DIVERGENT HISTORIES AND CONCEPTUAL PERSONAE: Graham Harman, Tristan Garcia, and Adrian Johnston

Continuing my discussion with Jon Cogburn’s post on Continental Philosophy’s recent history as seen through OOO spectacles:

I have gone out of my way on several occasions to say that I have nothing against the man Graham Harman. Further, I censor very little on my blog, but I will have no truck with personal denigration or accusations of Nazism etc., and have said so. I have stated that given all this, I use “Harman” to refer to a conceptual persona in Deleuze’s terms (similar to Cogburn’s notion of pragmatically useful philosopher) based on my contextualization of his texts (what Cogburn optimistically calls “Whig” history of progress and enlightenment, only in my case it is mixed with some Hesiodic history of decline towards a new Dark Age).

(On tone, I may have been “strident” on some other occasions, but I don’t see any stridence in my discussion with Jon Cogburn,  and certainly not in my Deleuzian claims, as Cogburn implicitly claims).

I have begun to read Adrian Johnston’s new book PROLEGOMENA TO ANY FUTURE MATERIALISM and I find it more satisfying than Ray Brassier’s writings, which are too scientistic for me. For example, Johnston finds transcendental room for what one could call Cogburn’s “modal soup” (i.e. the alethic and deontic modalities that Cogburn argues are just as real as seemingly more “objective” properties, see here), although Johnston does not make them originary, as Cogburn would seem to prefer. I find it amusing that Johnston is an uncompromising atheist and refuses new religious fusions with Continental Philosophy yet he talks of his key concept of “weak nature” in very similar terms to Caputo’s weak God.

There is lot’s of room for divergent historical narratives, so I don’t need to rule out anyone else’s history, nor submit to it, but I feel free to evaluate it in my own terms. I do not need Graham Priest’s “dialetheism” to explicate this attitude, as Feyerabend’s pluralism is already a good guide. I certainly disagree with most SR/OOO accounts of the philosophical history of the last half century.

This is also my problem with Tristan Garcia’s book, to be published in English this year, FORM AND OBJECT, which Jon Cogburn has translated with Mark Ohm: unlike Adrian Johnston’s book, which is impressive and I feel I can dialogue with, Garcia’s FORM AND OBJECT is impressive but has no place in any of my histories. I see how one can climb to the meta-level and compare his ontology with Harman’s or Bryant’s, but this sort of thing rapidly becomes uninteresting. If dialogue (its richness and complexity, its surprisingness and its transformative power) is an important criterion, which it is for me, then Garcia’s book seems to favourize a fairly poor game of meta-comparison and, at best, to contribute to the long overdue de-absolutization of OOO.

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29 Responses to DIVERGENT HISTORIES AND CONCEPTUAL PERSONAE: Graham Harman, Tristan Garcia, and Adrian Johnston

  1. rsbakker says:

    If only because I’m having a completely different reaction to Johnston’s work, I have to ask you how you slip a couple of different nooses, Terrence. Taking the material sum of our environmental interactions, it seems hard to deny that the characterization of those interactions in subject/object terms is procrustean *in the extreme.* So on my own account, this simply means that the subject/object paradigm is heuristic, and as such, a cognitive tool adapted to specific problem-ecologies. For me, OOO is an anachronism funded by ignorance. But the larger implication has to do with ontological preemptions of science such as Johnston’s, with any attempt to lay out the ‘conditions of possibility’ scientific theory and practice. What grounds the cognitive legitimacy of this strategy? Why should anyone entertain, let alone commit to, such interpretations in an age when human cognition is itself on the autopsy table?

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Hello Scott, I agree that the subject/object grid of interpretation is heuristic and not foundational. It has its uses. But then so is your BBT, because it must regard modern scientific studies of the brain and of its performances as foundational, where someone else would come to the blindness of the brain from psychoanalysis or Nietzschean philosophy. We agree that OOO is an anachronism, and I give my reasons why its ancestor theory, the Althusser-Bhaskar-Kripke hybrid was already anachronistic 40 years ago. I think we agree on Johnston too,. You may have neglected the import of what could seem like just a clever jibe (“I find it amusing that Johnston is an uncompromising atheist and refuses new religious fusions with Continental Philosophy yet he talks of his key concept of “weak nature” in very similar terms to Caputo’s weak God”), but for me it is a decisive objection: soft scientism is still scientism, and so still religious. But then, BBT is scientism too.

    I don’t think that cognition is on the autopsy table, it is very much alive and kicking. It is however thrashing around in a little corner wearing a dunce’s cap, because cognition is consensual stupidity, which is worse than just getting things wrong. I say BBT is scientistic, but that is true only once it exists and becomes or purports to be cognition itself.

