Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future

intentionalby Scott Bakker

“… when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the question ‘What is Man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong and that is what before 1859, all answers to those questions were.” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 267)

Biocentrism is dead for the same reason geocentrism is dead for the same reason all of our prescientific theories regarding nature are dead: our traditional assumptions simply could not withstand scientific scrutiny. All things being equal, we have no reason to think our nature will conform to our prescientific assumptions any more than any other nature has historically. Humans are prone to draw erroneous conclusions in the absence of information. In many cases, we find our stories more convincing the less information we possess! [1]. So it should come as no surprise that the sciences, which turn on the accumulation of information, would consistently overthrow traditional views. All things being equal, we should expect any scientific investigation of our nature will out and out contradict our traditional self-understanding.

Everything, of course, turns on all things being equal — and I mean everything. All of it, the kaleidoscopic sum of our traditional, discursive human self-understanding, rests on the human capacity to know the human absent science. As Jerry Fodor famously writes:

“if commonsense intentional psychology really were to collapse, that would be, beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of our species; if we’re that wrong about the mind, then that’s the wrongest we’ve ever been about anything. The collapse of the supernatural, for example, didn’t compare; theism never came close to being as intimately involved in our thought and practice — especially our practice — as belief/desire explanation is.” [2]

You could say the scientific overthrow of our traditional theoretical understanding of ourselves amounts to a kind of doomsday, the extinction of the humanity we have historically taken ourselves to be. Billions of “selves,” if not people, would die — at least for the purposes of theoretical knowledge!

For years now I’ve been exploring this “worst case scenario,” both in my novels and in my online screeds. After I realized the penury of the standard objections (and as a one-time Heideggerean and Wittgensteinian, I knew them all too well), I understood that such a semantic doomsday scenario was far from the self-refuting impossibility I had habitually assumed [3]. Fodor’s ‘greatest intellectual catastrophe’ was a live possibility — and a terrifying one at that. What had been a preposterous piece of scientistic nonsense suddenly became the most important problem I could imagine. Two general questions have hounded me ever since. The first was, What would a postintentional future look like? What could it look like? The second was, Why the certainty? Why are we so convinced that we are the sole exception, the one domain that can be theoretically cognized absent the prostheses of science?

With reference to the first, I’ll say only that the field is quite lonely, a fact that regularly amazes me, but never surprises [4]. The second, however, has received quite a bit of attention, albeit yoked to concerns quite different from my own.

So given that humanity is just another facet of nature, why should we think science will do anything but demolish our traditional assumptions? Why are all things not equal when it comes to the domain of the human? The obvious answer is simply that we are that domain. As humans, we happen to be both the object and the subject of the domain at issue. We need not worry that cognitive science will overthrow our traditional self-understanding, because, as humans, we clearly possess a privileged epistemic relation to humans. We have an “inside track,” you could say.

The question I would like to explore here is simply, Do we? Do we possess a privileged epistemic relation to the human, or do we simply possess a distinct one? Being a human, after all, does not entail theoretical knowledge of the human. Our ancestors thrived in the absence of any explicit theoretical knowledge of themselves — luckily for us. Moreover, traditional theoretical knowledge of the human doesn’t really exhibit the virtues belonging to scientific theoretical knowledge. It doesn’t command consensus. It has no decisive practical consequences. Even where it seems to function practically, as in Law say, no one can agree how it operates, let alone just what is doing the operating. Think of the astonishing epistemic difference between mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics!

If anything, traditional theoretical knowledge of the human looks an awful lot like prescientific knowledge in other domains. Like something that isn’t knowledge at all.

Here’s a thought experiment. Try to recall “what it was like” before you began to ponder, to reflect, and most importantly, before you were exposed to the theoretical reflections of others. I’m sure we all have some dim memory of those days, back when our metacognitive capacities were exclusively tasked to practical matters. For the purposes of argument, let’s take this as a crude approximation of our base metacognitive capacity, a ballpark of what our ancestors could metacognize of their own nature before the birth of philosophy.

Let’s refer to this age of theoretical metacognitive innocence as “Square One,” the point where we had no explicit, systematic understanding of what we were. In terms of metacognition, you could say we were stranded in the dark, both as a child and as a pre-philosophical species. No Dasein. No qualia. No personality. No normativity. No agency. No intentionality. I’m not saying none of these things existed (at least not yet), only that we had yet to discern them via reflection. Certainly we used intentional terms, talked about desires and beliefs and so on, but this doesn’t entail any conscious, theoretical understanding of what desires and beliefs and so on were. Things were what they were. Scathing wit and sour looks silenced those who dared suggest otherwise.

So imagine this metacognitive dark, this place you once were, and where a good number of you, I am sure, believe your children, relatives, and students — especially your students — still dwell. I understand the reflex is to fill this cavity, clutter it with a lifetime of insight and learning, to think of the above as a list of discoveries (depending on your intentional persuasion, of course), but resist, recall the darkness of the room you once dwelt in, the room of you, back when you were theoretically opaque to yourself.

But of course, it never seemed “dark” back then, did it? Ignorance never does, so long as we remain ignorant of it. If anything, ignorance makes what little you do see appear to be so much more than it is. If you were like me, anyway, you assumed that you saw pretty much everything there was to see, reflection-wise. Since your blinkered self-view was all the view there was, the idea that it comprised a mere peephole had to be preposterous. Why else would the folk regard philosophy as obvious bunk (and philosophers as unlicensed lawyers), if not for the wretched poverty of their perspectives?

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this effect “what you see is all there is,” or WYSIATI. As he explains:

“You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” [5]

The idea, basically, is that our cognitive systems often process information blind to the adequacy of that information. They run with what they get, present hopeless solutions as the only game in town. This is why our personal Square One, benighted as it seems now, seemed so bright back then, and why “darkness,” perhaps our most common metaphor for ignorance, needs to be qualified. Darkness actually provides information regarding the absence of information, and we had no such luxury as a child or as a species. We lacked access to any information tracking the lack of information: the “darkness” we had to overcome, in other words, was the darkness of neglect. Small wonder our ignorance has felt so enlightened at every turn! Only now, with the wisdom of post-secondary education, countless colloquia, and geriatric hindsight can we see how little of ourselves we could see back then.

But don’t be too quick to shake your head and chuckle at your youthful folly, because the problem of metacognitive neglect obtains as much in your dotage as in your prime. You agree that we suffered metacognitive neglect both as pretheoretical individuals and species, and that this was why we failed to see how little we could see. This means 1) that you acknowledge the extreme nature of our native metacognitive incapacity, the limited and — at least in the short term — intractable character of the information nature has rendered available for reflection; and 2) that this incapacity applies to itself as much as to any other component of cognition. You acknowledge, in other words, the bare possibility that you remain stranded at Square One.

Thanks to WYSIATI, the dark room of self-understanding cannot but seem perpetually bright. Certainly it feels “different this time,” but given the reflexive nature of this presumption, the worry is that you have simply fallen into a more sophisticated version of the same trap. Perhaps you simply occupy a more complicated version of Square One, a cavity “filled with sound and fury,” but ultimately signifying nothing.

Raising the question, Have we shed any real theoretical light on the dark room of the human soul? Or does it just seem that way?

The question of metacognitive neglect has to stand among the most important questions any philosopher can ask, given that theoretical reflection comprises their bread and butter. This is even more the case now that we are beginning to tease apart the neurobiology of metacognition. The more we learn about our basic metacognitive capacities, the more heuristic, error-prone, and fractionate they become [6]. The issue is also central to the question of what the sciences will likely make of the human, posed above. If we haven’t shed any real traditional light on the human room, then it seems fair to say our relation to the domain of the human, though epistemically distinct, is not epistemically privileged, at least not in any way that precludes the possibility of Fodor’s semantic doomsday.

So how are we to know? How might we decide whether we, despite our manifest metacognitive incapacity, have groped our way beyond Square One, that the clouds of incompatible claims comprising our traditional theoretical knowledge of the human actually orbit something real? What discursive features should we look for?

Capable of commanding consensus can’t be one of them. This is the one big respect where traditional theoretical knowledge of the human fairly shouts Square One. Wherever you find intentional phenomena theorized, you find interminable controversy.

Practical efficacy has promise — this is where Fodor, for instance, plants his flag. But we need to be careful not to equivocate (as he does) the efficacy of various cognitive modes and the theoretical tales we advance to explain them. No one needs an explicit theory of rule-following to speak of rules. Everyone agrees that rules are needed, but no one can agree what rules are. If the efficacy belonging to the phenomena requiring explanation — the efficacy of intentional terms — attests to the efficacy of the theoretical posits conflated with them, then each and every brand of intentionalism would be a kind of auto-evidencing discourse. The efficacy of Square One intentional talk evidences only the efficacy of Square One intentional talk, not any given theory of that efficacy, most of which seem, quite notoriously, to have no decisive practical problem-solving power whatsoever. Though intentional vocabulary is clearly part of the human floor-plan, it is simply not the case that we’re “born mentalists.” We seem to be born spiritualists, if anything! [7]

Certainly a good number of traditional concepts have been operationalized in a wide variety of scientific contexts — things like “rationality,””representation,” “goal,” and so on — but they remain opaque, and continually worry the naturalistic credentials of the sciences relying on them. In the case of cognitive science, they have stymied all attempts to define the domain itself — cognition! And what’s more, given that no one is denying the functionality of intentional concepts (just our traditional accounts of them), the possibility of exaptation [8] should come as no surprise. Finding new ways to use old tools is what humans do. In fact, given Square One, we should expect to continually stumble across solutions we cannot decisively explain, much as we did as children.

