Thursday


The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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Saturday


road closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Saturday


whole and part

Now it is already fall, and I find myself harking back to some thoughts I had in the spring. I have mentioned previously that I planned to return to my post on The Loss of Objecthood, but was dealt a setback by the theft my computer which had my manuscript for this reflection by way of return. (Is it irony or destiny that this reflection upon loss should have been followed by a loss, demonstrating personally and poignantly the catastrophe of loss?) What I still hope to say about this needs to be said, but it is complicated and the exposition will therefore take some effort. In the meantime, I have another idea that I can relate in relatively brief compass.

In The Loss of Objecthood, Negative Organicism, and Submergent Properties I considered the possibility of wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, in contradistinction to the more familiar idea of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. The distinction implicit in this recognition of negative organicisms also points to the possibility of a trichotomy: wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, and wholes that are equal to the sum of their parts.

This mereological trichotomy in turn suggests the possibility of what we may call the conservation of identity. What do I mean by the conservation of identity? Allow me to attempt an explanation.

When a number of individual objects join together and become parts of a larger whole, it sometimes seems to be the case that the individual identities of the objects are lost within the unity of the whole. This would seem to be a straight-forward case of negative organicism, but it also seems to be the case that the loss of individual identity is often compensated by the simultaneous acquisition of a corporate identity derived from the whole into which the object has been absorbed as a part.

In this latter case, when the many become one, the loss of individual identities means that the total number of identities in the world has been decreased by the emergence of a whole that submerges these individual identities, and in this sense there is no conservation of identity. But in so far as every object that previously had an identity still possesses an identity, even if this identity has been substituted with another identity, then there is a conservation of identity at the level of a one-to-one correspondence between objects and their identities.

Contrariwise, when then one becomes many, and a corporate identity collapses, the objects that were the constituent parts of the whole re-gain their individual entities even as they lose the identity conferred upon them by the mereological participation in the identity of the whole. In this case there would appear to be an increase in the absolute number of identities in the world, but again the conservation of identity is maintained at the level of one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities.

This one-to-one correspondence between objects and identities could be understood to be a function of the famous Quinean dictum of “No entity without identity.”

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Tuesday


objects 1

In a couple of posts, Negative Organicism and Submergent Properties, I considered those ontological features of the world that are changed by the gathering of individuals (or, if you prefer, objects) into larger wholes and particularly organic wholes such that the identity of the constituent parts becomes occluded by the identity of the whole that emerges from the aggregation of the parts.

It is not unusual to recognize that a whole can represent something that is more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to point out the wholes might also be less than the sum of their parts. And, while I am writing this (stranded in the transient spaces of the DFW airport), I realize that any sense in which the identity of individuals is occluded by the inclusion within a larger whole represents a loss, and in this sense every whole of this type — i.e., a whole that occludes the identity of its constituent parts, like the occlusion of individual atoms within a molecule — involves at least some degree of submergent properties. Whether an organic whole that has submerged the identity of its individual component parts also possesses emergent properties is another question. It strikes me as entirely plausible that a whole might possess both emergent properties and submergent properties.

A thorough-going analysis, of course, would distinguish four categories of wholes based on distinctions implicit in the aforementioned:

1) wholes that possess neither emergent nor submergent properties,

2) wholes that possess emergent properties only but no submergent properties,

3) wholes that possess no emergent properties but which do possess submergent properties, and

4) wholes that posses both emergent properties and submergent properties.

I wish that I had some learned object oriented ontologists among my readership, as a question now poses itself to me, and I don’t know enough about this novel tradition to even guess how it might be answered; nevertheless, it strikes me as interesting. Just before leaving on vacation, pursuing my recent interest in object oriented ontology, I got copies of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency and Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, but I didn’t bring them with me and didn’t have much time to skim them before departure. Interestingly, though (and a prima facie impression), Meillassoux’s book begins with a rehabilitation of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and it is difficult for me to see how this distinction can be reconciled with any sense of phenomenology (such as referenced in Harman’s title) however broadly (if not promiscuously) construed.

Anyway, to my question: given the loss of objecthood experienced in wholes of the third and fourth categories outlined above, in what sense can we maintain a flat ontology and a democracy of objects when objects are submerged and lose their identities in certain wholes? Certainly we know that most objects, and possibly even all objects, are temporary. Thus it should be expected that some objects will submerge and disappear even while other objects emerge into the world to begin their own temporary existence. This should not be problematic for any ontology (though it was certainly the central problem for Plato). We need not maintain that a whole composed of many previously existing individuals objects is somehow “better” or “higher” than the objects that preceded it in order to still be discomfited over the apparent hierarchy of objects that together constitute objects that in turn constitute further objects.