    But first you had to think of it, and that thinking is not cognition, and is only poorly described as a meta-cognitive leap. You speculated, you popped your head a little outside Plato’s cognitive cavern and turned around and looked at it, then fell back inside. Now you claim to out-cognize the cognizers, painting graffiti like “this is just another cavern” on the walls of the cavern of cognition.

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  3. rsbakker says:

    BBT is simply where I have my chits on the table, a bet against the House and all the occupants, myself included. But it is dialectically embedded in the machinery of the sciences. If the picture of metacognition it paints proves erroneous it will be dispatched and we can all breathe a sigh of relief! The ontological game it plays, in other words, is quite different than the one these new materialists are playing. It is complicit with the most powerful theoretical claim-making machinery in the history of the human species – namely, the one that will cut our collective throat.

    Either way, I appealed to the heuristic nature of the subject/object dichotomy not to invoke BBT, but because I knew you already agreed with it for independent reasons. I don’t know what thinking is, and neither does any human living (but like every human living I have my guesses). X comes first, not ‘thinking’ (or any other folk psychological category). And so the question still stands: Why should anyone think this X is transcendental? Why should anyone take preemptive ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?

    Does it provide genuine clarity and understanding? Is there a track record of reliability? Does it effect meaningful social change? Or, more troubling, does it simply cater to a certain consumer profile?

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  4. terenceblake says:

    Yes, but the same questions apply to you BBT is scientistic dogma and in the cavern, or speculative heuristics peeking out of the cavern intermittently.

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    • rsbakker says:

      Were plate tectonics ‘scientistic dogma’ before finding empirical verification? How about long-term potentiation, or evolution, or thermodynamics? Continentalists continually raise ‘scientism’ as a charge denoting cognitive insufficiency, when they need to realize that it’s the DILEMMA.
      Meanwhile, the question still stands, Terence!

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  5. terenceblake says:

    Plate tectonics is science. Science is not scientistic. Only the use of science can be scientistic. Scientistic dogma comes in when your only model of cognition is science and everything else is made to conform to that. It’s both dogmatic and self-refuting. You are always using an extrapolation of selected scientific theories and results to prove cognitive insufficiency, without noticing that you prove the cognitive insufficiency of your own evidence. All this cognitive illusion stuff was already in Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, why do you even need to refer to modern science? To give a dogmatic foundation to this unstable mass of heuristic observations and conjectures, i.e. you are using science metaphysically to say boo! to other metaphysicians. When they reply “Boo yourself!” you say that they are not answering the question, but “Boo!” is not a question, even if you express it in a sentence grammatically in the interrogative mood. Johnston does exactly the same thing as you, he makes speculative leaps. There is not the slightest science in what you are doing, it’s all metaphysical selection and use of a partial set of scientific results. You do not have science on your side, you make a metaphysical selection and extrapolation which if followed through shows that science is impossible. Your selection from science is partial, one-sided, pre-oriented to the conclusion you have already decided metaphysically, you are doing metaphysics not science, which is fine, but then you have no criterion of demarcation between you and Johnston. However he does have one. He formulates my objection in his own terms by saying that Nature is “a detotalized, disunified non-One/not-All of distinct, heterogeneous levels and layers of beings”. You’re totalizing and homogenizing, your Nature is unified by your metaphysical speculation, a plucked metaphysical duck to which you have stuck real scientific swan feathers to make us think it is a scientific swan, but its quack betrays it.

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    • rsbakker says:

      Lot’s of vague evaluation of BBT, some rancour, but not much argument I can see. C’mon, Terence. I’ve conceded arguments to you in the past, so you know that if you present a genuine case that I will genuinely listen.
      In the meantime, is nature “a detotalized, disunified non-One/not-All of distinct, heterogeneous levels and layers of beings”? Or is that dogma (a way, perhaps, to launder our supernatural exceptionality into something less embarrassing)? Maybe it only seems heterogenous. How do you propose we arbitrate?
      And when neuroscience does puzzle out the mechanisms of consciousness and metacognition, what will you say then? There’s a number of BBTesque options out there now – what will you say if one of those joins plate tectonics and evolution in the canon? Will you still be stomping your feet, or will you actually pause and ponder?
      .
      And still no answer to my original question, which is quite independent of any view, only the paraphrase… ‘Boo!’ = ‘Why should anyone take preemptive ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?’

