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R.

Scott Bakker

On Alien Philosophy
Abstract: Given a sufficiently convergent cognitive biology, we might
suppose that aliens would likely find themselves perplexed by many of
the same kinds of problems that inform our traditional and con-
temporary philosophical debates. In particular, we can presume that
humanoid aliens would be profoundly stumped by themselves, and
that they would possess a philosophical tradition organized around
hard problems falling out of their inability to square their scientific
self-understanding with their traditional and/or intuitive self-under-
standing. As speculative as any such consideration of alien philos-
ophy must be, it provides a striking, and perhaps important, way to
recontextualize contemporary human debates regarding cognition and
consciousness.

The highest species concept may be that of a terrestrial rational being;


however, we shall not be able to name its character because we have no
knowledge of non-terrestrial rational beings that would enable us to
indicate their characteristic property and so to characterize this terres-
trial being among rational beings in general. It seems, therefore, that the
problem of indicating the character of the human species is absolutely
insoluble, because the solution would have to be made through experi-
ence by means of the comparison of two species of rational being, but
experience does not offer us this. (Kant, 2006, p. 225)
Are there alien philosophers orbiting some faraway star, opining in
bursts of symbolically articulated smells, or parsing distinctions-
without-differences via the clasp of neural genitalia? Do the Greys
have their own version of Plato? Is there a little green Nietzsche out
there, somewhere, describing little green armies of little green
metaphors?

Correspondence:
Email: richard.scott.bakker@gmail.com

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 24, No. 12, 2017, pp. ??


2 R.S. BAKKER

And if so, what would their problems be? What kind of questions
would they ask? And what might this tell us about the biological basis
of philosophy as we know it?
Prima facie, at least, the prospect of answering questions like these
seems dim. As Kant notes in the epigraph, we have no way of
characterizing ourselves among rational beings in general short of
actual contact with extraterrestrial intelligences. But thanks to science
and to Darwin in particular the problem is nowhere near so
absolutely insoluble for us as it must have appeared in the eighteenth
century. Unlike Kant, we now know enough cognitive biology to make
some educated guesses regarding rational beings other than ourselves.
Given the universality of evolutionary processes, speculative xeno-
philosophy need not be mere science fiction.
What I want to show is how an intelligent alien species possessing a
sufficiently convergent cognitive biology Convergians would
likely find themselves perplexed by many of the same kinds of prob-
lems that inform our traditional and contemporary philosophical
debates. Like us, they would have their own cognitive crash spaces,
discourses where their tools, though appearing to work, systematically
break down. In particular, I want to show why Convergians would be
profoundly stumped by themselves, why they would likely have their
own hard problems.
The point of this exercise, of course, isnt so much to argue the
reality of Convergian philosophy as it is to argue the plausibility.
After some twenty-five centuries of explicit enquiry, we earthlings
still lack genuine theoretical knowledge of our experiential or
intentional nature. Millennia have passed and we cannot so much as
formulate our explananda, let alone explain things like meaning or
consciousness. Thus the attraction of alien philosophy. Any empiri-
cally plausible account of why aliens possessing an analogous
cognitive biology would find themselves in analogous cognitive straits
automatically doubles as an empirically plausible account of those
straits. Our enquiry into alien philosophy is at once an enquiry into
our own quite remarkable inability to comprehend ourselves.1

1 For a speculative account of possible artificial (as opposed to alien) psychological/


cognitive capacities, see Schwitzgebel (2014), where he investigates the kinds of
psychology we could plausibly attribute to a Matrioshka brain. See also Schneider
(2016).
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 3

Why do humans find themselves so perplexing? Why do meaning


and consciousness baffle us so? The likely answer becomes obvious, I
think, when viewed through the lens of alien philosophy: cognition is
ecological.

1. Aliens and Philosophy


Of course, the plausibility of humanoid aliens possessing any kind of
philosophy requires the plausibility of humanoid aliens. In popular
media, aliens are almost always exotic versions of ourselves, possess-
ing their own exotic versions of the capacities and institutions we
happen to have. This is no accident. Science fiction is always about
the here and now about recontextualizations of what we know. As a
result, the aliens you tend to meet tend to seem suspiciously human-
oid, psychologically if not physically.2 No matter how alien the alien,
Spock always has some mind with which to meld. To ask the
question of alien philosophy, one might complain, is to buy into this
humanoid conceit, which, although flattering, is almost certainly not
true.
And yet the environmental filtration of mutations on earth has
produced innumerable examples of convergent evolution, different
species evolving similar morphologies and functions, the same solu-
tions to the same problems, using different DNA. In the case of earth,
at least, what Gould (1989) famously termed the tape of life does
seem to replay (Bains and Schulze-Makuch, 2016). But it is by no
means clear as to why this is so (Matos et al., 2015) and, short of
some definitive account of the processes involved, we have no way of
generalizing convergence to the stars, let alone extending it to the
evolution of humanoid intelligence.3
All too often, ignorance of alternatives dupes us into making only
game in town assumptions, so confusing mere possibility with
necessity. Supposing the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is
one thing cognition is almost certainly integral to complex life
elsewhere in the universe but we know nothing about the kinds of

