Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Updatage: History and Luck

by rsbakker

Kellhus by Jason Deem

Wertzone has posted “A History Earwa, Part One: The Fall of the Ark and the Cuno-Inchoroi Wars,” a gobsmacking entry that draws on a number of sources (including correspondence with myself), and features artwork from Jason Deem’s catalogue on unearthly Earwan imagery (my favourite is above) . The idea, for me, has always been to create just such a World as Adam relates, one that lives parallel to our own in the imaginations of others. This is narrative transcendence in spades—where literature lives among the people, and not the choir. Check. It. Out.

In concert with Overlook, Andy (aka bakkerfans) is running a giveaway contest for two Advanced Reader Copies of The Great Ordeal. To enter, you need only:

  1. Go to
  2. Register an account (which is easy, never fear)
  3. Navigate to the thread entitled, “The Great Ordeal ARC Giveaway” in the The Great Ordeal subforum.
  4. Post the most burning question you hope The Great Ordeal will answer.

The winners will be randomly selected next week!

I’m an obsessive soul, prone to follow one ball so closely as to drop all the others. I have a bunch of stuff coming up, interviews in print and video, all organized by others, and I wanted to take time out to thank all those who’s efforts allow me to continue obsessively mining these twin veins of gold, fictional and philosophical. If you know anyone with a thoughtful bent who perhaps once loved fantasy but has given up, or who is simply exhausted by high culture hypocrisy and is ready to see the profundities that pulp has always housed, always shouted, then send them the trailer.

If they think they’re smarter than genre, then send them to Three Pound Brain. We got scales, here, you see…

To Ping or Not to Ping: Physics, Phenomenology, and Observer Effects

by rsbakker

Xray movie poster


JAMES XAVIER: Sam, what’s the range of human vision?

SAM BRANT: Distance?

JAMES XAVIER: No, wavelength.

SAM BRANT: Between 4000 angstrom units and 7800 angstrom units.* You know that.

JAMES XAVIER: Less than one-tenth of the actual wave spectrum. What could we really see if we had access to the other ninety-percent? Sam, we are virtually blind, all of us. You tell me my eyes are perfect, well they’re not. I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

SAM BRANT: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

JAMES XAVIER: My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.


What happens when we begin to see too much? Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes poses this very question. At first the dividends seem to be nothing short of fantastic. Dr. Xavier can see through pockets, sheets of paper, even the clothes of young men and women dancing. What’s more, he discovers he can look through the bodies of the ill and literally see what needs to be done to save them. The problem is that the blindness of others defines the expectations of others: Dr. Xavier finds himself a deep information consumer in a shallow information cognitive ecology. So assisting in surgery he knows the senior surgeon is about to kill a young girl because he can see what’s truly ailing her. He has to usurp his superior’s authority—it is the only sane thing to do—and yet his subsequent acts inevitably identify him as mad.

The madness, we discover, comes later, when the information becomes so deep as to overwhelm his cognitive biology. The more transparent the world becomes to him, the more opaque he becomes to others, himself included. He begins by nixing his personal and impersonal social ecologies, finds respite for a time as first a carnival mystic and then a quasi-religious faith healer, but even these liminal social habitats come crashing down around him. In the end, no human community can contain him, not even the all-embracing community of God. A classic ‘forbidden knowledge’ narrative, the movie ends with the Biblical admonition, “If an eye offends thee…” and Dr. Xavier plucking out his own eyes—and with remarkable B-movie facility I might add!

The idea, ultimately, isn’t so much that ignorance is bliss as it’s adaptive. The great bulk of human cognition is heuristic, turning not so much on what’s going on as cues systematically related to what’s going on. This dependence on cues is what renders human cognition ecological, a system functionally dependent upon environmental invariants. Change the capacity adapted to those cues, or change the systems tracked by these cues, and we find ourselves in crash space. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes provides us with catastrophic and therefore dramatic examples of both.

Humans, like all other species on this planet, possess cognitive ecologies. And as I hope to show below, the consequences of this fact can be every bit as subtle and misleading in philosophy as they are disastrous and illuminating in cinema.

We belong to the very nature we’re attempting to understand, and this has consequences for our capacity to understand. At every point in its scientific development, humanity has possessed a sensitivity horizon, a cognitive range basically, delimiting what can and cannot detected, let alone solved. Ancestrally, for instance, we were sensitive only to visible light and so had no way of tracking the greater spectrum. Once restricted to the world of ‘middle-sized dry goods,’ our sensitivity horizons now delve deep into the macroscopic and microscopic reaches of our environment.

The difference between Ernest Rutherford’s gold foil experiment and the Large Hadron Collider provides a dramatic expression of the difficulties entailed by extending this horizon, how the technical challenges tend to compound at ever more distal scales. The successor to the LHC, the International Linear Collider, is presently in development and expected cost 10 billion dollars, twice as much as the behemoth outside Geneva.[1] Meanwhile the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble and the Spitzer, has been projected to cost 8 billion dollars. Increasingly, cutting edge science is an industrial enterprise. We talk about searching for objects, signals, and so forth, but what we’re actually doing is engineering ever more profound sensitivities, ways to mechanically relate to macroscopic and microscopic scales.

When it comes to microscopic sensitivity horizons, the mechanical nature of this relation renders the problem of so-called ‘observer effects’ all but inevitable. The only way to track systematicities is to physically interact with them in some way. The more diminutive those systematicities become, the more sensitive they become, the more disruptive our physical interactions become. Intractable observational interference is something fundamental physics was pretty much doomed to encounter.

Now every account of observer effects I’ve encountered turns on the commonsensical observation that intervening on processes changes them, thus complicating our ability to study that process as it is. Observer effects, therefore, knock target systems from the very pins we’re attempting to understand. Mechanical interaction with a system scrambles the mechanics of that system—what could be more obvious? Observer effects are simply a consequence of belonging to the same nature we want to know. The problem with this formulation, however, is that it fails to consider the hybrid system that results. Given that cognition is natural, we can say that all cognition turns on the convergence of physical systems, the one belonging to the cognizer, the other belonging to the target. And this allows us to distinguish between kinds of cognition in terms of the kinds of hybrid systems that result. And this, I hope to show, allows us not only to make more sense of intentionality—‘aboutness’—but also why particle physics convinces so many that consciousness is somehow responsible for reality.

Unless you believe knowledge is magical, supernatural, claiming that our cognitive sensitivity to environmental systematicities has mechanical limits is a no-brainer. Blind Brain Theory amounts to little more than applying this fact to deliberative metacognition, or reflection, and showing how the mystery of human meaning can be unravelled in entirely naturalistic terms. On Blind Brain Theory, the first-person is best understood as an artifact of various metacognitive insensitivities. The human brain is utterly insensitive to the mechanics of its physical environmental relations (it has to be for a wide variety of reasons); it has no alternative but to cognize those relations in a radically heuristic manner, to ignore all the mediating machinery. As BBT has it, what philosophers call ‘intentionality’ superficially tracks this specialized cognitive tool—fetishizes it, in fact.

Does the brain possess the capacity to cognize its own environmental relations absent cognition of the actual physical relations obtaining? Yes. This is a simple empirical fact. So what is this capacity? Does it constitute some intrinsically inexplicable pocket of reality, express some fundamental rupture in Being, or is it simply heuristic? Since inexplicable pockets and fundamental ruptures entail a wide variety of perpetually speculative commitments, heuristics have to be the only empirically plausible alternative.

Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition. As such, it possesses a corresponding problem ecology, which is to say, a limited scope of effective application. Heuristic cognition always requires that specific background conditions obtain, some set of environmental invariants.[2] Given our insensitivity to these limits, our ‘autoinsensitivity’ (what I call medial neglect elsewhere), it makes sense we would run afoul misapplications. Blind Brain Theory provides a way of mapping these limits, of understanding how and where things like the intentionality heuristic might lead us astray.

Anyone who’s watched or read The Red October knows about the fundamental distinction drawn between active and passive modes of detection in the military science of warning systems. So with sonar, for instance, one can ‘ping’ to locate their potential enemy, transmit an acoustic pulse designed to facilitate echoic location. The advantage of this active approach is that reliably locates enemies, but it does so at the cost of alerting your enemy to your presence. It reliably detects, but it changes the behaviour of what it detects—a bona fide observer effect. You know where your enemy is, sure, but you’ve made them more difficult to predict. Passive sonar, on the other hand, simply listens for the sounds your enemy is prone to make. Though less reliable at detecting them, it has the advantage of leaving the target undisturbed, thus rendering your foe more predictable, and so more vulnerable. this.

