BAKKER’S BBT (3): The Spectre of Eliminativism

Deleuze thought that we were moving towards a new configuration that would involve the release of the forces contained up to now in the human form as one particular organisation of these forces dependent on a particular state of the sciences and of our technologies. He envisaged a vast recombination of these forces due to molecular biology, the neurosciences, information science and digital technologies, such that we may no longer be be “human” in the traditional sense in the new configuration. Faced with new knowledge and new forms of control (what Bernard Stiegler calls psycho-power and neuro-power) Deleuze poses the question: what are people going to become? How are they going to individuate themselves, and what new forms of individuation will they invent? What is the role of the brain, its control and its individuation, in the changes to come?

These considerations raise the spectre of “eliminativism”. I am not an eliminativist, although I find eliminativism a line worth pursuing, and thus defend it against a certain type of non-empirical objection. I know that Feyerabend defended it as early as 1951 in his doctoral thesis. Feyerabend always defended eliminativism against silly conservative objections that presupposed the meaning invariance of terms in successive theories and that prohibited incommensurable leaps. So Feyerabend’s aim was to defend the intelligibility of eliminativism, and here I agree with him. His later meditations on Being (especially in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE) would suggest however that this eliminativism cannot exhaust the meaning of Being and cannot be imposed on full-fledged traditions that interpret and experience things otherwise. I find that eliminativism sharpens the debate and produces interesting hypotheses, but so do hypotheses of the unconscious that make no reference to material inscription and indeed relativise its meaning and importance. I think the neuronal unconscious may ultimately replace the Freudian unconscious. But I don’t see the hypothesis of the unconscious in its most general form (as in Jung, Deleuze and Guattari, and James Hillman) give up the ghost so easily, as eliminativism, from this point of view, is just one cognitive style amongst many. That said I think it is heuristically useful to pursue the eliminativist programme as an aid to thinking and research.

In the old days people used to distinguish the context of discovery from the context of justification, but then Feyerabend came along and said it’s all heuristics folks. In other words, what is primary is the context of participation. But in fact I am going too fast. What actually happened is that Feyerabend came along and said “Everything is pluralism”. He then went to von Weizsäckers seminar on Quantum Theory and said again “everything is pluralism” and argued that alternative lines of research had been ruled out, and that they should be explored. However, von Weizsäcker showed him the way quantum mechanics arose out of concrete research. So Feyerabend concluded that “Everything is heuristics” and von Weizsäcker was not happy about that when he learned of it 12 years later. Thus even quantum theorists can have amazing ideas at the content level (cognition) but balk at the metacognitive heuristic implications. This is why Feyerabend looks more to Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli for the heuristic attitude.

For me the concept of heuristics and of its pervasiveness is tied to the notion of diachronics. Heuristics are ecologically sensitive, and thus multiple and variable over time and that’s the big point of the cluster of ideas around diachronic ontology that I have been writing about. Derrida remarks that in deconstructing a binary opposition one can be led proximately to privilege the underprivileged term. I have been at pains to explain that it is only a question of the relative primacy of diachrony over synchrony, as one couldn’t exist without the other. I am thinking also of Althusser’s auto-critique, where he uses the image of bending a stick that is already bent in one direction in the other direction to get it straight. When I read this it amused me greatly as I used to maintain to the Althusserians that the famous science/ideology distinction was conjunctural (an important word for them) in its importance, in its nature, and in its necessity ie that its very existence and use was dependent on the conjuncture. They would have none of that, and so I was pleased to be partially vindicated by Althusser himself. Of course not only did I argue that this distinction was relative to the conjuncture, I maintained that Althusser had in fact misread the conjuncture and that this was not a distinction to insist on. I still maintain that.

Bakker strangely comes back to this sort of epistemological dualism. As ordinary brains we live in cognitive illusion, but science tells us how wrong we are, and how constitutive this miscognition is. I think Bakker is in danger of falling into a performative contradiction that both he and I find in Levi Bryant: despite enouncing our « theoretical incompetence » and admitting that his BBT is « speculation » (ie NOT science) and so seeming to espouse “non-foundationalism” and conceptual experimentation, Bakker does have a foundational level and vocabulary, that of BBT and its scientific parents (cognitive psychology, neuroscience, neo-darwinian synthesis, which his appeal to the cognitive incomptence thesis illustrates. Bakker has created from these a speculative synthesis that we are entitled to call the “metaphysical lens” of BBT, which poses an epistemological foundation in science and an ontological foundation with its neural reality behind our cognitive illusions. However, Bakker himself is still responsible before the question that he so readily addresses to others “How do you know”, not in the narrowense of any particular knowledge claim but in the global sense of “How do you know your fundamental ontology is true? and is it revisable? », given that BBT is not science but speculation. The question amounts to : is your BBT a useful heuristic that can guide and explicate philosophical and scientific research or is it a new apodictic foundation, unrevisable in its basic structure?