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  6. terenceblake says:

    Scott, I don not recognize you, what’s up? Personal disparagement and no playfulness, this is not like you. I have given arguments that are far less vague than yours, but you seem not to see them. Aside from the tu quoque argument, i.e. why should anyone take a preemptive ontological argument like yours seriously?, there can only be pragmatic reasons for adopting one heuristic rather than another. You give me a “what if?” argument concerning a future possibility; “what will you say if one of those joins plate tectonics and evolution in the canon? “. You do not address the argument that what you are doing is metaphysics. And you call me vague and rancorous.

    Let me try again:
    1) tu quoque: BBT is a metaphysical hypothesis
    2) metaphysic: syou are not doing science , you are doing metaphysics
    3) self-refuting: your view of cognition makes science impossible, yet you argue from science
    4) partiality: you argue from a narrow selection of scientific results
    5) you give a one-sided metaphysical interpretation of these results
    6) monolithic: you presuppose a unified homogeneous science
    7) monistic: you presuppose a unified homogeneous nature
    8) scientism: you presuppose science as the measuring standard of knowledge
    9) dogmatism: you use your metaphysical heuristic as if it were scientific truth
    10) narrow: you base yourself on a very narrow cognitive base compared to Johnston
    11) naïve: you are unaware of the metaphysical status of your own theory, Johnston is of his
    12) extrapolation: you rely a lot on a possible future state of science (“What if?”)

    You do not acknowledge any of these arguments, yet alone reply to them. I have no particular allegiance to Johnston’s project as he is a Lacanian, and I detest that. But I cannot bear such brash dismissal of his well-worked out project (far more so than yours) and such wilful blindness to argument.

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  7. rsbakker says:

    I’m just impatient to hear an answer – any answer! – to what I think is a pretty straightforward question, is all Terence. I know you’re a colonial ruffian and flame-war veteran same as me, so I’m not so worried with observing niceties. Johnston extolls ‘combative materialism’ at a couple junctures, and AGENT SWARM seemed like the most logical place to go and see!

    So as much as I would like to say ‘Now we’re talking!’ I can’t because this is all assertoric. I fear a list of conclusions does not an argument make. Is BBT a metaphysical thesis in a sense that other scientific theories are not? That’s an interesting question, but unless you explain to me how and why this is so, it remains an unsubstantiated accusation. Is the evidence I adduce cherry-picked? Another interesting question, but unless you adduce the disconfirming evidence I have overlooked, it remains an unsubstantiated accusation. Is my view self-refuting? Another interesting question (the one I’ve spent more time exploring than any other), but again, unless…

    You offer plenty of claims to argue about, but no arguments, Terence, and in the meantime, the bloody question still stands. It makes it hard not to see your responses as attempts to evade the question and discredit my perspective in the process. And as I’ve said several times, it’s not my question, it’s the question that Continental materialism needs to answer if it’s to have any hope of being relevant beyond its insular borders. So please, if you can, set BBT to one side, and answer the damn thing. It’s an honest question, Johnston’s project pretty clearly hangs from it, and it’s among the first questions any interlocutor he might find in the cogski world would ask. So,

    Why should anyone take preemptive ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?

    Where else should we begin a discussion of the merits of his ‘well-worked out project’?

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  8. terenceblake says:

    I will try to answer your question, but first a few preliminaries. You ask: ” Is BBT a metaphysical thesis in a sense that other scientific theories are not?” This implies that BBT is a scientific theory, it is not, it is your specualtion based on your reading of scientific theories and results. Normally you don’t even get to ask the more genral question as you don’t get through the door with such a bluff. I have done nothing but argue, but you are so blind to it I’m beginning to think that BBT is short for blind bakker theory!

    You ask me to forget about BBT, which I can’t and to answer your question. I translate that as you want me to forget that it is you asking the question, which means to forget all polemic ‘me with you, you with Johnston, whatever). This means that you are inviting me to indulge in a thought experiment for the beauty of the subject proposed. Fair enough, as its you (but I must forget that it’s you) who is humbly (let’s enrich the thought experiment with a fictional context) asking, I will try. Your question is now quite general “Why should anyone take preemptive ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?” Not fully general as there is that polemical word “preemptive” that is not doing its proper job sitting there, as it is negative in connotation and suggests that there is another “non-preemptive” approach (perhaps a “scientific” approach, perhaps like BBT). This brings polemics and BBT-ism in by the back door, so I will erase this word to get: “Why should anyone take ontological approaches like Johnston’s seriously?” We’re still mixing a general question with a specific (polemical? we can’t have that, Mr Bakker would ask us to avoid it and to answer, and so to be fair ask, the question satisfactorily. This gets us to “Why should anyone take ontological approaches seriously?”

