road closure

In my previous post on The Finality Fallacy I discussed the fallacy of treating open matters as though closed, and quoted Hermann Weyl’s 1932 lectures The Open World as a countervailing point of view. If the world is an open world, an unfinished world, then there will always be unfinished business — no finality, no closure, no resolution, no end of anything — and no beginning either.

Bertrand Russell wonderfully described the ontology implicit in such a conception of the world:

“Academic philosophers, ever since the time of Parmenides, have believed that the world is a unity. This view has been taken over from them by clergymen and journalists, and its acceptance has been considered the touchstone of wisdom. The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this is rubbish. I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love. Indeed, there is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.”

Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part One, Chapter IV. Scientific Metaphysics

There is a subtle difference, of course, between finality and unity; the presumption of unity that Russell mocked could be finitistic or infinitistic in character, but, as I pointed out in my last post, I suspect that Russell and Weyl, whatever their differences, could have agreed that the world is open. Unity may not imply openness, but openness implies the possibility of revision, the possibility of revision implies the iteration of revision, the iteration of revision implies evolution, and evolution implies anti-realism, at least in the essentialist sense of “realism.” Anything that changes gradually over an indefinite period of time may be so transformed by its incremental and cumulative change that it can be transformed into something entirely other that what it once was. This, I have argued elsewhere, is the essence of existential viability.

By the same token, there is a subtle difference between finitude and contingency. I can imagine that someone might argue that finitude implies contingency and contingency implies finitude, but I would reject any such argument. The distinction is subtle but important, and I think that it marks that difference between a naturalistic philosophy, that is essentially a philosophy of contingency, and an anthropocentric point of view that reduces the infinitistic contingency of the world to a manageable finitude because human beings are comfortable with finitude. That is to say, I am suggesting that finitistic modes of thought constitute a cognitive bias. But let’s try to penetrate a little further into what self-described finitists have in mind, and let’s try to find an unambiguously finitistic perspective.

I remember running across the phrase “radical finitude” in some of my past reading, so I looked for the original source in which I had first encountered the term and was unable to find it, but I have found many other references to radical finitude. The name that comes up most often in relation to radical finitude is that of Martin Heidegger (on Heidegger cf. my Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher and Ott on Heidegger). Heidegger is mentioned by Weyl as a representative of the “thesis of the categorical finiteness of man” in the quote from Weyl in my last post, The Finality Fallacy. Here, again, is an abbreviated portion of the section I previously quoted from Weyl, where Weyl singles out Heidegger:

“We reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man, both in the atheistic form of obdurate finiteness which is so alluringly represented today in Germany by the Freiburg philosopher Heidegger…”

Here, on the other hand, is a representative exposition of radical finitude that draws upon the Heideggerian tradition:

“Nonbeing as the principle of finitude is non-being understood in its relative and dialectical character through which it becomes a constitutive factor of human being or Dasein himself. Anxiety in its disclosure of nothingness thus brings man to an awareness of his radical finitude, and what ever else is to be said of existentialist philosophy, it must be said that existentialism is an emphatic philosophy of human finitude. The principle of finitude is central to all the existentialist thinkers, and it emerges with particular emphasis in the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger interprets this philosophy of human finitude to be, at least in part, a legacy of Kant’s critical philosophy. With his emphasis on the finite character of human reason and his insight into the negativities of moral striving, Kant paved the way for the development of fundamental ontology formulated in terms of finite structures.”

Calvin O. Schrag, Existence and Freedom: Towards an Ontology of Human Finitude, pp. 73-74

According to Schrag, then, it seems that existentialism can be defined in terms of Weyl’s thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. If this is so, and existentialism is, “an emphatic philosophy of human finitude,” as Schrag said it was, it might still be possible to define another philosophical position, entirely parallel to existentialism, but which would reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. What would we call this logical complement of existentialism? It doesn’t really matter what we call it, but I’m sure there must be a clever moniker that eludes me at the moment.

