Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

The Dime Spared

by rsbakker

Dimes

[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.

“Yes.”

“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!

Somewhat.

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…”

“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.”

“Beeecause…?”

“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?”

“Exactly!”

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?”

“Sure.”

“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.

JUST IN CASE…

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.

Moving Pictures of Awe, Spectacle, and Doom

by rsbakker

shimeh_by_spiralhorizon

For more than ten years now, I’ve been eking out a living writing The Second Apocalypse, determined–determined–to stay true to the vision, and convinced that it possessed real cultural reach, despite the sex, violence, and philosophy. Along the way, I’ve benefitted immensely from the guidance and support of those who have come to share that dark vision. My brother Bryan, who has a video production company called Bizbio Creative, has been urging me to take charge of the marketing side of my writing career for years now, and finally, after realizing the dimensions of my ineptitude, he contacted Jason Deem intent on creating a trailer from the gobsmacking Second Apocalypse artwork Jason has created over the years. The way my brother sees it, fans want to share their passion, and if you’re so preposterously lucky to have readers like I do, all you need do is give them something to share. I gotta tell you, it’s a wonderful and surreal thing seeing your vision refracted through another’s eyes, even more so when those eyes are gifted.

In short, I’ve never had any business savvy, so I suppose it makes sense that I’ve never had a business card. Thanks to my brother and Jason, now I do, a remarkable one.

I’m already working on the copy edited version of The Great Ordeal, so the July release date looks firm. My big concern now is reaching all those readers who moved on during the years since The White-Luck Warrior was released. Hopefully the above teaser and the soon-to-be released trailer will do the trick.

If not, I still think the story itself will begin garnering serious attention… It’s a vision thing.

The Zombie Enlightenment

by rsbakker

rick zombie

Understanding what comes next depends on understanding what’s going on now, which is to say, cognizing modernity. The premise, recall, is that, due to metacognitive myopia, traditional intentional vocabularies lock us into perpetual conundrums. This means understanding modernity requires some kind of post-intentional explanatory framework—we need some way to understand it in naturalistic terms. Since cognizing modernity requires cognizing the Enlightenment, this puts us on the hook for an alternative, post-intentional explanation of the processes at work—a zombie Enlightenment story.

I say ‘zombie,’ of course, as much to keep the horror of the perspective in view as to underscore the naturalistic character of the explanations. What follows is a dry-run of sorts, an attempt to sketch what has brought about this extraordinary era of accelerating transformation. Keep in mind the ludicrous speculative altitudes involved, but also remember that all such attempts to theorize macrosocial phenomena suffer this liability. I don’t think it’s so important that the case be made as some alternative be proposed at this point. For one, the mere existence of such an account, the bare fact of its plausibility, requires the intentionalist account for the superiority of their approach, and this, as we shall see below, can have a transformative effect on cognitive ecologies.

In zombie terms, the Enlightenment, as we think we know it, had nothing to do with the ‘power of reason’ to ‘emancipate,’ to free us from the tyranny of Kant’s ‘tutelary natures.’ This is the Myth. Likewise, Nietzsche’s Gegenaufklarung had nothing to do with somehow emancipating us from the tyrannical consequences of this emancipation. The so-called Counter-Enlightenment, or ‘postmodernism’ as it has come to be called, was a completion, or a consummation, if you wish. The antagonism is merely a perspectival artifact. Postmodernism, if anything, represents the processes characteristic of the zombie Enlightenment colonizing and ultimately overcoming various specialized fields of cultural endeavour.

To understand this one needs to understand something crucial about human nature, namely, the way understanding, all understanding, is blind understanding. The eye cannot be seen. Olfaction has no smell, just as touch has no texture. To enable knowledge, in other words, is to stand outside the circuit of what is known. A great many thinkers have transformed this observation into something both extraordinary and occult, positing all manner of inexplicable things by way of explanation, everything from transparencies to transcendentals to trace structures. But the primary reason is almost painfully mundane: the seeing eye cannot be seen simply because it is mechanically indisposed.

Human beings suffer ‘cognitive indisposition’ or as I like to call it, medial neglect, a ‘brain blindness’ so profound as to escape them altogether, to convince them, at every stage of their ignorance, that they could see pretty much everything they needed to see.

