Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Blind Brain Theory

The Truth Behind the Myth of Correlationism

by rsbakker

A wrong turn lies hidden in the human cultural code, an error that has scuttled our every attempt to understand consciousness and cognition. So much philosophical activity reeks of dead ends: we try and we try, and yet we find ourselves mired in the same ancient patterns of disputation. The majority of thinkers believe the problem is local, that they need only tinker with the tools they’ve inherited. They soldier on, arguing that this or that innovative modification will overcome our confusion. Some, however, believe the problem lies deeper. I’m one of those thinkers, as is Meillassoux. I think the solution lies in speculation bound to the hip of modern science, in something I call ‘heuristic neglect.’ For me, the wrong turn lies in the application of intentional cognition to solve the theoretical problem of intentional cognition. Meillassoux thinks it lies in what he calls ‘correlationism.’

Since I’ve been accused of ‘correlationism’ on a couple of occasions now, I thought it worthwhile tackling the issue in more detail. This will not be an institutional critique a la Golumbia’s, who manages to identify endless problems with Meillassoux’s presentation, while somehow entirely missing his skeptical point: once cognition becomes artifactual, it becomes very… very difficult to understand. Cognitive science is itself fractured about Meillassoux’s issue.

What follows will be a constructive critique, an attempt to explain the actual problem underwriting what Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism,’ and why his attempt to escape that problem simply collapses into more interminable philosophy. The problem that artifactuality poses to the understanding of cognition is very real, and it also happens to fall into the wheelhouse of Heuristic Neglect Theory (HNT). For those souls growing disenchanted with Speculative Realism, but unwilling to fall back into the traditional bosom, I hope to show that HNT not only offers the radical break with tradition that Meillassoux promises, it remains inextricably bound to the details of this, the most remarkable age.

What is correlationism? The experts explain:

Correlation affirms the indissoluble primacy of the relation between thought and its correlate over the metaphysical hypostatization or representational reification of either term of the relation. Correlationism is subtle: it never denies that our thoughts or utterances aim at or intend mind-independent or language-independent realities; it merely stipulates that this apparently independent dimension remains internally related to thought and language. Thus contemporary correlationism dismisses the problematic of scepticism, and or epistemology more generally, as an antiquated Cartesian hang-up: there is supposedly no problem about how we are able to adequately represent reality; since we are ‘always already’ outside ourselves and immersed in or engaging with the world (and indeed, this particular platitude is constantly touted as the great Heideggerean-Wittgensteinian insight). Note that correlationism need not privilege “thinking” or “consciousness” as the key relation—it can just as easily replace it with “being-in-the-world,” “perception,” “sensibility,” “intuition,” “affect,” or even “flesh.” Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound, 51

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5

Correlationism rests on an argument as simple as it is powerful, and which can be formulated in the following way: No X without givenness of X, and no theory about X without a positing of X. If you speak about something, you speak about something that is given to you, and posited by you. Consequently, the sentence: ‘X is’, means: ‘X is the correlate of thinking’ in a Cartesian sense. That is: X is the correlate of an affection, or a perception, or a conception, or of any subjective act. To be is to be a correlate, a term of a correlation . . . That is why it is impossible to conceive an absolute X, i.e., an X which would be essentially separate from a subject. We can’t know what the reality of the object in itself is because we can’t distinguish between properties which are supposed to belong to the object and properties belonging to the subjective access to the object. Quentin Meillassoux,”Time without Becoming

The claim of correlationism is the corollary of the slogan that ‘nothing is given’ to understanding: everything is mediated. Once knowing becomes an activity, then the objects insofar as they are known become artifacts in some manner: reception cannot be definitively sorted from projection and as a result no knowledge can be said to be absolute. We find ourselves trapped in the ‘correlationist circle,’ trapped in artifactual galleries, never able to explain the human-independent reality we damn well know exists. Since all cognition is mediated, all cognition is conditional somehow, even our attempts (or perhaps, especially our attempts) to account for those conditions. Any theory unable to decisively explain objectivity is a theory that cannot explain cognition. Ergo, correlationism names a failed (cognitivist) philosophical endeavour.

It’s a testament to the power of labels in philosophy, I think, because as Meillassoux himself acknowledges there’s nothing really novel about the above sketch. Explaining the ‘cognitive difference’ was my dissertation project back in the 90’s, after all, and as smitten as I was with my bullshit solution back then, I didn’t think the problem itself was anything but ancient. Given this whole website is dedicated to exploring and explaining consciousness and cognition, you could say it remains my project to this very day! One of the things I find so frustrating about the ‘critique of correlationism’ is that the real problem—the ongoing crisis—is the problem of meaning. If correlationism fails because correlationism cannot explain cognition, then the problem of correlationism is an expression of a larger problem, the problem of cognition—or in other words, the problem of intentionality.

Why is the problem of meaning an ongoing crisis? In the past six fiscal years, from 2012 to 2017, the National Institute of Health will have spent more than 113 billion dollars funding research bent on solving some corner of the human soul. [1] And this is just one public institution in one nation involving health related research. If you include the cognitive sciences more generally—research into everything from consumer behaviour to AI—you could say that solving the human soul commands more resources than any other domain in history. The reason all this money is being poured into the sciences rather than philosophy departments is that the former possesses real world consequences: diseases cured, soap sold, politicians elected. As someone who tries to keep up with developments in Continental philosophy, I already find the disconnect stupendous, how whole populations of thinkers continue discoursing as if nothing significant has changed, bitching about traditional cutlery in the shadow of the cognitive scientific tsunami.

Part of the popularity of the critique of correlationism derives from anxieties regarding the growing overlap of the sciences of the human and the humanities. All thinkers self-consciously engaged in the critique of correlationism reference scientific knowledge as a means of discrediting correlationist thought, but as far as I can tell, the project has done very little to bring the science, what we’re actually learning about consciousness and cognition, to the fore of philosophical debates. Even worse, the notion of mental and/or neural mediation is actually central to cognitive science. What some neuroscientists term ‘internal models,’ which monolopolize our access to ourselves and the world, is nothing if not a theoretical correlation of environments and cognition, trapping us in models of models. The very science that Meillassoux thinks argues against correlationism in one context, explicitly turns on it in another. The mediation of knowledge is the domain of cognitive science—full stop. A naturalistic understanding of cognition is a biological understanding is an artifactual understanding: this is why the upshot of cognitive science is so often skeptical, prone to further diminish our traditional (if not instinctive) hankering for unconditioned knowledge—to reveal it as an ancestral conceit

A kind of arche-fossil.

If an artifactual approach to cognition is doomed to misconstrue cognition, then cognitive science is a doomed enterprise. Despite the vast sums of knowledge accrued, the wondrous and fearsome social instrumentalities gained, knowledge itself will remain inexplicable. What we find lurking in the bones of Meillassoux’s critique, in other words, is precisely the same commitment to intentional exceptionality we find in all traditional philosophy, the belief that the subject matter of traditional philosophical disputation lies beyond the pale of scientific explanation… that despite the cognitive scientific tsunami, traditional intentional speculation lies secure in its ontological bunkers.

Only more philosophy, Meillassoux thinks, can overcome the ‘scandal of philosophy.’ But how is mere opinion supposed to provide bona fide knowledge of knowledge? Speculation on mathematics does nothing to ameliorate this absurdity: even though paradigmatic of objectivity, mathematics remains as inscrutable as knowledge itself. Perhaps there is some sense to be found in the notion of interrogating/theorizing objects in a bid to understand objectivity (cognition), but given what we now know regarding our cognitive shortcomings in low-information domains, we can be assured that ‘object-oriented’ approaches will bog down in disputation.

I just don’t know how to make the ‘critique of correlationism’ workable, short ignoring the very science it takes as its motivation, or just as bad, subordinating empirical discoveries to some school of ‘fundamental ontological’ speculation. If you’re willing to take such a leap of theoretical faith, you can be assured that no one in the vicinity of cognitive science will take it with you—and that you will make no difference in the mad revolution presently crashing upon us.

We know that knowledge is somehow an artifact of neural function—full stop. Meillassoux is quite right to say this renders the objectivity of knowledge very difficult to understand. But why think the problem lies in presuming the artifactual nature of cognition?—especially now that science has begun reverse-engineering that nature in earnest! What if our presumption of artifactuality weren’t so much the problem, as the characterization? What if the problem isn’t that cognitive science is artifactual so much as how it is?

After all, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about this how in the past decades: the idea of dismissing all this detail on the basis of a priori guesswork seems more than a little suspect. The track record would suggest extreme caution. As the boggling scale of the cognitive scientific project should make clear, everything turns on the biological details of cognition. We now know, for instance, that the brain employs legions of special purpose devices to navigate its environments. We know that cognition is thoroughly heuristic, that it turns on cues, bits of available information statistically correlated to systems requiring solution.

Most all systems in our environment shed information enabling the prediction of subsequent behaviours absent the mechanical particulars of that information. The human brain is exquisitely tuned to identify and exploit the correlation of information available and subsequent behaviours. The artifactuality of biology is an evolutionary one, and as such geared to the thrifty solution of high impact problems. To say that cognition (animal or human) is heuristic is to say it’s organized according to the kinds of problems our ancestors needed to solve, and not according to those belonging to academics. Human cognition consists of artifactualities, subsystems dedicated to certain kinds of problem ecologies. Moreover, it consists of artifactualities selected to answer questions quite different from those posed by philosophers.

These two facts drastically alter the landscape of the apparent problem posed by ‘correlationism.’ We have ample theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that mechanistic cognition and intentional cognition comprise two quite different cognitive regimes, the one dedicated to explanation via high-dimensional (physical) sourcing, the other dedicated to explanation absent that sourcing. As an intentional phenomena, objectivity clearly belongs to the latter. Mechanistic cognition, meanwhile, is artifactual. What if it’s the case that ‘objectivity’ is the turn of a screw in a cognitive system selected to solve in the absence of artifactual information? Since intentional cognition turns on specific cues to leverage solutions, and since those cues appear sufficient (to be the only game in town where that behaviour is concerned), the high-dimensional sourcing of that same behavior generates a philosophical crash space—and a storied one at that! What seems sourceless and self-evident becomes patently impossible.

Short magic, cognitive systems possess the environmental relationships they do thanks to super-complicated histories of natural and neural selection—evolution and learning. Let’s call this their orientation, understood as the nonintentional (‘zombie’) correlate of ‘perspective.’ The human brain is possibly the most complex thing we know of in the universe (a fact which should render any theory of the human neglecting that complexity suspect). Our cognitive systems, in other words, possess physically intractable orientations. How intractable? Enough that billions of dollars in research has merely scratched the surface.

Any capacity to cognize this relationship will perforce be radically heuristic, which is to say, provide a means to solve some critical range of problems—a problem ecology—absent natural historical information. The orientation heuristically cognized, of course, is the full-dimensional relationship we actually possess, only hacked in ways that generate solutions (repetitions of behaviour) while neglecting the physical details of that relationship.

Most significantly, orientation neglects the dimension of mediation: thought and perception (whatever they amount to) are thoroughly blind to their immediate sources. This cognitive blindness to the activity of cognition, or medial neglect, amounts to a gross insensitivity to our physical continuity with our environments, the fact that we break no thermodynamic laws. Our orientation, in other words, is characterized by a profound, structural insensitivity to its own constitution—its biological artifactuality, among other things. This auto-insensitivity, not surprisingly, includes insensitivity to the fact of this insensitivity, and thus the default presumption of sufficiency. Specialized sensitivities are required to flag insufficiencies, after all, and like all biological devices, they do not come for free. Not only are we blind to our position within the superordinate systems comprising nature, we’re blind to our blindness, and so, unable to distinguish table-scraps from a banquet, we are duped into affirming inexplicable spontanieties.

