Let’s begin from the premise that we are natural beings that evolved in a natural setting and that the types of nervous systems that were selected for as the genus homo evolved was not the sort of nervous system “designed” to know things as they are, but for getting around in the world. What sorts of characteristics would a mind made for getting around in the world have? A few come to mind:
1) Given that biological beings live in a dangerous world filled with other predators and lots of competition, it would be a mind that has to respond in real time. Such minds would favor durations of the order of minutes (sometimes seconds), hours, and days. Such minds would probably have a very difficult time registering very small and very large durations of time, because these just wouldn’t be very relevant to real time responses to harvesting plants, escaping wolves, or taking down antelope.
2) Such minds would also probably also be “wired” to notice entities that it can potentially act on such as animals, things like flint, other people, plants, and so on. It’s tendency would be to see these things as the “really real” and to see things like, for example, clouds as not really real at all, or as mere ephemeral beings.
3) It’s also likely that such minds would be “put together” to look for motives and intentions in everything. Discerning motives would be a life or death matter. Determining what an animal is likely to do as I approach it, for example, would be crucial to not getting gored. Determining what other persons want and desire would be crucial to determining whether I can count on them or whether they’re out to get me.
Before getting into the rest, it’s worth mentioning that if you don’t like the evolutionary framework I’m suggesting for these structures of cognition, then maybe you’ll find Bergson more palatable. This is basically his take on intellect (as opposed to intuition). For Bergson, intellect has a “pragmatic” (not in the sophisticated philosophical sense) or utilitarian vocation, and is primarily geared towards action and manipulating those entities that can be manipulated. This, he contends, leads us to overlook the dimension of becoming or change because action requires fairly stable entities upon which to act. As a consequence, he argues, intellect generates systematic distortions in our understanding of the being of being.
I hope none of this is true, because if it is it would have an entire series of consequences for beings such as ourselves living in the sort of world we live in today. The third characteristic of mind, for example, would entail that we’ll never really overcome superstition. If the mind is “wired” to find intentions and motives in everything, then there will probably always be a segment of the population that encounter the world in quasi-animistic terms, seeing things like derechos, earthquakes, cancer, etc., as punishments from gods and whatnot. This is probably the least of my worries as I’ve always felt that there’s something of an “a priori faculty of superstition” and that our tendency to treat unfortunate (and fortunate) events as being the result of motives and intentions is not simply the result of ignorance, but is almost an ineluctable tendency of thought in the sense of a Kantian transcendental illusion (but here arising from a naturalistic ground).
What I’m more concerned with is the sort of implications these types of cognitive structures– if they exist –would have on our ability to recognize the true causes of problems and to respond accordingly. Take, for example, capitalism and climate change. These are both large-scale, anonymous dynamic systems. They are large-scale systems in the sense that they are not organized around mid-scale entities such as cats, aardvarks, rocks, and houses. They are anonymous in the sense that they aren’t based on individual motives and intentions. They’re what we might call “emergent systems”. In the case of capitalism, for example, one can be for or against capitalism, and not even be aware that they live within a capitalist economic system, but that system functions just fine without our belief, assent, or knowledge of that system.
As an aside, I would argue that despite all the outstanding work done on anonymous systems in the last two centuries– the linguists, Marx, Foucault, Althusser, dynamic systems theory, complexity theory, theories of (non-mystical) emergence, etc. –large swaths of social and theory really haven’t yet come to terms with anonymously functioning systems.
Capitalism doesn’t need people to have intentions in favor of it to sustain itself. It doesn’t need people to know that it exists to take place. It doesn’t need people to believe in it to work. All it requires to exist is for people to engage in certain practices of exchange. That’s it. This is probably why ideology critique is of limited value in responding to capitalism. Ideology critique can serve the functioning of awakening people to the existence of capitalism and disabusing them of beliefs about capitalism being positive or good by demonstrating the manner in which such a system of exchange generate systematic injustice, crisis, exploitation, etc. However, such critiques in and of themselves do nothing to combat this particular form of exchange. It merely creates subjects that might devise strategies for interrupting such a system.
However, things are far more grim than this. If it’s true that mind is cognitively structured in the form described above, then it’s likely that hairless apes such as ourselves will have a very difficult time even recognizing the existence of systems such as these because, to us, they will be ephemeral things like clouds, which is to say many of us will think they aren’t real at all. Might we find one of the root cognitive causes of sad passions like racism and xenophobia here? For the person who exists in dire economic circumstances or who has lost their job, they only know that they struggle mightily to support themselves and that they’ve lost their jobs. Because their minds are structured to think in terms of agents, motives, and mid-scale objects, they then cast about for a being that is responsible for their job loss. They conclude that some other group is responsible because they just don’t discern these macro-level processes. As Deleuze and Marx said, “we always get the solutions we deserve as a function of the manner in which we’ve posed a problem” (in this context, Deleuze cites the horror of the “Jewish solution”). Here we would get racism as yet another example of a sort of naturalized transcendental illusion. The story would run that because of our cognitive architecture, we’re prone to giving grotesque “solutions” to a number of problems. I find this thought heartbreaking and ardently hope something like this isn’t going on.
Similarly, because of our tendency to look for agents behind everything as the cause of various phenomena, we would have a tendency to miss macro-scale, anonymous dynamics and therefore misidentify causality. For example, these structures that haunt thought would lead us to think that perhaps particular politicians and CEO’s are the causes of certain economic phenomena. Certainly they contribute. But this misses that they too are caught up in a logic that is anonymous and that exceeds their own intentions. Here the belief that simply placing a different politician in office or bringing about the downfall of a corporation, for example, would misidentify the causality. It would fail to understand that these phenomena are the result of a large-scale system, not the decisions of individuals. A different type of intervention is needed if this is true.
So a couple of questions come to mind. First, to what degree can we overcome these naturalistic transcendental illusions of thought, if at all? Clearly it’s not all hopeless. Most of us aren’t animists anymore, even if animistic thoughts often flit in and out of our minds (at least they do for me). Likewise, we have become capable of more or less thinking about being in non-narrative, non-motive based terms in our natural sciences (in the last one hundred years, far more complex sciences such as the social sciences and psychology have increasingly caught up here as well). Finally, we have devised techniques for discerning large-scale dynamic systems that are generally invisible to our hairless ape minds. In other words, while our cognitive architecture is pretty ill-fitted as a tool for knowledge because it was “made” for very different purposes (getting around, surviving, eating, and mating), it also seems that we’ve been able to “bootstrap” our way out of the limitations of that cognitive architecture and that we’ve increasingly devised techniques for nullifying the transcendental illusions that plague that architecture. How? What allowed this to take place?
The more pressing question, however, lies in the political effects of this cognitive architecture. In political engagement with things like climate change and capitalism (two deeply intertwined things), how can we defuse the transcendental illusions of our cognitive architecture for a population of people that don’t have expert knowledge, the time to acquire expert knowledge, and that still largely move in the orbit of this sort of architecture? If this question is so pressing, then it’s because there can be no intervention within these systems without the formation of collectives and forms of collaborative action to appropriately respond to them. I’m not optimistic.