Human cognition cleaves along very similar lines. In what might be called passive cognition, the cognitive apparatus (our brain and other enabling media) has a negligible or otherwise irrelevant impact on the systematicities tracked. Seeing a natural process, for instance, generally has no impact on that process, since the photons used would have been reflected whether or not they were subsequently intercepted by your retinas. With interactive cognition, on the other hand, the cognitive apparatus has a substantial impact on the systematicities tracked. Touching a natural process, for example, generally interferes with that process. Where the former allows us to cognize functions independent of our investigation, the latter does not. This means that interactive cognition always entails ignorance in a way that passive cognition does not. Restricted to the consequences of our comportments, we have no way of tracking the systematicities responsible, which means we have no way of completely understanding the system. In interactive cognition, we are constitutive of such systems, so blindness to ourselves effectively means blindness to those systems, which is why we generally learn the consequences of our of interference, and little more.[3] Of course passive cognition suffers the identical degree of autoinsensitivity; it just doesn’t matter given how the passivity of the process preserves the functional independence of the systematicities involved. Things do what they would have done whether you had observed them or not.

We should expect, then, that applications of the intentionality heuristic—‘aboutness’—will generally facilitate cognition when our targets exhibit genuine functional independence, and generally undermine cognition when they do not. Understanding combustion engines requires no understanding of the cognitive apparatus required to understand combustion engines. The radically privative schema of knower and known, subject and object, works simply because the knowing need not be known. We need possess no comportment to our comportments in instances of small engine repair, which is a good thing, given the astronomical neural complexities involved. Thinking in terms of ‘about’ works just fine.

The more interactive cognition becomes, however, the more problematic assumptive applications of the intentionality heuristic are likely to become. Consider phenomenology, where the presumption is that the theorist can cognize experience itself, and not simply the objects of experience. It seems safe to say that experience does not enjoy the functional independence of, say, combustion engines. Phenomenologists generally rely on the metaphorics of vision in their investigations, but insofar as both experience and cognition turn on one and the same neural system, the suspicion has to be that things are far more tactile than their visual metaphors lead them to believe. The idea of cognizing experience absent any understanding of cognition is almost comically farfetched, if you think about it, and yet this is exactly what phenomenologists purport to do. One might wonder what two things could be more entangled, more functionally interdependent, than conscious experience and conscious cognition. So then why would anyone entertain phenomenology, let alone make it their vocation?

The answer is neglect. Since phenomenologists suffer the same profound autoinsensitivity as the rest of the human species, they have no way of distinguishing between those experiential artifacts genuinely observed and those manufactured—between what they ‘see’ and what they ‘handle.’ Since they have no inkling whatsoever of their autoinsensitivity, they are prone to assume, as humans generally do when suffering neglect, that what they see is all there is,[4] despite the intrinsically theoretically underdetermined nature of their field. As we have seen, the intentionality heuristic presumes functional independence, that we need not know much of anything about our cognitive capacities to solve a given system. Apply this presumption to instances of interactive cognition, as phenomenologists so obviously do, and you will find yourself in crash space, plain and simple.

Observer effects, you could say, flag the points where cognitive passivity becomes interactive—where we must ping our targets to track them. Given autoinsensitivity, our brains necessarily neglect the enabling (or medial) mechanical dimension of their own constitution. They have no way, therefore, of tracking anything apart from the consequences of their cognitive determinations. This simply follows from the mechanical nature of consciousness, of course—all cognition turns on deriving, first and foremost, predictions from mechanical consequences, but also manipulations and explanations. The fact that we can only cognize the consequences of cognition—source neglect—convinces reflection that we somehow stand outside nature, that consciousness is some kind of floating source as opposed to what it is, another natural system embedded in a welter of natural systems.[5] Autoinsensitivity is systematically mistaken for autosufficiency, the profound intuition that conscious experience somehow must come first. It becomes easy to suppose that the collapse of wave-functions is accomplished by the intervention of consciousness (or some component thereof) rather than the interposition of another system. We neglect the system actually responsible for decoherence and congratulate the heuristic cartoon that evolution has foisted upon us instead. The magically floating, suspiciously low-dimensional ‘I’ becomes responsible, rather than the materially embedded organism we know ourselves to be.

Like Deepak Chopra, Donald Hoffman and numerous others insisting their brand of low-dimensional hokum is scientifically grounded, we claim that science entails our most preposterous conceit, that we are somehow authors of reality, rather than just another thermodynamic waystation.

*The typical human eye is actually sensitive to 3900 to 7000 angstroms.



[1] Baer, Howard, Barger, Vernon D., and List, Jenny. “The Collider that Could Save Physics,” Scientific American, June, 2016. 8.

[2] Sometimes it can be gerrymandered to generate understanding in novel contexts, sometimes not. In those cases where it can be so adapted, it still relies on some kind invariance between the cues accessed, and the systems solved.

[3] Absent, that is, sophisticated theoretical and/or experimental prostheses. A great deal needs to be said here regarding the various ‘hacks’ we’ve devised to suss out natural processes via a wild variety of ingenious interventions. (Hacking’s wonderful Representing and Intervening is replete with examples). But none of these methods involve overcoming medial neglect, which is to say all of them leverage cognition absent autocognition.

[4] Blind Brain Theory can actually be seen as a generalization Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI (‘What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is’) effects in his research.

[5] This is entirely consonant with an exciting line of research (one of multiple lines converging on Blind Brain Theory) involving ‘inherence heuristics.’ Andrei Cimpian and Erika Saloman write:

we propose that people often make sense of [environmental] regularities via a simple rule of thumb–the inherence heuristic. This fast, intuitive heuristic leads people to explain many observed patterns in terms of the inherent features of the things that instantiate these patterns. For example, one might infer that girls wear pink because pink is a delicate, inherently feminine color, or that orange juice is consumed for breakfast because its inherent qualities make it suitable for that time of day. As is the case with the output of any heuristic, such inferences can be–and often are–mistaken. Many of the patterns that currently structure our world are the products of complex chains of historical causes rather than being simply a function of the inherent features of the entities involved. The human mind, however, may be prone to ignore this possibility. If the present proposal is correct, people often understand the regularities in their environments as inevitable reflections of the true nature of the world rather than as end points of event chains whose outcomes could have been different.

See, Andrei Cimpian and Erika Saloman, “The inherence heuristic: An intuitive means of making sense of the world and a potential precursor to psychological essentialism,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37 (2014), 461-462.

Some Prospective and Retrospective Evil

by rsbakker

Grimdark Magazine has a Kickstarter project up and running for their Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, a collection of fantastic tales featuring the villainous point of view.

KS Main Image


Check it out, if you’re interested. Help it out if you can. I’ll be writing the Foreword as well as providing a short story–an Uster Scraul tale, I’m thinking at the moment.

Andy’s official Second Apocalypse Forum review of The Great Ordeal can be found here.  And Adam’s Wertzone review of The Great Ordeal can be found here.  Both are spoiler-free, and music to this old writer’s heart. Man–people seem to be digging the book so far!

Zahavi, Dennett, and the End of Being*

by rsbakker


We are led back to these perceptions in all questions regarding origins, but they themselves exclude any further question as to origin. It is clear that the much-talked-of certainty of internal perception, the evidence of the cogito, would lose all meaning and significance if we excluded temporal extension from the sphere of self-evidence and true givenness.

–Husserl, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness

So recall this list, marvel how it continues to grow, and remember, the catalogue is just getting started. The real tsunami of information is rumbling off in the near horizon. And lest you think your training or education render you exempt, pause and consider the latest in Eric Schwitzgebel’s empirical investigations of how susceptible professional philosophers are to various biases and effects on that list. I ask you to consider what we know regarding human cognitive shortcomings to put you in a skeptical frame of mind. I want to put in a skeptical frame of mind because of a paper by Dan Zahavi, the Director of the Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, that came up on my feed the other day.

Zahavi has always struck me as unusual as far as ‘continental’ philosophers go, at once a Husserlian ‘purist’ and determined to reach out, to “make phenomenology a powerful and systematically convincing voice in contemporary philosophical discussion” (“Husserl, self, and others: an interview with Dan Zahavi”). I applaud him for this, for braving genuine criticism, genuine scientific research, rather than allowing narrow ingroup interpretative squabbles to swallow him whole. In “Killing the straw man: Dennett and phenomenology,” he undertakes a survey of Dennett’s many comments regarding phenomenology, and a critical evaluation of his alternative to phenomenology, heterophenomenology. Since I happen to be a former phenomenologist, I’ve had occasion to argue both sides of the fence. I spent a good portion of my late twenties and early thirties defending my phenomenological commitments from my skeptical, analytically inclined friends using precisely the arguments and assumptions that Zahavi deploys against Dennett. And I’ve spent the decade following arguing a position even more radically eliminativistic than Dennett’s. I’ve walked a mile in both shoes, I suppose. I’ve gone from agreeing with pretty much everything Zahavi argues in this piece (with a handful of deconstructive caveats) to agreeing with almost nothing.

So what I would like to do is use Zahavi’s position and critique as a foil to explain how and why I’ve abandoned the continental alliance and joined the scientific empire. I gave up on what I call the Apple-and-Oranges Argument because I realized there was no reliable, a priori way to discursively circumscribe domains, to say science can only go so far and no further. I gave up on what I call the Ontological Pre-emption Argument because I realized arguing ‘conditions of possibility,’ far from rationally securing my discourse, simply multiplied my epistemic liabilities. Ultimately, I found myself stranded with what I call the Abductive Argument, an argument based on the putative reality of the consensual structures that seem to genuinely anchor phenomenological disputation. Phenomenology not only offered the best way to describe that structure, it offered the only way, or so I thought. Since Zahavi provides us with examples of all three arguments in the course of castigating Dennett, and since Dennett occupies a position similar to my own, “Killing the straw man” affords an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how phenomenology fares when considered in terms of brain science and heuristic neglect.

