Imagine that you are in possession of a full, Laplacean knowledge of the state of another person's brain, a person who is arguing with you for a position diametrically opposed to your own. It does not matter what the content of the disagreement is; but what is essential, for the purposes of this thought-experiment, is that your knowledge of your interlocutor's brain-state -- a knowledge which is of course scientifically mediated, say by the enormous quantum-parallel-processing capacities a hyperfuturistic supercomputer -- also gives you the manipulative access to these brain-states. This means that in addition to being able to interfere with their brain "from above," i.e., trying to change their brain-states the old-fashioned way, by argument, you now also have the capacity to interfere "from below": changing one neuro-chemical or neuro-structural detail after another. We will further stipulate that this alteration be performed "non-invasively," and "cleanly" (with surgical precision but without surgery). No other collateral changes (no "unintended consequences") will attend the alterations of your opponent's brain. In fact, they will not experience you as having done anything to them at all, except argue with them. You have a Ring of Gyges when it comes to their brain. But, and here is the important point, you will be able to literally "change their mind."
In short, as you go on arguing with them, you can alternate your argumentative moves with making incremental changes in the brain, in such a way as to cause them to abandon their former intractability, and to agree with you.
Do you now feel that you have "won the argument?"
Have you done anything unethical? Do you feel guilty?
If the answer to the latter is Yes, you needn't worry -- on the terms we are supposing, you can also have a full account, scientifically mediated, of your own brain states, and can make any necessary adjustments to dissolve your reservations.
This is one extension -- by no means the most disturbing one -- I think of when I consider R. Scott Bakker's "worst-case scenario" of his Blind Brain Theory. I have to admit, I am relieved to see him say he regards it as a worst-case scenario. Now I have not read all of Bakker's (many and lengthy) posts on this matter, so I am open to correction; moreover, his hypothesis is so unpalatable to me that, while I applaud his refusal to pull his punches, I have almost certainly misconstrued it in some way. (Bakker predicts that one should find the theory unpalatable -- he does so himself.)
Insofar as I understand him, it would seem that he is drawing radical conclusions from the notion, also argued by Colin McGinn for instance, that the brain, a natural system like any other, simply did not evolve to understand its own processes but rather to ensure the survival of its organism. Consciousness is thus an inherently mysterious process to itself, not primarily because of some weird quality of self-reference qua self-reference, let alone because of something essentially ineffable and spiritual about consciousness itself, but because the brain inherently lacks the capacity to register the relevant data.
It isn't just what Bakker suggests here, it's specifically what he opposes, and his manner of opposing, that causes me to shudder.
science is overcoming the neural complexities that have for so long made an intentional citadel out of the soul. It will continue doing what it has always done, which is offer sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated, mechanical explanations of what it finds, and so effectively ‘disenchanting’ the brain the way it has the world.... Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding [than to confirm it], we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown. Indeed, we already have a growing mountain of evidence trending in this direction. Given our apologetic inclinations, however, it should come as no surprise that the literature is rife with arguments why all things are not equal. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of happy endings, especially where science is concerned (I’m inclined to think it will cut our throats), the difficulty I have with such arguments lies in their reliance on metacognitive intuition. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are in any better position peering into our souls than our ancestors were peering into the heavens. Why should the accumulation of scientific information be any friendlier to our traditional, prescientific assumptions this one time around?Bakker critiques phenomenology and post-phenomenological philosophy, for instance, as a massive rationalization of our cherished illusions of being special, a rationalization doomed to being exposed as the New-Age conceit it is:
Yours is a prescientific discourse, one whose domain is about to be overrun by the sciences. The black box of the brain has been cracked open, revealing more than enough to put your conceptual conceits on notice. Did you really think you would be the lone exception? That your discourse, out of all of them, would be the one to prevail, to hold back the empirical philistines that had conquered all corners of existence otherwise? It’s not quite that point yet, but the longer you continue your discourses independent of the sciences, the more magical you become – the less cognitive. And with legitimacy goes institutional credibility. Like it or not, you have begun the perhaps not so long drift toward Oprah spots with Eckhart Tolle.One possible rejoinder to Bakker is Davidsonian "anomalous monism," according to which there is no strict law-like account of the relation between mental and physical events, despite the fact that mental events are identical with (certain) physical events. But on the other hand, Bakker may have skirted this ploy already, because for the Blind Brain Theory (as I understand it), such terms as "beliefs," "desires," and so on, are not actually mental states, but rather extremely coarse-grained terms that don't so much refer to brain-states only indirectly, as not refer to anything at all. The terms themselves are an effect of the illusion the BBT is supposed to account for.
