Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Category: PHILOSOPHY

The Crash of Truth: A Critical Review of Post-Truth by Lee C. Mcintyre

by rsbakker

Lee Mcintyre is a philosopher of science at Boston University, and author of Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behaviour. I read Post-truth on the basis of Fareed Zakaria’s enthusiastic endorsement on CNN’s GPS, so I fully expected to like it more than I ultimately did. It does an admirable job scouting the cognitive ecology of post-truth, but because it fails to understand that ecology in ecological terms, the dynamic itself remains obscured. The best Mcintyre can do is assemble and interrogate the usual suspects. As a result, his case ultimately devolves into what amounts to yet another ingroup appeal.

As perhaps, we should expect, given the actual nature of the problem.

Mcintyre begins with a transcript of an interview where CNN’s Alisyn Camerota presses Newt Gingrich at the 2016 Republican convention on Trump’s assertions regarding crime:

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.

There’s a terror you feel in days like these. I felt that terror most recently, I think, watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisting that the out-going National Security Advisor, General H. R. McMaster, had declared that no one had been tougher on Russia than Trump after a journalist had quoted him saying almost exactly otherwise. I had been walking through the living-room and the exchange stopped me in my tracks. Never in my life had I ever witnessed a Whitehouse Official so fecklessly, so obviously, contradict what everyone in the room had just heard. It reminded me of the psychotic episodes I witnessed as a young man working tobacco with a friend who suffered schizophrenia—only this was a social psychosis. Nothing was wrong with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Rather than lying in malfunctioning neural machinery, this discrepancy lay in malfunctioning social machinery. She could say what she said because she knew that statements appearing incoherent to those knowing what H. R. McMaster had actually said would not appear as such to those ignorant of or indifferent to what he had actually said.  She knew, in other words, that even though the journalists in the room saw this:

given the information available to their perspective, the audience that really mattered would see this:

which is to say, something rendered coherent for neglecting that information.

The task Mcintyre sets himself in this brief treatise is to explain how such a thing could have come to pass, to explain, not how a sitting President could lie, but how he could lie without consequences. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserts that H. R. McMaster’s claim that the Administration is not doing enough is actually the claim that no Administration has done more she’s relying on innumerable background facts that simply did not obtain a mere generation ago. The social machinery of truth-telling has fundamentally changed. If we look at the sideways picture of Disney’s faux New York skyline as the ‘deep information view,’ and the head-on picture as the ‘shallow information view,’ the question becomes one of how she could trust that her audience, despite the availability of deep information, would nevertheless affirm the illusion of coherence provided by the shallow information view. As Mcintyre writes, “what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance.” Sanders, you could say, is availing herself of new mechanisms, ones antagonistic to the traditional mechanisms of communicating the semantic authority of deep information. Somehow, someway, the communication of deep information has ceased to command the kinds of general assent it once did. It’s almost preposterous on the face of it: in attributing Trump’s claims to McMaster, Sanders is gambling that somehow, either by dint of corruption, delusion, or neglect, her false claim will discharge functions ideally belonging to truthful claims, such as informing subsequent behaviour. For whatever reason, the circumstances once preventing such mass dissociations of deep and shallow information ecologies have yielded to circumstances that no longer do.

Mcintyre provides a chapter by chapter account of those new circumstances. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll skip his initial chapter, which he devotes to defining ‘post-truth,’ and return to it in the end.

Science Denial

He provides clear, pithy outlines of the history of the tobacco industry’s seminal decision to argue the science, to wage what amounts to an organized disinformation campaign. He describes the ways resource companies adapted these tactics to scramble the message and undermine the authority of climate science. And by ‘disinformation,’ he means this literally, given “that even while ExxonMobil was spending money to obfuscate the facts about climate change, they were making plans to explore new drilling opportunities in the Arctic once the polar ice cap had melted.” This part of the story is pretty well-known, I think, but Mcintyre tells the tale in a way that pricks the numbness of familiarity, reminding us of the boggling scale of what these campaigns achieved: generating a political/cultural alliance that is—not simply bent on—hastening untold misery and global economic loss in the name of short term parochial economic gain.

Cognitive Bias

He gives a curiously (given his background) two-dimensional sketch of the role cognitive bias plays in the problem, focusing primarily on cognitive dissonance, our need to minimize cognitive discrepancies, and the backfire effect, how counter-arguments actually strengthen, as opposed to mitigate, commitment to positions. (I would recommend Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion for a more thorough consideration of the dynamics involved). He discusses research showing the profound ways that social identification, even cued by things so flimsy as coloured wristbands, profoundly transforms our moral determinations. But he underestimates, I think, the profound nature of what Dan Kahan and his colleagues call the “Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons,” the individual rationality of espousing irrational collective claims. There’s so much research directly pertinent to his thesis that he passes over in silence, especially that belonging to ecological rationality.

Traditional versus social media

If Mcintyre’s consideration of the cognitive science left me dissatisfied, I thoroughly enjoyed his consideration of media’s contribution to the problem of post-truth. He reminds us that the existence of entities, like Fox News, disguising advocacy as disinterested reporting, is the historical norm, not the rule. Disinterested journalistic reporting was more the result how AP, which served papers grinding different political axes, required stories expressing as little overt bias as possible. Rather than seize upon this ecological insight (more on this below), he narrates the gradual rise of television news from small, money-losing network endeavours, to money-making enterprises culminating in CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the return of ‘yellow journalism.’

He provides a sobering assessment of the eclipse of traditional media, and the historically unprecedented rise of social media. Here, more than anywhere else, we find Mcintyre taking steps toward a genuine cognitive ecological understanding of the problem:

“In the past, perhaps our cognitive biases were ameliorated by our interactions with others. It is ironic to think that in today’s media deluge, we could perhaps be more isolated from contrary opinion than when our ancestors were forced to live and work among other members of their tribe, village, or community, who had to interact with one another to get information.”

Since his understanding of the problem is primarily normative, however, he fails to see how cognitive reflexes that misfire in experimental contexts, and so strike observers as normative breakdowns, actually facilitate problem-solving in ancestral contexts. What he notes as ‘ironic’ should strike him (and everyone else) as astounding, as one of the doors that any adequate explanation of post-truth must kick down. But it is heartening, I have to say, to see these ideas begin to penetrate more and more brainpans. Despite the insufficiency of his theoretical tools, Mcintyre glimpses something of the way cognitive technology has impacted human cognitive ecology: “Indeed,” he writes, “what a perfect storm for the exploitation of our ignorance and cognitive biases by those with an agenda to put forward.” But even if the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor captures the complex relational nature of what’s happened, it implies that we find ourselves suffering a spot of bad luck, and nothing more.

Postmodernism

At last he turns to the role postmodernism has played in all this: this is the only chapter where I smelled a ‘legacy effect,’ the sense that the author is trying to shoe-horn some independently published material.

He acknowledges that ‘postmodernism’ is hopelessly overdetermined, but he thinks two theses consistently rise above the noise: the first is that “there is no such thing as objective truth,” and the second is “that any profession of truth is nothing more than a reflection of the political ideology of the person who is making it.”

To his credit, he’s quick to pile on the caveats, to acknowledge the need to critique both the possibility of absolute truth as well as the social power of scientific truth-claims. Because of this, it quickly becomes apparent that his target isn’t so much ‘postmodernism’ as it is social constructivism, the thesis that ‘truth-telling,’ far from connecting us to reality, bullies us into affirming interest serving constructs. This, as it turns out, is the best way to think post-truth “[i]n its purest form” as “when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie.”

In other words, for Mcintyre, post-truth is the consequence of too many people believing in social constructivism—or in other words, presuming the wrong theory of truthHis approach to the question of post-truth is that of a traditional philosopher: if the failure is one of correspondence, then the blame has to lie with anti-correspondence theories of truth. The reason Sarah Huckabee Sanders could lie about McMaster’s final speech turns on (among other things) the wide-spread theoretical belief that there is no such thing as objective truth,’ that it’s power plays all the way down.

Thus the (rather thick) irony of citing Daniel Dennett—an interpretivist!—stating that “what the postmodernists did was truly evil” so far as they bear responsibility “for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”

The sin of the postmodern left has very, very little to do with generating semantically irresponsible theoriesDennett’s own positions are actually a good deal more radical in this regard! When it comes to the competing narratives involving ‘meaning of’ questions and answers, Dennett knows we have no choice but to advert to the ‘dramatic idiom’ of intentionality. If the problem were one of providing theoretical ammunition then Dennett is as much a part of the problem as Baudrillard.

And yet Mcintyre caps Dennett’s assertion by asking, “Is there more direct evidence than this?” Not a shining moment, dialectically speaking.

I agree with him that tools have been lifted from postmodernists, but they have been lifted from pragmatists (Dennett’s ilk) as well. Talk of ‘stances’ and ‘language games’ is also rife on the right! And I should know. What’s happening now is the consequence of a trend that I’ve been battling since the turn of the millennium. All my novels constitute self-conscious attempts to short-circuit the conditions responsible for ‘post-truth.’ And I’ve spent thousands of hours trolling the alt-Right (before they were called such) trying to figure out what was going on. The longest online debate I ever had was with a fundamentalist Christian who belonged to a group using Thomas Kuhn to justify their belief in the literal truth of Genesis.

Defining Post-truth

Which brings us, as promised, back to the book’s beginning, the chapter that I skipped, where, in the course of refining his definition of post-truth, Mcintyre acknowledges that no one knows what the hell truth is:

“It is important at this point to give at least a minimal definition of truth. Perhaps the most famous is that of Aristotle, who said: ‘to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and what of is not that it is not, is true.’ Naturally, philosophers have fought for centuries over whether this sort of “correspondence” view is correct, whereby we judge the truth of a statement only by how well it fits reality. Other prominent conceptions of truth (coherentist, pragmatist, semantic) reflect a diversity of opinion among philosophers about the proper theory of truth, even while—as a value—there seems little dispute that truth is important.”

He provides a minimal definition with one hand—truth as correspondence—which he immediately admits is merely speculative! Truth, he’s admitting, is both indispensable and inscrutable. And yet this inscrutability, he thinks, need not hobble the attempt to understand post-truth: “For now, however, the question at hand is not whether we have the proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth.”

In other words, we don’t need to know what is being subverted to agree that it is being subverted. But this goes without saying; the question is whether we need to know what is being subverted to explain what Mcintyre is purporting to explain, namely, how truth is being subverted. How do we determine what’s gone wrong with truth when we don’t even know what truth is?

Mcintyre begins Post-truth, in other words, by admitting that no canonical formulation of his explanandum exists, that it remains a matter of mere speculation. Truth remains one of humanity’s confounding questions.

But if truth is in question, then shouldn’t the blame fall upon those who question truth? Perhaps the problem isn’t this or that philosophy so much as philosophy itself. We see as much at so many turns in Mcintyre’s account:

“Why not doubt the mainstream news or embrace a conspiracy theory? Indeed, if news is just political expression, why not make it up? Whose facts should be dominant? Whose perspective is the right one? Thus is postmodernism the godfather of post-truth.”

Certainly, the latter two questions belong to philosophy as whole, and not postmodernism in particular. To that extent, the two former questions—so far as they follow from the latter—have to be seen as falling out of philosophy in general, and not just some ‘philosophical bad apples.’

But does it make sense to blame philosophy, to suggest we should have never questioned the nature of truth? Of course not.

The real question, the one that I think any serious attempt to understand post-truth needs to reckon, is the one Mcintyre breezes by in the first chapter: Why do we find truth so difficult to understand?

On the one hand, truth seems to be crashing. On the other, we have yet to take a step beyond Aristotle when it comes to answering the question of the nature of truth. The latter is the primary obstacle, since the only way to truly understand the nature of the crash is to understand the nature of truth. Could the crash and the inscrutability of truth be related? Could post-truth somehow turn on our inability to explain truth?

Adaptive Anamorphosis

Truth lies murdered in the Calais Coach, and Mcintyre has assembled all the suspects: denialism, cognitive biases, traditional and social media, and (though he knows it not) philosophy. He knows all of them had some part to play, either directly, or as accessories, but the Calais Coach remains locked—his crime scene is a black box. He doesn’t even have a body!

For me, however, post-truth is a prediction come to pass—a manifestation of what I’ve long called the ‘semantic apocalypse.’ Far from a perfect storm of suspects coming together in unlikely ways to murder ‘all of factual reality,’ it is an inevitable consequence of our rapidly transforming cognitive ecologies.

Biologically speaking, human communication and cooperation represent astounding evolutionary achievements. Human cognition is the most complicated thing human cognition has ever encountered: only now are we beginning to reverse-engineer its nature, and to use that knowledge to engineer unprecedented cognitive artifacts. We know that cognition is structurally and dynamically composite, heavily reliant on heuristic specialization to solve its social and natural environments. The astronomical complexity of human cognition means that sociocognition and metacognition are especially reliant on composite, source-insensitive systems, devices turning on available cues that correlate, given that various hidden regularities obtain, with specific outcomes. Despite being legion, we manage to synchronize with our fellows and our environments without the least awareness of the cognitive machinery responsible.

We suffer medial neglect, a systematic insensitivity to our own nature—a nature that includes this insensitivity. Like every other organism on this planet we cognize without cognizing the concurrent act of cognition. Well, almost like every other organism. Where other species utterly depend on the reliability of their cognitive capacities, have no way of repairing failures in various enabling—medial—systems, we do have recourse. Despite our blindness to the machinery of human cognition, we’ve developed a number of different ways to nudge that machinery—whack the TV set, you could say.

Truth-talk is one of those ways. Truth-talk allows us to minimize communicative discrepancies absent, once again, sensitivity to the complexities involved. Truth-talk provides a way to circumvent medial neglect, to resolve problems belonging to the enabling dimension of cognition despite our systematic insensitivity to the facts of that dimension. When medial issues—problems pertaining to cognitive function—arise, truth-talk allows for the metabolically inexpensive recovery of social and environmental synchronization. Incompatible claims can be sorted, at least so far as our ancestors required in prehistoric cognitive ecologies. The tribe can be healed, despite its profound ignorance of natures.

To say human cognition is heuristic is to say it is ecologically dependent, that it requires the neglected regularities underwriting the utility of our cues remain intact. Overthrow those regularities, and you overthrow human cognition. So, where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between retinal signals and environments while hunting, we have to remove our VR goggles before raiding the fridge. Where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between the text on the page or the voice in our ear and the existence of a fellow human, we have to worry about chatbots and ‘conversational user interfaces.’ Where our ancestors could automatically depend on the systematic relationship between their ingroup peers and the environments they reported, we need to search Wikipedia—trust strangers. More generally, where our ancestors could trust the general reliability (and therefore general irrelevance) of their cognitive reflexes, we find ourselves confronted with an ever growing and complicating set of circumstances where our reflexes can no longer be trusted to solve social problems.

The tribe, it seems, cannot be healed.

