“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Unnecessary Mechanism: A Reply to R. Scott Bakker

“The machinery of the brain does all the work–after all, what else is there? What [Cain] calls ‘thinking of science in normative terms’ is a mechanistic enterprise, something our brains do. Since metacognition is all but blind to the mechanistic nature of the brain, it cognizes cognition otherwise, in nonmechanical, acausal, magical terms. Normative judgements, intentional relations, and so on: these are simply ways our brain naturally mischaracterizes its own activity.” -R. Scott Bakker


“Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” -Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (16).

Those who have been tracking my last few posts (HERE and HERE) will know I’ve been enjoying Ben Cain’s philosophy blog Rants Within the Undead God. It was in a guest post on fantasy author R. Scott Bakker‘s blog Three Pound Brain that I first encountered Cain’s mind. Bakker has just published a critical reply to Cain’s guest post a few days ago on the philosophical difficulties facing scientism. I’m as new to Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (BBT) as I am to Cain’s “existential cosmicism,” but I’ve been reading Cain and Bakker’s recent exchange concerning the ontological status of consciousness in our scientific age with tremendous interest. I agree with Bakker that we ought to be extremely disturbed and existentially unsettled by BBT’s implications, just not for the reasons he thinks.

Like Cain, I find Bakker’s BBT threatening not because it is true in some matter of fact sense, but because it is becoming increasingly true (in the American pragmatist sense) as the values of techno-scientific imperialism continue to infect secular societies (techno-capitalism has done a fabulous job marketing these values thus far). It is indeed becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish ourselves from machines. As Cain suggests:

 Maybe our imagination, emotion, intuition, and creativity will atrophy as our habits continue to be shaped by our artificial environments. Then again, we’d be looking not so much at a scientific revelation of what we’ve always really been, but at a transformation of human nature for the worse.

While Bakker cognitively mobilizes unexplained explainers like “scientific accuracy” (achieved by a disinterested res cogitans?) and “natural mechanism” (mathematizable res extensa?), I’d prefer to call upon the non-modern powers of creative imagination and cosmogenesis in my speculative fantasies (in Hillman’s sense of fantasy). I take my speculative risks on behalf of philosophical inquiry and creative intuition attempting to attune with the logos of the chaosmos. This is an infinite task, it must be admitted. But then philosophy is full of infinite tasks, as Husserl taught us“Scientific accuracy” is also an infinite task, is it not? I suppose only if the universe is an infinite fact. 

Bakker is not happy about the loaded labels of “scientism” and “absolutism” fired at him by Cain. I think its true that these labels tend to carry negative connotations, but I’m surprised that Bakker doesn’t just own up to BBT’s philosophical allegiance to those very connotations (i.e., science as the only valid way of knowing because philosophical intuition is bosh, etc.). Neuroscientists like the “hardheaded devotee of aggressive-exterminative scientism” (as Graham Harman referred to himThomas Metzinger and eliminativist philosophers like Ray Brassier don’t shy away from the term but seem rather to wear it as a badge of honor.



33 responses to “Unnecessary Mechanism: A Reply to R. Scott Bakker”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    Good post. Two points. First, this is a good post, and it inspired me to comment over at my blog if you’re like to join me. Second, where I note that you invoke the (Jamesian) pragmatic theory of truth (per the meaning of an idea is the practical difference it leads to), you could just as well have invoked continental discourse theory and (post-) structuralism (discourse alters effective reality).

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I agree with your additions to the reach of “pragmatism” generally defined. I think much of what is alive philosophically in Coleridge, Emerson, and Peirce came originally from Schelling’s early Naturphilosophie and late post-representational/post-identical “positive philosophy” and “metaphysical empiricism.” James and Bergson received this torch and carried it to Whitehead. All three (J, B, W) influenced Deleuze. And once we read Deleuze, we remember we left out Nietzsche, another 19th ce. German pragmatist. This from IEP (http://www.iep.utm.edu/deleuze/):

      “”Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche demonstrates the extent to which he rejected the traditional, or dogmatic image of thought (see (4)(d) below), which relies upon a natural harmony between thinker, truth and the activity of thought. Thought does not naturally relate to truth at all, but is rather a creative act (NP xiv), an act of affect, of force on other forces: “As Nietzsche succeeded in making us understand, thought is creation, not will to truth.” (WP 54) There is no room for seeing truth as abstract generality (NP 103) in Deleuze’s account of Nietzsche, but rather to see truth itself as a part of regimes of force, as a matter of value, to be assessed and judged, rather than as an innate disposition (NP 108).””

