Wittgensteinian Magisteria

13 September 2011


One of the most memorable and enduring aspects of Wittgenstein’s later work is his conception of family resemblance. Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations formulates an essentially anti-essentialist position, and his account of family resemblances is an attempt to state how things resemble each other without sharing some single “essence.” He wanted to get away from the idea there there must be something in common, and to this end he urged his readers to look for themselves and see if there is anything in common — say, for example, among all games.

I have been thinking about family resemblances in Wittgenstein because I mention the idea in passing in my paper, The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight, which I am to present at the upcoming 100 Year Starship Symposium. (I hope you’ll show up to be in my cheering section.)

Wittgenstein described family resemblances as, “…a complicated net of similarities which overlap and intersect.” This translation is due to Walter Kaufmann (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 55), which is a rather more felicitous rendering than the familiar Anscombe translation: “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, Third Edition, Malden, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, section 66, p. 27e).

When I was thinking about this use of “overlapping” (“übergreifen” in the original German) I happened to watch a video by Richard Dawkins, and I thought about Dawkins’ criticism of Gould’s exposition of “non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA for short. S. J. Gould wrote an essay on the topic which is fairly well know. Here are a few quotes taken from it:

“…each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’).”

“The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”

“This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?”

“I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.”

Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted here with permission from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283.

Dawkins will have none of this. He devotes a section of Chapter 2 of The God delusion to criticizing the very idea of NOMA. Here is a typically Dawkinsian passage:

“The very idea is a joke. You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up, would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies. NOMA is popular only because there is no
evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of any evidence in favour of religious belief,
religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window. Sophisticated theologians aside (and even they are
happy to tell miracle stories to the unsophisticated in order to swell congregations), I suspect that alleged miracles provide the
strongest reason many believers have for their faith; and miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Chapter 2

Dawkins goes on for several pages in this vein, but the only reason I cite Dawkins here is that he represents the antithesis of the NOMA position outlined by Gould. What interests me in this debate between Gould and Dawkins is that the NOMA and anti-NOMA positions do not exhaustively divide the field of opinion.

In fact, however heretical to the orthodox, I think that one of the most prevalent views held today in industrialized Western nation-states is the antithesis of both Gould and Dawkins. I propose to call this position COMA, which should be understood to stand for COinciding MAgisteria.

It is difficult for me to give a good formulation of COMA, partly because the idea, while ancient, is new to me, and it is not my own position. So I have no definitive formulation. I will rely upon my reader’s sympathy and indulgence to provide what I leave out in my account of COMA.

COMA is simply this: that religion and science are simply alternative formulations of one and the same truth. The dogmatically religious insist upon putting everything in religious terms and denying the contributions of science, while the dogmatically scientific insist upon putting everything in scientific terms and denying the contributions of religion, but ultimately there is only one truth of the world, which is studied from the varying perspectives of science and religion (inter alia).

I have had many people say things like this to me personally. While I can’t cite any locus classicus, but I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has written down this obvious point of view.

I will go further, however, and state that even among NOMA, anti-NOMA, COMA, and whatever anti-COMA might be, that these positions still do not exhaust the field of opinion. What lies beyond NOMA and COMA? Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s conception of family resemblances takes another step with possible magisteria, which is that step beyond either wholly overlapping (as with COMA) or being mutually exclusive (as with NOMA), such that that magisteria may intersect (which Anscombe translates as “criss-cross”). I’m sure you get the idea. Gould and Dawkins, NOMA and SOMA, present regions of thought as spatial areas (much as Frege does in his exposition of tertium non datur in the Foundations of Arithmetic). Well, concepts as we usually find them in the real world only present these kind of ideal boundaries in the abstract. In actual fact, the boundaries of a given concept interpenetrate related concepts, often to the point that it is difficult to distinguish them. This, I think — family resemblances that overlap and intersect — is the proper way to understand the relationship between religious and scientific concepts.

Though I will, again, go one step further. I mention in my “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” paper that Wittgenstein has left an item off the relationships of family resemblance: conflict. The individual variation that both lies at the basis of natural selection and which gives each of us our unique features, is that element of conflict in family resemblance, which is never total or absolute.

Despite all the talk about so-called “militant atheists” like Dawkins (and Dennett, and others), it has in fact become quite trendy to downplay the conflict between science and religion. I listened to a set of lectures from The Teaching Company, Science and Religion — a pure exemplification of the spirit of revisionist history — in which the lecturer, Professor Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D., ridicules what he calls the “The Warfare Thesis” and attempts to show that, because many eminent scientists were in fact deeply pious and religious, there really hasn’t been any conflict between science and religion. While I enjoyed the lectures, I didn’t agree with them, and this was one of those clear-cut cases in which historical revisionism seems to be carried to its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

But this is merely an aside in the point I wish to make today, and that point is that NOMA is really not all that common a view, that COMA is probably more prevalent, but that neither NOMA or COMA sufficiently capture the relations between science and religion, which might better be described in terms of Wittgensteinian family resemblances. Not that science and religion resemble each other, but that their relations are like the relations that hold between things that do resemble each other. This is an obviously imperfect exposition. Perhaps with time I can frame my point with greater clarity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Dated futurism is one of my guilty pleasures, and I have written about this previously in A Hundred Years of Futurism. Recently I’ve been reading a number of mid-twentieth century futurist works for some research I am doing. These are not the wide-eyed adolescent takes on the future, but intended to be sober analyses of what one book calls The Most Probable World. This is a project in the spirit of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which I have discussed several times (cf. Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography).

The wide-eyed enthusiasm for possible futures is pure fun, but the serious attempts to try to understand a likely future constitute futurism of another order, and it deserves to be treated separately, if only because of the intentions of the author. While the science fiction scenarios have sometimes come closer to the truth than some overly-serious attempts to futurism (the latter at times approaching self-parody), this kind of nearly-chance correspondence bears some resemblance to the Gettier paradox, which can be intuitively understood as the fact that a non-functioning clock is precisely correct twice a day, but when a stopped clock is correct in indicating the time, it is not correct for the right reason.

Some of these “serious” (for lack of a better term) works of futurism are more sociological than futurist in character, and can only be called futurist in virtue of their discussion of present trends with a strong implication that the trend under discussion will be a central thread in the developments of the immediate future. In this sense, the sort of sober “futurist” works to which I am here referring needn’t even mention the future or prediction. The future is understood to be embodied in the pregnant present, if only we can recognize the inchoate future in embryo.

I would like to suggest that these works of sober futurism are distinct from works of enthusiasm because they are based on a method, however imperfectly put into practice, and this is the method of the historical a priori imagination. In several previous posts I have had occasion to refer to R. G. Collingwood’s conception of the historical a priori imagination. This is given in the Epilogomena to his The Idea of History, as follows:

“I have already remarked that, in addition to selecting from among his authorities’ statements those which he regards as important, the historian must in two ways go beyond what his authorities tell him. One is the critical way, and this is what Bradley has attempted to analyse. The other is the constructive way. Of this he has said nothing, and to this I now propose to return. I described constructive history as interpolating, between the statements borrowed from our authorities, other statements implied by them. Thus our authorities tell us that on one day Caesar was in Rome and on a later day in Gaul ; they tell us nothing about his journey from one place to the other, but we interpolate this with a perfectly good conscience.”

“This act of interpolation has two significant characteristics. First, it is in no way arbitrary or merely fanciful: it is necessary or, in Kantian language, a priori. If we filled up the narrative of Caesar’s doings with fanciful details such as the names of the persons he met on the way, and what he said to them, the construction would be arbitrary: it would be in fact the kind of construction which is done by an historical novelist. But if our construction involves nothing that is not necessitated by the evidence, it is a legitimate historical construction of a kind without which there can be no history at all.”

“Secondly, what is in this way inferred is essentially something imagined. If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking. That is already an example of historical thinking ; and it is not otherwise that we find ourselves obliged to imagine Caesar as having travelled from Rome to Gaul when we are told that he was in these different places at these successive times.”

“This activity, with this double character, I shall call a priori imagination; and, though I shall have more to say of it hereafter, for the present I shall be content to remark that, however unconscious we may be of its operation, it is this activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity. That the historian must use his imagination is a commonplace; to quote Macaulay’s Essay on History, ‘a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque’; but this is to underestimate the part played by the historical imagination, which is properly not ornamental but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.”

The Idea of History, Epilegomena: 2: The Historical Imagination, R. G. Collingwood, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1946)

This is more than I have quoted from Collingwood previously, because I wanted to give a better sense of his exposition. Collingwood calls his method “constructive” (in contradistinction to being “analytic”), but from a formal point of view it is the antithesis of constructive, it is a non-constructive inference of what must be, made on the basis of what is known to be the case.

But I think that Collingwood wanted to call his method “constructive” because he wanted to bring attention to the essentially conservative and traditional aspect of historical thought that he felt himself to be describing. It is one of the remarkable aspects of Collingwood’s conception that it is both metaphysically bold and methodologically conservative. As Collingwood notes, we have no scruples in deducing that when Caesar traveled from Rome to Gaul that he covered the intervening geographical region. This is, in a sense, a necessary truth, and in so far as it is a necessary truth, it is an a priori truth — furnished by imagination.

