of experience-talk, representation-talk, and content-talk, he completely elides the circumstances occasioning them, and thus the way Dennett sees all of these usages as profoundly circumstantial—‘normal’ or ‘abnormal.’ Sometimes they’re applicable, and sometimes they’re not. In a sense, the reality/unreality of qualia is actually beside the point; what’s truly at issue is the applicability of the heuristic tools philosophy has traditionally applied to experience. The question is, What does qualia-talk add to our ability to naturalistically explain colour, affect, sound, and so on? No one doubts our ability to correlate reportable metacognitive aspects of experience to various neural and environmental facts. No one doubts our sensory discriminatory abilities outrun our metacognitive discriminatory abilities—our ability to report. The empirical relationships are there regardless: the question is one of whether the theoretical paradigms we reflexively foist on these relationships lead anywhere other than endless disputation.

Clark not only breezes past the point of Dennett’s Red Stripe argument, he also overlooks the rather stark challenge it poses it his own position. Simply raising the spectre of heuristic metacognitive inadequacy, as Dennett does, obliges Clark to warrant his assumptive metacognitive claims. (Arguing, as Clark does, that we have no epistemic relation to our experiences simply defers the obligation to this second extraordinary claim: heaping speculation atop speculation generates more problems, not less). Dennett spends hundreds of pages amassing empirical evidence for the fractionate, heuristic nature of cognition. Given that our ancestors required only the solution of practical problems, the chances that human metacognition furnishes the information and capacity required to intuit the nature of experience (that it consists of representations consisting of contents consisting of qualia) is vanishingly small. What we should expect is that our metacognitive reflexes will do what they’ve always done: apply routines adapted to practical cognitive and communicative problem resolution to what amounts to radically unprecedented problem ecology. All things being equal, it’s almost certain that the so-called first-person can do little more than flounder before the theoretical question of itself.

The history of intentional philosophy and psychology, if nothing else, vividly illustrates as much.

In the case of content, it’s hard not to see Clark’s oversight as tendentious insofar as Dennett is referring to the way content talk exposes us to Cartesian gravity (“Reading your own mind is too easy” (367)) and the relative virtues of theorizing cognition via nonhuman species. But otherwise, I’m inclined to think Clark’s reading of Dennett is understandable. Clark misses the point of heuristic neglect entirely, but only because Dennett himself remains fuzzy on just how his newfound appreciation for the Grand Inversion—the one we’ve been exploring here on Three Pound Brain for years now—bears on his preexisting theoretical commitments. In particular, he has yet to see the hash it makes of his ‘stances’ and the ‘real patterns’ underwriting them. As soon as Dennett embraced heuristic neglect, opportunistic eliminativism ceased being an option. As goes the ‘reality’ of qualia, so goes the ‘reality’ supposedly underwriting the entire lexicon of traditional intentionalist philosophy. Showing as much, however, requires showing how Heuristic Neglect Theory arises out of the implications of Dennett’s own argument, and how it transforms Cartesian gravity into a proto-cognitive psychological explanation of intentional philosophy—an empirically tractable explanation for why humanity finds humanity so dumbfounding. But since I’m sure eyes are crossing and chins are nodding, I’ll save the way HNT can be directly drawn from the implicature of Dennett’s position for a second installment, then show how HNT both denies representation ‘reality,’ while explaining what makes representation talk so useful in my third and final post on what has been one the most exciting reading adventures in my life.

Bleak Theory (By Paul J. Ennis)

by rsbakker

In the beginning there was nothing and it has been getting steadily worse ever since. You might know this, and yet repress it. Why? Because you have a mind that is capable of generating useful illusions, that’s why. How is this possible? Because you are endowed with a brain that creates a self-model which has the capacity to hide things from ‘you.’ This works better for some than for others. Some of us are brain-sick and, for whatever perverse reasons, we chip away at our delusions. In such cases recourse is possible to philosophy, which offers consolation (or so I am told), or to mysticism, which intentionally offers nothing, or to aesthetics, which is a kind of self-externalizing that lets the mind’s eye drift elsewhere. All in all, however, the armor on offer is thin. Such are the options: to mirror (philosophy), to blacken (mysticism), or to embrace contingency (aesthetics). Let’s select the latter for now. By embracing contingency I mean that aesthetics consists of deciding upon and pursuing something quite specific for intuitive rather than rational reasons. This is to try to come to know contingency in your very bones.

As a mirrorer by trade I have to abandon some beliefs to allow myself to proceed this way. My belief that truth comes first and everything else later will be bracketed. I replace this with a less demanding constraint: truth comes when you know why you believe what you believe. Oftentimes I quite simply believe things because they are austere and minimal and I have a soft spot for that kind of thing. When I allow myself to think in line with these bleak tones an unusual desire is generated: to outbleak black, to be bleaker than black. This desire comes from I know not where. It seemingly has no reason. It is an aesthetic impulse. That’s why I ask that you take from what follows what you will. It brings me no peace either way.