      1. Jason Hills Avatar


        Read just about anything in phenomenology, much in aesthetics (not the part limited just to art), post-structuralism qua Foucault, any psychoanalysis, etc. But if you think about it, I just named a very large chunk of continental, which makes me wonder what you’ve been reading and whether you read those texts with the appropriate grounding as you claim to have been reading for 10 years, since one thing that makes continental less accessible is its requirement that readers be well-grounded in the history of philosophy to really get it. Perhaps you’ve been missing much of what was intended to be communicated. In pragmatism, I’d say read any of the classicals, including especially G.H. Mead. In analytic, I can make more limited offerings, but analytic feminism keyed into this early.

        If you’re looking for a specific book, in continental read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization or Discipline and Punish. In pragmatism, let’s take the political bent and read Dewey’s The Public and its Problems (where the content and structure of mind is organized by material forces, much less our consciousness, and thus we must organize the factories and cities or damn ourselves to mechanized minds easily manipulated). I’ve been hawking Longino’s Science as Social Practice for awhile, if you’d like some analytic, since it both reveals and solves the problem of science is not the pure activity that so many take it to be.

        I am being earnest, and I am not offended if you are not moved by my suggestions. My only goal is to point out why so many philosophers and intellectuals are not reacting as you seem to expect them to. These problems are not fully solved, but they have generations of thought working at them. I do wonder if you’ve only be reading select recent work that didn’t explicate the ground upon which it stands.

      2. delavagus Avatar

        I can assure you, Jason, that Bakker is familiar with the works and thinkers you mention. To point to someone like Longino (who I’ve studied with, BTW) as having ‘revealed’ and ‘solved’ _any problem_ related to BBT strikes me as laughably implausible. All I can think is that you don’t understand Bakker’s position.

  2. Robin Harger Avatar

    Sad about Scott Bakker: he has his own brain mis-characterize-sing (sic) itself. Must be quite a conundrum that and bound to be unsettling. But still we have seen “aggressive-exterminative scientism” before. Its last attempt at universal expression was known as “Fascism” and now, completely unfettered, it is on the prowl again.

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills

      I hope that Matt forgives me if I overstep my bounds, but Robin, that was unduly harsh.

    2. delavagus Avatar

      Sad about Robin Harger…

  3. rsbakker Avatar

    I appreciate you don’t like the problems I raise, but the question is one of how we can effectively solve them. Philosophy, particularly of the brand wingnuts like us practice, is toothless. Labelling, guilt-by-associations ploys (like Robin’s), and so on, while apt to be more effective from a marketing standpoint, actually only underscore the nature of the straits we find ourselves in. A billion bloggers can climb aboard, all poo-pooing the nihilistic implications of science, all affirming meaning or morality or whatever traditional shibboleth makes them feel better. The problem, my good fellows, is that science WORKS. While you sling judgements back and forth, neuroscience is going to continuing curing blindness, deafness, paralysis – you name it. It’s going to continue to inform messaging of every kind, which combined with other technologies, will render us more and more politically ductile. The reason capital is seizing upon these sciences and technologies is simply because they work, they afford actual, real world competitive advantages that translate into shareholder profits. And in our consumer zest to maximize fitness indicators we will lap it all up the same way we’ve lapped up the crude mechanistic tools of the pharmaceutical industry. So you can affirm the intentional all you want, go on a retreat with Eckhart Tolle. The question is, at what point do you stop being a genuine critic and start being a FAPP apologist?

    The beast here has two heads. The nihilistic one, which all but owns the political and economic apparatus, or the pseudo-semantic one, which all but owns mass culture, suffocating billions with empty blandishments regarding meaning and autonomy – hand waving, transcendental or otherwise, making it easy to pretend that the nihilistic head isn’t anything anyone need worry about, because we all have our ‘autonomy,’ or ‘heart,’ or ‘beliefs,’ or whatever crap it takes to avoid pondering the ugly and humiliating.

    So, how do you resolve the problem of theoretical incompetence? What is your positive account of meaning? And if it’s not empirical, how do you suppose it will effectively counter the mechanistic advance of the sciences of the brain?