Now according to the Myth, the hundred million odd souls populating Europe in the 18th century shuffled about in unconscious acquiescence to authority, each generation blindly repeating the chauvinisms of the generation prior. The Enlightenment institutionalized inquiry, the asking of questions, and the asking of questions, far from merely setting up ‘choice situations’ between assertions, makes cognitive incapacity explicit. The Enlightenment, in other words, institutionalized the erosion of traditional authority, thus ‘freeing’ individuals to pursue other possible answers. The great dividend of the Enlightenment was nothing less than autonomy, the personal, political, and material empowerment of the individual via knowledge. They were blind, but now they could see–or at least so they thought.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, arose out of the recognition that inquiry has no end, that the apparent rational verities of the Enlightenment were every bit as vulnerable to delegitimization (‘deconstruction’) as the verities of the tradition that it swept away. Enlightenment critique was universally applicable, every bit as toxic to successor as to traditional claims. Enlightenment reason, therefore, could not itself be the answer, a conviction that the increasingly profound technical rationalization of Western society only seemed to confirm. The cognitive autonomy promised by Kant and his contemporaries had proven too radical, missing the masses altogether, and stranding intellectuals in the humanities, at least, with relativistic guesses. The Enlightenment deconstruction of religious narrative—the ‘death of God’—was at once the deconstruction of all absolute narratives, all foundations. Autonomy had collapsed into anomie.

This is the Myth of the Enlightenment, at least in cartoon thumbnail.

But if we set aside our traditional fetish for ‘reason’ and think of post-Medieval European society as a kind of information processing system, a zombie society, the story actually looks quite different. Far from the death of authority and the concomitant birth of a frightening, ‘postmodern autonomy,’ the ‘death of God’ becomes the death of supervision. Supervised learning, of course, refers to one of the dominant learning paradigms in artificial neural networks, one where training converges on known targets, as opposed to unsupervised learning, where training converges on unknown targets. So long as supervised cognitive ecologies monopolized European society, European thinkers were bound to run afoul the ‘only-game-in-town effect,’ the tendency to assume claims true for the simple want of alternatives. There were gains in cognitive efficiency, certainly, but they arose adventitiously, and had to brave selection in generally unforgiving social ecologies. Pockets of unsupervised learning appear in every supervised society, in fact, but in the European case, the economic and military largesse provided by these isolated pockets assured they would be reproduced across the continent. The process was gradual, of course. What we call the ‘Enlightenment’ doesn’t so much designate the process as the point when the only-game-in-town effect could no longer be sustained among the learned classes. In all corners of society, supervised optima found themselves competing more and more with unsupervised optima—and losing. What Kant and his contemporaries called ‘Enlightenment’ simply made explicit an ecology that European society had been incubating for centuries, one that rendered cognitive processes responsive to feedback via empirical and communicative selection.

On an information processing view, in other words, the European Enlightenment did not so much free up individuals as cognitive capacity. Once again, we need to appreciate the zombie nature of this view, how it elides ethical dimensions. On this view, traditional chauvinisms represent maladaptive optima, old fixes that now generate more problems than they solve. Groups were not so much oppressed, on this account, as underutilized. What we are prone to call ‘moral progress’ in folk political terms amounts to the optimization of collective neurocomputational resources. These problematic ethical and political consequences, of course, have no bearing on the accuracy of the view. Any cultural criticism that makes ideological orthodoxy a condition of theoretical veracity is nothing more than apologia in the worst sense, self-serving rationalization. In fact, since naturalistic theories are notorious for the ways they problematize our moral preconceptions, you might even say this kind of problematization is precisely what we should expect. Pursuing hard questions can only be tendentious if you cannot countenance hard answers.

The transition from a supervised to an unsupervised learning ecology was at once a transition from a slow selecting to a rapid selecting ecology. One of the great strengths of unsupervised learning, it turns out, is blind source separation, something your brain wonderfully illustrates for you every time you experience the famed ‘cocktail party effect.’ Artificial unsupervised learning algorithms, of course, allow for the causal sourcing of signals in a wide variety of scientific contexts. Causal sourcing, of course, amounts to identifying causes, which is to say, mechanical cognition, which in turn amounts to behavioural efficacy, the ability to remake environments. So far as behavioural efficacy cues selection, then, we suddenly find ourselves with a social ecology (‘science’) dedicated to the accumulation of ever more efficacies—ever more power over themselves and their environments.

