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.


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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