Although it doesn’t really matter what we would call the infinitistic complement of existentialism, it does matter that such a philosophy would reject finitism (and its tendency to commit the finality fallacy). With a slight change to Schrag’s formulation, we could say that the complement of existentialism imagined above would be an emphatic philosophy of human contingency. This is a position that I could endorse, even while I would continue to reject a philosophy of human finitude. And this formulation in terms of contingency is not necessarily at odds with non-Heideggerian existentialism.

Sartre’s formulation of existentialism — existence precedes essence — is in no sense intrinsically finitistic. I can imagine that someone might argue that existence is intrinsically finite — that the existential is existential in virtue of being marked out by the boundaries that define its finitude — but I would reject that argument. That same argument could made for essence (i.e., that essence is intrinsically finite), and thus for the whole idealistic tradition that preceded Sartre, and which Sartre and others saw themselves as overturning. (Heidegger, it should be noted, categorically rejected Sartre’s categorical formulation of existentialism.) The existence that precedes essence may well be an infinitistic existence, just as the essence that precedes existence in the idealistic tradition may well be an infinitistic essence.

To return to one of the roots of existential thought, we find in Nietzsche that it is contingency rather than finitude that is at stake. In a note from 1873 Nietzsche wrote:

“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, p. 40

Recognition of the contingency of life, and especially (given the anthropocentrism of our human minds) the contingency of human life, is a touchstone of existential thought. Some, as I have noted above, frame contingency in finitistic terms, but as I see it contingency is the infinite context of all existents, stretching out into space and time without end. From this point of view, any finitude is an arbitrary division within the Heraclitean flux of the world, the concordia discors that precedes us, follows us, and surrounds us.

What is the relationship between Nietzschean contingency and Weyl’s openness? I would argue that the open world implies an open life. It was one of the central literary conceits of Plato’s Republic that it is easier to see justice in the large — i.e., in the just state — than to see justice in the small — i.e., in the just man — and this is how Socrates shifts the conversation to an investigation of the ideal state, which, once defined, will give us the image that we need in order to understand the ideally proportioned man. If Plato (and Socrates) are right this this, one might hold that Weyl’s open world can be a guide to the open life.

What would an open life look like? One vision of the open life is described in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, from the mouth of Jacob Marley:

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, “Marley’s Ghost”

This is the open life of the individual — to walk abroad, literally and metaphorically — and to share what can be shared. The open life of the species is again another question — a question mid-way between the open world and the individual open life — and one that might simply be answered by asserting that an open humanity is the sum total of open human lives, if one regards humanity as nothing in itself and reducible to its individual instances.

This is the point at which I may perhaps lose my reader, because what I would like to suggest is that the open life for humanity is another way to understand transhumanism. Transhumanism is the openness of humanity to revision, and openness to revision implies iterated revision, iterated revision implies evolution, and the evolution of humanity implies an essentially different humanity in the future than humanity today.

What I have come to realize since writing my last post is that human finitude is one manifestation of human contingency, and, like any contingency, it is subject to revision by future contingencies. Again, our finitude, so far as it extends, is a contingency, and therefore, like any contingency, is subject to change.

The critics of transhumanism who have tried to find ways to praise suffering and death, and who go out of their way to argue that human life only has meaning and value in virtue of its limitation, overlook the role of contingency in human life. They pretend that human life is final, and that its contingent features are essential to humanity, if not necessary to the definition of what it means to be human — which is to say, they commit the finality fallacy. For the prophets of wholesome loss, humanity is finished.

Human being is no more final than any other form of being. The openness of human being means that human viability is predicated upon contingency, and that we must evolve or perish.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Classical Greek Intellectual Foundations

Aristotle icon
Euclid icon
ptolemy icon

of Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization

One of Voltaire’s most famous witticisms was that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Such contradictions abound history; as Barbara Tuchman noted, we should expect them rather than be offended by them: “Contradictions… are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity.” (I just happened to notice today that Michael Shermer quotes this passage in a Youtube video.) In this spirit of historical contradiction it could be observed that the intellectual framework of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was neither agrarian nor ecclesiastical, but rather reflected the high point of Greek civilization in classical antiquity.

