Poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways. In most cases the author is not the right authority to decide on where the reader ceases to understand and the misunderstanding begins. Many an author has found readers to whom his work seemed more lucid than it was to himself. Moreover, misunderstandings may be fruitful under certain circumstances.
—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf: A Novel
I believe the above sums up my own unique situation as a scribbler, for to be honest that’s what I am for the most part. An ‘author’ seems a little too dignified for what I’m doing, but then again what is it I am doing? Not being a professional philosopher or scientist or… even a poet of repute, I’ve spent my life digesting and tuning and digging into the vast storehouse of human learning and libraries seeking an answer to the usual and fundamental problems of existence: my own existence in this vast and wondrous universe.
As I read others I realize we’re all in the same boat pegging away at this strange bit of dust that suddenly became self-aware somewhere along the way: humanity. Oh, there is plenty of theories as to why we as humans suddenly evolved into thinking beings; some based on deep religious beliefs, others from an utterly atheistic perspective. Somewhere along the way a group of men in Athens and surrounding satellite cities and villages began to think differently about thinking, asked questions that seemed to ring true, to codify and compress the base common lot into an amalgam of thought that over the centuries became a sort of living Book of Wisdom. Not some literal book, mind you; but, rather, an unwritten set of sayings from various men (Pre-Socratics) that were passed around from generation to generation until a canon of accepted thought began to rule. A stabilized way of thinking arose, a dialectical give and take, a dialogue among various confrontational voices emerged discussing this and that at the central hub of Athens: the Agora. It was here that a man named Socrates began asking questions of citizens about their sundry knowledge of life, work, happiness, etc.
In many ways we’ll never come to know who the man Socrates was in flesh and blood, instead we have the testimonies of both his detractors and his ephebe’s (i.e., students, followers, pupils, etc.). He is portrayed in these various works either as a dangerous man deserving punishment or as a law-abiding and helpful citizen worthy of praise for his unblemished character.1 Many of us probably began reading Plato’s Apology in high-school or college, it being a sort of introduction to that world of philosophy in its most vivid recounting of Socrates’s trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. What is it he did that was so terrible that in the end he was forced to commit suicide drinking a cup of hemlock? He was a man who presented himself as a humble creature whose base premise was to be the man who knew nothing, nothing at all. And, yet, he believed that others might know something more and be able to teach him what they knew. So he began asking questions of those who seemed to know something about life, thought, etc. And for this he was judged corrupt because many of the young men of Athens seemed to follow a man who knew nothing?
Ah, Socrates was a little sly old goat, wasn’t he? Shall we play Devil’s advocate and wonder why this ugly old man wondering the streets of Athens asking his questions irritated so man men in authority. We know the answer: men of power do not like being shown just how stupid they are, how little they know about what they supposedly know; and, most of all, that what they know they cannot even discuss with any equitable saving of face. Men of power do not like being found out as naïve and foolish believers in their own knowledge of nature and people. It was this unbinding of thought, this dialectical tearing of the veil of pretentious power at the heart of Athens presumed great men that brought Socrates to the end game of judgement.
The corruption that Socrates had brought to the youth of Athens was thought and thinking itself, a new way of thinking: the dialectic, a negative form of thinking that would whittle away at a person’s knowledge till nothing was left but ignorance and doubt. And men of power cannot act on ignorance and doubt, they must know that their actions are based on some solid knowledge or it is just a fool’s errand. Kant in a perspicuous passage in the Critique of Reason comes to much the same conclusions:
Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.2
In this sense we are aware only of what we are given, and for the most this giveness is based on ignorance and neglect rather than actual knowledge. Humans cannot grasp all the data thrown at them by the universe, so we have over the millennia become selective, appropriating, filtering, and fictionalizing aspects of the world in manageable bytes under the rubric of thought which was later codified by philosophers and sophists (Rhetoricians) alike. What we know of the world is not the ‘world’, but rather a nice fairy tale of our own survival fictions that have helped us accrue millennia of illusory errors about both ourselves and our universe. Kant began codifying the errors of past philosophers much as Socrates in his dialectic began questioning the ignorance of men who thought they knew in fact what they didn’t know at all. Kant would come up against the antinomies of existence in thought and reality. For Kant the antinomies were contradictions which he believed follow necessarily from our attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. What he’d term the noumenal realm which was not directly accessible to the mind, but was always already covered over by the filters and mechanisms of the mind’s own internal workings.