    And, given there’s a chance that something like BBT will be empirically confirmed, what is your contingency plan?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to leap into the belly of beast. To see this monster through, in the hope of glimpsing light on the other side. You’ve chosen, like Ben, to stick with the ship, convinced that it isn’t being dismantled from within. That’s you’re guess. I appreciate that. We’re all just a bunch of bullshit philosophers, after all.

    But where are your counter-arguments? And why should anyone other than you find them credible?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for your reply. I appreciate the dilemma you’re describing, and I must admit the philosophical blade doesn’t cut as deeply as perhaps it once did. Techno-science has all the marketing money and the shinny new gadgets that work miracles. Philosophy has hard books with boring covers. There is no competition, really. But I’ve always found some tragic solace in playing for the underdog.
      What frightens me most about BBT is precisely the extent to which, as you say, its widespread acceptance will render us more politically ductile. Did you watch Obama’s speech a few months back regarding federal funding for “the brain initiative”? I think he was only half joking when he suggested that soon all our political disagreements will be “curable” through some new pharmaceutical or neural surgery. Regardless of the epistemic and ontological incoherence of any mind-to-brain reductionism (and yes, I’ll need to flesh out and argue more thoroughly for these incoherencies in subsequent posts), there is a very real political possibility that techno-capitalism will succeed in its marketing campaign to make the infinite task of democratic self-governance seem passé or highfalutin. Once political struggle has been medicalized–and I have no doubt neuro-chemical regimens can be devised to keep us existentially numb to the alienated meaninglessness of the worker-consumer lifestyle–then human civilization as we’ve known it will indeed have come to its unceremonious end. Neuro-chemical regimens aren’t entirely distopian, of course: think of Aldous Huxley’s two novels, Brave New World and Island: in the former case, soma is used to cover over the profoundity (i.e., the groundless mystery) of the human condition, while in the latter case, psychedelic mushrooms are used to keep us in touch with this profundity. Which is all to say that I hardly doubt the extent to which the nervous system can be either techno-scientifically or mytho-ritualistically manipulated so as to bring about certain modes of consciousness and behavioral tendencies. This is obviously possible. What I doubt is that these evident facts necessarily imply that eliminativist accounts of consciousness are true. What these facts suggest to me is that consciousness is highly maleable, that human beings are “interactive kinds” whose nature is constantly at risk of mutating based on changes in their noetic (discourse, values, etc.) and physical (technology, architecture, etc.) environments. So yes, traditional accounts of the “soul” as some kind of eternal and self-identical substance are clearly mistaken. But what about a more process-relational account of the soul, like that articulated by someone like Whitehead?

      As for the problem of our theoretical incompetence, I don’t so much solve it as try to dissolve it by moving away from representationalist construals of “truth” as something our theories might correspond to more or less accurately. My sense of the threat of BBT arises from a pragmatic, rather than a correspondance, theory of truth. The pragmatic account of truth is “radically empirical” in James’ sense, in that it doesn’t arbitrarily divide the empirical domain such that only the experience of material particulars is considered objectively real, while the meaningful relations between those particulars are defined as subjective projections. Relations are just as real as things. If we deny this, then there goes causality, and with it, any hope of devising a scientific account of the world (be it eliminativist or panexperientialist).

      I need to read more of your work to adequately respond to the challenges you’re raising. The above thoughts are just appetizers. Thanks for the opportunity to struggle with these issues.

      1. rsbakker Avatar

        I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.

        When it comes to subjective experience, the burning issue is really just one of what *science* will make of it and what kinds of implications this will hold for traditional, intuition-based accounts. The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain. So on BBT, for instance, it’s just brain and more brain, and all the peculiarities dogging the ‘mental’ – all the circles that have philosophers attempt to square (by positing special metaphysical ‘fixes’ like supervenience or functionalism or anomalous monism and so on) – can be explained away as low-dimensional illusions: the fact that introspective metacognition is overmatched by the complexities of what its attempting to track.

        The jury is still out. But science has a knack for humbling us, you have to admit. Freud famously called psychoanalysis the ‘third great narcissistic wound’ but he really didn’t have a clue. Whatever you ultimately decide Matthew, just be wary of pretty pictures! Ugly is more often true, I think anyway.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        rsbakkar writes:

        I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.