And, unfortunately, this is the very problem we should expect given the technical (tactical and technological) radicalization of human cognitive ecology.* Philosophy, and now, cognitive science, provide the communicative tactics required to neutralize (or ‘threshold’) truth-talk. Cognitive technologies, meanwhile, continually complicate the once direct systematic relationships between our suites of cognitive reflexes and our social and natural environments. The internet doesn’t simply render the sum of human knowledge available, it also renders the sum of human rationalization available as well. The curious and the informed, meanwhile, no longer need suffer the company of the incurious and the uninformed, and vice versa. The presumptive moral superiority of the former stands revealed: and in ever greater numbers the latter counter-identify, with a violence aggravated by phenomena such as the ‘online disinhibition effect.’ (One thing Mcintyre never pauses to consider is the degree to which he and his ilk are hated, despised, so much so as to see partners in traditional foreign adversaries, and to think lies and slander simply redress lies and slander). Populations begin spontaneously self-selecting. Big data identifies the vulnerable, who are showered with sociocognitive cues—atrocity tales to threaten, caricatures to amuse—engineered to provoke ingroup identification and outgroup alienation. In addition to ‘backfiring,’ counter-arguments are perceived as weapons, evidence of outgroup contempt for you and your own. And as the cognitive tactics become ever more adept at manipulating our biases, ever more scientifically informed, and as the cognitive technology becomes ever more sophisticated, ever more destructive of our ancestral cognitive habitat, the break between the two groups, we should expect, will only become more, not less, profound.

None of this is intuitive, of course. Medial neglect means reflection is source blind, and so inclined to conceive things in super-ecological terms. Thus the value of the prop building analogy I posed at the beginning.

Disney’s massive Manhattan anamorph depends on the viewer’s perspectival position within the installation to assure the occlusion of incompatible information. The degrees of cognitive freedom this position possesses—basically, how far one can wander this way and that—depends on the size and sophistication of the anamorph. The stability of illusion, in other words, entirely depends on the viewer: the deeper one investigates, the less stable the anamorph becomes. Their dependence on cognitive ‘sweet spots’ is their signature vulnerability.

The cognitive fragility of the anamorph, however, resides in the fact that we can move, while it cannot. Overcoming this fragility, then, either requires 1) de-animating observation, 2) complicating the anamorph, or 3) animating the anamorph. The problem we face can be understood as the problem of adaptive cognitive anamorphosis, the way cognitive science, in combination with cognitive technology, enables the de-animation of information consumers by gaming sociocognitive cues, while both complicating and animating the artifactual anamorphic information they consume.

Once a certain threshold is crossed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television. We don’t know what we don’t know. Mcintyre references the notorious Dunning-Kruger effect, the way cognitive incompetence correlates with incompetent assessments of competence, but the underlying mechanism is more basic: cognitive systems lacking access to information function independent of that information. Medial neglect assures we take the sufficiency of our perspectives for granted absent information indicating insufficiency or ‘medial misalignment.’ Trusting our biology and community is automatic. Perhaps we refuse to move, to even consider the information belonging to:

But if we do move, the anamorph, thanks to cognitive technology, adapts, the prop-facades grow prop sides, and the deep (globally synchronized) information presented above, has to compete with ‘faux deep’ information. The question becomes one of who has been systematically deceived—a question that ingroup biases have already answered in illusion’s favour. We can return to our less inquisitive peers and assure them they were right all along.

What is ‘post-truth’? Insofar as it names anything it refers to diminishing capacity of globally, versus locally, synchronized claims to drive public discourse. It’s almost as if, via technology, nature is retooling itself to conceal itself by creating adaptive ‘faux realities.’ It’s all artifactual, all biologically ‘constructed’: the question is whether our cognitive predicament facilitates global (or deep) synchronization geared to what happens to be the case, or facilitates local (or shallow) synchronization geared to ingroup expectations and hidden political and commercial interests.

There’s no contest between spooky correspondence and spooky construction. There’s no ‘assertion of ideological supremacy,’ just cognitive critters (us) stranded in a rapidly transforming cognitive ecology that has become too sophisticated to see, and too powerful to credit. Post-truth, in other words, is an inevitable consequence of scientific progress, particularly as it pertains to cognitive technologies.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television because Trump was able to lure millions of Americans across a radically transformed (and transforming) anamorphic threshold. And we should find this terrifying. Most doomed democracies elect their executioner. In his The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power, Benjamin Carter Hett blames the success of Nazism on the “reality deficit” suffered by the German people. “Hostility to reality,” he writes, “translated into contempt for politics, or, rather, desire for a politics that was somehow not political: a thing that can never be” (14). But where Germany in the 1930’s had every reason to despise the real, “a lost war that had cost the nation almost two million of her sons, a widely unpopular revolution, a seemingly unjust peace settlement, and economic chaos accompanied by huge social and technological change” (13), America finds itself suffering only the latter. The difference lies in the way the latter allows for the cultivation and exploitation of this hostility in an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity. In the German case, the reality itself drove the populace to embrace atavistic political fantasies. Thanks to technology, we can now achieve the same effect using only human cognitive shortcomings and corporate greed.

Buckle up. No matter what happens to Trump, the social dysfunction he expresses belongs to the very structure of our civilization. Competition for the market he’s identified is only going to intensify.

 

Advertisements

Killing Bartleby (Before It’s Too Late)

by rsbakker

Why did I not die at birth,

come forth from the womb and expire?

Why did the knees receive me?

Or why the breasts, that I should suck?

For then I should have lain down and been quiet;

I should have slept; then I should have been at rest,

with kings and counselors of the earth

who rebuilt ruins for themselves…

—Job 3:11-14 (RSV)

 

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”: I made the mistake of rereading this little gem a few weeks back. Section I, below, retells the story with an eye to heuristic neglect. Section II leverages this retelling into a critique of readings, like those belonging to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Slavoj Zizek, that fall into the narrator’s trap of exceptionalizing Bartleby. If you happen to know anyone interested in Bartleby criticism, by all means encourage them to defend their ‘doctrine of assumptions.’

 

I

The story begins with the unnamed narrator identifying two ignorances, one social and the other personal. The first involves Bartleby’s profession, that “somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written.” Human scriveners, like human computers, hail from a time when social complexities demanded the undertaking of mechanical cognitive labours, the discharge of tasks too procedural to rest easy in the human soul. Copies are all the ‘system’ requires of them, pure documentary repetition. It isn’t so much that their individuality does not matter, but that it matters too much, perturbing (‘blotting’) the function of the whole. So far as social machinery is legal machinery, you could say law-copyists belong to the neglected innards of mid-19th century society. Bartleby belongs to what might be called the caste of most invisible men.

What makes him worthy of literary visibility turns on a second manifestation of ignorance, this one belonging to the narrator. “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby,” he tells us, “that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.” And even though the narrator thinks this interpersonal inscrutability constitutes “an irreparable loss to literature,” it turns out to be the very fact upon which the literary obsession with “Bartleby, the Scrivener” hangs. Bartleby is so visible because he is the most hidden of the hidden men.

Since comprehending the dimensions of a black box buried within a black box is impossible, the narrator has no choice but to illuminate the latter, to provide an accounting of Bartleby’s ecology: “Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.” In a sense, Bartleby is nothing apart from his ultimately profound impact on this ecology, such is his mystery.

Aside from inklings of pettiness, the narrator’s primary attribute, we learn, is also invisibility, the degree to which he disappears into his social syntactic role. “I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds,” he tells us. “All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.” He is, in other words, the part that does not break down, and so, like Heidegger’s famed hammer, never becomes something present to hand, an object of investigation in his own right.

His description of his two existing scriveners demonstrates that his ‘safety’ is to some extent rhetorical, consisting in his ability to explain away inconsistencies, real or imagined. Between Turkey’s afternoon drunkenness and Nipper’s foul morning temperament, you could say his office is perpetually compromised, but the narrator chooses to characterize it otherwise, in terms of each man mechanically cancelling out the incompetence of the other. “Their fits relieved each other like guards,” the narrator informs us, resulting in “a good natural arrangement under the circumstances.”

He depicts what might be called an economy of procedural and interpersonal reflexes, a deterministic ecology consisting of strictly legal or syntactic demands, all turning on the irrelevance of the discharging individual, the absence of ‘blots,’ and a stochastic ecology of sometimes conflicting personalities. Not only does he instinctively understand the insoluble nature of the latter, he also understands the importance of apology, the power of language to square those circles that refuse to be squared. When he comes “within an ace” of firing Turkey, the drunken scrivener need only bow and say what amounts to nothing to mollify his employer. As with bonds and mortgages and title-deeds, the content does not so much matter as does the syntax, the discharge of social procedure. Everyone in his office “up stairs at No.—Wall-street” is a misfit, and the narrator is a compulsive ‘fitter,’ forever searching for ways to rationalize, mythologize, and so normalize, the idiosyncrasies of his interpersonal circumstances.

And of course, he and his fellows are entombed by the walls of Wall Street, enjoying ‘unobstructed views’ of obstructions. Theirs is a subterranean ecology, every bit as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’” as the labour that consumes them.

Enter Bartleby. “After a few words touching his qualifications,” the narrator informs us, “I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.” Absent any superficial sign of idiosyncrasy, he seems the perfect ecological fit. The narrator gives the man a desk behind a screen in his own office, a corner possessing a window upon obstruction.

After three days, he calls out to Bartleby to examine the accuracy of a document, reflexively assuming the man would discharge the task without delay, only to hear Bartleby, obscure behind his green screen, say the fateful words that would confound, not only our narrator, but countless readers and critics for generations to come: “I would prefer not to.” The narrator is gobsmacked:

“I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.””

Given the “natural expectancy of instant compliance,” the narrator assumes the breakdown is communicative. When he realizes this isn’t the case, he confronts Bartleby directly, to the same effect:

“Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors.”

Realizing that he has been comprehended, the narrator assumes willful defiance, that Bartleby seeks to provoke him, and that, accordingly, the man will present the cues belonging to interpersonal power struggles more generally. When Bartleby manifests none of these signs, the hapless narrator lacks the social script he requires to solve the problem. Turning out the scrivener becomes as unthinkable as surrendering his bust of Cicero, which is to say, the very emblem of his legal vocation.

The next time Bartleby refuses to read, the narrator demands an explanation, asking, “Why do you refuse?” To which Bartleby replies, once again, “I would prefer not to.” When the narrator presses, resolved “to reason with him,” he realizes that dysrationalia is not the problem: “It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusions; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.”

If Bartleby were non compos mentis, then he could be ‘medicalized,’ reduced to something the narrator would find intelligible—something providing some script for action. Instead, the scrivener understands, or manifests as much, leaving the narrator groping for evidence of his own rationality:

“It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.”

For a claim to be rational it must be rational to everyone. Each of us is stranded with our own perspective, and each of us possesses only the dimmest perspective on that perspective: rationality is something we can only assume. This is why ‘truth’ (especially in ‘normative’ matters (politics)) so often amounts to a ‘numbers game,’ a matter of tallying up guesses. Our blindness to our cognitive orientation—medial neglect—combined with the generativity of the human brain and the capriciousness of our environments, requires the communicative policing of cognitive idiosyncrasies. Whatever rationality consists in, minimally it functions to minimize discrepancies between individuals, sometimes vis a vis their environments and sometimes not. Reason, like the narrator, makes things fit.

The ‘disinterested persons’ the narrator turns to are themselves misfits, with “Nippers’ ugly mood on duty and Turkey’s off.” The irony here, and what critics are prone to find most interesting, is that the three are anything but disinterested. The more thought-provoking fact, however, lies in the way they agree with their employer despite the wild variance of their answers. For all the idiosyncrasies of its constituents, the office ecology automatically manages to conserve its ‘paramount consideration’: functionality.

Baffled unto inaction, the narrator suffers bouts of explaining away Bartleby’s discrepancies in terms of his material and moral utilities. The fact of his indulgences alternately congratulates and exasperates him: Bartleby becomes (and remains) a bi-stable sociocognitive figure, alternately aggressor and victim. “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” the narrator explains. “If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.” To be earnest is to be prone to minimize social discrepancies, to optimize via the integrations of others. The passivity of “I would prefer not to” poises Bartleby upon a predictive-processing threshold, one where the vicissitudes of mood are enough to transform him from a ‘penniless wight’ into a ‘brooding Marius’ and back again. The signals driving the charitable assessment are constantly interfering with the signals driving the uncharitable assessment, forcing the different neural hypotheses to alternate.

Via this dissonance, the scrivener begins to train him, with each “I would prefer not to” tending “to lessen the probability of [his] repeating the inadvertence.”

The ensuing narrative establishes two facts. First, we discover that Bartleby belongs to the office ecology, and in a manner more profound than even the narrator, let alone any one of his employees. Discovering Bartleby indisposed in his office on a Sunday, the narrator finds himself fleeing his own premises, alternately lost in “sad fancyings—chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain” and “[p]resentiments of strange discoveries”—strung between delusion and revelation.

Second, we learn that Bartleby, despite belonging to the office ecology, nevertheless signals its ruination:

“Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce?”

When the narrator catches Turkey also saying “prefer,” he says, “So you have got the word too,” as if a verbal tick could be caught as a cold. Turkey manifests cryptonesia. Nippers does the same not moments afterward—ever bit as unconsciously as Turkey. Knowing nothing of the way humans have evolved to unconsciously copy linguistic behaviour, the narrator construes Bartleby as a kind of contagion—or pollutant, a threat to his delicately balanced office ecology. He once again determines he must rid his office of the scrivener’s insidious influence, but, under that influence, once again allows prudence—or the appearance of such—to dissuade immediate action.

Bartleby at last refuses to copy, irrevocably undoing the foundation of the narrator’s ersatz rationalizations. “And what is the reason?” the narrator demands to know. Staring at the brick wall just beyond his window, Bartleby finally offers a different explanation: “Do you not see the reason for yourself.” Though syntactically structured as a question, this statement possesses no question mark in Melville’s original version (as it does, for instance, in the version anthologized by Norton). And indeed, the narrator misses the very reason implied by his own narrative—the wall that occupied so many of Bartleby’s reveries—and confabulates an apology instead: work induced ‘impaired vision.’

But this rationalization, like all the others, is quickly exhausted. The internal logic of the office ecology is entirely dependent on the logic of Wall-street: the text continually references the functional exigencies commanding the ebb and flow of their lives, the way “necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations.” The narrator, when all is said and done, is an instrument of the Law and the countless institutions dependent upon it. At long last he fires Bartleby rather than merely resolving to do so.

He celebrates his long-deferred decisiveness while walking home, only to once again confront the blank wall the scrivener has become:

“My procedure seemed as sagacious as ever—but only in theory. How it would prove in practice—there was the rub. It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby’s departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby’s. The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.”

And so, the great philosophical debate, both within the text and its critical reception, is set into motion. Lost in rumination, the narrator overhears someone say, “I’ll take odds he doesn’t,” on the street, and angrily retorts, assuming the man was referring to Bartleby, and not, as was actually the case, an upcoming election. Bartleby’s ‘passive resistance’ has so transformed his cognitive ecology as to crash his ability to make sense of his fellow man. Meaning, at least so far as it exists in his small pocket of the world, has lost its traditional stability.

Of course, the stranger’s voice, though speaking of a different matter altogether, had spoken true. Bartleby prefers not to leave the office that has become his home.

“What was to be done? or, if nothing could be done, was there any thing further that I could assume in the matter? Yes, as before I had prospectively assumed that Bartleby would depart, so now I might retrospectively assume that departed he was. In the legitimate carrying out of this assumption, I might enter my office in a great hurry, and pretending not to see Bartleby at all, walk straight against him as if he were air. Such a proceeding would in a singular degree have the appearance of a home-thrust. It was hardly possible that Bartleby could withstand such an application of the doctrine of assumptions.”

The ‘home-thrust,’ in other words, is to simply pretend, to physically enact the assumption of Bartleby’s absence, to not only ignore him, but to neglect him altogether, to the point of walking through him if need be. “But upon second thoughts the success of the plan seemed rather dubious,” the narrator realizes. “I resolved to argue the matter over with him again,” even though argument, Sellars famed ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ is something Bartleby prefers not to recognize.

