The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead


Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.




9 thoughts on “The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

  1. Great reflections, Matt! Along with the question of ontological alternatives, I think it helpful to keep in mind the epistemological, or methodological–in this case between a simplifying one an one that respects the complexity of the real. In this context, I am reminded of the following words from Morin (who, as you know, has volumes to say about the ecology of ideas): “In effect,” says Morin,
    “if the brain may be conceived as the instrument of thought, the latter may be conceived as the instrument of the brain. The idea of the brain is effectively the product of a long laboring on the part of the mind; yet the mind is the product of an even longer evolution of the brain…. The mind seems to be an efflorescence of the brain; yet the latter appears to us as a representation of the mind. In this way an apparently infernal circle is constituted where each term, equally incapable of explaining either itself or the other to itself, dissolves itself in the other to infinity…. It is clear that any conception that is incapable of considering the simultaneously Gordian and paradoxical link in the brain/mind relation is mutilating.

    Morin writes that it is “futile to seek to ground knowledge either in Spirit or in the Real.”
    Knowledge has no foundation, in the literal sense of the term; but it does have several sources, and is born from their confluence, from the recursive dynamism of the loop out of which subject and object both emerge. This loop brings into communication the mind and the world, sets each in the other in a dialogical co-production in which each of the terms and moments of the loop participate.

    1. Thanks for the methodological reminder, Sean. Morin gets right at the paradox that is at stake here. I love the way he holds the apparent contradiction playfully enough that the ineffable groundlessness from out of which the transcendental self and physical world co-emerge is brought just to the edges of reflective consciousness, perhaps as close as it can be brought without either dissolving into it (and so losing consciousness) or collapsing the complexity of the poles’ interrelation into some all too simple materialism or idealism.

      Reminds me of one of Slavoj Zizek’s books “The Parallax View” ( The book deserves careful study, but in the end, despite his impressive dialectical gymnastics in an attempt to overcome the gap between 1st and 3rd person points of view, Zizek still leaves me feeling stranded as alienated subject in a strange material land. Morin’s take on the paradox has a less alienating, more participatory feel to it.

  2. Where’s the performative contradiction again? Technically you were just begging the question. The question BBT asks is whether there is any such thing as a mind. Your reply is that you have to have a mind to even ask that question begs the question as plainly as can be. You might as well be saying there has to be a God because you had to be created by to even ask the question of whether there is God. I would agree that you would have to have a *brain* to ask whether there is any such thing as a mind. The question is whether we need anything *more,* be it you or the Christian. Do we need God? If so, then what for? Do we need mind? If so, then what for? As the parallel suggests, you want evidence, not benighted solidarity, to make your claim stick.

    If the progress of science is characterized by the progressive disenchantment of scientifically cognized domains then my position actually has a Big Fat Pessimistic Induction behind it. Now that science has kicked down the doors of the human, they’re going to trash our prescientific party as thoroughly as they have all our other parties. Either we’re somehow ‘special,’ somehow have access to something regarding ourselves that we just could never achieve with our environments, or we should expect science to trash our meaning party. So basically, I’m saying you believe in ghosts. I’m saying that neuroscience is filling in a picture where ‘phenomenology’ is quite literally an exercise in reporting a number of inevitable metacognitive illusions as if they were an alternate, low-dimensional realities.

    Consciousness is the sum of vast nonconscious processes whose outputs are winnowed for stabilization and broadcast throughout the brain for consumption by other nonconscious processes, equally vast. Now the very thing this ‘communicative intermediary’ model suggests happens to be the very thing that cognitive science is finding: that we are pretty much blind to the actual cognitive functions that constitute our experience and behaviour.

    If you believe that experience is somehow ‘self-intimating’ then you believe that we can adequately cognize the nature of some things without having to do any biomechanical work – and this sounds like magic, something in need of disenchanting. If you (or Evans for that matter) are at all interested in neuroscience, then please explain how phenomenology even gets off the ground. Think of all the neuromechanical work required to reliable track simple systems in our environment: what kind of neuromechanical system could possibly ‘accurately cognize’ the operations of the human brain?

