R. Scott Bakker: Global Elminativism and the Post-Intentional World

semantic

In social terms, you could suggest that the Semantic Apocalypse has already happened. Consumer society is a society where liberal democratic states have retreated from the ‘meaning game,’  leaving the intractable issue to its constituents.
– R. Scott Bakker, The Semantic Apocalypse

Like me Scott is not a philosopher, but rather a man thinking; or, a thinking man. What that means is that being neither an academic nor para-academic philosopher we exist in that marginal space of men and women who push the limits of thought in ways that are not restricted to the peer pressure of their respective enclaves. I’m not disparaging philosophers per se, since I explore in depth the quandaries they present and try to solve within their discourses.

Scott would say philosophers like other professionals have in-groups, a network of affiliated peers that utilize the same semantic field of intentional objects: the jargon of the trade so to speak that help them convey their thoughts as vehicles of meaning. Foucault was not the first nor the last to understand how discursive networks engender the very meanings and problems they intend to critique or eliminate, etc. Zizek following Lacan would say we are all already born into a symbolic order (think here of Heidegger’s language as the ‘House of Being’, etc.); housed within illusionary semantic worlds from the moment we are born. Other humans in their interactions with us fold us into their semantic systems of intentionality, and as we grow up and mature we become embedded in these fields of sense and meaning without ever questioning the validity of such worlds. One could say that we are denaturalized from the beginning and never return to the inhuman core of our being, but instead remain within the semantic horizon of our cultural matrix without realizing just how artificial it all is. In this sense we become naturalized in reverse, we are captured by the false semantic systems and networks of our familial, educational, and political affiliations without questioning the very illusionary power of their semantic fields of intentionality.

For Scott what we neglect is more important than what we remember. We are selective creatures who forget more than we will ever be able to retain, and we base our knowledge on this minimalistic world of intentional folk-psychology rather than on the sciences which are continually blowing holes in our smoke screen semantic worlds. One might say we are tribal semanticists, we carefully protect and defend the bubbles of meaning that we are embedded in without knowing that they are all based on mechanisms of social control.

Intentionality is how minds think in a directed manner about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. At the intersection of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language we begin to touch base with this complex of puzzles. The word itself, which is of medieval Scholastic origin, was rehabilitated by the philosopher Franz Brentano towards the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s word. It derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing. Already this implies a form of causality: final causation to be specific.

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Like the formal cause, this is a controversial type of cause in science (some of its aspects are used for instance in evolutionary biology, chaos theory see: attractor) . It is commonly claimed that Aristotle’s conception of nature is teleological in the sense that he believed that Nature has goals apart from those that humans have. On the other hand it has also been claimed that Aristotle thought that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. As Aristotle himself would say about final causation:

This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation. That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work, – spiders, ants, and the like… It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. (wiki)

So this notion that intentions act like attractors in the mind that guide our actions is close to the notion put forward by Dawkins in his concept of ‘memes’ as a concept he invented in his discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. (wiki) In this sense memes do not exist but act as virtual attractors around which meaning and action rotate. The notion of an attractor was conceived to explain the processes of dynamic systems: a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. System values that get close enough to the attractor values remain close even if slightly disturbed. So in this sense the notion of beliefs, desires, etc. do not exist but act as virtual attractors that tie neurons together for specific evolutionary reasons.

The point of the above exercise is to show how we all fall into the intentional. None of what I just said is observable, but is part of a semantic unfolding of information that may or may not have any validity in the real world. As humans we love to narrate stories to fill in the gaps of our ignorance. These semantic tales become over time accepted as valid whether they are or not. It is this semantic folk-psychology of the linguistic tribe that Scott critiques.

