Harman on Metzinger

I have just a few quick notes on Graham Harman’s article on Thomas Metzinger, recently published in the latest issue (volume 7, # 1) of the open-access journal Cosmos and History (available here).

I should mention first of all that I have not read Being No One, which is Metzinger’s magnum opus, and the book on which Harman is commenting. Instead, I have read Metzinger’s volume that is in effect a popularization of his ideas — The Ego Tunnel — together with Metzinger’s precis of Being No One, available here (pdf). So I am aware that my own capacity to enter into this debate is somewhat limited. In particular, I cannot make commentary in the sort of way that David Roden does here.

But I do have a few brief reflections, from within my limited grasp of the topic. In the first place, I am largely in sympathy with Harman’s overall critique of scientism and eliminativism. One can take the results of neurobiology seriously, and use them to rethink questions about mind and consciousness, without having to attack so-called “armchair” philosophizing and “folk” psychology, epistemology, etc. And one should be especially suspicious of what Harman calls “the entire ‘ominous’ dimension of Metzinger’s book, which has made it so especially appealing to nihilistic younger males who enjoy breaking things into pieces.” (I’m not sure it is fair to charge Metzinger himself with this, but it does apply to certain aspects of Metzinger’s reception). This goes along with my general sense that Metzinger is not discrediting the very notion of a “self,”, so much as he is describing what a “self” actually is. The notion of a deep, substantial self that Metzinger attacks is something of a straw man; the “phenomenological self-model” that Metzinger opposes to this straw man itself is our consciousness or selfhood.

Also, the discovery of the ways in which our “self,” or sense of self, is hallucinatory, sel-contradictory, mistaken about itself, and so on and so forth, need not entail the earth-shattering conclusion that all values have been nullified, that life is suddenly devoid of meaning, that it is impossible for us to go on as before, etc. Once we have divested ourselves of an excessive anthropocentrism, the discoveries of recent brain science, like the prior discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin, no longerhave to reduce us to nihilistic desperation.

Despite the rhetorical rejection, in Metzinger and others, of anything “armchair” or not backed up by scientific research, it remains the case (as I think Harman effectively shows) that science alone (even given the recent quite powerful and interesting advances in cognitive psychology and neurobiology) underdetermines the answers to philosophical questions, which means that “armchair” reasoning cannot be dispensed with — indeed, Metzinger himself (as Harman points out) frequently and unavoidably participates in this.

One can see the underdetermination of philsophy of mind by empirical research if one reads Metzinger alongside the very different philosopher of mind Alva Noë. Noë’s ambitious philosophy of mind book, Action in Perception, was published just a year after Metzinger’s Being No One; and Noë’s popularizing book, Out of Our Heads, was published the same year as Metzinger’s Ego Tunnel. The works of these two thinkers overlap and interfere with one another in quite intriguing ways: they often refer to precisely the same empirical research, from which they draw diametrically opposed philosophical conclusions. I think that this juxtaposition is itself significant; both Metzinger and Noë have quite interesting things to say, and I wouldn’t want to categorically maintain that one is right and the other is wrong. (I am temperamentally inclined more to Noë’s position than to Metzinger’s, but for this very reason I think it is crucial to read them with and against one another, in order to get a grasp on what is being argued by both of them).

Getting back to Harman’s review of Metzinger: I am also inclined to agree with Harman about the high value and interest of many of the ways that Metzinger does employ empirical brain research for philosophical ends. This is especially the case with what Harman calls the science-fictional aspect of Metzinger’s look into the multiple sorts of mental activities that have been too simplistically been grouped together under the rubric of “consciousness.” As Harman writes. 

[Metzinger] thinks that decomposing the self into numerous complicated dimensions makes the self less real, when in fact it makes the self so much more real than before. By showing how much complexity is underway in our supposedly simple selves, Metzinger leads us to conclude not ‘well then, the self is just a sham in the end’, but ‘think of how many different and bizarre selves we might create, or which might already exist among animals or on other planets!’… [In Metzinger’s account] the human is just another bizarre species whose experience is generated by specific constraints, just as reptiles, insects, and extraterrestrials might have different lives from ours at this very moment.