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    • rsbakker says:

      You know what the difference between the naturalistic project and the transcendental projects is, generally construed. You also know why naturalists are going to be inclined to dismiss projects like Johnston’s out of hand. You also know this problem exists whether BBT exists or not. So why are you behaving like I’m setting you up for some kind of trap?

      The naturalist is going to say something like,

      “Look, Johnston, why should anyone buy into “heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension”? Not only do we not know whether this is the case, it’s not clear that there’s any way we *could* know! Why not reserve your commitments to metaphysics only as far as the science seems to require? Mechanistic explanation lies at the root of the most drastic transformation of human society in history, so I think it makes more than a little sense to put my chits in its corner. Otherwise, I’m agnostic as far as I can be. Does ‘radical heterogeneity’ lie at the root of reality? Who the hell knows? You certainly don’t.

      “And yet you seem to be taking the opposite approach, maximizing rather than minimizing your ontological commitments, which you then use to ground positive theses regarding the nature of the brain and mind! Rather than looking to brain science as potential means of clarifying our perennial metaphysical confusion, you take a stand in that confusion and claim to clarify brain science. What’s up with that, Johnston? How do we use metaphysical theses that cannot be arbitrated to arbitrate empirical theses? To me, it clearly looks like you’re putting the metaphysical cart before the empirical horse.”

      How do you think Johnston would reply? Failing that, how would you reply?

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    • terenceblake says:

      “Why should anyone take ontological approaches seriously?” I cannot give you a general answer. In my case, I became explicitly interested in ontological approaches about 40 years ago, when I was confronted by bad epistemology (relativism, Althusserian dogmatism) and bad ontology (Althusserian ontology, Derridean linguistic constructionism). My two ontological guides were Feyerabend and Deleuze. Today, 40 years later, there are are still the same old enemies (relativism, linguistic constructionism), except that Althusser in the bad ontologies has been replaced by Badiou, and Harman’s OOO. So initially ontology is needed as self-defence against an exterior adversary. Secondly this leads to an awareness that everyone has an ontology (at least one, sometimes more) and that I myself may be presupposing one, or in need of one, without noticing. This is the internal need for an ontology, to prevent falling into the traps of relativism, linguistic constructionism, and other traps such as illegitimate extrapolation of a regional ontology into tt generality, or holding self-refuting ideas. So an ontological critique is necessary on both external and internal accounts. Thirdly, some traits of our own position or that of others can only be discovered by comparison, so we need a plurality of ontological approaches, each keeping the others awake and alive and healthy. It is in looking at Johnston’s ontology of a non-unified heterogeneous Nature, a non-one non-All, that I see more clearly that BBT is based on a unified homogeneous view not only of Nature, but also of the regional ontology of cognitive science.

      On a more specific note, now that I have sketched out a general answer, unless you can begin to answer the 12 charges that I listed above you will not be taken seriously by anyone with even a smattering of philosophy. Science is not scientism, but partisans of science, including scientists themselves when they stop doing science to do commentary, often do not respect that elementary difference. Impressing those already acquired by the ideology of science can keep you going forever, and being cheered on and encouraged to boot. But that is just preaching to the converted. To become more robust your view has to consider the for and against of other similar views. You seem to feel that Johnston is moving in a similar enough terrain to get you alerted. That’s great, don’t dismiss him, read him and absorb what you can and argue with the important stuff in the rest. I’ll read him too and we can discuss, but no global rejection please, of the style “I cognize that cognition is dead”, or “I am doing science so why should I take non-scientific metaphysical ontologies seriously. That reaction is the preemptive attitude par excellence, you strike Johnston with your big preemptive BBT instead of coming to grips with him emptively. Pre-emptive is apriori buying up “emere”) of all the terrain, refusing to negotiate. I say the time has come to dialogue and negotiate, and I will participate in that sort of encounter.

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      • terenceblake says:

        In the previous commentary I gave you my response, but you ask me to imagine what Johnston could reply. May Johnston forgive my dumbed down replacement, but in the interests of the thought-experiment that you asked me to engage in I will give you the other half of the experiment. You ask: ““Look, Johnston, why should anyone buy into “heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension”? Now I can give you Johnston’s possible answer “Look Bakker, why should anyone buy into your homogeneous unified nature that you don’t even know you presuppose?”

        He could continue: “You use cognitive science but it doesn’t just show cognitive error but also successful cognition. You remind me of a cognitive witch-doctor who refuses to help a patient with Alzheimer because he’s just another example of failed cognition. And what good is a cognitive science that can’t explain qualitatively different types of cognition, where is your cogsci account of Galileo’s cognition or of Einstein’s or of Prigogine’s? And don’t get me started on the other relevant sciences. What about social studies of science, what let’s you make cognitive science steal the show? And the brain is not just the object of science, it’s the subject of cinema, as Deleuze showed. You talk about the science, but you are surreptitiously selective, you talk about mechanitic explanation but that is an abandoned paradigm in the sciences”.

