Current Events

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” – James Baldwin.

The penultimate quote which perfectly captures the surreal rage that it is to be Black in America. Consider now that people are passionately defending( again) their right to honor people that fought for the right to enslave Black people. Taking  down that garbage flag or the  statues of garbage people is some big deal, a psychic wound. We’re expected to debate this, to see things from their perspective: symbols of violence, declarations of allegiance to a  cause that would have us in bondage. Smashing them is not just a basic, somewhat banal act of decency.  Apparently, there is something serious and sacrosanct to discuss here.As it is, with Black Lives Matter. A declaration of  our basic humanity which is somehow, reinterpreted and experienced as a threat. Which really tells you all you need to know. 

Edit to add (6-14-2020):
Dave Chappele’s 8:46 says better than I ever could all I want to say on this subject. Watch it. Of particular interest are the bits concerning who made George Floyd a hero, the impunity assumed by police in general ( which is better seen/understood, as Dave explains, through the lens of the officers not involved directly but who are just standing there, hands in pocket, watching a murder happen) and the extended riff on Chris Donner ( a masterclass in storytelling with a gut punch at the end for those that still don’t get it).

Another great article is at The Root, by Michael Harriot. The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: The Evidence of Things Not Seen. All the better because it’s a mail bag, i.e he’s responding to the typical nonsense that is spewed on this subject from actual people who emailed him. The nonsense runs the usual gamut of victim blaming ( we’re responsible for racist violence) serious concern for property over Black lives, and the all too familiar background assumption that racism is only individual, not systemic. I applaud the man for even responding to it. You can read the originating article here for full context (great in it’s own right).

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“The literal, the metaphorical, and the price of semiotics: An essay on philosophy of language and the doctrine of signs”

This essay by John Deely is stupendous and I note it here to impel myself to write about it.  It’s simultaneously an an all out attack on both ‘Analytic Philosophy’  and Semiology ( the obsession with language in both) but in a way that incorporates them in a broader Semiotics. In other words, while Deely portrays his criticisms as sounding the death knell for an obsession with language, what he really does is delimit  the scope of the ‘obsession with language’ placing them properly into a broader Semiotics. His comments on the “arbitrariness of the sign” throughout  are a particular highlight.  If only Deely wrote  for the ‘common man’  and not his assumed audience of  specialists. His writing is taxing, frequently digressive – footnotes and brackets that can run half a page –  and highly technical ( the subject matter itself, not to mention the frequent use of Latin, Greek, and German terms, none of which, obviously,  I speak or read ). For all that, I’m making the effort and hope to record my thoughts here.

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BBT again…

A couple months ago Scott Bakker wrote a column for Scientia Salon about his Blind Brain theory. I’d written an extensive response but left it unpublished. Yet again, the issue has come up now on Ed Feser’s blog and Bakker’s site. I find Feser’s objections cogent ( that, ultimately, it is incoherent) and feel the need to post how I spelled this out for myself months ago. I have left out some extensive comments which I hope to post soon – namely showing decisively, I think, that Scott’s theory without the proper constraints is disastrous for Science itself. In this excerpt I was replying to Bakker’s example of Geocentrism being an indictment of metacognition. Obviously, I’ve made some minor edits to converse more directly with the current debate. Enjoy or not:

Why is “metacognition” as a type implicated in Geocentrism and not Scientific cognition? Many scientific theories are wrong and we would still consider them “Science” so why continue to try pin “meta-cognition” as different in kind? BBT’s theory of cognition (whatever it maybe) is too hermetically sealed – treating meta-cognition as if it exists independently and functions independently of scientific cognition. I don’t think this is the case. Cognition seems fundamentally open which is what allows for the understanding of counter intuitive or ‘intuitive’ theories and the all and sundry ways we cognize.

The attempt to operationalize the “blind-spots” in the case of BBT, i.e locate it in the brain as such trades too much on the notion of an asymmetry of conscious access and a too narrow conception of what Cognition is. I don’t think cognition can be bottled up like this. Blind-spots exist but then so do their discovery. If the process of discovery becomes inexplicable in light of the “explanation” or “cause” of the blind-spot that should give us pause. This is what happens with BBT.

