Monday, May 31, 2010

a history of mistakes

There are few statements you could make about philosophy emptier than to say it's a history of mistakes. Likewise there are few moves you could make in the game of "doing philosophy" that are emptier than showing that a philosopher was wrong about something. Around 100% of philosophical ideas are completely absurd. Plato really seemed to recognize this, too. Of course there's pathos and tragedy in Plato, too. Hard to avoid considering they killed his teacher. But there's no doubt Plato considered himself a self-parody much of the time. Nietzsche would have been as funny as Plato if he weren't German.

The more challenging and interesting task is to figure out why an absurd philosophical view was so tempting at the time. If you asked a person completely uneducated in philosophy to cook up the most ridiculous idea about the world he possibly could, he wouldn't even come close to something as ridiculous as, for example, Berkeley's doctrine about ideas. It's as though philosophers (at least the good ones) are gifted with something like superhuman powers of absurdity. Plato double-underlines this when he places the philosophers in charge in Republic. As if he's saying to Aristophanes, "Oh, you thought philosophy was crazy before. Just wait until you see THIS!" Plato illustrates this through wacky conceits, like treating the sexes as equals. A modern-day equivalent would be a republic wherein the primary means by which people transport themselves from one point to another is using coal-powered pogo-sticks. To say (with Hegel) that the philosophical view of the world is "inverted" is to put it lightly.

Suffice it to say, no one should get a gold star for pointing out that a philosopher was wrong or that the history of philosophy is a history of mistakes. The real question is: Is it a history of mere mistakes? Or is there something else going on?

My own view is that the history of philosophy is the development in thought of consciousness itself, or transcendence in general. But this development in thought is largely the byproduct of technological advance. (I think technological advance is foundational with respect to scientific advance.) This has led to a purification of subjectivity which can be seen in Husserl's transcendental phenomenology (and all its off-shoots) as well as in the precise formulation of the hard problem of consciousness. Naturally this is not all there is to philosophy. There are also questions of ethics. But ethics belongs to transcendence in its own way insofar as ethics always goes beyond the way the world is and into the way it is not but ought to be.

But as then, so now. Philosophy is not going to solve these problems. It can't. It can only pose the questions. The problem will be solved when the question is ignored and a new one put in its place. That's what all really good philosophers do. They change the subject. We're dealing with the current set of questions because of the current state and trajectory of technology, especially information technology. But with change in the material basis of society will come entirely new possibilities of thinking about transcendence. The best philosophers of the future will be the ones who come up with the most brilliant and novel errors.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Omega Point

There are some interesting ideas in this Wikipedia article on the Omega Point. It's a concept formulated by the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard. The basic idea is that evolution (both cosmic and biological) gives rise to greater complexity which in turn is equivalent with greater consciousness. The entire movement exists for and is moving toward a purpose which Teilhard calls the "Omega Point", a kind of singularity where we all become/merge with God.

There are things which seem right and things which seem wrong in this idea. I think what Teilhard calls the law of complexity/consciousness is true. The basic mind "stuff" is in everything that exists, right down to dumb, inert matter, and it gradually gets built up into conscious minds through the process of evolution. It's an idea I first encountered reading Spinoza's Ethics and then in Hegel's philosophy of nature. There seems to be some grounding in information theory. We can mathematically determine the amount of complexity in any physical system. While a rock has an extraordinary amount of information in it, the complexity and order of that information is very low compared with a bacterium or a plant. And the order and complexity of the latter are low compared with the mammalian brain. We can at least observe the development of consciousness up through the vertebrates, and in that case, complexity/order of information does seem to map on to the trajectory. The problem of course is that while we can measure complexity, we can't measure consciousness or subjectivity. Still, I much prefer the idea that the building blocks of mind are there in everything to the idea that it all suddenly comes into being due to one or even a hundred discrete processes in the brain. It does nothing to solve the hard problem of consciousness, but it at least removes a bit of the mystery about why a universe that doesn't seem to need subjectivity in it just happened to develop some. If there's a caesura in the development of the universe, the existence of mind is not it. It's been there since the beginning and is in fact an integral part of the physical process itself.

