Tuesday


scientific metaphysics 1

The slow percolation of metaphysical ideas into human experience

It took some two hundred years or more for Rousseau’s ideas to trickle down from philosophical speculation to popular consciousness and practical implementation. Much of what has its origins in Rousseau only came to fruition in the second half of the twentieth century as the environmental movement and the counter-culture movement. Some of Rousseau’s ideas found more immediate application: his book The Social Contract was an influence in revolutionary France and continues to have a profound influence on Western political thought. But most philosophical ideas only percolate through history over time, and come to have an indirect influence only after they have become so familiar that they are no longer thought of as philosophical ideas.

We expect that the philosophical ideas that will broadly affect the lives of individuals in mass society will be those political and ethical ideas such as we find in Rousseau’s political works, but even rarefied metaphysical concepts like reduction, emergence, and supervenience can, given the passage of time, become as commonplace as Rousseau’s incipient environmentalism has become the now through the pervasively-present environmental movement. It is worth recalling in this connection that the concept of zero was once advanced mathematics, and very difficult to conceive for peoples possessing only limited mathematical conceptual resources, while it is now taught in the earliest years of school and is easily mastered by young children. Philosophical ideas must often make a pilgrimage like that of the concept of zero: from an outlandish proposal to a universally accepted presupposition that lies at the foundation of all other thought.

It can, however, be difficult to recognize when subtle and complex metaphysical ideas have entered into the popular mind as these concepts ever-so-slowly filter into the exposition of the big ideas that shape civilization. The process can be so slow and gradual that, like evolutionary processes, they cannot be seen on a timescale that human beings can immediately perceive. Or, rather, a particular effort — a philosophical effort — must be made in order to perceive this development.

Some metaphysical ideas: reduction, emergence, supervenience

What is reduction? What is reductionism? What is emergence? What is emergentism? What is supervience? How are these ideas related?

Here is how The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy defines reduction:

“A position based on the assumption that apparently different kinds of entities or properties are identical and claiming that items of some types can be explained in terms of more fundamental types of entities or properties with which they are identical.”

“reductionism” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

Here is a definition of emergence:

“Philosophy of science, philosophy of social science based on the assumption that a whole is more than the sum of all its parts, the doctrine of emergence holds that the whole has properties which cannot be explained in terms of the properties of its parts. Such a property is called an emergent property. The enormous complexity of the interactions among parts leads to the generation of a property of the whole that cannot be deduced from the properties of parts.”

“emergence” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

And here is a (somewhat longer, and therefore less clear) definition of supervience from the same source:

“A term which can be traced to G. E. Moore , but which gained wider use through the work of R. M. Hare. Hare used it for the claim that moral or evaluative properties such as goodness must supervene upon natural properties such as intelligence, health, and kindness. If something has the moral property in virtue of having the natural property and if anything having the natural property would in virtue of having it also have the moral property, then the moral property supervenes upon the natural property. If two things are alike in all descriptive respects, the same evaluative properties must be applied to both of them. On this view, good is supervenient upon underlying natural properties, although it is not reducible to them. Davidson extended this notion to the philosophy of mind, and claims that mental properties are supervenient upon physical properties. If two things are alike in all physical properties, they can not differ in mental properties, but the mental can not be reduced to the physical. Supervenient physicalism offers an alternative to reductionist identity theory. Supervenience is an irreducible relation of dependence upon base properties by supervenient properties.”

“supervenience” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, edited by NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU

This last definition of supervenience is a little less clear than the others because supervenience is a more subtle idea than reduction or emergence, and the difficulty of the idea has led the author to express the idea in something less than full philosophical generality.

We can think of the sequence of ideas represented by reductionism, emergentism, and supervenience as the progressively more subtle and detailed reconciliation of philosophy with the discoveries of the physical sciences since the scientific revolution, and more especially since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, which latter has seen such a dramatic acceleration of the ability of science to explain the world.

Contemporary metaphysical ideas in relation to science

These three definitions don’t give a sense of the continuity of philosophical development that links the ideas of reduction, emergence, and supervenience together. The three ideas may appear not as stages in the development of a philosophical perspective informed by contemporary science, and, truth be told, they are not usually presented in this way, but this is how I see them. Before I say more about the interrelationship of the three, however, I’m going to give a sketch of the relation of Western philosophical thought to science.

Ancient philosophy began with the macroscopic features of human experience open to all; philosophical observation, scientific observation, and mathematical observation were all one and the same. Only religious “observation” (i.e., specifically religious experiences such as mystical trance and ecstatic possession) stood apart as giving a special insight into the nature of things that was not publicly open and available in the same way that the observations of ordinary experience are open to all. The common sense view of the world that is so central to ancient philosophy, even when it was decisively rejected by Plato (and then vigorously reasserted by Aristotle), was based on ordinary experience of this kind.