        He could conclude: “You ask ‘Does ‘radical heterogeneity’ lie at the root of reality? Who the hell knows? You certainly don’t’. Well does your unconscious radical homogeneity lie at the root of reality, I think not and I have given my reasons. But you can’t give your reasons because you don’t know you’re presupposing it. Agnostic my foot Bakker, only you believe that of yourself.”

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  9. rsbakker says:

    But note that the problem is one of drawing, as Johnston plainly does, empirical conclusions from ontological claims, given our abject inability to arbitrate the latter. This is the primary reason he strikes those outside his ingroup as so wildly implausible. It seems like using rank ontological speculation to ground empirical claims. Ultimate reality is this, therefore you are that.

    This seems backward. None of the reasons you cite touch this problem, let alone resolve it – at least as far as I can see. Using ontology to fend problematic ontologies begs the question of how one might, in a consensus compelling way, determine which ontology is more equal. I agree that always keeping the ontological door open is a good thing because we can never know where the science will push us, but again, I don’t see how this bears on the problem drawing empirical conclusions from prior ontological grounds.

    Like I said above, I’m only too happy to debate argumentative criticisms of BBT, but unless you give the arguments that underwrite the list of critical conclusions you draw, I really have no idea what I’m arguing against. So, for instance, specifically how does BBT imply a problematic ontological monism? Is it merely because it fits with the prevailing physicalist paradigm? And why should this even be a concern, given our inability to definitively arbitrate between monisms and pluralisms?

    Note that stating that the mechanistic paradigm is the cornerstone of the life sciences does not commit one to ontological monism. Likewise, the fact that we require a welter of tactics and techniques to advance scientific inquiry does not necessarily imply ontological pluralism. We could all be a hologram inscribed on the surface of the universe, only one so sophisticated as to require fractionate forms of cognition to decode. Once again, who the hell knows?

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  10. rsbakker says:

    Response to inset above: “Well does your unconscious radical homogeneity lie at the root of reality, I think not and I have given my reasons. But you can’t give your reasons because you don’t know you’re presupposing it. Agnostic my foot Bakker, only you believe that of yourself”

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘unconscious radical homogeneity.’ How does my position imply that? All my position implies is that the incompatibilities between intentionality and causality are a function of the organization of the latter. Ejecting intentionality from an ontology just means that: intentionality is not part of the natural world. Does ejecting spirit from his ontology mean that Johnston is a monist?

    “You use cognitive science but it doesn’t just show cognitive error but also successful cognition. You remind me of a cognitive witch-doctor who refuses to help a patient with Alzheimer because he’s just another example of failed cognition. And what good is a cognitive science that can’t explain qualitatively different types of cognition, where is your cogsci account of Galileo’s cognition or of Einstein’s or of Prigogine’s? And don’t get me started on the other relevant sciences. What about social studies of science, what let’s you make cognitive science steal the show? And the brain is not just the object of science, it’s the subject of cinema, as Deleuze showed. You talk about the science, but you are surreptitiously selective, you talk about mechanitic explanation but that is an abandoned paradigm in the sciences”

    Well, because all these fields involve cognition. I encounter this complaint regularly (though not under the register of ‘cherry-picking’). But my critique of the tradition you’re defending has nothing to do with the operationalization of intentional concepts in different realms of inquiry, it has to do with their ontologization and the myriad confounds this creates. Otherwise, are you suggesting that cognition, now that it’s being colonized from numerous natural scientific angles, will be the first prescientific domain that science will not revolutionize, the first domain where it stops, squints at the philosophers (none of whom can agree with one another), and says, ‘Hey, you guys are actually right!’? That might be the case, but I think it’s a longshot, one certain to be ferociously defended by those who have devoted their lives to those prescientific discourses.

    I think the revolution is already happening – clearly so, in fact. BBT is just my attempt to keep abreast of it, and hopefully, a little bit ahead.

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  11. terenceblake says:

    My comments do not concern your position, but your reasoning, and you do implicitly predicate a phantasmatic unity by extrapolating some (but not all) results of cognitive science outside into the rest of the world. You still do not respond to my arguments nor do you acknowledge them. I am dumbfounded at your continuing premicing of an opposition between speculation and empirical science. You state: ” the problem is one of drawing, as Johnston plainly does, empirical conclusions from ontological claims, given our abject inability to arbitrate the latter.”

