Scott Bakker’s Neuropath is a science-fiction thriller about a rogue neurosurgeon who kidnaps people and grotesquely manipulates their brains, sometimes killing them in the process, and other times releasing them once their minds have been subtly but horribly deformed. It’s pretty disturbing on a visceral level. Now, the psycho-thriller with a sadistic genius as a villain is a pretty familiar genre at this point (cf., for instance, Hannibal Lector). But Bakker’s novel offers a science fictional twist on this genre by extrapolating neuroscience slightly into a plausible near future, so that theoretical prospects hinted at in recent neurobiological and cognitive studies have been confirmed as actual, and current cutting-edge technologies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging have been pushed to a level beyond their actual present capabilities. In spite of these changes, the world of the novel remains in most ways recognizably our own. So one might call Neuropath a hard-SF, near-future psycho-thriller. But even that description is inadequate. What really distinguishes Neuropath is that the book has a concerted thesis, referred to by the characters within the novel as “The Argument” (in capitals); this makes it into a philosophical novel: a contemporary version of what Voltaire called the conte philosophique, and a strong example of SF as “cognitive estrangement” (Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as a genre).
The Argument in Neuropath goes something like this. Consciousness is severely limited. It is a very recent evolutionary adaptation, superimposed upon a wide array of older neural processes of which it is unaware, and which it cannot possibly grasp. We are only conscious of a very thin sliver of the external world; and even less of our internal, mental world. Most of our “experience” of the inner and outer world is a neurally-based simulation that has been evolutionarily selected for its survival value, but the actual representational accuracy of which is highly dubious. We are not conscious, and we cannot be conscious, of the actual neural processes that drive us. And indeed, nearly all our explanations and understandings of other people, of the world in which we live, and above all of ourselves are delusional, self-aggrandizing fictions. It’s not just that we misunderstand our own motivations; but that such things as “motivations” and “reasons” for how we feel and what we do actually don’t exist at all. Everything that we say, think, feel, perceive, and do is really just a consequence of deterministic physical (electro-chemical) processes in our neurons. “Every thought, every experience, every element of your consciousness is a product of various neural processes” (pp. 52-53). In particular, “free will” is an illusion. We never actually decide on any of our actions; rather, our sense of choice and decision, and the reasons and motivations that we cite for what we do, are all post-hoc rationalizations of processes that happen mechanistically, through chains of electrochemical cause-and-effect. All our rationales, and all our values, are nothing more than consolatory fictions.
The Argument is close to the “eliminativist” positions of philosophers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, and Thomas Metzinger (and also perhaps Ray Brassier, who draws out the phenomenological consequences of this position in his book Nihil Unbound). Bakker says in his Author’s Note that he is not — or at least does not want to be — a elimitavist and a nihilist, but he cannot think of any valid arguments against such a position. The Argument draws on research in cognitive psychology (with its claims about non-conscious computational processes in the brain, and its studies of the delusional nature of human self-understanding), neurobiology (with its understanding of the actual physical processes that underly various forms of thought), and (alas, also) evolutionary psychology (with its dubious claims that human values, feelings, understandings, and tendencies to act are “hardwired” adaptations from the Pleistocene). The findings of these research programs are taken as proof that nearly all speculation (philosphical, psychological, fictional, or whatever) on the nature of the mind and of humanity dating from before 1970 or so is utterly worthless, a form of self-congratulatory self-delusion and unwarranted belief. Science is distinguished from all other forms of understanding on the basis that it alone forces us to accept unwanted and dislikable conclusions, because it “doesn’t give a damn about what we want to be true” (Author’s Note, p. 306).
