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Tag: Dennett

Reading From Bacteria to Bach and Back III: Beyond Stances

by rsbakker

 

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

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

Why might this be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by rsbakker

ABDUCTION AND DIAGNOSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACCUMULATING MASS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRAVITY MEETS REALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Systems

by rsbakker

THE ORDER WHICH IS THERE

Now I’ve never had any mentors; my path has been too idiosyncratic, for the better, since I think it’s the lack of institutional constraints that has allowed me to experiment the way I have. But if I were pressed to name any spiritual mentor, Daniel Dennett would be the first name to cross my lips—without the least hesitation. Nevertheless, I see the theoretical jewel of his project, the intentional stance, as the last gasp of what will one day, I think, count as one of humanity’s great confusions… and perhaps the final one to succumb to science.

A great many disagree, of course, and because I’ve been told so many times to go back to “Real Patterns” to discover the error of my ways, I’ve decided I would use it to make my critical case.

Defenders of Dennett (including Dennett himself) are so quick to cite “Real Patterns,” I think, because it represents his most sustained attempt to situate his position relative to his fellow philosophical travelers. At issue is the reality of ‘intentional states,’ and how the traditional insistence on some clear cut binary answer to this question—real/unreal—radically underestimates the ontological complexity charactering both everyday life and the sciences. What he proposes is “an intermediate doctrine” (29), a way of understanding intentional states as real patterns.

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

So what does he mean by ‘real patterns’? Dennett begins by considering a diagram with six rows of five black boxes each characterized by varying degrees of noise, so extreme in some cases as completely obscure the boxes. He then, following the grain of his characteristic genius, provides a battery of different ways these series might find themselves used.

This crass way of putting things-in terms of betting and getting rich-is simply a vivid way of drawing attention to a real, and far from crass, trade-off that is ubiquitous in nature, and hence in folk psychology. Would we prefer an extremely compact pattern description with a high noise ratio or a less compact pattern description with a lower noise ratio? Our decision may depend on how swiftly and reliably we can discern the simple pattern, how dangerous errors are, how much of our resources we can afford to allocate to detection and calculation. These “design decisions” are typically not left to us to make by individual and deliberate choices; they are incorporated into the design of our sense organs by genetic evolution, and into our culture by cultural evolution. The product of this design evolution process is what Wilfrid Sellars calls our manifest image, and it is composed of folk physics, folk psychology, and the other pattern-making perspectives we have on the buzzing blooming confusion that bombards us with data. The ontology generated by the manifest image has thus a deeply pragmatic source. 36

The moral is straightforward: the kinds of patterns that data sets yield are both perspectival and pragmatic. In each case, the pattern recognized is quite real, but bound upon some potentially idiosyncratic perspective possessing some potentially idiosyncratic needs.

He then takes this moral to Conway’s Game of Life, a computer program where cells in a grid are switched on or off in successive turns depending on the number of adjacent cells switched on. The marvelous thing about this program lies in the kinds of dynamic complexities arising from this simple template and single rule, subsystems persisting from turn to turn, encountering other subsystems with predictable results. Despite the determinism of this system, patterns emerge that only the design stance seems to adequately capture, a level possessing “it’s own language, a transparent foreshortening of the tedious descriptions one could give at the physical level” (39).

For Dennett, the fact that one can successfully predict via the design stance clearly demonstrates that it’s picking out real patterns somehow. He asks us to imagine transforming the Game into a supersystem played out on a screen miles wide and using the patterns picked out to design a Turing Machine playing chess against itself. Here, Dennett argues, the determinacy of the microphysical picture is either intractable or impracticable, yet we need only take up a chess stance or a computational stance to make, from a naive perspective, stunning predictions as to what will happen next.

And this is of course as true of life life as it is the Game of Life: “Predicting that someone will duck if you throw a brick at him is easy from the folk-psychological stance; it is and will always be intractable if you have to trace the photons from brick to eyeball, the neurotransmitters from optic nerve to motor nerve, and so forth” (42). His supersized Game of Life, in other words, makes plain the power and the limitations of heuristic cognition.

This brings him to his stated aim of clarifying his position vis a vis his confreres and Fodor. As he points out, everyone agrees there’s some kind of underlying “order which is there,” as Anscombe puts it in Intention. The million dollar question, of course, is what this order amounts to:

Fodor and others have claimed that an interior language of thought is the best explanation of the hard edges visible in “propositional attitude psychology.” Churchland and I have offered an alternative explanation of these edges… The process that produces the data of folk psychology, we claim, is one in which the multidimensional complexities of the underlying processes are projected through linguistic behavior, which creates an appearance of definiteness and precision, thanks to the discreteness of words. 44-45

So for traditional realists, like Fodor, the structure beliefs evince in reflection and discourse expresses the structure beliefs must possess in the head. For Dennett, on the other hand, the structure beliefs evince in reflection and discourse expresses, among other things, the structure of reflection and discourse. How could it be otherwise, he asks, given the ‘stupendous scale of compression’ (42) involved?

As Haugeland points out in “Pattern and Being,” this saddles Dennett’s account of patterns with a pretty significant ambiguity: if the patterns characteristic of intentional states express the structure of reflection and discourse, then the ‘order which is there’ must be here as well. Of course, this much is implicit in Dennett’s preamble: the salience of certain patterns depends on the perspective we possess on them. But even though this implicit ‘here-there holism’ becomes all but explicit when Dennett turns to Radical Translation and the distinction between his and Davidson’s views, his emphasis nevertheless remains on the order out there. As he writes:

Davidson and I both like Churchland’s alternative idea of propositional-attitude statements as indirect “measurements” of a reality diffused in the behavioral dispositions of the brain (and body). We think beliefs are quite real enough to call real just so long as belief talk measures these complex behavior-disposing organs as predictively as it does. 45-46

Rhetorically (even diagrammatically if one takes Dennett’s illustrations into account), the emphasis is on the order there, while here is merely implied as a kind of enabling condition. Call this the ‘epistemic-ontological ambiguity’ (EOA). On the one hand, it seems to make eminent sense to speak of patterns visible only from certain perspectives and to construe them as something there, independent of any perspective we might take on them. But on the other hand, it seems to make jolly good sense to speak of patterns visible only from certain perspectives and to construe them as around here, as something entirely dependent on the perspective we find ourselves taking. Because of this, it seems pretty fair to ask Dennett which kind of pattern he has in mind here. To speak of beliefs as dispositions diffused in the brain seems to pretty clearly imply the first. To speak of beliefs as low dimensional, communicative projections, on the other hand, seems to clearly imply the latter.

Why this ambiguity? Do the patterns underwriting belief obtain in individual believers, dispositionally diffused as he says, or do they obtain in the communicative conjunction of witnesses and believers? Dennett promised to give us ‘parallel examples’ warranting his ‘intermediate realism,’ but by simply asking the whereabouts of the patterns, whether we will find them primarily out there as opposed to around here, we quickly realize his examples merely recapitulate the issue they were supposed to resolve.

 

THE ORDER AROUND HERE

Welcome to crash space. If I’m right then you presently find yourself strolling through a cognitive illusion generated by the application of heuristic capacities outside their effective problem ecology.

Think of how curious the EOA is. The familiarity of it should be nothing short of gobsmacking: here, once again we find ourselves stymied by the same old dichotomies: here versus there, inside versus outside, knowing versus known. Here, once again we find ourselves trapped in the orbit of the great blindspot that still, after thousands of years, stumps the wise of the world.

What the hell could be going on?

Think of the challenge facing our ancestors attempting cognize their environmental relationships for the purposes of communication and deliberate problem-solving. The industrial scale of our ongoing attempt to understand as much demonstrates the intractability of that relationship. Apart from our brute causal interactions, our ability to cognize our cognitive relationships is source insensitive through and through. When a brick is thrown at us, “the photons from brick to eyeball, the neurotransmitters from optic nerve to motor nerve, and so forth” (42) all go without saying. In other words, the whole system enabling cognition of the brick throwing is neglected, and only information relevant to ancestral problem-solving—in this case, brick throwing—finds its way to conscious broadcast.

In ancestral cognitive ecologies, our high-dimensional (physical) continuity with nature mattered as much as it matters now, but it quite simply did not exist for them. They belonged to any number of natural circuits across any number of scales, and all they had to go on was the information that mattered (disposed them to repeat and optimize behaviours) given the resources they possessed. Just as Dennett argues, human cognition is heuristic through and through. We have no way of cognizing our position within any number of the superordinate systems science has revealed in nature, so we have to make do with hacks, subsystems allowing us to communicate and troubleshoot our relation to the environment while remaining almost entirely blind to it. About talk belongs to just such a subsystem, a kluge communicating and troubleshooting our relation to our environments absent cognition of our position in larger systems. As I like to say, we’re natural in such a way as to be incapable of cognizing ourselves as natural.