As I said, this was only a question. I don’t have an answer to offer. It would be reckless for me to suggest how the object oriented ontologists would answer this, since they have probably already answered this obvious question in their works, with which I am not yet conversant. But it seems to me that formulating the loss of objecthood in terms of submergent properties would be a profitable way to give some focus and precision to the question.

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Submergent Properties

14 May 2010

Friday


An Exercise in Theoretical Parallelism

If I have any careful readers they will know by now that I have a penchant for theoretical parallelism, i.e., formulations of a prospective theory based upon and parallel to an existing theory employed as a point of departure. My recent writings on integral history and on philosophy as a kind of integral science are in the same spirit, although in a more subtle way. By employing parallel formulations we are extending the scope of an initial theory beyond its intended scope of validity and thereby employing the theory in an extended sense (essentially, an anti-Kantian project). In so far as I called integral history history in an extended sense and philosophy science in an extended sense, these are also parallel formulations. So today I will briefly explore another parallel formulation.

A few days ago in Negative Organicisms I suggested the possibility of organic wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, as distinct from the familiar idea of organic wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. This seems to me to be a largely unobserved ontological phenomenon. We can develop the idea of negative organicism a little more systematically by appealing to a negative instantiation of what are called emergent properties, and which I will here call submergent properties.

Emergent properties are properties that emerge from complex systems as a result of the unforeseen interaction of the component parts of that system, and which properties did not subsist in the components taken individually. Examples of emergent properties include the social structures that emerge from groups of living organic beings when assembled in sufficiently large numbers. Nothing in the constitution of the individual taken as individual would allow us to project or predict the emergence of complex social codes or hierarchies such as have consistently appeared in history.

In parallel with emergent properties, we can define submergent properties as properties that do subsist in the individuals that are components of a system (or a whole) but which are lost or disappear or are submerged when these individuals are assembled together into a systematic relation or a whole. We see then that submergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes exemplify negative organicism, just as emergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts are able to exceed the sum of their parts. Both are examples of ontological mechanisms such as I recently discussed in A Short Note on Scientific Thought.

The most obvious example of a submergent property that occurs to me as I write this is the loss of individuality that members of a crowd or a mob experience. I have written about what at the beginning of the First World War was called the “August Madness” when crowds came out onto the streets of European cities to “celebrate” the outbreak of the war (and I wrote about this again in The August Madness). People who have experienced being part of such mass movements often speak of their feelings of being part of something greater than themselves, and while they do not often speak of it, I suspect that this feeling of community, at least to a certain degree, supplants the feeling of individuality. The loss of individuality would in turn account for the negative organicism of human compassion, such that we often observe that crowds are brutal, stupid, and violent and rather less caring and benevolent than individuals taken individually. It is no surprise that revolutionary violence emerges from a mob.

This is not the pure ontological example that I would like to produce as an example of submergent properties, but I think that it is one that many people can poignantly recognize in themselves if they will honestly search their memories. A generalization of this experience of the loss of individuality might lead us to an adequate definition of mass man, which in turn might make possible an adequate definition of the mass society that has emerged from the world transformed by industrialization. At these greater levels of generality — abstract from the individual, in a certain sense — we might approach more purely ontological instances of submergent properties, but I will leave discussion of such instances for future posts when such examples happen to occur to me.

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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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Saturday


In the venerable Jowett translation of Plato’s Sophist dialogue, the complete text of which can be found online at Project Gutenberg (and can also be found at Google Books, p. 379), we find the following exchange between Theaetetus and the Eleatic Stranger:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

This I shall simply call Plato’s definition of being.

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 - 09 September 1990

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 - 09 September 1990

This memorable definition of being in Plato — the power to affect or be affected (Sophist, 247e) — has been construed by Abbagnano in terms of possibility: being is the possibility to affect or be affected. The Greek term that Jowett translated as “power” — “δύναμις” — Abbagnano translated as “possibility.” While this isn’t quite as creative as some Heideggerian “translations” of Greek, it is an unusual translation. Despite this, I count the transformation from power to possibility as justified, since the Platonic account of being does not demand acting or suffering in actuality, but only the possibility of acting or suffering. Abbagnano, to my mind, has retained the essence of Plato’s meaning. And the Platonic definition, such as it is, seems reasonable to me, as we can scarcely credit anything with being if it has no relation whatsoever to us (or to the world). Thus the Platonic definition of being so construed also provides us with a definition of non-being.

critical existentialism

This Platonic conception of being immediately suggests a tripartite division among beings:

1) those which both act and suffer,

2) those which act only but do not suffer, and

3) those which suffer only but do not act.