Since the time of classical antiquity new forms of observation, and new forms of systematizing observation, have emerged, and the most fundamental of these forms of observation and theorizing are known as science. Subsequent to the scientific revolution — which is an ongoing revolution because science gives us not a truth but a method — philosophy has been forced to transcend its origins in the manifest worldview of macroscopic observation and to integrate the discoveries of science that derive from more disciplined and systematic forms of observation. The principle of public accessibility is as central to science as it was to ancient common sense — perhaps we could even say that it is more central, if there were any such thing as one thing being “more” central than another — and any scientific observation or theory is not only open to the investigations of others, but it is assumed that any scientific result will immediately mean that others will seek to duplicate the result. However, the efforts to duplicate a result increase in difficulty as science increases in complexity, driven by earlier science. This limits the accessibility of advanced scientific results, and forces us to rely not on our own experience, but upon the painstaking work of others.

Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of “experience” and “observation” that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all. Thus we are faced with a profound philosophical struggle to attempt to arrive at novel intellectual intuitions that will guide us through the experiences and observations made possible by contemporary science. This fundamentally distinguishes the contemporary philosophical project from the philosophical project of classical antiquity, when Western philosophy originated.

The metaphysical interpretation of contemporary science

We can understand reductionism, emergentism, and supervenience as stages in the philosophical attempt to reconcile the results of scientific experience and observation with a comprehensive conception of the world of the kind of philosophy seeks to formulate. This philosophical vision of a comprehensive conception of the world may today be understood as the attempt to build a bridge between the results of contemporary science and the ordinary experiences that were once the exclusive concern of philosophy. Any truly comprehensive conception of the world would have to find some way to show that ordinary experience follows from the extraordinary observations of science, or vice versa. Reduction, emergence, and supervenience are three strategies for demonstrating such a relationship.

In fact, the sequence of development from reductionism through emergentism to supervenience neatly conforms to the Hegelian dialectic:

● The Reductionist Thesis Wholes are nothing but their constituent parts, to which they can be reduced by analysis.

● The Emergentist Antithesis Wholes possess unique properties not possessed by their parts, so that if a whole is reduced to its parts in analysis the emergent properties are not discoverable by the analysis.

● The Supervenience Synthesis Whole possess unique properties undiscoverable by analysis, but these properties supervene upon the properties of the parts.

Employing this Hegelian framework allows us to see the developmental connection between apparently opposed doctrines, and in fact this is how much thinking gets done: we perceive a flaw in our opponent’s position, so we point this out, then someone comes along later and shows how the two positions can be reconciled.

The intellectual development from reductionism through emergentism to supervenience roughly parallels the development from positivistic science through physicalism to contemporary naturalism. At each stage of this development, we find a refinement of the conception, and these refined conceptions will in turn be superseded by further innovations.

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience in sharper focus

Twentieth century science was (and, in some respects, remains) largely reductionist, and reductionism is familiar to everyone in many different forms. Whenever one finds, “nothing but,” as in, “x is nothing but y” — e.g., life is nothing but chemistry, man is nothing but a machine (after La Mettrie), mind is nothing but brain function, history is nothing but one damn thing after another — one finds reductionism. Reductionism should be familiar to us all, and probably most of us are equally aware of its dissatisfactions in the form of its notorious oversimplifications and the need to dismiss much that is essential to human experience as illusory or otherwise irrelevant.

Some contemporary philosophers dissatisfied not with reductionism, but feeling that reductionism is insufficiently radical in view of the results of science, have formulated “eliminativist” doctrines which maintain that ordinary experience does not reduce to scientific experience, but that ordinary experience is simply false and misleading, so it must be eliminated in favor of the scientific conceptions that have replaced intuitive conceptions. This is one source of the attempt to dismiss “folk psychology” and “folk physics” as relics of an earlier age that no longer have any meaning since they have been replaced by exact scientific concepts. I do not wish to make the claim that this is not a legitimate philosophical position, but it can never be the basis of a comprehensive conception of the world, because it makes not attempt to reconcile manifest experience with scientific results.

Reductionism is not in much favor now, but emergentism is slowly beginning to filter its way into the Western Weltanschauung. It started with gestalt psychology and then Buckminster Fuller’s use of the term “synergy” (which is now pervasively used in business-speak), and now emergentism in an explicit form is appearing in Big History, which is essentially a scientific Weltanschauung for a coming naturalistic age.

Even though Newton said “I make no hypotheses” (“hypotheses non fingo”), he nevertheless postulated gravitation as a universal force, and made no attempt to explain what gravitation is, only how it worked. In this Newtonian method we can see the origins both of instrumentalism, which foreswears any insight into the actual nature of the world, and emergentism, that posits wholes and properties of wholes, delineating how these wholes and their properties are distinct from parts of wholes and properties of parts, but not attempting to provide a mechanism that explains this distinction.

