Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dialogue with R. Scott Bakker

The following is an email exchange between Scott Bakker and me that took place in response to my article Mechanists and Transcendentalists. I think this dialogue sheds much light on our agreements and disagreements about the impact of the scientific picture of human nature on our intuitive self-image. The dialogue’s quite long, but it becomes more and more focused about a third of the way in, and by the half-way point I think we each come to insights about each other’s views and how they interrelate. Note that Scott summarizes his take on the discussion here.

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SCOTT BAKKER: Hey Ben. I finally had a chance to read this piece. I like the writing, but I think you mischaracterize my position in some pretty obvious ways--glaring even. Characterizing BBT as transcendental is well and fine, but then you need at the very least to consider its diagnosis of transcendentalism as a kind of cognitive illusion. The bit about the self-refuting nature of scientism really doesn't engage the position at all: nowhere do I argue that cognition is an all or nothing affair, only that where competing theoretical claims are concerned, TI [theoretical incompetence] requires we defer to science, no matter how painful that might be. Now if you had an argument against TI, that would be something, but you don't (and how could you, short of turning all of cognitive psychology on its ear convincingly?). The fact that I'm trapped talking out of my ass as much as you or anyone else I'm perfectly okay with. I'm a skeptical naturalist after all! This means saying that BBT is a speculative theory isn't saying anything really, and it makes the equivocation of 'speculation' with 'philosophy,' well, hinky. BBT is no more or less speculative than any other unconfirmed scientific theory. And like any scientific theory, it can be read as 'presupposing' x, y, and z--what have you. The real question is, So what? Hume's problem of induction, for instance, is no more a problem for BBT than it is for Darwinian Evolution. More specifically, so long as the question of metacognitive accuracy is one that can be answered empirically, I'm not sure how you're doing anything more than stomping your foot by declaring it 'philosophical.' It seems to me that Darwinian Evolution is even more 'philosophical' than BBT by your lights, given that there is a good deal that it supposes that cannot be empirically resolved one way or another. By the same token, it explains a myriad of phenomena that are absolutely mysterious otherwise--like BBT. 

Saying that BBT remains speculative is simply saying it awaits scientific arbitration. Given this, why should BBT's consilience with TI do anything other than count in its favour? As I say over and over, with BBT at least things will get empirically sorted. Your argument only makes sense if you think TI rules out all speculation as absolutely errant or that BBT lies beyond the pale of empirical arbitration. The first simply misrepresents my views. The latter requires some kind of substantial argument, which you do not give.

Regarding your section on Biofunctions I really suggest you read or reread THE Something About Mary, which I posted a few months back. The functionality you seem to think problematizes BBT is actually the point! The autocomputational intractibility of the brain places an evolutionary--which is to say, functional--premium on whatever metacognitive information the brain gets. BBT provides a very strong argument why we should presume extreme functional specificity of the very kind that the psychology of metacognition seems to be revealing. This argument doubles as an argument against the reliability of theoretical metacognition of the kind practiced in philosophy: in fact it provides a way to reinterpret much of this theoretical metacognition as the artifact of various forms of information depletion, heuristic misapplication, and neglect. On BBT, the problem with 'rules' and 'intentions' and so on arise when we attempt to cognize them via reflection - or with the philosopher. As heuristics, they mechanically discharge their adaptive functions (whatever they may be). As objects of philosophical reflection they primarily serve to cash paycheques.

I fear that short of considering this, the best you can do is tear down strawmen. And if you do think functional generality is the case, and that metacognitive accuracy (as opposed to function-specific efficacy) is the case, then make that case. I don't see how you can avoid wading in at least some empirical waters.


BEN CAIN: Hi Scott. The part of the article that interests me most is the second half where I use the matrix metaphor to explain how we can be both mechanists and transcendentalists. This is why I think you're mistaken when you say I'm tearing down strawmen. Obviously, you know BBT much better than I do, but even if my representation of BBT could be improved, I'm not trying to tear it down. I think the mechanisms you posit and your point that intuitions are blind and thus systematically misleading are compatible with a transcendental defense on intuitions and of the manifest image, as long as we interpret the latter as not competing with science.

I agree that proving we're theoretically competent without science, that the mind is full of functional mechanisms, and that our native cognitive abilities give us an accurate picture of ourselves would require some empirical work. But I'm not arguing those claims so I don't have that burden. I'm trying to show how two seemingly inconsistent theories of the mind are actually consistent. My article is analytical, not empirical.

When you say that the self-refuting nature of scientism doesn't engage with your position, you're missing the logic of the argument. I'm using scientism as a foil for transcendentalism and I'm making sure that the door is closed on the former to force a closer look at the latter.

When you say that "TI requires we defer to science," I think that, assuming your point here isn't merely analytic, that "theoretical" in "TI" doesn't presuppose that only scientific theories count, this contradicts your point that the brain puts a "premium on whatever metacognitive information" it can get. If you grant that intuitions and meanings can have functions, I don't see what your beef with them can be from a mechanistic viewpoint, unless you're saying pragmatically that their job can be done more efficiently by some other mechanism. You say, "As heuristics, they mechanically discharge their adaptive functions," but if the functions can be exaptive rather than adaptive (genetically-determined and environment-selected), philosophy's back in the game. Philosophy (or any nonscientific reflection) can be the personal or social mechanism that makes use of those commonsense concepts. As for their use, that's where the matrix/cave metaphor comes in.

Anyway, the reason we wouldn't necessarily have to defer to science is because the function of intuitions and meanings wouldn't have to be the giving of an accurate view of the facts, and so personal reflection that builds on intuitions wouldn't have to be in competition with science. (Note that in the article, I distinguish between theoretical and epistemic competence, the latter being broader and allowing for aesthetic and not just scientific standards of usefulness.)

You say "nowhere do I argue that cognition is an all or nothing affair." But what about all the times on your blog where you look at the history of science and say that only a fool would bet against science in defense of folk opinions? Don't you induce that the apocalypse awaits because science is scarily effective at demolishing the more comforting notions about our inner nature?

You seem annoyed that I called part of BBT speculative--meaning philosophical, intuitive, and interpretive rather than scientific. I think it's crucial to figure out which parts of your work are scientific and which are philosophical, so that we can be clear on when a critic has a certain burden of proof. My use of "speculative" rests on some writings on my blog, but the main connection between speculation and philosophy is just that they're both forced to take intuitions more seriously than does science. (This is why in Star Trek, for example, Picard is exasperated when he's forced to demand Data to "speculate" instead of just basing his beliefs perfectly on a rational assessment of the evidence. Star Trek treats that leap made by Data as a creative one. If that's snobbish or elitist, so be it. Do you think all art is equally good?)

I don't see the force of your point about natural selection. Of course evolutionary biology is empirical rather than speculative. Biologists don't know everything, but what they do claim to know as a matter of science is based on scientific methods, not on artistic guesswork.

You say, "Saying that BBT remains speculative is simply saying it awaits scientific arbitration" and that "with BBT at least things will get empirically sorted." But my point is that not all the interesting questions about the mind are empirical ones. Scientists can show there are certain mechanisms working in the mind. Science can explain how those mechanisms got there. And science can test the efficiency of a mechanism's performance. But I don't think science gives us something like the matrix or cave metaphor to make sense of the existential role of intuitions in light of their mechanistic nature in the scientific worldview. Scientists can tell us that we use the manifest image to deceive ourselves, but science can't prescribe the noble lie.


SCOTT BAKKER: It's the same old problem in different guise, Ben! You keep trying to shoehorn the theory into the very inferential frame that it calls into question. This is just part and parcel of trying to get a handle on something new.

So consider: simply put, BBT is the theory that metacognitive intuitions are the work of 'efficacy only' heuristics, and that as soon as we take those intuitions to warrant any theoretical 'image' we're trading in cognitive illusions. So, there is quite literally no mind, no agents, no persons as--and here's the thing--explicitly theorized over the long course of human history. Now the mechanisms and information underwriting those intuitions discharge innumerable functions to be sure, but those functions are simply not available for theoretical metacognition. Likewise, it is entirely possible that trading in cognitive illusions might provide any number of exaptive benefits, but this does nothing to change the fact that we are in the theoretical dark metacognitively speaking. This is why the further the sciences of the brain penetrate, the more alien we become to ourselves. This is why intentional phenomena so stubbornly resist naturalization (because there are no such things). This is why philosophy can never decisively arbitrate any of its controversies (because it is not cognitive). And so on, and so on, including, why we consider certain claims to be 'analytic' or 'transcendental.'

How is this supposed to be "compatible with a transcendental defense on intuitions and of the manifest image, as long as we interpret the latter as not competing with science?"

