The Science of Time

30 January 2013

Wednesday


Francis_Herbert_Bradley

F. H. Bradley in his classic treatise Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, made this oft-quoted comment:

“If you identify the Absolute with God, that is not the God of religion. If again you separate them, God becomes a finite factor in the Whole. And the effort of religion is to put an end to, and break down, this relation — a relation which, none the less, it essentially presupposes. Hence, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him. It is this difficulty which appears in the problem of the religious self-consciousness.”

I think many commentators have taken this passage as emblematic of what they believe to be Bradley’s religious sentimentalism, and in fact the yearning for religious belief (no longer possible for rational men) that characterized much of the school of thought that we now call “British Idealism.”

This is not my interpretation. I’ve read enough Bradley to know that he was no sentimentalist, and while his philosophy diverges radically from contemporary philosophy, he was committed to a philosophical, and not a religious, point of view.

Bradley was an elder contemporary of Bertrand Russell, and Bertrand Russell characterized Bradley as the grand old man of British idealism. This if from Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World:

“The nature of the philosophy embodied in the classical tradition may be made clearer by taking a particular exponent as an illustration. For this purpose, let us consider for a moment the doctrines of Mr Bradley, who is probably the most distinguished living representative of this school. Mr Bradley’s Appearance and Reality is a book consisting of two parts, the first called Appearance, the second Reality. The first part examines and condemns almost all that makes up our everyday world: things and qualities, relations, space and time, change, causation, activity, the self. All these, though in some sense facts which qualify reality, are not real as they appear. What is real is one single, indivisible, timeless whole, called the Absolute, which is in some sense spiritual, but does not consist of souls, or of thought and will as we know them. And all this is established by abstract logical reasoning professing to find self-contradictions in the categories condemned as mere appearance, and to leave no tenable alternative to the kind of Absolute which is finally affirmed to be real.”

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Chapter I, “Current Tendencies”

Although Russell rejected what he called the classical tradition, and distinguished himself in contributing to the origins of a new philosophical school that would come (in time) to be called analytical philosophy, the influence of figures like F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart (whom Russell knew personally) can still be found in Russell’s philosophy.

In fact, the above quote from F. H. Bradley — especially the portion most quoted, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him — is a perfect illustration of a principle found in Russell, and something on which I have quoted Russell many times, as it has been a significant influence on my own thinking.

I have come to refer to this principle as Russell’s generalization imperative. Russell didn’t call it this (the terminology is mine), and he didn’t in fact give any name at all to the principle, but he implicitly employs this principle throughout his philosophical method. Here is how Russell himself formulated the imperative (which I last quoted in The Genealogy of the Technium):

“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”

Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”

One of the distinctive features that Russell identifies as constitutive of the classical tradition, and in fact one of the few explicit commonalities between the classical tradition and Russell’s own thought, was the denial of time. The British idealists denied the reality of time outright, in the best Platonic tradition; Russell did not deny the reality of time, but he was explicit about not taking time too seriously.

Despite Russell’s hostility to mysticism as expressed in his famous essay “Mysticism and Logic,” when it comes to the mystic’s denial of time, Russell softens a bit and shows his sympathy for this particular aspect of mysticism:

“Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought. The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”

And…

“…impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays, Chapter I, “Mysticism and Logic”

While Russell and the classical tradition in philosophy both perpetuated the devalorization of time, this attitude is slowly disappearing from philosophy, and contemporary philosophers are more and more treating time as another reality to be given philosophical exposition rather than denying its reality. I regard this as a salutary development and a riposte to all who claim that philosophy makes no advances. Contemporary philosophy of time is quite sophisticated, and embodies a much more honest attitude to the world than the denial of time. (For those looking at philosophy from the outside, the denial of the reality of time simply sounds like a perverse waste of time, but I won’t go into that here.)

In any case, we can bring Russell’s generalization imperative to time and history even if Russell himself did not do so. That is to say, we ought to generalize to the utmost in our conception of time, and if we do so, we come to a principle parallel to Bradley’s that I think both Russell and Bradley would have endorsed: short of the absolute time cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, time is lost and history with it.

Since I don’t agree with this, but it would be one logical extrapolation of Russell’s generalization imperative as applied to time, this suggests to be that there is more than one way to generalize about time. One way would be the kind of generalization that I formulated above, presumably consistent with Russell’s and Bradley’s devalorization of time. Time generalized in this way becomes a whole, a totality, that ceases to possess the distinctive properties of time as we experience it.

The other way to generalize time is, I think, in accord with the spirit of Big History: here Russell’s generalization imperative takes the form of embedding all times within larger, more comprehensive times, until we reach the time of the entire universe (or beyond). The science of time, as it is emerging today, demands that we almost seek the most comprehensive temporal perspective, placing human action in evolutionary context, placing evolution in biological context, placing biology is in geomorphological context, placing terrestrial geomorphology into a planetary context, and placing this planetary perspective into a cosmological context. This, too, is a kind of generalization, and a generalization that fully feels the imperative that to stop at any particular “level” of time (which I have elsewhere called ecological temporality) is arbitrary.

On my other blog I’ve written several posts related directly or obliquely to Big History as I try to define my own approach to this emerging school of historiography: The Place of Bilateral Symmetry in the History of Life, The Archaeology of Cosmology, and The Stars Down to Earth.

The more we pursue the rapidly growing body of knowledge revealed by scientific historiography, the more we find that we are part of the larger universe; our connections to the world expand as we pursue them outward in pursuit of Russell’s generalization imperative. I think it was Hans Blumenberg in his enormous book The Genesis of the Copernican World, who remarked on the significance of the fact that we can stand with our feet on the earth and look up at the stars. As I remarked in The Archaeology of Cosmology, we now find that by digging into the earth we can reveal past events of cosmological history. As a celestial counterpart to this digging in the earth (almost as though concretely embodying the contrast to which Blumenberg referred), we know that by looking up at the stars, we are also looking back in time, because the light that comes to us ages after it has been produced. Thus is astronomy a kind of luminous archaeology.

In Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space I wrote, “…we have no science of time. We have science-like measurements of time, and time as a concept in scientific theories, but no scientific theory of time as such.” Scientists have tried to think scientifically about time, but, as with the case of consciousness, a science of time eludes us as a science of consciousness eludes us. Here a philosophical perspective remains necessary because there are so many open questions and no clear indication of how these questions are to be answered in a clearly scientific spirit.

Therefore I think it is too early to say exactly what Big History is, because we aren’t logically or intellectually prepared to say exactly what the Russellian generalization imperative yields when applied to time and history. I think that we are approaching a point at which we can clarify our concepts of time and history, but we aren’t quite there yet, and a lot of conceptual work is necessary before we can produce a definitive formulation of time and history that will make of Big History the science and it aspires to be.

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Monday


Socrates and his clouds


Dear Readers,

It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to offer you the guest post below from William Lyons. Mr. Lyons will be having his new play about Socrates produced in London next summer; previously he had a play about Wittgenstein produced. I’m very pleased to be able to give you Mr. Lyon’s reflections on philosophy and drama.

Happy New Year!