I cannot hope to satisfy anyone with a definition of aesthetic experience, but let me wager that those moments that let me identify with the world a-subjectively – but not objectively – are commonly associated in my mind with bleakness. My brain chemistry, my environment, and similar contingent influences have rendered me this way. So be it. Bleakness manifests most often when I am faced with what is most distinctly impersonal: with cloudscapes and dimmed, wet treescapes. Or better yet, any time I witness a stark material disfiguration of the real by our species. And flowering from this is a bleak outlook correlated with the immense, consistent, and mostly hidden, suffering that is our history – our being. The intensity arising from the global reach of suffering becomes impressive when dislocated from the personal and the particular because then you realize that it belongs to us. Whatever the instigator the result is the same: I am alerted not just to the depths of unknowing that I embody, to the fact that I will never know most of life, but also to the industrial-scale sorrow consistently operative in being. All that is, is a misstep away from ruin. Consciousness is the holocaust of happiness.

Not that I expect anything more. Whatever we may say of our cultural evolution there was nothing inscribed in reality suggesting our world should be a fit for us. I am, on this basis, not surprised by our bleak surroundings. The brain, model-creator that it is, does quite a job at systematizing the outside into a representation that allows you to function; assuming, that is, that you have been gifted with a working model. Some have not. Perhaps the real horror is to try to imagine what has been left out (even the most ardent realist surely knows you do not look at the world directly as it is). Thankfully there is no real reason for us to register most of the information out there and we were not designed to know most of it anyway. This is the minimal blessing our evolution has gifted us with. The maximal damage is that from the exaption we call consciousness cultural evolution flowers and puts our self-model at the mercy of a bombardment of social complexity – our factical situation. It is impossible to know how our information age is toying with our brain, suffice to say that the spike in depression, anxiety and self-loathing is surely some kind of signal. The brain though, like the body, can function even when maltreated. Whether this is truly to the good is difficult to say.

And yet we must be careful to remember that even in so-called eliminative materialism the space of reasons remains. The normative dimension is, as Brandom would put it, irreducible. It does not constitute the entire range of cognition, and is perhaps best deflated in light of empirical evidence, but that is beside the point. To some degree, perhaps minor, we are rational animals with the capacity for relatively free decision-making. My intuition is that ultimately the complexity of our structure means that we will never be free of certain troubles arising from what we are. Being embodied is to be torn between immense capacity and the constant threat of losing capacities. A stroke, striking as if from nowhere, can fundamentally alter anyone. This is not to suggest that progress does not occur. It can and it does, but it can also be, and often is, undone. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, bleak even, but being attuned to the bleakness of reality does not result in passivity by necessity.

Today there are projects that explicitly register all this, and nonetheless intend to operate in line with the potentiality contained within the capacities of reason. What differentiates these projects, oftentimes rationalist in nature, is that they do not follow our various universalist legacies in simply conceiving of the general human as deserving of dignity simply because we all belong to the same class of suffering beings. This is not sufficient to make humans act well. The phenomenon of suffering is easily recognizable and most humans are acutely aware of it, and yet they continue to act in ways contrary to how we ‘ought’ to respond. In fact, it is clear that knowing the sheer scale of suffering may lead to hedonism, egoism or repression. Various functional delusions can be generated by our mind, and it is hardly beyond us to rationalize selfishness on the basis of the universal. We are versatile like that. For this reason, I find myself torn between two poles. I maintain a philosophical respect for various neo-rationalist projects under development. And I remain equally under no illusion they will ever be put to much use. And I do not blame people for falling short of these demands. I am so far from them I only really take them seriously on the page. I find myself drawn, for these reasons, to the pessimist attitude, often considered a suspect stance.

One might suggest that we need only a minimal condition to be ethical. An appeal to the reality of pain in sentient and sapient creatures, perhaps. In that decision you might find solace – despite everything (or in spite of everything). It is a choice, however. Our attempts to assert an ethical universalism are bound up with a counter-logic: the bleak truth of contingency on the basis of the impersonal-in-the-personal. It is a logic quietly operative in the philosophical tradition and one I believe has been suppressed. Self-suppressed it flirts too much with a line leading us to the truth of our hallucination. It’s Nietzsche telling you about perspectivism hinging on the impersonal will-to-power and then you maturing, and forgetting. Not knocking his arguments out of the water, mind. Simply preferring not to accept it. Nobody wants to circle back round to the merry lunatic truths that make a mockery of your life. You might find it hard to get out of bed…whereas now I am sure you leap up every morning, smile on your face…The inhuman, impersonal attachment to each human has many names, but let us look at some that are found right at the heart of the post-Kantian tradition: transcendental subject, Dasein, Notion. Don’t believe me? I don’t mind, it makes no difference to me.

Let’s start with the sheer impersonality involved in Heidegger’s sustained fascination with discussing the human without using the word. Dasein is not supposed to be anything or anyone, in particular. Now once you think about it Dasein really does come across as extraordinarily peculiar. It spends a lot of its time being infested by language since this is, Heidegger insists, the place where its connection to being can be expressed. Yet it is also an easily overrun fortress that has been successfully invaded by techno-scientific jargon. When you hook this thesis up with Heidegger’s epochal shifts then the impersonal forces operative in his schema start to look downright ominous. However, we can’t blame Heidegger on what we can blame on Kant. His transcendental field of sense also belongs to one and all. And so, like Dasein, no one in particular. This aspect of the transcendental field still remains contentious. The transcendental is, at once, housed in a human body but also, in its sense-making functions, to be considered somehow separate from it. It is not quite human, but not exactly inhuman either.

