On the “brain” as the pseudo-materialist equivalent of the subject

Do we have cognition of climate change? As individual observers we have cognition of the weather now, and via memory we can recall past meteorological occurences, make comparisons, induce tendencies. But as individual acts, these cognitive operations are fraught with uncertainty and subject to cognitive bias. If we have access to records and statistics concerning past weather we may be able to project certain conclusions, but meteorolgy is a science if only for the reason that we must know how to interpret the statistics in the light of more general knowledge. Yet we do have good knowledge of global warming, if we accept the model of cognition that goes beyond the individual subject’s face to face encounter with the world.

My problem with R.Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory is that implicitly he regresses to a model of cognition identical in structure to the individualist and naive empiricist subject-object bifurcational encounter. The isolated brain stands in as an instantiation of the subject pole, and it is easy to demonstrate all sorts of errors, biases, misrecognitions, and illusions. Yet the transindividual cognition of science embedded in inscriptions, equipment, and a community of rectification of error was elaborated precisely to permit cognition despite individual fallibility and failings. THe BBT discusses ideally isolated and purified cases of cognition, closing its eyes to the question of the complicated process involved if, for example, the long and abstruse proof of Fermay’s Last Theorem counts as cognition or not. Cognitive science is powerless here as it would have to examine a process of a complexity and sophistication far superior to its own naive stutterings.

Far from “revolutionizing” anything, the BBT regresses us back into the subject-object bifurcation that we were beginning to be able to do without, but puts a modern surface on its age-old paradoxes of scepticism and determinism by expressing them in materialist “brain” language.

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18 Responses to On the “brain” as the pseudo-materialist equivalent of the subject

  1. rsbakker says:

    Straw, Terence. You gotta get past the straw if you’re going to engage in real critique. Anyone can engage in gross mischaracterizations then exclaim, ‘Gross!’

    BBT is first and foremost a theory of intentionality: a way of seeing how intentionality as traditionally theorized turns on a number of cognitive illusions. It explicitly takes the brain as understood by science, which is to say, the brain as a complex *component* of larger natural systems, a product of evolution, stellar mechanics, environmental occasion, and yes, climate and weather!

    The crucial role played by componency appears throughout my elaboration of the theory. Not only only does it assume that cognition outruns the brain, it explicitly theorizes how this occurs, as well as diagnoses why traditional intentional views fall into the internalist traps they do. It’s primary value lies in naturalistically solving the very problems you think you’re raising.

    I invite you and your readers to check out: http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/just-plain-crazy-enactive-cognition-a-review-and-critical-discussion-of-radicalizing-enactivism-basic-minds-without-content-by-dan-hutto-and-erik-myin/


  2. terenceblake says:

    I don’t think you understand my post, Scott, but that’s OK, it was not directed at you.

    I do think that your idea of cognition is incredibly narrow, whether you get it from “science” as you so quaintly call your de-contextualised cherry-picking or not.

    Does your theory cover our knowledge (=cognition) of climate change and of Fermat’s Last Theorem or not. I see lots of claims about cognition and theoretical incompetence, but only examples of dumb cognition are analysed by you. Can your theory do more? Because Badiou’s, Johnston’s, Meillassoux’s, Latour’s,theories (and all those people you affect to surpass) can. It is the absolute narrowness of your discussions that I regret.

    Firstly, I do not talk about intentionality in my posts, because I don’t think it is definitory of subjectivity, nor even necessarily of cognition.

    Secondly, my deeper critique is that your “cognitive science” sources have no way of discussing real cognition, which involves transindividual inscription, equipment, and rectification.

    Thirdly, I see nothing non-naturalistic in my remarks.

    Lastly, given all this, you don’t seem to understand the fundamental critique that you are merely retranscribing the subject/object bifurcation in “brain” terms. This is, in the philosophical context that you are trying to address, regression rather than revolution;


  3. rsbakker says:

    “You don’t seem to understand the fundamental critique that you are merely retranscribing the subject/object bifurcation in “brain” terms…”

    Well then, why don’t you explain to everyone how my diagnosis of the subject/object dichotomy falls apart (and how I must thus collapse back into it)? And just to prove it to everyone here (because I know I’m far, far from alone in doubting your case), why don’t you start with a characterization of my argument that all parties would agree is accurate? This shouldn’t be difficult, given that you apparently understand my position better than I do!

