A very interesting discussion between R.Scott Bakker and Levi Bryant, and many others, over at Bakkers Blog. I wish to regroup some of my thoughts here to get some clarity, but I can recommend the whole discussion.
I think Bakker is in danger of falling into the same sort of performative contradiction that both he and I find in Levi Bryant: despite espousing “non-foundationalism” and conceptual experimentation Levi does have a foundational level and vocabulary, that of OOO, which his appeal to “the withdrawal thesis” illustrates. This is not a semantic contradiction, as Levi is careful to distinguish verbally epistemology and ontology. Bakker highlights that this is still foundational by talking of the “metaphysical lens” of obect oriented ontology, which poses an ontological foundation with its withdrawing objects. He emphasises that Levi is still responsible before the question “How do you know”, not in the narrow sense of any particular knowledge claim but in the global sense of « How do you know your fundamental ontology is true? and is it revisable? The question amounts to : is your object-oriented ontology a useful heuristic that can guide and explicate philosophical and scientific research or is it a new foundation, unrevisable in its basic structure?
Firstly, Levi could easily reply with a tu quoque argument and ask Bakker “How do you, Scott, know?”. Secondly Bakker’s brain talk seems to be his own foundational level. Everything is heuristic, except apparently this theory, whose actual status seems unclear. This objection seems to be behind noir-realism’s slant that what Bakker is doing is more metaphysics than science, and bad metaphysics at that. Bakker seems to be proposing an interpretative synthesis based on an extrapolation of the cognitive sciences and thus he is shielding himself from scientific testability, without engaging the philosophical issues. He seems to be speaking from his own personal no man’s land, neither inside science nor inside philosophy.
I however am not so sure, but I feel the question remains. I think noir-realism is extrapolating beyond his usual complexity, raising the tone in view of a certain deafness he may be perceiving in Bakker’s responses. In a recent “argument” over Bruno Latour with Philip of Circling Squares we first seemed to differ over Latour’s primacy of empirical research over arm-chair speculation. However we began to agree once we clarified that empirical research or fieldwork can be accomplished by philosophers open to conceptual experimentation and so to new information coming from the sciences. In this understanding the dividing line between the BBT as philosophical speculation and BBT as empirical fieldwork becomes a little more subtle, but does not vanish.
Bakker seems to recognise and acknowledge these complications by claiming that BBT is “continuous with the natural sciences”, I gloss continuous but not identical, continuous because continuing the fieldwork on the interpretative and so conceptual level. I do not insist that he familiarise himself with contemporary philosophy of mind, quelle horreur! I find a Laruellian non-standard philosophy ring to the phrase. So my question is pluralist: does Bakker admit the value of other quite different approaches that aim at being “continuous with the natural sciences” such as for example Bruno Latour’s or François Laruelle’s? If yes then great as he is maintaining his pluralism and applying it to himself. If no, then I fear his baby is not only drowning in metaphysical bathwater, it is dissolving in it. Which would be regrettable.
Bakker’s BBT (Blind Brain Theory) goes in the direction that Deleuze was taking in his “brain turn” and like many philosophies, contrary to a legend that OOO would like to convince us of, has nothing to do with correlationism: “There is no subject or object on BBT, no ‘correlativity,’ no fundamental ‘inside/outside,’ only a series of heuristic lenses (to opt for a visual heuristic) allowing various kinds of grasp (to opt for a kinesthetic heuristic)”. I too think it is heuristics all the way down. My question is: To what degree is the BBT itself heuristic and not just another theory of heuristic theories? Is the BBT a new foundation or a new heuristic?
The question “How do you know?” addressed to Levi does not ask about observable facts nor even about scientific generalisations, but about his ontological foundation. Levi cites Latour’s SCIENCE IN ACTION, but the answer to Bakker’s question is not forthcoming in that book . The question, though open, is at least in part rhetorical : How do you square your ontological foundation with your epistemological non-foundationalism? ie the epistemological question crops up in fundamental ontology and cannot be evacuated by semantic word-magic.
It seems to me that each time it is posed Levi displaces the general question “How do you know your foundational ontology is true” onto specific questions such as Odin versus static electricity as an account of lightning. Further, here all Latour’s work on different régimes of truth is thrown to the wind and we have a scientistic re-doubling of his non-empirical ontology, as if the one could palliate the deficiencies of the other. The problem posed is that of the recourse to a non-empirical ontology. I think it is plain for all to see that Levi’s answer to the question “How do you know?” is “I don’t”, and the rest is misdirection.
I am reminded of Popper’s notion of metaphysical research programmes that are continuous with the sciences without (yet) being part of the sciences. A metaphysical programme can guide and promote testable research and protect it from premature criticism while being itself testable, at least for the moment. Eliminate these “metaphysical” research programmes (scare quotes because metaphysical here has no relation to transcendence) and you would eliminate all science. Bakker seems to be saying that his BBT is a metaphysical research programme (or hypothesis) on the way to testability. Which should reassure people like noir-realism, I hope.
Note (1): I have already analysed Levi’s version of naturalism (it is not as empirical as advertised) here: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/on-vacuous-naturalism/
Levi replies with a strange argument taking from I not where the idea that I am a « cultural relativist »: « . It’s impossible to refute cultural relativists such as yourself as you sit in your armchair and say “there’s no difference between the Viking that claims that lightning is caused by Odin’s hammer and the scientist that claims its caused by the build up of static electricity under certain condition”, simultaneously ignoring all the evidence and experimental work that has led to the latter hypothesis…relativism is a particular ontology, not the rejection of ontology –they say one thing in their theory, but nonetheless go to a doctor when they suffer from a cold rather than a priest or shaman ». As Levi has made it a point to refute cultural relativism over and over again he seems to have trouble recognising the existence of any other position criticising his own and just applies the same old stereotypical arguments no matter what I have actually said. In fact I have already replied to the fearsome »doctor argument » here.
Note (2): If my general argument about dogmatic ontology vs research ontology is too compact one can see it developped in more detail here:http://www.theoria.fr/is-ontology-making-us-stupid/