Nick Nielsen


There will always be those who will immediately point out that philosophy and drama never go well together, no matter what form the conjunction takes. While there have been over the history of philosophy many famous philosophical dialogues, written by such great philosophers as Plato, Anselm, Berkeley and Hume, they remain just that, dialogues not drama, just talking heads. Talking heads run an acute risk of being acutely boring for any audience, especially if the heads are talking philosophy. Certainly it is true that a number of classical scholars have suggested that Plato’s dialogues were performed as live dramas at some of the great Athenian dramatic festivals such as the City Dionysia. In the final analysis, however one looks at it, dialogues will always be just that, people talking. So, even if I managed to persuade some artistic director to stage one, I myself, a writer of philosophical plays, have no desire to bore a theatre audience with yet another philosophical dialogue.

Anyone interested in French cinema will be used to characters in films discussing Plato or Descartes or Voltaire or Sartre in some café that resembles the Parisian intellectuals’ Café de Flore or the Café Les Deux Magots. But these films are not really philosophical films but films that display some character’s sophistication by having him or her talk about the views of some famous philosophers. More truly philosophical are those plays by the French Existentialists, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus which not merely often featured philosophers as characters in a play but explored philosophical themes. The French Théatre de l’Absurde, which had an influence on Beckett, also had Existentialist themes at its core – the non‐existence of God, the denial of an after‐life, the repudiation of objective moral values and so, in consequence, the absurdity of life.

My starting point is different. An apt alternative title for what I am trying to achieve might be “the drama of a genuinely philosophical life”. Thus my attempt, in my initial trilogy of plays, at making the connection between philosophy and drama is focused particularly on philosophers themselves, on their philosophical life and the difficulties in leading it. I’m interested in how a philosopher, at least one worthy of the name, goes about his or her business. In particular I’m interested in how a philosopher functions in a world where the core philosophical virtues of intellectual integrity, moral courage, and honesty are generally ignored. Thus I’ve been interested in those philosophers who conspicuously lived by their philosophical beliefs when this was not an easy thing to do, and obversely in those philosophers who, while professing certain philosophical beliefs, conspicuously separated those beliefs from their ordinary lives. In writing this sort of drama I have as an additional aim a desire to draw philosophy to the attention of the “ordinary person” who would not ordinarily come across philosophy during his or her life much less engage with it. I fancy that displaying the philosophical life, or philosophy as incarnated in the life of some philosopher, may well be a good way to do this.

Given this approach, the big question is how can one generate philosophical drama about a philosopher that is true to his or her core ideas but is also alive and engaging? A philosopher is famous mainly because of some core texts of which he or she is the author. But philosophy books are notoriously complex and difficult texts. So in dramatizing the life of a particular philosopher, the temptation is to avoid the philosophy and concentrate instead on the more sensational events, if any, in the philosopher’s life. The film “Iris”, for example, is a brilliant piece of film‐making about the novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. But the film is about Iris Murdoch’s relations with her husband, the literary critic John Bayley, and especially about the tensions in that relationship caused by Iris’s gradual descent into the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s disease. A viewer gets little or no sense that Iris was a famous novelist nor is provided with any clues about her philosophical ideas or ideals.

Drama involves focusing on the events in people’s lives. If the life in question is that of a philosopher, it seems that one way forward is for a dramatist to be interested in how at least some of those events were shaped by the philosopher’s ideas. A convincing interweaving of the life and thought of a philosopher is possible, particularly in the case of philosophers, like Socrates and Wittgenstein, who lived their philosophy in a profound way. So I have written plays about both Socrates and Wittgenstein. I have also written a play about the relationship between the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. These two also manifested their philosophical views in their lives, though it is arguable that Heidegger spent considerable time and energy denying this. In the course of the post‐war defence of his actions during the Nazi era in Germany, he suggested that philosophy, or at least his philosophy, should be separated from a philosopher’s life. In the play this attitude is contrasted with that of Hannah Arendt whose philosophy was undeniably shaped by her experiences during that same period of history and clearly acknowledged by her as such.

While my play about Heidegger and Arendt is yet to be staged, my play about Wittgenstein, “Wittgenstein — The Crooked Roads”, had its world premiére and subsequent performances in April-May 2011 at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London. At present I am engaged in the pre‐production planning for the world premiére and subsequent performances of my play about Socrates, “Socrates and his Clouds”, at the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London, 3rd June – 22nd June 2013. So, as an example of how I go about writing a “theatre of thought” or “theatre of thinkers” drama, let me say something about this play, in particular something about its inspiration, ideas and form.

Socrates is a central figure in the history of Western philosophy and thereby an iconic figure in Western civilization. While there is not even one piece of philosophical writing published under his own name, he appears to have been such a memorable and successful teacher of philosophy that he was written about by contemporaries such as Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes, and, some centuries later, he is a central figure in Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers”. What draws authors to Socrates is the single‐minded intensity, integrity and dialectical force of his enquiry into the nature of the virtues, the ideals of education, the best way to organize a society and above all the best way for an individual to live his or her own life. He is the philosophers’ philosopher as well as the ordinary person’s, or ordinary educated person’s, ideal of a philosopher. He is the initial paradigm in Western culture of what a philosopher should be like.

But there have been many plays written about Socrates, almost all of them concentrating on his trial and conviction on the twin charges of corrupting the youth and of impiety or belittling the traditional religion, and so in turn on his subsequent death sentence and execution by poisoning. So I decided to avoid going down that well‐trodden path. This led me to look at Aristophanes’ famous debunking of Socrates in his play “Clouds”. This is a powerful piece of what has subsequently come to be called “Old Comedy” or “Comedy of Ideas”. Indeed this form of serious farce was invented by Aristophanes. Some critics have suggested that his depiction in the “Clouds” of Socrates as a sophistic charlatan and dithering buffoon seriously undermined Socrates’ defence in his trial before the democratic court of 501 male citizens in 399 b.c. I decided to give a different account of Socrates as teacher of philosophy but at the same time not to neglect the wit and fun of serious comedy. So “Socrates and his Clouds” is my attempt to revive “Old Comedy” or “Comedy of Ideas” with, of course, as the title implies, much homage to the master himself, Aristophanes. But, among other things, I substitute someone more like the witty, wry and wise Socrates of Plato’s dialogues for the buffoon of Aristophanes. I depict Socrates as aged 70, just before he is indicted for his crimes of corrupting the youth and impiety but fully conscious of the fact that his enemies are closing in on him. I borrow some of the characters from Aristophanes’ “Clouds” and some of the plot. But the text is otherwise completely new and original. I turn the play into a serious‐comedy about the ever‐fraught father‐son relationship, the nature of education, the place of religion in a society, the role of reason, and the perennial problem about how one should live one’s life.

The theatre company producing the play is a Greek one so that, whether intentionally or not, the production is bound to be imbued with an appropriately Greek flavour. Perhaps I should describe the company as Anglo‐Greek as most of those involved in it are young Greeks or Cypriots now living in London. This Anglo‐Greek company, called The Meddlers Theatre Company, is led by Melina Theocharidou. She is a Cypriot Greek who studied for an arts degree in Nicosia, then studied drama at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London), King’s College London, the Athinais Theatre in Athens and, as a summer intern, at the Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab in New York (where she and fellow interns work‐shopped “Socrates and his Clouds” in 2012). The designer of the set and costumes is in the hands of Katerina Angelopoulou, daughter of the late great Greek film director, Theo Angelopoulos, on whose last films she worked. She is also an award‐winning theatre designer in her own right. As there is in the play a singing and dancing Greek Chorus of street buskers who might also be, it seems, The Fates, so there are music directors. These are also Greek — Olivios Karaolides (composition) and Constantine Andronikou (singing).

