Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Infinity and Atomism

Now this is interesting: one of the ancient arguments for the existence of indivisibles (e.g., "atoms") is that infinite divisibility implies an actual infinity.  Suppose you can infinitely divide both a mustard seed and a mountain.  So they are both composed of the same number (an infinity) of parts.  Therefore, they are both the same size.  Or, by the same reasoning, a part of a mountain is the same size as the whole mountain. 

This isn't considered a problem in mathematics, where a set is infinite just in case one of its subsets (parts) is the same size as the parent.  (For instance, the set of integers and the set of squares.)  But it's an open question in physics whether there is an actual infinity. 

Some evidence seems to imply it.  Inverse square laws (like Newton's equation for gravity or Coulomb's law for electrostatics) can evaluate to infinity.  Some solutions of Einstein's equations (e.g., some black holes) evaluate to infinity.  If the topology of the universe is flat (analysis of the cosmic background radiation thus far suggests it is), then space is an actual, physical infinite. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reason and Anxiety

My understanding of the Spinoza Controversy of the late-18th century has changed over time.  I first read about it years ago, first in Frederick Beiser's The Fate of Reason, and then in Paul Franks' All or Nothing.  I initially thought of it solely in terms of the quid juris of reason itself.  Do the concepts of reason represent reality?  What's the place of reason in the universe?  Can reason justify itself, or is there no ultimate reason to be rational?  Does reason lead to atheism?  In other words I saw the Spinoza Controversy - which I affectionately term "18th century flame wars" - either as an 18th century problem or as a dress rehearsal for Nietzsche.

But since returning to the problem over the past few weeks, I've come to see it in a broader context.  This quote from Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (from Paul Franks' "All or nothing: systematicity and nihilism in Jacobi, Reinhold, and Maimon"), describing an experience he had at the age of 8 or 9, changed my mind:
That extraordinary thing was a representation of endless duration, quite independent of any religious concept.  At the said age, when I was pondering on eternity a parte ante, it suddenly came over me with such clarity, and seized me with such violence, that I gave out a loud cry and fell into a kind of swoon.  A movement in me, quite natural, forced me to revive the same representation as soon as I came to myself, and the result was a state of unspeakable despair.  The thought of annihilation, which had always been dreadful to me, now became even more dreadful, nor could I bear the vision of an eternal forward duration any better.
...I gradually managed not to be afflicted by this trial so often, and finally managed to free myself from it altogether...
This representation has often seized me again since then, despite the care that I constantly take to avoid it.  I have reason to suspect that I can arbitrarily evoke it in me any time I want; and I believe that it is in my power, were I to do so repeatedly a few times, to take my life within minutes by this means.
What jumps out at me is the vivid description of existential despair.  "The thought of annihilation" which "seized" him and which was so "dreadful" adds a human and perhaps universal dimension to what previously seemed like a mere thought exercise.

There was a discussion about this years ago on Crooked Timber, and I remember in one of the follow-ups someone referring to Jacobi as the Eric Cartman of the 18th century.  It's an odd comparison, given his religiosity.  But at least in Beiser's account, he comes across as a bit of a pain-in-the-ass.  The whole Spinoza Controversy got kicked off when Jacobi published his version of a conversation in which the late Gotthold Ephraim Lessing declared his Spinozism.  Lessing was a hero to the German Enlightenment movement, and Spinozism was the same thing as atheism.  The intent of publishing the correspondence was to show that Enlightenment leads to atheism.  Later, Jacobi accused the philosopher Fichte of atheism, directly leading to the latter being removed from his position at Jena.  So - he was kind of an asshole!

But reading this passage makes conspicuous for me the particular experience of existence motivating Jacobi.  It wasn't pure intellectual arrogance or whimsy that caused Jacobi to go after Enlightenment and reason.  It was an experience of horror and threat of annihilation.  What's interesting is why Jacobi connected this threat with rationalism.  Understanding this explains the connection between the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) and a host of problems lying outside 17th and 18th century philosophy.

Is the PSR Passé? 
In my previous post about recursion and the Agrippan Trilemma, I presented the problems inherent in the PSR as epistemological problems, i.e., problems explaining things.  According to the PSR, we can have complete understanding of something if and only if reason finds rest in ultimate, self-justifying conditions.

A common response to this problem - at least from our 21st century perspective - is: so what?  Science is the best example we have of knowledge of the world.  Yet science does not require ultimate explanations.  Science requires only that we reason to the best explanation.

Our theories function as models of reality, and the worth of those models comes from their ability to supply explanations and make predictions.  There are problems in any theory, things which the model can't explain or has difficulty explaining.  For example, there used to be a problem explaining the planet Mercury's orbit using Newtonian physics.  In order for a new theory to be accepted, in the long run it has to not only solve those old problems but do as good a job of explaining things as the old theory did.  So general relativity not only solved the problem of Mercury's orbit; it also explained everything good old Newtonian physics was able to explain, too.

But it's not as though anyone believes Einstein gave us a transparent window on to the physical world with his theory.  It's able to explain more than any previous cosmological theory.  Its predictions are more accurate than any other theory ever devised by the human intellect (with the possible exception of the Standard Model).  It's not able to explain why the gravitational constant is what it is, why the speed of light is just so, or what happens in the centers of black holes.  But no one believes for that reason that it's a bad theory, or that we won't understand anything about the universe until these problems are resolved.  We have an incomplete understanding of things.  We may always have an incomplete understanding of things.  But this is nothing to despair over.

So then why was Jacobi so freaked out by this?  I think it makes more sense if you think about it, not so much in terms of causation, but rather in terms of grounding.  There's no proof from the passage that he was worrying about which physical theory explains the current state of affairs.  What he seemed to be worrying about was how there was a present moment at all.  Not just "Why does the world appear this way and not that?" but "Why is there anything?"

