Wednesday


thinking about civilization

In my recent post The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I discussed Husserl’s conception of rigorous science and how Husserlian ideas were implicitly present throughout my own analysis of civilization. If the study of civilization can be formulated as a rigorous science, then Husserl has something to teach us. I followed up on this post on Husserlian science with another post, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, in which I used an example from Bertrand Russell to illustrate Husserl’s point. It was a particular pleasure for me to illustrate a Husserlian idea with a Russellian image, as Husserl and Russell stand at the respective heads of the contemporary division of philosophy into the continental and the analytical.

From the perspective of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of science (or philosophy of history, or philosophy of anything), Husserl doesn’t even exist. This is an unfortunate ellipsis. One of the things I have appreciated about the object-oriented philosophers (especially Graham Harman) has been their willingness to read across the conventional boundaries that divide philosophy today, and especially the division between analytical and continental philosophy. This is all to the good, and something I seek to put into practice as well. While my primary guides in philosophy of science relevant to formulating a science of civilization have been Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel — analytical stalwarts — I draw on Husserl, Karl Löwith, Blumenberg, and others, not out of a sense of eclecticism, but because they, too, have important insights about the nature of science in the modern world (to borrow a phrase of Alfred North Whitehead).

As I implied in my earlier discussion of Husserl, adapting Husserl’s insights to contemporary philosophy of science requires a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing the archaic elements still “sedimented” into Husserlian thought and the genuinely novel contributions that Husserl himself makes. Discussing Husserl in this way suggests an analogy with Marx: in order to make use of Marx today, one must equally proceed with a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing that which is no longer defensible, from Marx’s genuine insights upon which philosophers today might build. Yet with all the enormous resources expended on Marxism, and the vast number of individuals who identify with Marxism, whether vaguely and passionately, I do not know of anyone who has systematically taken Marx’s insights that remain valid and translated them into the technical apparatus of contemporary economics. This is probably merely a reflection of my ignorance of contemporary Marx studies, but I can at least say that such an effort is not commonplace. One would think it would be.

The most glaring example of this is the attempt by contemporary Marxists to continue to flog the dead horse of the labor theory of value, which inevitably results in a Rube Goldberg theory of economic value, since economics has gone far beyond the theoretical framework available to Marx. As I have said in other contexts, there is no reason whatsoever that someone could not adapt Marx’s essential insights to the theory of diminishing marginal utility, or even something more contemporary. It is a remarkable contrast to look at the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman, who, even in proposing his prospect theory, has anticipated critics by openly acknowledging that, although his prospect theory possesses certain advantages over traditional marginal utility theory, it cannot account for disappointment and regret. This is the spirit of science at its best. It should come as no surprise that contemporary science at its best comes from someone who has spent a career studying cognitive biases.

Okay. So that was a bit of a digression, and merely in order to place Husserl in historical context in order to get a feeling for how the ideas of dead philosophers are treated. With Husserl, feelings do not run as high as they are do discussions of Marx, so it is less controversial to plunder Husserl for his valuable ideas while tossing aside the archaisms still embedded in his thought.

Today a further appropriation from Husserl’s thought occurred to me, and it is also another example of my proceeding according to an Husserlian method (as with Husserl’s idea of rigorous science has banishing profundity in favor of Cartesian clarity) without realizing that that is what I have been doing.

Recently I have been working on a lot of thought experiments in relation to civilization. Just this morning I came up with a great new thought experiment that I hope to elaborate (not here, and not today, but another time). I have been using thought experiments to explore the idea of civilization, to push the limits of civilization to try to discover what is implicit in our conception of civilization that we have not yet been able to formulate explicitly because we do not yet have a science of civilization. Not only do we not have a science of civilization, we also have no examples of civilization other than human civilization on Earth, and while on the one hand this can be subdivided into many distinct examplars of civilization, on the other hand they are all human and terrestrial civilizations, and for that we have no counter-examples. This poses severe limitations on our ability to think critically about civilization, and so I turn to thought experiments for counter-examples and contrasts.

