FEYERABEND vs BAKKER: naturalism is not “blind”

Bakker has replied to my challenge to finally state his theory. Replying to my previous post he solemnly declares:

“The theory, stated in its highest altitude form, is that we are natural in such a way that we cannot intuit ourselves as natural”.

This declaration contains two claims

1) we are natural (ontological naturalism)

2) we cannot intuit ourselves as natural (restricted metacognitive blindness)

These two claims do not constitute a theory, but are vague postulates associated with a supposed theory. (1) is very general, and banal. (2) is more specific, and false. (1) is an ontological hypothesis, not a scientific one. Indeed, as a metaphysical interpretative hypothesis it is not even necessary to the conduct of science (methodological naturalism is preferable) and it is certainly not imposed by the sciences.  (2) is a naive epistemological hypothesis, which treats intuition as some a-conceptual reception of data.

It is to be noted that Bakker does not maintain the weak hypothesis: we do not in fact intuit ourselves as natural. This is demonstrably false for a large number of people in modern secular societies. He affirms the modally stronger impossibility thesis: we are unable to intuit ourselves as natural. Even if the weak or descriptive hypothesis were true (which it is not) it would take a lot more argument to back up the strong hypothesis of necessary blindness.

By way of comparison we can examine Paul Feyerabend’s theory. Feyerabend is one of the originators of the eliminativist hypothesis. He defended (1), naturalism. However, he never endorsed the assumption contained in (2). In fact he maintained the opposite of (2), i.e. that we can and often do intuit ourselves as natural.

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3 Responses to FEYERABEND vs BAKKER: naturalism is not “blind”

  1. Joshua Comer says:

    I think your separation of the two claims here loses sight of some of their implications, but I think that has a lot to do with how Bakker’s nutshell version of the theory is stated and how the history of the philosophy of mind has taken shape.

    I’ll agree that leaving the first claim at the general level of “we are natural” invites some problems, so I think it warrants some more precise phrasing. The scientific image proposed by the first claim is really that of current physicalist neuroscience. It is that scientific image that is today resulting from a seemingly promising line of research on cognition that we cannot intuit.

    Now, the argument does not necessarily follow from Feyerabend’s argument on mental states, that there may be no physical states associated with what we take to be mental states according to our common sense notions, but it does not find disagreement in Feyerabend’s argument either.

    You state Feyerabend’s views on our intuitional abilities in a more optimistic light than I have here, but I think we can see that it does not matter how often our intuition and our nature align according to Bakker’s theory. We can understand the implications by understanding Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory in proximity to Rorty’s disappearance theory. Rorty’s argument turned on the incorrigibility of mental states, that the inability to challenge first-person experience is what classifies it as intuitive. The result of the incorrigibility of those mental states is that it does not matter whether it is true per (my reading of) Feyerabend that some mental states might not have common-sense correlates, or that they might indeed often align as you propose to read him, because we are unable to engage claims concerning those differences and still be discussing mental states. Once we have begun to distinguish them in respect to physicalist accounts, those statuses lose the sole identifying mark of intuition. Alternately, if we continue to insist on discussing those matters in terms of intuition, the portrait of nature proposed to assess those statuses is utterly disfigured into idealism.

    Rorty was proposing a semantic and epistemological impossibility of resolving manifest and scientific images, and followed Feyerabend in either recommending dispensing with talk of mental states or later, and less prescriptively, advancing the possibility that further study will steadily do away with our incorrigible states. Bakker’s speculative development of these arguments seems to stem from our inability to dispense with such talk even in the face of such research, which seems like a real problem and a reasonable development from these past eliminativist contentions.


    • terenceblake says:

      My thesis is that Bakker has no theory, so talk about Rorty, though very interesting, will not help back up a non-existent theory, and is to that extent irrelevant to the main question. Bakker talks about his “theory”, but all we ever get are what he claims are the consequences of the theory, or the evidence, but never the theory itself. All the consequences and evidence do not make a theory, but Bakker does not seem to notice this. All he has, at most, is a vague neuro-reductionist perspective, and a mood that he assumes wrongly must necessarily accompanies it

      Feyerabend, unlike Rorty does not propose we dispense with mental state vocabulary, although he thinks this is possible. He proposes a physicalistic re-interpretation of our vocabulary, because he believes that raw intuition does not exist. Intuition is always theoretical (and social and cultural) so there is no obstacle to intuiting our naturality, and we do intuit it all the time. There is no unity of science, and science does not interpret itself metaphysically, so there is “scientific image”.

      There are however metaphysical interpretations of science, and Bakker does propaganda for one such image and its associated Stimmung. In the light of that presupposed, extra-scientific perspective, he cherry-picks results from cognitive science texts that please him, and unifies them tendentiously.


  2. Joshua Comer says:

    I’d absolutely agree that there is no unified scientific image, but instead multiple images, and that Bakker is feeling out some of the consequences of one such image expressed at a certain granularity. We can quibble with his selective interpretation of cognitive science as the interpretation of cognitive science. Personally, being in a polytechnic institute department that shares a college and building with a cognitive science department that has little to no interest in either philosophy of mind or neuroscience, I see no similarity. The genealogy of eliminativism in cognitive science he is drawing on is very selective, so we should by no means accept its claims as established fact or even the only available interpretation among the facts that field implicitly accepts, but it still exists, and is one approach that can have interesting consequences for thinking about thought. Efforts to adapting or discarding philosophical concepts following scientific research, or even the propriety of doing so, is up for debate as it has long been, but I don’t know that this is a standout case to open those questions (I am open to being convinced otherwise, of course).

    I suppose you can take my reading of Bakker via Rorty as something of an effort to give theoretical statement to his implicit theory. If Bakker’s use of intuition makes it seem conceptually empty, I think my previous comment on Rorty suggests I would agree. But in keeping with the Whitehead Rorty loved before he migrated to Sellars, contra Hume that conceptual emptiness does not liberate naturalists the stubborn facts demanded by their metaphysics, implicit or otherwise. The logical possibility or impossibility of intuitive concepts matching the nature of our cognition does not dispense with the causally requisite error between a limited system of natural cognition and the social, conceptual world that would think about it. Growing from the science Whitehead adapted at the time and his fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the specific and tendentious line of research Bakker follows draws attention to practices where the error is not located in interpretation as concerned Whitehead but in the connection within and between the assurance of presentational immediacy and the thickening nature of causal efficacy that Whitehead endorsed. The corrections to our manifest image required by these findings cannot be assimilated because they deal directly with abolishing the assurances of presentational immediacy, which is the old issue of misplaced concreteness, but also our inabilities to conform “present fact to immediate past” in Whitehead’s terms. Rorty’s view on the incorrigibility of intuition changed from an argument concerning its conceptual emptiness toward the methodological perspective of Feyerabend concerning the possibility of physical accounts doing away with talk of mental states. Bakker seems to be going just another step, to me, no longer dealing with conceptual possibilities in two senses. First, he points out where where the process of doing away with certain self-concepts in accordance with some new understanding of our nature proves impossible rather than just unpalatable or difficult, as the findings in question require an interpretation that would dispense with our confidence in our ability to adapt our interpretations. Second, he points out where the methods of cognitive science have already crossed those thresholds of self-transformation (and the testimonial defaults subjects resort to when those self perceptions are violated in turn supporting the first line of argument).

    I do not know where Bakker might disagree with this interpretation, or where specifically he falls short of offering this (or any) theory, but I would be interested to know.


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