Power begets power; efficiency, efficiency. Human ecologies were not only transformed, they were transformed in ways that facilitated transformation. Each new optimization selected and incorporated generated ecological changes, social or otherwise, changes bearing on the efficiency of previous optimizations. And so the shadow of maladaptation, or obsolescence, fell across all existing adaptations, be they behavioural or technological.

The inevitability of maladaptation, of course, merely expresses the contingency of ecology, the fact that all ecologies change over time. In ancestral (slow selecting) ecologies, the information required to cognize this process was scarce to nonexistent: the only game in town effect—the assumption of sufficiency in the absence of alternatives—was all but inevitable. Given the way cognitive invariance cues cognitive stability, the fact that we can trust our inheritance, the spectre of accelerating obsolescence could only represent a threat.

“Expect the unexpected,” a refrain that only modernity could abide, wonderfully recapitulates, I think, the inevitability of postmodernism. Cognitive instability became the only cognitive stability, the only humanistic ‘principle’ remaining. And thus the great (perhaps even perverse) irony of philosophical modernity: the search for stability in difference, and the development, across the humanities, of social behaviours (aesthetic or theoretical) bent on making obsolete.

Rather than wait for obsolescence to arise out ecological transformation, many began forcing the issue, isolating instances of the only game in town effect in various domains of aesthetic and theoretical behaviour, and adducing alternatives in an attempt to communicate their obsolescence. Supervised or ‘traditional’ ecologies readily broke down. Unsupervised learning ecologies, quickly became synonymous with cognitive stability—and more attractive for it. The scientific fetish for innovation found itself replicated in humanistic guise. Despite the artificial nature of this process, the lack of any alternative account of semantic instability gave rise to a new series of only game in town effects. What had begun as an unsupervised exploration of solution spaces, quickly lapsed into another supervised ecology. Avante garde and post-structuralist zombies adapted to exploit microsocial ecologies they themselves had fashioned.

The so-called ‘critique of Enlightenment reason,’ whether implicit in aesthetic behaviour or explicit in theoretical behaviour, demonstrates the profundity of medial neglect, the blindness of zombie components to the greater machinery compelling them. The Gegenaufklarung merely followed through on the actual processes of ‘ratcheting ecological innovation’ responsible, undermining, as it did, the myths that had been attached to those processes in lieu of actual understanding. In communicating the performative dimension of ‘reason’ and the irrationality of Enlightenment rationality, postmodernism cleared a certain space for post-intentional thinking, but little more. Otherwise it is best viewed as an inadvertent consummation of a logic it can only facilitate and never ‘deconstruct.’

Our fetish for knowledge and innovation remain. We have been trained to embrace an entirely unknown eventuality, and that training has been supervised.

The Discursive Meanie

by rsbakker

So I went to see Catherine Malabou speak on the relation between deep history, consciousness and neuroscience last night. As she did in her Critical Inquiry piece, she argued that some new conceptuality was required to bridge the natural historical and the human, a conceptuality that neuroscience could provide. When I introduced myself to her afterward, she recognized my name, said that she had read my post, “Malabou, Continentalism, and New Age Philosophy.” When I asked her what she thought, she blushed and told me that she thought it was mean.

I tried to smooth things over, but for most people, I think, expressing aggression in interpersonal exchanges is like throwing boulders tied to their waist. Hard words rewrite communicative contexts, and it takes the rest of the brain several moments to catch up. Once she tossed her boulder it was only a matter of time before the rope yanked her away. Discussion over.

I appreciate that I’m something of an essayistic asshole, and that academics, adapted to genteel communicative contexts as they are, generally have little experience with, let alone stomach for, the more bruising environs of the web. But then the near universal academic tendency to take the path of least communicative resistance, to foster discursive ingroups, is precisely the tendency Three Pound Brain is dedicated to exposing. The problem, of course, is that cuing people to identify you as a threat pretty much guarantees they will be unable to engage you rationally, as was the case here. Malabou had dismissed me, and so my arguments simply followed.