There is, then, some strange aspect, I can think of no other word for it, inhabiting our own flowing world of a coherent ego, or ‘I,’ that allows for the emergence of a pooled intersubjectivity. Kant’s account, of course, had two main aims: to constrain groundless metaphysical speculation and, in turn, to ground the sciences. Yet his readers did not always follow his path. Kant’s decision to make a distinction between the phenomena and the noumena is perhaps the most consequential one in our tradition and is surely one of the greatest examples of opening up what you intended to close down. The nature of the noumenal realm has proven irresistible to philosophers and it has recursive consequences for how we see ourselves. If the nominal realm names a reality that is phenomenally clouded then it surely precedes, ontologically, the ego-as-center; even if it is superseded by the ego’s modelling function for us. Seen within the wider context of the noumenal realm it is legitimate to ask whether the ‘I’ is merely a densely concentrated, discrete packet amidst a wider flow; a locus amidst the chaos. The ontological generation of egos is then shorn back until all you have is Will (Schopenhaeur), Will to Power (Nietzsche), or, in a less generative sense ‘what gives,’ es gibt (Heidegger). This way of thinking belongs, when one takes the long-view, to the slow-motion deconstruction of the Cartesian ego in post-Kantian philosophy, albeit with Husserl cutting a lonely revivalist figure here. Today the ego is trounced everywhere, but there is perhaps no better example that the ‘no-self-at-all’ argument of Metzinger, but even the one-object-amongst-many thesis of object oriented ontology traces a similar line.

The destruction of the Cartesian ego may have its lineage in Kant, but the notion of the impersonal as force, process, or will, owes much to Hegel. In his metaphysics Hegel presents us with a cosmic loop explicable through retroactive justification. At the beginning, the un-articulated Notion, naming what is at the heart-of-the-real, sets off without knowledge of itself, but with the emergence of thinking subjects the Notion is finally able to think itself. In this transition the gap between the un-articulated and articulated Notion is closed, and the entire thing sets off again in directions as yet unknown. Absolute knowing is, after all, not totalized knowing, but a constant, vigilant knowing navigating its way through contingency and recognizing the necessity below it all. But that’s just the thing: despite being important conduits to this process, and having a quite special and specific function, it’s the impersonal process that really counts. In the end Kant’s attempt to close down discussion about the nature of the noumenal realm simply made it one of the most appealing themes for a philosopher to pursue. Censorship helps sales.

Speaking of sales, all kinds of new realism are being hawked on the various para-academic street-corners. All of them benefit from a tint of recognizability rooted, I would suggest, in the fact that ontological realism has always been hidden in plain sight; for any continentalist willing to look. What is different today is how the question of the impersonal attachments affecting the human comes not from inside philosophy, but from a number of external pressures. In what can only be described as a tragic situation for metaphysicians, truth now seeps into the discipline from the outside. We see thinking these days where philosophers promised there was none. The brilliance of continental realism lies in reminding us how this is an immense opportunity for philosophers to wake up from various self-induced slumbers, even if that means stepping outside the protected circle from time to time. It involves bringing this bubbling, left-over question of ontological realism right to the fore. This does not mean ontological realism will come to be accepted and then casually integrated into the tradition. If anything the backlash may eviscerate it, but the attempt will have been made. Or was, and quietly passed.

And the attempt should be made because the impersonality infecting ontological realist excesses such as the transcendental subject (in-itself), the Notion, or Dasein are attuned to what we can now see as the (delayed) flowering of the Copernican revolution. The de-centering is now embedded enough that whatever defense of the human we posit it must not be dishonest. We cannot hallucinate our way out of our ‘cold world’. If we know that our self-model is itself a hallucination, but a very real one, then what do we do then? Is it enough to situate the real in our ontological flesh and blood being-there that is not captured by thinking? Or is it best to remain with thinking as a contingent error that despite its aberrancy nonetheless spews out the truth? These avenues are grounded in consciousness and in our bodies and although both work wonders they can just as easily generate terrors. Truth qualified by these terrors is where one might go. No delusion can outflank these constraints forever. Bled of any delusional disavowal, one tries to think without hope. Hope is undignified anyway. Dignity involves resisting all provocation and remaining sane when you know it’s bleakness all the way down.

Some need hope, no? As I write this I feel the beautiful soul rising from his armchair, but I do not want to hear it. Bleak theory is addressed to your situation: a first worlder inhabiting an accelerated malaise. The ethics to address poverty, inequality, and hardship will be different. Our own heads are disordered and we do not quite know how to respond to the field outside it. You will feel guilty for your myopia, and you deserve it, but you cannot elide by endlessly pointing to the plank in the other’s eye.  You can pray through your tears, and in doing so ironically demonstrate the disturbance left by the death of God, but what does this shore up? It builds upon cathedral ruins: those sites where being is doubled-up and bent-over-backwards trying to look inconspicuous as just another option. Do you want to write religion back into being? Why not, as Ayache suggests, just ruin yourself? I hope it is clear I don’t have any answers: all clarity is a lie these days. I can only offer bleak theory as a way of seeing and perhaps a way of operating. It ‘works’ as follows: begin with confusion and shear away at what you can. Whatever is left is likely the closest thing approximating to what we name truth. It will be strictly negative. Elimination of errors is the best you can hope for.