‘Truth’ belongs to our machinery for communicating (among other things) the sufficiency of iterable orientations within superordinate systems given medial neglect. You could say it’s a way to advertise clockwork positioning (functional sufficiency) absent any inkling of the clock. ‘Objectivity,’ the term denoting the supposed general property of being true apart from individual perspectives, is a deliberative contrivance derived from practical applications of ‘truth’—the product of ‘philosophical reflection.’ The problem with objectivity as a phenomenon (as opposed to ‘objectivity’ as a component of some larger cognitive articulation) is that the sufficiency of iterable orientations within superordinate systems is always a contingent affair. Whether ‘truth’ occasions sufficiency is always an open question, since the system provides, at best, a rough and ready way to communicate and/or troubleshoot orientation. Unpredictable events regularly make liars of us all. The notion of facts ‘being true’ absent the mediation of human cognition, ‘objectivity,’ also provides a rough and ready way to communicate and/or troubleshoot orientation in certain circumstances. We regularly predict felicitous orientations without the least sensitivity to their artifactual nature, absent any inkling how their pins lie in intractable high-dimensional coincidences between buzzing brains. This insensitivity generates the illusion of absolute orientation, a position outside natural regularities—a ‘view from nowhere.’ We are a worm in the gut of nature convinced we possess disembodied eyes. And so long as the consequences of our orientations remain felicitous, our conceit need not be tested. Our orientations might as well ‘stand nowhere’ absent cognition of their limits.

Thus can ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ be naturalized and their peculiarities explained.

The primary cognitive moral here is that lacking information has positive cognitive consequences, especially when it comes to deliberative metacognition, our attempts to understand our nature via philosophical reflection alone. Correlationism evidences this in a number of ways.

As soon as the problem of cognition is characterized as the problem of thought and being, it becomes insoluble. Intentional cognition is heuristic: it neglects the nature of the systems involved, exploiting cues correlated to the systems requiring solution instead. The application of intentional cognition to theoretical explanation, therefore, amounts to the attempt to solve natures using a system adapted to neglect natures. A great deal of traditional philosophy is dedicated to the theoretical understanding of cognition via intentional idioms—via applications of intentional cognition. Thus the morass of disputation. We presume that specialized problem-solving systems possess general application. Lacking the capacity to cognize our inability to cognize the theoretical nature of cognition, we presume sufficiency. Orientation, the relation between neural systems and their proximal and distal environments—between two systems of objects—becomes perspective, the relation between subjects (or systems of subjects) and systems of objects (environments). If one conflates the manifest artifactual nature of orientation for the artifactual nature of perspective (subjectivity), then objectivity itself becomes a subjective artifact, and therefore nothing objective at all. Since orientation characterizes our every attempt to solve for cognition, conflating it with perspective renders perspective inescapable, and objectivity all but inexplicable. Thus the crash space of traditional epistemology.

Now I know from hard experience that the typical response to the picture sketched above is to simply insist on the conflation of orientation and perspective, to assert that my position, despite its explanatory power, simply amounts to more of the same, another perspectival Klein Bottle distinctive only for its egregious ‘scientism.’ Only my intrinsically intentional perspective, I am told, allows me to claim that such perspectives are metacognitive artifacts, a consequence of medial neglect. But asserting perspective before orientation on the basis of metacognitive intuitions alone not only begs the question, it also beggars explanation, delivering the project of cognizing cognition to never-ending disputation—an inability to even formulate explananda, let alone explain anything. This is why I like asking intentionalists how many centuries of theoretical standstill we should expect before that oft advertised and never delivered breakthrough finally arrives. The sin Meillassoux attributes to correlationism, the inability to explain cognition, is really just the sin belonging to intentional philosophy as a whole. Thanks to medial neglect, metcognition,  blind to both its sources and its source blindness, insists we stand outside nature. Tackling this intuition with intentional idioms leaves our every attempt to rationalize our connection underdetermined, a matter of interminable controversy. The Scandal dwells on eternal.

I think orientation precedes perspective—and obviously so, having watched loved ones dismantled by brain disease. I think understanding the role of neglect in orientation explains the peculiarities of perspective, provides a parsimonious way to understand the apparent first-person in terms of the neglect structure belonging to the third. There’s no problem with escaping the dream tank and touching the world simply because there’s no ontological distinction between ourselves and the cosmos. We constitute a small region of a far greater territory, the proximal attuned to the distal. Understanding the heuristic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity,’ I restrict their application to adaptive problem-ecologies, and simply ask those who would turn them into something ontologically exceptional why they would trust low-dimensional intuitions over empirical data, especially when those intuitions pretty much guarantee perpetual theoretical underdetermination. Far better trust to our childhood presumptions of truth and reality, in the practical applications of these idioms, than in any one of the numberless theoretical misapplications ‘discovering’ this trust fundamentally (as opposed to situationally) ‘naïve.’

The cognitive difference, what separates the consequences of our claims, has never been about ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity,’ but rather intersystematicity, the integration of ever-more sensitive orientations possessing ever more effectiveness into the superordinate systems encompassing us all. Physically speaking, we’ve long known that this has to be the case. Short actual difference making differences, be they photons striking our retinas or compression waves striking our eardrums or so on, no difference is made. Even Meillassoux acknowledges the necessity of physical contact. What we’ve lacked is a way of seeing how our apparently immediate intentional intuitions, be they phenomenological, ontological, or normative, fit into this high-dimensional—physical—picture.

Heuristic Neglect Theory not only provides this way, it also explains why it has proven so elusive over the centuries. HNT explains the wrong turn mentioned above. The question of orientation immediately cues the systems our ancestors developed to circumvent medial neglect. Solving for our behaviourally salient environmental relationships, in other words, automatically formats the problem in intentional terms. The automaticity of the application of intentional cognition renders it apparently ‘self-evident.’

The reason the critique of correlationism and speculative realism suffer all the problems of underdetermination their proponents attribute to correlationism is that they take this very same wrong turn. How is Meillassoux’s ‘hyper-chaos,’ yet another adventure in a priori speculation, anything more than another pebble tossed upon the heap of traditional disputation? Novelty alone recommends them. Otherwise they leave us every bit as mystified, every bit as unable to accommodate the torrent of relevant scientific findings, and therefore every bit as irrelevant to the breathtaking revolutions even now sweeping us and our traditions out to sea. Like the traditions they claim to supersede, they peddle cognitive abjection, discursive immobility, in the guise of fundamental insight.

Theoretical speculation is cheap, which is why it’s so frightfully easy to make any philosophical account look bad. All you need do is start worrying definitions, then let the conceptual games begin. This is why the warrant of any account is always a global affair, why the power of Evolutionary Theory, for example, doesn’t so much lie in the immunity of its formulations to philosophical critique, but in how much it explains on nature’s dime alone. The warrant of Heuristic Neglect Theory likewise turns on the combination of parsimony and explanatory power.

Anyone arguing that HNT necessarily presupposes some X, be it ontological or normative, is simply begging the question. Doesn’t HNT presuppose the reality of intentional objectivity? Not at all. HNT certainly presupposes applications of intentional cognition, which, given medial neglect, philosophers pose as functional or ontological realities. On HNT, a theory can be true even though, high-dimensionally speaking, there is no such thing as truth. Truth talk possesses efficacy in certain practical problem-ecologies, but because it participates in solving something otherwise neglected, namely the superordinate systematicity of orientations, it remains beyond the pale of intentional resolution.

Even though sophisticated critics of eliminativism acknowledge the incoherence of the tu quoque, I realize this remains a hard twist for many (if not most) to absorb, let alone accept. But this is exactly as it should be, both insofar as something has to explain why isolating the wrong turn has proven so stupendously difficult, and because this is precisely the kind of trap we should expect, given the heuristic and fractionate nature of human cognition. ‘Knowledge’ provides a handle on the intersection of vast, high-dimensional histories, a way to manage orientations without understanding the least thing about them. To know knowledge, we will come to realize, is to know there is no such thing, simply because ‘knowing’ is a resolutely practical affair, almost certainly inscrutable to intentional cognition. When you’re in the intentional mode, this statement simply sounds preposterous—I know it once struck me as such! It’s only when you appreciate how far your intuitions have strayed from those of your childhood, back when your only applications of intentional cognition were practical, that you can see the possibility of a more continuous, intersystematic way to orient ourselves to the cosmos. There was a time before you wandered into the ancient funhouse of heuristic misapplication, when you could not distinguish between your perspective and your orientation. HNT provides a theoretical way to recover that time and take a radically different path.

As a bona fide theory of cognition, HNT provides a way to understand our spectacular inability to understand ourselves. HNT can explain ‘aporia.’ The metacognitive resources recruited for the purposes of philosophical reflection possess alarm bells—sensitivities to their own limits—relevant only to their ancestral applications. The kinds of cognitive apories (crash spaces) characterizing traditional philosophy are precisely those we might expect, given the sudden ability to exercise specialized metacognitive resources out of school, to apply, among other things, the problem-solving power of intentional cognition to the question of intentional cognition.

As a bona fide theory of cognition, HNT bears as much on artificial cognition as on biological cognition, and as such, can be used to understand and navigate the already radical and accelerating transformation of our cognitive ecologies. HNT scales, from the subpersonal to the social, and this means that HNT is relevant to the technological madness of the now.

As a bona fide empirical theory, HNT, unlike any traditional theory of intentionality, will be sorted. Either science will find that metacognition actually neglects information in the ways I propose, or it won’t. Either science will find this neglect possesses the consequences I theorize, or it won’t. Nothing exceptional and contentious is required. With our growing understanding of the brain and consciousness comes a growing understanding of information access and processing capacity—and the neglect structures that fall out of them. The human brain abounds in bottlenecks, none of which are more dramatic than consciousness itself.

Cognition is biomechanical. The ‘correlation of thought and being,’ on my account, is the correlation of being and being. The ontology of HNT is resolutely flat. Once we understand that we only glimpse as much of our orientations as our ancestors required for reproduction, and nothing more, we can see that ‘thought,’ whatever it amounts to, is material through and through.

The evidence of this lies strewn throughout the cognitive wreckage of speculation, the alien crash site of philosophy.

 

Notes

[1] This includes, in addition to the neurosciences proper, research into Basic Behavioral and Social Science (8.597 billion), Behavioral and Social Science (22.515 billion), Brain Disorders (23.702 billion), Mental Health (13.699 billion), and Neurodegenerative (10.183 billion). https://report.nih.gov/categorical_spending.aspx 21/01/2017

 

Framing “On Alien Philosophy”…

by rsbakker

dubbit

Peter Hankins of Conscious Entities fame has a piece considering “On Alien Philosophy.” The debate is just getting started, but I thought it worthwhile explaining why I think this particular paper of mine amounts to more than yet just another interpretation to heap onto the intractable problem of ourselves.

Consider the four following claims:

1) We have biologically constrained (in terms of information access and processing resources) metacognitive capacities ancestrally tuned to the solution of various practical problem ecologies, and capable of exaptation to various other problems.

2) ‘Philosophical reflection’ constitutes such an exaptation.

3) All heuristic exaptations inherit, to some extent, the problem-solving limitations of the heuristic exapted.

4) ‘Philosophical reflection’ inherits the problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition.

Now I don’t think there’s much anything controversial about any of these claims (though, to be certain, there’s a great many devils lurking in the details adduced). So note what happens when we add the following:

5) We should expect human philosophical practice will express, in a variety of ways, the problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition.