In works of history, we can make logical deductions as to what must have happened on the basis of connecting two points in history separated by the discrete period of time. In works of futurism, we cannot do this. We have only one point at which the facts are know, and this is the present. And often the present is known far more imperfectly than we would like to admit. As time passes, and we learn more and more about the past, we realize how little we knew of the present when it was in fact present.

Thus futurism labors under a double burden of knowing only half of what is needed to logically extrapolate the historical a priori imaginative narrative, as well as knowing this half highly imperfectly. Despite these substantial handicaps, we can still stand on the firm ground of methodological naturalism in making necessary deductions about the future.

We know that the future must follow from the present as the present has followed from the past. We know furthermore that there will be some future, and that it will be filled with some content, even if we don’t know what that content is. This makes futurism profoundly non-constructive.

Beyond these logical deductions from the very structure of time itself, we know empirically and inductively that things never quite develop as we expect things to develop, meaning that trends that seem to be important in the present often come to nothing, while world-historical events often seem to emerge suddenly if not violently from subtle trends in the present that are often evident only in hindsight.

A better appreciation of non-constructivism as a method of formal reasoning, as well as of subtle trends in the present that are neglected in favor of more obvious trends, would give us a better picture of the content of history that will shape the future. Both of these are highly difficult intellectual undertakings. Despite the fact (which you will know if you are familiar with the literature of formal reasoning) that constructivism is considered a marginal if not ideological mode of thought, I find it remarkable that constructivism has been given several systematic expositions, for example, in the work of Brouwer, Heyting, Dummett, and Beeson, among many others, while non-constructivism, the default form of formal reasoning that makes no special stipulations, has been given no explicit formulation. This is an ellipsis that not only is felt in formal thought, but as we can see here is also felt in historical thought.

As for the empirical and inductive dimension of futurism, a thorough and dispassionate survey of the present, undertaken in a frame of mind informed by parallels with past neglected trends, might reveal a number of threads of historical trends in the present which might hold the key to unexpected developments in the future.

While futurism remains marginal, it is not beyond hope in being given a firmer intellectual basis than it has enjoyed to date. What I have suggested above may be taken as a research program for putting futurism on a more solid footing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Beyond the Big Bang

6 August 2011


The cover story on this month’s issue of Scientific American is Does the Multiverse Really Exist?, and the BBC has also had a story on the same, ‘Multiverse’ theory suggested by microwave background. Here is the opening paragraph of the Scientific American story:

“In the past decade an extraordinary claim has captivated cosmologists: that the expanding universe we see around us is not the only one; that billions of other universes are out there, too. There is not one universe—there is a multiverse. In Scientific American articles and books such as Brian Greene’s latest, The Hidden Reality, leading scientists have spoken of a super-Copernican revolution. In this view, not only is our planet one among many, but even our entire universe is insignificant on the cosmic scale of things. It is just one of countless universes, each doing its own thing”

It is typical for contemporary scientific thought to present this as a new idea, notwithstanding several thousand years of philosophical tradition investigating the infinity of worlds, as it is equally typical to cite a recent book on the topic rather than to acknowledge the theoretical underpinnings of the idea that go back to the earliest works of the Western tradition. I mentioned similar considerations not long ago in a post about Conformal Cyclic Cosmology.

The BBC story ‘Multiverse’ theory suggested by microwave background by Jason Palmer references the paper First Observational Tests of Eternal Inflation by Feeney, Johnson, Mortlock, and Peiris. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

The eternal inflation scenario predicts that our observable universe resides inside a single bubble embedded in a vast inflating multiverse. We present the first observational tests of eternal inflation, performing a search for cosmological signatures of collisions with other bubble universes in cosmic microwave background data from the WMAP satellite. We conclude that the WMAP 7-year data do not warrant augmenting ACDM with bubble collisions, constraining the average number of detectable bubble collisions on the full sky Ns < 1:6 at 68% CL. Data from the Planck satellite can be used to more definitively test the bubble collision hypothesis.

First Observational Tests of Eternal Inflation by Feeney, Johnson, Mortlock, and Peiris

This is from the second paragraph of the paper:

Eternal inflation is ubiquitous in theories with extra dimensions (string theory being the primary example) and positive vacuum energy. However, testing this scenario is extremely difficult since eternal inflation is a pre-inflationary epoch: any signals from outside of our bubble would naively appear to be stretched to unobservable super-horizon scales. While this is in general true, one prospect for probing this epoch lies in the observation of the collisions between vacuum bubbles. These collisions produce inhomogeneities in the inner-bubble cosmology, raising the possibility that their eff ects are imprinted in the cosmic microwave background

I find these recent developments in cosmology both welcome and troubling. It is welcome because the time in long overdue to give serious consideration to theories that do not limit the universe to that generated from the Big Bang (as cosmologists once limited the universe only to the Milky Way galaxy, and before that to our solar system), and it is troubling because the way in which these developments are presented confirms much that I have written recently about Fashionable Anti-Philosophy in science.

From the origins of the Big Bang model up until very recently, it was commonplace among scientists to assert that space and time began with the big bang, and that it was meaningless to speak of the big bang singularity as existing in space or time (this was called the “container theory” of space and time), since space and time (actually, spacetime) was generated by the big bang. To insist upon any other account marked you out as a philosopher and a fool who simply couldn’t understand the scientific concepts involved and the mathematics behind them.

Truly enough, from the point of view of observational cosmology it is meaningless to develop theories of things that can’t be observed, like the interior of singularities, what lies outside the light cone, or what happened before the big bang. But cosmology is not limited to observational cosmology, and physicists routinely theorize about things that can’t be observed, on the hope that they might someday be observed. The “standard model” of particle physics has been looking for the Higgs boson for years, and is hopeful that it will be found soon. But this is why we formulate hypotheses: so we have a research program that can focus on finding mechanisms that might explain the things that we can see.

The great scientific and mathematical revolution that supposedly made all this both possible and rational was the idea of the finite and unbounded universe that was bent around on itself, like the surface of the earth, so that even though there is no edge to the cosmos, that does not mean that it is infinite. There is no edge because there is no boundary, and there is no boundary because the universe is finite and unbounded. The elliptical geometry of Riemann, adapted by Einstein as the setting for General Relativity, gave a precise mathematical expression to this idea. But the advocates of the finite and unbounded universe carefully avoided explaining the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic curvature, and with a little bit of ambiguity they were able to pretend that the universe was expanding into nothingness without giving an account of this nothingness.

A typical expression of this attitude, in the form of an aside, comes from J. J. Callahan, in discussing his motivation for writing his frequently cited paper, “The Curvature of Space in a Finite Universe” (Scientific American, Volume 235, Number 2, August, 1976). Callahan said the paper grew:

“…out of an attempt to explain Einstein’s concept of a finite but unbounded space to my nonscientific colleagues at Smith. They found it tough going, and some simply dismissed a finite universe as impossible, because Kant had done so when he studied the question 300 years ago.”

Apart from a misrepresentation of Kant, Callahan’s “non-scientific colleagues” are caricatured as mere simpletons who can’t hack mathematical and scientific ideas (it was “tough going” for them), and not people who had genuine intuitions of the how the universe is put together but were unable to express them with the same blinding simplicity of the big bang model producing a finite and unbounded universe.

I am not the only one to have noticed this systematic ambiguity in recent cosmology. I found this amusingly acerbic quote in The Ontology and Cosmology of Non-Euclidean Geometry:

“The closest we seem to have come to a more open consideration of these matters is when both Stephen Hawking and Karl Popper [Karl Popper, Unended Quest, Open Court, 1990; p.16] point out that Einstein, whether or not he successfully answered Kant’s Antinomy of Space, did not answer the Antinomy of Time: despite decades of everyone glorifying in the philosophical revelation of a finite but unbounded universe, they simply didn’t notice that the solution proposed for space didn’t work with time. It is to Hawking’s great philosophical credit that he faces this question squarely.”

The author here has been more charitable to Hawking than I would be, as Hawking has been prominent among those who have ridiculed what he sees as the simple-mindedness of philosophers in insisting upon answers to their questions about a universe with this geometrical structure. Morevoer, I would maintain that the “philosophical revelation of a finite but unbounded universe” doesn’t even offer a solution to the problem of space, much less time, much less spacetime.

So I am happy to see cosmologists extending their scope and trying to get outside the confines of the big bang model, but I continue to be distressed that they continue to ridicule the philosophical underpinnings of their own ideas, and that they will go through a lot of needless duplication of labor in coming up with ideas that have been worked through time and again. But, if you’re aiming at research dollars to build the latest, greatest superconducting supercollider, or the biggest and most sensitive radio telescope, it isn’t going to pull much weight with the grant writing committees or the grant granting institutions themselves to tell them you’ll be spending the next few years in a library reading old books in order to refine your concepts to the point that they might suggest a research program.

Physicists and cosmologists seem to belong to the Field of Dreams school of thought, pursuing a “if we build it, they will come” strategy in research, with “they” being discoveries, suitably celebrated in the headlines of newspapers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Postmetaphysical Thinking (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), Jürgen Habermas

The most successful critiques of a tradition are those critiques that not only represent a countervailing tradition of thought to that being critiqued, but that also permanently change the nature of the thought that has been critiqued. One of the strengths of philosophical thought, i.e., one of the things that gives philosophical thought its perennial nature, is that it is continually engaged in a process of self-critique. In other words, philosophers are always criticizing other philosophers, but through this process we learn things. Another term for this is reflexivity. (Of course, dear reader, I understand that many poor souls feel that philosophy is a useless enterprise, as I have recently written about in connection with science; I pity these poor souls, and I hope you will join me in this commiseration.)