Reason and Angst
In one of his essay “Facticity and Transcendental Philosophy,” (From Kant to Davidson: Philosophy and the Idea of the Transcendental, ed. Jeff Malpas (London: Routledge, 2002), 100-121.), philosopher Steven Galt Crowell argues that, in the experience of Angst, we're confronted with the fact that our existence is grounded in something we can neither understand nor control.  Every moment is potentially pregnant with such horror - not because we lack the right scientific account of reality, but just because our being is constituted this way.  We're not fully self-grounding, nor can we be.

But these moments are also pregnant with mystery.  Beingness in general is problematized for us in Angst.  It's as though beings as a whole "recede from us" (Heidegger), and a giant question mark hangs over everything.  One wonders why there should be anything rather than nothing at all.  Indeed, people who have these experiences at a young age are often propelled into philosophy or religion.

But why should that be?  If one is confronted with the opacity and finitude of one's existence, why should they be propelled into a pursuit like philosophy, the goal of which is to answer, amongst other things, the question of why we're here?  Shouldn't such pursuits appear immediately futile?

What this shows, says Crowell, is that reason itself has its source in such experiences.  When I experience Angst and hear a telephone ring, I don't doubt the existence of the telephone or the ringing.  But I will wonder, at least implicitly, at why such a thing should be at all.  Reason doesn't recede in the face of Angst.  It's generalized and encompasses everything all at once.  Far from being a philosophy of irrationalism, existentialism proves reason is coextensive with existence itself.

The Problem of Ground
I think if we look at Jacobi's experience, not just as an epistemological problem (there's no evidence that it is), but rather as an existential problem, it begins to make more sense.  It also explains why he was driven into a confrontation with rationalism.  Far from being a mere external imposition upon facts, the principle of sufficient reason erupts full-grown from Angst itself.  And if one inclines one's questioning toward reality in the right way, it's possible to evoke Angst.

Now, how you respond to such experiences determines approximately everything about you down to your soul.  The natural response to such experiences is to flee them - to reabsorb oneself back into experience, back into particular things, back into playing with concepts (even philosophical or religious ones).  One might also choose to face such experiences with courage and either try to accept them or overcome them.  Heidegger believed such experiences were the root of all fear, and that facing them and overcoming them would destroy the capacity for fear.  Heidegger was also a Nazi.  There's also evidence that dealing with such experiences with equanimity is part of the path toward enlightenment in Buddhism.  This leads to the end of fear, but it also leads to the end of suffering and great compassion.

In the context of Western enlightenment, the question is: what relation is revealed in Angst between reason and existence?  The situation is ambiguous.  Being is revealed, equally, as horror and problem (question).  The question: Why are there beings rather than nothing?  There is no self-evident answer to this question.  It seems anything you can plug in - even God - gets swallowed up by the question.  One could be led, with some justification, toward the view that reason is not only insufficient to solve this existential problem, but that it in fact exacerbates it, since even the sort of ground that would ordinarily satisfy such concerns (God) is shown in such experiences to be without ground.  This appears to be the conclusion Jacobi drew from the experience.

The other response is to take Angst as a challenge to lay the ground.  Since reason is invoked in its purest form in such experiences, one might interpret it as a call to develop reason more fully until, perhaps, one has finally laid a sufficient ground.  In this case, groundlessness is given as a condition that reason might remedy.  This is transcendental philosophy as a cognitive, autonomous project.  Crowell argues that Heidegger's philosophy is an example of this.

The Fate of Reason
No one knows yet what the fate of reason is.  It seems to owe its existence to an original anxiety about the world that few people are even aware they have.  Is reason merely a byproduct of the anxiety, in which case it should not worry us per se?  Is reason able to assuage the anxiety somehow, either through transcendental philosophy or perhaps in concert with meditation (as in Buddhism)?  Or are reason and Angst somehow in their own recursive loop, with Angst giving rise to reason, and reason deepening Angst by revealing time and again the insufficiency of any ground?

The only thing I'm sure of is that Jacobi perceived a problem with reason that is not particular to 18th century rationalism.  There's more here than political reaction and the failing morals of modern society.  Jacobi's thought of annihilation is still with us.

Recursion and The Principle of Sufficient Reason

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR): For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.

The reason the PSR caused so much trouble in 17th and 18th century philosophy is because it's a recursive function.  It's always possible to run the PSR function on the output of the PSR function.  This results in an infinite regress.  Even if we trace the conditions back to something which has no cause (like God), it's still possible to ask after the reason for the existence of such a thing or the reason it acted to create the world in the first place.  

Infinite Regression
One might wonder why an infinite regress is an undesirable consequence.  One way to think of it is in terms of end-conditions.  For analogy, imagine we're trying to convert a decimal number into a binary number.  We know that for every whole number that k = 2n + b, where is a whole number, and b is either 0 or 1.  If you apply this function recursively, you can transform any decimal number into a binary number.

sub binary {

        my ($n) = @_;
        my $k = int($n/2);
        my $b = $n % 2;
        my $E = binary($k);
        return $E . $b;

This function takes whatever is passed to binary and tosses it into variable $n.  $k is then $n/2 (discarding the remainder), and $b is the remainder.  But then we compute the binary expansion of $k and call it $E.  Once the recursion has gone as far as it will go, it will come out the way it came (so to speak) and return a string of bits.  

Now, there's one problem with this subroutine as its written: we have not specified an end-condition.  If you call this subroutine in a program, you'll never find the binary equivalent of anything.  It will run until it has filled the computer's memory, and then your machine will crash.  We can fix this by adding the following line, right below the declaration of $n:

        return $n if $n == 0 || $n == 1;

If the number passed to binary is 0 or 1, there's nothing further to do, since 0 and 1 are already their binary equivalents.  At that point it's time to stop the recursion, come out the way we came, and string the results together.  