How does one rattle ingroup assumptions as an outgroup competitor, short disguising oneself as an ingroup sympathizer, that is? Interesting conundrum, that. I suppose if I had more notoriety, they would feel compelled to engage me…

Is it time to rethink my tactics?

The Dim Future of Human Brilliance

by rsbakker

Moths to a flame

Humans are what might be called targeted shallow information consumers in otherwise unified deep information environments. We generally skim only what information we need—from our environments or ourselves—to effect reproduction, and nothing more. We neglect gamma radiation for good reason: ‘deep’ environmental information that makes no reproductive difference makes no cognitive difference. As the product of innumerable ancestral ecologies, human cognitive biology is ecological, adapted to specific, high-impact environments. As ecological, one might expect that human cognitive biology is every bit as vulnerable to ecological change as any other biological system.

Under the rubric of  the Semantic Apocalypse, the ecological vulnerability of human cognitive biology has been my focus here for quite some time at Three Pound Brain. Blind to deep structures, human cognition largely turns on cues, sensitivity to information differentially related to the systems cognized.  Sociocognition, where a mere handful of behavioural cues can trigger any number of predictive/explanatory assumptions, is paradigmatic of this. Think, for instance, how easy it was for Ashley Madison to convince its predominantly male customers that living women were checking their profiles.  This dependence on cues underscores a corresponding dependence on background invariance: sever the differential relations between the cues and systems to be cognized (the way Ashley Madison did) and what should be sociocognition, the solution of some fellow human, becomes confusion (we find ourselves in ‘crash space’) or worse, exploitation (we find ourselves in instrumentalized crash space, or ‘cheat space’).

So the questions I think we need to be asking are:

What effect does deep information have on our cognitive ecologies? The so-called ‘data deluge’ is nothing but an explosion in the availability of deep or ancestrally inaccessible information. What happens when targeted shallow information consumers suddenly find themselves awash in different kinds of deep information? A myriad of potential examples come to mind. Think of the way medicalization drives accommodation creep, how instructors are gradually losing the ability to judge character in the classroom. Think of the ‘fear of crime’ phenomena, how the assessment of ancestrally unavailable information against implicit, ancestral baselines skews general perceptions of criminal threat. For that matter, think of the free will debate, or the way mechanistic cognition scrambles intentional cognition more generally: these are paradigmatic instances of the way deep information, the primary deliverance of science, crashes the targeted and shallow cognitive capacities that comprise our evolutionary inheritance.

What effect does background variation have on targeted, shallow modes of cognition? What happens when cues become differentially detached, or ‘decoupled,’ from their ancestral targets? Where the first question deals with the way the availability of deep information (literally, not metaphorically) pollutes cognitive ecologies, the ways human cognition requires the absence of certain information, this question deals with the way human cognition requires the presence of certain environmental continuities. There’s actually been an enormous amount of research done on this question in a wide variety of topical guises. Nikolaas Tinbergen coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to designate ecologically variant cuing, particularly the way exaggerated stimuli can trigger misapplications of different heuristic regimes. He famously showed how gull chicks, for instance, could be fooled into pecking false “super beaks” for food given only a brighter-than-natural red spot. In point of fact, you see supernormal stimuli in dramatic action anytime you see artificial outdoor lighting surrounded by a haze of bugs: insects that use lunar transverse orientation to travel at night continually correct their course vis a vis streetlights, porch lights, and so on, causing them to spiral directly into them. What Tinbergen and subsequent ethology researchers have demonstrated is the ubiquity of cue-based cognition, the fact that all organisms are targeted, shallow information consumers in unified deep information environments.

Deirdre Barrett has recently applied the idea to modern society, but lacking any theory of meaning, she finds herself limited to pointing out suggestive speculative parallels between ecological readings and phenomena that are semantically overdetermined otherwise. For me this question calves into a wide variety of domain-specific forms, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the decoupling of cues generally and strategic decoupling, between ‘crash space’ and ‘cheat space.’ Where the former involves incidental cognitive incapacity, human versions of transverse orientation, the latter involves engineered cognitive incapacity. The Ashley Madison case I referenced above provides an excellent example of simply how little information is needed to cue our sociocognitive systems in online environments. In one sense, this facility evidences the remarkable efficiency of human sociocognition, the fact that it can do so much with so little. But, as with specialization in evolution more generally, this efficiency comes at the cost of ecological dependency: you can only neglect information in problem-solving so long as the systems ignored remain relatively constant.