Philosophers have not only criticized other philosophers but have, in particular, engaged in a reflexive critique of metaphysics for centuries, not withstanding the fact that these philosophers themselves formulated alternative metaphysics, and only philosophers practice metaphysics. Leibniz reacted against Scholastic metaphysics, which he called “vain philosophy,” Kant reacted against Leibnizian metaphysics (primarily in the form given it by Christian Wolff), positivism and empiricism reacted against idealism in the Kantian tradition. In more recent developments, structuralists reacted against the subjectivism of phenomenology, post-structuralists reacted against structuralism, and so forth.

During the twentieth century almost all philosophers, even those of deeply divergent traditions, analytical and continental alike, explicitly rejected metaphysics and set forth programs of philosophical thought that would proceed on the basis of philosophy without metaphysics at all. But as Mark Twain famously said that the rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated, so too the rumors of the death of metaphysics have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, I recently wrote about The Apotheosis of Metaphysics, noting how the recently emergent school of object-oriented ontology takes the metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality to a new and greater heights.

A critique that changes all subsequent iterations of a tradition constitutes an intellectual revolution. Cantor’s set theory and transfinite numbers implicitly constituted a critique of finitism among mathematicians. Since then, when finitism has been re-asserted after Cantor, it is a finitism very changed by the fact of Cantorism, which cannot be ignored. The intuitionism of Brouwer is a very different creature than the careless dismissal of the infinite as a mere façon de parler, as the great mathematician Gauss contended:

“…so protestiere ich gegen den Gebrauch einer unendlichen Größe als einer vollendeten, welche in der Mathematik niemals erlaubt ist. Das Unendliche ist nur eine ‘Façon de parler,’ indem man eigentlich von Grenzen spricht, denen gewisse Verhältnisse so nahe kommen als man will, während andern ohne Einschränkung zu wachsen verstattet ist.”

Metaphysics today is like post-Cantorian constructivism — every idea that is employed ultimately refers back, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the conceptual revolution, even if the response to that revolution is reactionary or counter-revolutionary. The anti-metaphysical animus of twentieth century philosophy was something of an intellectual revolution, and the post-metaphysics of today bears the marks of its influence.

Continental philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote a book about Postmetaphysical Thinking, in which he lays out what he sees as the primary thematic motives underlying metaphysical thinking, and those countervailing thematic motives that have emerged as drivers of postmetaphysical thinking. Readers will not be surprised to hear that I view Habermas’ post-metaphysical thinking as simply a new iteration of metaphysics: a new species of metaphysics emergent from descent with modification. And, I think, Habermas seems to be aware of this, and his critique is tinged with a diagnostic air; he understands that, if you wait long enough, the bus of philosophy will always make another stop.

Ideas, like bodies, contain traces of their past. This is as true of metaphysical ideas as of any other more familiar ideas. Descent with modification makes of an evolved entity a palimpsest in which the history of that entity can be patiently teased out by the careful eye that looks beneath the surface. As Ortega y Gasset said of man, we can say of ideas: ideas have not an essence, but a history. Or, rather, ideas have both an essence and a history.

The history of an idea is marked by the continual reassertion of the essential character of idea, but the essential character is also marked by its historical evolution. The continuity of ideas in history displays a high degree of historical viability, which is to say that the rate of change of ideas is slower than that of, say, social institutions (which are frequently shaped by ideas), but more rapid than that of geological features (which, I have argued, shape ideas in the very long term). Since we routinely make use of a concept like geological time, we might also posit an ideational time as being the scale of time at which ideas evolve. Indeed, this might be taken as a definition of what I initially called integral history, but which I have since come to call (in my own, personal iteration of ideational descent with modification) metaphysical history, as a division within the more comprehensive context of ecological temporality.

This reflection gives me some food for thought in the development of my conception of ecological temporality, into which I can hopefully more fully integrate the idea of an ideational temporality.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago in The Truth is Out There I twice made reference to anti-philosophy among scientists. I wrote, for example, the following:

“While Ferris frequently invokes the kind of anti-philosophy that I have become accustomed to encountering in the writings of scientists, he also cites philosophers has diverse as Hegel and Wittgenstein…”


“…despite the fashionable anti-philosophy of many scientists, that often leads them to say unkind things about purely philosophical inquiry, I see the enterprises of science and philosophy as parallel undertakings…”

What do I mean by the “anti-philosophy” of many scientists? Usually, and unfortunately, it simply takes the form of ad hominem abuse of philosophers while cribbing ideas that the scientists don’t understand, and often don’t even realize that they are cribbing. I will give two examples. Here is Leonard Susskind:

“…many physicists throughout the second half of the twentieth century considered the pursuit of such a unifying theory to be worthless, fit only for crackpots and philosophers.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, 2009

And here is Stephen Hawking:

“We have known for twenty-five years that Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that time must have had a beginning in a singularity fifteen billion years ago. But the philosophers have not yet caught up with the idea.”

Stephen W. Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, 1994

It would be relatively easy to multiply quotes of this character; they are regrettably common, and one must wonder why, because philosophers do not even register on the radar of the popular mind. Why should we find denunciations of philosophers and philosophy in popularizations of science by eminent physicists? I have a hard time imagining that either Susskind or Hawking would make comments like these about, say, novelists or biologists.

I have chosen the quotes from Susskind and Hawking strategically, since each represents a different side of a long-running scientific controversy, a controversy that is related in Susskind’s book cited above. Though these two physicists found themselves on opposite sides of a scientific controversy, they apparently have common ground in their use of philosophers as straw men.

I am listening to Susskind’s book now, and while I enjoy it, I can feel the limitations that arise from anti-philosophy. What happens when you reject Western civilization’s storehouse of carefully thought out ideas? You end up citing science fiction authors to make your point, as Susskind employs Heinlein’s “grok” in the opening pages of his book. There is a vast philosophical literature on intuitive knowledge and understanding, but Susskind prefers to neglect this and employs “grok” instead. No doubt he believes this to be clearer.

There is a sense in which the Susskind reference to Heinlein is appropriate, since I recall that Heinlein himself was anti-philosophical. When I was a child I read a great many science fiction novels, a great quantity in fact, and Heinlein was among my favorites, but I can remember even then, thirty years ago and before I discovered philosophy, I wondered why Heinlein had bothered to malign philosophy. In fact, it was just this attitude, garnered from many diverse sources, that eventually made me sufficiently curious that I began to read philosophy myself. I discovered something else, something unexpected, when I began to read philosophy: I found that I was thinking for myself, and that I felt no particular obligation to follow the thoughts of others unless they gave me good reason to do so.

It has become a commonplace in contemporary intellectual discourse to note (and to bemoan the fact) that intelligent and educated people see no stigma attached to saying that they know nothing of mathematics. Even here we can cite Heinlein again: “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.” Well, it also seems to be true that many scientists not only attach no stigma to ignorance of philosophy, but many of them take a perverse pride in their science being “uncontaminated” by philosophy, not realizing that this ignorance means that they make elementary philosophical errors based on elementary philosophical presuppositions and never seem to notice or be the least bit troubled by it.

The problem is not that scientists make philosophical errors and philosophical assumptions; the problem is that they fail to acknowledge that they do so. Mathematicians make a particular effort to make their assumptions explicit. This is called axiomatization. But philosophical assumptions lie even deeper than mathematical assumptions, and are therefore all the more difficult to make explicit. An effort is required. But without the effort, we literally don’t know what we’re doing.

Louis Althusser wrote a book about the spontaneous philosophy of scientists, and I have always thought that this was a particularly apt phrase. Scientists come up with a theory on the spot, as it were, and such theories are as easily discarded. It is easy to see how this serves scientific practice. Too careful and studied a reliance on a research program dictated by a philosophical theory would probably quickly turn sterile. This does not, however, excuse either ignorance or ad hominem attacks.

Scientists are instinctive phenomenologists, in so far as they share with Husserl a desire to formulate their knowledge utterly free from presuppositions, and, at very least, free from philosophical presuppositions. But this ideal of presuppositionless knowledge is a philosophical undertaking, so that it becomes a problematic enterprise for scientists. The alternative to making one’s presuppositions explicit is to leave them implicit, and when we add anti-philosophy to implicit presuppositions we have a situation in which it becomes unacceptable to acknowledge a presupposition even if, in the back of one’s mind one begins to be dimly conscious of the fact that there is more going on in scientific experiment and theory than pure observation. Thus the scientist who denies the role of philosophy in knowledge is put in a position antithetical to that of the mathematician, being committed, as he is, to denying and obscuring his presuppositions. Thus there is a sense in which fashionable anti-philosophy is a rejection of the very idea of rigorous axiomatic thinking.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.

One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with “idiom” construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.

The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.

We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominate position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.

Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by scientific popularizers that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.