An essay of mine appeared on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog, The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment, which is an example of using a thought experiment to explore the idea of civilization. This resulted in more comments than my previous couple of Centauri Dreams posts, but much of the discussion in the comments centered about the validity or invalidity of the zoo hypothesis. I did not argue for or against the zoo hypothesis; I only wanted to use the zoo hypothesis in order to explore the idea of civilization. I was asking myself this question: if you were entering into a planetary system in which you knew there to be an intelligent species, how would you go about conducting observations intended to identify and isolate the “big picture” of the civilization that you encounter? However, I didn’t make that motivation explicit. I wanted this essay to be readable and enjoyable, so I held back on explicit formulations in order to allow the narrative to do the work. Perhaps this was a mistake. But I did learn something from those who commented, even if few seemed to get the idea that I was trying to explore.

In elaborating these recent thought experiments about civilization I realized that, once again, almost unknowingly, I had been following Husserl’s lead. One of the methods that Husserl employs is something that he called, “Eidetic Seeing and Phantasy. Eidetic Cognition Independent of All Cognition
of Matters of Fact” and “The Role of Perception in the Method of Eidetic Clarification. The Primacy of Free Phantasy” (these are section titles from Ideas I; I don’t know why translators have rendered his as “phantasy” rather than as “fantasy”). Here is Husserl on phantasy as a method to converge upon essences:

The Eidos, the pure essence, can be exemplified for intuition in experiential data — in data of perception, memory, and so forth; but it can equally well be exemplified in data of mere phantasy. Accordingly, to seize upon an essence itself, and to seize upon it originarily, we can start from corresponding experiencing intuitions, but equally well from intuitions which are non-experiencing, which do not seize upon factual existence but which are instead “merely imaginative”. If we produce in free phantasy spatial formations, melodies, social practices, and the like, or if we phantasy acts of experiencing of liking or disliking, of willing, etc., then on that basis by “ideation” we can see various pure essences originarily and perhaps even adequately: either the essence of any spatial shape whatever, any melody whatever, any social practice whatever, etc., or the essence of a shape, a melody, etc., of the particular type exemplified.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 4

Husserl is not easy to read (which I noted back in I Dreamed a Dream…), and it’s difficult to find a good passage to quote, but here’s another to give you a little more of a flavor of Husserl on phantasy as a philosophical method:

In freedom we generate intuitive objectivations of the same any — “physical thing” — whatever and we make the vague sense of the word clear to us. Since a “universal objectivation” is involved, we must proceed by way of example. Let us generate optional intuitions in phantasy of physical things, such as free intuitions of winged horses, white ravens, golden mountains, and the like; they would, in any case, be physical things, and objectivations of them therefore serve as examples just as well as objectivations of the physical things given to actual experience. Effecting ideation on that basis, in intuitive clarity we seize upon the essence, “physical thing,” as the subject of universally delimited noematic determinations.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 149

Husserl even calls his method of using phantasy “experiments in phantasy”: .

“…should one say, as has in fact been said on other sides, that we owe geometrical insights to ‘experience in phantasy’ that we ought to effect them as inductions based upon experiments in phantasy? But why, we ask in contra, does the physicist make no use of such marvelous experience in phantasy? For no other reason than because experiments in the imagination are imagined experiments, just as figures, movements, multiplicities in phantasy are not actual but imagined ones.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 25

Earlier in the same text Husserl had justified the use of phantasy in geometry in contradistinction to the factual sciences:

The geometer who draws his figures on the board produces thereby factually existing lines on the factually existing board. But his experiencing of the product, qua experiencing, no more grounds his geometrical seeing of essences and eidetic thinking than does his physical producing. This is why it does not matter whether his experiencing is hallucination or whether, instead of actually drawing his lines and constructions, he imagines them in a world of phantasy. It is quite otherwise in the case of the scientific investigator of Nature. He observes and experiments; that is, he ascertains factual existence according to experience; for him experiencing is a grounding act which can never be substituted by a mere imagining. And this is precisely why science of matters of fact and experiential science are equivalent concepts. But for the geometer who explores not actualities but “ideal possibilities,” not predicatively formed actuality-complexes but predicatively formed eidetic affair-complexes, the ultimately grounding act is not experience but rather the seeing of essences.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 7

