Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Blind Mind-unmaker

Imagine that you are in possession of a full, Laplacean knowledge of the state of another person's brain, a person who is arguing with you for a position diametrically opposed to your own. It does not matter what the content of the disagreement is; but what is essential, for the purposes of this thought-experiment, is that your knowledge of your interlocutor's brain-state -- a knowledge which is of course scientifically mediated, say by the enormous quantum-parallel-processing capacities a hyperfuturistic supercomputer -- also gives you the manipulative access to these brain-states. This means that in addition to being able to interfere with their brain "from above," i.e., trying to change their brain-states the old-fashioned way, by argument, you now also have the capacity to interfere "from below": changing one neuro-chemical or neuro-structural detail after another. We will further stipulate that this alteration be performed "non-invasively," and "cleanly" (with surgical precision but without surgery). No other collateral changes (no "unintended consequences") will attend the alterations of your opponent's brain. In fact, they will not experience you as having done anything to them at all, except argue with them. You have a Ring of Gyges when it comes to their brain. But, and here is the important point, you will be able to literally "change their mind."

In short, as you go on arguing with them, you can alternate your argumentative moves with making incremental changes in the brain, in such a way as to cause them to abandon their former intractability, and to agree with you.

Do you now feel that you have "won the argument?"

Have you done anything unethical? Do you feel guilty?

If the answer to the latter is Yes, you needn't worry -- on the terms we are supposing, you can also have a full account, scientifically mediated, of your own brain states, and can make any necessary adjustments to dissolve your reservations.

This is one extension -- by no means the most disturbing one -- I think of when I consider R. Scott Bakker's "worst-case scenario" of his Blind Brain Theory. I have to admit, I am relieved to see him say he regards it as a worst-case scenario. Now I have not read all of Bakker's (many and lengthy) posts on this matter, so I am open to correction; moreover, his hypothesis is so unpalatable to me that, while I applaud his refusal to pull his punches, I have almost certainly misconstrued it in some way. (Bakker predicts that one should find the theory unpalatable -- he does so himself.)

Insofar as I understand him, it would seem that he is drawing radical conclusions from the notion, also argued by Colin McGinn for instance, that the brain, a natural system like any other, simply did not evolve to understand its own processes but rather to ensure the survival of its organism. Consciousness is thus an inherently mysterious process to itself, not primarily because of some weird quality of self-reference qua self-reference, let alone because of something essentially ineffable and spiritual about consciousness itself, but because the brain inherently lacks the capacity to register the relevant data.

It isn't just what Bakker suggests here, it's specifically what he opposes, and his manner of opposing, that causes me to shudder.
science is overcoming the neural complexities that have for so long made an intentional citadel out of the soul. It will continue doing what it has always done, which is offer sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated, mechanical explanations of what it finds, and so effectively ‘disenchanting’ the brain the way it has the world.... Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding [than to confirm it], we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown. Indeed, we already have a growing mountain of evidence trending in this direction. Given our apologetic inclinations, however, it should come as no surprise that the literature is rife with arguments why all things are not equal. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of happy endings, especially where science is concerned (I’m inclined to think it will cut our throats), the difficulty I have with such arguments lies in their reliance on metacognitive intuition. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are in any better position peering into our souls than our ancestors were peering into the heavens. Why should the accumulation of scientific information be any friendlier to our traditional, prescientific assumptions this one time around?
Bakker critiques phenomenology and post-phenomenological philosophy, for instance, as a massive rationalization of our cherished illusions of being special, a rationalization doomed to being exposed as the New-Age conceit it is:
Yours is a prescientific discourse, one whose domain is about to be overrun by the sciences. The black box of the brain has been cracked open, revealing more than enough to put your conceptual conceits on notice. Did you really think you would be the lone exception? That your discourse, out of all of them, would be the one to prevail, to hold back the empirical philistines that had conquered all corners of existence otherwise? It’s not quite that point yet, but the longer you continue your discourses independent of the sciences, the more magical you become – the less cognitive. And with legitimacy goes institutional credibility. Like it or not, you have begun the perhaps not so long drift toward Oprah spots with Eckhart Tolle.
One possible rejoinder to Bakker is Davidsonian "anomalous monism," according to which there is no strict law-like account of the relation between mental and physical events, despite the fact that mental events are identical with (certain) physical events. But on the other hand, Bakker may have skirted this ploy already, because for the Blind Brain Theory (as I understand it), such terms as "beliefs," "desires," and so on, are not actually mental states, but rather extremely coarse-grained terms that don't so much refer to brain-states only indirectly, as not refer to anything at all. The terms themselves are an effect of the illusion the BBT is supposed to account for.