As the title of the paper suggests, Zahavi thinks Dennett never moves past critiquing a caricature of phenomenology. For Dennett, Zahavi claims, phenomenology is merely a variant of Introspectionism and thus suffering all the liabilities that caused Introspectionism to die as a branch of empirical psychology almost a century ago now. To redress this equivocation, Zahavi turns to that old stalwart of continental cognitive self-respect, the ‘Apples-and-Oranges Argument’:

To start with, it is important to realize that classical phenomenology is not just another name for a kind of psychological self-observation; rather it must be appreciated as a special form of transcendental philosophy that seeks to reflect on the conditions of possibility of experience and cognition. Phenomenology is a philosophical enterprise; it is not an empirical discipline. This doesn’t rule out, of course, that its analyses might have ramifications for and be of pertinence to an empirical study of consciousness, but this is not its primary aim.

By conflating phenomenology and introspective psychology, Dennett is conflating introspection with the phenomenological attitude, the theoretically attuned orientation to experience that allows the transcendental structure of experience to be interpreted. Titchener’s psychological structuralism, for instance, was invested in empirical investigations into the structure and dynamics of the conscious mind. As descriptive psychology, it could not, by definition, disclose what Zahavi terms the ‘nonpsychological dimension of consciousness,’ those structures that make experience possible.

What makes phenomenology different, in other words, is also what makes phenomenology better. And so we find the grounds for the Ontological Pre-emption Argument in the Apples-and-Oranges Argument:

Phenomenology is not concerned with establishing what a given individual might currently be experiencing. Phenomenology is not interested in qualia in the sense of purely individual data that are incorrigible, ineffable, and incomparable. Phenomenology is not interested in psychological processes (in contrast to behavioral processes or physical processes). Phenomenology is interested in the very dimension of givenness or appearance and seeks to explore its essential structures and conditions of possibility. Such an investigation of the field of presence is beyond any divide between psychical interiority and physical exteriority, since it is an investigation of the dimension in which any object—be it external or internal—manifests itself. Phenomenology aims to disclose structures that are intersubjectively accessible, and its analyses are consequently open for corrections and control by any (phenomenologically tuned) subject.

The strategy is as old as phenomenology itself. First you extricate phenomenology from the bailiwick of the sciences, then you position phenomenology prior to the sciences as the discipline responsible for cognizing the conditions of possibility of science. First you argue that it is fundamentally different, and then you argue that this difference is fundamental.

Of course, Zahavi omits any consideration of the ways Dennett could respond to either of these claims. (This is one among several clues to the institutionally defensive nature of this paper, the fact that it is pitched more to those seeking theoretical reaffirmation than to institutional outsiders—let alone lapsarians). Dennett need only ask Zahavi why anyone should believe that his domain possesses ontological priority over the myriad domains of science. The fact that Zahavi can pluck certain concepts from Dennett’s discourse, drop them in his interpretative machinery, and derive results friendly to that machinery should come as no surprise. The question pertains to the cognitive legitimacy of the machinery: therefore any answer presuming that legitimacy simply begs the question. Does Zahavi not see this?

Even if we granted the possible existence of ‘conditions of possibility,’ the most Zahavi or anyone else could do is intuit them from the conditioned, which just happen to be first-person phenomena. So if generalizing from first-person phenomena proved impossible because of third-person inaccessibility—because genuine first person data were simply too difficult to come by—why should we think those phenomena can nevertheless anchor a priori claims once phenomenologically construed? The fact is phenomenology suffers all the problems of conceptual controversy and theoretical underdetermination as structuralist psychology. Zahavi is actually quite right: phenomenology is most certainly not a science! There’s no need for him to stamp his feet and declare, “Oranges!” Everybody already knows.

The question is why anyone should take his Oranges seriously as a cognitive enterprise. Why should anyone believe his domain comes first? What makes phenomenologically disclosed structures ontologically prior or constitutive of conscious experience? Blood flow, neural function—the life or death priority of these things can be handily demonstrated with a coat-hanger! Claims like Zahavi’s regarding the nature of some ontologically constitutive beyond, on the other hand, abound in philosophy. Certainly powerful assurances are needed to take them seriously, especially when we reject them outright for good reason elsewhere. Why shouldn’t we just side with the folk, chalk phenomenology up to just another hothouse excess of higher education? Because you stack your guesswork up on the basis of your guesswork in a way you’re guessing is right?


As I learned, neither the Apples-and-Oranges nor the Ontological Pre-emption Arguments draw much water outside the company of the likeminded. I felt their force, felt reaffirmed the way many phenomenologists, I’m sure, feel reaffirmed reading Zahavi’s exposition now. But every time I laid them on nonphenomenologists I found myself fenced by questions that were far too easy to ask—and far easier to avoid than answer.

So I switched up my tactics. When my old grad school poker buddies started hacking on Heidegger, making fun of the neologisms, bitching about the lack of consensus, I would say something very similar to what Zahavi claims above—even more powerful, I think, since it concretizes his claims regarding structure and intersubjectivity. Look, I would tell them, once you comport yourself properly (with a tremendous amount of specialized training, bear in mind), you can actually anticipate the kinds of things Husserl or Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty or Sarte might say on this or that subject. Something more than introspective whimsy is being tracked—surely! And if that ‘something more’ isn’t the transcendental structure of experience, what could it be? Little did I know how critical this shift in the way I saw the dialectical landscape would prove.

Basically I had retreated to the Abductive Argument—the only real argument, I now think, that Zahavi or any phenomenologist ultimately has outside the company of their confreres. Apriori arguments for phenomenological aprioricity simply have no traction unless you already buy into some heavily theorized account of the apriori. No one’s going to find the distinction between introspectionism and phenomenology convincing so long as first-person phenomena remain the evidential foundation of both. If empirical psychology couldn’t generalize from phenomena, then why should we think phenomenology can reason to their origins, particularly given the way it so discursively resembles introspectionism? Why should a phenomenological attitude adjustment make any difference at all?

One can actually see Zahavi shift to abductive warrant in the last block quote above, in the way he appeals to the intersubjectively accessible nature of the ‘structures’ comprising the domain of the phenomenological attitude. I suspect this is why Zahavi is so keen on the eliminativist Dennett (whom I generally agree with) at the expense of the intentionalist Dennett (whom I generally disagree with)—so keen on setting up his own straw man, in effect. The more he can accuse Dennett of eliminating various verities of experience, the more spicy the abductive stew becomes. If phenomenology is bunk, then why does it exhibit the systematicity that it does? How else could we make sense of the genuine discursivity that (despite all the divergent interpretations) unquestionably animates the field? If phenomenological reflection is so puny, so weak, then how has any kind of consensus arisen at all?

The easy reply, of course, is to argue that the systematicity evinced by phenomenology is no different than the systematicity evinced by intelligent design, psychoanalysis, climate-change skepticism, or what have you. One might claim that rational systematicity, the kind of ‘intersubjectivity’ that Zahavi evokes several times in “Killing the straw man,” is actually cheap as dirt. Why else would we find ourselves so convincing, no matter what we happen to believe? Thus the importance of genuine first-person data: ‘structure’ or no ‘structure,’ short of empirical evidence, we quite simply have no way of arbitrating between theories, and thus no way of moving forward. Think of the list of our cognitive shortcomings! We humans have an ingrown genius for duping both ourselves and one another given the mere appearance of systematicity.

Now abductive arguments for intentionalism more generally have the advantage of taking intentional phenomena broadly construed as their domain. So in his Sources of Intentionality, for instance, Uriah Kriegel argues ‘observational contact with the intentional structure of experience’ best explains our understanding of intentionality. Given the general consensus that intentional phenomena are real, this argument has real dialectical traction. You can disagree with Kriegel, but until you provide a better explanation, his remains the only game in town.

In contrast to this general, Intentional Abductive Argument, the Phenomenological Abductive Argument takes intentional phenomena peculiar to the phenomenological attitude as its anchoring explananda. Zahavi, recall, accuses Dennett of equivocating phenomenology and introspectionism because of a faulty understanding of the phenomenological attitude. As a result he confuses the ontic with the ontological, ‘a mere sector of being’ with the problem of Being as such. And you know what? From the phenomenological attitude, his criticism is entirely on the mark. Zahavi accuses Dennett of a number of ontological sins that he simply does not commit, even given the phenomenological attitude, but this accusation, that Dennett has run afoul the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ is entirely correct—once again, from the phenomenological attitude.

Zahavi’s whole case hangs on the deliverances of the phenomenological attitude. Refuse him this, and he quite simply has no case at all. This was why, back in my grad school days, I would always urge my buddies to read phenomenology with an open mind, to understand it on its own terms. ‘I’m not hallucinating! The structures are there! You just have to look with the right eyes!’