Everything turns on understanding the heuristic nature of intentional cognition, how it has adapted to solve the behavior of astronomically complex systems (including itself) absent any detailed causal information. The apparent indispensability of its modes turns on the indispensability of heuristics more generally, the need to solve problems given limited access and resources. As heuristic, intentional cognition possesses what ecological rationalists call a “problem ecology,” a range of adaptive problems [9]. The indispensability of human intentional cognition (upon which Fodor also hangs his argument) turns on its ability to solve problems involving systems far too complex to be economically cognized in terms of cause and effect. It’s all we’ve got.

So we have to rely on cause-neglecting heuristics to navigate our world. Always. Everywhere. Surely these cause-neglecting heuristics are among the explananda of cognitive science. Since intentional concepts often figure in our use of these heuristics, they will be among the things cognitive science eventually explains. And then we will finally know what they are and how they function — we will know all the things that deliberative, theoretical metacognition neglects.

The question of whether some kind of explanation over and above this — famously, some explanation of intentional concepts in intentional terms — is required simply becomes a question of problem ecologies. Does intentional cognition itself lie within the problem ecology of intentional cognition? Can the nature of intentional concepts be cashed out in intentional terms?

The answer has to be no — obviously, one would think. Why? Because intentional cognition solves by neglecting what is actually going on! As the sciences show, it can be applied to various local problems in various technical problem ecologies, but only at the cost of a more global causal understanding. It helps us make some intuitive sense of cognition, allows us to push in certain directions along certain lines of research, but it can never tell us what cognition is simply because solving that problem requires the very information intentional cognition has evolved to do without. Intentional cognition, in other words, possesses ecological limits. Lacking any metacognitive awareness of those limits, we have the tendency to apply it to problems it simply cannot solve. Indeed, our chronic misapplication of intentional cognition to problem-ecologies that only causal cognition could genuinely solve is one of the biggest reasons why science has so reliably overthrown our traditional understanding of the world. The apocalyptic possibility raised here is that traditional philosophy turns on the serial misapplication of intentional cognition to itself, much as traditional religion, say, turns on the serial misapplication of intentional cognition to the world.

Of course intentional cognition is efficacious, but only given certain problem ecologies. This explains not only the local and limited nature of its posits in various scientific contexts, but why purely philosophical accounts of intentional cognition possess no decisive utility whatsoever. Despite its superficial appeal, then, practical efficacy exhibits discursive features entirely consistent with Square One (doomsday). So we need to look elsewhere for our redeeming discursive feature.

But where? Well, the most obvious place to look is to science. If our epistemic relation to ourselves is privileged as opposed to merely distinct, then you would think that cognitive science would be revealing as much, either vindicating our theoretical metacognitive acumen or, at the very least, trending in that direction. Unfortunately, precisely the opposite is the case. Memory is not veridical. The feeling of willing is inferential. Attention can be unconscious. The feeling of certainty has no reliable connection to rational warrant. We make informed guesses as to our motives. Innumerable biases afflict both automatic and deliberative cognitive processes. Perception is supervisory, and easily confounded in many surprising ways. And the list of counter-intuitive findings goes on and on. Cognitive science literally bellows Square One, and how could it not, when it’s tasked to discover everything we neglect, all those facts of ourselves that utterly escape metacognition. Stanislaus Dehaene goes so far as to state it as a law: “We constantly overestimate our awareness — even when we are aware of glaring gaps in our awareness” [10]. The sum of what we’re learning is the sum of what we’ve always been, only without knowing as much. Slowly, the blinds on the dark room of our theoretical innocence are being drawn, and so far at least, it looks nothing at all like the room described by traditional theoretical accounts.

As we should expect, given the scant and opportunistic nature of the information our forebears had to go on. To be human is to be perpetually perplexed by what is most intimate — the skeptics have been arguing as much since the birth of philosophy! But since they only had the idiom of philosophy to evidence their case, philosophers found it easy to be skeptical of their skepticism. Cognitive science, however, is building a far more perilous case.

So to round up: Traditional theoretical knowledge of the human simply does not command the kind of consensus we might expect from a genuinely privileged epistemic relationship. It seems to possess some practical efficacy, but no more than what we would expect from a distinct (i.e., heuristic) epistemic relationship. And so far, at least, the science continues to baffle and contradict our most profound metacognitive intuitions.

Is there anything else we can turn to, any feature of traditional theoretical knowledge of the human that doesn’t simply rub our noses in Square One? Some kind of gut feeling, perhaps? An experience at an old New England inn?

You tell me. I can remember what it was like listening to claims like those I’m advancing here. I remember the kind of intellectual incredulity they occasioned, the welling need to disabuse my interlocutor of what was so clearly an instance of “bad philosophy.” Alarmism! Scientism! Greedy reductionism! Incoherent blather! What about quus? I would cry. I often chuckle and shake my head now. Ah, Square One… What fools we were way back when. At least we were happy.


Scott Bakker has written eight novels translated into over dozen languages, including Neuropath, a dystopic meditation on the cultural impact of cognitive science, and the nihilistic epic fantasy series, The Prince of Nothing. He lives in London, Ontario with his wife and his daughter.

[1] A finding that arises out of the heuristics and biases research program spearheaded by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s recent, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides a brilliant and engaging overview of that program. I return to Kahneman below.

[2] Psychosemantics, p.vii.

[3] Using intentional concepts does not entail commitment to intentionalism, any more than using capital entails a commitment to capitalism. Tu quoque arguments simply beg the question, assume the truth of the very intentional assumptions under question to argue the incoherence of questioning them. If you define your explanation into the phenomena we’re attempting to explain, then alternative explanations will appear to beg your explanation to the extent the phenomena play some functional role in the process of explanation more generally. Despite the obvious circularity of this tactic, it remains the weapon of choice for great number of intentional philosophers.

[4] Another lonely traveller on this road is Stephen Turner, who also dares ponder the possibility of a post-intentional future, albeit in very different manner.

[5] Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 201.

[6] See Stephen M. Fleming and Raymond J. Dolan, “The neural basis of metacognitive ability.”

[7] See Natalie A. Emmons and Deborah Kelemen, “The Development of Children’s Prelife Reasoning.”

[8] Exaptation.

[9] I urge anyone not familiar with the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group to investigate their growing body of work on heuristics.

[10] Consciousness and the Brain, p. 79. For an extended consideration of the implications of the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory of Consciousness regarding this issue see, R. Scott Bakker, “The Missing Half of the Global Neuronal Workspace.”

173 thoughts on “Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future

  1. @S.C. Hickman:

    Heuristics will not replace intentional concepts, but as neurosciences begin over the coming years to understand more and more what is behind these older philosophical conceptions of intentionality we will begin to form new understandings of these processes that may or may not prove or disprove whether the philosophical terminology needs to be updated to fit the exacting truths or descriptions of the sciences. I personally have never seen the need to stipulate the priority of science over philosophy, nor of philosophy over the sciences: somehow we need to forge a diachronic and synchronic relation with the various concepts we use.

    When it’s phrased this way, I don’t see that the objection I raised holds — but I can’t see the apocalyptic consequences, either. In fact this is all the more confusing because it doesn’t seem as if this formulation actually is what Scott is getting up to, either in substance or in its implications.

    I think I’m running up against my comment limit now, but I will say that despite my objections there is a lot to chew on in this entire line of thought, and I’m glad Massimo’s letting us have the chance to do the chewing.


  2. While I side in general with a great majority of the critiques, and myself fail to see the professed novelty in Scott’s argument I think there may be quite a lot of talking past one another going on here. It seems Scott’s ‘post-intentionalist’ conception is not eliminating intention as an agent guidance system.

    ‘In other words, we get to keep our intentional guidance systems while leaving behind all the conundrums that arise when apply these systems to problem ecologies they simply have no hope of solving.’

    So it seems Scott’s ‘post-intentional’ world will include persons with perceptions & emotions that guide the way they make sense of, and the way they act in their world. These ‘intentional guidance systems’ are still guiding the persons, the persons just seem those systems more clearly from his model (if I am reading him correctly). I don’t see how this really differs from ejwinners example of Candrakirti’s Buddhist philosophical refinement of our conceptions of those things comprise intention (or the ‘manifest image’ or first person experience). The only difference appears to me to be an ideological preference negating one approach in preference of another ‘science’.

    Regardless of our conceptions of what an ‘intention’ is, or what the ‘manifest image’ is, we all will continue to have them. I believe our personal and collective ‘anosognosia’ ( which is a disease state on a personal level) and which exists on a continuum will always best be enlightened by a complimentary acceptance of both philosophy and science. Yes we need to be aware of the blind spots (‘intentional neglect’) inherent in our reflections and science can help inform them, yet we are only beholden to the neglect when we cling to tightly to any specific conception.

