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:

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:

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11 Responses to BBT vs OOO

  1. dmfant says:

    good to see you folks all having a bit less prickly exchange, I’m not so sure that there is a lot separating the lines of inquiry that can’t be overcome by working through some real world examples/problems.


  2. RSB says:

    Insofar as BBT is at root a broad-stroke empirical theory regarding information flow and access within the brain I’m not sure where your concern lies regarding either fundamentalism or pluralism. Is it because of the philosophical directions I push it?

    Analytic philosophy of mind is actually an exciting, vibrant field. The only problem I see lies in the way the debates regiment themselves. If you think of Chalmer’s classic Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, the way it really does cover the interpretative landscape, so much so that you regularly encounter philosophers self-identifying using his terminology. The inferential landscape is so thoroughly chartered that people are chased down the decision tree, perpetually sorted according their stand on certain metaphysical issues. You encounter wild and radical positions, but in a strangely predictable manner. And that makes my row that much harder to hoe with analytic audiences. They smell you on me!

    You could argue Continental philosophy has never been anything but philosophy of mind, and it internalized the wild and the radical in a much less self-conscious and therefore less regimented fashion. You find clusters and family resemblances. Lots of individuals with big pictures. BBT certainly fits this mold, and perhaps it is more than coincidence, After years as Continental I wandered into contextualist and then naturalist lands, only to return bearing a Big Bombastic Theory as is more the norm in Continental philosophy. So predictably, I think this kind of thought is valuable, even if it chronically overcommits (like every human on the planet).

    It has the appearance of Big Bombastic Theory, I grant you that, and if that’s *just* what it turns out to be, good riddance! But in the meantime, it doesn’t so much say what consciousness is – the generational research into consciousness continues apace – as *what it is not,* by extropolating the way the brain in fact handles information. This is why, despite having shifted philosophical views my entire life, I’ve remained mired for more than decade with what is literally one of the most fucked up views I could imagine. The fact is this: a good number of philosophical conundrums dissolve when you consider the kinds of probable information access constraints, the kinds of dimensional collapses (none of which are optimized for ‘theoretical cognition’), on any information integrating conscious subsystem. BBT literally says that a good number of philosophical problems are actually raised around cognitive illusions arising from different forms of metacognitive neglect. It’s like the first person is the product of a kind of informatic origami, with varying dimensions of information folded into metacognitive occlusion. Our cognitive systems then do what they typically do in suboptimal informatic situations, make mistakes, ones which in this case can never be caught, like the McGurk Effect:

    My more general argument is simply this: If BBT were scientifically verified, then, if the historical pattern holds, a good portion of traditional philosophy would become the province of cognitive neuroscience. But it doesn’t need to be scientifically verified to raise the question of what *other kind of fate* traditional philosophy could expect. Things are happening fucking fast. So much is going to be so obsolete. If BBT isn’t the answer, it’s likely the beginning of an entirely different relationship between Continental philosophy and science. Thus I expect the Keep your cognition out of my domain! arguments to be a refrain. It doesn’t matter what you think your domain is, the more it contradicts science, the more incredulous it becomes. It has a way of sucking up all the air in a room. We’re a backwater for a reason!


  3. arranjames says:

    I was going to ask if RSB was familiar with radical enactivism as well. It seems to me that RSB’s position depends on the truth of materialist reductionism and internalist accounts of mind, and that if either of these can’t be demonstrated to be the case beyond reasonable doubt then BBT and post-intentionalist thought remain interesting thought-experiments.I also wonder about the existence of mirror neurons and empathy.

    Even if its all just physical systems called brains that are blind to themselves, they constitutively empathise with other physical systems that they recognise as more-or-less similar. The all out embrace of neuropathic manipulation (the neurototalitarianism that noir-realism was discussing) would be unlikely. Even if it was done forcibily…even Brave New World maintained the necessity of an unaltered herd population…who are also the constitutive limit to the system’s success (the genetic proletariat that would in the current case be a neuro-proletariat).