And this is basically the foundational premise of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition, as a radically specialized system, is especially vulnerable to both crashing and cheating. The very power of our sociocognitive systems is what makes them so liable to be duped (think religious anthropomorphism), as well as so easy to dupe. When Sherry Turkle, for instance, bemoans the ease with which various human-computer interfaces, or ‘HCIs,’ push our ‘Darwinian buttons’ she is talking about the vulnerability of sociocognitive cues to various cheats (but since she, like Barrett, lacks any theory of meaning, she finds herself in similar explanatory straits). In a variety of experimental contexts, for instance, people have been found to trust artificial interlocutors over human ones. Simple tweaks in the voices and appearance of HCIs have a dramatic impact on our perceptions of those encounters—we are in fact easily manipulated, cued to draw erroneous conclusions, given what are quite literally cartoonish stimuli. So the so-called ‘internet of things,’ the distribution of intelligence throughout our artifactual ecologies, takes on a far more sinister cast when viewed through the lens of human sociocognitive specialization. Populating our ecologies with gadgets designed to cue our sociocognitive capacities ‘out of school’ will only degrade the overall utility of those capacities. Since those capacities underwrite what we call meaning or ‘intentionality,’ the collapse of our ancestral sociocognitive ecologies signals the ‘death of meaning.’

The future of human cognition looks dim. We can say this because we know human cognition is heuristic, and that specific forms of heuristic cognition turn on specific forms of ecological stability, the very forms that our ongoing technological revolution promises to sweep away. Blind Brain Theory, in other words, offers a theory of meaning that not only explains away the hard problem, but can also leverage predictions regarding the fate of our civilization. It makes me dizzy thinking about it, and suspicious—the empty can, as they say, rattles the loudest. But this preposterous scope is precisely what we should expect from a genuinely naturalistic account of intentional phenomena. The power of mechanistic cognition lies in the way it scales with complexity, allowing us to build hierarchies of components and subcomponents. To naturalize meaning is to understand the soul in terms continuous with the cosmos.

This is precisely what we should expect from a theory delivering the Holy Grail, the naturalization of meaning.

You could even argue that the unsettling, even horrifying consequences evidence its veracity, given there’s so many more ways for the world to contradict our parochial conceits than to appease them. We should expect things will end ugly.

Flashlight Philosophy

by rsbakker

I want to believe

Imagine you’re shopping for groceries and this thick, impenetrable fog rolls into town, and the power goes out, and a chorus of screams rings out from the surrounding town, until finally, everything goes eerily quiet. Then people begin disappearing, somehow sucked into the fog roiling just outside the windows. You and the surviving customers rush to the flashlight section, arm yourselves with visibility, in effect, then take turns probing the fog with your lights.

Everyone agrees that something is out there, and that whatever that something is, it’s grabbing shoppers one by one. And lo, almost everyone, peering into the noxious fume, claims they can see what they are up against. But the problem is that no one agrees—everyone sees something completely different. Some see winged creatures, others terrestrial, but everyone insists they see only that type of creature, and that the others must be wrong.

The survivors begin sorting themselves according to the affinities in their views, and soon we find ourselves with three different ‘flashlight tribes,’ those convinced the threat is airborne (though they disagree on morphological specifics), those convinced the threat is terrestrial (though they also disagree on the morphological specifics), and those that think something fishy is going on. People disappear one by one, and the aerial partisans say, “Yes, I saw it! Something swooped down from above and carried them off,” while the terrestrial partisans say, “Yes, I saw it! Something reared up from the ground and carried them off,” and the skeptics say, “C’mon, guys, obviously something fishy is going on here!”

So they alone begin running experiments, rolling beach-balls out into the fog, setting up cameras, doing everything they can to gather more information.