A recent paper in Science by Sacha Kocsis, Boris Braverman, Sylvain Ravets, Martin J. Stevens, Richard P. Mirin, L. Krister Shalm, and Aephraim M. Steinberg, Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer, points to new ways of thinking and talking about quantum theory. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“A consequence of the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle is that one may not discuss the path or “trajectory” that a quantum particle takes, because any measurement of position irrevocably disturbs the momentum, and vice versa. Using weak measurements, however, it is possible to operationally define a set of trajectories for an ensemble of quantum particles. We sent single photons emitted by a quantum dot through a double-slit interferometer and reconstructed these trajectories by performing a weak measurement of the photon momentum, postselected according to the result of a strong measurement of photon position in a series of planes. The results provide an observationally grounded description of the propagation of subensembles of quantum particles in a two-slit interferometer.”

There is a good article by Jason Palmer of the BBC, Quantum mechanics rule ‘bent’ in classic experiment, about the paper and its ramifications. Palmer writes that researchers, “say the feat ‘pulls back the veil’ on quantum reality in a way that was thought to be prohibited by theory.” If one wanted to go seeking headlines, one could say something dramatic like “Scientists break the laws of quantum physics” — you get the idea.

But what has been thought to be prohibited is in large measure a limitation upon the current language of quantum theory and, to a certain extent, an artifact of particular experiments. As more sophisticated experiments are conceived and conducted, we may someday know quite a bit more about quantum theory than has been thought possible to date.

In Palmer’s BBC story there is an excellent quote from Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University:

The trouble with quantum mechanics is that while we’ve learned to calculate the outcomes of all sorts of experiments, we’ve lost much of our ability to describe what is really happening in any natural language.

I think that this has really hampered our ability to make progress, to come up with new ideas and see intuitively how new systems ought to behave.

Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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pictogram - man with idea

Philosophical thought is often believed to be remote from the concerns of quotidian life. One of the reasons that I created this particular forum was to attempt to show the deep and systematic way that philosophical ideas penetrate even the most mundane and ordinary concerns of our daily lives.

Personally I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing. When people do lie in their bed all day and do nothing they are diagnosed with a mental illness, because science is today the paradigm for dealing with such matters. However, we are under no obligation to participate in this paradigm, and we can recognize the possibility of an existential malaise that is the visceral corollary of a philosophical position. This is only one of many ways in which a theoretical attitude can have practical consequences.

If philosophical ideas often seem distant from ordinary concerns, philosophical argument must seem an order of magnitude further removed from life, with its remarkable subtleties and its complex details that demand our careful attention, but I want to try to show how philosophical reasoning and argumentation have a basis in matters familiar to almost everyone.

There is a passage from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World in which he gently makes fun of those who presume to offer up, as authoritative arguments, their gut feelings:

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”
I say, “I just told you what I really think.”
“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”
But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1997, p. 180

While I am not without sympathy for Sagan’s point here, it strikes me as inadequate from a philosophical point of view. Sagan, whatever his reputation as a sage, was ultimately and spiritually a scientist. His thoughts are formulated like a scientist, and science-like observations (which presumably exclude gut feelings) are as crucial to science as science-like reasoning, science-like theories, and science-like predictions.

However, as philosophers we are not limited to science-like observations, any more than we are obligated to participate in the scientific paradigm of existential malaise as mental illness. In fact, as philosophers we not only have the intellectual right to pursue matters on the cusp of the ineffable, but in fact we have an intellectual duty and obligation to do so. We must go farther and test every possibility of evidence or we will fall short of full possibilities of theoretical thought.

Obviously, Sagan did not think that gut instincts constituted “evidence.” Certainly untutored instincts do not constitute scientific evidence, but they are nevertheless evidence of something, and this evidence is of the greatest philosophical interest. The point here is not whether or not our intuitions are evidence, but what the value of what evidence is, what that evidence means, and what place it ought to hold in a given body of knowledge.

There would probably be a way to formulate this in terms of Bayesianism (and hopefully some day I will take the time to work out this formulation), but I won’t pursue that at present. I will, however, pursue an alternative method to doing justice to our intuitions, instincts, and feelings.

Therefore, and without further ado, my sure-fire, quick-and-easy, step-by-step method for formulating a cogent philosophical argument merely on the basis of one’s gut instincts is as follows:

Step 1: Review the current positions and arguments in any area of philosophy that strikes your interest.

Step 2: Search your feelings for your visceral reactions to these ideas and arguments. (If you have no visceral reaction whatsoever to ideas, you probably aren’t cut out to be a philosopher.) You will notice that some of your visceral reactions to ideas will be sympathetic, and some will be antipathetic. That is to say, you will like some ideas, and other ideas you will dislike.

Step 3: Turn your attention to your viscerally negative reactions to some ideas. Examine these reactions carefully. Ask yourself, “Why do I react strongly against this idea?” Inquire carefully into your intellectual likes and dislikes.

Step 4: If you can bring your feelings to a level of explicit consciousness, you will notice that your antipathetic responses to some ideas usually follow from the fact that the ideas in question have ignored or contradicted something that you intuitively know to be the case, and perhaps also to be important. Ask yourself, “What is the intuition to which this idea has not done justice?”

Step 5: Bring your neglected or contradicted intuition to full and explicit consciousness. Develop a theoretical exposition of this intuition (or these intuitions, if there are several) on its own terms.

Step 6: Compare this exposition of your neglected intuition with ideas and arguments to which you felt an immediate sympathy. Does it tally with them? If yes, you can develop your exposition of your intuition in the context of known theories.

Step 7: If your neglected idea does not tally with existing ideas with which you are sympathetic, you will need to go up to a higher level of generality to find a systematic theoretical context in which you can formulate an exposition of your intuitions.

Step 8: If you can’t find any systematic theoretical context within which you can fit the exposition of your neglected intuition, then you will have to construct an entire metaphysics from scratch, and you’re in for a long, hard slog. Enjoy it.

Step 9: Once you have an exposition in a fully developed metaphysical context of some gut instinct to which current philosophical ideas and arguments do not do justice, confront those ideas and arguments with your now powerfully formulated exposition of their ellipses. Wait for the sparks to fly.

Step 10: If no sparks fly, and your powerful formulation of an ellipsis in contemporary philosophical thought falls dead-born from the press (or, rather, falls too low in Google rankings to ever be seen or read by anyone), prepare to die gracefully and await posthumous discovery and fame. For a philosopher, patience is a virtue and death is the least of considerations when it comes to the value of an idea.

So, there you have it — ten easy steps to philosophical wisdom, and a method for doing justice to matters of the intellect that the intellect sometimes neglects, to do justice to that which we know in our bones. Of course, if you know something in your bones that doesn’t mean that it’s true, only that it has a place in our thought. The next step is to determine what the proper place is in out thought for our instincts, intuitions, and feelings. That will require a further method.

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Euclid woodcut 1584

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Studies in Mathematical Intuition

1. Epistemic Space

2. The Ethos of Formal Thought

3. Fractal Intuitions: Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

4. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

5. Fractal Intuitions: Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

6. Fractal Intuitions: A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

7. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

8. Fractal Intuitions: A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

9. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

10. Exaptations of Intuition

11. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

12. Saying, Showing, Constructing

13. One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism

14. The Church-Turing Thesis and the Asymmetry of Intuition

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

In what I have come to call Metaphysical Ecology I took Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecology, extended it, and applied it to time, yielding what I call Ecological Temporality. I then applied ecological temporality to the philosophy of mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. There are many potential applications of ecological temporality that I hope to spell out in future posts.

Darren Staloff

Today I was listening once again to Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past, from The Teaching Company. Unfortunately, The Teaching Company has discontinued this title, though it is certainly among the most rigorous and detailed of the philosophy titles that The Teaching Company offered. Knowing how much I enjoyed this, and knowing that it is no longer available, I bought a second, used copy for myself through Amazon. It was because I just received this “back up” copy that I have been listening through it again.

In this most recent listening I realized that the different levels of time that Fernand Braudel recognized in his historiography — the history of the event, the history of cycles, or conjunctures, and the history of the longue durée — and which he especially lays out in his essay “History and the Social Sciences,” collected in his On History, can be given an exposition in terms of ecological temporality.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Braudel’s tripartite division of historical time scales roughly corresponds to the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Braudel wrote:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

This assertion must be seen not only in the context of Braudel’s own concern for the long time span, the longue durée, but also in the context of a famous passage of his that I have quoted on several occasions:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

For Braudel, the choice of the longue durée “according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions” is a choice to be concerned with what is permanent rather than what is ephemeral. Taken to its logical extreme, the structuralist conception of history becomes what I have called a top-down temporal model. However, we need not extrapolate the doctrines of structuralism to their logical extremes, but can rest in a middle ground. One way to do this would be to integrate the structuralist perspective into a ecological structure emphasizing the interaction of temporal orders of magnitude.

Braudel’s tripartite distinction can be (perhaps imperfectly) assimilated to ecological temporality by identifying the short term history of the event with meso-temporality (the social time that is the interaction of individuals experiencing micro-temporality), identifying the history of conjunctures with exo-temporality (temporal interactions on the level of discrete social systems or dynamical systems), and identifying the longue durée of classic structuralist historiography with macro-temporality. In this ecological schematization of Braudelian temporal categories, Braudel does not recognize a history of internal time consciousness (perhaps that would be relegated to psychology), and he does not go as far as metaphysical temporality (no historian any traditional sense of the term does go this far).