Of course, the fact that Neuropath is a novel, rather than a treatise by a brain scientist, or a philosophical tract by Metzinger, means that it is far more compelling than such works can ever be — and entirely for non-rational, non-cognitive, and non-scientific reasons. Indeed, the book’s most powerful effect is an entirely rhetorical (rather than rational) one. It compellingly discredits in advance any attempt to argue against its reductionist and nihilist theses: for the mere fact of claiming that subjective experience has any validity, or that meanings and values have any significance whatsoever, already convicts you of being somebody who wants desperately to evade the truth by clinging to alibis that flatter our human self-esteem. If you don’t accept the Argument, by that very fact you have discredited yourself and demonstrated the truth of its assertion that all our reasons and beliefs are self-delusions, and that we cannot intuitively grasp –much less face and accept — the gloomy truth about ourselves. Any attempt to say that things aren’t quite as horribly meaningless as The Argument makes out puts you in the category of those people who think they are living in Disney World instead of the real, actual world
I don’t intend this observation on Neuropath‘s self-confirming rhetorical strategy as a criticism; things are rather more complicated than that. Let me explain by putting it another way. The fact that Neuropath is a novel and not a scientific study or philosophical treatise means that it seeks, not to prove its theses either logically or empirically, but rather to demonstrate these theses, by putting them forth as strikingly as possible. And as a demonstration, is brilliant; all the more so in that the novel’s narrative itself recounts the making of such a demonstration. Even as Bakker demonstrates to us the inescapable truth of The Argument, his main characters Thomas Bible (the protagonist, a Columbia psychology professor) and Neil Cassidy (sic; the antagonist, Bible’s lifelong best friend and the mad neurosurgeon whose crimes dominate the plot) demonstrate the truth of The Argument to the world they live in, and to compel its acceptance, without any hope of escape. The novel narratively enacts the very process that it recounts: ironically compelling us to accept the overwhelming evidence for a thesis that we are constitutionally unable to accept, for not only is it violently counter to “common sense,” it undermines the authority of the very process by which we accept and reject ideas.
The Argument was first developed, as Thomas remembers, when he and Neil were undergraduates; they invoked it as a kind of party trick, in order to out-argue, and thereby disconcert and humiliate, English and other humanities majors. After all, if we are just puppets of neurochemical processes, then literary works have no intrinsic value apart from their ability to trigger certain neural responses and thereby pull our strings; and all the claims of literature, philosophy, and art either to insight or morality are bogus. (Bakker, in writing the novel, remains fully aware of this implication, to which his own work must be subjected as much as any other. The novel is in this sense self-consciously ironic, as so many genre narratives tend to be). But in the present time of the narrative, the demonstration reaches rather wider dimensions. Essentially, Neil sets sets out to set forth the Argument in the very flesh — that is to say, in the brains — of his victims. A billionaire businessman’s brain is rewired so that he is no longer capable of recognizing faces. Even in the mirror, and all the more when he looks at people around him, all he can see is the horrifying, characterizable visage of a stranger or an alien. (Prosopagnosia, or facial agnosia, is often discussed in scientific and pop-scientific writing). A porn star’s neural system is tweaked so that sensations of pain activate her brain’s pleasure and reward centers; she is led to compulsively drive herself to orgasm again and again, by slashing and mutilating herself until she dies. A fundamentalist preacher is subjected to neural firings that alternately lead him to feel the damnation of Hell and the joy of salvation. A politician prone to speechify about human dignity and moral responsibility is transformed into a cannibal who avidly devours a still-alive young girl, all the while pathetically protesting that he does not want to want to do this, that he cannot help wanting to do this. Finally, Neil straps Thomas into a machine he calls Marionette (an extrapolation from actually-existing Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation technology), that makes it possible to forcibly cycle him through a whole series of mental states, ranging from utter despair to a sense of unvanquishable well-being, from gentle benevolence to misanthropic rage, and from self-disgust to exaltation and feelings of omnipotence.