Now consider what Levi Bryant has to say about the “methodology of philosophy”:

Put in Heideggerian terms, we could say that a philosophy of biology interrogates the “alethetic field” through which the bios is open as an object that is given to the investigating biologist. This, of course, requires some knowledge of the field of biology and its present state of knowledge. Often philosophers forget that they need to acquaint themselves with the other disciplines they investigate and therefore end up proceeding on the basis of doxa or the prejudices of folk biology. A philosophy of biology must be familiar with the field that it takes as an object. However, it does something quite different than what is done in this discipline. In making the concepts of this alethetic field its object, it tries to bring these concepts before reflective consciousness, to explore their interdependence, to uncover what is unspoken in them, and it perpetually shuttles back and forth between those beings we refer to as living and this space of conceptuality. In doing so, philosophy often discovers something unspoken in these concepts.

This is about as concise a description of the Myth of Making Explicit as I’ve come across, the comforting idea that philosophy somehow sheds light on what comes before scientific theoretical cognition. We solve things all the time, we humans, but thanks to medial neglect, we have no intuitive means of solving our solving, no way of sourcing our thoughts or behaviours. So what do we do? We invent sources, sets of systematic constraints that rationalize our thoughts and behaviours; we posit things like ‘language games,’ ‘grammars,’ ‘norms,’ ‘conceptual schemes,’ ‘conditions of possibility,’ ‘alethic fields,’ and so on. The problem, however, is that the deliverances of ‘reflective consciousness,’ as Levi calls it, never suffice to arbitrate between any of these formulations. Everybody is left swearing by their own flashlight. More than one hundred generations on everyone is still arguing posits. As a partisan of this methodology, Levi assumes its efficacy, the ability to theoretically cognize the darkness that comes before human thought and behaviour. On the strength of his flashlight, he believes that something terrestrial and/or aerial has to inhabit the impenetrable mists. He literally believes that he and others are making something explicit, as opposed to merely making something up.

And this is the real question behind any question of methodology: How do you know? How do you know you’re making things explicit rather than making things up?

The thing to note, of course, is that Bryant’s answer is no answer. Claiming that philosophy tackles the darkness that comes before cognition in no way answers the question of how philosophy tackles the darkness that comes before cognition. Referencing controversial posits such as ‘concepts,’ or factually unreliable cognitive modes like ‘reflective consciousness’ simply underscores the theoretical plight that he and other traditional philosophers find themselves in. It amounts to saying, “We just aim our flashlights and squint real, real hard.”

But the bigger problem plaguing Bryant’s answer is that it is simply not the case that biology runs into some kind of fundamental limit when it comes to the question of itself. In fact, the one thing we know for sure is that brain function does come before thought and behaviour. Thus the billions being plowed into cognitive scientific research. The image of the ontologically/conceptually blind scientist being led by the ontologically/conceptually sighted philosopher is becoming an ever more preposterous one, an increasingly obvious example of prescientific conceit. With every passing year, it becomes more a matter of the empirically sighted scientist leaving the empirically blind philosopher behind.

“If,” Bryant writes, “it is hopeless to seek a philosophical methodology, then this is because philosophy is a form of thought that precedes anything like the givenness of an object that could then be investigated empirically.” The domain of philosophy, he would have us believe, lies in the darkness that comes before cognition. And yet all across the cognitive sciences one finds researchers tackling this very domain, not simply ‘theorizing,’ but reverse-engineering innumerable cognitive capacities (thus launching us into an engineering future we can scarce imagine). Biology isn’t something passed down from on high, something somehow outside (above, beyond, before) the biological. Biology is itself biological, the physical expression of capacities turning on evolution.

The high dimensional story of biology, the theory or motley of theories arising out of all the data amassed, is the story of the darkness that comes before. It will be the story that sources our thought and our behaviour in an ever complicating (ever empowering) picture.  The “something quite different” that sets philosophy apart, when all is said and done, is the reliance on sparse and ambiguous information (the deliverances of ‘reflective consciousness’) to make theoretical claims without hope of arbitration.

And this leaves us with a far different way to understand what Bryant calls the ‘philosophical situation.’ He refers to the famous quote from the Sophist that Heidegger uses as an epigraph for Being and Time, where the Eleatic stranger reconstructs grounds for demanding some clarification of being, referring to the paradox of knowing how to use the term ‘being’ without understanding being. This ground of perplexity, and the corresponding need for clarification, are what Bryant identifies as the ‘before’ of biological thought. The darkness requiring illumination.