I don’t know how to end this, so I am just going to end it.

 

Why Three Pound Brain Matters (Perhaps Too Much)

by rsbakker

Why do I bother? I wonder sometimes whether this question occurs to me as much as it should. I read, and I write, and I read, and I write, and nothing I do makes a whit of bloody difference to the rush of conscripted millions, the elephantine thunder of frontlines always just over every horizon. Yours. Mine. No matter where we happen to find ourselves crouched, eyes darting.

Why persist? This is a leading question, presupposing, as it does, there was something else I could be doing, that I could ‘explore my options,’ if I wanted. Even if I had options, my exploration has never been something I had the option to explore. I wake up. I find myself writing, reading. I’m the one done unto, here. IT has always been in charge.

No. The real question has to be, Why do you bother?

That’s the hard question, the bit of broken glass in the dishwater of every blog like this, every site peddling something other than identity claims, ingroup proof. It’s not like I’m a ‘member in good standing’ anywhere.

Shared interest is the obvious answer. The questions posed here clearly matter, but the web is crawling with souls asking these questions. A great many hear the elephantine thunder.

But there is a reason peculiar to Three Pound Brain.

Every site you’ve visited, every opinion you’ve encountered dealing with the themes and questions posed here, be it the prospect of AI or the cultural significance of fantasy or the fate of the humanities or what have you: they all beg some account of cognition. What’s the social impact of cognitive technologies? Depends on the nature of cognition. What’s the meaning of meaning? Depends on the nature of cognition. Is there a hard-problem of consciousness? Depends on the nature of cognition. What’s the future of politics? Depends on the nature of cognition.

Pretty much any claim you read on any theoretical matter dealing with the intersection of culture and technology depends on some implicit or otherwise unarticulated account of cognition. No matter how compelling a piece seems, no matter how much alphabet is stacked behind the author’s name—no matter how many Likes—you need only ask, How do you naturalize cognition? to reveal the degree to which it rests upon speculative quicksand, the degree to which no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.

This question does as much damage in The New Yorker as at a Worldcon panel discussion.

But not here.

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.

On Artificial Belonging: How Human Meaning is Falling between the Cracks of the AI Debate

by rsbakker

I hate people. Or so I used to tell myself in the thick of this or that adolescent crowd. Like so many other teens, my dawning social awareness occasioned not simply anxiety, but agony. Everyone else seemed to have the effortless manner, the well-groomed confidence, that I could only pretend to have. Lord knows I would try to tell amusing anecdotes, to make rooms boom with humour and admiration, but my voice would always falter, their attention would always wither, and I would find myself sitting alone with my butterflies. I had no choice but to hate other people: I needed them too much, and they needed me not at all. Never in my life have I felt so abandoned, so alone, as I did those years. Rarely have I felt such keen emotional pain.

Only later would I learn that I was anything but alone, that a great number of my peers felt every bit as alienated as I did. Adolescence represents a crucial juncture in the developmental trajectory of the human brain, the time when the neurocognitive tools required to decipher and navigate the complexities of human social life gradually come online. And much as the human immune system requires real-world feedback to discriminate between pathogens and allergens, human social cognition requires the pain of social failure to learn the secrets of social success.

Humans, like all other forms of life on this planet, require certain kinds of ecologies to thrive. As so-called ‘feral children’ dramatically demonstrate, the absence of social feedback at various developmental junctures can have catastrophic consequences.

So what happens when we introduce artificial agents into our social ecology? The pace of development is nothing short of boggling. We are about to witness a transformation in human social ecology without evolutionary let alone historical precedent. And yet the debate remains fixated on jobs or the prospects of apocalyptic superintelligences.

The question we really need to be asking is what happens when we begin talking to our machines more than to each other. What does it mean to dwell in social ecologies possessing only the appearance of love and understanding?

“Hell,” as Sartre famously wrote, “is other people.” Although the sentiment strikes a chord in most everyone, the facts of the matter are somewhat more complex. The vast majority of those placed in prolonged solitary confinement, it turns out, suffer a mixture of insomnia, cognitive impairment, depression, and even psychosis. The effects of social isolation are so dramatic, in fact, that the research has occasioned a worldwide condemnation of punitive segregation. Hell, if anything, would seem to be the absence of other people.

The reason for this is that we are a fundamentally social species, ‘eusocial’ in a manner akin to ants or bees, if E.O. Wilson is to be believed. To understand just how social we are, you need only watch the famous Heider-Simmel illusion, a brief animation portraying the movements of a small circle, a small rectangle, and larger rectangle, in and about a motionless, hollow square. Objectively speaking, all one sees are a collection of shapes moving relative one another and the hollow square. But despite the radical absence of information, nearly everyone watching the animation sees a little soap opera, usually involving the big square attempting to prevent the union of the small square and circle.