The intellectual space of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — the paradigm if you prefer Kuhnian language, or the epistēmē if you prefer the terminology of Foucault — was the result of what we might call the “world-builders” of classical antiquity, of them I would like to call attention to three: Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy.

Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy were the architects of the “closed world” that Alexander Koyré famously contrasted to the infinite universe that was to emerge (slowly, gradually, and at times painfully, as Koyré would demonstrate in detail) from the scientific revolution as played out in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and many others (the architects of the infinite universe):

The infinite cannot be traversed, argued Aristotle; now the stars turn around, therefore… But the stars do not turn around; they stand still, therefore… It is thus not surprising that in a rather short time after Copernicus some bold minds made the step that Copernicus refused to make, and asserted that the celestial sphere, that is the sphere of the fixed stars of Copernican astronomy, does not exist, and that the starry heavens, in which the stars are placed at different distances from the earth, “extendeth itself infinitely up.”

Alexander Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1957, p. 35

Aristotle was the comprehensive philosopher who not only had respect for empirical observation (something Plato consistently devalued) but also formulated a system of deductive logic that made it possible for him to connect empirical observations together into a theoretical structure with great explanatory power. Aristotle, then, did not deal with isolated facts, but with theories. Each new fact, each new observation, can in this way be fit within the overall structure of a theory which in Aristotle extends from the summum genus on top to the inferior species on the bottom. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. The much later conception of a “great chain of being” — a central idea to later agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — has its origins in the Aristotelian construct.

Euclid and Ptolemy, while comprehensive each within their own disciplines, were nowhere near as comprehensive as Aristotle; it was Aristotle’s philosophy that was the system of the world to which Euclid and Ptolemy contributed. Even though Aristotle distinguished many sciences later recognized as independent intellectual disciplines, with only two exceptions none of these sciences came to be systematically developed in antiquity (except perhaps for Aristotle’s own research in biology). Mathematics and astronomy were the two sciences that were systematically developed in antiquity as sciences recognizable as such, and still recognizable today as sciences.

While later thought, especially medieval thought, made much of the theory of the syllogism found in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Aristotle’s theory of science in the Posterior Analytics received much less attention. It was, nevertheless, the theoretical basis of Euclid’s systematic exposition of geometry on the basis of first principles. Euclid brought Aristotle’s world-building and logical rigor into mathematics, and wrote a book on geometry that was used as a textbook well into the twentieth century. We can today read ancient Greek mathematicians as contemporaries, and we can learn something from them; we can similarly read Ptolemy’s treatise on astronomy, the Almagest, as a serious work of astronomy, though we would have less to learn from it than from ancient mathematics.

Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy date (roughly) from what Jaspers called the Axial Age; while peoples elsewhere in the world of maturing agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization were creating religions, the Greeks were creating philosophy of science, and this proved to be a lasting contribution. This was the axialization of Western civilization during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Aristotle provided the philosophical foundations for the thought of later Western civilization up until the scientific revolution, and even after modern science began to change the world, Aristotle’s influence continued to echo in the work of later scientists. Even up into the early modern period, when we see the first signs of modern science taking shape in Galileo’s work on physics and cosmology, scientists were still writing their treatises in the Euclidean manner. Galileo’s early works on motion and mechanics are almost scholastic in tone, but are not as well remembered as his Sidereal Messenger or Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Even Newton’s Principia is laid out more geometrico.

The emergence of industrial-technological civilization from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was a process that began with the scientific revolution and continues to this day as the consequences of the industrial revolution continue to unfold, continuing the change the world in which we live. The transitional periods between macro-historical periods — which I have called macro-historical revolutions — are themselves periods of hundreds of years in duration. In fact, the first such macro-historical revolution, which inaugurated the macro-historical division of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, may have been a transition measurable in thousands of years.

In my immediately previous post, The Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis, I suggested that, given the counter-market, counter-developmental mechanisms institutionalized in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, that its failure is to allow a revolution to take place. The long history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — which might be stretched to as much as 15,000 years, depending upon when we date the first domestication of crops and the first settled, quasi-urban villages enabled by domesticated agriculture — witnessed many revolutions, all of which failed except for the last, which issued in the catastrophic collapse of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.