    We certainly have made a great deal of progress within square one, and that progress comes from repeating the cycle of accepting uncertainty, becoming curious, discovering new improved guides to our vision and seeing the new uncertainties that emerge. I don’t feel the case has been made that science yet to come will somehow radically change the way this process operates.


  3. I watched the video at and I thought they and Scott were saying almost the same thing in different ways. I think when Scott talks about problem ecologies he’s saying that some kinds of intellectual inquiry are well suited to address some kinds of question and not well suited to others. Economics is well suited to understanding inflation in the Weimar Republic and less so regarding inflation in the instants after the Big Bang, and vice-versa for quantum physics. The question Scott seems to be asking is whether philosophy is well suited to answer questions such as ‘what is the nature of the relationship between the human mind and brain?’ ‘How is it possible for human beings to create original mathematics?’ and ‘What is the nature of human language?’

    In this paragraph I’m just guessing, but Scott seems to be saying no, or at least probably not. He says that neuroscience suggests that only a tiny fraction of all the neurological activity of the brain can be accessed consciously. He says only that tiny fraction is available for philosophical inquiry. He says that tiny fraction has been selected by evolution for practical rather than philosophical uses. He says that since the neurological activity available to philosophical reflection is only a tiny fraction of the total and is selected for other than philosophical purposes the odds that fraction happens to provide the information philosophers need to answer the questions philosophy asks is quite small. Scott asks that philosophers who do believe they have the information needed to answer questions like those listed above explain how they acquired that information.

    Regarding the ‘semantic apocalypse’ I am not as concerned as Scott because I have more faith than he in the invincibility of human meta-ignorance. However I do think it’s worthwhile to ask if and how humanity’s conception of itself will change when our species acquires the same engineering control over the human mind that we now have over the natural world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Also Scott might suggest the inability of philosophers to achieve consensus regarding questions of this type during the three thousand years human beings have been philosophizing indicates that the methods and/or the information with which philosophers conduct inquires into questions of this kind are fundamentally flawed.


  5. A small cub asked his father, “Where do cubs come from?”. The big father lion answered, “They come from the sun god. You see every spring the sun god becomes strong and a few months later the cubs are born”. hmm the cub answered, our teacher told us there is no god but the heat of the sun invokes a heuristic in the mother lion which causes the birth of cubs.

    OK all of you users of those highly developed language cortices, if the Bible teaches anything, humans are instinctual killers. The western tribes never murdered a buffalo just for it skins and those skins adam and eve wore probably were not made by a god. Likewise before Cain killed his brother, the brother was killing lambs and offering them up as sacrifices.

    As a reader of both Scientia and TPB, feel free to visit Scott’s blog and throw more verbal spears back and forth.


  6. I agree with chaosmogony on the S.C Hickman quote he posted right above previous post. I have no objection with that quote. If Scott also agrees with that quote then there is probably just some language problem separating us.


  7. Scott,
    (Again, an overly long response, needing two posts.)

    One of the problems here may be a clash-of-traditions misunderstanding. Although you mention both Heidegger and Wittgenstein in the article, on your blog it seems clear that your reading was primarily in the Phenomenological tradition, Husserl-to-Derrida. Readings in science have led you to revolt against that tradition, but in order to do so, you seem determined to reverse polarities in certain Phenomenological terminologies and analyses – which, would be understandable, since that’s the kind of move one sees in revolutionary discourse.

    Forgive me for writing loosely for need of brevity. In the Phenomenological tradition, ‘intentionality’ has a specific technical sense, as a necessary, inevitable function of consciousness. A great deal of stress is put on bracketing intentionality in order to discover the truth of the intentional object under analysis – which of course creates blind-spot paradoxes (like, ‘how can I analyze an object my consciousness intends toward, if I need to bracket that intentionality?’). So, much you say begins to make sense once I see you may be assuming these blind-spot paradoxes effectively resolve if we apply eliminativist re-descriptions of consciousness.

    Another issue: Since human consciousness itself is an intentional object for consciousness in analysis, and the subjective human consciousness is intending the analysis, that also suggests a problematic of what it means to be a human consciousness trying to address itself. A number of projects developed out of this problematic, the most famous being Heidegger’s attempt to resolve it ontologically in Being and Time. Your theory would seem to make hash of such an ontology, and the human and its supposed consciousness would become mere tokens for epistemic events analyzable scientifically.

    At this point, the theory you’re working on moves into speculation of the implications of this, including (presumably) not only the development of ‘conscious robots,’ but of robotized humans.

    I won’t comment on this last point, because its articulation seems to require further development.

    On ‘intentionality,’ one problem is that most readers here understand it in psychological and linguistic senses developed in Anglo-American traditions. As I noted before, there are a wide variety of strong theories of this understanding of intentionality, almost none of them involving the sense used technically in the Phenomenological tradition. Similarly, neither the ontological project of Being and Time, nor the epistemological project embedded in Deconstruction, nor like efforts to model intentionality beyond the question of consciousness, are either understood or appreciated by many readers here.

    I also was trained in the Continental traditions, so I get some of your drift. However, I never saw the need to revolt against that tradition, I simply learned from it then let it go. (I’ve already discussed the commitments this led me to.) Consequently, I sympathize with your need to attack that tradition, I also understand why many readers are not impressed with this. The Phenomenological project – in all its guises – seems simply a failure (except as specialized literary criticism).


  8. (Final reply to Bakker, Part 2)

    There is another clash-of-traditions going on here, I think, of related but different nature.

    I noted before that it occurred to me that your modeling of intentionality seems to be a ‘top-down’ construction. That is, you seem to presume the brain -here I clarify, specifically the brain-as-mind – to be the locus of intentionality and its problematics, including the possibility of consciousness at all. If so, this is a view you may have have inherited from the Phenomenological tradition.

    But some of us here have a ‘bottom-up’ understanding of conscious. We are materialists (of one form or another) who assume that the body generates consciousness, an inheritance of our evolutionary history as a particularly complicated animal that has had to rely on its wits and immediate adaptability to survive (rather than, say, big teeth or feathers). In other words we assume the problems of consciousness, ‘self,’ intentionality (in the psychological sense), etc., are problems of relating these phenomena to an animal responding to the world (social and material) in specialized ways that – hopefully – enhance its survival. We don’t start by assuming a consciousness that must somehow find its way into a material world in order to acquire certain knowledge. Consequently, the questions we ask are somewhat different than your own, and we may be less surprised than you seem to be, by the implications of the sciences that explore our materiality.

    Speaking solely for myself, personally, I just don’t have the sense of ‘self’ that would be threatened by the discoveries you think neurosciences will be making. I am completely content to live out life as an empirical person who pays his taxes, while maintaining cognitive skepticism concerning any supposed ‘self’ or its presumed intentionality. My interest in consciousness is not ‘what-it-is,’ but how it works. I already assume that what we refer to as ‘the mind’ is a self-referential principle and not anything substantial, and that its epistemic ground is both fragile and contingent, threatened always by external events (say, an electric shock), social events, or internal biochemistry.

    And I understand that my use of the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ here bring this sentence under suspicion, but that sort of game amused me when I was still reading Derrida, now it just gets in the way of clear communication. We speak the language we do to communicate with others concerning shared interests. Trying not to do so simply closes down conversation. Wittgenstein’s demolition of the hope for a private language is not simply about logical problems in language construction – its about living with other people.

    Again, I don’t quite see the pay off one might get from the philosophy you’re trying to develop, although I don’t say that there isn’t any. While I find your thinking interesting, I confess it has yet won me over.

    (As to Bundy, he’s an educated sociopath, using big words to excuse his lack of conscience. I am unimpressed.)


  9. ej winner, who is the true proper materialist is a tit for tit game that has no end, with no conditions of arbitration by which we could ever settle upon the answer. But its worth pointing out that ‘Body generates consciousness’ is more the top down view, because it assumes an already constituted unity-of-body-in-environment. But the phenomenal sense of the unity of the body is just such a fact that requires explanation, and the explanation would come from neuroscience (vs ramanchandran has a lot to say about this). The infrastructural/bottom-up view, the one advocated by cognitive neuroscience, and the one scott takes for granted is that the appearance of consciousness is a product of recursive information integration of the populations of neurons that make up the thalamocortical system. Your suspension of metaphysics in a kind of postulative instrumentalism is admirable, but I fear this is simply not how the people understand their own intentionality; on the contrary, when the people use intentional terms they seem to really believe that those terms refer to honest to goodness intentional realities — selves, persons, minds, desires, right and wrong, and so forth.


  10. “It all begins and ends with The Argument: Free will is an illusion. The soul? Merely neurons firing. Someone is determined to prove the truth of The Argument, no matter who has to die.” —-promotional description of Scott’s novel Neuropath

    @S.C. Hickman: “The notion that the populace will go berserk is over the top.”
    I do think that the public discourse of science’s having disproved the existence of free-will, guilt, and ‘intentionality’ provides the rationale for outbreaks of psychotic violence. This trope of philosophical nihilism goes back to Dostoevsky at least. Certainly Scott had a reason to bring in Ted Bundy.

    Scott writes: “As for speculation as to how interpretations of the quantum can redeem traditional conceptions of the soul and free will, I genuinely hope you’re right, but I just don’t see it.”