We can find an attention to what might be called Metzingerian possibilities in such SF novels as Scott Bakker’s Neuropath and Disciple of the Dog, and in Peter Watts’ Blindsight. There are also a number of science fiction and fantasy novels that delve into what I am inclined to call Jamesian explorations of entirely nonhuman consciousnesses (I’d mention, just off the top of my head, such books as Justina Robson’s Living Next Door to the God of Love, and N, K, Jemsin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). But all in all, the different kinds of conscious experience described by Metzinger constitute a rich vein of speculation, that more SF writers ought to explore. 

There are other aspects of Harman’s critique of Metzinger that I am less happy with. Unsurprisingly, Harman chastizes Metzinger for “underming” and “overmining” objects, instead of accepting their full reality. Harman especially objects to the ways that Metzinger claims that all is “process,” and that therefore fixed objects (or Aristotelian substantial forms) are illusory. Metzinger says, in Harman’s paraphrase, that what we perceive as objects are really just the illusory results of reifying our own perceptual process, or freezing it in time. At the risk of opening up an old (and at this point boring) debate, I will repeat my own Whiteheadian sense that, indeed, all “things” are “really” processes. But for me, this doesn’t mean that things (or Harman’s objects) are thereby “undermined” by something else that is more essential than they are. For the fact that objects are “reifications” of processes doesn’t mean that they are illusory, or even that they aren’t basic. For the endurance of things, or their establishment of an “identity,” as a result of “reification” (which I think would better be called, in Whiteheadian parlance, social transmission and inheritance) is something that is perfectly real in and of itself. Endurance is an accomplishment, a singular and specific achievement in every case.

Moreover, this endurance is not something that happens (as Metzinger seems to claim, at least according to Harman) in our perceptual process, but actually in reality itself, in the very things which we are in process of perceiving. I am entirely in accord with Harman in rejecting the “simple a priori dogma that if something has causal antecedents, then only those antecedents can have independent reality” — to the extent that Metzinger buys into such a dogma, he is wrong, and Harman’s criticisms are justified. But it remains more of an open question for me than it does for Harman to what extent Metzinger is actually guilty of this; and my accord with Harman in rejecting this “simple a priori dogma” is part of the reason why I find ascriptions of process to be much more acceptable than he does. 

The biggest question for me that is raised by Harman’s review has to do with the relation between epistemology and ontology. Harman agrees with Metzinger in positing “autoepistemic closure” for all entities: this is the claim that we are never in direct contact with reality, since what we “perceive” is really just our own construction or simulation. But Harman goes on to criticize Metzinger for trying to somehow sidestep this clsoure in order to assert the objectivity and truth of scientific knowledge (as opposed to “folk” beliefs). I agree with Harman that, when the eliminativists belittle human cognition in general, but praise the positive and objective knowledge embodied in science, they are in effect contradicting themselves. Indeed, as Harman suggests, they are still being anthropocentric, since they see scientific knowledge of the world (whether in the form of mathematicization, as with Badiou and Meillassoux, or more generally with the results of experimentation, as with Metzinger and other scientistically inclined analytic philosophers) as a uniquely privileged instrument of making contact with other entities in the world, sharply different from the way that (to use one of Harman’s old examples) hailstones make contact with tar.

But for me, this is not just a problem of epistemology. I would say, against Harman, that of course we are always in direct contact with reality — since we are a part of this reality, rather than being separate from it (i.e. rather than being “withdrawn”). We are not caught in some Cartesian or Humean mental prison, familiar only with our own sense impressions (orfamilar only with our own languages, in the 20th century version of this line of thought). The point, however, is that this contact cannot be reduced to, or captured as, “knowledge.” The contact is not epistemological; when it comes just to epistemology, Harman and Metzinger are correct. But our contact with other entities is not restricted just  to relations of knowledge. Harman is right to say that my concept of a tree, however full and nuanced, will never be equal to the tree itself. But this does not negate the fact that the tree has “touched” me, and I have “touched” it, non-cognitiviely and unconceptually. 

