Thinking Like a Human Being

Steven Shaviro, Discognition

Repeater, 245pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781910924068

reviewed by Alfie Bown

My family and I play our own brand of modern day Family Fortunes using a smartphone. In my role as Les Dennis, I Google the start of a phrase and the contestants (my wife, sister and mother) attempt to guess the world’s most popular searches beginning with the combination of words I have chosen. If you type ‘what is it like to…’ into Google, the most popular result is the most predictable: ‘what is it like to fall in love.’ The second result, more popular than ‘what is it like to die’ and ‘what is it like to have sex,’ is somewhat more remarkable: it is Thomas Nagel’s speculation about the nature of consciousness: ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ It goes without saying that none of my contestants guessed this correctly.

In Discognition, one of the first books published by the exciting new radical imprint Repeater Books, Steven Shaviro refers to Nagel’s concept on his opening page, and the connection doesn’t end there. The appearance of this question in the most popular Google searches reflects, in my opinion, a renewed concern with consciousness today, attributable, I believe, to our increasing concerns about the influence of technology on our psychology. The fact that we turn to the hegemonic technological force of Google in the face of these concerns serves to show us just how concerning the future of consciousness is. Shaviro’s book is about precisely this problem: how can we discuss consciousness today, and why should we do so? What is consciousness in the technological age and what kind of awareness of the relationship between technology and consciousness do we need to have going forward?

A starting point of the book is that both science and philosophy – and Shaviro is unusual in having some knowledge of and respect for both – have often seen cognition as synonymous with sentience. For Shaviro this is far from being the case: whilst trees have some level of sentience, they are unlikely to be conscious. Negotiating these things, Shaviro argues for the insertion of a new term, ‘discognition,’ which designates a kind of thinking that goes on within all of us beneath what we can think of as the cognitive level, a kind of thinking process that is unconscious and unknown but which occurs before all cognition and consciousness, a kind of pre-cognition, a more primal feeling which has no conception of what or how it feels but which nonetheless plays a role in our construction. The book is an investigation into this type of powerful unconscious cognition, a kind of thinking before subjectivity itself.

This is primarily a philosophical text, wrestling with big philosophical questions in a charming anecdotal way which makes them accessible to all readers. But it is also a text that recognises that philosophy has become inseparable from technology. Shaviro, through chapters which compare ‘Thinking Like a Computer’ with ‘Thinking Like a Human Being,’ interrogates the slippery differences between man and machine. More importantly than that, he considers the politics of our conceptions of consciousness. In the chapter ‘Thinking Like an Avatar,’ Shaviro writes:

The analytic-philosophical privileging of cognition over affect is of a piece with the economic privileging of the digients’ business skills (or for that matter, sexual skills) over their own self-enjoyment.

Dominant concepts of cognition, then, are bound up with political and economic structures. We might not necessarily be able to dislodge these, since we are at the limits of cognition when considering the problem, but, Shaviro suggests, we can at least notice such patters and see that they might change in the future. Put simply, neurological cognition, far from being fixed by nature, is affected by politics.

This is also a book about sci-fi, and to a reader not well-versed in the genre, it provides a brilliant introduction to some of the more interesting and alternative texts to be found within it, especially those which experiment with the relationship between technology and consciousness. Shaviro case-studies Scott Bakker’s Neuropath (2008), for example, in which the argument is made that ‘every thought, every experience, every element of your consciousness is a product of various mental processes.’ This operates as a launchpad for a discussion of the philosophy of neuroscience. Shaviro notes that Neuropath is not at attempt to prove an argument about cognition but an exploration of ‘the (largely horrific) consequences of the Argument.’ Shaviro’s text provides exactly this kind of analysis, forcing us to think about science in a new way in which we no longer simply discuss whether or not science is ‘right,’ trying to prove or disprove it, but instead ensures that we think about the ideological effects and consequences of each scientific argument.

Discognition shows that in the world of Big Data, the opposition between nature and culture is unsustainable and instead of upholding it we need to recognise that nature is ‘always in movement, in process and under construction’ socially and culturally, never ‘outside history’ but determined by it. Science must continue to push our knowledge as far as possible and work at the limits of current ideas, but it must also recognise that its search into nature is not apolitical and unbiased but bound up in political structures and constructive of social consequences.