    How can you deny that the scientific discovery of quantum indeterminacy inserts the concepts of freedom and choice into the finest texture of all physical reality? Far as we are from aligning human intentionality with quantum mechanics, are we really any closer to eclipsing it with neurobiology? I don’t see how neurobiology has so much as scratched the diamond surface of the experiential.

    Having spent some time at Scott’s blog, Three Pound Brain, I’d like to report there’s a good deal of writing there that I find far more cogent and interesting, on this same topic, than this contribution to Scientia Salon. “Outing the IT that Thinks” for instance.


  11. Aravis Tarkheena: “I see little reason to believe that any further arguments will make any more of a dent ….”

    I must agree with Aravis after reading many of your replies. Yet, many of your errors are shared by many Scientismists. Thus, I must point them out here.

    One, neuroscience is still far off from understanding the ‘mind’. Even if it did, it will definitely not help the eliminativism as Massimo’s ‘levels of description’ is correct.

    Two, science did not destroy the square one, and the current science cannot go beyond the square one. In order to go beyond the square one, we need to fix the current Scientism.

    I have used the term ‘physicsism’ (not physicalism), which encompasses the following attributes.
    a. Physicsism consists of both physical universe (as expression) and spirituality (as essence). See .

    b. Physicsism is absolute-determinism. While which girl would become my wife and which one out the billion sperms of mine would become my kid were not determined at the point of inception of this physical universe, all ‘laws’ (physics, biology, mathematics, etc.) were absolutely determined at that point. That is, the ‘life’ must emerge. The intelligence, human consciousness and human spirituality must manifest.

    c. While Massimo’s ‘levels of description’ is correct, all the high level manifestations must be linked to the bottom of physics laws. For intelligence, a counting device (such as a Turing computer) must be imbedded in the elementary particles. For consciousness, all items in this entire universe must be uniquely identified (with physics laws).

    Scott: “Prove to me that you’ve made it to Square Two.”
    By showing the point c, that the highest evolution manifestations (intelligence, consciousness and spirituality) are in fact imbedded in the physics-laws, they should be the proofs for you.

    First, the “Large Complex System Principle” — there is a set principles which govern all large complex systems regardless of whatever those systems are, a number set, a physics set, a life set or a vocabulary set.

    Corollary — the laws or principles of a “large complex system x” will have their correspondent laws and principles in a “large complex system y.”

    Second, the examples.
    One, in math: for a Y-field, a function F in Y can be evaluated by F(Y) dY.
    Two, in physics: for a spacetime field, the function P (momentum) can be evaluated by P(s) dS, such as the quantum principle {delta P x delta S >= ħ}.
    Three, in genetics: the probability of error during gene-dynamics (replication, recombination, etc.) is W. The probability of error during the W-repair is Y. It is easy to show that {delta W x delta Y > 0 = K}. That is, the gene-dynamics has an equation similar to the quantum equation. Then, the entire quantum field theory can be easily transplanted into biology.


  12. @ Scott Bakker
    Thanks for the answer!

    Rsbakker quotes me, November 7, 2014:
    “Patrice Ayme: “And what is a “machine”, pray tell? And what is “mechanical”?”
    Then Scott ponders: “You mean fundamentally? I have no clue. But what does that have to do with the central role mechanism plays in the life sciences? As it stands, we know enough to cure diseases. Is that not enough?
    As for speculation as to how interpretations of the quantum can redeem traditional conceptions of the soul and free will, I genuinely hope you’re right, but I just don’t see it.”

    Yes, I meant fundamentally. Here we are dealing with the ultimate fundamentals. If we try to view ourselves as “machines”. We have to try to define what those could be. Until Fall 1900, “machines” were basically strict implications, just like: [A>B & B>C] > [A>C}.

    This stopped to be true, when Planck introduced the Quantum. Let me rephrase this: the set of hypotheses defined as the Quantum implied that effect, that is cause, was behaving as if it had (a bit) a mind of its own.

    Indeed (now plugging in De Broglie’s wave principle, that to each body of energy-momentum p is associated a particular wave, itself quantized) all and any interaction have this lumpy, probabilistic character. In other words, machines, in the classical sense, are, fundamentally, impossible.

    Thus, if biological organisms are machines, they are not traditional machines, but, rather, Quantum machines.

    Quantum machines are causal, but as if they were playing dice. This reintroduces, at the smallest scale, the inscrutable ways of the old fashion god. And closes where the soul arises to inspection.

    The usual retort addressed to the preceding is to claim that biology is not fundamental, it is made of classical mechanisms.

    However this pious desire is obviously the result of our ignorance, and the power of habit: out of millions of imaginable fundamental biological processes, we know of three where the Quantum plays a fundamental role: chlorophyll (Quantum non-locality), vison, and magnetic field detection (spintronics). Punchline: the other fundamental processes are not as well known.

    The realm of the Quantum is not where one “sees” with photons anymore. One needs a more global notion of sight, for example learning to “see” with atomic phases. All the old categories shift, travel, and metamorphosize.

    By the way, we know how to cure very few diseases, and certainly not the fundamental one, aging.


  13. Hi Scott, you are probably right that it is hard to upset a neuroscientist with this angle.

    And given this position I want to deflate this idea of a coming apocalypse. People need to chill out.

    I’m with SC Hickman on not having a problem reconciling philosophy with new scientific findings, I mean that is just “updating”. As has been mentioned some of these potential disconnects have been recognized for some time. Ancient Greek atomist descriptions of free will being ‘random swerves in the motions of atoms’ seem almost up to date shorthand for modern arguments regarding the contribution of quantum effects to free will (which btw I do not agree with). In a sense science is weeding out all the potential models of mind, to get to the better ones.

    It is not clear if you believe cog neuro is really undercutting concepts of free will. That is undoubtedly the most important of the potential “illusions” we have about ourselves which could make a mess of how we discuss things. Well, it isn’t getting removed by science. The evidence presented to that effect is overblown, and methods flawed. It just isn’t going to happen.

    This is where I would dispute your idea we do not have a privileged position. Yes our intuitions do not have a privileged position regarding understanding the mechanisms within the anatomical black box, but they certainly do with respect to checking any scientific findings once they reach the level of accurately representing everything in the black box (and so what it delivers).

    We have a sense of free will, and it does drive motivation and action which means it has a reality (even the hardcore cog neuro guys overselling their position recognize that). It is not libertarian free will, but echoing Dennett, we don’t need that (how would that even work?) and why would we want it?

    You appear to be worried that this would have an effect on morality. While I would argue that it undercuts universal, objective moral claims, I have no worry that it would undercut ethical behavior. That you can do whatever you want is already the case. The question is what do you want? Neuroscience is only likely to discover the nest of neural networks generating the internal ethical intuitions Hume described as underlying our actions.

    The only creeping fear I have is not semantic but the increased practical control we will have over thoughts and behavior. The tricks criminals understood for so long, can be enhanced and may very well be accepted as legitimate forms of “improving” people. I don’t think humans can or will ever know what is “best” for “humanity” or anything else, and we could very well create worse dystopias than we are already have in our quest for a unified, homogenized idea of what humans should believe, and how they should act.

    If it comes to that, I hope it ends up more like Brave New World than Star Trek’s the Borg collective.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Scott, its an historical account of human failings at intuiting their own mental workings, with pessimism at the capacity of science to succeed, ultimately, in the task. Although you seem to be rhetorically building up science and decrying intentionality in philosophy, I read it as ultimate pessimism. But why? History is fine, and we do not have the answer to “what mind constitutes”, but why be pessimistic? Kanneman relies on the inaccessibility of the subjective to objective explanation, which is also fine to a point. There may be very satisfactory means of mechanical explanation for the subjective experience of “mind” simply using better and more precise correlation between actual neurons firing and subjective experiences, and this will only get better with time. Correlation is not causation, but we don’t need to make a robot with a “mind” for satisfaction with objective enquiry depending on how our correlations proceed in future. I just don’t see much security in the view, beyond the historical fact of slow progress and the possible inaccessibility of the subjective state to “absolute” mechanical “reproduction”, well known and oft considered. I think the better approach is to present a mechanism that might challenge those two “realities”, rather than use them for a slam dunk into a tea cup. More progress and less rhetoric would be my advice.


  15. I should add, and I assume it has been said in other replies, that the subjective of which you are so suspicious is the same subjective that uses objectivity to get beyond intuitive failings, using logic and science . Intentionality in the sense of “reliable” content is only reliable to the extent its content comprises proven facts, as a subjective that applies objectivity. This returns some dignity to intentionality while necessarily pairing it with science to objectify a subjectivity that clearly seeks objectification (speaking for myself).


  16. Why we do the things we do is a very big question. If we really want answers, it is possible to design scientific experiments to test any falsifiable hypothesis or theory of human behavior, but many of these experiments would require conditions that would be illegal in most countries and certainly unethical. The findings of cognitive science that the author cites are from experiments in which the human subjects were either aware they were in an experiment, or from experiments which caused no real harm to the subjects. There is probably a vast amount of data in various social media (including games) to which humans make themselves willing subjects, but most of the data is proprietary and not available for scientific research. Most of human behavior seems to me to be historically contingent: future behavior builds upon an irreversible chain of past events. Human behavior also seems to be relationally contingent: our experiences include communion with our humans. It may not be possible to build a timeless theoretical structure to explain the self conscious individuals in the world. The Epicureans will not be pleased by this situation. The Tragedians, however, will be.