Suppose I were to ask a man to measure a room. He tells me the room is 12 X 16 feet. But he says to me that the ruler he used to measure the room had no length and, in any case, is always wrong. This is ridiculous. Why would I trust his measurement? If “metacognition” is yoked to error due to neglect we’re in the position of measuring without a yardstick. If we decline charity and interpret this literally suggesting that only the man could be wrong not the ruler, it only furthers the point. If his cognition is operationally defunct he could never ascertain measurement in the first place.

This is not an argument that by virtue of reasoning one is implicated themselves in ‘intentional explanation’. I’m saying that whatever cognition is it cannot be blind in the sense of BBT. I’m not saying cognition is supernatural, magical, or unnatural (on the assumption that these terms are not simply tools of rhetoric – quite charitable!).

(1) BBT is an instance of metacognition. Scott even detailed how it is he came up with the theory – absolutely none of it being a detached, neuro-scientific description of the dance between neurons and action potential and clearly a reflection upon and not an example of neuroscience. All these terms “reflection” “history” and “neuroscience” are fairly well understood. It has not been shown or even argued that in order to ‘know’ these terms we must know their neuro-biology. Bakker himself has not given a neuro-biological account of his development of BBT [ preferring instead a typical, historical narrative concerning influences, debates and arguments] which is what he seems to require of the “intentionalists”. The charge of incoherence, without some sort of neurobiological account, apparently is “foot stomping” yet, amazingly, no neuroscientific papers have been given that explain BBT’s history.

If someone says “2+2 = 7” and they are corrected, if they respond that I’m question begging because nobody knows what numbers are, that in fact, I can only show them that 2+2=4 by adding and subtracting, which is merely a metacognitive ‘heuristic’ there is no point in debating. How does being a heuristic make the converse coherent? This pointlessness is only further exemplified if this person argues that until neuroscience shows that 2+2=4 we have no grounds for thinking so for one will naturally point to all the instances of counting in neuroscience and will be at a lost to imagine, how calling this “heuristics” means they will one day find out they didn’t count at all the number of pathogens to apply in experiment X or the percentage of participants that reacted to stimulant Y. “Counting” as they metacognize will turn out to be radically different even as they make use of it in their discoveries – the literal embodiment of a creature devouring itself.

(2) It is also claimed that BBT is an empirical theory and can be “tested.” But how is BBT tested? “Science” is not a telescope nor is “empirical” a fMRI. Both telescopes and fMRIs require metacognition in order to define (1) what problem they are to solve (2) to explain their results. The very formulation of BBT depends on being able to *think through the consequences* of what it means. It is a meta-cognition of a postulate: a blind brain. This *meta-cognition* as such is not automatically invalidated simply because it is meta-cognition ( this would be the tu quo que argument). Thus, “blindess” far from being intrinsic to meta-cognition ( the illusion of sufficiency) can be interpreted neutrally – it is neither obviously blind nor taken to be sufficient. Otherwise, why would anyone ever ask questions?

Another way of saying this is to say: Neglect cannot be the condition of cognition qua cognition. The question is always contextual: blind in relation to what? Neglect of what? Whatever it is, we are always stipulating an understanding of the relata – in BBT, the brain, first person experience, and ‘outside’ the brain, the environment. But with what? If the means by which I understand the relata is operationally defunct not only the answers but the questions become inexplicable. This is the charge of incoherence in a nutshell.

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John Deely on Postmodernity

Postmodernity begins at the moment that thinkers
decide to take seriously the notion that communication
is a part of reality, that intersubjectivity is something
real, and not simply an approximation that isolated
consciousnesses appear to achieve because the
mechanism of their minds is the same, and like causes
produce like effects.

I have some very scattered thoughts put together on Deely’s book Purely Objective Reality that I will post soon. In any case, I think this quote gets at the heart of what it means for Deely to be a postmodernist versus being ultramodern ( the title Deely gives to what is normally considered Postmodernism). While I think Deely is unfair to modern Philosophy in general, the important point is the conception itself. Communication as a fact of life, not something that is, in some detached sense, merely ‘inferred’, or a result of ‘mindreading’ or ‘simulation’; or something merely guessed at because of the arbitrariness of the sign or some such. It touches on an issue I have been thinking about: the order of explanation versus the order of nature. Whether or not this distinction can be made in a non-question-begging way is a question I’m trying to deal with. Regardless, I make the distinction for myself because of a nagging feeling that much of what we reconstruct experience as being is wrong-headed. We seem to start from illusions and then build successful communication as some sort of ratiocination, ‘inferences’ in the exact same sense as the very thinking that leads to such explanation – that is, our detached reasoning and abstractions become first in order and our experience is then explained as a kind of this very abstraction.

