27 November 2013
Immanuel Kant, in an often-quoted passage, spoke of, “…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Kant might have with equal justification spoken of the formal law within and the starry heavens above. There is a sense in which the formal laws of thought are the moral laws of the mind — in logic, a good thought is a rigorous thought — so that given sufficient latitude of translation, we can interpret Kant in this way — except that we know (as Nietzsche put it) that Kant was a moral fanatic à la Rousseau.
However we choose to interpret Kant, I would like to quote more fully from the passage in the Critique of Practical Reason where Kant invokes the starry heavens above and the moral law within:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, Part 2, Conclusion
This passage is striking for many reasons, not least among them them degree to which Kant has assimilated the Copernican revolution, acknowledging Earth as a mere speck in the universe. Also particularly interesting is Kant’s implicit appeal to objectivity and realism, notwithstanding the fact that Kant himself established the tradition of transcendental idealism. Kant in this passage invokes the starry heavens above and the moral law within because they are independent of the individual …
Moreover, Kant identifies both the starry heavens above and the moral law within not only as objective and independent realities, but also as infinitistic. Just as Kant the idealist looks to the stars and the moral law in a realistic spirit, so Kant the proto-constructivist invokes the “…unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds” of the starry heavens and the moral law as, “…reaching into the infinite.” I have earlier and elsewhere observed how Kant’s proto-constructivism nevertheless involves spectacularly non-constructive arguments. In the passage quoted above both Kant’s proto-constructivism and his non-constructive moments are retained in lines such as, “exhibits me in a world which has true infinity,” which by invoking exhibition in intuition toes the constructivist line, while invoking true infinity allows a legitimate role for the non-constructive.
When it comes to constructivism, we can see that Kant is conflicted. He’s not the only one. One might call Aristotle the first constructivist (or, at least, the first proto-constructivist) as the originator of the idea of the potential infinite, and here (i.e., in the context of the above discussion of Kant’s use of the infinite) Aristotelian permissive finitism is particularly relevant. (Aristotle would likely not have had much sympathy for intuitionistic constructivism, which its rejection of tertium non datur.)
The Greek intellectual attitude to the infinite was complex and conflicted. I have written about this previously in Reason in Moderation and Salto Mortale. The Greek quest for harmony, order, and proportion rejected the infinite as something that transgresses the boundaries of good taste and propriety (dismissing the infinite as apeiron, in contradistinction to peras). Nevertheless, Greek philosophers routinely argued from the infinity and eternity of the world.
Here is a famous passage from Democritus, who was perhaps best known among the Greek philosophers in arguing for the infinity of the world, making the doctrine a virtual tenet among ancient atomists:
“Worlds are unlimited and of different sizes. In some worlds there is no Sun and Moon, in others, they are larger than in our world, and in others more numerous. … Intervals between worlds are unequal. In some parts there are more worlds, in others fewer; some are increasing, some at their height, some decreasing; in some parts they are arising, in others failing… There are some worlds devoid of living creatures or plants or any moisture.”
…and Epicurus on the same theme of the infinity of the world…
“…there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it. For the atoms being infinite in number, as has just been proved, are borne ever further in their course. For the atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all been expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence there will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds.”
Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
There were also poetic invocations of the idea of the infinity of the world, which demonstrates the extent to which the idea had penetrated popular consciousness in classical antiquity:
“When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept, and when his friends asked him what was the matter, he replied, ‘Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?'”
Plutarch, PLUTARCH’S MORALS, ETHICAL ESSAYS TRANSLATED WITH NOTES AND INDEX BY ARTHUR RICHARD SHILLETO, M.A., Sometime Scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, Translator of Pausanias, LONDON: GEORGE BELL AND SONS, 1898, “On Contentedness of Mind,” section IV
Like poetry, history had particular prestige in the ancient world, and here the theme of the infinity of the world also occurs:
“…Constantius, elated by this extravagant passion for flattery, and confidently believing that from now on he would be free from every mortal ill, swerved swiftly aside from just conduct so immoderately that sometimes in dictation he signed himself ‘My Eternity,’ and in writing with his own hand called himself lord of the whole world — an expression which, if used by others, ought to have been received with just indignation by one who, as he often asserted, laboured with extreme care to model his life and character in rivalry with those of the constitutional emperors. For even if he ruled the infinity of worlds postulated by Democritus, of which Alexander the Great dreamed under the stimulus of Anaxarchus, yet from reading or hearsay he should have considered that (as the astronomers unanimously teach) the circuit of whole earth, which to us seems endless, compared with the greatness of the universe has the likeness of a mere tiny point.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XV, section 1
Like the quote from Kant quoted above, this passage is remarkable for its Copernican outlook, which shows that the ancients were not only capable of thinking in infinitistic terms, but also in more-or-less Copernican terms.
Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, and gave one of the more detailed arguments for the infinity of the world to be found in ancient philosophy:
It matters nothing where thou post thyself,
In whatsoever regions of the same;
Even any place a man has set him down
Still leaves about him the unbounded all
Outward in all directions; or, supposing
moment the all of space finite to be,
If some one farthest traveller runs forth
Unto the extreme coasts and throws ahead
A flying spear, is’t then thy wish to think
It goes, hurled off amain, to where ’twas sent
And shoots afar, or that some object there
Can thwart and stop it? For the one or other
Thou must admit; and take. Either of which
Shuts off escape for thee, and does compel
That thou concede the all spreads everywhere,
Owning no confines. Since whether there be
Aught that may block and check it so it comes
Not where ’twas sent, nor lodges in its goal,
Or whether borne along, in either view
‘Thas started not from any end. And so
I’ll follow on, and whereso’er thou set
The extreme coasts, I’ll query, “what becomes
Thereafter of thy spear?” ‘Twill come to pass
That nowhere can a world’s-end be, and that
The chance for further flight prolongs forever
The flight itself. Besides, were all the space
Of the totality and sum shut in
With fixed coasts, and bounded everywhere,
Then would the abundance of world’s matter flow
Together by solid weight from everywhere
Still downward to the bottom of the world,
Nor aught could happen under cope of sky,
Nor could there be a sky at all or sun-
Indeed, where matter all one heap would lie,
By having settled during infinite time.
Lucretius, De rerum natura
The above argument is one that is still likely to be heard today, in various forms. If you go to the edge of the universe and throw a spear, either it is stopped by the boundary of the universe, or it continues on, and, as Lucretius says, For the one or other, Thou must admit. If the spear is stopped, what stopped it? And if it continues on, into what does it continue?
The contemporary relativistic cosmology has a novel answer to this ancient idea: the universe is finite and unbounded, so that space is wrapped back around on itself. What this means for the spear-thrower at the edge of the universe is that if he throws the spear with enough force, it may travel around the cosmos and return to pierce him in the back. There is nothing to stop the spear, because the universe is unbounded, but since the universe is also finite the spear will eventually cross its own path if it continues to travel. I do not myself think that the universe is finite and unbounded in precisely the way the many modern cosmologists argue, but I am not going to go into this interesting problem at the present time.
Other than the response to Lucretius in terms of relativistic cosmology, with its curved spacetime — a material response to the Lucretian argument for the infinity of the world — there is another response, that of intuitionistic constructivism, which denies the law of the excluded middle (tertium non datur) — i.e, a formal response to Lucretius. Lucretius asserted that, For the one or other, Thou must admit, and this is exactly what the intuitionist does not admit. As with the relativistic response to Lucretius, I do not myself agree with the intuitionist response to Lucretius. Consequently, I believe that Lucretius argument is still valid in spirit, though it must be reformulated in order to be applicable to the world as revealed to us by contemporary science. Consequently, I take it as demonstrable that the universe is infinite, taking the view of ancient natural philosophers.
Within the overall context of Greek thought, within its contending finitist and infinitistic strains, Greek cosmology was non-constructive, and the Greeks asserted (and argued for) the infinity of the world on the basis of non-constructive argument. Perhaps it would even be fair to say that the Greeks assumed the universe to be infinite in extent, and they at times sought to justify this assumption by philosophical argument, while at other times they confined themselves to the sphere of the peras.
Much of contemporary science is constructivist in spirit, though this constructivism is rarely made explicit, except among logicians and mathematicians. By this I mean that the general drift of science ever since the scientific revolution has been toward bottom-up constructions on the basis of quantifiable evidence and away from top-down argument. I made this point previously in Advanced Thinking and A Non-Constructive World, as well as other posts, though I haven’t yet given a detailed formulation of this idea. Yet the emergence of a “quantum logic” in quantum theory that does away with the principle of the excluded middle is a clear expression of the increasing constructivism of science.
In A Non-Constructive World I also made the point that the world appears to have both constructive and non-constructive features. In several posts about constructivism (e.g., P or not-P) I have argued that constructivism and non-constructivism are complementary perspectives on formal thought, and that each needs the other for an adequate account of the world.
In so far as contemporary science is essentially constructive, it lacks a non-constructive perspective on the phenomena it investigates. This is, I believe, intrinsic to science, and to the kind of civilization that emerges from the application of science to the economy (viz. industrial-technological civilization). By the constructive methods of science we can attain ever larger and ever more comprehensive conceptions of the universe — such as I described in my previous post, The Size of the World — but these constructive methods will never reach the infinite universe contemplated by the ancient Greeks.