Now Bakker insists, his theory is an empirical one: it makes predictions and could be shown to be false by these predictions failing to obtain. What he doesn't want to brook is an a priori argument that reasons from the specialness of consciousness per se. I am not sure that Bakker's argument is entirely falsifiable in this way; many of his empirical predictions (e.g. that human knowledge will prove to be the function of heuristic brain "modules") do not seem to me to be uniquely predicted by his hypothesis; more importantly, the brain might experientially fail to account for itself, might endemically fall prey to the illusion of selfhood, and be structurally and functionally incapable of grasping its own function -- might, in short, fulfill these characteristic expectations of the theory, even in the absence of any number of the specific features Bakker names. Thus, even if Bakker were wrong about why the brain is blind, the brain might still be blind.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Bakker wants to make the Blind Brain Theory as strong as possible, if only as a devil's advocate. This caveat arises because, at the post where Bakker links to his original exposition of the BBT, he has a single clause for a tagline. The clause is: Please convince me it's gotta be wrong!

I respect Bakker for drawing so starkly the nihilisitic outcome of his thoughts, and for trying to frame them in a falsifiable manner. Neither of these is easy. The first takes tremendous courage, the second exhausting work. But I think what I appreciate most is this one sentence. The same ghost of a plea occurs at the very end of his abstract to the same paper. There Bakker writes:
BBT separates the question of consciousness from the question of how consciousness appears, and so drastically narrows the so-called explanatory gap. If true, it considerably ‘softens’ the hard problem. But at what cost?
That little question mark at the end "leaves unsaid" a great deal. Towards the end of his paper, Bakker says a bit of it:
If you are anything like me, you find this thesis profoundly repellent. BBT paints a picture that is utterly antithetical to our intuitions, a cartoon consciousness, one that appears as deep as deep and as wide as wide for the simple lack of any information otherwise; and yet a picture that we might nonetheless expect, given the Recursive System and it myriad structural and developmental infelicities. A chasm of some kind has to lie between consciousness as possessed and consciousness as experienced. Given the human brain’s mad complexity and human consciousness’s evolutionary youth, it would be nothing short of astounding if it were not profoundly deceptive somehow. ... Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it – even hating it.... And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.
And yet. And yet, the honest man Bakker is wants to argue for it; because, clearly, turning away from it just because he hates it is also unpalatable. Or, is there something more?

Bakker has had a ridiculous time of it with fans and detractors of his fantasy fiction, particularly in regards to his depiction of the bad treatment of women, which in the barbaric settings he describes can be very bad indeed (it gets bad for the men, too). In his self-defense Bakker has reiterated what artist after artist has insisted: depiction is not endorsement. Describe a rape and you are not describing one of your own fantasies. Well, OK, the reply goes, maybe not one rape, but when do we get to start being suspicious? Two? Ten? The critics get out their pencil and paper and start adding up tick marks. You can read a depressing amount of this back and forth if you hang out on various message boards (or just trawl them later), lots of recriminations and he-should-know-better, some of which is substantive, lots of which is from weird trolls who get their entertainment in this way. I'm not linking to it, but you can find it easily enough. I assume, because I like to assume the best about people, that Bakker has taken some of the substantive points to heart.

None of that is directly relevant to the question of the material causes of consciousness, you might say; but there is an isomorphism of sorts, for in the relevant BBT writings, too, Bakker is describing a catastophic theoretic scenario while at the same time insisting that he's not advocating for it. It's more just staring the bleak possibility in the face; the need to not flinch just because the possibility is bleak. It's like a game of chicken played with a brick wall. "There will always be apologists" for consciousness, Bakker shrugs. But someone has to articulate the case against it....

Well, maybe. Still, there is that "ingrained suspicion of happy endings," a sort of anti-eucatastrophe stance, in which Bakker is certainly in good, or at least populous, company. Is it just this which goads one on, this unsettling drip-drip-drip of skepticism...? or is there in us some kind of Poe-esque imp of the perverse that wants (and does not want) to be shown, impossibly, to be what Francis Crick wrote in the opening of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
 ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons."
But let us take Bakker at his word and accept that driven though he is to articulate BBT, he nonetheless hates it. Reframing the initial thought-experiment, suppose I am arguing with Bakker about the BBT. Suppose that without his knowledge, I am supplied with such a display as I mentioned before, mapping his brain and supplying me with all the hitherto-missing information I need to understand his cognition. Obviously, I am aware (in this scenario) that the Blind Brain Theory, or something like it, is true, since the technology I have access to presupposes it. But I also know that Bakker, despite his obsessive interest in the theory, can't stand it and does not want it to be true. Should I then tweak his brain to remove his qualms? Or to remove his propensity to believe the theory?

