Digital Dionysus: R. Scott Bakker

Reading R. Scott Bakker’s essay in The Digital Dionysus: Nietzsche and the Network-Centric Condition (ed., Dan Mellamphy, Nandita Biswas Mellamphy). I keep thinking to myself how Scott truly is a thinker of one thought, a thought that has become monomaniacal in his life: the notion that for all our knowledge, our philosophies, we are little more than creatures of absolute neglect – error prone, biased, and bound within a circular world of ignorance and delusion, creatures whose evolutionary history is shrouded in the mystery and origins of the Mind. And, yet, for all our knowledge we are still ignorant of the one thing we seek beyond all other things: what is this thing we are, do we have a soul, and – above all do we even exist: is this thing we are anything more than a linguistic construct, a fool’s game for philosophy or the sciences? For Scott the answer resides in the dilemma of intentionality. Since Kant we’ve been looping in a false infinity of questions concerning the Mind, Self, and Consciousness.

His defense of the sciences, especially of the neurosciences seems more of a continued search for a skeptical faith beyond skepticism – a sought for certainty that his one thought will prove its absolute integrity in the end, putting his own skeptical and ironizing self to sleep for good.  As he states it:

We now know that only a fraction of the estimated 38,000 trillion operations per second processed by the brain finds its way to consciousness. This means that experience, all experience, is profoundly privative, a simplistic caricature of otherwise breathtakingly complex processes. (p. 156).

It’s this privative character of our knowledge that fascinates and disturbs Scott. Our reliance on knowledge is borne of our absolute ignorance and neglect rather than any true understanding of ourselves or reality. For millennia philosophers have repeated for the most part the same gestures, the same routes between ignorance and knowledge. In this essay Scott gives us a peak at his early growth as a thinker and questioner of this problem. As a young man his interests in the sciences has led Scott at the early age of 14 to became a full blown nihilist. His confrontation with Descartes was crucial in forging his move to delve into the contemporary landscape of the anti-realists, especially the work of Jacques Derrida. As Scott says of Descartes attempt, given the collapse in confidence wrought by the new sciences of the seventeenth century, to place knowledge on a new, secure, subjective foundation. “Just who did the guy think he was fooling, really?” (p. 148)

Against the dualism and subjective foundation of knowledge grounded in Descartes famous: “I think, therefore I am,” Scott would return to Nietzsche’s notions of an impersonal agency at the core of our inhuman being concluding that the thing that thinks is an “it” – that “it” thinks rather than there being any sense of Self/Subject. In this sense Scott following Nietzsche displaces the notion of agency into the unconscious functions of the brain itself:

Even though we like to think our thoughts come from our prior thoughts, which is to say, from ourselves, the merest reflection shows this cannot be the case, that each thought is dropped into consciousness from the outside, and that hence the “I” is born after the fact. (p. 148)

The “I” is a retroactive thought-form, a trick of our interpellation of our ignorance and access to the actual state-of-affairs of the brain’s hidden processes. Having no access to the brain’s dark hinterlands we assume it is we who think, that we have a Self-Soul. After reading Sartre’s reformulation of the cogito in Being and Nothingness, combined with his readings of Nietzsche, Scott would reformulate Descartes foundational gesture with one of his own, saying: “it thinks, therefore I was” (p. 148). This acknowledgement of thought as being pre-processed in the brain, and our receiving it after the fact as historical data rather than present thinking makes of us mere passive recipients of this process rather than active agents. This gesture against free will and the culpability of our philosophical heritage would from that point forward come to play a major part in Scott’s quest to displace philosophy with the sciences as foundational for any future thought concerning the human condition.

Yet, all of this would come much later for Scott after entering university was confronted with the legacy of new French thought which in that era was bound to the post-structuralist world of Derrida’s deconstructionism of the Western metaphysical tradition of “presence”. Scott by the age of 28 would become both a disciple and fellow laborer in that heritage, having displaced his early nihilist proclivities and anti-intentionalist stance with a full tilt Heideggerian phenomenological intentionality. At the height of his powers and triumphant in his belief in the efficacy of philosophy he would meet a young student who like his younger self was a nihilist. Scott would take it upon himself to convert this young man to his new found faith in post-structuralist philosophy. The young man would hear him out, let me speak of Heidegger to Derrida only asking for details of this or that specific concept or idea from time to time. At the end the young man would answer Scott’s summons to repent his ways and become a convert to the post-structuralist cause, saying:  “Well, that despite the fact that philosophy hasn’t resolved any matter with any reliability ever, and, despite the fact that science is the most powerful, reliable, theoretical claim-making institution in human history, you’re still willing to suspend your commitment to scientific implications on the basis of prior commitments to philosophical claims about science and this… ontological difference.”

Bakker was taken aback, stunned by this observation, and would hem-and-haw, mumbling about this and that argument in Heidegger or Derrida etc., but in the end he admitted defeat: “outside the natural sciences there was no way short of exhaustion or conspiracy to end the regress of interpretation” (p. 149). Of course at the heart of most post-structuralist thought was the aporia, the knot of difference (Derrida proclaims that today, more than ever, “this predilection [for paradox and aporia] remains a requirement.) – a black hole in rhetoric and discursive thought that opened up an abyss or irony and skepticism. For Derrida there were three such aporias: “the epoche of the rule,” “the ghost of the undecidable,” and “the urgency that obstructs the horizon of knowledge”: at the heart of this paradoxical situation is that nothing can ever be decided definitively, everything is tentative and under the suspicion of the impossible; and, yet, one must decide, one must invent the possible therefore one chooses in ignorance, one decides. This is why in Western thought Justice is Blind. Under this notion of the undecidable is this suspicion that there is no foundation, no ground, no end to the endless questioning, no place of rest for the weary philosopher king in his gestures to make closure on knowledge. Instead there is only the bitter and endless dialectic of philosophy itself in its eternal contamination of generation after generation wandering in the useless loops and circuits of ignorance and neglect. For these philosophers nothing could ever be known for certain, only the endless uncertainty of irony and skepticism without end.

This realization awakened Bakker out of his dogmatic stupor: “So, back to the “bullshit” it was. I should have known. After all, I had only spent fourteen years repeating myself.” (p. 150) Ultimately this would lead him to disconnect from philosophy, say goodbye to the intentional stance and reenter the fold of those who offer commitment to the sciences rather than the “folk psychology” of an outmoded heritage in metaphysics and speculation: “Though we cannot yet say what a given experience “is,” we can say that the final answer, like so many answers provided by science, will lie far outside the pale of our intuitive preconceptions—perhaps incomprehensibly so.” (p. 156)