To be clear: Bakker’s brain talk seems to be his own foundational level, and so his epistemology is unsatisfactory, to say the least. So much for the problem of the status of science in his discourse. But a further problem remains. Everything is heuristic, except apparently this theory, whose actual status seems unclear. This further objection addresses the status of BBT itself, which Bakker admits to be « speculation ». This implies that what Bakker is doing is more metaphysics than science, and in that case it is bad metaphysics at that. He is proposing an interpretative synthesis based on an extrapolation of the cognitive and neuronal 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.

However we can perhaps agree that empirical research can be accomplished by philosophers, or novelists, who are open to conceptual experimentation and also to new information coming from the sciences. In this understanding the dividing line between the BBT as metaphysical speculation and BBT as heuristic synthesis of and guide to empirical research becomes a little more subtle, but does not vanish – it is more a question of two different treatments of the same theory, two different uses: apodictic and heuristic. But this implies that « speculation » can be cognitive too, if only we have a diachronic approach to cognition. Metacognition would not be just the second-order realm of illusion, but the dimension of metanoia, or deep transformation of cognitive and existential paradigms.

Bakker seems to recognise and acknowledge some of these complications by claiming that BBT is “continuous with the natural sciences”, I gloss « continuous but not identical », continuous because continuing the research on the interpretative and so conceptual level. 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 goes in the direction that Deleuze was taking in his “brain turn”: “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?

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 on a charitable (ie heuristic) reading that his BBT is a metaphysical research programme (or hypothesis) reflecting and guiding research, and on the way to testability.

On the question of « cognition », what I am trying to express is the Deleuzian sense in which knowledge of the brain is not limited to the neurosciences, but that cinema and music and painting and novel-writing can give us images of the brain that are cognitive ie embody knowledge, and that may resonate with brain science. So I maintain that not all cognition is intellectual, proceding by way of abstractions. Knowing how to swim, for example, is cognition too. When Deleuze talks about the affect belonging to the second kind, and the percept belonging to the third kind of knowledge I think he is making this point too. This non-intellectual cognition is evident in our practical embodied know-how and also in artistic knowledge. Scott Bakker is a novelist, and so it should be evident to him too. Yet he persists in affirming the ideal of scientific imperialism (which is not at all science!) that all « good » cognition ( called « knowledge » in other modes of life) is science. I like his work and I am trying to find a « diplomatic » (in Bruno Latour’s sense) way of getting him to include his own writing practice in his image of knowledge, and so to pluralise him a little more.

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16 commentaires pour BAKKER’S BBT (3): The Spectre of Eliminativism

  1. David Roden dit :

    Thanks for this very interesting post, Terence. Could I bother you for some references for Deleuze’s speculations on the posthuman? I seem to recall that he makes an aside about future silicon based life or mind in his Foucault book. But perhaps this crops up elsewhere (What is philosophy?). If these are more extensive than I thought, they would be great for the book.

    I should probably leave it to Scott to respond on his own behalf, but I’ve a query about your epistemological objection to his position that is not, yet, a counter objection. Isn’t it open to the BB theorist to make a distinction between what is phenomenologically available to us and what is cognitively available. For example, when Metzinger claims that consciousness is subject to auto-epistemic closure he is certainly not saying that the computational underpinning of cognitive processes such as attention are cognitively unavailable in principle. He is making an assertion about their phenomenological availability alone. This is because the self-model that issues in our phenomenological awareness is essentially modular: it is informationally encapsulated and thus unaffected by conceptual changes at the level of theory. If that’s right, then we could view science as a way of bootstrapping ourselves out of our dependence on phenomenology and the manifest image it supports without vitiating its epistemic credentials and its ontological import.
    Best David


    • terenceblake dit :