A sharp reader will note immediately that I am leaving aside many, many possibilities. There is no reason after all why I couldn't, on this theory, tweak Bakker's brain in any of a thousand thousand other ways, some of them highly entertaining to certain dispositions. I refer you to Bakker's novel Neuropath for an exploration of some of these implications. Neuropath includes (fair warning) some of those upsetting rape-scenarios, so go advisedly into that dark night. It explores (with, let it be said, somewhat less subtlety) a victim-&-victimizer relationship between Neil Cassidy and Thomas Bible that, to my mind, recalls Winston and O'Brien in 1984. This comparison raises a question: who will wield this power over the malleable mind, and to what ends? This is a question asked also by Mark Fisher in a recently published essay on Bakker's novel, and by Steven Craig Hickman in a recent post. And, like the return of the repressed, here comes that question of motives again. Fisher notes that the question of Why the villain of Neuropath would set out to torture his victims can only arise in the structure of the novel as a kind of narratological relic, a fossilized souveneir from a time when the question of motive made sense. Why, in particular, try so very hard to drive home the truth of eliminative reductionism, the horror of the astonishing hypothesis?
instead of moving beyond intentionality, Cassidy’s relationship to Bible shows all the signs of an obsessive attachment. It matters very intensely to Cassidy what Bible thinks and feels. Rather than being a coolly rational presence, scientific detachment incarnate, Cassidy is a Romantic, Mephistopholean figure, engaged in a contradictory, necessarily self-defeating, quest. Despite having exposed experience as a myth, he wants to close the gap between experience and knowledge; he wants Bible to live the Argument.
Fisher is surely correct to point out that the "agentless" agency at work in this logic is that of ideology:
The agent without intentionality in Neuropath is that of capital itself. Bakker is correct to say that the most important implications of the novel concern capital’s instrumentalization of neuroscience....Cassidy’s neurosurgical work illustrates Paolo Virno’s claim that “[n]ihilism, once hidden in the shadow of technical-productive power, becomes a fundamental ingredient of that power, a quality highly prized by the marketplace of labor.” [Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude, p 86] But capital’s practical nihilism remains a mitigated nihilism. Even while capital fully exploits the results of neuroscientific research, it is at the same time committed to disseminating the ideological image of the conscious subject capable of exercising choice. It is capital, therefore, that must keep deferring the “semantic apocalypse”.
This gets things, I think, both right and wrong, though I cannot argue the point extensively here. Suffice it to say that I regard capital as indeed in denial of its nihilistic implications (in certain moments i would say it is constituted by this denial), but I do not regard a glorious apotheosis of this nihilism to be the deliverance we all await -- as if we will be liberated finally once capital's mitigated nihilism at last casts off this mitigation.

Orwell, for his part, has O'Brien articulate what drives him to destroy Winston, to take him apart and reassemble him in a shape of O'Brien's own choosing:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (1984 p 263)
This passage, it seems to me, is far more cogent than is Fisher's too-quick shrugging-off of the implications of the "Argument," as Bakker calls BBT in Neuropath. The Argument is not merely what powers the tools of sadism in the novel; it is what makes the sadism possible.

At the same time, the BBT certainly invites us to raise our eyebrows at O'Brien's claim that the Part officials "know what we are doing." And yet, there is nothing "Mephistophelean" about O'Brien; he is no spirit of negation. Doublethink is not negation; it is too shallow for that. It is simply the requisite thinking of whatever thought currently needs thinking for the purposes of power; a thought that is as close as thinking can come to being contentless, since "content" is purely functional. (This is what "2+2=5" means). And it seems to me that this is also very close to what the BBT asserts.

In his post commenting on Neuropath and on Fisher's essay, Hickman first notes
the either/or scenario that Fisher draws out[:] how either the technocapitalists or the technosocialists (‘General Intellect’) in the immediate future might use such knowledge to wield powers of control/emacipation never before imaginable...[Fisher] brings up two notions, both hinging on the amoral ‘practical nihilism’ of neuroscience itself: 1) the reinforcement by the dominant ideology, technocapitalism, to use such technologies to gain complete control over every aspect of our lives through invasive techniques of brain manipulation; or, 2) the power of some alternative, possibly Leftward, collectivist ideology that seeks through the malleability or plasticity of these same neurosciences to use the ‘General Intellect’ to freely experiment on itself.
Hickman then reasonably asks:
Do we really want either of these paths?
I am not at all sure that my answer to this question is Hickman's -- I'm not sure either of us have "an" answer -- but one could be forgiven for observing that at any rate, this is a separate question from whether the BBT is true. Maybe it is true, and we should just hope that it does not become generally known? But among other obvious ethical and meta-epistemic difficulties, the problem is, it seems very hard to ask the question of truth in complete separation from the question of what motivates the question, and to what use the answer can be put. Philosophy is not simply the discipline involved in keeping these rigorously distinguished; it is also the passionate comprehension of the desires at play in their conflation.

What I like (if that is the word) in Bakker is his unstinting calling-it-as-he-sees-it, his willingness to remind us of the horrible implications of posthumanism, without any escape route. One can only be reminded of Nietzsche:
Socrates and Plato, in this regard great doubters and admirable innovators, were nonetheless innocently credulous in regard to that most fateful of prejudices, that profoundest of errors, that "right knowledge must be followed by right action." In this principle they were still the heirs of the universal madness and presumption that there exists knowledge as to the essential nature of an action. "For it would be terrible if insight into the nature of right action were not followed by right action." -- this is the only kind of proof these great men deemed necessary for demonstrating the truth of this idea; the opposite seemed to them crazy and unthinkable. (Dawn, II, 116)
I once wrote a thirteen-point Credo of sorts. The seventh item read:
If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.