  17. Since the argument of determinism versus free will is becoming part of the debate, may I offer a few observations:
    Referring back to my previous observation, time is not so much that vector from a determined past into a probabilistic future, which we experience as individual actors, but the cumulative process by which the probabilistic future becomes the determined past.
    Now there is the classical deterministic argument that the laws of nature will provide only one course of action, determined by the eternal laws of nature, therefore the future must ultimately be as determined as the past, or the quantum Everrittian argument that the past remains as probabilistic as the future and so must branch out into multiworlds.
    As for the first, while the laws might be fully deterministic, since information can only travel at a finite speed, the input into any event only arrives with the occurrence of that event and cannot be fully known prior to it, so the outcome cannot be fully determined prior to the event. As for the Everritt view, while the wave doesn’t fully collapse, the past does not physically exist anyway and that energy is just being transmitted onto other events in the physical present and the connections that are made, simply divert the energy in other directions.
    As for the notion of freewill, it is a bit of an oxymoron anyway. To will is to determine. We put our intellectual capacities into distinguishing between alternatives and that process decides our actions. To simply randomly chose would be a complete lack of expression of will. We affect our external world, as it affects us. If that feedback didn’t exist, we would have no connection, or effect on our world. We are part of the process. Both cause and effect.


  18. @astrodreamer You say: “How can you deny that the scientific discovery of quantum indeterminacy inserts the concepts of freedom and choice into the finest texture of all physical reality? Far as we are from aligning human intentionality with quantum mechanics, are we really any closer to eclipsing it with neurobiology? I don’t see how neurobiology has so much as scratched the diamond surface of the experiential.”

    A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Of course certain new atheists like Same Harris and others have taken this to mean that “free will” is an illusion. And, after conducting some tests on “belief” in this very notions some researchers discovered that “Most people recognize that just because ‘my brain made me do it,’ that does not mean that I didn’t do it of my own free will,” the researchers said.

    My thinking on this is the same as other notions, tropes, etc. All this concepts that have been used over time were invented to describe through self-reflection or recursive thinking on or about the Mind and its workings. That stated I think that the neurosciences will eventually play a part in challenging many of our current preconceptions and concepts. Does this mean they will do away with this tried and true ‘manifest image’ concepts. Probably not. For many people these concepts have now become so embedded in cultural frames of reference: politics, religion, philosophy – all the usual suspects and belief systems, that I doubt the “knowledge” and “data” uncovered and made into “information” will make much of a difference.

    It will only make an impact when and if some government (dystopian scenario) decides to use this information and use implants (future scenario) to manipulate our decision making process; or, to even shape our decision making processes. The point being that the brain can be manipulated. The question then would be: would the person know it if being manipulated against its free-will or not? Since such an experiment has yet to be done one can only speculate: and, of course, speculative philosophy is just that – speculative, open to many interpretations.


  19. @astrodreamer I think this is my final comment allowance?

    Either way been interesting. When it comes down to is I think we’re truly discussing not belief about intentionality. What we’re bogged down in is “descriptions”: descriptive concepts from varying realms and domains of thought. My gut feeling is that we will always have a multiplicity of descriptions rather than some monolithic and codified grand narrative or theory-of-everything concerning the brain/Mind issues.

    If anything philosophy is about the creation of concepts and vocabularies: descriptions proper and honed to the current truth claims of the age. Obviously its much more than that, but at least in moral philosophy and the normativity and epistemic thresholds there is a need to incorporate many of the findings of the new sciences. Philosophy has always done this, and in ages past many philosophers were the vanguard of the sciences, mathematics, etc. Even scientists are enmeshed in certain philosophical frameworks whether they want to admit it or not: there is not escaping one’s cultural milieu: we are all bound by “habit” – even linguists have realized that differing languages impose differing cultural and modes of habit upon thought. Do we think scientists can escape such constrictures? No.

    When it comes down to it: Scott is like many thinkers – a thinker of one thought: metacognitive neglect. Whether it is of use, or will prove to be what he thinks it is in his Blind-Brain Theory? Who knows? As one says, he’s going to have to go through the old school of publishing and peer review, which entails a lot of high-pressure debate, challenges, etc. What we can see from this small post is that there is some need of clarity in his rhetoric, the need to refine his language into the parlance of academic lingo if it is to be as Foucault would have said to become a part of the discursive practices of our day.


  20. I agree with Massimo Pigliucci, the tone of some comments addressed to Scott Bakker is unusually harsh. I guess that, basically, he wants to know what evidences intentional theories of intentionality, so he doesn’t deserve such reactions.

    I’m also surprised about Ejwinner’s claims, he says that was trained in the Continental traditions and consider that the Phenomenological project – in all its guises – seems simply a failure (except as specialized literary criticism). This statement seems to me quite risky and unfounded and doesn’t fit with the nucleus of Western philosophy, which is in a great deal pure phenomenology. If the Phenomenological project is a failure, many pre-Socratics, Skeptics, Sophists, Socratics, Platonics, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, J.P. Sartre, Peirce, and many more are a failure.

    That said, I wonder if there is an impostor at the root of human knowledge and perception that distorts what intentionality is all about. This is a complex matter that shows that our scientific and philosophical information about the self might still be in its infancy. Is there an “otherness” that isn’t available to the human knowledge? It’s the habitual, inertial chattering the mental wall that conceals the otherness and, therefore, prevents to know what intentionality really means?


  21. David Brightly I don’t read it as rejecting intentionality. I think the primary thing he is about there rather was discussed in another SciSal piece a few weeks ago — Justified True Belief. I see intentionality there as adjunct to JTB. He could also be read as talking indirectly about things such as subselves, to which intentionality also connects. He may be moving from some ideas of intentionality, but he’s not anti-intentional.

    EJSome interesting thoughts from phenomenology, especially the first part of your “final reply.” It is interesting that you refer to that as a game.

    That all said, Scott may be thinking from that point of view, but I don’t think so. As for me, I don’t have a sense of self, or anything else, that is threatened by Scott, either. I wouldn’t be threatened by it, were it more nearly right than I think it actually is, either.

    Otherwise, I might not be quite so harsh as Abe. Massimo, if you want to invite Scott back, fine in my world. But, I’ll be armed for bear in my first comment this time.

    Michael Murden Since philosophy has plenty to say about unconscious and subconscious issues, that attempt to “rescue” Scott doesn’t ring true for me.

    Seth Leon I think Scott’s Footnote 3, among other things, cuts against your interpretation.

    Back to Scott, though. It’s not (that?) personal, but I have moved from skeptical to cynical (the psychological POV, not the capital-C philosophy). Maybe Scott’s post here is in part to “market,” subliminally or similarly, an upcoming new dystopian novel. Or even generate material for plotlines for such a new novel.

    Let me help him out.

    “The amateur would-be philosophers listened with tightly beaded eyes to the neuronihilist, refusing to accept his clear, cold, dispassionate statements that, because they had not fully shed their Square One sense of personhood, they were not ready of, nor worthy of, a Borgian transhumanist jump to Square Two.”

    There’s your opening paragraph for Chapter Six!

    Your title? “Ecos (sic, think about it) on the Once-Dark Side of the Moon”

    All I think Aravis and Abe have picked up on this well. Scott really doesn’t want “charitable interpretations.” I quote:

    Is there anything else we can turn to … that doesn’t simply rub our noses in Square One?

    He wants to be confrontational, as in, “Here’s your spinach; eat it!” That’s as part of claiming to have found something “New.” (That will be in Chapter Seven of the next book.)

    Here’s another analogy. Scott has taken a jigsaw puzzle made, in part, of actual neuroscience findings of others, put the pieces in a big pile, then …

    Smashed them with a fist and said, “Look at my Rubik’s Cube.”

    Indeed, neuroscience is giving us some interesting jigsaw pieces to look at and assemble in new ways. It’s not giving us a Rubik’s Cube … which would be, of course, a new game. It’s still giving us a jigsaw puzzle, just with new pieces.


  22. @S.C. Hickman. You are referring to the Libet studies — but these only illuminate spontaneous, reactive and trivial choices, choices between alternatives that involve no personal motivations or values, choices which are in fact requested to be random and don’t differ from the choices made by mice in spontaneous alternation experiments. They do not engage any of the mental processes that come into play in choosing say whether to marry, where to live, what to read, etc. If ‘free will’ matters it is not in order to make choices that are meaningless. Libet merely timed one of the capacities of our magnificent neurons — how we don’t need to be consciously willing to stop at a red light. Libet himself allowed that we were still capable of ‘won’t power’!

    Those studies are 30 years old. The fact that in multi-million dollar labs teams of trained scientists, with merely an oscilloscope, an electroencephalogram and an electromyograph, are actually able to take carefully isolated individuals and, (with their permission), predict fully 3 tenths of a second before hand, correctly more often than not, what color M&M they will choose! Holy Kreskin! “Scientists prove free will does not exist!!”

    No matter how reliable a finding, this is less impressive than a good many ESP studies. I don’t see the inexorable science doing its work here. I see scientismists clustering.

    I’ve come up with a short definition of scientism: faith in science.