Now Bakker insists, his theory is an empirical one: it makes predictions and could be shown to be false by these predictions failing to obtain. What he doesn't want to brook is an a priori argument that reasons from the specialness of consciousness per se. I am not sure that Bakker's argument is entirely falsifiable in this way; many of his empirical predictions (e.g. that human knowledge will prove to be the function of heuristic brain "modules") do not seem to me to be uniquely predicted by his hypothesis; more importantly, the brain might experientially fail to account for itself, might endemically fall prey to the illusion of selfhood, and be structurally and functionally incapable of grasping its own function -- might, in short, fulfill these characteristic expectations of the theory, even in the absence of any number of the specific features Bakker names. Thus, even if Bakker were wrong about why the brain is blind, the brain might still be blind.
Nonetheless, it's clear that Bakker wants to make the Blind Brain Theory as strong as possible, if only as a devil's advocate. This caveat arises because, at the post where Bakker links to his original exposition of the BBT, he has a single clause for a tagline. The clause is: Please convince me it's gotta be wrong!
I respect Bakker for drawing so starkly the nihilisitic outcome of his thoughts, and for trying to frame them in a falsifiable manner. Neither of these is easy. The first takes tremendous courage, the second exhausting work. But I think what I appreciate most is this one sentence. The same ghost of a plea occurs at the very end of his abstract to the same paper. There Bakker writes:
BBT separates the question of consciousness from the question of how consciousness appears, and so drastically narrows the so-called explanatory gap. If true, it considerably ‘softens’ the hard problem. But at what cost?That little question mark at the end "leaves unsaid" a great deal. Towards the end of his paper, Bakker says a bit of it:
If you are anything like me, you find this thesis profoundly repellent. BBT paints a picture that is utterly antithetical to our intuitions, a cartoon consciousness, one that appears as deep as deep and as wide as wide for the simple lack of any information otherwise; and yet a picture that we might nonetheless expect, given the Recursive System and it myriad structural and developmental infelicities. A chasm of some kind has to lie between consciousness as possessed and consciousness as experienced. Given the human brain’s mad complexity and human consciousness’s evolutionary youth, it would be nothing short of astounding if it were not profoundly deceptive somehow. ... Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it – even hating it.... And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.And yet. And yet, the honest man Bakker is wants to argue for it; because, clearly, turning away from it just because he hates it is also unpalatable. Or, is there something more?
Bakker has had a ridiculous time of it with fans and detractors of his fantasy fiction, particularly in regards to his depiction of the bad treatment of women, which in the barbaric settings he describes can be very bad indeed (it gets bad for the men, too). In his self-defense Bakker has reiterated what artist after artist has insisted: depiction is not endorsement. Describe a rape and you are not describing one of your own fantasies. Well, OK, the reply goes, maybe not one rape, but when do we get to start being suspicious? Two? Ten? The critics get out their pencil and paper and start adding up tick marks. You can read a depressing amount of this back and forth if you hang out on various message boards (or just trawl them later), lots of recriminations and he-should-know-better, some of which is substantive, lots of which is from weird trolls who get their entertainment in this way. I'm not linking to it, but you can find it easily enough. I assume, because I like to assume the best about people, that Bakker has taken some of the substantive points to heart.
None of that is directly relevant to the question of the material causes of consciousness, you might say; but there is an isomorphism of sorts, for in the relevant BBT writings, too, Bakker is describing a catastophic theoretic scenario while at the same time insisting that he's not advocating for it. It's more just staring the bleak possibility in the face; the need to not flinch just because the possibility is bleak. It's like a game of chicken played with a brick wall. "There will always be apologists" for consciousness, Bakker shrugs. But someone has to articulate the case against it....
