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.]
14 thoughts on “Neuropath”
I reviewed the book earlier this year and while I thought that the thriller aspects of the book were poor, the ideas expressed in between those fictional elements were important and thought provoking (see also Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which walks some very similar ground).
One thing that strikes me though about The Argument is that we have been here already. Eliminativism has a large linguistic component to it; it thinks that the traditional folk psychological language (‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘know’, ‘I’, ‘you’) is hopelessly inadequate given what we know about how the brain really works.
The thing is though is that the Behaviourists and their associates the philosophical verificationists (AJ Ayer and such-like) made precisely the same claims. If you read Skinner you’ll find page after page of him giving definitions of folk psychological language in terms of conditioning.
The Behaviourist-Verificationist alliance effectively ruled folk psychological language meaningless as it could not be tied into observable phenomena and eliminativism is up to the same thing.
In effect what has happened is that during the 20th Century, psychology has twice reached a point where it has had to confront the fact that common sense simply has no handle on how we think. Back in the 50s, psychology stepped back from the brink and cognitive psychology is, in effect, an attempt to describe folk psychological processes in scientific terms (hence all of those 1970s flow-charts). However, improvements in the physiological understanding of the brain (due to better and cheaper brain scanning equipment) has lead to cognitive psychology hooking up with neurophysiology and, 30 years later they’re back where they started… trying to come to terms with the fact that the Theory-Theory is as broken as our common-sensical, pre-scientific understanding of physics was prior to the enlightenment.
What is interesting to me is that Behaviourism has been wiped from the collective memory; people still talk of Freud, Lacan and Piaget but nobody writes about or defends Behaviourist ideals.
I’ll be interested to see whether this generation of cognitive scientists will be as willing to knuckle under as the psychologists of the 60s were when they bent the knee to common sense.
Thanks for this comment, Jonathan. I think you are right about the “seen-this-all-before” aspect of the eliminativist claims. I probably should have said in my posting — so I am saying it now — that there is also a “seen-this-all-before” aspect to the argument about ‘nihilistic claims that undermine everything we believe and hold dear.’ It goes back at least to Nietzsche on the “death of God” (we have killed God, but we haven’t yet realized the consequences of our act — we cannot go on without God and yet continue to uphold all the values, etc., that we believed in when we were religious). — Actually, this goes back beyond Nietzsche as well; it is the paradigmatic claim of modernity (since at least the Enlightenment) to disqualify what people have previously believed.
Excellent review and discussion, Steven! I would also agree with your “seen this all before” sense, as it reminds me of the philosophy developed by John Brockman in his book “By The Late John Brockman” back in the late 60s early 70s.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend it, as it follows down the same path you describe here, but more from a directly philosophical basis. What he does is endlessly weave quotes from different philosophers and scientists and ends in the same “nowhere”. The first section (by the late john brockman) basically eliminates the self, the second section (37) eliminates the possibility of objective knowledge, and the last section (afterwords) gets rid of everything else… I read it in high school back in the mid 70s, so I’m pretty familiar with the position he describes.
Of all these scientists, Ramachandran (like Oliver Sacks) I find to be one of the more accessible and inspiring. He has a lecture on TED that gives a simple intro/overview of the scientific basis under the Argument by way of brain damage (loss of face recognition, the imposter syndrome, etc.)
What is also interesting is how Brockman is a literary agent for scientists, and for the most part has allied himself with scientists like Dawkins, Pinker, et al.
I think what I find most irritating about the Argument isn’t the Argument, but the Arguers. They shout:
“YOU DON’T EXIST!!!! THERE IS NO FREE WILL!!!! IT’S ALL AN ILLUSION!!!!”
And my reaction, having been into this line of thinking since high school, is:
I think your point about Power is right on the money. One can consider the world and the self as whispy illusions brought about by electrochemical stimulations in the brain, and then fly into utter despair and nihilism, or, you can say “That’s nice” and then get on with your life. From my perspective, the Argument is a false argument. It proposes a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist except when one decides to engage it.
So, (if I may quote you) Niettzsche on the â€œdeath of Godâ€ (we have killed God, but we havenâ€™t yet realized the consequences of our act â€” we cannot go on without God and yet continue to uphold all the values, etc., that we believed in when we were religious.