Metzinger claims that “we are never in any direct epistemic contact with the world surrounding us even while phenomenally experiencing an immediate contact”: Harman, quoting this claim of Metzinger’s, wants to convict him of a contradiction,or of an “attempt to have it both ways.” For we cannot both be cut off from contact and be in immediate contact. However, here I think that Metzinger is more in the right, because he is talking about two different sorts of contact. “Phenomenal” contact need not, and cannot, be reduced to “epistemic” contact. Contact among entities is ontological, not epistemological — and this other dimension, which Metzinger at least senses as a problem, is omitted entirely from Harman’s account, when he says that, because we do not actually know other entities, or even ourselves, therefore all all entities must “withdrawn” from one another — and even from themselves.

I think that this all hinges upon questions of intentionality — and this is where I reach my own limits. Harman criticizes Metzinger’s attempt to resolve the contact paradox by calling upon intentionality — he criticizes Metzinger for misunderstanding both Brentano’s and Husserl’s theorizations of intentionality. “Contra Metzinger’s misreading,” Harman says,” the intentional for Brentano does not mean leaping outside the mental sphere and making direct contact with the real. Intentionality intends intentional inexistence, not something lying behind that inexistence.” Harman therefore does not think that Metzinger succeeds in “actually find[ing] a way to jump outside the phenomenal capsule and make some sort of contact with the real.” He particularly rejects the idea that experimental scientific knowledge represents such an actual contact.

But I am not convinced that Metzinger is wrong when he argues that mental states “intentionally contain an object within themselves.” I am more inclined to think that this is indeed what happens — as Whitehead puts it, “an actual entity is present in other actual entities” (PR 50). This presence is not cognized, and cannot be equated with Heidegger’s “presence-at-hand.” And Metzinger does have some sense of this, even though he is wrong (here I agree with Harman) to turn this into the unique guarantor for scientific knowledge, and for nothing else. Intentionality — including Molnar’s “physical intentionality” — has an important role to play here; even if this is not Brentano’s version of intentionality, nor Husserl’s. (I am trying, instead, to yoke intentionality to Whitehead’s sense of “prehension”). At this point, I no longer see very clearly — this is where I am stuck right now, and what I am trying to work my way through. And both Harman and Metzinger give me hints for this, even if I am ultimately not willing to follow either of their paths. 


23 thoughts on “Harman on Metzinger”

  1. You don’t need to wax ‘ontological’ to express any of Metzinger’s concerns. Nor do you need to be ‘scientistic.’ And the issues he and others raise are actually being played out in society as we speak, with more and more buttons being pushed, cognitive subsystems being primed. To say something like ‘consciousness’ or the ‘self’ is ‘virtual’ is really just a way of saying we can’t make heads or tails of it.

    Otherwise, the pessimistic induction you can draw from history looms large: wherever science cracks some black box of nature (in this case the soul), the existing discourses are swept away. Speculation is ineliminable, as you say, but the form it presently takes in the humanities is bound to become a historical curiosity in a matter of a few decades.

    What Harman completely overlooks (and Metzinger is well aware of) is cognitive psychology – the evil twin of cognitive neuroscience. Sop up some of those findings, and the assumption that humans are anything more than theoretical incompetents begins to seem magical.

  2. You wrote, “But our contact with other entities is not restricted just to relations of knowledge. Harman is right to say that my concept of a tree, however full and nuanced, will never be equal to the tree itself. But this does not negate the fact that the tree has “touched” me, and I have “touched” it, non-cognitiviely and unconceptually.”

    Just before reading that I was going through the WSJ and on page D10 I came across a fascinating allusion to Zize’s talk before the OWS crowd last week. He says, “You can have sex with animals or whatever … so why can’t we get rid of capitalism?”

    I googled and sure enough he actually says something like that.

    There are just a few skimpy trees in Zuccotti Square, but I hope they are going unmolested by the protesters! I think we should look but not touch. The consent of the tree is in question!

