Thursday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carl Sagan’s Dream

10 December 2012

Monday


cosmos 1

I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)

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While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.

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This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.

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Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

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As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

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Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.

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Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.

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In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.

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It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.

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Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.

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Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.

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Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.

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In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.

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This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.

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Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.

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In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.

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It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.

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Plato’s Guardians

6 December 2011

Tuesday


Plato more or less founded the Western tradition of philosophical inquiry, and the spirit of Plato still looms large. Platonism (that is to say, Plato's theory of ideas) still has legs.

Everyone is familiar with the famous passage in Plato’s Republic, Book VI, where he introduces the philosopher-king:

“…neither cities nor States nor individuals will ever attain perfection until the small class of philosophers whom we termed useless but not corrupt are providentially compelled, whether they will or not, to take care of the State, and until a like necessity be laid on the State to obey them; or until kings, or if not kings, the sons of kings or princes, are divinely inspired with a true love of true philosophy. That either or both of these alternatives are impossible, I see no reason to affirm: if they were so, we might indeed be justly ridiculed as dreamers and visionaries.”

Of course philosophers are routinely understood to be useless dreamers and visionaries — some take this as a sign that the Republic is intentionally ironic and consciously “utopian” in an unrealistic sense — and it is partly this image of the useless philosopher that makes philosophers an easy target for fashionable anti-philosophy.

Today we should not wish for philosopher-kings, but it is revelatory of Plato’s hostility to democracy that he formulated his utopian political leadership in terms of kingship rather than in terms of the democracy that his city of Athens had made famous throughout the ancient world, and for which it is still famous today — and rightly so. But for Plato, it was democratic Athens, agitated to a frenzy by demagogues, that was responsible for the execution of Socrates, “the wisest, and justest, and best of all the men,” according to Plato.

Today we should wish for philosopher-citizens, from whose ranks are democratically chosen philosopher-legislators, philosopher-judges, and philosopher-presidents, which latter appoint philosopher-cabinet members and so forth. That certainly sounds like a meritocratic ideal, and one for which I could work up a certain level of enthusiasm, though I doubt it would appeal to many, or indeed appear as even vaguely plausible or realistic by many. Again the figure of the philosopher as a useless dreamer and visionary haunts us.

Plato’s vision of an ideal republic, however, is not entirely or exclusively informed by monarchical institutions. There are, after all, the Guardians.

Plato’s republic includes an elite class of individuals who are reserved for political rule — the guardians. At the end of Book V Plato describes the way of life of the guardians of the republic.

“Then let us consider what will be their way of life, if they are to realize our idea of them. In the first place, none of them should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary; neither should they have a private house or store closed against any one who has a mind to enter; their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage; they should agree to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year and no more; and they will go and live together like soldiers in a camp. Gold and silver we will tell them that they have from God; the diviner metal is within them, and they have therefore no need of the dross which is current among men, and ought not to pollute the divine by any such earthly admixture; for that commoner metal has been the source of many unholy deeds, but their own is undefiled. And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and they will be the saviours of the State. But should they ever acquire homes or lands or moneys of their own, they will become housekeepers and husbandmen instead of guardians, enemies and tyrants instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they will pass their whole life in much greater terror of internal than of external enemies, and the hour of ruin, both to themselves and to the rest of the State, will be at hand. For all which reasons may we not say that thus shall our State be ordered, and that these shall be the regulations appointed by us for guardians concerning their houses and all other matters?”

This doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, and I don’t think that many persons would enjoy this level of discipline in service to the state. Indeed, Plato thinks as much as well, since in the earlier passage quoted above he suggested that philosophers would have to be compelled to rule the state. In other words, philosophers are to be drafted against their will into service of the state.

This sounds altogether too much like Rousseau talking about people being “forced to be free” and makes the modern individual more than a little uncomfortable. And all the comparisons of the guardians’ way of life with that of soldiers makes it all sound rather regimented and self-sacrificing. If you ask persons to engage in sacrifice, do not be expected to be overwhelmed by volunteers. Individuals do in fact sacrifice, we know this from countless historical examples, but it is bad form to ask for sacrifice. It is also likely to be unsuccessful.

In contrast to these austere and off-putting images I would like to suggest another interpretation of Plato’s guardians. This is not an interpretation that has any textual basis in Plato’s Republic, but which is suggested by the actual lives of the philosophers who might have once become philosopher-kings, or who today might become philosopher-citizens. While Plato did not approach his guardians in this way, Plato certainly would have known the character of philosophers, and so I think that Plato may well have had another sense, which I will suggest below, in mind, even if it does not come across in the Republic.