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The BBT and Performative Contradiction

Over at Footnotes2Plato, Matt made a post linking to Adam Robbert’s Noë and Uexküll: Ecology, Style, and Meaning on Knowledge Ecology. Scott’s response to Matt is in the comments and I’m re-posting my response to Scott here. The post is below – de-personalized a little and with some minor edits:

If I verbally state “I’m speaking French [in English]” and mean to claim that I am literally speaking French, it is a performative contradiction. If someone responds by pointing out that I’m speaking English, responding that they’ve begged the question because they have assumed that language exists and that I’m speaking English is ludicrous. You have spoken English.

That’s the simple part.

In effect Matt is asserting the opposite, explaining that you cannot say what you’re saying without first having a mind. In much the same sense that one could assert validly that you could not even say the English sentence “I’m speaking French” without speaking English. If Matt simply asserted that the mind exists as an immaterial entity, that it exists as a brute fact, QED. Then your charge would make sense. But he’s not doing that. He’s claiming, effectively, that you could no do what you’re doing without assuming what you explicitly deny even though you verbally claim not to.

Now, of course, there is a dispute about the nature of the mind as such. This is where charges of question begging actually make sense since it is the nature of the mind that is up for dispute. However, the BBT is not simply making a claim about the nature of the mind but making claims about cognition and thinking as such. BBT explains why the mind seems to be the way it is by explaining away its existence; as a result of neglect, the mind and all its intentional facades arises heuristically, which of course, meta-cognition confuses as substance.

The claim of performative contradiction, particular to BBT, is the fact that it depends on resources it explicitly tries to deny. For example, the distinctions between first and third person, natural/scientific and “meta-cognition” with the expressed purpose of denying the validity of first-person and meta-cognition. Questions you have yet to satisfactorily answer, for example, are (1) how what you’re doing is not meta-cognition and (2) how your distinction between Scientific and meta-cognition is valid.

On (1): the distinctions between first and third person could not have come to be without the first person regardless of its nature. If the first-person is systematically confused then the validity of its initial distinctions are open to question – the distinction between how the brain cognizes the environment generally and how it cognizes itself, for example. This cannot get of the ground without conferring validity on which is denied in total ( the first person and meta-cognition).

On (2): How, for example, is scientific cognition not a just a particularization of meta-cognition? Why is the former more akin to “how the brain cognizes the environment generally” and not “how the brain cognizes itself cognizing the environment generally”? Making the distinction superfluous? That is, it is just a meta-cognition of itself cognizing the environment and the ‘hook’the BBT purports to make to the environment evaporates because it has not shown how the brain has managed to cognize the environment independently of cognizing itself. If there is question begging, it is in areas like this and the guilty party is the BBT.

Since you’re not an alien (assumption) I assume you’re making use of the same resources as everyone else and just as susceptible to meta-cognitive neglect as everyone else. The point being that you undercut your own argument against the validity of meta-cognition by meta-cognizing scientific results and shouting at everyone that does not come to the same conclusions you do. In much the same sense, for example, that no one has seen a Brandomnian norm ( as you’ve said elsewhere), no one has ever ‘seen’ the Blind Brain Theory in a lab. If BBT can continue to postulate unknown causes, depending as it does on meta-cognition, then there is no reason why other, different ideas can’t also attempt to explain why things appear the way they do, namely, because they are that way. Or for some other reason. What cannot be done is to pretend as if the issue is already settled, that one meta-cognitive idea rules them all, especially when it undercuts its very ability to make such claims.

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Currently Reading: Jeff Mitscherling’s “Aesthetic Genesis: The Origin of Consciousness in the Intentional Being of Nature”

Only on chapter 2 but enjoying the book so far. Introduced me to the philosopher Roman Ingarden, who it looks like, I’ll have to read more. Mitscherling’s book dovetails nicely with some of my current concerns. His eight “…statements of the central Concept-Terms” followed by an interesting discussion of each item separately has been really good so far. The eight theses are: [quoted from Kindle ]:

(1) Intentionality is not “of consciousness”. (2) Being is not merely some abstract concept. (3) Substance is not “stuff”. (4) Essence is not some “thing” that an entity “possesses”. (5) Form is not “shape”. (6) The soul is not some supernatural “thing” that an animal “possesses”. (7) The mind is not reducible either to material being or to ideal being. (8) A concept is not a “mental thing” that we “possess”. (9) A habit is not some “thing” that an organism “possesses”.