2 Literary science fiction, of course, is rife with exceptions to this rule. Many works, such
as Stanislaw Lems (2002) classic Solaris, or, more recently, Peter Watts (2006)
Blindsight, take the unthinkable alien as their major foil and/or theme.
3 As Simon Conway Morris (2003) believes counter Goulds (1989) account of evolu-
tionary contingency.
4 R.S. BAKKER

possible biological intelligences nature permits.4 Short of actual con-


tact with intelligent aliens, we have no way of gauging how far we can
extrapolate from our case (Rescher, 2009, pp. 2139).
But this debate need not worry us here. Perhaps the cluster of
characteristics we identify with humanoid expresses a high-
probability recipe for evolving intelligence perhaps not. Either
way, our existence proves that our particular recipe is on file, that
aliens we might describe as humanoid, no matter how unlikely, are
entirely possible.
So we have our humanoid aliens, at least as far as we need them.
But the question of what alien philosophy looks like also presupposes
we know what human philosophy looks like. Wilfred Sellars famously
defines the aim of philosophy as comprehending how things in the
broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest
possible sense of the term (Sellars, 1963, p. 35). Philosophy attempts
to comprehend the big picture. The problem with this definition is
that it overlooks the special relationship between philosophy and
ignorance, and so fails to decisively distinguish philosophical enquiry
from, say, scientific or religious enquiry. Philosophy is invested in a
specific kind of big picture, one that acknowledges the theoretical
nature of its claims, while remaining beyond the pale of scientific
arbitration. Philosophy is perhaps better defined, then, as the attempt
to comprehend how things in general hang together in general absent
conclusive evidence.
All too often philosophy is conceived in positive terms, either as an
archive of theoretical claims, or as a capacity to see beyond or peer
into. On this definition, however, philosophy characterizes a certain
relationship to the unknown, one where enquiry eschews supernatural
authority, and yet lacks the methodological, technical, and institu-
tional resources of science.5 Philosophy is the attempt to theoretically
explain in the absence of decisive warrant, to argue general claims that
cannot, for whatever reason, be presently arbitrated. This is why

4 Let alone postbiological intelligences. Assuming that the acceleration of technological


power we are presently experiencing is universal to exocivilizations, it follows that any
alien intelligence we encounter will be some kind of machine intelligence (Schneider,
2016). Even still, that machine intelligence would have a history that reaches back to a
possibly humanoid biological intelligence.
5 In keeping with Firesteins (2012, p. 29) characterization of science as also about the
unknown, you could characterize the distinction between science and philosophy as the
distinction between edible versus inedible ignorance.
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 5

questions serve as the basic organizing principles of the institution, the


shared boughs from which various approaches branch and twig in
endless disputation. Philosophy is where we ponder the general
questions we cannot decisively answer, where we grapple with
ignorances we cannot readily overcome.6
This is why the presence of philosophers in the scientific thick of
things generally indicates controversy, and why their absence
generally indicates consensus. Its not so much the generality that
draws them as the attendant confusion.

2. Convergian Nature
It might seem innocuous enough defining philosophy in privative
terms as the attempt to cognize in conditions of information scarcity,
but it turns out to be crucial to our ability to make guesses regarding
potential alien analogues. This is because it transforms the question of
alien philosophy into a question of alien ignorance. If we can guess at
the kinds of ignorance a biological intelligence would suffer, then we
can guess at the kinds of questions it would ask, as well as the kinds of
answers that might occur to them. And this is not quite as difficult as
one might suppose.
The reason is evolution. Thanks to evolution, we know that alien
cognition would be bounded cognition, that it would consist of good
enough capacities adapted to multifarious reproductive impediments
(Simon, 1957). Taking this ecological view of cognition, it turns out,
allows us to make a good number of educated guesses. (And recall,
plausibility is all that were aiming for here.)
So for instance, we can assume tight symmetries between the
sensory information accessed, the behavioural resources developed,
and the impediments overcome. If gamma rays made no difference to
their survival, they would not perceive them. Gamma rays, for
Convergians, would be unknown unknowns, at least pending the
development of alien science. The same can be said for evolution,
planetary physics pretty much any instance of theoretical cognition
you can adduce. Evolution assures that cognitive expenditures, the
ability to intuit this or that, will always be bound in some manner to
some set of ancestral environments. Our sensitivities and our capacity

6 Given the importance the production of conscious ignorance plays in research contexts
(Otero and Ishiwa, 2014), philosophy certainly has an important positive role to play in
the quest for knowledge. Questions that are never asked, after all, never get answered.
6 R.S. BAKKER

to exploit environments, cognition, and behaviour form a circuit.


