R.S. Bakker: Is Philosophy Dead?

Of late on R.S Bakker’s site Three Pound Brain he remarks on the failure of critical philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge to obviate the need to answer the primary question that it sought to answer, which is, namely, the question of securing speculative truth despite the limitations of our nature.1 Epistemic humility and finitude: the two poles of philosophy from Kant to now. Kant in his idealism argued for a “regulative principle of reason” that would guide our philosophical or scientific inquiries by “regarding all combination in the world as if it arose from an all-sufficient necessary cause, so as to ground on that cause the rule of a unity that is systematic and necessary, but it is not an assertion of an existence that is necessary in itself”.2

Bakker demarcates his own stance of Blind Brain Theory against such thinkers as Daniel Dennett’s well known conception of an “intentional stance,” which contrasts with the “physical,” “design” and “personal” stances.3 What Dennett means by an intentional stance is that it is a heuristic and predictive explanatory strategy, and the intentional stance is one that treats the behavior of the “system” being investigated as “rational” in the sense that it operates on the basis of beliefs and desires. The whole point of this exercise is an as-if strategy, since there is no assumption that the system under investigation is rational, the idea that it is such is merely a useful fiction (heuristic), a matter of treating it “as if” it were, which seems very much like a Kantian regulative idea.

Now Bakker touts his own BBT theory as being post-intentional, and he describes himself as a “skeptical naturalist”. Succinctly put BBT argues that the first-person perspective is the expression of the kinds and quantities of information that, for a variety of structural and developmental reasons, cannot be accessed by the ‘conscious brain.’ In other words the subject – or, in Transcendental Subject is blind to its own foundations or ground, it has no access to the given entity of its own formation: the brain – mind($). As he remarks: “Puzzles as profound and persistent as the now, personal identity, conscious unity, and most troubling of all, intentionality, could very well be kinds of illusions foisted on conscious awareness by different versions of the informatic limitation expressed, for instance, in the boundary of your visual field. By explaining away these phenomena, BBT separates the question of consciousness from the question of  how consciousness appears, and so drastically narrows the so-called explanatory gap.”3

Against the common sense idea we all have of a first-person identity he tells us that Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (BBT) is an account of how an embedded, recursive information integration system might produce the peculiar structural characteristics we associate with the first-person perspective. In a sense, it argues that consciousness is so confusing because it literally is a kind of confusion. Our brain is almost entirely blind to itself, and it is this interval between ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ wherein our experience of consciousness resides.(ibid) Against any form of intentionality, phenomenal or otherwise, he argues that reflexivity, internal-relationality, sufficiency, and intentionality, can all be seen as hallucinatory artifacts of informatic closure and scarcity, the result of a brain forced to make the most with the least using only the resources it has at hand. This is a picture of the first person as an informatically intergrated series of scraps of access, forced by structural bottlenecks to profoundly misrecognize itself as something somehow hooked upon the transcendental, self-sufficient and whole…. (ibid.)

I’ll not rehearse either of the plaintiff’s arguments, instead the gist of what Bakker is striving to show is that the real key is neither Bryant nor critical philosophy, but is just “philosophy” itself:

…indeed, the more cognitive psychology learns about human reasoning, the more understandable the generational failure of philosophy to produce theoretical knowledge becomes. Human beings are theoretically incompetent, plain and simple. (ibid.)

Bakker’s whole ideology is based on the acceptance of the truth of the sciences, that what philosophy has been seeking for two-hundred years is a way out of the labyrinth of its own failure to solve its own problems: that the way out is science itself rather than philosophy. And if give up our philosophical pretentions we will all leave philosophy behind for information:

…my approach takes information as an unexplained explainer that is warranted by the theoretical work it enables, and not as a metaphysical primitive that warrants all that follows. Theorizing the kinds of informatic constraints (the crucial differences not made) faced by human cognition, BBT provides a powerful diagnosis of the subject-object paradigm, one that not only explains myriad traditional philosophical difficulties, but also allows, on an empirical basis, a means to think beyond the perennial, oscillating tyranny of subject and object, thought and being, and here’s the important thing, when required. It begins with theoretical knowledge, the sciences of the brain, offering speculative claims that will find decisive, empirical arbitration in the due course of time.