This internal turn toward the mind rather than as in most previous philosophy would bring about a break in philosophical speculation that has led us to the current malaise in philosophy and the triumph of the brain sciences. For in our own moment the game of understanding why the mind works the way it does had shifted from mere speculative philosophy to the hard nosed sciences of the brain for answers. My friend Scott Bakker over at Three Pound Brain has been reiterating this fact for some time. In his latest article on Wilfrid Sellar’s thesis of the manifest and scientific images of man he puts his finger on the prime issue: “It generates the problems it does (for example, in Brassier or Dennett) because it inherits the very cognitive limitations it purports to explain.” (see Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man) The point here is that the mind-tools we have available to describe or even question consciousness are themselves biased, error prone, and most of all always already part of the problem it purports to solve: explaining consciousness with tools of the mind that do not and will never have direct access to the Mind. It’s this circular cave of shadows within which we are all shared ignoramuses when it comes to thinking about consciousness. We hem, we haw, we purport this and that theoretical idea all based on our inherited errors.
Sellar’s Scott tells us divided the images of man into pre-conceptual (original image), conceptual (manifest image), and scientific images ( post-conceptual? concrete?). Yet, it was from the beginning a war against reality-in-itself that humans developed instead a personalized environment in which they could give birth, raise children, educate one another, and perform the various tribal ceremonies of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death. Or, as Scott puts it: “The original framework, Sellars tells us, conceptualizes all objects as ways of being persons—it personalizes its environments. The manifest image, then, can be seen as “the modification of an image in which all the objects are capable of the full range of personal activity”.” The animate universe was a realm filled with mind and persons, a vital realm of ghosts, spirits, and mythic creatures. A nightmare world of dangers against which humans developed mind-tools for survival, and only survival and propagation were the central features of this original pre-conceptual tool-bag of fictions.
Out of this pre-conceptual tool-bag arose what we now know as the philosophical image or ‘manifest image’, as Scott explains,
This new image of man, Sellars claims, is “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world”. As such, the manifest image is the image interrogated by the philosophical tradition, which given the limited correlational and categorial resources available to it, remained blind to the communicative—social—conditions of conceptual frameworks, and so, the manifest image of man. Apprehending this would require the scientific image, the conceptual complex “derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction,” yet still turning on the conceptual resources of the manifest image.3
What we see here is nothing new, but rather a series of mental leaps or refinements, tiers or levels of reality baking that each turns toward the previous images as if from the outside. But have we ever truly left the pre-conceptual level at all? It’s like the blind leading the blind, turning over and over the mind-tools inherited from the previous image as if this would suddenly produce some advantage. But has it? Or we still as ignorant as those early cave dwellers who blew paint on the walls in southern France? As Bakker reiterates:
Things begin, for Sellars, in the original image, our prehistorical self-understanding. The manifest image consists in the ‘correlational and categorial refinement’ of this self-understanding. And the scientific image consists in everything discovered about man beyond the limits of correlational and categorial refinement (while relying on these refinements all the same). The manifest image, in other words, is an attenuation of the original image, whereas the scientific image is an addition to the manifest image (that problematizes the manifest image). Importantly, all three are understood as kinds of ‘conceptual frameworks’ (though he sometime refers to the original image as ‘preconceptual.’
This reminded me of those Matryoshka dolls one sees in the specialty stores from Russia: a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. Maybe our conceptual and pre-conceptual frameworks are like these dolls hidden within each other, a nested series of internal mind-worlds that have a tentative cross-pollination in-between zones that still reverberate in us even now. The point here is that the more you look inward toward the mind the smaller and smaller it becomes; a sort of infinite regress of thought which we will never fully understand or uncover. The nested worlds of mind are infinite. Bad analogy? Of course, but as we struggle to understand ourselves we all, manifest and scientific frameworks, both, come up against the black hole of our ignorance much like Socrates in questioning the knowledge of all those powerful Athenian gentlemen.
Is there a way out of this quagmire or are we forever condemned to repeat each others errors no matter how refined we become adding new dolls to the nested loop (i.e., constructing new frameworks even more sophisticated than our current scientific image)? For Scott the answer to that question turns on an ecological framework, and by that he means that our ancestral pool of inherited mind-tools were fitted to our natural environments. Slowly but surely we’ve begun severing this relation over the past few millennia constructing more and more unnatural or artificial environments. As Scott puts it his story and postscript to Crash Space:
Reverse engineering brains is a prelude to engineering brains, plain and simple. Since we are our brains, and since we all want to be better than what we are, a great many of us celebrate the eventuality. The problem is that we happen to be a certain biological solution to an indeterminate range of ancestral environments, an adventitious bundle of fixes to the kinds of problems that selected our forebears. This means that we are designed to take as much of our environment for granted as possible—to neglect. This means that human cognition, like animal cognition more generally, is profoundly ecological. And this suggests that the efficacy of human cognition depends on its environments.