Information that makes no reproductive difference generally makes no
biological difference.
An ecological view, in other words, allows us to naturalistically
motivate something we might have been tempted to assume outright:
original navet. The possession of sensory and cognitive apparatuses
comparable to our own means Convergians will possess a humanoid
neglect structure, a pattern of ignorances they cannot even begin to
question, that is, pending the development of philosophy and science.
The Convergians would not simply be ignorant of the microscopic and
macroscopic constituents and machinations explaining their environ-
ments, they would be oblivious to them. Like our own ancestors, they
wouldnt even know they didnt know.
Theoretical knowledge is a cultural achievement. Our Convergians
would have to learn the big picture details underwriting their
immediate environments, undergo their own revolutions and paradigm
shifts as they accumulate data and refine interpretations. We can
expect them to possess an implicit grasp of local physics, for instance,
but no explicit, theoretical understanding of physics in general. So
Convergians, it seems safe to say, would have their own version of
natural philosophy, a history of attempts to answer big picture
questions about the nature of Nature in the absence of decisive data.
Not only can we say their nascent, natural theories will be under-
determined, we can also say something about the kinds of problems
Convergians will face, and so something of the shape of their natural
philosophy. For instance, needing only the capacity to cognize move-
ment within inertial frames, we can suppose that planetary physics
would escape them. Quite simply, without direct information regard-
ing the movement of the ground, the Convergians would have no
sense of the ground changing position. They would intuitively assume
that their sky was moving, not their world. Their cosmological
musings, in other words, would begin supposing default geo-
centrism, an assumption that would only require rationalization once
others, pondering the movement of the skies, began posing
alternatives.
One need only read Aristotles On the Heavens to appreciate how
the availability of information can constrain a theoretical debate.
Given the imprecision of the observational information at his disposal,
for instance, Aristotles stellar parallax argument becomes well-nigh
devastating. If the earth revolves around the sun, then surely such a
drastic change in position would impact our observations of the stars,
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 7

the same way driving into a city via two different routes changes our
view of downtown. But Aristotle, of course, had no decisive way of
fathoming the preposterous distances involved nor did anyone,
until Galileo turned his Dutch Spyglass to the sky.7
Aristotle, in other words, was victimized not so much by poor
reasoning as by various perspectival illusions following from a neglect
structure we can presume our Convergians share. And this warrants
further guesses. Consider Aristotles claim that the heavens and the
earth comprise two distinct ontological orders. Of course purity and
circles rule the celestial, and of course grit and lines rule the terrestrial
that is, given the evidence of the naked eye from the surface of the
earth. The further away something is, the less information observation
yields, the fewer distinctions were capable of making, the more
uniform and unitary it is bound to seem which is to say, the less
earthly. An inability to map intuitive physical assumptions onto the
movements of the firmament, meanwhile, simply makes those move-
ments appear all the more exceptional. In terms of the information
available, it seems safe to suppose our Convergians would at least face
the temptation of Aristotles long-lived ontological distinction.
I say temptation, because certainly any number of caveats can be
raised here. Heliocentrism, for instance, is far more obvious in our
polar latitudes (where the earths rotation is as plain as the summer
sun in the sky), so there are observational variables that could have
drastically impacted the debate even in our own case. Who knows? If
it werent for the consistent failure of ancient heliocentric models to
make correct predictions (the models assumed circular orbits), things
could have gone differently in our own history. The problem of where
the earth resides in the whole might have been short-lived.
But it would have been a problem all the same, simply because the
motionlessness of the earth and the relative proximity of the heavens
would have been our (erroneous) default assumptions. Bound cog-
nition suggests our Convergians would find themselves in much the
same situation. Their world would feel motionless. Their heavens
would seem to consist of simpler stuff following different laws. Any
Convergian arguing heliocentrism would have to explain these
observations away, argue how they could be moving while standing
still, how the physics of the ground belongs to the physics of the sky.

7 Stellar parallax, on this planet at least, was not measured until 1838 by Friedrich Bessel.
8 R.S. BAKKER

We can say this because, thanks to an ecological view, we can make


plausible empirical guesses as to the kinds of information and
capacities Convergians would have available. Not only can we predict
what would have remained unknown unknowns for them, we can also
predict what might be called unknown half-knowns. Where
unknown unknowns refer to things we cant even question, unknown
half-knowns refer to theoretical errors we cannot perceive simply
because the information required to do so remains you guessed it
unknown unknown.
Think of Platos allegory of the cave. The chained prisoners confuse
the shadows for everything because, unable to move their heads from
side to side, they just dont know any different. This is something we
understand so intuitively we scarce ever pause to ponder it: the
absence of information or cognitive capacity has positive cognitive
consequences.8 Absent certain difference making differences, the
ground will be cognized as motionless rather than moving, and
celestial objects will be cognized as simples rather than complex
entities in their own right. The ground might as well be motionless and
the sky might as well be simple as far as evolution is concerned. Once
again, distinctions that make no reproductive difference make no
biological difference. Our lack of radio telescope eyes is no genetic or
environmental fluke: such information simply wasnt relevant to our
survival.
This means that a propensity to theorize groundsky dualism is
built into our biology. This is quite an incredible claim, certainly, but
each step in our path has been fairly conservative, given that mere
plausibility is our aim. We should expect Convergian cognition to be
bound cognition. We should expect them to assume the ground
motionless, and the constituents of the sky simple. We can suppose
this because we can suppose them to be ignorant of their ignorances,
just as we were (and remain). Cognizing the ontological continuity of
heaven and earth requires the proper data for the proper interpretation.