Complete Intelligibility
Now, the PSR applied universally is a lot like our first version of binary before we put in an end-condition.  It goes on forever.  The fact that it goes on forever is not the problem per se.  Perhaps we're computing the function on an ideal Turing machine with infinite memory and an infinitely long tape.  The problem is that, like our first draft of the procedure, it won't return an answer.  Positing F' as the cause of F doesn't do the work of explaining F any more than saying that 11 = 2*5 + 1 gives us the binary of 22.  It's just one piece of a string of explanations that, in itself, doesn't tell us anything useful.  It's only when we take all the answers we've gotten already and put them together that we get the explanation.  But we don't get to concatenate our results until we reach the end of the recursion and come back out.  

You might wonder why we need to apply the PSR universally, though.  Why not accept some things just are the case, and that's it?  

Well, it seems as though we have to do something like that.  After all, the end-condition in the binary subroutine is an example of that.  But we have to distinguish between two kinds of end-conditions: conditions that explain themselves and those which do not.  The end-condition of binary is the former kind.  It follows from the fact that binaries by definition are made up of 0s and 1s that our subroutine treats those as building blocks.  

The latter kind of end-condition - what we might call a finite end-condition - is justified neither by itself nor by anything outside itself.  It simply is - and for no reason.  There's no obvious reason why the world can't ultimately be grounded in such a finite condition.  But if it were grounded that way, then once again ordinary things would not be fully intelligible.  It would be like binary stopping when it reaches the number "5".  There would be no rhyme or reason to the program, and we would never get any answer.  

The Intellectual Categorical Imperative
There are other reasons a finite condition is undesirable.  It seems to go against our rational instincts, what we might call an intellectual categorical imperative.  For instance, observation tells us that, in our universe, the speed of light is constant, c.  This is treated as an unconditioned in most physics.  Yet there's also an implicit belief that there's a reason it is what it is and not some other number; we just don't know that reason yet.  Or in the standard model, there are various particles, and as we discover them, we find out their properties like spin, mass, charge, etc.  We have no theory right now that predicts these properties before they're discovered.  So for the time being, they're treated as unconditioned.  But it's assumed such a theory exists - which is why many theoretical physicists work on things like string theory.  

So even when we're confronted by things or truths which appear to be finite unconditioneds, there's a natural expectation that these things actually are conditioned, we just don't know yet by what.  This is no guarantee that such an explanation exists.  It's no guarantee that our powers are great enough to discover the explanation.  But this drive explains the demand for universal recursion in the PSR, and why nothing short of an absolute application of the PSRappears to satisfy it.  

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR) is the demand, for every F, why F is the case.  It is an attempt to explain why things are the way they are and not otherwise.  It is concerned with the ultimate reasons for existence itself.  It is recursive and universal, meaning that every output of the PSR must become an input for the PSR.  Once the PSR is applied recursively and universally, there are three possible outcomes (what philosopher Paul Franks calls the "Agrippan Trilemma"):
  1. The series is infinite.  The PSR function will run on itself forever, and so there is no answer to why anything is the way it is.  
  2. The series is finite and ends for no reason.  The PSR will return an answer, but the answer will not fully explain anything (if it explains anything at all).  
  3. The series is finite but terminates in something self-caused/self-grounding/self-explanatory.  It's easy to see what this would mean in the case of computing binary numbers from decimals, but it's less clear what this means in the context of beings as a whole.  
Whatever it is that would satisfy #3, it's the only answer that would satisfy a philosopher who thinks about reason in terms of the PSR.  If we're going to use the PSR, then we need #3.  If we don't have it, then the world is unintelligible and ultimately groundless, and reason is meaningless.  

Next time I'd like to think about what would fit the bill and how different philosophers and theologians have thought about this problem throughout the ages.  This is usually treated as a problem particular to the rationalist philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries, but I think the problem is more general than that.  This gets into questions about infinity, time, the Seinsfrage, and even mysticism.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Notes of Holderlin's fragment 'Being Judgment Possibility'

This fragment deals with the distinction between being and identity and why an ontology cannot follow from the fact the self-consciousness.
Being -, expresses the combination of subject and object.
The concept "being" must encompass all manners of existences.  Conscious states are subjective, first-person, non-extended entities.  Physical objects are objective, third-person, extended entities.  And yet both sorts of things exist.  So while we have no theory which explains how matter gives rise to consciousness, and while we have no theory which explains how consciousnesses are able to know reality, the fact remains: both sorts of things exist in the same world.  They both are, and so there's some underlying commonality.
Where subject and object simply are, and not just partially, united, such that no separation can take place without injuring the nature of that which is to be divided, only there and nowhere else can there be talk of being as such
The sense of unity implied by being is total, since it must apply equally to everything that exists, regardless of how it exists.  We might say that being implies unrelenting unity, since there is absolutely nothing it will exclude.  If something were excluded from being, and if there were separation between being and something else, then being would no longer be univocal, and so it could not be being.  It would be some particular, finite being.
the same is the case in intellectual intuition.
I take him to mean that intellectual intuition - the absolute I of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre - must also be characterized in such an infinite fashion.  Just as being must dissolve the opposition between subject and object, so too must the absolute I annihilate the distinction between itself and anything else.  There is no "outside" for absolute subjectivity any more than there is an "outside" for being.  Both are infinite.
But this being must not be confused with identity.  When I say: I am I, then the subject (I) and the object (I) are not combined in such a way that no separation can take place without injuring the nature of what is to be separated; on the contrary, the I is only possible through the separation of the I from the I.
When I reflect upon my experience, I recognize that it's my experience.  I perceive things, and in perceiving them, I'm also able to be aware that these perceptions are taking place in my mind.  So the mind not only perceives, desires, etc.  It also exists in relation to itself, and this self-relation is one of its essential features. It has subjectivity.  It not only relates to what is outside of it - objects, states of affairs, etc. - but also to itself, and it takes itself to be itself.  It identifies itself as itself.  That which appears in it appears for it.