This leap from shapes to soap operas reveals, in dramatic fashion, just how little information we require to draw enormous social conclusions. Human social cognition is very easy to trigger out of school, as our ancient tendency to ‘anthropomorphize’ our natural surroundings shows. Not only are we prone to see faces in things like flaking paint or water stains, we’re powerfully primed to sense minds as well—so much so that segregated inmates often begin perceiving them regardless. As Brian Keenan, who was held by Islamic Jihad from 1986 to 1990, says of the voices he heard, “they were in the room, they were in me, they were coming from me but they were audible to no one else but me.”

What does this have to do with the impact of AI? More than anyone has yet imagined.


Imagine a social ecology populated by billions upon billions of junk intelligences


 

The problem, in a nutshell, is that other people aren’t so much heaven or hell as both. Solitary confinement, after all, refers to something done to people by other people. The argument to redefine segregation as torture finds powerful support in evidence showing that social exclusion activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain. At some point in our past, it seems, our social attachment systems coopted the pain system to motivate prosocial behaviors. As a result, the mere prospect of exclusion triggers analogues of physical suffering in human beings.

But as significant as this finding is, the experimental props used to derive these findings are even more telling. The experimental paradigm typically used to neuroimage social rejection turns on a strategically deceptive human-computer interaction, or HCI. While entombed in an fMRI, subjects are instructed to play an animated three-way game of catch—called ‘Cyberball’—with what they think are two other individuals on the internet, but which is in fact a program designed to initially include, then subsequently exclude, the subject. As the other ‘players’ begin throwing more and more to each other, the subject begins to feel real as opposed to metaphorical pain. The subjects, in other words, need only be told that other minds control the graphics on the screen before them, and the scant information provided by those graphics trigger real world pain. A handful of pixels and a little fib is all that’s required to cue the pain of social rejection.

As one might imagine, Silicon Valley has taken notice.

The HCI field finds its roots in the 1960’s with the research of Joseph Weizenbaum at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Even given the rudimentary computing power at his disposal, his ‘Eliza’ program, which relied on simple matching and substitution protocols to generate questions, was able to cue strong emotional reactions in many subjects. As it turns out, people regularly exhibit what the late Clifford Nass called ‘mindlessness,’ the reliance on automatic scripts, when interacting with artificial agents. Before you scoff at the notion, recall the 2015 Ashley Madison hack, and the subsequent revelation that it deployed more than 70,000 bots to conjure the illusion of endless extramarital possibility. These bots, like Eliza, were simple, mechanical affairs, but given the context of Ashley Madison, their behaviour apparently convinced millions of men that some kind of (promising) soap opera was afoot.

The great paradox, of course, is that those automatic scripts belong to the engine of ‘mindreading,’ our ability to predict, explain, and manipulate our fellow human beings, not to mention ourselves. They only stand revealed as mechanical, ‘mindless,’ when tasked to cognize something utterly without evolutionary precedent: an artificial agent. Our power to peer into one another’s souls, in other words, becomes little more than a grab-bag of exploitable reflexes in the presence of AI.

The claim boggles, I admit, but from a Darwinian perspective, it’s hard to see how things could be otherwise. Our capacity to solve one another is largely a product of our hunter-gatherer past, which is to say, environments where human intelligence was the only game in town. Why evolve the capacity to solve for artificial intelligences, let alone ones possessing Big Data resources? The cues underwriting human social cognition may seem robust, but this is an artifact of ecological stability, the fact that our blind trust in our shared social biology has served so far. We always presume our environments indestructible. As the species responsible for the ongoing Anthropocene extinction, we have a long history of recognizing ecological peril only after the fact.

Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and eminent author of Alone Together, has been warning of what she calls “Darwinian buttons” for over a decade now. Despite the explosive growth in Human-Computer Interaction research, her concerns remain at best, a passing consideration. As part of our unconscious, automatic cognitive systems, we have no conscious awareness that such buttons even exist. They are, to put it mildly, easy to overlook. Add to this the overwhelming institutional and economic incentive to exploit these cues, and the AI community’s failure to consider Turkle’s misgivings seems all but inevitable.

Like most all scientists, researchers in the field harbor only the best of intentions, and the point of AI, as they see it, is to empower consumers, to give them what they want. The vast bulk of ongoing research in Human-Computer Interaction is aimed at “improving the user experience,” identifying what cues trust instead of suspicion, attachment instead of avoidance. Since trust requires competence, a great deal of the research remains focused on developing the core cognitive competencies of specialized AI systems—and recent advances on this front have been nothing if not breathtaking. But the same can be said regarding interpersonal competencies as well—enough to inspire Clifford Nass and Corina Yen to write, The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, a book touted as the How to Win Friends and Influence People of the 21st century. In the course of teaching machines how to better push our buttons, we’re learning how to better push them as well.

Simply because it is so easily miscued, human social cognition depends on trust. Shapes, after all, are cheap, while soap operas represent a potential goldmine. This explains our powerful, hardwired penchant for tribalism: the intimacy of our hunter-gatherer past all but assured trustworthiness, providing a cheap means of nullifying our vulnerability to social deception. When Trump decries ‘fake news,’ for instance, what he’s primarily doing is signaling group membership. He understands, the instinctive way we all understand, that the best way to repudiate damaging claims is to circumvent them altogether, and focus on the group membership of the claimer. Trust, the degree we can take one another for granted, is the foundation of cooperative interaction.

