Ribera painted several imaginary portraits of ancient philosophers.

Protagoras of Abdera, by Jusepe de Ribera

In the spirit of my Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being, in which I took a short passage from Plato and extrapolated it beyond its originally intended scope, I would like to take a famous line from Protagoras and also extrapolate this beyond its originally intended scope. The passage from Protagoras I have in mind is his most famous bon mot:

“Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”

…and in the original Greek…

“πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἔστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν δὲ μὲν οντῶν ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὠς οὐκ ἔστιν”

Presocratic scholarship has focused on the relativism of Protagoras’ μέτρον, especially in comparison to the strong realism of Plato, but I don’t take the two to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I think we can better understand Plato through Protagoras and Protagoras through Plato.

Firstly, the Protagorean dictum reveals at once both the inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which is the spirit that continues to motivate the western philosophical tradition (which Bertrand Russell once commented is all, essentially, Greek philosophy), and the ontologizing nature of Greek thought, which is another persistent theme of western philosophy, though less often noticed than the naturalistic theme. Plato, despite his otherworldly realism, is part of this inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which in our own day has become explicitly naturalistic. Indeed, Greek philosophy since ancient Greece might be characterized as the convergence upon a fully naturalistic conception of the world, though this has been a long and bumpy road.

The naturalism of Greek thought, in turn, points to the proto-scientific character of Greek philosophy. The closest approximation to modern scientific thought prior to the scientific revolution is to be found in works such as Archimedes’ Statics and Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s estimate of the diameter of the earth. If these examples are not already fully scientific inquiries, they are at least proto-science, from which a fully scientific method might have emerged under different historical conditions.

Plato and Protagoras were both guilty of a certain degree of mysticism, but strong traces of the scientific naturalism of Greek thought is expressed in their work. Protagoras’ μέτρον in particular can be understood as an early step in the direction of quantificational concepts. Quantification is central to scientific thought (in my podcast The Cosmic Archipelago, Part II, I offered a variation on the familiar Cartesian theme of cogito, ergo sum, suggesting that, from the perspective of science, we could say I measure, therefore I am), and when we think of quantification we think of measurement in the sense of gradations on a standard scale. However, the most fundamental form of quantification is revealed by counting, and counting is essentially the determination whether something exists or not. Thus the Protagorean μέτρον — specifically, the things that are, that they are, and the things that are not, that they are not — is a quantificational schema for determining existence relative to a human observer. Protagoras’ μέτρον is a postulate of counting, and without counting there would be no mathematicized natural science.

All scientific knowledge as we know it is human scientific knowledge, and all of it is therefore anthropocentric in a way that is not necessarily a distortion. For human beings to have knowledge of the world in which they find themselves, they must have knowledge that the human mind can assimilate. Our epistemic concepts are the framework we have erected in order to make sense of the world, and these concepts are human creations. That does not mean that they are wrong, even if they have been frequently misleading. The pyrrhonian skeptic exploits this human, all-too-human weakness in our knowledge, claiming that because our concepts are imperfect, no knowledge whatsoever is possible. This is a strawman argument. Knowledge is possible, but it is human knowledge. Protagoras made this explicit. (This is one of the themes of my Cosmic Archipelago series.)

Taking Plato and Protagoras together — that is, taking Plato’s definition of being and Protagoras’ doctrine of measure — we probably come closer to the originally intended meaning of both Plato and Protagoras than if we treat them in isolation, a fortiori if we treat them as antagonists. Plato’s definition of being — the power to affect or be affected — and Protagoras’ dictum — that man is the measure of all things, which we can take to mean that quantification begins with a human observer — naturally coincide when the power to affect or be affected is understood relative to the human power to affect or be affected.

Since human knowledge begins with a human observer and human experience, knowledge necessarily also follows from that which affects a human being or that which a human being can effect. The role of experimentation in science since the scientific revolution takes this ontological interaction of affecting and being affected, makes it systematic, and derives all natural knowledge from this principle. Human beings formulate scientific experiments, and in so doing affect the world in building an experimental apparatus and running the experiment. The experiment, in turn, affects human beings as the scientist observes the experiment running and records how it affects him, i.e., what he observers in the world as a result of his intervention in the course of events.

Plato and Protagoras taken together as establishing an initial ontological basis for quantification lay the metaphysical groundwork for scientific naturalism, even if neither philosopher was a scientific naturalist in the strict sense.

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I have previously discussed Protagoras’ μέτρον in Ontological Ruminations: Six Protagorean Propositions on the Nature of Man and the World and A Non-Constructive World.

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Biological Bias

3 March 2018


What does it mean to be a biological being? It means, among other things, that one sees the world from a biological perspective, thinks in terms of concepts amenable to a biological brain, understands oneself and one’s species in its biological context, which is the biosphere of our homeworld, and that one persists in a mode of being distinctive to biological beings (which mode of being we call life). To be a biological being is to be related to the world through one’s biology; one has biological desires, biological aversions, biological imperatives, biological expectations, and biological intentions. Human beings are biological beings, and so are subject to all of these conditions of biological being.

