R. Scott Bakker: Medial Neglect and Black Boxes

In some ways Scott Bakker’s short post Intentional Philosophy as the Neuroscientific Explananda Problem succinctly shows us the central problem of our time: medial neglect. But what is medial neglect? The simplest explanation is that we are blind to the very internal processes that condition our very awareness of ourselves, our conscious mind. Scott’s point is that no one, not philosophers, not neuroscientists, no one can agree as to why this should be? No one can explain what consciousness is – much less how it emerges from the physical substratum of our brain. Philosophers of Mind have battled over the extremes of pure reductive physicalism (Davidson, etc.) and its opposite the irreductive world of the mind/body dualism of a Descartes. Yet, for all our advances in neuroscience and the technological breakthroughs in brain scan imaging, etc. we still cannot explain this indefinite terrain between brain and consciousness. Not that many have not tried. Opening my library or my e-book reader I have hundreds of books, journals, and publications devoted to just this one subject alone. (Yes, I’m a bibliomaniac, an endless, restless reader of anything and everything… madness? perhaps…)

Of course over time some explanations have through sheer numbers and probabilistic accuracy or clarity taken on a more positive – or negative – ability to narrow our margins onto this difficult problem. There have been for some time in the contemporary intellectual scene two options for understanding the relationship of consciousness and world—their dynamic interconnectivity and unity in phenomenological accounts of the lived body or the outright rejection of the importance of lived first-person experience as a mere epiphenomenal effect due to the mechanical movement of nature or the structures guiding discourse, both of which comprise a disavowal of the primordial self-reflexive ipseity of the subject. The notion of the Cartesian cogito (Subject) opened up a basic metaphysical truth of subjectivity by presenting a world where “the mind and body are, so to speak, negatively related—oppositional discord is, obviously, a form of relation.” (Zizek) But the sciences look for hard evidence to support such metaphysical claims, and when they cannot be found then everything sits there in limbo where it has remained for a few hundred years.

Philosophy cannot prove its case, but neither has science been able too either. Is there a solution? Of course, my friend Scott, sees this as both part of the problem and a pointer to its solution, saying, “Here’s what I think is a productive way to interpret this conundrum.”:

Generally what we want is a translation between the manipulative and the communicative. It is the circuit between these two general cognitive modes that forms the cornerstone of what we call scientific knowledge. A finding that cannot be communicated is not a finding at all. The thing is, this—knowledge itself—all functions in the dark. We are effectively black boxes to ourselves. In all math and science—all of it—the understanding communicated is a black box understanding, one lacking any natural understanding of that understanding.

For Scott if it isn’t reduced to scientific naturalism its fairly well useless, all metaphysical statements to the contrary. So what about that? Is scientific naturalism the last word in knowledge? To ask such a question is to fall off a cliff and enter an abyss we might not want to enter, like opening a can of worms and finding a nest of asps instead: a deadly business, indeed.

But isn’t that just it, isn’t scientific naturalism itself bound to certain philosophical principles, axioms, propositions, methods: the whole litany of concepts that restrict and delimit the scope and horizon of scientific endeavor? Isn’t it a steeped in philosophical bric-a-brac, concepts, frames of reference and inference? Isn’t scientific naturalism itself a directed form of inquiry and form of thought bound by certain rules and limits? A form of rational statement and reduction to only natural sense datum: a form of empirical facticity that regulates what can be thought or not, what counts for truth or not? In fact, Scott acknowledges as much, saying,

What neuroscience is after, of course, is a natural understanding of understanding, to peer into the black box. They want manipulations they can communicate, actionable explanations of explanation. The problem is that they have only heuristic, low-dimensional, cognitive access to themselves: they quite simply lack the metacognitive access required to resolve interpretive disputes, and so remain incapable of formulating the explananda of neuroscience in any consensus commanding way. In fact, a great many remain convinced, on intuitive grounds, that the explananda sought, even if they could be canonically formulated, would necessarily remain beyond the pale of neuroscientific explanation.