There's a superficial similarity here with being.  Being contained the opposites of subject and object within itself.  It united them insofar as they both exist.  The subject does something similar insofar as it holds together perception of the object and reflective awareness of that perception.  Or to put the same thing another way: I perceive something, that something is other than me, but in perceiving that thing (and only in perceiving that thing) I am able to perceive myself.  The subject opposes the object to itself, but that act of opposition is  recooperated  back into the subject, just as being recooperated subjectivity back into itself.  

But the similarity with the concept of being is only superficial, according to Holderlin.  Being unites subject and object.  That's just what "to be" means.  But with the subject it's different.  The principle of subjectivity is not unity but identity.  And that identity only takes place by means of segregation.
How can I say: I! without self-consciousness?  
There's no understanding subjectivity without examining what's peculiar about its inner relation.  This wasn't necessary in the case of being, since we only had to worry about unification, not how the two things - subject and object - relate once they're brought together.  Subject and object only needed to be unified, not identified with one another.  To put it another way: subject and object were only identical qua existing things.  In every other respect they were opposites.
But how is self-consciousness possible?  By setting myself in opposition to myself, by separating myself from myself but, the separation notwithstanding, by being able to recognize myself in what opposes me.
Whatever is happening in self-consciousness, we can't understand it through the concept of unity alone.  There must be distance between myself and the object, otherwise I cannot perceive it.  And if I can't have perception, then I can't have self-consciousness.  It is only by sundering the unity of subject and object that the subject can be a subject.
But in what sense as the same?  I can, must ask this; for in another respect it is opposed to itself.  Therefore identity is not a unification of object and subject, which can take place absolutely, therefore identity is not = to absolute being.
I recognize myself as myself - I can identify myself - only because there is opposition between me and something else.  More than that: the opposition occurs within myself, not just between me and the physical world.  Therefore, the logic governing the I's knowledge of itself as I is not identical with the logic governing the unification that takes place in absolute being, and there is no way to construct an ontology on the basis of self-consciousness.

This has the further implication that, if I know I exist, original unity (being) has been sundered/lost:
Judgment - is in the highest and most strict sense the original [ursprunglich] separation of the most tight unity of object and subject in intellectual intuition, that separation which makes object and subject first possible, the judgment [Ur - theilung, original - separation].  The concept of judgment already contains the concept of the reciprocal relation of subject and object to each other, as well as the necessary precondition of a whole of which object and subject are the parts.
Judgment in the ordinary sense of the word contains separation within it.  In "S is P", "If A, then B", etc., concepts are opposed to and then related to one another.  This separation in judgment is a mere reflection of the original separation entailed by the possibility of experience itself.  If ordinary language is founded in original separation, then this explains why the Seinsfrage cannot be approached discursively.  Any statement to the effect of "Being is ______" or "The absolute is ________" presupposes the sundering of original unity, of absolute being.  And yet because the opposing terms show up for us at all, they point to the unity suggested by the concept of "being" itself.
'I am I' is the most fitting example of this concept of judgment [Ur - theilen], as a theoretical judgment [Urtheilung], for in the practical judgment it sets itself in opposition to the not-I, not in opposition to itself.
Self-consciousness is the most conspicuous case of the sundering and concealment of being itself.  It's the fount of absolute division and absolute disunity.  The idea of founding an ontology on the back of the "I" is absurd. "Being" cannot represent the goal of such a philosophy but can only be its enabling limit.
Actuality and possibility are differentiated, as mediate and unmediated consciousness.  When I think of a thing [Gegenstand] as possible, I merely repeat the preceding consciousness through which it is actual.  For us, there is no conceivable possibility which has not been actuality.  For this reason the concept of possibility cannot be applied to objects of reason, for they never occur to consciousness as what they appear to be, but only [occur as] the concept of necessity. The concept of possibility belongs to the objects of the understanding, that of actuality [belongs to] objects of perception and intuition.
Human experience is circumscribed and limited everywhere by the original sundering of being, and therefore it finds only the limited and the finite.  As Novalis exclaimed in his 1797 Miscellaneous Remarks: "We look everywhere for the Unconditional Absolute, and all we find are the conditions."  Unmediated, unified being is given only as a possibility.  Intellectual intuition is, at best, a regulative idea.  (There's ample evidence Fichte conceived of it this way.)

Though he doesn't stick to the letter of Kant's philosophy, Holderlin is a very good Kantian philosopher.  He's picked up on the idea of finitude and has expressed it with a sublimity of prose unapproached by Kant.  The idea in this passage is that an absolute, subjective idealism - where the I posits both itself and the not-I - is stopped, not by anything external, but rather by the very conditions that allow self-consciousness to the thrive in the first place.  This is not done on the basis of the conditions of sensibility, as Kant does it.  Rather, it's done by means of an examination of the conditions of the I itself.  The elegance and brutality of this attack is unsurpassed.  I would not want to be Fichte reading this.

But is his description of subjectivity correct?  Fichte's account of the I's self-positing is strong.  This is really his great contribution to the history of philosophy.  Because what he realizes is that the subject has to be understood as subject, not as object.  Fichte was fond of asking his students on the first day to think about the wall in the lecture hall, and then to think about the I who perceives the wall.  Yes, there is the moment where the subject knows itself by reflecting upon itself.  In that moment it sunders its unity: there is the first-order mental state (e.g., riding a bicycle), and there is the second-order mental state which has the first-order mental state as its object ("I know that I am riding a bike.")