In the ultimate extent what R.S. Bakker is striving for in his BBT Theory is not so much science but a new explanatory framework, a way of describing what is coming at us from a future that like Nick Land’s accelerationism is moving to fast to grasp; yet, we throw our nets at it hoping something will catch, fragments of an alternate reality that is our own real world. He tells us that he cannot describe what it is (no positive account). But it looks like a mixture of sci-fi and Rube Goldberg machines for the cyborgs of the future post-human worlds:

To the question of whether we are a global workspace or a brain or a brain-environment (where the latter is understood in any one of many senses (social, historical, biological, cosmological, and so on)) it seems to answer, Yes.

More of a machine or appartatus than a theory it reminds one of mad prognostications of Deleuze or Land without all the philosophical baggage of the past two centuries. In Bakker we see the crossover movement of technology and nature, physis and techne merging into something else.

Whether physis and techne may be reconcilable is not a question that has a predetermined answer, waiting to be divined. It is more like a practical problem, whose feasible solution needs to be devised. With an analogy, we are not asking whether two chemicals could mix but rather whether a marriage may be successful. There is plenty of room for a positive answer, provided the right sort of commitment is made. It seems beyond doubt that a successful marriage between physis and techne is vital for our future and hence worth our sustained efforts. Information societies increasingly depend upon technology to thrive, but they equally need a healthy, natural environment to flourish. Try to imagine the world not tomorrow or next year, but next century, or next millennium: a divorce between physis and techne would be utterly disastrous both for our welfare and for the wellbeing of our habitat. This is something that technophiles and green fundamentalists must come to understand. Failing to negotiate a fruitful, symbiotic relationship between technology and nature is not an option.

But what’s left for Philosophy? Politics, Ethics, Wisdom? Well, some say we will all be subsumed in a global infosphere, and that information ethics will become the new science of ethics for this marriage of physis and techne.

In information ethics, the ethical discourse concerns any entity, understood informationally, that is, not only all persons, their cultivation, wellbeing, and social interactions, not only animals, plants, and their proper natural life, but also anything that exists, from paintings and books to stars and stones; anything that may or will exist, like future generations; and anything that was but is no more, like our ancestors or old civilizations. Information ethics is impartial and universal because it brings to ultimate completion the process of enlargement of the concept of what may count as a centre of a (no matter how minimal) moral claim, which now includes every instance of being understood informationally, no matter whether physically implemented or not. In this respect, information ethics holds that every entity, as an expression of being, has a dignity, constituted by its mode of existence and essence (the collection of all the elementary proprieties that constitute it for what it is), which deserve to be respected (at least in a minimal and overridable sense), and hence place moral claims on the interacting agent and ought to contribute to the constraint and guidance of his ethical decisions and behaviour. This ontological equality principle means that any form of reality (any instance of information/being), simply for the fact of being what it is, enjoys a minimal, initial, overridable, equal right to exist and develop in a way which is appropriate to its nature. The conscious recognition of the ontological equality principle presupposes a disinterested judgement of the moral situation from an objective perspective, i.e. a perspective which is as non-anthropocentric as possible. Moral behaviour is less likely without this epistemic virtue. The application of the ontological equality principle is achieved, whenever actions are impartial, universal, and ‘caring’. At the roots of this approach lies the ontic trust binding agents and patients.5

That post-Cynical Kynic Peter Sloterdijk relates that this is the age of revolutions when “old forms must be tested for reusability and new forms invented” (441).6 Maybe J.G. Ballard was closer to the truth in saying that this new revolution is one in which “the microchip, the home computer, the television itself – is actually invading people, impinging on people’s behavior, taking over their lives … All of us are now, in fact, bio-robots – we can’t exist without the equipment which we have around us. like cars, telephones, tape, recorders, contact lenses, so we’re no longer just biological organisms, we’re biorobotical organisms. (Interview, 1966).

What Bakker implies even if he has yet to explicitly state it is that we are machinic subjects – interfaces between networks of relays, or prosthetic entities – no longer conceivable as independent autonomous entities. The collision of subjectivity and technology, informatics and the visual media is our future: a future in which the subject will become more and more derealized, depersonalized in a space of networks and relays in touch with the complexity of machinic life in all its diversity. Yet, on the fringes of this brave new world there will remain a few defiant post-humanist non serviam renegades, a new kind of ‘fanatic’ wandering the wastelands of our postmodern apocalypse, brutal and full of the life energy of a violence in touch with its organic health that refuses the machinic ecstasy of collapse into a system of total peace. Such beings will seem anachronisms to the majority of that age, lone wolves and solitaires, who commit motiveless crimes of violence and do not accept the informatics ethic of machinic life hooked into the global brain nexus, but wander the outer darkness of what little freedom remains awaiting annihilation at the hands of the machine gods of our oblivious future.