    This is a challenge that any blogger aspiring to be taken seriously should be willing to take up. Working with an interpretation of the position-to-be-critiqued that the author of that position accepts is the primary way to avoid the ubiquitous problem of arguing at cross purposes – and wasting everyone’s time. I’m suggesting that you’re wasting everyone’s time. Prove me wrong! Show how well you know my position!

    My prediction is that you won’t be able to, that instead you’ll draw all kinds of floating conclusions regarding my deficiency in this or that regard, and that, most likely of all, you’ll fall back on some kind of vague/facile meta-dismissal of the difficulty I’m posing.


  4. terenceblake says:

    This is a philosophy blog, you’re going to have to do better than that. You are not the center of my preoccupations, so i feel no need to mollify you personally. I make theoretical points, where are your substantive answers? Just browbeating me is not enough.

    1) What can you reply to the regressive replication of the subject/object bifurcation argument? Do you understand it?

    2) What can your cognitive science cherry-pickings say about the case of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem,

    3) Let’s take a Continental philosopher. Are you capable of summarizing your differences with Badiou?

    No, because you know nothing about the Continental theories that you pretend you are criticising. Nothing at all.


    • rsbakker says:

      What did I tell you… LOL!

      So you’re failure to reply leaves us with at least 3 options here:

      1) You really do know my position well enough to recap it in a manner that would avoid cross purpose argumentation, and you’re refusing to do so, because even though you’ve dedicated EIGHT posts (!!) to criticize my position, it just doesn’t interest you enough to bother.

      2) You really don’t know what you’re talking about, but you feel the need to discredit me to somehow save face.

      3) You’re having everyone on.

      (2) is looking like the runaway, at this point.


      3) I don’t know Badiou, and I don’t pretend to. That’s the reason I don’t post on Badiou. I can link pieces where I distinguish my position from a good number of other Continentalists if you want me to.

      2) I’ve never considered Fermat’s Last Theorem. How does this warrant the accusation of cherry-picking? Since all facts can’t be considered by ANY theory, all theories have to be selective. So selectivity does not a case for cherry-picking make. You have to actually show how I systematically ignore facts that disconfirm my position to do that. So tell me, please, how does Fermat’s Last Theorem disconfirm BBT?

      1) As for the ‘regressive replication of the subject/object argument’ PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE IT IS, because all I saw was unsubstantiated assertions (for some reason you seem to confuse foot-stomping – bald claim making – with argument). All you do (that I can tell) is assert that I make the brain the new subject. So lay it all out for me, Terence, *beginning* with a charitable recap of BBT’s position on subjectivity, so everyone knows you’re trading in straw, then with some noncontroversial premises that actually entail the ‘regressive replication of the subject/object argument’…


  5. terenceblake says:

    Dear Scott, you really ave no idea of what I am saying so I think we should stop. You don’t know Badiou or Lacan, but you feel up to reviewing Johnston’s rich, interesting, and well-argued book.

    The subject/object argument stands against your position, but you don’t understand it. No worries, it is not directed at your understanding.

    Fermat’s Last Theorem is just an example of the type of thing that your remarks on cognition can’t handle. In my previous posts I talked about Galileo, you had nothing to reply. I also talk about our cognition of climate change, not as you seem to think the influence of weather on our brain, you did not understand the point of the argument. This is an example that Latour has talked much about recently, to illustrate, amongst other things, the functioning of scientific cognition. They are simple enough cases of real cognition, not like the dumbed-down experiments that you use to draw far-reaching conclusions about our hypothesised future.

    Don’t forget. You came to me with a question about the value of approaches like Johnston’s. I find his approach interesting, that is why I replied.

    I remind you that 10 months ago, in an email dated 15/03/2013, you asked me to examine your BBT, which I did, and on 12/05/13 you thanked me for my analyses. This was for a book you were planning, and you were honest enough then to mention that fact. Apparently I no longer understand anything about your position, in your eyes. Tempus fugit!

    I replied at length when you asked me to talk about your position and you thanked me, I replied at length when you asked about Johnston, and now you are harassing me. That’s enough Scott. Move on, I have. And stop bringing it all back to you.


    • rsbakker says:

      So true understanding is hidden behind door ‘Badiou,’ is it? This is exactly how I guessed you would answer. If it turned out I had read Badiou, it would have been hidden behind door X. (According to Johnston, btw, Badiou practices ‘bad ontology.’)

      Keep pretending to understand my stuff Terence, and I’ll keep asking you questions you *really* should be able to answer. If one does not understand the theory they are critiquing, they are engaged in a sham.

