“I’m the world’s first neuronaut, Goodbook. And you’re about to join me.”
– R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath
By now we all know that Scott has an obsession with the brain. One might say he’s a man with a mission. In this novel he allows the drift of his research into the theoretical worlds of neuroscience and philosophy to merge into a neurofiction. I read this work about a year ago but have since gotten better acquainted with the underlying sciences that underpin its unique message.
I want spend time rehearsing the plot of Scott’s book which is really a fictionalization of his pet project, The Blind Brain Theory. What he does in this novel is to embody the dark portent of his current theories as they might actually play out under certain conditions. The main protagonist and villain of the work are Thomas Bible and Neil Cassidy bosom buddies from college who have over the years played a dual role in each others lives: a sort of brain to brain network, a socialization of the brain’s search for its own tail – or, the old serpent biting its own tail mythos.
There comes a point in the novel when Thomas Bible finally falls prey to his old friend’s machinations. Caught in the meshes of a design without a purpose, a method without an outcome other than an exercise in deprogramming, of a gnostic vita negativa in which the mind finally discerns its uselessness at ever resolving the darkest quest of its short life: it lacks the very functions that would help it uncover the sources of its own blindness.
This is where Neil Cassidy who is portrayed in the typical psychopathic fashion as the ultimate impersonal killing machine. But that portrayal is according to BBT not only wrong, but is itself an illusion; for there is no one there to blame, to punish, to judge. As Neil puts it:
“Our brains are manipulating machines, Goodbook, each the result of millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to its environment, its world. That it should reach out and manipulate itself is as natural as can be. Just think! After grasping and grasping through hundreds of millions of years, it’s finally touched the bottom of the bag. Don’t blame me if it’s empty.”1 (347)
Such statements almost remind me of all those negative theologians like Basilides who once affirmed that there is nothing, nothing at all. The Gnostics were the first to accept that the Self is illusion, that life is itself an illusion a farce, a comically bit play in which we are trapped, imprisoned in a house of cards, riding to nowhere:
Since therefore there was nothing, no matter, no substance, nothing insubstantial, nothing simple, nothing composite, nothing imperceptible (non-subjective), no man, no angel, no god, nothing at all… the non-existent God … without intelligence, without perception, without will, without resolve, without impulse, without desire wished to make a world. I say “he wished,” which for want of a word, wish, intelligence, and perception being excluded. By “world” (I mean) not the flat disvisible world which later divided itself…
Thomas Bible once wrote a book that spelled out this speculative science of the Blind Brain Theory: the Argument. Neil at one point opens up Thomas’s book and reads a passage:
“‘If we know anything, we know this: The regions of the brain implicated in consciousness can only access a minute fraction of the information processed by the brain as a whole. Conscious experience is not simply the product of the brain, it is the product of a brain that can only see the merest sliver of itself.’ ”(323)
William Bechtel in his history of cognitive sciences speaking of Feyerabend and Rorty back in the 1960’s tells us that they adopted the idea that a new theory may be incommensurable with an old one to argue that we should expect that current theories of mental states will themselves be replaced by theories of neuroscience. They contended that, once we developed adequate theories in neuroscience, we would take the same view of mental states as we now take of caloric or folk entities like demons. We would simply deny that they exist and would strike the terms referring to them from our scientific vocabulary.2
Such notions go to the heart of Scott’s book which is an almost negative quest to knowledge, a sort of quest for he Holy Grail in reverse: one in which the protagonist is not lead to the golden cup, but is instead revealed to be the golden cup – and the cup is itself empty, there being no one home to drink of its blessed light. Think of it: We are environment processing creatures, who probe the outer environment programmed by the evolutionary needs of our physical system. Yet, as Bechtel relates it we are selective in this process, we filter out much more than we could ever hope to understand or comprehend, while letting our brain process the information gathered and give us back its decisions as if they were our own choice. As Dennett asks: How does the new information about the outer environment get incorporated into their brains? By perception, obviously. The environment contains an embarrassment of riches, much more information than even a cognitive angel could use. Perceptual mechanisms designed to ignore most of the flux of stimuli concentrate on the most useful, most reliable information. And how does the information gathered manage to exert its selective effect when the options are “considered,” helping the animal design ever more effective interactions with its world? There are no doubt a variety of different mechanisms and methods, but among them are those that use the body as a sounding board.4