8 Klaus Fiedler has shown that a number of cognitive research paradigms can be
theoretically unified via meta-cognitive myopia, the short-sighted and navely con-
fident reliance on, and accurate processing of, the information given (Fiedler, 2012, p.
4). Such reliance, of course, simply follows from the way heuristic cognition leverages
efficiencies at the expense of neglecting background invariances. Differentially
correlated cues are seized upon precisely because their generative context precludes
cognition (for whatever reason). As I hope to show, heuristic neglect is no mere
domain-specific by-product, but rather a ubiquitous feature of all biological intelligence.
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 9

Given a roughly convergent sensory predicament, it seems safe to say


that aliens would be prone as we were to mistake differences in signal
with differences in being and so have to discover the universality of
nature the same as we did.
But if we can assume our Convergians or at least some of them
would be prone to misinterpret their environments the way we did,
what about themselves? For centuries now humanity has been revising
and sharpening its understanding of the cosmos, to the point of draft-
ing plausible theories regarding the first second of creation, and yet
we remain almost as stumped as Aristotle regarding ourselves. As
William Uttal famously notes, There is probably nothing that divides
psychologists of all stripes more than the inadequacies and ambi-
guities of our efforts to define mind, consciousness, and the enormous
variety of mental events and phenomena (Uttal, 2003, p. 90). Not
only do we lack explanations, we lack explananda and this after
millennia of traditional speculation and more than a century of
scientific investigation. We cant even agree on what it is were trying
to explain! Would our Convergians, by virtue of possessing an
analogous cognitive biology, suffer this extraordinary myopia as well?
Can we presume they would have their own version of our
interminable philosophy of the soul?

3. Convergian Souls
Given a convergent environmental and biological predicament, we can
suppose our Convergians would have at least flirted with something
resembling Aristotles dualism of heaven and earth. But as I hope to
show, the ecological approach pays even bigger theoretical dividends
when one considers what has to be the primary domain of human
philosophical speculation: ourselves.
With evolutionary convergence, we can presume our Convergians
would be eusocial (Wilson, 2012), displaying the same degree and
similar varieties of interdependence as us. This observation, as we
shall see, possesses some startling consequences. Cognitive science is
awash in big questions (which is to say, philosophy), among them
the problem of mind-reading, our capacity to explain, predict, and
manipulate one another on the basis of behavioural data alone
(Zawidzki, 2008; 2009). How do humans regularly predict the output
of something so preposterously complicated as human brains on the
basis of so little information?
10 R.S. BAKKER

How complicated? Well, the National Institute of Health allocated


some 5.5 billion dollars to neuroscientific research in 2015 alone, part
of a rapidly growing annual contribution to the discovery of every-
thing we do not know about ourselves (US Department of Health and
Human Services, 2014). Here on earth, neuroscience has become a
mass, industrial research enterprise, and we still remain largely bio-
mechanically opaque to ourselves, a black box.9
How little information? As research in humancomputer interfaces,
or HCIs, has discovered, adults and children will reflexively cognize
machines as fellow souls given only the most superficial cues (Turkle,
2007; Nass and Yen, 2010). Simple tweaks in the voices and appear-
ance of HCIs have a dramatic impact on our perceptions of those
encounters. We are easily manipulated, cued to draw erroneous con-
clusions, given what are often cartoonish stimuli.10
The reliance on simple cues to solve complicated problems is a
hallmark of fast and frugal heuristics (Todd and Gigerenzer, 2012;
Hertwig and Hoffrage, 2013), cognitive tools that derive solutions via
the correlations between what information is readily available and the
systems to be solved. So long as the correlation between behavioural
cues and brain activity is reliable, we can predict the behavioural con-
sequences of that brain activity without cognizing it as such. Simple
heuristics avoid the enormous expense of mechanical cognition by
exploiting the mechanics of our relation to our targets, the hidden
ways various superficial cues correlate to different systems.
Evolutionary convergence suggests each Convergian would likewise
be a biomechanical black box to every other Convergian. They
would understand brute causal relations involving their central

9 The ignorance at stake here is merely a behaviourally expensive one to overcome, and
in no way essential, as a mysterian such as McGinn (1993) might argue. The insolu-
bility pertaining to neglect turns on meta-ignorance, the inescapable fact of unknown
unknowns (or unk-unks as engineers call them). The cognitive closure here is con-
tingent, historical, unexceptional. Theres nothing in this account suggesting that any
domain irremediably lies beyond the purview of human knowledge. Perhaps this will
turn out to be the case, but I find a priori attempts to pace out the boundaries of science
too credulous to be credible. The penultimate limit of human cognition pretty clearly
remains an unknown unknown. Otherwise, the present account outlines a possible way
to solve the very conundrums McGinn claims insoluble using only natural concepts.
10 Or as Deidre Barrett (2010) calls them (adapting the term from Nikolaas Tinbergen,
1953) supernormal stimuli.
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 11