Well, maybe. Still, there is that "ingrained suspicion of happy endings," a sort of anti-eucatastrophe stance, in which Bakker is certainly in good, or at least populous, company. Is it just this which goads one on, this unsettling drip-drip-drip of skepticism...? or is there in us some kind of Poe-esque imp of the perverse that wants (and does not want) to be shown, impossibly, to be what Francis Crick wrote in the opening of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons."But let us take Bakker at his word and accept that driven though he is to articulate BBT, he nonetheless hates it. Reframing the initial thought-experiment, suppose I am arguing with Bakker about the BBT. Suppose that without his knowledge, I am supplied with such a display as I mentioned before, mapping his brain and supplying me with all the hitherto-missing information I need to understand his cognition. Obviously, I am aware (in this scenario) that the Blind Brain Theory, or something like it, is true, since the technology I have access to presupposes it. But I also know that Bakker, despite his obsessive interest in the theory, can't stand it and does not want it to be true. Should I then tweak his brain to remove his qualms? Or to remove his propensity to believe the theory?
A sharp reader will note immediately that I am leaving aside many, many possibilities. There is no reason after all why I couldn't, on this theory, tweak Bakker's brain in any of a thousand thousand other ways, some of them highly entertaining to certain dispositions. I refer you to Bakker's novel Neuropath for an exploration of some of these implications. Neuropath includes (fair warning) some of those upsetting rape-scenarios, so go advisedly into that dark night. It explores (with, let it be said, somewhat less subtlety) a victim-&-victimizer relationship between Neil Cassidy and Thomas Bible that, to my mind, recalls Winston and O'Brien in 1984. This comparison raises a question: who will wield this power over the malleable mind, and to what ends? This is a question asked also by Mark Fisher in a recently published essay on Bakker's novel, and by Steven Craig Hickman in a recent post. And, like the return of the repressed, here comes that question of motives again. Fisher notes that the question of Why the villain of Neuropath would set out to torture his victims can only arise in the structure of the novel as a kind of narratological relic, a fossilized souveneir from a time when the question of motive made sense. Why, in particular, try so very hard to drive home the truth of eliminative reductionism, the horror of the astonishing hypothesis?
instead of moving beyond intentionality, Cassidy’s relationship to Bible shows all the signs of an obsessive attachment. It matters very intensely to Cassidy what Bible thinks and feels. Rather than being a coolly rational presence, scientific detachment incarnate, Cassidy is a Romantic, Mephistopholean figure, engaged in a contradictory, necessarily self-defeating, quest. Despite having exposed experience as a myth, he wants to close the gap between experience and knowledge; he wants Bible to live the Argument.Fisher is surely correct to point out that the "agentless" agency at work in this logic is that of ideology:
The agent without intentionality in Neuropath is that of capital itself. Bakker is correct to say that the most important implications of the novel concern capital’s instrumentalization of neuroscience....Cassidy’s neurosurgical work illustrates Paolo Virno’s claim that “[n]ihilism, once hidden in the shadow of technical-productive power, becomes a fundamental ingredient of that power, a quality highly prized by the marketplace of labor.” [Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude, p 86] But capital’s practical nihilism remains a mitigated nihilism. Even while capital fully exploits the results of neuroscientific research, it is at the same time committed to disseminating the ideological image of the conscious subject capable of exercising choice. It is capital, therefore, that must keep deferring the “semantic apocalypse”.This gets things, I think, both right and wrong, though I cannot argue the point extensively here. Suffice it to say that I regard capital as indeed in denial of its nihilistic implications (in certain moments i would say it is constituted by this denial), but I do not regard a glorious apotheosis of this nihilism to be the deliverance we all await -- as if we will be liberated finally once capital's mitigated nihilism at last casts off this mitigation.
Orwell, for his part, has O'Brien articulate what drives him to destroy Winston, to take him apart and reassemble him in a shape of O'Brien's own choosing:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (1984 p 263)This passage, it seems to me, is far more cogent than is Fisher's too-quick shrugging-off of the implications of the "Argument," as Bakker calls BBT in Neuropath. The Argument is not merely what powers the tools of sadism in the novel; it is what makes the sadism possible.
