POST-STRUCTURALIST BRAINS: not “blind” but heuristically inventive

R.Scott  Bakker is basically a disappointed structuralist: because there is no method or structure in the brain and its workings that can give certainty and infallibility in cognition, Bakker draws the conclusion that we have no cognition of our own cognition. Yet this very messiness and anarchy of the brain, involving a multitude of trials and errors, is precisely what allows it to attain meta-cognition quite regularly, even if not universally. The “blind” brain is the only one that is equal to the task of seeing itself, fallibly and intermittently, and so is blind only when seen from a foundationalist perspective, treating the brain as a subject confronted with an environment as external object.

Bakker is one of those nostalgics disappointed by the failure of the old quest for certainty. Despite his fascination for a pot pourri of findings of neurocognitive science, he has not changed that fundamental paradigm. As a result, he has no understanding of most of the philosophies he critiques, that go beyond that paradigm. He has not grasped that anegoic “messy” complexity is the solution and not the problem. He can say that the all cognition is “heuristic”, but he treats this idea as synonymous with cognitive incapacity and neglect. But the heuristic brain is the non-algorithmically creative brain.

Thus Bakker is caught in a metaphysical picture drawn on the basis of the bifurcation of subject and object and of the consequent quest for certainty in knowledge (that reductively he identifies with “cognition”). This quest fails, and messiness or disorder can no longer be seen as obstacles to cognition or to meta-cognition but as active facilitators of them. This is the lesson of Michel Serres’ THE PARASITE amongst many other works that Bakker “refutes” so glibly with his repetitive scientistic mantras.

Bakker has no idea of the paradigm change that makes disorder and uncertainty, in other words “error” and “neglect”, into key components of knowledge. He announces the “death of meaning”, but all that he can really assert is the death of the primacy of signification, which is no news at all. Despite criticising contemporary philosophers Bakker has no idea of the difference between meaning and signification. He has no idea of the difference between knowledge and cognition. He has no idea of collective, materially inscribed, constantly tested knowledge, he thinks that modern philosophy is all about intentional predicates, which only goes to show that he has never picked up a book by Zizek, Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek, Serres, Stiegler, or Latour. Or if he has, he doesn’t have the slightest clue about what they are saying.  He is bluffing, and this is plain for all to see, if they have even the slightest acquaintance with the thought of any of those philosophers.

In engaging with Bakker, it is good, to keep him to specifics. When discussing Continental Philosophy, Bakker abounds in blanket condemnations and sweeping generalisations, but there is nothing behind, it’s all fluff. For example, he takes Lacan, Zizek, and most other  Continental philosophers as “intentionalists”, that is as saying the reverse of what they actually say:

“You do realize that Lacan and Freud are both thoroughgoing intentionalists” (quoted from the comments to this post).

Lacan is most definitely not an intentionalist. On Lacan’s reading neither is Freud, and Freud is post-intentionalist from the beginning (over 100 years ago). How can Bakker even begin to understand Zizek?

Bakker definitely does not speak in the name of the scientific community, no matter what he insinuates. Apart from a few careerist opportunists, how can the “scientific community” be interested in a position that is never in fact clearly formulated? Bakker’s  BBT (really more a Stimmung than a theory) is neither science nor philosophy. It is composed of cherry-picked scientific findings and speculationshastily thrown into opposition with long-abandonned philosophical views. The resulting argument is internal to Bakker’s own worldview, as he bravely tries to update his own philosophical culture by means of his cogsci gleanings. Bakker is arguing with himself, and trying to get us to take sides, and to help that side out. His BBT is truly a case of the blind leading the blind, an intra-personal drama where Bakker is trying, and failing, to re-educate his antiquated philosophical self to neuro-newspeak.

Bifurcationist epistemology and a naive adulation of science, both widespread features of our late modern subjectivity, are synthesised in a neuro-materialism that Bakker is proposing as the up-and-coming version of the dominant ideology of our day, described by Badiou as “bio-materialism”. This is not without political and ethical consequences. If apparatuses of power can not only gain more control over our thoughts and behaviour by neuro-manipulation, but can also interpellate us as “blind brains” (or neuro-materialist subjects), then real processes of change and of creation can be stopped or canalised according to interests that do not serve our own empowering.

This is my biggest objection to Bakker’s bluff and bloat trick: it’s irresponsible. Yes, the thought is indigent and the “provocative” remarks on philosophy are farcical in their ignorance. But this is normal self-publicity for someone writing “hard” science-fiction, where the purportedly hard science is no longer physics but brain science. Bakker does not give us any help in resisting modern ideology, he just wallows in it, and gets rather irate if we don’t wallow with him.