Which seems equally safe. But note how the terrain of the philosophical debate regarding the nature of the soul has changed. Any claim purporting the exceptional nature of this or that intentional phenomena now needs to run the gauntlet of (5). Why assume we cognize something ontologically exceptional when we know we are bound to be duped somehow? All things being equal, mediocre explanations will always trump exceptional ones, after all.

The challenge of (5) has been around for quite some time, but if you read (precritical) eliminativists like Churchland, Stich, or Rosenberg, this is where the battle grinds to a standstill. Why? Because they have no general account of how the inevitable problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition would be expressed in human philosophical practice, let alone how they would generate the appearance of intentional phenomena. Since all they have are promissory notes and suggestive gestures, ontologically exceptional accounts remain the only game in town. So, despite the power of (5), the only way to speak of intentional phenomena remains the traditional, philosophical one. Science is blind without theory, so absent any eliminativist account of intentional phenomena, it has no clear way to proceed with their investigation. So it hews to exceptional posits, trusting in their local efficacy, and assuming they will be demystified by discoveries to come.

Thus the challenge posed by Alien Philosophy. By giving real, abductive teeth to (5), my account overturns the argumentative terrain between eliminativism and intentionalism by transforming the explanatory stakes. It shows us how stupidity, understood ecologically, provides everything we need to understand our otherwise baffling intuitions regarding intentional phenomena. “On Alien Philosophy” challenges the Intentionalist to explain more with less (the very thing, of course, he or she cannot do).

Now I think I’ve solved the problem, that I have a way to genuinely naturalize meaning and cognition. The science will sort my pretensions in due course, but in the meantime, the heuristic neglect account of intentionality, given its combination of mediocrity and explanatory power, has to be regarded as a serious contender.

Dennett’s Black Boxes (Or, Meaning Naturalized)

by rsbakker

“Dennett’s basic insight is that there are under-explored possibilities implicit in contemporary scientific ideas about human nature that are, for various well understood reasons, difficult for brains like ours to grasp. However, there is a familiar remedy for this situation: as our species has done throughout its history when restrained by the cognitive limitations of the human brain, the solution is to engineer new cognitive tools that enable us to transcend these limitations. ”

—T. W. Zadwidzki, “As close to the definitive Dennett as we’re going to get.”

So the challenge confronting cognitive science, as I see it, is to find some kind of theoretical lingua franca, a way to understand different research paradigms relative to one another. This is the function that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in the biological sciences, that of a common star chart, a way for myriad disciplines to chart their courses vis a vis one another.

Taking a cognitive version of ‘modern synthesis’ as the challenge, you can read Dennett’s “Two Black Boxes: a Fable” as an argument against the need for such a synthesis. What I would like to show is the way his fable can be carved along different joints to reach a far different conclusion. Beguiled by his own simplifications, Dennett trips into the same cognitive ‘crash space’ that has trapped traditional speculation on the nature of cognition more generally, fooling him into asserting explanatory limits that are apparent only.

Dennett’s fable tells the story (originally found in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 412-27) of a group of researchers stranded with two black boxes, each containing a supercomputer with a database of ‘true facts’ about the world, one in English, the other in Swedish. One box has two buttons labeled alpha and beta, while the second box has three lights coloured yellow, red, and green. Unbeknownst to the researchers, the button box simply transmits a true statement from the one supercomputer when the alpha button is pushed, which the other supercomputer acknowledges by lighting the red bulb for agreement, and a false statement when the beta button is pushed, which the bulb box acknowledges by lighting the green bulb for disagreement. The yellow bulb illuminates only when the bulb box can make no sense of the transmission, which is always the case when the researcher disconnect the boxes and, being entirely ignorant of any of these details, substitute signals of their own.

The intuitive power of the fable turns on the ignorance of the researchers, who begin by noting the manifest relations above, how pushing alpha illuminates red, pushing beta illuminates green, and how interfering with the signal between the boxes invariably illuminates yellow. Until the two hackers who built the supercomputers arrive, they have no way of explaining why the three actions—alpha pushing, beta pushing, and signal interfering—illuminate the lights they do. Even when they crack open the boxes and begin reverse engineering the supercomputers within, they find themselves no closer to solving the problem. This is what makes their ignorance so striking: not even the sustained, systematic application of mechanical cognition paradigmatic of science can solve the problem. Certainly a mechanical account of all the downstream consequences of pushing alpha or beta or interfering with the signal is possible, but this inevitably cumbersome account nevertheless fails to explain the significance of what is going on.

Dennett’s black boxes, in other words, are actually made of glass. They can be cracked open and mechanically understood. It’s their communication that remains inscrutable, the fact that no matter what resources the researchers throw at the problem, they have no way of knowing what is being communicated. The only way to do this, Dennett wants to argue, is to adopt the ‘intentional stance.’ This is exactly what Al and Bo, the two hackers responsible for designing and building the black boxes, provide when they finally let the researchers in on their game.

Now Dennett argues that the explanatory problem is the same whether or not the hackers simply hide themselves in the black boxes, Al in one and Bo in the other, but you don’t have to buy into the mythical distinction between derived and original intentionality to see this simply cannot be the case. The fact that the hackers are required to resolve the research conundrum pretty clearly suggests they cannot simply be swapped out with their machines. As soon as the researchers crack open the boxes and find two human beings are behind the communication the whole nature of the research enterprise is radically transformed, much as it is when they show up to explain their ‘philosophical toy.’

This underscores a crucial point: Only the fact that Al and Bo share a vast background of contingencies with the researchers allows for the ‘semantic demystification’ of the signals passing between the boxes. If anything, cognitive ecology is the real black box at work in this fable. If Al and Bo had been aliens, their appearance would have simply constituted an extension of the problem. As it is, they deliver a powerful, but ultimately heuristic, understanding of what the two boxes are doing. They provide, in other words, a black box understanding of the signals passing between our two glass boxes.

The key feature of heuristic cognition is evinced in the now widely cited gaze heuristic, the way fielders fix the ball in their visual field while running to keep the ball in place. The most economical way to catch pop flies isn’t to calculate angles and velocities but to simply ‘lock onto’ the target, orient locomotion to maintain its visual position, and let the ball guide you in. Heuristic cognition solves problems not via modelling systems, but via correlation, by comporting us to cues, features systematically correlated to the systems requiring solution. IIR heat-seeking missiles, for instance, need understand nothing of the targets they track and destroy. Heuristic cognition allows us to solve environmental systems (including ourselves) without the need to model those systems. It enables, in other words, the solution of environmental black boxes, systems possessing unknown causal structures, via known environmental regularities correlated to those structures.

This is why Al and Bo’s revelation has the effect of mooting most all of the work the researchers had done thus far. The boxes might as well be black, given the heuristic nature of their explanation. The arrival of the hackers provides a black box (homuncular) ‘glassing’ of the communication between the two boxes, a way to understand what they are doing that cannot be mechanically decomposed. How? By identifying the relevant cues for the researchers, thereby plugging them into the wider cognitive ecology of which they and the machines are a part.

The communication between the boxes is opaque to the researchers, even when the boxes are transparent, because it is keyed to the hackers, who belong to the same cognitive ecology as to the researchers—only unbeknownst to the researchers. As soon as they let the researchers in on their secret—clue (or ‘cue’) them in—the communication becomes entirely transparent. What the boxes are communicating becomes crystal clear because it turns out they were playing the same game with the same equipment in the same arena all along.

Now what Dennett would have you believe is that ‘understanding the communication’ is exhausted by taking the intentional stance, that the problem of what the machines are communicating is solved as far as it needs to be solved. Sure, there is a vast, microcausal story to be told (the glass box one), but it proves otiose. The artificiality of the fable facilitates this sense: the machines, after all, were designed to compare true or false claims. This generates the sense of some insuperable gulf segregating the two forms of cognition. One second the communication was utterly inscrutable, and the next, Presto! it’s transparent.

“The debate went on for years,” Dennett concludes, “but the mystery with which it began was solved” (84). This seems obvious, until one asks whether plugging the communication into our own intentional ecology answers our original question. If the question is, ‘What do the three lights mean?’ then of course the question is answered, as well it should be, given the question amounts to, ‘How do the three lights plug into the cognitive ecology of human meaning?’ If the question is, ‘What are the mechanics of the three lights, such that they mean?’ then the utility of intentional cognition simply provides more data. The mystery of the meaning of the communication is dissolved, sure, but the problem of relating this meaning to the machinery remains.

What Dennett is attempting to provide with this analogy is a version of ‘radical interpretation,’ an instance that strips away our preconceptions, and forces us to consider the problem of meaning from ‘conceptual scratch,’ you might say. To see the way his fable is loaded, you need only divorce the machines from the human cognitive ecology framing them. Make them alien black-cum-glass boxes and suddenly mechanical cognition is all our researchers have—all they can hope to have. If Dennett’s conclusions vis a vis our human black-cum-glass boxes are warranted, then our researchers might as well give up before they begin, “because there really is no substitute for semantic or intentional predicates when it comes to specifying the property in a compact, generative, explanatory way” (84). Since we don’t share the same cognitive ecology as the aliens, their cues will make no implicit or homuncular sense to us at all. Even if we could pick those cues out, we would have no way of plugging them into the requisite system of correlations, the cognitive ecology of human meaning. Absent homuncular purchase, what the alien machines are communicating would remain inscrutable—if Dennett is to be believed.

Dennett sees this thought experiment as a decisive rebuttal to those critics who think his position entails semantic epiphenomenalism, the notion that intentional posits are causally inert. Not only does he think the intentional stance answers the researchers’ primary question, he thinks it does so in a manner compatible (if not consilient) with causal explanation. Truthhood can cause things to happen:

“the main point of the example of the Two Black Boxes is to demonstrate the need for a concept of causation that is (1) cordial to higher-level causal understanding distinct from an understanding of the microcausal story, and (2) ordinary enough in any case, especially in scientific contexts.” “With a Little Help From my Friends,” Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment, 357

The moral of the fable, in other words, isn’t so much intentional as it is causal, to show how meaning-talk is indispensible to a certain crucial ‘high level’ kind of causal explanation. He continues:

“With regard to (1), let me reemphasize the key feature of the example: The scientists can explain each and every instance with no residual mystery at all; but there is a generalization of obviously causal import that they are utterly baffled by until they hit upon the right higher-level perspective.” 357

Everything, of course, depends on what ‘hitting upon the right higher level perspective’ means. The fact is, after all, causal cognition funds explanation across all ‘levels,’ and not simply those involving microstates. The issue, then, isn’t simply one of ‘levels.’ We shall return to this point below.

With regard to (2), the need for an ‘ordinary enough’ concept of cause, he points out the sciences are replete with examples of intentional posits figuring in otherwise causal explanations:

“it is only via … rationality considerations that one can identify or single out beliefs and desires, and this forces the theorist to adopt a higher level than the physical level of explanation on its own. This level crossing is not peculiar to the intentional stance. It is the life-blood of science. If a blush can be used as an embarrassment-detector, other effects can be monitored in a lie detector.” 358

Not only does the intentional stance provide a causally relevant result, it does so, he is convinced, in a way that science utilizes all the time. In fact, he thinks this hybrid intentional/causal level is forced on the theorist, something which need cause no concern because this is simply the cost of doing scientific business.

Again, the question comes down to what ‘higher level of causal understanding’ amounts to. Dennett has no way of tackling this question because he has no genuinely naturalistic theory of intentional cognition. His solution is homuncular—and self-consciously so. The problem is that homuncular solvers can only take us so far in certain circumstances. Once we take them on as explanatory primitives—the way he does with the intentional stance—we’re articulating a theory that can only take us so far in certain circumstances. If we confuse that theory for something more than a homuncular solver, the perennial temptation (given neglect) will be to confuse heuristic limits for general ones—to run afoul the ‘only-game-in-town-effect.’ In fact, I think Dennett is tripping over one of his own pet peeves here, confusing what amounts to a failure of imagination with necessity (Consciousness Explained, 401).