We are about to be deluged with artificial friends. In a recent roundup of industry forecasts, Forbes reports that AI related markets are already growing, and expected to continue growing, by more than 50% per annum. Just last year, Microsoft launched its Bot Framework service, a public platform for creating ‘conversational user interfaces’ for a potentially endless variety of commercial purposes, all of it turning on Microsoft’s rapidly advancing AI research. “Build a great conversationalist,” the site urges. “Build and connect intelligent bots to interact with your users naturally wherever they are…” Of course, the term “naturally,” here, refers to the seamless way these inhuman systems cue our human social cognitive systems. Learning how to tweak, massage, and push our Darwinian buttons has become an out-and-out industrial enterprise.

As mentioned above, Human-Human Interaction consists of pushing these buttons all the time, prompting automatic scripts that prompt further automatic scripts, with only the rare communicative snag giving us pause for genuine conscious deliberation. It all works simply because our fellow humans comprise the ancestral ecology of social cognition. As it stands, cuing social cognitive reflexes out of school is largely the province of magicians, con artists, and political demagogues. Seen in this light, the AI revolution looks less a cornucopia of marvels than the industrialized unleashing of endless varieties of invasive species—an unprecedented overthrow of our ancestral social cognitive habitats.

A habitat that, arguably, is already under severe duress.

In 2006, Maki Fukasawa coined the term ‘herbivore men’ to describe the rising number of Japanese males expressing disinterest in marital or romantic relationships with women. And the numbers have only continued to rise. A 2016 National Institute of Population and Social Security Research survey reveals that 42 percent of Japanese men between the ages of 18 and 34 remain virgins, up six percent from a mere five years previous. For Japan, a nation already struggling with the economic consequences of depopulation, such numbers are disastrous.

And Japan is not alone. In Man, Interrupted: Why Young Men are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford Prisoner Experiment fame) and Nikita Coulombe provide a detailed account of how technological transformations—primarily online porn, video-gaming, and virtual peer groups—are undermining the ability of American boys to academically achieve as well as maintain successful relationships. They see phenomena such as the growing MGTOW (‘men going their own way’) movement as the product of the way exposure to virtual, technological environments leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of genuine social interaction.

More recently, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has sounded the alarm on the catastrophic consequences of smartphone use for post-Millennials, arguing that “the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever.” The primary culprit: loneliness. “For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out.” Social media, in other words, seem to be playing the same function as the Cyberball game used by researchers to neuroimage the pain of social rejection. Only this time the experiment involves an entire generation of kids, and the game has no end.

The list of curious and troubling phenomena apparently turning on the ways mere connectivity has transformed our social ecology is well-nigh endless. Merely changing how we push one another’s Darwinian buttons, in other words, has impacted the human social ecology in historically unprecedented ways. And by all accounts, we find ourselves becoming more isolated, more alienated, than at any other time in human history.

So what happens when we change the who? What happens when the heaven of social belonging goes on sale?

Good question. There is no “Centre for the Scientific Study of Human Meaning” in the world. Within the HCI community, criticism is primarily restricted to the cognitivist/post-cognitivist debate, the question of whether cognition is intrinsically independent or dependent of an agent’s ongoing environmental interactions. As the preceding should make clear, numerous disciplines find themselves wandering this or that section of the domain, but we have yet to organize any institutional pursuit of the questions posed here. Human social ecology, the study of human interaction in biologically amenable terms, remains the province of storytellers.

We quite literally have no clue as to what we are about to do.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s and Elon Musk’s recent ‘debate’ regarding the promise and threat of AI. Musk, of course, has garnered headlines for quite some time with fears of artificial superintelligence. He’s famously called AI “our biggest existential threat,” openly referring to Skynet and the prospect of robots mowing down civilians on the streets. On a Sunday this past July, Zuckerberg went live in his Palo Alto backyard while smoking meats to host an impromptu Q&A. At the fifty-minute mark, he answers a question regarding Musk’s fears, and responds, “I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios—I don’t understand it. It’s really negative and in some ways I think it’s pretty irresponsible.”

On the Tuesday following, Musk tweeted in response: “I’ve talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.”

To the extent that human interaction is ecological (and how could it be otherwise?), both can be accused of irresponsibility and limited understanding. The threat of ‘superintelligence,’ though perhaps inevitable, remains far enough in the future to easily dismiss as a bogeyman. The same can be said regarding “peak human” arguments predicting mass unemployment. The threat of economic disruption, though potentially dire, is counter-balanced by the promise of new, unforeseen economic opportunity. This leaves us with the countless number of ways AI will almost certainly improve our lives: fewer car crashes, fewer misdiagnoses, and so on. As a result, one can predict how all such exchanges will end.

The contemporary AI debate, in other words, is largely a pseudo-debate.

The futurist Richard Yonck’s account of ‘affective computing’ somewhat redresses this problem in his recently released Heart of the Machine, but since he begins with the presupposition that AI represents a natural progression, that the technological destruction of ancestral social habitats is the ancestral habitat of humanity, he remains largely blind to the social ecological consequences of his subject matter. Espousing a kind of technological fatalism (or worse, fundamentalism), he characterizes AI as the culmination of a “buddy movie” as old as humanity itself. The oxymoronic, if not contradictory, prospects of ‘artificial friends’ simply does not dawn on him.

