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Tag: Enlightenment

Enlightenment How? Pinker’s Tutelary Natures*

by rsbakker

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Death of Progress (at the Hand of Progress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Intentional cognition depends on cognitive ecological invariances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific progress entails the collapse of intentional cognition.

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

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

I fear Donald Trump may be just the beginning.

.

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30

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

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

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

 

*Originally posted 20/03/2018

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Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse

by rsbakker

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

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

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

This is changing.

We see animals in charcoal across cave walls so easily because our visual systems leap to conclusions on the basis of so little information. The problem is that ‘so little information’ also means so easily reproduced. The world is presently engaged in a mammoth industrial research program bent on hacking every cue-based cognitive reflex we possess. More and more, the systems we evolved to solve our fellow human travelers will be contending with artificial intelligences dedicated to commercial exploitation. ‘Deep information,’ meanwhile, is already swamping the legal system, even further problematizing the folk conceptual (shallow information) staples that ground the system’s self-understanding. Creeping medicalization continues unabated, slowly scaling back warrant for things like character judgment in countless different professional contexts.

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

 

Crash Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cognitive Information

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

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

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

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

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

Or the need to punish murderers…

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

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

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

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

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

Crash.

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

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

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

 

Cognitive Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Semantic Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

Enlightenment How? Pinker’s Tutelary Natures

by rsbakker

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Death of Progress (at the Hand of Progress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Intentional cognition depends on cognitive ecological invariances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific progress entails the collapse of intentional cognition.

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

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

I fear Donald Trump may be just the beginning.

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30

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

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

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

 

The Zombie Enlightenment

by rsbakker

rick zombie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient and Modern Enlightenment: from Noosphere to Technosphere (by Ben Cain)

by rsbakker

Enlightenment is elite cognition, the seeing past collective error and illusion to a hidden reality. But the ancient idea of enlightenment differs greatly from the modern one and there may be a further shift in the postmodern era. I’ll try to shed some light on enlightenment, by pursuing these comparisons.

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Ancient Enlightenment: Monism and Personification

Enlightenment in the ancient world was made possible by a falling away from our mythopoeic, nomadic prehistory. In that Paleolithic period, symbolized by the wild Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the biblical Adam in Eden, there was no enlightenment since everything was thoroughly personified and so nothing could have been perceived as unfamiliar or alien to the masses. The world was experienced as a noosphere, filled with mentality. Only after the rise of sedentary civilization in the Neolithic Era, when farming replaced nomadic hunting in 10,000 BCE, which allowed for much larger populations, was there a loss of that enchanted mode of experience which actually depended on a sort of blissful collective ignorance. As a population increases, the so-called Law of Oligarchy takes hold, which means that social power must be concentrated to avoid civilizational collapse. Dominance hierarchies are established and those in the lower classes become envious of the stronger and more privileged members who are sure to display their greater wealth and access to women with symbols of their higher status. By doing so, each social class learns its boundaries so that the social structure won’t be overridden, which would invite anarchy.

As Rousseau argued, civilization was the precondition of what we might call the sin of egoism. Contrary to Rousseau, prehistoric life wasn’t utopian; at least, objectively, human life in the Paleolithic Era was likely quite savage. But the ancients seemed to have an easier time perceiving the world in magical terms, judging from the evidence of their religions and extrapolating from what we know of children’s experience, given their similar dearth of content to occupy their collective memory. Thus, even as they killed each other over trifles, the prehistoric people would have interpreted such horror as profoundly meaningful. In any case, I think Rousseau is right that civilization made possible a falling away from a kind of intrinsic innocence. Specifically, the increased social specialization led to an epistemic inequality. As food was stored and more and more people lived together, there was greater need for practical knowledge in such areas as architecture, medicine, sanitation, and warfare. The elites became decadent and alienated from nature, since they found themselves free to indulge their appetites with artificial diversions, as specialists took care of the necessities of survival such as the harvesting of food or the defense of the borders. These elites codified the myths that expressed the population’s mores, but while the uneducated majority clung to their naïve, anthropocentric traditions, the cynical and self-absorbed elites more likely regarded the folk tales as superstitions.