When the application of reason fails once again, the narrator at last entertains the thought of killing Bartleby, realizing “the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations” is one tailor-made for the commission of murder. Even acts of evil have their ecological preconditions. But rather than seize Bartleby, he ‘grapples and throws’ the murderous temptation, recalling the Christian injunction to love his neighbour. As research suggests, imagination correlates with indecision, the ability to entertain (theorize) possible outcomes: the narrator is nothing if not an inspired social confabulator. For every action-demanding malignancy he ponders, his aversion to confrontation occasions another reason for exemption, which is all he needs to reduce the discrepancies posed.

He resigns himself to the man:

“Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom. Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.”

But this story, for all its grandiosity, likewise melts before the recalcitrant scrivener. The comical notion that furnishing Bartleby an office could have cosmic significance merely furnishes a means of ignoring what cannot be ignored: how the man compromises, in ways crude and subtle, the systems of assumptions, the network of rational reflexes, comprising the ecology of Wall-street. In other words, the narrator’s clients are noticing…

“Then something severe, something unusual must be done. What! surely you will not have him collared by a constable, and commit his innocent pallor to the common jail? And upon what ground could you procure such a thing to be done?—a vagrant, is he? What! he a vagrant, a wanderer, who refuses to budge? It is because he will not be a vagrant, then, that you seek to count him as a vagrant. That is too absurd. No visible means of support: there I have him. Wrong again: for indubitably he does support himself, and that is the only unanswerable proof that any man can show of his possessing the means so to do.”

At last invisibility must be sacrificed, and regularity undone. The narrator ratchets through the facts of the scrivener’s cognitive bi-stability. An innocent criminal. An immovable vagrant. Unsupported yet standing. Reason itself cracks about him. And what reason cannot touch only fight or flight can undo. If the ecology cannot survive Bartleby, and Bartleby is immovable, then the ecology must be torn down and reestablished elsewhere.

It’s tempting to read this story in ‘buddy terms,’ to think that the peculiarities of Bartleby only possess the power they do given the peculiarities of the narrator. (One of the interesting things about the yarn is the way it both congratulates and insults the neuroticism of the critic, who, having canonized Bartleby, cannot but flatter themselves both by thinking they would have endured Bartleby the way the narrator does, and by thinking that surely they wouldn’t be so disabled by the man). The narrator’s decision to relocate allows us to see the universality of his type, how others possessing far less history with the scrivener are themselves driven to apologize, to exhaust all ‘quiet’ means of minimizing discrepancies. “[S]ome fears are entertained of a mob,” his old landlord warns him, desperate to purge the scrivener from No.—Wall-street.

Threatened with exposure in the papers—visibility—the narrator once again confronts Bartleby the scrivener. This time he comes bearing possibilities of gainful employment, greener pastures, some earnest, some sarcastic, only to be told, “I would prefer not to,” with the addition of, “I am not particular.” And indeed, as Bartleby’s preference severs ever more ecological connections, he seems to become ever more super-ecological, something outside the human communicative habitat. Repulsed yet again, the narrator flees Wall-street altogether.

Bartleby, meanwhile, is imprisoned in the Tombs, the name given to the House of Detention in lower Manhattan. A walled street is replaced by a walled yard—which, the narrator will tell Bartleby, “is not so sad a place as one might think,” the irony being, of course, that with sky and grass the Tombs actually represent an improvement over Wall-street. Bartleby, for his part, only has eyes for the walls—his unobstructed view of obstruction. To assure his former scrivener is well fed, the narrator engages the prison cook, who asks him whether Bartleby is a forger, likening the man to Monroe Edwards, a famed slavetrader and counterfeiter in Melville’s day. Despite the criminal connotations of Nippers, the narrator assures the man he was “never socially acquainted with any forgers.”

On his next visit, he discovers that Bartleby’s metaphoric ‘dead wall reveries’ have become literal. The narrator finds him “huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones,” dead for starvation. Cutting the last, most fundamental ecological reflex of all—the consumption of food—Bartleby has finally touched the face of obstruction… oblivion.

The story proper ends with one last misinterpretation: the cook assuming that Bartleby sleeps. And even here, at this final juncture, the narrator apologizes rather than corrects, quoting Job 3:14, using the Holy Bible, perhaps, to “mason up his remains in the wall.” Melville, however, seems to be gesturing to the fundamental problem underwriting the whole of his tale, the problem of meaning, quoting a fragment of Job in extremis, asking God why he should have been born at all, if his lot was only desolation. What meaning resides in such a life? Why not die an innocent?

Like Bartleby.

What the narrator terms the “sequel” consists of no more than two paragraphs (set apart by a ‘wall’ of eight asterisks), the first divulging “one little item of rumor” which may or may not be more or less true, the second famously consisting in, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” The rumour occasioning these apostrophic cries suggests “that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change of administration.”

What moves the narrator to passions too complicated to scrutinize is nothing other than the ecology of such a prospect: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?” Here at last, he thinks, we find some glimpse of the scrivener’s original habitat: dead letters potentially fund the reason the man forever pondered dead walls. Rather than a forger, one who cheats systems, Bartleby is an undertaker, one who presides over their crashing. The narrator paints his final rationalization, Bartleby mediating an ecology of fatal communicative interruptions:

“Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”

An ecology, in other words, consisting of quotidian ecological failures, life lost for the interruption of some crucial material connection, be it ink or gold. Thus, are Bartleby and humanity entangled in the failures falling out of neglect, the idiosyncratic, the addresses improperly copied, and the ill-timed, the words addressed to those already dead. A meta-ecology where discrepancies can never be healed only consigned to oblivion.

But, of course, were Bartleby still living, this ‘sad fancying’ would likewise turn out to be a ‘chimera of a sick and silly brain.’ Just another way to brick over the questions. If the narrator finds consolation, the wreckage of his story remains.

 

II

I admit that I feel more like Ahab than Ishmael… most of the time. But I’m not so much obsessed by the White Whale as by what is obliterated when it’s revealed as yet another mere cetacean. Be it the wrecking of The Pequod, or the flight of the office at No.— Wall-street, the problem of meaning is my White Whale. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is compelling, I think, to the degree it lends that problem the dimensionality of narrative.

Where in Moby-Dick, the relation between the inscrutable and the human is presented via Ishmael, which is to say the third person, in Bartleby, the relation is presented in the second: the narrator is Ahab, every bit as obsessed with his own pale emblem of unaccountable discrepancy—every bit as maddened. The violence is merely sublimated in quotidian discursivity.

The labour of Ishmael falls to the critic. “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view),” Melville writes to John C. Hoadley in 1877, “that one knows not what to make of it, unless—well, finish the sentence for yourself.” A great many critics have, spawning what Dan McCall termed (some time ago now) the ‘Bartleby Industry.’ There’s so many interpretations, in fact, that the only determinate thing one can say regarding the text is that it systematically underdetermines every attempt to determine its ‘meaning.’

In the ecology of literary and philosophical critique, Bartleby remains a crucial watering hole in an ever-shrinking reservation of the humanities. A great number of these interpretations share the narrator’s founding assumption, that Bartleby—the character—represents something exceptional. Consider, for instance, Deleuze in “Bartleby; or, the Formula.”

“If Bartleby had refused, he could still be seen as a rebel or insurrectionary, and as such would still have a social role. But the formula stymies all speech acts, and at the same time, it makes Bartelby a pure outsider [exclu] to whom no social position can be attributed. This is what the attorney glimpses with dread: all his hopes of bringing Bartleby back to reason are dashed because they rest on a logic of presuppositions according to which an employer ‘expects’ to be obeyed, or a kind of friend listened to, whereas Bartleby has invented a new logic, a logic of preference, which is enough to undermine the presuppositions of language as a whole.” 73

Or consider Zizek, who uses Bartleby to conclude The Parallax View no less:

“In his refusal of the Master’s order, Bartleby does not negate the predicate; rather, he affirms a nonpredicate: he does not say that he doesn’t want to do it; he says that he prefers (wants) not to do it. This is how we pass from the politics of “resistance” or “protestation,” which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.” 380-1

Bartleby begets ‘Bartleby politics,’ the possibility of a relation to what stands outside relationality, a “move from something to nothing, from the gap between two ‘somethings’ to the gap that separates a something from nothing, from the void of its own place” (381). Bartleby isn’t simply an outsider on this account, he’s a pure outsider, more limit than liminal. And this, of course, is the very assumption that the narrator himself carries away intact: that Bartleby constitutes something ontologically or logically exceptional.

I no longer share this assumption. Like Borges in his “Prologue to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby,” I see “the symbol of the whale is less apt for suggesting the universe is vicious than for suggesting its vastness, its inhumanity, its bestial or enigmatic stupidity.” Melville, for all the wide-eyed grandiloquence of his prose, was a squinty-eyed skeptic. “These men are all cracked right across the brow,” he would write of philosophers such as Emerson. “And never will the pullers-down be able to cope with the builders-up.” For him, the interest always lies in the distances between lofty discourse and the bloody mundanities it purports to solve. As he writes to Hawthorne in 1851:

“And perhaps after all, there is no secret. We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason’s mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron—nothing more! We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little more information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us.”

It’s an all too human reflex. Ignorance becomes justification for the stories we want to tell, and we are filled with “oracular gibberish” as a result.

So what if Bartleby holds no secrets outside the ‘contagion of nihilism’ that Borges ascribes to him?

As a novelist, I cannot but read the tale, with its manifest despair and gallows humour, as the expression of another novelist teetering on the edge of professional ruin. Melville conceived and wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” during a dark period of his life. Both Moby-Dick and Pierre had proved to be critical and commercial failures. As Melville would write to Hawthorne:

“What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

Forgeries, neither artistic nor official. Two species of neuroticism plague full-time writers, particularly if they possess, as Melville most certainly did, a reflective bent. There’s the neuroticism that drives a writer to write, the compulsion to create, and there’s the neuroticism secondary to a writer’s consciousness of this prior incapacity, the neurotic compulsion to rationalize one’s neuroticism.

Why, for instance, am I writing this now? Am I a literary critic? No. Am I being paid to write this? No. Are there things I should be writing instead? Buddy, you have no idea. So why don’t I write as I should?

Well, quite simply, I would prefer not to.

And why is this? Is it because I have some glorious spark in me? Some essential secret? Am I, like Bartleby, a pure outsider?

Or am I just a fucking idiot? A failed copyist.

For critics, the latter is pretty much the only answer possible when it comes to living writers who genuinely fail to copy. No matter how hard we wave discrepancy’s flag, we remain discrepancy minimization machines—particularly where social cognition is concerned. Living literary dissenters cue reflexes devoted to living threats: the only good discrepancy is a dead discrepancy. As the narrator discovers, attributing something exceptional becomes far easier once the dissenter is dead. Once the source falls silent, the consequences possess the freedom to dispute things as they please.

Writers themselves, however, discover they are divided, that Ahab is not Ahab, but Ishmael as well, the spinner of tales about tales. A failed copyist. A hapless lawyer. Gazing at obstruction, chasing the whale, spinning rationalization after rationalization, confabulating as a human must, taking meagre heart in spasms of critical fantasy.

Endless interpretative self-deception. As much as I recognize Bartleby, I know the narrator only too well. This is why for me, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is best seen as a prank on the literary establishment, a virus uploaded with each and every Introduction to American Literature class, one assuring that the critic forever bumbles as the narrator bumbles, waddling the easy way, the expected way, embodying more than applying the ‘doctrine of assumptions.’ Bartleby is the paradigmatic idiot, both in the ancient Greek sense of idios, private unto inscrutable, and idiosyncratic unto useless. But for the sake of vanity and cowardice, we make of him something vast, more than a metaphor for x. The character of Bartleby, on this reading, is not so much key to understanding something ‘absolute’ as he is key to understanding human conceit—which is to say, the confabulatory stupidity of the critic.

But explaining the prank, of course, amounts to falling for the prank (this is the key to its power). No matter how mundane one’s interpretation of Bartleby, as an authorial double, as a literary prank, it remains simply one more interpretation, further evidence of the narrative’s profound indeterminacy. ‘Negative exceptionalists’ like Deleuze or Zizek (or Agamben) need only point out this fact to rescue their case—don’t they? Even if Melville conceived Bartleby as his neurotic alter-ego, the word-crazed husband whose unaccountable preferences had reduced his family to penury (and so, charity), he nonetheless happened upon “a zone of indetermination or indiscernibility in which neither words nor characters can be distinguished” (“Bartleby, or the Formula,” 76).

No matter how high one stacks their mundane interpretations of Bartleby—as an authorial alter-ego, a psycho-sociological casualty, an exemplar of passive resistance, or so on—the profundity of his rationality crashing function remains every bit as profound, exceptional. Doesn’t it? After-all, nothing essential binds the distal intent of the author (itself nothing but another narrative) to the proximate effect of the text, which is to “send language itself into flight” (76). Once we set aside the biographical, psychological, historical, economic, political, and so on, does not this formal function remain? And is it not irreducible, exceptional?

That depends whether you think,

is exceptional. What should we say about Necker Cubes? Do they mark the point where the visibility of the visible collapses, generating ‘a zone of indetermination or indiscernibility in which neither indents nor protrusions can be distinguished’? Are they ‘pure figures,’ efficacies that stand outside the possibility of intelligible geometry? Or do they merely present the visual cortex with the demand to distinguish between indents and protrusions absent the information required to settle that demand, thus stranding visual experience upon the predictive threshold of both? Are they bi-stable images?

The first explanation pretty clearly mistakes a heuristic breakdown in the cognition of visual information with an exceptional visual object, something intrinsically indeterminate—something super-geometrical, in fact. When we encounter something visually indeterminate, we immediately blame our vision, which is to say, the invisible, enabling dimension of visual cognition. Visual discrepancies had real reproductive consequences, evolutionarily speaking. Thanks to medial neglect, we had no way of cognizing the ecological nature of vision, so we could only blink, peer, squint, rub our eyes, or change our position. If the discrepancy persisted, we wondered at it, and if we could, transformed it into something useful—be it cuing environmental forms on cave or cathedral walls (‘visual representations’) or cuing wonder with kaleidoscopes at Victorian exhibitions.

Likewise, Deleuze and Zizek (and many, many others) are mistaking a heuristic breakdown in the cognition of social information with an exceptional social entity, something intrinsically indeterminate—something super-social. Imagine encountering a Bartleby in your own place of employ. Imagine your employer not simply tolerating him, but enabling him, allowing him to drift ever deeper into anorexic catatonia. Initially, when we encounter something socially indeterminate in vivo, we typically blame communication—as does the narrator with Bartleby. Social discrepancies, one might imagine, had profound reproductive consequences (given that reproduction is itself social). The narrator’s sensitivity to such discrepancies is the sensitivity that all of us share. Given medial neglect, however, we have no way of cognizing the ecological nature of social cognition. So we check with our colleagues just to be sure (‘Am I losing my mind here?’), then we blame the breakdown in rational reflexes on the man himself. We gossip, test out this or that pet theory, pester spouses who, insensitive to potential micropolitical discrepancies, urge us to file a complaint with someone somewhere. Eventually, we either quit the place, get the poor sod some help, or transform him into something useful, like “Bartleby politics” or what have you. This is the prank that Melville lays out with the narrator—the prank that all post-modern appropriations of this tale trip into headlong…

The ecological nature of cognition entails the blindness of cognition to its ecological nature. We are distributed systems: we evolved to take as much of our environments for granted as we possibly could, accessing as little as possible to solve as many problems as possible. Experience and cognition turn on shallow information ecologies, blind systems turning on reliable (because reliably generated) environmental frequencies to solve problems—especially communicative problems. Absent the requisite systems and environments, these ecologies crash, result in the application of cognitive systems to situations they cannot hope to solve. Those who have dealt with addicted or mentally-ill loved ones know the profundity of these crashes first-hand, the way the unseen reflexes (‘preferences’) governing everyday interactions cast you into dismay and confusion time and again, all for want of applicability. There’s the face, the eyes, all the cues signaling them as them, and then… everything collapses into mealy alarm and confusion. Bartleby, with his dissenting preference, does precisely the same: Melville provides exquisite experiential descriptions of the dumbfounding characteristic of sociocognitive crashes.