This epigraph so wonderfully illustrates the crisis now embroiling traditional, preemptive philosophical modes. On the one hand it underscores how nothing has been resolved since Plato. Twenty-four centuries of futile inquiry, in my humble opinion, out and out screams that the ‘philosophical situation’ is a kind of cognitive crash space, a place where systems (like intentional cognition) adapted to neglect what’s going on are asked to tell us what’s going on. On the other hand it demonstrates the profundity of our metacognitive innocence, the fact that we are so blind to ourselves as to be everywhere perplexed by what we already know, to be perpetually baffled by the apparent miracle of our understanding.

What are we? The philosopher wants to convince you that only he gets to answer this question in its most fundamental form. Of course, since no philosopher can agree on the answer, this is tantamount to declaring that no one gets to answer this question. And this borders on the farcical, as do all claims to authority (conceptual or otherwise) where no authority is recognized.

Bottomline? Philosophy only has post hoc guesses, and nothing more.

The science, meanwhile, is turning us inside out as you read.

Maybe it’s time to get real, to come to grips with the ugly, as opposed to the flattering.

Orbital Corpses

by rsbakker

Speaking of dead worlds…

IMG_8907

It’s hard to express how cool it is to map out the final corners of the World.

IMG_8913

To finally ink in Golgotterath, where it lies waiting.

If we don’t know how it ends, then at least we know where.

Dead World (by Paul J. Ennis)

by rsbakker

Futility

What’s it like to really give up on philosophy? I don’t mean to give up on a specific brand of philosophy or even to tune out and churn out something akin to it. I mean embracing the knowledge that philosophy is no longer worth doing. I can only answer with a response I would have chastised a student for saying: I can only speak for myself. At some point I came to fully own up to the impossibility that I might work something out about this world that was positive. That I might find a niche in philosophy that I could latch onto and develop, bit by bit. Maybe it might even impress someone at a conference (assuming anyone would even be listening at a conference, they never are). All I really learned from philosophy is that it is very unlikely a bunch of people might reason their way toward an understanding of how it goes with the world. Except in that quirky round-about way where philosophy demonstrates the limitations of reasoning stripped of any lead. You need a bit of lead to weigh things down. But what happens when you realise you could just describe the lead and leave it at that?

If philosophy has a bunch of questions it grapples with perhaps the only decent one left is consciousness. It’s got this edge that apparently makes it resistant to reduction to neurobiological processes such that, contrary to everything we know about reality, it is somehow distinct from nature. Now, there is an entire botnet of thinkers that will, for a fee, find a way to say ‘well it’s both in nature and distinct from it,’ but better them than me. It’s a lot of fuss with little reward. Unless you really think future generations are going to care that you defended the Real or objects or invented the future, all positions currently on offer at discounted prices. My point is that philosophy is not just weird, but doing it is weirder. Even better it has some hilariously entertaining group dynamics. Philosophy is a discipline where you can have a guy defending the necessity of diversity whilst railing against another group doing the exact same. The kind of place where one bully shouts over another about just how damned intolerant the other fellow is. Lots of fellows too. The kind of discipline, to be sure, where men will chastise other men for how their group of men has too many men.

Since there is no common ground anymore, outside the mainstays of security and other mundane issues, we end up with little more than a situation of jockeying for status. Assuming, that is, one is comfortable enough to do so. There are marginalised groups everywhere, but unless you’ve just decided to volunteer or something, I’m going to take the oh-so-bold wager you are mostly in it so that others now you are a really good guy. Or, on the flipside, a rogue. Either way it’s ugly. Whether it’s wilful intellectual censorship or calculated trolling it’s mostly a clamour for the goods. ‘Life is a war of all against all,’ as the eminently reasonable Hobbes once said.  That’s not a bad place to start from. Why? Because it’s honest. It has a ring of truth to it. We organise ourselves for peace, security, and the path of least resistance. In doing so we operate from a suite of facts, of how it goes with the world, and find niches where we might take on a few adventures, like improving our lot. And if this sounds like what you say when with friends that’s because it’s the one group you don’t lie so often to.