nervous system, to be certain, but nothing more.11 Even if they


possessed transparent skulls and bioluminescent brains, the bio-
mechanical complexities driving their behaviour would remain every
bit as inscrutable, such are the resources required to biomechanically
cognize brains and brain activity. Lacking any means of understanding
their physical nature, they, like us, would require heuristic systems
geared to cues reliably correlated with various behavioural outcomes.
In other words, we can assume that Convergians would possess a suite
of powerful, special purpose tools adapted to solving systems in the
absence of causal information, mechanisms designed to navigate bio-
mechanically opaque xenosocial environments.
The obvious twist, here, is that the same basic problem of computa-
tional intractability pertains as much to the brain doing the cognizing
as to the brain indirectly cognized. In other words, the ecological con-
straints belonging to Convergian social cognition also apply to Con-
vergian metacognition. Each Convergian is but another Convergian,
after all, and so poses the same basic challenge to metacognition as
they pose to social cognition. Convergians, you could say, would be
biological black boxes to themselves as much as to others.12 And this
means that Convergian metacognitive capacities would be every bit as
heuristic, every bit as dependent on cues, as their sociocognitive
capacities.
This is not to say those capacities would consist of the same tools
(though some of them might be capable of doing double-duty,
solving both sociocognitive and metacognitive problems), only that
those capacities would be likewise heuristic, likewise dependent on
hidden correlations between the information available and the astro-
nomically complicated systems involved. In fact, Convergian meta-
cognition would almost certainly exploit its biomechanical continuity

11 Nothing bars combinations of heuristic and genuinely causal cognition, whether they
take the form of folk explanations combining physical and heuristic posits, or the more
sophisticated hybridizations one presently finds in cognitive science. After all, gerry-
mandering solutions with the information and capacities at hand seems to be a primary
function of deliberative cognition. Theres a much larger story to be told regarding the
relation of causal and heuristic cognition, of course. One of the distinctive features of
the present approach is that it uses causal cognition as the baseline against which to
understand heuristic cognition as opposed to normative cognition (which counts as
heuristic on the present account).
12 For scientifically informed critiques of introspective transparency in humans, see:
Schooler and Schreiber (2004), Pronin (2009), Carruthers (2011; 2009a,b; 2008), and
especially Schwitzgebel (2012; 2011a,b; 2008).
12 R.S. BAKKER

with the greater brain, utilizing channels of information physically


unavailable to social cognition.
But sharing the same skull does nothing to mitigate the curse of
dimensionality (Bellman, 1957). Being a biomechanical component
of the brain cognized does not make that brain any easier to bio-
mechanically cognize, simply because the problem primarily turns on
computational intractability, not physical inaccessibility. The meta-
cognitive black box, in other words, is no less biomechanically opaque
than the sociocognitive one.13 As with social cognition, the Con-
vergian brain would perforce cognize its structure and dynamics in
ways that cut far more practical corners than epistemological joints.14
Cues are cues, whether internally or externally sourced.
This, I realize, is bound to strike a great number of readers as
counter-intuitive. Where would our thoughts and desires and
emotions reside if not inside our heads? In so far as these things
strike us as relatively transparent, our brains would seem to be any-
thing but the black box Im describing here. Nevertheless, our meta-
cognitive and sociocognitive capacities simply must be heuristic as
opposed to veridical, dependent upon cues systematically correlated to
the fathomless complexities of the brain. So how could we be at once
intentionally transparent and biomechanically opaque? As we shall see
below, this is precisely the kind of conundrum we should expect our
Convergian philosophers to encounter.
Given a mere handful of ecological assumptions, then, we can
sketch the shape of the original navet Convergians would suffer
relative their own nature, their auto-neglect structure as it were. We
can assume they would be able to solve a great many problems
regarding their relations to themselves, their fellows, and their world
but without possessing the foggiest idea of how. Like us, they would
know without knowing how they know, experience without
knowing how they experience.15 Their knowledge of their sapience

13 Stanislas Dehaene states it as an informal law for humans: We constantly over-


estimate our awareness even when we are aware of glaring gaps in our awareness
(2014, p. 79).
14 See Mark, Marion and Hoffman (2010) for the results of computer simulations pitting
veridical against instrumental perception. In the cognitive neuroscience of human
metacognition, the segregated and specialized nature of metacognition is taken for
granted (Fleming and Dolan, 2012). Even the case for veridical visual perception is
under siege (Purves, Morgenstern and Wotjach, 2015).
15 The more findings cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience deliver, the more
startling our ignorance becomes. This is simply because we evolved to navigate one
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 13

and sentience would be implicit, automatic, at least initially.


Pending the development of Convergian science, they would remain
blissfully oblivious to the biomechanical facts of their behaviour.
A number of significant consequences fall out of this description,
allowing us to make what I think are several striking predictions about
the Convergian philosophy of the soul. First, it suggests that Con-
vergian philosophers would initially assume that cognition was unitary
and general rather than fractionate and targeted.16 Distinctions require
difference making differences, information. Given biomechanical
neglect, Convergians would quite simply have no way of differ-
entiating cognition. Over time, we can imagine they would infer the
shape of various tools via observations of the kinds of problems they
solve, as well as knap various regimentations of them into more
effective instruments. But as we shall see, this process is not without
problematic consequences.
Second, it suggests that the folk posits inherited by the first
Convergian philosophers to interrogate knowledge and experience
would be both non-causal and low-dimensional. We can say they
would be non-causal because metacognitive and sociocognitive
heuristic posits, as correlative ways to avoid the causal cognition of
complex systems, would perforce track those systems via some other
mode. We can say those posits would be low-dimensional (ineffable
or abstract or ghostly or what have you) simply because their
experience of them would be low-dimensional, something apparently
lacking extension or biomechanical sources.
Third, it suggests the first Convergian philosophers would make a
number of what might be called sufficiency errors. Aristotle, recall,
drew his conclusions assuming the epistemic sufficiency of the
information available. Contrasting the simple constitution and the

