Sociotechnical Cognition — Dr. Işık Barış Fidaner

47dd864b4ff02e3ae1e01c5b03ff325d-e1497355048843.jpgThis letter is to be read as if in a museum.

It’s included in my 37th Placeless Book Introduction to Sociotechnical Cognition with the title “Neuroscience can devise a dialectical philosophy of sociotechnical cognition”.


January 9th, 2017

Dear Kathinka Evers,

I just completed my postdoc work in Boston and I am writing this letter to become a Researcher at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) in Uppsala University.

I’m submitting this application letter for both announcements, since my essential purpose is to work with you in CRB. To help to clarify my role in CRB, I dedicated a whole section to the questions raised by CRB’s Tasks.

After the U.S. presidency elections, I was already planning to move and work in Uppsala in Sweden. So in December I took the CRB announcements extremely seriously. I worked on this letter during the past few weeks, piece by piece rewriting to concretize the content (especially Section 1). It’s still a rough sketch given the depth of the questions, though I hope to have plenty of time to investigate these questions later.

In Section 1 (~5 pages) I introduce a line of thought to address the questions in CRB’s Tasks.

In Section 2 (~2 pages) I tell my research background.

In References (~1 page) I enumerate the cited work (except the books mentioned in Section 1).

1. Fundamental Hegelian and Freudian insights can resolve the logical link between what-ought-to-be & what-is by a shift to linguistics & a surpassing of the technical domain, towards an epigenetic approach to human literacy

In this section, especially for CRB’s Task to investigate the role of contexts and cultural imprinting in understanding the brain’s functional architectures, but also concerning the philosophical and ethical challenges of modelling cognitive processes in silica, I address the question articulated at the end of “Can we be epigenetically proactive?” [0] regarding norms vs. facts.

The normatively loaded difference of what-ought-to-be from what-is, is dynamically derived from the factual difference of what-is-not from what-is; for any normative statement ‘It ought to be X!’ derives its moral force from a perceived unfortunate fact that ‘It is not X…’ This “what ought to be but is not” was already at stake in Hegel’s intervention to Kant’s critical philosophy:

“The real infinite, far from being a mere transcendence of the finite, always involves the absorption of the finite into its own fuller nature. In the same way Kant restored the Idea to its proper dignity: vindicating it for Reason, as a thing distinct from abstract analytic determinations or from the merely sensible conceptions which usually appropriate to themselves the name of ideas. But as respects the Idea also, he never got beyond its negative aspect, as what ought to be but is not.” (The Logic of Hegel translated by Wallace, 1892, p. 93, emphasis mine)

This negation, what-is-not, depending on the circumstances of its reception, (1) can be taken to be a neutral objective fact of limitation or barrier that one encounters or confronts in one’s world or space, or (2) it can be registered as a negative affect like frustration or anxiety that emerges as part of one’s subjective awareness to be endured for a duration of time. The presence of this negative fact thus remains “narrowly focused in space and time” [0] in the individual brain that perceives it.

In philosophy, this opposition of objectivity vs. subjectivity can be found in Kant’s critical philosophy, as the opposition between the transcendental faculties of ‘I’ & the Thing-in-itself left out of this ‘I’. In his Logic, Hegel objects the isolated status of the Kantian Thing-in-itself by asserting the objective status of human thought. Hegel’s dialectical thought moves away from the cognition of an individual ‘I’, towards any human cognition of concepts. In this way, dialectical philosophy surpasses the limitation of an individual brain, and recognizes the diversity of phenotypical neural expressions, albeit in an implicit manner.

In the contemporary situation, however, the objective manifestations of human thoughts most strongly emerge in the external technical domains where people interact with technological devices. Dialectical philosophy is unable to operate in these domains, because there is a question of purposefully coding those devices, a question of algorithms. In Hegel, such challenging questions about human purposefulness and the use of language unfortunately turn into theological discussions about God; and it would be absurd to conceive the algorithmic programming of a machine in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Actually, one can localize the contemporary question of algorithms in the notion of ‘user’ along with the ‘technical’ assumptions that isolate this notion.