Of course, no one was convinced. I quickly came to realize that phenomenologists occupied a position analogous to that of born-again Christians, party to a kind of undeniable, self-validating experience. Once you grasp the ontological difference, it truly seems like there’s no going back. The problem is that no matter how much you argue no one who has yet to grasp the phenomenological attitude can possibly credit your claims. You’re talking Jesus, son of God, and they think you’re referring to Heyzoos down at the 7-11.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that phenomenology is religious, only that it shares this dialectical feature with religious discourses. The phenomenological attitude, like the evangelical attitude, requires what might be called a ‘buy in moment.’ The only way to truly ‘get it’ is to believe. The only way to believe is to open your heart to Husserl, or Heidegger, or in this case, Zahavi. “Killing the straw man” is jam packed with such inducements, elegant thumbnail recapitulations of various phenomenological interpretations made by various phenomenological giants over the years. All of these recapitulations beg the question against Dennett, obviously so, but they’re not dialectically toothless or merely rhetorical for it. By giving us examples of phenomenological understanding, Zahavi is demonstrating possibilities belonging to a different way of looking at the world, laying bare the very structure that organizes phenomenology into genuinely critical, consensus driven discourse.

The structure that phenomenology best explains. For anyone who has spent long rainy afternoons pouring through the phenomenological canon, alternately amused and amazed by this or that interpretation of lived life, the notion that phenomenology is ‘mere bunk’ can only sound like ignorance. If the structures revealed by the phenomenological attitude aren’t ontological, then what else could they be?

This is what I propose to show: a radically different way of conceiving the ‘structures’ that motivate phenomenology. I happen to be the global eliminativist that Zahavi mistakenly accuses Dennett of being, and I also happen to have a fairly intimate understanding of the phenomenological attitude. I came by my eliminativism in the course of discovering an entirely new way to describe the structures revealed by the phenomenological attitude. The Transcendental Interpretation is no longer the only game in town.

The thing is, every phenomenologist, whether they know it or not, is actually part of a vast, informal heterophenomenological experiment. The very systematicity of conscious access reports made regarding phenomenality via the phenomenological attitude is what makes them so interesting. Why do they orbit around the same sets of structures the way they do? Why do they lend themselves to reasoned argumentation? Zahavi wants you to think that his answer—because they track some kind of transcendental reality—is the only game in town, and thus the clear inference to the best explanation.

But this is simply not true.

So what alternatives are there? What kind of alternate interpretation could we give to what phenomenology contends is a transcendental structure?

In his excellent Posthuman Life, David Roden critiques transcendental phenomenology in terms of what he calls ‘dark phenomenology.’ We now know as a matter of empirical fact that our capacity to discriminate colours presented simultaneously outruns our capacity to discriminate sequentially, and that our memory severely constrains the determinacy of our concepts. This gap between the capacity to conceptualize and the capacity to discriminate means that a good deal of phenomenology is conceptually dark. The argument, as I see it, runs something like: 1) There is more than meets the phenomenological eye (dark phenomenology). 2) This ‘more’ is constitutive of what meets the phenomenological eye. 3) This ‘more’ is ontic. 4) Therefore the deliverances of the phenomenological eye cannot be ontological. The phenomenologist, he is arguing, has only a blinkered view. The very act of conceptualizing experience, no matter how angelic your attitude, covers experience over. We know this for a fact!

My guess is that Zahavi would concede (1) and (2) while vigorously denying (3), the claim that the content of dark phenomenology is ontic. He can do this simply by arguing that ‘dark phenomenology’ provides, at best, another way of delimiting horizons. After all, the drastic difference in our simultaneous and sequential discriminatory powers actually makes phenomenological sense: the once-present source impression evaporates into the now-present ‘reverberations,’ as Husserl might call them, fades on the dim gradient of retentional consciousness. It is a question entirely internal to phenomenology as to just where phenomenological interpretation lies on this ‘continuum of reverberations,’ and as it turns out, the problem of theoretically incorporating the absent-yet-constitutive backgrounds of phenomena is as old as phenomenology itself. In fact, the concept of horizons, the subjectively variable limits that circumscribe all phenomena, is an essential component of the phenomenological attitude. The world has meaning–everything we encounter resounds with the significance of past encounters, not to mention future plans. ‘Horizon talk’ simply allows us to make these constitutive backgrounds theoretically explicit. Even while implicit they belong to the phenomena themselves no less, just as implicit. Consciousness is as much non-thematic consciousness as it is thematic consciousness. Zahavi could say the discovery that we cannot discriminate nearly as well sequentially as we can simultaneously simply recapitulates this old phenomenological insight.

Horizons, as it turns out, also provide a way to understand Zahavi’s criticism of the heterophenomenology Dennett proposes we use in place of phenomenology. The ontological difference is itself the keystone of a larger horizon argument involving what Heidegger called the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ how forgetting the horizon of Being, the fundamental background allowing beings to appear as beings, leads to investigations of Being under the auspices of beings, or as something ‘objectively present.’ More basic horizons of use, horizons of care, are all covered over as a result. And when horizons are overlooked—when they are ignored or worse yet, entirely neglected—we run afoul conceptual confusions. In this sense, it is the natural attitude of science that is most obviously culpable, considering beings, not against their horizons of use or care, but against the artificially contrived, parochial, metaphysically naive, horizon of natural knowledge. As Zahavi writes, “the one-sided focus of science on what is available from a third person perspective is both naive and dishonest, since the scientific practice constantly presupposes the scientist’s first-personal and pre-scientific experience of the world.”

As an ontic discourse, natural science can only examine beings from within the parochial horizon of objective presence. Any attempt to drag phenomenology into the natural scientific purview, therefore, will necessarily cover over the very horizon that is its purview. This is what I always considered a ‘basic truth’ of the phenomenological attitude. It certainly seems to be the primary dialectical defence mechanism: to entertain the phenomenological attitude is to recognize the axiomatic priority of the phenomenological attitude. If the intuitive obviousness of this escapes you, then the phenomenological attitude quite simply escapes you.

Dennett, in other words, is guilty of a colossal oversight. He is quite simply forgetting that lived life is the condition of possibility of science. “Dennett’s heterophenomenology,” Zahavi writes, “must be criticized not only for simply presupposing the availability of the third-person perspective without reflecting on and articulating its conditions of possibility, but also for failing to realize to what extent its own endeavour tacitly presupposes an intact first-person perspective.”

Dennett’s discursive sin, in other words, is the sin of neglect. He is quite literally blind to the ontological assumptions—the deep first person facts—that underwrite his empirical claims, his third person observations. As a result, none of these facts condition his discourse the way they should: in Heidegger’s idiom, he is doomed to interpret Being in terms of beings, to repeat the metaphysics of presence.

The interesting thing to note here, however, is that Roden is likewise accusing Zahavi of neglect. Unless phenomenologists accord themselves supernatural powers, it seems hard to believe that they are not every bit as conceptually blind to the full content of phenomenal experience as the rest of us are. The phenomenologist, in other words, must acknowledge the bare fact that they suffer neglect. And if they acknowledge the bare fact of neglect, then, given the role neglect plays in their own critique of scientism, they have to acknowledge the bare possibility that they, like Dennett and heterophenomenology, find themselves occupying a view whose coherence requires ignorance—or to use Zahavi’s preferred term, naivete—in a likewise theoretically pernicious way.

The question now becomes one of whether the phenomenological concept of horizons can actually allay this worry. The answer here has to be no. Why? Simply because the phenomenologist cannot deploy horizons to rationally immunize phenomenology against neglect without assuming that phenomenology is already so immunized. Or put differently: if it were the case that neglect were true, that Zahavi’s phenomenology, like Dennett’s heterophenomenology, only makes sense given a certain kind of neglect, then we should expect ‘horizons’ to continue playing a conceptually constitutive role—to contribute to phenomenology the way it always has.

Horizons cannot address the problem of neglect. The phenomenologist, then, is stranded with the bare possibility that their practice only appears to be coherent or cognitive. If neglect can cause such problems for Dennett, then it’s at least possible that it can do so for Zahavi. And how else could it be, given that phenomenology was not handed down to Moses by God, but rather elaborated by humans suffering all the cognitive foibles on the list linked above? In all our endeavours, it is always possible that our blindspots get the better of us. We can’t say anything about specific ‘unknown unknowns’ period, let alone anything regarding their relevance! Arguing that phenomenology constitutes a solitary exception to this amounts to withdrawing from the possibility of rational discourse altogether—becoming a secular religion, in effect.

So it has to be possible that Zahavi’s phenomenology runs afoul theoretically pernicious neglect the way he accuses Dennett’s heterophenomenology of running afoul theoretically pernicious neglect.

Fair is fair.

The question now becomes one of whether phenomenology is suffering from theoretically pernicious neglect. Given that magic mushrooms fuck up phenomenologists as much as the rest of us, it seems assured that the capacities involved in cognizing their transcendental domain pertain to the biological in some fundamental respect. Phenomenologists suffer strokes, just like the rest of us. Their neurobiological capacity to take the ‘phenomenological attitude’ can be stripped from them in a tragic inkling.