What interests me about Scott is his global elminiativism: his attack upon the very core of our semantic illusions based as they are in the intentional mind. One of his pet peeves is how philosophers instead of exposing these illusions invent new ones, instead of filtering out the semantic systems that lead us into errors most philosophers just replace one set of intentional notions with others rather than eliminating intentionality altogether. But is such a thing possible? Scott believes the sciences are already doing this, and that the neurosciences in particular are revealing what the philosophers only dreamed of in their wildest imaginings. Is Scott right? Do we need to just eliminate philosophy as an archaic form of human thought that no longer deals with the actual world as it is, but rather seeks to engender nothing more than the old narratives in – what might be termed, the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Scott in a recent post on Adrian Johnston’s new Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism tells us that what “is transpiring today can be seen as a battle for the soul of the darkness that comes before thought. Is it ontological as so much of philosophy insists? Or is it ontic as science seems to be in the process of discovering?”1 Now this ontic-ontological divide has been around for a while. The ontic pertains pertains to being generally, rather than some distinctively philosophical (or scientific) theory of it (ontology). Science deals with the empirical facts rather than the theoretical matrix within which we interpret those facts. Yet, one must realize that at some point even scientists themselves have to interpret these physical facts they or their instruments are discovering. So that the moment they begin the process of interpreting the facts under discussion they are again caught up the semantic fold of epistemic and ontological intentionality. So I’m not sure if Scott’s distinction is a clear cut one. Even Scott’s use of the word “seems” belies the fact that there is a sense of wavering, of something that is not quite clarified but rather riddled with certain unknowns as to what the sciences are indeed discovering through their ontic investigations.

Scott himself is aware that even his own discourse is riddled with semantic overtones and intentional qualifications. In some ways we all use a language which in itself is bound to a long intentional heritage that some term folk-psychology. Some philosophers like Badiou try to minimalize this semantic heritage by opting for a mathematization of reality rather than relying on natural language or its semantic structures. Yet, Badiou’s withdrawal into mathematics presents more problems than it solves. The ontology of non-existent and abstract objects has seemed difficult to square with the ontology of the contemporary natural sciences according to which the world contains only concrete objects that exist in space and time.

Philosophers like Roderick Chisholm move this issue onto new ground by contemplating the formulation of “a working criterion by means of which we can distinguish sentences that are intentional, or are used intentionally, in a certain language from sentences that are not.” The idea is to examine sentences that report intentionality rather than intentionality itself. So this linguistic or analytical differentiation between the empirical domain and its representation centers us squarely at the point where the paradox is still unresolved. All Chisholm does is make the distinction between intentionality as conceptual meaning vs. its actual existence in the empirical domain, but this doesn’t solve the truth or falsehood of that actual validity of intentions. What it comes down to is that the intensionality of a linguistic report is not sufficient for the intentionality of the reported phenomenon. So we’re left with the failure to provide proof of the actual existence of intensional states of affairs.

W.V. Quine is a leading critic of intentional objects, agrees with Chisholm that the intentional vocabulary cannot be reduced to some non-intentional vocabulary. Chisholm took this conclusion to show the correctness of Brentano’s second thesis that intentionality is the mark of the mental. Quine for his part broke this down into both an epistemic and ontological dilemma by first accepting “indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention” and rejecting a physicalist ontology. Then secondly he turned it around and accepted physicalism and renounced the “baselessness” of the intentional idioms and the “emptiness” of a science of intention. His arguments for and against would have repercussions in philosophy to this day.

Daniel Dennett would instrumentalise these arguments as heuristic devices. For him the intentional idiom fails to describe or explain any real phenomenon. However, in the absence of detailed knowledge of the physical laws that govern the behavior of a physical system, the intentional idiom is a useful stance for predicting a system’s behavior. As Pierre Jacobs will tell us “Among philosophers attracted to a physicalist ontology, few have accepted the outright eliminativist materialist denial of the reality of beliefs and desires. Nor have many of them found it easy to answer the puzzling question raised by the instrumentalist position: how can the intentional idiom make useful predictions if it fails to describe and explain anything real?”2

As Jerry Fodor put it, the naturalistic worry of intentional realists who are physicalists is that “the semantic proves permanently recalcitrant to integration to the natural order”. Given that on a physicalist ontology, intentionality or semantic properties cannot be “fundamental features of the world,” the task is to show “how an entirely physical system could nevertheless exhibit intentional states”. (ibid. 2) For physicalists the question is not with Brentano’s qualification that only the mind presents mental states, but rather why do some non-mental physical things seem to manifest intentionality?