(1) is pretty radical, I think. As the blurb says, “This book describes not only the origin, or ‘genesis,’ of human cognition in sensation, but also the genesis of sensation from intentional structures belonging to nature itself.” Mitscherling will be trying to demonstrate that there is such a ‘thing’ as “the Intentional Being of Nature” that is real yet not some thing we should just think of as ‘stuff.’ I find this intriguing, especially, because he proposes to show that the notion of intentional being overcomes the bifurcation between mind and nature. In effect, this study seems to be trying to do the exact opposite of what I critiqued in my last post. I will have more to say as make it through the book.

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Quick one

Are only “subjects” “minds” hypostatizied? Or are ‘bodies’ and ‘matter’ just as much hypostatizations? There is a growing irritation in me while re/reading and trying to come to grips with the varying reductionist materialisms out there. In essence, even from folks that are nuanced in their thinking on it seems that the background idea of what is real is a fixed, stable “substance” tangible ‘matter.’ Say, the door you run into or a rock. The problem then is to account for the non-real things, things that lack being like ‘beliefs’ and ‘reasons.’ The general line of thought, it appears, is that the latter are “hypostasized” in thought ( which thought does to itself as well) and leads into confusion. But in contrast to what? Lots of ink is being spilled on how the self for example, is an abstraction thought fallaciously to ‘have’ being. But say it doesn’t ‘have’ being? ( Which I’m inclined to agree with but for different reasons) Then what does it mean to have or be an actual thing? What does it mean to be ‘matter’? I find it far too quick and easy to go on as if in contrast to the egregious hypostatization going on when we think of ourselves as ‘minded’ we are doing something better when we assume something else called ‘matter’ that is ‘really’ occurent. ( Whether we say “physical” [and the tortured arguments that bypass giving an actual definition] is of no consequence to me – if we are simply referencing ‘some sort of stuff’ or ‘whatever current or future Physics says exists’ then it is philosophically uninteresting, if the term can be converted into its opposite it makes little sense to profess it as a stance or position). We can easily reel off how culture, institutions, laws, language are not substantive things and try and work out how they have emerged or have come to seem like real things but why is what is real simply convertible with a static, point-like solidity?

The issue has always been our embodied condition, how to parse our lived experience with our explanations of this experience – whether we reduce all to matter or mind seems to me to do an injustice to the Actual… which is what spurs inquiry in the first place. Perennial, for me, the question is always how to do justice to the activity, the energy involved in thought with the product at the end of thought – whether it be a book of philosophy or the material products around us. My interest in Ontology is in this becoming, this process to adopt a popular term, but the process involving both the activity as such and the product of the activity. How do we account for both? And without, which is our contemporary problem, of ‘explaining away’ the activity and becoming transfixed by the end result? To us the ancient terms, how do we do justice both to Potency and Act?

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Descartes Demon as Scientistic Heuristic: Part 2

Preamble: none of what I say below is based on a hard look at Neuroscience or an attempt to extrapolate findings of neuroscience. It is the explicit theorizing that Bakker forbids and suggests is near extinction. Or constitutive of our Intentionalist delusion. So be it.

In future posts I hope to detail the more comprehensive ideas in Semiotics and BioSemiotics I think that can incorporate, not slovenly follow, the Neurosciences.

A quick way to grasp the kernel of Blind Brain Theory runs as follows (a more thorough pass can be found here). The cause of my belief of a blue sky outside today is, of course, the blue sky outside today. But it is not as though I experience the blue sky causing me to experience the blue sky—I simply experience the blue sky. The ‘externalist’ axis of causation—the medial, or enabling, axis—is entirely occluded. All the machinery responsible for conscious experience is neglected: causal provenance is a victim of what might be called medial neglect. Now the fact that we can metacognize experience means that we’ve evolved some kind of metacognitive capacity, machinery for solving problems that require the brain to interpret its own operations, problems such as, say, ‘holding your tongue at Thanksgiving dinner.’ Medial neglect, as one might imagine, imposes a profound constraint on metacognitive problem-solving: namely, that only those problems that can be solved absent causal information can be solved at all. Given the astronomical causal complexities underwriting experience, this makes metacognitive problem-solving heuristic in the extreme. Metacognition hangs sideways in a system it cannot possibly hope to cognize in anything remotely approaching a high-dimensional manner, the manner that our brain cognizes its environments more generally.