Bakker says it more pointedly letting Neil spout from Thomas’s book, saying, “‘The magician’s magic depends on the audience remaining oblivious to her manipulations. As soon as we look over her shoulder, the magic vanishes. Consciousness is no different. Oblivious to the manipulations that make it possible, experience makes do with what can only be called illusions. This is why the fundamental features of experience only make sense when we construe them as the result of various incapacities . . . ’”(323)
Like blind men in front of an elephant each touching only one part: a trunk, a leg, a tail, a belly – we try to describe from the part the whole, lacking even a knowledge of the part or the whole. It’s at this point in the book that Thomas laughs out loud realizing absurdity of our pursuit, then he asks Neil an obvious question: “So riddle me this: How could you be interested in my argument, any argument, if you think reasons are illusory?” At this Neil’s rejoinder says it all:
“You can do better than that. Reasons may be deceptions, the result of a brain stuck at the tail end of its own problem-solving, but they’re still functional—as you might expect, given that they’re a product of the real deal. While you and I argue, experience the world of meaning and justification, our brains are simply producing and responding to various auditory inputs and outputs, literally rewiring themselves in response to each other and their environments. That’s where the real action is. The projector, as opposed to the screen. That’s why we stare at an interpretative abyss whenever we try to use reasons to get behind reasons, while we find it quite simple to dismantle the machinery that makes it possible. That’s why philosophy is bullshit, while science has transformed the world.”(325)
The clincher: even if our reasoning if flawed, an illusion, a deception it is still functional. It is a mechanism built by the brain’s own processes to serve as a sort of focal point of the brain’s processes in dealing with the outer environment. The problem comes about when we believe in the illusion, think that consciousness is the actual mortal god who is responsible for all the decisions and responsibilities of the brain, when in fact it is but one unique function or mechanism, a part used by those very deep processual mechanism below the threshold. As Neil reads from another passage in Thomas’s book:
“‘Our brains,’ ” he read aloud, “‘are able to track their own prospective behavioral outputs, but are entirely blind to the deep processing that drives them. Rather than doing things because of this or that feed forward mechanism, we do them ‘for reasons,’ which is to say, for desired outcomes. Causality is turned on its head for consciousness. Results and consequences—goals—become the engine of our actions because the neural correlates of consciousness have no access to the real neurophysiological movers and shakers down below.’ ”(326)
This notion of causality being turned upside down or inside out is central to the illusions of consciousness. To help understand the difference between the approaches, consider paradigm cases of each sort of mechanism. For a systems theorist a paradigm case might be a toilet, while for the process theorist a paradigm case might be a brain causing the hands of a pianist to play Chopin. The toilet is a thing—a structured system consisting of parts (valves, levers, floats, etc.) that interact in regular ways. A brain playing Mozart involves a process which involves a series of events (the piano in a concert hall, the hand hitting the ivory keys, the strike of the cords sounding in the ears, etc.), but we can’t think of this sequence of events as a thing. The operation of system mechanisms gives rise to processes (e.g. toilets flush), but these processes are, in virtue of the stability of the mechanism, regular and repeatable.5 Stuart Gleenan in an essay Mechanisms describes this difference between the static system of mechanisms which are controlled by regular and repeatable formulas as perfect for engineering systems, but that the brain is open, plastic and produces ‘ephemeral mechanisms’ on the fly that do their work as needed then dissipate when not needed. It’s as an ephemeral mechanism or function that what we usually like to term the Self or Subjectivity gets entwined. We like to think of Self as something that is stable, repeatable, and a regulating structure in the brains system, but we would be wrong. Instead it is just a necessary feature of the ephemeral functioning of the brains mechanism producing processes, no greater and no lesser that any other function the brain produces. To acknowledge this ephemerality of certain functions in consciousness is to grasp a truth that few of us are ready to adhere too. But this is the point of Scott’s Blind Brain Theory in which he continually asks: Why can’t we accept the fact that we are nothing but these functions, these mechanisms created so to speak on the fly as part of the brains evolutionary survival mechanism?