The idea of supervenience is a little more subtle than that of reduction or emergence, and, as a consequence of its subtlety, it will probably take proportionately longer for the concepts of supervenience to trickle down from philosophical theories into popular consciousness and practical implementation — but there is no reason to suppose that the moment of popular supervenience will never come. Precisely because supervenience is more subtle and sophisticated than the blunt instrument of reductionism and potentially has greater explanatory power than the positing of emergentism, the idea has a great future.

Supervenience offers one additional step beyond emergentism, a step that suggests, while not fully delineating, the mechanisms that give rise to emergent properties, but does so without the oversimplifications and ontological losses of reductionism. This may be the future of a more sophisticated future iteration of Big History in which emergentist themes are treated in terms of supervenience. That is but one possibility among countless others.

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history

The absence of institutions and therefore the absence of procedural rationality informing all aspects of life means that the human condition under nomadic hunter-gatherer conditions is the least intellectualized iteration of the human condition. Ideas mattered little for our paleolithic ancestors. The introduction of institutions in agrarian civilizations forces a certain degree of the rationalization of life, and it was this degree of the rationalization of human social life that saw the emergence of philosophy (Jaspers’ Axial Age).

The introduction of specifically scientific institutions (both science itself, and the institution of industrial-technological civilization driven by science) saw an increase in several orders of magnitude of the rationalization of the human condition. Ideas matter much more now, even if we systematically fail to understand the role that ideas play in our lives. The metaphysical nature of civilization, in which life is shaped as much by ideas as by the necessities of life, means that with the introduction of civilized institutions, and the gradual maturation of these institutions, that the relationship between manifest experience and its manifest intuitions on the one hand, and the increasingly complex experiences and concepts of science are in more urgent need for unification in a single conceptual framework.

Is it possible to understand human history in metaphysical terms? The emerging scientific historiography of big history clearly suggests reductist, emergentist, and supervenience accounts of human history in relation to the scientific historiography that has so dramatically expanded our historical perspective beyond that of human testimony. The literary and humanistic tradition of historiography had its beginnings in ancient Greece almost simultaneously with the beginnings of philosophy, and both appealed to the same manifest experience of human beings as the only available paradigm for the foundation of knowledge.

If we formulate the distinction as that between between natural history in its most general signification (or scientific historiography, if you like) and human history, that is to say, history invested with human meanings and values, we can easily formulate a reductionist account of the relationship between natural history and human history, an emergentist account of the relationship between natural history and human history, and an account in terms of supervenience of the relationship between natural history and human history:

● Reductionist Historiography Human history is nothing but natural history. If human meanings and values seem to play a constitutive role in history (or even human consciousness, in the form of making conscious choices), this is merely illusory. If we wanted a stronger formulation of the same, we could frame an “eliminativist historiograpy.” (I leave this as an exercise to the reader.)

● Emergentist Historiography Human history is a whole that emerges from natural history that possesses unique properties as a whole that are not attributable to natural historical processes.

● Supervenient Historiography Human history supervenes on natural history. In other words, there can be no change in human history without there being a subvening change in natural history.

The reader can easily write the book comparing these three paradigms of metaphysical historiography with a minimum of effort and research. I think I’ve outlined enough of the relevant concepts to get you started.

The prospects for reduction, emergence, and supervenience

It seems obvious that supervenience is not an end point of philosophical development, but that it points toward further developments that will supersede supervenience as emergentism superseded reductionism and supervenience has superseded emergentism. Recently in The Emerging School of Techno-Philosophy I wrote that there has never been a more exciting time than the present to be a philosopher. Part of what makes our time so philosophically exciting is the question of what further scientific discoveries will require philosophical interpretation and what form of interpretation will follow after supervenience.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.

We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.

The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:

There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.

Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.

Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics

And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

. . .

Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1

Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:

“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”

It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?

There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.

There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.

I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.

There are many ways of seeing the world, and some of these ways do not even involve “seeing.”

There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.

Biodiversity means perceptual and epistemic diversity.

If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.

If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature.

Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.

That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.

The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.

The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.

If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

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Finding Paley’s Watch

24 October 2011

Monday


William Paley

The locus classicus for pre-Darwinian natural theology and the design argument appears on the first page of William Paley’s Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive — what we could not discover in the stone — that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts and of their offices, all tending to one result: We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavor to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain — artificially wrought for the sake of flexure — communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance and from the balance to the pointer, and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed — it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood, the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, COLLECTED FROM THE APPEARANCES OF NATURE, William Paley, D.D., Late Archdeacon of Carlisle, The Twelfth Edition, Chapter 1

That was, as Paley put it, the state of the argument in his day. For some among us neither the day nor the argument has changed.