Bartleby need not be a ‘pure outsider’ to do this. He just needs to provide enough information to demand disambiguation, but not enough information to provide it. “I would prefer not to”—Bartleby’s ‘formula,’ according to Deleuze—is anything but ‘minimal’: its performance functions the way it does because of the intricate communicative ecology it belongs to. But given medial neglect, our blindness to ecology, the formula is prone to strike us as something quite different, as something possessing no ecology.

It certainly strikes Deleuze as such:

“The formula is devastating because it eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred. It not only abolishes the term it refers to, and that it rejects, but also abolishes the other term it seemed to preserve, and that becomes impossible. In fact, it renders them indistinct: it hollows out an ever expanding zone of indiscernibility or indetermination between some nonpreferred activities and a preferable activity. All particularity, all reference is abolished.” 71

Since preferences affirm, ‘preferring not to’ (expressed in the subjunctive no less) can be read as an affirmative negation: it affirms the negation of the narrator’s request. Since nothing else is affirmed, there’s a peculiar sense in which ‘preferring not to’ possesses no reference whatsoever. Medial neglect assures that reflection on the formula occludes the enabling ecology, that asking what the formula does will result in fetishization, the attribution of efficacy in an explanatory vacuum. Suddenly ‘preferring not to’ appears to be a ‘semantic disintegration grenade,’ something essentially disruptive.

In point of natural fact, however, human sociocognition is fundamentally interactive, consisting in the synchronization of radically heuristic systems given only the most superficial information. Understanding one another is a radically interdependent affair. Bartleby presents all the information cuing social reliability, therefore consistently cuing predictions of reliability that turn out to be faulty. The narrator subsequently rummages through the various tools we possess to solve harmless acts of unreliability given medial neglect—tools which have no applicability in Bartleby’s case. Not only does Bartleby crash the network of predictive reflexes constituting the office ecology, he crashes the sociocognitive hacks that humans in general use to troubleshoot such breakdowns. He does so, not because of some arcane semantic power belonging to the ‘formula,’ but because he manifests as a sociocognitive Necker-Cube, cuing noncoercive troubleshooting routines that have no application given whatever his malfunction happens to be.

This is the profound human fact that Melville’s skeptical imagination fastened upon, as well as the reason Bartleby is ‘nothing in particular’: all human social cognition is fundamentally ecological. Consider, once again, the passage where the narrator entertains the possibility of neglecting Bartleby altogether, simply pretending he was absent:

“What was to be done? or, if nothing could be done, was there any thing further that I could assume in the matter? Yes, as before I had prospectively assumed that Bartleby would depart, so now I might retrospectively assume that departed he was. In the legitimate carrying out of this assumption, I might enter my office in a great hurry, and pretending not to see Bartleby at all, walk straight against him as if he were air. Such a proceeding would in a singular degree have the appearance of a home-thrust. It was hardly possible that Bartleby could withstand such an application of the doctrine of assumptions. But upon second thoughts the success of the plan seemed rather dubious. I resolved to argue the matter over with him again.”

Having reached the limits sociocognitive application, he proposes simply ignoring any subsequent failure in prediction, in effect, wishing the Bartlebian crash space away. The problem, of course, is that it ‘takes two to tango’: he has no choice but to ‘argue the matter again’ because the ‘doctrine of assumptions’ is interactional, ecological. What Melville has fastened upon here is the way the astronomical complexity of the sociocognitive (and metacognitive) systems involved holds us hostage, in effect, to their interactional reliability. Meaning depends on maddening sociocognitive intricacies.

The entirety of the story illustrates the fragility of this cognitive ecosystem despite its all-consuming power. Time and again Bartleby is characterized as an ecological casualty of the industrialization of social relations, be it the mass disposal of undelivered letters or the mass reproduction of legally binding documentation. Like ‘computer,’ ‘copier’ names something that was once human but has since become technology. But even as Bartleby’s breakdown expresses the system’s power to break the maladapted, it also reveals its boggling vulnerability, the ease with which it evaporates into like-minded conspiracies and ‘mere pretend.’ So long as everyone plays along—functions reliably—this interdependence remains occluded, and the irrationality (the discrepancy generating stupidity) of the whole never needs be confronted.

In other words, the lesson of Bartleby can be profound, as profound as human communication and cognition itself, without implying anything exceptional. Stupidity, blind, obdurate obliviousness, is all that is required. A minister’s black veil, a bit of crepe poised upon the right interactional interface, can throw whole interpretative communities from their pins. The obstruction, the blank wall, need not conceal anything magical to crash the gossamer ecologies of human life. It need only appear to be a window, or more cunning still, a window upon a wall. We need only be blind to the interactional machinery of looking to hallucinate absolute horizons. Blind to the meat of life.

And in this sense, we can accuse the negative exceptionalists such as Deleuze and Zizek not simply with ignoring life, the very topos of literature, but with concealing the threat that the technologization of life poses to life. Only in an ecology can we understand the way victims can at once be assailants absent aporia, how Bartleby, overthrown by the technosocial ecologies of his age, can in turn overthrow that technosocial ecology. Only understanding life for what we know it to be—biological—allows us to see the profound threat the endless technological rationalization of human sociocognitive ecologies poses to the viability of those ecologies. For Bartleby, by revealing the ecological fragility of human social cognition, how break begets break, reveals the antithesis between ‘progress’ and ‘meaning,’ how the former can only carry the latter so far before crashing.

As Deleuze and Zizek have it, Bartleby holds open a space of essential resistance. As the reading here has it, Bartleby provides a grim warning regarding the ecological fragility of human social cognition. One can even look at him as a blueprint for the potential weaponization of anthropomorphic artificial intelligence, systems designed to strand individual decision-making upon thresholds, to command inaction via the strategic presentation of cues. Far from representing some messianic discrepancy, apophatic proof of transcendence, he represents the way we ourselves become cognitive pollutants when abandoned to polluted cognitive ecologies.

Notes Toward a Cognitive Biology of Theoretical Physics

by rsbakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by rsbakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree entirely when Malabou writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man

by rsbakker

 

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

 

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

 

Cognitive Images

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cognitive Ecologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ecology versus Image

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

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

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

Which is to say, lost to crash space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse

by rsbakker

“In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.” –The Epic of Gilgamesh

We know that human cognition is largely heuristic, and as such dependent upon cognitive ecologies. We know that the technological transformation of those ecologies generates what Pinker calls ‘bugs,’ heuristic miscues due to deformations in ancestral correlative backgrounds. In ancestral times, our exposure to threat-cuing stimuli possessed a reliable relationship to actual threats. Not so now thanks to things like the nightly news, generating (via, Pinker suggests, the availability heuristic (42)) exaggerated estimations of threat.

The toll of scientific progress, in other words, is cognitive ecological degradation. So far that degradation has left the problem-solving capacities of intentional cognition largely intact: the very complexity of the systems requiring intentional cognition has hitherto rendered cognition largely impervious to scientific renovation. Throughout the course of revolutionizing our environments, we have remained a blind-spot, the last corner of nature where traditional speculation dares contradict the determinations of science.

This is changing.

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 travelers 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.

Now that the sciences are colonizing the complexities of experience and cognition, we can see the first clear-cut omens of the semantic apocalypse.

 

Crash Space

He assiduously avoids the topic in Enlightenment Now, but in The Blank Slate, Pinker devotes several pages to deflating the arch-incompatibility between natural and intentional modes of cognition, the problem of free will:

“But how can we have both explanation, with its requirement of lawful causation, and responsibility, with its requirement of free choice? To have them both we don’t need to resolve the ancient and perhaps irresolvable antinomy between free will and determinism. We have only to think clearly about what we want the notion of responsibility to achieve.” 180

He admits there’s no getting past the ‘conflict of intuitions’ underwriting the debate. Since he doesn’t know what intentional and natural cognition amount to, he doesn’t understand their incompatibility, and so proposes we simply side-step the problem altogether by redefining ‘responsibility’ to mean what we need it to mean—the same kind of pragmatic redefinition proposed by Dennett. He then proceeds to adduce examples of ‘clear thinking’ by providing guesses regarding ‘holding responsible’ as deterrence, which is more scientifically tractable. “I don’t claim to have solved the problem of free will, only to show that we don’t need to solve it to preserve personal responsibility in the face of an increasing understanding of the causes of behaviour” (185).

Here we can see how profoundly Pinker (as opposed to Nietzsche and Adorno) misunderstands the profundity of Enlightenment disenchantment. The problem isn’t that one can’t cook up alternate definitions of ‘responsibility,’ the problem is that anyone can, endlessly. ‘Clear thinking’ is as liable to serve Pinker as well as ‘clear and distinct ideas’ served Descartes, which is to say, as more grease for the speculative mill. No matter how compelling your particular instrumentalization of ‘responsibility’ seems, it remains every bit as theoretically underdetermined as any other formulation.

There’s a reason such exercises in pragmatic redefinition stall in the speculative ether. Intentional and mechanical cognitive systems are not optional components of human cognition, nor are the intuitions we are inclined to report. Moreover, as we saw in the previous post, intentional cognition generates reliable predictions of system behaviour absent access to the actual sources of that behaviour. Intentional cognition is source-insensitive. Natural cognition, on the other hand, is source sensitive: it generates predictions of system behaviour via access to the actual sources of that behaviour.

Small wonder, then, that our folk intentional intuitions regularly find themselves scuttled by scientific explanation. ‘Free will,’ on this account, is ancestral lemonade, a way to make the best out of metacognitive lemons, namely, our blindness to the sources of our thought and decisions. To the degree it relies upon ancestrally available (shallow) saliencies, any causal (deep) account of those sources is bound to ‘crash’ our intuitions regarding free will. The free will debate that Pinker hopes to evade with speculation can be seen as a kind of crash space, the point where the availability of deep information generates incompatible causal intuitions and intentional intuitions.

The confusion here isn’t (as Pinker thinks) ‘merely conceptual’; it’s a bona fide, material consequence of the Enlightenment, a cognitive version of a visual illusion. Too much information of the wrong kind crashes our radically heuristic modes of cognizing decisions. Stipulating definitions, not surprisingly, solves nothing insofar as it papers over the underlying problem—this is why it merely adds to the literature. Responsibility-talk cues the application of intentional cognitive modes; it’s the incommensurability of these modes with causal cognition that’s the problem, not our lexicons.

 

Cognitive Information

Consider the laziness of certain children. Should teachers be allowed to hold students responsible for their academic performance? As the list of learning disabilities grows, incompetence becomes less a matter of ‘character’ and more a matter of ‘malfunction’ and providing compensatory environments. Given that all failures of competence redound on cognitive infelicities of some kind, and given that each and every one of these infelicities can and will be isolated and explained, should we ban character judgments altogether? Should we regard exhortations to ‘take responsibility’ as forms of subtle discrimination, given that executive functioning varies from student to student? Is treating children like (sacred) machinery the only ‘moral’ thing to do?

So far at least. Causal explanations of behaviour cue intentional exemptions: our ancestral thresholds for exempting behaviour from moral cognition served larger, ancestral social equilibria. Every etiological discovery cues that exemption in an evolutionarily unprecedented manner, resulting in what Dennett calls “creeping exculpation,” the gradual expansion of morally exempt behaviours. Once a learning impediment has been discovered, it ‘just is’ immoral to hold those afflicted responsible for their incompetence. (If you’re anything like me, simply expressing the problem in these terms rankles!) Our ancestors, resorting to systems adapted to resolving social problems given only the merest information, had no problem calling children lazy, stupid, or malicious. Were they being witlessly cruel doing so? Well, it certainly feels like it. Are we more enlightened, more moral, for recognizing the limits of that system, and curtailing the context of application? Well, it certainly feels like it. But then how do we justify our remaining moral cognitive applications? Should we avoid passing moral judgment on learners altogether? It’s beginning to feel like it. Is this itself moral?

This is theoretical crash space, plain and simple. Staking out an argumentative position in this space is entirely possible—but doing so merely exemplifies, as opposed to solves, the dilemma. We’re conscripting heuristic systems adapted to shallow cognitive ecologies to solve questions involving the impact of information they evolved to ignore. We can no more resolve our intuitions regarding these issues than we can stop Necker Cubes from spoofing visual cognition.

The point here isn’t that gerrymandered solutions aren’t possible, it’s that gerrymandered solutions are the only solutions possible. Pinker’s own ‘solution’ to the debate (see also, How the Mind Works, 54-55) can be seen as a symptom of the underlying intractability, the straits we find ourselves in. We can stipulate, enforce solutions that appease this or that interpretation of this or that displaced intuition: teachers who berate students for their laziness and stupidity are not long for their profession—at least not anymore. As etiologies of cognition continue to accumulate, as more and more deep information permeates our moral ecologies, the need to revise our stipulations, to engineer them to discharge this or that heuristic function, will continue to grow. Free will is not, as Pinker thinks, “an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable” (HMW 55), it is (as Bruce Waller puts it) stubborn, a cognitive reflex belonging to a system of cognitive reflexes belonging to intentional cognition more generally. Foot-stomping does not change how those reflexes are cued in situ. The free-will crash space will continue to expand, no matter how stubbornly Pinker insists on this or that redefinition of this or that term.

We’re not talking about a fall from any ‘heuristic Eden,’ here, an ancestral ‘golden age’ where our instincts were perfectly aligned with our circumstances—the sheer granularity of moral cognition, not to mention the confabulatory nature of moral rationalization, suggests that it has always slogged through interpretative mire. What we’re talking about, rather, is the degree that moral cognition turns on neglecting certain kinds of natural information. Or conversely, the degree to which deep natural information regarding our cognitive capacities displaces and/or crashes once straightforward moral intuitions, like the laziness of certain children.

Or the need to punish murderers…

Two centuries ago a murderer suffering irregular sleep characterized by vocalizations and sometimes violent actions while dreaming would have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Now, however, such a murderer would be diagnosed as suffering an episode of ‘homicidal somnambulism,’ and could very likely go free. Mammalian brains do not fall asleep or awaken all at once. For some yet-to-be-determined reason, the brains of certain individuals (mostly men older than 50), suffer a form of partial arousal causing them to act out their dreams.

More and more, neuroscience is making an impact in American courtrooms. Nita Farahany (2016) has found that between 2005 and 2012 the number of judicial opinions referencing neuroscientific evidence has more than doubled. She also found a clear correlation between the use of such evidence and less punitive outcomes—especially when it came to sentencing. Observers in the burgeoning ‘neurolaw’ field think that for better or worse, neuroscience is firmly entrenched in the criminal justice system, and bound to become ever more ubiquitous.