Yet Fichte was also aware that in order to have that second-order knowledge, the first-order mental state must already "be there" for me somehow.  It's the same way that you would not be able to specifically think, "I am reading a blog post," unless you already had some kind of non-specific, background awareness that you were reading a blog post.  The explicit act of knowing arrives late to the party.  It's only underlining what you already know.

And this non-explicit awareness of your own existence and what you're doing really must be a knowing.  It has to be knowledge as opposed to blind intuition.  There's no mistaking that it's me who's reading/writing the blog post.  Saying "I'm aware of reading the blog post," is a repetition of what's already there.  So by the time the I explicitly finds and calls itself out, it has long since not only been aware of itself but has known itself to be itself.

This is a peculiar state of affairs, one which Holderlin never seems to take into account in his otherwise brilliant critique of Fichte.  For Holderlin, the self is an inherently dual phenomenon.  It always turns up only as the I breaking itself apart in self-consciousness.  But for Fichte, self-consciousness is an originally non-dual existence.  And unlike for Holderlin, where non-duality is something always already destroyed by the act of awareness, for Fichte, non-duality is the apparent reality of the I as I.  This isn't a matter of speculation for Fichte.  It's a matter of experience.

Holderlin's critique of Fichte, with its notions of finitude and the concealment of being, looks back to Kant and forward to Heidegger. Yet Fichte's account of subjectivity seems more enduring than Holderlin's.  His idea of the I's self-positing anticipates Sartre's concept of non-thetic self-awareness.  It also seems to jibe with other 20th century accounts of subjectivity that are similarly non-dual.

Being/Having vs. Being/Doing

I'm reading Stephen Batchelor's first book, Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism. I was curious to see if the book he wrote on the subject was as good as the book I have not written on the subject. I would say the approach is different, and his book is a lot less boring than the book I would write.

Being vs. Having
The first distinction Batchelor draws for understanding Buddhism from a contemporary perspective is that between having and being. All phenomena can be looked at from either perspective. For example, I am drinking a cup of tea right now. The cup and the tea belong to me, i.e., I have them. The cup is blue (it has blueness as a property). It has tea in it. I have a mental representation of the cup, and that representation belongs to my mind (my mind has it).

More broadly I might say that I have a life, I have a job, I have an apartment, I have a car and other possessions, I have goals, and I have a purpose.

But all these things can also be looked at from the perspective of being. There is a cup. There is tea. There is thirst. There is drinking. And all these things can be examined in terms of the way they are (their types of beingness). The tea and the cup are physical objects, but they also exist relative to human activities. So a cup exists (not just as a collection of atoms but) in order to be drunk out of, and tea exists (not just as a plant but) as something to be drunk. The beingness of things turns up as a set of possible actions one can perform with those things. Indeed, our word "pragmatic" comes from the ancient Greek word for things, "pragmata".

But then the bigger things, such as life or human being, can also be understood this way. And according to Batchelor, the Buddha's renunciation of palace life in favor of the life of a religious mendicant typifies this shift from having to being. Suddenly one is no longer concerned with particular things but rather with the characteristics belonging to anything, regardless of what it is. One is no longer concerned with prosaic aims like getting a bigger house or getting a promotion but rather with the aim and purpose of life itself. And from the ethical point of view, there's a shift from having relationships with people to a stance of unconditional love with no particular object.

I have not had a chance to fully evaluate this distinction, and I don't think I know enough about Buddhism to say whether or not Batchelor is entitled to understand it in terms of this distinction.

Being vs. Doing
Nonetheless, I'm struck by how different this distinction is from the distinctions used when I was taught meditation. I was taught that the main distinction is between being and doing, not being and having. Don't try to do anything, just be there, just let what will happen happen. Relinquish all goals and aims. Don't look at it as self-improvement. Don't worry about doing anything right or wrong. Just be there.

This is not a terrible way to teach someone meditation. I remember one person in my class saying what a relief it was for him to do something and not have to worry that he was doing it wrong. (Indeed, if you're not doing anything, you can't be doing something right or wrong.) As a culture, we're uncomfortable with doing nothing and just being. There's always a sense that something has to be done, it has to be done right away, and it has to be done the right way—OR ELSE! That OR ELSE is where our ultimate values lie, and they go unexamined in this perpetual striving. And this striving is usually a striving to have one thing or another, so it's easy to see how the being/doing dichotomy is a close neighbor to the being/having dichotomy.

Still, it concerns me how easily the being/doing distinction maps on to the capitalist distinction between leisure and work. There's no doubt that with their relatively few, infrequently taken vacation days that Americans need a break from their lifestyles. But the fact that leisure or just-being is seen as the alternative to capitalism is a symptom of the fact that we've lost sense of any real alternative to capitalism itself. The alternative to economic exploitation of labor, destruction of the environment, abrogation of our civil liberties, and numerous other injustices is not to change them but to "just let them be". It's never suggested that we might radically alter or replace the system we have, thereby giving ourselves a permanent "vacation" from it all.

So I suspect that the emphasis on this particular dichotomy, at least in North American Buddhism, is a symptom of the fact that our society is so goal-oriented and focused on action and results. There's a solid tradition of progress-oriented Buddhism in southeast Asia. It's not appealing to most North American Buddhists, probably because of the shadow issues we've developed here with regard to the mode of production.

The Seinsfrage
It may also be inadequate from an ontological perspective. Is doing really the opposite of being? The temptation is to reify being, to treat it as an object. Thus we think of the Highest Being, the Ground of Being, a sense of Being Itself, or any number of things that often have a religious connotation.

But in ordinary language, the word "being" is a gerund. It's a verb which has been turned into a noun by tacking "-ing" to the end. In this way it's similar to words like "swimming" or "singing", as in "I hate swimming", and "Singing is fun!" The words refer to activities, not objects. This is the case even if we replace the gerunds with their infinitives and say "I don't like to swim" and "I like to sing."