About talk facilitates cognition and communication of our worldly relation absent any access to the physical details of that relation. And as it turns out, we are that occluded relation’s most complicated component—we are the primary thing neglected in applications of about talk. As the thing most neglected, we are the thing most presumed, the invariant background guaranteeing the reliability of about talk (this is why homuncular arguments are so empty). This combination of cognitive insensitivity to and functional dependence upon the machinations of cognition (what I sometimes refer to as medial neglect) suggests that about talk would be ideally suited to communicating and troubleshooting functionally independent systems, processes generally insensitive to our attempts to cognize them. This is because the details of cognition make no difference to the details cognized: the automatic distinction about talk poses between cognizing system and the system cognized poses no impediment to understanding functionally independent systems. As a result, we should expect about talk to be relatively unproblematic when it comes to communicating and troubleshooting things ‘out there.’

Conversely, we should expect about talk to generate problems when it comes to communicating and troubleshooting functionally dependent systems, processes somehow sensitive to our attempts to cognize them. Consider ‘observer effects,’ the problem researchers themselves pose when their presence or their tools/techniques interfere with the process they are attempting to study. Given medial neglect, the researchers themselves always constitute a black box. In the case of systems functionally sensitive to the activity of cognition, as is often the case in psychology and particle physics, understanding the system requires we somehow obviate our impact on the system. As the interactive, behavioural components of cognition show, we are in fact quite good (though far from perfect) at inserting and subtracting our interventions in processes. But since we remain a black box, since our position in the superordinate systems formed by our investigations remains occluded, our inability to extricate ourselves, to gerrymander functional independence, say, undermines cognition.

Even if we necessarily neglect our positions in superordinate systems, we need some way of managing the resulting vulnerabilities, to appreciate that patterns may be artifacts of our position. This suggests one reason, at least, for the affinity of mechanical cognition and ‘reality.’ The more our black box functions impact the system to be cognized, the less cognizable that system becomes in source sensitive terms. We become an inescapable source of noise. Thus our intuitive appreciation of the need for ‘perspective,’ to ‘rise above the fray’: The degree to which a cognitive mode preserves (via gerrymandering if not outright passivity) the functional independence of a system is the degree to which that cognitive mode enables reliable source sensitive cognition is the degree to which about talk can be effectively applied.

The deeper our entanglements, on the other hand, the more we need to rely on source insensitive modes of cognition to cognize target systems. Even if our impact renders the isolation of source signals impossible, our entanglement remains nonetheless systematic, meaning that any number of cues correlated in any number of ways to the target system can be isolated (which is really all ‘radical translation’ amounts to). Given that metacognition is functionally entangled by definition, it becomes easy to see why the theoretical question of cognition causes about talk to crash the spectacular ways it does: our ability to neglect the machinations of cognition (the ‘order which is here’) is a boundary condition for the effective application of ‘orders which are there’—or seeing things as real. Systems adapted to work around the intractability of our cognitive nature find themselves compulsively applied to the problem of our cognitive nature. We end up creating a bestiary of sourceless things, things that, thanks to the misapplication of the aboutness heuristic, have to belong to some ‘order out there,’ and yet cannot be sourced like anything else out there… as if they were unreal.

The question of reality cues the application of about talk, our source insensitive means of communicating and troubleshooting our cognitive relation to the world. For our ancient ancestors, who lacked the means to distinguish between source sensitive and source insensitive modes of cognition, asking, ‘Are beliefs real?’ would have sounded insane. HNT, in fact, provides a straightforward explanation for what might be called our ‘default dogmatism,’ our reflex for naive realism: not only do we lack any sensitivity to the mechanics of cognition, we lack any sensitivity to this insensitivity. This generates the persistent illusion of sufficiency, the assumption (regularly observed in different psychological phenomena) that the information provided is all the information there is.

Cognition of cognitive insufficiency always requires more resources, more information. Sufficiency is the default. This is what makes the novel application of some potentially ‘good trick,’ as Dennett would say, such tricky business. Consider philosophy. At some point, human culture acquired the trick of recruiting existing metacognitive capacities to explain the visible in terms of the invisible in unprecedented (theoretical) ways. Since those metacognitive capacities are radically heuristic, specialized consumers of select information, we can suppose retasking those capacities to solve novel problems—as philosophers do when they, for instance, ‘ponder the nature of knowledge’—would run afoul some pretty profound problems. Even if those specialized metacognitive consumers possessed the capacity to signal cognitive insufficiency, we can be certain the insufficiency flagged would be relative to some adaptive problem-ecology. Blind to the heuristic structure of cognition, the first philosophers took the sufficiency of their applications for granted, much as very many do now, despite the millennia of prior failure.

Philosophy inherited our cognitive innocence and transformed it, I would argue, into a morass of competing cognitive fantasies. But if it failed to grasp the heuristic nature of much cognition, it did allow, as if by delayed exposure, a wide variety of distinctions to blacken the photographic plate of philosophical reflection—that between is and ought, fact and value, among them. The question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ became more a bona fide challenge than a declaration of insanity. Given insensitivity to the source insensitive nature of belief talk, however, the nature of the problem entirely escaped them. Since the question of reality cues the application of about talk, source insensitive modes of cognition struck them as the only game in town. Merely posing the question springs the trap (for as Dennett says, selecting cues is “typically not left to us to make by individual and deliberate choices” (36)). And so they found themselves attempting to solve the hidden nature of cognition via the application of devices adapted to ignore hidden natures.

Dennett runs into the epistemic-ontological ambiguity because the question of the reality of intentional states cues the about heuristic out of school, cedes the debate to systems dedicated to gerrymandering solutions absent high-dimensional information regarding our cognitive predicament—our position within superordinate systems. Either beliefs are out there, real, or they’re in here, merely, an enabling figment of some kind. And as it turns out, IST is entirely amenable to this misapplication, in that ‘taking the intentional stance’ involves cuing the about heuristic, thus neglecting our high-dimensional cognitive predicament. On Dennett’s view, recall, an intentional system is any system that can be predicted/explained/manipulated via the intentional stance. Though the hidden patterns can only be recognized from the proper perspective, they are there nonetheless, enough, Dennett thinks, to concede them reality as intentional systems.

Heuristic Neglect Theory allows us to see how this amounts to mistaking a CPU for a PC. On HNT, the trick is to never let the superordinate systems enabling and necessitating intentional cognition out of view. Recall the example of the gaze heuristic from my prior post, how fielders essentially insert—functionally entangle—themselves into the pop fly system to let the ball itself guide them in. The same applies to beliefs. When your tech repairs your computer, you have no access to her personal history, the way thousands of hours have knapped her trouble-shooting capacities, and even less access to her evolutionary history, the way continual exposure to problematic environments has sculpted her biological problem-solving capacities. You have no access, in other words, to the vast systems of quite natural relata enabling her repair. The source sensitive story is unavailable, so you call her ‘knowledgeable’ instead; you presume she possesses something—a fetish, in effect—possessing the sourceless efficacy explaining her almost miraculous ability to make your PC run: a mass of true beliefs (representations), regarding personal computer repair. You opt for a source insensitive means that correlates with her capacities well enough to neglect the high-dimensional facts—the natural and personal histories—underwriting her ability.

So then where does the ‘real pattern’ gainsaying the reality of belief lie? The realist would say in the tech herself. This is certainly what our (heuristic) intuitions tell us in the first instance. But as we saw above, squaring sourceless entities in a world where most everything has a source is no easy task. The instrumentalist would say in your practices. This certainly lets us explain away some of the peculiarities crashing our realist intuitions, but at the cost of other, equally perplexing problems (this is crash space, after all). As one might expect, substituting the use heuristic for the about heuristic merely passes the hot potato of source insensitivity. ‘Pragmatic functions’ are no less difficult to square with the high-dimensional than beliefs.

But it should be clear by now that the simple act of pairing beliefs with patterns amounts to jumping the same ancient shark. The question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ was a no-brainer for our preliterate ancestors simply because they lived in a seamless shallow information cognitive ecology. Outside their local physics, the sources of things eluded them altogether. ‘Of course beliefs are real!’ The question was a challenge for our philosophical ancestors because they lived in a fractured shallow information ecology. They could see enough between the cracks to appreciate the potential extent and troubling implications of mechanical cognition, it’s penchant to crash our shallow (ancestral) intuitions. ‘It has to be real!’