BBT is a theory of brain function that explains away the mind. As soon as you 'go Kantian,' claim that it posits 'transcendentals' (neural mechanisms) that generate experience (the mental) you are casting it into the very frame it dismantles, and so immediately begging the question against it. (For me, one of the most revolutionary philosophical dividends of BBT is the way it systematically collapses the distinction between 'immanent' and 'transcendent,' the basis it provides for a truly flat metaphysics (this is one juncture where BBT leaps off in a purely philosophical direction).) Thus interpreted, BBT strikes you as 'obviously philosophical' because transcendental philosophy is precisely what you are projecting into it. But you are clearly no longer talking about or critiquing BBT. Do you see?

"You say "nowhere do I argue that cognition is an all or nothing affair." But what about all the times on your blog where you look at the history of science and say that only a fool would bet against science in defense of folk opinions? Don't you induce that the apocalypse awaits because science is scarily effective at demolishing the more comforting notions about our inner nature?" I also regularly say that not all claims are equal! I'm not sure I see the inconsistency here. 'Bet' does all the work I need, doesn't it?

"You say, "Saying that BBT remains speculative is simply saying it awaits scientific arbitration" and that "with BBT at least things will get empirically sorted." But my point is that not all the interesting questions about the mind are empirical ones. Scientists can show there are certain mechanisms working in the mind. Science can explain how those mechanisms got there. And science can test the efficiency of a mechanism's performance. But I don't think science gives us something like the matrix or cave metaphor to make sense of the existential role of intuitions in light of their mechanistic nature in the scientific worldview. Scientists can tell us that we use the manifest image to deceive ourselves, but science can't prescribe the noble lie."

You're succumbing to the Philosopher's Syndrome a bit here, I think. Science will tell us what a 'matrix metaphor' is, how it functions in cognition, and so on (insofar as such metaphors are natural as opposed to supernatural phenomena). And science can also tell us whether there is any such thing as normative 'prescription,' what 'noble lies' are, how the brain generates and utilizes them, and which of them are generally the most effective at achieving which outcomes, thus impacting the odds that any given brain will adopt one. And in doing so, it will reveal all traditional theoretical estimations of this domain to be largely noncognitive. Thus all the apocalypse talk! But I actually agree with you that not all the interesting questions about the human condition are wholly empirical. The problem I'm pointing out is that every question is empirically conditioned, that there's no locking the door, no magical 'autonomous realm' that is immune to the torrents of information now flooding the halls of the 'human.' Your blog is itself an expression of how this information explosion has overturned our traditional conceptions of the external. All I'm really trying to do is to show you that the barrier you've erected between the inner and the outer is artificial, that the natural doesn't stop at your face's door, and that science and its revolutionary consequences will not stop either. It's not just that traditional claims, insofar as they claim to be cognitive, are in competition with scientific claims, it's that the whole ecosystem they belong to is exposed to incoming information, that, given the institutional apparatuses of science, will be generally sufficient for future cognition that will further radicalize our image of what is the case.


BEN CAIN: I agree that I’m likely making mistakes as I grapple with your eliminativist theory of the mind. All I can say is that I’m trying to understand it and to figure out what I think about it. One of the stumbling blocks I keep tripping over is that every time you say the intuitive view of the mind yields only illusions rather than reality or that because we’re theoretically incompetent (without science), our nonscientific beliefs are noncognitive, I fall back on the incoherence argument. If the mind is just a set of efficacious mechanisms and not a person who processes symbols, I very simply don’t know what you mean when you speak of BBT as entailing something or other about “reality vs illusion,” “theories,” or “knowledge” (as in “noncognitive”). If you’re using these words “under erasure,” because, as you say, “I'm trapped talking out of my ass as much as you or anyone else,” I’m not sure you appreciate the implications of this concession to the folk way of speaking. You’ll say you’re stuck speaking that way because your brain forces the illusions upon you, even though you understand many of the mechanisms at work. But this still looks to me like the Liar’s Paradox. If BBT implies that there’s no meaning, your folk interpretation of your theory can’t be taken seriously as it stands. There is no theory or knowledge as such if we exist simply as a set of mechanisms that engages only in causal relations. You need a reductive, mechanistic construal of those folk notions to explain BBT’s “content.” I just don’t know how to think of illusions, theories, or knowledge, given that only mechanisms exist. How could a mechanism as such know anything or be subject to an illusion rather than to reality? I know you’re laboring on your blog to lay this out, but I’m not there yet.

Now, you say I’m shoehorning BBT into a transcendental framework. Maybe that’s what I’m doing, depending on what you mean by that term. A foot that’s too large for a shoe can be squeezed in with a shoehorn, after all! But I don’t think I’m begging the question here. I’m trying to concede your main points, that our intuitions don’t and can’t tell us the facts about our inner nature, and that the mind really consists of heuristics running on mechanisms, and then to show that there’s an interesting (existentially useful) version of transcendentalism that’s consistent with those points. So I’m not talking just about BBT or transcendentalism, but about a synthesis of the two. That synthesis will indeed contradict what I’m calling your philosophical (possibly scientistic) interpretation of those two points from BBT. But that’s the compromise I’m going for: I disagree with some of what you say (as I currently understand it), but not with all of it.

You say you still don’t see much compatibility between BBT and transcendentalism. But here’s the statement of yours I think I can work with: “Likewise, it is entirely possible that trading in cognitive illusions might provide any number of exaptive benefits, but this does nothing to change the fact that we are in the theoretical dark metacognitively speaking.” Again, I mean to grant that intuitions leave us in the dark about the facts of our nature. And if by “theoretical competence,” you mean the ability to understand the facts (again, I don’t know what theories become if we’re just mechanisms), I grant that intuitions don’t give us any rational theory of the mind. We can’t intuit the nature of our neural mechanisms.

But here’s where I think I can turn the tables on you: who is to say our mental functions must all be rational? If you give me exaptations, then I think what you’re calling cognitive illusions might as well be called noble lies. Those illusions can have an important function, such as keeping us sane, and so forth. It’s just the cave/matrix metaphor, combined with some existentialism. The point is that if BBT says we’re just mechanisms, you can have only a pragmatic, efficiency-based objection to this reconstruction of the manifest image. As long as something’s a complex bit of causality in the mind, which can function or malfunction, and we’ve got only mechanisms on our brain, as it were, we’ve got to give that thing its due. But this means that all parts of the manifest image, including the notions of meaning and value, are resuscitated. Why not just call those so-called illusions effects of exapted mechanisms which can function or malfunction? They malfunction when philosophers think their way past them and wind up in existential angst.

You say science will “impact the odds” that any brain will adopt a normative prescription. But that’s beside the point. Science is a rational business. (Again, I don’t know what “science” or “rationality” is in purely mechanistic terms, but leave that aside.) The functions of the manifest image would be to keep us irrational. So how could a scientist as such carry out an irrational, intuitive function without shirking his scientific duty? That’s why I see some compatibility here, because different folks who see themselves as doing rational or irrational work, respectively, aren’t in competition. The reason irrational theists compete with scientists is because they don’t understand that they’re simply irrational. Likewise, someone caught in the illusion of the manifest image may mistake that illusion for fact and thus she’ll think the purely mechanistic view is wrong. But the manifest image will nevertheless be carrying out its function of nobly lying to her, and although scientists may help to force her to change her mind, the fact is that scientific/rational functions and intuitive/folk functions can coexist. There need be no conflict between those mechanisms, because they serve different ends.


SCOTT BAKKER: I think we're getting closer, but the gestalt still eludes you. And I fully admit that I don't qualify enough to preempt the kinds of interpretations you're wont to make, but as you have pointed out on many occasions, my writing is technical enough as it is! 

So to consider what are, from the standpoint of BBT, a couple of persistent mistakes you make: No brain, ever, has adopted any such thing as a 'normative prescription.' Science is not normative. Nor is condemnation or disapproval or what have you. We humans have been condemning things since time immemorial--I'm not debating that. What I'm debating is the assumption that such condemnation is in any way 'normative.' I appreciate that you cannot (presently) conceive how it could be anything else, but that's because you're still victimized by the only-game-in-town effect (which BBT can explain), the way your inability to metacognize the information not available for metacognition generates the illusion (or functional malapropism) that metacognition has all the information required. "This is just what I do!" it seems. But no, we now know that you really don't have anything but a peephole perspective on what it is you are doing, understood in the most informatically comprehensive manner possible.

So I'm saying the functions discharged by implicit usages of what philosophers have theorized as 'normative concepts' are clearly adaptive (we wouldn't have evolved them otherwise), we are in no position whatsoever to do much more than mistake these usages when we 'make them explicit' on the basis of theoretical metacognition alone. At best such explicitation provides a domain for (and perhaps some clues to further guide) direct empirical investigation.  