Problems with BBT:

(1) The notion of “cause” that undergirds the theory is spurious.

Does the blue sky cause me to see it in the same way we would say a stone ’causes’ a window to shatter? There is no evidence that this is so. Visual experience cannot be reduced to an inout/ouput linearity not even when the ‘brain’ as a self contained ‘system’ is acounted for ( i.e when we theoritically or experiementally deduce what the brain contributes to experience). This for the simple reason that the relationship between eyes, light, and brain, and yes ‘mind’ combine across varying networks that enabe ‘seeing.’ These varying networks are the conditions for visual experience not its cause in the simplistic sense postulated in the abstract above.

Blind Brain theory is creation of a particular individual that has been posted on the internet – the many conditions that had to be met for me to even ‘read’ cannot be captured or explained by such a paltry notion of ’cause.’ The BBT cannot explain itself. Of course, it will be argued that this fact is a virtue of the theory since any contravening reason for denying the theory is professed to be an example of just what it is arguing. BBT aims to explain why you find it unsatisfactory (our experience is occluded from the real causes) without any positive account of how itself came to be. It pops up miracously from the incognizable causes to give an account of this incognizability . That Bakker finds this a feature of his theory, not a bug is spurious. After all, on the premise that the real causes cannot be known or are so complicated to occlude actual knowledge, postulating actual knowledge of the cause for this occlusion is untenable. That is, the suggestion that the trillions of operations cannot be cognized is itself generated from these trillions of operations and cannot itself warrant its existence. For this reason it is as guilty of the question begging charge it lobs around. It simply assumes a distinction between what the brain does generally [ how it cognizes the ‘environment’] and what meta-cognition does [when reflecting on its own processes] but fails to see that this distinction has no warrant as it offers no argument for the viability of this distinction in the first place, how it is somehow not a meta-cognition. What is left then are are statements for BBT and statements against BBT and nothing to arbitrate them since BBT contends that at the basis of all this of this is occluded causes. Unless BBT exempts itself from the operations it postulates and become a variant of the ‘supernatural’ positions it castigates I fail to see how it escapes this vicious circle.

As an aside, this is ultimately why arguments that supposedly show how vastly ignorant we are or try to place limits on knowledge always fail – knowledge is not a static, ready made thing we can encompass in a container but an ever evolving process – the reason it cannot be cognized singularly is because it is not a ‘thing’ that is waiting there to be cognized.

2. The asymmetry between what the brain does and what we consciously experience is only problematic from a certain viewpoint.

According to the latest estimates, the human brain performs some 38 000 trillion operations persecond. When you compare this to the amount of information that reaches conscious awareness, the disproportion becomes nothing short of remarkable. What are the consequences of this radical informaticasymmetry? The Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (BBT) represents an attempt to’explain away’ several of the most perplexing features of consciousness in terms of information loss and depletion. The first-person perspective, it argues, is the expression of the kinds and quantities of information that, for a variety of structural and developmental reasons, cannot be accessed by the ‘conscious brain.’ Puzzles as profound and persistent as the now, personal identity, conscious unity, and most troubling of all, intentionality, could very well be kinds of illusions foisted on conscious awarenessby different versions of the informatic limitation expressed, for instance, in the boundary of your visualfield.

Now, this asymmetry between information that is out there (38 trillions operations per second) and what reaches our conscious awareness is fundamental to this theorizing. But why is this vast quantity of things going on a problem or “remarkable”? Well, from the standpoint of causal and scientific analysis that attempts to discover “mechanisms” at the root of our perceptions. This knowledge is, of course, useful. Without this background perspective, however, why should I think there is an “asymmetry” ? In a negative sense? Why isn’t it simply that while I am perceiving all these things are happening? Is my lack of awareness of 38 trillion operations per second an actual cognitive lack or a lack created by abstracting out “operations” and distinguishing them from my “awareness”? I contend the latter for there is no apparent reason why I need to be aware of these operations such that not being aware of them is reason to create an illusion in place of them.

Imagine, for example, that a Google car becomes conscious in a century ( or less – who knows anymore, everything is right around the corner – we are the post-human, post intentional, decades away fem the Semantic Apocalypse ). From our basic BBT theory, we know already what’s going to happen. (1) The car, non-conscious as of today, is ‘driving’ perfectly fine, getting into no accidents. It can navigate it’s environment without any need of conscious decision making, just input-output, causal problem solving. (2) For some evolutionary reason/ function, or less loaded, ‘causal’ event the car becomes more ‘complex’ and develops consciousness (3) in developing this consciousness it still is able to drive without accidents but this consciousness because of its complexity now requires it to “believe” it is actually driving the car.