With Dennett, entire expanses of our shallow information ecology have been laid low and we get, ‘It’s as real as it needs to be.’ He understands the power of the about heuristic, how ‘order out there’ thinking effects any number of communicative solutions—thus his rebuttal of Rorty. He understands, likewise, the power of the use heuristic, how ‘order around here’ thinking effects any number of communicative solutions—thus his rebuttal of Fodor. And most importantly, he understands the error of assuming the universal applicability of either. And so he concludes:

Now, once again, is the view I am defending here a sort of instrumentalism or a sort of realism? I think that the view itself is clearer than either of the labels, so I shall leave that question to anyone who stills find [sic] illumination in them. 51

What he doesn’t understand is how it all fits together—and how could he, when IST strands him with an intentional theorization of intentional cognition, a homuncular or black box understanding of our contemporary cognitive predicament? This is why “Real Patterns” both begins and ends with EOA, why we are no closer to understanding why such ambiguity obtains at all. How are we supposed to understand how his position falls between the ‘ontological dichotomy’ of realism and instrumentalism when we have no account of this dichotomy in the first place? Why the peculiar ‘bi-stable’ structure? Why the incompatibility between them? How can the same subject matter evince both? Why does each seem to inferentially beg the other?

 

THE ORDER

The fact is, Dennett was entirely right to eschew outright realism or outright instrumentalism. This hunch of his, like so many others, was downright prescient. But the intentional stance only allows him to swap between perspectives. As a one-time adherent I know first-hand the theoretical versatility IST provides, but the problem is that explanation is what is required here.

HNT argues that simply interrogating the high-dimensional reality of belief, the degree to which it exists out there, covers over the very real system—the cognitive ecology—explaining the nature of belief talk. Once again, our ancestors needed some way of communicating their cognitive relations absent source-sensitive information regarding those relations. The homunculus is a black box precisely because it cannot source its own functions, merely track their consequences. The peculiar ‘here dim’ versus ‘there bright’ character of naive ontological or dogmatic cognition is a function of medial neglect, our gross insensitivity to the structure and dynamics of our cognitive capacities. Epistemic or instrumental cognition comes with learning from the untoward consequences of naive ontological cognition—the inevitable breakdowns. Emerging from our ancestral, shallow information ecologies, the world was an ‘order there’ world simply because humanity lacked the ability to discriminate the impact of ‘around here.’ The discrimination of cognitive complexity begets intuitions of cognitive activity, undermines our default ‘out there’ intuitions. But since ‘order there’ is the default and ‘around here’ the cognitive achievement, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of apparently presuming ‘order there’ when making ‘around here’ claims. Since ‘order there’ intuitions remain effective when applied in their adaptive problem-ecologies, we find speculation splitting along ‘realist’ versus ‘anti-realist’ lines. Because no one has any inkling of any of this, we find ourselves flipping back and forth between these poles, taking versions of the same obvious steps to trod the same ancient circles. Every application is occluded, and so ‘transparent,’ as well as an activity possessing consequences.

Thus EOA… as well as an endless parade of philosophical chimera.

Isn’t this the real mystery of “Real Patterns,” the question of how and why philosophers find themselves trapped on this rickety old teeter-totter? “It is amusing to note,” Dennett writes, “that my analogizing beliefs to centers of gravity has been attacked from both sides of the ontological dichotomy, by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are useful fictions, and by philosophers who think it is simply obvious that centers of gravity are perfectly real” (27). Well, perhaps not so amusing: Short of solving this mystery, Dennett has no way of finding the magic middle he seeks in this article—the middle of what? IST merely provides him with the means to recapitulate EOA and gesture to the possibility of some middle, a way to conceive all these issues that doesn’t deliver us to more of the same. His instincts, I think, were on the money, but his theoretical resources could not take him where he wanted to go, which is why, from the standpoint of his critics, he just seems to want to have it both ways.

On HNT we can see, quite clearly, I think, the problem with the question, ‘Are beliefs real?’ absent an adequate account of the relevant cognitive ecology. The bitter pill lies in understanding that the application conditions of ‘real’ have real limits. Dennett provides examples where those application conditions pretty clearly seem to obtain, then suggests more than argues that these examples are ‘parallel’ in all the structurally relevant respects to the situation with belief. But to distinguish his brand from Fodor’s ‘industrial strength’ realism, he has no choice but to ‘go instrumental’ in some respect, thus exposing the ambiguity falling out of IST.

It’s safe to say belief talk is real. It seems safe to say that beliefs are ‘real enough’ for the purposes of practical problem-solving—that is, for shallow (or source insensitive) cognitive ecologies. But it also seems safe to say that beliefs are not real at all when it comes to solving high-dimensional cognitive ecologies. The degree to which scientific inquiry is committed to finding the deepest (as opposed to the most expedient) account, should be the degree to which it views belief talk as components of real systems and views ‘belief’ as a source insensitive posit, a way to communicate and troubleshoot both oneself and one’s fellows.

This is crash space, so I appreciate the kinds of counter-intuitiveness involved in this view I’m advancing. But since tramping intuitive tracks has hitherto only served to entrench our controversies and confusions, we have good reason to choose explanatory power over intuitive appeal. We should expect synthesis in the cognitive sciences will prove every bit as alienating to traditional presumption as it was in biology. There’s more than a little conceit involved in thinking we had any special inside track on our own nature. In fact, it would be a miracle if humanity had not found itself in some version of this very dilemma. Given only source insensitive means to troubleshoot cognition, to understand ourselves and each other, we were all but doomed to be stumped by the flood of source sensitive cognition unleashed by science. (In fact, given some degree of interstellar evolutionary convergence, I think one can wager that extraterrestrial intelligences will have suffered their own source insensitive versus source sensitive cognitive crash spaces. See my, “On Alien Philosophy,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies, (forthcoming))

IST brings us to the deflationary limit of intentional philosophy. HNT offers a way to ratchet ourselves beyond, a form of critical eliminativism that can actually explain, as opposed to simply dispute, the traditional claims of intentionality. Dennett, of course, reserves his final criticism for eliminativism, perhaps because so many critics see it as the upshot of his interpretivism. He acknowledges the possibility that “that neuroscience will eventually-perhaps even soon-discover a pattern that is so clearly superior to the noisy pattern of folk psychology that everyone will readily abandon the former for the latter (50),” but he thinks it unlikely:

For it is not enough for Churchland to suppose that in principle, neuroscientific levels of description will explain more of the variance, predict more of the “noise” that bedevils higher levels. This is, of course, bound to be true in the limit-if we descend all the way to the neurophysiological “bit map.” But as we have seen, the trade-off between ease of use and immunity from error for such a cumbersome system may make it profoundly unattractive. If the “pattern” is scarcely an improvement over the bit map, talk of eliminative materialism will fall on deaf ears-just as it does when radical eliminativists urge us to abandon our ontological commitments to tables and chairs. A truly general-purpose, robust system of pattern description more valuable than the intentional stance is not an impossibility, but anyone who wants to bet on it might care to talk to me about the odds they will take. 51

The elimination of theoretical intentional idiom requires, Dennett correctly points out, some other kind of idiom. Given the operationalization of intentional idioms across a wide variety of research contexts, they are not about to be abandoned anytime soon, and not at all if the eliminativist has nothing to offer in their stead. The challenge faced by the eliminativist, Dennett recognizes, is primarily abductive. If you want to race at psychological tracks, you either enter intentional horses or something that can run as fast or faster. He thinks this unlikely because he thinks no causally consilient (source sensitive) theory can hope to rival the combination of power and generality provided by the intentional stance. Why might this be? Here he alludes to ‘levels,’ suggest that any causally consilient account would remain trapped at the microphysical level, and so remain hopelessly cumbersome. But elsewhere, as in his discussion of ‘creeping depersonalization’ in “Mechanism and Responsibility,” he readily acknowledges our ability to treat with one another as machines.

And again, we see how the limited resources of IST have backed him into a philosophical corner—and a traditional one at that. On HNT, his claim amounts to saying that no source sensitive theory can hope to supplant the bundle of source insensitive modes comprising intentional cognition. On HNT, in other words, we already find ourselves on the ‘level’ of intentional explanation, already find ourselves with a theory possessing the combination of power and generality required to eliminate a particle of intentional theorization: namely, the intentional stance. A way to depersonalize cognitive science.