What I dislike about Teilhard's omega point is the teleology. It's the same reason I've never been able to get into Bergson. Evolution obviates teleology. That's it's power. I'm not offended that someone would introduce the idea of objective final causes into the universe, as though "how dare he! it smacks of religion!" If you're not interested in the purpose of the universe, you probably shouldn't be a philosopher. I just don't see what is gained by adding the idea of a final purpose to evolution. If you can explain the law of complexity/consciousness by means of plain old deterministic processes plus billions of years, what extra work is being done by introducing a final cause? If such a cause exists, it must be dependent upon the deterministic processes of evolution, otherwise why not just snap its fingers and create superintelligent beings? Either the omega point is identical with the causal process (a la Spinoza's God), or it is a transcendent, divine will which is nevertheless subordinate to finite causes (which is a contradiction in terms).

The Spinozistic explanation has a chance at consistency, but Teilhard clearly rejects Spinozism and attaches himself to the latter theology in which God is a personal, transcendent being. As proof of this, I have an unsubstantiated quote from Wikipedia that has no citation:
The increasing complexity of matter has not only led to higher forms of consciousness, but accordingly to more personalization, of which human beings are the highest attained form in the known universe. They are completely individualized, free centers of operation. It is in this way that man is said to be made in the image of God, who is the highest form of personality. Teilhard expressly stated that in the Omega Point, when the universe becomes One, human persons will not be suppressed, but super-personalized. Personality will be infinitely enriched. This is because the Omega Point unites creation, and the more it unites, the increasing complexity of the universe aids in higher levels of consciousness. Thus, as God creates, the universe evolves towards higher forms of complexity, consciousness, and finally with humans, personality, because God, who is drawing the universe towards Him, is a person.
I think this is an interesting argument worth thinking about. It's stated in religious terms, but it can be translated back into philosophical terms. The question here is whether personality is part of transcendence (the real ground of actuality and possibility).

So what allows me to go from the concept of God to the concept of transcendence? I believe transcendence is the purified concept of God. In other words, what philosophers had previously and erroneously referred to as "God" is actually transcendence. Transcendence is just "beyondness". It's a feature of experience as soon as you look out at the world or introspect, so I don't consider it (necessarily) a subject of abstract thought. There is experiential evidence for it. Husserl and Sartre argue this way, I think legitimately. Transcendence is a naturalistic concept that was once tied up with religion, but then so was the scientific method at one point and lots of other modern things. So you can translate from God to transcendence and lose the religiosity, and then you can translate from transcendence to God and lose the scientific rigor and accuracy. That's roughly how I see them related.

And by the way, I don't mean anything mystical in the concept of transcendence, either. It's a discursive concept. I can adequately explain to a child what it means that nature transcends consciousness or that we transcend ourselves in acts of freedom or morality. It's trickier when we want to know what all kinds of transcendence have in common with one another. Then of course discursive reason is going to meet its limit. But just because reason has met its limit in something real and mysterious doesn't mean that something magical is taking place or has to take place to go further. It just means that there's something within every possible human experience which is a mystery. I think the evolution of human culture takes off from an awareness of this mystery, which is to say that religion, art, and science are different ways of confronting and dealing with transcendence under different aspects, neither of which is equivalent with transcendence as such. My hope is that more philosophers take up the subject of transcendence, because I think it is the philosophical subject par excellance. History has distilled transcendence for philosophy; now philosophy has to meet that challenge.

Now I had always assumed that the ultimate transcendence—the real ground of possibility and actuality—was impersonal, abstract, and eternal, so that the laws of nature were the best possible model we could form of it. Anything else smacked of a crude anthropomorphism at best and a blind allegiance to a Nobodaddy at worst. And if there's any "source" out of which an individual consciousness arises, that impersonal ground is it, and that is the ground to which it would return when the person dies. That's just a fancy way of saying ashes to ashes. But I wonder now if the law of complexity/consciousness (which again, I suspect is the right account of the mind/body relationship) contradicts that notion; and if it does contradict it, which one is false and which one is true?

I assume the universe is intelligent, that it is not just "dumb matter". (This is not the same thing as intelligent design, by the way, because I think deterministic processes can still be smart. Look at the human brain, for example.) The universe has form, and as many philosophers have pointed out, form is the basic "stuff" of mind. One possible reason the universe has form is because it's the nature of the human mind to project form into the things it observes just by observing them. That's Kant's position in the Critique of Pure Reason. Though as Barry Stroud and Jonathan Lear have pointed out in their essay "The Disappearing We", there is no difference between the most rigorous defense of Kant's position and the argument that the universe just is that way. So I assume the universe has form; or, to put it in more modern language, there is in-form-ation in the universe. We don't know what that information is, but it's out there. And we know that in some cases (particularly ours) it's arranged in such a way so as to generate subjective experience.