    (Sorry, but when I read your posts I am invariably fascinated by how you have left any question of ethics on the cutting room floor, so I keep wanting to impishly delight in recuperating them. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it.)

  3. In response to Mr. Baker’s blog as linked, I concur with and quote Dr. Shaviro,

    “I agree with Harman that, when the eliminativists belittle human cognition in general, but praise the positive and objective knowledge embodied in science, they are in effect contradicting themselves.”

    I would add that the scientistic approach strongly tends to reduce all experience and knowledge to what may be an object of science, and either deny it has done so or claim that all the rest was not real or “non-natural.”

  4. I guess I’m not sure what you mean by ‘science’ then Jason. Recognizing the staggering technical and explanatory achievements of science is, in many ways, SYNONYMOUS with recognizing human theoretical incompetence. Isn’t it? In other words, if we were theoretically competent, why did it take so many procedural, technical, and institutional crutches to find our way to this world of technical miracles?

    ‘Scientism’ is a facile charge. Maybe the theoretical formulations of science do more ‘violence’ than they ‘capture.’ Maybe not. The question, once again, is how can you know (not, ‘how can you argue?’ because as you well know an argument can be adduced for anything) one way or another?

    But the point isn’t to simply accept scientific claims as gospel – far from it! The point is to appreciate their COMPARATIVE cognitive mileage. You can deny it all you want, meanwhile vacuum tubes replace gears, transistors replace vacuum tubes, magnetic bubbles replace transistors, quantum dots replace magnetic bubbles, and you consider yourself lucky that your toaster keeps you as a pet!

    The COGNITIVE DIFFERENCE between scientific claims and metaphysical claims is about as dramatic as can be. Isn’t it? Of course it is.

    You call it scientism, I call it giving the devil its inhuman due, because make no mistake, while all the metaphysicians are comparing irridescent tail-feathers, science is pumping more and more CO2 into the human garage.

    The fucker is going to either kill us or turn us into gods, and you think people are too quick to think its THE paradigm for what counts as reliable, actionable, theoretical knowledge? Compared to what?

  5. Is the practice of medicine a science? No. Is it greatly enhanced by it? Yes. Hence, I charge those with “scientism” who are too totalizing about the reach and promise of science.

    In the context of Dr. Shaviro’s quote, it is a blatant contradiction to praise human cognition when it does science, which is usually synonymous with mathematical sciences, and not when it uses other methods on topics that science cannot properly grasp, e.g., ethics, culture, art, etc, and many of the realms of human value and meaning. It is not an either-or.

    As for metaphysics, our abductions require a background theory of what we cannot empirically test. Given that I am a proponent of metaphysics championed by logicians, mathematicians, and scientists, of which I am one, I do not see a problem in my own case, and I do not see what you target in Shaviro’s post. It is not as if we weren’t rigorous, and I am not asking to supplant anyone’s lab space or scientific funding. Is your intended interlocutor present? Perhaps not, because I do not see any science-defamers here, although there may be a few worried about its totalization.

    I would presume that you mostly agree with these statements and perhaps thought I intended something more radical. I do not presume to say anything particularly new or innovative on the subject for the moment, although perhaps timely.

  6. You charged me with scientism, Jason. Steven’s quote simply incorrectly conflates the relation between science and human theoretical incompetence with the relation between metaphysics and human theoretical incompetence – an equivocation that generates the appearance of inconsistency. That said, I apologize for assuming you were a scientific philistine!

    I have no problem with therapeutic metaphysics, figuring out ways to reconceptualize problems (absent robust epistemic commitment). Otherwise, I don’t care who’s championing what. Logicians are as much at the mercy of their intuitions as Derrideans, stuck with the same conscious sliver of informatic access as the rest of us – just as at sea. Regimentation (or ‘discipline’ as you call it) can be just as deceptive as it is useful. Pending solutions to these and other problems, I just don’t see what warrants belief in (exclusive commitment to) metaphysical claims.