What Scott is saying is what many evolutionists have said for a while: we are attentive only to those things in the environment that help us survive and propagate, everything else about reality we pass over or neglect realizing it is just too much – an excess that we put in relief, blindly focusing only on what matters to us, what is personal.
Yet, in our time we’ve severed the links to our natural for an artificial environment, a built environment —one might say, a designer environment. We’ve displaced our ancestral cognitive ecologies from the natural to the artificial, neglecting the former for the changed world of natural for machinic being. “We neglect all those things our ancestors had no need to know on the road to becoming us.” says Scott. And, then goes on to say,
Herein lies the ecological rub. The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.
In this sense our entire planetary civilization has become unhinged. We are all tittering on the edge of a psychotic break, and many already show the signs of such madness. One only needs to watch the nightly news (a biased world of psychosis if there ever was one) to see the mass murders, the wars, the political and religious tom foolery that reaches the highest levels of our media frenzy. Day by day we are so attached to our artificial environments: our electronic gadgets, our online personalities, and fake echo chambers that we neglect our lives, our children, our natural physical lives. And, then we wake up and realize just how inadequate our knowledge of the world and ourselves is, we realize that this artificial world and the natural do not coalesce and we are lost amid the dark recesses of our own ignorance.
Yet, in our economic and worldly realm we continue to act of this ancestral pool of neglect, piling up more and more feats of artificial mandates. As Scott says: “And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the
effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.”
In other words our so called progressive society of improvement since the Enlightenment has in its ‘disenchantment’ of the world (which is really just another way of saying: our severing of the links to the natural context and displacement into a modern artificial built world of thought and life) brought us to the brink of mental implosion and destruction: a crash space of global proportions. Does all this sound apocalyptic? Sure it does, but in some ways it helps us understand the many strange psychotic breaks daily reported in the news. Humans who are still nested within nests of images that were and are still tied to our ancestral pool of mind-tools are no longer involved in those ancient worlds of natural survival and propagation. This break from the environment to the artificial has accelerated over the past two centuries to the point of complete severance.
Can a whole civilization go psychotic? Scott ends on an apocalyptic note: “Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more
we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.” This sense that the mind-tools of our ancestral nesting image, our philosophical manifest image, and – even our “scientific image” are not up to the task of guiding us through this process. We are all in the dark now, together.
As for Sellars’s approach Scott in his end piece brings to the fore the Idealism of its conceptual framework and how this reliance on conceptuality has led Sellars and his followers into blind alleys of just reiterating the same old games of the ‘given’ that have clouded modern philosophy ever since Kant. As he says, summing up,
The issue of information availability, for him (Sellars), is always conceptual, which is to say, always heuristically conditioned, which is to say, always bound to systematically distort what is the case. Where the enabling dimension of cognition belongs to the deep environments on a cognitive ecological account, it belongs to communities on Sellars’ inferentialist account. As result, he has no clear way of seeing how the increasingly technologically mediated accumulation of ancestrally unavailable information drives the development of human self-understanding.
Scott’s turn from the Idealism of ‘conceptuality’ to the cognitive ecological turn in heuristics based as it is on technological mediation rather than the mind-tools of philosophical speculation shifts the ground toward a more specific task: rather than explaining consciousness with the outworn tools of ancestral voices we should maybe begin to explore this new found world of technological mediation and push it further, accelerate its force into avenues unfounded in all past speculative thought. Maybe we will find our way out of the Matryoshka dolls of our nested images and into a new form of cognitive ecological understanding of ourselves, but it want be by way of the previous nestings and our ancestral reliance of less and less environmental cues; instead we may be entering a totally artificial era of technological mediation based on merging more and more with our artificial environments. Instead of the Age of Disenchantment maybe ours is instead the Age of Breaking the Vessel or Matryoshka doll altogether. Forget the ancestral pool, forget Sellars, forget all the previous speculations of the philosophers and turn instead to a more materialist technological mediation based on specificity rather than conceptuality.
When I think of the great psychosis of our time, of whole societies entering into madness, I feel the pain of millions of lost creatures each struggling in his lonely cell trying to make sense of a world that no longer coincides with the knowledge and belief systems we were handed by our ancestors. We’ve been utterly riven of our relations to the past, broken into a thousands shreds the feelings and thoughts of our ancestors who roamed the great savannahs, jungles, deserts of the world. Tossed into a machinic age of artificial brains, political and social mayhem, and a war torn and famine stricken planet tottering on the edge of apocalypse one wonders if there is an answer to the problems we as a species face. Will we survive or go down in oblivion? Shall we discover something in ourselves strong enough to fight our way clear of these transitional moments of chaos and enter a new realm of possibility or not?
- Luis E. Navia. Socrates: A Life Examined (p. 93). Kindle Edition.
- Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 7.
- Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. (see online pdf).