That the production will have a pronounced Greek flavour seems to me to be timely and apt. Over the last year and a half Greece has being endlessly criticized and belittled by the world’s press. Through its focus on Socrates, I hope that this Greek production will remind us of the fact that, since the golden age of Athenian civilization, Greece has been the source of so many of the great aspects of our culture.

The theatre where the production will be staged is the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London, an outfield baseball throw from Piccadilly Circus. It is a small intimate studio theatre, seating c. 75 persons grouped around three sides of the stage area. In short it is very audience friendly. The theatre was named as the Fringe Theatre of the Year 2012 and has an acclaimed artistic director, Antony Biggs, as well as an experienced and dedicated staff.

What I have not yet mentioned is the dispiriting and wearying work of trying to raise sufficient sponsorship for this production. Because sponsorship for drama from the British Arts Council has been decimated, so few theatres now receive support from it, so that theatre rental costs have climbed alarmingly. Fringe theatre in Britain, the home of new writing, has rarely received much commercial sponsorship as commercial sponsors tend to support sporting events or pop concerts which gain wide tv coverage and so provide prime advertising time for them. As the life of an actor is always financially fragile, we would also like to pay our cast basic Equity rates of pay. So if there are any kind souls out there, who love theatre or philosophy, or both, and would love to help sponsor the London production of “Socrates and his Clouds”, please contact me (at wlyons@tcd.ie). I should also make clear that I myself will neither be asking for nor accepting any form of fee, royalty or even expenses.

William Lyons.

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Tuesday


scientific metaphysics 1

The slow percolation of metaphysical ideas into human experience

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

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

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

Some metaphysical ideas: reduction, emergence, supervenience

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

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

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

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

Here is a definition of emergence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary metaphysical ideas in relation to science

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

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

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

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

The metaphysical interpretation of contemporary science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience in sharper focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduction, emergence, and supervenience as philosophies of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prospects for reduction, emergence, and supervenience

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

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Friday


Learning to Love the Wisdom

Homo technologiensis

of Industrial-Technological Civilization


A confession of enthusiasm

Allow me to give free rein to my enthusiasm and to proclaim that there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a philosopher than today. It is ironic that, at the same time, philosophers are probably held in lower esteem today than in any other period of human history. I have recently come to the opinion that it is intrinsic to the structure of industrial-technological civilization to devalue philosophy, but I have discussed the contemporary neglect of philosophy in several posts — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, and Beyond Anti-Philosophy among them — so that is not what I am going to write about today.

Today, on the contrary, I want to write about the great prospects that are now opening up to philosophy, despite its neglect in popular culture and its abuse by the enthusiasts of a positivistically-conceived science. And these prospects are not one but many. In some previous posts about object-oriented philosophy (also called object-oriented ontology, or OOO) I mentioned how exciting it was to be alive at a time when a new philosophical school was coming into being, especially at a time when academic philosophy seems to have stalled and relinquished any engagement with the world or any robust relationship to the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings. (As bitterly as the existentialists were denounced in their day, they did engage quite directly with contemporary events and contemporary life. Sartre made a fool of himself by meeting with Che Guevara and by mouthing Maoist claptrap in his later years, but he reached far more people than most philosophers of his generation, and like fellow existentialist Camus, did so through a variety of prose works, plays, and novels.) Now I see that we live in an age of the emergence of not one but of many different philosophical schools, and this is interesting indeed.

Philosophical periodization: schools of thought

Anyone who discusses so-called “schools” in philosophy is likely to run into immediate resistance, usually from those who have been characterized as belonging to a dubiously-conceived school. As soon as Sartre gave an explicit definition of existentialism as being based on the principle that existence precedes essence, Heidegger and Jaspers explicitly and emphatically denied that they were “existentialists.” And if we think of the hundreds years of philosophical research and the hundreds of philosophers who can be lumped under the label of “scholasticism,” the identification of a school of “scholastic” philosophers would seem to be without any content whatsoever.

Nevertheless, some of these labels remain accurate even when and where they are rejected. While Heidegger and Jaspers rejected the principle that existence precedes essence, there is no question that all three of these great existentialist thinkers were preoccupied with the problematic human condition in the modern world. Similarly, the ordinary language philosophers had their disagreements, but there were unified by a method of the analysis of ordinary language.

The school of techno-philosophy

With this caveat in mind about identifying a philosophical “school” that will almost certainly be rejected by its practitioners, I am going to identify what I will call techno-philosophy. In regard to techno-philosophy I will identify no common goals, aspirations, beliefs, principles, ideas, or ideals that belong to the practitioners of techno-philosophy, but only the common object of philosophical analysis. Techno-philosophy offers an initial exploration of novel ideas and novel facts of life in industrial society, and especially the ideas and facts of life related to technology that rapidly change within a single lifetime.

What makes the school of techno-philosophy interesting is not the special rigor or creativity of the philosophical thought in question — contemporary Anglo-American academic analytical philosophy is far more rigorous, and contemporary continental philosophy is far more imaginative — but rather the objects taken up by techno-philosophy. What are the objects of techno-philosophy? These objects are the novel productions of industrial-technological civilization, which appear and succeed each other in breathless rapidity. The fact of technological change, or even, if one would be so bold, rapid technological progress, is unprecedented. As an unprecedented aspect of life in industrial-technological civilization, rapid technological progress is an appropriate object for philosophical reflection.

The original position of technical society

The artifacts of technological progress have been produced in almost complete blindness as regard to their philosophical significance and consequences. What techno-philosophy represents is the first attempt to make philosophical sense of the artifacts of technology taken collectively, on the whole, and with an eye to their extrapolation across space and through time. In fact, the very idea of technology taken whole may be understood as a conceptual innovation of techno-philosophy, and this very idea has been called the technium by Kevin Kelly. (I wrote about the idea of the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.)

Thus we can count Kevin Kelly among techno-philosophers, and even Ray Kurzweil — though Kurzweil does not seem to be interested in philosophy per se, he has pushed the limits of thinking about machine intelligence to the point that he is on the verge of philosophical questions. Thinkers in the newly emerging tradition of the technological singularity and transhumanism belong to techno-philosophy. Academic philosopher David Chalmers, known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind (and especially known for formulating the phrase “explanatory gap” to indicate the chasm between consciousness and attempted physicalistic accounts of mind) was invited to the last singularity conference and tried his hand at an essay in techno-philosophy.

Bostrom and Ćirković and techno-philosophers

The work of Nick Bostrom also represents techno-philosophy, as Professor Bostrom has engaged with a number of contemporary ideas such as superintelligence, the Fermi paradox, extraterrestrial life, transhumanism, posthumanism, the simulation hypothesis (which is a contemporary reformulation of Cartesian evil spirit), and existential risk (which is a contemporary reformulation and secularization of apocalypticism, but with a focus on mitigating apocalyptic scenarios).

Serbian astronomer and physicist Milan M. Ćirković has also dealt with many of the same questions in an admirably daring way (he has co-edited the volume Global Catastrophic Risks with Bostrom). What typifies the work of Bostrom and Ćirković — which definitely constitutes the best work in contemporary techno-philosophy — is their willingness to bring traditional philosophical sensibility to the analysis of contemporary ideas, and especially ideas enabled and facilitated by contemporary technology such as computing and space science.