By questioning the isolated status of ‘user’ in technical domains, just like Hegel’s intervention against the isolated and finite status of ‘I’ in Kant’s critical philosophy, Neuroscience can surpass the limitations of this contemporary manifestation of technical objectivity, and devise a dialectical philosophy of sociotechnical cognition.

How? Simply by reflecting the cognitive presence of a what-is-not, a negative fact, onto the technical domain itself:

When ‘It is not X…’ is interpreted as a technical failure, its two modes of reception becomes (1) access failures and (2) process latencies, as the spatial vs. temporal, objective vs. subjective modes, respectively. This simple reflection onto the technical domain liberates an individual’s “narrow focus in space and time” [0] by giving it a sociotechnical status.

There is a dialectical interaction in between these two modes of a failure, objective and subjective:

1) The emergence of an access failure can retroactively determine the actual meaning of an experienced latency in the ongoing process, e.g. by revealing an underlying incompatibility. This side of the interaction affects the individual’s identification as ‘me’: ‘Is this for me or not?’

2) Any latency in processing can modify the possibilities of access failures in the future, e.g. according to a set of associated risks and probabilities. This side of the interaction gives the individual a sense of urgency as ‘I’: ‘Should I wait or leave?’

These two sides identification and urgency are already recognizable in the linguistic difference between the pronouns ‘me’ and ‘I’. These two modes of suspense are also recognizable in the story of the three prisoners in Lacan’s “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty” in Écrits, 1966. This dialectic moves to a lower cognitive level, surpassing the ‘technical’ assumptions about ‘the user’, and it articulates a problem of authorization in the user’s place, which can find its counterpart in a problem of embodiment for a ‘player’ [5].

This dialectic enables a reformulation of what psychoanalysis calls symbolic castration. One can reinterpret Sigmund Freud’s famous statement “There is no such thing at all as an unconscious ‘No'” (Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, 1901) as follows: The cognitive presence of a negation is not a non-cognition or non-computation, but an actual or potential failure in computation. One can then explore the negations in Freud, such as Verwerfung (foreclosure, rejection), Verdrängung (repression), Verneinung (denial), Verleugnung (disavowal) as a variety of failures in neural computations.

Software engineers already have a common term to designate the entire spectrum of failures in computation: They are called bugs. There is an entire jargon about handling and dealing with bugs: debugging, tracing, watching variables, profiling parts of code, etc. Having done with ‘users’, one can directly identify a ‘bug’ as a Freudian Fehlleistungen (parapraxis, bungled action, failed action) whose exemplary instances are observable in the form of slips of tongue and typos.

Engineers usually consider their own mistakes and parapraxes, not as bugs, but as causes that generate bugs, since the bugs themselves are assumed to reside only in the software code and not in developers’ cognitive faculties (nor in ‘users’), just like the Kantian Thing-in-itself left out of the transcendental faculties of ‘I’.

The technical isolation of a ‘bug’ actively puts it at a distance from ‘users’. In conceiving bugs as Freudian parapraxes, one can traverse this distance by problematizing the ‘technical’ assumptions about ‘users’. In this way, bugs can be resolved dialectically by their conception and articulation (just like a classical neurotic symptom) as opposed to the standard way of being isolated and eliminated. The standard elimination process avoids the thorough reflection that would discover the generating sociocognitive causes; it thereby leaves the ‘mother bug’ (‘technical’ assumptions about ‘users’) untouched.

Let us now address the original question: How are norms derived from negative facts? How is what-ought-to-be derived from what-is-not? – By the Freudian superego agency. This agency can take a variety of forms, from moral injunctions that operate on one’s guilt (as in classical psychoanalysis) to hedonistic injunctions that operate on one’s enjoyment (as in contemporary societies). The dissociative effects pointed out in [0] can be localized in this same psychic agency.