      You’re right that Deleuze talks explicitly about the post-human at the end of the last chapter of FOUCAULT. I think the reference to silicon is more about how our relation to computers and the internet changes what we are. The trilogy of changes is in the liberation of life (molecular biology), of work (silicon) and of language (avant-garde writing). And a little more of the same in NEGOTIATIONS, not just the interviews on Foucault but also the control society stuff (including the end of the intercessors article). But I think that his talk about the brain in CINEMA II and in the interviews is also a post-human moment in his work, as for him we are remodeling or mutating our brains not just by technological means, but also by art and philosophy and experiments in ways of living;
      I am not a theorist of closure, encapsulation and stasis but of openness, exchange and plasticity. So I contest the phenomenological unavailability thesis in any strong form (and also the informational encapsulation thesis). This is an empirical question and not to be legislated about. You are right to reject the cognitive unavailability hypothesis, but Bakker is not as clear as you here, preferring to talk about cognitive illusion and theoretical incompetence more than just phenomenological lacunae. I think that the phenomenology is more various and multiple than a classical phenomenological approach would allow, as I think the self is multiple. But the phenomenology also varies with paradigm change, not automatically but when entrenchment and sedimentation occurs. This is usually a very long-term process, but not necessarily so. As I argue, cognition is not reducible to scientific or even intellectual or abstract conceptual knowledge, and I think this has consequences for the phenomenology. Some (but not all) omputational (or other) underpinnings may be phenomenologically accessible but not in scientific terms, and deep introversion via meditation (or even via drugs or biofeedback) could modify our phenomenological access. As you remark, phenomenology is not sacrosanct and science as cognitive bootstrap prison-break is fine by me, as long as it does not have automatic and unargued for primacy.


      • Jason Hills dit :

        Good points, Terrence.

        I would add that we should discuss the metaphysical background upon which phenomenological claims are made. Personally, I argue for a (scholastic) realist phenomenology that avoids the « illusion » charges as it is non-representational. One is not deceived if one doesn’t take experience to be representational, but instead a biosemiois. Dare I say it, a « heuristic » process. Yet if a person had a different metaphysical grounding for a phenomenology, or even a classical one, his points would have more merit. And he could more successful critique them.


  2. Jason Hills dit :


    Is strict science the only way to bootstrap ourselves? For me, that’s the point of contention. Well, other than the fact that I don’t disagree with the basic claims of RsBakker, but point out that his criticisms hit a much smaller group of theorists than he imagines, and that many of us online interlocutors are not in that group. So he can chill.

    I have been appreciating your posts.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    Great posts Jason. I am all for the non-representational version of phenomenology and I argue that cognition does not need to be representational. Heuristics tends to go with pragmatics, whereas representational semantics often accompanies apodictics.


    • Jason Hills dit :

      It is my specialty, so I know a little about it. My exact research project at the moment is to think through the repercussions of « continuity » within a pragmatist realist phenomenology as applied to ethics. I’ve been trying to wrap up the editing of my book forever.


  4. rsbakker dit :

    Okay, I think I’m finally getting a handle on why we’ve been at cross-purposes. BBT has some very peculiar, very counterintuitive epistemological consequences, which are impractical to raise every time I discuss the theory. For one, it does away with binaries like ‘truth versus illusion,’ ‘fact versus fiction,’ replacing them instead with a continuum of mechanical effectivities. As it stands, however, I get roundly and regularly criticized for being too technical (too reliant on conceptual neologisms) and too obscure (too apt to dive into the inside-out counterintuitivities), so I adopt the standard parlance where it seems to suffice to get my point across. I try to be careful, try to insert qualifying phrases like ‘Taking the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as our cognitive baseline,’ but as I’m sure you’re aware, Terrence, writing blog entries has a dialogic character to it, and you get so you think you don’t need to append such operators–take them as given. But it’s clearly caused some difficulties here.

    I just want to say, I appreciate the frustrations, and I understand the suspicion that I’m simply using this as a dodge. All I can say is that this is not *consciously* the case! And I assure you I’m not saying anything here that I have explicitly stated elsewhere. So with this in ‘mind,’ onto your questions:

    “The question amounts to : is your BBT a useful heuristic that can guide and explicate philosophical and scientific research or is it a new apodictic foundation, unrevisable in its basic structure?”

    It’s heuristic. Like all theory.

    “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.”

    I read some Latour back in the nineties, but really have no idea what his position amounts to. Laruelle and nonphilosophy, I find deeply interesting. If BBT is scientifically confirmed, then both positions will be scientifically discontinuous the degree to which they embrace intentionality. As it stands, it’s just a hypothetical posit, one that has been tyrannizing my philosophical imagination because of the parsimonious way it seems to dissolve a number of traditional problems, and because of the unexplored vista of ‘post-intentional’ philosophy it seems to open up.

    “Bakker is a novelist, and so it should be evident to him too. Yet he persists in affirming the ideal of scientific imperialism (which is not at all science!) that all “good” cognition ( called “knowledge” in other modes of life) is science. I like his work and I am trying to find a “diplomatic” (in Bruno Latour’s sense) way of getting him to include his own writing practice in his image of knowledge, and so to pluralise him a little more.”