      Let me try this: If Johnston were to show up on my site, willing to debate, but asking to begin with a noncontroversial recapitulation of the point of his theory I was critiquing to assure we weren’t debating at cross purposes, should I or should I not provide him with that recapitulation?

      Or should I reply, What? You haven’t read *Craver?*


  6. Bill Benzon says:

    “The BBT discusses ideally isolated and purified cases of cognition, closing its eyes to the question of the complicated process involved if, for example, the long and abstruse proof of Fermay’s Last Theorem counts as cognition or not.”

    I can’t speak to BBT, but the challenge you pose in an interesting one. I’m not sure what discourses you mean by cognitive science – which has never had a precise meaning, either in definition or ostension – but classic cognitive science (here I’m thinking of the work of Herbert Simon and Allen Newell ) – was certainly interested in understanding the nature of scientific cognition, say, classical mechanics, but probably not the the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    “Cognitive science is powerless here as it would have to examine a process of a complexity and sophistication far superior to its own naive stutterings.”

    In what sense “naive stutterings”? If I think of some excellent cognitive science – e.g. Bella Julesz’s now classic experimental and theoretical work on touch or stereo vision or Peter Gardenförs’ current work on conceptual spaces – there is nothing naive and stuttering about it. It is sophisticated intellectual work of a high order. Cognitive science posits all sorts of accounts of cognitive phenomena, from basic sensory perception up through theories of science. The complexity of the phenomena cognitive science posits is one thing. The complexity and sophistication of cognitive science itself is something else.


    • terenceblake says:

      Hello Bill, thanks for the examples of good work in the cognitive sciences. You are right, I should have kept saying “the paradigm of cognitive science that you have extrapolated based on your cherry-pickings”, instead of “cognitive sciences”. The context is Bakker constantly citing cognitive illusions and biases and declaiming that “cognition is on the autopsy table” and “we are theoretically incompetent”. I wished to show him that he was selecting out of the diverse field of cognitive science in terms of an implicit paradigm having the same structure as the subject/object division of classical epistemology, and that this is why he was obsesseded with the ubiquity of cognitive failure to the point of giving it universal extension.


      • Bill Benzon says:

        So, a little more on cognitive science. The term was coined in 1973 by one Christopher Longuette-Higgins, who was originally trained as a physical scientist. Among other things he did theoretical work on the structure of music and on “neural holography” (one of the first). The work by Julesz that I cite was done before the term “cognitive science” was coined, but I cite it because it is in the lineage and it is almost hopelessly and deliriously elegant. Chomsky’s earliest and most influential work is considered foundational to cognitive science.

        It is clear that cognitive science is what happened when the idea of computation hit the human sciences – though, of course, the computer was also useful as a tool for various purposes, including running simulations and experiments. Computation gave us a tangible physical model of something that looks and smells sorta like thought, it gave us a way of thinking about what is (might be) going on in a mind, something we could subject to mathematical analysis, something we could measure in human subjects, and something we could build. It made the mind thinkable in a new way.

        So cognitive science used the idea ot computation to vanguish the behaviorist dragon, that is, the prohibition on talking about thinking about a mind, about something actively mediating between stimulus and response, perhaps even in an intentional and even willful way. In so vanquishing the behaviorist dragon computation made a certain part of the intellectual world safe of ideas about mind that were not explicitly or even metaphorically computational.

        As for those cognitive biases and illusions, one thing you should do is look at them in an evolutionary context. Forget about the Cartesian epistemic individual trying to figure out whether or not he is dreaming (& JJ Gibson has something very interesting about THAT problem). In some ways it seems to me that that epistemic individual is a philosophical reconstruction and projection of a helpless infant who can look, but cannot touch. It’s a world in which the subject cannot act. It’s a brain in a vat.

        Instead, think of a fish following chemical gradients in the sea toward food, or an ant following a scent trail, but also animals sensing and interacting with other animals, of the same and different species. That represents 100s of millions of years of animals making their way in a world both Heraclitean (in flux) and Parmenidean (islands of stability) in kind. Those biases exist because they allowed animals to get reliable and vital information about the world.

        And I emphasize the fact that the world external to any given individual is full of conspecifics. To my mind the most interesting of existing theories of primate color vision, and a recent entrant to the field, is by one Mark Changizi, who argues the the visual system is biased toward perceiving fine distinctions in the range of colors that tell the state of conspecifics – that is, what do bruises, palor, or blushing tell us about another person?