    I see you fish in the pool of speculative realism. What have you caught? I’ve been waiting for a copy of the Quadruple Object for months.

    Farewell for now Scott Bakker —


  23. Just like politics the one who wins the debate does not always triumph in the final outcome. In fact most political debates are about repeating the party line and enforcing the party agenda to hold the base vote. Nothing wrong with having an agenda like BBT because the arguments themselves are a chance to learn. Like the free will debate itself, we are not made to always make the free choice but rather to make the best choice which is why we don’t eat the rotting food. Even the Libet experiment proves the brain is a system of probabilistic learning so we are already “making the choice” before we are conscious of it. I wonder if the experiment could be primed to prove if the person is trying to please or achieve a reward. I’m sure with enough retraining and learning we could trick the experiment which is what all forms of sports and skill learning is all about. Libertarian positions are important but brains are organs of social group learning which is why the people writing on this blog have a strong if not disagreeable understanding of each other.


  24. Seth: “Regardless of our conceptions of what an ‘intention’ is, or what the ‘manifest image’ is, we all will continue to have them. I believe our personal and collective ‘anosognosia’ ( which is a disease state on a personal level) and which exists on a continuum will always best be enlightened by a complimentary acceptance of both philosophy and science. Yes we need to be aware of the blind spots (‘intentional neglect’) inherent in our reflections and science can help inform them, yet we are only beholden to the neglect when we cling to tightly to any specific conception.”

    Certainly. But if we agree that the deliverances of philosophical reflection need to be interpreted in light of scientific evidence, then we need to brace ourselves for the possibility (I’m arguing probability here, of course) that many of the positive assumptions informing the manifest image are actually thoroughgoing artifacts of neglect. This is basically what the positive sum of my ‘Blind Brain Theory’ account consists in: interpretations of various long-standing positions and debates on the proper Square Two as neglect driven, metacognitive short circuits. (For an example: )

    In a sense what I’m offering is a kind of metacritique of reason, claiming that intentional philosophy requires a kind of metacognitive dogmatism. And in a flat-footed naturalistic sense, one has to ask what kind of metacognitive capacity it would take for a brain such as ours to somehow apprehend the kinds of extraordinary ‘inner realities’ that intentionalist philosophers posit – especially given the amount of work required to cognize mere loaves of bread!


  25. David Brightly: That’s a great link, but it quite clearly demonstrates what I am not talking about. I’m saying intentional and phenomenal idioms are not what intentionalists continually insist they are. Everyday discourse need not be chucked, only traditional philosophical interpretations of that discourse. It’s the philosopher’s Square Two that’s eliminated, not the sumo wrestler’s Square One.


  26. Victorpanzica: I would just like to second your invitation, V. The more critical you are of what I’ve said here, the more TPB could use you!

    I may weigh 800 lbs, but I ain’t no gorilla!


  27. chaosmogony: “When it’s phrased this way, I don’t see that the objection I raised holds — but I can’t see the apocalyptic consequences, either. In fact this is all the more confusing because it doesn’t seem as if this formulation actually is what Scott is getting up to, either in substance or in its implications.”

    The difference is that I have a particular view of what this process will look like. It’s not a matter of intentionalist philosophy mapping out ‘Square Two space’ and cognitive science mapping out a space that overlaps some region of that space. I’m saying intentional idioms themselves admit a wholly causal description, right down to their apparent incompatibility with causal idioms. I don’t think that causal cognition can replace what they provide, however.

    You’re welcome to continue at TPB, chaosmogony.


  28. Ejwinner: I agree with much of what you say regarding the phenomenological idiom that haunts my thought and the way this makes my sensibility ‘alien’ to analytic audience, who have a more conceptual understanding of intentionality. In Husserl, it becomes almost sensuous. But I never ceased reading analytic works, Dennett especially, so the bottom-up sensibility you mention feels ‘homey’ to me as well. In fact, having utterly abandoned transcendentalisms, it’s the only home I know.


  29. astrodreamer: “How can you deny that the scientific discovery of quantum indeterminacy inserts the concepts of freedom and choice into the finest texture of all physical reality? Far as we are from aligning human intentionality with quantum mechanics, are we really any closer to eclipsing it with neurobiology? I don’t see how neurobiology has so much as scratched the diamond surface of the experiential.”

    I’ve never seen the problem as a deterministic one, nor do I know of anyone interested in neural mechanisms who views those mechanisms as other than stochastic. And I fear I don’t understand how quantum indeterminacy could have anything to do with ‘freedom.’ Noise strikes me as very treacherous ground upon which to assert intentional experiential verities. I understand the associational promise, but I’ve never been able to see the inferences purportedly provided. It all just smacks of god of the gaps argumentation.


  30. Patrice Ayme: The term ‘ultimate fundamentals’ always makes me itchy. This isn’t to say I don’t buy quantum physics, only that I don’t have much faith in our ability to draw robust inferences from things like the standard model to things like consciousness and biology. This certainly isn’t to suggest that I’ve closed the door on this possibility (I personally think that EMFs will play a big role in our natural understanding of consciousness) – things are just too weird for me to comfortably rule anything out.

    What I do think is evident is that metacognition is nothing like the reflective capacity that philosophers have presumed all these millennia.


  31. SocraticGadfly – This part of something I posted on Scott’s Blog. It is my attempt to summarize something I found fascinating about what I saw as part of Scott’s argument, not necessarily something I’m claiming for my self:

    1. Philosophy of Mind (or Intentional Philosophy or whatever we call it) is constrained in its ability to create knowledge by its access to observational/experimental data in the same way that science is so constrained.
    2. The activities of the human mind are merely neurological.
    3. The observational/experimental data Philosophers of Mind must access in order to create knowledge is merely neurological.
    4. Philosophers of Mind have little to no access to observational/experimental data regarding neurological activity.
    5. Therefore Philosophers of Mind have little to no ability to create knowledge.
    6. Therefore the books and other writings produced by Philosophers of Mind contain little or nothing that could be classified as knowledge.

    Is what philosophy has to say about unconscious and subconscious issues more like what astronomy has to say about the stars or more like what astrology has to say about the stars? If the former are there mechanisms by which philosophers acquires information about unconscious and subconscious issues analogous to the methods by which astronomers acquire information about the stars? If so what are those methods? If no such methods exist then what reasons, if any, do you have for believing that philosophy is more like astronomy than like astrology?

    Is it conceivable that neuroscience is in the process of supplanting philosophy of mind the way astronomy supplanted astrology and chemistry supplanted alchemy?

    Liked by 1 person

  32. brandholm: “You appear to be worried that this would have an effect on morality. While I would argue that it undercuts universal, objective moral claims, I have no worry that it would undercut ethical behavior. That you can do whatever you want is already the case. The question is what do you want? Neuroscience is only likely to discover the nest of neural networks generating the internal ethical intuitions Hume described as underlying our actions.”

    Have you had a chance to check out ? It’s a short piece, and it purely speculative, but it does a good job laying out my worries. Once you see our ethical sense as being a matter of onboard heuristic machinery that is profoundly dependent on its environments possessing a certain ‘informational profile,’ then I think the profundity of the challenge facing us becomes more clear. I’m curious to see what you think… Very much so.


  33. Michael Murden: You do an excellent job, as always, Michael, of distilling my view. What I would add, though, is the notion that our metacognitive capacity turns on a neurobiological system somehow, and that this system needs to actually access information in some way. This makes it more difficult to charge me with begging the question against intentionalists in general, as opposed to just the dualists.

    As for the semantic apocalypse, trust me, I will become a drip more convincing with every passing year! 😉


  34. Scott Bakker: “… our traditional assumptions simply could not withstand scientific scrutiny…. scientific overthrow of our traditional theoretical understanding of ourselves amounts to a kind of doomsday, …”

    I showed in my previous comments that this statement above is wrong. However, I will endorse Scott’s essay if the Doomsday is pointed to the ‘current Popperian sciences’:
    what it sees is all there could be,
    with unlimited ability to ignore its ignorance,
    sees all non-scientific-wisdoms as perpetually darkness.

    I have showed that the current Popperian physics (Pp) is genetically blind for seeing the essence of Nature-physics (spirituality: timelessness and immutability; keys for the four-locks). It (Pp) confuses the ‘event-uncertainty (quantum principle)’ from the ‘absolute-law-determinacy’ (ALD); all laws of nature are absolutely determined. The quantum principle is only a low rank frontline traffic police. With this ALD, the ‘parallel-multiverse’ must go.

    In the article of ‘Denialism’, I discussed two types.

    One, denialism caused by ‘ignorance’. Most of the street-walking religious people who deny the evolution could be the result of ‘ignorance-denialism’.

    Two, denialism caused by ‘dishonesty’. Many scientists who deny the ‘wisdoms’ are based on ‘ideology’ or self-interests (research-funding, etc.) as most of them should be wise enough to evaluate the issues in question.

    In the case of Popperian-physics denying the spirituality, it was initially the result of ignorance-denialism before the ‘keys’ of the four-locks are known. Now, it is a dishonesty-denialism.

    If the spirituality case is too deep, I would like to show an easier one. The modern evolutionary synthesis (MES) rescued the ‘phenotype-variation’ with the ‘mutation’ of the genetics. Yet, mutation can be caused in two ways: externally or internally.