Heuristic cognition, as Dennett claims, is the ‘life-blood of science.’ But this radically understates the matter. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, we often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information humans have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems (including ourselves) relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible (and we are presently hellbent on creating tools that can do the same).

Humans are encircled, engulfed, by the inverse problem, the problem of isolating causes from effects. We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems are wildly disparate, not all access is equal. ‘Isolating causes,’ it turns out, means different things for different kinds of problem solving.

Information access, in fact, divides cognition into two distinct families. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the indispensability, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition (see, “On the Interpretation of Artificial Souls“). Andrei Cimpian, Klaus Fiedler, and the work of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

Now then, what Dennett is claiming is first, that instances of source insensitive cognition can serve source sensitive cognition, and second, that such instances fulfill our explanatory needs as far as they need to be fulfilled. What triggers the red light? The communication of a true claim from the other machine.

Can instances of source insensitive cognition serve source sensitive cognition (or vice versa)? Can there be such a thing as source insensitive/source sensitive hybrid cognition? Certainly seems that way, given how we cobble to two modes together both in science and everyday life. Narrative cognition, the human ability to cognize (and communicate) human action in context, is pretty clearly predicated on this hybridization. Dennett is clearly right to insist that certain forms of source insensitive cognition can serve certain forms of source sensitive cognition.

The devil is in the details. We know homuncular forms of source insensitive cognition, for instance, don’t serve the ‘hard’ sciences all that well. The reason for this is clear: source insensitive cognition is the mode we resort to when information regarding actual physical constraints isn’t available. Source insensitive idioms are components of wide correlative systems, cue-based cognition. The posits they employ cut no physical joints.

This means that physically speaking, truth causes nothing, because physically speaking, ‘truth’ does not so much refer to ‘real patterns’ in the natural world as participate in them. Truth is at best a metaphorical causer of things, a kind of fetish when thematized, a mere component of our communicative gear otherwise. This, of course, made no difference whatsoever to our ancestors, who scarce had any way of distinguishing source sensitive from source insensitive cognition. For them, a cause was a cause was a cause: the kinds of problems they faced required no distinction to be economically resolved. The cobble was at once manifest and mandatory. Metaphorical causes suited their needs no less than physical causes did. Since shallow information neglect entails ignorance of shallow information neglect—since insensitivity begets insensitivity to insensitivity—what we see becomes all there is. The lack of distinctions cues apparent identity (see, “On Alien Philosophy,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies (forthcoming)).

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that our ancestors, as shallow information consumers, required nothing more. The source sensitive/source insensitive cobble they possessed was the source sensitive/source insensitive cobble their ancestors required. Things only become problematic as more and more ancestrally unprecedented—or ‘deep’— information finds its way into our shallow information ambit. Novel information begets novel distinctions, and absolutely nothing guarantees the compatibility of those distinctions with intuitions adapted to shallow information ecologies.

In fact, we should expect any number of problems will arise once we cognize the distinction between source sensitive causes and source insensitive causes. Why should some causes so effortlessly double as effects, while other causes absolutely refuse? Since all our metacognitive capacities are (as a matter of computational necessity) source insensitive capacities, a suite of heuristic devices adapted to practical problem ecologies, it should come as no surprise that our ancestors found themselves baffled. How is source insensitive reflection on the distinction between source sensitive and source insensitive cognition supposed to uncover the source of the distinction? Obviously, it cannot, yet precisely because these tools are shallow information tools, our ancestors had no way of cognizing them as such. Given the power of source insensitive cognition and our unparalleled capacity for cognitive improvisation, it should come as no surprise that they eventually found ways to experimentally regiment that power, apparently guaranteeing the reality of various source insensitive posits. They found themselves in a classic cognitive crash space, duped into misapplying the same tools out of school over and over again simply because they had no way (short exhaustion, perhaps) of cognizing the limits of those tools.

And here we stand with one foot in and one foot out of our ancestral shallow information ecologies. In countless ways both everyday and scientific we still rely upon the homuncular cobble, we still tell narratives. In numerous other ways, mostly scientific, we assiduously guard against inadvertently tripping back into the cobble, applying source insensitive cognition to a question of sources.

Dennett, ever the master of artful emphasis, focuses on the cobble, pumping the ancestral intuition of identity. He thinks the answer here is to simply shrug our shoulders. Because he takes stances as his explanatory primitives, his understanding of source sensitive and source insensitive modes of cognition remains an intentional (or source insensitive) one. And to this extent, he remains caught upon the bourne of traditional philosophical crash space, famously calling out homuncularism on the one side and ‘greedy reductionism’ on the other.

But as much as I applaud the former charge, I think the latter is clearly an artifact of confusing the limits of his theoretical approach with the way things are. The problem is that for Dennett, the difference between using meaning-talk and using cause-talk isn’t the difference between using a stance (the intentional stance) and using something other than a stance. Sometimes the intentional stance suites our needs, and sometimes the physical stance delivers. Given his reliance on source insensitive primitives—stances—to theorize source sensitive and source insensitive cognition, the question of their relation to each other also devolves upon source insensitive cognition. Confronted with a choice between two distinct homuncular modes of cognition, shrugging our shoulders is pretty much all that we can do, outside, that is, extolling their relative pragmatic virtues.

Source sensitive cognition, on Dennett’s account, is best understood via source insensitive cognition (the intentional stance) as a form of source insensitive cognition (the ‘physical stance’). As should be clear, this not only sets the explanatory bar too low, it confounds the attempt to understand the kinds of cognitive systems involved outright. We evolved intentional cognition as a means of solving systems absent information regarding their nature. The idea then—the idea that has animated philosophical discourse on the soul since the beginning—that we can use intentional cognition to solve the nature of cognition generally is plainly mistaken. In this sense, Intentional Systems Theory is an artifact of the very confusion that has plagued humanity’s attempt to understand itself all along: the undying assumption that source insensitive cognition can solve the nature of cognition.

What do Dennett’s two black boxes ultimately illuminate? When two machines functionally embedded within the wide correlative system anchoring human source insensitive cognition exhibit no cues to this effect, human source sensitive cognition has a devil of a time understanding even the simplest behaviours. It finds itself confronted by the very intractability that necessitated the evolution of source insensitive systems in the first place. As soon as those cues are provided, what was intractable for source sensitive cognition suddenly becomes effortless for source insensitive cognition. That shallow environmental understanding is ‘all we need’ if explaining the behaviour for shallow environmental purposes happens to be all we want. Typically, however, scientists want the ‘deepest’ or highest dimensional answers they can find, in which case, such a solution does nothing more than provide data.

Once again, consider how much the researchers would learn were they to glass the black boxes and find the two hackers inside of them. Finding them would immediately plug the communication into the wide correlative system underwriting human source insensitive cognition. The researchers would suddenly find themselves, their own source insensitive cognitive systems, potential components of the system under examination. Solving the signal would become an anthropological matter involving the identification of communicative cues. The signal’s morphology, which had baffled before, would now possess any number of suggestive features. The amber light, for instance, could be quickly identified as signalling a miscommunication. The reason their interference invariably illuminated it would be instantly plain: they were impinging on signals belonging to some wide correlative system. Given the binary nature of the two lights and given the binary nature of truth and falsehood, the researchers, it seems safe to suppose, would have a fair chance of advancing the correct hypothesis, at least.

This is significant because source sensitive idioms do generalize to the intentional explanatory scale—the issue of free will wouldn’t be such a conceptual crash space otherwise! ‘Dispositions’ are the typical alternative offered in philosophy, but in fact, any medicalization of human behaviour examples the effectiveness of biomechanical idioms at the intentional level of description (something Dennett recognizes at various points in his oeuvre (as in “Mechanism and Responsibility”) yet seems to ignore when making arguments like these). In fact, the very idiom deployed here demonstrates the degree to which these issues can be removed from the intentional domain.

The degree to which meaning can be genuinely naturalized.

We are bathed in consequences. Cognizing causes is more expensive than cognizing correlations, so we evolved the ability to cognize the causes that count, and to leave the rest to correlations. Outside the physics of our immediate surroundings, we dwell in a correlative fog, one that thins or deepens, sometimes radically, depending on the physical complexity of the systems engaged. Thus, what Gerd Gigerenzer calls the ‘adaptive toolbox,’ the wide array of heuristic devices solving via correlations alone. Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is far better understood as a collection of these tools, particularly those involving social cognition, our ability to solve for others or for ourselves. Rather than settling for any homuncular ‘attitude taking’ (or ‘rule following’), we can get to the business of isolating devices and identifying heuristics and their ‘application conditions,’ understanding both how they work, where they work, and the ways they go wrong.

Visions of the Semantic Apocalypse: A Critical Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus

by rsbakker

homo-deus-na

“Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past,” Yuval Noah Harari writes. “It enables us to turn our heads this way and that, and to begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine” (59). Thus does the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind rationalize his thoroughly historical approach to question of our technological future in his fascinating follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. And so does he identify himself as a humanist, committed to freeing us from what Kant would have called, ‘our tutelary natures.’ Like Kant, Harari believes knowledge will set us free.

Although by the end of the book it becomes difficult to understand what ‘free’ might mean here.

As Harari himself admits, “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend” (46). Now if you’re interested in mapping the conceptual boundaries of comprehending the posthuman, I heartily recommend David Roden’s skeptical tour de force, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Homo Deus, on the other hand, is primarily a book chronicling the rise and fall of contemporary humanism against the backdrop of apparent ‘progress.’ The most glaring question, of course, is whether Harari’s academic humanism possesses the resources required to diagnose the problems posed by the collapse of popular humanism. This challenge—the problem of using obsolescent vocabularies to theorize, not only the obsolescence of those vocabularies, but the successor vocabularies to come—provides an instructive frame through which to understand the successes and failures of this ambitious and fascinating book.

How good is Homo Deus? Well, for years people have been asking me for a lay point of entry for the themes explored here on Three Pound Brain and in my novels, and I’ve always been at a loss. No longer. Anyone surfing for reviews of the book are certain to find individuals carping about Harari not possessing the expertise to comment on x or y, but these critics never get around to explaining how any human could master all the silos involved in such an issue (while remaining accessible to a general audience, no less). Such criticisms amount to advocating no one dare interrogate what could be the greatest challenge to ever confront humanity. In addition to erudition, Harari has the courage to concede ugly possibilities, the sensitivity to grasp complexities (as well as the limits they pose), and the creativity to derive something communicable. Even though I think his residual humanism conceals the true profundity of the disaster awaiting us, he glimpses more than enough to alert millions of readers to the shape of the Semantic Apocalypse. People need to know human progress likely has a horizon, a limit, that doesn’t involve environmental catastrophe or creating some AI God.

The problem is far more insidious and retail than most yet realize.

The grand tale Harari tells is a vaguely Western Marxist one, wherein culture (following Lukacs) is seen as a primary enabler of relations of power, a fundamental component of the ‘social apriori.’ The primary narrative conceit of such approaches belongs to the ancient Greeks: “[T]he rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall,” Harari writes. “While the attempt to upgrade humans into gods takes humanism to its logical conclusion, it simultaneously exposes humanism’s inherent flaws” (65). For all its power, humanism possesses intrinsic flaws, blindnesses and vulnerabilities, that will eventually lead it to ruin. In a sense, Harari is offering us a ‘big history’ version of negative dialectic, attempting to show how the internal logic of humanism runs afoul the very power it enables.

