Another Weird Story: Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy (The Cracked Egg)

JANUARY 18, 2015

I was a “2e” kid: gifted with ADHD but cursed with the power to ace standardized tests. I did so well on tests they enrolled me in a Hopkins study, but I couldn’t remember to brush my hair. As if that wasn’t enough, there were a lot of other unusual things going on, far too many to get into here. My brain constantly defied people’s expectations. It was never the same brain from day to day. I am, apparently, a real neuropsychiatric mystery, in both good and bad ways. I’m a walking, breathing challenge to people’s assumptions and perceptions. Just a few examples: the assumption that intelligence is a unitary phenomenon, and the perception that people who think like you are smarter than those who think differently. Even my reasons for defying expectations were misinterpreted. I hated the way people idolized individuality, because being different brought me only pain. People mistook me for trying to be different. Being different is a tragedy!

And it got weirder: I inherited the same sociocognitive tools as everyone else, so I made the same assumptions. Consequently, I defied even my own expectations. So I learned to mistrust my own perceptions, always looking over my shoulder, predicting my own behavior as if I were an outside observer. I literally had to re-engineer myself in order to function in society, and that was impossible to do without getting into some major philosophical questions. I freely admit that this process has taken me my entire life and only recently have I had any success. I am just now learning to function in society–I’m a cracked egg. Cracked once from outside, and once from inside. And just now growing up, a decade late.

So it’s no surprise that I’m so stuck on the question of what people’s brains are actually doing when they theorize.

I stumbled onto R. Scott Bakker’s theories after reading his philosophical thriller, Neuropath. Then I found his blog, and I was blown away that someone besides me was obsessed with the role of ingroup/outgroup dynamics in intellectual circles. As someone with no ingroup (at least not yet), it’s very refreshing. But what really blew my mind was that he had a theory of cognitive science that could explain many of my frustrating experiences: the Blind Brain Theory, or BBT.

The purpose of this post is not to explain BBT, so you’ll have to click the link if you want that. I’ll go more into depth on the specifics of BBT later, but for a ridiculously short summary: it’s a form of eliminativism. Eliminativism is the philosophical view that neuroscience reveals our traditional conceptions of the human being, like free will, mind, and meaning, to be radically mistaken. But BBT is unique among eliminativisms in its emphasis of neglect: the way in which blindness, or lack of information, actually *enables* our brains to solve problems, especially the problem of what we are. And from my perspective, that makes perfect sense.

BBT is a profoundly counterintuitive theory that cautions us against intuition itself. And ironically, it substantiates my skeptical intuitions.  In short, it shows I’m not the only one who has no clue what she’s doing. If BBT is correct, non-neurotypical individuals aren’t really “impaired.” They simply fit differently with other people. Fewer intersecting lines, that’s all. Bakker has developed his theory further since he published this paper, building on his notion of post-intentional theory (see here for a more general introduction). BBT has stirred up quite a lot of drama.

While we all argue over BBT, absorbed in defending our positions, I feel like an outsider, even among people who understand ingroups. Why? Because most of the people in the debate seem to be discussing something hypothetical, something academic. For me, as I’ve explained, the question of intentionality is a question of everyday life. So I can’t shirk my habit of wondering about biology: what’s going on in the brains of intentionalists? What’s going on in the brains of post-intentionalists? And what’s going on inside my own brain? Bakker would say this is precisely the sort of question a post-intentionalist would ask.

But what happens if the post-intentionalist has never done intentional philosophy? Allow me to explain, with a fictionalized example from my own experience. I use the term “intentional” in both an everyday and philosophical sense, interchangeably:

Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy

Imagine you’re an ordinary person. You just want to get on with your life, but you have a terminal illness. It’s an extremely rare neuropsychiatric syndrome: in order to recover, you must solve an ancient philosophical question. You can’t just come up with any old answer. You actually have to prove you solved it, and convince everyone alive you at least have to convince yourself that you could convince anyone whose counterargument could possibly sway you. You’re skeptical to the marrow, and very good at Googling.

Remember, this is a terminal illness, so you have limited time to solve the problem.

In college, philosophy professors said you were a brilliant student. Plus, you have a great imagination from always being forced to do bizarre things. So naturally, you think you can solve it.

But it takes more time than you thought it would. Years more time. Enough time that you turn into a mad hermit. Your life collapses around you and you’re left with no friends, family, or work. But your genes are really damn virulent, and they simply don’t contain the stop codons for self-termination, so you persist.

And finally, after many failed attempts, you cough up something that sticks. An intellectual hairball.

But then the unimaginable happens: you come across a horrifying argument. The argument goes that when it comes to philosophy, intention matters. If your “philosophy” is just a means to survive, it is not philosophy at all; only that which is meant as philosophy can be called philosophical. So therefore, your solution is not valid. It is not even wrong.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for you. You have to find a new solution that makes your intention irrelevant. A solution that satisfies both the intentional philosophers, who do philosophy because they want to, and the unintentional philosophers who do it because they are forced to.

And then you run across something called post-intentional philosophy. It seems like a solution, but…

But post-intentional philosophy, as you see, requires a history: namely, a history of pre-post-intentional philosophy. Or, to oversimplify, intentional philosophy! The kind people do on purpose, not with a gun to their head.

You know that problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them, so you try to escape what intentional and post-intentional philosophy share: theory. You think you can tackle your problem by finding a way out of theory altogether. A way that allows for the existence of all sorts of brains generating all sorts of things, intentional, post-intentional, and unintentional. A nonphilosophy, not a Laruellian non-philosophy. That way must exist, otherwise your philosophy will leave your very existence a mystery!

What do you do?

Are Theory and Practice Separate? Separable? Or something completely different?

Philosophy is generally a debate, but as an unintentional thinker I can’t help but remain neutral on everything except responsiveness to reality (more on that coming later). In this section I am attempting neither to support nor to attack it, but to explore it.

Bakker’s heuristic brand of eliminativism appears to bank on the ability to distinguish between the general and the specific, the practical and the theoretical. Correct me if I am wrong.

As the case of the “unintentional philosopher” suggests, philosophers themselves are counterexamples to the robustness of this distinction, just like people with impaired intentional cognition offer counterexamples that question folk psychology. If BBT is empirically testable, the practice-vs-theory distinction must remain empirically testable. We should be able to study everyday cognition (“Square One”) independently of theoretical cognition (“Square Two”) and characterize the neurobiological relationship of the two as either completely modular, somewhat modular, or somewhere in between. We should also be able to predict whether someone is an intentionalist or a post-intentionalist by observing their brains.

From a sociobiological perspective, one possibility is that Bakker is literally trying to hack philosophers’ brains: to separate the neural circuitry that connects philosophical cognition with daily functionality.

If that were the case, their disagreement would come as no surprise.

But my real point here, going back to my struggles with my unusual neurobiology, is that I am personally, neurologically, as close to “non-intentional” as people get. And that presents a problem for my ability to understand any of these philosophical distinctions regarding intentionality, post-intentionality, etc. But just as a person with Aspergers syndrome is forced to intellectually explore the social, my relative deficit of intentionality has simultaneously made it unavoidable–necessary for me to explore intentionality.  My point about theory and practice is to ask whether this state of affairs is “just my problem,” or whether it says something about the entire project of theory.

If nothing else, it certainly questions the assumption that the doctor is never the patient, that the post-intentional theorist is always, necessarily some sort of detached intellectual observer with no deviation from the intentional norm in his own neurobiology.

Come back later for a completely different view…


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