Upholding the values acquired during a religious phase of society in a post-religious society can be quite sensible. I would reference Marvin Harris’s “Cannibals and Kings” and how much religious dogma is actually a method of maintaining social organisation and basic resource control in a given environment. Not eating pork in the middle east of 3000 years ago makes sense, because pigs don’t sweat, and water is a rare and precious commodity. So, rather than explain it, “God says don’t eat pork”. In Eastern China, where there was plenty of water, the prohibition on pigs didn’t exist…
The next step is to dissect the religious dogmas and examine them relative to human social needs and contemporary philosophical preferences.
I’d like to write more on this, and I think I will…
It’s Christmas morning and I need to get breakfast rolling…
Very cool stuff. But the thing everyone is missing, and the whole reason I wrote the book, is that the question of cognition and experience is rapidly shifting social domains, moving from armchair speculative arenas to scientific and technical ones. No matter what ‘Counter-arguments’ you pose (and lets face it, most of them require years of specialized training to appreciate), the mechanistic conclusions of the Argument will continue marching into the sociopolitical real. Check out people like Haynes at the Max Plank Institute. Research like his is just getting off the ground, and the “experience antithetical” conclusions will keep piling up.
Just “getting on with your life” becomes a far different matter when corporations like Neilsens are investing billions in startups like Neurofocus. Nihilism is as practical and as present a problem as can be. These kinds of dismissals, frankly, belong to a different age.
Scott, I take your point, and I think that what you are saying is, in part, what I was trying to get at when I wrote that the novel was really about power: “What Bakkerâ€™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.” In other words, it’s less a matter of the truth or falsity of The Argument in itself, than it is a matter of how The Argument makes it possible to develop the horrific forms of manipulation that the novel describes. Which is why it’s important that Neil has developed his technologies working for the NSA, and why the technology works as much to produce conscienceless agents (like Neil and Samantha/Jessica), as it does to torture and manipulate prisoners. (I must say, the plot twist involving who Samatha really is, is something that I didn’t see coming at all — brilliantly discomfiting).
As for your mention here, and also in the Western Ontario lecture, about the uses of this technology in marketing and advertising — wow, in a way that is even more scary than the stuff envisioned in Neuropath, precisely because it is subtler, more under-the-radar and unrecognizable. I’d love to read a novel about that…
Would Neil still be demonic if he turned people into Buddhas instead of bizarre neuro-surgeon accidents who commit suicide?
I was responding more to the responses, Steven. ‘Nihilism, meh’ response seems to be one of the more pervasive (mis)readings of the book. I actually spill quite a bit of subtextual ink working the changing sociological stakes of humanity, animality, and mechanicity in the book.
In response to your review, aside from a whopping thanks (!!), I would say that any essentialism, whether of the self or otherwise, you see in the book is largely an artifact of the interpretative schema you took to it.
The critique which I think is the sharpest is the suggestion that I have “drastically over-evaluated consciousness.” Given my own interpretative schema, I see this as a kind of ‘decentred, meh,’ response, the idea being that the problem is only a problem if you buy into some kind of centripetal notion of consciousness in the first place – which I certainly haven’t for over twenty years now. Nevertheless, this is the response I get from most of my theory-head friends.
The ‘priority of the fragmentary’ is pretty much an article of faith amongst those of a continental philosophical persuasion, which is all well and fine, except that if you read closely, they seem to very selective in the how and what of their considerations. So for instance, selves can be fragmentary. Intentions and affects, certainly. Norms and concepts to a lesser extent, perhaps (because we need these to get our critiques off the ground in the first place). But how about things like contextuality?
When we can apprehend only bits that we tend to confuse for wholes, the most obvious question is one of whether we are apprehending anything at all. What if all the semantic furniture is fundamentally broken all the way down? I’m not sure the force of this question requires a “drastic over-evaluation of consciousness” for traction.
The only other thing – and it’s just a quibble, really – has to do with evolutionary psychology. The question I would ask is simply: How would you rank the cognitive status of your discourse versus that of evolutionary psychology? Evolutionary psychology is obviously speculative, and we should condition our commitments accordingly, but the fact is that the kinds of ‘rational reconstruction’ you find in philosophical discourse of the kinds we’re prone to engage in is more speculative still.
But, of course, we seem to be hardwired to feel otherwise…
On its own terms, then, the novel is a failure, because it is only only a means to neural stimulation, and not an argument at all, in any sense, rhetorical or logical.
…its claim to know this self-reflexively is unfortunately also subject to this fact.