Because IST primarily provides a versatile way to deploy and manage intentionality in theoretical contexts rather than any understanding of its nature, the disanalogy between ‘center of gravity’ and ‘beliefs’ remains invisible. In each case you seem to have an entity that resists any clear relation to the order which is there, and yet finds itself regularly and usefully employed in legitimate scientific contexts. Our brains are basically short-cut machines, so it should come as no surprise that we find heuristics everywhere, in perception as much as cognition (insofar as they are distinct). It also should come as no surprise that they comprise a bestiary, as with most all things biological. Dennett is comparing heuristic apples and oranges, here. Centers of gravity are easily anchored to the order which is there because they economize otherwise available information. They can be sourced. Such is not the case with beliefs, belonging as they do to a system gerrymandering for the want of information.

So what is the ultimate picture offered here? What could reality amount to outside our heuristic regimes? Hard to think, as it damn well should be. Our species’ history posed no evolutionary challenges requiring the ability to intuitively grasp the facts of our cognitive predicament. It gave us a lot of idiosyncratic tools to solve high impact practical problems, and as a result, Homo sapiens fell through the sieve in such a way as to be dumbfounded when it began experimenting in earnest with its interrogative capacities. We stumbled across a good number of tools along the way, to be certain, but we remain just as profoundly stumped about ourselves. On HNT, the ‘big picture view’ is crash space, in ways perhaps similar to the subatomic, a domain where our biologically parochial capacities actually interfere with our ability to understand. But it offers a way of understanding the structure and dynamics of intentional cognition in source sensitive terms, and in so doing, explains why crashing our ancestral cognitive modes was inevitable. Just consider the way ‘outside heuristic regimes’ suggests something ‘noumenal,’ some uber-reality lost at the instant of transcendental application. The degree to which this answer strikes you as natural or ‘obvious’ is the degree you have been conditioned to apply that very regime out of school. With HNT we can demand those who want to stuff us into this or that intellectual Klein bottles define their application conditions, convince us this isn’t just more crash space mischief.

It’s trivial to say some information isn’t available, so why not leave well enough alone? Perhaps the time has come to abandon the old, granular dichotomies and speak in terms of dimensions of information available and cognitive capacities possessed. Imagine that

Moving on.

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.

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]

Phrenomenology: 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.

Skyhook Theory: Intentional Systems versus Blind Brains

by rsbakker

So I recently finished Michael Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain, and I’m hoping to provide a short review in the near future. Although he comes nowhere near espousing anything resembling the Blind Brain Theory, he does take some steps in its direction – but most of them turn out to be muddled versions of the same steps taken by Daniel Dennett decades ago. Since Dennett’s position remains the closest to my own, I thought it might be worthwhile to show how BBT picks up where Dennett’s Intentional Systems Theory (IST) ends.

Dennett, of course, espouses what might be called ‘evolutionary externalism’: meaning not only outruns any individual brain, it outruns any community of brains as well, insofar as both are the products of the vast ‘design space’ of evolution. As he writes:

“There is no way to capture the semantic properties of things (word tokens, diagrams, nerve impulses, brain states) by a micro-reduction. Semantic properties are not just relational but, you might say, super-relational, for the relation a particular vehicle of content, or token, must bear in order to have content is not just a relation it bears to other similar things (e.g., other tokens, or parts of tokens, or sets of tokens, or causes of tokens) but a relation between the token and the whole life–and counterfactual life–of the organism it ‘serves’ and that organism’s requirements for survival and its evolutionary ancestry.” The Intentional Stance, 65

Now on Dennett’s evolutionary account we always already find ourselves caught up in this super-relational totality: we attribute mind or meaning as a way to manage the intractable complexities of our natural circumstance. The patterns corresponding to ‘semantic properties’ are perspectival, patterns that can only be detected from positions embedded within the superordinate system of systems tracking systems. As Don Ross excellently puts it:

“A stance is a foregrounding of some (real) systematically related aspects of a system or process against a compensating backgrounding of other aspects. It is both possible and useful to pick out these sets of aspects because (as a matter of fact) the boundaries of patterns very frequently do not correspond to the boundaries of the naive realist’s objects. If they always did correspond, the design and intentional stances would be worthless, though there would have been no selection pressure to design a community in which this could be thought; and if they never corresponded, the physical stance, which puts essential constraints on reasonable design- and intentional-stance accounts, would be inaccessible. Because physical objects are stable patterns, there is a reliable logical basis for further order, but because many patterns are not coextensive with physical objects (in any but a trivial sense of ‘‘physical object’’), a sophisticated informavore must be designed to, or designed to learn to, track them. To be a tracker of patterns under more than one aspectualization is to be a taker of stances.” Dennett’s Philosophy, 20-21.

Dennett, in other words, is no mere instrumentalist. Attributions of mind, he wants to argue, are real enough given the reality of the patterns they track – the reality that renders the behaviour of certain systems predictable. The fact that some patterns can only be picked out perspectivally in no way impugns the reality of those patterns. But certainly the burning question then becomes one of how Dennett’s intentional stance manages to do this. As Robert Cummins writes, “I have doubts, however, about Dennett’s ‘intentional systems theory’ that would have us indulge in such characterization without worrying about how the intentional characterizations in question relate to characterization based on explicit representation” (The World in the Head, 87). How can a system ‘take the intentional stance’ in the first place? What is it about systems that render them explicable in intentional terms? How does this relation between these capacities ‘to take as’ and ‘to be taken as’ leverage successful prediction? These would seem to be both obvious and pressing questions. And yet Dennett replies,

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

Dennett goes on to describe this strategy as one of ‘nibbling,’ but he never really explains what makes it a good strategy aside from murky suggestions that sinking our teeth into the problem is somehow ‘premature.’ To me this sounds suspiciously like trying to make a virtue out of ignorance. I used to wonder why it was Dennett has consistently refused to push his imagination past the bourne of IST, why he would cling to intentional stances as his great unexplained explainer. Has he tried, only to retreat baffled, time and again? Or does he really believe his ‘prematurity thesis,’ that the time, for some unknown reason, is not ripe to press forward with a more detailed analysis of what makes intentional stances tick? Or has he planted his flag on this particular boundary and foresworn all further imperial ambitions for more political reasons (such as blunting the charge of eliminativism)?

Perhaps there’s an element of truth to all three of these scenarios, but more and more, I’m beginning to think that Dennett has simply run afoul of the very kind of deceptive intuition he is so prone to pull out of the work of others. Since this gaff is a gaff, it prevents him from pushing IST much further than he already has. But since this gaff allows him to largely avoid the eliminativist consequences his view would have otherwise, he really has no incentive to challenge his own thinking. If you’re going to get stuck, better the top of some hill.

BBT, for its part, agrees with the bulk of the foregoing. Since the mechanical complexities of brains so outrun the cognitive capacities of brains, managing brains (other’s or our own) requires a toolbox of very specialized tools, ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics that enable us to predict/explain/manipulate brains absent information regarding their mechanical complexities. What Dennett calls the ‘taking the intentional stance’ occurs whenever conditions trigger the application of these heuristics to some system in our environment.

But because heuristics systematically neglect information, they find themselves bound to specific sets of problems. The tool analogy is quite apt: it’s awful hard to hammer nails with a screwdriver. Thus the issue of the ‘proper domain’ that Dennett mentions in the above quote: to say that intentional problem-solving is heuristic is to say that it possesses a specific problem-ecology, a set of environments possessing the information structure that a given heuristic is adapted to solve. And this is where Dennett’s problems begin.

Dennett agrees that when we adopt the intentional stance we’re “finessing our ignorance of the details of the processes going on in each other’s skulls (and in our own!)” (Intuition Pumps, 83), but he fails to consider this ‘ignorance of the details’ in any detail. He seems to assume, rather, that these heuristics are merely adapted to the management of complexity. Perhaps this is why he never rigorously interrogates the question of whether the ‘intentional stance’ itself belongs to the set of problems the intentional stance can effectively solve. For Dennett, the fact that the intentional stance picks out ‘real patterns’ is warrant enough to take what he calls the ‘stance stance,’ or the intentional characterization of intentional characterization. He doesn’t think that ‘finessing our ignorance’ poses any particular problem in this respect.

As we saw above, BBT characterizes the intentional stance in mechanical terms, as the environmentally triggered application of heuristic devices adapted to solving social problem-ecologies. From the standpoint of IST, this amounts to taking another kind of stance, the ‘physical stance.’ From the standpoint of BBT, this amounts to the application of heuristic devices adapted to solving causal problem-ecologies, or in other words, the devices underwriting the mechanical paradigm of the natural sciences.