How could the logical framework employed by a scientist have any effect over what they see in the heavens? Well, constructive science is logically incapable of formulating the idea of an infinite universe in any sense other than an Aristotelian potential infinite. No one can observe the infinite (in the philosophy of mathematics we say that the infinite is “unsurveyable”). And if you cannot produce observational evidence of the infinite, then you cannot formulate a falsifiable theory of an infinite universe. Thus the infinity of the world is, in effect, ruled out by our methods.
No one should be surprised at the direct impact the ethos of formal thought has a upon the natural sciences; one of the fundamental trends of the scientific revolution has been the mathematization of natural science, and one of the fundamental trends of mathematical rigor since the late nineteenth century has been the arithmetization of analysis, which has been taken as far as the logicization of mathematics. Logic and mathematics have been “finitized” and these finite formal methods have been employed in the rational reconstruction of the sciences.
I look forward to the day when the precision and rigor of formal methods employed in the natural sciences again includes infinitistic methods, and it once again becomes possible to formulate the thesis of the infinity of the world in science — and possible once again to see the world as infinite.
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7 May 2013
The Transcendental Aesthetic and the Finding of
Other Minds in Other Species
An extrapolation of the “problem of other minds” to other species
What philosophers call “the problem of other minds” is closely related to what philosophers call the “mind-body problem” (both fall within philosophy of mind), and both are paradigmatic metaphysical questions that have been with philosophy from the beginning. Lately I’ve written a good deal about the mind-body problem on my other blog (e.g., in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions Weak and Strong, Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise, Cartesian Formalism, etc.), and this has got me to thinking about the problem of other minds.
I have never found the idea of other minds in other species to be in the least problematic. When you look into the eyes of another living being, whether human being or other being, you are well aware of the moment of mutual recognition, and you are equally well aware at that moment of mutual recognition that you are sharing that moment with another consciousness (that is to say, you experience a social temporality).
In The Eye of the Other I wrote:
It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind. When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.
Some people feel obliged to deny this inter-species recognition of common consciousness on ideological grounds, although few ever think of speciesism as a ideology. As I have recently observed in relationship to geopolitics, which I characterized as an ideology that does not know itself to be an ideology, so too with speciesism: for many it is simply an unexamined presupposition and is never formalized as an explicit article of belief.
While I myself don’t find anything in the least problematic about consciousness in other species, and I think that anyone that takes a naturalistic point of view would be hard-pressed to deny it, I cannot deny that there are some persons who feel a real sense of moral horror in recognizing the consciousness of other species. I am fully aware of this moral horror, and I am utterly unsympathetic to it. To paraphrase Freud on the “oceanic” feeling, I am unable to discover this moral horror in myself.
Some of those who are uncomfortable with the ascription of consciousness to other species simply don’t like animals, and some of those similarly disposed are just completely uninterested in animals and find it peculiar that some human beings seem to be closer to their dogs and cats than they are to other human beings. Such persons sometimes become visibly discomfited at any mention of Johnson’s Hodge or Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō, all memorialized by statues. I have personally heard individuals of this particular temperament indignantly lecture others (myself included) on the dangers of anthropomorphizing our companion animals. If I were to be so lectured today, I would lecture right back on anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind, which is utterly out of place and unbecoming of a philosopher (which in this instance includes anyone who makes, or who implies, philosophical assertions about mind, specifically, denying mind to certain classes of existents).
Such persons often live in an exclusively human world, and to them the animal world seems inexplicably alien. This in itself is an implicit recognition of an animal world, that is to say, a world constituted by animal consciousness. But, of course, not all who deny consciousness to other species can be so pigeon-holed. Some who have completely succumbed to anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind are in no sense living in an exclusively human world, and certainly when the dogma of human exceptionalism in consciousness gained currency, long before our industrial-technological civilization freed us from animal muscle power as the motive force of civilization, almost everyone lived intimately with animals.
In this latter context, prior to industrialization, there was always a theological overlay to the denial of consciousness to other species. Indeed, it is very likely that, if the terms of the philosophical problem of other minds were carefully explained, those with a theological world view might well without hesitation grant consciousness of other species, and simply deny they other species possess a “soul,” which is simply a theologically-legitimized devalorization. In practice, it comes to much the same as the denial of consciousness to other species and a sedulous distinction between the human and the animal realms.
I observed in The Origins of Physicalism that Cartesianism was the original “mechanical philosophy,” and while Cartesianism in the time of Descartes and immediately afterward incorporated human exceptionalism into the philosophy (i.e., it institutionalized anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind), the logical extrapolation of the theory was evident, and what the Cartesians practised upon other species later philosophers in the mechanistic tradition came to practise also upon human beings: the denial of consciousness.