I think the question of superego agency warrants a shift towards linguistics: By taking Sigmund Freud’s Das Ich und Das Es (1923) literally as the linguistic pronouns “I and it” (thereby correcting the standard Latin translation “The Ego and The Id” as Bruno Bettelheim suggests in Freud and Man’s Soul, 1983) the virtual agency of the superego (Über-Ich: Over-I) can be reconceived as a structural function of the linguistic pronoun for oneself, ‘I’ or ‘Ich’, the word at the heart of German idealism.

The speakers of a language align their realities by the help of the pronouns in their language. The socialization of individuals is articulated via the relationship of singular pronouns through the plural pronouns. These may present specific circumstances, e.g. the absence of gendered pronouns in Turkish. To illustrate the significance of these special words, it suffices to mention the role of “They” in xenophobia and “He” in religion.

When translated by the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘it’, Sigmund Freud’s remarks on natural heredity attain a linguistic sense with synchronic & diachronic dimensions:

“It is here that the gulf between an actual individual and the concept of a species becomes evident. Moreover, one must not take the difference between ‘I’ and ‘it’ in too hard-and-fast a sense, nor forget that ‘I’ is a specially differentiated part of ‘it’. The experiences of ‘I’ seem at first to be lost for inheritance; but, when they have been repeated often enough and with sufficient strength in many individuals in successive generations, they transform themselves, so to say, into experiences of ‘it’, the impressions of which are preserved by heredity. Thus in ‘it’, which is capable of being inherited, are harboured residues of the existences of countless ‘I’s; and, when ‘I’ forms its ‘over-I’ out of ‘it’, it may perhaps only be reviving shapes of former ‘I’s and be bringing them to resurrection.” (modified translation from Sigmund Freud’s ‘I’ and ‘it’, 1923)

Here Freud has a synchronic notion of ‘it’ that is so wide to include human genetic code as well as human literacy, all of which are recognized at the final remark as constituting the diachronic determinants of the superego agency. This passage points the way towards a conception of human literacy as an epigenetic process.

Any observable attribute of Homo Sapiens or any other species may count as a phenotype. Nevertheless, even when a phenotype is as clearly observable as a pair of blue eyes, the actual presence of its expression cannot avoid a constant change in circumstances and a fact of relativity in the environment and the surrounding ecosystems.

Human genetics and human literacy share a common fate in face of this fact of relativity: Genetics is the nature’s way to protect its forms from the unavoidable fact of environmental relativity: It codes its existence chemically in DNA and guards them in cell nuclei. And the same goes with human literacy: Literacy is the humanity’s way to protect its forms from the unavoidable fact of neural relativity: It codes its existence in literature, builds libraries, writes books and respects them.

This common fate of relativity, which Freud calls ‘over-I’, grounds a continuity between the natural genetic heritage and the human literary heritage in Freud’s synchronic ‘it’; the global phenomenon of climate change provides a perfect illustration of this continuity, and the best way to express this continuity is through the concept of phenotype, not only that of Homo Sapiens but also the entire wealth of phenotypes to be found in all the species of the Earth.

We could imagine that, if Sigmund Freud had the time and energy to write another book called Die Wir und Die Sie, (“We and They”) he would perhaps have dealt with the limit of this synchronic ‘it’ where ‘we’ as the literate humanity (as a version of the Hegelian Geist) is distinguished from ‘they’ as all natural sentience (including humans’ bodily existence), so that the symbolic codes preserved ‘for us’ (literature) and ‘for them’ (genetics) would be separately identifiable.

The scientific study of phenotypes constitute a special use of the pronoun ‘they’, where Freudian superego cannot gain dominance as a separate agency, insofar as the knowledge about ‘them’ (as natural sentience including humans) requires a universal articulation on behalf of the entirety of human knowledge. The scientific version of ‘they’, as the complete opposite of the xenophobic version of ‘they’, requires an empathy towards natural sentience, a kind of xenophilia (borrowing philia from philo-sophy). In literature one can find the scientific ‘they’ of xenophilia in many works of science fiction.