another and ourselves absent any of this deep information (which is why we require
cognitive science in the first place). Since we evolved in ecologies that neglected that
information (because we are shallow information consumers), my fear is that the
provision of this information is likely to crash the effectiveness of many of our tools. A
good deal of my fiction is devoted to exploring different crash scenarios (Bakker,
2015; 2009).
16 For a fascinating exegesis on the complication of memory from a unitary, veridical
faculty in Platos day to our present-day understanding of it as fractionate and con-
structive, see Bechtel (2008, pp. 5161). The movement from simplistic models to more
sophisticated ones holds some deep lessons, I think. Why, for instance, should Plato
assume that memory is anything as simple as an aviary, rather than something more
complicated than he can possibly know? The present account offers a parsimonious
answer to this question in terms of metacognitive neglect and sufficiency.
14 R.S. BAKKER

circular, ageless, repeating motion of the stars and planets to the linear
riot of his immediate surroundings, he concluded that the celestial and
the terrestrial comprised two distinct ontological orders governed by
different natural laws, a dichotomy that prevailed for the better part of
two thousand years. The moral is quite clear: where and how we find
ourselves within a system determines what kind of information we can
access regarding that system, including information pertaining to the
sufficiency of that information. Lacking instrumentation, Aristotle
simply found himself in a position where the ontological distinction
between heaven and earth appeared obvious. Unable to cognize the
limits imposed by his position within the observed systems, he had no
idea that he was simply cognizing one unified system from two
radically different perspectives, one too near, the other too far.
Trapped in a similar structural bind vis--vis themselves, our navel-
gazing Convergians are also likely to mistake properties pertaining to
neglect/ignorance with properties pertaining to what is the case,
distortions in signal for facts of being (Jaynes and Bretthorst, 2003).
You could say Convergians would be natural-born philosophical
dogmatists, more inclined to assume cognitive passivity (or trans-
parency) than otherwise that what you see is what you get absent
any genetic qualification.17 Far from indicating the fractionate,
specialized nature of their metacognitive and sociocognitive
capacities, the non-causal, low-dimensional nature of their posits
would strike them the same way the low-dimensionality of the
celestial struck Aristotle: as a property requiring explanation.
Distinguishing between the heuristic and the biomechanical, for
them, would likely amount to distinguishing between two very
different orders of reality. And they would be perplexed. Once again,
since posits possessing those properties belong to correlative cog-
nitive systems (heuristics turning on differentially reliable cues), the
provision of black box information could only scuttle their function.
They are, after all, adapted to solve absent such deep information. No
matter how hard Convergian philosophers tried, they would find them-
selves unable to square the apparent functions of their heuristic posits
(Convergian versions of our reasons, choices, rules, truths, and
so on) with the machinations of nature more generally. Correlative
functions would appear autonomous, as somehow operating outside

17 Is it too much to suggest they would have their own Convergian Kant, someone arguing
the manifold constructive nature of cognition?
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 15

the laws of nature. Since they so obviously comprise an order distinct


from nature, Convergians would be prone to presume the inapplica-
bility of causal cognition, to insist (as many humans still insist) that
only correlative cognition can solve for the nature of correlative
cognition.
Convergian philosophers would find themselves insisting that only
systems adapted to avoiding whats really going on could adequately
explain whats really going on.18 Heuristic cognition, once again, is
adapted to the practical solution of select systems via cues differ-
entially related to those systems. Since the whole point is to ignore
what is actually going on, repurposing such systems to determine
deeper natures is bound to be ineffective. This is why Convergian
philosophy of the soul would likely amount to a crash space, a
problem ecology rendered intractable by reflexive heuristic mis-
application (Bakker, 2015).
But absent any meta-metacognitive capacity absent information
flagging the limits of the information consumed the Convergians
would have no way of intuiting as much. They would find themselves
in a truly profound cognitive bind, equipped with correlative tools that
have no hope of solving their nature, yet convinced they could solve
that nature no other way. How long they might persist pursuing this
strategy is anyones guess (humanity has been in its thrall for more
than two millennia now). Since correlative systems are enormously
effective when cued in adaptive problem-ecologies, the high-
dimensional reality of correlative posits (Convergian reasons,
choices, experiences, etc.) seems guaranteed. Since these posits
constitute the very medium of cognition, they also appear to provide
the very condition of cognition. Every exercise of cognition would
seem to evidence their necessary reality. Convergian philosophers
would need only consult experience to find confirmation. They