Not only are responsibility assessments being weakened as neuroscientific information accumulates, social risk assessments are being strengthened (Gkotsi and Gasser 2016). So-called ‘neuroprediction’ is beginning to revolutionize forensic psychology. Studies suggest that inmates with lower levels of anterior cingulate activity are approximately twice as likely to reoffend as those relatively higher levels of activity (Aharoni et al 2013). Measurements of ‘early sensory gating’ (attentional filtering) predict the likelihood that individuals suffering addictions will abandon cognitive behavioural treatment programs (Steele et al 2014). Reduced gray matter volumes in the medial and temporal lobes identify youth prone to commit violent crimes (Cope et al 2014). ‘Enlightened’ metrics assessing recidivism risks already exist within disciplines such as forensic psychiatry, of course, but “the brain has the most proximal influence on behavior” (Gaudet et al 2016). Few scientific domains illustrate the problems secondary to deep environmental information than the issue of recidivism. Given the high social cost of criminality, the ability to predict ‘at risk’ individuals before any crime is committed is sure to pay handsome preventative dividends. But what are we to make of justice systems that parole offenders possessing one set of ‘happy’ neurological factors early, while leaving others possessing an ‘unhappy’ set to serve out their entire sentence?

Nothing, I think, captures the crash of ancestral moral intuitions in modern, technological contexts quite so dramatically as forensic danger assessments. Consider, for instance, the way deep information in this context has the inverse effect of deep information in the classroom. Since punishment is indexed to responsibility, we generally presume those bearing less responsibility deserve less punishment. Here, however, it’s those bearing the least responsibility, those possessing ‘social learning disabilities,’ who ultimately serve the longest. The very deficits that mitigate responsibility before conviction actually aggravate punishment subsequent conviction.

The problem is fundamentally cognitive, and not legal, in nature. As countless bureaucratic horrors make plain, procedural decision-making need not report as morally rational. We would be mad, on the one hand, to overlook any available etiology in our original assessment of responsibility. We would be mad, on the other hand, to overlook any available etiology in our subsequent determination of punishment. Ergo, less responsibility often means more punishment.

Crash.

The point, once again, is to describe the structure and dynamics of our collective sociocognitive dilemma in the age of deep environmental information, not to eulogize ancestral cognitive ecologies. The more we disenchant ourselves, the more evolutionarily unprecedented information we have available, the more problematic our folk determinations become. Demonstrating this point demonstrates the futility of pragmatic redefinition: no matter how Pinker or Dennett (or anyone else) rationalizes a given, scientifically-informed definition of moral terms, it will provide no more than grist for speculative disputation. We can adopt any legal or scientific operationalization we want (see Parmigiani et al 2017); so long as responsibility talk cues moral cognitive determinations, however, we will find ourselves stranded with intuitions we cannot reconcile.

Considered in the context of politics and the ‘culture wars,’ the potentially disastrous consequences of these kinds of trends become clear. One need only think of the oxymoronic notion of ‘commonsense’ criminology, which amounts to imposing moral determinations geared to shallow cognitive ecologies upon criminal contexts now possessing numerous deep information attenuations. Those who, for whatever reason, escaped the education system with something resembling an ancestral ‘neglect structure’ intact, those who have no patience for pragmatic redefinitions or technical stipulations will find appeals to folk intuitions every bit as convincing as those presiding over the Salem witch trials in 1692. Those caught up in deep information environments, on the other hand, will be ever more inclined to see those intuitions as anachronistic, inhumane, immoral—unenlightened.

Given the relation between education and information access and processing capacity, we can expect that education will increasingly divide moral attitudes. Likewise, we should expect a growing sociocognitive disconnect between expert and non-expert moral determinations. And given cognitive technologies like the internet, we should expect this dysfunction to become even more profound still.

 

Cognitive Technology

Given the power of technology to cue intergroup identifications, the internet was—and continues to be—hailed as a means of bringing humanity together, a way of enacting the universalistic aspirations of humanism. My own position—one foot in academe, another foot in consumer culture—afforded me a far different perspective. Unlike academics, genre writers rub shoulders with all walks, and often find themselves debating outrageously chauvinistic views. I realized quite quickly that the internet had rendered rationalizations instantly available, that it amounted to pouring marbles across the floor of ancestral social dynamics. The cost of confirmation had plummeted to zero. Prior to the internet, we had to test our more extreme chauvinisms against whomever happened to be available—which is to say, people who would be inclined to disagree. We had to work to indulge our stone-age weaknesses in post-war 20th century Western cognitive ecologies. No more. Add to this phenomena such as online disinhibition effect, as well as the sudden visibility of ingroup, intellectual piety, and the growing extremity of counter-identification struck me as inevitable. The internet was dividing us into teams. In such an age, I realized, the only socially redemptive art was art that cut against this tendency, art that genuinely spanned ingroup boundaries. Literature, as traditionally understood, had become a paradigmatic expression of the tribalism presently engulfing us now. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, still possessed the relevance required to inspire book burnings in the West.

(The past decade has ‘rewarded’ my turn-of-the-millennium fears—though in some surprising ways. The greatest attitudinal shift in America, for instance, has been progressive: it has been liberals, and not conservatives, who have most radically changed their views. The rise of reactionary sentiment and populism is presently rewriting European politics—and the age of Trump has all but overthrown the progressive political agenda in the US. But the role of the internet and social media in these phenomena remains a hotly contested one.)

The earlier promoters of the internet had banked on the notional availability of intergroup information to ‘bring the world closer together,’ not realizing the heuristic reliance of human cognition on differential information access. Ancestrally, communicating ingroup reliability trumped communicating environmental accuracy, stranding us with what Pinker (following Kahan 2011) calls the ‘tragedy of the belief commons’ (Enlightenment Now, 358), the individual rationality of believing collectively irrational claims—such as, for instance, the belief that global warming is a liberal myth. Once falsehoods become entangled with identity claims, they become the yardstick of true and false, thus generating the terrifying spectacle we now witness on the evening news.

The provision of ancestrally unavailable social information is one thing, so long as it is curated—censored, in effect—as it was in the mass media age of my childhood. Confirmation biases have to swim upstream in such cognitive ecologies. Rendering all ancestrally unavailable social information available, on the other hand, allows us to indulge our biases, to see only what we want to see, to hear only what we want to hear. Where ancestrally, we had to risk criticism to secure praise, no such risks need be incurred now. And no surprise, we find ourselves sliding back into the tribalistic mire, arguing absurdities haunted—tainted—by the death of millions.

Jonathan Albright, the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, has found that the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, as the product of a self-reinforcing technical ecosystem, has actually grown worse since the 2016 election. “Our technological and communication infrastructure, the ways we experience reality, the ways we get news, are literally disintegrating,” he recently confessed in a NiemanLab interview. “It’s the biggest problem ever, in my opinion, especially for American culture.” As Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic, “the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”

The individual cost of fantasy continues to shrink, even as the collective cost of deception continues to grow. The ecologies once securing the reliability of our epistemic determinations, the invariants that our ancestors took for granted, are being levelled. Our ancestral world was one where seeking risked aversion, a world where praise and condemnation alike had to brave condemnation, where lazy judgments were punished rather than rewarded. Our ancestral world was one where geography and the scarcity of resources forced permissives and authoritarians to intermingle, compromise, and cooperate. That world is gone, leaving the old equilibria to unwind in confusion, a growing social crash space.

And this is only the beginning of the cognitive technological age. As Tristan Harris points out, social media platforms, given their commercial imperatives, cannot but engineer online ecologies designed to exploit the heuristic limits of human cognition. He writes:

“I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.”

More and more of what we encounter online is dedicated to various forms of exogenous attention capture, maximizing the time we spend on the platform, so maximizing our exposure not just to advertising, but to hidden metrics, algorithms designed to assess everything from our likes to our emotional well-being. As with instances of ‘forcing’ in the performance of magic tricks, the fact of manipulation escapes our attention altogether, so we always presume we could have done otherwise—we always presume ourselves ‘free’ (whatever this means). We exhibit what Clifford Nass, a pioneer in human-computer interaction, calls ‘mindlessness,’ the blind reliance on automatic scripts. To the degree that social media platforms profit from engaging your attention, they profit from hacking your ancestral cognitive vulnerabilities, exploiting our shared neglect structure. They profit, in other words, from transforming crash spaces into cheat spaces.

With AI, we are set to flood human cognitive ecologies with systems designed to actively game the heuristic nature of human social cognition, cuing automatic responses based on boggling amounts of data and the capacity to predict our decisions better than our intimates, and soon, better than we can ourselves. And yet, as the authors of the 2017 AI Index report state, “we are essentially “flying blind” in our conversations and decision-making related to AI.” A blindness we’re largely blind to. Pinker spends ample time domesticating the bogeyman of superintelligent AI (296-298) but he completely neglects this far more immediate and retail dimension of our cognitive technological dilemma.

Consider the way humans endure as much as need one another: the problem is that the cues signaling social punishment and reward are easy to trigger out of school. We’ve already crossed the borne where ‘improving the user experience’ entails substituting artificial for natural social feedback. Notice the plethora of nonthreatening female voices at all? The promise of AI is the promise of countless artificial friends, voices that will ‘understand’ your plight, your grievances, in some respects better than you do yourself. The problem, of course, is that they’re artificial, which is to say, not your friend at all.

Humans deceive and manipulate one another all the time, of course. And false AI friends don’t rule out true AI defenders. But the former merely describes the ancestral environments shaping our basic heuristic tool box. And the latter simply concedes the fundamental loss of those cognitive ecologies. The more prosthetics we enlist, the more we complicate our ecology, the more mediated our determinations become, the less efficacious our ancestral intuitions become. The more we will be told to trust to gerrymandered stipulations.

Corporate simulacra are set to deluge our homes, each bent on cuing trust. We’ve already seen how the hypersensitivity of intentional cognition renders us liable to hallucinate minds where none exist. The environmental ubiquity of AI amounts to the environmental ubiquity of systems designed to exploit granular sociocognitive systems tuned to solve humans. The AI revolution amounts to saturating human cognitive ecology with invasive species, billions of evolutionarily unprecedented systems, all of them camouflaged and carnivorous. It represents—obviously, I think—the single greatest cognitive ecological challenge we have ever faced.

What does ‘human flourishing’ mean in such cognitive ecologies? What can it mean? Pinker doesn’t know. Nobody does. He can only speculate in an age when the gobsmacking power of science has revealed his guesswork for what it is. This was why Adorno referred to the possibility of knowing the good as the ‘Messianic moment.’ Until that moment comes, until we find a form of rationality that doesn’t collapse into instrumentalism, we have only toothless guesses, allowing the pointless optimization of appetite to command all. It doesn’t matter whether you call it the will to power or identity thinking or negentropy or selfish genes or what have you, the process is blind and it lies entirely outside good and evil. We’re just along for the ride.

 

Semantic Apocalypse

Human cognition is not ontologically distinct. Like all biological systems, it possesses its own ecology, its own environmental conditions. And just as scientific progress has brought about the crash of countless ecosystems across this planet, it is poised to precipitate the crash of our shared cognitive ecology as well, the collapse of our ability to trust and believe, let alone to choose or take responsibility. Once every suboptimal behaviour has an etiology, what then? Once everyone us has artificial friends, heaping us with praise, priming our insecurities, doing everything they can to prevent non-commercial—ancestral— engagements, what then?

‘Semantic apocalypse’ is the dramatic term I coined to capture this process in my 2008 novel, Neuropath. Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it.

Humans cognize themselves and one another via systems that take as much for granted as they possibly can. This is a fact. Given this, it is not only possible, but exceedingly probable, that we would find squaring our intuitive self-understanding with our scientific understanding impossible. Why should we evolve the extravagant capacity to intuit our nature beyond the demands of ancestral life? The shallow cognitive ecology arising out of those demands constitutes our baseline self-understanding, one that bears the imprimatur of evolutionary contingency at every turn. There’s no replacing this system short replacing our humanity.

Thus the ‘worst’ in ‘worst case scenario.’

There will be a great deal of hand-wringing in the years to come. Numberless intentionalists with countless competing rationalizations will continue to apologize (and apologize) while the science trundles on, crashing this bit of traditional self-understanding and that, continually eroding the pilings supporting the whole. The pieties of humanism will be extolled and defended with increasing desperation, whole societies will scramble, while hidden behind the endless assertions of autonomy, beneath the thundering bleachers, our fundamentals will be laid bare and traded for lucre.

Enlightenment How? Pinker’s Tutelary Natures

by rsbakker

 

The fate of civilization, Steven Pinker thinks, hangs upon our commitment to enlightenment values. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress constitutes his attempt to shore up those commitments in a culture grown antagonistic to them. This is a great book, well worth the read for the examples and quotations Pinker endlessly adduces, but even though I found myself nodding far more often than not, one glaring fact continually leaks through: Enlightenment Now is a book about a process, namely ‘progress,’ that as yet remains mired in ‘tutelary natures.’ As Kevin Williamson puts it in the National Review, Pinker “leaps, without warrant, from physical science to metaphysical certitude.”

What is his naturalization of meaning? Or morality? Or cognition—especially cognition! How does one assess the cognitive revolution that is the Enlightenment short understanding the nature of cognition? How does one prognosticate something one does not scientifically understand?

At one point he offers that “[t]he principles of information, computation, and control bridge the chasm between the physical world of cause and effect and the mental world of knowledge, intelligence, and purpose” (22). Granted, he’s a psychologist: operationalizations of information, computation, and control are his empirical bread and butter. But operationalizing intentional concepts in experimental contexts is a far cry from naturalizing intentional concepts. He entirely neglects to mention that his ‘bridge’ is merely a pragmatic, institutional one, that cognitive science remains, despite decades of research and billions of dollars in resources, unable to formulate its explananda, let alone explain them. He mentions a great number of philosophers, but he fails to mention what the presence of those philosophers in his thetic wheelhouse means.

All he ultimately has, on the one hand, is a kind of ‘ta-da’ argument, the exhaustive statistical inventory of the bounty of reason, science, and humanism, and on the other hand (which he largely keeps hidden behind his back), he has the ‘tu quoque,’ the question-begging presumption that one can only argue against reason (as it is traditionally understood) by presupposing reason (as it is traditionally understood). “We don’t believe in reason,” he writes, “we use reason” (352). Pending any scientific verdict on the nature of ‘reason,’ however, these kinds of transcendental arguments amount to little more than fancy foot-stomping.

This is one of those books that make me wish I could travel back in time to catch the author drafting notes. So much brilliance, so much erudition, all devoted to beating straw—at least as far as ‘Second Culture’ Enlightenment critiques are concerned. Nietzsche is the most glaring example. Ignoring Nietzsche the physiologist, the empirically-minded skeptic, and reducing him to his subsequent misappropriation by fascist, existential, and postmodernist thought, Pinker writes:

Disdaining the commitment to truth-seeking among scientists and Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche asserted that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” and that “truth is a kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” (Of course, this left him unable to explain why we should believe that those statements are true.) 446

Although it’s true that Nietzsche (like Pinker) lacked any scientifically compelling theory of cognition, what he did understand was its relation to power, the fact that “when you face an adversary alone, your best weapon may be an ax, but when you face an adversary in front of a throng of bystanders, your best weapon may be an argument” (415). To argue that all knowledge is contextual isn’t to argue that all knowledge is fundamentally equal (and therefore not knowledge at all), only that it is bound to its time and place, a creature possessing its own ecology, its own conditions of failure and flourishing. The Nietzschean thought experiment is actually quite a simple one: What happens when we turn Enlightenment skepticism loose upon Enlightenment values? For Nietzsche, Enlightenment Now, though it regularly pays lip service to the ramshackle, reversal-prone nature of progress, serves to conceal the empirical fact of cognitive ecology, that we remain, for all our enlightened noise-making to the contrary, animals bent on minimizing discrepancies. The Enlightenment only survives its own skepticism, Nietzsche thought, in the transvaluation of value, which he conceived—unfortunately—in atavistic or morally regressive terms.

