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

Soul-Making vs the Blind Brain Theory

Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.”  I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.

While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?

As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.

Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.

Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.

…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”

-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)



5 responses to “Soul-Making vs the Blind Brain Theory”

  1. dmfant Avatar

    Stelarc (who mentions Whitehead here) is living proof that such non-ego-tistic stances can be as artistic and engaged with the world as anyone working today that I know of:

  2. Adam Robbert Avatar
    Adam Robbert

    I like the tension between these two statements: BBT’s insistence that consciousness does not *really* exist, on the one hand, and the fact that, nevertheless, consciousness “makes a difference in what happens next,” as you put, Matt.

    To the first point, I would phrase the situation differently. It’s not that consciousness does not exist, so much as that consciousness can only be accessed through our representations of it. I am not, for example, any more able to access my own consciousness “in itself” anymore than I am able to access a coffee mug “in itself.” But for me this is an epistemic problem of knowledge boundaries, and not an ontological problem of the existence or not of consciousness. Further, I am not clear why my representations of myself don’t get to be a part of who or what I am.

    Surely we can agree that different self-representations have big effects, even if divergent and unintended, on who we are and how we comport ourselves. Am I just missing something here? For me the goal is a pragmatic and aesthetic evaluation of the kinds of representations we want to have, rather than an attempt to debunk representations altogether.

    To the second point (drawing right from the first), I want to know how something like BBT accounts for certain kinds of visualization or awareness practices that make a difference in my bodily constitution (and probably the bodily constitutions of those in my immediate vicinity). In particular I am wondering how BBT would regard a practice we have in the martial arts, namely, the intentional evocation of a certain bodily state through practices of visualization (i.e., the imagination).

    It’s a pretty common and totally achievable feat that I have performed myself and even taught my students to perform themselves: One can trigger a physiological state in the body — let’s be crude for a second and call this state “the fight or flight response” — through visualization. By visualizing a particular set of events (usually a loved one being harmed, or something that really gets your blood boiling) I initiate a series of bodily events: my pupils dilate, blood rushes from my organs to my limbs, heart rate increases, adrenaline kicks in, my palms get sweaty, skin tightens, etc.

    My point is that this all occurs after an event that I conjure, on purpose, in my consciousness. What’s interesting is that you can get better and better at doing this kind of thing (I claim no special skill at this, my point is rather that it’s fairly easy, something that probably all athletes do).

    The visualization-physiology loop is not something I find adequately accounted for in what I know about BBT-like accounts that tell us consciousness isn’t real. Any thoughts on how to account for what I’m describing within a BBT framework, anyone?

    1. rsbakker Avatar

      The thesis of BBT isn’t that consciousness isn’t real, only that consciousness *as metacognized* isn’t real. The information lit up in consciousness is functional through and through, just not in a way that theoretical metacognition – aka ‘philosophical reflection’ – can access. Lacking any inkling of that lack of access, philosophy assumes it has all the information it needs and essentially begins confabulating – as the ancient skeptics have insisted all along.

      The evidence for this ‘metacognitive function blindness’ is well nigh mountainous – the whole of contemporary cognitive psychology, for instance, is predicated upon it. Everything the sciences of the brain discover evidences the profundity of metacognitive neglect. BBT simply asks what impact that neglect has had on the history of philosophical reflection.

      1. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        Thanks for the clarification, Scott. I tend to lump BBT in with the eliminativist and / or epiphenomenalist camp, which I am slowly realizing just won’t do. Okay, so if consciousness as metacognized is not real, I take this to mean that, while we may have some ability to conceptually grasp our environment, we do not have this same ability to grasp ourselves as cognizing agents qua our own cognitive capacities (I think is what you’re saying, anyway). This strikes me as an accurate assessment. However, I’m wondering if it isn’t possible to give a different view of philosophical reflection where philosophy actually already knows this and in fact is in some sense based on this finitude of understanding. Kant, to take just one familiar example, used a transcendental argument to say something sort of similar to BBT, I think: The transcendental ego can only cognize the transcendental ego as an appearance (i.e., as some kind of story we tell ourselves) and has no capacity to cognize itself for what it actually is in itself. To be sure, Kant, though no slouch, did not have access to the kind of empirical, scientific knowledge that BBT wields, but it strikes me as inaccurate to say that philosophers are unaware of this deficit and proceed to merely “confabulate” as though this deficit did not exist. Surely there a variety of pre-critical (i.e., pre-Kantian) philosophies that may fall prey to such a critique, but I don’t think it holds for all of them. So, two questions whenever you a moment: First, aside from the more advanced empirical data, what advance does BBT make over critical philosophy? Second, if philosophy is in some sense aware of its finitude in relation to metacognition, and that this finitude is in fact a very important piece of contemporary philosophy, don’t philosophers, through grappling with this finitude (“metacognitive neglect”), actually end up in a place where philosophical reflection is still an important piece of contemporary problem-ecologies (as I’ve seen you phrase it before)?

  3. rsbakker Avatar

    Kant’s ‘critique of reason’ is actually a perfect foil. You’re right: critical philosophy actually turns on the assertion of what might be called ‘dogmatic metacognitive neglect,’ the fact that his predecessors failed to account for the constitutive activity of cognition – the fact that experience is a product of constraints that lie orthogonal to experience. But Kant simply levels this accusation and moves on: he never pauses to consider the *problem of metacognitive neglect more generally.* After all, if it led the dogmatists so far astray, how could Kant be sure that he hadn’t simply run afoul a different kind of metacognitive neglect?

    In this sense, BBT can be seen as the completion of Kant’s negative project, one that entirely overthrows his positive project. If it is the case that Kant overcame the problems of dogmatism, why is it that critical philosophy demonstrably suffers all the cognitive liabilities he lays out in the beginning of the Second Preface? The fact is, philosophy continued much the same as before, fraught with supernatural posits, theoretical underdetermination, and practical inapplicability. His insight made no headway whatsoever against these ancient problems.

    On BBT, this is because critical philosophy misdiagnoses the problem of philosophy in terms of one, friendly form of neglect. BBT simply notes that science has given us the highest dimension understanding of the world we have ever possessed. By its lights, cognitive science tells us that Kant was right insofar as conscious cognition and experience are the products of processes that metacognition is utterly blind to, and wrong insofar as he thought these processes supernatural or ‘transcendental.’ The apodictic access he believed his transcendental deductions afforded is simply another example of neglect, how our inability to intuit the cognitive limits of intuition gulls us into thinking we’ve intuited everything there is to intuit . Fichte then showed in short order that pretty much anything can be ‘transcendentally deduced’ given some prior (and ultimately unarbitratible) interpretation of experience. On BBT, this is simply symptomatic of the lack of the information/resources required to arbitrate between interpretations – a sign of obvious metacognitive incapacity, in other words. And so it leaves us marvelling that Brandom and so many others persist in elaborating what are almost certainly metacognitive confabulations.

    Critical philosophy, consistently followed through, leads to *post-intentional* philosophy. A truly critical philosophy, in other words, is a ruthless philosophy, and therefore a heartbreaking one as well. We thought we could tackle all these second-order problems in intentional terms – which is to say, in ways that flatter our traditional self-image – but only because metacognitive neglect made intuiting the limits of intentional cognition impossible. The heuristic intentional machinery is powerful, but restricted to a narrow set of first-order problem ecologies for that very reason. So we threw ourselves at our ignorance again and again and again, returning with different tales each time. This is the story that BBT sees cognitive science eventually vindicating, at least. Either way, the fate of transcendental/intentional philosophy is in empirical hands now.

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