1. R.S. Bakker. The Ptolemaic Restoration: Object Oriented Whatevery and Kant’s Copernican Revolution. (on blog).
2. Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Cambridge Univesity Press, 1997.
3. R. Scott Bakker: Post-Intentional Philosophy; or, How the Brain is Blind
4. Henry E. Allison. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. Yale University Press, 2004.
5. Floridi, Luciano (2010-02-25). Information: A Very Short Introduction (pp. 113-114). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
6. Peter Sloterdijk. You must change your life. Politry Press 2013.

19 thoughts on “R.S. Bakker: Is Philosophy Dead?

  1. You must read the Japanese SF novel Harmony by Project Itoh. I recommended it to Scott but I don’t think he was interested, which is a shame because it details the scenario you are laying out in this post. Something like BBT, a violent resistance, but a surprising conclusion that goes slightly further than Bakker. I won’t spoil it, suffice to say it’s what you might expect from an Eastern writer. One who comes from a cultural tradition were the existence of the self has always been in doubt. I’m convinced that you would enjoy this book and that you’d write a post on it!

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  2. “Bakker’s whole ideology is based on the acceptance of the truth of the sciences”

    Yes, this is what he’s contending. However, it should be noted that empirical cognitive science has certainly not tossed out intentionality, and even while researchers explore the blind spots of the human brain they also investigate its remarkable capabilities.

    “In the ultimate extent what R.S. Bakker is striving for in his BBT Theory is not so much science but a new explanatory framework, a way of describing what is coming at us from a future that like Nick Land’s accelerationism is moving to fast to grasp”

    I’m not sure whether or not this is Scott Bakker’s “intent,” but I think you’re right about BBT’s compatibility with accelerationism. Did you see Nick’s old running buddy Mark “k-punk” Fisher’s piece on Neuropath? (You can download it here.) Briefly, the plot of the novel centers on Neil the neurosurgeon’s efforts to demonstrate to his old college buddy Thomas that The Argument is true; i.e., that human thoughts and actions are caused rather than intended and willed. Fisher points out that, by having a motive for his actions, Neil is denying The Argument that he’s trying to prove. I agree. Even though Bakker has Neil disavow the motive of proof, he still says that he wants his friend Paul to experience life stripped of the illusion of self — which is also a motive. The whole novel is heavily plotted, with Paul trying to figure out who is responsible for the neural mayhem. I.e., Paul’s motive to unravel the mystery drives the story: the structure of the novel itself presumes willful pursuit of the characters’ intentions.

    But Fisher doesn’t pursue the possibility that The Argument is false; like Shaviro, he seems to accept that Neil proves his case. Further, he contends that Paul, the protagonist, already acknowledges that The Argument is true consciously; what he lacks is the subjective, affective, phenomenological awareness of its truth. Fisher proposes that we too acknowledge the truth of The Argument, that human minds don’t voluntarily decide to do anything, that what we think and do is caused rather than intended. Once we are able to stop deluding ourselves, maybe we can set about investigating what causes us to think and behave as we do. This, says Fisher, is a collective undertaking. It entails discovering the political and economic forces pushing on our brains from the outside, causing us to think and act in ways that continue to fuel the capitalist apparatus as producers and consumers. More importantly, the collective can change the causal forces acting upon us, disrupting the cause-effect mechanisms that drive us and replacing them with forces that cause us to act for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of the owners and controllers of our society.

    In effect Mark is making a non-nightmarish accelerationist variant predicated on a “good” future Singularity in which human blind-brain intentional agency is replaced with a cause-effect apparatus that’s more benign and reliable. Maybe there’s something appealing in the idea of pure immanence, of humans being moved by desires and rhizomatic vectors both within and outside of themselves. Maybe the idea of individual intentionality smacks too much of neoliberal ideology. Maybe the spontaneous unintentional political action of the multitude is more freeing than systematic, goal-directed, planned, organized change. But I think about the things I did when I got out of bed this morning: check my watch, put my clothes on, make a pot of coffee, pee in the toilet and flush it down, get the cat some food, open the front door to see if the forecasted warming trend had been accurate. Each was an intentional act, even if I performed most of them without really thinking much about it, even though I’ve compiled the requisite behavior sequences to the point of habit. Still, I wasn’t born with the instincts for performing any of these routine actions: I learned them. And none of these morning activities was driven by irresistible biological impulse or social suasion: I could have come downstairs naked, gone outside and pissed on a tree, told the cat to fend for himself, etc.

