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.