So, it was able to mindlessly drive before but at a sufficient level of complexity it is necessary that it ‘believe’ itself in actual control of the car. At another stage of its evolution the Google car realizes that it wasn’t in control at all and its belief and experience of control was a heuristic foisted on it because of the trillions of things going on while driving. So even though many of these things were going on before, the addition of consciousness now means that the Google car must think itself in control, to be literally driving the car. Why? Because it can’t be conscious of all the things that are actually responsible for the driving. But it was driving perfectly fine without this knowledge. So, when, precisely, did it need to have this knowledge and thus created a heuristic in place of having it? If there is no need to know the state of the quantum just to cross the street, there is no need to create an illusion of this knowledge to cross the street. There is simply no motivation for the theory. This is so even if we attempt to re-describe ordinary knowledge as “approximation” to knowledge at a quantum or scientific level but again this entire procedure is vitiated by the notion of “heuristics” that will attempt to salvage it. Again, since heuristics go all the way down and there was never ever any need to know the quantum level of things, there is no need for a heuristics based on an absence of further heuristic knowledge of the quantum events – it is simply irrelevant. There is no need for such elaborate deceptions just to know how to keep your mouth shut at Thanksgiving dinner – the notion of ‘medial neglect’ as employed by BBT simply stands in for causes not actually articulated, causes assumed to be going on, without any explanation as to why.

Here, of course, the shotgun charge of “question-begging” will be deployed again. But I fail how to see the position doesn’t descend into a vulgar panpsychism if this is the case. The rock has no need to know its chemistry to flourish as a rock. Some explanation needs to be forthcoming as to why, only in humans, apparently, delusion has risen in regards to causes nothing else needs to know.

What we end up with is something akin to a Ventriloquist arguing with all seriousness that it is not him that is the ventriloquist but the puppet on his arm. Any distinction that we argue applies to him ( say being alive) and not the puppet is dismissed as question-begging since we assume we’re alive without having a robust cognitive science theory ( and by and large we do not ) of this so-called entity ‘life.’ And round and round we go until finally exasperation sets in.

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Descartes’ Demon as Scientistic Heuristic

This is all I can think of as I read Bakker expound the BBT over and over. It’s as if someone had the thought “What if I was was being deceived all along ?” and instead of using God to bootstrap the world ( and reaffirm existence) used Cognitive Science to dis-confirm everything we ever thought. In this case, the demon is real and its none other than brain mechanism – a fitting reversal. I have some arguments to make here but the evangelical tone of Scott and his acolytes leaves a rather sour taste in my mouth. Not sure the effort is worth it. I suppose when you preach the end of times with Cognitive Science as your bible its respectable not shrill and ridiculous. Apologies if this offends anyone.

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Some Barfieldian themes in Bruno Latour?

***Written weeks ago but left still born because well, every time I write I have the urge to write a book and explain, explain – if anyone is reading and think this is not specific enough, glib, or just garbage, ask and I’ll try to answer. ***

Over at Agent Swarm I made this comment on a post about Latour Pluralism. There has been a recent surge of discussion about Pluralism across a few blogs. My intent with the comment was to argue within the mode of a person like Bryant, so to speak, but at the same time gesture through that effort to some of my own concerns. The result was that I become another one of Bryant’s ilk as in the post here by Terence. If the irritation and line about ‘some objectors’ were toward me or my comments, I hope to rectify and clarify some things in this blog post ( looking over it, it seems Terrence’s comments were directed to someone else but alas, as I’m talking to myself anyway, I will use it as an opportunity to produce some content). Explicitly, I’m using the recent debate about Latour to touch on some themes of Owen Barfield, a philosopher I think it is of some worth. As such, I’m not arguing directly with Terence about his specific example of a Realist Pluralism in Latour but using his example to ask some questions interesting to me. I’m making this response on my blog only so as to not contaminate the debate – this is me cherry picking some themes to explore.