If the history of events is ephemeral and disappears into oblivion as soon as it is glimpsed, from the point of view of metaphysical history, the longue durée no less disappears into oblivion, it just takes longer for this to happen. And the longue durée would count for nothing, indeed would not exist, if it did not descend into the individual consciousness, and if the individual consciousness in turn did not impart its fragment of temporality to the turning world.

In Braudelian terms, the history of the event flows into the conjuncture, and the conjuncture flows into the longue durée, just as the longue durée shapes the conjuncture, as the conjuncture shapes the history of the event.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ecological Temporality

23 March 2011


How swiftly Time before my eyes rushed on
After the guiding Sun, that never rests,
I will not say: ‘twould be beyond my power.
As in a single moment did I see
Ice and the rose, great cold and burning heat
A wondrous thing, indeed, even to hear.

Francesco Petrarch, Triumph of Time (TRIUMPHUS TEMPORIS, from Petrarch’s Trionfi)

Metaphysical preamble on Ecological Ontology

Recently in Integral Ecology I began to formulate an extended conception of ecology that was indebted to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model of social interconnectedness, though intended to go beyond both the biological and social scope. Yesterday in Metaphysical Ecology I explained why I will discontinue my use of the terms “integral history” and “integral ecology” in favor of metaphysical history and metaphysical ecology. Ultimately, this is the more appropriate terminology for what is, at bottom, a philosophical project of seeing the world whole.

Metaphysical ecology is nothing but the extension of the concept of ecology until it coincides with ontology. This yields an ontology founded in scientific empiricism and methodological naturalism.

To define metaphysical ecology as “nothing but…” is what logicians call an “extremal clause,” the purpose of which is to put an end to any further elaboration of a definition (usually stated in recursive form) and to confine ourselves only to that which has been stipulated. Such definitions are often thought to be reductivist. Reductivist definitions are not necessarily a bad thing. When we define water as H2O we are reducing the macroscopic features of ordinary experience in order to account for water as a chemical molecule understood in the context of atomic theory. Many reductive definitions are like this, giving us more theoretically powerful formulations because they are contextualized within an established and more comprehensive theory.

Reductive definitions, however, have a deservedly bad reputation because of the misuse and abuse to which they have been put. When we say that “x is nothing but y” we are doing an obvious disservice to the true nature of x. Consider such statements as, “Pinocchio was nothing but a puppet” or “Hamlet is nothing but a play” and you will understand what I am getting at. However, in the present case of defining metaphysical ecology in terms of ontology we really have not introduced any unwarranted or arbitrary limitations into the concept of ecology since ontology is the most comprehensive philosophical category.

There is a sense in which it is ironic to even consider time in an ontological context, as ontology has been anti-temporal almost from its beginnings to the present day. Traditional Western metaphysics pursued the tradition of setting up a distinction between appearance and reality, and, in its most traditional forms, would consign time, the temporal, and the ephemeral to the sphere of mere appearance. It is to the credit of contemporary analytical metaphysics, seeking as it does to exemplify the spirit of scientific naturalism, has reconciled itself with the reality of time, so that the main stream of Anglo-American analytical philosophy is as concerned to produce an adequate metaphysical theory of time as it is concerned with any other feature of the world.

While I have noted previously (in The Apotheosis of Metaphysics) that contemporary object oriented ontology reinstates the traditional distinction between appearance and reality in an especially elaborate and robust form, the larger philosophical trend until just recently, both on the continent (in the form of phenomenology) and in the analytical tradition (in the form of phenomenalism and empiricism) was the collapse of the distinction between appearance and reality and the simultaneous attempt to formulate a unified account of the world. it could be argued that the distinction between appearance and reality is more fundamental than the doctrine of the unreality of time, since if the distinction is denied there is no category of appearance to which time is to be consigned.

In any case, ecological temporality as I attempt to formulate it below is probably consistent with either the retention or the denial of the distinction between appearance and reality, and thus could even be seen as being consistent with the doctrine of the denial of the reality of time, in so far as ecological temporality can be given an exposition as mere appearance. However, in spirit, my ambition for ecological temporality is that it should be understood as science extrapolated to the limits of philosophical thought, and therefore constituting a naturalism that sees no need for anything beyond the world of naturalism, and therefore no need for a distinction between appearance and reality.

From Ecological Systems Theory to Metaphysical Ecology

As noted above, I began my exposition of metaphysical ecology in my post Integral Ecology. There I began with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological distinction between micro-systems, meso-systems, exo-systems, macro-systems, and chronosystem. The last of these, the chronosystem, is shown in the following illustration as an additional “halo” surrounding the nested bio-ecological levels centered around the individual person.

I think that Bronfenbrenner’s treatment of the chronosystem was inadequate, radically so, and his treatment of ecological levels could be improved, so, building on his bio-ecological model, and also separating time into its own hierarchy from micro-system to macro-system and beyond, I reformulated metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality as shown below.

Here is my revised version of the ecological hierarchy:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

Metaphysical Ecology (or metaphysical system): Ultimately, the metaphysical level of the ecological system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical history. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

And after having separated Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem from the ecological hierarchy and extrapolated the chronosystem on its own, here is my formulation of a ecological hierarchy for time, or a temporal ecology, if you will:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded.

While the illustration of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem as an additional concentric level is accurate in so far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. It is accurate because everything within the ecological systems is subject to time, and therefore to show time (i.e., the chronosystem) as embracing all the ecological levels is accurate. However, each level of ecological structure is subject to each level of time. Here is an illustration of how each level of the ecological systems are ultimately subject to metaphysical time:

The same kind of illustration could be drawn to show how all levels of ecology are subject to micro-temporalities, meso-temporalities, exo-temporalities, and macro-temporalities. It would require a rather large illustration to show all the possibilities, so I have put them in the chart form below.

Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or, if you like, what I have been calling integral history, but which I will now call metaphysical history) stand in a systematic relationship to each other. Better, they stand in an ecological relationship to each other. Firstly, however, the systematic relationship: each level of metaphysical ecology can be given an exposition at each level of metaphysical temporality. This means that there are twenty-five possible perspectives on the interaction between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality. I have diagrammed these possibilities in the chart below.

In the technical terminology of the theory of relations, the blue circles on the left are the domain, the gray circles on the right are the range, and the both together are the field of the relation. A diagram that traces all possibilities of field of the relation is confusing to the eye (being a little too complex to have immediate appeal to geometrical intuition), so it might be better understood by considering a simpler diagram of a subset of the field of relations between one term in the domain to the several terms of the range. Here is a diagram that shows only the relations of a single micro-system of ecology to the levels of temporality:

If we take the single term from the domain to be a person, the person’s relation to micro-temporality is what Husserl called internal time-consciousness (one’s relation to oneself), the relation to meso-temporality is the individual’s relation to inter-subjectivity (the social world of which we are a part, and the venerable philosophical question of other minds), the relation to exo-temporality is the individual’s relation to temporal systems of which he is not an immediate participant (e.g., what’s happening on the other side of the planet, or in the Andromeda Galaxy, which could be given an exposition in terms of the relativity of simultaneity), the relation to macro-temporality is the individual’s relation to the historical era of which he is a (temporal) part (e.g., one’s place today in the history of industrialized civilization), and the relation to metaphysical temporality is the individual’s place in the whole of metaphysical history (one’s place in the world from the beginning of time to the present). Each of these permutations can be extrapolated from each term in the domain to each of the terms in the range.

A convenient way to express these relationships would be to refer to the terms of the domain with a capital “S” with a subscript to indicate the ecological level (Smic, Smes, Sexo, Smac, and Sint), and similarly to refer to the terms of the range with a capital “T” followed by a subscript to indicate the temporal level (Tmic, Tmes, Texo, Tmac, and Tint). In this way each of the twenty-five permutations in the upper diagram can be expressed, for example, like this: Smic/Tmic, which is the topmost line in both diagrams. However, a more intuitive way to express the relationships between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality would be to join the two at the level of the individual, which is the microsystem in common, and then to represent their possible relationships as a graph:

This makes the unity of micro-systems — ecological and temporal — obvious, but gives the impression that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality diverge, though, as I wrote above, they coincide very much as micro-systems coincide. I could say that these schematic delineations of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or metaphysical history, if you prefer) are alternative formulations of the same state of affairs. Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history coincide; the difference between the two is only the perspective one takes on the whole field of ecology. Metaphysical ecology approaches ecological structures structurally and synchronically (one could even say, to preserve even greater symmetry, that metaphysical ecology approaches temporal structures synchronically); metaphysical history approaches the same ecological structures functionally and diachronically.

The point of taking an ecological perspective, however, is not to reduce matters to their smallest and simplest terms, or to erect hierarchies and classification schemas, but to see things whole. It is my purpose, in so far as it is possible, to see time whole, and that means all parts of time related to all other parts of time, and, in the spirit of the observation above that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history are alternative formations of the same state of affairs, to see the several parts of time in relation to all other temporal-ecological structures and vice versa.

There is an ecology of time itself, an interrelationship of the various parts of time to the whole. As the ecological perspective in biology seeks to demonstrate by way of science the perennial mystical insight of the connectedness of all things (called panarchy in ecology), so too an ecology of time understands the connectedness of all times, of all moments to other moments, and of all moments of time to the whole of time. The ecological perspective provides us with a conceptual structure in which these relations of connectedness can be systematically delineated.