Through such demonstrations, Neil is trying to get Thomas to recognize the truth of The Argument — just as Bakker is trying to get the reader to recognize this truth. That is to say, Thomas advocates The Argument intellectually: he is in fact, more than Neil, its orginiator. And he has articulated the main points of The Argument in books he has written, and in the classes he teaches. But Thomas doesn’t feel the truth of The Argument viscerally — which is to say that he doesn’t actually live by it. (By his own account, this truth is so uncomfortable that it is impossible to actually live by — not only because we cannot really deal with its bleak truths, but also because we are so constituted that we cannot get rid of our illusions, even if and when we recognize them as illusions). Much to Neil’s disgust, Thomas lives his personal life as if values and meanings really existed, as if free will (or making decisions) were actually possible, and as if his love for his two children actually had sense and were not just the forcible result of evolutionary “hardwiring” and neurochemical programming. Neil justifies his gruesome experiments on the grounds that it is of no consequence whether the neurochemical impulsions that determine his victims to a particular course of action are the result of his own manipulations or just of “the environment” in general — in either case, the human being is a puppet of forces that he/she can neither control nor comprehend. Of course, this also means that Neil’s attempt to demonstrate the deep truth of The Argument is itself without sense, since all human beliefs are ungrounded and without sense. By weaving this level of meta-argument into his narrative, Bakker forestalls us from invoking it as a counter-argument against the book’s demonstration. Everything is beautifully air-tight, as the novel draws into itself, and neutralizes in advance, any attempts to argue against it.
I am tempted to say, therefore, that Neuropath is a cleverly designed hall of mirrors from which there is no exit. But that would still be, I think, to sell the book short. There is more to be said about the fact that, although the novel is grounded in cognitive theory, and practices a particularly intense form of cognitive estrangement, its primary accomplishment is affective, rather than cognitive. This is really just another way of saying that the book is indeed a work of imaginative fiction, rather than a scientific or philosophical treatise. When Neil is torturing Thomas, pulling him through one emotional state after another, he remarks that Marionette has finally accomplished what art has sought to do throughout all of human history: it gives the one who undergoes it (I am not sure what noun to insert here: the viewer? the audience? the consumer? the experiencer?) a powerful, vivid, and utterly compelling and convincing vicarious experience, of total participation in feelings that are not one’s own. (Of course, the larger point is that all human experience is vicarious, or aesthetic, rather than “real” and “actual”. I experience as mine what is really happening to someone else — or better, to no one. As Metzinger puts it, there is nothing that the experience of “being a self” is like, because in fact no such things as selves exist in the world).
And this, I think, is the paradoxical key to the novel. What makes Neuropath so powerful, so memorable, and so compulsively readable, is not The Argument itself, so much as the visceral intensity and horror of the way it is demonstrated. Neil’s manipulations (and those of other neuroscientists in the novel, such as the one who implants nanomachines in the brain of Thomas’ four-year-old son that repeatedly stimulate his amygdala, or so-called “fear center,” so that the child is forcibly in a constant, unremitting state of utter terror) — these manipulations so disturbing because they are violations of the mind as well as the body. They assault our most intimate sense of self-identity. We like to feel (wrongly) that no matter what happens to our body, our mind (or spirit, or soul) somehow can remain free and unaffected; in disproving this, Neil’s experiments wound human dignity (or human narcissism) more profoundly than either merely “physical” tortures, or doctrines like those of Freud or Metzinger, ever could. The absolute horror comes from intervening in the selfhood of the victim at such an intimate and interior level; the result is an unparalleled sense of absolute devastation. And the book’s reliance on science and technology — the fact that it only slightly extrapolates from what we already know, and what we already can do — makes it menacing in a way that the fantastic (as opposed to the more straightforwardly science-fictional) cannot attain.
This is important because Neuropath is ultimately (perhaps in spite of its author’s intentions) less about what human beings really are, than it is about what human beings can suffer, and what we can accomplish technologically. To put it otherwise, the novel is not so much about the (alleged) essence of the human mind and brain, than it is about power. What I have left out of my account of the novel so far is that Neil has long worked for the National Security Agency, and that the technologies he makes use of have all been developed, and employed, for torturing alleged “terrorists” and other prisoners. The demonstration that Neil seeks to make to Thomas, and perhaps to other people as well, is actually a national security secret. The FBI enlists Thomas to capture Neil, not on account of his actual crimes (which they do not care about, and do their best to cover up), but in order to recover the information that, in the process of going rogue, he has hidden, encrypted, or stolen.
