Tuesday, June 18, 2013

UnNecessary Mechanism Revealed!

Matt of Footnotes2Plato has been discussing R. Scott Bakker's Blind Brain Theory. I have conversed with him as well some time back.  I think I have finally realized what is motivating many of RSB's pronouncements.


It came to me: Bakker is running with a common implication of the supervenience hypothesis that states that mind or phenomenal consciousness is an "layer" over a physical substrate. Since only the physical substrate or neurobiology is causally efficacious, then the mind is along for the ride.

The problem is that, assuming this is an sufficient depiction, he must prove that supervenience is true. However, he seems more interested in espousing the wondrous consequences of the idea than in defending it. Moreover, hard supervenience is on the decline.

A follow-up problem is that Bakker could do a better job of accomodating an audience that denies the standard supervenience model--that would be myself among others--and other common theories about mind. That is, his defenses of BBT are toothless against an interlocutor that has alternative presuppositions. 

I have pointed this out before in conversations with him, but now I'm being more direct.


  1. Jason, Have you read Bakker's essay on BBT? http://www.academia.edu/1502945/The_Last_Magic_Show_A_Blind_Brain_Theory_of_the_Appearance_of_Consciousness
    I've yet to study this essay at any length, but he seems to argue for an information theoretic version of supervenience. Its a complex argument I'll have to spend some time on to respond to adequately. Its been a while since I've spent time with neuroscience, but I was introduced to these issues back at UCF by Shawn Gallagher (who co-authored papers with Varela), so my theoretical tendencies are more rooted in enactivism and neurophenomenology, making conversation with Bakker difficult since I assume he rejects these approaches as folk psychological or intuitionist, etc.

  2. Matt,

    I read his blog and one of his essays, the one that was introducing the concept of BBT, but I don't remember what it's name was. I mention that in case there's more than one. Yes, I do have to say that his approach is a one of recent variation.

    Of course, I've heard of those names, and I wouldn't be surprised that he'd reject enactivist approaches, which are btw the contemporary correlates/analogues of recent pragmatist approaches.

  3. Matt,

    Since you mention it, I'm going to go through the article and comment on passages so that we may come to a greater understanding and perhaps be correct in mistaken readings.

    "BBT, as we shall see, charts a quite different course: by considering conscious cognitionas something structurally open but reflectively closed to the cognitive activity of the greater brain, it raises the curious prospect (and nothing more) that ‘folk psychology’ or the ‘intentional stance’as reflectively understood (asnormative, intentional, etc.) is largely an artifact of reflection, and only seems to possess utility because it is reliablypaired with inaccessible cognitive processes that are quite effective. It raises the possibility, in other words, that belief as consciously performed is quite distinct from belief as self-consciously described, which could very well suffer from what might be called ‘meta recursive privation,’ a kind of ‘peep-hole view on a peep-hole view’ effect."

    In general, RSB is not describing anything new here. Yes, among some circles this might be new, but that's besides the point. I am focusing on "belief as consciously performed is quite distinct from belief as self-consciously described" in particular, which has been crucial to, for instance, pragmatism since about the 1860s, and continental since at least Kant (and further back, but generally Kant is the official starting point of continental insomuch as it is distinct from analytic, whereas pragmatism began in part as a new neo-kantianism, etc.)

  4. Matt,

    And again:

    "This will be explored in far greater detail, but for the moment, it is important to appreciate the truly radical consequences of this, even if only as a possibility. Consider Daniel Wegner’s (2002) accountof the ‘feeling of willing’ or volition. Given the information available to conscious cognition, we generally assume the function of volition is to ‘control behaviour.’ Volition seems to come first. We decide on a course of action, then we execute it. Wegner’s experiments, however, suggest what Nietzsche (1967) famously argued in the 19 th century: that the ‘feeling of willing’ is post hoc. Arguing that volitionas it appears is illusory, Wegner proposes that the actual function of volition is to take social ownership of behaviour."

    The impotence of conscious will is the core of my work, and was noted in Peirce and hence pragmatism in the c. 1880s and in continental at least through German idealism, which we could trace back to at least SPinoza or fine, Nietzsche." My own definition of freedom, based on Deweyan pragmatism, utterly rejects the conventional notion of free will since it's been scientifically untenable for over a hundred years and philosophically far longer. In Peirce, he's not just noting this, but has an in-depth study of it.

  5. Matt,

    And yet again,

    "The information integrated into consciousness (qua open) could be causally efficacious through and through and yet so functionally opaque (qua closed) that we can only ever be deluded by our attendant second-order assumptions. This means the argument for cognitive adequacy from evolutionary utility in no way discounts the problem that information asymmetry poses for consciousness. The question of whether brain makes use of the information it makes use of is trivial. The question is whether self-consciousness is massively deceived. A beggar who delivers a million dollars from one inscrutable neural mandarin to another is a beggar all the same"

    Consciouness is only "massively deceived" is we presume that phenomenal consciousness is representational in some direct way. I may be misinterpreting his point, in which case correct me. Until then, I should not that the notion that consciousness is either directly, naively representation died for the final time with Hume. Even with Hume's predecessors Locke, Descartes, and the scholastics, there was not the assumption of trivial direct realism. Going beyond the trivial, it increasingly became more apparent that any direct representational realism was in trouble, culminating in Kant. So, RSB may be correctly tilting at the American public at large, who can barely imagine anything but direct realism (try spending years teaching them otherwise as I have), but that leaves the philosophical work unscathed.

    1. Nice detective work, Jason. I agree, what's new is not blind brain theory or the challenge of brain-based accounts of consciousness, which have been around for centuries; no, what is new is that nowadays anyone under 30 has for the most part been raised by computers. Perhaps it is not that we suddenly have way more neuroscientific evidence for BBT, but rather that we are really beginning to think more like machines.

  6. Perhaps we have per Heidegger's notion of enframing or the older notion that we've become a mass culture. Do you have a more specific idea of "think more like machines?" I don't think I grasp the full extent of what you're saying.

    1. Let me come at it from the opposite direction. Strong AI proponents suggest that it won't be long at all before computers will achieve and perhaps surpass human levels of "consciousness" and "cognition" (scare quotes b/c these are defined in informational terms by AI folks, which may obscure more than it clarifies). But what if the deciding factor isn't simply computing power, but rather humanity's willingness to admit a computer "consciousness" into our intersubjective and empathic circles of care? The fact that we are increasingly dependent upon computer interfaces for communication has certainly had both neural and psychological effects on our capacity to form and maintain such circles of care. So rather than see the "achievement" of AI as a matter of increased processing power, I see it as more a matter of atrophying empathic power on our part.