So what’s the difference? The first thing to note is that both ways of looking at things, heuristic application versus stance taking, involve neglect or the ‘finessing of ignorance.’  Heuristic application as BBT has it counts as what Carl Craver would call a ‘mechanism sketch,’ a mere outline of what is an astronomically more complicated picture. In fact, one of the things that make causal cognition so powerful is the way it can be reliably deployed across multiple ‘levels of description’ without any mystery regarding how we get from one level to the next. Mechanical thinking, in other words, allows us to ignore as much or as little information as we want (a point Dennett never considers to my knowledge).

This means the issue between IST and BBT doesn’t so much turn on the amount of information neglected as the kinds of information neglected. And this is where the superiority of the latter, mechanical characterization leaps into view. Intentional cognition, as we saw, turns on heuristics adapted to solving problems in the absence of causal information. This means that taking the ‘stance stance,’ as Dennett does, effectively shuts out the possibility of mechanically understanding IST.

IST thus provides Dennett with a kind of default ‘skyhook,’ a way to tacitly install intentionality into ‘presupposition space.’ This way, he can always argue with the intentionalist that the eliminativist necessarily begs the very intentionality they want to eliminate. If BBT argues that heuristic application is what is really going on (because, well, it is – and by Dennett’s own lights no less!), IST can argue that this is simply one more ‘stance,’ and so yank the issue back onto intentional ground (a fact that Brandom, for instance, exploits to bootstrap his inferentialism).

But as should be clear, it becomes difficult at this point to understand precisely what IST is even a theory about. On BBT, no one ever has or ever will ‘take an intentional stance.’ What we do is rely on certain heuristic systems adapted to certain problem-ecologies. The ‘intentional stance,’ on this account, is what this heuristic reliance looks like when we rely on those self-same heuristics to solve it. Doubtless there are a variety of informal problem-ecologies that can be effectively solved by taking the IST approach (such as blunting charges of eliminativism). But for better or worse, the natural scientific question of what is going on when we solve via intentionality is not one of them. Obviously so, one would think.

Reengineering Dennett: Intentionality and the ‘Curse of Dimensionality’

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A headache is one of those rare and precious things that is both in your head and in your head.

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In a few weeks time, Three Pound Brain will be featuring an interview with Alex Rosenberg, who has become one of the world’s foremost advocates of Eliminativism. If you’re so inclined, now would be a good time to pick up his Atheist’s Guide to Reality, which will be the focus of much of the interview.

The primary reason I’m mentioning this has to do with a comment of Alex’s regarding Dennett’s project in our back and forth, how he “has long sought an account of intentionality that constructs it out of nonintentional resources in the brain.” This made me think of a paper of Dennett’s entitled “A Route to Intelligence: Oversimplify and Self-Monitor” that is only available on his website, and which he has cryptically labelled, ‘NEVER-TO-APPEAR PAPERS BY DANIEL DENNETT.’ Now maybe it’s simply a conceit on my part, given that pretty much everything I’ve written falls under the category of ‘never-to-appear,’ but this quixotic piece has been my favourite Dennett article every since I first stumbled upon it. In the note that Dennett appends to the beginning, he explains the provenance of the paper, how it was written for a volume that never coalesced, but he leaves its ‘never-to-be-published’ fate to the reader’s imagination. (If I had to guess, I would say it has to do with the way the piece converges on what is now a dated consideration of the frame problem).

Now in this paper, Dennett does what he often does (most recently, in this talk), which is to tell a ‘design process’ story that begins with the natural/subpersonal and ends with the intentional/personal. The thing I find so fascinating about this particular design process narrative is the way it outlines, albeit in a murky form, what I think actually is an account of how intentionality arises ‘out of the nonintentional resources of the brain,’ or the Blind Brain Theory. What I want to do is simply provide a close reading of the piece (the first of its kind, given that no one I know of has referenced this piece apart from Dennett himself), suggesting, once again, that Dennett was very nearly on the right track, but that he simply failed to grasp the explanatory opportunities his account affords in the proper way. “A Route to Intelligence” fairly bowled me over when I first read it a few months ago, given the striking way it touches on so many of the themes I’ve been developing here. So what follows, then, begins with a consideration of the way BBT itself follows from certain, staple observations and arguments belonging to Dennett’s incredible oeuvre. More indirectly, it will provide a glimpse of how the mere act of conceptualizing a given dynamic can enable theoretical innovation.

Dennett begins with the theme of avoidance. He asks us to imagine that scientists discover an asteroid on a collision course with earth. We’re helpless to stop it, so the most we can do is prepare for our doom. Then, out of nowhere, a second asteroid appears, striking the first in the most felicitous way possible saving the entire world. It seems like a miracle, but of course the second meteor was always out there, always hurtling on its auspicious course. What Dennett wants us to consider is the way ‘averting’ or ‘preventing’ is actually a kind of perspectival artifact. We only assumed the initial asteroid was going to destroy earth because of our ignorance of the subsequent: “It seems appropriate to speak of an averted or prevented catastrophe because we compare an anticipated history with the way things turned out and we locate an event which was the “pivotal” event relative to the divergence between that anticipation and the actual course of events, and we call this the “act” of preventing or avoiding” (“A Route to Intelligence,” 3).

In BBT terms, the upshot of this fable is quite clear: Ignorance–or better, the absence of information–has a profound, positive role to play in the way we conceive events. Now coming out of the ‘Continental’ tradition this is no great shakes: one only need think of Derrida’s ‘trace structure’ or Adorno’s ‘constellations.’ But as Dennett has found, this mindset is thoroughly foreign to most ‘Analytic’ thinkers. In a sense, Dennett is providing a peculiar kind of explanation by subtraction, bidding us to understand avoidance as the product of informatic inaccessibility. Here it’s worth calling attention to what I’ve been calling the ‘only game in town effect,’ or sufficiency. Avoidance may be the artifact of information scarcity, but we never perceive it as such. Avoidance, rather, is simply avoidance. It’s not as if we catch ourselves after the fact and say, ‘Well, it only seemed like a close call.’

Academics spend so much time attempting to overcome the freshman catechism, ‘It-is-what-it-is!’ that they almost universally fail to consider how out-and-out peculiar it is, even as it remains the ‘most natural thing in the world.’ How could ignorance, of all things, generate such a profound and ubiquitous illusion of epistemic sufficiency? Why does the appreciation of contextual relativity, the myriad ways our interpretations are informatically constrained, count as a kind of intellectual achievement?

Sufficiency can be seen as a generalization of what Daniel Kahneman refers to as WYSIATI (‘What You See Is All There Is’), the way we’re prone to confuse the information we have for all the information required. Lacking information regarding the insufficiency of the information we have, such as the existence of a second ‘saviour’ asteroid, we assume sufficiency, that we are doomed.  Sufficiency is the assumptive default, which is why undergrads, who have yet to be exposed to information regarding the insufficiency of the information they have, assume things like ‘It-is-what-it-is.’

The concept of sufficiency (and its flip-side, asymptosis) is of paramount importance. It explains why, for instance, experience is something that can be explained via subtraction. Dennett’s asteroid fable is a perfect case in point: catastrophe was ‘averted’ because we had no information regarding the second asteroid. If you think about it, we regularly explain one another’s experiences, actions, and beliefs by reference to missing information, anytime we say something of the form, So-and-so didn’t x (realize, see, etc.) such-and-such, in fact. Implicit in all this talk is the presumption of sufficiency, the ‘It-is-what-it-is! assumption,’ as well as the understanding that missing information can make no difference–precisely what we should expect of a biomechanical brain. I’ll come back to all this in due course, but the important thing to note, at this juncture at least, is that Dennett is arguing (though he would likely dispute this) that avoidance is a kind of perspectival illusion.

Dennett’s point is that the avoidance world-view is the world-view of the rational deliberator, one where prediction, the ability to anticipate environmental changes, is king. Given this, he asks:

Suppose then that one wants to design a robot that will live in the real world and be capable of making decisions so that it can further its interests–whatever interests we artificially endow it with. We want in other words to design a foresightful planner. How must one structure the capacities–the representational and inferential or computational capacities–of such a being? 4

The first design problem that confronts us, he suggests, involves the relationship between response-time, reliability, and environmental complexity.