Having the benefit both of hindsight and of subsequent scientific progress, we can reformulate Paley’s attitude to found objects as that between organic forms of order and mechanistic forms of order. Paley, of course, didn’t put it that way, and in fact this distinction wasn’t of interest to him. Paley did distinguish between a stone and an artifact like a watch, implying that the minimal forms of order manifested by the stone failed to rise to the level of implying a designer.

This implicit disinterest in the order represented by the neglected stone, which might have lain there forever, reminds me on one of Plato’s late works, the Parmenides, in which Socrates is asked whether “vile and paltry” things are manifestations of a Platonic Form or Idea:

“And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile? — I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry; would you suppose that each of these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into contact, or not?”

“Certainly not, said Socrates; visible things like these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and begin to think that there is nothing without an idea; but then again, when I have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them.”

The scenarios of Plato and Paley are so closely similar that we can substitute the “vile and paltry” examples from either one for the argument of the other, salva veritate, so that Paley might have referred to hair, mud, and dirt as implying no design, while Socrates in Plato’s dialogue might have denied that a stone has an Idea or a Form.

Plato hesitates to grant ideas to hair, mud, and dirt as Paley hesitates to grant design to a stone. Both positions seem to me to be metaphysically wrong-headed. Both Plato and Paley point to an evaluative metaphysics in which some objects are presumptively denied their metaphysical status, while other objects are non-problematically granted metaphysical status. That is to say, the determination as to that which possesses the dignity of being and that which is denied the dignity of being has been made prior to the formulation of the metaphysical doctrine in question.

For Plato, hair, mud and dirt to not rise to the level of metaphysical interest; for Paley, a stone does not rise to the level of metaphysical interest. In both Plato and Paley the distinction between the two appears pervasively but also implicitly. In the quote from Plato above, Socrates says, “visible things like these are such as they appear to us,” which implies a distinction between things that are as they appear to us and things that are not as they appear to us, and ultimately reality belongs to the latter. In Paley, he is entirely indifferent to the stone he nearly trips over. Paley says of the watch as objet trouvé that, “its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose,” which implies a parallel distinction between objects that are not put together for a purpose and objects that are put together for a purpose, and ultimate reality belongs to the latter.

These evaluative metaphysical doctrines of Plato and Paley invite parallel thought experiments:

1) According to Plato, how much of the world can exist independently of Ideas or Forms?

2) According to Paley, how much of the world can exist independently of design?

A geologist might be shocked to see a stone dismissed from the realms of order so casually, and in fact I once spoke to a geomorphologist who described the discovery of a particular stone as one of the high points of his career. And, similarly, a natural historian might be shocked to see hair, mud, and dirt so casually dismissed. In his Origin of Species, Darwin described one of his experiments with mud:

“I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three tablespoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6 and 3/4 ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to unstocked ponds and streams, situated at very distant points.”

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter XIII, “Geographical Distribution, continued”

Stones, hair, mud, and dirt and materials from which a world entire might be made, though metaphysicians of a certain stripe have thought these things beneath their dignity. The stone has a natural history which may reach back to the original formation of the planet, and the mud may be filled with traces of life that also betray a natural history to be measured in millions if not billions of years.

The humble stone and the humble dirt upon which the stone lies have much to teach us, and yet we cannot even say how they are distinct from works of artificers, like a watch, or from beings that are the paltry reflections of ideal Forms.

For all we have learned in the meantime, since Paley wrote his treatise, I know of no adequate formulation of the distinction between the organic and the mechanistic. There seems to me to be no question but that in most cases we can intuitively distinguish organic forms of order from mechanistic forms of order, but the relative obviousness of the intuitive difference only points all the more insistently at our failure to capture this intuitive distinction in conceptual terms.

In fact, the distinction between the mechanistic and the organic is so intuitively clear that the violation of the boundary between the two can be confusing and even offensive. Here precisely lies the power of the works of H. R. Giger, who has called his creations “biomechanoids.”

A similar aesthetic violation of our categories of the organic and the mechanical is to be found in representations of cyborgs in science fiction, and especially the Borg as they appear in Star Trek television episodes and films.

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

To subsist in the ontological gray area of category confusion — partly organic, partly mechanistic — is to embody the abject. Abjection is a common source of moral horror, and I previously cited transhumanism and its apparent embrace of cyborg technology as a source of moral horror in Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror.

Whereas it is moral indifference that led Plato and Paley to neglect the ontological status of stones, hair, mud, and dirt, it is moral horror that leads many to neglect the abject entities that violate our categorical schemes. However, it is once again an implicit and evaluative metaphysical presupposition that leads to an abstract conception of the world that glosses over entire classes of beings as unworthy of theoretical notice.