I think the most important claim in my response and the best way to enter back into all this is:

I think the real question that is being asked here is “How is a Materialist Ontological Pluralism possible?” This is to be distinguished from the meta-question “What is Ontological Pluralism?” Since Ontological Pluralism, for example, can legislate a dualist position: matter and mind really exists as different ‘things.’ Because this more general question opens up the waters to positions other than Materialism, the more precise question is ” How does a Materialist Ontological Pluralism not grant full existence to immaterial entities”? ( and thereby contradict itself) In other words, how does it remain coherent since as a materialism it cannot grant actual existence to the immaterial?

I stick by the above. Simply put, if allegiance to Materialism has to be declared then one question of Ontology has already been settled: what exists, answer matter. So what work is the term ‘Ontological’ doing when predicated of ‘Pluralism’ since Materialism is the meta-position? The answer, it seems, is that ‘Ontological’ is meant to denote the different, embedded, psychogenic or otherwise material networks that actually obtain ( productive of and produced by ) what exists. Pluralism then is the recognition of these actually obtaining networks, as picking out different modes of existence that exist in the world. Here, I take it is what Terence mans when he says Pluralism is not an abstract category.

Now, to understand these notions and to get away from the idea of ‘belief’ in describing what is suggested here I compare this to a fish in water – the fish has no ‘belief’ that it lives and breathes in water and that there is nothing else. This is its world – it does not form a predicate relationship to water believing in its ‘existence’ and then ‘swimming’ in it because of said belief ( i.e discursively deciding that because it is water, therefore swimming would be the best option)- it swims because that is how it is embedded in its world. But the fish can still be wrong. They can be wrong about what they see in the water ( predator or prey, food or poison [ read: particular beliefs about things in the water ] ) and they can also be wrong globally – about what constitutes reality with a big R. Everything is not water… But neither are the fish, because of the fact they live and breathe water are under this as hegemonic reality and can only be that. If evolution history is correct, then we have seen that – we are living evidence that existence as a ‘fish’ is but one of the man ways of being a creature on this earth and fish indeed can and have evolved into something else. Similarly, neither are the different modes of existence when reference is being made specifically to how humans relate to the world closed of to each other, impossible of correction or change, impossible of modification in reaction to Reality.

I think this is a good approximation of what is being suggested. Since my aim is to compare Barfield and Latour, let’s apply it to our thinking of ancient, pre-historical man [which Barfield has a lot to say about] and his supernatural world. With the prior considerations, it becomes difficult to conceive of the relationship passively as if they encountered the world tabula rasa and then constructed Gods, Spirits and demons to inhabit it. Rather, this is how they relate to the world instinctively. Just as it would be ridiculous to claim a discursive relationship between the fish and what they’re embodied in so it would be to, for example, claim a discursive relationship between the ancient man and his “Spirits.” Since we are talking specifically about human beings this claim should be tightened to say exclusively discursive since discursive relationships will obtain – they simply don’t constitute the whole nor are they the best way to understand societies or cultures. We must be able to acknowledge this without immediately falling into an irrational fear that this recognition by itself entails the ancient picture and experience of the world, as one among many, is just a ‘different’ but equally valid way of looking at things. It may certainly argued that it is but if disproving these views are all you’re attempting to do you are welcome to do so – just don’t behave as if the ancient man constructed his world in the same way you go about disproving it, by some discursive analysis from which Gods and Spirits were the end products of some scientific investigation, like gravity or genes. This disenchanted ‘looking’ at the world, this perspective of the objects of nature as mere ‘objects’ is a specifically different relation to the world than what has obtained in history ( of course, arguments have to be made and can be made to vouch for this idea). Here, Latour’s notion of “modes of existence” is handy but how far will it take us?

Where Latour and other use this understanding to give a non-reductive materialist account, Latour seems be saying nothing anymore different than what Owen Barfield says in many different places but with an opposed point: the immaterial is affirmed as existing, not merely as embedded in material networks, but literally though it functions in much the same sense – it is Pre-individual, productive of and produced by man. Barfield has little time for suggestions that ancient man, for example, spent most of his time projecting Gods and Spirits into nature, constructing theories of Gods as causes for everything and then living these “myths” by pure force of reason and forgetfulness.
Two quotes: both concerning the logic with which think ancient man came up with his world.

The remoter ancestors of Homer, we are given to understand, observing that it was darker in winter than in summer, immediately decided that there must be some “cause” for this “phenomenon,” and had no difficulty in tossing off the “theory” of, Demeter and Persephone, to account for it. . . Imagination, history, bare common sense–these it seems, are as nothing beside the paramount necessity that the great Mumbo Jumbo, the patent double-million magnifying Inductive Method, should be allowed to continue contemplating its own ideal reflection–a golden age in which every man was his own Newton, in a world dripping with apples.