Neil Lawrence, a professor of machine learning at the University of Sheffield and technology columnist at The Guardian, is the rare expert who recognizes the troubling ecological dimensions of the AI revolution. Borrowing the distinction between System Two, or conscious, ‘mindful’ problem-solving, and System One, or unconscious, ‘mindless’ problem-solving, from cognitive psychology, he warns of what he calls System Zero, what happens when the market—via Big Data, social media, and artificial intelligence—all but masters our Darwinian buttons. As he writes,

“The actual intelligence that we are capable of creating within the next 5 years is an unregulated System Zero. It won’t understand social context, it won’t understand prejudice, it won’t have a sense of a larger human objective, it won’t empathize. It will be given a particular utility function and it will optimize that to its best capability regardless of the wider negative effects.”

To the extent that modern marketing (and propaganda) techniques already seek to cue emotional as opposed to rational responses, however, there’s a sense in which ‘System Zero’ and consumerism are coeval. Also, economics comprises but a single dimension of human social ecology. We have good reason to fear that Lawrence’s doomsday scenario, one where market and technological forces conspire to transform us into ‘consumer Borg,’ understates the potential catastrophe that awaits.

The closest one gets to a genuine analysis of the interpersonal consequences of AI lies in movies such as Spike Jonze’s science-fiction masterpiece, Her, or the equally brilliant HBO series, Westworld, scripted by Charles Yu. ‘Science fiction,’ however, happens to be the blanket term AI optimists use to dismiss their critical interlocutors.

When it comes to assessing the prospect of artificial intelligence, natural intelligence is failing us.

The internet was an easy sell. After all, what can be wrong with connecting likeminded people?

The problem, of course, is that we are the evolutionary product of small, highly interdependent, hunter-gatherer communities. Historically, those disposed to be permissive had no choice but to continually negotiate with those disposed to be authoritarian. Each party disliked the criticism of the other, but the daily rigors of survival forced them to get along. No longer. Only now, a mere two decades later, are we discovering the consequences of creating a society that systematically segregates permissives and authoritarians. The election of Donald Trump has, if nothing else, demonstrated the degree to which technology has transformed human social ecology in novel, potentially disastrous ways.

AI has also been an easy sell—at least so far. After all, what can be wrong with humanizing our technological environments? Imagine a world where everything is ‘user friendly,’ compliant to our most petulant wishes. What could be wrong with that?

Well, potentially everything, insofar as ‘humanizing our environments’ amounts to dehumanizing our social ecology, replacing the systems we are adapted to solve, our fellow humans, with systems possessing no evolutionary precedent whatsoever, machines designed to push our buttons in ways that optimize hidden commercial interests. Social pollution, in effect.

Throughout the history of our species, finding social heaven has required risking social hell. Human beings are as prone to be demanding, competitive, hurtful—anything but ‘user friendly’—as otherwise. Now the industrial giants of the early 21st century are promising to change all that, to flood the spaces between us with machines designed to shoulder the onerous labour of community, citizenship, and yes, even love.

Imagine a social ecology populated by billions upon billions of junk intelligences. Imagine the solitary confinement of an inhuman crowd. How will we find one another? How will we tolerate the hypersensitive infants we now seem doomed to become?

Unkempt Nation, Disheveled Soul

by rsbakker

So this has been a mad summer in pretty much every respect. The first week of May, my hard-drive died, and I lost pretty much everything I had written the previous six months. My wife was in Venezuela at the time, marching, so I had a hard time wrapping my head around the psychological enormity of the event. It’s not every day you turn on the news to watch events embroiling your loved ones.

Anyway, I’m still pulling the pieces together. I had occasion to revisit some of my first blog posts, and I thought I would post a few snippets from way back in 2010, when we could still pretend technology wasn’t driving the world insane. Rather than get angry all over again at the lack of reviews, or fret for the future of democratic society in the technological age, I thought I would let my younger, less well-groomed self do the ranting.

I’ll be back with things more substantial soon.

 

September 14, 2010 – So why are so many writers heros? Aside from good old human psychology, I blame it on the old ‘Write What You Know’ literary maxim.

Like so many literary maxims it sounds appealing at first blush. After all, how can you be honest–authentic–unless you write ‘what you know.’ But like all maxims it has a flip side: Telling practitioners what they should do is at once telling them what they should not do. Telling writers to only write what they know is telling them to studiously avoid all the things their lives lack–adventure, romance, spectacle–which is to say, the very things that regular people crave.

So this maxim has the happy side-effect of policing who gets to communicate to whom, and so securing the institutional boundaries of the literary specialist. Not only is real culture left to its own naive devices, it becomes the unflagging foil, a kind of self-congratulatory resource, one that can be tapped over and over again to confirm the literary writer’s sense of superiority. Thus all the writerly heros, stranded in seas of absurdity.

September 16, 2010 – The pigeonhole has no bottom, believe you me. I used to be so naive as to think I could climb out, but now I’m starting to think that it swallows everyone in the end. I wonder about all the other cranks and crackpots out there, about all the other sparks that have been snuffed by relentless inattention. It’s no accident that eulogies are so filled with cliches.