Here, then, was the origin of enlightenment as the opposite of wholesale ignorance—and this was a normative dichotomy. Enlightenment was good and its opposite, mental darkness, was bad. Whereas prior to civilization everyone was enlightened, in a sense, or at least everyone deferred to the shaman’s interpretation of how the spiritual and material worlds are intermixed, civilized people came to believe there’s a secret perspective which alone imparts the ultimate truth, leaving the majority in relative ignorance. As for the content of the enlightened worldview in the ancient world, this was informed by both the egoism and the cynicism that distinguished the hierarchical civilization from the prehistoric past. The content thus had two elements: monism and personification. On the one hand, reality was thought to be a unity, whereas the world appeared to be a multiplicity. Enlightenment was the ability to see past the illusion of change, to the underlying timeless interconnection between all events. Again, in the mythopoeic world, there was no distinction between reality and appearance, because mental projections were given equal weight with the material unfolding of events. The world was a magical place. But the enlightened person had to recover a distorted memory of that childlike, mythopoeic vision, as it were, by theorizing a unity beyond the disenchanted multiplicity that confronted the civilized ancients.

On the other hand, ultimate reality was generally personified. So the absolute unity was called God, equated with the self, and often compared to the particular human who actually ruled the land. That is, the civilizational structure was projected onto the spirit world and the gods were used as symbols to reassure the ancients that their social order was just. There was such personification even in Buddhism, specifically in the Mahayana variety, according to which Bodhisattvas are worshipped and Buddha nature is thought to take not just the inconceivable and thus impersonal form, but ghostly or celestial as well as physical ones.

Ancient enlightenment thus had to reconcile the urge to personify, which was a remnant of the mythopoeic experience that was exacerbated by the advent of egoism even among the masses, and which the elites came to use for political purposes, with the world’s alien, indifferent oneness. That theoretical oneness expressed especially the elites’ growing alienation from nature and their nostalgia for the presumed innocence of the earlier, nomadic period. Monism made egoism out to be preconditioned by ignorance, since if the world were really an ultimate unity, the apparent self’s independence would be an illusion. But because egoism had numerous social and economic causes, the enlightened worldview retained some anthropomorphic projections onto the unity, to rationalize the nature of the civilized individual. There were degrees of enlightenment, so that one or the other factor, impersonal metaphysical unity or personification, predominated. For example, in the Eastern religions, the anthropomorphisms were stripped away as the enlightened person was thought to experience a transcendent unity, in a purified state of consciousness. Alternatively, the monotheistic Western traditions generally took a personal deity to be the highest principle.

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Modern Enlightenment: Objectivity and Artificialization

The next epochal change was the birth of modern civilization in the European Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. This transition was marked by profound advances in investigative techniques, which presented the educated upper classes with an altogether impersonal world. Instead of being horrified by this new knowledge, modernists relished the opportunity to conquer a material world that has no prior rights or else they sought refuge in the halfway house of deism. In any case, modernists were forced to reconceptualize the idea of enlightenment. Whereas the ancient kind posited a metaphysical unity that was somehow both transcendent and personal, modernists eventually eliminated personhood altogether, not just in metaphysics but in psychology. And so modern enlightenment is an appreciation of the implications of thoroughgoing metaphysical naturalism. The real world is still a hidden unity and scientists seek to uncover the causal pattern that establishes that unity. Thus, the dichotomy between the reality of the hidden spirit world and the illusion of mundane plurality in the spatiotemporal field of opposites became the split between a rational understanding of nature’s impersonality, as confirmed by the impartiality of cause and effect, and the naïve personification of anything, including ultimate reality or the human self. Enlightened modernists are materialists who think that mind is an illusion and that fundamental reality is bound to be alien to our sensibilities.