But that logic is also the very logic animating Harari’s encyclopedic account. For all its syncretic innovations, Homo Deus uses the vocabularies of academic or theoretical humanism to chronicle the rise and fall of popular or practical humanism. In this sense, the difference between Harari’s approach to the problem of the future and my own could not be more pronounced. On my account, academic humanism, far from enjoying critical or analytical immunity, is best seen as a crumbling bastion of pre-scientific belief, the last gasp of traditional apologia, the cognitive enterprise most directly imperilled by the rising technological tide, while we can expect popular humanism to linger for some time to come (if not indefinitely).

Homo Deus, in fact, exemplifies the quandary presently confronting humanists such as Harari, how the ‘creeping delegitimization’ of their theoretical vocabularies is slowly robbing them of any credible discursive voice. Harari sees the problem, acknowledging that “[w]e won’t be able to grasp the full implication of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence if we don’t know what minds are” (107). But the fact remains that “science knows surprisingly little about minds and consciousness” (107). We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.

Humanity as yet lacks any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience. For Harari this means the bastion of academic humanism, though besieged, remains intact, at least enough for him to advance his visions of the future. Despite the perplexity and controversies occasioned by our traditional vocabularies, they remain the only game in town, the very foundation of countless cognitive activities. “[T]he whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences,” Harari writes, “and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities” (116). Even though his posits lie nowhere in the natural world, they nevertheless remain subjective realities, the necessary condition of solving countless problems. “If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant,” Harari writes, “their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience” (116).

This is the classic humanistic challenge posed to naturalistic accounts, of course, the demand that they discharge the specialized functions of intentional cognition the same way intentional cognition does. This demand amounts to little more than a canard, of course, once we appreciate the heuristic nature of intentional cognition. The challenge intentional cognition poses to natural cognition is to explain, not replicate, its structure and dynamics. We clearly evolved our intentional cognitive capacities, after all, to solve problems natural cognition could not reliably solve. This combination of power, economy, and specificity is the very thing that a genuinely naturalistic theory of meaning (such as my own) must explain.

 

“… fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

 

So moving forward it is important to understand how his theoretical approach elides the very possibility of a genuinely post-intentional future. Because he has no natural theory of meaning, he has no choice but to take the theoretical adequacy of his intentional idioms for granted. But if his intentional idioms possess the resources he requires to theorize the future, they must somehow remain out of play; his discursive ‘subject position’ must possess some kind of immunity to the scientific tsunami climbing our horizons. His very choice of tools limits the radicality of the story he tells. No matter how profound, how encompassing, the transformational deluge, Harari must somehow remain dry upon his theoretical ark. And this, as we shall see, is what ultimately swamps his conclusions.

But if the Hard Problem exempts his theoretical brand of intentionality, one might ask why it doesn’t exempt all intentionality from scientific delegitimation. What makes the scientific knowledge of nature so tremendously disruptive to humanity is the fact that human nature is, when all is said and down, just more nature. Conceding general exceptionalism, the thesis that humans possess something miraculous distinguishing them from nature more generally, would undermine the very premise of his project.

Without any way out of this bind, Harari fudges, basically. He remains silent on his own intentional (even humanistic) theoretical commitments, while attacking exceptionalism by expanding the franchise of meaning and consciousness to include animals: whatever intentional phenomena consist in, they are ultimately natural to the extent that animals are natural.

But now the problem has shifted. If humans dwell on a continuum with nature more generally, then what explains the Anthropocene, our boggling dominion of the earth? Why do humans stand so drastically apart from nature? The capacity that most distinguishes humans from their nonhuman kin, Harari claims (in line with contemporary theories), is the capacity to cooperate. He writes:

“the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.” 131

He poses a ‘shared fictions’ theory of mass social coordination (unfortunately, he doesn’t engage research on groupishness, which would have provided him with some useful, naturalistic tools, I think). He posits an intermediate level of existence between the objective and subjective, the ‘intersubjective,’ consisting of our shared beliefs in imaginary orders, which serve to distribute authority and organize our societies. “Sapiens rule the world,” he writes, “because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning; a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination” (149). This ‘intersubjective web’ provides him with theoretical level of description he thinks crucial to understanding our troubled cultural future.

He continues:

“During the twenty-first century the border between history and biology is likely to blur not because we will discover biological explanations for historical events, but rather because ideological fictions will rewrite DNA strands; political and economic interests will redesign the climate; and the geography of mountains and rivers will give way to cyberspace. As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.” 151

The way Harari sees it, ideology, far from being relegated to prescientific theoretical midden, is set to become all powerful, a consumer of worlds. This launches his extensive intellectual history of humanity, beginning with the algorithmic advantages afforded by numeracy, literacy, and currency, how these “broke the data-processing limitations of the human brain” (158). Where our hunter-gathering ancestors could at best coordinate small groups, “[w]riting and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms” (158).

Harari then turns to the question of how science fits in with this view of fictions, the nature of the ‘odd couple,’ as he puts it:

“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, but it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind. Science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before.” 179

Science is what renders objective reality compliant to human desire. Storytelling is what renders individual human desires compliant to collective human expectations, which is to say, intersubjective reality. Harari understands that the relationship between science and religious ideology is not one of straightforward antagonism: “science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions,” he writes. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave” (188). Though science has plenty of resources for answering means type questions—what you ought to do to lose weight, for instance—it lacks resources to fix the ends that rationalize those means. Science, Harari argues, requires religion to the extent that it cannot ground the all important fictions enabling human cooperation (197).

Insofar as science is a cooperative, human enterprise, it can only destroy one form of meaning on the back of some other meaning. By revealing the anthropomorphism underwriting our traditional, religious accounts of the natural world, science essentially ‘killed God’—which is to say, removed any divine constraint on our actions or aspirations. “The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power” (199). Like stage-actors, we had a plan, but our role was fixed. Unfixing that role, killing God, made meaning into something each of us has to find for ourselves. Harari writes:

“Since there is no script, and since humans fulfill no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us, or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.’” 200

The absence of a script, however, means that anything goes; we can play any role we want to. With the modern freedom from cosmic constraint comes postmodern anomie.

“The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” 201

Or to give it the Adornian spin it receives here on Three Pound Brain: the madness of a society that has rendered means, knowledge and capital, its primary end. Thus the modern obsession with the accumulation of the power to accumulate. And thus the Faustian nature of our present predicament (though Harari, curiously, never references Faust), the fact that “[w]e think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal without paying the price” (201). Even though physical resources such as material and energy are finite, no such limit pertains to knowledge. This is why “[t]he greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.” (212): it spurred the development of systematic inquiry, and therefore the accumulation of knowledge, and therefore the accumulation of power, which, Harari argues, cuts against objective or cosmic meaning. The question is simply whether we can hope to sustain this process—defer payment—indefinitely.

“Modernity is a deal,” he writes, and for all its apparent complexities, it is very straightforward: “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” (199). For me the best way of thinking this process of exchanging power for meaning is in terms of what Weber called disenchantment: the very science that dispels our anthropomorphic fantasy worlds is the science that delivers technological power over the real world. This real world power is what drives traditional delegitimation: even believers acknowledge the vast bulk of the scientific worldview, as do the courts and (ideally at least) all governing institutions outside religion. Science is a recursive institutional ratchet (‘self-correcting’), leveraging the capacity to leverage ever more capacity. Now, after centuries of sheltering behind walls of complexity, human nature finds itself the intersection of multiple domains of scientific inquiry. Since we’re nothing special, just more nature, we should expect our burgeoning technological power over ourselves to increasingly delegitimate traditional discourses.

Humanism, on this account, amounts to an adaptation to the ways science transformed our ancestral ‘neglect structure,’ the landscape of ‘unknown unknowns’ confronting our prehistorical forebears. Our social instrumentalization of natural environments—our inclination to anthropomorphize the cosmos—is the product of our ancestral inability to intuit the actual nature of those environments. Information beyond the pale of human access makes no difference to human cognition. Cosmic meaning requires that the cosmos remain a black box: the more transparent science rendered that box, the more our rationales retreated to the black box of ourselves. The subjectivization of authority turns on how intentional cognition (our capacity to cognize authority) requires the absence of natural accounts to discharge ancestral functions. Humanism isn’t so much a grand revolution in thought as the result of the human remaining the last scientifically inscrutable domain standing. The rationalizations had to land somewhere. Since human meaning likewise requires that the human remain a black box, the vast industrial research enterprise presently dedicated to solving our nature does not bode well.

But this approach, economical as it is, isn’t available to Harari since he needs some enchantment to get his theoretical apparatus off the ground. As the necessary condition for human cooperation, meaning has to be efficacious. The ‘Humanist Revolution,’ as Harari sees it, consists in the migration of cooperative efficacy (authority) from the cosmic to the human. “This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world” (221). Rather than scripture, human experience becomes the metric for what is right or wrong, and the universe, once the canvas of the priest, is conceded to the scientist. Harari writes:

“As the source of meaning and authority was relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe—hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls—became empty space. The interior world—hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions—became deep and rich beyond measure” 234

This re-sourcing of meaning, Harari insists, is true whether or not one still believes in some omnipotent God, insofar as all the salient anchors of that belief lie within the believer, rather than elsewhere. God may still be ‘cosmic,’ but he now dwells beyond the canvas as nature, somewhere in the occluded frame, a place where only religious experience can access Him.

Man becomes ‘man the meaning maker,’ the trope that now utterly dominates contemporary culture:

“Exactly the same lesson is learned by Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard as they travel the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, by Huckleberry Finn and Jim as they sail down the Mississippi, by Wyatt and Billy as they ride their Harley Davidson’s in Easy Rider, and by countless other characters in myriad other road movies who leave their home town in Pennsylvannia (or perhaps New South Wales), travel in an old convertible (or perhaps a bus), pass through various life-changing experiences, get in touch with themselves, talk about their feelings, and eventually reach San Francisco (or perhaps Alice Springs) as better and wiser individuals.” 241

Not only is experience the new scripture, it is a scripture that is being continually revised and rewritten, a meaning that arises out of the process of lived life (yet somehow always managing to conserve the status quo). In story after story, the protagonist must find some ‘individual’ way to derive their own personal meaning out of an apparently meaningless world. This is a primary philosophical motivation behind The Second Apocalypse, the reason why I think epic fantasy provides such an ideal narrative vehicle for the critique of modernity and meaning. Fantasy worlds are fantastic, especially fictional, because they assert the objectivity of what we now (implicitly or explicitly) acknowledge to be anthropomorphic projections. The idea has always been to invert the modernist paradigm Harari sketches above, to follow a meaningless character through a meaningful world, using Kellhus to recapitulate the very dilemma Harari sees confronting us now:

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

And so Harari segues to the future and the question of the ultimate fate of human meaning; this is where I find his steadfast refusal to entertain humanistic conceit most impressive. One need not ponder ‘designer experiences’ for long, I think, to get a sense of the fundamental rupture with the past it represents. These once speculative issues are becoming ongoing practical concerns: “These are not just hypotheses of philosophical speculations,” simply because ‘algorithmic man’ is becoming a technological reality (284). Harari provides a whirlwind tour of unnerving experiments clearly implying trouble for our intuitions, a discussion that transitions into a consideration of the ways we can already mechanically attenuate our experiences. A good number of the examples he adduces have been considered here, all of them underscoring the same, inescapable moral: “Free will exists in the imaginary stories we humans have invented” (283). No matter what your philosophical persuasion, our continuity with the natural world is an established scientific fact. Humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature. If humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature, then the human mastery of nature amounts to the human mastery of humanity.