The great divide over intentionality seems to be concerned with notions of causality rather than intentionality per se. As Jacob’s will spell it out:

Daniel Dennett, according to whom the intentional stance is merely a useful predictive heuristic with no explanatory import. On Dennett’s view, there cannot be what Haugeland calls a “semantic engine.” … Intentional realists, however, will not easily concede the epiphenomenalism of intentionality, since for them, a test of the reality of a property is that it can be causally efficacious. Intentional realists who want to save the causal efficacy of intentionality divide into two broad groups. Some accept the requirement that only if it supervenes on the intrinsic physical properties of an individual’s brain can the intentionality of a mental state be causally efficacious. The challenge then is to elaborate a two-tiered account of intentionality according to which one dimension of intentionality does, and the other does not, supervene on the intrinsic properties of an individual’s brain. Other intentional realists deny the supervenience requirement and elaborate a suitable notion of what intentionality is supposed to explain—or what is the proper explanandum of a causal explanation in the explanans of which intentionality might figure prominently.(ibid. 2)

My friend Scott sides with Dennett’s use of heuristic devices that have no explanatory import, while continuing to critique any and all of those intentional realists who would like to save not the appearances but the mythical entities behind the semantic worlds; and, in fact, the semantic worlds themselves. As he tells us: “Careers will be made, celebrated ones, for those able to concoct the most appealing and slippery brands of theoretical snake-oil. And meanwhile the science will trundle on, the incompatible findings will accumulate, and those of us too suspicious to believe in happy endings will be reduced to arguing against our hopes, and for the honest appraisal of the horror that confronts us all.”

Where do you stand in the semantic void?

1. see Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis
2. Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

17 thoughts on “R. Scott Bakker: Global Elminativism and the Post-Intentional World

  1. Excellent. I say there is no overcoming the real phenomenal intensional agent, for it exists necessarily within reality regardless of terms. But that it is this regardlessness that defines reality as based in an actual power that cannot be mitigated by definitional clauses. Philosophy thus Can be said to be anachronistic, but if it disappears it will just be reinstated under another term. A rose is a rose…
    Thanks for your post here.

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    • Hi there. Allow me to butt in, with permission from S.C. Hickman (…). What I understand about intentional fallacy is that the subject is always already embedded in its world and there is no way it can assume a position external to it. Thus, the subject is in many ways hallucinating about its claims of, for instance, transcendence, or a definition or proposition that lays claim to a property of reality. How we tend to understand the position of this subject of course differs in degrees and directions. But this position is always the position of the subject understood as an authorial claim (epistemic for the most part), regardless of how we put it. I am not going to rehearse here how this position, for instance, is debunked in post-structuralism, etc. But my point is this so-called author-function, through the various critiques made in opposition to this claim, reveals instead a meta-language that is already presupposed in it. This meta-language is at work for the most part in everyday ordinary language that, for instance, analytic philosophy attempts to unpack (of its ambivalence) to achieve a formal concept of language and its use. Now, no matter how formal or clear this concept may arrive at, there is no way we can go out of meta-language which is, for lack of a better term, and as I wish to bring Benjamin into the discussion, a product of a long evolutionary process of language developing into a ‘nonsensuous archive,’ something that we can only divine or guess which precedes any kind of analytic work we can make of it.

      NB: The mention of ‘meta’ does not invoke determinism or an active transcendent function superposing from above. Benjamin and others like Stanley Fish would rather see the work of meta-language in interactive communities with their respective interpretive approaches and strategies that prioritize performance over epistemic orientations, etc., which lend their works to a reader-oriented (communitarian) focus rather than the author-function. Elsewhere, Benjamin asserts that meta-language in a sense is magic, which has its precedence in the way things themselves communicate–he calls this interactive communication within a material community as the ‘magic of matter.’ Thanks for you post, Steven!

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  2. Awesome as always, Craig. The key distinction, of course, is between practical intentional idioms, the way we all use intentional terms before learning any philosophy, and theoretical intentional idioms, the kinds of posits philosophers use to allegedly explain human being and behaviour. The former is obviously powerful, while the latter generates endless controversy. The intentionalist is always keen to elide the distinction, to claim the power of naïve intentional idioms as the power of their theoretical posits… a clear cut equivocation.

    To be blunt, Blind Brain Theory can explain this strange dichotomy. It can explain why naïve intentional idioms (‘folk psychology’) possess the power they do, as well as why philosophical attempts to theorize intentionality come and go. And in doing so it generates the question I challenge any intentionalist to answer: *Why should we think intentional cognition lies within ‘solution space’ of intentional cognition?* Given that its power lies in producing reliable solutions despite neglecting data regarding what’s going on, why should we expect it will be able to tell us what’s actually going on?