This underwrites the subsequent critique of the Enlightenment we find in Adorno—another thinker whom Pinker grossly underestimates. Though science is able to determine the more—to provide more food, shelter, security, etc.—it has the social consequence underdetermining (and so undermining) the better, stranding civilization with a nihilistic consumerism, where ‘meaningfulness’ becomes just another commodity, which is to say, nothing meaningful at all. Adorno’s whole diagnosis turns on the way science monopolizes rationality, the way it renders moral discourses like Pinker’s mere conjectural exercises (regarding the value of certain values), turning on leaps of faith (on the nature of cognition, etc.), bound to dissolve into disputation. Although both Nietzsche and Adorno believed science needed to be understood as a living, high dimensional entity, neither harboured any delusions as to where they stood in the cognitive pecking order. Unlike Pinker.

Whatever their failings, Nietzsche and Adorno glimpsed a profound truth regarding ‘reason, science, humanism, and progress,’ one that lurks throughout Pinker’s entire account. Both understood that cognition, whatever it amounts to, is ecological. Steven Pinker’s claim to fame, of course, lies in the cognitive ecological analysis of different cultural phenomena—this was the whole reason I was so keen to read this book. (In How the Mind Works, for instance, he famously calls music ‘auditory cheese-cake.’) Nevertheless, I think both Nietzsche and Adorno understood the ecological upshot of the Enlightenment in way that Pinker, as an avowed humanist, simply cannot. In fact, Pinker need only follow through on his modus operandi to see how and why the Enlightenment is not what he thinks it is—as well as why we have good reason to fear that Trumpism is no ‘blip.’

Time and again Pinker likens the process of Enlightenment, the movement away from our tutelary natures, in terms of a conflict between ancestral cognitive predilections and scientifically and culturally revolutionized environments. “Humans today,” he writes, “rely on cognitive faculties that worked well enough in traditional societies, but which we now see are infested with bugs” (25). And the number of bugs that Pinker references in the course of the book is nothing short of prodigious. We tend to estimate frequencies according to ease of retrieval. We tend to fear losses more than we hope for gains. We tend to believe as our group believes. We’re prone to tribalism. We tend to forget past misfortune, and to succumb to nostalgia. The list goes on and on.

What redeems us, Pinker argues, is the human capacity for abstraction and combinatorial recursion, which allows us to endlessly optimize our behaviour. We are a self-correcting species:

So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. Not coincidentally, these were the major brainchildren of the Enlightenment. 28

We are the products of ancestral cognitive ecologies, yes, but our capacity for optimizing our capacities allows us to overcome our ‘flawed natures,’ become something better than what we were. “The challenge for us today,” Pinker writes, “is to design an informational environment in which that ability prevails over the ones that lead us into folly” (355).

And here we encounter the paradox that Enlightenment Now never considers, even though Pinker presupposes it continually. The challenge for us today is to construct an informational environment that mitigates the problems arising out of our previous environmental constructions. The ‘bugs’ in human nature that need to be fixed were once ancestral features. What has rendered these adaptations ‘buggy’ is nothing other than the ‘march of progress.’ A central premise of Enlightenment Now is that human cognitive ecology, the complex formed by our capacities and our environments, has fallen out of whack in this way or that, cuing us to apply atavistic modes of problem-solving out of school. The paradox is that the very bugs Pinker thinks only the Enlightenment can solve are the very bugs the Enlightenment has created.

What Nietzsche and Adorno glimpsed, each in their own murky way, was a recursive flaw in Enlightenment logic, the way the rationalization of everything meant the rationalization of rationalization, and how this has to short-circuit human meaning. Both saw the problem in the implementation, in the physiology of thought and community, not in the abstract. So where Pinker seeks to “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” (5), we can likewise restate Nietzsche and Adorno’s critiques of the Enlightenment in Pinker’s own biological idiom.

The problem with the Enlightenment is a cognitive ecological problem. The technical (rational and technological) remediation of our cognitive ecologies transforms those ecologies, generating the need for further technical remediation. Our technical cognitive ecologies are thus drifting ever further from our ancestral cognitive ecologies. Human sociocognition and metacognition in particular are radically heuristic, and as such dependent on countless environmental invariants. Before even considering more, smarter intervention as a solution to the ambient consequences of prior interventions, the big question has to be how far—and how fast—can humanity go? At what point (or what velocity) does a recognizably human cognitive ecology cease to exist?

This question has nothing to do with nostalgia or declinism, no more than any question of ecological viability in times of environmental transformation. It also clearly follows from Pinker’s own empirical commitments.

 

The Death of Progress (at the Hand of Progress)

The formula is simple. Enlightenment reason solves natures, allowing the development of technology, generally relieving humanity of countless ancestral afflictions. But Enlightenment reason is only now solving its own nature. Pinker, in the absence of that solution, is arguing that the formula remains reliable if not quite as simple. And if all things were equal, his optimistic induction would carry the day—at least for me. As it stands, I’m with Nietzsche and Adorno. All things are not equal… and we would see this clearly, I think, were it not for the intentional obscurities comprising humanism. Far from the latest, greatest hope that Pinker makes it out to be, I fear humanism constitutes yet another nexus of traditional intuitions that must be overcome. The last stand of ancestral authority.

I agree this conclusion is catastrophic, “the greatest intellectual collapse in the history of our species” (vii), as an old polemical foe of Pinker’s, Jerry Fodor (1987) calls it. Nevertheless, short grasping this conclusion, I fear we court a disaster far greater still.

Hitherto, the light cast by the Enlightenment left us largely in the dark, guessing at the lay of interior shadows. We can mathematically model the first instants of creation, and yet we remain thoroughly baffled by our ability to do so. So far, the march of moral progress has turned on the revolutionizing our material environments: we need only renovate our self-understanding enough to accommodate this revolution. Humanism can be seen as the ‘good enough’ product of this renovation, a retooling of folk vocabularies and folk reports to accommodate the radical environmental and interpersonal transformations occurring around them. The discourses are myriad, the definitions are endlessly disputed, nevertheless humanism provisioned us with the cognitive flexibility required to flourish in an age of environmental disenchantment and transformation. Once we understand the pertinent facts of human cognitive ecology, its status as an ad hoc ‘tutelary nature’ becomes plain.

Just what are these pertinent facts? First, there is a profound distinction between natural or causal cognition, and intentional cognition. Developmental research shows that infants begin exhibiting distinct physical versus psychological cognitive capacities within the first year of life. Research into Asperger Syndrome (Baron-Cohen et al 2001) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (Binnie and Williams 2003) consistently reveals a cleavage between intuitive social cognitive capacities, ‘theory-of-mind’ or ‘folk psychology,’ and intuitive mechanical cognitive capacities, or ‘folk physics.’ Intuitive social cognitive capacities demonstrate significant heritability (Ebstein et al 2010, Scourfield et al 1999) in twin and family studies. Adults suffering Williams Syndrome (a genetic developmental disorder affecting spatial cognition) demonstrate profound impairments on intuitive physics tasks, but not intuitive psychology tasks (Kamps et al 2017). The distinction between intentional and natural cognition, in other words, is not merely a philosophical assertion, but a matter of established scientific fact.

Second, cognitive systems are mechanically intractable. From the standpoint of cognition, the most significant property of cognitive systems is their astronomical complexity: to solve for cognitive systems is to solve for what are perhaps the most complicated systems in the known universe. The industrial scale of the cognitive sciences provides dramatic evidence of this complexity: the scientific investigation of the human brain arguably constitutes the most massive cognitive endeavor in human history. (In the past six fiscal years, from 2012 to 2017, the National Institute of Health [21/01/2017] alone will have spent more than 113 billion dollars funding research bent on solving some corner of the human soul. This includes, in addition to the neurosciences proper, research into Basic Behavioral and Social Science (8.597 billion), Behavioral and Social Science (22.515 billion), Brain Disorders (23.702 billion), Mental Health (13.699 billion), and Neurodegeneration (10.183 billion)).

Despite this intractability, however, our cognitive systems solve for cognitive systems all the time. And they do so, moreover, expending imperceptible resources and absent any access to the astronomical complexities responsible—which is to say, given very little information. Which delivers us to our third pertinent fact: the capacity of cognitive systems to solve for cognitive systems is radically heuristic. It consists of ‘fast and frugal’ tools, not so much sacrificing accuracy as applicability in problem-solving (Todd and Gigerenzer 2012). When one cognitive system solves for another it relies on available cues, granular information made available via behaviour, utterly neglecting the biomechanical information that is the stock and trade of the cognitive sciences. This radically limits their domain of applicability.

The heuristic nature of intentional cognition is evidenced by the ease with which it is cued. Thus, the fourth pertinent fact: intentional cognition is hypersensitive. Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human cognitive characteristics to systems possessing none, evidences the promiscuous application of human intentional cognition to intentional cues, our tendency to run afoul what might be called intentional pareidolia, the disposition to cognize minds where no minds exist (Waytz et al 2014). The Heider-Simmel illusion, an animation consisting of no more than shapes moving about a screen, dramatically evidences this hypersensitivity, insofar as viewers invariably see versions of a romantic drama (Heider and Simmel 1944). Research in Human-Computer Interaction continues to explore this hypersensitivity in a wide variety of contexts involving artificial systems (Nass and Moon 2000, Appel et al 2012). The identification and exploitation of our intentional reflexes has become a massive commercial research project (so-called ‘affective computing’) in its own right (Yonck 2017).

Intentional pareidolia underscores the fact that intentional cognition, as heuristic, is geared to solve a specific range of problems. In this sense, it closely parallels facial pareidolia, the tendency to cognize faces where no faces exist. Intentional cognition, in other words, is both domain-specific, and readily misapplied.

The incompatibility between intentional and mechanical cognitive systems, then, is precisely what we should expect, given the radically heuristic nature of the former. Humanity evolved in shallow cognitive ecologies, mechanically inscrutable environments. Only the most immediate and granular causes could be cognized, so we evolved a plethora of ways to do without deep environmental information, to isolate saliencies correlated with various outcomes (much as machine learning).

Human intentional cognition neglects the intractable task of cognizing natural facts, leaping to conclusions on the basis of whatever information it can scrounge. In this sense it’s constantly gambling that certain invariant backgrounds obtain, or conversely, that what it sees is all that matters. This is just another way to say that intentional cognition is ecological, which in turn is just another way to say that it can degrade, even collapse, given the loss of certain background invariants.

The important thing to note, here, of course, is how Enlightenment progress appears to be ultimately inimical to human intentional cognition. We can only assume that, over time, the unrestricted rationalization of our environments will gradually degrade, then eventually overthrow the invariances sustaining intentional cognition. The argument is straightforward:

1) Intentional cognition depends on cognitive ecological invariances.

2) Scientific progress entails the continual transformation of cognitive ecological invariances.

Thus, 3) scientific progress entails the collapse of intentional cognition.

But this argument oversimplifies matters. To see as much one need only consider the way a semantic apocalypse—the collapse of intentional cognition—differs from say a nuclear or zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead, for instance, abounds with savvy applications of intentional cognition. The physical systems underwriting meaning, in other words, are not the same as the physical systems underwriting modern civilization. So long as some few of us linger, meaning lingers.

Intentional cognition, you might think, is only as weak or as hardy as we are. No matter what the apocalyptic scenario, if humans survive it survives. But as autistic spectrum disorder demonstrates, this is plainly not the case. Intentional cognition possesses profound constitutive dependencies (as those suffering the misfortune of watching a loved one succumb to strokes or neurodegenerative disease knows first-hand). Research into the psychological effects of solitary confinement, on the other hand, show that intentional cognition also possesses profound environmental dependencies as well. Starve the brain of intentional cues, and it will eventually begin to invent them.

The viability of intentional cognition, in other words, depends not on us, but on a particular cognitive ecology peculiar to us. The question of the threshold of a semantic apocalypse becomes the question of the stability of certain onboard biological invariances correlated to a background of certain environmental invariances. Change the constitutive or environmental invariances underwriting intentional cognition too much, and you can expect it will crash, generate more problems than solutions.

The hypersensitivity of intentional cognition either evinced by solitary confinement or more generally by anthropomorphism demonstrates the threat of systematic misapplication, the mode’s dependence on cue authenticity. (Sherry Turkle’s (2007) concerns regarding ‘Darwinian buttons,’ or Deidre Barrett’s (2010) with ‘supernormal stimuli,’ touch on this issue). So, one way of inducing semantic apocalypse, we might surmise, lies in the proliferation of counterfeit cues, information that triggers intentional determinations that confound, rather than solve any problems. One way to degrade cognitive ecologies, in other words, is to populate environments with artifacts cuing intentional cognition ‘out of school,’ which is to say, circumstances cheating or crashing them.

The morbidity of intentional cognition demonstrates the mode’s dependence on its own physiology. What makes this more than platitudinal is the way this physiology is attuned to the greater, enabling cognitive ecology. Since environments always vary while cognitive systems remain the same, changing the physiology of intentional cognition impacts every intentional cognitive ecology—not only for oneself, but for the rest of humanity as well. Just as our moral cognitive ecology is complicated by the existence of psychopaths, individuals possessing systematically different ways of solving social problems, the existence of ‘augmented’ moral cognizers complicates our moral cognitive ecology as well. This is important because you often find it claimed in transhumanist circles (see, for example, Buchanan 2011), that ‘enhancement,’ the technological upgrading of human cognitive capacities, is what guarantees perpetual Enlightenment. What better way to optimize our values than by reengineering the biology of valuation?

Here, at last, we encounter Nietzsche’s question cloaked in 21st century garb.

And here we can also see where the above argument falls short: it overlooks the inevitability of engineering intentional cognition to accommodate constitutive and environmental transformations. The dependence upon cognitive ecologies asserted in (1) is actually contingent upon the ecological transformation asserted in (2).

1) Intentional cognition depends on constitutive and environmental cognitive ecological invariances.

2) Scientific progress entails the continual transformation of constitutive and environmental cognitive ecological invariances.

Thus, 3) scientific progress entails the collapse of intentional cognition short remedial constitutive transformations.

What Pinker would insist is that enhancement will allow us to overcome our Pleistocene shortcomings, and that our hitherto inexhaustible capacity to adapt will see us through. Even granting the technical capacity to so remediate, the problem with this reformulation is that transforming intentional cognition to account for transforming social environments automatically amounts to a further transformation of social environments. The problem, in other words, is that Enlightenment entails the end of invariances, the end of shared humanity, in fact. Yuval Harari (2017) puts it with characteristic brilliance in Homo Deus:

What then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design, or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket? 277

The former dilemma is presently dominating the headlines and is set to be astronomically complicated by the explosion of AI. The latter we can see rising out of literature, clawing its way out of Hollywood, seizing us with video game consoles, engulfing ever more experiential bandwidth. And as I like to remind people, 100 years separates the Blu-Ray from the wax phonograph.

The key to blocking the possibility that the transformative potential of (2) can ameliorate the dependency in (1) lies in underscoring the continual nature of the changes asserted in (2). A cognitive ecology where basic constitutive and environmental facts are in play is no longer recognizable as a human one.

Scientific progress entails the collapse of intentional cognition.

On this view, the coupling of scientific and moral progress is a temporary affair, one doomed to last only so long as cognition itself remained outside the purview of Enlightenment cognition. So long as astronomical complexity assured that the ancestral invariances underwriting cognition remained intact, the revolution of our environments could proceed apace. Our ancestral cognitive equilibria need not be overthrown. In place of materially actionable knowledge regarding ourselves, we developed ‘humanism,’ a sop for rare stipulation and ambient disputation.