"It would be terrible." This is not an argument with any dispositive force. But it is a datum, and that datum requires an account like every datum. Here the question is, what do you mean, "terrible?"

If we mean, "unpleasant for me," well, Bakker is clearly prepared to say, Too bad. But this is not what we mean, I think. "Terrible" in this context means, this is a catastophic way of constructing the universe. It would be better to make it otherwise. Better for who? What do you mean, better? The entire range of questions about ethics, from Euthyphro to Sam Harris, rise up like ghosts, and on the Blind Brain Theory they are indeed as substantial as ghosts. This means, please note, that you cannot have recourse to any ethical or moral or normative concept whatsoever at bottom. The universe does not care that you care. You caring is just a local tic every bit as significant as a sunspot or a sandwich. Caring is an accident.

Strictly speaking, on the BBT, all moral evaluation of the universe is meaningless. Your preferences are meaningless. Bakker's recoil from the BBT is meaningless. He has no actual criterion to appeal to. I say, No. The recoil is meaningful. It is a grammatical response in the "space of reasons," a different neighborhood of the very same space in which we have reasons for believing things. Things like theories of the brain.

And this had better be the case, because in the absence of a moral space of reasons, the entire question of whether I should pull that switch for Bakker, or which choice of the two Hickman proposes we should choose -- indeed, any "should" question at all -- is completely unanswerable.


  1. It seems to me that what Bakaar is presenting is not different in essence from classic free will scepticism. It similarly represents free will as existing in an acausal universe which it isn’t. In the domain of the will reasons are causal and there exists a range of volitional vectors . Freedom according to the existentialists is a project not a given and I think that’s basically correct. His brain meddling assumes functionalism but we know that imagination/visualisation can affect the basic patterns of brain activity. We don’t have to open the ‘black box’ to do that.

    Nice marketing device for the genre which seems to be a favourite of boy philosophers.

  2. The main force of Bakker's theses, it seems to me, is not on the free-will angle (though that is there, obviously), nor even the way it "accounts for" consciousness (by arguing that consciousness cannot have a coherent account of itself that is both experiential and accurate -- that's just not the sort of thing that could happen), but the way it brushes off experience qua experience as irrelevant.

    I of course am, like you, with the existentialists as re. freedom. Indeed I think that the "good uses of freedom", as Jean Grenier put it, might just be another name for philosophy.

    I absolutely agree with Bakker that one must, as a philosopher, engage with neuroscience, every bit as much as one must engage with capital. I also agree with confronting the enemy at its strongest point. I just do not concede that honesty obliges us to concede that honesty and human concern have never had anything but a brief chance alliance.

  3. Enjoyed this post, and agree with your final conclusions, though I'm not versed in Bakker's "Argument." I'll admit to my constant aggravation, seemingly since birth, of accounts that reduce consciousness and experience to epiphenomenon of the brain. To me, likewise, nothing is too surprising about the fact that my brain is blind to its own processes. It strikes me that those who would tell others they are just a bundle of neurons are expressing the logic of camp exterminators, reducing others to what Agamben calls "naked life." If I'm driven to an "amaterialist" standpoint, it's not out of denial of materialism, but of an awareness that materialism simply cannot account for certain aspects of life, experience, and world (as we understand them and again as we don't). I'm afraid those who say otherwise are being disingenuous and have an "argument" to win. But since when was life, in its full manifold, reducible to arguments and empirical correctness? What we can "account for" has never been all that inspiring, and what we can't account for is... well, real life, it seems. To isolate the chemical processes at work between two people who are in love may, scientifically, be perfectly correct, but you haven't thereby "explained" their love, nor understood it, nor experienced it. "Why" we cry is each time unique (and we don't ever really know). There are things in life that simply aren't up for speculation, but move us undeniably. That doesn't preclude the possibility that it's all a fiction, an edifice crumbling nightly, but even guarantees it, makes the borderline between truth and fiction that much more intense and demanding. But behind that fiction, its readable signs, and my consciousness as "me" of it all, lies undigestible experience, speech, relation. Who can account for a fluttering heart, a poem? That I have no access to this, myself, my heart, only makes this strange game that much more impressive.

  4. Yes but his thesis that cerebral events just are consciousness only becomes appalling when libertarian issues and meddling with the works comes into play. In any case as you point out McGinn and others hold that we have no way of understanding what this identity claim could mean as there are no points of congruence that allow us to make this claim which is essentially a dualist one based on the assimilation of the mental and the cerebral. The person as a primitive concept is opposed to this, a dual aspect theory if you like in which reduction to either aspect is impossible.

  5. I find myself deeply agreeing with you both here, which is not so strange; but also it seems clear that I feel the force of the scientistic reduction more than you. The appalling-ness arises here when one considers that the scientistic argument (I am using the s-word here advisedly) seems to give to its adherents carte blanche to dismiss what has hitherto seemed like strong prima facie reasons to consider an irreducible mystery is encountered. It's the way whole entire vocabularies and arguments are, not addressed, but swept aside by the robotic arm of the lab, that I find queasy-making. There are two levels here. On the one hand, there's an argument that reduces to "our god is stronger." On the other, there's the horrible spectacle whereby the scientist jumps into the pyre.