There remains, obviously, a fourth possibility, but I noted above that the schematization of the Platonic definition of being introduces a tripartite division among beings, while the fourth possibility excludes all beings:

4) those which neither suffer nor act.

This fourth possibility — those which neither act nor suffer — represents, by definition, non-being and may be considered the null permutation (analogous to the empty set). There is an implicit paradox here, since we seem to be referring to beings that neither act nor suffer, which of course are impossible. Does non-being consist of impossible beings? And there is, as well, the ontologically interesting question of the possibility of the individuation of non-beings. Nothingness has always been a philosophical puzzle, and the above approach allows us a novel perspective on nothingness. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine the utter oblivion of non-being. Even the sinners trapped in the ice of the frozen Cocytus are able to converse with Dante (or, at least, are merely seen encased in ice), and therefore seem possess being to some degree in virtue of this interaction.

Dore's illustration of the damned frozen in the river Cocytus.

It is difficult to resist observing that the ontological “inertness” which has of late been ascribed to mathematics by Jody Azzouni (and we may generally suppose this to hold for all beings, if such they be, which constitute the formal sciences) would seem to indicate that mathematics is concerned not with beings but with non-being: we do not affect the objects of the formal sciences, and they do not affect us. But this is ultimately much too simplistic: the objects of the formal sciences — numbers, propositions, etc. — affect us in so far as we conceive them, and, depending upon the philosophy of mathematics that one advocates, there remains the possibility that might affect the objects of the formal sciences, for example, by creating and conceiving them (as in a constructivist philosophy of mathematics).

Azzouni's book on the philosophy of mathematics opens with a discussion of metaphysical inertness.

Azzouni's book on the philosophy of mathematics opens with a discussion of metaphysical inertness.

If man is the measure of all things, as according to Protagoras, then mathematics has no measure since mathematics is resolutely anti-anthropocentric. If, as Russell held, mathematics is the study in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we are saying is true, this is entirely justified, because we are, as it were, talking about nothing, and what we are saying is neither true nor false. But Russell’s philosophy of mathematics exemplified a classically anti-anthropocentric position, and Russell himself was willing to formulate some of his positions in terms of non-being (as in, for example, his “no classes” theory of classes), so in this particular context Russell’s modern formulation is a re-statement of traditional view, and in his thought no suggestion of a constructivist alternative is ever made. Nevertheless, Azzouni’s account of ontological inertness does closely correspond to the definition of non-being in terms of neither suffering nor acting, and it would be worthwhile to follow up on this correspondence in a systematic way. But another time.

An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

And there is more. Within each ontological division outlined above we may adopt a hierarchy of being, securely based upon quantification of the number of beings which a given being affects or by which it is affected. The measure of ontological power — ontological potency, as it were — is a being’s scope of acting and suffering. Now, we may assume that those beings that both act and suffer possess a greater scope of being than those one-sided beings which act only or suffer only. Whether either one of these two inferior forms of being — viz. acting only or suffering only — ought to be superior to the other is a greater problem, and we will not address it here.

We can go further than this by defining acting and suffering within regional ontologies (to invoke a formulation of Husserl). Regional ontologies themselves admit a scope of possible acting and suffering. They overlap and intersect (to invoke a formulation of Wittgenstein).

The idea of regional ontologies is due to Husserl (left) while the idea of family resemblances overlapping and intersecting is due to Wittgenstein (right).

The idea of regional ontologies is due to Husserl (left) while the idea of family resemblances overlapping and intersecting is due to Wittgenstein (right).

A further note: construing the Platonic definition of being in terms of the possibility of affecting or being affected, as Abbagnano does, suggests a distinction between so construing Plato and, in contrast, interpreting the Platonic definition of being in terms of actually affecting or being affected. This latter interpretation would require specifying a scope of time during which a putative existent’s affecting or being affected would be relevant, for not everything affects or is affected by everything else at any one moment. But this too suggests a further division (perhaps the narrowest formulation of being) in terms of which only that which affects or is affected by a given being at a given instant contributes to its reality: call it, if you will, being at an instant. More of this at another time.

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It all goes back to Plato, here shown in an imaginary medieval portrait.

It all goes back to Plato, here shown in an imaginary medieval portrait.

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