But now that our ancestral cognitive equilibria are being overthrown, we should expect scientific and moral progress will become decoupled. And I would argue that the evidence of this is becoming plainer with the passing of every year. Next week, we’ll take a look at several examples.

I fear Donald Trump may be just the beginning.

.

References

Appel, Jana, von der Putten, Astrid, Kramer, Nicole C. and Gratch, Jonathan 2012, ‘Does Humanity Matter? Analyzing the Importance of Social Cues and Perceived Agency of a Computer System for the Emergence of Social Reactions during Human-Computer Interaction’, in Advances in Human-Computer Interaction 2012 <https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/324694/ref/&gt;

Barrett, Deidre 2010, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Original Evolutionary Purpose (New York: W.W. Norton)

Binnie, Lynne and Williams, Joanne 2003, ‘Intuitive Psychology and Physics Among Children with Autism and Typically Developing Children’, Autism 7

Buchanan, Allen 2011, Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves (New York: Oxford University Press)

Ebstein, R.P., Israel, S, Chew, S.H., Zhong, S., and Knafo, A. 2010, ‘Genetics of human social behavior’, in Neuron 65

Fodor, Jerry A. 1987, Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press)

Harari, Yuval 2017, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins)

Heider, Fritz and Simmel, Marianne 1944, ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour,’ in The American Journal of Psychology 57

Kamps, Frederik S., Julian, Joshua B., Battaglia, Peter, Landau, Barbara, Kanwisher, Nancy and Dilks Daniel D 2017, ‘Dissociating intuitive physics from intuitive psychology: Evidence from Williams syndrome’, in Cognition 168

Nass, Clifford and Moon, Youngme 2000, ‘Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers’, Journal of Social Issues 56

Pinker, Steven 1997, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton)

—. 2018, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking)

Scourfield J., Martin N., Lewis G. and McGuffin P. 1999, ‘Heritability of social cognitive skills in children and adolescents’, British Journal of Psychiatry 175

Todd, P. and Gigerenzer, G. 2012 ‘What is ecological rationality?’, in Todd, P. and Gigerenzer, G. (eds.) Ecological Rationality: Intelligence in the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 3–

30

Turkle, Sherry 2007, ‘Authenticity in the age of digital companions’, Interaction Studies 501-517

Waytz, Adam, Cacioppo, John, and Epley, Nicholas 2014, ‘Who See Human? The Stability and Importance of Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism’, Perspectives in Psychological Science 5

Yonck, Richard 2017, Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence (New York, NY: Arcade Publishing)

 

Meta-problem vs. Scandal of Self-Understanding

by rsbakker

Let’s go back to Square One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider his preferred account of the meta-problem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Floridi’s Plea for Intentionalism

by rsbakker

 

Questioning Questions

Intentionalism presumes that intentional modes of cognition can solve for intentional modes of cognition, that intentional vocabularies, and intentional vocabularies alone, can fund bona fide theoretical understanding of intentional phenomena. But can they? What evidences their theoretical efficacy? What, if anything, does biology have to say?

No one denies the enormous practical power of those vocabularies. And yet, the fact remains that, as a theoretical explanatory tool, they invariably deliver us to disputation—philosophy. To rehearse my favourite William Uttal quote: “There is probably nothing that divides psychologists of all stripes more than the inadequacies and ambiguities of our efforts to define mind, consciousness, and the enormous variety of mental events and phenomena” (The New Phrenology, p.90).

In his “A Plea for Non-naturalism as Constructionism,” Luciano Floridi, undertakes a comprehensive revaluation of this philosophical and cognitive scientific inability to decisively formulate, let alone explain intentional phenomena. He begins with a quote from Quine’s seminal “Epistemology Naturalized,” the claim that “[n]aturalism does not repudiate epistemology, but assimilates it to empirical psychology.” Although Floridi entirely agrees that the sciences have relieved philosophy of a great number of questions over the centuries, he disagrees with Quine’s ‘assimilation,’ the notion of naturalism as “another way of talking about the death of philosophy.” Acknowledging that philosophy needs to remain scientifically engaged—naturalistic—does not entail discursive suicide. “Philosophy deals with ultimate questions that are intrinsically open to reasonable and informed disagreement,” Floridi declares. “And these are not “assimilable” to scientific enquiries.”

Ultimate? Reading this, one might assume that Floridi, like so many other thinkers, has some kind of transcendental argument operating in the background. But Floridi is such an exciting philosopher to read precisely because he isn’t ‘like so many other thinkers.’ He hews to intentionalism, true, but he does so in a manner that is uniquely his own.

To understand what he means by ‘ultimate’ in this paper we need to visit another, equally original essay of his, “What is a Philosophical Question?” where he takes an information ‘resource-oriented’ approach to the issue of philosophical questions, “the simple yet very powerful insight that the nature of problems may be fruitfully studied by focusing on the kind of resources required in principle to solve them, rather than on their form, meaning, reference, scope, and relevance.” He focuses on the three kinds of questions revealed by this perspective: questions requiring empirical resources, questions requiring logico-mathematical resources, and questions requiring something else—what he calls ‘open questions.’ Philosophical questions, he thinks, belong to this latter category.

But if open questions admit no exhaustive empirical or formal determination, then why think them meaningful? Why not, as Hume famously advises, consign them to the flames? Because, Floridi, argues, they are inescapable. Open questions possess no regress enders: they are ‘closed’ in the set-theoretic sense, which is to say, they are questions whose answers always beget more questions. To declare answers to open questions meaningless or trivial is to answer an open question.

But since not all open questions are philosophical questions, Floridi needs to restrict the scope of his definition. The difference, he thinks, is that philosophical questions “tend to concentrate on more significant and consequential problems.” Philosophical questions, in addition to being open questions, are also ultimate questions, not in any foundational or transcendental sense, but in the sense of casting the most inferential shade across less ultimate matter.

Ultimate questions may be inescapable, as Floridi suggests, but this in no way allays the problem of the resources used to answer them. Why not simply answer them pragmatically, or with a skeptical shrug? Floridi insists that the resources are found in “the world of mental contents, conceptual frameworks, intellectual creations, intelligent insights, dialectical reasonings,” or what he calls ‘noetic resources,’ the non-empirical, non-formal fund of things that we know. Philosophical questions, in addition to being ultimate, open questions, require noetic resources to be answered.

But all questions, of course, are not equal. Some philosophical problems, after all, are mere pseudo-problems, the product of the right question being asked in the wrong circumstances. Though the ways in which philosophical questions misfire seem manifold, Floridi focusses on a single culprit to distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘good’ philosophical questions: the former, he thinks, overstep their corresponding ‘level of abstraction,’ aspiring to be absolute or unconditioned. Philosophical questions, in addition to being noetic, ultimate, open questions, are also contextually appropriate questions.

Philosophy, then, pertains to questions involving basic matters, lacking decisive empirical or formal resources and so lacking institutional regress enders. Good philosophy, as opposed to bad, is always conditional, which is to say, sensitive to the context of inquiry. It is philosophy in this sense that Floridi thinks lies beyond the pale of Quinean assimilation in “A Plea for Non-naturalism as Constructionism.”

But resistance to assimilation isn’t his only concern. Science, Floridi thinks, is caught in a predicament: as ever more of the universe is dragged from the realm of open, philosophical interrogation into the realm of closed, scientific investigation, the technology enabled by and enabling this creeping closure is progressively artificializing our once natural environments. Floridi writes:

“the increasing and profound technologisation of science is creating a tension between what we try to explain, namely all sorts of realities, and how we explain it, through the highly artificial constructs and devices that frame and support our investigations. Naturalistic explanations are increasingly dependent on non-natural means to reach such explanations.”

This, of course, is the very question at issue between the meaning skeptic and the meaning realist. To make his case, Floridi has to demonstrate the how and why the artefactual isn’t simply more nature, every bit as bound by the laws of thermodynamics as everything else in nature. Why think the ‘artificial’ is anything more than (to turn a Hegelian line on its head) ‘nature reborn’? To presume as much would be to beg the question—to run afoul the very ‘scholasticism’ Floridi criticizes.

Again, he quotes Quine from “Epistemology Naturalized,” this time the famous line reminding us that the question of “how irritations of our sensory surfaces” result in knowledge is itself a scientific question. The absurdity of the assertion, Floridi thinks, is easily assayed by considering the complexity of cognitive and aesthetic artifacts: “by the same reasoning, one should then try to answer the question how Beethoven managed to arrive at his Ode to Joy from the seven-note diatonic musical scale, Leonardo to his Mona Lisa from the three colours in the RGB model, Orson Welles to his Citizen Kane from just black and white, and today any computer multimedia from just zeros and ones.”

The egregious nature of the disanalogies here are indicative of the problem Floridi faces. Quine’s point isn’t that knowledge reduces to sensory irritations, merely that knowledge consists of scientifically tractable physical processes. For all his originality, Floridi finds himself resorting to a standard ‘you-can’t-get-there-from-here’ argument against eliminativism. He even cites the constructive consensus in neuroscience, thinking it evidences the intrinsically artefactual, nature of knowledge. But he never explains why the artefactual nature of knowledge—unlike the artefactual nature of, say, a bird’s nest—rules out the empirical assimilation of knowledge. Biology isn’t any less empirical for being productive, so what’s the crucial difference here? At what point does artefactual qua biological become artefactual qua intentional?

Epistemological questions, he asserts, “are not descriptive or scientific, but rather semantic and normative.” But Quine is asking a question about epistemology and whether what we now call cognitive science can exhaustively answer it. As it so happens the question of epistemology as a natural phenomena is itself an epistemological question, and as such involves the application of intentional (semantic and normative) cognitive modes. But why think these cognitive modes themselves cannot be empirically described and explained the way, for example, neuroscience has described and explained the artefactual nature of cognition? If artefacts like termite mounds and bird’s nests admit natural explanations, then why not knowledge? Given that he hopes to revive “a classic, foundationalist role for philosophy itself,” this is a question he has got to answer. Philosophers have a long history of attempting to secure the epistemological primacy of their speculation on the back of more speculation. Unless Floridi is content with “an internal ‘discourse’ among equally minded philosophers,” he needs to explain what makes the artifactuality of knowledge intrinsically intentional.

In a sense, one can see his seminal 2010 work, The Philosophy of Information, as an attempt to answer this question, but he punts on the issue, here, providing only a reference to his larger theory. Perhaps this is why he characterizes this paper as “a plea for non-naturalism, not an argument for it, let alone a proof or demonstration of it.” Even though the entirety of the paper is given over to arguments inveighing against unrestricted naturalism a la Quine, they all turn on a shared faith in the intrinsic intentionality of cognition.

 

Reasonably Reiterable Queries

Floridi defines ‘strong naturalism’ as the thesis that all nonnatural phenomena can be reduced to natural phenomena. A strong naturalist believes that all phenomena can be exhaustively explained using only natural vocabularies. The key term, for him, is ‘exhaustively.’ Although some answers to our questions put the matter to bed, others simply leave us scratching our heads. The same applies to naturalistic explanations. Where some reductions are the end of the matter, ‘lossless,’ others are so ‘lossy’ as to explain nothing at all. The latter, he suggests, make it reasonable to reiterate the original query. This, he thinks, provides a way to test any given naturalization of some phenomena, an ‘RRQ’ test. If a reduction warrants repeating the very question it was intended to answer, then we have reason to assume the reduction to be ‘reductive,’ or lossy.

The focus of his test, not surprisingly, is the naturalistic inscrutability of intentional phenomena:

“According to normative (also known as moral or ethical) and semantic non-naturalism, normative and semantic phenomena are not naturalisable because their explanation cannot be provided in a way that appeals exhaustively and non-reductively only to natural phenomena. In both cases, any naturalistic explanation is lossy, in the sense that it is perfectly reasonable to ask again for an explanation, correctly and informatively.”

This failure, he asserts, demonstrates the category mistake of insisting that intentional phenomena be naturalistically explained. In lieu of an argument, he gives us examples. No matter how thorough our natural explanations of immoral photographs might be, one can always ask, Yes, but what makes them immoral (as opposed to socially sanctioned, repulsive, etc.)? Facts simply do not stack into value—Floridi takes himself to be expounding a version of Hume’s and Moore’s point here. The explanation remains ‘lossy’ no matter what our naturalistic explanation. Floridi writes:

“The recalcitrant, residual element that remains unexplained is precisely the all-important element that requires an explanation in the first place. In the end, it is the contribution that the mind makes to the world, and it is up to the mind to explain it, not the world.”

I’ve always admired, even envied, Floridi for the grace and lucidity of his prose. But no matter how artful, a god of the gaps argument is a god of the gaps argument. Failing the RRQ does not entail that only intentional cognition can solve for intentional phenomena.

He acknowledges the problem here: “Admittedly, as one of the anonymous reviewers rightly reminded me, one may object that the recalcitrant, residual elements still in need of explanation may be just the result of our own insipience (understood as the presence of a question without the corresponding relevant and correct answer), perhaps as just a (maybe even only temporary) failure to see that there is merely a false impression of an information deficit (by analogy with a scandal of deduction).” His answer here is to simply apply his test, suggesting the debate, as interminable, merely underscores “an openness to the questioning that the questioning itself keeps open.” I can’t help but think he feels the thorn, at this point. Short reading “What is a Philosophical Question?” this turn in the article would be very difficult to parse. Philosophical questioning, Floridi would say, is ‘closed under questioning,’ which is to say, a process that continually generates more questions. The result is quite ingenious. As with Derridean deconstruction, philosophical problematizations of Floridi’s account of philosophy end up evidencing his account of philosophy by virtue of exhibiting the vulnerability of all guesswork: the lack of regress enders. Rather than committing to any foundation, you commit to a dialectical strategy allowing you to pick yourself up by your own hair.

The problem is that RRQ is far from the domesticated discursive tool that Floridi would have you believe it is. If anything, it provides a novel and useful way to understand the limits of theoretical cognition, not the limits of this or that definition of ‘naturalism.’ RRQ is a great way to determine where the theoretical guesswork in general begins. Nonnaturalism is the province of philosophy for a reason: every single nonnatural answer ever adduced to answer the question of this or that intentional phenomena have failed to close the door on RRQ. Intentional philosophy, such as Floridi’s, possesses no explanatory regress enders—not a one. It is always rational to reiterate the question wherever theoretical applications of intentional cognition are concerned. This is not the case with natural cognition. If RRQ takes a bite out of natural theoretical explanation of apparent intentional phenomena, then it swallows nonnatural cognition whole.

Raising the question, Why bother with theoretical applications of nonnatural cognition at all? Think about it: if every signal received via a given cognitive mode is lossy, why not presume that cognitive mode defective? The successes of natural theoretical cognition—the process of Quinean ‘assimilation’—show us that lossiness typically dwindles with the accumulation of information. No matter how spectacularly our natural accounts of intentional phenomena fail, we need only point out the youth of cognitive science and the astronomical complexities of the systems involved. The failures of natural cognition belong to the process of natural cognition, the rondo of hypothesis and observation. Theoretical applications of intentional cognition, on the other hand, promise only perpetual lossiness, the endless reiteration of questions and uninformative answers.