However, the conception of enlightenment as a matter of rationality, set off against the darkness of superstition, can’t hold, because rationality is a personal matter which takes for granted the illusion of the personal self. The modern myth of enlightenment as merely the courage to follow the logic and the evidence where they lead can’t be the whole story of the great transition to the modern period. Something else must have happened, not just a rise of rational neutrality, if rationality itself is merely peripheral. Instead of seeing modern enlightenment in terms of the symbol of the Light of Reason, and thus as a mental phenomenon, we should see it as technological: modernists exited the Dark Age through their technological advances which literally made the world brighter in the case of the commercial use of electricity. More broadly, modern enlightenment is the expansion of the “Light” of Artificiality, which makes for a wealth of historical data points. After all, what makes a dark age dark is the lack of lasting evidence of the culture’s identity, due to massive illiteracy and the absence of durable technologies that tell the tale. All of that changed with the printing press and the computer, for example. A Bright Age, then, is bright with cultural information and the light rays should be thought of as being transmitted especially to future historians.

Commercial light bulbs were patented in the late 19th C, although scientists studied electricity as early as 1600 CE. The Age of Enlightenment is primarily an 18th C. period, so the world didn’t literally become much brighter during the modern Enlightenment. However, the paradigmatic rationality of Enlightenment intellectuals, especially that of Isaac Newton, led directly to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which included the invention of the light bulb. So we should look at modern enlightenment as beginning with the myth of rationality and giving way to wonder at the undeniable reality of recent technological advance. First came the light of Reason, then scientists realized that personhood and thus reason are illusory. But all along, the modern process was set in motion which replaced the darkness of nature with the light of artificiality (with technological incarnations of culture which endure and testify to our historical identity). Thus, modern enlightenment is only inchoately the dichotomy between neutral (non-personifying) reason and ignorance; the real distinction is between natural, pristine reality, which is dark and monstrous precisely because of its impersonality, and the light we bring to the world by impressing our stamp into it—not subjectively through mere theological interpretation or magical supposition, as in the mythopoeic period, but through the inexorable, objective spread of modern technology.

What’s monumental about modernity isn’t that some white male Europeans learned to think more rigorously, thanks to the scientific methods they invented. Of course, there are such methods, but modern enlightenment shouldn’t be personalized. When you characterize the new kind of enlightenment in that way, you’re left with incoherence since naturalism won’t support naïve personification. Instead, modern enlightenment must be thought of as a great widening of perspective, so that instead of projecting our ego onto indifferent nature, we eliminate our ego through existential encounters with nature’s monstrosity which humiliate us, doing away with our pretensions. Left thusly vacated, the real world is free to flow through us, as it were. In this case, the glory goes not to the great scientists, regardless of how exoteric modern history is told; the scientific methods, for example, must be part of nature’s self-overcoming on our planet, due to a shift from biological processes to artificial ones.

Scientific methods of thought are algorithms which presage the functions of high technology, as in the computer. In other words, before mass technology there was massive regimentation of intellectual life, whereas prior to the Scientific Revolution, social regimentation was confined to the army, to government, farming, and the like, while the business of discovering the nature of reality was still a free-wheeling affair. Ancient philosophy was mostly an artistic kind of speculation, although there are protoscientific aspects of ancient Greek and Indian philosophies. The Presocratics, for example, followed the logic of their hypotheses, however counterintuitive those hypotheses may have been. But what made the Scientific Revolution so special, objectively speaking, was a social transformation. Instead of being ruled mainly by biological norms, such as by the instinct of preserving the genes through sexual reproduction, which were thinly rationalized by the art of myth-making, a new dynamic was introduced: what Jacques Ellul called the necessity of efficiency as a matter of technique.

All species employ techniques, because they’re adapted to their environment, but the Scientific Revolution was the birth of an impersonal, regimented subculture of cognitive elites, one that’s modeled more and more on the machines made possible by that cognitive labour. In place of personification, mystification, or artistic speculation, there’s surrender to rational technique, to algorithms, and to the other scientific methods (public and repeatable testing of hypotheses, mathematical precision, and so on). It’s as though in depersonalizing ourselves, thanks to skepticism, the disempowerment of the Catholic Church, and so forth, we allowed nature’s impersonality to flow more easily through our social structures. Whereas hitherto, our bodies were governed by evolutionary norms and our minds were consumed by myths and illusions of personhood, which we projected onto nature so that we became doubly deluded, modernists abandoned personification, which freed the mind to mimic what the rest of the universe is doing, namely to flow in what I call an undead (impersonal but not inert) fashion.

