Speculative Anxiety

In the closing pages of The Mathematics of Novelty Sam Gillespie turns to the subject of anxiety to relate Lacan to Badiou. Anxiety for Lacan, as Gillespie points out, centers on the lack of lack – the empty ground of being (p. 118). In terms of other philosophers’ concept of anxiety it is the “confrontation with possibility” – moral obligation for Kierkegaard and freedom in the world (Heidegger) (p. 119). Via Gillespie’s association of ontological anxiety with the objet a (for Lacan) and with the Event (Badiou) however, there is a certain formal (whether mathematizable or not) shell denying ontological anxiety from connecting to everyday objects.

While, on the one hand, I support a rather old fashioned distinction between the ontic and the ontological and cringe at a quotidianization of the ontological – it would seem that the formalization of the object denies the metaphysical everyday (as opposed to the muted metaphysical as the everyday). Or, in other words, the question becomes what is the depth or ontological reach of so called ordinary objects.

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The Semantic Apocalypse

Last week, I was privileged to be a respondent to a lecture entitled “The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”. (Held at Canada’s premier interdisciplinary department: The University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism.) Thanks to the lecturer, Scott Bakker, and the other respondent, Ali McMillan, I’m happy to post the entire lecture here as well as the responses.

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Scott’s lecture aimed to provoke high-minded critical theorists out of their self-contentment, arguing that the results of neuroscience have far more radical implications for philosophy, the subject, and meaning than any poststructuralist critique. As the author of a recent fictional psychothriller (Neuropath) – about which Metzinger has said, “This book has emotionally hurt and disturbed me in a way none have done in many years. You should think twice before reading this – there could be some scientific and philosophical possibilities you don’t want to know!” – Scott is well equipped to explore the apocalyptic implications of neuroscience.

My own response came next and should be somewhat familiar to readers of this blog. It was based on an earlier post of mine, and aimed (unsurprisingly) to resist some of dire conclusions Scott draws. It also, secondarily, acted as an intro to speculative realism for the uninitiated – including brief summaries of Brassier and Meillassoux’s projects. Lastly, I tried to broach the question of the political implications of neuroscience – but squeezed for time, only managed to briefly touch upon it.

Ali’s response came last, and used insights from analytic philosophy to try and counter Scott’s lecture. He argued for a compatibilist vision of free will, and used some of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments as evidence for his point. More optimistic about philosophy’s chances than either Scott or myself, Ali tried to revive some traditional philosophical concepts, while still acknowledging the significance of neuroscience.

I believe all three lectures together present an interesting starting point for thinking about the relation between neuroscience and philosophy. And while none of the questions between our respective positions were really resolved in the debates afterwards (even after a few beers), it was clear that we all agreed neuroscience needs to be taken seriously by philosophy. If we can minimally agree that we’re not disembodied abstract beings, then the fundamental constraints of our material selves are of the utmost importance for philosophy.

Since the lectures are rather lengthy, they’ve been posted below the fold…

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Being No One: Metzinger and Kant

In Being No One, Thomas Metzinger attempts to develop a thorough and systematic approach to consciousness and subjectivity – one based fundamentally on a teleofunctionalist and naturalist view of consciousness. In other words, an approach to consciousness that presents it as necessarily supervening on a neural basis and as subject-to and a product-of evolutionary pressures. Perhaps surprisingly, in many ways Metzinger’s project comes across as a neurological updating of Kant’s project. Instead of the ‘conditions’ of possible experience, Metzinger deduces the ‘constraints’ constitutive of phenomenal consciousness and self-consciousness. Unlike Kant, however, Metzinger refuses to describe consciousness in a single, unitary way. With the advances in psychology, neuroscience and phenomenology, we can now achieve a much more detailed and nuanced view of consciousness. One of the most significant aspects of Metzinger’s work is therefore the integration of deficient forms of phenomenal consciousness – ones where a particular constraint may be absent as the result of neurological damage. The end result is a set of necessary and contingent constraints for consciousness to occur. The addition or subtraction of a particular constraint leads to entirely different forms of consciousness.

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Neurology and Agency

[Before I begin, to anyone who’s interested, Graham Harman’s article on Manuel DeLanda, assemblage theory and realism has just been released in the journal Continental Philosophy Review.]

In one of his latest books, the short Freedom and Neurobiology, John Searle sets out to try and precisely frame the problem of integrating our conceptions of free will with our conceptions of how the world operates. We are faced, he says, with two opposing yet seemingly indisputable viewpoints of the world. On the one hand, we have the success of the natural sciences to suggest that (at least at our non-quantum level), the world is deterministic and in principle predictable. On the other hand, we have an intuitive sense of our own free will, i.e. a self-initiating cause. The two seem utterly irreconcilable, and indeed, Searle doesn’t attempt to resolve the tension so much as try to frame the issue in a potentially resolvable fashion.

According to Searle then, the significant fact of free will is that it involves a gap between conscious states (in contrast to a gap between the mind and body). At one moment, we may feel inclined towards a particular action, but there is nothing that sufficiently determines why we carry out that action in the next moment. There is, in other words, a causal gap between the two moments – we can give reasons, but not causes for our action.

But according to the neurological view, there is no gap – there is simply a seamless web of causal interactions amongst neurons. The gap between these two worldviews is readily apparent. From our phenomenal perspective, nothing determined our actions; yet from the neuroscientist’s perspective, there is clearly a deterministic sequence of causes. If we are going to save free will then, we need to discover some sort of correlative gap in the neurological foundation.

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