He turns, at this point, to Gazzaniga’s research showing the confabulatory nature of human rationalization (via split brain patients), and Daniel Kahneman’s account of ‘duration neglect’—another favourite of mine. He offers an expanded version of Kahneman’s distinction between the ‘experiencing self,’ that part of us that actually undergoes events, and the ‘narrating self,’ the part of us that communicates—derives meaning from—these experiences, essentially using the dichotomy as an emblem for the dual process models of cognition presently dominating cognitive psychological research. He writes:

“most people identify with their narrating self. When they say, ‘I,’ the mean the story in their head, not the stream of experiences they undergo. We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns. It doesn’t matter that the plot is filled with lies and lacunas, and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps from even beyond the grave). This gives rise to the questionable liberal belief that I am an individual, and that I possess a consistent and clear inner voice, which provides meaning for the entire universe.” 299

Humanism, Harari argues, turns on our capacity for self-deception, the ability to commit to our shared fictions unto madness, if need be. He writes:

“Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning. Modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.” 305

Social self-deception is our birthright, the ability to believe what we need to believe to secure our interests. This is why the science, though shaking humanistic theory to the core, has done so little to interfere with the practices rationalized by that theory. As history shows, we are quite capable of shovelling millions into the abattoir of social fantasy. This delivers Harari to yet another big theme explored both here and Neuropath: the problems raised by the technological concretization of these scientific findings. As Harari puts it:

“However, once heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we—or our heirs—will probably require a brand new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism [the dominant variant of humanism] is threatened not by the philosophical idea that there are no free individuals but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?” 305-6

harari

The first problem, as Harari sees it, is one of diminishing returns. Humanism didn’t become the dominant world ideology because it was true, it overran the collective imagination of humanity because it enabled. Humanistic values, Harari explains, afforded our recent ancestors with a wide variety of social utilities, efficiencies turning on the technologies of the day. Those technologies, it turns out, require human intelligence and the consciousness that comes with it. To depart from Harari, they are what David Krakauer calls ‘complementary technologies,’ tools that extend human capacity, as opposed to ‘competitive technologies,’ which render human capacities redundant).

Making humans redundant, of course, means making experience redundant, something which portends the systematic devaluation of human experience, or the collapse of humanism. Harari calls this process the ‘Great Decoupling’:

“Over the last decades there has been an immense advance in computer intelligence, but there has been exactly zero advance in computer consciousness. As far as we know, computers in 2016 are no more conscious than their prototypes in the 1950s. However, we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.” 311

He’s quick to acknowledge all the problems yet confronting AI researchers, insisting that the trend unambiguously points toward every expanding capacities As he writes, “these technical problems—however difficult—need only be solved once” (317). The ratchet never stops clicking.

He’s also quick to block the assumption that humans are somehow exceptional: “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking” (319). He provides the (I think) terrifying example of David Cope, the University of California at Santa Cruz musicologist who has developed algorithms whose compositions strike listeners as more authentically human than compositions by humans such as J.S. Bach.

The second problem is the challenge of what (to once again depart from Harari) Neil Lawrence calls ‘System Zero,’ the question of what happens when our machines begin to know us better than we know ourselves. As Harari notes, this is already the case: “The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane choices” (345). Facebook can now guess your preferences better than your friends, your family, your spouse—and in some instances better than you yourself! He warns the day is coming when political candidates can receive real-time feedback via social media, when people can hear everything said about them always and everywhere. Projecting this trend leads him to envision something very close to Integration, where we become so embalmed in our information environments that “[d]isconnection will mean death” (344).

He writes:

“The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within. Today corporations and governments pay homage to my individuality and promise to provide medicine, education and entertainment customized to my unique needs and wishes. But in order to do so, corporations and governments first need to break me up into biochemical subsystems, monitor these subsystems with ubiquitous sensors and decipher their workings with powerful algorithms. In the process, the individual will transpire to be nothing but a religious fantasy.” 345

This is my own suspicion, and I think the process of subpersonalization—the neuroscientifically informed decomposition of consumers into economically relevant behaviours—is well underway. But I think it’s important to realize that as data accumulates, and researchers and their AIs find more and more ways to instrumentalize those data sets, what we’re really talking about are proliferating heuristic hacks (that happen to turn on neuroscientific knowledge). They need decipher us only so far as we comply. Also, the potential noise generated by a plethora of competing subpersonal communications seems to constitute an important structural wrinkle. It could be the point most targeted by subpersonal hacking will at least preserve the old borders of the ‘self,’ fantasy that it was. Post-intentional ‘freedom’ could come to reside in the noise generated by commercial competition.

The third problem he sees for humanism lies in the almost certainly unequal distribution of the dividends of technology, a trope so well worn in narrative that we scarce need consider it here. It follows that liberal humanism, as an ideology committed to the equal value of all individuals, has scant hope of squaring the interests of the redundant masses against those of a technologically enhanced superhuman elite.

 

… this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour.

 

Under pretty much any plausible scenario you can imagine, the shared fiction of popular humanism is doomed. But as Harari has already argued, shared fictions are the necessary condition of social coordination. If humanism collapses, some kind of shared fiction has to take its place. And alas, this is where my shared journey with Harari ends. From this point forward, I think his analysis is largely an artifact of his own, incipient humanism.

Harari uses the metaphor of ‘vacuum,’ implying that humans cannot but generate some kind of collective narrative, some way of making their lives not simply meaningful to themselves, but more importantly, meaningful to one another. It is the mass resemblance of our narrative selves, remember, that makes our mass cooperation possible. [This is what misleads him, the assumption that ‘mass cooperation’ need be human at all by this point.] So he goes on to consider what new fiction might arise to fill the void left by humanism. The first alternative is ‘technohumanism’ (transhumanism, basically), which is bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of nature much as humanism was bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of tradition. Where humanists are free to think anything in their quest to actualize their desires, technohumanists are free to be anything in their quest to actualize their desires.

The problem is that the freedom to be anything amounts to the freedom to reengineer desire. So where the objective meaning, following one’s god (socialization), gave way to subjective meaning, following one’s heart (socialization), it remains entirely unclear what the technohumanist hopes to follow or to actualize. As soon as we gain power over our cognitive being the question becomes, ‘Follow which heart?’

Or as Harari puts it,

“Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers human will the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign our will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet once we have such control, techno-humanism will not know what to do with it, because the sacred human will would become just another designer product.” 366

Which is to say, something arbitrary. Where humanism aims ‘to loosen the grip of the past,’ transhumanism aims to loosen the grip of biology. We really see the limits of Harari’s interpretative approach here, I think, as well as why he falls short a definitive account of the Semantic Apocalypse. The reason that ‘following your heart’ can substitute for ‘following the god’ is that they amount to the very same claim, ‘trust your socialization,’ which is to say, your pre-existing dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain contexts. The problem posed by the kind of enhancement extolled by transhumanists isn’t that shared fictions must be ‘sacred’ to be binding, but that something neglected must be shared. Synchronization requires trust, the ability to simultaneously neglect others (and thus dedicate behaviour to collective problem solving) and yet predict their behaviour nonetheless. Absent this shared background, trust is impossible, and therefore synchronization is impossible. Cohesive, collective action, in other words, turns on a vast amount of evolutionary and educational stage-setting, common cognitive systems stamped with common forms of training, all of it ancestrally impervious to direct manipulation. Insofar as transhumanism promises to place the material basis of individual desire within the compass of individual desire, it promises to throw our shared background to the winds of whimsy. Transhumanism is predicated on the ever-deepening distortion of our ancestral ecologies of meaning.

Harari reads transhumanism as a reductio of humanism, the point where the religion of individual empowerment unravels the very agency it purports to empower. Since he remains, at least residually, a humanist, he places ideology—what he calls the ‘intersubjective’ level of reality—at the foundation of his analysis. It is the mover and shaker here, what Harari believes will stamp objective reality and subjective reality both in its own image.

And the fact of the matter is, he really has no choice, given he has no other way of generalizing over the processes underwriting the growing Whirlwind that has us in its grasp. So when he turns to digitalism (or what he calls ‘Dataism’), it appears to him to be the last option standing:

“What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information.” 366

Meaning has to be found somewhere. Why? Because synchronization requires trust requires shared commitments to shared fictions, stories expressing those values we hold in common. As we have seen, science cannot determine ends, only means to those ends. Something has to fix our collective behaviour, and if science cannot, we will perforce turn to be some kind of religion…

But what if we were to automate collective behaviour? There’s a second candidate that Harari overlooks, one which I think is far, far more obvious than digitalism (which remains, for all its notoriety, an intellectual position—and a confused one at that, insofar as it has no workable theory of meaning/cognition). What will replace humanism? Atavism… Fantasy. For all the care Harari places in his analyses, he overlooks how investing AI with ever increasing social decision-making power simultaneously divests humans of that power, thus progressively relieving us of the need for shared values. The more we trust to AI, the less trust we require of one another. We need only have faith in the efficacy of our technical (and very objective) intermediaries; the system synchronizes us automatically in ways we need not bother knowing. Ideology ceases to become a condition of collective action. We need not have any stories regarding our automated social ecologies whatsoever, so long as we mind the diminishing explicit constraints the system requires of us.

Outside our dwindling observances, we are free to pursue whatever story we want. Screw our neighbours. And what stories will those be? Well, the kinds of stories we evolved to tell, which is to say, the kinds of stories our ancestors told to each other. Fantastic stories… such as those told by George R. R. Martin, Donald Trump, myself, or the Islamic state. Radical changes in hardware require radical changes in software, unless one has some kind of emulator in place. You have to be sensible to social change to ideologically adapt to it. “Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer,’” Harari writes, “but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day lose their ability even to understand the questions being asked” (269). But why should incomprehension or any kind of irrationality disqualify the appeal of Islam, if the basis of the appeal primarily lies in some optimization of our intentional cognitive capacities?

Humans are shallow information consumers by dint of evolution, and deep information consumers by dint of modern necessity. As that necessity recedes, it stands to reason our patterns of consumption will recede with it, that we will turn away from the malaise of perpetual crash space and find solace in ever more sophisticated simulations of worlds designed to appease our ancestral inclinations. As Harari himself notes, “Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first century data flows” (388). And here we come to the key to understanding the profundity, and perhaps even the inevitability of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition turns on cues which turn on ecological invariants that technology is even now rendering plastic. The issue here, in other words, isn’t so much a matter of ideological obsolescence as cognitive habitat destruction, the total rewiring of the neglected background upon which intentional cognition depends.

The thing people considering the future impact of technology need to pause and consider is that this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour. Suddenly a system that leveraged cognitive capacity via natural selection will be leveraging that capacity via neural selection—behaviourally. A change so fundamental pretty clearly spells the end of all ancestral ecologies, including the cognitive. Humanism is ‘disintegrating from within’ because intentional cognition itself is beginning to founder. The tsunami of information thundering above the shores of humanism is all deep information, information regarding what we evolved to ignore—and therefore trust. Small wonder, then, that it scuttles intentional problem-solving, generates discursive crash spaces that only philosophers once tripped into.

The more the mechanisms behind learning impediments are laid bare, the less the teacher can attribute performance to character, the more they are forced to adopt a clinical attitude. What happens when every impediment to learning is laid bare? Unprecedented causal information is flooding our institutions, removing more and more behaviour from the domain of character, why? Because character judgments always presume individuals could have done otherwise, and presuming individuals could have done otherwise presumes that we neglect the actual sources of behaviour. Harari brushes this thought on a handful occasions, writing, most notably:

“In the eighteenth century Homo sapiens was like a mysterious black box, whose inner workings were beyond our grasp. Hence when scholars asked why a man drew a knife and stabbed another to death, an acceptable answer said: ‘Because he chose to…” 282

But he fails to see the systematic nature of the neglect involved, and therefore the explanatory power it affords. Our ignorance of ourselves, in other words, determines not simply the applicability, but the solvency of intentional cognition as well. Intentional cognition allowed our ancestors to navigate opaque or ‘black box’ social ecologies. The role causal information plays in triggering intuitions of exemption is tuned to the efficacy of this system overall. By and large our ancestors exempted those individuals in those circumstances that best served their tribe as a whole. However haphazardly, moral intuitions involving causality served some kind of ancestral optimization. So when actionable causal information regarding our behaviour becomes available, we have no choice but to exempt those behaviours, no matter what kind of large scale distortions result. Why? Because it is the only moral thing to do.