Today we have a school of thought that is not exactly the denial of consciousness but rather the revaluation, or, better, the devaluation of consciousness, which latter is called a “user illusion” — at least, in techno-philosophy the denial of consciousness is called the “user illusion.” In traditional philosophy, the denial of the existence of consciousness is called “eliminativism,” since instead of seeking to reduce consciousness to something else that is not consciousness (and thereby exemplifying reductivism), eliminativism cuts the Gordian Knot and simply denies that there is any such thing as consciousness — meaning that there is nothing to be “explained away.” I am sure that I am not the only one who finds this to be a thoroughly unsatisfying “solution” to a perennial philosophical problem.
How then are we to understand the minds of other species, i.e., the problem of other minds as generalized to include non-human species? What philosophical framework exists that can provide a conceptual infrastructure for such an understanding? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to consider a Kantian approach.
If we take as the lesson of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic that the mind is being continually bombarded by a riot of sensations from all the various bodily sensory organs, and that the mind then constitutes a kind of conceptual sieve that shapes, channels and directs the mass of sensory experience into something coherent upon which an organism can act, we can recognize that much the same process occurs in other species. All mammals have more or less similar bodies and similar sensory endowments, so that all living mammals are constantly being bombarded by a riot of sensations which each creature must sort into coherent experience. The fact that we can play fetch with a dog, and both successfully interact in one and the same world, simultaneously recognizing the stick at the center of the game as an object that passes between two or more organism involved in a game of fetch, suggests that we and the dog constitute and cognize the world in a remarkably similar fashion.
The dog, like us, is receiving sensory signals from his eyes, ears, nose, and so forth, as well as experiencing kinesthetic sensations from the movement of his body as he exerts himself in lunging after the stick. From all of this sensation the dog successfully distills a world, and that world is remarkably similar to our world.
A few years ago I had an interesting experience that bears directly on games of fetch and shared experience, when I had an opportunity to feel what it was like to be a dog among dogs. I was at a vacation house on a river, and had brought my wetsuit along so I could swim. The river is fed by snow melt from Mt. Hood and it is one of the coldest rivers in which I have ever been swimming. I put on my wetsuit and got into the water just as others were beginning to play fetch with a large black lab that they had brought along. They threw a stick into the frigid waters of the river, and the lab plunged into to fetch the stick. The next time the stick was thrown I started swimming toward it the same time that the lab started swimming toward it. The lab looked at me and instantly saw me as a competitor for the stick. He swam all the harder and made it to the stick before me with an obvious sense of triumphalism.
Of course, most people have had experiences like this in life, and some people will dismiss such experiences as readily as Descartes dismissed his correspondent’s stories attempting to prove that animals are not mere mechanisms. However we interpret such experiences, we share and interact in a common world. Although this is utterly contrary to the spirit of Kant, I have to observe that any animal that could not distill coherent experience of the world out of its mass of sensation would never survive. Evolution selects for those organisms that can best hunt or avoid being prey in the common world in which predator and prey interact. This is a naturalistic point of view, whereas Kant’s point of view was decidedly that of idealism.
Even if one rejects Kant’s idealism, as I do, there seems to me to be some residual value in the idea of the mind being involved in the constitution of experience. I think that Kant was right that we have certain a priori intuitions that order our experience, but I think that this was much more fluid and pluralistic than Kant’s exposition of the transcendental aesthetic allows. While I wrote above that mammals all have a relatively similarly experience of the world, a function of a similar sensory and cognitive endowments, I would allow that there is some important variation. Sight plays a very large role in how human beings cognize the world; smell plays a disproportionate role in how dogs cognize the world; sound plays a disproportionate role in how dolphins cognize the world.
All terrestrial critters of a given level of cognitive complexity have to distill coherent experience of one and the same world out of a mass of sensation, but that mass of sensation differs among different species. I suspect that this sensory difference means that different species also have different a priori conceptions that help them to organize their experience into a coherent whole, and that, just sensory experience differs from species to species, but admits of degrees of greater or less, so too the a priori ideas of distinct species different from species to species but also admit of greater or less similarity. That is to say, smell may shape the world of a dog far more than it shapes our world, but we probably share far more in terms of sensory experience and organizing ideas with a dog than with a marine mammal, and probably we share much more with a marine mammal than with an octopus or other cephalopod. This is a function and an illustration of a point I recently tried to make about the relationship between mind and embodiment.
