CHEN’S DIALOGUE WITH BAKKER: Meta-cognition is not just a fancy name for introspection

Scott Bakker has been trying to gain philosophical credibility for his « Blind Brain Theory », and various blogs have been discussing his ideas in dialogue with him. A very interesting post by Matthew Segall can be found here. I am choosing to reblog the comment by Chen as he has taken pains to spell out simply the argument that everyone (including me) has been making against such positions as Bakker’s but that Bakker himself does not seem to grasp. A key point is that Bakker makes sweeping claims about something he calls « meta-cognition » but that most often amounts to plain old introspection. It is for this reason that he does not see the relevance of the many rebuttals pointing out that he himself with his BBT is indulging in meta-cognition, that there is no real difference in kind between cognition and meta-cognition (meta-cognition is still cognition, and it is inscribed in networks, articulated, discussed and tested in the same way as object-level cognition), and that the sciences are through and through pervaded by meta-cognition, which is not just a source of error but is absolutely necessary for successful cognition.

The whole discussion can be followed on Matt’s blog and also on Chen’s. I am taking the unusual step of reblogging comments from another blog as I have noticed a tendency in the blogosphere to rewrite history and to just pass over in silence contributions that do not suit one’s agenda despite the fact that they are absolutely relevant and that their arguments are often « borrowed » and integrated without acknowledgement. This has happened to me quite a lot. I do not want that to happen to Matt’s and Chen’s interesting discussions.

Chen’s comment:

« If I verbally state “I’m speaking French [in English]” and mean to claim that I am literally speaking French, it is a performative contradiction. If someone responds by pointing out that I’m speaking English, responding that they’ve begged the question because they have assumed that language exists and that I’m speaking English is ludicrous. You have spoken English.

That’s the simple part.

In effect Matt is asserting the opposite, explaining that you cannot say what you’re saying without first having a mind. In much the same sense that one could assert validly that you could not even say the English sentence “I’m speaking French” without speaking English. If Matt simply asserted that the mind exists as an immaterial entity, that it exists as a brute fact, QED. Then your charge would make sense. But he’s not doing that. He’s claiming, effectively, that you could no do what you’re doing without assuming what you explicitly deny even though you verbally claim not to.

Now, of course, there is a dispute about the nature of the mind as such. This is where charges of question begging actually make sense since it is the nature of the mind as that is up for dispute. However, the BBT is not simply making a claim about the nature of the mind but making claims about cognition and thinking as such, BBT explains why the mind seems to be the way it is by explaining away its existence; as a result of neglect, the mind and all its intentional facades arises heuristically, which of course, meta-cognition confuses as substance.

The claim of performative contradiction, particular to BBT, is the fact that it makes of resources it explicitly tries to deny. For example, your distinctions between first and third person, natural “scientific” and “meta-cognition” with the expressed purpose of denying the validity of first-person and meta-cognition. Questions you have yet to satisfactorily answer, for example, are how (1) what you’re doing is not meta-cognition and (2) how your distinction between Scientific and meta-cognition is valid.

On (1): the distinctions between first and third person could not have come to be without the first person regardless of its nature. If the first-person is systematically confused then the validity of its initial distinctions are open to question – your distinction between how the brain cognizes the environment generally and how it cognizes itself, for example. This cannot get of the ground without conferring validity on which you want to deny in total.

On (2): How, for example, is scientific cognition not a just a particularization of meta-cognition? Why is the former more akin to “how the brain cognizes the environment generally” and not “how the brain cognizes itself cognizing the environment generally”? making the distinction you make superfluous? That is, it is just a meta-cogntion of itself cognizing the environment and the ‘hook’ you think you’ve made to the environment evaporates because you have not shown how the brain has managed to cognize the environment independently of cognizing itself. If there is question begging, it is in areas like this and the guilty party is the BBT.

Since you’re not an alien (assumption) I assume you’re making use of the same resources as everyone else and just as susceptible to meta-cognitive neglect as everyone else. The point being that you undercut your own argument against the validity of meta-cognition by meta-cognizing scientific results and shouting at everyone that does not come to the same conclusions you do. In much the same sense, for example, that no one has seen a Brandomnian norm ( as you’ve said elsewhere), no one has ever ‘seen’ the Blind Brain Theory in a lab. If BBT can continue to postulate unknown causes, depending as it does on the meta-cognition, then there is no reason why other, different ideas cannot explain why things appear the way they do, namely, because they are that way. Or for some other reason. What cannot be done is to pretend as if the issue is already settled, that one meta-cognitive idea rules them all, especially when it undercuts its very ability to make such claims ».

Bakker’s reply: « I just don’t get it. So cognitive psychological theories that specify numerous cognitive shortcomings suffered by humans are bumpkus as well? »

Chen’s reply:

« I don’t think that is entailed at all. I have a larger response to write but part of the problem is that this specification of shortcomings depends on prior commitments and standards that are just as much under threat by your particular theory. It’s not as if a neuroscientist, for example, consults an fMri image of their brain to make sure they’re making the right conclusions about the brains in front of them- the studies are informed by a battery of other commitments and exclusion of ” noise. ”

To answer the question directly, No. But even granting their validity, one can still question their application. You spend a lot of time theorizing how meta-cognition ( via meta-cognition) gets things wrong but seemingly take these studies at face value. Why? Can they not be just as limited in their overall application? Is there no debate to be had here? You read off the results of Cognitive Science ( specific branches even) and immediately have *the* insight, questioning nothing? So what is it about your brain as opposed to others that allow you *the* interpretation but not others? Other than proffering some clairvoyance (which you would deny), one of the tests of what you’re saying, like Matt argues, is its conceptual coherence.

I will unpack that a bit more later. Suffice to say, even if you bite this bullet and attempt to go “empirical” I don’t think your argument works because going “empirical” is not a simplistic affair and one again which makes no difference considering the way you’ve imprisoned cognition. In general, I think you want to discuss your theory at a level of abstraction your theory precludes ».

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