The branches of industrial-technological philosophy

Industrial-technological civilization is created by practical men who eschew philosophy if they happen to be aware of it, and those with a bent for abstract or theoretical thought, and who desire a robust engagement with the world, turn to science or mathematics, where abstract and theoretical ideas can have a direct and nearly immediate impact upon the development of industrial society. Techno-philosophy picks up where these indispensable men of industrial-technological civilization leave off.

Once we understand the relationship between techno-philosophy and industrial-technological civilization (and its disruptions), and knowing the cycle of science, technology and engineering that drives such a civilization, we can posit a philosophical analysis of each stage in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization, with a philosophy of the science of this civilization, a philosophy of the technology of this civilization, and a philosophy of the engineering of this civilization. Techno-philosophy, then, is the philosophy of the technology of industrial-technological civilization.

Philosophy in a time of model drift

In parallel to the emerging school of techno-philosophy, there is a quasi-philosophical field of popular expositions of science by those actively working on the frontiers of the sciences that have been most profoundly transformed by recent developments, and which are still in the process of transformation. This is the philosophy of the science of industrial-technological civilization, and it is distinct from traditional philosophy of science. The rapid developments in cosmology and physics in particular have led to model drift in these fields, and those scientists who are working on these concepts feel the need to give these abstract and theoretical conceptions a connection to ordinary human experience.

Here I have in mind the books of Brian Green, such as his exposition of string theory, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, as well as criticisms of string theory such as Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. Some of these books are more widely ranging and therefore more philosophical, such as David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications, while some appeal to a traditional conception of “natural philosophy” as in David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. While these works do not constitute “techno-philosophy” as I have characterized it above, they stand in a similar relationship to the civilization the thought of which they represent.

The prospects for techno-philosophy

As techno-philosophy grows in scope, rigor, depth, and methodological sophistication, it promises to give to industrial-technological civilization something this civilization never wanted and never desired, but of which it is desperately in need: Depth. Gravitas. Intellectual seriousness. Disciplined reflection on the human condition. In a word: wisdom.

If there is anything the world needs today, it is wisdom.

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Friday


Alonzo Church and Alan Turing

What is the Church-Turing Thesis? The Church-Turing Thesis is an idea from theoretical computer science that emerged from research in the foundations of logic and mathematics, also called Church’s Thesis, Church’s Conjecture, the Church-Turing Conjecture as well as other names, that ultimately bears upon what can be computed, and thus, by extension, what a computer can do (and what a computer cannot do).

Note: For clarity’s sake, I ought to point out the Church’s Thesis and Church’s Theorem are distinct. Church’s Theorem is an established theorem of mathematical logic, proved by Alonzo Church in 1936, that there is no decision procedure for logic (i.e., there is no method for determining whether an arbitrary formula in first order logic is a theorem). But the two – Church’s theorem and Church’s thesis – are related: both follow from the exploration of the possibilities and limitations of formal systems and the attempt to define these in a rigorous way.

Even to state Church’s Thesis is controversial. There are many formulations, and many of these alternative formulations come straight from Church and Turing themselves, who framed the idea differently in different contexts. Also, when you hear computer science types discuss the Church-Turing thesis you might think that it is something like an engineering problem, but it is essentially a philosophical idea. What the Church-Turing thesis is not is as important as what it is: it is not a theorem of mathematical logic, it is not a law of nature, and it not a limit of engineering. We could say that it is a principle, because the word “principle” is ambiguous and thus covers the various formulations of the thesis.

There is an article on the Church-Turing Thesis at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one at Wikipedia (of course), and even a website dedicated to a critique of the Stanford article, Alan Turing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. All of these are valuable resources on the Church-Turing Thesis, and well worth reading to gain some orientation.

One way to formulate Church’s Thesis is that all effectively computable functions are general recursive. Both “effectively computable functions” and “general recursive” are technical terms, but there is an important different between these technical terms: “effectively computable” is an intuitive conception, whereas “general recursive” is a formal conception. Thus one way to understand Church’s Thesis is that it asserts the identity of a formal idea and an informal idea.

One of the reasons that there are many alternative formulations of the Church-Turing thesis is that there any several formally equivalent formulations of recursiveness: recursive functions, Turing computable functions, Post computable functions, representable functions, lambda-definable functions, and Markov normal algorithms among them. All of these are formal conceptions that can be rigorously defined. For the other term that constitutes the identity that is Church’s thesis, there are also several alternative formulations of effectively computable functions, and these include other intuitive notions like that of an algorithm or a procedure that can be implemented mechanically.

These may seem like recondite matters with little or no relationship to ordinary human experience, but I am surprised how often I find the same theoretical conflict played out in the most ordinary and familiar contexts. The dialectic of the formal and the informal (i.e., the intuitive) is much more central to human experience than is generally recognized. For example, the conflict between intuitively apprehended free will and apparently scientifically unimpeachable determinism is a conflict between an intuitive and a formal conception that both seem to characterize human life. Compatibilist accounts of determinism and free will may be considered the “Church’s thesis” of human action, asserting the identity of the two.

It should be understood here that when I discuss intuition in this context I am talking about the kind of mathematical intuition I discussed in Adventures in Geometrical Intuition, although the idea of mathematical intuition can be understood as perhaps the narrowest formulation of that intuition that is the polar concept standing in opposition to formalism. Kant made a useful distinction between sensory intuition and intellectual intuition that helps to clarify what is intended here, since the very idea of intuition in the Kantian sense has become lost in recent thought. Once we think of intuition as something given to us in the same way that sensory intuition is given to us, only without the mediation of the senses, we come closer to the operative idea of intuition as it is employed in mathematics.

Mathematical thought, and formal accounts of experience generally speaking, of course, seek to capture our intuitions, but this formal capture of the intuitive is itself an intuitive and essentially creative process even when it culminates in the formulation of a formal system that is essentially inaccessible to intuition (at least in parts of that formal system). What this means is that intuition can know itself, and know itself to be an intuitive grasp of some truth, but formality can only know itself as formality and cannot cross over the intuitive-formal divide in order to grasp the intuitive even when it captures intuition in an intuitively satisfying way. We cannot even understand the idea of an intuitively satisfying formalization without an intuitive grasp of all the relevant elements. As Spinoza said that the true is the criterion both of itself and of the false, we can say that the intuitive is the criterion both of itself and the formal. (And given that, today, truth is primarily understood formally, this is a significant claim to make.)

The above observation can be formulated as a general principle such that the intuitive can grasp all of the intuitive and a portion of the formal, whereas the formal can grasp only itself. I will refer to this as the principle of the asymmetry of intuition. We can see this principle operative both in the Church-Turing Thesis and in popular accounts of Gödel’s theorem. We are all familiar with popular and intuitive accounts of Gödel’s theorem (since the formal accounts are so difficult), and it is not usual to make claims for the limitative theorems that go far beyond what they formally demonstrate.