Bakker’s continuing self-re-education as a “blind brain” involves him in a number of incapacitating paradoxes. We are always already “blind brains”, but apparently we do not know it, do not realise it yet. Hence his announcement of the forthcoming “semantic apocalypse”. However know and realise are names of intentional acts, and so inapplicable to a blind an-intentional a-semantic (and strictly speaking a-cognitive) brain.

Bakker is split between the subject of the content-level enunciation of BBT, a blind brain whose writing is in the strict sense meaningless, and the subject of the enunciative act, a meta-brain proposing blind brain semantics as a way of accounting for the blind brain’s acts (perhaps better called processes). This Blind Brain Semantics suggests two options:

1) lexical replacement: we replace current intentional idioms with their blind brain cognitive core, we elaborate a new lexicon to go with the new semantics

2) interpretative replacement: we keep the current lexicon but give it a new, blind brain, interpretation, we apply a new semantics to an old lexicon

Sliding from one to the other gives apparent paradoxes and provocative statements, e.g. there are no intentions, or grandiose proclamations, e.g. that there are intentions but only BBT can explain what they really are. An amusing example of Bakker’s inconsequentiality is his blithely complaining that the others do not “grasp the gestalt” of BBT, they do not understand his position. Grasp and gestalt are intentional terms, as are understand and position, and incompatible with blind brain semantics

Another effect of this sliding back and forth between blind brain and meta-brain is Bakker’s inability to distinguish between error and meaninglessness. Bakker cannot decide if our cognitive acts are erroneous (based on fundamentally flawed and/or misapplied heuristics) or meaningless, the mere playing out of an-intentional a-semantic processes.

A further effect of this sliding is the “apocalyptic tone” maintained by Bakker. A blind brain knows no apocalypse, nor does a meta-brain pursuing its speculations. An apocalypse intervenes when a meta-brain tries to re-educate itself (and us) into not just conceiving itself as a blind brain (this is the work of the meta-brain), but into knowing and experiencing itself as a blind brain.

To be done correctly, this re-education would involve a long and difficult effort of scientific apprenticeship and research. It would involve getting specific, and going into the details. An easier apocalypse is in the other direction: to re-educate a blind brain (which they all are, ex hypothesi) into a meta-brain of the appropriate sort, one that believes in the blind brain hypothesis taken globally, grasped as a “gestalt”. This weak apocalypse (one might even call it a “cheap apocalypse”) does not oblige one to come up with a whole new lexicon or a whole new semantics of all the terms in the old lexicon. A sprinkling of new terms and a few sweeping gestures as to new interpretations, and the thing is done: Bakker’s BBT is already the very apocalypse that he announces for later.

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11 Responses to POST-STRUCTURALIST BRAINS: not “blind” but heuristically inventive

  1. JH says:

    In a strange sense, I link Bakker with Sam Harris, in that they both uphold the power of neuroscience while not even mentioning any experimental example or evidence which will support their views consistently. This is a new trend, a you can see, the fetishization and the rhetoric of the brain – science as authority, brain as the measure of the world, and an ideology which tells us that ‘everything is determined and nothing is determined’, as Catherine Malabou suggests. I wonder what you think of her book, WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR BRAIN?.

    Liked by 1 person

    • terenceblake says:

      Good remarks. I haven’t read Malabou’s book. I think Maryanne Wolf’s PROUST AND THE SQUID gives a good example of how the messy complexity of the brain allows it to adapt itself to new cognitive tasks that it is not programmed to accomplish.

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    • dmf says:

      Malabou was (and really remains) out of touch with the advances in neuroscience (writ large) so while she’s on the right track (like Stiegler and others) in her attempts to ground Derrida and co.she still seems to start with her philosophizing and than find the bits and pieces of research that can serve as illustrations for it. Bakker actually offers all kind of research findings (and the feedback from some of the leading researchers that his has personally solicited in relation to the building blocks of BBT) for his theory (whether on not one agrees with all of his uses is another matter) so not sure how you missed that, I would say (again) that we are blind (cognitively-biased/blinkered) and heuristically inventive, most of what we do in life has little to do (directly) with anything like what most academic philosophers consider knowledge (especially of our intentions and such).
      as for are we doomed to die from our own alltoohuman actions see:
      http://syntheticzero.net/2014/02/03/andrew-pickering-on-the-enemy-within/

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      • terenceblake says:

        You are missing the main point, that we are heuristically inventive thanks to our very “blindness”. Bakker picks and chooses his research findings, and in fact has no theory at all, but a vague perspective. He appeals to lazy minds that find modern philosophy too difficult, and prefer to project their frustration onto the object, rather than to do a little work before grousing. Bakker is all too easy to understand, because it is neuro-fast-food. I advise you to sit down and to actually read even one recent philosophy book of any importance (e.g. Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE or Badiou’s LOGICS OF WORLDS) before taking Bakker’s theatrics at face value. He panders to laziness and ignorance, and to the increasing resentment of intellectual work.