        People generally get things “wrong” in what respect? How are you defining “wrong” here? Upon what scientific criteria do we determine “right” from “wrong”? I assume you mean to speak of “falsity” and “truth,” rather than right and wrong? Even so, the scientific enterprise is not a scantron test where we bubble in T or F after each experiment. Experimental facts are always underdetermined by the theory framing them, which means there is always some degree of extra-scientific hermeneutic, aesthetic, or intuitive selection going on to determine which theory is “best.” For example, even given all empirically verified neuroscientific evidence to date of a brain-mind correlation, brain-based reductionist accounts of what we call “consciousness” represent only one possible causal explanation: it remains entirely possible that the brain functions more like a radio antenna and that the causes of “consciousness” are non-locally distributed beyond the skull (see my reflections on cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, for example). If the scientific enterprise were simply a matter of confirmation or falsification (either a theory is true or it is false) then there’d be very few if any viable scientific theories. That most of our theories fail to account for all the evidence (or if they do, fail to definitively disqualify competing theories which also account for the evidence) suggests either that humans are theoretically incompetent, or that nature/matter is more complex than our mechanistic models generally allow.

        rsbakkar writes:

        The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain.

        I’d dispute the statement that the life sciences are mechanistic, depending on what you mean by the machine metaphor. There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences concerning the status of life, whether mechanism can really account for the self-organizing, biosemiotic, and phenomenological dimensions of even a single living cell (See the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela’s 2002 paper “Life After Kant,” or his colleague cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life, for good run downs concerning this controversy). There is no reason to conceive of “emergence” as spooky. This way of thinking about the place of wholes in nature is terribly misleading. There’s no reason to make emergence seem supernatural now that science has the conceptual tools to deal with complexity, chaos, non-equilibrium systems, etc (see Terry Deacon’s recent book Incomplete Nature for the cutting edge attempt to account for intentionality in a non-reductive way).

        Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe. I don’t take much stock in theories like supervenience, functionalism, or anomalous monism for this reason. They are too abstract and cogni-centric and pay too little attention to the complex textures of lived, embodied reality, textures that unfold at or below the threshold of what usually gets called “consciousness.” I turn instead to philosophers like James and Whitehead who sought to correct for the rationalist biases of so much Western philosophy by turning philosophy’s attention to an investigation of feeling and bodily reference, pushing back against the pretenses of disembodied thought and transcendental deduction.

      3. delavagus Avatar


        One difficulty, when thinking about Bakker’s theory (and evaluting his general claims about science), is to separate science from philosophy of science (broadly construed), i.e., to think of them as separate (and therefore separable) intellectual spaces. Bakker is assuming a certain conception of this crucial difference, one he has a good handle on. Many do not have a good handle on the distinction, either because they haven’t thought about it or because they think the distinction cannot, ultimately, be made.

        Regarding the latter claim: there is no question that science _as a human practice_ is shot through with more or less implicit philosophy (and therefore cannot be separated from philosophy of science). But what’s so astonishing about science is that it has a sort of ‘operational’ life of its own, independent of the bullshit theorizing not only of philosophers, but also of the very people who are responsible for scientific progress (i.e., scientists).

        So when you make appeals such as this one — “There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences…” — I’m entirely unmoved. Of course there are! This is just another example of human theoretical incompetence. _Of course_ we can’t provide a satifiscatory _philosophical_ account of science. The BBT theory provides one sort of explanation of this (and for philosophy’s incompetence in general), but it can be cashed out in more strictly philosphical terms as well. If there is a philosophical precursor to the sorts of problems raised by the BBT (as Jason Hills has suggested), then it is surely skepticism, in particular ancient skepticism (concerning theory, at any rate).

        The question is: Once skepticism has done its work, what’s left? When this challenge is properly understood, you’ll see that simply _shifting the ground_ (i.e., adopting a different philosophical standpoint) is no response at all, just a further symptom of the very problem that’s at issue.