    The obvious answer is none.

    In which case my science fiction begins to look a sight better than your ghost fiction.

    1. *If* the progress of science is characterized by the progressive disenchantment of the domains it cognizes, then yes, your position has some heft to it. But I just don’t see it that way. My read is that several hundred years of scientific research has only succeeded in multiplying the complexity and the number of agencies we know to be at play in nature. The universe is no less strange, no less mysterious today than it was in the time of Copernicus the neo-Platonist, Kepler the astrologer, Bruno the hermeticist, and Newton the alchemist. Our cosmological knowledge extends to a whopping 5% of the visible universe (the other 95% being “dark”). In biology, the neo-Darwinian synthesis that was so dominant in the 70s now faces serious paradigmatic challenges (Lewontin, Goodwin, Kaufman, Margulis, Varela & Thompson, etc.). In the neurosciences, I still don’t know of a theory that might account for consciousness (other than Hammeroff and Penrose’s quantum model and Tononi’s integrated information theory, but both of these involve serious reconceptualizations of physical ontology along the lines of panexperientialism). Even if consciousness is an illusion, as you suggest, we still need to explain how such an illusion is made possible by a mere mechanism. Or at least this is the problem scientific materialism has framed for itself… In my opinion, the frame makes the problem not only “hard” but impossible to solve in principle. The frame itself is ontologically confused. Hence the turn to Whitehead’s unbifurcated process ontology.

      I do agree with you about the metacognitive blindness of conscious experience. But if you accept my Whiteheadian ontological wager, speculative though it may be (your position is no less speculative, remember), then it becomes clear that most experience, and even most meaning, is not conscious. Critique the limits of intentionality all you want. I’m on board. But this still leaves a more primordial form of nonconscious experience unacknowledged: prehension. Modern philosophy has been under the mistaken assumption that waking, rational consciousness of the external sensory world (Whitehead’s “presentational immediacy”) is the most fundamental aspect of our experience. It is in fact just as you say: consciousness is the sum of a whole multitude of nonconscious processes. But these processes need not be conscious or intentional to be experiential/prehensional. Prior to sensory perception there is bodily reception, or “causal efficacy” as Whitehead describes it (I go more into Whitehead’s account of nonconscious experience in this essay: Physical cause and effect becomes cause and affect. The transmission of energy has a nonconscious emotional vector. From the panexperientialist point of view, human beings are not special, not the sole home of experience in nature; nor are we capable of full conscious access to our own nonconscious cognitive processes. That said, I do believe it is possible to experience some aspects of cognition that are normally hidden from conscious view under certain circumstances (induced by psychedelics, breath work, or other meditative practices).

      Given all our physics and neuroscience, there is nothing to contradict such a re-imagined ontology. The only evidence for panexperientialism we could have we already do have. Again, there is no escape from speculative metaphysics when we are dealing with these issues. There are tests like conceptual coherence and experiential adequacy, however. On the latter count, I think BBT fails miserably, since it is an incredible (=literally unbelievable) theory.

      This is part the performative contradiction. You are asking us to believe a theory that, even if true, is impossible to believe. I don’t understand how you can call it a “theory” if the real force of BBT is to undermine all theory. Further, you are unproblematically presupposing “mechanism” as a final explanation for nature, when in fact mechanism is a concept whose logical construction depends on a number of transcendental categories that are never observed empirically.