"But here’s where I think I can turn the tables on you: who is to say our mental functions must all be rational? If you give me exaptations, then I think what you’re calling cognitive illusions might as well be called noble lies. Those illusions can have an important function, such as keeping us sane, and so forth. It’s just the cave/matrix metaphor, combined with some existentialism. The point is that if BBT says we’re just mechanisms, you can have only a pragmatic, efficiency-based objection to this reconstruction of the manifest image. As long as something’s a complex bit of causality in the mind, which can function or malfunction, and we’ve got only mechanisms on our brain, as it were, we’ve got to give that thing its due. But this means that all parts of the manifest image, including the notions of meaning and value, are resuscitated. Why not just call those so-called illusions effects of exapted mechanisms which can function or malfunction? They malfunction when philosophers think their way past them and wind up in existential angst."

This is a key hurdle, I think. On the one hand, there are just no such things as 'mental functions.' The thing you need to realize (and I keep saying to you over and over) is that acknowledging the functionality of the information that metacognition accesses in no way entails the functionality of the 'manifest image' as philosophically theorized. I'm saying the former functionality is something only the sciences of the brain can determine, and that the latter is chimerical--that it HAS to be chimerical, given what we presently know of the brain. The problem is that the more information that a heuristic neglects, the more it relies on information structures belonging to its problem ecology, the more narrow its problem-solving domain, the more 'efficacy only' it becomes. One can hope for happy exaptations, but really has to assume that any given candidate is actually a short-circuit, a confound. If you want to assume the contrary against BBT, then you have to go empirical. There's just no way around it. Either you have to explain how we can wring accuracy or domain generality from efficacy only heuristics, or you have to explain how the brain is actually able to accurately metacognize itself. I'm entirely open to hear accounts on how either could be so.

Now it is the case that these theoretical short-circuits are themselves mechanistic, and so possess consequences, functions--and that these functions may serve to keep some of us sane, employed, intimidating in academic contexts, or what have you. I'll bite that bullet, but this in no way undercuts BBT, primarily because all these efficacies are derived from their actual, mechanical structure, and secondarily because the bag o' noble lies is so bloody full. Does anyone want to justify 'conceptual role semantics' via the way it intimidates their peers? What makes any one of these widgets more 'noble' than any other? Perhaps Jesus is the better widget--or heroin.  

The problem with widget-fictions is that they cannot be arbitrated, let alone relied upon, outside extremely narrow problem ecologies. They 'resuscitate' nothing, and simply beg for an understanding of what they are in the most informatically comprehensive sense possible.


BEN CAIN: I wonder whether the transcendental gestalt is still eluding you as well, Scott. You think I’m assuming that normativity is real, that brains really have values and follow prescriptions, and so forth. But what I’m working on here is a synthesis that concedes that factually, scientifically, theoretically there are no meanings or values. Instead, what there really is is what BBT posits: a brain that necessarily fools itself into perceiving the manifest image even though that image is an illusion. BBT explains in great detail how the illusion is caused by the brain’s blindness to its mechanical nature. All of that I want to concede and if I fail to do so, I’m erring not just by misunderstanding your view but by not following through on this compromise strategy I’m adopting.

So the brain never does anything that’s really right or wrong. There is no right or wrong, because there are only mechanisms, which are complicated, interlocking causal relations/processes, some of which we say have functions. Functions are as close as we get to real meanings in the sense of purposes. Anyway, this is the scientific take on human nature. But there’s something else that interests the transcendentalist: there’s the potential to use the illusion of the manifest image to some end. There’s no normativity as a matter of fact, but there is the illusion of normativity, and the illusion can have its own causal power.

This seems to me the crux: Are perceptual illusions always epiphenomenal or can they be ironically efficacious? Some such illusions might not generally produce anything because they’re anomalous, but what about illusions that are systematic, reliable, and even inevitable? If we’re stuck thinking of ourselves in wrong, naïve ways, those illusions might enter into causal relations. I agree that here some empirical work should be done to discount the epiphenomenon interpretation, but I think there’s plenty of evidence that our belief in the manifest image has caused a lot of human behaviour. For example, theistic religions presuppose the naïve view of the self. You can say it’s really the behind-the-scenes heuristics doing all the work there, but this doesn’t actually offer an alternative explanation of religion, because the mechanistic explanation includes the point I’m making: the mechanisms produce an illusion and that illusion is within the causal chain that produces the strange behaviour (the religious artwork, wars, burying of the dead, talk of spirits and divine commandments, etc). (Moreover, if you undercut folk psychology, you have to explain why biology isn’t undercut by physics. From the physicist’s viewpoint, maybe all the heuristics are likewise illusions.)

This means that normativity is a kind of game. We play games and suspend our disbelief, thus conferring causal power on the fictions. We read novels and the characters don’t exist, but still our belief in them can change our feelings and attitudes. It’s like Dumbo whose faith made him fly. The difference is that most people are fooled by the games/illusions/noble lies that our brain foists on us. This is where BBT stands tall regardless of the foregoing defense of transcendentalism, and it’s why (once again) I don’t think I’m undercutting BBT: your theory explains why commonsense/folk psychology is really just a game/illusion. The transcendentalist’s point is just that this is a very interesting, persistent game, one we seem forced to play even when we know better. And when we play that game, we talk in terms of meanings and values, as we’ve done throughout this email exchange.

Where we differ, I think, is that you prefer a neurological deflation of the masses’ delusions (a delusion being an illusion that fools us to such an extent we mistake it for reality), whereas I prefer an existential, more explicitly philosophical deflation. My deflation takes place within the illusion, whereas yours is wholly external. Mine’s like the square’s tribulations in Flatland. The square is stuck in a world of two dimensions, trying to convince his fellow squares that there can be spheres in spaceland. So my deflation uses the illusion against itself. I'm engaging in an internal criticism of the manifest image. I say not that we should stop talking about meanings and values altogether, but that we should change that talk to reflect greater awareness of natural reality. Your approach, though, is to juxtapose the naïve way of speaking with the scientific one. You say, “Here’s what we’re led to think about ourselves, but here’s what’s really going on.”

You’re right, of course, that the power of our adapted heuristics doesn’t entail the power of the manifest image. But this doesn’t mean that that image has no power from some other source. I think our ancient ancestors just stumbled onto this fictional inner world when they became self-“aware,” or more self-controlling with language. It’s a bumbling, stumbling exaptation we’re speaking of, the result being an absurd game we all tend to play.

You say you’re biting the bullet and I say thanks for that but don’t worry about it, because it doesn’t undercut the main points of BBT. What it undercuts, I think, are some of your off-the-cuff science-centered remarks. For example, you say BBT explains why philosophy has made so little progress over the centuries, and I think you’re right about that but you’re nevertheless missing the point. You’re assuming that philosophers have been after the facts of human nature. To some extent they have been, but philosophy has always been something besides protoscience. Philosophers have been after a way to live well. What should creatures do who are in the predicament explained by BBT? If you had the power, would you force everyone to read your writings on the blind brain and to understand them? If the revelation is inevitable, do we have any control over how we’ll react? You’ll say there’s no real difference between living well and badly, since those are illusions. But I’m saying we live not just in neurological reality but in the game domain, in the field of illusions, in the matrix/cave. Should we stay in the cave and lose sight of the sun/reality of the brain? Should we stop playing the game entirely and try to be posthuman nihilists? Should we go the existential/aesthetic/ascetic route? What I’m saying is that BBT itself leaves these questions open, whereas you talk sometimes as though this weren’t so.

Your last line is intriguing. You say the fictions resuscitate nothing and “simply beg for an understanding of what they are in the most informatically comprehensive sense possible.” “Simply beg”? I’m reminded of Leo Strauss’s distinction between the ancient and the modern perspectives. He says modernists believe the masses should be told all the dark truths of nature, even though the masses aren’t competent to deal with them and the revelation may destroy society. The ancients were elitists who hid their wisdom from the masses and told the latter noble lies instead. You’re speaking as though modernism were the only option. Moreover, you’re speaking as though your recommendation didn’t presuppose the values of a particular culture. Your contention that we should burst our bubbles and seek the scientific explanation of our illusions isn’t itself a scientific statement; it’s a normative one, which means it’s occurring within the game/matrix/illusion, just like my blog’s existential philosophy. This is why I say that if we’re going to do philosophy, we’ve got to play by its rules instead of assuming we’re always doing science.


SCOTT BAKKER: To be clear, you're agreeing there is no normativity, but that second-order (theoretical) normativity talk (philosopher talk) itself has consequences which may themselves be salutary? If so, then how is this 'transcendentalism'?

"Your approach, though, is to juxtapose the naïve way of speaking with the scientific one. You say, “Here’s what we’re led to think about ourselves, but here’s what’s really going on.” You’re right, of course, that the power of our adapted heuristics doesn’t entail the power of the manifest image. But this doesn’t mean that that image has no power from some other source. I think our ancient ancestors just stumbled onto this fictional inner world when they became self-“aware,” or more self-controlling with language. It’s a bumbling, stumbling exaptation we’re speaking of, the result being an absurd game we all tend to play."