    The fact is that the miasma that is intentional philosophy is pretty much *exactly what we should expect* from theoretical applications of intentional cognition to intentional cognition.

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    • Yep, its the old adage of do we throw the baby out with the wash, or do we just keep changing the water. Philosophers keep changing the water while the baby gets waterlogged.

      In some ways your asking the same questions as many speculative realists and materialists, but from a different viewpoint: that of a linguistic toolset built out of current neuroscientific and skeptical traditions. The point being that if consciousness is blind to its own neglect, its circular logic bound to the minimal set of data the brain allows it to have to perform its evolutionary programs. Why do philosophers think that can step outside this circle and speak of these processes as if they were independent of the very mind that is already trapped in a neglect machine? Obviously Kant and the German idealists couldn’t… the phenonmenologists couldn’t… and now a new group following Badiou, Meillassoux and any number of other speculative realists and materialist are trying to do it again. Is Kant right: are we trapped in the box without outlet, bound to the limited horizon of our linguistic and inbuilt structures that structure our thoughts determinately through the brain’s own processes to which we will never have direct access; or, can we through math or some other technique – neurosciences use of physical apparatuses (i.e., imaging systems, et. al) ultimately going to build a path toward knowledge independent of consciousness and our evolutionary limitations?

      If I’ve read you right then the use of these independent apparatuses will eventually lead us to this independence of knowledge, or knowledge without the human; or, an inhuman knowledge that will reveal what consciousness being blind to the very processes of its own evolutionary survival mechanisms will never have direct access nor indirect access too. In other words we will never through our own human thought attain this, but through the independent registers of external agencies we will reveal the hidden vectors of knowledge that human consciousness because of its evolutionary limitations could never ever do on its own.

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      • And this is the stuff that David describes best, I think, when he ruminates on the possibility of post-propositional communicative intelligence and the like.

        But there’s a sense in which characterizing finitude in terms of the epistemological dilemma reinscribes the problematic too traditionally, I think. Sure, we are a speck in possible intelligence/consciousness space. But our continuity with the universe also makes us very, very, very big. I just think that whatever metaphor we apply at this level of description has to be viewed as tentative, as way to prime various directions of thought more than anything else.

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      • Isn’t that the point: since we neglect more than we know, our descriptions will always be tentative rather than fixed. Why? Because reality is incomplete rather than completed, an ongoing process that through our dialectical probing discovers in the obstacles and paradoxes that cannot be neatly resolved into our linguistic structures the truth in excess of our descriptions. Or, to use Shelley’s notion “Language is fossil poetry.” Instead even as the sciences uncover new processes and need new descriptive tools to describe them we see how language rather than some fixed set is instead an open set of possibles. In this way even we are incomplete projects that can never be fully described. And, as David is suggesting our posthuman progeny whether of biological or cyborg or transhuman experimentation will be a rupture that like us transcends the very matrix of possibilities that we might envision. His disconnect thesis implies this. So that what ever type of communicative intelligence arises it might never even bridge the gap to us, but rather treat us like we treat our uncommunicative cousins the apes and gorillas. The point of this is that it takes the last vestiges of ‘exceptionalism’ and pulls the rug on it from the human project.

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      • Very eloquently put! Tentativeness is always a matter of degree, of course, but it goes all the way down–this is why the Pessimistic Induction causes fits in debates regarding scientific realism. But intentional dichotomies like ‘appearance/reality’ are simplifying assumptions, ways to solve any number of practical issues, yet bound to jam gears once the questions demand high dimensional answers.

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      • Absolutely! Obviously for me philosophy must take off its gloves and enter the arena, step down into the street again, become a living breathing part of the furniture of life rather than an Analytical or Continental Academic game show for the elite.

        In some ways this is why I like Zizek’s style, not that I wholeheartedly agree with his philosophical system or concepts but that he doesn’t mind getting dirty, dipping down into the cultural world of the streets where real people live and die and speak to them on their level; or, at least tries to in certain of his works. Obviously other of his works are for the philosophical crowd and those who know … know. But scientists do the same thing… some speak to vast majority of us idiots, while others use all the scientific jargon and speak to each other.

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