Welcome to crash space. We know this is crash space as opposed to, say, scientifically informed enlightenment (the way it generally feels) simply by asking what happens when actionable causal information regarding our every behaviour becomes available. Will moral judgment become entirely inapplicable? For me, the free will debate has always been a paradigmatic philosophical crash space, a place where some capacity always seems to apply, yet consistently fails to deliver solutions because it does not. We evolved to communicate behaviour absent information regarding the biological sources of behaviour: is it any wonder that our cause-neglecting workarounds cannot square with the causes they work around? The growing institutional challenges arising out of the medicalization of character turns on the same cognitive short-circuit. How can someone who has no choice be held responsible?

Even as we drain the ignorance intentional cognition requires from our cognitive ecologies, we are flooding them with AI, what promises to be a deluge of algorithms trained to cue intentional cognition, impersonate persons, in effect. The evidence is unequivocal: our intentional cognitive capacities are easily cued out of school—in a sense, this is the cornerstone of their power, the ability to assume so much on the basis of so little information. But in ecologies designed to exploit intentional intuitions, this power and versatility becomes a tremendous liability. Even now litigators and lawmakers find themselves beset with the question of how intentional cognition should solve for environments flooded with artifacts designed to cue human intentional cognition to better extract various commercial utilities. The problems of the philosophers dwell in ivory towers no more.

First we cloud the water, then we lay the bait—we are doing this to ourselves, after all. We are taking our first stumbling steps into what is becoming a global social crash space. Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition. Since heuristic cognition turns on shallow information cues, we have good reason to assume that our basic means of understanding ourselves and our projects will be incompatible with deep information accounts. The more we learn about cognition, the more apparent this becomes, the more our intentional modes of problem-solving will break down. I’m not sure there’s anything much to be done at this point save getting the word out, empowering some critical mass of people with a notion of what’s going on around them. This is what Harari does to a remarkable extent with Homo Deus, something which we may all have cause to thank him.

Science is steadily revealing the very sources intentional cognition evolved to neglect. Technology is exploiting these revelations, busily engineering emulators to pander to our desires, allowing us to shelter more and more skin from the risk and toil of natural and social reality. Designer experience is designer meaning. Thus the likely irony: the end of meaning will appear to be its greatest blooming, the consumer curled in the womb of institutional matrons, dreaming endless fantasies, living lives of spellbound delight, exploring worlds designed to indulge ancestral inclinations.

To make us weep and laugh for meaning, never knowing whether we are together or alone.

Derrida as Neurophenomenologist

by rsbakker

derrida

For the longest time I thought that unravelling the paradoxical nature of the now, understanding how it could be at once the same now and yet a different now entirely, was the key to resolving the problem of meaning and experience. The reason for this turned on my early philosophical love affair with Jacques Derrida, the famed French post-structuralist philosopher, who was very fond of writing passages such this tidbit from “Differance”:

An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject. In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space (temporization). And it is this constitution of the present, as an ‘originary’ and irreducibly nonsimple (and therefore, stricto sensu nonoriginary) synthesis of marks, or traces of retentions and protentions (to reproduce analogically and provisionally a phenomenological and transcendental language that soon will reveal itself to be inadequate), that I propose to call archi-writing, archi-traces, or differance. Which (is) (simultaneously) spacing (and) temporization. Margins of Philosophy, 13

One of the big problems faced by phenomenology has to do with time. The problem in a nutshell is that any phenomena attended to is a present phenomena, and as such dependent upon absent enormities—namely the past and the future. The phenomenologist suffers from what is sometimes referred to as a ‘keyhole problem,’ the question of whether the information available—‘experience’—warrants the kinds of claims phenomenologists are prone to make about the truth of experience. Does the so-called ‘phenomenological attitude’ possess the access phenomenology needs to ground its analyses? How could they given so slight a keyhole as the present? Phenomenologists typically respond to the problem by invoking horizons, the idea that nonpresent contextual enormities nevertheless remain experientially accessible—present—as implicit features of the phenomenon at issue. You could argue that horizons scaffold the whole of reportable experience, insofar as so little, if anything, is available to us in our entirety at any given moment. We see and experience coffee cups, not perspectival slices of coffee cups. So in Husserl’s analysis of ‘time-consciousness,’ for instance, the past and future become intrinsic components of our experience of temporality as ‘retention’ and ‘protention.’ Even though absent, they nevertheless decisively structure phenomena. As such, they constitute important domains of phenomenological investigation in their own right.

From the standpoint of the keyhole problem, however, this answer simply doubles down on the initial question. Our experience of coffee cups is one thing, after all, and our experience of ourselves is quite another. How do we know we possess the information required to credibly theorize—make explicit—our implicit experience of the past as retention, say? After-all, as Derrida says, retention is always present retention. There are, as he famously argues, two pasts, the one experienced, and the one outrunning the very possibility of experience (as its condition of possibility). Our experience of the present does not arise ‘from nowhere,’ nor does it arise in our present experience of the past, since that experience is also present. Thus what he calls the ‘trace,’ which might be understood as a ‘meta-horizon,’ or a ‘super-implicit,’ the absent enormity responsible for horizons that seem to shape content. The apparently sufficient, unitary structure of present experience contains a structurally occluded origin, a difference making difference, that can in no way appear within experience.

One way to put Derrida’s point is that there is always some occluded context, always some integral part of the background, driving phenomenology. From an Anglo-American, pragmatic viewpoint, his point is obvious, yet abstrusely and extravagantly made: Nothing is given, least of all meaning and experience. What Derrida is doing, however, is making this point within the phenomenological idiom, ‘reproducing’ it, as he says in the quote. The phenomenology itself reveals its discursive impossibility. His argument is ontological, not epistemic, and so requires speculative commitments regarding what is, rather than critical commitments regarding what can be known. Derrida is providing what might be called a ‘hyper-phenomenology,’ or even better, what David Roden terms dark phenomenology, showing how the apparently originary, self-sustaining, character of experience is a product of its derivative nature. The keyhole of the phenomenological attitude only appears theoretically decisive, discursively sufficient, because experience possesses horizons without a far side, meta-horizons—limits that cannot appear as such, and so appears otherwise, as something unlimited. Apodictic.

But since Derrida, like the phenomenologist, has only the self-same keyhole, he does what humans always do in conditions of radical low-dimensionality: he confuses the extent of his ignorance for a new and special kind of principle. Even worse, his theory of meaning is a semantic one: as an intentionalist philosopher, he works with all the unexplained explainers, all the classic theoretical posits, handed down by the philosophical tradition. And like most intentionalists, he doesn’t think there’s anyway to escape those posits save by going through them. The deflecting, deferring, displacing outside, for Derrida, cannot appear inside as something ‘outer.’ Representation continually seals us in, relegating evidence of ‘differance’ to indirect observations of the kinds of semantic deformations that only it seems to explain, to the actual work of theoretical interpretation.

Now I’m sure this sounds like hokum to most souls reading this post, something artifactual. It should. Despite all my years as a Derridean, I now think of it as a discursive blight, something far more often used to avoid asking hard questions of the tradition than to pose them. But there is a kernel of neurophenomenological truth in his position. As I’ve argued in greater detail elsewhere, Derrida and deconstruction can be seen as an attempt to theorize the significance of source neglect in philosophical reflection generally, and phenomenology more specifically.

So far as ‘horizons’ belong to experience, they presuppose the availability of information required to behave in a manner sensitive to the recent past. So far as experience is ecological, we can suppose the information rendered will be geared to the solution of ancestral problem ecologies. We can suppose, in other words, that horizons are ecological, that the information rendered will be adequate to the problem-solving needs of our evolutionary ancestors. Now consider the mass-industrial character of the cognitive sciences, the sheer amount of resources, toil, and ingenuity dedicated to solving our own nature. This should convey a sense of the technical challenges any CNS faces attempting to cognize its own nature, and the reason why our keyhole has to be radically heuristic, a fractionate bundle of glimpses, each peering off in different directions to different purposes. The myriad problems this fact poses can be distilled into a single question: How much of the information rendered should we presume warrants theoretical generalizations regarding the nature of meaning and experience? This is the question upon which the whole of traditional philosophy presently teeters.

What renders the situation so dire is the inevitability of keyhole neglect, systematic insensitivity to the radically heuristic nature of the systems employed by philosophical reflection. Think of darkness, which like pastness, lays out the limits of experience in experience as a ‘horizon.’ To say we suffer keyhole neglect is to say our experience of cognition lacks horizons, that we are doomed to confuse what little we see for everything there is. In the absence of darkness (or any other experiential marker of loss or impediment), unrestricted visibility is the automatic assumption. Short sensitivity to information cuing insufficiency, sufficiency is the default. What Heidegger and the continental tradition calls the ‘Metaphysics of Presence’ can be seen as an attempt to tackle the problems posed by sufficiency in intentional terms. And likewise, Derrida’s purported oblique curative to the apparent inevitability of running afoul the Metaphysics of Presence can be seen as a way of understanding the ‘sufficiency effects’ plaguing philosophical reflection in intentional terms.

The human brain suffers medial neglect, the congenital inability to track its own high-dimensional (material) processes. This means the human brain is insensitive to its own irreflexive materiality as such, and so presumes no such irreflexive materiality underwrites its own operations—even though, as anyone who has spent a great deal of time in stroke recovery wards can tell you, everything turns upon them. What we call ‘philosophical reflection’ is simply an artifact of this ecological limitation, a brain attempting to solve its nature with tools adapted to solve absent any information regarding that nature. Differance, trace, spacing: these are the ways Derrida theorizes the inevitability of irreflexive contingency from the far side of default sufficiency. I read Derrida as tracking the material shadow of thought via semantic terms. By occluding all antecedents, source neglect dooms reflection to the illusion of sufficiency when no such sufficiency exists. In this sense, positions like Derrida’s theory of meaning can be seen as impressionistic interpretations of what is a real biomechanical feature of consciousness. Attend to the metacognitive impression and meaning abides, and representation seems inescapable. The neuromechanical is occluded, so sourceless differentiation is all we seem to have, the magic of a now that is forever changing, yet miraculously abides.

On the Interpretation of Artificial Souls

by rsbakker

black-box-2

In “Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?” Aaron M. Bornstein surveys the field of artificial neural networks, claiming that “[a]s exciting as their performance gains have been… there’s a troubling fact about modern neural networks: Nobody knows quite how they work.” The article is fascinating in its own right, and Peter over at Consciousness Entities provides an excellent overview, but I would like to use it to flex a little theoretical muscle, and show the way the neural network ‘Inscrutability Problem’ turns on the same basic dynamics underwriting the apparent ‘hard problem’ of intentionality. Once you have a workable, thoroughly naturalistic account of cognition, you can begin to see why computer science finds itself bedevilled with strange parallels of the problems one finds in the philosophy of mind.