I tried to make this point in my above referenced post, The Eye of the Other, since when I unexpectedly looked into the eyes of a sealion, a marine mammal, we immediately recognized each other, and in the same moment of recognition also recognized the profound differences between the two of us. Common mammalian minds, differently embodied and living in profoundly different environments, will involve different sensory stimulation, different kinesthetic sensations, and different a priori concepts for organizing experience. But not too different. A shark, with a mind very different from a mammalian mind, can predate marine mammals, so that both sharks and marine mammals interact in the same marine environment just as human beings and tigers interact in the same terrestrial environment.
I suspect that, at least in some senses, the tiger’s mind and the human mind share concepts derived from their common terrestrial environment, while the shark and the marine mammal share concepts derived from the common marine environment, so that a tiger’s mind is more like a human mind than a sea lion’s mind is like a human mind, and, vice versa, a sea lion’s mind is more like a shark’s mind than it is like a human mind. Nevertheless, the human mind and the sea lion mind will share some concepts due to their common mammalian constitution. To employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, the different sensations, concepts, and minds of distinct species overlap and intersect.
The recognition of consciousness in other species is no marginal and recondite inquiry; if, in the fullness of time, we encounter other intelligent species in the universe of extraterrestrial origin, we will need a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness among other organic species, and if research into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness ever issues in a self-aware mechanism, fashioned by human hands in the same way that we might build a car or a house, we will again require a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness even more generally, comprehending both naturally-emergent consciousness from organic substrates and artificially emergent consciousness of non-organic substrates.
We need a robust philosophy of mind that does not stagnate in questions of whether there is mind or whether minds can be reduced to other phenomena or eliminated altogether. Such doctrines are — would be — utterly unhelpful in coming to understand what Husserl called the “structures of consciousness.” It is likely that the structures of consciousness vary incrementally among individuals of the same species, vary a little more across distinct species, and will vary even more among minds derived from different sources — different ecosystems and biospheres in the case of organically-originating extraterrestrial minds, and different mechanisms of implementation in the case of inorganically-originating minds of machine consciousness.
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12 February 2012
Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.
To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.
In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:
“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”
Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.
Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:
“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”
Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker
What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.
Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”
Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood
This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.
One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.
Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”
Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.
There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.
I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.
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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!
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29 June 2011
The idea of collective security can be traced back at least to Kant, whose short and widely influential work Perpetual Peace is as clear and as easy to understand as the Critique of Pure Reason is opaque and difficult to understand. There are many visionary ideas in Kant’s essay, all of which were ahead of his time, and most of which still remain ahead of our time. Here is Kant’s formulation of collective security:
“Peoples, as states, like individuals, may be judged to injure one another merely by their coexistence in the state of nature (i.e., while independent of external laws). Each of then, may and should for the sake of its own security demand that the others enter with it into a constitution similar to the civil constitution, for under such a constitution each can be secure in his right. This would be a league of nations, but it would not have to be a state consisting of nations. That would be contradictory, since a state implies the relation of a superior (legislating) to an inferior (obeying), i.e., the people, and many nations in one state would then constitute only one nation. This contradicts the presupposition, for here we have to weigh the rights of nations against each other so far as they are distinct states and not amalgamated into one.”
Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, Section II, “SECOND DEFINITIVE ARTICLE FOR A PERPETUAL PEACE”
After considering the vicissitudes of “lawless freedom” and the perversity of war, Kant continues:
“…there must be a league of a particular kind, which can be called a league of peace (foedus pacificum), and which would be distinguished from a treaty of peace (pactum pacis) by the fact that the latter terminates only one war, while the former seeks to make an end of all wars forever. This league does not tend to any dominion over the power of the state but only to the maintenance and security of the freedom of the state itself and of other states in league with it, without there being any need for them to submit to civil laws and their compulsion, as men in a state of nature must submit.”
While Kant is known as an “idealist” philosopher in the technical sense of idealism, which is to say that Kant sees the world as ultimately constructed out of ideas, this essay of Kant reveals Kant as an idealist as the term is commonly used in conversation. In fact, Kant deserves to be called an idealist in both senses. It is hard to believe that Kant believed in the practicality of his proposals in his Perpetual Peace essay, but I don’t think that there is any question that he did so believe. Kant also wrote a wonderful little essay, which I have quoted on several occasions, in which he argues quite explicitly against those who maintain the impracticality of theoretical ideals.
Surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly, the world has tried to put some of Kant’s ideas into practice. While the League of Nations didn’t work out so well, we still have the United Nations, and though it can’t accomplish much, it is at least a nod in the direction that Kant visualized. The idea of collective security, then, in familiar to all, and can be intuitively summarized in phrases such as there being strength in numbers, all for one and one for all, and the like.