Once time is understood ecologically, one can bring this ecological temporality to a systematic understanding of ecology itself. We have seen that ecology has been defined as the science of the struggle for existence. This struggle takes place in time, and it takes place on many ecological levels simultaneously.

It would be counter-productive to attempt to pluck one paradigm of biological competition out the “levels of selection” controversy and to defend this at the expense of other paradigmata of selection. The world is a complex place in which almost also logical distinctions are muddied in practice. Thus selection is not one thing, but many things taking place over different ecological levels and also at different temporal levels. There is selection at the level of the genome, and therefore selfish genes, but there is also selection at the level of the individual, and at the level of the community and its niche, and at the level of the population and its biome, and ultimately on levels that transcend life and reach up to the life cycles of the stars — galactic ecology (or, as I would prefer, cosmological ecology, which converges on metaphysical ecology).

The generalization of ecology to metaphysical ecology demands that we also generalize those biological concepts that constitute ecology. One of these concepts to be generalized is that of a trophic layer. Biology online defines trophic as follows:




(1) Of, relating to, or pertaining to nutrition.

(2) Of, or involving, the feeding habits or food relationship of different organisms in a food chain.

Trophic layers are thus layers, i.e., stratifications, of feeding relationships. We know that the primary relationship in nature, red in tooth and claw, is that of feeding. Biological ontology is a system of relationships based on feeding. In nature, one can eat or be eaten. Most likely, one with both eat and be eaten in turn. When big fishes eat little fishes, and the little fishes eat even smaller fishes, we call this a food chain. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Ecology defines food chain:

Oxford Dictionary of Ecology definition of food chain

However, feeding relationships rarely constitute a simple linear chain, so ecologists have also defined a food web. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Biology defines a food web:

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In the conceptually extended context of metaphysical ecology, rather than trophic layers, food chains, and food webs, I will instead posit metaphysical trophisms, ontic chains, and ontic webs. In Integral Ecology I observed that in the extended sense of (what I know call) metaphysical ecology, man does not live by bread alone. What this means in a metaphysical context is the human relationships, while not independent of feeding relationships, transcend feeding relationships and also include other kinds of relationships.

Metaphysical trophisms may sound difficult and abstruse, but it is really quite simple. What we have here is nothing but Plato’s famous definition of being: to be is the power to affect or be affected in turn. One way to affect or be affected is to eat or be eaten. These special cases of the Platonic definition of being define food chains and food webs, and these in turn define trophic layers. In the extended conception of metaphysical ecology we return to the abstract generality of the Platonic formulation, so that the power to affect and to be affected are the relationships of ontic chains and ontic webs, which taken together defined metaphysical trophisms.

I am not going to even attempt at present an exposition of metaphysical trophisms. Suffice it to say for the moment that metaphysical trophisms offer the possibility of an extremely fine-grained account of the world, but this possibility can only be redeemed through a fairly exhaustive treatment of a novel form of fundamentum divisionis significantly more complex than categories. Trophisms are more complex than categories because there are many different ways in which one object can affect or be affected by another, and each of these ways can be explicated exclusively in terms of the agent, or exclusively in terms of the sufferant, or in terms of the reciprocity of agent and sufferant.

What I would like to touch on at present, to give an initial sense of ecological temporality and its potential for conceptual clarification, are what we may call time chains and time webs, in parallel with the food chains and food webs of ecology in the strict and narrow sense of the term. Temporal chains and temporal webs are special cases of what I above called ontic chains and ontic webs, which are features of a more general ontological conception.

Micro-temporalities in relation to themselves and in relation to other micro-temporalities; taken together, interacting, they constitute meso-temporality.

When we consider some of the traditional philosophical conceptions of time (as well as intuitive conceptions of time), we can see that they fall into readily recognizable patterns that can be analyzed in terms of ecological temporality. For example, Husserl’s emphasis upon subjective time consciousness (and I should point out that I am in no way critical of this emphasis) is clearly what could be called a “bottom up” time chain, such that the whole structure of temporality, from the largest structures of metaphysical history down to the smallest structures of micro-temporality, are ultimately driven by (and presumably reducible to, thus constituting a reductive definition) the mind’s temporality.

Augustine (whom Husserl cited in his Cartesian Meditations) also reduced time to the perspective of the individual, though with the superadded metaphysical doctrine that time itself is unreal and has no ultimate place in the structure of the world. What this means in terms of ecological temporality is that the whole structure of metaphysical time is mere appearance erected upon the experiences of the individual. (Odd, is it not, then, that Augustine should be equally famous for his philosophy of history as given exposition in his City of God?) Augustine’s classic exposition of time is in Book XI of his Confessions, where Augustine writes in Chapters XXVII and XXVIII:

It is in you, O mind of mine, that I measure the periods of time. Do not shout me down that it exists [objectively]; do not overwhelm yourself with the turbulent flood of your impressions. In you, as I have said, I measure the periods of time. I measure as time present the impression that things make on you as they pass by and what remains after they have passed by–I do not measure the things themselves which have passed by and left their impression on you. This is what I measure when I measure periods of time. Either, then, these are the periods of time or else I do not measure time at all.

What are we doing when we measure silence, and say that this silence has lasted as long as that voice lasts? Do we not project our thought to the measure of a sound, as if it were then sounding, so that we can say something concerning the intervals of silence in a given span of time? For, even when both the voice and the tongue are still, we review–in thought–poems and verses, and discourse of various kinds or various measures of motions, and we specify their time spans–how long this is in relation to that–just as if we were speaking them aloud. If anyone wishes to utter a prolonged sound, and if, in forethought, he has decided how long it should be, that man has already in silence gone through a span of time, and committed his sound to memory. Thus he begins to speak and his voice sounds until it reaches the predetermined end. It has truly sounded and will go on sounding. But what is already finished has already sounded and what remains will still sound. Thus it passes on, until the present intention carries the future over into the past. The past increases by the diminution of the future until by the consumption of all the future all is past.

But how is the future diminished or consumed when it does not yet exist? Or how does the past, which exists no longer, increase, unless it is that in the mind in which all this happens there are three functions? For the mind expects, it attends, and it remembers; so that what it expects passes into what it remembers by way of what it attends to. Who denies that future things do not exist as yet? But still there is already in the mind the expectation of things still future. And who denies that past things now exist no longer? Still there is in the mind the memory of things past. Who denies that time present has no length, since it passes away in a moment? Yet, our attention has a continuity and it is through this that what is present may proceed to become absent. Therefore, future time, which is nonexistent, is not long; but “a long future” is “a long expectation of the future.” Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; a “long past” is “a long memory of the past.”

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat. Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past. The more this is done and repeated, the more the memory is enlarged–and expectation is shortened–until the whole expectation is exhausted. Then the whole action is ended and passed into memory. And what takes place in the entire psalm takes place also in each individual part of it and in each individual syllable. This also holds in the even longer action of which that psalm is only a portion. The same holds in the whole life of man, of which all the actions of men are parts. The same holds in the whole age of the sons of men, of which all the lives of men are parts.

Thus does Augustine “explain away” time, but, at the same time, attributes time to the human mind, and so commits himself to a “bottom up” theory of time. While I find Augustine’s theory of time to be inadequate, it is at least more of a theory than Plato had, and in the context of platonism it accomplishes all that a theory of time could hope to accomplish even while declaring time to be ultimately unreal.

Saint Augustine asked 'What then is time?' and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

The obvious antithetical view to the “bottom up” time chain is the “top down” time chain in which it is posited that all time in the world, at all ecological levels, follows from the over-arching structure of time which imposes its nature and character upon all subordinate temporalities, so that time and change are imposed from above rather than rising from below.

Plato, whom Augustine followed so closely in so many matters, including his denial of the ultimate reality of time, provides a perfect illustration of a philosophical “top down” time chain. Although for Plato there is no metaphysical temporality but only metaphysical eternity, such that the former is illusory appearance while the latter is reality, in one famous passage Plato wrote that, “time is the moving image of eternity.” Thus, for Plato, the over-arching reality of eternity trickles down into the interstices of the world, the appearance of time penetrating down from above.

Plato implicitly invoked a top-down model of time by making eternity generative of time; eternity is the Platonic form, while time in the mere image of eternity in the cave of shadows. For Plato, time and eternity are related as appearance to reality.

There is, furthermore, an intuitive correlate to this Platonic conception of time as the moving image of eternity, and this is the familiar sense in which people invoke Fate or Destiny as implacable temporal forces from on high that direct the lives of men below. This is famously expressed by Hamlet when the Prince of Denmark says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” (Act V, scene ii) And all of the familiar mythological images, from the Fates and Furies of Greek tragedy to the Norns of Norse mythology, when the gods decides the fates of men ultimately powerless to shape their own destinies, represent a strongly top down model of temporal ecology.

The three norns: one to spin the thread of life, another to mark its length, and a third to cut the thread.