    2. Amadeus Avatar

      Response to rsbakker. I red your response to Matt’s essay and felt drawn to reply. I resonate with your concerns, I have many a time entertained the idea of riding the beast through to the other side.
      In some respects the whole riddle of consciousness expresses itself intrinsically. As impossible as it is to objectively validate subjective experiences – so too is it impossible to “win a debate” concerning the nature of consciousness with mere words and clever concepts. It is no wonder then that philosophical ideas seem “toothless” nowadays. I need not mention that science (and by that I mean the reductionist description of the world) is built on the principal of “winning debates” in the form of verifiable evidence. I’m sure you’d agree that consciousness, and to be more specific – cognition – by its very nature, naively assumes no need to prove itself to itself. It’s only when scientific questioning turns itself inwards onto the very thing doing the science that the problems occur.
      The point I wish to be making is this; it should be no surprise that an “outer proof” (by this I mean a conceptual system, backed up by verifiable evidence) of ourselves as spirit and soul beings simply cannot exist. The question then is (and every individual needs to be asking this for his/herself) “how do I reconcile the riddle of my own existence with what seems true of the world around me?” As this is a question regarding something inner and not material it is of no consequence what miracles the brain-sciences achieve. If anything, the brain-sciences will further validate the truth of inner clarity.
      But this inner questioning must be incessant – an inner science if you like – that cannot waver from the task.
      Only then will the scientific reductionist conceptions simply dissolve into triviality. Don’t get me wrong, the achievements of science are anything but trivial, but perspective will bring light onto what these achievements actually mean.
      To put it simply, if we wish to discover a winning formula, conception or proof that will once and for all over-come materialistic reductionism – we will fail. And the social and political tide will continue in the direction it heads. But the road to self knowledge isn’t about conquering rival opinions – by it’s very nature, it is a question to be settled by each one of us – for ourselves.
      In the light of scientific advances, its easy to feel more and more unsure of our true being. We long for reassurance – so we search for a proof that we can impose on others in the fashion science imposes its technologies on us. But instead what we should be cultivating is faith – faith that every human being, given the chance, will naturally be drawn to tackling this question for his/herself and will inevitably discover the light that shines from within.

      1. rsbakker Avatar

        I certainly appreciate the impulse, Amadeus, but question of what science will make of subjective experience is just not one that can be settled in advance by ‘reasoning.’ I take this to be the metatheoretical significance of BBT: by providing a plausible account of how intentionality can be naturalized (and explained away) without any residual dualisms, it dispels the ‘only game in town illusion’ enjoyed by transcendental philosophy all these millennia. The kinds of armchair claims you make here, as convincing and as consoling as they may seem, begin to sound more like guesswork than otherwise.

        Anything can happen. I’m guessing it’s going to be ugly.

    3. Amadeus Avatar

      Reply to rsbakker. Thanks for your response, you end it by saying “The kinds of armchair claims you make here, as convincing and as consoling as they may seem, begin to sound more like guesswork than otherwise. ”
      This is exactly the point. This will always sound like “guesswork” from the outside.
      I empathize with your cynicism – though thankfully, my reasoning can no longer perform the intellectual acrobatics required to take seriously the idea of “naturalized intentionality”. The inherent redundancy to this whole project is clear and apparent to everyday thought but unfortunately everyday thought is uncritical to to-days academia and science. Hopefully, contemporary philosophy can untangle the knots it’s got itself in and re-establish it’s once bright flame. If it can’t, then I agree with you, “it will get ugly”.

      Posted from my armchair.

  4. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    Well, I will give you this, RSBakker is fairly brazenly outspoken himself, so I wouldn’t say that you’ve crossed *his* line … so who am I to complain then?

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      See RSB’s latest post. Yeah, that’s what I was talking about. So maybe your post is in bounds if we follow that standard.

      1. Robin Harger Avatar

        Oh, yes, I see it. Now the dentine apparatus begins to show. I believe I have addressed most of the points raised (below) but it is interesting to see that some ground is given in the conclusion: [quote] And, given there’s a chance that something like BBT will be empirically confirmed, what is your contingency plan? [unquote]

        Confirmed it already is yes, as general practice attests, but “empirically confirmed?” I guess it rather turns on the evidence that might be adduced in respect of such a “painfull” claim.

        My contingency plan? I am already executing it on the evidence provided by general practice and it does not include a retreat with E. Tolle. Not that I mean any disrespect by so saying just that there is slightly more to it than that – but any beginning is a start and there are two sides to this story each one of which is as potentially grim as the other.