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Sunday


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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Tuesday


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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Wednesday


Sexual Difference

A Manifesto in the Form of Ten Principles


1. Sexual difference is inherent in the structure of the world as we know it.

2. The world that we know, as we know it, in medias res, is derivative of time out of mind, and it is from the depths of time out of mind that sexual difference emerges.

3. Sexual difference is founded in biological antiquity that far predates the emergence of mind.

4. Biological antiquity emerged seamlessly from planetary antiquity, which in turn emerged from cosmological antiquity.

5. The causal chain of sexual difference, if followed to the extent our scientific knowledge, reaches to the beginnings of the universe.

6. In the same map of residual temperature differences left from the Big Bang, in which contemporary cosmologists find the origin of the structure of the world today, is also to be found the origin of sexuality, traced faintly in the void between the stars.

7. There is no ontology for beings such as ourselves but that derived from our natural history.

8. Natural history has institutionalized sexual difference in the very structure and function of our bodies.

9. Sexual difference rises to the height of ontological difference, and after so rising, descends again to inform sexual difference with the innovations and elaborations of ontological difference.

10. The reification of sexuality in the world is an inescapable fact of the human condition:

A

Sexuality is the urcategorie of ontology and the sexual dialectic is the urcategorie of schematic categorical distinctions.

B

There can be no more perfectly symmetrical nor any more concretely embodied realization of the dialectic than the “He said, she said” of sexual recriminations.


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Sunday


Plato, who said that the definition of being is power — the power to affect or be affected.

Yesterday in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I raised the possibility in connection with Abbagnano’s interpretation of Plato’s definition of being that we can distinguish being-at-an-instant from being defined in terms of some discrete period of time during which the existent in question affects or is affected by other existents.

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 – 09 September 1990, who re-interpreted Plato on being as power in terms of being as possibility.

Being-at-an-instant is a highly abstract conception, though it has the virtue of simplicity: it is a minimalist conception of being. A snapshot of being cannot exist independently of a being extended in time. As Sartre put in it in Being and Nothingness (since we have already invoked Sartre in our discussion of being): “M. Laporte says that an abstraction is made when something not capable of existing in isolation is thought of as in an isolated state. The concrete by contrast is a totality which can exist by itself alone.” (p. 33) While there are potential problems with this formulation, it is suggestive.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was better known for existence than abstraction, nevertheless had an interesting suggestion about abstraction.

At the other end of the great chain of being, and equally abstract, is the idea of a totality of being. This, presumably, would differ from being-at-an-instant by exemplifying being-for-eternity. As it is difficult for me to imagine how this might work, and lacking a ready-to-hand definition of eternity, I will simply mention it in passing. Of greater interest, for its obvious naturalism, would be the totality of being for a given existent: in so far as we can individuate any given existent, all the other existents it has affected for been affected by in the course of its existence would constitute the totality of being for that existent.

The Great Chain of Being illustrated as a stairway from lower orders of being to higher orders of being: we tend to think of the great chain of being in terms of objects in relation to each other, but we can also think of it in terms of the temporal duration inhabited by objects, from the ephemeral to the eternal.

Having defined these extremes of the scope of being, from being-at-an-instant to the totality of being for an existent, we might further classify beings according to the difference between the former and the latter. That is to say, some beings we change dramatically from one moment to another and from one stage of life to another, so that in the course of their existence a great gap will open between being-at-an-instant and their totality of being, while for other existents totality of being is depart only slightly from being-at-an-instant.

Among the many possibilities of being that the above classifications suggest, we can posit a being that does in fact affect all beings and is in turn affected by all beings, and it is interesting to note that this could be considered a novel formulation of the traditional object of theology. This is perhaps the only conception of totality that actually approaches a totality that can exist on its own, and therefore counts as “concrete.”

It could be argued that at the moment of the big bang, the progenitor singularity of the big bang was, for an instant, affected by everything in the universe, and in turn affected everything in the universe. That is to say, at the moment of the big bang, the universe was instantaneously identical to the object of traditional Western theology (though strictly speaking this ought to be considered a variety of pantheism). Theists have not been slow to point out the apparent theological overtones of the big bang, and we could indeed characterize the big bang as a secularization (after the manner of Karl Löwith) of creatio ex nihilo. At this point we are in need of some serious philosophical thinking, but the pursuit of serious philosophical thinking in cosmology is problematic.

Karl Löwith argued that many modern concepts are secularizations of theological concepts.

Cosmology is a science that has that distinction of being at the fine end of the scale as quantitatively precise as astronomy, of which it is a natural extrapolation. But at the grand end of the scale, the further that cosmology departs from the readily grasped quantifiable conceptions of astronomy it finds itself entangled in traditional philosophical concepts, but since the practitioners of cosmology usually come from a scientific background they battle valiantly against having their discipline construed as philosophical (and therefore, in their eyes, as merely speculative and without practical utility). Thus philosophical questions regarding the nature and origin of the universe are treated as if (and one must here keep in mind Vaihinger’s sense of the Als-Ob) they were quantifiable and experimentally verifiable scientific questions when they are not. The result is confusion.