I would like to suggest that beyond collective security in the familiar sense that there is also the possibility of collective economic security, and I would argue that the European Union constitutes an attempt to realize collective economic security. I can easily imagine how others might disagree with me on this. I recall some time ago I was reading a Stratfor analysis in which the writer (probably George Friedman) argued that the rationale behind the European Union was ultimately security, and that the unification of the European economy was only a means to the end of getting Europe to work together abandon its militaristic ways so there wouldn’t be any more blood-lettings like the world wars of the twentieth century.
That Europe is and has been a deeply fractured place was recently reiterated on Stratfor by Marko Papic in The Divided States of Europe:
“Europe has the largest concentration of independent nation-states per square foot than any other continent. While Africa is larger and has more countries, no continent has as many rich and relatively powerful countries as Europe does. This is because, geographically, the Continent is riddled with features that prevent the formation of a single political entity. Mountain ranges, peninsulas and islands limit the ability of large powers to dominate or conquer the smaller ones. No single river forms a unifying river valley that can dominate the rest of the Continent. The Danube comes close, but it drains into the practically landlocked Black Sea, the only exit from which is another practically landlocked sea, the Mediterranean. This limits Europe’s ability to produce an independent entity capable of global power projection.”
Nevertheless, I think that there is a certain segment of people who see strength in numbers economically, in way that that is not tied to security. Sometimes bigger is better, and especially so when one is attempting to deal with the consequences of mass society engendered by industrialization. It could be argued — in fact, I would argue — that the economic success of the US was due in no small part to is large (ultimately continental) contiguous land area under a single political regime. If North America had been political divided like South America, it is unlikely that its economic development would have taken the particular path that it did take.
I have mentioned in some previous posts that Gaddafi has argued on many occasions for a “United States of Africa,” and while this is perhaps impossibly visionary, if it could be made to work it would have great economic benefits for the continent. Similarly, the European Union is sometimes characterized as a “United States of Europe,” and with hope and the aspiration that its collective economic and technological clout might rival that of the US. So even though the term “collective economic security” is not used, the idea is out there, and has been the basis of practical policy objectives.
The Wikipedia article on collective security quotes A.F.K. Organski on five (5) basic assumptions of collective security:
● In an armed conflict, member nation-states will be able to agree on which nation is the aggressor.
● All member nation-states are equally committed to contain and constrain the aggression, irrespective of its source or origin.
● All member nation-states have identical freedom of action and ability to join in proceedings against the aggressor.
● The cumulative power of the cooperating members of the alliance for collective security will be adequate and sufficient to overpower the might of the aggressor.
● In the light of the threat posed by the collective might of the nations of a collective security coalition, the aggressor nation will modify its policies, or if unwilling to do so, will be defeated.
This is formulated in terms of security from military attack, but it could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to address collective security from an economic standpoint. Economically, the threat to economic security comes not primarily from a military assault but from an economic crisis. This should seem pretty intuitive to most people these days, since the global economy is only now pulling out of what is being called the “Great Recession,” which was triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis — a genuine financial crisis if there ever way one — and even more recently the Eurozone was been faced with major crises as Portugal, Ireland, and Greece have come close to defaulting on their debt payments. (Most of the today’s Financial Times was about the Greek debt crisis.)
Well, interpreting Organski’s basic assumptions in terms of collective economic security, we see that the idea turns into a disaster:
● In an economic crisis, member nation-states will be able to agree on the cause of the crisis.
● All member nation-states are equally committed to contain and constrain the crisis, irrespective of its source or origin.
● All member nation-states have identical freedom of action and ability to join in containment and de-escalation of the crisis.
● The cumulative power of the cooperating members of the alliance for collective economic security will be adequate and sufficient to contain the economic crisis.
● In the light of the economic power wielded by the collective might of the nations of a collective economic security coalition, the cause of the crisis will be intimidated into cooperation, or failing to do so, will be contained.
The amusing thing about this is that, while this remains a coherent set of principles when reformulated in terms of economic security, it is even more spectacularly impossible than when formulated (as in the original) in terms of politico-military security. This makes the disaster of these principles particularly interesting, because it shows us that a coherent body of thought can be utterly unworkable despite its coherency.
The reader may well respond to me by saying that I have no basis whatsoever for my claims about collective economic security, and this is not even a fair way to summarize the mission of the EU. I would agree that this is certainly not the be-all and end-all of the European Union, but on the other hand what I did explicitly say about was that the idea of collective economic security is out there.
The idea is out there, but it has not (perhaps, until now, unless I have been anticipated, which is more likely than not) been made fully explicit. What that means in practical terms is that the idea is present implicitly, and the implicit presence of an idea is an idea with deniability. People can and do think in terms of ideas that have not been made explicit, and when they do so they often think in a way that is sloppy, vague, imprecise, and riddled with fallacies.
