who wrote this?

January 11, 2011

“Our phenomenal world is not an elementaristic world made out of building blocks, it is not a Lego universe, because it possesses an organic structure; it is more aptly characterized as a quasi-liquid network.”

If you saw this out of context, who would you think wrote it?

My first guess would be some bohemian, lavalampy adherent of the Deleuzian underground.

My second guess would be Ken Wilber.

My third guess would be some pop science writer who had read a bit of Whitehead.

To my astonishment (the first time I read it), that passage comes from the pages of that otherwise brass-knuckled philosopher of mind, Thomas Metzinger: the same guy who accuses his opponents of “a desperate search for emotional security.”

Well, nothing makes me feel “emotionally secure” like an organic, quasi-liquid network.

Here’s an idea for an interesting anthology… passages written by philosophers that make you think: “there’s no way this person could have written this passage.” Every author has a few, no doubt.

But once you get into the nuts and bolts of Metzinger’s system, it’s not even so surprising that he would say this. His primary goal is to destroy individuals, and like many such authors he does so in two opposite ways simultaneously.

On the one hand, he thinks phenomenal objects are ridiculous because they are generated by countless concealed subpersonal neurophysiological processes. (This is what I call “undermining.”)

But on the other hand, he thinks phenomenal objects are also ridiculous because they are part of a greater holistic tapestry of conscious experience, and none of them can be isolated from this interconnected, enriching, interdependent whole. (This is what I call “overmining.”)

Concerning the latter, here’s another passage from Metzinger. The style is unlike Merleau-Ponty, as is some of the terminology, but the content could easily have been written by M.-P. himself:

“There are no decontextualized atoms. The relationship between those aspects or subregions is a mereological relationship. On lower levels of phenomenal granularity different aspects may be bound into different low-level wholes (different colors or smells may belong to different perceptual objects), but ultimately all of them are parts of one and the same global whole.”

So, objects lose twice in Metzinger’s system. Like a child receiving mixed messages from an abusive parent, objects are first told that they are too shallow, then told that they are too deep. Even their Lego toys are mocked by this cruel parent.

Where is the kind aunt to lend objects a comforting word and give them a kiss and tell them that they aren’t worthless, that they have value, that they can grow up to be something important someday? She never appears in Being No One, a book that counts as one of the most abusive parents in the history of objects.

And actually, the lavalampy passage at the top is even less surprising if you make it all the way to the end of Metzinger’s book (I ultimately did so last July, but even many of his admirers have not), where he takes a plunge into the Buddhist end of the pool and starts talking about the alleviation of suffering and whether having children doesn’t simply increase the total suffering in the cosmos. Weird stuff. In fact, the whole book is a weird mix of angry eliminativism, smug ad hominem dismissals, flagrant scientism, Merleau-Pontyesque holism, Dennettian functionalism, a few small olive branches for parapsychology, occasional prose poems on the beauty of love, and then the concluding Buddhistic tones of the work.

If you want to try to read the book (but beware: it’s a huge reading project) my advice would be to take literally Metzinger’s own suggestion that it not be read straight through. I read the chapters in whatever order I pleased, and found that in only a few cases did I have to backtrack and learn some terminology that he’d introduced a bit earlier.

Metzinger’s greatest strength, and obviously his greatest passion, is his discussion of cases from neuropathology. It is here that he does his best work at complicating our usual sense of what the human “cogito” is. Almost any apparently basic human feature can be messed with and transformed by the right pathological state, and Metzinger is right to raise the point that technology may soon be able to produce the same results deliberately.

His weakest point is his habitual overstatement about the shortcomings of a priori philosophizing. For in fact, his own book is saturated with weak a priori assumptions that could have benefitted from some more time in an “armchair”.

I have nothing against Metzinger personally, of course, despite the insufferable tone of his interview in Collapse (my article begins with some choice samples, in which his opponents and adherents and students and the interviewers themselves are all subjected to various slaps). On video he seems personable and likable enough.

No, what I object to is the way that some continental readers have introduced him into the room with the most ominous tones, as if heralding an assault on the very conditions of all reality as we know it. In fact, it’s a book that makes some fairly finite contributions on the relation between philosophy and neuropathology while running onto sandbars most everywhere else.

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