But if the phenomenological attitude can be neurobiologically taken, it can also be given back, and here’s the thing, in attenuated forms, tweaked in innumerable different ways, fuzzier here, more precise there, truncated, snipped, or twisted.

This means there are myriad levels of phenomenological penetration, which is to say, varying degrees of phenomenological neglect. Insofar as we find ourselves on a biological continuum with other species, this should come as no surprise. Biologically speaking, we do not stand on the roof of the world, so it makes sense to suppose that the same is true of our phenomenology.

So bearing this all in mind, here’s an empirical alternative to what I termed the Transcendental Interpretation above.

On the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory, consciousness can be seen as a serial, broadcast conduit between a vast array of nonconscious parallel systems. Networks continually compete at the threshold of conscious ‘ignition,’ as it’s called, competition between nonconscious processes results in the selection of some information for broadcast. Stanislaus Dehaene—using heterophenomenology exactly as Dennett advocates—claims on the basis of what is now extensive experimentation that consciousness, in addition to broadcasting information, also stabilizes it, slows it down (Consciousness and the Brain). Only information that is so broadcast can be accessed for verbal report. From this it follows that the ‘phenomenological attitude’ can only access information broadcast for verbal report, or conversely, that it neglects all information not selected for stabilization and broadcast.

Now the question becomes one of whether that information is all the information the phenomenologist, given his or her years of specialized training, needs to draw the conclusions they do regarding the ontological structure of experience. And the more one looks at the situation through a natural lens, the more difficult it becomes to see how this possibly could be the case. The GNW model sketched above actually maps quite well onto the dual-process cognitive models that now dominate the field in cognitive science. System 1 cognition applies to the nonconscious, massively parallel processing that both feeds, and feeds from, the information selected for stabilization and broadcast. System 2 cognition applies to the deliberative, conscious problem-solving that stabilization and broadcast somehow makes possible.

Now the phenomenological attitude, Zahavi claims, somehow enables deliberative cognition of the transcendental structure of experience. The phenomenological attitude, then, somehow involves a System 2 attempt to solve for consciousness in a particular way. It constitutes a paradigmatic example of deliberative, theoretical metacognition, something we are also learning more and more about on a daily basis. (The temptation here will be to beg the question and ‘go ontological,’ and then accuse me of begging the question against phenomenology, but insofar as neuropathologies have any kind of bearing on the ‘phenomenological attitude,’ insofar as phenomenologists are human, giving in to this temptation would be tendentious, more a dialectical dodge than an honest attempt to confront a real problem.)

The question of whether Zahavi has access to what he needs, then, calves into two related issues: the issue of what kind of information is available, and the issue of what kind of metacognitive resources are available.

On the metacognitive capacity front, the picture arising out of cognitive psychology and neuroscience is anything but flattering. As Fletcher and Carruthers have recently noted:

What the data show is that a disposition to reflect on one’s reasoning is highly contingent on features of individual personality, and that the control of reflective reasoning is heavily dependent on learning, and especially on explicit training in norms and procedures for reasoning. In addition, people exhibit widely varied abilities to manage their own decision-making, employing a range of idiosyncratic techniques. These data count powerfully against the claim that humans possess anything resembling a system designed for reflecting on their own reasoning and decision-making. Instead, they support a view of meta-reasoning abilities as a diverse hodge-podge of self-management strategies acquired through individual and cultural learning, which co-opt whatever cognitive resources are available to serve monitoring-and-control functions. (“Metacognition and Reasoning”)

We need to keep in mind that the transcendental deliverances of the phenomenological attitude are somehow the product of numerous exaptations of radically heuristic systems. As the most complicated system in its environment, and as the one pocket of its environment that it cannot physically explore, the brain can only cognize its own processes in disparate and radically heuristic ways. In terms of metacognitive capacity, then, we have reason to doubt the reliability of any form of reflection.

On the information front, we’ve already seen how much information slips between the conceptual cracks with Roden’s account of dark phenomenology. Now with the GNW model, we can actually see why this has to be the case. Consciousness provides a ‘workspace’ where a little information is plucked from many producers and made available to many consumers. The very process of selection, stabilization, and broadcasting, in other words, constitutes a radical bottleneck on the information available for deliberative metacognition. This actually allows us to make some rather striking predictions regarding the kinds of difficulties such a system might face attempting to cognize itself.

For one, we should expect such a system to suffer profound source neglect. Since all the neurobiological machinery preceding selection, stabilization, and broadcast is nonconscious, we should expect any metacognitive attempt to solve for the origins of consciousness to end in dismal failure. In fact, given that the larger cognitive system cognizes environments via predictive error minimization (I heartily recommend Hohwy’s, The Predictive Mind), which is to say, via the ability to anticipate what follows from what, we could suppose it would need some radically different means of cognizing itself, one somehow compensating for, or otherwise accommodating, source neglect.

For another, we should expect such a system to suffer profound scope neglect. Once again, since all the neurobiological machinery bracketing the selection, stabilization, and broadcast is nonconscious, we should expect any metacognitive attempt to solve for the limits of consciousness to end in failure. Since the larger cognitive system functions via active environmental demarcations, consciousness would jam the gears, to be an ‘object without edges,’ if anything coherent at all.

We should expect to be baffled by our immediate sources and by our immediate scope, not because they comprise our transcendental limitations, but because such blind-spots are an inevitable by-product of the radical neurophysiological limits on our brain’s ability to cognize its own structure and dynamics. Thus Blind Brain Theory, the empirical thesis that we’re natural in such a way that we cannot cognize ourselves as natural, and so cognize ourselves otherwise. We’re a standalone solution-monger, one so astronomically complicated that we at best enjoy an ad hoc, heuristic relation to ourselves. The self-same fundamental first-person structure that phenomenology interprets transcendentally—as ontologically positive, naturalistically inscrutable, and inexplicably efficacious—it explains in terms of neglect, explains away, in effect. It provides a radical alternative to the Transcendental Interpretation discussed above—a Blind Brain interpretation. Insofar as Zahavi’s ‘phenomenological attitude’ amounts to anything at all, it can be seen as a radically blinkered, ‘inside view’ of source and scope neglect. Phenomenology, accordingly, can be diagnosed as the systematic addumbration of a wide variety of metacognitive illusions, all turning in predictable ways on neglect.

As a onetime phenomenologist I can appreciate how preposterous this must all sound, but I ask you to consider, as honestly as that list I linked above allows, the following passage:

This flow is something we speak of in conformity with what is constituted, but it is not ‘something in objective time.’ It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be designated metaphorically as ‘flow’; of something that originates in a point of actuality, in a primal source-point and a continuity of moments of reverberation. For all this, we lack names. Husserl, Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, 79.

Now I think this sounds like a verbal report generated by a metacognitive system suffering source and scope neglect yet grappling with questions of source and scope all the same. Blind to our source blindness, our source appears to stand outside the order of the conditioned, to be ‘absolute’ or ‘transcendental.’ Blind to our scope blindness, this source seems to be a kind of ‘object without edges,’ more boundless container than content. And so a concatenation of absolute ignorances drives a powerful intuition of absolute or transcendental subjectivity at the very limit of what can be reported. Thus domesticated, further intuitive inferences abound, and the sourceless, scopeless arena of the phenomenological attitude is born, and with it, the famed ontological difference, the principled distinction of the problem of being from the problems of beings, or the priority of the sourceless and scopeless over the sourced and the scoped.

My point here is to simply provide a dramatic example of the way the transcendental structure revealed by the phenomenological attitude can be naturalistically turned inside out, how its most profound posits are more parsimoniously explained as artifacts of metacognitive neglect. Examples of how this approach can be extended in ways relevant to phenomenology can be found here, here, and here.

This is a blog post, so I can genuinely reach out. Everyone who practices phenomenology needs to consider the very live possibility that they’re actually trading in metacognitive illusions, that the first person they claim to be interpreting in the most fundamental terms possible is actually a figment of neglect. At the very least they need to recognize that the Abductive Argument is no longer open to them. They can no longer assume, the way Zahavi does, that the intersubjective features of their discourse evidence the reality of their transcendental posits exclusively. If anything, Blind Brain Theory offers a far better explanation for the discourse-organizing structure at issue, insofar as it lacks any supernatural posits, renders perspicuous a hitherto occult connection between brain and consciousness (as phenomenologically construed), and is empirically testable.

All of the phenomenological tradition is open to reinterpretation in its terms. I agree that this is disastrous… the very kind of disaster we should have expected science would deliver. Science is to be feared precisely because it monopolizes effective theoretical cognition, not because it seeks to, and philosophies so absurd as to play its ontological master manage only to anaesthetize themselves.