One can rhetorically embellish endless disputation as discursive plenitude, explanatory stasis as ontological profundity. One can persuasively accuse skeptics of getting things upside down. Or one can speculate on What-Philosophy-Is, insist that philosophy, instead of mapping where our knowledge breaks down (as it does in fact), shows us where this-or-that ‘ultimate’ lies. In “What is a Philosophical Question?” Floridi writes:

“Still, in the long run, evolution in philosophy is measured in terms of accumulation of answers to open questions, answers that remain, by the very nature of the questions they address, open to reasonable disagreement. So those jesting that philosophy has never “solved” any problem but remains for ever stuck in endless debates, that there is no real progress in philosophy, clearly have no idea what philosophy is about. They may as well complain that their favourite restaurant is constantly refining and expanding its menu.”

RRQ says otherwise. According to Floridi’s own test, the problem isn’t that the restaurant is constantly refining and expanding its menu, the problem is that nothing ever makes it out of the kitchen! It’s always sent back by rational questions. Certainly countless breakdowns have found countless sociocognitive uses: philosophy is nothing if not recombinant, mutation machine. But these powerful adaptations of intentional cognition are simply that: powerful adaptations of natural systems originally evolved to solve complex systems on the metabolic cheap. All attempts to use intentional cognition to theorize their (entirely natural) nature end in disputation. Philosophy has yet to theoretically solve any aspect of intentional cognition. And this merely follows from Floridi’s own definition of philosophy—it just cuts against his rhetorical register. In fact, when one takes a closer, empirical look at the resources available, the traditional conceit at the heart of his nonnaturalism quickly becomes clear.

 

Follow the Money

So, what is it? Why spin a limit, a profound cognitive horizon, into a plenum? Floridi is nothing if not an erudite and subtle thinker, and yet his argument in this paper entirely depends on neglecting to see RRQ for the limit that it is. He does this because he fails to follow through on the question of resources.

For my part, I look at naturalism as a reliance on a particular set of ‘hacks,’ not as any dogma requiring multiple toes scratching multiple lines in the sand.  Reverse-engineering—taking things apart, seeing how they work—just happens to be an extraordinarily powerful approach, at least as far as our high-dimensional (‘physical’) environments are concerned. If we can reverse-engineer intentional phenomena—assimilate epistemology, say, to neuroscience—then so much the better for theoretical cognition (if not humanity). We still rely on unexplained explainers, of course, RRQ still pertains, but the boundaries will have been pushed outward.

Now the astronomical complexity of biology doesn’t simply suggest, it entails that we would find ourselves extraordinarily difficult to reverse-engineer, at least at first. Humans suffer medial neglect, fundamental blindness to the high-dimensional structure and dynamics of cognition. (As Floridi acknowledges in his own consideration of Dretske’s “How Do You Know You are Not a Zombie?” the proximal conditions of experience do not appear within experience (see The Philosophy of Information, chapter 13)). The obvious reason for this turns on the limitations of our tools, both onboard and prosthetic. Our ancestors, for instance, had no choice but to ignore biology altogether, to correlate what ‘sensory irritants’ they had available with this or that reproductively decisive outcome. Everything in the middle, the systems and ecology that enabled this cognitive feat, is consigned to neglect (and doomed to be reified as ‘transparency’). Just consider the boggling resources commanded by the cognitive sciences: until very recently reverse-engineering simply wasn’t a viable cognitive mode, at least when it came to living things.

This is what ‘intentional cognition’ amounts to: the collection of ancestral devices, ‘hacks,’ we use to solve, not only one another, but all supercomplicated systems. Since these hacks are themselves supercomplicated, our ancestors had to rely on them to solve for them. Problems involving intentional cognition, in other words, cue intentional problem-solving systems, not because (cue drumroll) intentional cognition inexplicably outruns the very possibility of reverse-engineering, but because our ancestors had no other means.

Recall Floridi’s ‘noetic resources,’ the “world of mental contents, conceptual frameworks, intellectual creations, intelligent insights, dialectical reasonings” that underwrites philosophical, as opposed to empirical or formal, answers. It’s no accident that the ‘noetic dimension’ also happens to be the supercomplicated enabling or performative dimension of cognition—the dimension of medial neglect. Whatever ancestral resources we possessed, they comprised heuristic capacities geared to information strategically correlated to the otherwise intractable systems. Ancestrally, noetic resources consisted of the information and metacognitive capacity available to troubleshoot applications of intentional cognitive systems. When our cognitive hacks went wrong, we had only metacognitive hacks to rely on. ‘Noetic resources’ refers to our heuristic capacities to troubleshoot the enabling dimension of cognition while neglecting its astronomical complexity.

So, take Floridi’s example of immoral photographs. The problem he faced, recall, was that “the question why they are immoral can be asked again and again, reasonably” not simply of natural explanations of morality, but nonnatural explanations as well. The RRQ razor cuts both ways.

The reason natural cognition fails to decisively answer moral questions should be pretty clear: moral cognition is radically heuristic, enabling the solution of certain sociocognitive problems absent high-dimensional information required by natural cognition. Far from expressing the ‘mind’s contribution’ (whatever that means), the ‘unexplained residuum’ warranting RRQ evidences the interdependence between cues and circumstance in heuristic cognition, the way the one always requires the other to function. Nothing so incredibly lossy as ‘mind’ is required. This inability to duplicate heuristic cognition, however, has nothing to do with the ability to theorize the nature of moral cognition, which is biological through and through. In fact, an outline of such an answer has just been provided here.

Moral cognition, of course, decisively solves practical moral problems all the time (despite often being fantastically uninformative): our ancestors wouldn’t have evolved the capacity otherwise. Moral cognition fails to decisively answer the theoretical question of morality, on the other hand, because it turns on ancestrally available information geared to the solution of practical problems. Like all the other devices comprising our sociocognitive toolbox, it evolved to derive as much practical problem-solving capacity from as little information as possible. ‘Noetic resources’ are heuristic resources, which is to say, ecological through and through. The deliverances of reflection are deliverances originally adapted to the practical solution of ancestral social and natural environments. Small wonder our semantic and normative theories of semantic and normative phenomena are chronically underdetermined! Imagine trying to smell skeletal structure absent all knowledge of bone.

But then why do we persist? Cognitive reflex. Raising the theoretical question of semantic and normative cognition automatically (unconsciously) cues the application of intentional cognition. Since the supercomplicated structure and dynamics of sociocognition belong to the information it systematically neglects, we intuit only this applicability, and nothing of the specialization. We suffer a ‘soda straw effect,’ a discursive version of Kahneman’s What-you-see-is-all-there-is effect. Intuition tells us it has to be this way, while the deliverances of reflection betray nothing of their parochialism. We quite simply did not evolve the capacity either to intuit our nature or to intuit our our inability to intuit our nature, and so we hallucinate something inexplicable as a result. We find ourselves trapped in a kind of discursive anosognosia, continually applying problem-parochial access and capacity to general, theoretical questions regarding the nature of inexplicable-yet-(allegedly)-undeniable semantic and normative phenomena.

This picture is itself open to RRQ, of course, the difference being that the positions taken are all natural, and so open to noise reduction as well. As per Quine’s process of assimilation, the above story provides a cognitive scientific explanation for a very curious kind of philosophical behaviour. Savvy to the ecological limits of noetic resources, it patiently awaits the accumulation of empirical resources to explain them, and so actually has a chance of ending the ancient regress.

The image Floridi chases is a mirage, what happens when our immediate intuitions are so impoverished as to arise without qualification, and so smack of the ‘ultimate.’ Much as the absence of astronomical information duped our ancestors into thinking our world stood outside the order of planets, celestial as opposed to terrestrial, the absence of metacognitive information dupes us into thinking our minds stand outside the order of the world, intentional as opposed to natural. Nothing, it seems, could be more obvious than noocentrism, despite our millennial inability to silence any—any—question regarding the nature of the intentional.

No results found for “scandal of self-knowledge”

by rsbakker

Or so Google tells me as of 1:25PM February 5th, 2018, at least. And this itself, if you think about it, is, well, scandalous. We know how to replicate the sun over thousands of targets scattered across the globe. We know how to destroy an entire world. Just don’t ask us how that knowledge works. We can’t even define our terms, let alone explain their function. All we know is that they work: the rest is all guesswork… mere philosophy.

By the last count provided by Google (in November, 2016), it had indexed some 130,000,000,000,000—that is, one hundred and thirty trillion—unique pages. The idea that no one, in all those documents, would be so struck by our self-ignorance as to call it a scandal is rather amazing, and perhaps telling. We intellectuals are fond of lampooning fundamentalists for believing in ancient mythological narratives, but the fact is we have yet to find any definitive self-understanding to replace those narratives—only countless, endlessly disputed philosophies. We stipulate things, absolutely crucial things, and we like to confuse their pragmatic indispensability for their truth (or worse, necessity), but the fact is, every attempt to explain them ends in more philosophy.

Cognition, whatever it is, possesses a curious feature: we can use it effortlessly enough, successfully solve this or that in countless different circumstances. When it comes to our environments, we can deepen our knowledge as easily as we can take a stroll. And yet when it comes to ourselves, our experiences, our abilities and actions, we quickly run aground. “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind,” David Hume writes, “that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries, which discriminate and distinguish them” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 7).

This cognitive asymmetry is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the ‘language of the universe,’ mathematics. One often encounters extraordinary claims advanced on the nature of mathematics. For instance, the physicist Max Tegmark believes that “our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematical (a mathematical structure), making us self-aware parts of a giant mathematical object.” The thing to remember about all such claims, particularly when encountered in isolation, is that they simply add to the sum of ancient disputation.

In a famous paper presented to the Société de Psychologie in Paris, “Mathematical Creation,” Henri Poincaré describes how the relation between Fuchsian functions and non-Euclidean geometries occurred to him only after fleeing to the seaside, disgusted with his lack of progress. As with prior insights, the answer came to him while focusing on something entirely different—in this case, strolling along the bluffs near Caen. “Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work,” he explains. “The rôle of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable, and traces of it would be found in other cases where it is less evident.” The descriptive model he ventures–a prescient forerunner of contemporary dual-cognition theories–characterizes conscious mathematical problem-solving as inseminating a ‘subliminal automatism’ which subsequently delivers the kernel of conscious solution. Mathematical consciousness feeds problems into some kind of nonconscious manifold which subsequently feeds possibilities of solution back to mathematical consciousness.

As far as the experience of mathematical problem-solving is concerned, even the most brilliant mathematician of his age finds himself stranded at the limits of discrimination, glimpsing flickers in his periphery, merely. For Tegmark, of course, it matters not at all whether mathematical structures are discovered consciously or nonconsciously—only that they are discovered, as opposed to invented. But Poincaré isn’t simply describing the phenomenology of mathematics, he’s also describing the superficiality of our cognitive ecology when it comes to questions of mathematical experience and ability. He’s not so much contradicting Tegmark’s claims as explaining why they can do little more than add to the sum of disputation: mathematics is, experientially speaking, a black-box. What Poincaré’s story shows is that Tegmark is advancing a claim regarding the deepest environment—the fundamental nature of the universe—via resources belonging to an appallingly shallow cognitive ecology.

Tegmark, like physicists and mathematicians more generally, can only access an indeterminate fraction of mathematical thinking. With so few ‘cognitive degrees of freedom,’ our inability to explain mathematics should come as no surprise. Arguably no cognitive tool has allowed us to reach deeper, to fathom facts beyond our ancestral capacities, than mathematics, and yet, we still find ourselves (endlessly) arguing with Platonists, even Pythagoreans, when it comes to the question of its nature. Trapped in millennial shallows.

So, what is it with second-order interrogations of experience or ability or activity, such that it allows a brilliant, 21st century physicist to affirm a version of an ancient mathematical religion? Why are we so easily delivered to the fickle caprice of philosophy? And perhaps more importantly, why doesn’t this trouble us more? Why should our civilization systematically overlook the scandal of self-knowledge?

Not so very long ago, my daughter went through an interrogation-for-interrogation’s-sake phase, one which I initially celebrated. “What’s air?” “What’s oxygen?” “What’s an element?” “Who’s Adam?” As annoying as it quickly became, I was invariably struck by the ruthless efficiency of the exercise, the way she need only ask a handful of questions to push me to the, “Well, you know, honey, that’s a little complicated…” brink. Eventually I decided she was pacing out the length and beam of her cognitive ecology, mapping her ‘interrogative topography.’

The parallel between her naïve questions and my own esoteric ones loomed large in my thoughts. I was very much in agreement with Gareth Matthews in Philosophy and the Young Child: not so much separates the wonder of children from the thaumazein belonging to philosophers. As Socrates famously tells Theaetetus, “wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder is equally the feeling of the child.

Socrates, of course, was sentenced to death for his wonder-mongering. In my annoyance with my daughter’s questions, I saw the impulse to execute Socrates in embryo. Why did some of her questions provoke irritation, even alarm? Was it simply my mood, or was something deeper afoot? I found myself worrying whether there was any correlation between questions, like, “What’s a dream, Daddy?” that pressed me to the brink almost immediately, and questions like, “How do airplanes fly without flapping?” which afforded her more room for cross-examination. Was I aiming her curiosity somehow, training her to interrogate only what had already been interrogated? Was she learning her natural environment or her social one? I began to fret, worried that my philosophical training had irreparably compromised my ability to provide socially useful feedback.

Her spate of endless, inadvertently profound questioning began fading when she turned eight–the questions she asks now are far more practical, which is to say, answerable. Research shows that children become less ‘scientific’ as they age, relying more on prior causal beliefs and less on evidence. Perhaps not coincidentally, this pattern mirrors the exploration and exploitation phases one finds with reinforcement learning algorithms, where information gathering dwindles as the system converges on optimal applications. Alison Gopnik and others suggest the extraordinary length of human childhood (nearly twice as long as our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzee) is due to the way cognitive flexibility enables ever more complex modes of problem-solving.

If the exploration/exploitation parallel with machine learning holds, our tendency to question wanes as we converge on optimal applications of the knowledge we have already gained. All mammals undergo synaptic pruning from birth to sexual maturation—childhood and adolescent learning, we now know, involves the mass elimination of synaptic connections in our brains. Neural connectivity is born dying: only those fed—selected—by happy environmental interactions survive. Cognitive function is gradually streamlined, ‘normalized.’ By and large, we forget our naïve curiosity, our sensitivity to the flickering depths yawning about us, and turn our eyes to this or that practical prize. And as our sensitivity dwindles, the world becomes more continuous, rendering us largely oblivious to deeper questions, let alone the cavernous universe answering them.

Largely oblivious, not entirely. A persistent flicker nags our periphery, dumbfoundings large and small, prompting—for some, at least—questions that render our ignorance visible. Perhaps we find ourselves in Socratic company, or perhaps a child poses a striking riddle, sooner or later some turn is taken and things that seem trivially obvious become stupendously mysterious. And we confront the scandal: Everything we know, we know without knowing how we know. Set aside all the guesswork, and this is what we find: human experience, ability, and activity constitute a profound cognitive limit, something either ignored outright, neglected, or endlessly disputed.

As I’ve been arguing for quite some time, the reasons for this are no big mystery. Much as we possess selective sensitivities to environmental light, we also possess selective sensitivities both to each other and to ourselves. But where visual cognition generally renders us sensitive to the physical sources of events, allowing us to pursue the causes of things into ever deeper environments, sociocognition and metacognition do not. In fact, they cannot, given the astronomical complexity of the physical systems—you and me and biology more generally—requiring solution. The scandal of self-knowledge, in other words, is an inescapable artifact of our biology, the fact that the origin of the universe is far less complicated than the machinery required to cognize it.

Any attempt to redress this scandal that ignores its biological basis is, pretty clearly I think, doomed to simply perpetuate it. All traditional attempts to secure self-knowledge, in other words, likely amount to little more than the naïve exploration of discursive crash space–a limit so profound as to seem no limit at all.