    This is all wrong. Let’s slow down and take the arguments one by one:

    Science is not just empirical gawking and note-taking, even its experiments involve highly sophisticated conceptual elements that are taken up in more overarching research programs that themselves contain metaphysical presuppositions at their core. Galileo did not produce just a physical revolution, he introduced a metaphysical revolution at the same time. The empirical observations were relatively secondary, it was their intepretation that was primary. This is just how science is and you’re not going to wish it away. And this is exactly the picture that cognitive science would suggest:

    1) bias comes first in many cases, even in science, and

    2) these biases can be heuristically fruitful, not just source of error.

    You affirm (1) readily, except in the case of science, and you do not take the step to (2). So your picture of science is deformed. But you need this deformed picture to be able to ignore your own unconscious metaphysical bias, not in your position itself, but in your chains of reasoning. You see no gaps, you just select, extract, extrapolate, and speculate as if you were stating simple empirical fact. This is part of your first epistemological error: a naive and simplistic idea of the method of science

    NB: To reiterate, I am not commenting your position but your mode of reasoning in your charge above against Johnston:
    “It seems like using rank ontological speculation to ground empirical claims. …This seems backward”. No Scott it is not backward, it is one of the ways in which the sciences work.

    OK, in your eyes have I given an argument here? I have been giving this same argument all along, without spelling it out as much as this, but you have not seen it. Anyone who has done even a little philosophy of science has seen it, but you say i am merely asserting things. Do i need to spell it out more, before moving on to a second argument? Do you accept this first argument, or do you disagree? This is a very fundamental point. If we disagree here we may be inextricably condemned to talking at cross-purposes.

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    • rsbakker says:

      My eyes generally glaze when debates turn to What Science Fundamentally Is, because frankly I don’t think anyone knows. But the important thing at this point is to figure out where we agree and disagree. Now the fact is, I heartily agree with both (1) and (2) so I’m confused about the ‘deformity’ in my understanding. I do not, however, agree with ranking the evidence and the interpretation as ‘secondary’ and ‘primary’ simply because the interpretation minus the evidence is underdetermined, just more speculation.

      But even granting you this I’m not sure how this argument is supposed to work: Are you saying that Galileo needed to have his interpretation of the evidence before he had his evidence? My guess is no. That commitment to “heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension” is something necessary for the sciences of the brain?

      I appreciate that experiment without theory is blind: this is why we hypothesize. Do tell: what kind of experiments does Johnston’s ontology guide?

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  12. terenceblake says:

    Scott, let’s not get distracted. I am continuing our thought experiment where I reply to a generic questioner who asks about the value of a generic “ontological approach”. While the thought experiment itself is generic, I am using you and Johnston as specific examples.

    I know you can “talk the talk”. I am not calling into question your philosophical knowledge. But somehow you both know (you are intelligent and well-read) and don’t know (you profer scientistic rodomontades) at the same time.

    You say you agree with (1) and (2) above, i.e. with the idea that bias often comes before the observational evidence and that these biases can often be heuristically fruitful, that is give rise to new cognition. And you include science explicitly. You can declare “I appreciate that experiment without theory is blind”. Good, we agree.

    To combine the two insights together, you would no doubt acknowledge that a general theory often precedes the auxiliary theories that make possible an experiment that is capable of testing the general theory. So we don’t just have experiment interpreted by theory, but theories of different levels of generality, maturity, and confirmation, each with their own experience and experiment, vying for acceptance and implementation.

    We agree, Yet your previous objection to Johnston is in contradiction to this insight. You claimed that he was “getting it backwards”, i.e. that he was illegitimately beginning with ontological speculation and drawing empirical conclusions. This is your claim not mine, and I am replying to that. You should not change your mind in the middle and ask me “what kind of experiments does Johnston’s ontology guide?”. That was not the object of my argument, which is in reply to your claim, not mine, that ” the problem is one of drawing, as Johnston plainly does, empirical conclusions from ontological claims”, which is about empirical conclusions, not experiments (in the case of Johnston) and about the idea that science does it in the inverse order, proceeding always from empirical findings to ontological conclusions.

    My example of Galileo is not meant to hold for all of science but for paradigm change. In some cases, e.g. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the evidence does not exist before. And in other cases the observational evidence already exists but it needs to be reinterpreted, or even temporarily set aside, by an ontological hypothesis which is given primacy over the senses (at least for a certain time). You wouldn’t get science as we know it if you didn’t have this primacy of the ontology some of the time (paradigm change, ontological events). And don’t forget that the observations are fabricated and interpreted by other lower level auxiliary theories, which are sometimes enrolled in quite different ontologies. Some telescopic evidence contradicted Galileo and he had to set it aside or bluff his way around it, as the relevant auxiliary theories, in this case optics, had yet to come into being. This is the problem of the disunity of science and of the phase lags between the different theories that belong to or are relevant to a particular paradigm.