    As for who you are hurting: no one. But I do have this thing with what I call Cultural Triage. I think we stand on the cusp of the most troubling (because it is likely existential) transformation in human history. And I mourn the fact that we live in a society that so effectively lures its critical thinkers into soundproof rooms. I would much rather you write screenplays or articles for the paper – especially if you disagree with me!

    So I guess I would rephrase the question: Who are you helping?

  7. Mr. Bakker,

    Now the differences come out.

    Read the post again;I charged no one with anything. I did see what appeared to be scientistic comments in the commentary in your link and made a general statement without attaching it to anyone. There were 60 comments when I looked. As for further remarks about Dr. Shaviro, I will let him defend himself.

    I would disagree with the implicit premise of “Logicians are as much at the mercy of their intuitions as Derrideans” that reads “therefore we are all equal in our ability to reason–we all are terrible at it.” I insist that is false, because I agree with at least one thing with our old buddy Descartes–an ordered mind is more capable than one that is not, and we may achieve this. That is the promise of scientific reasoning and Peircean abduction, is it not? That we not just lead with our intuitions, which are demonstrably bad most of the time? Oh, but intuitions are not the only thing of which the mind is capable.

    Who am I helping? I am fighting the hubris of those who think that scientific reasoning is the answer to every problem. I am also fighting the frivolousness or irrationality of those who think it answers no problem. I am also helping those young mind develop new background theories that will lead to scientific hypotheses, and you may recall that science does not stand on its own ground, but accepts a shadowy background from which to draw. Speaking of, is not process metaphysics a worthy alternative to substance metaphysics–ever more so in our quantum times? Is that not the subject of this blog post?

    Metaphysics is not like Schrodinger’s cat. It doesn’t disappear when you do not talk about it. It just becomes hidden, but no less guiding. It doesn’t matter whether we “believe it … really,” as you worry so much about, but I do not see anyone here claiming that point.

  8. “In response to Mr. Baker’s blog as linked, I concur with and quote Dr. Shaviro…” In response to me, but not directed at me? I don’t get it!

    Is a Derridean mind ‘disordered’ or simply ordered in a way you dissapprove of? I know of no decisive way of answering this question.

    The problem is that science is the only institution capable of providing credible (actionable, consilient, etc) answers – one of the reasons why we have no constitutional provisions for the separation of Science and State. It’s not hubris to think this. It’s humility… if not downright depression! And it’s certainly not positivism or scientism.

    You do accept that humans are theoretical incompetents, do you not?

  9. Charity, please. You already know that I see science as a prosthetic for human theoretical incompetence. (“Recognizing the staggering technical and explanatory achievements of science is, in many ways, SYNONYMOUS with recognizing human theoretical incompetence.”)

    Let me rephrase: Do you accept that humans are theoretical incompetents absent science?

  10. If we identify “science” with the practice of the proper principles of thought, then I would agree with you. However, I suspect that we would disagree on what count as “proper principles.” Apparently, once thought becomes scientific, it becomes no longer human, but a “prosthetic?” Or do we not think when we use, e.g., computers? There is far too much artificial and arbitrary separation lurking here.

    Why don’t we leave it at that; I disagree and figuring out where is not productive.

    I would invite further conversation at my own blog.

  11. “The proper principles of thought” – I’m not sure what you mean specifically, though I’ve come across many versions of this claim from Aristotle onward. Here’s a question: Why is it always the OTHER guy’s principles who are off?

    Again your lack of charity confuses me. Science provides us with institutional, procedural, and technical tools that help us collectively overcome cognitive shortcomings enough to regularly arbitrate between competing claims. Do you dispute this?

    Why your blog? I’m sure Steven doesn’t mind -quite the contrary! Personally I love it when debates take off independently on my blog.

  12. Mr. Bakker,

    If all “institutional, procedural, and technical terms that help us collectively overcome cognitive shortcomings…” are “science,” then you have defined “science” so wide that your argument becomes trivially true. Also, much of what I would call “collectively overcome cognitive shortcomings” are not methodological or experimental science, but are expert practices that are inclusive of philosophy. But then, I don’t mean academic philosophy or spiritual philosophy, but the art of living well in its more ancient Greek denotation. Regardless, I don’t see a point in disciplinary or border wars.