At the same time, the BBT certainly invites us to raise our eyebrows at O'Brien's claim that the Part officials "know what we are doing." And yet, there is nothing "Mephistophelean" about O'Brien; he is no spirit of negation. Doublethink is not negation; it is too shallow for that. It is simply the requisite thinking of whatever thought currently needs thinking for the purposes of power; a thought that is as close as thinking can come to being contentless, since "content" is purely functional. (This is what "2+2=5" means). And it seems to me that this is also very close to what the BBT asserts.
In his post commenting on Neuropath and on Fisher's essay, Hickman first notes
the either/or scenario that Fisher draws out[:] how either the technocapitalists or the technosocialists (‘General Intellect’) in the immediate future might use such knowledge to wield powers of control/emacipation never before imaginable...[Fisher] brings up two notions, both hinging on the amoral ‘practical nihilism’ of neuroscience itself: 1) the reinforcement by the dominant ideology, technocapitalism, to use such technologies to gain complete control over every aspect of our lives through invasive techniques of brain manipulation; or, 2) the power of some alternative, possibly Leftward, collectivist ideology that seeks through the malleability or plasticity of these same neurosciences to use the ‘General Intellect’ to freely experiment on itself.Hickman then reasonably asks:
Do we really want either of these paths?I am not at all sure that my answer to this question is Hickman's -- I'm not sure either of us have "an" answer -- but one could be forgiven for observing that at any rate, this is a separate question from whether the BBT is true. Maybe it is true, and we should just hope that it does not become generally known? But among other obvious ethical and meta-epistemic difficulties, the problem is, it seems very hard to ask the question of truth in complete separation from the question of what motivates the question, and to what use the answer can be put. Philosophy is not simply the discipline involved in keeping these rigorously distinguished; it is also the passionate comprehension of the desires at play in their conflation.
What I like (if that is the word) in Bakker is his unstinting calling-it-as-he-sees-it, his willingness to remind us of the horrible implications of posthumanism, without any escape route. One can only be reminded of Nietzsche:
Socrates and Plato, in this regard great doubters and admirable innovators, were nonetheless innocently credulous in regard to that most fateful of prejudices, that profoundest of errors, that "right knowledge must be followed by right action." In this principle they were still the heirs of the universal madness and presumption that there exists knowledge as to the essential nature of an action. "For it would be terrible if insight into the nature of right action were not followed by right action." -- this is the only kind of proof these great men deemed necessary for demonstrating the truth of this idea; the opposite seemed to them crazy and unthinkable. (Dawn, II, 116)I once wrote a thirteen-point Credo of sorts. The seventh item read:
If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.
"It would be terrible." This is not an argument with any dispositive force. But it is a datum, and that datum requires an account like every datum. Here the question is, what do you mean, "terrible?"
If we mean, "unpleasant for me," well, Bakker is clearly prepared to say, Too bad. But this is not what we mean, I think. "Terrible" in this context means, this is a catastophic way of constructing the universe. It would be better to make it otherwise. Better for who? What do you mean, better? The entire range of questions about ethics, from Euthyphro to Sam Harris, rise up like ghosts, and on the Blind Brain Theory they are indeed as substantial as ghosts. This means, please note, that you cannot have recourse to any ethical or moral or normative concept whatsoever at bottom. The universe does not care that you care. You caring is just a local tic every bit as significant as a sunspot or a sandwich. Caring is an accident.
Strictly speaking, on the BBT, all moral evaluation of the universe is meaningless. Your preferences are meaningless. Bakker's recoil from the BBT is meaningless. He has no actual criterion to appeal to. I say, No. The recoil is meaningful. It is a grammatical response in the "space of reasons," a different neighborhood of the very same space in which we have reasons for believing things. Things like theories of the brain.
And this had better be the case, because in the absence of a moral space of reasons, the entire question of whether I should pull that switch for Bakker, or which choice of the two Hickman proposes we should choose -- indeed, any "should" question at all -- is completely unanswerable.