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Hans Vaihinger who formulated the doctrine of the as-if (Als-Ob).

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Sunday


monster of the milky way

Today I was watching an excellent PBS NOVA episode, Monster of the Milky Way, about recent cosmological theories that all, or almost all, galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center, including the Milky Way galaxy, our own little home in the universe. I don’t consider the theory problematic; in fact, I think it makes perfect sense. Just as our solar system revolves around the sun, so too the much larger structure of galaxies, especially spiral galaxies, would seem to be revolving around something much more massive than your typical, run-of-the-mill main sequence star. So I’m not going to address supermassive black holes in this post.

In the NOVA episode, astrophysicist Andrew Hamilton makes the following statement: “Albert Einstein had this crazy idea that space and time were curved, and it was the curvature of space that gave the appearance of gravity.” I found this of great interest. To speak of “the appearance of gravity” suggests a contrast to the reality of gravity, and the appearance/reality distinction is deeply embedded in Western metaphysics since Parmenides and Plato. Physicists often speak loosely, and I doubt that Andrew Hamilton intended to propound a philosophical thesis within cosmology, but it is a thesis worth exploring, even if unintended.

Is gravity the mere appearance by which a deeper reality manifests itself? And is that deeper reality the structure of spacetime? Is gravity less real than spacetime? Can gravity be reduced to the structure of spacetime?

It would be strange indeed if gravity were epiphenomenal to the cosmos. Contemporary physical theory distinguishes four physical forces at work in the nature of things: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. Unified field theories have done a passable job of providing a common framework for electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force, but gravity has proved resistant to these unified field theories, not least because of the difficulty of giving a quantum account of gravitation. There are plenty of quantum gravity theories, but none of them are yet considered definitive, and their connection to the other forces and a unified theoretical framework is more speculation than physics.

The problem of appearance and reality is an old one in the philosophy of science. Russell caricatured F. H. Bradley as the “classical” tradition in philosophy (in his Our Knowledge of the External World, and elsewhere as well I think), and Bradley is remembered for his treatise Appearance and Reality. But Russell himself opens his The Problems of Philosophy with a chapter on appearance and reality, where, writing about a table, he says:

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Russell often expresses himself in the language of contemporary science, but the distinctions he makes in this passage (which I have greatly shortened) are not dependent upon science. But science does add another layer to the distinction between appearance and reality. The instruments of scientific research give us unprecedented ways to extend our senses, and with each novel perspective on things that science opens up, there is another way to describe these things. Moreover, scientific theory appeals to non-observable entities to explain the way the world is and naïve scientific realism assures us that the elementary particles are truly real and calls into question the manifest realities of macroscopic experience.

The problem of gravity, however, can’t even be settled by naïve scientific realism. Scientific realism would hold that the elementary particles that make up the objects studied by cosmology and astrophysics are real, and it would not deny the collections of elementary particles into atoms, molecules, stars, and galaxies to possess a certain reality. But whether gravity is epiphenomenal to spacetime structure, or whether spacetime structure is epiphenomenal to gravity is not readily settled by an appeal to scientific realism. Asking “What comes first, the gravity or the structure?” is a lot like asking, “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

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Tuesday


Luigi Nono

For the six months or so that I have been posting to this forum I have been quite preoccupied with intensely practical questions in history, economics, politics, diplomacy and how these spheres of activity are related in a substantive way to human nature.

When Heilbronner wrote his famous book about economists he called them the “the worldly philosophers,” which invites an implicit comparison to unworldly or otherworldly philosophers who do not concern themselves with the ordinary business of life. Be that as it may, it is possible, I think, to be both — thinking both the worldly and the unworldly by turns. Thus is the thinker likely to experience a dialectic not only within the realms of thought, but also as part of the ordinary business of his life.

I find myself today thrown back onto the most abstruse and obscure points of technical philosophy in my attempt to clarify my understanding of very worldly concepts that attempt to elucidate what Marshall called “the ordinary business of life.” I find that I am once again taking down my reference works on ontology, epistemology, and philosophy of logic from my bookshelves, and this, I think, is a good thing. The cross-fertilization of thought, whether inter-disciplinary or intra-disciplinary, is usually a source of fruitful meditation. In particular, I find myself working on the idea of constructivism.

Constructivism means many different things to many different persons. It would almost seem that a sense of “constructivism” has been defined for every conceivable special field of inquiry or endeavor. There is constructivism in the visual arts, and a constructivism in music, and a constructivism in sociology, and, what most concerns me, a constructivism in the philosophy of logic and mathematics.