        [quote]Then he (Abû alWalîd Ibn Rushd) asked: ‘So how did you find it in unveiling (kashf) and divine effusion (fayd ilahi)? Is it the same as what thought had led us (philosophers) to?’ I (Ibn ‘Arabî) replied: ‘Yes . . . No, and between the “yes” and the “no”, spirits fly away from their (bodily) matter and necks from their bodies.[unquote]

  5. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    I think you’re missing the simplest of my points. The problem you describe is OLD, not new. Hence, if you see certain philosophers not having the dramatic reaction you expect, it’s not because we’re ignoring the problems or denying them, but because this is not new. The continental and pragmatist traditions in the west, setting aside the east that might go further back, absorbed and sustained physiological psychology beginning in the mid 19th century and adjusted accordingly, though they did so in different ways. Please stop lumping all philosophers, let alone certain western strands, together. It indicates a lack of expertise and professionalism on your part, but if I may say so, unlike professionals in the field you lose nothing by being less than careful, while we are expected to be so. Ok, this is a blog, but still. Your response just affirms my comment to Robin, and you really don’t want to invite that.

    1. rsbakker Avatar

      If it is old news, then tell me where to look, what to read. I spent over a decade reading *only* continental and pragmatic philosophy, so this is coming as new news to me.

  6. Robin Harger Avatar

    To: rsbakker:
    I yield you 1/2 a point, science works (in an apparently operational sense to the extent that its postulates approximate appeareances) and well enough and I made a life-time career enfolded thereby plus raised a family using the proceeds therefrom. Science works as an approximation but overall it misses the (un-appreciated) mark of what it means to be human in much the same way as a scientifically guided technological marvel such as a drone strik-aircraft misses its mark when it takes-out co-latterally deployed women and children and counts this as a success.

    1. delavagus Avatar

      I simply don’t understand this reply at all. To claim that science “overall it misses the (un-appreciated) mark of what it means to be human” is simply begging the very question that’s at issue. And to compare the BBT’s ‘mistake’ to that of a botched missle strike? I don’t know what to say to that, except: Nonsense! (But then I’ve been reading a lot of Wittgenstien lately…)

      1. Robin Harger Avatar

        Oh dear, I have not made myself at all clear (apparently) but in straight-foward terms “there are no unbotched missle strikes” just some more or less so. As I understand the challenge it is first necessary to appreciate what it means to be (fully) human in order to cotton-on to what is afoot in a discussion such as this i.e. at this point, the teeth of the issue show-through.

        To understand this remark, consider the lack of comprehension in this respect shown by the dismissive comment (above) concerning “low-dimensional illusions: the fact that introspective metacognition is overmatched by the complexities of what its attempting to track.”

        This is simply scientific-objectivist huberis or perhaps arrogance would be a better word. One might almost be tempted to add that yes, quite, that is exactly the problem with science: it does produce a plethora of low-level illusions. Illusions that are based on collective illusions. And need I say it, illusions that appear to “work” (that is the nature of an illusion after all). It is the meta-structure that can be erected on quote: the BBT’s ‘mistake’ unquote that leads directly to the mind-set that countenances missle-strikes. But yes, I suppose Wittgenstien would not agree – no surprise that.

      2. delavagus Avatar

        I simply don’t understand what position you think you’re opposing, why you associate it with BBT, or what you think BBT is/claims.

  7. Jason Hills Avatar

    I’ll repeat myself and re-affirm what Matt said lest it be side-lined:

    “Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe.”

    Bakker, per Matt’s description, is absolutely right about that even if we take out the “experiential” qualifier. The problem is that we’ve known that since *at least* the 18th century, and his thesis acts as if nothing has happened since and his thesis broaches the first new ground since. Straw man. It’s not everyone else’s fault that Bakker is under-informed.

    1. delavagus Avatar

      Just what do you think Bakker’s view _is_, I wonder? Surely you don’t think it’s contained in the sound-bite regarding metacognition (which Matthew misrepresents, BTW). Talk about straw mans… Indeed, it’s a straw man built from a misunderstanding!

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        I assume you mean to include those of us who would problematize the supposed autonomy of positive science in the class of folks who “have no good handle on the distinction” between philosophy and science. I think that’s unfair. I would recognize many features distinguishing the two, like that traditionally the former has been the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty as a way of life practiced by aristocrats and slaves alike, while the latter is a hyper-specialized pursuit of instrumental control of laboratory conditions by paid professionals.