    I would not say that I am lacking in charity so much as you are not giving any ground. In that case, no conversation can be productive.

  13. Disciplinary border wars is just another phrase for interdisciplinarity. We know quite abit about groupishness, the ways we unconsciously form coalitions and begin gaming ambiguities accordingly. I understand that your view seems clear to you, and I understand that your view is wrong, just as my view seems clear to me and is ALSO WRONG.

    That article was pretty selective in its focus: naturalism is first and formost a kind of practical (and inescapable – there is no separation of Science and State in our society) social relation. Give all the kinds of claim-making out there, how should I apportion my trust? When it comes to domains where science has no track record of credibility I do not trust the kinds of institutional claims made.

    I’m a skeptical naturalist, myself. I don’t have a problem with people theorizing outside of science. But I also know that theoretical incompetence (TI) is an ugly fact – one that needs to be accounted for!

    All we’re doing is guessing. If this isn’t the case, then why do the ‘expert practices of philosophy’ have such a horrible track record. Transendental Deduction. Nope. Hegelian Speculation. Nope. Husserlian epoche. Nope. Heideggerean hermeneutics. Nope. Logical Positivism. Nope. Need I go on? Do you really think your particular practice is the ONE?

    Of course not.

    Laruelle says that the reason for this lies in the Moebius strip-like structure of reflection, where ever positing is also a presupposing. But the answer could simply be that we have three pound brains, that ‘distal reasoning’ adapted to non-epistemic environmental factors.

    Check out my blog: speculation abounds. What you don’t find is EXCLUSIVE COMMITMENT – especially of the absurd variety Harman is advocating. And it is, quite simply absurd to think that any one esoteric line of purely speculative inquiry, no matter how it regiments itself, can slip the noose of confirmation bias, my-side bias, the Semmelweis reflex, selective attention, and so on, and so on, and so on…

    Philosophy provides us with a buffet of interpretative possibilities, many of which can have profound value in the context of any one life. Sometimes science selects one of those possibilities and institutionalizes them as fact. I’m not sure what’s controversial about this, unless you truly think you’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery, that you lucked into the winning pocket of esoteric interpretation.

    Check out: http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/essay-archive/outing-the-it-that-thinks-the-collapse-of-an-intellectual-ecosystem/

  14. I started to read Bakker’s post, then I got to this:

    “The glaring problem, however, is that we have no way of arbitrating between differing sets of ontological assumptions, simply because they don’t admit empirical investigation. Even if you happened to win the “Magical Ontology Lottery,” you could only hope that you might have won, and otherwise assume that over time your ticket would be lost in the shuffle with all the others.”

    I.e.: if it isn’t possible to know something empirically, then it’s arbitrary. I stopped reading after that.

  15. I wrote that comment above almost six years ago. I’d like to respond to my comment: what you wrote wasn’t true.

    I didn’t stop reading his post after that passage. My comment was pure sarcasm. And I’m not saying this because I think Scott was offended—I doubt he read it. If he did, he probably didn’t care. It’s not the kind of comment that welcomes a response.

    But what isn’t a lie is that R Scott Bakker’s blog—Three Pound Brain— has become important for me. I’ve returned to Scott’s blog several times over the years. But not too often. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like this phrase, but I’ll use it: Three Pound Brain is outside my comfort zone. I’m startled by how uncomfortable it makes me. Scott’s writing is clear, it’s vivid, it’s compelling, and his blind brain theory—I want to call it a philosophy and not mean that as a criticism—affects me like Poe or Lovecraft or Stephen King or Angela Carter or Shirley Jackson at their best.

    Three Pound Brain is something difficult that I feel I need. Scott often says that he doesn’t really want his theory to be true and he not only welcomes criticism of it—he encourages it. He asks his readers, “Show me where I am wrong,” and this isn’t a rhetorical triumphalism. Scott seems to find his own conclusions to be Pyrrhic victories, and holds out hope we will be rescued from them.

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