Dr. David C. F. Wright quoted his friend British composer Reginald Smith Brindle regarding a visit to Luigi Nono:

I went there mostly while he was composing Il Canto Sospeso, a politically orientated work of choral-orchestral character which involved the most abstruse constructivism I have ever come across. Mathematics governed every detail of the composition … the pitch of the notes, their duration, volume and sound character. In his study, there was a wall entirely covered with successions of numbers, notes and performance details and from this he extracted all the details of the composition. It seemed to me that all his intense constructivism was a certain formula for the creation of non-music, yet from recordings of his music, I got the impression of a highly sensitive artistry.

What Brindle describes is more commonly known as integral serialism or total serialism. The relation between constructivism and serialism is an interesting question in itself, but one that I will not address here. And while I don’t have a CD of Il Canto Sospeso, I did have a recording by the Arditti Quartet of Nono’s fragmente – stille, an idiotma, so I put this on as my theme music for constructivism.

I regard the philosophy of mathematics as the ultimate proving ground for all philosophical theories. One finds philosophical theories applied to the philosophy of mathematics in their purest form, and it is in their purest form that theories are seen in their nakedness, revealed to all the world for what they are. This is especially true for constructivism, but while constructivism is best tested by the austere ontology of logic and mathematics, it has universal implications.

Constructivism is a methodological concept, and the distinction between constructive methods and non-constructive methods recapitulates the ancient division between idealism and realism in ontology. One could say that constructivism is idealism put into practice as a method. What, then, is the method of idealism?

At present I am only trying to get clear about the concept of constructivism, its proper scope as a concept. I sent off an e-mail to the phil-logic discussion listserv and got some replies both on-list and off-list that provided some initial stimulation. It is, however, extraordinarily difficult to develop a sympathetic discussion on an e-mail listserv. Even when others are the list are interested in the idea, the tone of discussion can be brutal at times. There is a value in brutal honesty and openness of discussion, but there is also a value in having someone with whole one can share inchoate ideas and help to bring out what is valuable in them without destroying a fragile thought. However, I have no one to act as my intellectual second (i.e., kaishakunin, 介錯人) and thus I pour it out here instead.

It takes a true friend to perform the office of kaishakunin.

It takes a true friend to perform the office of kaishakunin.

I found an interesting discussion of constructivism in Detlefsen’s contribution to the Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematical Sciences, in which Detlefsen does try to formulate the theoretical unity of constructivism, although he never touches on predicativism. Should predicativism be considered something utterly different? There is also a great discussion of constructivism by Michael Hallett in the Handbook of Metaphysics and Ontology edited by Hans Burkhardt and Barry Smith, published by Philosophia Verlag (Hallett’s article is “mathematical objects”). While these two discussions are a great starting point, they don’t get to the essence of the question that is troubling me at the moment.

detlefsen

The many varieties of constructivism are different not only in detail but also importantly different in conceptual scope. Intuitionism, finitism, predicativism, and other conceptions that might generally be called constructivistic in tendency all restrict classical formal reasoning, but there does not seem to be any prima facie unity in virtue of which all deserve to be called constructivist. One of my off-list responses from the phil-logic listserv suggested that there would be “push back” at any attempt to classify intuitionism as a form of constructivism.

handbook of metaphysics and ontology

James Robert Brown’s The Philosophy of Mathematics: An Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures has a section on “Constructivist Approaches” that quotes from Errett Bishop’s Foundations of Constructive Analysis. I don’t have a copy of Bishop’s book, so this is helpful. Bishop, at least, explicitly identifies his approach as constructivist, unlike Brouwer or Heyting, Poincare or Weyl, Yesnin-Volpin and Gauthier, Kielkopf and Wittgenstein. This self-ascribed constructivist identity carries more weight than all the other uses of “constructivist” combined.

James Robert Brown

Perhaps constructivism in its pure form should be defined more narrowly, strictly in terms of the avoidance of pure existence proofs, for example. But if we define constructivism more narrowly, then it would seem that there is still a need for a concept under which would fall all those theories of formal reason that restrict what Torkel Franzen called “classical eclectism,” and which would include a narrowly defined constructivism as well as other doctrines previously called constructivist. What concept could we use to cover all instances of principled restrictions upon formal reasoning, and is there any unity of motive in formulating and propounding principled limitations on formal reasoning?

The obvious course of action would be to elucidate the principles embodied in all such doctrines, loosely called “constructivist” up until now, and seek to systematically interrelate them. In every police drama one sees on television, the detectives on a difficult case assemble a large bulletin board upon which they display symbols for clues, and then map the interrelations between clues in an attempt to find a pattern that will solve the case. We need the conceptual equivalent of this in order to understand constructivism.