That I have called contemporary civilization “industrial-technological civlization” and the civilization the preceded it “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization,” and given that the latter so closely conforms to the distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, I am trying to make a point about the overall structure of civilizations, even civilizations that inhabit distinct macro-historical divisions?

The source of Marx’s distinction between economic infrastructure (or economic base) and ideological superstructure is to be found in his A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy. It is worth revisiting Marx’s formulation. The crucial passage is as follows:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

Marx’s formulation is a straight-forward social implementation of a materialist theory of the relation of mind to body, so that we can say at least that Marx was a consistent materialist. Marx’s consistent materialism yields consistent results in the analysis of societies, which in some instances seems to be highly successful and offers us some insight. But not always. No schema can be quite true when stretched to fit every possible instance, and this is true of Marx’s consistent materialism. It collapses when confronted by societies in which there is no distinction between economics and ideology (each of these terms broadly construed).

It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to formulate a binomial nomenclature of civilizations characterizing each in terms of its economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, but this is too schematic to the quite true. One point I have tried to argue several times (but for which I still lack a definitive formulation) is that distinct civilizations are not distinct implementations of one and the same idea of civilization, but rather distinct civilizations embody distinct ideas as to the nature and aims of civilization. So while “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization” nicely fits the economic infrastructure/ideological superstructure model, “industrial-tecnnological civilization” does not fit as nicely. While there is a sense in which technology has become an ideology, it is in no sense an ideological superstructure in the same way that institutionalized religion served as the ideological superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Salto mortale

27 February 2010


The Greeks believed that men could in heroic moments live as gods, with the sole exception being that they must some day die: immortality is the one thing denied them. Heroes are god-like in their moment of triumph, and gods can be as foolish as men in their weaknesses, but the gods are the immortals, and this exempts them from a particular human experience of finitude: mortality. (I previously discussed this in Reason in Moderation.)

We might similarly characterize the Greek attitude to reason: in his lucid intervals the mind of man is like unto the gods, embodying a heroism of the intellect. But man cannot sustain his reason beyond its proper span, any more than life can be preserved past mortal limits. Thus the life appropriate to man is that of the cultivation of proper limits and a prudent respect for the boundaries that he ought not to pass into the unlimited. Moderation is the watchword here: “All things in moderation” and “Nothing in excess” were famous proverbs in the ancient world that are still with us today. Human virtue, then, is a function of finitude, and folly the lure of the apeiron, that is to say, the undetermined, the formless, the unstructured, the arbitrary, and the unbounded.

How shall one set the limits for oneself proper to human finitude? The above extrapolation of ancient Greek heroism to the realm of the mind has a perfect exemplification in a surviving fragment from one of the many shadowy presocratic philosophers, Epicharmus of Syracuse: A mortal should think mortal thoughts, not immortal thoughts. (Fragment 19 in the Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers by Kathleen Freeman) Does this represent an aspiration to achievement, i.e., to achieve that which a human being can achieve in actuality, or an admonition to humility, i.e., to avoid the hubris of that which is denied to human achievement? Is there a difference between the two, or is it a matter of the glass being half-empty or half-full?

The idea contained in Ephicharmus’ aphorism may have had a certain currency in classical antiquity. The injunction, “O mortal man, think mortal thoughts” has been attributed to Euripides, though it is not to be found in his plays or fragments. However, in The Bacchae Euripides wrote, “…not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” This clearly implies a parallel line of thought. For a man to think immortal thoughts, that is to say, thoughts appropriate to the gods, he is courting doom and disaster, and, of course, Greek tragedy is filled with doom and disaster. The Furies visit doom and disaster upon men who exhibit hubris.