    When you ask ” Are you saying that Galileo needed to have his interpretation of the evidence before he had his evidence?”, the answer is a resounding yes! for at least some of that evidence. You add “My guess is no”, well your guess is wrong, and your own theory of cognitive bias should have told you otherwise.

    So don’t be so impatient to say “Yes, yes, I know all that, let’s get on with it. This is an important idea and it already contains the answer to your second question. This is lucky, as I told you I wanted to proceed one question at a time to make the argumentative structure clearer. But this is a recurrent phenomenon in philosophical argument, two questions that seem to be about very diffferent things on closer examination are seen to turn around the same idea.

    What we have in the case of Galileo (and this is by no means an isolated case) is an assembly of inversions, conflicts and contradictions, phase lags and speculative leaps, of re-categorisations of experience as theory and vice versa, etc. We have here at the methodological level, i.e. at the heuristic participative level of science in the making and not of its post hoc rationalisations, very much the same picture of science as Johnston’s picture of Nature as a heterogeneous ensemble, an internally conflicted non-unified jumble of elements in tension. That is not an attempt to state the essence of science, don’t let your eyes “glaze over”, that is the best description of science we’ve got, and Johnston is saying that it is the best description of Nature too, and to blow the suspense, I’m with him on that.

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    • rsbakker says:

      But this last bit is just the point, Terence: I fear I don’t see how the cognitive motley of science warrants claims regarding the ontological motley of nature AT ALL, given that the cognitive motley of science is every bit as compatible with a monistic nature. All this directly bears on the question, which is the question of why ontology first discourses should be taken seriously by anyone actually engaged in the research.

      More generally, it’ll serve to rehearse where we stand in a manner shorn of all the rhetorical insinuation regarding my bias and ignorance. Experiment with theory is blind, and theory without experiment is empty. All this is rudimentary stuff. I’m essentially saying that Johnston’s ontology is empty as any theory can be, simply another set of ontological claims to add to the heap of unresolvable ontological claims. You raised the problem of experimental blindness to suggest the utility of Johnston’s approach, to which I countered, asking what kind of experimental paradigms his ontological commitments might guide. You replied by drawing a distinction between what might be called guiding and grounding theories, and how the latter make the former possible. The idea, as I take it, is that Johnston’s ontology belongs to the latter category, that it is some kind of a grounding theory for guiding theories.

      Okay, so what kind of guiding theories related to what kind of empirical research does Johnston’s grounding theory ground?

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  13. terenceblake says:

    Scott, you say “But this last bit is just the point”. No, this last bit is just foreshadowing, and a pretext to avoid my main argument, which you pushed me into developing at some length because you couldn’t see it. You say the question is “why ontology first discourses should be taken seriously by anyone actually engaged in the research”. But that is not the question, because you do not do empirical research, you speculate. You are extrapolating your cherry-picking out of a motley science and then universalising your one-sided incomplete motley jumble of extrapolation.

    Further, not only is this necessarily the case but when I talk about this state of affairs in general terms you acknowledge it, “all this is rudimentary stuff”. Yet you do not see how this cuts the ground out from under the feet of all the rest you say, and of your whole posture. Motley is as motley does, not just as motley says. It’s motley all the way down and you are not a scientist so you have no leg to stand on against an “ontological approach” in general (in this case Johnston’s).

    At no point have you applied this image of science to your own arguments, at no point have you acknowledged that you are speculating from your cherry-pickings of a motley science,and not being empirical facts first speculation after.

    You repeat the “rudimentary” dictum: ” Experiment without theory is blind, and theory without experiment is empty”. But we are far beyond that, that is just the recognition of theory-ladenness and the requirement of testability. The “motley” takes it several steps further to a picture of science which is one of multiple lines of a multiplicitous structure, internally incoherent and conflicted, of elements at different stages of articulation, re-correction, and instrumentation, externally networked with an open heterogeneous ensemble of other theories and practices.

    It’s all heuristic, it’s all motley, so see yourself as that and you will talk differently. It’s not enough to say the words when the subject comes up, and then to forget about it the next minute and to present yourself as empirical and the other guy as speculative.

    “Experience without concepts is blind”, that means it’s theoretical all the way down, there is no raw empiricity. It’s speculation all the way down, so apply that to your way of engaging Johnston, you are in the same speculative boat.