Philosophers are fascinated by ideas, and especially by abstract ideas. There was formerly also a class of natural philosophers, but natural philosophers have since become natural scientists. Natural philosophers once upon a time, and natural scientists today, are fascinated by ideas also, but more by empirical ideas than abstract ideas. The key here is the sense of wonder and fascination in things, which is coupled with an unparalleled moral imperative to understand the world on its own terms.

This can sound a bit grim to speak in terms of a “moral imperative,” but there is nothing at all grim about being fascinated by ideas. Take my word for it, just as some people are excited by betting on horses, others by the prospect of an especially good meal, and a few by watching an especially hard-fought boxing match, just so philosophers are similarly excited by ideas.

The philosopher delves into ideas and immerses himself in them not for his own pleasure — though there is pleasure in it — but for the sake of the idea itself. This pure pleasure at one remove is a powerful force. In the lives of philosophers it is a force expressed in an abstract realm, but in terms of human nature it is a universal called forth by different stimuli in different individuals. If the state could harness this enthusiasm for its own ends, as states today have learned to harness incentives for economic growth, then the state would be in a position to have individuals plunge themselves headfirst into the problems of state for the pure desire of thinking them through and coming to the optimal solution if there is one, or an understanding of why there is no solution if one is lacking.

This, I think, is a better way to understand Plato’s guardians: men and women who are absolutely fascinated by the problems of the state and who immerse themselves in thinking through matters usually consigned to the instinctive and intuitive reactions of primarily political men. This would be a much more powerful force than I think most people would realize, like the harnessing of incentive in a capitalistic economy as mentioned above.

Here is an example that comes close to my meaning. Russian nuclear scientist Constantine Checherov appeared in the Nova episode “Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus,” in which he described his experience as a scientist entering the reactor at Chernobyl destroyed in the explosion. Despite great personal danger and a cataclysm that affected many thousands, his response to his discoveries was that of scientific wonder:

“Maybe it’s bad of me, but I must admit, as a researcher I was filled with joy — when I realized exactly what I’d found, it was sheer delight. It’s comparable to the excitement of a scientist studying volcanic lava. It’s incredibly interesting, inspirational.”

And at Deixant Rastre we find this additional paean to scientific curiosity and epistemic joy from Checherov:

“Nobody orders me to do this, nobody forces me to do it. When I enter the fourth reactor nobody and nothing can disturb me. There are no people around checking the radiation dose that I get there. I am in another world, a world of freedom — of pure euphoria and joy. I was the very first person in the world to see the reactor from the inside.”

This is the pure euphoria and joy of a nuclear scientist in the face of what to others is an unspeakable horror. So, if can imagine this, transpose this same attitude to physical theory into social theory, and this would be a response of the guardian as I would have the guardians understood.

Imagine, if you can, a republic governed by citizen-philosophers — guardians who are philosophical technocrats in charge of the state apparatus. If a terrible calamity befalls the state — a destructive earthquake, a financial panic, an epidemic, etc. — instead of placing themselves in front of television cameras and emoting to beat the band, telling the victims that they feel their pain while telling the survivors that they share their joy, our Platonic guardians of the state respond by viewing the calamity as primarily an intriguing intellectual challenge to be met. How can institutions be constructed that can adequately respond to such calamities in the future? What is the most rational allocation of state resources in time of calamity? How can the needs of those adversely affected be met most rapidly and systematically? These are the questions with which our philosopher-citizens will immediately engage, and seek to produce practical results.

A government by such guardians would be like government by think tank, although the thinkers would be chosen for their intrinsic sense of inquiry and abstract thought rather than conformity to any one ideological point of view, as is the case with most think tanks today.

To some, the meditations of such a political think tank in service to the state and its citizens could appear cold, bloodless, passionless, and calculating. As off-putting as it sounds, the best philosophical thought has exactly this character, which is why the best philosophers are often believed to be cold and distant individuals even when they are persons of great passion and of profound feelings for their fellow man.

Greatness of thought is a singular thing, and is rarely understood. In fact, it is most often misunderstood. If formulated in terms of a good analogy, it might make sense to more people. For example, someone who is a genius at picking horses at the races may not be a “nice” person, may lack social skills, may not ingratiate himself in polite company, but he is good at picking horses. And at the betting track, this is all that matters.