    Ive read Neuropath twice and each time I’ve been shaken to the core, not in the least because as a troubled adolescent I had my own version of BBT that I really did live by- and which cause no small amount of emotional pain to certain people who cared about my happiness. So on one register I’m quite willing to accept that my dismissal of it as a thought-experiment (that isn’t unrevealing).

    To risk kettle-logic…is this really anything new anyway? Don’t the ancient philosophers often have strong materialist determinisms that think of selfhood as a kind of quirk or accident. I am fated to be as I am. Yet there is still freedom in this; I have the freedom to perform the actions appropriate to the kind of being I am or to refuse to do so (Chryssipus is especially clear on this in his examples of logs under water, rolling cylinders, and dogs tied to the back of cars).

    I don’t intend any of these comments in a spirit of outright rejection of RSB’s ideas… these are just sticking points for me. I like to maintain an openness even to ideas that terrify me (sometimes especially so…there is a masochist jouissance to be had in practising the erasure of one’s own world).


  4. Scott Bakker says:

    Desultory at best. I read Thompson’s book a few years back. I’ve read a number of articles, saw a few talks, nothing more. I think the general interactionist orientation is interesting, though it doesn’t strike me as all that different from the Luhmann I read back in the 90’s. I don’t buy the extended consciousness theories at all, though I do think extended cognition is on the mark. I’m an Andy Clark fan, especially now that he’s pursuing ‘action oriented predictive processing.’ The Varela inspired ‘neurophenomenology’ stuff is – on BBT, anyway – horribly off the mark. The bootstrapping problem stuff is interesting though. They seem to have no decisive theory of intentionality. No real understanding of the informatic constraints confronting metacognition, and are so prone to fall into the ‘introspection illusion’ (as Carruthers, not Pronin, has it) the same way as most everyone (according to BBT) falls into it.

    BBT literally does escape the subject-object trap, so any metaphysical characterization that attempts to stuff it back into that heuristic can simply misunderstands it. It would be hard for it to depend on internalist accounts of mind since it explains away both ‘internal’ and ‘mind’! Check out:

    This is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered, and I’m an inveterate enthusiast of extreme theory. It’s not an epiphenomenalism (though, as crazy as it sounds, it can explain why that position possesses intuitive appeal). Starting from the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences (as opposed to parachuting in from some metaphysical aether) it explains away intentionality – all of it – and it does so in a way that allows for parsimonious readings like the one I gave of Kant’s Copernican paradox, and far more aside. Christ, it even offers a way to explain away paradox period!: . ‘We’ are not, as Metzinger would have it, some kind of ‘representational simulation’ that is only as real as it’s on/off switch, but rather a anosognosic suturing of coincident cognitive illusions.

    It’s biggest problem, I beginning to think, is its author! I worked on it in fits and starts in almost utter isolation for ten years following its founding insight (the one that destroyed my dissertation, Truth and Context). It was its explanation of the Now that fucked me up (see,, that kept me coming back. For a while I thought I was going crazy – no more. But the science inexorably seems to keep trending in it’s direction. It fits hand in glove with Tononi’s Information Integration account of consciousness. The same goes even more so with Friston’s free energy account of neurocognition, which has everyone going crazy given its explanatory power. And most recently, Eliasmith’s headline making SPAUN simulation, which he leverages via ‘semantic pointers,’ turns on protocols for collapsing and inflating informatic dimensionality – the very mechanism BBT posits is behind intentionality. Part of the reason I started blogging on the topic so furiously was the premonition that various researchers and thinkers from various corners of the world were closing in. I’m on to something, I think that much is true. And it scares the living shit out of me.

    I’ve been pondering and mulling the thing for many years. So in a sense, what I’m doing is dropping this radically alien implicature out of oblivion and demanding everyone suck it up. Peter Wolfendale will be guest-blogging on TPB in the near future, with an eye, I hope, to tearing BBT to shreds – at least to the extent it collides with his and Ray’s apologetic retreat into Sellarsian inferentialism. I’m curious to see how it manages. Pete’s one smart motherfucker! He would be doing the world a favour if he could find some way to close this particular possibility down.