Hegel’s intervention to Kant’s critical philosophy, when read in terms the “We and They” of human literacy and natural sentience, shows the way towards a universal articulation of phenotypes:

“[Critical philosophy] argues an utter want of consistency to say, on the one hand, that the understanding only knows phenomena, and, on the other, assert the absolute character of this knowledge, by such statements as ‘Cognition can go no further’; ‘Here is the natural and absolute limit of human knowledge.’ But ‘natural’ is the wrong word here. The things of nature are limited and are natural things only to such extent as they are not aware of their universal limit, or to such extent as their mode or quality is a limit from our point of view, and not their own. No one knows, or even feels, that anything is a limit or defect, until he is at the same time above and beyond it.” (The Logic of Hegel translated by Wallace, p. 116)

To conclude:

1) What appears as ‘natural’ limits and defects in human cognition are in fact humanity’s own limitations to conceive and express the qualities present in nature: It concerns ‘our’ knowledge about the phenotypes.

2) The fact that ‘we’ (literate humanity) encounter a limit or defect in ‘our’ cognition of ‘them’ (natural sentience) proves that ‘we’ have stepped “above and beyond” ‘our’ present mode of cognition of ‘them’: This encounter is a ‘bug’ identified as a ‘parapraxis’. This bug that is “narrowly focused in space and time” [0] has a sociotechnical status given by the dialectic of identification (‘me’) and urgency (‘I’).

3) As a result, it is legitimate for ‘us’ to associate epigenetic knowledge directly with human literacy in general, the ability to read and write, as mentioned in [0].

Thank you for reading this section.

2. Computer engineer, PhD; a methodology in combinatorial statistics; gene expression analysis application in bioinformatics; strong enthusiasm in philosophy and psychoanalysis; a schematic model for subjectivity; many e-books of compiled translations

In this section, I summarize my research background: I was born in 1983 in Ankara, Turkey. I am officially a computer engineer with a PhD. I would call myself a computer scientist, a translator and a philosopher.

An artificial neural network that can recognize images of lowercase letters in different typefaces was one of the first things I developed after learning C++ programming language in İzmir Science High School fifteen years ago. I won a national award by co-developing a software that generates, projects and takes cross-sections of N-dimensional geometric objects.

During my BS and MS in Boğaziçi University Department of Computer Engineering in İstanbul until 2008, I did a variety of projects on machine translation, artificial intelligence, image processing, computer vision and computer graphics. I coded face animations. I implemented an object tracker. I did a survey on image inpainting and texture synthesis. I wrote on human gait, on biomechanics. I implemented web interfaces for collaboration. I worked part-time in a software company and developed audio-video-data streaming applications. I studied Bayesian probabilistic models.

For my PhD in the same department until April 2016, I particularly focused on Bayesian Nonparametric methodology and its application to bioinformatics. We addressed a long-standing statistical question that had emerged in the bioinformatics literature by devising a novel methodology for combinatorial statistics that operates by counting the cumulative occurrences of the subset memberships of generic elements of any kind [1]. It’s founded on Cumulative Occurrence Distributions: triangular integer matrices that expand like a tree of all possible combinatorial structures. To quantify and plot the complexity involved in each of the particular nodes of this tree, I defined Per-Element Information, akin to Shannon’s entropy, and designed an agglomerative algorithm that explores the entropic correlations that are present among the generic elements that constitute a combinatorial dataset. I implemented this algorithm as a Python application called REBUS (inspired by Freud’s rebus metaphor for dream-work) and explored the entropic correlations of words in the full text of James Joyce’s Ulysses [2]. To complete my dissertation, with our chemical engineer colleagues from the University of Cambridge, we developed a cluster analysis application for gene expressions. The software detected a number of clusters of genes and phenotypes that led our colleagues to novel biological insights about two model organisms: yeast and mouse [3, 4].

In the meantime, I have been an avid reader of philosophy and psychoanalysis for ten years now. We have a social network group Žižek and the Slovenian School where thousands of members can share links and participate in discussions. I attend the regular Boston Lacan Study Group meetings where psychoanalytic clinicians study literature and improve their practice.