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    • I think that is the exact reason most philosophers have battled over thinking and being … if thinking and being were one then we would be oblivious to reflection, to that decision making process that separates us from that stuff all around us… We seem to drift between those two poles, or the gap between one or the other. While our friend Bakker says this is all passé, a lost art of wisdom for lost creatures who no longer have souls to worry about. Creatures who are blind to their own cognitive physical system. R.S. would have us stop pondering our navel and accept the bitter pill of scientific truth. It was Walter Pater who once remarked that ‘all art aspires towards the condition of music’. I would add that all science aspires toward the condition of knowledge’, while all philosophy aspires toward the condition of wisdom. Choose your own path…

      While the rest of us ponder the transcendental illusions that we keep filling the gap with as fantastic remnants of a wonderful era of speculation.

      Even if I can agree with R.S. in his theory of BBT, do I need to rest in this like some final word of science; of course not, philosophy is what it always was, not science, but a life in pursuit of wisdom. Does science offer us wisdom? No. It offers us truth, truth about our physical universe, and has little to offer toward our moral universe of meaning other than its window on the physical universe and its strange wonders.

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  3. Do you think you’ll take a crack at the YA novel or series, Noir? It sounds like a strong premise. I’m with you, and probably with Scott Bakker as well: some of these ideas work better as speculative fictions, as contexts for the exploration of wisdoms, than as truths to be falsified or verified.

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    • Yea, working on a YA Dystopic novel at the moment situated in a slum world, playing with the old switch tale of twins – rich/poor trading lives. Think of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ with a coming of age tale… 100 years hence…. climate out of control, most of the world’s poor cast into slums … like any novel it will take the boys on a ride through slumsville and those richlands or evil paradises and show how these characters participate in both worlds, using Zizek’s parallax vision: first book’s – Enigma 393… obviously people no longer have identities in such a world, only network badges, assigned signifiers for legal purposes…. a Deleuzian mystery tour of the future…

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  4. The JG Ballard quote reminds me (again) of the idea of endo-colonization that is elaborated by Paul Virilio, that he was discussing as far back as ‘the art of the motor’. Endocolonisation is the territorial movement that empties the internal out, while filling it up with micro-scale products of techno-science. For Virilio, its all linked to the industrial-military complex, but for us it can be more banal. Virilio takes it all quite literally, as a loss of our Catholic souls, whereas Ballard is more ambiguous… prophecies of the near future and so on. And its hard to see whether Bakker thinks of himself as in a Ballardian or Virilian mode; whether he is exploring the “F-possible” (Pierre Cassou-Nogues) accounts of humanity to illuminate what we’ll accept or whether these are meant to be taken as finished natural facts. In either case, I suspect Pierre Cassou-Nogues would view Bakker’s account as another example of synchronisation, whilst the neuropolitical activists might conceivably want to remind him that there is no neurotypical brain (the order of illusions is plastic).

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    • Ballard lives out his psychopathy, for him the world is an enigma at the singular scale, the future has already happened – there is no past, only the inescapable acceleration toward a dead zone where affective desires no longer activate, where cut off from our own drives we truly live beyond time. Being a surrealist he knew the brain is predictive rather than a realist adjunct; the unconscious is always living in the near future, predicting the movements, trajectories, tranversals, etc. that our consciousness will face in its blind ignorance, shortly.

      The other night I watched the science channel. Had a series of programs (5 in all) on the latest research on the brain. One of the final ones a group of well-known cognitive researchers was given a blank art tablet and a marker (11 x 20 size) and asked to mark on this blank tablet how much of it was our conscious / unconscious: each of them – all separately interview, guesstemated, because none of them had any real mathematical figure, that our brain only used 8 to 10 % of consciousness, that the brain’s autonomous functions – the habitual functions did over 90% of the work.

      They also showed how blind our conscious mind is with several experiments. Best one: had a clown on a unicycle roaming around a university campus as people walked by or were seated using cell phones. Not one of these people when questioned remembered seeing the clown even though he drove his unicycle in circles around them.

      Instead of seeing reality as it is in itself our brain allows our conscious awareness to notice only those things that it wants us to notice (i.e., we truly are the playthings of gods, forces, drives, etc.). We like to think we have control over our lives, when in fact we are slaves to those habitual forces of which we are totally blind and ignorant. Victims of our own unique evolutionary heritage, we are also uniquely driven toward mastery of our environment. Sad to say, but there is no free will, no soul, no distinct self – just another ‘transcendental illusion’ to fill the cesspool of our fantasias. Even our eternal optimism is a register of our brain’s capacity to blind us to the truth: a truth that would destroy us if we ever became aware of its destructive force.