As he says our conundrum is that the object we seek to know, is itself the subject that knows, and knower and known cannot enter and close the gap on such a transparent dilemma: the two cannot come together because what is needed for knowledge is a distance from the very processes as well as a black box closeness that is essentially impossible, since the tool and its object are one and the same: identical pieces on the far side of a Mobius strip that can never touch or meet. This self-reflexive consciousness is unable to chase its own tail. So we follow the circle not realizing it is in fact a Mobius strip and we are like those flatlanders living on a two-dimensional grid when we need to be the refined citizens of the fourth dimension. Or, as Scott states it the “low-dimensionality of the information begets underdetermination, underdetermination begets philosophy, philosophy begets overdetermination. The idioms involved become ever more plastic, more difficult to sort and arbitrate. Crash space bloats. In a sense, intentional philosophy simply is the neuroscientific explananda problem, the florid consequence of our black box souls.”

mri

I sometimes think we might develop for the brain/consciousness dilemma what we did for software development: black-box testing. Of course that’s pretty much what neuroscientists do when they test a subject while at the same time reading the live data out of an imaging system and compare the functional comport between the testable problem and the result enacted by the test subject. One never has direct access to the brain itself, a black box lump of three pounds of opaque meat. What one has is indirect access to certain re-presentations, images, scans, live-feedback digitalized videos of the processes as filtered, programed, encoded, coded/decoded into mathematical objects that are translated into the interpretable systems of pixels we’re all familiar with on a computer screen. This real time testing is in some ways following the same pattern: Specific knowledge of the brain’s code/internal structure and execution or programmatic knowledge in general is not required. The tester is aware of what the brain/mind is supposed to do but is not aware of how it does it. For instance, the tester is aware that a particular input returns a certain, invariable output but is not aware of how the brain produces the output in the first place. So that envisioning the image and the result in live time offers a window upon the physical input/output routines of the experimental test procedures. Test cases are built around specifications and requirements, i.e., what the application is supposed to do. Test cases are generally derived from external descriptions of the brain/consciousness, including specifications, requirements and functional parameters. Although the tests used are primarily functional in nature, non-functional tests may also be used. The test designer selects both valid and invalid inputs and determines the correct output, often with the help of an live-data or a previous result that is known to be good, without any knowledge of the test object’s internal brain structure. Ultimately it will be this scientific approach using heuristics, real-time imaging, and black-box testing techniques that will build up over time an accurate assemblage or mapping of the causal/execution sequences and time invariant asymmetrical relations between brain/mind or show that the mind is an illusion and the brain along is the be all end-all of this theoretic-praxis system. We know it has to be one or the other: either dualism or physicalism; or, some dialectical interoperation of varying gradient levels and dimensions of interaction and relation in-between.

Maybe something like OOO’s sense of real / sensual objects. In this we ever only have direct access to the sensual through qualia or profiles, yet under the hood of the sensual (appearance) lies the  volcanic realm of the real object – a void around which appearance revolves. We never have direct access to this object of the Real. Rather we must lure it out by way of sincerity; or, as I’ve suggested indirectly through experiment and understanding its “effects” on the live-data imaging systems in real time.  For as Nietzsche once said “There are no facts, only interpretations.” And, as we study these sequences or objects in real time and experiment and understand the effects of the brain imprinted on this objects we shall better interpret them and accumulate the patterns of the underlying functions and begin constructing a functional map of the brain. Žižek calls it the self-reflecting nothingness of the Subject as Substance (Hegel), etc. This recursive emptiness that is the supposed transcendental field of the empty set out of which our illusions of fantasies of ego, etc. emerge: a projection system of the virtual interior of that actual brain’s processes cleverly disguised in the transcription and translation into the Symbolic Order of language and culture. One might think of the capture of the self-as-identity within the Symbolic Order as the traces we leave scattered across our encounter everyday, traces we leave in transactions, credit cards, signatures, pictures, selfies, all part of that imaginary identity that roams and circulates in the web of relations, networks, internet, etc. Think about what is stolen in identity-theft: it’s your Symbolic Self, your fictional self tracked and traced among all the socio-cultural objects where you have left a piece of you fantasy self and identity. So what gets stripped from you is all these socio-cultural artifacts: bank accounts, credit, good name, etc. Once your Symbolic self is affected by this criminalization you become lost among the legal and governmental Laws. For some it can take years to regain one’s Symbolic Identity once it has been stolen and criminalized, leaving you in the black hole of Order stripped of your legal and secure life as a physical not symbolic being. Or think of those who have been erased accidently from the government systems, accidently declared dead. Losing their benefits, their source of security, proof of citizenship, and any sense of support from the Symbolic Order. There have been cases of people caught in this limbo taking years to regain their identities, social security, pensions, or names and identities within the Order. One can become essentially a non-person, erased, non-existing to the very Symbolic Order and system of external imaginary as if one did not exist. As CNN reported recently:

Of the approximately 2.8 million death reports the Social Security Administration receives per year, about 14,000 — or one in every 200 deaths — are incorrectly entered into its Death Master File, which contains the Social Security numbers, names, birth dates, death dates, zip codes and last-known residences of more than 87 million deceased Americans. That averages out to 38 life-altering mistakes a day. While these errors occur online, in the depths of the administration’s database, they have a very real impact on the people who have effectively been declared dead. “Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination, cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals, and result in the publication of living individuals’ [personal identifying information] in the [Death Master File],” the Inspector General said in its most recent evaluation of the database. (see here)