In parallel to my PhD work in computer science, I devised and published some philosophical models for subjectivity, based on the duality of authorization & embodiment as the two fundamental problems. This dialectical duality is irreducible to any other duality; it can traverse any other duality. I presented this idea in “Postmodern Alienation Model” [5] in Turkey’s first national New Media Studies Congress. In a follow up text called “Antiprogression Chain” [6] I speculated on the structural dynamics of this duality. I recently proposed a logical comparison between the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma of game theory and Lacan’s Three Prisoners [7]. I also wrote and self-published texts to investigate the philosophical relevance of Žižek and Badiou for digital game design.

My greatest philosophical motivation in recent years has been my website Yersiz Şeyler [Placeless Things] where I handpick English texts every week and translate them into Turkish [8]. I also publish translations done by others. I compiled the last few years’ translations in 29 e-books with 2066 pages in total. I perceive this work as a neural exploration, a continuous and cumulative effort to match the available means of my mother tongue with the distinctions expressible in English. The grammar rules of these two languages are quite different, which makes the effort more difficult and interesting.

After defending my PhD dissertation in İstanbul, I was invited to be a postdoc researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. I were to overview and improve the software code for the brain-controlled typing device that they had been working on, though I could only have the chance and time to devise and present a conceptual framework that can help them to resolve the logical fallacies in these ongoing efforts. In the 6th Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) meeting that we had attended from Boston, I was surprised to notice that, in clear contrast to the field of bioinformatics, nobody in BCI seemed to have devised any standard way for sharing data and information with their colleagues. This observation gave me an additional reason to prepare this job application. I will be back in Turkey a few days before the new U.S. presidency.

I have a strong sense and belief in the power and necessity of conceptualisation through words and grammar. It’s not quite recognized that linguistic notions like synchronicity & diachronicity have natural, neural and evolutionary relevance (as explained in Section 1). It’s also not quite recognized that ‘we’ even have the statistical means [1] to express such relevances, as illustrated by the entropic analysis of James Joyce’s Ulysses [2] that revealed a diverse variety of entropic correlations among the words.

Thank you for reading and considering my application. If you accept it, I can quickly move to Uppsala to begin working (e.g. by actively pursuing the line of thought introduced in Section 1).

I wish you the best in 2017.

Greetings and best regards,

Dr. Işık Barış Fidaner



[0] K. Evers. (2015). Can we be epigenetically proactive? In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds.) Open MIND. Frankfurt a. M., GER: MIND Group.

[1] I. B. Fidaner & A. T. Cemgil. (2013) “Summary Statistics for Partitionings and Feature Allocations”. In Proceedings of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) 2013. Available on NIPS website.

[2] I. B. Fidaner & A. T. Cemgil. (2014) “Clustering Words by Projection Entropy.” Poster accepted in Modern ML+NLP Workshop at NIPS 2014.

[3] I. B. Fidaner, A. Cankorur, D. Dikicioglu, S. G. Oliver, B. Kirdar & A. T. Cemgil. (2015) “CLUSTERnGO: a user-defined modelling platform for two-stage clustering of time-series data.” Bioinformatics.

[4] C. Mulvey, C. Schröter, L. Gatto, D. Dikicioglu, I. B. Fidaner, A. Christoforou, M. Deery, L. Cho, K. Niakan, A. Martinez-Arias & K. Lilley. (2015) “Dynamic proteomic profiling of extra-embryonic endoderm differentiation in mouse embryonic stem cells.” STEM CELLS.

[5] I. B. Fidaner. “Postmodern Yabancılaşma için Bir Model Önerisi,” [A Model Proposal for Postmodern Alienation] In Yeni Medya Çalışmaları Kongresi [New Media Studies Congress] 2013.
English translation: postmodern-alienation.pdf

[6] I. B. Fidaner. “Antiprogression Chain,” In Amber Conference 2013.

[7] I. B. Fidaner. “Conditional Counting of Qualia,” In Democracy Rising Conference, Athens 2015 by Global Center for Advanced Studies.

[8] I. B. Fidaner. “Yersiz Kitaplar,” [Placeless Books] In Yersiz Şeyler [Placeless Things] 2017.

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