        A lot of perceptual illusions arise in laboratory situations in response to stimuli that have a different valance from what such sensations would have in a natural setting, if they would occur at all. These illusions allow us to explore the operative capacities of the nervous system, but we should be wary of interpreting them without refernce to the properties of the world in which the nervous system evolved.

        As for our brain in a vat, it’s stark raving mad. Under conditions of prolonged sensory deprivation people will start hallucinating. It’s a though the mind/brain NEEDS the pressure of an external world to keep its processes stable. At this point I’m afraid that there’s nothing more to be gained philosophically by thinking about a lone brain just perceiving and thinking without moving around in the world, reaching and grabbing and jumping and eating and talking and dancing with others, etc. The tradition has milked that one dry.

        As for Herb Simon and Allen and Newell, they would ask experts to think out loud while solving problems in their domain. They’d record what they said, transcribe the recordings, and analyze what they said. They then incorporated those kind of operations into computer simulations. Of course, they knew perfectly well that asking someone to think out loud is, in some sense, intervening in their thought process in an “unnatural” way. But people can do it nontheless. Getting at what goes on in the mind is, after all, extremely difficult. We need whatever clues we can get.


      • rsbakker says:

        So, if the picture is more complicated, then show me the cognitive science that demonstrates human theoretical competence outside the sciences. It really is as simple as that.

        The linearity of discourse forces selectivity when discussing anything, so these charges really are rhetorical short of some real interpretative work. The fact is, the complexity and dissarray of cognitive science is something I reference all the bloody time. Everybody does, so much so that raising it as a critical rejoinder smacks of naivete.

        Just saying…


      • Bill Benzon says:

        “So, if the picture is more complicated, then show me the cognitive science that demonstrates human theoretical competence outside the sciences.”

        Cognitive science is not in the business of demonstrating “human theoretical competence” in any domain whatsoever, it it IS interesting is elucidating the mechanisms of human thought. The validity of those methods is a different matter and is determined pragmatically by the effectiveness of those methods in use,


  7. I agree with you that naturalistic approaches like Bakker’s tend to overlook the institutional/social nature of science, the use of instruments, etc., and reduce knowledge to the relation of a brain and a world. Another issue along these lines that you don’t mention here (I haven’t gone through all of your posts on the subject, so apologies if you’ve already covered this) is that the cognitive deficits claimed by the theory make it impossible for us to know that the theory is true. If we can’t know that we’re just brains, how can we know the theory that says we’re just brains? And more generally, if cognitive science is constantly discovering how dumb we are, what faith can we have that these discoveries (most of which are still made by humans!) are true?
    That said, I don’t think it’s fair to tar all of cognitive science with the same brush. Thomas Metzinger for example covers many of the same ideas as Bakker regarding the illusory nature of self-experience, but in a much more sober and less sensationalistic way.


    • terenceblake says:

      Thanks for your comments, I do talk in my previous posts about the self-refuting character of many of Bakker’s formulations. The “illusory nature of self-experience”, being a more limited claim, does not pose the same problem, and I am quite willing to endorse it. Thanks for the reference to Thomas Metzinger, who I must admit I have never read.

      On the question of sobriety, I think that it is an important pluralist virtue, geared to avoiding the maintaining or the reintroduction of transcendence. Deleuze often appealed to the virtue of sobriety, and we can see an evolution in his collaboration with Guattari from the extravagance to ANTI-OEDIPUS to the tranquil sobriety of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? I think this is also the sense of Guattari’s own move from “schizoanalysis” to the “ecosophy” of his later years. In both cases we have an emphasis not on any particular theory or model, but on “meta-modelization”, containing a series of reflections, lines of reference, and reminders on the multiple aspects that any particular model will have to take into account. However interesting Bakker’s model may be in analysing certain contexts his meta-modelization is totally impoverished, and is quite unable to accomodate equipment and instrumentation, inscriptions and reticulations, cognitive institutions and communities with their collective procedures of examination,validation and rectification. Despite the materialist-sounding talk about “brains” it is to that extent idealist in form, if not in content.


      • A similar evolution occurs over the course of Foucault’s career. Early on (the end of The Order of Things) he presents a similar sort of masochistic anti-humanism as Bakker, but with structuralist anthropology and psychoanalysis where Bakker has cognitive science. Towards the end his work on Greek medicine, Stoicism, etc.is much more sober.


  8. terenceblake says:

    Very interesting remarks, I reply in the next post.


  9. Pingback: Felix Guattari and Bernard Stiegler: Towards a Post-Darwinian Synthesis | AGENT SWARM

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