No matter how much information one has about an issue, there is always more that one could have, and one can often know that there is more that one could have if only one were to take the time to gather it. There is always more deliberation possible, so the trick is to design the creature so that it makes reliable but not foolproof decisions within the deadlines naturally imposed by the events in its world that matter to it. 4

Our design has to perform a computational balancing act: Since the well of information has no bottom, and the time constraints are exacting, our robot has to be able to cherry-pick only the information it needs to make rough and reliable determinations: “one must be designed from the outset to economize, to pass over most of the available information” (5). This is the problem now motivating work in the field of rational ecology, which looks at human cognition as a ‘toolbox’ filled with a variety of heuristics, devices adapted to solve specific problems in specific circumstances–‘ecologies’–via the strategic neglect of various kinds of information. On the BBT account, the brain itself is such a heuristic device, a mechanism structurally adapted to walk the computational high-wire between behavioural efficiency and environmental complexity.

And this indeed is what Dennett supposes:

How then does one partition the task of the robot so that it is apt to make reliable real time decisions? One thing one can do is declare that some things in the world of the creature are to be considered fixed; no effort will be expended trying to track them, to gather more information on them. The state of these features is going to be set down in axioms, in effect, but these are built into the system at no representational cost. One simply designs the system in such a way that it works well provided the world is as one supposes it always will be, and makes no provision for the system to work well (“properly”) under other conditions. The system as a whole operates as if the world were always going to be one way, so that whether the world really is that way is not an issue that can come up for determination. 5

So, for instance, the structural fact that the brain is a predictive system simply reflects the fundamental fact that our environments not only change in predictable ways, but allow for systematic interventions given prediction. The most fundamental environmental facts, in other words, will be structurally implicit in our robot, and so will not require modelling. Others, meanwhile, will “be declared as beneath notice even though they might in principle be noticeable were there any payoff to be gained thereby” (5). As he explains:

The “grain” of our own perception could be different; the resolution of detail is a function of our own calculus of wellbeing, given our needs and other capacities. In our design, as in the design of other creatures, there is a trade-off in the expenditure of cognitive effort and the development of effectors of various sorts. Thus the insectivorous bird has a trade-off between flicker fusion rate and the size of its bill. If it has a wider bill it can harvest from a larger volume in a single pass, and hence has a greater tolerance for error in calculating the location of its individual prey. 6

Since I’ve been arguing for quite some time that we need to understand the appearance of consciousness as a kind of ‘flicker fusion writ large,’ I can tell you my eyebrows fairly popped off my forehead reading this particular passage. Dennett is isolating two classes of information that our robot will have no cause to model: environmental information so basic that it’s written into the structural blueprint or ‘fixed’, and environmental information so irrelevant that it is ignored outright or ‘beneath notice.’ What remains is to consider the information our robot will have cause to model:

If then some of the things in the world are considered fixed, and others are considered beneath notice, and hence are just averaged over, this leaves the things that are changing and worth caring about. These things fall roughly into two divisions: the trackable and the chaotic. The chaotic things are those things that we cannot routinely track, and for our deliberative purposes we must treat them as random, not in the quantum mechanical sense, and not even in the mathematical sense (e.g., as informationally incompresssible), but just in the sense of pseudo-random. These are features of the world which, given the expenditure of cognitive effort the creature is prepared to make, are untrackable; their future state is unpredictable. 6-7

Signal and noise. If we were to design our robot along, say, the lines of a predictive processing account of the brain, its primary problem would be one of deriving the causal structure of its environment on the basis of sensory effects. As it turns out, this problem (the ‘inverse problem’) is no easy one to solve. We evolved sets of specialized cognitive tools, heuristics with finite applications, for precisely this reason. The ‘signal to noise ratio’ for any given feature of the world will depend on the utility of the signal versus the computational expense of isolating it.

So far so good. Dennett has provided four, explicitly informatic categories–fixed, beneath notice, trackable, and chaotic–‘design decisions’ that will enable our robot to successfully cope with the complexities confronting it. This is where Dennett advances a far more controversial claim: that the ‘manifest image’ belonging to any species is itself an artifact of these decisions.

Now in a certain sense this claim is unworkable (and Dennett realizes as much) given the conceptual interdependence of the manifest image and the mental. The task, recall, was to build a robot that could tackle environmental complexity, not become self-aware. But his insight here stands tantalizingly close to BBT, which explains our blinkered metacognitive sense of ‘consciousness’ and ‘intentionality’ in the self-same terms of informatic access.

And things get even more interesting, first with his consideration of the how the scientific image might be related to the manifest image thus construed:

The principles of design that create a manifest image in the first place also create the loose ends that can lead to its unraveling. Some of the engineering shortcuts that are dictated if we are to avoid combinatorial explosion take the form of ignoring – treating as if non-existent – small changes in the world. They are analogous to “round off error”in computer number-crunching. And like round-off error, their locally harmless oversimplifications can accumulate under certain conditions to create large errors. Then if the system can notice the large error, and diagnose it (at least roughly), it can begin to construct the scientific image. 8

And then with his consideration of the constraints facing our robot’s ability to track and predict itself:

One of the pre-eminent varieties of epistemically possible events is the category of the agent’s own actions. These are systematically unpredictable by it. It can attempt to track and thereby render predictions about the decisions and actions of other agents, but (for fairly obvious and well-known logical reasons, familiar in the Halting Problem in computer science, for instance) it cannot make fine-grained predictions of its own actions, since it is threatened by infinite regress of self-monitoring and analysis. Notice that this does not mean that our creature cannot make some boundary-condition predictions of its own decisions and actions. 9

Because our robot possesses finite computational resources in an informatically bottomless environment, it must neglect information, and so must be heuristic through and through. Given that heuristics possess limited applicability in addition to limited computational power, it will perforce continually bump into problems it cannot solve. This will be especially the case when it comes the problem of itself–for the very reasons that Dennett adduces in the above quote. Some of these insoluble problems, we might imagine, it will be unable to see as problems, at least initially. Once it becomes aware of its informatic and cognitive limitations, however, it could begin seeking supplementary information and techniques, ways around its limits, allowing the creation of a more ‘scientific’ image.

Now Dennett is simply brainstorming here–a fact that likely played some role in his failure to pursue its publication. But “A Route to Intelligence” stuck with him as well, enough for him to reference it on a number of occasions, and to ultimately give it a small internet venue all of its own. I would like to think this is because he senses (or at least once sensed) the potential of this general line of thinking.

What makes this paper so extraordinary, for me, is the way he explicitly begins the work of systematically thinking through the informatic and cognitive constraints facing the human brain, both with respect to its attempts to cognize its environment and itself. For his part, Dennett never pursues this line of speculative inquiry in anything other than a piecemeal and desultory way. He never thinks through the specifics of the informatic privation he discusses, and so, despite many near encounters, never finds his way to BBT. And it this failure, I want to argue, that makes his pragmatic recovery of intentionality, the ‘intentional stance,’ seem feasible–or so I want to argue.

As it so happens, the import and feasibility of Dennett’s ‘intentional stance,’ has taken a twist of late, thanks to some of his more recent claims. In “The Normal Well-tempered Mind,” for instance, he claims that he was (somewhat) mistaken in thinking that “the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine,” the problem being that “each neuron, far from being a simple switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.” For all his critiques of original intentionality in the heyday of computationalism, Dennett’s intentional apologetics have become increasingly strident and far-reaching. In what follows I will argue that his account of the intentional stance, and the ever expanding range of interpretative applicability that he accords it actually depends on his failure to think through the informatic straits of the human brain. If he had, I want to suggest, he would have seen that intentionality, like avoidance, is best explained in terms of missing information, which is to say, as a kind of perspectival illusion.

Diagram cube 1

Now of course all this betrays more than a little theoretical vanity on my part, the assumption that Dennett has to be peering, stumped, at some fragmentary apparition of my particular inferential architecture. But this presumption stands high among my motives for writing this post. Why? Because for the life of me I can’t see any way around those inferences–and I distrust this ‘only game in town’ feeling I have.

But I’ll be damned if I can find a way out. As I hope to show, as soon as you begin asking what cognitive systems are accessing what information, any number of dismal conclusions seem to directly follow. We literally have no bloody clue what we’re talking about when begin theorizing ‘mind.’

To see this, it serves to diagram the different levels of information privation Dennett considers:

Levels of information privation

The evolutionary engineering problem, recall, is one of finding some kind of ‘golden informatic mean,’ extracting only the information required to maximize fitness given the material and structural resources available and nothing else. This structurally constrained select-and-neglect strategy is what governs the uptake of information from the sum of all information available for cognition and thence to the information available for metacognition. The Blind Brain Theory is simply an attempt to think this privation through in a principled and exhaustive way, to theorize what information is available to what cognitive systems, and the kinds of losses and distortions that might result.