      That said, don’t get the idea that I’m defending transcendental idealism or even phenomenology. I only invoke these approaches as a sort of upaya when faced with scientific materialism. This is because materialism/eliminativism seems to me to have held on to too much of the old Cartesian paradigm (it jettisons the mental substance but swallows whole the extended mechanical matter half of the dualism). A mechanical nature just doesn’t make any sense (i.e., is logically and epistemically incoherent) without a transcendental mind pre-programmed with the categories allowing it to be cognized as such. Transcendentalism seems to me to do a great job undermining any sort of naive mechanical realism. But it still leaves us with an ontologically problematic gap between the special human mind and the rest of nature. Given the fact of evolution (i.e., humans are organisms just like the rest of life on earth), we are left with two philosophical choices: either (1) accept the incredible BBT and construe humans as just metacognitively blind machines, or (2) reject both sides of the Cartesian dualism and construe nature as experiential through and through. Since it seems to me we simply cannot believe #1, that leaves #2 as the more coherent and adequate speculation.

      1. A growing number of people find it entirely possible to believe, so obviously it is believable – even if you can’t see it as yet. Whether it’s *livable* is an entirely different question! I don’t think so, but I my blog there’s a number who (mostly in the sciences) claim to have no problem whatsoever – who even see it as advantageous.

        Which is to say, such observations are moot.

        Theoretically, BBT provides a very parsimonious way to cut through centuries of confusion, not by denying that ‘consciousness exists’ but by denying we were ever in any position to have any hope of understanding it via metacognition.

        But to be honest, Mathew, I’m not so much interested in whether you ultimately buy into BBT (or something like it) as assuring that you understand how it works, how it actually explains intentionality away. There was a time before philosophers, before ACH thinking, even, when our metacognitive capacities remained tasked to first-order, retail problem-solving. Our ancestors did quite well without any deliberative theoretical metacognitive understanding of ‘subjectivity’ or the ‘Good’ of the ‘Real’ or what have you. Our millennial confusion regarding ourselves begins with philosophy. This is what the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics argued, that we find ataraxia when we relent in trying to cognize what cannot be cognized. I’m not convinced we would be better off: I think philosophy has produced a large number of useful heuristics over the millennia–I actually think consciousness was selected, in part at least, to facilitate the exaptation of all the systems we have to new problem ecologies. But none of these, proportionally speaking, exceedingly rare solutions (I’m thinking of things like democracy and rights) work for the reasons philosophers assume (and therefore can never agree over).

        Now why should we find ourselves so confusing if not for metacognitive neglect? If we truly had the cognitive capacity to solve ourselves, then why the perennial confusion? The thing to understand about BBT is its simplicity: because we were blind to the nature of our capacities, we where blind to the drastic nature of our incapacity. It’s terrifying how much mileage you can get out of systematically exploring this–as you say–speculative possibility. This, I think, underwrites you sense that it has to run afoul some kind of tu quoque argument somehow, somewhere: so much bathwater is thrown out the window it seems that the baby has to have been thrown out. But it’s thesis is that there *never was a baby,* that the ‘baby’ was, is, an artifact of generations upon generations of systematically misguided theoretical metacognition.

        That you are every bit as ignorant of yourself as cognitive science is showing you to be. Ponder your experience of ‘meaning,’ say, and ask yourself, really, how much information do you have available? Enough to *reliably* discharge a limited number of communicative tasks, perhaps, and not much more…

        Exactly as BBT predicts.

        Lots of explanatory power packed in a parsimonious theory that runs parallel, even offers an empirical picture of, the ancient skeptical critique, and so possesses very little in the way of hard to defend commitments–and no lavish ontological commitments whatsoever.

        Not a day passes where I don’t wish I could find a way out.

  3. If I verbally state “I’m speaking French [in English]” and mean to claim that I am literally speaking French, it is a performative contradiction. If someone responds by pointing out that I’m speaking English, responding that they’ve begged the question because they have assumed that language exists and that I’m speaking English is ludicrous. You have spoken English.

    That’s the simple part.