All of this holds also for the attempt to translate traditional philosophical concepts into scientific terms — the most obvious example being free will, supposedly accounted for by physics, biochemistry, and neurobiology. But if one makes the claim that consciousness is nothing but such-and-such physical phenomenon, it is impossible to cash out this claim in any robust way. The science is quantifiable and formalizable, but our concepts of mind, consciousness, and free will remain stubbornly intuitive and have not been satisfyingly captured in any formalism — the determination of any such satisfying formalization could only be determined by intuition and therefore eludes any formal capture. To “prove” determinism, then, would be as incoherent as “proving” Church’s Thesis in any robust sense.

There certainly are interesting philosophical arguments on both sides of Church’s Thesis — that is to say, both its denial and its affirmation — but these are arguments that appeal to our intuitions and, most crucially, our idea of ourselves is intuitive and informal. I should like to go further and to assert that the idea of the self must be intuitive and cannot be otherwise, but I am not fully confident that this is the case. Human nature can change, albeit slowly, along with the human condition, and we could, over time — and especially under the selective pressures of industrial-technological civilization — shape ourselves after the model of a formal conception of the self. (In fact, I think it very likely that this is happening.)

I cannot even say — I would not know where to begin — what would constitute a formal self-understanding of the self, much less any kind of understanding of a formal self. Well, maybe not. I have written elsewhere that the doctrine of the punctiform present (not very popular among philosophers these days, I might add) is a formal doctrine of time, and in so far as we identify internal time consciousness with the punctiform present we have a formal doctrine of the self.

While the above account is one to which I am sympathetic, this kind of formal concept — I mean the punctiform present as a formal conception of time — is very different from the kind of formality we find in physics, biochemistry, and neuroscience. We might assimilate it to some mathematical formalism, but this is an abstraction made concrete in subjective human experience, not in physical science. Perhaps this partly explains the fashionable anti-philosophy that I have written about.

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Sunday


L. E. J. Brouwer: philosopher of mathematics, mystic, and pessimistic social theorist

A message to the foundations of mathematics (FOM) listserv by Frank Waaldijk alerted me to the fact that today, 14 October 2012, is the one hundredth anniversary of Brouwer’s inaugural address at the University of Amsterdam, “Intuitionism and Formalism.” (I have discussed Frank Waaldijk earlier in P or Not-P and What is the Relationship Between Constructive and Non-Constructive Mathematics?)

I have called this post “One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism” but I should have called it “One Hundred Years of Intuitionism” since, of the three active contenders as theories for the foundations of mathematics a hundred years ago, only intuitionism is still with us in anything like its original form. The other contenders — formalism and logicism — are still with us, but in forms so different that they no longer resemble any kind of programmatic approach to the foundations of mathematics. In fact, it could be said that logicism was gradually transformed into technical foundational research, primarily logical in character, without any particular programmatic content, while formalism, following in a line of descent from Hilbert, has also been incrementally transformed into mainstream foundational research, but primarily mathematical in character, and also without any particular programmatic or even philosophical content.

The very idea of “foundations” has come to be questioned in the past hundred years — though, as I commented a few days ago in The Genealogy of the Technium, the early philosophical foundationalist programs continue to influence my own thinking — and we have seen that intuitionism has been able to make the transition from a foundationalist-inspired doctrine to doctrine that might be called mathematical “best practices.” In contemporary philosophy of mathematics, one of the most influential schools of thought for the past couple of decades or more has been to focus not on theories of mathematics, but rather on mathematical practices. Sometimes this is called “neo-empiricism.”

Intuitionism, I think, has benefited from the shift from the theoretical to the practical in the philosophy of mathematics, since intuitionism was always about making a distinction between the acceptable and the unacceptable in logical principles, mathematical reasoning, proof procedures, and all those activities that are part of the mathematician’s daily bread and butter. This shift has also made it possible for intuitionism to distance itself from its foundationalist roots at a time when foundationalism is on the ropes.

Brouwer is due some honor for his prescience in formulating intuitionism a hundred years ago — and intuitionism came almost fully formed out of the mind of Brouwer as syllogistic logic came almost fully formed out of the mind of Aristotle — so I would like to celebrate Brouwer on this, the one hundredth anniversary of his inaugural address at the University of Amsterdam, in which he formulated so many of the central principles of intuitionism.

Brouwer was prescient in another sense as well. He ended his inaugural address with a quote from Poincaré that is well known in the foundationalist community, since it has been quoted in many works since:

“Les hommes ne s’entendent pas, parce qu’ils ne parlent pas la même langue et qu’il y a des langues qui ne s’apprennent pas.”

This might be (very imperfectly) translated into English as follows:

“Men do not understand each other because they do not speak the same language and there are languages ​​that cannot be learned.”

What Poincaré called men not understanding each other Kuhn would later and more famously call incommensurability. And while we have always known that men do not understand each other, it had been widely believed before Brouwer that at least mathematicians understood each other because they spoke the same universal language of mathematics. Brouwer said that his exposition revealed, “the fundamental issue, which divides the mathematical world.” A hundred years later the mathematical world is still divided.

For those who have not studied the foundations and philosophy of mathematics, it may come as a surprise that the past century, which has been so productive of research in advanced mathematics — arguably going beyond all the cumulative research in mathematics up to that time — has also been a century of conflict during which the idea of mathematics as true, certain, and necessary — ideas that had been central to a core Platonic tradition of Western thought — have all been questioned and largely abandoned. It has been a raucous century for mathematics, but also a fruitful one. A clever mathematician with a good literary imagination could write a mathematical analogue of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees in which it is precisely the polyglot disorder of the hive that made it thrive.

That core Platonic tradition of Western thought is now, even as I write these lines, dissipating just as the illusions of the philosopher, freed from the cave of shadows, dissipate in the light of the sun above.

Brouwer, like every revolutionary (and we recall that it was Weyl, who was sympathetic to Brouwer, who characterized Brouwer’s work as a revolution in mathematics), wanted to do away with an old, corrupt tradition and to replace it with something new and pure and edifying. But in the affairs of men, a revolution is rarely complete, and it is, far more often, the occasion of schism than conversion.

Many were converted by Brouwer; many are still being converted today. As I wrote above, intuitionism remains a force to be reckoned with in contemporary mathematical thought in a way that logicism and formalism cannot claim to be such a force. But the conversions and subsequent defections left a substantial portion of the mathematical community unconverted and faithful to the old ways. The tension and the conflict between the old ways and the new ways has been a source of creative inspiration.

Precisely that moment in history when the very nature of mathematics was called into question became the same moment in history when mathematics joined technology in exponential growth.

Mars is the true muse of men.

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Mars, God of War and Muse of Men.

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Wednesday


Addendum on Civilization and the Technium

in regard to human, animal, and alien technology


One of the virtues of taking the trouble to formulate one’s ideas in an explicit form is that, once so stated, all kinds assumptions one was making become obvious as well as all kinds of problems that one didn’t see when the idea was just floating around in one’s consciousness, as a kind of intellectual jeu d’esprit, as it were.

Bertrand Russell wrote about this, or, at least, about a closely related experience in one of his well-known early essays, in which he discussed the importance not only making our formulations explicit, but of doing so by way of putting some distance between our thoughts and the kind of facile self-evidence that can distract us from the real business at hand:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently skeptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell’s foundationalist program in the philosophical of mathematics closely followed the method that he outlined so lucidly in the passage above. Principia Mathematica makes the earliest stages of mathematics notoriously difficult, but does so in service to the foundationalist ideal of revealing hidden presuppositions and incorporating them into the theory in an explicit form.