Similarly, greatness of thought is what is needed in deliberation over the great matters of state, and the individual who has most perfected his intellect to penetrate the mysteries of these great matters may be no better company than a picker of winners at the track, but in matters of state, the likeability or unlikeability of such an individual is irrelevant.

Guardians as pure philosophers might not be much fun to party with, but they would be formidable as pilots of the ship of state.

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Finding Paley’s Watch

24 October 2011

Monday


William Paley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday


Plato and Aristotle by Rafael

Yesterday in Risk Management: A Personal View I asked the question, in relation to John Rawls’ thought experiment involving choosing a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, “How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance?” Here is Rawls’ original formulation of his thought experiment:

“…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”

And here is Aristotle’s description of the Great Souled Man:

“Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great? If we consider him point by point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honour if he were bad; for honour is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately Pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honour from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonour too, since in his case it cannot be just. In the first place, then, as has been said, the proud man is concerned with honours; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil. For not even towards honour does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour (at least those who have them wish to get honour by means of them); and for him to whom even honour is a little thing the others must be so too. Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful.”

This translation of Aristotle uses “pride” in place of “great souled” or “great minded,” but whatever the language, the idea comes through. Aristotle did not present the great souled man as a thought experiment, but he is an ideal of Aristotelian ethics, and we can treat him as a thought experiment in exemplification of Aristotelian virtue.

What struck me later after I wrote that post about Aristotle’s Great Souled Man in relation to risk is that I had combined two distinct thought experiments into one. This in turn suggests further thought experiments. One of my favorite sections of Plato’s Republic is the description of the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man in Book II:

“Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skillful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honored and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honors and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.”

I find this passage almost frightening in its unflinching portrayal of corruption masquerading as virtue, and virtue mistaken for vice, but while few of us would qualify as perfectly just or perfectly unjust, I think most people will have had experiences in their life that reflect Plato’s point and give it the ring of truth. In any case, we can take Plato’s perfectly just man and his perfectly unjust man and make another thought experiment by asking how a perfectly just man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, and how a perfectly unjust man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance.

We can go beyond this and ask how Nietzsche’s Übermensch would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, or how Machiavelli’s Prince would so choose, or how homo economicus might so choose.

We might also take these various philosophical characters and substitute them in other thought experiments, like that of Buridan’s Ass: a jackass is positioned equidistant from two piles of hay, and in the classic version of the thought experiment, the ass starves to death, unable to choose between identical options. We might similarly present the perfectly just man, the perfectly unjust man, the great souled man, Machiavelli’s Prince, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or homo economicus with a similar dilemma and ask how each would fare.

By the time we come to inserting one philosophical thought experiment inside another, we have reached a pitch of abstraction that may prevent us from thinking coherently. Of what value is such an exercise? What I have suggested might seem a little ridiculous, if not outright silly, but it suggests an increase in the order of magnitude of the difficulty of our thought experiments. This might be a profitable exercise if it helps us to pick out intrinsic weaknesses in thought experiments, and allows us to go back to the original thought experiments with a clearer idea of what exactly is involved in them.

If we could submit our thought experiments to controlled conditions, we might pursue them more profitably. This is precisely what logic seeks to do. With the appropriate formalized language, all our philosophical thought experiments could be formulated in a rigorous language, and we could be pretty clear about the consequences. However, in this case we have simply displaced the problem from the intuitive difficulty of working through the problem on its own problematic merits into the difficulty of finding or formulating the appropriate formalism.

If we are honest with ourselves, nothing can spare us from the difficulty of thinking clearly about things that are themselves not clear. Thought experiments are the Zen Koans of Western thought, and their contemplation yields for us the Western equivalent of enlightenment. To put one thought experiment inside another is to raise the stakes, making an already difficult exercise all the more difficult. But this is good for us. As Spinoza wrote at the end of his Ethics, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”

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The Aftermath of War

6 December 2010

Monday


The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.

I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.

What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.

The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.

But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”

It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”

In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.

We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.

We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.

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Saturday


The arch-atheist Jean-Paul Sartre

Despite having posted on this twice recently in A Note on Sartre’s Atheism and More on Sartre’s Atheism, I haven’t yet finished with this (as though one could ever be finished with an idea!).

I have, in a couple of posts, quoted a line from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture that ends with I must confine myself to what I can see:

I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.