When we think in terms of human bias — and we are subject to many biases as human beings — we usually focus on exclusively human biases, our anthropocentrism, our anthropic bias, but we are also subject to biases that follow from the other ontological classes of beings of which we are members. We are human beings, but we are also cognitive beings (i.e., intelligent agents), linguistic beings, mammalian beings, biological beings, physical beings, Stelliferous Era beings, and so on. This litany may be endless; whether or not we are aware of it, we may belong to an infinitude of ontological classes in virtue of the kind of beings that we are.

Another example of a bias to which human beings are subject but which is not exclusively anthropic, is what I have called terrestrial bias. Some time ago in Terrestrial Bias: Thought Experiments I asked, “…is there, among human beings, any sense of identification with the life of Earth? Is there a terrestrial bias, or will there be a terrestrial bias when we are able to compare our response to terrestrial life to our response to extraterrestrial life?” As I write this it occurs to me that a distinction can be made between planetary bias, to which any being of planetary endemism would be subject, and terrestrial bias understood as a bias specific to Earth, to which only life on Earth would be subject. In making this distinction, we understand that terrestrial bias is a special case of planetary bias, which latter is the more comprehensive concept.

Similarly, anthropic bias is a special case of the more comprehensive concept of intelligent agent bias. Again, we can distinguish between intelligent agent bias and anthropic bias, with intelligent agent bias being the more comprehensive concept under which anthropic bias falls. However, intelligent agents could also include artificial agents, who would be peers of human intelligent agents in respect of intelligence, but which would not share our biological bias. The many biases, then, which attend and inform human cognition, are nested within more comprehensive biases, as well as overlapping with the biases of other agents that might potentially exist and which would share some of our biases but which would not fall under exactly the same more comprehensive concepts. In Wittgensteinian terms, there is a complicated network of biases that overlap and intersect (cf. Philosophical Investigations, sec. 66); these biases correspond to a complicated network of ontological classes that overlap and intersect.

Our biological biases overlap and intersect with our other biases, such as our biases as the result of being human (anthropic bias) or our biases in virtue of being composed of matter (material or physical bias). Biological bias occupies a point midway between these two ontological classes. Our anthropic bias is exclusive to human beings, but we share our biological bias with every living thing on Earth, and perhaps with living things elsewhere in the cosmos, while we share our material bias much more widely with dust and gas and stars, except that these latter beings, not being intelligent agents, cannot exercise judgment or act as agents, so that their bias can only be manifested passively. One might well characterize the Platonic definition of beingthe capacity to affect or be affected — as the passive exercise of bias, with each class of beings affecting and being affected by other beings of the same class as peers.

I have sought to exhibit and disentangle and overlapping and intersecting of biological baises in a number of posts related to biophilia and biophobia, including:

Biocentrism and Biophilia

The Biocentric Thesis

The Scope of Biophilia

Not all biases are catastrophic distortions of reasoning. In Less than Cognitive Bias I made a distinction between anthropic biases that characterize the human condition without necessarily adversely affecting rational judgment, and anthropic biases that do undermine our ability to reason rationally. And in The Human Overview I sketched out the complexity of ordinary human communication, which is dense in subtle biases, some of which compromise our rationality, but many of which are crucial to our ability to rapidly reason about our circumstances — a skill with high survival value, and a skill at which human beings excel and which will not soon by modeled by artificial intelligence on account of its subtlety. A tripartite distinction can be made, then, among biases that compromise our reason, biases that are neutral in regard to out ability to reason, and biases that augment our ability to reason.

Our biological biases coincide to a large extent with our evolutionary psychology, and, in so far as our evolutionary psychology enabled us to survive in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, our biological biases augment our ability to reason cogently and to act effectively in biological contexts — though only in what might be called peer biological contexts, as far as our particular scale of biological individuality allows us to identify with other biological individuals as peers. Our peer biological biases do not allow us to interact effectively at the level of the microbiome or at the level of the biosphere, with the result that considerable scientific effort has been required for us to understand and to interact effectively at these biological scales.

A similar applicability of bias may be true more widely of our other biases, which help us in some circumstances while hurting us in other circumstances. Certainly our anthropic biases have helped us to survive, and that is why we possess them in such robust forms, though they have helped us to survive as a species of planetary endemism. In the event of humanity breaking out of our homeworld as a spacefaring civilization, our anthropic, homeworld, and planetary endemism biases may not serve us as well in cosmological contexts. however, we know what to do about this. The cultivation of science and rigorous reasoning has allowed us to transcend many of our biases without actually losing our biases. Instead of viewing this as a human, all-too-human failure, we should think of this as a human strength: we can, when we apply ourselves, selectively transcend our biases, but when we need them, they are there for us, and they will be there for us until we actually alter ourselves biologically. Thus there is a biological “way out” from biological biases, but we might want to think twice before pursuing this way out, as our biological biases may well prove to be an asset (and perhaps an asset in unexpected, instinctive ways) when we eventually explore other biospheres and encounter another form of biology.

What Carl Sagan called the “deprovincialization” of biology may also take place at the level of human evolutionary psychology. If so, we shouldn’t desire to transcend or eliminate our biological biases as we should desire to augment and expand them in order to overcome what will be eventually learn about our terrestrial and homeworld biases from the biology of other worlds.

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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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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


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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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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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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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


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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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:


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


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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