    In effect Matt is asserting the opposite, explaining that you cannot say what you’re saying without first having a mind. In much the same sense that one could assert validly that you could not even say the English sentence “I’m speaking French” without speaking English. If Matt simply asserted that the mind exists as an immaterial entity, that it exists as a brute fact, QED. Then your charge would make sense. But he’s not doing that. He’s claiming, effectively, that you could no do what you’re doing without assuming what you explicitly deny even though you verbally claim not to.

    Now, of course, there is a dispute about the nature of the mind as such. This is where charges of question begging actually make sense since it is the nature of the mind as that is up for dispute. However, the BBT is not simply making a claim about the nature of the mind but making claims about cognition and thinking as such, BBT explains why the mind seems to be the way it is by explaining away its existence; as a result of neglect, the mind and all its intentional facades arises heuristically, which of course, meta-cognition confuses as substance.

    The claim of performative contradiction, particular to BBT, is the fact that it makes of resources it explicitly tries to deny. For example, your distinctions between first and third person, natural “scientific” and “meta-cognition” with the expressed purpose of denying the validity of first-person and meta-cognition. Questions you have yet to satisfactorily answer, for example, are how (1) what you’re doing is not meta-cognition and (2) how your distinction between Scientific and meta-cognition is valid.

    On (1): the distinctions between first and third person could not have come to be without the first person regardless of its nature. If the first-person is systematically confused then the validity of its initial distinctions are open to question – your distinction between how the brain cognizes the environment generally and how it cognizes itself, for example. This cannot get of the ground without conferring validity on which you want to deny in total.

    On (2): How, for example, is scientific cognition not a just a particularization of meta-cognition? Why is the former more akin to “how the brain cognizes the environment generally” and not “how the brain cognizes itself cognizing the environment generally”? making the distinction you make superfluous? That is, it is just a meta-cogntion of itself cognizing the environment and the ‘hook’ you think you’ve made to the environment evaporates because you have not shown how the brain has managed to cognize the environment independently of cognizing itself. If there is question begging, it is in areas like this and the guilty party is the BBT.

    Since you’re not an alien (assumption) I assume you’re making use of the same resources as everyone else and just as susceptible to meta-cognitive neglect as everyone else. The point being that you undercut your own argument against the validity of meta-cognition by meta-cognizing scientific results and shouting at everyone that does not come to the same conclusions you do. In much the same sense, for example, that no one has seen a Brandomnian norm ( as you’ve said elsewhere), no one has ever ‘seen’ the Blind Brain Theory in a lab. If BBT can continue to postulate unknown causes, depending as it does on the meta-cognition, then there is no reason why other, different ideas cannot explain why things appear the way they do, namely, because they are that way. Or for some other reason. What cannot be done is to pretend as if the issue is already settled, that one meta-cognitive idea rules them all, especially when it undercuts its very ability to make such claims.

      1. I don’t think that is entailed at all. I have a larger response to write but part of the problem is that this specification of shortcomings depends on prior commitments and standards that are just as much under threat by your particular theory. It’s not as if a neuroscientist, for example, consults an fMri image of their brain to make sure they’re making the right conclusions about the brains in front of them- the studies are informed by a battery of other commitments and exclusion of ” noise. ”

        To answer the question directly, No. But even granting their validity, one can still question their application. You spend a lot of time theorizing how meta-cognition ( via meta-cognition) gets things wrong but seemingly take these studies at face value. Why? Can they not be just as limited in their overall application? Is there no debate to be had here? You read off the results of Cognitive Science ( specific branches even) and immediately have *the* insight, questioning nothing? So what is it about your brain as opposed to others that allow you *the* interpretation but not others? Other than proffering some clairvoyance (which you would deny), one of the tests of what you’re saying, like Matt argues, is its conceptual coherence.

        I will unpack that a bit more later. Suffice to say, even if you bite this bullet and attempt to go “empirical” I don’t think your argument works because going “empirical” is not a simplistic affair and one again which makes no difference considering the way you’ve imprisoned cognition. In general, I think you want to discuss your theory at a level of abstraction your theory precludes.

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