Another way that Russell sought to overcome self-evidence is through the systematic pursuit of the highest degree of generality, which drives us to formulate concepts that are alien to common sense:

“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”

Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”

These are two philosophical principles — the explication of ultimate simples (foundations) and the pursuit of generality — that I have very much taken to heart and attempted to put into practice in my own philosophical work. Russell’s foundationalist method shows us what can be deduced from what, and gives to these deductions the most widely applicable results. To these philosophical imperatives of Russell I have myself added another, parallel to his pursuit of generality, and that is the simultaneous pursuit of formality: it is (or ought to be) a principle in all theoretical reasoning to formalize to the utmost…

Russell also observed the imperative of formalization, though he himself did not systematically distinguish between generalization and formalization, and it is a tough problem; I’ve been working on it for about twenty years and haven’t yet arrived at definitive formulations. As far as provisional formulations go, generalization gives us the highly comprehensive conceptions like astrobiology and civilization and the technium that allow us to unify a vast body of knowledge that must be studied by inter-disciplinary means, while formalization gives us the distinctions we must carefully observe within our concepts, so that generalization does not simply give us the night in which all cows are black (to borrow a phrase that Hegel used to ridicule Schelling’s conception of the Absolute).

Foundationalism as a philosophical movement is very much out of fashion now, although the foundations of mathematics, pursued eo ipso, remains an active and highly technical branch of logico-mathematical research, and today looks a lot different from what it was when it was first formulated as a philosophical research program a hundred years ago by Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and others. Nevertheless, I continue to derive much philosophical clarification from the early philosophical stages of foundationalism, especially in regard to theories that have not (yet) been reduced to formal systems, as is the case with theories of history or theories of civilization.

I am still a long way from reducing my ideas about history or civilization to first principles, much less to symbolism, but I feel like I am making progress, and the discovery of assumptions and problems is a sure sign of progress; in this sense, my post on Civilization and the Technium marked a stage of progress in my thinking, because of the inadequacy of my formulations that it revealed.

In my Civilization and the Technium I compared the extent of civilization — a familiar idea that has not yet received anything like an adequate definition — with the extent of the technium — a recent and hence unfamiliar idea for which there is an explicit formulation, but since it is new its full scope remains untested and untried, and therefore it presents problems that the idea of civilization does not present. I formulated concepts of the technium parallel to formulations of astrobiology and astrocivilization, as follows:

● Eotechnium the origins of the technium, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esotechnium our terrestrial technium

● Exotechnium any extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium

● Astrotechnium the totality of technology in the universe, our terrestrial and any extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context

I realize now that when I did this I was making slightly different assumptions for civilization and the technium. The intuitive basis of this was that I assumed, in regard to the technium, that the technium I was describing was all due to human activity (a clear case of anthropic bias), so that the distinction between the exotechnium and the exotechnium was the distinction between terrestrial human technology and extraterrestrial human technology.

When, on the other hand, I formulated the parallel concepts for civilization, I assumed that esocivilization was terrestrial human civilization and that exocivilization would be alien civilizations not derived from the human eocivilization source.

Another way to put this is that I assumed the validity of the terrestrial eotechnium thesis even while I also assumed that the terrestrial eocivilization thesis did not hold. Is that too much technical terminology? In other words, I assumed the uniqueness of the human technium but I did not assume the uniqueness of human industrial-technological civilization.

This points to a further articulation (and therefore a further formalization) of the concepts employed: one must keep the conception of eocivlization (the origins of civilization) clearly in mind, and distinguish between terrestrial civilization that expands into extraterrestrial space and therefore becomes exocivilization from its eocivilization source on the one hand, and on the other hand a xeno-eocivilization source that constitutes exocivilization by virtue of its xenomorphic origins. If one is going to distinguish between esocivilization and exocivilization, one must identify the eocivilization source, or all is for naught.

All of this holds, mutatis mutandis, for the eotechnium, esotechnium, exotechnium, and astrotechnium, although I ought to point that my formulations in Civilization and the Technium, and repeated above, were accurate because they were formulated in Russellian generality. It was in my following exposition that I failed to observe all the requisite distinctions. But there’s more. I’ve since realized that further distinctions can be made.

As I thought about the possibility of a xenotechnium, i.e., a technium produced by a sentient alien species, I realized that there is a xenotechnium right here on Earth (a terrestrial xenotechnium, or non-hominid technium), in the form of tool use and other forms of technology by non-human species. We are all familiar with famous examples like the chimpanzees who will strip the leaves off a branch and then use the branch to extract termites from a termite mound. Yesterday I alluded to the fact that otters use rocks to break open shells. There are many other examples. Apart from tool use, beaver damns and the nests of birds, while not constructed with tools, certainly represent a kind of technology.

The nest of a weaver bird is a form of non-human technology.

If we take all instances of animal technology together they constitute a terrestrial non-human technium. If we take all instances of technology known to us, human and non-human together, we have a still more comprehensive conception of the technium that is more general that the concept of the human-specific technium and therefore less subject to anthropic bias (the latter concept due to Nick Bostrum, who also formulated existential risk). This latter, more comprehensive conception of the technium would seem to be favored by Russell’s imperative of generalization to the utmost, although we must continue to make the finer distinctions within the concept for the formalization of the conception of the technium to keep pace with its generalization.

There is a systematic relationship between terrestrial biology and the terrestrial technium, both hominid and non-hominid. Eobiology facilitates the emergence of a terrestrial eotechnium, of which all instances of technology, hominid and non-hominid alike, can be considered expressions. This is already explicit in Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, as one of his arguments is that the emergence and growth of the technium is continuous with the emergence of growth of biological organization and complexity. He cites John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary as defining the following thresholds of biological organization (p. 46):

One replicating molecule -» Interacting population of replicating molecules
Replicating molecules -» Replicating molecules strung into chromosome
Chromosome of RNA enzymes -» DNA proteins
Cell without nucleus -» Cell with nucleus
Asexual reproduction (cloning) -» Sexual recombination
Single-cell organism -* Multicell organism
Solitary individual -» Colonies and superorganisms
Primate societies -» Language-based societies

He then suggests the following sequence of thresholds within the growth of the technium (p. 47):

Primate communication -» Language
Oral lore -> Writing/mathematical notation
Scripts -» Printing
Book knowledge -» Scientific method
Artisan production -» Mass production
Industrial culture -» Ubiquitous global communication

And then he connects the two sequences:

The trajectory of increasing order in the technium follows the same path that it does in life. Within both life and the technium, the thickening of interconnections at one level weaves the new level of organization above it. And it’s important to note that the major transitions in the technium begin at the level where the major transitions in biology left off: Primate societies give rise to language. The invention of language marks the last major transformation in the natural world and also the first transformation in the manufactured world. Words, ideas, and concepts are the most complex things social animals (like us) make, and also the simplest foundation for any type of technology. (p. 48)

Thus the genealogy of the technium is continuous with the genealogy of life.