So the ontological question is not, "What is being?" It can't be. Because even if we answered the question with "Being is _______________," we wouldn't really have succeeded in answering the question. We don't need to clarify the subject of that sentence ("Being"); we need to clarify its verb, "is".

Heidegger's breakthrough was to phrase the question differently. Instead of asking "What is being?" he asks, "What does it mean to be?" We're no longer thinking about a thing now. We're thinking about a process. That process is the arising and passing of phenomena themselves, their shining forth into unconcealedness and their return back into obscurity after a time. This is not some far-off entity whose existence we can infer or infer things about, nor is it anything abstract. This is a process everyone is already aware of just by being alive. We experience it every waking moment of every day. We just need to clarify its meaning by means of the proper investigation.

But if this is true—that being is a process and not a thing or even a state of mind—then the opposition between being and doing can't be right. Being itself is already some kind of activity. And passivity or "just sitting" is some kind of activity, too. We can't escape it.

Then the question becomes: What's the right sort of activity that lets this luminous, moving process of birth and dying shine forth as it really is? For Heidegger, it's a kind of thinking: existential phenomenology. For the Buddha, it is insight meditation.

Questions I have:
  • What is the relationship between "thinking" (as Heidegger understands it) and meditation?
  • The experience of Nirvana is ineffable. So, too, is the experience of being, at least to some degree, since throughout all his writing Heidegger never states, "Okay, this is what it means 'to be'." Do Buddha and Heidegger perceive the same phenomenon?
  • It seems we can't understand being without opposition, and yet every opposition to being is absurd, since everything real or unreal participates in the process of being. We do gain some clarification of being by using these oppositions, but once we've ascended that ladder, we pull it up behind us, so to speak. So what's the status of the having/being opposition? Is it really more helpful than the having/doing opposition?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Things, properties, and personal identity

Personal identity is one of my favorite philosophical subjects to think about. It's been a mystery to me literally as long as I can remember. I remember being a kid and creeping myself out by wondering things like, "How do I exist?" and "Why am I me rather than someone else?" "If you replaced all my memories with other memories, would anything of me remain?"

Philosopher Julian Baggini recently gave a talk on this subject at Tedx.

I mostly agree with what he says, but I have my quibbles and additions.

Things and their properties
Baggini claims that objects are mere aggregates of properties, and so it makes little sense to look for the essence of water beyond its formula H2O or the essence of a watch beyond its parts. Likewise we should not look for a self beyond the parts of which it is composed: memories, beliefs, patterns of behavior, etc.

It doesn't seem that objects uncontroversially are their properties, though. If that were the case, then—keeping the example of the watch—I might not be able to tell the difference between the watch which is on Mr. Baggini's wrist and Mr. Baggini himself. The watch face, watch hands, gears, wrist band, skin, forearm hair, veins, and bones are all in very close proximity with one another, yet we know some of those properties form an arm and others form a watch. Yes, we could remove the watch and find out it's separate, but we could do the same thing with the skin and veins and make the same claim.

If we're dissatisfied with that account of things—which we should be, since it doesn't seem specific enough—we might switch to a more scientific, less subjective account. Then we go beyond the issue of objects and their properties and get into the realm of experimental science. There it turns out that things like watches and forearms are not in fact real "things" at all. The particles and forces composing them are. Then we might say that where the Indian Ocean ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins is a matter of convention, but the properties of H2O are not.

But in fact the same problem we had with objects and their properties pops up here, too. There's a debate in the philosophy of science about whether laws of nature really exist, or whether they're just observed regularities. Our senses or our instruments tell us hydrogen and oxygen behave this way under these circumstances, but it's not as though we perceive the necessity or universality in that. And yet, we do believe mathematical formulations like E=mc2 are more than mere conventions. They seem to constitute real insight into nature itself. And our basic curiosity as human beings leads us to believe there are other such laws "out there", waiting for us to find them.

Selves and their Mental States
The same line of reasoning I've used here for physical things can also be applied to the mind and the notion of the self. If I reflect upon my experience, I'll observe sensations, memories, beliefs, cognitions, judgments, emotions, and the like, but I will never observe anything in addition to those things that I might, with right, apply the term "self". The philosopher David Hume famously pointed this out in the 18th century, but it's really an old idea, and Baggini rightly attributes it to the Buddha.

But the story doesn't end there, just as it didn't in the case of physical objects. While it's true that I have no sensation of a self apart from the aggregates mentioned above, there is a sense in which I am given to myself that has nothing to do with these other things. Namely, I am aware of myself as this awareness.

If I recollect something embarrassing or shameful from my past, I might think, as Baggini suggests, "That's not me!" or "I'm not like that any more!" But of course that is you, and that's why you feel ashamed! Just because something happened in the past, and just because I was acting upon beliefs I no longer hold, there is still something that appears constant, and that's the mental "stage" that the events took place on. Regardless of whatever else changed, those things happened to me, not to anyone else.

But when we say "to me", we don't always mean they happened to my body. We often mean something like that they existed for me, and that's the dimension of experience Baggini does not adequately flesh out. When I perceive a ripe, red apple, there are three things: the act of perceiving, the apple itself, and the knowledge, however implicit, that I'm undergoing that experience. This is what the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called "non-thetic awareness". It doesn't require a special act of reflection (which Sartre called "thetic awareness"). If it did, then self-awareness would require an infinite regress of awareness of awareness of awareness... Instead, it's an immediate intuition we have, before we apply concepts to our own experience, that, indeed, this isn't just happening, it's happening for me.