  5. Pingback: A QUICK RESPONSE TO AN IMPATIENT AND UNRULY QUESTIONER: My preliminary response to Levi Bryant’s questions | AGENT SWARM

  6. arranjames says:

    Thanks for the reply. I concede to your defence against my “internalist” claim…perhaps that was lazy thinking on my part. I guess I am coming more from the position of the Thompson-Valera way of thinking, one more in tune with a philosophy of flesh. That said, I like your project insofar as it makes philosophy horrific (no one could say your arguments can be easily ignored), even if you don’t feel interpolated by the call of “philosophy”. You are working in the realms of the “F-possible”, hitting nerves at the same time.

    For what its worth, the idea that

    ‘We’ are not, as Metzinger would have it, some kind of ‘representational simulation’ that is only as real as it’s on/off switch, but rather a anosognosic suturing of coincident cognitive illusions

    is elegant, and to some degree it is doubtlessly true. Yet to say that “we” are only cognitive illusions is to miss out so much of the picture that people like Andy Clark, Thompson and Valera include in their picture. ‘We’ are a suturing of more than just cognitive elements, and the question of illusion isn’t one that I think we can treat in Platonic terms (where illusion= less than real). I also don’t know (I am trying to get to reading more of your posts but time she is a finite) how much emphasis you place on the work and effect of the “suturing”…this is a fleshly, surgical image to me, and it suggests the very holding together of tissues…the very term strongly suggests emergence. We are illusory, delusional beings… but that realisation is rather more liberating than it is terrifying, if we orient ourselves to a fidelity to our being-illusionary.

    Perhaps I’m trying to have it both ways?


  7. Scott Bakker says:

    In terms of its significance in philosophy of mind specifically, BBT makes hash of emergentist and functionalist approaches. So regarding ‘spooky emergentism’ as it is sometimes called, it shows the rank inability of proponents to assert any reliable connection between whatever emergent phenomena the brain produces and their metacognitive picture of ‘mind.’ With reference to functionalism, it acknowledges the ‘multiple realizability’ of any number of cognitive functions, but asks why the functions attributed to ‘mind’ are actually the functions ‘realized.’ BBT is a theory regarding the far-ranging consequences of theoretical metacognitive blindness – a way to explain numerous puzzles of consciousness as artifacts of the brain’s inability to cognize itself as a brain. In this sense, it simply preempts any noocentric rescue attempts that bank on ‘just so’ appraisals of metacognition.

    Regarding ‘illusion,’ it simply adverts to what is meant by the term cognitive/perceptual ‘illusion’ more generally. If geocentrism, for instance, is wrong, then noocentrism is wrong as well. Things get interesting, however, when you consider the degree to which the brain *needs* these particular illusions to survive and flourish. We can get by without being the centre of the cosmos, as we once assumed, but can we get by without being the centre of our brains? Illusions, as you point out, often discharge functions as well. ‘Moving pictures,’ are a great example of a technological instrumentalization of an illusion. It seems clear that things like self-identity and morality are evolutionary instrumentalizations as well – that consciousness *as it appears* isn’t simply deceptive, it’s also subreptive.

    But this brings us to a big problem: As in the case of ideology, subreptions need to be believed to be effective. And this is the sense where BBT shows the Enlightenment for the cannibalistic uroboros it is. Thus akrasia, understood as the inability to live and to know at the same time.

    To live is to lie, and to know is to die.


  8. arranjames says:

    I like that last paragraph. There is a part of me tempted to just say “so what next”? Because as far as #i can see we know a great deal and live anyway, in part because of our favourite illusions and biases. My interest in using philosophy is precisely to explain why it is we aren’t all suicides, and if possible to help generate a way of helping people cope with being alive. Yes, the problem is precisely how to make illusions that we can believe in once we know they are illusions…but in another sense, we’re constitutively unable to do anything but believe (William James?). In that way, the biggest problem with the BBT might simply be that its easy to turn around and say “yeh, but so what?” And isn’t that exactly what most knee-jerk rejections of it amount to?


  9. Pingback: ANAMNESIS OF THE “PLURALISM WARS”: Levi Bryant can refute anything by pretending it is relativism | AGENT SWARM

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