Considering this in relation to the possibility of a xenotechnium, one would expect the same to be the case: I would expect a systematic relationship to hold between xenobiology and a xenotechnium, such that an alien eobiology would facilitate the emergence of an alien eotechnium. And, extending this naturalistic line of thought, that assumes similar patterns of development to hold for peer industrial-technological civilizations, I would further assume that a xenotechnium would not always coincide with the xenocivilization with which it is associated. If there is a “first contact” between terrestrial civilization and a xenocivilization, it is likely that it will be rather a contact between the expanding terrestrial technium (which is, technically, no longer terrestrial precisely because it is expanding extraterrestrially) and an expanding xenotechnium.

There remains much conceptual work to be done here, as the reader will have realized. I’ll continue to work on these formulations, keeping in mind the imperatives of generality and formality, and perhaps someday converging on a foundationalist account of biology, civilization, and the technium that is at once both fully comprehensive and fully articulated.

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The Kantian Continuum

19 September 2012

Wednesday


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Kantian Continuum of Means and Ends in Personhood

While Kant’s second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, gives a systematic account of his moral philosophy, not surprisingly it is Kant’s shorter work of 1785, his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that has been the more widely read and influential. In this little book Kant has this to say about our relation to other persons:

“Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.”

And…

“For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

I have cited this passage previously (in Being Valued by the Other) and noted that while we cannot avoid using other persons as means to an end in the ordinary business of life, the crucial sense of this passage is that even when we are forced to deal with other persons as a means, that they must also also be considered as ends in themselves. This is simply a philosophical formulation of the intuitive idea that all persons are due respect and dignity regardless of their condition, and if we must routinely use others as a means to obtaining our contingent ends, we also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge at the same time that these others are ends in themselves, so that our contingent business with them must be conducted with respect and dignity.

When I was thinking about this passage from Kant this morning I thought of it in relation to Edith Wyschogrod’s conception of sainthood in her book Saints and Postmodernism:

“I shall, however, define the saint — the subject of hagiographic narrative — as one whose adult life in its entirety is devoted to the alleviation of sorrow (the psychological suffering) and pain (the physical suffering) that afflicts other persons without distinction of rank or group or, alternatively, that afflicts sentient beings, whatever the cost to the saint in pain or sorrow.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy, p. 34

In brief, the saint is that individual who has devoted his or her life to the other. The Kantian formulation of his would be that the saint always regards the other as an end in himself, to the exclusion of the use of the other as a means to an end.

It seems to me that, whether or not we are skeptical of sainthood, and whether or not we accept Wyschogrod’s definition of the saint, we must at least recognize the theoretical possibility of acting purely on the other’s personhood as an end in itself. As soon as we recognize this ideal possibility recognizing others as ends in themselves, we immediately see the all-too-real possibility of the anti-saint who acts purely on the other’s personhood as a means to an end (and which end is entirely independent of the other’s personhood).

The extremes of the as-an-end-only relation to others and the as-a-means-only relation to others defines a continuum of possibilities, along which continuum the ordinary business of life can be located as it approximates one extreme or the other, or balances the two and inhabits the middle portion of the continuum. Thus what I am here calling the Kantian continuum is that continuum of gradations between relating to others purely as as ends in themselves through relating to others purely as means to an end. Between these two extremes are circumstances when we mostly treat others as ends but also a little as means, when we treat others equally as ends and means, and when we primarily treat others as means to an end and only as an afterthought also treat them as ends in themselves.

Think of the situations and circumstances that one routinely encounters in the course of the ordinary business of life, as, for example, when one enters an establishment that still has living human clerks (as opposed to automated check out terminals) and you conduct a mundane exchange of money for goods, and perhaps acknowledge the clerk with a nod or a few scraps of conversation. This is a relationship that is primarily instrumental, and only as an afterthought do we knowledge the personhood of the other. While the purely instrumental approach to life probably belongs to pathology and is gratifyingly rare, the sort of transaction I have described is quite common in industrial-technological civilization.

At the other end of the scale, short of ideal sainthood but still at the altruistic end of the spectrum, our relationships with friends and family are primarily person-centered relationships that are very much constituted by the meaning and value that these others have for us as persons. It is only as an afterthought that we ask them to do something for us, and the doing of the task is usually accomplished in a way the the personhood of all involved is fully engaged. In fact, in so far as we ask something of those who love us, they may well enjoy serving us or be eager to provide for our needs, and vice versa if we are being asked to provide for those that we love.

One of the central concepts of Kant’s ethics is that of the “kingdom of ends.” Kant characterizes the kingdom of ends in this way:

“By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws. Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole (including both rational beings as ends in themselves, and also the special ends which each may propose to himself), that is to say, we can conceive a kingdom of ends, which on the preceding principles is possible.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

It seems to me that Kant’s kingdom of ends comprises the whole of the Kantian continuum with the exception of the extreme end point of using persons exclusively as means and not at the same time as an end in themselves. Clearly, it is using others that is excluded in Kantian ethics. While I suspect that most will follow Kant in this, the implicit sanctioning of personhood as an afterthought, near the as-a-means-only end of the Kantian continuum, contains in embryo much of that which has made life in industrial-technological civilization so dehumanizing and depersonalizing.

I am not here trying to censure Kant, or to find him responsible for the failings of modern society — there are a great many philosophers who have vigorously taken up the critique of Kantian ethics, and ably so — but I only wish to illustration how the Enlightenment universalism of Kant so easily passes over into its other. The very off-handedness of a recognition of one’s personhood as an afterthought is itself something less than full personhood — and, often, we feel it, but at the same time we understand it, so it does not often injure us.

It is difficult to point a finger at any individual as particularly responsible for the affronts to human dignity that assail us every day in industrial-technological civilization, since it is all-too-easy to understand how things became the way that they are now, and how difficult it would be to change them.

If, when engaged in some trivial transaction of contemporary life, one were to attempt to engage with the other first as a person, one’s actions would probably immediately elicit suspicion. Some few have the gift of engaging in a genuine way with others, even for a brief period of time, but it is not found all that often.

The bureaucratization of society that so marks industrial-technological civilization incorporates a pro forma recognition of the personhood of the other, in deference to our moral intuitions of the respect and dignity due to all persons, but it is precisely the pro forma character of the recognition that drains it of human meaning. Many have commented on the formalism of Kant’s ethics, and in the passage I quoted above Kant says we must, “abstract from the personal differences of rational beings,” yet it is the personal touch that most often breaks through as a recognition of personhood in otherwise anonymous transactions.

How many times in life does it happen that we are engaged in the formal courtesies required of us by society when someone accidentally goes “off script” and all present laugh at the deviation and suddenly there is a more relaxed feeling and people feel freer to be themselves and to express themselves? This, too, is a mutual recognition of personhood — of the concrete and fallible dimension of personhood that makes us human — and it is perhaps this kind of recognition of personhood that is most valued informally because it doesn’t come across as odd or strained like some ham-handed attempts to engage others.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pascal:

“When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas those who have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man, are quite surprised to find an author. Plus poetice quam humane locutus es.”

There is not only a natural style in literature, but also a natural style in personal comportment, and when we encounter this natural style in manners we are astonished and delighted, for we expected to find a type, a cipher, an official, a bureaucrat, and instead we find a man. We also find ourselves, and feel a little freer to be human in the presence of such an other.

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Saturday


Truncated sphere: can we appeal to any principle in our truncations?