        The “operational life” of science is entirely dependent on the refinement of its technologies. Science’s technological reach at any given moment in history will depend upon the market forces willing to invest capital, on the class struggles and political ideals holding sway over the social imaginary. The further development of science is not immune to the contingencies of history or the strange desires of society. The naturalistic form of present day Science has as much to do with early modern Christian theology, colonialism, industrialism, and capitalism as it does with the supposedly pre-given structure of a mind-independent Nature. It’s not science so much as techno-capitalism that has been operating independently of our conscious ideas about it. Techno-capital has largely determined the shape and direction of what you’re calling “scientific progress.”

      2. delavagus Avatar

        I’m not committed to the extreme form of ‘autonomy’ (of science) you have in mind here. Nor is Bakker. It seems uncontroversially true that science is a human practice embedded in specific historico-cultural circumstances, etc. The embeddedness of science is no argument against BBT. Indeed, what is *most troubling* about the BBT is probably not what it says about human beings, but the sorts of technologies-of-the-self (of a sort Foucault never dreamed of) it forecasts. And this is so troubling *because* brain-science is embedded in our fucked up cultural and historical situation…

  8. Matthew David Segall Avatar

    delavagus writes: “what is *most troubling* about the BBT is probably not what it says about human beings, but the sorts of technologies-of-the-self (of a sort Foucault never dreamed of) it forecasts.”

    Yes, this is precisely what I wanted to highlight my original post by amplifying Cain’s statement concerning how techno-science is leading to what are most likely irreversible mutations in human consciousness, mostly for the worse. If this is what BBT is saying, then I certainly share Bakker’s fears. But I still think the battle against the mechanization of life and consciousness is a battle against a certain techno-capitalist neoliberal political formation, not with supposed scientific facts. In other words, this is a cosmopolitical battle of values (i.e., not about matters of fact, but about what Latour calls matters of concern).

    1. delavagus Avatar

      Sure. But you’re still missing Bakker’s science vs. philosophy-of-science (broadly construed) distinction. Perhaps it’s better to say: science-in-operation vs. science-in-theory. Science-in-operation simply doesn’t care about ‘techno-capitalist neoliberal political formations,’ let alone about ‘cosmopolitical battles of values.’ That’s just more static, not fundamentally different from the heming-and-hawing of those who desperately wanted to hold on to the Aristotelian/Ptolematic world-picture.

      As for ‘supposed scientific facts’ — again, science-in-operation doesn’t care about your pet epistemological theories. Deride it as a contriver of ‘pseudo-facts’ all you want — it simply won’t make a difference. That’s the worry.

      More specifically, about BBT, you’re not evaluting it on its own terms unless you grant, at least provisionally, its presuppositions. The question then is one of explanatory power — and its explanatory power is truly astonishing. Does this mean it trades in ‘facts’? I don’t know. I don’t think it really matters. The real rub is that, unlike other philosophical theories, BBT does not presuppose contentious philosophical bullshit; it presupposes nothing but a conception of science that has been as stripped as possible of all theoretical baggage. Ironically, this provides the firmest possible theoretical ground!

      It’s hard to argue with science-in-operation, especially when you consider that *your very arguing* is increasingly an object of scientific scrutiny (all to the deteriment of argumentation’s lofty pretensions!).

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        My point is that “science-in-operation” IS techno-capitalism! If there is no “theoretical baggage” to BBT, then it has no explanatory power. The power is rather instrumental, technological, and so derives from the dominant political formation of our historical epoch.

      2. delavagus Avatar

        You misunderstand. What I said was that the conception of *science* that BBT presupposes is as stripped of theoretical baggage as possible. That is not the same thing as saying that BBT does not have its own ‘theoretical baggage’ — it is, after all, the Blind Brain *Theory*!

        As for your claim that science just is ‘techno-capitalism’ — you misunderstand Scott’s position if you think they’re equivalent, or vice versa (though I don’t think Scott has actively misunderstood you the way you have him). What I’ve been calling (perhaps misleadingly) science-in-operation does not reduce to ‘science’s technological applications.’

        Now, if you insist on bringing your own (pre)conceptions to bear on Scott’s theses, then you’re bound simply to talk past each other — or, rather, *you* are bound to talk past, around, under, or over Scott, without ever engaging his views. It’s certainly a good strategy for avoiding insufferable theoretical difficulties!

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