Information is missing. No one I know of disputes this. Each of these ‘pools’ are the result of drastic reductions in dimensionality (number of variables). Neuroscientists commonly refer to something called the ‘Curse of Dimensionality,’ the way the difficulty of finding statistical patterns in data increases exponentially as the data’s dimensionality increases. Imagine searching for a ring on a 100m length of string, which is to say, in one dimension. No problem. Now imagine searching for that ring in two dimensions, a 100m by 100m square. More difficult, but doable. Now imagine trying to find that ring in three dimensions, in a 100m by 100m by 100m cube. The greater the dimensionality, the greater the volume, the more difficult it becomes extracting statistical relationships, whether you happen to be a neuroscientist trying to decipher relations between high-dimensional patterns of stimuli and neural activation, or a brain attempting to forge adaptive environmental relations.

For example, ‘semantic pointers,’ Eliasmith’s primary innovation in creating SPAUN (the recent artificial brain simulation that made headlines around the world) are devices that maximize computational efficiency by collapsing or inflating dimensionality according to the needs of the system. As he and his team write:

Compression is functionally important because low-dimensional representations can be more efficiently manipulated for a variety of neural computations. Consequently, learning or defining different compression/decompression operations provides a means of generating neural representations that are well suited to a variety of neural computations. “A Large-Scale Model of the Functioning Brain,” 1202

The human brain is rife with bottlenecks, which is why Eliasmith’s semantic pointers represent the signature contribution they do, a model for how the brain potentially balances its computational resources against the computational demands facing it. You could say that the brain is an evolutionary product of the Curse, since it is in the business of deriving behaviourally effective ‘representations’ from the near bottomless dimensionality of its environment.

Although Dennett doesn’t reference the Curse explicitly, it’s implicit in his combinatoric characterization of our engineering problem, the way our robot has to suss out adaptive patterns in the “combinatorial explosion,” as he puts it, of environmental variables. Each of the information pools he touches on, in other words, can be construed as solutions to the Curse of Dimensionality. So when Dennett famously writes:

I claim that the intentional stance provides a vantage point for discerning similarly useful patterns. These patterns are objective–they are there to be detected–but from our point-of-view they are not out there entirely independent of us, since they are patterns composed partly of our own “subjective” reactions to what is our there; they are the patterns made to order for our narcissistic concerns. The Intentional Stance, “Real Patterns, Deeper Facts, and Empty Questions,” 39

Dennett is discussing a problem solved. He recognizes that the solution is parochial, or ‘narcissistic,’ but it remains, he will want to insist, a solution all the same, a powerful way for us (or our robot) to predict, explain, and manipulate our natural and social environments as well as ourselves. Given this efficacy, and given that the patterns themselves are real, even if geared to our concerns, he sees no reason to give up on intentionality.

On BBT, however, the appeal of this argument is largely an artifact of its granularity. Though Dennett is careful to reference the parochialism of intentionality, he does not do it justice. In “The Last Magic Show,” I turned to the metaphor of shadows at several turns trying to capture something of the information loss involved in consciousness, unaware that researchers, trying to understand how systems preserve functionality despite massive reductions of dimensionality, had devised mathematical tools, ‘random projections,’ that take the metaphor quite seriously:

To understand the central concept of a random projection (RP), it is useful to think of the shadow of a wire-frame object in three-dimensional space projected onto a two dimensional screen by shining a light beam on the object. For poorly chosen angles of light, the shadow may lose important information about the wire-frame object. For example, if the axis of light is aligned with any segment of wire, that entire length of wire will have a single point as its shadow. However, if the axis of light is chosen randomly, it is highly unlikely that the same degenerate situation will occur; instead, every length of wire will have a corresponding nonzero length of shadow. Thus the shadow, obtained by this RP, generically retains much information about the wire-frame object. (Ganguli and Sompolinsky, “Sparsity and Dimensionality,” 487)

On the BBT account, mind is what the Curse of Dimensionality looks like from the inside. Consciousness and intentionality, as they appear to metacognition, can be understood as concatenations of idiosyncratic low-dimensional ‘projections.’ Why idiosyncratic? Because when it comes to ‘compression,’ evolution isn’t so much interested in the ‘veridical conservation’ as in scavenging effective information. And what counts as ‘effective information’? Whatever facilitates genetic replication–period. In terms of the wire-frame analogy, the angle may be poorly chosen, the projection partial, the light exceedingly dim, etc., and none of this would matter so long as the information projected discharged some function that increased fitness. One might suppose that only compression will serve in some instances, but to assume that only compression will serve in all instances is simply to misunderstand evolution. Think of ‘lust’ and the biological need to reproduce, or ‘love’ and the biological need to pair-bond. Evolution is opportunistic: all things being equal, the solutions it hits upon will be ‘quick and dirty,’ and utterly indifferent to what we intuitively assume (let alone want) to be the case.

Take memory research as a case in point. In the Theaetetus, Plato famously characterized memory as an aviary, a general store from which different birds, memories, could be correctly or incorrectly retrieved. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when Hermann Ebbinghaus began tracking his own recall over time in various conditions, that memory became the object of scientific investigation. From there the story is one of greater and greater complication. William James, of course, distinguished between short and long term memory. Skill memory was distinguished from long term memory, which Endel Tulving famously decomposed into episodic and semantic memory. Skill memory, meanwhile, was recognized as one of several forms of nondeclarative or implicit memory, including classical conditioning, non-associative learning, and priming, which would itself be decomposed into perceptual and conceptual forms. As Plato’s grand aviary found itself progressively more subdivided, researchers began to question whether memory was actually a discrete system or rather part and parcel of some larger cognitive network, and thus not the distinct mental activity assumed by the tradition. Other researchers, meanwhile, took aim at the ‘retrieval assumption,’ the notion that memory is primarily veridical, adducing evidence that declarative memory is often constructive, more an attempt to convincingly answer a memory query than to reconstruct ‘what actually happened.’

The moral of this story is as simple as it should be sobering: the ‘memory’ arising out of casual introspection (monolithic and veridical) and the memory arising out of the scientific research (fractionate and confabulatory) are at drastic odds, to the point where some researchers suggest the term ‘memory’ is itself deceptive. Memory, like so many other cognitive capacities, seems to be a complex of specialized capacities arising out of non-epistemic and epistemic evolutionary pressures. But if this is the case, one might reasonably wonder how Plato could have gotten things so wrong. Well, obviously the information available to metacognition (in its ancient Greek incarnation) falls far short the information required to accurately model memory. But why would this be? Well, apparently forming accurate metacognitive models of memory was not something our ancestors needed to survive and reproduce.

We have enough metacognitive access to isolate memory as a vague capacity belonging to our brains and nothing more. The patterns accessed, in other words, are real patterns, but it seems more than a little hinky to take the next step and say they are “made to order for our narcissistic concerns.” For one, whatever those ‘concerns’ happen to be, they certainly don’t seem to involve any concern with self-knowledge, particularly when the ‘concerns’ at issue are almost certainly not the conscious sort–which is to say, concerns we could be said to be ‘ours’ in any straightforward way. The concerns, in fact, are evolutionary: Metacognition, for reasons Dennett touched on above and that I have considered at length elsewhere, is a computational nightmare, more than enough to necessitate the drastic informatic compromises that underwrite Plato’s Aviary.

And as memory goes, I want to suggest, so goes intentionality. The fact is, intentional patterns are not “made to order for our narcissistic concerns.” This is a claim that, while appearing modest, characterizes intentionality as an instrument of our agency, and so ‘narcissistic’ in a personal sense. Intentional patterns, rather, are ad hoc evolutionary solutions to various social or natural environmental problems, some perhaps obvious, others obscure. And this simply refers to the ‘patterns’ accessed by the brain. There is the further question of metacognitive access, and the degree to which the intentionality we all seem to think we have might not be better explained as a kind of metacognitive illusion pertaining to neglect.

Asymptotic. Bottomless. Rules hanging with their interpretations.

All the low-dimensional projections bridging pool to pool are evolutionary artifacts of various functional requirements, ‘fixes,’ multitudes of them, to some obscure network of ancestral, environmental problems. They are parochial, not to our ‘concerns’ as ‘persons,’ but to the circumstances that saw them selected to the exclusion of other possible fixes. To return to Dennett’s categories, the information ‘beneath notice,’ or neglected, may be out-and-out crucial for understanding a given capacity, such as ‘memory’ or ‘agency’ or what have you, even though metacognitive access to this information was irrelevant to our ancestor’s survival. Likewise, what is ‘trackable’ may be idiosyncratic, information suited to some specific, practical cognitive function, and therefore entirely incompatible with and so refractory to theoretical cognition–philosophy as the skeptics have known it.