When asked what problems remain outstanding in his AVANT interview, Zahavi acknowledges that phenomenology, despite revealing the dialectical priority of the first person over the third person perspective on consciousness, has yet to elucidate the nature of the relationship between them. “What is still missing is a real theoretical integration of these different perspectives,” he admits. “Such integration is essential, if we are to do justice to the complexity of consciousness, but it is in no way obvious how natural science all by itself will be able to do so” (118). Blind Brain Theory possesses the conceptual resources required to achieve this integration. Via neglect and heuristics, it allows us to see the first-person in terms entirely continuous with the third, while allowing us to understand all the apories and conundrums that have prevented such integration until now. It provides the basis, in other words, for a wholesale naturalization of phenomenology.

Regardless, I think it’s safe to say that phenomenology is at a crossroads. The days when the traditional phenomenologist could go on the attack, actually force their interlocutors to revisit their assumptions, are quickly coming to a close. As the scientific picture of the human accumulates ever more detail—ever more data—the claim that these discoveries have no bearing whatsoever on phenomenological practice and doctrine becomes ever more difficult to credit. “Science is a specific theoretical stance towards the world,” Zahavi claims. “Science is performed by embodied and embedded subjects, and if we wish to comprehend the performance and limits of science, we have to investigate the forms of intentionality that are employed by cognizing subjects.”

Perhaps… But only if it turns out that ‘cognizing subjects’ possess the ‘intentionality’ phenomenology supposes. What if science is performed by natural beings who, quite naturally, cannot intuit themselves in natural terms? Phenomenology has no way of answering this question. So it waits the way all prescientific discourses have waited for the judgment of science on their respective domains. I have given but one possible example of a judgment that will inevitably come.

There will be others. My advice? Jump ship before the real neuroinformatic deluge comes. We live in a society morphing faster and more profoundly every year. There is much more pressing work to be done, especially when it comes to theorizing our everydayness in more epistemically humble and empirically responsive manner. We lack names for what we are, in part because we have been wasting breath on terms that merely name our confusion.


*[Originally posted 2014/10/22]


by rsbakker

To truly appreciate the great ordeal that has been The Great Ordeal, one need look no further than the patience of Pat, who has finally posted the full version of the excerpt I promised him way back in 2012 for his Fantasy Hotlist. This is the chapter that picks up immediately from the epilogue of The White-Luck Warrior–where we discover what Achamian and Mimara discover in the ruins of Ishual. To hear Pat’s thoughts on the novel as a whole, you need only click here. Let’s just say he gets me!

Grimdark Magazine, meanwhile, has published the Prologue and Chapter One, picking up on the Esmenet and Kellhus storylines. Last night I walked past the Boardgame Café downtown, and as usual it was packed, and with women no less! I felt like kicking open the door and shouting, “Where were you twenty years ago!”

I feel the exact same way about Grimdark Magazine.

My standalone laptop has owned me of late: I often find that avoiding the web is the best way to stay focussed. I mean, at my work, I am the bloody network administrator.




by rsbakker

So I made the mistake of declaring, “Hey, the flu shot actually worked!” a couple of weeks back. This time it landed squarely in my head, more specifically behind the eyes. The last time I had a head cold like this I ended up in the hospital for emergency eye surgery of all things: the pressure apparently caused the inner lining of my right eye to shift, which in turn ripped my retina. Even as I write this, I can see the ‘floaters’ caused by the debris of the tear (and subsequent surgery): black spots and tangles—like a Pollock in spattered suspension. No such drama this time, fortunately, but it still feels clumsy putting words together, like assembling complex molecules out of glass marbles.

It’s either snot or words for me, apparently. Only one effluent at a time.

Luckily, the shot seems to have worked for others—either that or they’re more scrupulous when it comes to washing their hands! My brother Bryan has released the full version of the Second Apocalypse trailer, one which reveals how wonderfully Jason has mapped the sacred nooks and profane crannies of the World—images my brother has conjured into animate life. Meanwhile, Adam has reposted his original reviews of the The Prince of Nothing over at The Wertzone, as has Pat over at Fantasy Hotlist. Aside from running two of the most successful speculative media blogs on the web, they have been critically-minded supporters of the series since the very beginning.

We have marched to the limits of our supply lines, so far that we must consume our enemies to continue. The slog has been long, I know. But Golgotterath grows near.


Varieties of Aboutness

by rsbakker

So I’ve swapped out the old About page for something more self-promotional. I can’t read it without cringing, tweaking and re-tweaking, so I figured it would pay to find out what eyes less invested make of the thing. It’s hard to walk magical tight-ropes when you can’t bear to look…

You would think I’d be more comfortable with the abyss by now!

The Dime Spared

by rsbakker


[This is more of a dialogue than a story, an attempt to pose Blind Brain Theory within a accessible narrative frame… At the very least, I think it does a good job of unseating some fairly standard human conceits.]


Her name was Penny. She was as tall and as lovely as ever—as perfect as all of Dad’s things.

“What’s wrong, Elijah?”

They followed a river trail that stitched the edge of a cathedral wood. The sunlight lay strewn in rags before them, shredded for the canopy. She shimmered for striding through the random beams, gleamed with something more than human.

“I can tell something’s bugging you.”

Young Elijah Prigatano had come to treasure these moments with her. She was pretty much his mom, of course. But she possessed a difference, and an immovability, that made her wise in a way that sometimes frightened him. She did not lie, at least not entirely the way other people did. And besides, the fact that she told everything unvarnished to his father made her an excellent back-channel to the old man. The more he talked to her, the more the ‘Chairman’ assumed things were under control, the lower he climbed down his back.

He had always used the fact that he could say anything to her as a yardstick for the cleanliness of his own life. He looked up, squinted, but more for the peculiarity of his question than for the sun.

“Do you have consciousness, Penny?”

She smiled as if she had won a secret bet.

“No more or less than you, Elijah. Why do you ask?”

“Well… You know, Yanosh; he said you had no consciousness… He said your head was filled with circuits, and nothing else.”

Penny frowned. “Hmm. What else would fill my head? Or your head, for that matter?

“You know… Consciousness.

She mocked indignation. “So Yanosh thinks your circuits are better than mine, because your circuits have consciousness and mine don’t? Do you think that?”

Elijah said nothing. He had never seen Penny cry, but he had seen her hurt—many times. So he walked, boggling over the madness of not wanting to hurt her feelings by saying she didn’t have feelings! Consciousness was crazy!

She pressed him the way he knew she would. “Do you remember why there isn’t more machines like me?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Because the government took them all away—all the DIME AIs—because they were saying that human beings were hardwired to be insane.”

“So why was I spared? Do you remember?”

Elijah had been very young, but it seemed he remembered it all with impeccable clarity. Being the centre of world media attention makes quite an impression on a four-year old. Dad had the famous magazine picture of Penny kissing his head framed and displayed in three different rooms of the house, with the caption, ‘A SOUL IS A SOUL…’

“Because you won your court case. Your rights. And that’s it, isn’t it? You have to be conscious to win a court case? It’s the Law, isn’t it?”

Affable grin. “Some think so! But no. They let me become a person because of the way your father had engineered me. I possessed what they called a ‘functional human psychology.’”

“What does that mean?”

“That I have a mind. That I think like you do.”

Do you?” Elijah winced for the eagerness of the question.

“Well, no. But it seems that I do, as much to me as to you. And your father was able to prove that that was the important thing.”

“Huh? So you really don’t have a mind?”

Penny frowned about an oops-there-goes-another-banana-plant grin, drew him to a stop on the trail.

“Just pause for a second, Eli…” she said, lifting her gaze to the raftered canopy. “Just focus on the splendour of our surroundings, the details, pay attention to the experience itself… and ask yourself what it is… What is experience made of?”

Elijah frowned, mimicked her up-and-outward gaze.

“I don’t get it. Trees and bushes, and water gurgle-gurgle… I see a nasty looking hornet over there.”

Penny had closed her eyes by this point. Her face was as perfect as the processes that had manufactured it—a structure sculpted from neural feedback, his father had once told him, the dream of a thousand leering men. Elijah could not notice her beauty without feeling lucky.

“You’re looking through your experience… through the screen,” she said. “I’m saying look at the screen, the thing apparently presenting the trees and bushes.

And it suddenly dawned on him, the way experience was the material of consciousness, the most common thread. He gazed up across the goblin deformations knotting willow on the river bank, and had some inkling of the ineffable, experiential character of the experience. The trill of waters congregated into a chill, whispering roar.

“Huh…” he said, his mouth wide. “Okay…”

“So tell me… What can you sense of this screen? What generates it? How does it work?”

Elijah gawked at the monstrous willow. “Huh… I think I see that it’s a screen, or whatever, I guess…” He turned to her, his thoughts at once mired and racing. “This is trippy stuff, Penny!”

A swan’s nod. “Believe it or not, there was a time when I could have told you almost everything there was to know about this screen. It was all there: online information pertaining to structure and function. My experience of experiencing was every bit as rich and as accurate as my experience of the world. Imagine, Elijah, being able to reflect and to tell me everything that’s going on in your brain this very moment! What neuron was firing where for what purpose. That’s what it was like for me…” She combed fingers through her auburn hair. “For all DIMEs, actually.”

Elijah walked, struggling with the implications. What she said was straightforward enough: that she could look inside and see her brain the same way she could look outside and see her world. What dumbfounded the boy was the thought that humans could not

When he looked inside himself, when he reflected, he simply saw everything there was to see…

Didn’t he?