Ever since the Greeks, to whom we owe our mathematics and philosophy, the actual infinite has been rejected. The famous Pythagorean table of opposites, which was headed by apeiron and peras, associated the apeiron with the ugly, the crooked, and the bad. Thus the infinite was not only theoretically rejected, but also made the object of moral disapproval. Thinking the infinite represents the hubris of the intellect. Descartes said that we shouldn’t call things infinite, but rather indefinite. Fear of the infinite is almost a theme in Pascal’s Pensées. Gauss in a letter to Schumacher explicitly rejected infinite totalities. Kant’s antinomies not only questioned metaphysical ideas, but in showing the unsolvability of the finitude or infinitude of space and time also casts doubt on the concepts of the infinite employed in the demonstration.

This much of Kant is well known. Less known is the analysis of the infinite in the Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft), § 26, in the consideration of the mathematical sublime (“sublime” is the English term for Kant’s “Erhabene”). Kant makes a distinction between apprehensio and comprehensio, and holds that the former can go on ad infinitum, but the latter becomes more difficult and is eventually overwhelmed. It is the sublime which overwhelms comprehensio, and it is the sublime which is great beyond all comparison. If the infinite has overwhelmed philosophers one suspects it must be the terrifying sublime (in § 1 of Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, Kant distinguishes between the terrifying sublime, the noble sublime, and the splendid sublime), which suggests the ancient horror infinitum.

Like the Greek hero Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, there was one man who was not humbled by the horror infinitum, and that was Georg Cantor. The power of Cantor’s ideas are precisely his rejection of this tradition, sanctioned by history, and the introduction of a method to compare the sizes of infinite sets. The infinite in Cantor does not overwhelm and it is not incomparable. Indeed, Cantor’s great technical innovations — one-to-one correspondence and diagonalization — allow us to take the measure of the infinite and soberly assess its significance.

We have not only learned to think immortal thoughts, but we have learned to think them systematically and rigorously. The intuitive breakthrough of Cantor to set theory and transfinite numbers was a salto mortale, a death-defying leap of the intellect. In this, it is like Darwin’s intuitive breakthrough to natural selection or Einstein’s intuitive breakthrough to relativity. Such moments in the history of science are difficult to reconcile with sober theorizing. They represent the mind’s singular function, and it is only through such singular accomplishments that scientific progress is possible.

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Georg Cantor was one of the great intellectual revolutionaries of all time.

Georg Cantor was one of the great intellectual revolutionaries of all time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Reason in moderation

30 October 2009


theater masks

The Greeks believed that men could in heroic moments live as gods, with the sole exception being that they must some day die: immortality is the one thing denied them. Heroes are god-like in their moment of triumph, and gods can be as foolish as men in their weaknesses, but the gods are the immortals, and this exempts them from the most human experience of finitude: mortality.

We might similarly characterize the Greek attitude to reason: in his lucid intervals the mind of man is like unto the gods, embodying a heroism of the intellect. But man cannot sustain his reason beyond its proper span, any more than life can be preserved past mortal limits. Thus the life appropriate to man is that of the cultivation of proper limits and a prudent respect for the boundaries which he may not pass into the unlimited, the apeiron. Moderation is the watchword here. Human virtue, then, is a function of finitude, and folly the lure of the apeiron.

But to define man and his mind in terms of finitude is to acknowledge that the infinite looms over him as the ever present negation of all that he is: this is the pre-Freudian Verneinung, the Greek Verneinung that makes it inevitable that the infinite and the finite are logically defined in each terms of the negation of the other.

The ancients could no more escape from the infinite than they could tame it, domesticate it, submit it to the rigid reign of reason that made of their cities orderly monuments to the geometricizing intellect. Antiquity had not yet the depth of experience requisite to grasp the infinite with both hands. Classical man knew the infinite as madness, as enthusiasm, as ecstasy; he could not take it, and he could not leave it.

Classical man avoided the infinite as long as he was able, built his cities and his civilization, mastered the arts, dominated the world to the limits of his capacity, and then, when he could avoid it no longer, accepted his fate and grasped what he knew he was still not ready to face. He plunged into the infinite, and naked before it found in it chaos and power and ecstasy. It destroyed him, and he participated in his own destruction, like St. Teresa captivated by her divine pain, he embraced the principle of his own quietus and made of it a swan song. Reason in moderation begets madness.

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theater mask

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Grand Strategy Annex

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