So there's a parallel problem here to the one we had with physical things. It's not enough to describe self-experience just in terms of its properties (the sorts of things that pop up as objects of experience), because there's still a subjective component that has to be taken into account. This is important because, no matter how I decide to describe myself—whether by my beliefs, my memories, my actions, or whatever—I'm going to include in that account that I am also a subject, i.e., the experiences happen for me.

The Intentionality Thesis
The real spooky stuff starts when we try to get to the bottom of what it means for something to be for me. The overwhelming temptation is to attempt to understand subjectivity as just another thing in the world, i.e., as an object. And indeed, we do something like this when we reflect upon (using thetic self-awareness) upon our own experience. But if something is an object for us, it can't be us, and so when we deliberately reflect upon such states, we find that we're "too late", so to speak, and what we were trying to grasp has been converted into its opposite. In order to understand subjectivity, we have to understand it as subject and not as object. And that's very hard.

One solution to this problem is to argue, as both Heidegger and Sartre did, that awareness—they called it "intentionality"—always only has as its content some external thing that is not intentionality. So when I perceive that juicy red apple, I am perceiving the apple itself, not some property of perception. This flies in the face of some of our intuitions about experience, according to which our minds only represent the world, and we're always only deal with our mental states about the world, not the world itself. The argument in favor of the intentionality thesis is that there's no experiential evidence for the representationalist view. I see evidence of the apple and nothing else. I don't even know what a representation would look like, so why should I believe I "have" it?

Well what about illusory objects, beliefs, and mental pictures? Aren't they just contents of the mind? According to the intentionality thesis, our perceptions can be wrong, and not everything we perceive or experience belongs to the physical world. But you have to be careful what theoretical components you bring in to explain this. First, if I have some hallucination, this is proved by comparing my experience with the experience of others, sometimes but not always by means of experiment. At no point do I ever get to immediately compare my experience of something to reality in and of itself. Second, even in those cases where I'm aware of something that has only subjective reality, like a belief, I am only aware, again, of three things: the belief, the act of believing, and the implicit awareness that I am the one believing this. Nothing whatsoever about that experience entails that there is another entity, "the mind", and that the belief and the believing are taking place "inside" that entity. There's just the object, the act that "reaches out" for the object and which can be distinguished from it, and the bare, minimal sense that this is an experience for me.

Now, if you have a good argument against the intentionality thesis—which you might, since it's controversial—then you'll wiggle by the next move. But if you can't, fasten your seatbelts.

If there's always only these three components—intentional act, intentional object, and non-thetic self-awareness—then there is no "mind space". The mind is just a theoretical construct. All there is is just intentionality. But this means that, whoever "we" are, we're not our minds, at least not in the sense of being a container of experiences, because there is no such thing.

You might think, "Yes, but there is the intentionality itself, and the intentionality is aware of itself. I am the intentionality."

Good. But what is intentionality? Nothing. I mean that in a technical sense: it is not a thing. It can't be. To be a thing means to be an object for intentionality. If I can see it (or perceive it or think it or desire it or...), then it cannot be me. And when intentionality is aware of itself, as in non-thetic self-awareness, it has itself as bare intentionality, not as anything else. Intentionality—really awareness in general—is therefore "empty". There can be no separate self to find "inside" of it, because there is no "inside" to intentionality. Awareness exhausts itself completely in the act of being aware of the object. The only "beingness" to be found is on the other side of intentionality, on the side of the object.

Sartre wrote a book about this. It should be plainly obvious from what I just said why he called it Being and Nothingness. It's a long book, because he felt a lot of interesting things followed from this.

But you don't need to embrace existential phenomenology. The almost identical realization was made 2,500 years ago by the figure we call the Buddha. Some of the details are different, but the main difference is that the Buddha advocating using meditation and not just reason to discover the truth of anatta or "no-self". If you follow the meditation instructions given by the Buddha, you should be able to perceive no-self as well as the characteristics of impermanence and suffering. And then you will be free of the cycle of samsara or suffering and achieve happiness.

Transcendental vs. Empirical
Now, you might think that was a very verbose way to say what Baggini managed to get across in a lot fewer words. Not quite. There's a subtle but important difference in what I'm saying. The sense of no-self that Buddha, Heidegger, and Sartre discovered and talked about is different from the sense of no-self that Hume and Baggini point to. The latter is an empirical sense of no-self. It's saying that there's no way to cobble together a separate, permanent sense of self out of things like memories, beliefs, thought patterns, actions, personality, and the like, because (a) these things themselves are always changing, and (b) upon reflection there is nothing else I could possibly base a sense of self on.

True! But this line of thinking leaves untouched a transcendental sense of a self. According to this view, you can keep my memories, thoughts, personality, and everything else, because it's my consciousness that's truly me. And while there may be no good external, empirical evidence for the existence of this consciousness, I still know it inwardly. And this inward grasp I have of myself as a separate, transcendental being is inviolate, since it depends upon no particular conscious awareness. I might "lose my mind", but only in a manner of speaking! If I have crazy thoughts, there's no doubt those thoughts are mine, because they take place inside my mind.

That's the notion of self that Buddha demolishes. Rather, that's the notion of self Buddha claims is illusory, and its illusory nature can be clearly perceived if one carries out a careful, systematic investigation of experience itself. And unlike a philosophical argument, which may leave an illusion intact in practice even while destroying it in theory, following the Buddha's procedure is supposed to permanently remove the illusion and grant one an unobstructed, permanent view of reality.