    The force of the argument resides in its "Oh, really?" when we say "...cannot account for..." and fill in the blank with poetry, tears, love. The thought-experiment is one in which these experiences are replicated on demand. It is eliciting from the "subject" both "Do it to Julia" and "I love Big Brother". Of course it is really just the old question of the love-philtre; does Lancelot love Guinevere, or does he love Elaine, who he's been enchanted to love? Science claims here to be in a position to say, no, no difference. There's nothing special about just happening to have that cascade of chemicals in the nervous system. We can remember it for you wholesale.

    CS Lewis saw this coming long ago, when he described scientism's 'progress': "all of nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us forever."

    If there is a response to this, it cannot, I think, be in any "irreducible core" of the human, but in something so evasive it underlies every project, including the scientistic. And yet, from a certain angle, it might indeed look like a irreducible center -- the way in being the way out, and the way up the way down.

  6. My responses to Scott Bakker's ideas are more empirical than philosophical. In brief, I think he overstates his case while ignores some important countervailing evidence. Here's the full text of my post of 16 March 2013, motivated primarily by a discussion on Three Pound Brain:

    My brain doesn’t have to understand its own workings in order to work. Even a frog can see a fly, hop toward it, and catch it mid-flight with its tongue, all without knowing how its neuromuscular apparatus accomplishes these feats. I don’t know through introspection how I see and run and catch a ball, how I feel warmth or hunger or sexual arousal, how I understand spoken language or remember the name of my elementary school. Why should I expect my ability to decide and to take intentional action to be any more accessible to introspection than any of these other neurological functions?

    Humans are at least partially aware of their own limitations. I don’t have much body fur, but if I turn on the heat inside and put on a coat when I go out I can survive in a cold climate. I can’t outrun a zebra, but if I get in my Jeep and drive after it I can overtake the zebra. I have a hard time remembering a 9-digit number, and even then my memory degrades rapidly, but if I write the 9 digits down I can retrieve them when I need them. Humans build and use tools largely to compensate for their mental and physical limitations: this ability is paradigmatic of human intentionality.

    Cognitive psychology as an empirical subdiscipline emerged in the late 60s not from philosophical idealism but from behaviorism, which regarded all behavior as an automatic stimulus-response mechanism unmediated by thought. Cognitive psychology presented empirical evidence supporting the alternative contention that there is a black box intervening between S and R, processing inputs and preparing outputs. When Copernicus figured out that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and when Galileo confirmed the heliocentric system observationally, people didn’t suddenly spin off the surface of the world and float into space, nor did they suddenly stop seeing the sun rise in the east and set in the west. If a satisfactory empirical explanation of intentionality is achieved, that won’t mean that people will suddenly stop intending or realize that they’d never in their lives actually intended anything.


    To be continued (I hit the comment box character limit)...

  7. In my immediately preceding post, dated 13 March 2013, I explored the hypothetical ability to form intentions as biologically adaptive:

    What if some further mutation occurred in which the organism does achieve intentionality? This mutant creature plans for its next meal even when it has no immediate need to replenish its energy stores, even when there are no signs of food being present in the organism’s immediate environment. Would this mutation prove adaptive? The same conditions are in effect: if intentionality works, and if the exercise of intentionality more than replaces the calories it burns up, then it should enhance the organism’s survival. Is intentionality a straight-ahead cause-effect mechanism? I think it would be better to regard it as a mechanism that anticipates cause-effect based on prior experience — a temporal feed-forward loop. Intentionality is predicated on the anticipated desirable future effects of causal mechanisms that the organism itself puts into operation: if I cause myself to go to the watering hole, this action will probably result in my finding some food there; if my speed covering the distance to the watering hole causes two hours to elapse, then as a result I will probably be hungry by the time I arrive there.

    Another mutation: the organism becomes aware of other organisms’ techniques for finding food, whether those techniques are intentional or not. This organism observes a creature locomoting in some direction and infers that the creature is on the trail of some food source; it then follows the creature in search of its own food. It observes a creature evading complicated obstacles to obtain food; it imitates the other creature’s behaviors and secures its own food. This organism would need the sort of intentionality that enables it to infer that the other creature’s motivated behavior is relevant to its own motivations and therefore worth imitating as a cause that will likely generate a desired effect. Adaptive? Same rules apply. Cause-effect? The feed-forward loop of intentionality is augmented by a feedback loop of observing and imitating others’ behaviors.

    In short, intentionality can be built incrementally on unintentional survival mechanisms without transcending cause-effect, and intentionality offers survival benefits if it isn’t too much of an energy drain to operate.