Also, it turns out that Neil’s neurotechnology is double-edged. It is used to destroy the personal integrity of prisoners, to turn them into abject and grotesque reversals of what they previously were, in order to control them and extract information from them. But it is also used on NSA agents themselves, in order to transform them into killers and enforcers without remorse or conscience. Neil has in fact used the Marionette technology on himself, in order to dissolve any sense of obligation, gratitude, empathy, or guilt with regard to others; but also to annihilate any sense of being or having a self. At least, Neil claims that his “personal experience” or consciousness has been freed of any sense of agency or will: he just performs actions, he says, without having the feeling that he himself is an entity who wills these things, or actively does them. By cutting out portions of his neural circuitry, Neil has transformed himself into the sort of subject described by David Hume, who famously wrote that, when he looks within himself, he sees various “ideas” (desires, feelings, sense data, etc.), but never observes a “self” that would somehow “have” these ideas, or exist in addition to them. Neil is sort of a demonic version of the body/mind described by, for instance, the psychologist Susan Blackmore, who (combining cognitive psychology with Buddhism) precisely argues for a form of existence in which one has abandoned the fiction of being a self.
This leads me to several final comments about Neuropath. If The Argument has a “fallacy” that is not preempted by the book itself, this fallacy would lie, not in its positive expression of what science has discovered and what technology can do, but in its claims about what it is disqualifying or arguing against. The Argument tells me that I do not really have a “self”; and it proves its claim precisely by annihilating my very sense of “self.” This is dubious on two grounds. In the first place, in order to deny that the “self” exists, The Argument needs to substantialize, or essentialize, the very “thing” whose existence it goes on to negate. You have to first transform the fluid process of consciousness into a substantial entity, in order then to triumphantly demonstrate that such a substantial entity does not exist, and indeed cannot exist. But this has no weight against conceptions of the mind that do not reify it in the first place. The Argument works against Descartes, but not necessarily against William James. In the second place, a demonstration of power is not the same as a demonstration of essence. Modern neurotechnology is capable — or in Bakker’s SF extrapolation, may well soon be capable — of radically “rewiring” and rearranging the brain, with concomitantly radical effects upon the “mind.” This is indeed a demonstration of power — of the power of a technical and political-social apparatus — but it is not a demonstration of essence. The fact that we are capable of doing certain things to the brain does not in itself prove anything about the nature of the brain in all circumstances. As Bruno Latour or Isabelle Stengers might put it, the combination of the brain and the Marionette technology is itself an apparatus that must be constructed, and whose effects do not pre-exist its construction. What Bakker’s novel is really warning us of, is a drastic expansion of what intrusive brain technologies can accomplish, and therefore of what human beings can be made to suffer. (I’m reminded of Zizek’s warning, or suggestion, that virtual technologies could allow for a degree of torture that no one was previously able to inflict; and of the realization of just such a scenario in Richard K Morgan’s “Takeshi Kovacs” SF trilogy). The self that is destroyed by The Argument is in fact perpetuated by it, in order precisely that it may be made to suffer more horribly and concertedly.
Neuropath, like The Argument invoked within it, involves (among other things) a drastic overvaluation of consciousness itself — something of which cognitive psychology is in general guilty. The fact that, as Benjamin Libet’s experiments seem to suggest, my brain has already primed me to act in a certain way, before I become conscious of making the decision to act in that way, does not mean that my sense of “decision” is illusory, but only that the “decision” in question is not made by my consciousness. It is still entirely coherent to argue that my brain/mind/organism actually does “choose,” or make decisions, with my consciousness only being a secondary feature of the process (consciousness is apparently able to nullify the decision instead of ratify it, even without consciousness being that which makes the decision in the first place). The idea that everything the brain does is strictly causally determined can also be thrown into doubt, without invoking the “ghostly” actions of consciousness that hardcore empirical materialists have so long decried.(Walter J. Freeman does so, for instance, by invoking chaotic processes, in his book How Brains Make Up Their Minds). All this is not a matter of refuting The Argument of Neuropath, but of tracing its pragmatic consequences. Neuropath is all the more remarkable a work of SF, because of how it forces us to rethink its own premises, as much as the presuppositions that it gleefully destroys.
[ADDENDUM: see a lecture by Scott Bakker, recapitulating The Argument of the novel, together with some responses, here.]