Here we see that, although Husserl does not use the term “thought experiment” he comes very close to this. It would be possible to reformulate everything that I have written about thought experiments in the study of civilization in terms of Husserl’s variation in phantasy; this would simply be an alternative formulation substituting the theoretical framework of phenomenology for the theoretical framework of thought experiments and contemporary analytical philosophy of science.

This reformulation would be an arduous task, as the greater part of Husserl’s Ideas I touches on the idea of seeking essences through variations in phantasy, so I could not so readily simply reformulate a paragraph from Husserl as I have, on other occasions, torn a paragraph out of another philosopher and reformulated it to make a point (as a recently did with a long paragraph from Plato in The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment).

Again, and as before, this can only be done by disentangling the useful elements in Husserl from those that we would no longer wish to employ. Philosophers today would not likely express themselves as Husserl did on essences, and many commentators on Husserl have acknowledged that Husserl’s use of the term “essence” is a stumbling block for his Anglophone readers. I could say that I was seeking the essence of civilization, but I prefer to say that I am exploring the concept of civilization. The former way of expressing the nature of the inquiry is perfectly fine, but vulnerable to misreadings and misconceptions.

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The Limits of Science

3 December 2014

Wednesday


P. F. Strawson called his twentieth century exposition of Kant The Bounds of Sense. I have commented elsewhere what a appropriate title this is. The Kantian project (much like metamathematics in the twentieth century) was a limitative project. Kant himself wrote (in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason): “…my intention then was, to limit knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Here is the entire passage from which the quote is taken, though in a different translation:

“This discussion as to the positive advantage of critical principles of pure reason can be similarly developed in regard to the concept of God and of the simple nature of our soul; but for the sake of brevity such further discussion may be omitted. [From what has already been said, it is evident that] even the assumption — as made on behalf of the necessary practical employment of my reason — of God, freedom, and immortality is not permissible unless at the same time speculative reason be deprived of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For in order to arrive at such insight it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to objects of possible experience, and which, if also applied to what cannot be an object of experience, always really change this into an appearance, thus rendering all practical extension of pure reason impossible. I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition

What lies beyond the bounds of sense? For Kant, faith. And Kant’s theological agenda drove him to seek the bounds of sense so that speculative reason could be deprived of its pretensions to transcendental insight. Thus Kant gives us an epistemology openly freighted with theological and moral concerns. Talk about the theory-ladenness of perception! It is, however, non-perception — i.e., that which cannot be the object of possible experience — that is the Kantian domain of faith.

The 1791 Döbler portrait of Kant.

Of course, this is the whole Kantian project in a nutshell, is it not? It is Kant’s design to show us exactly how perception is laden with theory, the theory native to the mind, the a priori concepts by which we organize experience. Kant propounds the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental deduction of the categories in order to demonstrate the reliance of even the most ordinary experience upon the mind’s a priori faculties.

Kant was, in part, reacting against the empiricism of Locke and Hume — especially Hume’s skeptical conclusions, although Kant’s own rejection of metaphysics equaled if not surpassed Hume’s anti-metaphysical stance, as famously described in the following passage from Hume:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy,” Part III

For Hume, the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed doubt; for Kant the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed belief. There is a lesson in here somewhere, and the lesson is this: from a single state of affairs, multiple interpretations can be shown to follow.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually became contemporary scientific naturalism.

Are the bounds of sense also the bounds of science? It would seem so. In so far as science must appeal to empirical evidence, and empirical evidence comes to us by way of the senses, the limits of the senses impose limits on science. Of course, this is a bit too simplistic to be quite true. There are so many qualifications that need to be made to such an assertion that it is difficult to say where to start.

