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 I’d written an extensive response but left it unpublished.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.