So I really wanted to make that distinction, because I think too quickly people want to say, "Oh right, of course, there's no permanent self. We all know that." But the claim is actually a bit more disturbing than that. Whatever happens in the "outside" world, we tend to think we're somehow inviolate "inside", that this is the true home of the self. But if Buddha and the transcendental phenomenologists are right, then we're wrong about ourselves—profoundly wrong.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Moral philosophy, part 2

I wanted to spend time on the presuppositions of Kant's philosophy in the last post because like much in Kant's philosophy they seem like they're open to easy attack. They're not. I wanted to draw a close connection between the presuppositions of Kant's moral philosophy and modernity generally, specifically modern technology and modern science. Kant and the rest of us assume a radical fact/value distinction because we have come to have a particular kind of understanding of what it means for something to belong to nature. The reason we have this particular understanding of nature—call it rational or naturalistic or non-superstitious—is not because some people were really smart and decided to think of it that way. We have this understanding of nature because of modern experimental methods which were invented and developed in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages and which were taken over by people in Europe. So it's really a kind of technique or practice which gives rise to science. Science then allows us to create even more powerful instruments, which then allows us to refine our science, and so on. Which came first in this chain of events, the technology or the science, I'll leave for another time. The point is that Kant's assumptions don't come out of thin air. They're in fact real world accomplishments.

If we accept these assumptions, then we can see why Kant believes the good, whatever it is, cannot be any object. If the good is an object, it can only relate to my will either contingently or necessarily. Assume it relates to it contingently. I am therefore under no obligation to desire it, so morality collapses. Assume it relates to it necessarily. Then it destroys my freedom. As long as the good is any object, I'm either not obligated to pursue it, or I'm forced to pursue it. Both outcomes make morality impossible.

To get out of this paradox, Kant attempts something very clever. He says the will does not will an object, it just wills itself. This seems like a strange idea, but it's really the only way out. Whatever the will wills, it cannot will its own lack of freedom. That's just a logical and performative contradiction. Even if I decide I don't want to be free anymore and I'm just going to do what the Pope says, it's still my choice to do that. There's just no way to escape from freedom. No matter what, the will must at least will itself.

This seems like a rather thin idea. At least when I'm willing an object or some state of affairs, I can think about that object and its properties. I can think about whether one of those properties is "goodness", and if it is, I can go after it. Kant is saying that is precisely what I cannot do. I have to will freedom itself. But pure freedom doesn't have any content. It doesn't look like anything or smell like anything. It's just a pure capacity.

But that's exactly why Kant's solution is so successful. If we're not thinking about anything in particular when we think about an absolutely free will, then we're not trapped in the paradox that arises when we start with a concept of a good object or a good end. But more importantly, since we are willing nothing but willing itself (or the capacity to act freely), then we are willing something that is absolutely universal. Since we're not tied down to any particular content here, what we will in willing freedom applies not just to us but to anyone, and it applies irrespective of whatever particular desire they have. The only maxims of action that accord with pure freedom are those which can be carried out by any rational agent irrespective of their particular desires. In other words, they are universal laws.

Here's how it works. Let's say that I borrow money which I promise to pay back, but when it comes time to pay back the money, I choose not to. Is my action right or is it wrong? A non-Kantian would answer this by appealing to human happiness, virtue, the 10 Commandments, or whether it maximizes utility. Kant tries something different. He says, imagine you do not pay back the money. Furthermore, imagine that every single person who ever enters into your same position also does not pay back the money, and that this happens as surely as releasing a stone causes it to fall to the ground. In addition, imagine that every person on earth already knows that every single person who ever enters into your same position does not pay back the money. Assuming this is the case, is the action you propose even possible?

Well, if we assume all these things, then no, the action does not seem possible. If no one ever paid back money when they said they would, no one would ever lend money in the first place. The institution of lending simply wouldn't exist, and so you would never have the chance to go back on your promise to repay. If you choose not to pay back the money, you are also covertly choosing to live in a world wherein your action is impossible. Your action is not just your own. It also implicitly legislates for everyone else at the same time. And by doing that, you're in this case willing a contradiction, since it could never be the case that everyone could perform that action.

So what? Why is a contradiction immoral?

Because it amounts to making an exception for yourself. You're excluding yourself from the community of human beings. You're saying there's something particular about you that makes the action okay for you but not for anyone else. It's elitist, of course, but the real problem is that it's particularistic and so it invokes all the problems that come with willing any "good" object. Whatever free action is, it has to have logical consistency. If it doesn't, it's not free. But being a free-rider in the moral community turns out to be the most basic form of logical inconsistency in action.

I wouldn't call it a beautiful idea, but it accords with a lot of our intuitions about morality. There's no such thing as particular morality. We might argue about whether or not it's ever okay to kill another human being, but we're going to argue a lot less about whether you being a woman or black or short or incredibly smart or whether you like the color red has any bearing on the question. The idea that our acts are legislative captures nicely basic facts of human sociality, but it also gets at the idea that morality has a generalizable structure. I'm not just wondering whether this action is good for me. (That might be an important question, but it's not a morally relevant one.) The question is whether it's good for anyone. The idea that action x is morally good but is not binding on you is a contradiction. Kant's move to think about the conditions of willing itself gets at that idea.

Of course there are criticisms one can make of this idea, and they've been made many times. That's fine, but I think we need to keep some things in mind as we do that. The formalistic approach Kant uses here sounds stuffy and professorial, but we do get neat things like human dignity out of it. (One implication of the moral law is that you are to treat people always as ends and never merely as means.) We also get a compelling albeit somewhat abstract argument against elitism and exceptionalism. If you're going to move away from these ideas, you had better do so because it's necessary, not because you don't like how the word "duty" sounds or some other theory appears sexier.

These ideas are still pretty foundational for modern life, despite how it appears when you're studying them in school or something. There's arguably something very Kantian every time a person or group of people stand up and demand dignity and fair and equal treatment or when people protest corruption. Sure, you can complain about the details of the arguments. But the idea that these thoughts are somehow passé and that we could do so much better listening to Nietzsche or Heidegger would be dangerous if it didn't sound so absurd.