    In fact, the external-caused-mutations play very minimal role in evolution. For single cell organism, the majority of the gene-variation comes from horizontal-gene-transfer. For complex organism, the meiosis/mitosis are well-defined-‘internal’ gene-dynamics, and any external pressure is at best acting as a ‘boundary’ condition. With the somatic/germline organism, most of the external pressures are absorbed by the somatic body and having very little effect on the inheritance. These are simple facts, much easier than the physics-spirituality issue. That is, the MES rescue for the Darwin-mechanism (DM) is wrong.

    Thus far, the examples for DM are peppered moth (light vs dark), super-bug (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) and shape of bird-beaks, at best as the cause for ecotypes and some sub-species. Not a single taxa diverging folk is explained by DM. On the other hand, the genetic-variations are mainly the results of the well-defined genetic-dynamics, having very little to do with any kind of selection’, external or otherwise. With the genetic-equation {delta W x delta Y > 0 = K}, it is not hard to ‘derive’ all those genetic-processes (meiosis/mitosis) in a genetic-field-theory.

    In fact, I do like some terms {metacognitive incapacity, darkness-neglect, etc.) used by Bakker.


  35. No answer, Scott, to my posts? That’s a shame, I would have liked to have an exchange about it. This discussion can split any which way, given the way Scott presented it, so there are a number of contentions, but don’t worry about Libet as a spin off into more abstracts. Just to be brief and clear, the answer to Scott is that intentionality is the basis for accumulation of objective knowledge, and that it objective knowledge does not automatically “appear”, it takes work and time, and it is not appropriate to decry that basis. The objective explanation for subjective intentionality is being explored by neuroscience continually, even if only by correlation, so be patient.

    Beyond that? Libet is nothing. Libet showed that the subjective experience of a thought (to move a wrist) is preceded by neural activity – did he expect that thought came from literally no preparation? All thoughts are from a build-up in neural activity, and Libet proves only that the brain may NOT be the basis for mind, because the build-up always has a basis in physical inputs and outputs at the brain. A brain doesn’t exist in isolation, even though there is an intact ongoing experience finalized there. It is also correlated to inputs and outputs, which show that the brain is engaged with wrist and other inputs and outputs (outputs shown in the scanned motor output cortices by Libet himself). This build-up to a thought and then to move a wrist, is as it should be if “the general anatomy” (everything other the the brain) is providing that build up.

    Anatomy must be the source, correlated in the Libet experiment directly to wrist cortices, but a full brain scan would reveal activity all over the place “correlating” to other functions for poise to flex, etc. Ipso facto, the general anatomy precedes and follows neural activity, which precedes a thought and follows it with a wrist action. Thought is by anatomy using a brain to finalize its signals. This is unassailable logic from Libet’s “facts”, which a few here might appreciate, from reading their posts. This is a point not raised anywhere else, so it may appear “confusing” to some, but let the logic speak. However, rather than engage too much in that spin off, I would direct you to my first paragraph above, which settles Scott’s issue, as I see it.


  36. Reading my post, it might assist the readers familiar with Libet in depth, to provide the logical next step to my Libet point. Libet is revealing, although it is becoming laboured and less relevant to Scott’s post – more to some replies here. It is that you are automatons until awareness is finalized. It is well known the you cannot see an eye input or any input until its signal is finalized, and this applies also to proprioception. This is, again, entirely normal and it is, again, also consistent with Libet having neural activity before finalization. The question is why should this be any different for thoughts directly related to actual eye or wrist moves? The direct relation is shown in Libet’s scan, which has a lovely smooth build up from thought to move shown in the wrist motor cortex. It need not be any different, and in fact the brain would merely integrate all anatomical signals in an intact frame, as thoughts that naturally, smoothly, accompany actual moves. Thoughts are from, and then to, anatomical moves, requiring finalization in one location to think above a move just made, and to make the next one. Let’s get into more accurate correlation to show how the brain is anatomically connected to anatomy in finalizing – always after a delay. By the way, avoid hypnotists, as they rely on the very fact that you are literally fractionally open to being read and led by others before you read yourself, due to split second delay between events and awareness, for finalization. If the hypnotist has a brain scan to “read” your build ups better, its even easier, but not fool proof as the build-up can go up or down willingly by the subject. Again, all quite normal, but we need to accept that is a state of permanent automatism between events (including proprioception!) and our awareness of them, until finalization. Logic is the way to make progress.


  37. Looking at the other comments, it seems to me that the most pointed issue about the OP is whether Jerry Fodor was being hysterical in the comment cited. Fodor I gather is an eminent philosopher, so unless it is widely agreed that Fodor had lost it in his comment, I really can’t understand why so many people should be angry at a blogger for sharing Fodor’s dismay. In the larger scheme of things, surely so much venom would be better spit at Fodor, the target who actually counts for something.

    Also I am a little puzzled as to why it is claimed that the OP didn’t give reasons for agreeing that science is undermining the intentionalist view of mind. In the third from last paragraph, the OP specifically says: “Memory is not veridical. The feeling of willing is inferential. Attention can be unconscious. The feeling of certainty has no reliable connection to rational warrant. We make informed guesses as to our motives. Innumerable biases afflict both automatic and deliberative cognitive processes. Perception is supervisory, and easily confounded in many surprising ways. And the list of counter-intuitive findings goes on and on.”

    The findings listed are not particularly controversial. Some comments have noted this, and tried to claim that they are nothing new. I’m not quite sure why we who are not committed to academic philosophy should be offended if it weren’t truly novel. But the great problem is that academic philosophy, like most of society, has refused to accept any of this. So in one sense it all is as new as the morning dew. It is true that philosophy has ignored difficulties with the intentionality of the sort discussed in the OP in describing such huge portions of the human experience as infancy and sleep. And it is also true that such significant things as the behavior of soldiers in armies are hard to understand using intentionality. The tacit assumption that academic philosophy is entitled to ignore such problems may be satisfactory to its adherents. But for the rest of us, the additional tacit assumption that someone has to offer something novel as justification rather comes across as institutional arrogance.

    Because the OP shares the dread of a post-intentional society, there are no details spelled out. Horror writers know very well to leave as much as possible to the imagination! Reviewing the little list cited above… People accepting that eyewitness testimony could be less reliable than circumstantial evidence; People believing that taking drugs can cause changes they cannot stop consciously; People believing that unconscious feelings about race or gender roles or class can affect their behavior towards others; People pursuing evidence about propositions despite an immediate certainty they are wrong; People accepting that their motives may be mixed, or even reprehensible; People putting more stock in measuring instruments than their own senses. I think this sort of thing might be very uncomfortable, very hard on the vanity. It would be like waking up when someone throws open the drapes, painful to see so suddenly. But I’m just not feeling the existential angst myself.

    The old, cherished dead notions don’t need a gigantic mortuary temple, tendered by priests accepting a bounty of sacrificial offerings.


  38. The author is still convinced that he has hit us “with a sensibility they’ve never encountered before.” (A quick trip over to his blog confirms that.) He is also convinced that none of us has answered or even addressed his questions, re: a post-intentional future, not even Massimo! And we’ve been mean.

    Now, for the reality.

    1. The author has presented us with a mish-mash of Instrumentalism and Eliminativism re: intentional psychology. (Too many here have pointed this out to count.) To the extent that there is anything “we’ve never encountered” before, it’s either in his head or on his blog. (I have never encountered an argument, where I’ve had to go to another venue to find out what my interlocutor actually thinks of me.)

    2. I have rejected the very idea of a post-intentional future, because I don’t think there will be one, and I said as much to the author. The idea that there will — or *must* be one — depends upon a strong and crude epistemic reductionism that to my mind is completely indefensible. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that someone might successfully defend epistemic reductionism, but the author has not. Indeed, he has not even responded to this particular criticism. I suspect this is because he does not know what epistemic reductionism is, which is why I linked to my extensive discussion on the subject with Massimo, over at BHTV. There is no indication that he has checked it out.

    3. I have also suggested that the entire idea that science successively revolutionizes our conception of what “really” exists — and this idea is something the author’s thesis depends upon — involves a conception of “really existing” that runs afoul of Carnap’s distinction between internal and external questions in philosophy. It also runs afoul of some of the main threads in Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty.” Relative to a framework, you can speak of things existing — i.e. you can ontologically commit — but outside of any framework, such talk is meaningless. And given the point made in (2) — i.e. that epistemic reductionism is indefensible — there is every reason to think that the intentional framework — with its ontology — will continue to serve us well in perpetuity, even while science advances our understanding of the human actor at a different level of description.

    There has been no response to this either, by the author (either here or over there).

    4. Others have offered many, many other substantive criticisms.

    5. Thus, the fact hat the author continues to insist on his blog that he has challenged us with something we’ve never faced before and that all we’ve done is either fail to answer him or throw ad hominems suggests to me either that his engagement here is entirely cynical or he is genuinely confused. I hope it is not the former. But if it is the latter, then the question arises as to why the author refuses to allow himself to be educated? There are any number of subjects on which my knowledge is minimal or with regard to which I am an amateur, and I always find it fortunate, when I discover, in conversation, that someone actually knows something about it, so that I might learn something. There have been entire threads, here, at S.S., in which I have said nothing at all, because I am insufficiently educated on the subject and simply want to read and learn.

