Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What's Left Over? The Materialist Algorithm for Cognition

Image Source: Morten Tolboll.

This post continues my investigation of materialism and anti-materialism as competing responses to technology. My central argument is that right-wing and left-wing descriptions of politics and the economy are misleading and obsolete. Politics and economics are evolving to mirror tech-oriented materialism and anti-materialism. The worst of the former is leading to tyrannical political oppression. The worst of the latter is leading to an alienation from the mainstream consensus about reality.

Thus far in this blog series, I have focussed on materialism as a way of seeing the world, which is grounded in empiricism, scientific exploration, rationalism, secularism, and the associated economic mode of capitalist consumption. All of these aspects concentrate on humankind's five senses and how they can measure and experience the physical realm.

More radical forms of materialism reveal where this is stance is headed. In 2013, Stephen J. Cowley and Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau edited a collected volume of scholarly essays entitled, Cognition beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity and Human Artifice. The editors explain that the notion that we are free to think inside our heads is a fairy tale. They argue that the thoughts we have inside our own heads as private expressions of personal existence, and as ego-controlled responses to the outside world, constitute a bedtime story we tell ourselves about our independence as individual beings.

'Thinking,' for these academics, is not an internalized activity expressing the cognitive power and freedom of a single, rational creature. Rather, as I suggested in my post, Who Writes Your Reality?, 'thinking' is a culturally-modulated experience. It is even possibly constructed from the outside in. That is, your brain from this materialist standpoint is like a Tabula rasa, upon which the outside world may write its programs as it wishes. The editors of Cognition beyond the Brain call old-fashioned notions of subjective 'thinking' a 'folk concept,' a culturally-shaped story we tell ourselves about what we are doing:
"Like all folk concepts, ‘thinking’ is a second-order construct used to ‘explain’ observations or, specifically, how action is—and should be—integrated with perception."
This is a radical departure from the earlier Postmodern deification of the subjective mind, wherein social objectivities were demolished and everyone's personal truth was considered sacrosanct.

Now, 'thinking' itself can be culturally deconstructed. To view cognition in this manner implies that there is a greater principle, namely, "adaptive primate behaviour," behind the cultural picture of what we are doing when we tell ourselves that we are 'thinking.' The editors present their book as an original analysis because it pushes past cultural frameworks for thought as behaviour. They write:
"It was long assumed that thinking goes on ‘in the head’: indeed, as recently as twenty years ago, many would have regarded it as absurd to examine thinking with reference to events beyond the brain. Not only did behaviourists reject this idea but when the cognitive (counter) revolution arrived, most were enthralled by models that described task performance in terms of computation. Using what philosophers termed ‘functionalism’, this legitimised science based on formal models that were implemented on von Neumann machines. Thus, problem solving, linguisticanalysis and making up 3D visual sketches all came to be pictured as occurring ‘within’ an algorithmic processing system. By the 1990s, however, the climate had changed. It was increasingly recognised that action, perception and attention affect language and thinking. Pursuing this, Cognition Beyond the Brain presents studies of how cognitive skills are deployed in a range of complex tasks and activities. 
While neurally enabled, cultural and bodily dispositions contribute to human action, people exploit sense-saturated coordination or interactivity, a modus operandi based on coordinating with people/objects while orienting to the cultural environment. From this perspective, the heuristic power of symbolic, connectionist, robotic or dynamical models can be separated from normative assumptions."
Cognition beyond the Brain goes on to gauge 'thinking' in terms of measurable quantifiers evident in human behaviour with tools. Cognition can be evaluated by noting down different forms of interactivity. The individual brain - once a private, hallowed space of contemplation and consciousness - can now be assessed through big data approaches to interaction with computers and computerized gadgets.

The hypothesis here is a bit like people who seek to interpret other people's concealed thoughts by reading their outer body language. But in this case, the body language can be assessed scientifically because researchers have a data set relating to repetitive actions in a computerized environment. Moreover, the sample size, observed through the Internet and professional and private use of computer systems and cellular phones, is gigantic. A good example of this type of data gathering is covert keystroke logging.

If thinking is defined as interactivity, then it can be viewed in terms of adaptability, flexibility, evolutionary responses, and plasticity in relation to real or perceived objects. The aim here is to find algorithms which describe cognition as an ever-changing interactive process between the brain and the outside world. This implies that the first order principle of what 'thinking' is can be understood, manipulated and controlled by other people who are outside of yourself.

This is very dangerous territory and it is imperative that we understand where the line is drawn between the private space inside our skulls, and what parts of our brains may be considered a kind of public commons, vulnerable to any kind of scientific or corporatist manipulation deemed necessary for social, political, economic and technological progress.

The researchers here make a terrifying jump, between defining cognition as an internalized brain process in a physical human body and as a type of permanent interactivity between that brain and outside objects. The editors add that they take biological complexities into account. They are not just projecting computer functions onto human actions in a ham-fisted manner. Their approach is sophisticated. They could provide a new kind of orthodoxy for the post-Postmodern era:
"Neuroscience is thus increasingly complemented by work on how organisms (including people) act in the world (Thompson 2007; Robbins and Aydede 2009; Chemero 2009; Stewart et al. 2010). Moving beyond the negative claim that cognition is not brain-bound, new debates have flourished. On the one side, many propose embedded and/or extended functionalism; on the other, another grouping build on The Embodied Mind to propose that cognitive science adopt the enactivist paradigm."
Because this hypothesis is a new orthodoxy-in-the-making, these scholars use interactivity to lay claim to higher purpose. Their whole schema involves the projection of a newfound hierarchy upon redefined cognition. Brain adaptability in relation to outside objects is a 'first order function.' Cultural conceptualizations of that experience are considered a 'second order function,' and so on. But this is all rather joyless and anti-celestial, so the scholars choose in this book to make interactivity a kind of first-order culture, something which drives human history. Their path there is cringe-worthy, partly because of their torturous, scholarly lingo. One might call their unconscious posturing through the use of self-referential academic language a 'third order function':
"Thus, while part of action, language is also part of history. This insight shapes a view where, in Love’s (2004) terms, second-order cultural constructs or verbal patterns (‘words’) are perceived as part of first-order activity (or action-perception). During talk, people draw on interactivity to create and construe wordings. First-order language is thus measurable whole-bodied activity that, oddly, evokes second-order patterns (including ‘meanings’). Full-bodied metabolic activity therefore enacts sociocultural patterns. The resulting distributed view of language thus blends with ecological psychology and Chemero’s (2009) ‘radical embodied cognitive science.’ For Cowley and Vallée-Tourangeau (2010), this ‘more subtle’ challenge to the epistemic view of mind builds, in Hollan et al.’s (2000) terms, on how the products of earlier (cultural) events transform later events. In linking neural function and with the slow dynamics of linguistic and cultural change, interactivity makes human cognition central to how people live temporal experience."
In upcoming posts, I will ask if this materialist orthodoxy of interactivity has the ironic makings of a new religion. I will also discuss how anti-materialists attack the entire materialist perspective, especially the assumption that the brain, without external context, is grey matter in a jar, inert, waiting for its electrical impulses and nervous stimuli.

Image Source: Scryfall.

See all posts in the What's Left Over? series on materialism and anti-materialism in technological advancement.

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