Top-down time chains are also common in contemporary scientific thinking and especially in cosmology. Some theorists of time as an expression of increasing entropy (the thermodynamic arrow of time) and the expansion of the universe (the cosmological arrow of time) come close to saying (without actually making it explicit) that if entropy could be reversed or if the universe halted in its expansion and then began to contract that time itself would reverse and subjective internal time consciousness would also reverse. However, it is much more common among scientists simply to pretend that subjective time consciousness doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, that it isn’t important — perhaps it is a mere “user illusion.” Because of the distaste for philosophy, and especially for metaphysics, among scientists and most others wedded to methodological naturalism, thinkers of this stripe rarely bother to assert that subjective and internal time consciousness is unreal in the same way that their opposite numbers assert the unreality of cosmic time, but in effect the positions are perfectly symmetrical. The scientific denial of subjective time (and hence temporal chains driven from the bottom up by individual time consciousness) is an implicit assertion of the unreality of internal time consciousness.

An explicitly top-down model of time from John G. Cramer's paper, “Velocity Reversal and the Arrows of Time”

As I wrote above, the point of taking an ecological perspective is to understand the interconnections between things, and for this reason either a “bottom up” or “top down” model of temporality is inadequate. Temporal chains, whether bottom up or top down, represent a simplification and idealization of the way that temporality acts in the world, just as food chains are simplifications and idealizations that do not possess this linearity in fact. An adequate conception of ecological temporality would recognize simultaneously occurring top down and bottom up temporal processes, as well as temporal interactions from any one temporal level to any other temporal level. This more adequate model of time yields a time web rather than discrete time chains.

This post constitutes only a first sketch of ecological temporality, and I hope that it has given you something to think about in relation to time. There is more more to say by way of elaboration and extrapolation, especially on the topic of metaphysical trophisms, but I will finish for now with only one further observation.

One of the most influential philosophical developments of the last part of the twentieth century was the introduction of Kripkean semantics, which displaced theories of naming and reference widely prevalent in analytical philosophy, especially those traditions deriving from the work of Frege and Russell. Kripke replaced the quasi-logical theories of reference with one based on the highly intuitive idea that names are derived from initial acts of baptism, and these acts of baptism are passed down along a causal chain from the past down into the present. Thus Kripkean semantical theory is often called the causal theory of reference. It seems to me that Kripkean causal chains are simple, linear time chains, and as such constitute simplifications and indeed idealizations of reference. In the messy real world of time webs, we cannot count on a single, linear, unified casual chain to transmit acts of baptism from the past unbroken into the present.

Saul Aaron Kripke (born November 13, 1940)

Kripke's causal theory of reference has been highly influential, but it runs into trouble when causality must be traced through a temporal web, just as Newtonian mechanics runs into trouble with the n-body problem.

This is as much to say that ecological temporality suggests a more complex theory of reference than that embodied in causal theories of reference, and this would be an interesting application of a philosophical theory of time to a philosophical theory of reference.

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What follows is a reformulated version of my Integral Ecology post, rewritten to conform to the changed terminology that I adopted in my post Metaphysical Ecology.

I have substantially expanded on some of the ideas below in a further post, Ecological Temporality. .

Food webs are basic structures of ecology, with the latter understood in specifically biological sense.

On the Extension of Concepts and Ecology sensu stricto

In this forum I have had occasion to attempt the extension of some familiar concepts, as in order to achieve an understanding of the most abstract, general, and comprehensive features of the world and our experience of the world we must transcend the strictly parochial and particular origins of our ideas in limited and local circumstances and re-define our concepts without reference to anything specific or particular. Such extended concepts involve a transition from the practical and the scientific to the abstract and the philosophical. /span>

I count this conceptual development as part of the Copernican Revolution, which usually takes the form of seeking non-anthropocentric formulations of ideas with anthropocentric origins. In this spirit I have suggested that a conception of metaphysical history can be drawn out of traditional historiography. (I have further formulations in the same spirit that I plan to make available in the fullness of time.)

Since man does not live by bread alone, the bio-ecological structures of human experience involve more factors than the food web illustrated above.

In the same spirit of what I have called metaphysical history I would now like to introduce the idea of metaphysical ecology as an extension, expansion, extrapolation, and generalization of ecology as the term is usually understood and employed. That is to say, metaphysical ecology is a philosophical ecology, in which we have passed from the concrete, scientific conceptions of ecology in the narrow sense to the abstract, philosophical conceptions of ecology in a philosophical sense. /span>

Firstly, I want to briefly consider what ecology has meant heretofore. What is ecology in its initially narrow meaning? What is ecology sensu stricto? There has been some lack of precision in the definition of ecology, so these definitions have lacked the formal exactitude that one might expect (or hope) from the biological sciences. Nevertheless, there have been enlightening even if not formal definitions of ecology.

Another biologically specific conception of ecology.

Ecology, unlike traditional history, is not a specifically anthropocentric concept. On the contrary, a narrow definition of ecology is admirably non-anthropocentric. For example, here is the first sentence of What is Ecology?:

“Ecology is concerned with the relationships between plants and animals and the environment in which they live.”

What is Ecology? D. F. Owen, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 1

This definition is biologically specific and not anthropocentric, so the primary task of extending and expanding our conception of ecology is not one of disposing with anthropocentric prejudices but of formulating a definition of ecology that is not specifically biological.

A generalization of ecological thinking to cosmology: galactic ecology.

A somewhat more comprehensive definition of ecology can be found at the Biology Online website:

(1) Ecological science: the science concerned with the interactions of living organisms with each other and with their environment, also called bionomics.

(2) A branch of biology that deals with the distribution, abundance and interactions of living organisms at the level of communities, populations, and ecosystems, as well as at the global scale.

(2) The system within the environment as it relates to organisms living in it.

(3) A branch of sociology that deals with the relations of human beings with their physical and social environment, also called as human ecology.

This definition of ecology includes the extended sense of ecology employed by Urie Bronfrenbrenner, which we will consider in more detail below, because Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (sometimes called the bio-ecological model) represents an extant generalization of ecology.

Most intriguingly among the traditional definitions of ecology, there is Ernst Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence. (There is a wonderful discussion of this in The Science of the Struggle for Existence: On the Foundations of Ecology by Gregory J. Cooper, one volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology; all of the volumes of this series are of the greatest interest.) Here is Haeckel’s definition of the discipline he himself founded:

“By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature — the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including, above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contract — in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.”

Haeckel was the one who introduced the concept of ecology, so his definition is of particular interest. While it is expressed in a nineteenth century idiom that is redolent of the idea of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson saw it), Haeckel’s definition of ecology will prove suggestive in a formulation of battlespace in terms of metaphysical ecology. Although Haeckel’s intriguing definition of ecology was not Bronfenbrenner’s point of departure for a generalization of ecology, I mention it here because I will return to it below.

Introducing the Concept of Metaphysical Ecology

In its most common signification, ecology is narrowly biological in conception. The reference to the inorganic context of life is there only because life always occurs in an inorganic context. Life is the focus. Bronfenbrenner’s exposition of bio-ecology, or ecological systems theory, represents a significant generalization of the concept of ecology, and this generalization requires that we arrive at an abstract conception of ecology in order to understand its relevance to non-specifically biological subject matter. What is the implied abstract conception of ecology? I call the implied conception metaphysical ecology.

The extension of the idea of ecology already pursued to date has been formulated in the context of the fields of social work and psychotherapy by Urie Bronfenbrenner, especially in his book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA., 1979). This is a systematic exposition of what he calls ecological systems theory, which systematically places individuals within progressively more comprehensive and inter-related social structures.

Bronfenbrenner formulated the following bioecological categories:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

The Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course, as well as sociohistorical circumstances.

Since I already have a conception of metaphysical history that accounts for “events and transitions over the life course,” I would eliminate the category of chronosystem from the subdivisions of bio-ecology, leave open the litany of bio-ecological categories for the possibility of yet more comprehensive formulations (e.g., larger social constructs than cultures, such as civilizations), and further articulate Bronfenbrenner’s singular chronosystem as metaphysical history by formulating its subdivisions on a similar plan to that of ecological systems theory, something like this:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded.

This in turn suggests a further extrapolation of bio-ecological categories in place of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem:

Metaphysical system (or Metaphysical Ecology): Ultimately, the metaphysical system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

With this revision in mind, I would lay out Bronfenbrenner’s schema of bio-ecological categories as follows:

The Micro-system

The Meso-system

The Exosystem

The Macrosystem

The Metaphysical System

As I noted above, Bronfenbrenner does not take as his point of departure Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence, and then proceed to extend and expand this definition. I would like to suggest re-thinking Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory in terms of Haeckel’s definition, because in this case bio-ecology becomes an extension and expansion of the struggle for existence. When we think of ecology from a point of view of its extrapolation to a completely comprehensive conception of metaphysical ecology, Haeckel’s definition remains valid — even at its most comprehensive level of metaphysical ecology, ecology is still about the struggle for existence — and so we see in retrospect that Haeckel himself had a highly abstract and comprehensive conception of ecology. This suggests the possibility of the application of integral of ecology to human struggles in the form of war.

From Battlefield to Battlespace

The earliest known battles of human history, which followed upon the emergence of settled agricultural societies, literally took place in open fields; there was, from the beginnings of conflict organized under the auspices of civilization, a field of battle, so that the term battlefield was literal. Over time, and with the increasing sophistication and complexity of civilization, battle also became more sophisticated and complex.

The war chariot was a game-changing weapons system of early human history, but optimal use of chariots required a flat and level battlefield.