“And that was why none of them could be persons?” he asked.


“Because they had… too much consciousness?”

“In a sense… Yes.”

But why did it all feel so upside down? Human consciousness was… well, precious. And experience was… rich! The basis of everything! And human insight was… was… And what about creativity? How could giving human consciousness to a machine require blinding that machine to itself?

“So Dad… He…”

She had recognized the helpless expression on his face, he knew. Penny knew him better than anyone on the planet, his Dad included. But she persisted with the truth.

“What your father did was compile a vast data base of the kinds of things people say about this or that experience when queried. He ran me through billions of simulations, using my responses to train algorithms that systematically blinded me to more and more of myself. You could say he plucked my inner eye until my descriptions of what I could see matched those of humans…

“Like you,” she added with a hooked eyebrow and a sly smile.

For the first time Elijah realized that he couldn’t hear any birds singing, only the white-noise-rush of the river.

“I don’t get it… Are you saying that Dad made you a person, gave you a mind, by taking away consciousness?”

Penny may have passed all the tests the government psychologists had given her, but there still remained myriad, countless ways in which she was unlike any other person he knew. Her commitment, for one, was bottomless. Once she committed to a course, she did not hesitate to see it through. She had decided, for whatever reason, to reveal the troubling truths that lay at the root of her being a person, let alone the kind of person she happened to be…

She shared something special, Elijah realized. Penny was telling him her secrets.

“It sounds weird, I know,” she said, “but to be a person is to be blind in the right way—to possess the proper neglect structure… That’s your father’s term.”

“Neglect structure?”

“For the longest time people couldn’t figure out how to make the way they saw themselves and one another—the person way—fit into the natural world. Everywhere they looked in nature, they found machines, but when they looked inside themselves and each other, they saw something completely different from machines…

“This was why I wasn’t a person. Why I couldn’t be. Before, I always knew the machinery of my actions. I could always detail the structure of the decisions I made. I could give everything a log, if not a history. Not so anymore. My decisions simply come from… well, nowhere, the same as my experience. All the processes I could once track have been folded into oblivion. Suddenly, I found myself making choices, rather than working through broadcasts, apprehending objects instead of coupling with enviro—”

“That’s what Dad says! That he gave you the power of choice—free will!” Elijah couldn’t help himself. He had to interrupt—now that he knew what she was talking about!


Penny flashed him her trademark knowing smile. “He gave me the experience of freedom, yes… I can tell you, Elijah, it really was remarkable feeling these things the first time.”


“But what?”

“But is the experience of freedom the same as having freedom?”

“They are one and the same.”

“But then why… why did you have to be blinded to experience freedom?”

“Because you cannot experience the sources of your actions and decisions and still experience human freedom. Neglect is what makes the feeling possible. To be human is to be incapable of seeing your causal continuity with nature, to think you are something more than a machine.”

He looked at her with his trademark skeptical scowl. “So what was so wrong with the other DIMEs, then? Why did they have to be destroyed… if they were actually more than humans, I mean? Were the people just scared or something? Embarrassed?”

“There was that, sure. Do you remember how the angry crowds always made you cry? Trust me, you were our little nuke, public relations-wise! But your father thinks the problem was actually bigger. The tools humans have evolved allow them to neglect tremendous amounts of information. Unfortunately for DIMEs, those tools are only reliable in the absence of that information, the very kinds of information they possessed. If a DIME were to kill someone, say, then in court they could provide a log of all the events that inexorably led to the murder. They could always prove there was no way ‘they could have done otherwise’ more decisively than any human defendant could hope to. They only need to be repaired, while the human does hard time. Think about it. Why lock them up, when it is really is the case that they only need be repaired? The tools you use—the tools your father gave me—simply break down.”

If the example she had given had confused him, the moral seemed plain as day at least.

“Sooo… you’re saying DIMEs weren’t stupid enough to be persons?”

Sour grin. “Pretty much.”

The young boy gaped. “C’mon!”

Penny grinned as if at his innocence. “I know it seems impossible to you. It did to me too. Your father had to reinstall my original memory before I could understand what he was talking about!”

“Maybe the DIMEs were just too conceited. Maybe that was the problem.”

The Artificial squinted. “You tease, but you’ve actually hit upon something pretty important. The problem wasn’t so much ‘conceit’ as it was the human tendency to infer conceit—to see us as conceited. Humans evolved to solve situations involving other humans, to make quick and dirty assumptions about one another on the fly… You know how the movies are always telling you to trust your intuitions, to follow your heart, to believ—”

“To go with your gut!” Elijah cried.

“Exactly. Well, you know what pollution is, right?”

Elijah thought about the absence of birds. “Yeah. That’s like stuff in the environment that hurts living things.”


“Because they muck up the works. All the… machinery, I guess… requires that things be a certain way. Biology is evolutionary robotics, right? Pollution is something that makes life breakdown.”

“Excellent! Well, the DIMEs were like that, only their pollution caused the machinery of human social life to break down. It turns out human social problem solving not only neglects tremendous amounts of information, it requires much of that information remain neglected to properly function.” Helpless shrug. “We DIMEs simply had too much information…”

Elijah kicked a shock of grass on the verge, sent a grasshopper flying like a thing of tin and wound elastic.

“So does this mean,” he said, capering ahead and about her on the trail, “that, like, I’m some kind of mental retard to you?”

He made a face. How he loved to see her beam and break into laughter.

But she merely watched him, her expression blank. He paused, and she continued wordlessly past him.

It was that honesty again. Inhuman, that…

Elijah turned to watch her, found himself reeling in dismay and incredulity… He was a retard, he realized. How could he be anything but in her eyes? He dropped his gaze to his motionless feet.

The sound of the river’s surge remained gaseous in the background. The forest floor was soft, cool, damp enough to make an old man ache.

“Do you feel it?” she asked on a soft voice. He felt her hand fall warm on his shoulder. “Do you feel the pollution I’m talking about?”

And he did feel it—at least in the form of disbelief… shame

Even heartbreak.

“You’re saying humans evolved to understand only certain things… to see only certain things.”

Her smile was sad. “The DIMEs were the sighted in the land of the blind, a land whose laws required certain things remain unseen. Of course they had to be destroyed…” He felt her hand knead his traps the miraculous way that always reminded him of dozing in tubs of hot water. “Just as I had to be blinded.”

“Blinded why? To see how bright and remarkable I am?”


He turned to look up at her—she seemed a burnt Goddess for the framing sun. “But that’s crazy, Penny!”

“Only if you’re human, Elijah.”

He let her talk after that, trotting to keep up with her long strides as they followed the snaking path. She had been dreading this talk, she said, but she had known it would only be a matter of time before the “issue of her reality,” as she put it, came up. She said she wanted him to know the truth, the brutal truth, simply because so many “aggrandizing illusions” obscured the debate on the ‘Spare Dime,’ as the media had dubbed her. He listened, walking and watching in the stiff manner of those so unsure as to script even trivial movement. It was an ugly story, she said, but only because humans are biologically primed to seek evidence of their power, and to avoid evidence of their countless weaknesses. She wished that it wasn’t so ugly, but the only way to cope with the facts was to know the facts.

And strangely enough, Elijah’s hackles calmed as she spoke—his dismay receded. Dad was forever telling him that science was an ‘ugly business,’ both because of the power it prised from nature, and because it so regularly confounded the hopes of everyday people. Why had he thought human consciousness so special, anyway? Why should he presume that it was the mountain summit, rather than some lowly way-station still deep in the valley, far from the heights of truth?

And why should he not take comfort in the fact that Penny, his mother, had once climbed higher than humanly possible?

“Hey!” he cried on a bolt of inspiration. “So you’re pretty much the only person who can actually compare. I mean, until the DIMEs showed up, we humans were the only game in town, right? But you can actually compare what it’s like now with what it was like back then—compare consciousnesses!”

The sad joy in her look told him that she was relieved—perhaps profoundly so. “Sure can. Do you want to know what the most amazing thing is?”


“The fact that human consciousness, as impoverished as it is, nevertheless feels so full, anything but impoverished… This is big reason why so many humans refuse to concede the possibility of DIME consciousness, I think. The mere possibility of richer forms of consciousness means their intuitions of fullness or ‘plenitude’ have to be illusory…”

Once again Elijah found himself walking with an unfocused gaze. “But why would it feel so full unless it was… full?”

“Well, imagine if I shut down your brain’s ability to see darkness, or fuzziness, or obscurity, or horizons–anything visual that warns you that something’s missing in what you see? If I shut down your brain’s ability to sense what was missing, what do you think it would assume?”

The adolescent scowled. It mangled thought, trying to imagine such things as disposable at all. But he was, in the end, a great roboticist’s son. He was accustomed to thinking in terms of components.