I definitely agree that metacognition is the primary engine of cultural and social bootstrapping, but for reasons entirely other than those assumed by theoretical metacognition. It seems we differ on just what this means. For me, it means the only way to genuinely cognize this process is to conceive it in continuity with the life sciences more generally--mechanically. And the only way to do this is to ruthlessly bracket our second-order intentional commitments. If you have no interest in theoretical cognition then your problem becomes, first and foremost, I think, a pedestrian one of justifying your theoretical claims. Do you really think you're simply advocating those dupes (subreptions or 'noble lies') that most reliably induce us to self-report life-satisfaction on Rants? Your posts read like good old-fashioned claims to me!  

The other points we've been through before, I think. I agree that the picture painted by BBT is likely an unlivable one. Lord knows it rots my heart! But less idiosyncratically, wholesale metacognitive subreption just makes more evolutionary sense. For me the point is to be prepared for the worst news possible: if something like BBT turns out to be the case then cognition and experience have genuinely parted ways and we find ourselves in a very strange place indeed. If some noocentric residue seems to be a necessary condition of intuitively satisfying metacognitive intelligibility. Those of us interested in cognition have to bite the akratic bullet, so to speak. The masses are interested in cognition, only so long as it doesn't involve humility or work. For me the point is to simply raise the spectre of this problem, to create a culture where semantic reactionary panderers like Eckhart Tolle seal as few people in as possible. Otherwise, I'm writing for those who still think their metacognitive intuitions limn reality.


BEN CAIN: I'm agreeing that normativity isn't a matter of facts laid out in the best scientific theory of reality. Normativity is some sort of game played in response to the facts and you can play that game well or poorly. Maybe that latter difference can be understood in terms of functions and mechanisms, but my point here is that if we grant on the contrary that meanings and values aren't matters of fact, since they won't show up in the best scientific theory, there's still a transcendental defense of them, because facts aren't all there is.

Science deals in facts, so science doesn't recognize normativity as real. But normativity lives at the level of illusions, which is just Kant's point about phenomena. When things in themselves are perceived and understood by creatures with certain cognitive equipment/biases, things are bound to appear to them as being different from how they really are, because of the interaction between these noumena. Normativity is part of the apparent world for us. That's the matrix/cave/game. There's a transcendental defense here because your mechanistic metaphysics shows how our perception of meanings and values is inevitable. What I call the existential predicament is that you (and science) also show that that perception is flawed and undermined by the best theory of the facts. And we're left with the mystery of what to do about that.

Yeah, I think you've got a science-centered view of theories and cognition. That's why you tend to completely discount folk psychology and commonsense intuitions, because for you the latter are merely pseudoscientific. You're assuming science is the only game in town. I agree that if knowing the facts is our only goal, science is the best way to go. But that's not our only goal. We also want to be able to live well, and merely knowing all the facts won't tell us how to live. We're required to make something like an irrational leap of faith, to commit to a way of life, to choose what to value as sacred. My problem with scientism is that it amounts to a pragmatic, science-centered belief system which relies on self-delusion, because it allows a naturalist to pretend she's made no leap of faith in addition to knowing all the science.

Now of course my blog RWUG doesn't advocate the noble lies. My blog is for the "malfunctioning" outsiders who have seen past those illusions and are wondering what they should then believe at the philosophical and religious levels, given that they accept science and naturalism. Naturalism is existentially and religiously insufficient as the ideological part of a way of life.

You can say that atheists have no business being religious. This will depend on definitions, of course, but I think atheists do tend to be religious. Their religion is scientism, consumerism, pragmatism, technophilism, postmodern liberalism, or something like that. Religion is a set of illusory beliefs about what's held to be sacred. Some illusions, though, are better than others, whereas I think you assume they're all equally rotten. If philosophy and religion deal in illusions, compared to science which deals in reality, some meanings and values still make for better responses to the facts than do others. What determines their superiority? In the end, it might be an irrational leap of faith, but some people leap further than others and that requires greater courage and other heroic qualities. The question, then, would be whether any of us has any alternative to making some such leap.

I agree completely with your last paragraph. Indeed, there are panderers and demagogues and then there are the doomsayers. It wouldn't be surprising if the former turned out to be more popular until the great gongs are rung, the apocalyptic fires are lit, and the masses realize they've been duped and what they needed was a more reliable illusion/philosophy/religion, one that didn't discount natural reality so completely but that would have allowed us to make our peace with the facts and still give us a worthy role to play. That's the kind of philosophy/religion I'm looking for.


SCOTT BAKKER: We are getting close, but you still keep falling into the same noocentric posture without actually defending it. I understand why you're doing it: it's intuitively forceful and the counterintuitive picture I'm offering is very counterintuitive indeed, and the consequences are nasty as all get out. The big blockage, I'm coming to see, is that you take the appearance/reality (and its conceptual relatives, 'phenomena/noumena,' 'fiction/fact,' etc.) distinction literally as opposed to heuristically. This is what allows you to reconstitute intentional phenomena at the level of 'real fictions,' why you think the implicature of BBT actually possesses room for your existential approach, and why you think I guilty of some kind of cognitivistic or scientistic overreach. What I keep trying to show you is that there is no such level, at least not the way you seem to be conceiving it, if you grant that BBT (or some similar theory) will eventually be confirmed.

On BBT (following TI) there's just 'nature,' full stop, no 'noumenal realm' to oppose or govern any 'phenomenal realm.' Only nature. This is the 'level' of functional consistency (or as close as we have come to it), the level where functional consistency is assessed, the level that kills us or allows us to flourish, the level of 'truths' as well as the level of 'lies.'

Simply put, there is no coherent 'level of appearances' for you to hang your hat on: this is itself another metacognitive artifact, another wheel that does not turn (or turns too little). I personally think you need only look at the morass of contradictory, incompatible, and inexplicable intentional claims you find in philosophy to see this is so. Our brains are bent on dredging some kind of 'functional sense' from this morass, some notion of what governs what, what leads to what, and so on and so forth. But it all falls apart under the merest questioning because there is no 'super-functional' sense to be had, 'fictional' or otherwise. The concept 'normativity' is efficacious in the sense that it does things, but it does nothing normative, no more than the heuristic economy afforded by the concept 'design' does anything purposive in evolutionary contexts. In other words, if you want to employ 'normativity' in a manner consistent with the way it functions, in life or anywhere else, then you have to leave normativity behind. 

My point is that far from discussing a level of real fictions, as you presume, you have in fact migrated to a level of fictive fictions. The level of 'real fictions' is simply the everyday, implicit, nontheoretical level where we constantly and continually use words like 'rule,' 'point,' and so on to great effect. As soon you try to regiment them in on the basis of metacognitive intuition (as filtered through tradition no less)--or nonnaturalistic reflection--you're no longer talking about anything at all.

One of the many hunches I hope to work through at some point is that Wittgenstein's conceptual quietism (or flirtation with it, depending on your reading), which he rationalized in terms of language games (and so backed himself into a corner requiring he posit some kind of 'ur-game' he could not justify on pain of circularity), actually pertains to the metacognitive neuromechanical impasse I'm discussing here. The problem isn't that we're introducing pieces that don't belong to a particular game board; the problem is that we're employing domain-specific heuristics to problem ecologies they simply are not adapted to.

This is where Dennett goes off the rails, for instance. He's content to cite the 'reality' of the patterns that implicit intentional concepts pick out and leave it at that. This allows him to play fast and loose with the 'applicability conditions' of all his various 'stances,' to opportunistically accuse Original Intentionalists of applying intentional concepts too broadly while accusing Greedy Reductionists of applying them too narrowly (or eliminating them altogether). By remaining vague about the heuristic nature of his stances, he gives himself a big stick, something that lets him rap a lot of knuckles. It also allows him to universalize 'stances'--an intentional concept that screams the very functional integration I'm denying here--into something possessing omni-applicability. It handily subordinates the biomechanical to the noopragmatic (as the 'physical stance') and thus allows him to perpetuate the notion that there's any such thing as a level of functional fictions tractable to philosophical reflection. To agree with the likes of Brandom, for instance.

But once again, on BBT these 'fictions' (which, on BBT, are not entirely fictional so much as very narrowly factual) are only implicitly functional, and the functions (such as delivering the 'good life') subserved can only be cognized in biomechanical terms. Of course they can be fictionalized as opposed to cognized to no end (and there's an argument here, I think, for the superiority of art over philosophy). The problem, quite simply, is that we have no fucking idea what we're talking about when it comes intentional theoretical discourse. We have no object to be known, which you are willing to admit, but we likewise have no function to be understood, aside from, perhaps, some vague and anodyne notion of upsetting received views--the rationale I use for my fiction, in fact! 


BEN CAIN: I think I see why there can’t literally be any illusions on your view, and thus why you must have been using “illusion” “under erasure” (I took the word from your writings). For an illusion you need two things: similarity and the truth-mistake distinction. So an illusion would be when a similarity causes us to mistake one thing for something else. There’s no room for the semantic truth-mistake distinction in the best scientific theory, according to BBT. At best, then, there can be similarities but no illusions.