Thomas acknowledging this thinks to himself:
Part of him understood the monstrous implications of what Neil was saying, but it seemed little more than an amusing abstraction, like boys with sticks playing guns. The greater part of him wondered, even revered. What would it be like to walk without self or conscience, with plans indistinguishable from compulsions, one more accident in the mindless wreck that was the world? What would it be like to act, not as something as puny or wretched as a person, but as a selfless vehicle, a conduit for everything that came before?(327-328).
One would have to die first to know that. Isn’t that the point of Scott’s fictional destination: death? Not the literal death of the body, but of the Self, the Subject, the First-Person Singular illusion that has guided our feelings and thoughts about what it is we are doing here in this universe. What if there was no one home to answer, or even ask the questions anymore? If the self is illusion then there is no point to hope, or even pessimism for that matter. To hold a belief of any type would in itself be an illusion too. Yet, for all that this illusion remains. The feeling of intentional consciousness does not go away just because I wake up one day and realize its all bullshit. So what then? In Scott’s book the murderous Neil loads the question and the answer: he forces Thomas literally to experience every high and every low, to feel the divine and the torments of hell, to discover the uselessness of his illusions against the inexorable indifference of the universe and its meaningless abode. Yet, one wonders: if everything human kind has created in culture(s) over the millennia is pure illusion, that our varying sources of self in the multitude of cultures on this planet is all a lie then how did this lie come about? Why do we have this incessant need to live in illusionary worlds of Self?
Scott would have us believe that the whole history of philosophy from word getgo is bullshit, a mistake. Yet, we seem to have this incessant need to question everything: to know, to understand, to connect our lives with other lives, to build relationships of trust and love based on shared values and customs. How could anyone live the way Scott describes this life without a Self? He speaks of heuristics, modeling, etc. as if “Oh we can build models and except these as substitutes for the old folk psychology. But can we? Why is some new model without a self better or less an illusion that the one I invent for myself. If no one is home to care about such things then what is truth that I should accept this life without a self rather than the happy illusions that fill my life with meaning? Nietzsche once said humans need their illusions. T.S. Eliot once sang that “humans cannot bare too much reality”.
Is this it? Do we build up these illusions to defend ourselves against the monstrous truth? Do we need our illusions to get on with the daily grind of existence? For a long while critics and philosophers alike have told us that all art is a lie. Yet, most would agree that it’s a lie we need to live. Without these lies we’d act more like zombies or psychopaths, without emotion, feelings, thoughts, etc. We’d be without a self alright but we live at the bare minimum of meaning or non-meaning. Would such a being know what laughter or tears are? Would they even bother with raising children, knowing there is no point to it. Names would be useless: we’d be better off just giving everyone a number. Why attach a significance to a name that means nothing, that is no longer a placeholder for identity or subjectivity?
We’d have to revamp our religions, our legal and governing systems, our medical and diagnostic systems, our cultural and external relations with other cultures. Would everything turn into a sort of gray indifference, if the self doesn’t exist is there anything left that is unique; or, would we just dissolve into a group think, a new tribalism without personal social lives, only the lives of the tribe and our role in its survival? Do we even begin to have the answers; or, better yet have we even begun to ask the right questions?
I guess it comes down to Thomas’s recognition scene:
It was the Blind Brain Hypothesis, his own argument from Through the Brain Darkly, not simply paraphrased, but enacted. Neil had transformed him into the demonstration of his own outrageous claim. All of it, everything from meaning to self to morality, illusory artifacts of a brain duped by its inability to see itself as a brain. Even these thoughts . . . Even this very moment!(339)
1. Bakker, R. Scott (2010-04-01). Neuropath (Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)
2. Bechtel, William (2013-12-16). Philosophy of Science: An Overview for Cognitive
3. Science (Tutorial Essays in Cognitive Science Series) (Kindle Locations 1951-1955). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
4. Dennett, Danile C. (2008-08-04). Kinds Of Minds: Toward An Understanding Of Consciousness (Science Masters Series) (p. 93). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
5. Beebee, Helen; Hitchcock, Christopher; Menzies, Peter (2009-11-12). The Oxford Handbook of Causation (Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 7237-7242). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.