  8. Regarding Neuropath, I quote my post of 30 March 2012:

    Per The Argument, self-consciousness deludes us into thinking that everything we “intend” or “decide” to do is actually caused by unconscious and thus irresistible brain activity. Therefore, putting The Argument to the test surgically requires either (1) eliminating the intentionality feature of self-consciousness, or (2) rewiring self-consciousness so to that it becomes aware of the causal sequences already taking place in the brain. If the experimental subject begins to think and act differently following surgery, then we could infer that intentionality was having some impact on the brain’s cause-effect sequences before it was short-circuited. This would suggest strongly that intentionality is not an illusion, since it has empirically demonstrable effects. Conversely, if short-circuiting intentional self-consciousness has no discernible effect on the subject’s thoughts and actions, then arguably it is unreal. Of course if subjects acted the same before and after the neurosurgery, then The Argument would be supported at the expense of losing all of the horrific shit that pushes the book’s thriller plot along. That the characters do think and act differently — and entertainingly so — after the surgery suggests that The Argument fails the empirical test posed in the plot.

  9. Yeah, well, so anyhow...

    "he is drawing radical conclusions from the notion... that the brain, a natural system like any other, simply did not evolve to understand its own processes but rather to ensure the survival of its organism."

    There might well be survival benefits to the human species if its members had direct intuitive understanding of their own neural processes, just as there might be survival benefits for being able to outrun a tiger or to smell it from a long distance away. But enhanced biological capabilities come at price. Having access to neural processes would itself require the exercise of neural processes, thus slowing down the whole apparatus, by which time the tiger is eating you. But the human does have a pretty good understanding of cause-effect, which does have survival value. Neural processes, like other natural events, can be understood at the gross level of cause-effect, of input-output. In my experience water tends to run downhill, even though I don't intuitively know why. Those indentations in the mud going around the bend: they look like tiger tracks, and fresh ones; therefore I had better alert the rest of the group to the danger, suggesting we change course. Somebody in the group says that I'm wrong, that the tiger prints have been there for days. A debate ensues: what are the trade-offs of continuing on our direct path home, during which we might encounter lethal danger, versus taking a detour that delays our return home until after dark, when we're easier prey? Humans are pretty good at understanding the cause-effect relationships between informational inputs, inferences, and behavioral outputs. The ability to second-guess one's cognitions at the levels of input, inference, and output does have survival value.

    Contemporary neuroscience is an investigative practice predicated on humans' awareness that we don't have direct introspective access to our own neural processes. This line of scientific pursuit is an extrapolation of our awareness that we don't have direct introspective access to most cause-effect relationships in the world. How is it that water flows downhill? How is it that I can remember a 4-digit number but not a 12-digit one? Both questions are predicated on humans' awareness of their own cognitive limitations, of their brains' blind spots. And the processes for fitting corrective lenses aren't radically different from the general human ability to understand cause-effect, like determining with an acceptable level of confidence that those marks in the mud are tiger prints made two weeks ago.

    From Bakker: "Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding [than to confirm it], we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown."

    But there are plenty of scientific ways of understanding intentionality as well that don't rely on tossing out intent altogether. Even single-celled organisms act according to a primitive, hardwired sort of intention, namely to survive and to reproduce. Arguably human conscious intentionality is built on this more primitive scaffolding. And, as sketched in one of my earlier comments it affords survival value to humans. The whole Darwinian idea of "survival value" is predicated on all life form' primitive drive to survive, which might be the most fundamental feature distinguishing life from non-life. To dismiss human conscious intentionality as illusory, scientists would presumably need to dismiss also the whole scheme of survival value all the way down the food chain, all the way back to the primal slime.

    Time for my morning walk. Thanks for the stimulating post, Skholiast.

  10. On my walk I was thinking about some studies by Tomasello and associates investigating prelinguistic infants' ability to infer intentionality in others. Here's the abstract from a 2005 article:

    "Infants experienced a female adult handing them toys. Sometimes, however, the transaction failed, either because the adult was in various ways unwilling to give the toy (e.g., she teased the child with it or played with it herself) or else because she was unable to give it (e.g., she accidentally dropped it). Infants at 9, 12, and 18 months of age reacted with more impatience (e.g., reaching, looking away) when the adult was unwilling to give them the toy than when she was simply unable to give it. Six-month-olds, in contrast, showed no evidence of this differentiation. Because infants’ behavioral responses were appropriately adapted to different kinds of intentional actions, and because the adult’s actions sometimes produced results that did not match her goal (when having accidents or failed attempts), these findings provide especially rich evidence that infants first begin to understand goal-directed action at around 9 months of age."

    In another study, Experimenter 1 fiddles around with some object on the table, in full view of an infant. Experimenter 1 leaves the room. Experimenter 2 enters the room, takes the object off the table where Experimenter 1 left it, places the object on a shelf on the other side of the room, and leaves. Experimenter 1 returns, goes to the table, looks puzzled, looks toward the observing infant. Most of the time the infant points toward the object displaced onto the shelf, even before Experimenter 1 says what she is looking for, asks the kid where it is, etc. The inference is that even infants can infer others' intentions. Arguably this ability to infer others' intentions and to respond to them is foundational to language acquisition, which starts kicking in in infancy at around the same age as these informative pointing behaviors are demonstrated. Now there are alternative interpretations to these experimental findings; e.g., was the kid simply providing the adult with information, or was the kid intending to engage the adult in social interaction? Still, there are plenty of studies showing similar findings in human infants' abilities not just to act intentionally but to infer others' intentions. Neuroscientific research would be valuable in understanding the developmental neural pathways by which intentionality is acquired in human infants and matures throughout childhood. But there would seem no reason to presume that these neural explanations would discount the observational findings from human behavior about the validity of intentionality.