After all, it’s neurophysiology that I’m up against more than any passing cultural bigotry. The brain pigeonholes everything it encounters to better lower its caloric load, to economize. We sort far more than we ponder. Novelty, when we encounter it, is either confused for something old and stupid or comes across as errant noise. Things were this way long before corporations and capital.

So I find myself wondering what I should do. Maybe I should just resign myself to my fate, numb the pain, mellow those revenge fantasies. Become a fatalist.

But then there’s nothing like bitterness to keep that fire scorching your belly. And there’s nothing I fear more than becoming old and complacent. Only the well-groomed don’t have chips on their shoulders.

September 18, 2010 – What really troubles me is the way this hypocrisy has been institutionalized. So long as you treat ‘culture’ as a what, which is to say, as a abstract construct, a formalism, then you can congratulate yourself for all the myriad ways in which your abstractions disrupt those abstractions. But as soon as you treat ‘culture’ as a who, which is to say, as a cartoon we use to generalize over millions of living, breathing people, the notion of ‘disruption’ becomes pretty ridiculous pretty quick. All it takes is one simple question: “Who is disrupted?” and the illusion of criticality is dispelled. One little question.

The conceit is so weak. And yet somehow we’ve managed to raise a veritable landfill of illusory subversion upon it. ‘Literature,’ we call it.

Says a lot about the power of vanity, if you think about it.

As well as why I’m probably doomed to fail.

September 20, 2010 – But our culture has become frightfully compartmentalized. The web, which was supposed to blow open the doors of culture–to ‘flatten everything’–seems to have had the opposite effect. Since we’re hardwired to reflexively seek out affirmation and confirmation, rendering everything equally available has meant our paths of least resistence no longer take us across unfamiliar territory. We can get what we want and need without taking detours through things we didn’t realize we wanted or needed. We can make an expedient bastion out of our parochial tastes.

February 27, 2011 – These people, it seems to me, have to be engaged, have to be challenged, if only so that the masses don’t succumb to their own weaknesses for self-serving chauvinism. These people are appealing simply because they are so adept at generating ‘reasons’ for self-serving intuitions that we all share. That we and our ways are special, exempt, and that Others are a threat to us. That our high-school is, like, really the greatest high-school on the planet. Confirmation bias, my-side bias, the list goes on. And given that humans have evolved to be easily and almost irrevocably programmed, it seems to me that the most important place to wage this battle is in classroom. To begin teaching doubt as the highest virtue, as opposed to the madness of belief.

The prevailing madness.

Funny, huh? It’s the lapse in belief that these guys typically see as symptomatic of modern societal decline. But really what they’re talking about is a lapse in agreement. Belief is as pervasive as ever, but as a principle rather than any specific consensual canon. It stands to reason that the lack of ‘moral and cognitive solidarity’ would make us uncomfortable, considering the kinds of scarcity and competition faced by our ancestors.

January 13, 2011 – The problem is that human nature is adapted to environments where the access to information was geographically indexed, where its accumulation exacted a significant caloric toll. We don’t call private investigators ‘gumshoes’ for no reason. We are adapted to environments where the info-gathering workload continually forced us to ‘settle,’ which is to say, make due with something other than what we originally desired, when it comes to information.

This is what makes the ‘global village’ such a deceptive misnomer. In the preindustrial village, where everyone depended upon one another, our cognitive selfishness made quite a bit of adaptive sense: in environments where scarcity and interdependency force cognitive compromise, you can see how cognitive selfishness–finding ways to justify oneself while impugning potential competitors–might pay real dividends in terms of in-group prestige. Where the circumstantial leash is tight, it pays to pull and pull, and perhaps reach those morsels that escape others.

In the industrial village, however, the leash is far longer. But even still, if you want pursue your views, geographical constraints force you to engage individuals who do not share them. Who knows what Bob across the road believes? (My Bob was an evangelical Christian, and I count myself lucky for having endlessly argued with him).

In the information village the leash is cut altogether. The likeminded can effortlessly congregate in innumerable echo chambers. Of course, they can effortlessly congregate with those they disagree with as well, but… The tendency, by and large, is not only to seek confirmation, but to confuse it with intelligence and truth–which is why right-wingers tend to watch more Fox than PBS.

Now, enter all these specialized programs, which are bent on moulding your information environment into something as pleasing as possible. Don’t like the N-word? Well, we can make sure you never need to encounter it again–ever.

The world is sycophantic, and it’s becoming more so all the time. This, I think, is a far better cartoon generalization than ‘flat,’ insofar as it references the user, the intermediary, as well as the information environment.

The contemporary (post-posterity) writer has to incorporate this radically different social context into their practice (if that practice is to be considered even remotely self-critical). If you want to produce literary effects, then you have to write for a sycophantic world, find ways not simply to subvert the ideological defences of readers, but to trick the inhuman, algorithmic gate-keepers as well.

This means being strategically sycophantic. To give people what they want, sure, but with something more as well.

 

Visions of the Semantic Apocalypse: James Andow and Dispositional Metasemantics

by rsbakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the information threshold of semantic apocalypse?

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

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

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

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

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

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