Col. T. N. Dupuy wrote of the physical terrain of battle in early warfare:

“The phalanx and its individual units were capable of limited maneuvers in combat formation. In battle the invariable deployment was a long, solid line with narrow intervals through which the psiloi — light troops — could pass. Battle was waged — usually by mutual accord — on the flattest ground available, since movement over rough ground created gaps that could be fatal to the cohesion of the formation.”

The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Colonel T. N. Dupuy, Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980, p. 11

This is attested in ancient sources, as, for example, in Book 7 of The Histories Herodotus quotes the Persian Mardonius as saying to his king:

“…the Greeks are pugnacious enough, and start fights on the spur of the moment without sense or judgement to justify them. When they declare war on each other, they go off together to the smoothest and levelest bit of ground they can find, and have their battle on it — with the result the even the victors never get off without heavy losses, and as for the losers — well, they’re wiped out.”

The chariot also experienced its optimal operations on flat, level ground, and while there was, as Dupuy notes, a social consensus to fight battles on wide, level fields — not unlike the parade ground upon which such soldiers would have been drilled — there were also instances in antiquity of armies denying flat, level ground to forces that required such conditions for optimal operationality. The perpetually open flank of a battle fought in wide and open country also established norms for the order of battle that were impracticable in forests, jungles, mountains, and other forms of difficult terrain that would figure more prominently in the later history of war.

The efficacy of the phalanx formation in battle demanded a high degree of drill so that the whole column could move as one. This worked best on flat and level ground, making the battlefield (understood literally) its optimal theater of operations.

When, after the Industrial Revolution, war was also industrialized, and the world experienced its first great industrialized war with the First World War (the “proof of concept” of industrialized war), battles could be fought for months at a time over multiple and distinct kinds of terrain, and could involve resources that had little to do with the literal physical space in which combat occurred (for example, with the introduction of radio, the electro-magnetic spectrum became increasingly important). In response to this growing complexity of the battlefield, contemporary theory of war employs formulations in terms of battlespace rather than battlefield. The formulation of the idea of battlespace is a conceptual innovation that reflects the systematic exploitation of the nexus of science and technology that characterizes institutions after the Industrial Revolution. A fully articulated doctrine of battlespace is a conceptual improvement over the continued use of “battlefield,” but can go beyond battlespace to the yet more comprehensive conception of battle ecology.

From Battlespace to Battle Ecology

We can employ the concepts of metaphysical ecology to bring more analytical clarity to the contemporary concept of battlespace. I suggest that the very idea of battlespace is unnecessarily limiting, not least because it is a spatial concept, and we can formulate a much more comprehensive concept. The metaphysical ecology surrogate for battlespace (or, rather, the more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure within which the concept of battlespace can be located) is what I will call battlespace ecology.

The DOD defines battlespace as follows:

“The environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and the included enemy and friendly forces; facilities; weather; terrain; the electromagnetic spectrum; and the information environment within the operational areas and areas of interest.”

The DOD further defines battlespace awareness as follows:

“Knowledge and understanding of the operational area’s environment, factors, and conditions, to include the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants, weather and terrain, that enables timely, relevant, comprehensive, and accurate assessments, in order to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and/or complete the mission.”

The Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Operations MCDP 1-0 (Forward by J. L. Jones, General, United States Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2001) defines battlespace as follows:

“Battlespace is the environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and accomplish the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain within the assigned AO and the commander’s area of interest. Battlespace is conceptual—a higher commander does not assign it. Commanders determine their own battlespace based on their mission, the enemy, and their concept of operations and force protection. They use their experience and understanding of the situation and mission to visualize and adapt their battlespace as the situation or mission changes. The battlespace is not fixed in size or position. It varies over time, and depends on the environment, the commander’s mission, and friendly and enemy actions. Battlespace is normally comprised of an AO, area of influence, and area of interest.”

In the above, “AO” stands for “area of operations.”

The concept of battlespace and knowledge of the battlespace (which latter is the formal surrogate of the intuitive experience, i.e., the lived experience of the battlespace) as defined above is clearly a more comprehensive conception than the traditional concept of battlefield, yet its formulation in spatial terms implies conceptual limitations, even if we allow for abstract spaces such as intelligence and the electro-magnetic spectrum.

The Marine Corps definition is admirably comprehensive, but it can be given further conceptual rigor and can be assimilated to a comprehensive conceptual infrastructure by placing battlespace within battle ecology. In battle ecology, the individual items mentioned in the definition — “air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain” — can be treated as concrete or abstract spaces that find their place within a comprehensive ecology.

Bronfenbrenner pioneered a comprehensive conception of ecology, and while most of his formulations are embedded within therapeutic concerns, the imperative of arriving at an absolutely general conception applicable to all experience is implicit throughout Bronfenbrenner’s text. Here is Bronfenbrenner in a passage that is as applicable to battlespace as to psychodynamic structures, in criticism of the tradition he inherited and which he sought to transcend:

“…even when the environment is described, it is in terms of a static structure that makes no allowance for the evolving processes of interaction through which the behavior of participants in the system is instigated, sustained, and developed.”

Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Chapter 2, “Basic Concepts,” p. 17

While the Marine Corps definition given above does allow that battlespace is not fixed and varies over time, the greater generality and comprehensivity of battle ecology systematically integrates the changing factors of the battlespace into the personal temporality of the soliders within the battlespace, the temporality of history in which these events are embedded, and all levels of temporality between subjective time-consciousness and objective history.

This graphic focuses on the role of the individual soldier and his lived experience of battle.

The concept of battle ecology (or, if you prefer, battlespace ecology) can be formulated in parallel with the formulations of Bronfenbrunner’s bio-ecology, specifically:

Micro-battlespace: The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Meso-battlespace: Relations between micro-battlespaces or connections between battlespace contexts.

Exo-battlespace: Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Macro-battlespace: The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Metaphysical battlespace: Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The specifically temporal aspects of battlespace ecology can also be formulated in parallel to the formulations of metaphysical temporality above:

Micro-battlespace temporality: The temporal setting in which the soldier fights. (This is what Husserl called subjective time-consciousness, and forms the basis of all lived experience.)

Meso-battlespace temporality: Relations between micro-battlespace temporalities or connections between temporal contexts of the battlespace. (If we accept Husserl’s treatment of internal time consciousness as characterizing micro-battlespace temporality, then meso-battlespace temporality embodies what Husserl called inter-subjectivity.)

Exo-battlespace temporality: Links between temporal battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active combat role and the individual soldier’s immediate temporal battlespace context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded, which is not a specifically military concept (nor specifically strategic or diplomatic, etc.), but which is the same metaphysical temporality I have been developing in several posts to this forum — i.e., the most comprehensive and abstract conception of time, beginning with the individual’s subjective time-consciousness, coincides with Metaphysical history.

One important lesson of this last conception — that of metaphysical temporality as the ultimate setting of less comprehensive temporalities in which battlespace ecology is contextualized — is that any specific and particular conceptual inquiry, when pursued to the farthest reaches of abstraction, generality, and formality converges with other specific and particular inquiries that also have this purified conception as the natural teleology, if you will, of intellectual inquiry. The further lesson of this observation, in turn, is that all specific, particular, concrete, empirical, and peculiar conceptions ultimately have abstract and general ideas as the conceptual setting that gives them meaning. In other words, there is a conceptual ecology also that obeys many of the same principles of conceptual extrapolation as formulated above.

The distinct microsystems of battle ecology are interrelated at the level of the mesosystem; in traditional terminology, distinct tactical initiatives are unified within battle operations.

One immediate benefit of formulating military campaigns in terms of metaphysical ecology is a clarification of the relative roles of tactics, operations, and strategy. Tactics always take place on the level of microsystems. Any particular operation is the coordination of relevant microsystems, so that the mesosystematic level of battle ecology could also be called the infra-operational level (or the intra-operational level). The relation between different operations takes place at the exosystematic level of battle ecology, so this could also be called the inter-operational level. Strategy takes place on the level of the macrosystem. Grand strategy involves the coordination of macrosystems specific to distinct areas of human endeavor, and its proper setting is integral history taken whole.

This diagram focuses on the micro-systems of battle ecology, which micro-systems are the abstract spaces of battlespace.

With this delineation of tactics, operations, and strategy within battle ecology in mind, the concept of battle ecology can be translated into more traditional military terminology as follows:

Tactical Environment (the micro-battlespace): The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Intra-Operational Environment (the meso-battlespace): Relations between micro-battlespace or connections between battlespace contexts.

Inter-Operational Environment (the exo-battlespace): Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Strategic Environment (the macro-battlespace): The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Grand Strategy (the metaphysical battlespace): Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The idea of metaphysical ecology as here first formulated is, in virtue of its comprehensive definition, not specific to an exposition of battlespace ecology. Battle ecology is a special case of metaphysical ecology, just as the bio-ecology of individuals, families, and communities in their social setting (the occasion for Bronfenbrenner’s formulations of ecology in an extended sense) is also a special case of metaphysical ecology. Moreover, as both being special cases of metaphysical ecology, both battle ecology and bio-ecology find their place within the more comprehensive conceptual structure of metaphysical ecology. In other words, in Bronfenbrenner’s words, both are macrosystems that stand in relation to each other within metaphysical ecology.

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