    But this is precisely the thing I don’t affirm! Scientific cognition *is imperialistic* as a matter of historical fact. I finally realized that you’ve been reading my descriptive claims of what science does when it infiltrates a domain as normative. I’m just saying this is what has historically happened, and no one has yet given me a plausible argument as to why any traditional form of cognizing will prove resistant. So, for instance, I think it is likely inevitable that science and technology will continue driving more and more cultural content (computers already write articles and novels), until the notion of ‘fiction writing’ as a ‘traditional artform’ will have the same condescending twang as ‘traditional crafts.’ And I think this an almost unimaginable tragedy.

    So here’s a question: As a pluralist, do you affirm the cognitive status of things like geomancy, fundamental christianity, astrology, or phrenology?

    Here’s the thing. I do. Why? Because cognition in its most general sense is about problem-solving, and all these things are capable of solving certain problems in certain problem ecologies. Are any of these things ‘accurate’? Not at all. They are exceedingly low dimensional. Phrenology was a great way to relieve people of their money, but a horrible way to understand human beings. It was subreptive, a way to solve one problem while appearing to solve another.

    BBT says that something similar is going on with metacognition.

    So, it takes the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as its baseline for ‘accurate’ or high-dimensional cognition. Of course this baseline is contingent. The question I ask, is what else is there? At this time in history, what other species of cognition gives us anything remotely resembling the high-dimensional problem-solving ability of the sciences?

    I certainly don’t know, and I’ve arguing and asking this question for a long time (ever since reading Negative Dialectics in the 90s, in fact). And given that our economic system is designed to lavish obscene rewards on problem-solving, I think what I call Akratic Society is pretty much inevitable. I fear BBT may be confirmed (because of its parsimony and comprehensiveness), but even if it lands in the dustbin, I think it’s inevitable that philosophy will be snapped if half, into a subdiscipline of cognitive neuropsychology on the one side, and into New Age fluff on the other.

    That’s another depressing upshot I would love to be argued out of. But I fear, short of Adorno’s Messianic moment or Heidegger’s God, we are well and truly screwed. Put another way, Only heuristic X can save us now!

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  5. Ping : Dodging the Agent, Tripping into the Swarm | Three Pound Brain

  6. rsbakker dit :

    The citation is the easy part.


  7. Frank dit :

    Is pluralism pluralistic? As flippant as it sounds, doesn’t the stance that pluralism is somehow an inviolate universal ideal automatically preclude any paradigms that are not pluralistic? And if pluralism isn’t always the best appraoch, then I don’t understand the argument you’ve set up to make non-pluralist novelist out to be some kind of inherent self contradiction. Scott’s written about using timely massed online feedback to conduct experiments on audience reactions, instead of just relying on artistic intuition. That sounds not that far removed from how a preference aggregating computer program would cobble together a text string that human readers would label a work of art.

    Also as far as swimming is concerned, I (no joke) only have the knowledge of how to thrash my limbs around like a broken wind up toy in between taking in mouthfuls of water. Does that have a place within the pluralistic body of swimming knowledge? And does it warrant an equal place alongside other methods? How would you arbitrate such a thing?


    • Jason Hills dit :

      Since I prefer the direct and the round-about, I’ll just highlight Terrence’s best phrase,

      « So I have a problem here, what Scott says about science and cognition does not correspond to the way he says it.  »

      That’s what this is really about, at least in my view. I think most of us are agreeing on the basics, but as Terrence notes the « what » and the « way » do not align, and thus Bakker commits logical problems as he over-states his case. I don’t know his background, so I cannot tell if it’s the over-statement of an academic sales-pitch or of the imprecision of an amateur. When pressed, he does his performative game reminiscent of stereotyped post-modernism only in a scientistic way.

      Am I « going meta » on the conversation? Yeah, and that really bothers some, but usually because those who disagree don’t want that angle of scrutiny since it neutralizes the narrative at play. I do hope at least Terrence understands my words, as I am alluding a lot to the history of philosophical practice in the last few decades.

      Aimé par 1 personne

      • terenceblake dit :

        Yes, thanks Jason, as I was beginning to worry that I was off on a wrong tack, or incapable of explaining myself clearly. I think there is some hype, which Bakker is conscious of and accepts, and some imprecision, which he denies. But I feel some progress in clarity has been made, and so encouraged to continue.


      • Jason Hills dit :


        I must say that your writing style exhibits some stereotypical « continental » traits, such as a lack of directness and an elliptical path in approaching its point. I find this rather amusing, since I am a philosophical pluralist and am not bothered by it, but I don’t think it’ll serve you well in talking to Bakker.

        I think your invocation of Levi Bryant was entirely appropriate: Bakker is doing a similar thing, and I really dislike the intentional conflation of rhetoric and pageantry for substance. I don’t intend to be hurtful, but truthful when I say such things.


  8. terenceblake dit :

    Hello Frank, I reply to you in the next post, as my remarks became somewhat prolix. Thanks for your comment.



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