18 One might even imagine them inventing ways to pit systems against each other as a
means of discrediting either one or the other. For instance, one could see them using the
inability of causal cognition to solve problems that their heuristic capacities solve as an
argument against the applicability of causal cognition to the question of some capacity.
Since nothing can duplicate the function of capacity X, they would insist that only
capacity X can be applied to the question of capacity X. Of course, the inability of
causal cognition to duplicate any heuristic capacity is entirely unremarkable, and it does
nothing to change the fact that the only way to get behind that capacity would have to
come via causal cognition. Using heuristic cognition to solve or make explicit
heuristic cognition, meanwhile, amounts to doubling down on an incapacity in the
attempt to overcome it, poking a stick at the sticks we poke at the world.
16 R.S. BAKKER

would become their own scripture, in a sense, one that they write in
the act of reading.
All this is to say that intelligent aliens possessing a convergent
cognitive biology would likely have their own versions of our hard
problems of consciousness and content. As we have seen, meta-
cognitive access to consciously broadcast information would be
geared to practical problem solving. Channels tapped to cue
attentional and executive metacognitive resources are adapted to prob-
lem ecologies wildly at odds with those belonging to philosophical
interrogation. Reusing these capacities to theoretically solve the
nature of consciousness is not so different from Aristotle using eyes
dedicated to the solution of terrestrial environments to solve the nature
of the celestial. What little is seen is confused with what is the case,
only in this instance the dimensions of information elided are quite
different than those lost in celestial observation with the naked eye.
Convergian deliberative theoretical metacognition philosophical
reflection has only consciously broadcast information available.
Information regarding the theoretical sufficiency of any given broad-
cast is not available. Information regarding the proximal source of any
given broadcast is not available. Information regarding the proximal
functional context of any given broadcast is not available. When
deliberative metacognition yokes conscious broadcasting to solve for
conscious broadcasting when Convergians reflect on the nature of
their experience none of this information makes a difference in the
machinations that follow. Sufficiency is the default, meaning the
problem of the nature of conscious experience is assumed soluble
despite source and function neglect (in a sense because of source and
function neglect). Since the bulk of their cognitive resources are
dedicated to solving black box systems, they do what all Convergians
(and humans) do when confronted by causally inexplicable activity:
they posit heuristic efficacies that allow them to gerrymander different
solutions.19 But it strikes them more as limning nature than as

19 The idea that humans posit intrinsic efficacies to bootstrap understanding is the idea
animating Dennetts skyhooks (Dennett, 1995), Klaus Fiedlers research into pseudo-
contingencies (Fieldler, Kutzner and Vogel, 2013), and Andrew Cimpians research on
inherence heuristics. As Cimpian and Saloman (2014, pp. 4612) write: we propose
that people often make sense of [environmental] regularities via a simple rule of thumb
the inherence heuristic. This fast, intuitive heuristic leads people to explain many
observed patterns in terms of the inherent features of the things that instantiate these
patterns. For example, one might infer that girls wear pink because pink is a delicate,
inherently feminine color, or that orange juice is consumed for breakfast because its
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 17

gerrymandering. All these dimensions the sufficiency of the


information, the source of the information, and the function of the
information are folded into neglect, leaving something that seems
intuitively impossible to explain, something eerily celestial.
Sufficient. Self-sustaining. Supernatural. Impossible to cognize.
All for the want of meta-metacognitive insight, something that could
systematically correct for heuristic misapplication.
Convergians, like humans, no more evolved the capacity to solve
themselves than to solve the stars, at least short of the prostheses of
institutionalized science. But where they enjoy many degrees of cog-
nitive freedom relative to the stars, they are hardwired to themselves,
bound upon whatever metacognition and sociocognition afford. Not
only would they lack the degrees of cognitive freedom required to get
behind knowledge or experience, they would lack the degree required
to even intuit their immobility. Mistaking channels parochial to
various heuristic regimes for windows upon the soul, they would
throw themselves into the explanatory breach time and again.
Their condition would actually resemble anosognosia, a clinical
neuropathological condition characterized by an often startling
unawareness of sensory or cognitive deficits. Sufferers of Anton-
Babinski syndrome, for instance, will insist they can see even though
they are physiologically blind. When challenged on their assertions,
they will confabulate, adducing rationales that explain away the
inconsistency between their claims and their capacities (Prigatano and
Wolf, 2010).
The strange idea here is that Convergians would suffer a kind of
theoretical anosognosia, at once blind to their own nature and blind to
their blindness of their own nature. Convergian philosophers would
speculate implicitly assuming they possessed the metacognitive and
sociocognitive resources required to solve their nature, even though
these systems, on any plausible biological account, evolved to solve
their behaviour absent information regarding their nature. Like Platos
allegorical prisoners, or Aristotle gazing into the heavens, they lack

inherent qualities make it suitable for that time of day. As is the case with the output of
any heuristic, such inferences can be and often are mistaken. Many of the patterns
that currently structure our world are the products of complex chains of historical causes
rather than being simply a function of the inherent features of the entities involved. The
human mind, however, may be prone to ignore this possibility. If the present proposal is
correct, people often understand the regularities in their environments as inevitable
reflections of the true nature of the world rather than as end points of event chains
whose outcomes could have been different.
18 R.S. BAKKER

the capacity to see how little they see, and so assume sufficiency, that
they can see everything they need to see.20 Information regarding the
sufficiency of information does not come for free. Blind to the
specialized nature of their metacognitive and sociocognitive tools,
they would continually misapply them to problems those tools cannot
possibly solve. Precisely because they are a black box unto them-
selves, something requiring a highly technical, industrial enterprise to
biomechanically decipher, Convergians would think themselves
sufficiently transparent, beings soluble via the deliverances of
reflection alone, and, like us, dispute their alien nature across their
alien ages.