One of the virtues of making an idea fully explicit is that weaknesses and faults become as obvious as strengths and virtues. When an idea is out in the open and is debated and discussed in explicit terms, its strengths and weaknesses can be compared in a rational and systematic fashion. When an idea remains in the shadows, by contrast, it has a subterranean influence without being critically assessed. This can be unfortunate, since a vaguely appealing implicit idea is not balanced by an explicit consideration of its limitations.
One of the reasons (though certainly not the only reason) that ideas are never made fully explicit is that they are “unthinkable” for some reason or another. It takes a visionary mind to think the unthinkable in explicit terms. Herman Kahn famously did this for nuclear war during the height of the Cold War. I am not suggesting that collective economic security has anything like the unthinkable character of nuclear war, but I am suggesting that we have not had an economist since Malthus who was willing to think through the economically unthinkable.
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27 February 2010
The Greeks believed that men could in heroic moments live as gods, with the sole exception being that they must some day die: immortality is the one thing denied them. Heroes are god-like in their moment of triumph, and gods can be as foolish as men in their weaknesses, but the gods are the immortals, and this exempts them from a particular human experience of finitude: mortality. (I previously discussed this in Reason in Moderation.)
We might similarly characterize the Greek attitude to reason: in his lucid intervals the mind of man is like unto the gods, embodying a heroism of the intellect. But man cannot sustain his reason beyond its proper span, any more than life can be preserved past mortal limits. Thus the life appropriate to man is that of the cultivation of proper limits and a prudent respect for the boundaries that he ought not to pass into the unlimited. Moderation is the watchword here: “All things in moderation” and “Nothing in excess” were famous proverbs in the ancient world that are still with us today. Human virtue, then, is a function of finitude, and folly the lure of the apeiron, that is to say, the undetermined, the formless, the unstructured, the arbitrary, and the unbounded.
How shall one set the limits for oneself proper to human finitude? The above extrapolation of ancient Greek heroism to the realm of the mind has a perfect exemplification in a surviving fragment from one of the many shadowy presocratic philosophers, Epicharmus of Syracuse: A mortal should think mortal thoughts, not immortal thoughts. (Fragment 19 in the Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers by Kathleen Freeman) Does this represent an aspiration to achievement, i.e., to achieve that which a human being can achieve in actuality, or an admonition to humility, i.e., to avoid the hubris of that which is denied to human achievement? Is there a difference between the two, or is it a matter of the glass being half-empty or half-full?
The idea contained in Ephicharmus’ aphorism may have had a certain currency in classical antiquity. The injunction, “O mortal man, think mortal thoughts” has been attributed to Euripides, though it is not to be found in his plays or fragments. However, in The Bacchae Euripides wrote, “…not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” This clearly implies a parallel line of thought. For a man to think immortal thoughts, that is to say, thoughts appropriate to the gods, he is courting doom and disaster, and, of course, Greek tragedy is filled with doom and disaster. The Furies visit doom and disaster upon men who exhibit hubris.
Ever since the Greeks, to whom we owe our mathematics and philosophy, the actual infinite has been rejected. The famous Pythagorean table of opposites, which was headed by apeiron and peras, associated the apeiron with the ugly, the crooked, and the bad. Thus the infinite was not only theoretically rejected, but also made the object of moral disapproval. Thinking the infinite represents the hubris of the intellect. Descartes said that we shouldn’t call things infinite, but rather indefinite. Fear of the infinite is almost a theme in Pascal’s Pensées. Gauss in a letter to Schumacher explicitly rejected infinite totalities. Kant’s antinomies not only questioned metaphysical ideas, but in showing the unsolvability of the finitude or infinitude of space and time also casts doubt on the concepts of the infinite employed in the demonstration.
This much of Kant is well known. Less known is the analysis of the infinite in the Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft), § 26, in the consideration of the mathematical sublime (“sublime” is the English term for Kant’s “Erhabene”). Kant makes a distinction between apprehensio and comprehensio, and holds that the former can go on ad infinitum, but the latter becomes more difficult and is eventually overwhelmed. It is the sublime which overwhelms comprehensio, and it is the sublime which is great beyond all comparison. If the infinite has overwhelmed philosophers one suspects it must be the terrifying sublime (in § 1 of Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, Kant distinguishes between the terrifying sublime, the noble sublime, and the splendid sublime), which suggests the ancient horror infinitum.
Like the Greek hero Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, there was one man who was not humbled by the horror infinitum, and that was Georg Cantor. The power of Cantor’s ideas are precisely his rejection of this tradition, sanctioned by history, and the introduction of a method to compare the sizes of infinite sets. The infinite in Cantor does not overwhelm and it is not incomparable. Indeed, Cantor’s great technical innovations — one-to-one correspondence and diagonalization — allow us to take the measure of the infinite and soberly assess its significance.