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      • I’m pretty much “happy” to accept all that. As a psychiatric nurse I see how much/little control people have over themselves. I also share interest in a few figures that I’ve seen you write about (Ballard, Schopenhauer, Cioran…). Clinical and experimental psychologist Richard Bentall has a book called Madness Explained: psychosis and human nature, in which he shows how human happiness has a delusional structure, just as what we usually term psychosis does. He even went so far as to write a satire on the DSM and the tendency to pathologise any non-standard experience.

        ‘A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder’, systematically exposes happiness to scientific and philosophical standards of measurement and finds that on each it appears as an aberrant, self-seeking, irrational form of experience blind to the truth and turning away from the Real: as such, it is a psychosis. I think there is much to be admired in the satire, especially the way in which it demands to be read as if it were simply a diagnostic statement. Benthall is more right than he would want to think. The paper can be found here:

        Click to access Happiness_Disorder.pdf

        What always sticks with me in relationship to Ballard is precisely this value of seeing the brain or mind as constructing its own logics, its own worlds, that respond to the world beyond themselves. The image of the soldier in the Drowned World who, instead of turning away from the murderous heat consuming the equatorial regions of the earth, rushes headlong to meet them. (Incidentally, I’m eagerly awaiting Simon Sellars ‘Applied Ballardianism).

        I’m also very keen on ideas of information poverty, but I’d stress a different angle. The question isn’t one of failure but one of operation. Anxiety and panic disorders all have a component of over activation of the brain, and it may be that elements of the psychotic and OCD symptoms find their origins in some degree with the inability of the brain to determine what information is and is not important…these brains are precisely the ones that are a little less impoverished and possibly a little less blind (auditory hallucination as autonomous self-monitoring?). Instead, our brains typically only give to us what is needed. I know Bakker accepts this thesis, it just seems as though he thinks of it as some tragic limit rather than an enabling delimitation.

        Essentially though, your comment and Bakker’s post-intentionalism seem to me to be statements of nihilism. I’m more interested in saying ‘ok, nihilism accepted…how is it we go on? can we go on? can we “fail better”‘?

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      • Yes, yes.. exactly! Can we “fail better”? Zizek’s central point. Yes, we can, over and over… Maybe, even the point of Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: pushing nihilism to the breaking point… active nihilism as opposed to passive cynicism posing as nihilism. Sellar’s should be fun. And, yes, happiness as a delusion, I love it… great short story idea as well as being true and on point! But most intriguing: that elements of the psychotic found in information overload rather than poverty… isn’t this too much awareness, too much information already the form of paranoiac schizo… instead of the brain giving us what we need, it gives us an excess, which forces us to choose rather than to be controlled, and evolution probably hasn’t allowed for that choice… haa … more comic than tragic: the rabid dog chasing its tail.

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  5. Great post arranjames, particularly because it makes me feel so utterly smug to see an established figure confirming my long held prejudice that happiness was never anything other than a delusional structure!

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  6. Haha! Cheers, james! I think there is another writer out there who would also be happy with Richard Benthall’s satire… a certain, Thomas Ligotti?

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    • Yes, although Ligotti would never be seen laughing about it. Although maybe if his royalties dry up he will try his hand at stand up comedy one day! I joke but I am a great admirer of his fiction.

      If paranoid schizophrenia is information overload then might the psychotic serve as the model of what future neuro enhancement engineers should work on? Maybe those voices and hallucinations are tantalising signs of what the brain could be upgraded to do. Imagine hallucinations as self generating experiences of virtualization. Instead of our current primitive efforts to virtualize experience thru spreading media that requires a divide between fiction and non fiction, individuals could generate complex hallucinations allowing them to both process and act on experiences that are totally unique to them. Voices could be integrated as simulations of the others personality thus generating even more complex strategies of how to be a person in the world navigating the demands and double binds of mulitiple other actors. interesting to think of the schizophrenic as being victimized by the deficiency of his brain to enhance itself around these features rather than its divergence from the neurotypical majority.

      Research says schizo men are extremely attractive to women. I have always been fascinated by them. I’ve always suspected pyschosis is not a regression but something like the evolutionary process were first fish making dangerous visits to the shore.

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