Why do we find the notion of a fractionate, non-veridical memory surprising? Because we assume otherwise, namely, that memory is whole and veridical. Why do we assume otherwise? Because informatic neglect leads us to mistake the complex for the simple, the special purpose for the general purpose, and the tertiary for the primary. Our metacognitive intuitions are not reliable; what we think we do or undergo and what the sciences of the brain reveal need only be loosely connected. Why does it seem so natural to assume that intentional patterns are “made to order for our narcissistic concerns”? Well, for the same reason it seems so natural to assume that memory is monolithic and veridical: in the absence of information to the contrary, our metacognitive intuitions carry the day. Intentionality becomes a personal tool, as opposed to a low-dimensional projection accessed via metacognitive deliberation (for metacognition), or a heuristic device possessing a definite evolutionary history and a limited range of applications (for cognition more generally).

So to return to our diagram of ‘information pools’:

Levels of information privation

we can clearly see how the ‘Curse of Dimensionality’ is compounded when it comes to theoretical metacognition. Thus the ‘blind brain’ moniker. BBT argues that the apparent perplexities of consciousness and intentionality that have bedevilled philosophy for millennia are artifacts of cognitive and metacognitive neglect. It agrees with Dennett that the relationship between all these levels is an adaptive one, that low-dimensional projections must earn their keep, but it blocks the assumption that we are the keepers, seeing this intuition as the result of metacognitive neglect (sufficiency, to be precise). It’s no coincidence, it argues, that all intentional concepts and phenomena seem ‘acausal,’ both in the sense of seeming causeless, and in the sense of resisting causal explanation. Metacognition has no access whatsoever to the neurofunctional context of any information broadcast or integrated in consciousness, and so finds itself ‘encapsulated,’ stranded with a profusion of low-dimensional projections that it cannot cognize as such, since doing so would require metacognitive access to the very neurofunctional contexts that are occluded. Our metacognitive sense of intentionality, in other words, depends upon making a number of clear mistakes–much as in the case of memory.

The relations between ‘pools’ it should be noted, are not ‘vehicles’ in the sense of carrying ‘information about.’ All the functioning components in the system would have to count as ‘vehicles’ if that were the case, insofar as the whole is required for that information that does find itself broadcast or integrated. The ‘information about’ part is simply an artifact of what BBT calls medial neglect, the aggregate blindness of the system to its ongoing operations. Since metacognition can only neglect the neural functions that make a given conscious experience possible–since it is itself invisible to itself–it confuses an astronomically complex systematic effect for a property belonging to that experience.

The very reason theorists like Dretske or Fodor insist on semantic interpretations of information is the same reason those interpretations will perpetually resist naturalistic explanation: they are attempting to explain a kind of ‘perspectival illusion,’ the way the information broadcast or integrated exhausts the information available for deliberative cognition, so generating the ‘only-game-in-town-effect’ (or sufficiency). ‘Thoughts’ (or the low-dimensional projections we confuse for them) must refer to (rather than reliably covary with) something in the world because metacognition neglects all the neurofunctional and environmental machinery of that covariance, leaving only Brentano’s famous posit, intentionality, as the ‘obvious’ explanandum–one rendered all the more ‘obvious’ by thousands of largely fruitless years of intentional conceptual toil.

Aboutness is magic, in the sense that it requires the neglect of information to be ‘seen.’ It is an illusion of introspection, a kind of neural camera obscura effect, ‘obvious’ only because metacognition is a captive of the information it receives. This is why our information pool diagram can be so easily retooled to depict the prevailing paradigm in the cognitive sciences today:

Levels of intentionality

The vertical arrows represent medial functions (sound, light, neural activity) that are occluded and so are construed acausally. The ‘mind’ (or the network of low-dimensional projections we confuse as such) is thought to be ‘emergent from’ or ‘functionally irreducible to’ the brain, which possesses both conscious and nonconscious ‘representations of’ or ‘intentional relations to’ the world. No one ever pauses to ask what kind of cognitive resources the brain could bring to bear upon itself, what it would take to reliably model the most complicated machinery known from within that machinery using only cognitive systems adapted to modelling external environments. The truth of the brain, they blithely assume, is available to the brain in the form of the mind.

Or thought.

But this is little more than wishful ‘thinking,’ as the opaque, even occult, nature of the intentional concepts used might suggest. Whatever emergence the brain affords, why should metacognition possess the capacity to model it, let alone be it? Whatever function the broadcasting or integration of a given low-dimensional projection provides, why should metacognition, which is out-and-out blind to neurofunctionality, possess the capacity to reliably model it, as opposed to doing what cognition always does when confronted with insufficient information it cannot flag as insufficient, leap to erroneous conclusions?

All of this is to say that the picture is both more clear and yet less sunny than Dennett’s ultimately abortive interrogation of information privation would lead us to believe. Certainly in an everyday sense it’s obvious that we take perspectives, views, angles, standpoints, and stances vis a vis various things. Likewise, it seems obvious that we have two broad ways in which to explain things, either by reference to what causes an event, or by virtue of what rationalizes an event. As a result, it seems natural to talk of two basic explanatory perspectives or stances, one pertaining to the causes of things, the other pertaining to the reasons for things.

The question is one of how far we can trust our speculations regarding the latter beyond this platitudinous observation. One might ask, for instance, if intentionality is a heuristic, which is to say, a specialized problem solver, then what are its conditions of applicability? The mere fact that this is an open question means that things like the philosophical question of knowledge, to give just one example, should be divided into intentional and mechanical incarnations–at the very least. Otherwise, given the ‘narcissistic idiosyncrasy’ of the former, we need to consider whether the kinds of conundrums that have plagued epistemology across the ages are precisely what we should expect. Chained to the informatic bottleneck of metacognition, epistemology has been trading in low-dimensional projections all along, attempting time and again to wring universality out of what amount to metacognitive glimpses of parochial cognitive heuristics. There’s a very real chance the whole endeavour has been little more than a fool’s errand.

The real question is one of why, as philosophers, we should bother entertaining the intentional stance. If the aim of philosophy really is, as Sellars has it, “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” if explanatory scope is our goal, then understanding intentionality amounts understanding it in functional terms, which is to say, as something that can only be understood in terms of the information it neglects. What is the adaptive explanatory ecology of any given intentional concept? What was it selected for? And if it is ‘specialized,’ would that not suggest incompatibility with different (i.e., theoretical) cognitive contexts? Given what little information we have, what arbitrates our various metacognitive glimpses, our perpetually underdetermined interpretations, allowing us to discriminate between any stage on the continuum of the reliable and the farcical?

Short of answers to these questions, we cannot even claim to be engaging in educated as opposed to mere guesswork. So to return to “The Normal Well-tempered Mind,” what does Dennett mean when he says that neurons are best seen as agents? Does he mean that cellular machinery is complicated machinery, and so ill-served when conceptualized as a ‘mere switch’? Or does he mean they really are like little people, organized in little tribes, battling over little hopes and little crimes? I take it as obvious that he means the former, and that his insistence on the latter is more the ersatz product of a commitment he made long ago, one he has invested far too much effort in to relinquish.

‘Feral neurons’ are a metaphoric conceit, an interesting way to provoke original thought, perhaps, a convenient facon de parler in certain explanatory contexts, but more an attempt to make good on an old and questionable argument than anything, one that would have made a younger Dennett, the one who wrote “Mechanism and Responsibility,” smile and scowl as he paused to conjure some canny and critical witticism. Intentionality, as the history of philosophy should make clear, is an invitation to second-order controversy and confusion. Perhaps what we have here is a potential empirical basis for the infamous Wittgensteinian injunction against philosophical language games. Attributing intentionality in first-order contexts is not only well and fine, it’s unavoidable. But as soon as we make second-order claims on the basis of metacognitive deliberation, say things like, ‘Knowledge is justified, true belief,’ we might as well be playing Monopoly using the pieces of Risk, ‘deriving’ theoretical syntaxes constrained–at that point–by nothing ‘out there.’

On BBT, ‘knowledge’ simply is what it has to be if we agree that the life science paradigm cuts reality as close to the joints as anything we have ever known: a system of mechanical bets, a swarm of secondary asteroids following algorithmic trajectories, ‘miraculously’ averting disaster time and again.

Breathtakingly complex.

Alien.