It should be familiar to everyone that we have come to extensively use instruments to augment our senses. Big Science today sometimes spends years, if not decades, building its enormous machines, without which contemporary science could not be possible. So the limits of the senses are not absolute, and they are subject to manipulation. Also, we sometimes do science without our senses or instruments, when we pursue science by way of thought experiments.

While thought experiments alone, unsupplemented by actual experiments, are probably insufficient to constitute a science, thought experiments have become a necessary requisite to science much as instrumentation has become a necessary requisite to science. Sometimes, when our technology catches up with our ideas, we can transform our thought experiments into actual experiments, so that there is an historical relationship between science properly understood and the penumbra of science represented by thought experiments. And thought experiments too have their controlled conditions, and these are the conditions that Kant attempted to lay down in the transcendental aesthetic.

There is also the question of whether or not mathematics is a science, or one among the sciences. And whether or not we set aside mathematics as something different from the other sciences, we know that the development of unquestionably empirical sciences like physics are deeply mathematicized, so that the mathematical content of empirical theories may act like an abstract instrument, parallel to the material instruments of big science, that extends the possibilities of the senses. Another way to think about mathematics is as an enormous thought experiment that under-girds the rest of science — the one crucial thought experiment, an experimentum crucis, without which the rest of science cannot function. In this sense, thought experiments are indispensable to mathematicized science — as indispensable as mathematics.

At a more radical level of critique, it would be difficult to give a fine-grained account of empirical evidence that did not shade over, at the far edges of the concept, into other kinds of knowledge not strictly empirical. Empirical evidence may shade over into the kind of intuitive evidence that is the basis of mathematics, or the kind of epistemological context that is the setting for our thought experiments. Empirical evidence can also shade over into interoception that cannot be publicly verified (therefore failing a basic test of science) or precisely reproduced by repetition, and which interoception itself in turn shades over into intuitions in which thought and feeling are not clearly distinct.

Where does Kant’s possible experience fit within the continuum of the senses? What is the scope of possible experience? Can we make a clear distinction between extending the senses (and thus human experience) by abstract or concrete instruments and imposing a theory upon experience through these extensions? Does possible experience include all possible past experience? Does past experience include phenomenon that occurred but which were not observed (the famous tree falling in a forest that no one hears)? Does it include all possible future experience, or only those future experiences that will eventually be actualized, and not those that already remain merely shadowy possibilities? Does possible experience include those counterfactuals that feature in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory? Explicit answers to these questions are less important that the lines of inquiry that the questions prompt us to pursue.

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Saturday


Today I thought of a question that doubles as a thought experiment. I’ve already posted this to Grand Strategy Annex, but I liked it so much I decided to post it here also.

Imagine that you approach a table with a book lying closed on it. Your name is on the cover. It is the book of your life. What do you do?

Do you sit down and read it through carefully, page by page?

Do you skip to the end to find out what happens?

Do do skim the book for the interesting bits?

Do you only read the dirty parts?

Do you leave the book closed and walk away?

Do you hesitate over it, but take it with you, in case you decide to read it later?

Do you destroy it or throw it away?

Responses are strongly encouraged. I would really like to know how different people would react to this counter-factual opportunity.

This thought experiment is not intended as a question about free will and determinism, but it can be taken that way if the reader is particularly struck by these implications. The existence of a book detailing your entire life implies determinism, but, if taken purely hypothetically, as a thought experiment, suppose that there is such a book, and that it lies closed before you. You have the freedom to pick it up and peruse it, or to leave it undisturbed, which seems to imply free will. If you read the book, it must include a description of our choosing to read the book; if you pass on the opportunity to read the book of your life, its contents are unknown and irrelevant. Presumably, if the book were a complete account of your life, it would include a description of your refusal to read the book, but if the book were not actually a description of your life, but was only so placed and introduced to you as a kind of intellectual provocation, its contents may have no relationship at all to your life.

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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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