    What I don’t understand is a person who refuses to learn something, even from those who work in the relevant area professionally and moreover, doubles and triples down, when confronted on it.


  39. Scott has come in for so much criticism, but I, for one, agree with most of his thesis.

    He is arguing that:
    1. Science will show we are merely machines, incapable of true intentional behaviour.

    2. This belief will change our behaviour, leading to a post-intentional world.

    3. The post-intentional world will be a severely dysfunctional society.

    To better understand him, one should read his article – Reactionary Atheism ( .

    The entire discussion revolved around the first point. Most commentators vigorously disagreed. I also disagree, but I disagree because I believe that science cannot explain the first person experience of consciousness. Others say that no explanation can take away the fact that we are intentional creatures. I also agree with that.

    But the truth of assertion (1) does not matter. It is only enough that this attitude become widespread for the consequences (2) and (3) to follow.

    To see why this is true, see his article, Reactionary Atheism (, where he said

    _” To believe in meaning of any sort is to have faith in some version of ‘God.’ Finite or infinite, mortal or immortal, the intentional form is conserved–and as I hope to show, that form is supernatural. BBT(Blind Brain Theory) is a genuinely post-intentional theoretical position. According to it, there are no ‘meaning makers,’ objective or subjective. According to it, you are every bit as mythological as the God you would worship or honour.”_

    Society has seen the decline of religious belief and the rise of scientism. This has been accompanied by a decline in a sense of meaning. As godless machines, meaning, responsibility, purpose, value and honour has little place in our lives. Scott called it a post-intentional society but perhaps a more useful title is a post-meaning society.

    The decline of religious belief and the rise of scientism has, I maintain, nudged us into a post-meaning society. But is that changing our behaviour? Are we seeing a decline in a sense of purpose, responsibility, value and honor? Anecdotal evidence seems to support this but the clearest evidence comes from a large study by the sociologist, Christian Smith, documented in his book, Lost in Transition, the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood( See this review –

    Read the article for its sobering conclusions but this short excerpt sums it up – ‘I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.

    But does that mean Scott’s assertion (3) is true? The verdict is out on that one but history has many examples of obsessive hedonist narcissism causing the decline of nations. I do know, after having lived and worked there, that many Chinese regard us with contempt. They see us as soft, obese, lacking will, purpose and discipline, as diseased narcissists and obsessive hedonists. We may need to learn Chinese.

    A final note. The intemperate nature of some comments was dismaying. Surely we can disagree in a civil and thoughtful way?

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Hi Scott,
    “Once you see our ethical sense as being a matter of onboard heuristic machinery that is profoundly dependent on its environments possessing a certain ‘informational profile,’ then I think the profundity of the challenge facing us becomes more clear.”

    I had not read the article on your site, but I did now and think I had a pretty good grasp of your concern. I would like to respond in an adequate way but it will not be possible in 500 words. If you are interested I can write you an email, or post something on my own site ( since it involves a moral dimension which is my main topic there. Or maybe Massimo would want another essay on this topic (specifically how to handle neuroscientific discoveries)?

    Briefly, I think you raise a valid point of how society could react and counter-react to information regarding brain function. If you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail, now that we have neuroscience every belief and action looks like a medical issue to solve (or alternatively “excuse”).

    My problem is with the idea this is how societies will or must (counter)react due to inherent limits of dealing with information. I do not believe that an information filter or blockout is required. Indeed I believe the source of the problem you describe is largely a cultural issue, which can be affected by public discourse and “maturation” in understanding the limits of this information and its most fruitful application. I highly disagree with your use of the loaded word “pollution” and was glad to see in your comments that you point out that it can be “advantageous”. To me it is neutral.

    The way many neuroscientists have disseminated this kind of information has been poisoning the waters, instead of enlightening and liberating society… leading naturally to the kinds of concerns you raise.

    Hi astrodreamer,
    “How can you deny that the scientific discovery of quantum indeterminacy inserts the concepts of freedom and choice… I don’t see how neurobiology has so much as scratched the diamond surface of the experiential.”

    Quantum indeterminacy introduces (at best) randomness and so unpredictability in the system over time. This does not give you any more freedom, and arguably delivers less.

    As I argue earlier in the thread we are not about to eclipse intentionality with neuroscience, at least not much more so than we already have in the past. We have known for millennia that the mind has limits, and unconscious elements. Identifying the neuroanatomical devices producing this already known phenomena only “fleshes out” our understanding.

    I would disagree however that neurobiology has not scratched the surface of the experiential. We have identified the pertinent structures and are probing how they function. That is quite a bit.

    Some interesting outcomes regarding experience is the phenomenon of “impossible (or chimeric) colors” (now argued to be something else) and discovering that masculinity/femininity of faces is constructed by the brain (and can be fooled).

    Liked by 1 person

  41. [Meta-comment]
    One of the quirks of WordPress is that the notification emails go out before the comment is censored, allowing us to see the uncensored comments. Thus one person commented “Well, this unpleasant episode is almost over“. Fortunately, Massimo deleted this.

    Unfortunately the damage is done. The emails have gone out for all to read and they cannot be retracted.

    We should not be subjecting Massimo to the pressure of finding and deleting this kind of thing. It is unfair to him, it will be seen anyway and inevitably some will slip through, as was shown at the end of the comment by further ad hominems.

    The referenced statements may, or may not be true, but I am sure we can make thoughtful arguments without impugning the other person.

    Instead of expecting Massimo to police us, we should police ourselves and take the pressure off Massimo by behaving responsibly(I know I have also made mistakes).

    In conclusion, I found Scott’s essay provocative, stimulating and frustrating. I agreed with some and disagreed with some. But, I learned a great deal because it stimulated me to think more. Thanks, Scott, and thanks Massimo, for publishing something so controversial.


  42. I guess that Scott’s claim about metacognition bring us back to Aristotle, Descartes, Brentano and Husserl. The problem that arises here is how to deal with dualism. According to Descartes we have to face the res extensa (extended thing) and the res cogitans (mental substance or consciousness). If our consciousness has to deal the extended thing we can’t isolate the perception in a black-box, the neural system would have to be open because the perception is also open/extended.

    Brentano, that read Aristotle with fully attention, understood that the objects perceived by our consciousness are a collection of singular phenomena. The safest way of perceiving such phenomena is consider them framed in an intentional flow, the agent that gives intention to these phenomena is the soul.

    Thus, whatever it may be considered “objective” depends on and is grounded in the metacognitive capacity or consciousness capacity to order the phenomena flow. In other words, Brentano believed that any object owns intention, that means that the soul is a sort of intelligent field that is able of dealing with the res extensa trough similarity and affinity.

    Edmond Husserl, that was disciple of Brentano, saw that was contradictory to perceive the singular collection of phenomena as single units and tried to build up a theory of knowledge that, basically, developed along the patterns issued by Brentano. Whether Husserl’s inquiry derived in a transcendental/idealistic discourse is another story. But I wouldn’t a say that this inquiry is a failure, actually it’s an alive and open question that deserves attention.


  43. Yes, we can disagree in civil and constructive ways, and I take responsibility for the tone of recent discussions. I have been busier than usual and less attentive to the content of individual comments. Please be careful in the future, I am not above banning, temporarily or permanently, repeating offenders.


  44. Scott,

    “Either way, I do want to thank you for allowing me to state my case in your forum. You have something special going on here. Very much so.”

    Appreciated, and yes you are welcome back. And yes, I’m going to be a bit more on top of the tone issue, which seems to be creeping in again after a long period of quite civil discourse.

    “It’s human nature to assimilate the novel to the familiar, and as such, it’s entirely natural to think what I’m arguing amounts to confusing different levels of description. But it does not.”

    We might have to agree to disagree on this one. All human theorizing and understanding requires to assimilate the novel to the familiar, for the simple reason that our theories are human creations, not views from nowhere. And I do think that your piece shows a recurring problem in these kinds of discussion, the confusion between ontology (yes, it’s all made of quarks, or strings, or whatever) and epistemology (what’s the best way to describe and understand phenomena?).

    “it not only allows us to understand intentional phenomena in thoroughly naturalistic ways”

    But I have certainly never put forth a non-naturalistic understanding of intentional phenomena, and neither have the philosophers you mentioned.

    “As I’ve been saying throughout, this is not at all the eliminativism people here have been accustomed to arguing.”

    We wouldn’t know, since you have not put forth a positive argument…

    “I have a parsimonious way of understanding intentional posits that simplifies our ontologies and resolves a good number of now ancient conundrums. It even allows us to clarify the relationship between psychological models and neural mechanisms. And it makes testable predictions, to boot.”

    There is that keyword again, ontology. And what testable predictions are you referring to?

    “it explains the perplexing antipathy between intentional phenomenality and causality”

    I certainly feel no such antipathy, though I understand what you are referring to.


  45. “as humans, we clearly possess a privileged epistemic relation to humans. We have an ‘inside track'” but “intentional cognition …can never tell us what cognition is simply because solving that problem requires the very information intentional cognition has evolved to do without.” I have created a ventriloquism performance that pits two dummies against one another, each representing one side of this issue, in an attempt to make the issue entertaining and informative for the public. Link to it from the first item at


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