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      • JH says:

        I wonder how you think Malabou is out of touch with the modern neurosciences. I agree that her writings on the brain feel more like sketches than rigorous studies, but I never gathered that she is “out of touch”. You linking her with “Derrida and Co” seems to me not so useful since even though she takes a certain Derridean spirit against homogenizing discourses (neuroscience seems to be less normative than psychoanalytic theory for her), but she certainly does not try to justify Derrida every where and is a thinker of her own.

        If we agree that neither Malabou nor Bakker are that interested in systemic analysis of neuroscientific findings, but the crucial difference between the two I see is that while Malabou ‘gives space’ to the empirical examples, taking neuroscience’s conceptual vocabulary of “resilience” and “plasticity” and treating them as philosophical concepts, Bakker uses his examples to ground his own all-invasive ontological certainty, maybe useful for his fiction, but not in a setting where he has to do science justice without prioritizing his rhetoric. Whereas Malabou tries to derive philosophy from scientific findings themselves (the risky part for me is when she moves between neuroscience and social science/politics too immediately, without considering how ourselves in different scales might interact with each other), Bakker forces his worldview onto the findings he finds, taking them literally, not considering various variables which might come in play in neuroscience.

        I am not sure whether you or Bakker can generalize academic philosophy in that way. I am not sure how Bakker thinks he is radicalizing constructivism (though he would deny this), when the post-structuralists have gone over concepts of human “blindness” in their involvement with culture and linguistic discourses, only not in his biological language. Dismissing whole arrays of thinkers in the past on the basis of his own limited understanding seems rather futile, always quick to determine where “intentions” lie and where not.

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      • dmf says:

        hey Tb didn’t miss it just didn’t address it because it didn’t strike me as being fruitful.

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      • terenceblake says:

        Your previous comment shows you missed this (and still do):

        the main point, that we are heuristically inventive thanks to our very “blindness”.

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      • Ghost of Carnap says:

        “Bakker actually offers all kind of research findings (and the feedback from some of the leading researchers that his has personally solicited in relation to the building blocks of BBT) for his theory (whether on not one agrees with all of his uses is another matter) so not sure how you missed that, I would say (again) that we are blind (cognitively-biased/blinkered) and heuristically inventive, most of what we do in life has little to do (directly) with anything like what most academic philosophers consider knowledge (especially of our intentions and such).”

        This isn’t the argument you want to make given that Bakker seems oblivious to the reliance of the cognitive neurosciences on the concept of mental representation.

        He cannot simultaneously uphold CN as a paradigm case of knowledge about (what he question-beggingly calls) “the mind”, while also holding that intentionality is impossible; the former relies on representation to deliver its explanations in the first place.

        This isn’t a trivial point, either; it’s difficult to find a paper in CN that doesn’t appeal to representation in some way or another as a simple search on Google Scholar or Web of Science will demonstrate. Even the connectionist rivals to the classical symbol-processing models can’t entirely get away from representation.

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  2. rsbakker says:

    I think “recent philosophy book of any importance” says it all, Terrence! How many more centuries do you think it will take before you guys can even agree on the formulation of your explananda? Pardon me my impatience, but the world seems to require answers now.

    Otherwise, I fear you confuse my skepticism of chicanery with a fetishistic desire for final answers. But then, this is a very convenient narrative for chicanery to pursue!

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    • terenceblake says:

      I see no skepticism but blind dogmatism in Bakker’s statements. He makes much of how his ideas are falsifiable, but when confronted with a host of falsifiers for his ideas on Continental philosophy he pirouettes away from the experiment. Bakker makes false claim after false claim about philosophy, substituting emotion and cliché for analysis.

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    • Ghost of Carnap says:

      Bakker slips his Cartesian quest for certainty and Platonist confidence that the natural order is rationally comprehensible by The Mind into every post, then acts befuddled that he is accused of pre-modern thinking.

      Even putting that bit of lunacy aside I still want to know why he thinks his blogging on the destruction of the Self and the Mind — topics which only he and theologians remain interested in — is meant to destroy “intentionality” when even the cognitive neurosciences he fetishizes can’t get on without the concept of mental representation.

      We’re to take it that the neurosciences eliminate any possibility of semantics and yet those very same sciences are knee-deep in intentional concepts.

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