  11. ktismatics,

    Many thanks for these comments, which I apologize for reading only shallowly so far -- what with the jet-lag and the trying to think in two languages, my brain is not at full speed yet. But I am struck (and I remember I was struck at the time when I first read the post) by your opening remark: My brain doesn’t have to understand its own workings in order to work. Bakker's question in part is can it? But the real point of contention seems to be, what do these workings mean? Are we justified in speaking of these in terms of intentionality, or must we rather speak of intentionality in terms of them?

    Possibly more later, after I have completed the transition.

  12. Skholiast:
    When I say appalled that is not a vote for consciousness floating free from its bodily shackles in everyday life. All sorts of somatic conditions affect our minds. Drugs, addictions, hormone deficiency, jet-lag all have mental accompaniments. This is ordinary common sense so Bakker’s lab-born psychopaths are merely a way of creating an analogue to nature’s sports that arise from developmental factors. Strictly there are no ‘sports’, there is a reason for every condition. Early experimenters in the feed of bio-feedback, the hatha yogis discovered that breath is the key to equanimity. Pranayama should be taught in school.

    At the outer edges of human experience there are the paradoxes of knowledge gained where there is no bodily presence. I refer to pre-cognition and clairvoyance which though rare and subjective are a perennial element. Once you’ve had an experience of this kind there is no longer any question of belief and we are forestalled from a ‘premature closing of the accounts’.

  13. Brilliant piece; sincere and well-worded, while displaying humility and openness at the same time!

    Curious to what you make of this piece https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/the-case-against-humanism-writing-after-the-death-of-meaning/ I think it lays down Bakker's project very neatly.

    As an undergrad student in the humanities with prospects in the academy and as one with deep theological commitments (mostly arising from aesthetics) Bakker's work has undoubtedly posed the greatest existential challenge, miles more so than any of the so called 'militant atheists.' I think what he aims at can be summarized in this comment:

    'Traditional philosophy is largely a parlour game. Everywhere around us, genuinely unprecedented shit, existentially momentous shit, is happening. The tradition couldn’t solve any of the traditional questions, so why suppose it’ll solve anything now?

    I got nothing cornered. I don’t need to to eschew metaphysics. A yawn serves as counter-argument enough. We need fucking answers man, not another hit from the opium bowl!'

    Do you an idea as to how can spiritualism be theoretically salvaged in the face of such a critique, Skholiast?

    1. Save of course from crossing our fingers and hoping the worst-case-scenario does not materialize, of science 'sparing' our souls and intentions, in which case one I think can not help feel helpless and pathetic in practicing something that lacks any punch...

    2. My general response to the general thrust of Bakker's argument is roughly threefold. This will be a very schematic response to your question, and I would need to provide a lot more detail to make it satisfying, but this will have to do for a comment.

      First, i strongly suspect that the Hard Problem is far more intractable than Bakker believes. Moreover, the answers that impress me most suggest that consciousness is also far less "located" in the sense of being solely a matter of the brain doing whatever it does. On this front, I am largely persuaded by (for instance) Alva Noe's argument about the extended mind. So I am to some degree an externalist.

      Second, and more importantly, I distinguish between a "salvage" (your word) of spirituality that would satisfy me, and one that would satisfy Bakker (or someone of his ilk). This is not question-begging. All our arguments are addressed to interlocutors. If Bakker deigns merely to "yawn" in response to certain appeals (e.g. to "intuitions"), at a certain point -- or more likely, certain points, certain crucial discursive junctures -- conversation stops. Those junctures bear looking at more closely, but that isn't what I'm going to do here. i just want to note that the stopping of conversation does not entail that I am obliged to stop thinking. One wants reasons to support whatever conclusions one reaches, and the question you raise -- What defense of spirituality? -- is precisely a request for reasons; but reasons function in a court of conversation, not in the lab. The lab produces a certain variety of reasons, or rather, fodder for reasons. Indeed, it is not clear to me at all that the radical leveling which Bakker proposes, under which "our" engagement with "reasons" becomes purely and merely another cause-and-effect cascade, exactly on a par with a spinning waterwheel, the decay of a radioactive isotope, or the rotting of a carcass, gives us (who, "us"?) any right to speak of "reasons" whatsoever. This argument either convinces you or doesn't, I think, and those who are left cold by it may well shake their heads at those like me who happily play parlour games until the scientists' jackboots come kicking in our cranium.

      It is not only "reasons" that fall prey to this critique; all sorts of language -- values, for instance -- also wilts under the premises that Bakker utilizes. That is to say, if we conclude that the BBt is correct, we have no grounds to bewail this, because we have no grounds to bewail anything. But we do value and we do bewail. I may be very idiosyncratic, but to me this counts as data.