Strictly speaking, then, what’s the problem with folk psychology, theism, or pseudoscience? They’re not false, because there’s no such thing as truth or falsehood. Also, they don’t fail according to any epistemic value, since there’s no such thing as values either. What we’ve still got on the table is the Darwinian function-malfunction distinction. We can say some mechanisms contribute to our fitness while others don’t. But here’s where the mechanistic version of my transcendental strategy comes in. If it turns out that our intuitions about ourselves have adaptive or exaptive value, by comforting us with “illusions” or “mistakes” so that we don’t let our high intelligence make us all suicidal in response to the horrors of natural reality, a hardcore naturalist should have no complaint with those intuitions. If there are just functional and dysfunctional mechanisms, which is to speak only of causal relations that do or that don’t carry the genes forward in a reproductive cycle, and intuitions have a pro-reproductive role, that’s the end of your story, strictly speaking, right? If you add that intuitions inevitably get the facts wrong, and you think that that judgment of intuitions will be licensed by finished science, I think you’ve opened the door to talk of truth and falsehood and thus of reality and appearance, or illusion.

Assuming we’re working without the truth or illusion concepts, when you say the brain is blind to itself, that blindness can be bad for only one reason that I can see: the blindness hinders the replication of our genes. The contrary view seems clear, though: the fact that we’re ignorant of how exactly our brain works (unless we start doing neuroscience) benefits us in innumerable ways. If we knew how our brain works, we might think we can design better species than can millions of years of evolution, and that might cause us to destroy ourselves, not to mention all other species too. Also, our ignorance protects us by causing us to replace the “truth” about ourselves with a fantasy which--regardless of its truth status, which we’re counting as nothing--causes us to live well with our high intelligence in other areas. Our blindness to ourselves likely has drawbacks as well, but the point is that if we’re taking the truth-illusion distinction off the table, all we’ve got left are causal relations that do or that don’t serve the genes, and it seems to me that the blindness you speak of can go either way. Thus, contrary to what you often say, BBT might supply us with a mechanistic defense of folk psychology and the manifest image.

Regardless of whether our intuitive self-knowledge is accurate or otherwise truth-oriented, since that way of talking comes to nothing on this austere naturalism, by showing in great detail how our folk “fictions” come about due to our blindness, BBT might explain why those fictions persist (because they’re adapted or exapted). And that could be the end of your naturalistic story, strictly speaking.

If that’s right, I think my transcendental defense of intuitions works out. We can still talk about truth and values (and thus about existentialism, religion, and all the other goodies), and be good naturalists, as long as we understand that the causal power of this talk is all that matters, that what’s naturally happening here is just that we’re “fooling” ourselves so that we can keep replicating our genes. If instead we keep scientifically exploring the workings of our brain, we may bring that reproductive process to a close. And again, that’s the end of your naturalistic story.

But this isn’t really all you want to say, is it, Scott? You want to praise science and condemn philosophy and religion. If our only reason for doing so has to do with the extent to which those disciplines contribute to our evolutionary fitness, I don’t think the situation is as clear as BBT makes out. If anything, science and naturalism may be the bigger threats, and the intuitive nonsense of philosophy and religion may be functionally crucial, precisely because of their systematic blindness to our inner nature. We’ve only been doing modern science for a few centuries and already we’ve got nuclear and biological weapons. Plus, we’ll be able to tinker with our genes, and so on and so forth.

I know you speak of this as an apocalypse we should be dreading, but my question is why, then, you side with science and slam philosophy and religion. If adaptability is the only issue for the austere naturalist, shouldn’t you be condemning science for overcoming our blindness, and urging us to entertain more and more intuitive fantasies? Why not be a creationist who tries to get Intelligent Design into biology classes, to keep us blind for the sake of our genes, all other values coming to nothing? I’m sure you’ll say that because we’re usually blind to our brains, we all undertake our various foolish projects, based on our intuitions, biases, fallacies, and so on. My point, though, is that an austere naturalist may paradoxically have to count the defense of naturalism as one such intuitive folly. Mechanistically speaking, creationism might be better than naturalism, for the only reason that matters: the “fantasy” of the immortal spirit might be better for the genes than scientific knowledge of how our brain works.

On the contrary, though, I suspect you do presuppose some semantic or normative distinction which you think counts in science’s favour. You want to say that science tells us the truth about ourselves, whereas philosophy and religion err, that science grabs hold of reality whereas our intuitions mislead us. If you think some such distinction is fundamental, that allows for a further transcendental defense of intuitions, because it just so happens that meaning and truth are pretty intuitive to us.

If we’re leaving all semantic concepts off the table, then I wonder what becomes of “science,” “theories,” and “cognition/knowledge.” Those will have to be stripped of their normative and semantic connotations and understood in purely mechanistic/causal terms as well. In that case, we should be interested only in the efficiency or the consequences of, say, science compared to armchair intuition. As you know, there are indeed naturalists who take an instrumental rather than a realistic view of science. Instrumentalism can become pragmatic and thus normative, but if we disregard the normative aspect of the values that determine usefulness, we have a clear reason to praise science, since science has many more technological applications than does raw intuition. Thus, your criticism of folk psychology may be that intuitions shouldn’t be thought of as being in the knowledge business. Science performs its cognitive function, whereas intuitions have some noncognitive function. Loosely speaking, we “err” when we suppose that we know anything about ourselves based merely on nonscientific thought processes. Still, intuitions may have some other evolutionary function to perform, such as keeping most people ignorant so they don’t kill themselves.

The main point I’ve been trying to make here is that this mechanistic picture still leaves room for my talk of existential rebellion, aesthetic evaluation, and so forth, as long as we distinguish the causal from the semantic and the normative ways of understanding that sort of talk. Many people are forced to be ignorant for their own evolutionary good. A minority come to understand or appreciate the natural facts. Some of that minority may become depressed and suicidal. The naturalistic questions remain: How should the cognitive elites live well in evolutionary terms, despite their difficulty personalizing themselves, thanks to their enlightenment? That is, once science relieves us of our blindness to our robotic nature, how can we still function well in evolutionary terms? How can we be social and happy as opposed to alienated and miserable? Moreover, are there nonevolutionary processes we might take part in instead? If scientific knowledge is bound to make us unfit in evolutionary terms, can we do something besides replicating our genes? Surely we can, and as long as we regard as crucial the efficacy of the rules we set up to regulate that nonevolutionary process, I don’t see much of a naturalistic objection. But even if we get caught up in the “fantasy” and forget about the causal aspect of our nonevolutionary game, that return to ignorance may be the whole point; that’s one way of passing the time without scaring the crap out of ourselves.


SCOTT BAKKER: I’m beginning to appreciate the degree to which we're both pulling on the same rope, only in different directions. I even coined a term for this decades ago, 'emphatics,' in an attempt to get a handle on debates like ours.

You're right: on BBT implicit truth is a radical heuristic, a low-dimensional schematization signaling the sensorimotor reliability of various environmental comportments. Explicit or philosophical truth is the product of our metacognitive attempts to regiment our implicit usages, producing environmental comportments (theories of meaning, etc.) that are famously unreliable. This provides an excellent example of my own 'emphatic bias': these are the cases that I think are the most significant. Any intentional discourse that assumes the sufficiency of truth (that fails to consider its heuristic structure and the attending constraints) can only muddy the waters given the nature of the myopias involved. 

But at the same time, those 'notoriously unreliable' regimentations made possible the development of formal semantics, which I'm guessing you would take to be salient example of a 'noble lie.'  No matter how or where conscious cognition stands in the neurodynamic food chain, there can be no doubt that the development of formal semantics has made a tremendous number of things possible. BBT argues that it isn't what its practitioners take it to be, that its development would be facilitated by abandoning our intentional characterizations, but it remains tremendously efficacious nonetheless.

I have no way of foreclosing on this actual or other possible exaptations of our metacognitive myopia--this, I think, is what you keep circling back to... Am I right about this? If so, I concede as much.

So I fall back on a ceteris paribus claim: All things being equal, metacognitive myopia impedes far more than facilitates the kinds of behavioural trajectories we take ourselves to be exploring (searching for social harmony, the good life, etc.). I'm guessing you would grant me this much, then counter that these metacognitive myopias are nevertheless all we've got when it comes to pursuing those selfsame trajectories.

To which I want to answer, No, we have BBT now as well, which is to say, a way to finally get behind these metacognitive myopias naturalistically, thus opening the prospect of finally hitching the human to the scientific revolution.

The problem, however, lies in the mandatory nature of these metacognitive myopias, the fact that, for all the vectors of efficacious action BBT might open up, convincing other brains is not among them. This is the basis of my position on Akratic Society, for example. And it means, I think you want to say, that we are in a very real sense stranded with our metacognitive myopias as a collective, that as limited as their resources might be, they are still socially necessary--pending the post-human.