In the above scenario one is nothing more than one’s data, an electronic footprint in the web of information spread across the invisible dimension of the socio-cultural and ideological screen of an external systems of tracking’s and traces: the distributed organization of your life in an imaginary mirror outside your body. What Badiou will call the truth of beings as bodies and languages. One is not just a body, but a part of that Symbolic Order of language and socio-cultural relations. As Zizek speaking of the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy says:

 What, then, is the Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject doesn’t speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, i.e. on account of which the final outcome of his activity is always something else with regard to what he aimed at or anticipated. (Cogito, Madness and Religion: Derrida, Foucault and then Lacan © lacan.com 1997/2007)

This illusion of self born of the symbolic and its idealistic frames of cultural interaction with memory and time, etc. catches us between the very real processes of the brain and the calculated and impersonal forces of the Symbolic Order: bound between manipulations and communicative systems within and without that we neither control nor have knowledge, yet who form the powers that shape what little consciousness we have, blind though it be within the medial neglect of ignorance.

Of course as the neuroscientists hone down the rhetoric and extrapolate from sense datum rather than the imaginary of speculation a more accurate account will eventually come about, and philosophy following science as one of its conditions will retroactively construct out of the neuroscientific image a conceptual framework for enframing this image into a more accurate conceptual map of the brain, society, and the symbolic web of lies and fictions we are all trapped in, and thereby bring it into that other fiction of philosophy: Truth.

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
– ‘On truth and lie in an extra-moral sense,’ Nietzsche

Slavoj Žižek tell us the divide between our world of experience and the mechanisms of the natural world does not proclaim the irrelevance of the latter for our understanding of human subjectivity in face of the pure power of scientific explanatory models, their efficacy and statistical guarantee, as perhaps various representatives of phenomenological psychiatry or even neuroscientific community would advocate. On the contrary, according to Žižek, these models adequately describe the Real of our lives with a rigorous vigor and precision never before imaginable by penetrating into the true ontologico-foundational basis of experience. Žižek criticizes attempts to respond to the threat announced by neuroscience that merely assert the irreducible character of the subject, seeing instead the only feasible way to find a solution being to “develop one approach to its extreme, radically abstracting from the other—to develop the logic of brain science, for instance, at its purest.” The question is how a parallax gap could emerge from within the self-regulated biochemical and electrical activity inside the skull, how “the ‘mental’ itself explodes within the neuronal through a kind of ‘ontological explosion.’”1

The point here is why did this thing, consciousness ever arise to begin with, what were the conditions that gave rise to it, what were the very real biochemical physical problems that allowed the organism we term human to develop such a black box as awareness. We hear so many in the sciences that want to do away with consciousness, to minimalize it, to reduce it to this or that natural mode of computation or functionalism which seem to try to explain it away rather than explain it for itself. As if consciousness should fall back into oblivion and become a part of the physical deterministic appendage of the brain. The brain out of which it originated as part of some problem solving toolkit between the environment and our physical survival mechanisms. Since for many the very notion of our ignorance, the fictional nature of our basic illusions, those we hold about consciousness as some exception to the natural, are in fact illusions of this very black box in which we think and perceive and believe we are guided by some central agency we term the Self-Subject. This is nothing new, the acid bath of skepticism, nihilism, and scientific physicalist, elminativist, and naturalist perspectives and endeavors that have for two-hundred years performed their careful elision of the Subject as a First Person Singular substance have given us this empty cargo hanger full of content without a Self. Yet, most of us common people, or what certain philosophers and scientists derisively call the “folk psychological” many are still guided by our older metaphysical, religious, and rational mythologies. So we’re back to the old divide between two-cultures Snow spoke of in the fifties: the scientists with their expert knowledge and tools – their “scientific image” (Sellars), and the many, with their “folk psychologies” and their illusive immersion in the Symbolic Order of the big Other (Lacan-Zizek). Or we condemned to live this out forever. Is ignorance our home? And, do these so-called keepers of the “scientific image” actually have what they claim to have: scientific knowledge? Or, is this – oh no… a nice fiction, too. A sort of elite one-upmanship of those who want to keep their power above the lowly masses, keep their specialized knowledge of math, technology, and biopower?