I think that’s more or less what consciousness looks at when viewed without romance. As ultra-sophisticated animals we have evolved in a certain direction. There’s a lot in there about just getting on and, indeed, getting along through empathy. This is not entirely neat. Empathy is limited, associated with bonds and kinship often, and it flows into protection. And we know all this exists at least partially because of the threat of others humans and their groups. Even in our own groups the pact is partially rooted in the knowledge that there is a violent streak in us. I say partially because I’m appeasing. Because I don’t want those who dislike such readings to be upset. I’m signalling I’m not so bad. The things we learned and shared were also, and here is a word I know other groups will dislike, arrived at through trade. Our cultural evolution is intimately bound up with the traders who moved between the semi-settled and the settled. Information, tactics, methods, goods, means and ends. Traded. Enough that trade, alongside the embodied sovereign interests we call nations, are intrinsic to our species.

If capitalism is evil then so too are humans. Capitalism is such a clear-eyed ordering of how we are in the world it is no wonder that it no longer has any serious competitors (this, in itself, was always a game of some players at the table operating with one hand tied behind their backs). It captures our mixed feelings about being here at all. It offers the possibility, no matter how remote, of generating a social force field known as wealth. It includes in the chase for that risk. And also every grimy, awful aspect of what our species will do when reward is high enough. It is so essential that those who manage to truly move beyond it take on a holy sheen. It can even present you with the vilest caricature of a human and make you ponder what you would do in their shoes. Most important of all, it’s nothing more than a powerful idea. Like its chief representative, fiat currency, it’s a cognitive agreement. This is worth something and it is worth something because that’s the agreed upon organisational field one is in. But this organisational field is not arbitrary. It’s an expression of what humans need to function. It came about because it worked. Not from the ether.

It worked. Humans and heuristics, peas in a pod. The thing about heuristics is that when you try to grapple with them you are trying to retroactively explain something your brain pushed toward for ends that may not have been all that clear during the push. But that is how we have tended to make discoveries. We do first and fail. Eat berries and die. Try again, well someone else alive would, and live. Then as time passes, not even deep time mind, it seems it has always been so. Since we are especially good at this we might even seem special, bearing an almost supernatural ability to adapt, except, of course, it only looks this way because most of the time we have very limited information about what is going on. Leaving aside the very natural deceptions humans practise as they go about their business there is the much weirder structural fact that the brain, as Bakker has shown, is pretty good at hiding information about its own operations from…well, itself, or us, or whatever tangle of words you prefer.

Heuristically it’s better not to know too much. As is well known it is easier to do something when you are not thinking too much about it than it is when you do. Consider that for a moment. Although we value reason as one of our highest virtues when it comes to doing something it’s best not to think about it too much. You can practise, get better, learn, be trained, and so on, but ultimately your ambition is to perform the action without cognition throwing you off. Now, let’s apply this to self-reflection. By its very nature self-reflection, since it involves thinking too much about something (in this case, thinking), is bound to be tricky. Humans, nonetheless, have engaged in this practise for quite a while. We celebrate Socrates precisely for his ability to force others to trip over themselves as they try. Unless you are Nietzsche and you call this out as ugly. Famously, this two-thousand year old practise has yielded pretty much no clues about the true nature of consciousness. Indeed, the only reason that sentence even matters is because almost every other discipline philosophy concerned itself with, with the exception of maybe ethics, is now analysed by specialists elsewhere. No wonder philosophers are so precious about it.

Previous because nobody likes to have spent a long time working on some thinker or another and then have to admit they have learned very little beyond a few historical curios. That’s pretty much the state of play in any contemporary philosophy department. Ashen-faced at thirty and defending a tiny set of ideas to maybe thirty other specialists across the entire planet the overworked philosophy academic has basically ceased original production in favour of the repetition of a few notes they know by heart. On this score I’m not even railing against those who at least keep zipping around searching. Rather, what stuns me, and I’m not stunned easily these days, is how someone in a discipline dedicated to dropping bad ideas when faced with better ones spends their entire time building defences to ensure they never have to.

Years and years ago at some god-awful leftist event someone told me that Trotsky had said something like, ‘imagine all the Aristotles that have gone unnoticed amongst the working class?’ I’ve always liked this quote, but I guess my point is imagine all the Aristotles that have been lost to organised philosophy (and yes, I do want you to make that association)? I’m going to stop here because, as Nick Land once said, concluding is ugly.

 

 

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