We have not only learned to think immortal thoughts, but we have learned to think them systematically and rigorously. The intuitive breakthrough of Cantor to set theory and transfinite numbers was a salto mortale, a death-defying leap of the intellect. In this, it is like Darwin’s intuitive breakthrough to natural selection or Einstein’s intuitive breakthrough to relativity. Such moments in the history of science are difficult to reconcile with sober theorizing. They represent the mind’s singular function, and it is only through such singular accomplishments that scientific progress is possible.
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28 September 2009
Everyone is familiar with optical illusions. A mirage of water on the horizon on a hot day, or the appearance of a stick being bent when it is put into water, or Fata Morgana, are examples of optical illusions that are so familiar that we learn to disregard them. There are also optical illusions that can be generated by a carefully crafted illustration, as in the works of M. C. Escher. Specialists of optical illusions make many interesting distinctions within the category, but we will not recount these here.
There is a sense in which optical illusions are also spatial illusions (mostly), while some of the optical illusions that involve movement could be said to illustrate temporal illusions. In movement, both space and time are involved so that properly optical illusions that involve motion are spatio-temporal illusions. But a spatio-temporal illusion suggests the possibility of purely temporal illusions. The very idea of a temporal illusion is unfamiliar, but it is a worthwhile conception and once we become familiar with the idea it can be useful to explain experiences for which we have no adequate language.
Once we think in terms of temporal illusions it is not difficult to think of experiences that involve temporal illusions. The most obvious example of a temporal illusion is when time feels as though it passes more slowly when one is waiting for something. There is an old saying to illustrate this: a watched pot never boils. The opposite observation is that time flies when you’re having fun. Psychologists have identified what they call “flow states” in which a person becomes so involved in their work that they cease to notice the passage of time. This is an instance of a temporal illusion.
For my part, I have noticed that when I drive down an unfamiliar road, and then am forced to backtrack along the same route, that the outbound drive always feels as though it takes significantly longer than the return drive. I have always assumed that this is because in the initial drive everything is unfamiliar and one never knows what to expect, while driving back out the same way one remembers at least some of the route. In other words, in a new experience one has a flood of new sensations that populate one’s subjective time consciousness at a higher level of density than familiar experiences. If this explanation has any bearing, it is merely a mechanism, but it does nothing to explain the feeling of time passing more slowly on the first leg of the drive as compared to the second leg of the drive.
The most abstract illusions pose the greatest difficulty for us. Those optical illusions that involve a Gestalt effect such as the Kanizsa triangle, in which one perceives a white triangle that is not an explicit part of the drawing, pose theoretical problems that are not posed by simple optical illusions such as a mirage. (I can imagine a quasi-Platonic explanation for the Kanizsa triangle that would appeal to the receptacle of a triangle that is embodied in such drawings — the receptacle plays a significant role in Plato’s Timaeus.)
The most abstract illusions of all are those that occur without reference to our senses, nor even to space or time. These are the illusions of our minds, of our conceptual scheme. This may sound a little beyond the concerns of most of us, but abstract illusions are actually quite common. We call them paradoxes. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote that paradoxes are the optical illusions of the eye of the soul. I haven’t had time to follow up on this and flesh it out, but the obvious extrapolation would be that purely conceptual illusions like paradoxes are the theoretical basis of all illusions, and if we could formulate a complete theory of illusions we would find that sensory and experiential illusions could be explained by their basis in abstract illusions. Maybe. That remains to be seen.
Kant is remembered as an especially difficult philosopher to read, but we note that Kant elaborated the idea of purely conceptual illusions in the Critique of Pure Reason. In some translations such illusions are called transcendental illusory appearance. This is actually quite a good formulation to encapsulate the idea. Kant was driven to formulate transcendental illusory experience to account for the famous antinomies of pure reason that are central to the argument of the Critique. Kant argued that traditional metaphysics up to his time was bogus because when pure reason attempts to apply itself to matters upon which it is not competent — like the ultimate structure or origin of the world — it falls into paradoxes from which it cannot extricate itself.
Kant clearly not only saw the danger of abstract illusions, but mapped them out as well as he could with the intellectual resources available to him. After Kant, major conceptual upheavals like the development of non-Euclidean geometry and relativistic physics based in part on non-Euclidean geometry (Einstein used Reimann’s elliptic geometry as the setting for general relativity), as well as Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers, called into question some of the specifics of Kant’s exposition, but the basic idea remains sound. However, contemporary re-statements of the Kantian position such as P. F. Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense and several phenomenological attempts to rehabilitate Kant’s philosophy of mathematics don’t have much to say about transcendental illusory appearance. This seems to me like a potentially very fertile field for philosophical research.
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