4. Back to Earth
Where the celestial turned out to be the terrestrial writ too large to be
cognized as terrestrial, the mental is the terrestrial writ too near to be
cognized as terrestrial. As strange as this story sounds, it needs to be
placed on the scales with the out-and-out strangeness of intentional
philosophy, our millennial inability to theoretically solve ourselves via
the idioms we use to practically solve ourselves. Were accustomed to
lauding this or that champion of the philosophical tradition; only
rarely do we consider the manifest brilliance squandered, the genera-
tions of inquisitive souls huffing their shoulders to a wheel that
arguably has never moved.
Consider the modesty of our working assumptions. Convergians
would cope with the mechanical complexities of their environments
by exploiting correlations between the information readily available
(cues) and the systems requiring solution. Both Convergian social
cognition and metacognition are heuristic. Convergian social cog-
nition and metacognition possess a corresponding neglect structure.
In the same way Convergians are blind to gamma rays, they are blind
to the heuristic nature of social cognition and metacognition.
Repurposing these systems to solve theoretical problems is bound to
result in misapplications that cannot be recognized as such.

20 This can be seen as an extension of what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI, or What-
You-See-Is-All-There-Is, in the more narrow context of his research: An essential
design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas.
Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not
exist. [Our non-conscious cognitive system] excels at constructing the best possible
story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for
information it does not have (Kahneman, 2012, p. 85).
ON ALIEN PHILOSOPHY 19

Convergian philosophy of the soul, consisting of the systematic


misapplication of heuristic idioms to theoretical problems, seems
doomed to controversy.
This picture is actually quite austere when you consider what we set
out to initially explain. Convergians, like humans, are what might be
called targeted shallow information consumers in otherwise unified
deep information environments.21 They skim only what information
they need from their environments or themselves to effect
reproduction. In a wide variety of practical problem solving contexts,
that information includes some way of intuiting the limits of some
cognitive capacity. When targeted shallow information consumers
turn to the question of themselves, however, they simply lack any
means of distinguishing the targeted and shallow from the unified and
deep. Heuristic kluges feel like organs of general cognition for the
simple want of available distinctions. They inevitably begin mistaking
various perspectival confounds for extraordinary and inexplicable
phenomena. They find themselves trapped in versions of our own
philosophical crash space.
As with Convergian natural philosophy, any number of caveats can
be raised at any number of junctures, of course. What if, for instance,
Convergians were simply more pragmatic, less inclined to suffer
speculation in the absence of decisive application? Such a dispo-
sitional difference could easily tilt the balance in favour of scepticism,
relegating the philosopher to the ghettos of Convergian intellectual
life. Or what if Convergians were more impressed by authority, to the
point where reflection could only be interrogated as refracted through
the lens of purported revelation? There can be no doubt that my
account neglects countless relevant details. Questions like these chip
away at the intuition that the Convergians, or something like them,
might be real
Luckily, however, they need only be plausible. The argument is that
an alien species possessing a convergent cognitive biology would
likely suffer its own hard problems of content and consciousness. The
point of posing the problem of xenophilosophy wasnt so much to
argue that Convergians are out there, as it was, strangely enough, to
recognize their possibility in here. After all, this exercise in engineer-
ing alien philosophy is at once an exercise in reverse engineering our

21 I take this to be a way to understand Klaus Fiedler and Peter Juslins nave intuitive
statistician (2006).
20 R.S. BAKKER

own. Heuristic neglect only requires that Convergians could exist to


demonstrate its abductive scope, the fact that it can potentially explain
a great many perplexing things on natures dime alone. This is where
the warrant lies.
Perhaps theres more than a little wisdom in the lowbrow dismissal
of idle speculation. We know cognition is heuristic. We have ample
examples of misapplication in local problem solving contexts. Our
cognitive biology, meanwhile, suggests we should expect to run afoul
the trap of blindly applying heuristic modes of cognition to the general
problem of cognition, of thinking only shallow tools could allow us to
solve deep problems.
Short of some ecologically miraculous mechanism allowing us to
cognize metacognition, we are almost certainly making these kinds of
mistakes. We cant see them precisely because were immersed in
them, each of us bricked into our respective corners by our genius for
rationalization. We lack altitude, and it shows.
Thus the need for alien philosophy.
Acknowledgments
Elements of this article have been extensively workshopped on my
blog, Three Pound Brain, and has benefited enormously from the
feedback of readers there. I would also like to thank Eric
Schwitzgebel, Eric Thomson, and the referees for their critical
responses.

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Paper received March 2016; revised July 2016.