For corroboration from a fellow Frenchman and a fellow novelist consider this from Balzac’s Louis Lambert (not his most admired novel, but perhaps his most philosophical novel), delivered by the novel’s protagonist:

“To think is to see,” he said one day, roused by one of our discussions on the principle of human organization. “All science rests on deduction, — a chink of vision by which we descend from cause to effect returning upward from effect to cause; or, in a broader sense, poetry, like every work of art, springs from a swift perception of things.”

Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889, p. 39

Fellow Frenchman and philosopher Descartes offers more than corroboration: he stands at the foundation of the tradition from which both Balzac and Sartre come. In his most systematic work, the Principles of Philosophy (Book I, ix), Descartes presents an all-encompassing conception of thought, as is appropriate for the philosopher who is the locus classicus of the cogito:

By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it; and, accordingly, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say, I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but, if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.

On the one hand, one can view these accounts as tributes to the visible and the tangible, except that Descartes, who stands at the origin of the tradition, can in no way be assimilated to materialism. On the other hand, and more interestingly, all of these accounts can be understood as expressions of various degrees of constructivism — mostly unconsciously formulated constructivism, but nevertheless an awareness that our thought must be disciplined by experience in a rigorous way if it is not to go terribly wrong. This is also a Kantian orientation, as we observed in Temporal Illusions, and Kant is counted as an ancestor of contemporary constructivism.

Skeptics have always demanded that truths be exhibited. We saw this in our previous posts about Sartre’s atheism, taking Doubting Thomas as the paradigm of the skeptic, who must needs touch the wounds of Christ with his own hands before he will believe that it is the same Christ who was crucified and subsequently risen.

It is a feature of constructivist thought, and most especially intuitionism, to reject the law of logic that is called (in Latin) tertium non datur or the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM, or just EM). This simply states that, of two contradictory propositions, one of them most be true (“P or not-P“). Intuitively, it seems eminently reasonable, except that we all know of instances in ordinary experience that cannot be adequately described in a black-or-white, yes-or-no formulation. Non-constructive reasoning makes unlimited use of the law of the excluded middle, and as a consequence holds that all propositions have definite truth values even if we haven’t yet determined the truth value or even if we can’t determine the truth value. This can lead to strange consequences, like the famous Aristotelian example of the sea fight tomorrow: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We don’t know at present which is true, but if we accept the logic of non-constructive reasoning, we will acknowledge that one of these propositions is true while the other is false.

The law of the excluded middle implies the principle of bivalence — the principle that there are two and only two logical values, namely true and false — and bivalence in turn implies realism. Realism as a philosophical doctrine stands in opposition to constructivism. Plato is the most famous realist philosopher, and believed that all kinds of things were real that common sense and ordinary experience don’t think of as being “real,” while at the same time disbelieving in the reality of the material world. Thus Plato is something of an antithesis to the kind insistence upon the tangibility and visibility upon which the skeptic and the materialist rely.

It is interesting, then, in the context of Sartre’s atheism and his insistence upon relying upon the seen, which we have now come to recognize as a kind of constructivism, to contrast the very different viewpoint represented by William James. One of James’ most famous essays is “The Will to Believe” in which he lays down the criteria for legitimate belief even where sufficient evidence is lacking. William James offers, “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” Among the criteria that James invokes is when a choice is forced, which he describes like this:

…if I say to you: “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, “Either love me or hate me,” “Either call my theory true or call it false,” your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

Logical disjunction is another name used for the law of the excluded middle. Here James reveals himself as a realist, if not a Platonist, in matters of the spirit, just as we saw that Sartre revealed himself as a constructivist, if not an intuitionist, in matters of the spirit. The point I am making here is that this is not merely a difference of belief, but a difference in logic, and a difference in logic and reaches up into the ontology of each and informs an entire view of the world. People tend to think of logic, if they think of logic at all, as something recondite and removed from ordinary human experience, but this is not the case. Logic determines the relationship that we construct with the world, and it organizes how we see the world.

Nietzsche wrote in a famous line (or, perhaps I should say, a line that ought to be more famous than it perhaps is) that the nature and degree of an individual’s sexuality reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit. I agree with this, but I would add that the nature and kind of an individual’s logic — be it constructivist or non-constructivist — also reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit and indeed informs the world in which his spirit finds a home… or fails to find a home.

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Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 - 09 September 1990

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 - 09 September 1990

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

critical existentialism

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

1) those which both act and suffer,

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

3) those which suffer only but do not act.

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

4) those which neither suffer nor act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

An imaginary illustration of Protagoras teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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