We still personify techniques when we think of them teleologically, as having a mentally represented goal. However, even if there’s no divine mind desiring nature to end in some way, natural processes do have ends, which is just to say that there are natural processes, as such, or changes that have initial conditions, transitional periods, and probable points of termination. The more we understand nature, the wider our field of vision until we think of everything as a cosmic whole having a beginning (the Big Bang), a middle (evolution and complexification in space and time), and an end state, such as the universe’s heat death. What we call the scientific methods, then, or the more efficient modern techniques of rational thought, are really—according to the enlightened modernist—an inflowing of some underlying natural process besides biological evolution, one which begins with ultra-rational cognition and continues with the elimination of the noosphere and with the transformation of the biosphere into the technosphere.

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Counter-Enlightenment and the Return of Mythopoeic Reverie

As long as we’re depersonalizing enlightenment, we should note the Counter-Enlightenment period which leads from the Romantics and other early critics of modern hyper-rationality to postmodern relativism and general jadedness. I won’t attempt to adjudicate this debate here, but I want to close by reflecting on whether the Counter-Enlightenment should be interpreted as an omen indicating that modern enlightenment will itself be transformed. Again, if we ignore the psychological and social levels of inquiry, since an enlightened modernist must regard them as misleading, we can look at historical developments as stages of some larger process. Natural selection explains the design of living bodies, but not the cultural shifts between elite forms of cognition. From mythopoeic animism, to the middle ground of ancient mystical theism, to modern naturalism, there’s a clear elimination of personhood from grand theories. Moreover, there’s exponential progress in technical innovation, as modernists have come to divorce rationality from artistic interpretation. Rather than seeing herself as similar to a shaman, in being a wise person, healer, or hero for venturing into the unknown, an enlightened modernist is more likely to think of herself as a glorified calculator. Modern cognition is hyper-rational in that logic for us is demythologized, and the sciences are separate from the arts and from the humanities, which means that scientific cognition is inhuman (objective and neutral). Science is thus the indwelling of natural mechanisms, due to a breakdown in resistance from religious delusions, resulting in the perfection of the artificial world. Modern geniuses are distorted mirrors held up to undead nature, the reflected image being a technological bastardization of the monstrous original.

And yet we may be witnessing here a cycle rather than a linear progression. Technology may allow us to recover the mythopoeic union of object and subject, so that modern objectivity overcomes itself through its technological progeny. After all, the artificial world caters to our whims and so exacerbates egoism and the urge to personify. Whereas modern enlightenment began with a vision of a lifeless, mechanical universe, the postmodern kind is much less arid and austere. This is because postmodernists are immersed in an artificial world which turns fantasies into realities on a minute-by-minute basis, thus perhaps fulfilling the promise of mythopoeic speculation. For example, if you’re hungry, you may ask your smartphone where the nearest restaurant is and that phone will speak to you; next, you’ll follow the signs in your car which adjusts to your preferences in a hundred ways, and you’ll arrive at the restaurant and be served without having to hunt or cook the animal yourself. The prehistoric fantasy was that nature is alive. Modernists discovered that everything is at best undead and certainly devoid of purpose or of mental, as opposed to biological, life. But perhaps postmodernists are realizing that the world was undead whereas it’s now being imbued with purpose and brought to nonbiological life by us through technology. Instead of mythologizing the world, we postmodernists artificialize it, and whereas natural mechanisms train us to be animals following evolutionary rhythms, artificial mechanisms may train us to be something else entirely, such as infantilized consumers that recapture the prehistoric sense of being at the world’s all-important center, thanks to our history of taming the hostile wilderness.