Two other obvious courses of action present themselves: simultaneously driving down into the foundations of constructivist doctrines while also extrapolating their consequences to the utmost limit. A convergence or divergence of either development would point to fundamental commonality or fundamental incommensurability.

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A Non-Constructive World

19 April 2009


An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

Further Ontological Ruminations

In yesterday’s Ontological Ruminations: Six Protagorean Propositions on the Nature of Man and the World I laid down several ontological principles of a Quasi-Protagorean bent. Protagoras (ca. 490– 420 BC; Greek: Πρωταγόρας), you will recall, was one of the greatest of the Presocratics, and was famous for having said, “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.” This is one of those rare philosophical quotations that is sufficiently famous to have survived more than two thousand years and is recognized even by those with no interest in philosophy. So when I noted yesterday that the presence of man in the world as an agent constituting the world, it was, in essence, a Protagorean observation.

Beyond the immediate Protagorean interest, my six propositions of yesterday also suggested the non-constructive character of the world, but this requires explanation to make any sense whatsoever. When I speak of constructive and non-constructive in this forum, I mean the terms in their logical, and not their social, signification. What is the logical significance of constructive and non-constructive? That is difficult to easily sum up.

Constructivism in logic, mathematics, and formal thought generally is an embarras de richesse: there are a remarkable number of distinct formulations of constructivism as well as degrees of constructivism. I was just skimming several philosophical reference works for a simple and comprehensive definition of constructivity that would cover its various manifestations, and I couldn’t find anything satisfying.

There are logical approaches to constructivism, some of which involve logic without the Law of the Excluded Middle and others of which forbid the use of “existence” axioms that posit an entity without giving a method for constructing the entity, and there are finitist approaches to constructivism that deny or limit infinitistic propositions or methods, or which confine legitimate thought to finite assertions, and there are again predicative forms of constructivism that proscribe the use of impredicative definitions and methods.

Hopefully from the above (which is admittedly rather compressed and inexact) it should at least emerge that constructivists generally place limits on formal (or ontological) thought that would not otherwise be observed.

Constructive thought is pervasively influential today for a variety of reasons, ranging from essentially constructive nature of computer science, which makes itself felt in our lives in countless ways today because of the role of computers in our lives, to the increasingly constructivistic character of the sciences.

Physics has been turned into a constructivist undertaking without much notice of this profound change in perspective, yet it retains patently idealistic strains within the generally constructive drift—especially the presumption of the rationality of the world, i.e., its amenability to rational explanation, and mathematization of physics and its consequent idealizations and simplifications. Take, for example, the claim of the impossibility of travel at the velocity of light — if a philosopher deduced properties of the world from mathematical equations he would be a laughing stock, but physicists do so with impunity.

Physicists have taken the mantle of speculation from philosophers; science today is much more speculative than philosophy ever was, and the careful pedanticism of contemporary philosophers looks like a parody of scientific method intended to elicit laughter.

Moreover, the world itself seems constructive. Indeed, the constructivity of the world on a quantum scale is dramatically demonstrated by the failure of the law of the excluded middle and bivalence for quantum states: the logic of quantum theory is a logic without tertium non datur.

We see the extent to which the world is constructive when we contemplate the gradual, piecemeal way in which any actuality would need to approach any infinity. Just as we cannot reach aleph null by adding one repeatedly to any arbitrarily large number, so we cannot attain infinite mass by adding increments of mass to any arbitrarily large mass, nor can we shrink any arbitrarily small but finite quantity to nothing by gradually reducing it in size by a finite number of steps.

In mathematics, these limits have not the same function that they have in physics, because we can conduct thought experiments in which time and temporal processes have no place. But all that it subject to the laws of physics is also subject to the laws of time, and time will not allow us more than a constructive infinity of successively adding discrete quantities a finite number of times. This process can only yield an infinite result after the passage of an infinite quantity of time.

For all that, the world is still non-constructive, and even incorrigibly non-constructive.

The particular non-constructive aspect of the world that featured in yesterday’s exposition was the impredicativity of the world. An impredicative definition defines a given entity in terms of a whole of which it is a part. Impredicative reasoning makes use of impredicative definitions, and such are not terribly unusual. Any definition of an individual man that refers to all men is an impredicative definition, since the class of all men includes the individual so defined. And, more to the point in the present context, the world constructed by an agent who is part of that world is a non-constructive conception.

Not only is the world non-constructive and impredicative, but it is also indefinable in the traditional Aristotelian sense. In Aristotle, a term is defined by citing its genus and differentia. But the world has neither genus or differentia, and therefore cannot be defined. The world is a totality the eludes capture in formal thought. Or, as I put it in my Variations on the Theme of Life: “The world” is a metaphor for a concept that cannot be made literal.

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