And this is where we genuinely part ways, I think. You want to fall back on this necessity and hunt for possible exaptations, ways to make our metacognitive myopia work for us; whereas I want to see BBT through, to map its implicature with as much elegance and detail as I can manage, all the while rooting for some twist or reconceptualization that might save some shred of 'human dignity,' knowing it's likely another metacognitive pipe dream.

Now I think we're engaged in a tug o' war not to win, but to decide between varieties of defeat: one where we cling to a cheating wife in the pretense of bliss, the other where we divorce her to dwell in desolation with what is the case.

Framed this way, at least, there's likely no way to resolve the issue short of plunging ahead on our respective paths and seeing what happens.

What do you think?

So to bring this back to the text of your (eloquently made) argument: 

"The main point I’ve been trying to make here is that this mechanistic picture still leaves room for my talk of existential rebellion, aesthetic evaluation, and so forth, as long as we distinguish the causal from the semantic and the normative ways of understanding that sort of talk. Many people are forced to be ignorant for their own evolutionary good. A minority come to understand or appreciate the natural facts. Some of that minority may become depressed and suicidal. The naturalistic questions remain: How should the cognitive elites live well in evolutionary terms, despite their difficulty personalizing themselves, thanks to their enlightenment? That is, once science relieves us of our blindness to our robotic nature, how can we still function well in evolutionary terms? How can we be social and happy as opposed to alienated and miserable? Moreover, are there nonevolutionary processes we might take part in instead? If scientific knowledge is bound to make us unfit in evolutionary terms, can we do something besides replicating our genes? Surely we can, and as long as we regard as crucial the efficacy of the rules we set up to regulate that nonevolutionary process, I don’t see much of a naturalistic objection. But even if we get caught up in the “fantasy” and forget about the causal aspect of our nonevolutionary game, that return to ignorance may be the whole point; that’s one way of passing the time without scaring the crap out of ourselves."

The only 'end' I see operative in all this turns on what I think is happening on a larger, biological level. Evolution went 'meta' with the development of brains, of systems that allowed for the generation and systematic selection of behavioural variants according to the efficacy of the material interventions they enable. Now, it’s about to go meta once again: technology is making the material substrate of systematic selection (both at the level of morphologies and behaviours) accessible to behavioural intervention--which is to say, systematic selection. This is going to ramp up 'selection velocity' to a fever pitch, and ultimately toss everything over the technological event horizon of the singularity. There's nothing imperative or normative involved. I'm not 'presupposing anything normative or semantic in science's favour,' just steadfastly insisting that it's the trajectory that's driving our collective boat. No matter what anyone 'chooses to believe,' they are living its consequences, and obviously so.

Otherwise, I think that you, like me, are grasping at straws trying to hack something inhuman and irrevocable into something more palatable--trying to find ways to cope in what is the greatest intellectual crisis in the history of the human race. I just can't see how intentional apologia is anything other than Death Row anaesthetic. So I say, even though the chances are likely nil, even though we're likely exchanging our final stab at pleasure and bliss for toil and misery, we have no choice but to pull off some kind of prison break--and to do that, we first need a floor plan of the penitentiary. BBT. 


BEN CAIN: I was inclined to give you the last word there for now, but I’ll just address some of the questions you raised. It looks like we agree about the possible benefits of the brain’s blindness to itself and I certainly agree with your last paragraph, about where both of our blogs stand in the big picture.

You say, “All things being equal, metacognitive myopia impedes far more than facilitates the kinds of behavioural trajectories we take ourselves to be exploring.” I’m tempted to think of this in the two-headed, Straussian/Platonic way. We might need two paths, the esoteric and the exoteric, to accommodate the differences between people. The folk delusions could be useful to some people but not to others or they could be useful in different ways to different people. The masses may need them to avoid depression and suicide, while the philosophically-inclined could use them in the Nietzschean way, as toys to gauge their personal authenticity and existential progress. Ideally, though, I suppose you’re right, if we’re thinking instrumentally rather than normatively about how best to follow the technoscience-centered trajectories, the ignorance-based biases are counterproductive. Certainly, they don’t help us understand the natural facts (except perhaps as hypothesis generators).

Still, I’d also turn to my curse of reason thesis and posit that without the delusions, we might well be too smart for our good. You may have more faith in technoscience than I do, and indeed you seem to fall back on posthumanism here. I’m willing to change my mind about the prospects of using technology to change our inner nature, but personally I’m pessimistic about that scenario. That is, I grant that posthumanism is technologically possible, in theory (since we’re just natural creatures), but I suspect we wouldn’t change ourselves for the better in the long run, there would be disastrous unintended consequences and gross inequalities in how the cognitive scientific findings would be applied, and so forth.

Short of that posthuman revolution, we are indeed stuck with the tendency to guard our intuitions and biases and thus with the challenge of making the best of our hardware deficiencies. But my point has been that this transcendentalism follows from BBT itself; that is, my strategy has been to analyze BBT and see whether the mechanistic and transcendental views are compatible. And precisely because folk psychology has a mechanistic basis, given BBT, the myopia will be with us for the duration until we change those mechanisms in the technoscience-driven, posthuman scenario. Until that sci-fi revolution, the existential philosophy I’m working with nicely lays out some options, I think.

You suggest that existential cosmicism and BBT are mutually exclusive, that hunting for possible exaptations is somehow opposed to seeing BBT through to its end. I just see the ends of these projects as different rather than incompatible. Technoscience will keep pushing the envelope regardless of what philosophers say, so that threat to commonsense will grow and grow, as both our blogs assume. In the meantime, what should nonscientists do about that threat? That’s where my blog comes in. At least recently, your blog is about spelling out the mechanistic basis of the threat, whereas mine explores a philosophy and a religion that prepare us to face up to the danger while pushing us to evolve somewhat in the needed alien direction. We’re bound to be alienated, since our vain social conventions will be found to be wrongheaded, as technoscience bursts our bubbles.

What sort of aliens/posthumans should we be? If normativity will be seen as part of the delusion, it’s just a matter of charting the possible courses of action and picking one via an irrational leap of faith (or with a rationalization to make us feel better about our lack of freewill). I’m charting an option, called existential cosmicism. It’s a viewpoint I think speaks to those who are already social outsiders, even before the cog sci revolution makes us all homeless. Maybe the masses will need an alienated vanguard to help them transition to posthumanity. Maybe existential cosmicism just gives us food for thought as we ponder what the transition will entail (curse of reason, undead nature, alienation and horror, spiritual/pantheistic naturalism, aesthetic construal of morality, esoteric vs exoteric ways of life).


SCOTT BAKKER: The incompatibility is a specific consequence of the 'problem of sufficiency,' which is the theoretical cornerstone of BBT. It's sufficiency that renders metacognitive intuitions regarding the function of any aspect of the mental absolutely useless, which in turn licenses the ceteris paribus claim against noofunctionalism of any kind. The 'efficacy of the mental' as we prescientifically intuit it is as likely wrong as any other prescientific theoretical posit. This is why I keep dogging you on the inconsistency of acknowledging the meaninglessness of the cosmos yet advocating for the meaningfulness of subjectivity. To say there is no meaning in nature is just to say there is no meaning in us. The death of God is the death of Man. There is no objective subject or subjective object.

'Should,' normatively understood, is an artifact of medial neglect: the inability to cognize the selective neuromechanisms driving any course of action generates the illusion of 'choice,' of voluntaristic selection between alternatives. What 'should' anyone, and not just nonscientists, do to adapt to the incremental death of noos? I have no idea how to even begin answering such a question short of some fundamental recharacterization!

17 comments:

  1. I strongly believe that you two incorrectly assume (at least for purposes of this debate) that science has the ability to discover fundamental facts of complex systems, and that greatly clouds the entire debate.

    BBT seems a) correct and b) wise but not knowledgeable. In that sense, I mean it can act as a cautionary tale but gives no actionable structure.

    I had a very hard time figuring out what the utility of BBT was until the very end, in which Scott connected it to transhumanism and the ability to navigate our increasingly precarious world; this is why he believes it is actionable.

    However, if you remove the first assumption about science, then that utility is removed.

    BBT is wise in that it cautions its own existence. In Scott's summary he notes: "Absent information pertaining to the absence of information, cognition assumes the adequacy of the information available, no matter how inadequate it may be," which I'm arguing is true but applies to BBT's utility itself.

    Technoscientism is increasingly driving existential purpose for the techno-professional class because they have not been taught (or properly exposed to) any other way and thus desperately need to believe in the Big Lie about the prospects of science to answer fundamental questions to give their own lives meaning. I have met many people that are trapped in this game and fail to recognize the destruction that this mindset is bringing to the world -- a destruction that is ironically noted by the very science they purport to accept.

    The Myth of Progress is rapidly destroying us psychically and our environment physically. However, this is not directly falsifiable and is tautological because all consequences are written off as areas that will be improved.

    In that sense, more transcendental and normative areas of thought are the only ways to rebalance our relationship to reality and provide the utility that Scott desires from BBT.

