R. Scott Bakker: BBT Defined

Over the years reading through many of the posts on Three Pound Brain I’ve searched for a succinct definition of what Scott’s Blind Brain Theory is and came across this one which seems to both summarize and define his stance in a clarified and presentable manner for a lay person:

The aim of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) is to rough out the ‘logic of neglect’ that underwrites ‘error consciousness,’ the consciousness we think we have. It proceeds on the noncontroversial presumption that consciousness is the product of some subsystem of the brain, and that, as such, it operates within a variety of informatic constraints. It advances the hypothesis that the various perplexities that bedevil our attempts to explain consciousness are largely artifacts of these informatic constraints. From the standpoint of BBT, what we call the Hard Problem conflates two quite distinct difficulties: 1) the ‘generation problem,’ the question of how a certain conspiracy of meat can conjure whatever consciousness is; and 2) the ‘explanandum problem,’ the question of what any answer to the first problem needs to explain to count as an adequate explanation. Its primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience. It argues that philosophy of mind needs to keep its dire informatic straits clear: once you understand that we make similar informatic frame-of-reference (IFR) errors regarding consciousness as we are prone to make in the world, you acknowledge that we might be radically mistaken about what consciousness is. (see: Logic of Neglect)

Even back in 2012 he emphasized that the “primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience“.

Zizek in a discourse on Lacan once defined the “Real”  in the Lacanian sense as the construction of a point that does not actually exist … but that, nonetheless, must be presupposed in order to legitimate our position through negative reference to the other, by distancing ourselves.1 This sense of a gap and a distancing go together in the above statement. Nietzsche from such early books as The Gay Science shows distance to be an important feature of thought, in the first place as a necessary condition for attaining an adequate view of a given phenomenon, but also as a template for our view of ourselves and of human character in general. An individual’s character, Nietzsche contends, tends to look better when viewed from a position of distance.2

The gap or hole in our knowledge of consciousness, our inability to provide an explanation that is adequate, or to actually present a description which can inform us of what it is has become manifest in this game of distancing and, one might add – fear of every discovering an answer. There seems to be a  hole, an empty space in our knowledge. Scott says we should begin with this lack in our knowledge, the traumatic emptiness around which the signifying process articulates itself. What we experience in the problem of explaining consciousness is this logic of lack and neglect that everyone fears but no one addresses. As Scott puts it in the blog post we may be “[r]adically mistaken about everything, in fact”. A sort of horror vacui.

As he suggests bound to our singular perspectives, trapped on mother earth and confined to our ecological niche we find ourselves “informatically encapsulated, stranded with insufficient information and limited cognitive resources”. This is just the state of being an evolutionary creature whose very existence over time produced certain cognitive ecologies that allowed for survival and propagation but neglected other features and possibilities. For Scott the whole trend in current consciousness research as well as the Philosophy of Mind is chasing a rabbit down the wrong hole because as he forever reminds us the “consciousness we think we have, that we think we need to explain, quite simply does not exist”. This impossible object is a fiction of both the philosophers and scientists, and the truth lies elsewhere and distant.

That most of the brain’s operations are outside the purview of consciousness, and that we as consciously aware being have no direct access to these operations (38 trillion a second), then maybe instead of asking what consciousness is we might better ask what was the problem the brain sought fit to bring such a process into play to begin with. What is consciousnesses use value to the brain? In the economics of brain efficiency why did consciousness arise to begin with? Accident? Purposeful need and necessity as a mediator tool for the brain in its interactions with the external environmental ecologies within which it found itself? What evolutionary processes brought such awareness into being, and allowed for such symbolic adaptation as language and culture, etc.. As Scott informs us one “of the most striking things about all the little perplexities that plague consciousness research is the way they can be interpreted in terms of informatic deprivation, as the result of our cognitive systems accessing too little information, mismatched information, or partial information”. In other words we make guesses and create symbolic systems of meaning out of a hodge-podge of fantasy and fiction to explain what we neglect and call this knowledge. What does this tell you about knowledge? That it is a grand fiction built out of a consensual agreement among humans over time who have forgotten that it is for the most part inadequate, partial, and fantastic. We are all fantasy writers at heart, creating truth out of neglect, lacking the very access to the information needed to define even the simplest experiences of our everyday life.

One of the problems faced by both philosopher and scientist both is as Scott restates it, that lacking “informatic access to the neural precursors of conscious experience, deliberative cognition finds itself on a strange kind of informatic treadmill”. Which like the post-structuralist dilemma of such thinkers as Jacques Derrida binds us to the treadmill of an interminable and undecidable trace of an impossible object. Why? Because we can never get outside ourselves or our linguistic heritage in symbolic thought or mathematical relations to inform us from some distant Archimedean point either external or internal to the object in question. We are part of the very frame within which this whole complex of problems is traced. Like treading some fabulous Mobius strip we keep revolving on the surface and horizon not knowing that the very thing we’re chasing is the path itself. Neither given nor incipit to the demarcations of our mind we invent out of a tissue of sincere lies a fiction and present it as truth.

Maybe we will always lack the information to explain consciousness, but in the meantime we can produce better problematic questions and scrape the list of errors from our tool-sets. Cognitive bias seems to be that every apparent problem that haunts all thought and science. We tend to side with our favorite fictions and disparage all other johnny-be-lately comers to the party. And if we tell all involved that every last thread of our supposed knowledge is just a tissue of sincere lies they look askance at us and shake their heads as if this poor soul should be locked away in silence in some asylum for lost ideas.

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan (Kindle Locations 176-178). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lovibond, Sabina. Nietzsche on Distance, Beauty, and Truth (Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2014)

2 thoughts on “R. Scott Bakker: BBT Defined

  1. ha I thought the book had finally arrived, nice summary, this “Maybe we will always lack the information to explain consciousness, but in the meantime we can produce better problematic questions and scrape the list of errors from our tool-sets. Cognitive bias seems to be that every apparent problem that haunts all thought and science.” is pretty much what modern science/engineering has been about (if you ignore the sales hype and science cults that most academic researchers are socialized into), it’s really one black box after another the real bugger as you note are the cog-biases but people seem to want something more operatic to be at work in our undoings, perhaps “dark” just notes our blind-spots and not something literally chthonic as much as that makes for good entertainment.

    Liked by 2 people

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