Particular attention should be paid to the terms Barfield chooses to put in quotes; “Cause” “Phenomenon” and “Theory” for each of these terms he is questioning. Firstly, that Myths were invented after passively observing nature, and producing them as “cause.” (2) That this “darker in winter and summer” was a ‘phenomenon’ in the detached sense we mean it, in other words, that it was a phenomenon experienced separately from the Myths they were embedded in and (3) that they were “theories” in the sense we mean, an inference to the best explanation, “Demeter must have done it.” That this is nonsensical is cause for the caustic ending to that passage, where apparently, every individual man was given license to just – out of nothing – invent countless myths to account for phenomena in the way we do. Barfield arguments for these points are various but can all be traced to his exploration of language, a proper of history of which [to Barfield] demonstrates that the notion of passively ‘observing‘ nature then ‘peopling‘ it is false – for no where is it recorded that these were propounded as some scientific tract, an explanation after the fact, but were reported as their everyday experience. Barfield’s arguments can be supplemented by various ends Anthropology, Science, History but I won’t go into all that.

The important point is Barfield’s unique criticism of the focus on “belief” – both as a defining characteristic of experience and the logic implied by it.

Second quote:

Now, in order that nature may be peopled with spirits, nature must first be devoid of spirits; but this caused scholars no difficulty, because they never supposed the possibility of any other kind of nature. The development of human consciousness was thus presented as a history of alpha-thinking beginning from zero and applied always to the same phenomena, at first in the form of erroneous beliefs about them, and as time went on, in the form of more and more correct and scientific beliefs. In short, the evolution of human consciousness was reduced to a bare history of ideas.

Alpha-thinking here refers to an exclusively discursive relationship to phenomena and constitutes a forgetting by the knower of his participation in what is known. It is this exclusively discursive relationship that is lampooned in the first passage. The point that is fully brought out by the second passage is that (1) Nature could have (and Barfield will go onto argue) was different (2) we have merely substituted ourselves in place of ancient man “that luckless dustbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies” and attributed to him erroneous beliefs. (2) is a crucial point. Here, Barfield is asking us to pay attention to the fact that all that is happening is that we assume right away that ancient man was living and experiencing the world in exactly the same way as we are, except for having incorrect ‘beliefs’ about it. No room for “modes of existence” here just the assumption that as we now look out and see the Sun, the ancient man would look out, cognize the sun as we now do but infer that it is a God or whatever other supernatural entity. This constitutes a “bare history of ideas” – a reduction of the in Barfieldian language – because it has taken man’s qualitatively changing relation with the world – the evolution of consciousness- as man merely having different ideas about it. This would be akin to speaking about Aquatic existence as a “belief” of fish when trying to discern the difference between present land based creatures and our aquatic ancestors.

Here, of course, things get prickly. Latour or a Latorian might be screaming “Wait! Wait just a minute!.” And a Bakker or Bryant might say: “ Yep, I knew this would happen. Nothing to see here folks.“ But here I’m only trying to get at the necessary work of imagination needed in order to really get away from a focus on ‘belief’ for in order to talk about “modes of existence” or some such we must be able to do exactly as Barfield is asking, to suspend our notion that people experienced everything in exactly the same way as we do – that they merely had different ideas about the same things rather than qualitatively different experience of the world. A qualitatively different experience of the world is distinct from a mere history of ideas or ‘beliefs’ in that it constitutes a way of being in the world. One did not experience a dead nature of which then peopled with spirits but lived in a world peopled with them – they may still be wrong as earlier pointed out but it must be acknowledged that this was there being-in-the-world. How then must we understand this being-in-the-world? And a broader question, and to my particular interests, what is the ontology of a world that can be experienced so qualitatively different? What is the Ontology adequate to Being?

In my next post ( have two next posts now in the que now )I’ll try to give a sketch of what Barfield says about this in contrast to Terrence’s Latour, and in keeping with the general theme here explore the question of whether or not a tendency to Idealism cannot be just as nuanced as a sophisticated Materialism. In other words, whether the Idealist must commit to the existence of every non-material thing in much the same way the Pluralist is reduced to a base relativism. My answer, of course, is no but that’s for next time.

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