    Sure, science is different from philosophy, but I never said otherwise, and I don’t pretend to be doing science, nor does Johnston. You do, and you’re wrong. So there is no radical difference of typebetween your approach and that of Johnston. Your preliminary question before even opening the book fails, and if you want to talk more you have to read the book. The value of his type of ontological approach has been established as equal to the value of your type (I am talking in terms of generic types here). You seem to give a high value to your type of approach, which is speculation first.

    On the question of the respective values of your approaches, which are both of rhe same type, to answer that you have to do the work of reading and thinking.

    PS: To your last question “what kind of guiding theories related to what kind of empirical research does Johnston’s grounding theory ground?”, I give no answer, that is not your original question that I have been using all my free time to answer. The fact that I try to correct your image of science presupposed in your arguments does not mean that I think that Johnston is in the business of trying to guide science. That idea has nothing to do with my argument.

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    • rsbakker says:

      I’m just not sure what to make of this Terence. It smacks of, well, evasion. One thing’s for sure, if you think BBT occupies the same speculative ground as Johnston, then you don’t understand BBT. To whit:

      “Okay, so what kind of guiding theories related to what kind of empirical research does Johnston’s grounding theory ground?”

      BBT makes a variety of empirical predictions and suggests a slew of various research paradigms as a result. In cognitive psychology, it immediately invites researchers to investigate origination effects, only-game-in-town effects, ignorance-anchored certainty effects, out-of-play effects, and simplicity/identification effects.

      In addition to explaining much of the dissarray in philosophy of mind, it also makes a number of predictions regarding what psychologists and neuroscientists will find regarding metacognition in the near or not to distant future. That it is fractionate (we already have preliminary evidence of this), that it is drastically heuristic and domain-specific), and that it is prone to a variety of illusions of neglect.

      And it does all of this without positing any rips or gaps in the fabric of space-time.

      I can go on in more detail if you want, go wonk deep.

      But I’m much more interested in how the below argument is supposed to work!

      “Motley is as motley does, not just as motley says. It’s motley all the way down and you are not a scientist so you have no leg to stand on against an “ontological approach” in general (in this case Johnston’s).”

      And your leg would be? I know of no scientist espousing Johnston’s view. In fact, I get regularly berated by the scientist I do know for even taking the time to try to engage this stuff!

      Meanwhile, it seems far more sober to suppose that a cognitive motley implies that we are fool humans in a complicated universe – that we’re overmatched, and so require a variety of specialized tools. The big problem with views like Johnston’s is the way they ontologize things that are far more easily attributed to ignorance and incapacity. We can’t figure out how we’re continuous with nature, therefore we must be some kind of fundamental discontinuity in reality itself (without being immaterial, because that’s just embarrassing)!

      Is this a possibility? Sure it is. But then so are souls. The question I keep asking you is to simply tell me what RECOMMENDS this possibility, what warrants setting aside our scientific scruples regarding its apparent ontological extravagrance and taking it any more seriously than, say, souls?

      Aren’t you troubled in the least by the difficulty you’re having?

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  14. terenceblake says:

    Hello Scott, we’re talking past each other. I am taking time and spelling out one argumentative strand, as you didn’t seem to see my arguments, while you seem to me to be just quickly tossing off responses and muddling everything up. You asked about Johnston’s approach and I was willing to reply to that. But you were not satisfied by my answers. So I slowed my argumentation down, and stuck to one thread that I spelled out in detail. You don’t respond that thread. The main point is that you manage to stay consistent over a very short time, but in my eyes basically you contradict yourself whenever you express yourself at any length. And it’s a “rudimentary”, to use your word, case of pragmatic contradiction: you put the cognition you don’t like (“human cognition is theoretically incompetent”, you once said) on the autopsy table by relying on the cognition you like (cognitive science, somehow that cognition is alright). You claim that your BBT makes empirical predictions, but they’re ones that have been kicking around long before cognitive science got hold of them. Your prediction that metacognition is ” fractionate … drastically heuristic and domain-specific … and …prone to a variety of illusions of neglect” is precisely what philosophy of science and science studies have been saying for ages (and that Johnston’s disunified nature idea would predict), but that is beside the point, I was leaving that for later. I decided to concentrate on just one argument, and you go off in all directions and accuse me of evasion. The only reason I replied was because you asked why one should take Johnston seriously. I am not avoiding talking about BBT, as your question did not bear on it.. You even asked me to forget it (Remember: “So please, if you can, set BBT to one side, and answer the damn thing”). So if I mention BBT I am evading, and if I don’t mention it I am evading!

    By the way, Johnston’s approach does not “posit rips or gaps in the fabric of space-time” as far as I know, but in Nature. Do the work, read him, and we will discuss him if you want.

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