We can make a distinction among distinctions between ad hoc and principled distinctions. The former category — ad hoc distinctions — may ultimately prove to be based on a principle, but that principle is unknown as long as the distinction remains an ad hoc distinction. This suggests a further distinction among distinctions between ad hoc distinctions that really are ad hoc, and which are based on no principle, and ad hoc distinctions that are really principled distinctions but the principle in question is not yet known, or not yet formulated, at the time the distinction is made. So there you have a principled distinction between distinctions.

A perfect evocation of ad hoc distinctions is to be found in the opening paragraph of the Preface to Foucault’s The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

Such distinctions are comic, though Foucault recognizes that our laughter is uneasy: even as we immediately recognize the ad hoc character of these distinctions, we realize that the principled distinctions we routinely employ may not be so principled as we supposed.

Foucault continues this theme for several pages, and then gives another formulation — perhaps, given his interest in mental illness, an illustration that is closer to reality than Borges’ Chinese dictionary:

“It appears that certain aphasiacs, when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, are consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent pattern; as though that simple rectangle were unable to serve in their case as a homogeneous and neutral space in which things could be placed so as to display at the same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their denomination. Within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiac will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets; in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning all over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety.”

Foucault here writes that, “the sick mind continues to infinity,” in other words, the process does not terminate in a definite state-of-affairs. This implies that the healthy mind does not continue to infinity: rational thought must make concessions to human finitude. While I find the use of the concept of the pathological in this context questionable, and I have to wonder if Foucault was unwittingly drawn into the continental anti-Cantorian tradition (Brouwerian intuitionism and the like, though I will leave this aside for now), there is some value to the idea that a scientific process (such as classification) must terminate in a finite state-of-affairs, even if only tentatively. I will try to show, moreover, that there is an implicit principle in this attitude, and that it is in fact a principle that I have discussed previously.

The quantification of continuous data requires certain compromises. Two of these compromises include finite precision errors (also called rounding errors) and finite dimension errors (also called truncation). Rounding errors should be pretty obvious: finite parameters cannot abide infinite decimal expansions, and so we set a limit of six decimal places, or twenty, or more — but we must set a limit. The difference between actual figures and limited decimal expansions of the same figure is called a finite precision error. Finite dimension errors result from the need to arbitrarily introduce gradations into a continuum. Using the real number system, any continuum can be faithfully represented, but this representation would require infinite decimal expansions, so we see that there is a deep consonance between finite precision errors and finite dimension errors. Thus, for example, we measure temperature by degrees, and the arbitrariness of this measure is driven home to us by the different scales we can use for this measurement. And if we could specify temperature using real numbers (including transcendental numbers) we would not have to compromise. But engineering and computers and even human minds need to break things up into manageable finite quantities, so we speak of 3 degrees C, or even 3.14 degrees C, but we don’t try to work with pi degrees C. Thus the increments of temperature, or of any another measurement, involve both finite precision errors and finite dimension errors.

In so far as quantification is necessary to the scientific method, finite dimension errors are necessary to the scientific method. In several posts (e.g., Axioms and Postulates in Strategy) I have cited Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, the three being classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts. Carnap characterizes the emergence of quantitative scientific concepts as the most sophisticated form of scientific thought, but in reviewing Carnap’s scientific concepts in the light of finite precision errors and finite dimension errors, it is immediately obvious that classificatory concepts and comparative concepts do not necessarily involve finite precision errors and finite dimension errors. It is only with the introduction of quantitative concepts that science becomes sufficiently precise that its precision forces compromises upon us. However, I should point out that classificatory concepts routinely force us to accept finite dimension errors, although they do not involve finite precision errors. The example given by Foucault, quoted above, illustrates the inherent tension in classificatory concepts.

We accept finite precision errors and finite dimension errors as the price of doing science, and indeed as the price of engaging in rational thought. As Foucault implied in the above quote, the healthy and sane mind must draw lines and define limits and call a halt to things. Sometimes these limits are close to being arbitrary. We retain the ambition of “carving nature at the joints,” but we accept that we can’t always locate the joint but at times must cleave the carcass of nature regardless.

For this willingness to draw lines and establish limits and to call a halt to proceedings I will give the name The Truncation Principle, since it is in virtue to cutting off some portion of the world and treating it as though it were a unified whole that we are able to reason about the world.

As I mentioned above, I have discussed this problem previously, and in my discussion I noted that I wanted to give an exposition of a principle and a fallacy, but that I did not have a name for it yet, so I called it An Unnamed Principle and an Unnamed Fallacy. Now I have a name for it, and I will use this name, i.e., the truncation principle, from now on.

Note: I was tempted to call this principle the “baby retention principle” or even the “hang on to your baby principle” since it is all about the commonsense notion of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

In An Unnamed Principle and an Unnamed Fallacy I initially formulated the principle as follows:

The principle is simply this: for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic. The correlative unnamed fallacy is the failure to recognize this principle.

What I most want to highlight is that when someone points out there are gray areas that seem to elude classification by any clear cut distinction, this is sometimes used as a skeptical argument intended to undercut the possibility of making any distinctions whatsoever. The point is that the existence of gray areas and problematic cases does not address the other cases (possibly even the majority of the cases) for which the distinction isn’t in the least problematic.

A distinction that that admits of problematic cases not clearly falling on one side of the distinction or the other, may yet have other cases that are clearly decided by the distinction in question. This might seem too obvious to mention, but distinctions that admit of problematic instances are often impugned and rejected for this reason. Admitting of no exceptions whatsoever is an unrealistic standard for a distinction.

I hope to be able to elaborate on this formulation as I continue to think about the truncation principle and its applications in philosophical, formal, and scientific thought.

Usually when we hear “truncation” we immediately think of the geometrical exercise of regularly cutting away parts of the regular (Platonic) solids, yielding truncated polyhedra and converging on rectified polyhedra. This is truncation in space. Truncation in time, on the other hand, is what is more commonly known as historical periodization. How exactly one historical period is to be cut off from another is always problematic, not least due to the complexity of history and the sheer number of outliers that seem to falsify any attempt at periodization. And yet, we need to break history up into comprehensible chunks. When we do so, we engage in temporal truncation.

All the problems of philosophical logic that present themselves to the subtle and perceptive mind when contemplating a spatial truncation, as, for example, in defining the Pacific Ocean — where exactly does it end in relation to the Indian Ocean? — occur in spades in making a temporal truncation. Yet if rational inquiry is to begin (and here we do not even raise the question of where rational inquiry ends) we must make such truncations, and our initial truncations are crude and mostly ad hoc concessions to human finitude. Thus I introduce the truncation principle as an explicit justification of truncations as we employ them throughout reasoning.

And, as if we hadn’t already laid up enough principles and distinctions for today, here is a principle of principles of distinctions: every principled distinction implies a fallacy that takes the form of neglecting this distinction. With an ad hoc distinction there is no question of fallacy, because there is no principle to violate. Where there is a principle involved, however, the violation of the principle constitutes a fallacy.

Contrariwise, every fallacy implies a principled distinction that ought to have been made. If we observe the appropriate principled distinctions, we avoid fallacies, and if we avoid fallacies we appropriately distinguish that which ought to be distinguished.

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Friday


The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:

Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.

Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane

This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.

Pope Innocent III: something of a pessimist on the human condition.

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.

Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)

The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.

We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.

Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.

In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.

In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:

1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)

3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)

While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.

Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.

Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.

Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.

A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.

We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.

With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.

Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Grand Strategy Annex

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