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    1. Have you talked to Scott Bakker about chaos and systems theories that you say obviate the scientific talk of mechanisms, Mikkel? I'd be very interested to read what he says in response. I think you're right that the New Mechanists may drastically oversimplify what scientific theories actually say or imply. This would be comparable to the positivists' oversimplifications about scientific methods.

      My commitment to the existence of cognitive mechanisms is more provisional than Scott's, I think. As I've said to Scott, I prefer to talk of natural processes than mechanisms. My blog's big inference is this: If the worst-case scenario of philosophical naturalism is true, here's a reconstruction of morality and religion that does justice to the existential horrors uncovered by that philosophy. I've been assuming that naturalists posit mechanisms or microprocesses, but if instead they talk about statistics or dynamic relationships emerging from chaos, we can enter those into naturalism. Either way, I think the natural facts tend to upset our intuitive self-image, including our intuitions about morality, freedom, consciousness, and rationality.

      So I agree that "more transcendental and normative areas of thought are the only ways to rebalance our relationship to reality." My blog is meant to explore some viable countermeasures. Not all normative ideas are viable, though; for example, there's fundamentalist religion which doesn't do justice to science. So I criticize what I call exoteric forms of supernaturalism, the ones that oversimplify science just as badly as do the scientistic folks or perhaps the cognitive scientists.

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    2. Systems thought is still a minority among basic researchers, let alone outside naturalists; although the younger group of scientists seem to be largely systems thinkers by upbringing.

      I agree that not all normative ideas are viable (actually that is an understatement) and I am extremely glad that you are attempting to take a tact that is based on formal philosophy without being postmodern.

      Please allow me to go on a tangent relating to literature and bring it back to my comment above.

      The problem with most postmodernist thought is that it takes the fact that social context colors all empiricism and then throws everything else away.

      Several postmodernist philosophers seem to use chaos theory and such to argue things very similar to what I am doing yet they then throw out any self correcting mechanism, such as experiments, natural observation or even cross disciplinary collaboration. [This engineer that attempted to understand deconstruction likens it to a social Galapagos Islands scenario.]

      The reason why I started reading your blog in the first place is that it was the first time I'd encountered someone writing about the history of western philosophy and then attempting to make original insights that aren't classically postmodern.

      I feel this is largely because you appreciate Eastern philosophy as well. I have a friend who just got her PhD in literature and she was trying to explain how brilliant Derrida was, a realization that took her years of intense study to comprehend. After a few hours of tutelage, I realized that he was merely stating what is presented in the Tao in a couple of stanzas.

      "All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

      So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to
      (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another."

      Derrida spends God knows how long expressing this and then comments about how classical dualism is not neutral and one concept is dominant in context. This is of course true and seems to be a primary metacongitive process like Scott has identified.

      Derrida then says that to deconstruct the text is to pull apart these hierarchies and stand aside, critically noting that they exist, speculating why they exist and for whom they exist. By doing that, the critic can then point out inherent politicization and play around with different contexts to put the text back together in different ways.

      My criticism is that by focusing on the mechanism rather than the purpose of a text, the critic has subverted the will of the author and destroyed the transaction with the reader. The deconstructionist would then counter that it is merely exposing the hidden biases that the author was a prisoner of, and creates a normative opportunity to herald understanding (and thus society) in a new direction. They then pull in chaos theory and such to support this premise.

      Yet by doing this, the deconstructionist has cleaved the relationship of the text to observable reality and cast it forth into the realm of pure logic. The author's intent and the emotion of the anecdotal reader is replaced by the ideal reader filled with a speculative history, identity and culture. Of course the critic is the one creating this new entity and can use it for their own devices.

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    3. This power is dangerous because it makes the critic into a demigod and gives them the responsibility of making sure everything is accurate. This rarely happens and thus most deconstructed texts quickly fall prey to psuedoscience and chic historicism.

      Similarly, the Tao teaches that the apparent hierarchies are illusionary and the sage stands aside of the trap. However, it then imparts wisdom about this state.

      "Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and
      conveys his instructions without the use of speech.

      All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement).

      The work is done, but how no one can see;
      'Tis this that makes the power not cease to be."

      To me the Tao is about recognizing the fact of context the postmodernists (and Scott's BBT) point to, but then recognizing that the reality is the flow of context and so a wise person lives in the flow instead of breaking it down to attempt to understand the pieces.

      "Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise."

      While I don't think BBT is as groundless as deconstructionism yet, it potentially could suffer from the same fate. Indeed, we are already seeing cognitive science used to further status quo economic aims, and it is quickly becoming a dominant force in social policy.

      It again leads to the "How" giving no guidance into "Why," and Deconstruction does the opposite. Whereas BBT's focus on How and Deconstructionism's focus on Why seem to make them oppositional, they both disrupt the flow.

      I'll leave a link to see what Scott thinks.

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    4. Very interesting stuff here. I never really got into postmodernism, although in grad school I read a lot of Rorty's pragmatism. What turned me off of postmodernism was the pretentious style of writing. Much too literary and not nearly argumentative enough for my taste. There's a lot of phoniness in postmodern writing. I think there's phoniness in analytic philosophy too, but it's not the same. Much postmodern writing is simply prose poetry; instead of arguing, the writer asserts and asserts as though he were in ecstasy speaking for his muse. And if you boil down the rhetoric, often you're left either with obviously false oversimplifications or with trivially true banalities. I use postmodern writing like I use poetry: to inspire me sometimes with some creative images. Still, there are some recent speculative realists I'd like to read, such as Ray Brassier.

      I think I know more about Buddhism than I do about Taoism. As I understand it, Taoism is similar to Aristotle's teleological kind of naturalism. This may be a problem with translation, but I understand "Tao" to have a functional meaning, so that the ways or processes of nature are taken to be good, which is why we ought to go with the flow, as in Stoicism too. That's a problem for me. It's just the naturalistic fallacy of deriving an "ought" to simplistically from an "is." I'm interested in pantheism too, but for me natural processes are undead; rather than being good, they're monstrous in their impersonal creativity which mocks our pretensions. The ways of nature are sublime but horrible as well.

      By the way, I've recently read a few chapters on dynamical systems theory, to refresh my memory. Is that your take on the mind? Van Gelder, the use of differential equations and initial conditions to predict overall patterns in systems, what Lee Smolin calls Newton's geometricization of the world, so that the dynamacist winds up with pictures that represent highly complex patterns?

      I'd like to ask Scott why he favours the mechanistic view, since DST eschews representations, whereas classic cognitive mechanisms (algorithms) were defined in terms of meaningful symbols and are thus more compatible with the manifest image.

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    5. The Tao is interesting and I have no idea what the original author (supposedly Lao Tzu) would think about how it led to Taoism.

      The chief thing to remember is that the Tao is written as if it were literally advice to rulers, not as a common philosophy book. In fact, it makes great pains to distinguish between "the sage" and the commoner, explicitly saying that commoners should be kept in ignorance similar to Strauss.

      That said other stanzas suggest universality, so perhaps some are talking about philosophy and some are talking about governance, but they may work at cross purposes even while arising from the same source?

      Philosophically, the Tao is not normative at all and Taoism is the MOST agnostic about distinctions of "good" to the point that some fundamentalist Taoists have questioned whether even the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be said to be "bad" or whether it is just neutrally part of the Tao and was a mere consequence of the cycle of balance. [From my understanding this caused a great rift in the community 50 years ago.]

      In my personal interpretation I would not say that Taoism is naturalistic, I would say that nature is Taoistic. By that I mean that nature itself behaves as the Tao counsels, but that the Tao does not hold nature at any higher regard than other way...it merely counsels that a sage recognizes the essence of system behavior.

      When I read the Tao the first time, I instantly knew it was the best representation of my world view, and from there I studied DST formally and directly learned about the mathematical constructs that have arisen. In my mind, the Tao is simply DST 101 in verse instead of equations/heuristics and nearly every theorist I've talked with has had the identical interpretation.

      I only came to fully understand the qualities of the Tao (such as elation of Ignorance) that I had a real hard time reconciling with liberal western thought through my professional work. Now I have a very nuanced understanding about Knowledge that your blog helped communicate as well.

      As you state, Knowledge is used by humanity as a force of control, almost inherently. Yet in a complex system, we cannot predict or fully control its behavior and attempts to do so cause destabilization (such as what is happening with the financial system and ecologically). Therefore, Knowledge is not the supreme goal, but Ignorance.

      But this doesn't mean that Taoism is against Learning. And here is where there is a break with Western Liberalism that took me a long time to reconcile.

      I will share two anecdotes to make the point about being a literate ignoramus.

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    6. I don't know much about cognitive dynamicism (and can't find much summary) but it is good to see some people recognizing that cognitive neuroscience should take guidance from settled physiological neuroscience.