If we are truly ignorant and blind to the fact of our deep and abiding ignorance, our medial neglect and blindness; and all the touted knowledge we’ve accumulated is in fact a source of endless error and ignorance then are we forever condemned to wander in this black box of opaque indifference? Isn’t that the real problem for the 21st Century? Until we can agree upon a new framework and scientific vocabulary, a end to the debates of computation, functionalism, or whatever other brand of the day to use as a description of these processes comes along; until we can agree on an approach, a conceptual frame of reference within which to couch our manipulative and communicative efforts we will wander in a maze without outlet. But the sciences are for the most part busy with the empirical data. Should we trust scientists to build the House of Conceptuality within which the rest of us will believe in their fictions of truth? Or is that not the truth of philosophy to provide the theoretical and practical framework within which the scientists themselves can begin to relate to each other and the rest of us the good news of their endeavors? Will we discover after all that there is still a reason for reasoning, and that as Badiou has been suggesting for a while that we begin to restrict philosophy to the conditions of philosophy that are its pertinent prerequisite: science, art, love, and politics?

Of course those such as Zizek continue to point towards the subject being more than the matter it inhabits, insofar as the symbolic structures constituting psychic life display a quasi-absolute degree of freedom from purely naturalistic activity, the psychoanalytical experience proclaims that these two zones must resist, must be in perpetual conflict with, one another, so that the structure of psychoanalytical subjectivity is brought close to an archaic form of modern dualism while calling for a radical reconfiguration of the latter’s split between mind and body. And, as Carew states it:

Žižek’s attempt to think materialism and idealism requires a far-reaching remodulation of the logical conjunctive between the two into a form of psychotic non-relation, insofar as transcendentalism implies a kind of negative space isolated unto itself and alienated from external reality, an isolation that is simultaneously the logical structure of normal and pathological subjective reality. But what exactly is this disjunctive “and”? Žižek’s answer is unequivocal: the place of non-coincidence between mind and body, the break or rupture between these two zones of independent activity, is nothing but the subject itself, where the subject is transformed from a mere transcendental epistemological construct grounded through concerns in a theory of knowledge into some kind of self-positing negativity in material being, a bone in substance forever holding apart materialism and idealism. (OC, p. 65)

But my friend Scott as sceptic and naturalist would see all this blather of speculative philosophy, materialist or not as just so much metaphysical backwater, a nod to the lost objects of philosophy that are no longer pertinent to the work at hand in the neurosciences. So who is right? Is there room for dialogue? Scott opts out, saying with many during the last century that philosophy is mute, a dead still-born system of “folk psychological” reason and mystification best left in the realms of fantasy novelists. And, true to his word, his own fantasy trilogies enact the very truth of this whole sordid business leading to what he terms the Semantic Apocalypse.

For Zizek we are caught and absorbed into the Symbolic Order early on in childhood, language more of a word virus (Burroughs) infesting our physical systems, bringing about that strange and lethal separation and “vanishing mediator” between the brain and the Real – the Subject as Substance: the impasses obstructing the self-grounding  idealization of the world demonstrate that, although we are forever stuck within ideality, we are not simply prisoners of the completely solipsistic sphere of the self-referential, masturbatory play of thought within thought and that a metaphysics of the Real, an account of the noumenal, appears to be theoretically possible. (OC, p. 81) In which as Carew’s remarks:

The inassimilable kernel of the Real within our notional, symbolic code points to the paradoxical negative coinciding of inside with outside, the Real and the Ideal, within thinking: the cracks of ideality cast an abyssal shadow that opens up onto the materiality of being, albeit only as refracted through the impossibilities of the Ideal, in such a way that tarrying with the latter offers a way to develop idealism into a science of the Real. (OC, p. 81)

So that the question in dialectical terms becomes for Zizek: “What is the Symbolic’s relation to the pre-symbolic  Real?” Scott would say this is a question for the neurosciences to answer, for Zizek philosophy. The war goes on. As Carew will state it:

The Real sans fissure and the noumenon represent a compensation for the impossibility of an intimate experience of the Real within the Symbolic by claiming that, outside the reach of this synthetic (re)constitution of reality, it can still be said to persist in a state lacking contradiction and antagonism. It safeguards us from the realization that the Real itself is morcelé: it does not merely get itself into traps, producing monsters that disrupt the flow of knowledge in the Real by making the latter howl under ontological pain… (OC, p. 93)

In a previous essay Hyper-Chaos, Thermospasm and Aion: On the Temporal Philosophies of Meillassoux, Land and Deleuze we come to know the Real as Time’s Kingdom, the pre-ontological time of hyper-Chaos (Meillassoux), Thermospasm (Land), and Aion (Deleuze):