    3. This brings me to the third point, which is practical. Philosophy to me is really the cultivation of openness to spiritual experience and wisdom, not the generating of counter-arguments, except where the latter can be a means of the former. So in a certain way, I yawn right back at Bakker, and go about my business, even as I also acknowledge that he has aptly described a real possible scenario -- and I must take it into account precisely insofar as it is plausible. I don't dispute that something like Bakker's dystopian vision could transpire -- I too believe that science, or at least science + capital, may well cut our throats. To me, this would be an appalling and atrocious outcome, but I think we look in vain for some tuck-you-in-at-night, sweet-dream theoretical reassurance that it "just couldn't happen." The real point is that if it happened, it would be bad. I think that this valuation has a real truth-value and that this truth-value cannot be accounted for on the scientistic terms Bakker uses. That doesn't mean that something like Neuropath is impossible, though of course if and when it happens it won't look just like the novel. It means that science gets so deep and no deeper. That may be plenty deep to lay waste to ecosphere and noosphere alike, but that should only strengthen our resolve to be on the right side. That side isn't one that dishes up spurious last-ditch defenses, nor is it one that shrugs and gives the game up and cultivates one's garden -- though I have some sympathy for both of those stances. what I try to attend to is just how to live?, in the world in which all the above considerations obtain: the real plausibility of a scientistic nightmare (pragmatically speaking), and the (very real) blind spots of that scientism.

    4. Thank you for such an extensive and insightful response, Skholiast.

      Some points:

      The externalist argument is of course, as you would well know, crucial. If it can be scientifically substantiated, the BBt crumbles since the latter is essentially an argument for consciousness being a set of fleshy/concrete problems to be hacked, rather than, as traditionally understood, a Mystery and/or a fundamental feature of some meta-physics to which understanding externalism would necessarily push consciousness back into.

      Also, Bakker's skepticism with regards to intuitionist theoretical claims is not based on some metaphysical conviction or bias, but is rather quite pragmatic. He notes how, putting aside his development of a theory based on cognitive neglect, the brain sciences are steadily outlining why and how our intuitions assume knowledge-sufficiency when in fact there is none. Obviously as a human one cannot escape insight altogether, as you note, the lab produces mere 'fodder for reasons', but at least the sciences can help us ground said insight, drag it back to earth from the theoretical aether, if you will, and with fruitful pragmatic results to boot (how many of those can traditional philosophy claim?)! Thus Bakker would have no time for any theorizing not backed by the relevant science, i.e. most of what passes off as philosophy, viewing it as essentially insubstantial since it cannot be empirically verified or at least 'grounded'(being another entry into what he calls the 'Magical Belief Lottery'), ultimately condemned to social irrelevancy. What's more, extensive techno-scientific manipulation of our the traditional environments which we have evolved to problem-solve in is presenting us with 'truly unprecedented' existential threats, so there is an urgency at hand that philosophizing simply cannot deal with. One one level, therefore, Bakker does not seek to disvalue philosophizing as such, merely to point out its inefficiency.

      I would actually like to quote the man himslef, in case I've misconstrued him in some way in the above. This is a rather relevant, on-point and clear comment of his in response to Mattew David Segall (footnotes2plato). I'll leave it here for your percipience:

      "For me, philosophy is about figuring out how things work in ways that do work. Anything can be argued, which is why we require ways to sort between arguments. My position is theoretical, speculative, but it is also hypothetical, pending further stories regarding how things work. It can and will be sorted. In this sense, our positions are profoundly different. Blind Brain Theory will either be confirmed, or discounted. There’s endless ways to interpret it’s ‘ultimate foundations’ and absolutely no way to arbitrate between them, so why bother?

      So yeah, sure, causation remains as much an theoretical unknown on my account as it does on yours… because the fact is, you have no way of knowing whether your metaphysical account is the one-in-a-million true one or not. You may feel as if you’re doing ’cause’ a favour, but it seems pretty clear all you’re really doing is tethering it to endless controversy. Why should anyone prefer your stab-in-the-dark explainer over my skeptical one? The threat with all infinite tasks is that they are ultimately futile. Why should anyone think endlessly disputing issues that make no practical difference is anything but futile?"

    5. For something with a bit more poetic nuance (also I think this would be right down your alley), you could additionally consider: https://www.academia.edu/12110536/Bleaker_than_Bleak_2015_


  14. I realize my presence here is uncalled for at this point, but with the fear of overcrowding the comment section with quote-mined junk, I felt it nevertheless necessary to post this here once I read it in of Bakker's comments, since it very well relates to a point raised above:

    "the question of 'how to live', is... one that jams my gears. If BBT is right, then such a question is only adaptive in some indeterminate range of shallow information ecologies... Philosophy, by adducing ‘deep information’ and by demanding categorical solutions, pushes the question into crash space, transforms the soluble daily problem of how to live into the insoluble theoretical problem of how to live.

    BBT clearly seems to rule out the possibility of any credible Lebensphilosophie."