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)