      I actually just realized that I don't have many thoughts about DST as it applies to cognition, because I've always leaped from physiology to philosophy and sociology. Perhaps it's because cognition to me is metaphorical and like BBT posits, I believe we're blind to the process of it. I just skimmed a cognitive dynamicism paper and it was so abstract that there is no way to create a model to validate it.

      On the other hand, philosophy, sociology and psychology are all metaphorical but tangible so even though they aren't falsifiable, they are real. Other than creating true AI, the best outcome from cognitive science would be to inspire philosophy, and I don't think it's a prerequisite.

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  2. This is the single most mind-blowing email exchange I have read in my entire life.

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    1. Wow! I'm glad you got something out of it. I thought Scott and I were really onto something as we kept the exchange going. We didn't end up changing each other's minds on the principles of our respective projects, but as I say at the beginning, I think we're both much clearer now about the interrelations between those projects.

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    2. This is in reply to something you said in reply to someone else: "Still, there are some recent speculative realists I'd like to read, such as Ray Brassier."

      Judging from your blog, you would REALLY dig Nihil Unbound, but if you find R. Scott Bakker a bit too technical at times, have an online philosophy encyclopedia handy.

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    3. Yeah, I heard about Brassier from RSB. I'm worried the writing style might be unnecessarily show-offy. Are there actual arguments in that book or is it more stream-of-consciousness, meditations, prose poetry, and so forth? Either way, I'm curious enough about it to give it a try.

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  3. In my prior life I worked in a neuroscience lab that studied breathing. It focused on basic research but worked with physicians as well.

    Like all contemporary science, there was a huge push to have it be "translatable" meaning that insights from the basic science could be used to have clinical significance at some point.

    My time there made me question the whole conceit of translatability.

    For instance, we used rats and mice to look at various parts of their physiology in different contexts: from the nerves/organ level down to individual neurons. This is an attempt to gain knowledge about the different levels of the system and then interconnect them (I should note that the scientists I worked with were systems physiologists so their work about actually try to work across different scales is itself radical!)

    There are a lot of problems that arose in this quest and even though we're gaining a lot of knowledge about each scale of physiology, I see no reason to believe we have any insight into how they interact.

    Yet there is even a bigger problem. Although rats/mice are mammals and have very similar physiology on the mechanistic level -- down to their respiratory control consisting of a relatively similar number of neurons -- there are obvious dramatic differences. For instance, the vagus nerve is a nerve that acts as an "integrator" for tons of feedback in the body from respiratory stuff to digestion to cardiac and so on and so forth.

    In a rat/mouse, if you cut he vagus then it will seem ok in the short term but then several hours later it'll drop dead. Taking recordings, we can see how the lack of feedback gradually causes respiration and heart rate to lose variability and slow down until there is nothing.

    For this reason, much of the basic research focuses on vagal feedback and its projections to the parts of the brain that control respiration.

    By contrast, if you cut it in a human then they don't drop dead. In fact, it is even used clinically as a way to affect metabolism. Now leaving aside the issue that they are treating a medical problem by cutting off one of the main sources of feedback for the entire body, this difference calls into question the entire point of the basic science research *because it suggests the rat/mouse cardiorespiratory system is configured around a feedback that humans don't use in the same way.* Thusly, even though the physiology looks very similar, the role is completely different.

    I once commented about this to a colleague and he said, "yes, but isn't it interesting that we are gaining Knowledge about the system?"

    Understanding this and other examples, I have come to doubt the efficacy of animal experimentation for much of anything. The number of drugs and treatments that work perfectly in the lab only to fail in the simplest trials is staggering.

    As one presentation at a medical conference stated, "The medical profession continues to progress rapidly. Our mice and rats have now achieved near immortality, and have almost become disease free and are able to recover from nearly any trauma. On the other hand, it's arguable whether we've made any progress in understanding human medicine since the invention of penicillin. Our patients are the unhealthiest they've been since then, and we are still stuck with methodologies not much different from when they bled people with leaches."

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  4. By contrast, I've gotten big into permaculture, which you should look up if you don't know what it is.

    Permaculture is not "natural" because it is still designed and maintained by humanity, but it is not about understanding and control either. Most of the practitioners argue that the best way to do it is plant the few big things you want and then scatter seeds around and let come what may; trimming and moving as required.

    Permaculture is very much in line with Taoism while even systems physiology is not. In permaculture we know far less about how the system is interacting than we know about a particular rat, yet we get way more utility out of the system as a whole.

    This is because Permaculture is concerned about setting up boundaries and has a healthy mentality about utilizing the essence of a site, not about predicting.

    The way I think about it is that Permaculture is about nurturing growth of the system, helping it along to evolve into a state in which it is intrinsically resilient but also has outputs that humans want.

    By contrast, attempting to break down systems and understand them with the intent of creating a control system is misunderstanding the nature of systems themselves. [That said I still am very much about using characterizing some systems and creating control systems and that's a big part of my belief about how we can move towards an integrated Liberal-Taoist worldview. The key is in boundary conditions.]

    Your comments about how Knowledge -> control and my recognizance about nurturing vs. control have helped me realize that nurturing is based on Literate Ignorance -- where one studies the nature of things but lets the details flow through.

    I would take another look at Taoism in that context and see what you find. In there you will see that Buddhism is extremely influenced by Taoism, it's just that Buddhism focuses on the practical question of reducing suffering that Taoism is indifferent to.

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    1. Your point about the limited use of experiments on mice reminds me of the article I'll be putting up tomorrow, "Humanization and Objectification: Why the World Doesn't Speak for Itself." I talk about the scientific method of breaking the world down into parts to get at the more fundamental properties. Lee Smolin's book on Time makes the point that that method leads to paradoxes when it's applied to cosmology, since the method presupposes there's something outside the isolated system.

      Also, I'll be writing something on Taoism, probably for next week.

      Have you seen the movie Pi, directed by Darren Aronofsky? It has some dynamicist and Taoist themes.

      When you talk about knowledge and control, I think this is the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory approach (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, etc). It's largely a Marxist criticism of capitalism's impact on Western cultures, but it's also a critique of instrumental reason. I subscribe to some of that critique, especially with regard to scientism and the two cultures, but that's not quite my main point about reason.

      The existentialist's criticism of reason is somewhat different. Instead of empowering us, reason stupefies us, at least in the long run. The curse of reason is that the more we know, the more detached we become from naive, anthropocentric concerns, and so the more angst-ridden and horrified we're liable to feel. So knowledge, which is to say philosophy in the broadest sense, isn't for everyone.

      This Straussian theme, then, which you say is in Taoism as well, is about the subversive impact of knowledge on our ways of life. If knowledge simply gave us more control, there would be nothing to hide or to fear, and you wouldn't see this esoteric-exoteric split across all cultures. Strauss said the folly of modernity is that we're more egalitarian and democratic about knowledge, trusting in the rational sovereignty of all individuals. Nevertheless, even modern societies end up dividing into elites and masses.

      I'm somewhat torn on Taoism. I see how Taoism is opposed to intellectualism as a form of egoism, but Taoism's solution (wu-wei)--spontaneous, simple, natural action in which we surrender to or at least harmonize with the ways of the larger systems, nature and the great Tao--rubs me the wrong way. I know existential rebellion (asceticism, creative deviation from natural norms, etc) looks like a fruitless game played by a bitter ego, but Nietzsche's point about the tragically heroic will that affirms the horrors of nature as a means of overcoming them strikes me as the more powerful fiction. Whether you prefer Taoist or existentialist myths might depend on whether you prefer comedy or tragedy.

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  5. Need to rewatch Pi - watched it when I was 19.

    Looking forward to your posts. Let me summarize your last point: I (as an individual) subscribe to your existential aestheticism now and am growing into wu-wei as I age, hopefully reaching it completely. As a society (collective) we should strive for wu-wei as an organizing, existential force; but allow radical individualism as the expression within it.

    Make sense?

    One time I was describing to a friend what it was like to having been seen as outrageously smart no matter what I was doing. I said that the trajectory of most people is that they are born ignorant and incompetent, strive to achieve some knowledge and utility and hope to create accomplishment. Their lives are about doing more and more.

    People like me are born competent, we struggle with not being able to turn the competency into reality (not given the resources to achieve things even though no one can argue why it wouldn't work), and then hopefully come to grips with human nature. Our lives are about growing into doing less and less.

    Of course some very smart people have megalomania or extreme myopia and refuse to be held within social limits, but they are also tend to be a mess on a personal level and spiritual level.

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  6. I just wanted to chime in here and say that this comment stream, and the blog post from this week, Humanization and Objectification, are currently my two favorite things on the entire Internet. The anecdote above about the lab rats encapsulates nearly everything I feel is wrong with our modern, technoscientistic worldview.

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    1. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it. Next week is Daoism and pantheism.

      Have you checked out the comments on Scott Bakker's post regarding this dialogue? There's a lot of interesting stuff there too, including comments by Mikkel. Here's the link:

      http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-noocentric-empire/

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