This parallel is evident in what Bornstein identifies as the primary issue, interpretability. The problem with artificial neural networks is that they are both contingent and incredibly complex. Recurrent neural networks operate by producing outputs conditioned by a selective history of previous conditionings, one captured in the weighting of (typically) millions of artificial neurons arranged in multiple processing layers. Since  discrepancies in output serve as the primary constraint, and since the process of deriving new outputs is driven by the contingencies of the system (to the point where even electromagnetic field effects can become significant), the complexity means that searching for the explanation—or canonical interpretation—of the system is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

And as Bornstein points out, this has forced researchers to borrow “techniques from biological research that peer inside networks after the fashion of neuroscientists peering into brains: probing individual components, cataloguing how their internals respond to small changes in inputs, and even removing pieces to see how others compensate.” Unfortunately, importing neuroscientific techniques has resulted in importing neuroscience-like interpretative controversies as well. In “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording show how taking the opposite approach, using neuroscientific data analysis methods to understand the computational functions behind games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, fails no matter how much data they have available. The authors even go so far as to reference artificial neural network inscrutability as the problem, stating that “our difficulty at understanding deep learning may suggest that the brain is hard to understand if it uses anything like gradient descent on a cost function” (11).

Neural networks, artificial or natural, could very well be essential black boxes, systems that will always resist synoptic verbal explanation. Functional inscrutability in neuroscience is a pressing problem for obvious reasons. The capacity to explain how a given artificial neural network solves a given problem, meanwhile, remains crucial simply because “if you don’t know how it works, you don’t know how it will fail.” One of the widely acknowledged shortcomings of artificial neural networks is “that the machines are so tightly tuned to the data they are fed,” data that always falls woefully short the variability and complexity of the real world. As Bornstein points out, “trained machines are exquisitely well suited to their environment—and ill-adapted to any other.” As AI creeps into more and more real world ecological niches, this ‘brittleness,’ as Bornstein terms it, becomes more of a real world concern. Interpretability means lives in AI potentially no less than in neuroscience.

All this provokes Bornstein to pose the philosophical question: What is interpretability?

He references Marvin Minsky’s “suitcase words,” the legendary computer scientist’s analogy for many of the terms—such as “consciousness” or “emotion”—we use when we talk about our sentience and sapience. These words, he proposes, reflect the workings of many different underlying processes, which are locked inside the “suitcase.” As long as we keep investigating these words as stand-ins for more fundamental concepts, our insight will be limited by our language. In the study of intelligence, could interpretability itself be such a suitcase word?

Bornstein finds himself delivered to one of the fundamental issues in the philosophy of mind: the question of how to understand intentional idioms—Minsky’s ‘suitcase words.’ The only way to move forward on the issue of interpretability, it seems, is to solve nothing less than the cognitive (as opposed to the phenomenal) half of the hard problem. This is my bailiwick. The problem, here, is a theoretical one: the absence of any clear understanding of ‘interpretability.’ What is interpretation? Why do breakdowns in our ability to explain the operation of our AI tools happen, and why do they take the forms that they do?  I think I can paint a spare yet comprehensive picture that answers these questions and places them in the context of much more ancient form of interpreting neural networks.  In fact, I think it can pop open a good number of Minsky’s suitcases and air out their empty insides.

Three Pound Brain regulars, I’m sure, have noticed a number of striking parallels between Bornstein’s characterization of the Inscrutability Problem and the picture of ‘post-intentional cognition’ I’ve been developing over the years. The apparently inscrutable algorithms derived via neural networks are nothing if not heuristic, cognitive systems that solve via cues correlated to target systems. Since they rely on cues (rather than all the information potentially available), their reliability entirely depends on their ecology, which is to say, how those cues correlate. If those cues do not correlate, then disaster strikes (as when the truck trailer that killed Joshua Brown in his Tesla Model S cued more white sky).

The primary problem posed by inscrutability, in other words, is the problem of misapplication. The worry that arises again and again isn’t simply that these systems are inscrutable, but that they are ecological, requiring contexts often possessing quirky features given quirks in the ‘environments’—data sets—used to train them. Inscrutability is a problem because it entails blindness to potential misapplications, plain and simple. Artificial neural network algorithms, you could say, possess adaptive problem-ecologies the same as all heuristic cognition. They solve, not by exhaustively taking into account the high dimensional totality of the information available, but rather by isolating cues—structures in the data set—which the trainer can only hope will generalize to the world.

Artificial neural networks are shallow information consumers, systems that systematically neglect the high dimensional mechanical intricacies of their environments, focusing instead on cues statistically correlated to those high-dimensional mechanical intricacies to solve them. They are ‘brittle,’ therefore, so far as those correlations fail to obtain.

But humans are also shallow information consumers, albeit far more sophisticated ones. Short the prostheses of science, we are also systems prone to neglect the high dimensional mechanical intricacies of our environments, focusing instead on cues statistically correlated to those high-dimensional mechanical intricacies. And we are also brittle to the extent those correlations fail to obtain. The shallow information nets we throw across our environments appear to be seamless, but this is just an illusion, as magicians so effortlessly remind us with their illusions.

This is as much the case for our linguistic attempts to make sense of ourselves and our devices as it is for other cognitive modes. Minsky’s ‘suitcase words’ are such because they themselves are the product of the same cue-correlative dependency. These are the granular posits we use to communicate cue-based cognition of mechanical black box systems such as ourselves, let alone others. They are also the granular posits we use to communicate cue-based cognition of pretty much any complicated system. To be a shallow information consumer is to live in a black box world.

The rub, of course, is that this is itself a black box fact, something tucked away in the oblivion of systematic neglect, duping us into assuming most everything is clear as glass. There’s nothing about correlative cognition, no distinct metacognitive feature, that identifies it as such. We have no way of knowing whether we’re misapplying our own onboard heuristics in advance (thus the value of the heuristics and biases research program), let alone our prosthetic ones! In fact, we’re only now coming to grips with the fractionate and heuristic nature of human cognition as it is.

natural-and-artificial-black-boxes

Inscrutability is a problem, recall, because artificial neural networks are ‘brittle,’ bound upon fixed correlations between their cues and the systems they were tasked with solving, correlations that may or may not, given the complexity of the world, be the case. The amazing fact here is that artificial neural networks are inscrutable, the province of interpretation at best, because we ourselves are brittle, and for precisely the same basic reason: we are bound upon fixed correlations between our cues and the systems we’re tasked with solving. The contingent complexities of artificial neural networks place them, presently at least, outside our capacity to solve—at least in a manner we can readily communicate.

The Inscrutability Problem, I contend, represents a prosthetic externalization of the very same problem of ‘brittleness’ we pose to ourselves, the almost unbelievable fact that we can explain the beginning of the Universe but not cognition—be it artificial or natural. Where the scientists and engineers are baffled by their creations, the philosophers and psychologists are baffled by themselves, forever misapplying correlative modes of cognition to the problem of correlative cognition, forever confusing mere cues for extraordinary, inexplicable orders of reality, forever lost in jungles of perpetually underdetermined interpretation. The Inscrutability Problem is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of intentionality, only in a context that is ‘glassy’ enough to moot the suggestion of ‘ontological irreducibility.’ The boundary faced by neuroscientists and AI engineers alike is mere complexity, not some eerie edge-of-nature-as-we-know-it. And thanks to science, this boundary is always moving. If it seems inexplicable or miraculous, it’s because you lack information: this seems a pretty safe bet as far as razors go.

‘Irreducibility’ is about to come crashing down. I think the more we study problem-ecologies and heuristic solution strategies the more we will be able to categorize the mechanics distinguishing different species of each, and our bestiary of different correlative cognitions will gradually, if laboriously, grow. I also think that artificial neural networks will play a crucial role in that process, eventually providing ways to model things like intentional cognition. If nature has taught us anything over the past five centuries it is that the systematicities, the patterns, are there—we need only find the theoretical and technical eyes required to behold them. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we can ask our models to explain themselves.

AI and the Coming Cognitive Ecological Collapse: A Reply to David Krakauer

by rsbakker

the-space-cadets

Thanks to Dirk and his tireless linking generosity, I caught “Will AI Harm Us?” in Nautilus by David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, on the potential dangers posed by AI on this side of the Singularity. According to Krakauer, the problem lies in the fact that AI’s are competitive as opposed to complementary cognitive artifacts of the kind we have enjoyed until now. Complementary cognitive artifacts, devices such as everything from mnemonics to astrolabes to mathematical notations, allow us to pull up the cognitive ladder behind us in some way—to somehow do without the tool. “In almost every use of an ancient cognitive artifact,” he writes, “after repeated practice and training, the artifact itself could be set aside and its mental simulacrum deployed in its place.”

Competitive cognitive artifacts, however, things like calculators, GPS’s, and pretty much anything AI-ish, don’t let us kick away the ladder. We lose the artifact, and we lose the ability. As Krakauer writes:

In the case of competitive artifacts, when we are deprived of their use, we are no better than when we started. They are not coaches and teachers—they are serfs. We have created an artificial serf economy where incremental and competitive artificial intelligence both amplifies our productivity and threatens to diminish organic and complementary artificial intelligence…

So where complementary cognitive artifacts teach us how to fish, competitive cognitive artifacts simply deliver the fish, rendering us dependent. Krakauer’s complaint against AI, in other words, is the same as Plato’s complaint against writing, and I think fares just as well argumentatively. As Socrates famously claims in The Phaedrus,

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

The problem with writing is that it is competitive precisely in Krakauer’s sense: it’s a ladder we cannot kick away. What Plato could not foresee, of course, was the way writing would fundamentally transform human cognitive ecology. He was a relic of the preliterate age, just as Krakauer (like us) is a relic of the pre-AI age. The problem for Krakauer, then, is that the distinction between complementary and competitive cognitive artifacts—the difference between things like mnemonics and things like writing—possesses no reliable evaluative force. All tools involve trade-offs. Since Krakauer has no way of knowing how AI will transform our cognitive ecology he has no way of evaluating the kinds of trade-offs they will force upon us.

This is the problem with all ‘excess dependency arguments’ against technology, I think: they have no convincing way of assessing the kind of cognitive ecology that will result, aside from the fact that it involves dependencies. No one likes dependencies, ergo…

But I like to think I’ve figured the naturalistic riddle of cognition out,* and as a result I think I can make a pretty compelling case why we should nevertheless accept that AI poses a very grave threat this side of the Singularity. The problem, in a nut shell, is that we are shallow information consumers, evolved to generate as much gene-promoting behaviour out of as little environmental information as possible. Human cognition relies on simple cues to draw very complex conclusions simply because it could always rely on adaptive correlations between those cues and the systems requiring solution: it could always depend on what might be called cognitive ecological stability.

Since our growing cognitive dependency on our technology always involves trade-offs, it should remain an important concern (as it clearly seems to be, given the endless stream of works devoted to the downside of this or that technology in this or that context). The dependency we really need to worry about, however, is our cognitive biological dependency on ancestral environmental correlations, simply because we have good reason to believe those cognitive ecologies will very soon cease to exist. Human cognition is thoroughly heuristic, which is to say, thoroughly dependent on cues reliably correlated to whatever environmental system requires solution. AI constitutes a particular threat because no form of human cognition is more heuristic, more cue dependent, than social cognition. Humans are very easily duped into anthropomorphizing given the barest cues, let alone processes possessing AI. It pays to remember the simplicity of the bots Ashley Madison used to gull male subscribers into thinking they were getting female nibbles.

And herein lies the rub: the environmental proliferation of AI means the fundamental transformation of our ancestral sociocognitive ecologies, from one where the cues we encounter are reliably correlated to systems we can in fact solve—namely, each other—into one where the cues we encounter are correlated to systems that cannot be fathomed, and the only soul solved is the consumer’s.

 

*  Bakker, R. Scott. “On Alien Philosophy,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, forthcoming.

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.

 

Notes

[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.

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 academia.edu 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?

Seriously?

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]

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.