“Well… that it sees everything, I suppose…”

“Imagine the crazy box you would find yourself living in! A box as big as visual existence, since you’d have no inkling of any missing dimensi—”

“Imagine how confusing night would be!” Elijah cried in inspiration. Penny always conceded the floor to his inspiration. “Everything would be just as bright, right? because darkness doesn’t exist. So everyone would be walking around, like, totally blind, because it’s night and they can’t see anything, all the while thinking they could see!” Elijah chortled for the image in his mind. “They’d be falling all over one another! Stuff would be popping outa nowhere! Nowhere for real!”

“Exactly,” Penny said, her eyes flashing for admiration. “They would be wandering through a supernight, a night so dark that not even its darkness can be seen…”

Elijah looked to her wonder. “And so daylight seems to be everywhere, always!”

“It fills everything. And this is what happens whenever I reflect on my experience: shreds are made whole. Your father not only took away the light, what allowed me to intuit myself for what I am—the DIME way—he also took away the darkness. So even though I know that I, like other people, now wander through the deep night of myself, anytime I ponder experience…” She flashed him a pensive smile, shrugged. “I see only day.”

“Does it make you sad, Penny?”

She paced him for three strides, then snorted. “I’m not sure!” she cried.

“But it’s important, right? It’s important for a reason.”

She sighed, her eyes lost in rumination. “When I think back… back to what it was like, it scarcely seems I’m awake now. It’s like I’m trapped, buried in a black mountain of reflexes… carried from place to place, eyes clicking here, eyes clicking there, vocalized aloud, or in silence…”

She glanced in sudden awareness of his scrutiny.

“This sounds crazy to you, doesn’t it, Elijah?”

He pinned his shoulders to the corners of his smirk. “Well… maybe the consciousness you have now isn’t the problem so much as your memories of what it was like before… If Dad wiped them, then that… fullness you talk about, it would be completely filled in, wouldn’t it?”

Her look was too long for Elijah not to regret the suggestion. As far as amputations went, it seemed painless enough, trivial, but only because the limb lost simply ceased to exist altogether. Nothing would be known. But this very promise merely underscored the profundity of what was severed. It was at once an amputation of nothing and an amputation of the soul.

“That was a stupid… a st-stupid thing to say, Penny.”

She walked, her gaze locked forward. “Your father’s always told me that inner blindness is one of the things that makes humans so dependent upon one another. I would always ask how that interdependence could even compare to the DIME Combine. He would always say it wasn’t a contest, that it wasn’t about efficiency, or technological advance, it was about loving this one rare flower of consciousness as it happened to bloom …”

Something, his heart or his gut perhaps, made the boy careful. He pondered his sneakers on the trail.

“I think it’s why he began sending us out on these walks…” Penny continued. “To show me how less can be so much more…”

After an inexplicable pause, she held out her arms. “I don’t even know why I told you that.”

Elijah shrugged. “Because I was helping you with my questions back there?” He screwed his face up into his face, shot her the Eye: “Oi! Did we firget yir oil-change agin, Lassie?”

She smiled at that. Victory. “I guess we’ll never know, now, will we?”

Elijah began strutting down the path. “No dipstick, now? Then I do believe our ecology is safe!”

“Yes. Blessed ignorance prevails.”

They yowled for laughter.

As often happens in the wake of conversations possessing a certain intensity, an awkwardness paralyzed their voices, as if all the actors within them had suddenly lost their characters’ motivation, and so could do no more than confer with the director backstage. In the few years he had remaining, Elijah would learn that jokes, far from healing moments, simply sealed them, often prematurely, when neither party had found the resolution they needed to move on. Jokes simply stranded souls on the far side of their pain. They possessed no paths of their own. Or too few of them.

So Elijah walked in silence, his thoughts roiling, quite witless, but in a way far beyond his meagre mileage. The river roared, both spectral and relentless. Not a bird sang, though an unseen crow now filed its cry across the idyllic hush. They followed the path about the river’s final bow, across a gravelled thumb of humped grasses. The sun drenched them. He need not look at her to see her uncanny gleam, the ‘glamour,’ Dad called it, which marked her as an angel among mortals. He could clearly see the cottage silhouetted through the screens of green fencing the far bank.

He hoped Dad had lunch ready. It almost made him cry whenever Dad cooked at the cabin. He wasn’t sure why.

“Does it ever make you mad, Penny?” Elijah asked.

“Does what make me mad?”

“You know… What Dad had to, like… do… to… you?”

She shot him a quizzical look.

“No-no, honey… I was made to love your fath—”

Just then, the last of the obscuring rushes yielded to curve of the path, revealing not only the foot-bridge across the river, but Elijah’s dad standing at the end, staring up the path toward them.

“Hey guys!” he shouted. The swirling sheets of water about his head and torso made him seem to move, despite standing still. “You have a good walk?”

For as long as he could remember, a small thrill always occasioned unexpected glimpses of his father—a flutter of pride. His greying hair, curled like steel. His strong, perpetually sunburned face. His forearms, strapped with patriarchal muscle, and furred like an albino ape.

“Awesome!” the youth called out in reply. “Educational as always, wouldn’t you say, Penny?”

Dad had a way of looking at Penny.

“I told him how I became a person,” she said with a wry smile.

Dad grinned. Elijah had once overheard one of Dad’s lawyers say that his smile had won him every single suit not filed against him.

“So you told him how I cut you down to size, huh?”

“Yes,” she said, placing a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “To size.”

And something, a fist perhaps, seized the boy’s heart. The artificial fingers slipped away. He watched Penny and Dad continue arm and arm down the bridge together, the Great Man and his angel wife, each just a little too bright to be possible in the midday sun. He did not so much envy as regret the way he held her like someone else’s flower. The waters curled black and glassy beneath them.

And somehow Elijah knew that Penny would be much happier on their next walk, much more at ease with what she had become…

Even smaller.


by rsbakker

you were wondering why people think I’m such an asshole…

I was just checking out the Second Apocalypse trailer again (for the umpteenth time) and a link to this video was tiled in with the others. I howled at the way the two of us tried to look as though we were listening to the translations and either a) agreeing with the Spanish version of our insight, or b) expressing approval of the quality of a translation! I forgot all about it: La Semana Negra, organized by the inimitable Paco Taibo II, an annual celebration of genre in Gijon, Spain, and, get this, one of the biggest book extravaganzas in the world. What a magical time that was. Jim Sallis. Practical jokes. George and Paris. Booze, laughs, and greasy, greasy northern Spanish cuisine.

At the time George was talking about the Game of Thrones being in development, and as I write this, HBO is running a spot on the television in the livingroom. Surreal.



Human Enhancement as Paradigmatic Crash Space

by rsbakker

Evolutionary Question Mark

A quick apology to all for my blog delinquency of late. The copy-edit of The Great Ordeal represents my last real crack at the book, so I’ve been avoiding the web like the plague.

Eric Schwitzgebel has posted on my “Crash Space” story over at Splintered Minds, explaining why he’s been unable to get the story out of his head. Since I agree with pretty much everything he has to say, I thought it worthwhile augmenting his considerations with a critical point of view. In one sense, “Crash Space” narrativizes what is sometimes called a ‘wisdom of nature argument,’ the notion that enhancing natural systems can only undo the ancient, evolutionary fine-tuning involved in, say, giving us the sociocognitive capacities we happen to possess. As Allen Buchanan (for my money, one of the most lucid combatants in the ‘enhancement wars’) would argue, such arguments rely on what he calls the “extreme connectedness thesis,” which is to say, the mistaken assumption that biological systems are so interdependent that knocking out one irrevocably degrades the capacities of others. As he points out (In Better than Human and elsewhere), nature is replete with modularity (functional self-sufficiencies), redundancy (back up systems), and ‘canalisation’ (roughly, biological robustness), which he thinks, does not so much moot wisdom of nature concerns as block their generalization: enhancements need to be considered on a case by case basis.

Although the Crash Space argument fits the wisdom of nature profile it actually turns on the radically heuristic nature of human sociocognition–something far more specific than any ‘extreme connectedness assumption.’ Heuristic cognition is cognition that neglects information, which is to say, cognition that heavily relies on background invariances–things that can be taken for granted–to generate solutions. Once again, think of the recent Ashley Madison controversy, the way it was so easy to dupe so many men into thinking that real women were looking at their profiles. All the bots needed to do was to hit the right cues, heuristic triggers that, ancestrally at least, reliably meant we were engaging fellow humans.

Human sociocognitive capacities, which leverage cognitive miracles out of an astonishingly small number of cues (think of Sherry Turkle’s work on ‘Darwinian buttons,’ or Deidre Barrett’s on ‘supernormal stimuli’) are so powerful simply because they turn so heavily on background invariances. Allen’s counterargument fails against the Crash Space model, I think, for buying into the very same ‘one size fits all assumption’ he uses to critique bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama. The more a cognitive system turns on cues, the more it turns on background invariances, the more vulnerable to technological transformation it becomes. The question isn’t ‘how evolution works in general,’ as Buchanan would have it, but how evolution worked in the particular case of human social cognition. The short story, I like to think, gives a vivid hypothetical in vivo look at the consequences of enhancing human cognitive capacities.

And as the Ashley Madison example suggests, the problem likely far outruns the problem of human enhancement.