“Time is not governed by physical laws because it is the laws itself that are governed by mad Time.”.– Quentin Meillassoux

“The thermospasm is reality as undiluted chaos. It is where we all
came from.”
– Nick Land

“Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out into a straight line.” – Gilles Deleuze

As Zizek will say it: “The Real – the over-abundant obscene-morbid vitality of the primordial…,” the Virtual as against the Actual: So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. ( Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1738-1746). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

So why mention all this? For the simple reason that our brains are the complex physical system within us that over the course of evolutionary empirical trial and error learned to filter the Real Virtuality (forms/Ideas/objects/things/entities), and transform or translate it into the Symbolic Order and artificial systems of signification by which we navigate the sea of hyper-chaos, thermospasm, or Aion around us. The long road to reason or consciousness – the two seemingly bound to each other, is this struggle within the ‘night of the World’. Yet, we take the Symbolic Order of signs, meaning, and the actual to be everything, the end-all, be-all of our world, and assume wrongly that through philosophy and the sciences we can reduce this phenomenal realm of sense-data and translated information we receive from the brain as everything, when in fact it is but the tip of the ice-berg, and what we think we know is but a miniscule representation, an abstraction out of and into the reductions of our translated world. Or, as Scott irreverently tells us we are “blind to the fact of our being blind,” and what we think we know is but the ignorance of our lack of real knowledge. Cut off in a false world of semblances we live like children in Plato’s Cave, but with a difference: the Virtual is not some separate realm outside our ontological catastrophe, but the very Real of our immediate ontological world in which we live and die.

Well, as we are situated now, the debates are hot and heavy over this battle for / against philosophy and its continuance within the Academy. We’ll have to await the verdict of time on such matters as these… my bet is that as Badiou has suggested the sciences are one of the conditions of philosophy, and that philosophy constructs the platforms of manipulation and communication that bridge the gap between the expert specialization of the sciences, and the general intellect and intelligence of the public. In that sense the Agora is the site where the two realms must come to terms and begin once again speaking in open dialogue and debate rather than monologues of solipsistic and narcissistic self-reflection. The sciences of course are the ultimate victors in this battle, being the out ahead in their investigations into the Real; yet, even as philosophy retroactively constructs out of science its conceptual frames and enframes these into communicative truth for public consumption (even if those conceptual purveyors are scientists using natural of folk psychological language), we are beginning to see that things are changing and that philosophy is no longer the Queen she once was even if she still seeks to hold to that grand illusion. In a post-phenomenal age where the intentionalism that has driven us on, and direct our gaze toward the unknown or conditions of science, art, love, or politics we are learning to realign these toward problems our forbears were not aware of.

For a more in depth and humorous inquiry read Scott Bakker’s essay Alien Philosophy.


  1. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)

7 thoughts on “R. Scott Bakker: Medial Neglect and Black Boxes

  1. I suspect the magnitude of the “known unknowns” of neuroscience is so vast that any speculation on the nature of the mind and the nature of the relationships among mind, brain and world is very much premature. I think Scott is right that the record of success science has had in destroying the intellectual legitimacy of pre-scientific modes of discourse bodes ill for philosophy of mind, but until we understand human brains well enough to build a working model I think the jury will have to remain out.

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  2. And here we are spinning our wheels, looking for semblances of rubber to gain some traction, and then attempt to flee or fight the forces that weigh down hard upon us. The one thing I keep barking about is the pragmatic value of asking the question “so what now?”, given that we are blind and dumb – YET we still desire to carve out an existenz in this wild. NOW WHAT?
    Surrounded in “darkness” we still seem to fashion some interesting gadgets and compose lives that don’t exactly follow the logic of the geist-less tumbling meat-machines that populate or passive-nostalgic horror stories. NOW WHAT?
    Scott is right about so many things but where in his “achieving correctness”, or precision of whistling semantics, does he make room for such things as ‘being right’ in a way that has consequences for us animals. If it is “true” that we are double blind then how do we know this to be “true”? And around we go again in circles trying to pin down a donkey that never really existed anyway.
    For me “now what?” is aberrant operator in the Symbolic matrix corroding that cyclical assemblage, eating away at whatever rushes in to fill the grooves of the previous system’s demise at the hand of the latest crafted negation.
    But the tarrying never stops. Never. We either evolve (in the original neutral sense) or we dwell in the dogmatic mode (doxa), clinging to our idols of Light as long as possible.
    The only thing I hear in the Night is the noise of human experience filling the wilderness with anthem of a nothingness that gives us nothing (and even less than nothing as we have seen), and so delays the project of going forth to forge new realities. Lives are built on the wailing but in the doing and becoming.

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