Now the question is: Is that subjective experience merely an accidental feature of the universe, or is it in some way part of the essence of the universe? This gets us into strange territory. From one point of view, subjective experience is an accident of nature. Atoms knocked into one another again and again, and over the course of billions of years we finally get consciousness. It didn't have to happen that way. There are plenty of living things on earth which are equally evolved as humans, and they don't have consciousness. They're called "bacteria", and there's so many more of them on earth and in the universe that you can't even get your mind around it. They are not primitive. They are as highly evolved as you and me. (Well, as evolved as you, maybe not me, I've heard I still have a ways to go.) But this is part of or leads to the view that consciousness is something that just floats on the surface of an otherwise impersonal cosmos. We're not at home here in the universe, and we don't have a right to think we are. Intelligence might be no match for the cosmos, which could drop a giant asteroid on us at any moment (literally) without even thinking about it. Intelligence might be no match for intelligence, either; perhaps we'll use all those fine problem-solving abilities to come up with a way to destroy ourselves. In any event, we're as precariously perched as froth on the churning waters of the oceans, here one moment, but quite possibly gone the next.

The other point of view, which I'm suggesting, is that the universe is intelligent. Rather, it is evolving intelligence, and that intelligence is no less purposeful or meaningful to the universe as a whole than my thumb is to the rest of my body. This is not to say that the asteroid couldn't come along tomorrow and wipe us out. But keep in mind, there have been a lot of asteroids, and life in general has weathered them. You might think "So what, those were just trilobite and reptiles that got wiped out," but trilobites and reptiles are orders of magnitude more complex and purposeful than chemicals weathering rocks or dust clumping in nebulae. To adopt this point of view, one need not believe that life or human beings exist here for some higher divine purpose which is looking out for them. One only has to believe that the universe evolves means to weather contingencies and to solve novel problems with a finite number of resources. Vertebrates, it turns out, are actually really good at that as compared with invertebrates. Mammals are extraordinary at it compared with reptiles. The extent to which humans have mastered nature need not be argued. There's no evidence that intelligence is protected by a higher intelligence that wants the lower intelligence to exist and evolve. But there's plenty of evidence that intelligence, once it exists, is very good at protecting itself and continuing its evolution toward higher states of intelligence. Even the rate of technological and scientific change has managed to increase through plagues, economic crashes, and two world wars. It's robust. And assuming intelligence is there at the beginning of the universe—not in the "Let there be light" way but in the sense that there is order and complexity to some degree—then the movement toward greater subjectivity and more profound interiority seems inevitable. Why are you you? There's a reason for it.

This gets us back to transcendence, since transcendence is the ground or reason for actuality and possibility. Must it have a personality? I just don't know. Perhaps I'm on the border of a schizophrenic break like the mathematician John Nash, but I have a hard time with the thought that I'm not here for any purpose, that there's no meaning to any of this. I could be wrong, but I think this goes beyond a mere psychological state. I think there's some evidence for it. The evidence creates a general, though not very tightly interlocking picture. I think given what we know about the universe, subjectivity is not a mere accident. Personhood is the realization of something profound in the essence of existence itself. I believe the universe is evolving toward something truly sublime and that consciousness is somehow at the center of it, not standing off on the sidelines like a helpless or cheering spectator. There's always seemed to me no greater sign that something incredibly interesting and significant is at work than the fact that each one of us is who we are; and nothing seems more incongruous with the purely third-person point of view on the universe, according to which it's a mere accident that we're here. If intelligence is a real achievement of the universe over merely "dumb" matter, it seems absurd to me that the most complex form of that intelligence, human consciousness, should just return to dumb matter once it has expired. Consciousness appears to survive despite the fact that most of our cells are overturned each month. Every moment is a new death, and yet we appear to keep going. (I say "appear" since I'm open to the idea that my permanence is a mere illusion.)

I've always thought these things even through various phases with agnosticism, religiosity, and atheism. I consider myself an atheist now, and I do not consider myself beholden to a religious or mystical worldview. I don't think it makes me theistic to notice that the universe has order and complexity, and that it is evolving. I see human culture and civilization as being at the forefront of this process of evolution now, meaning that whatever "sublime" thing is coming toward us from the future, it's being generated by nothing more magical than the messy things we've been doing all along: promoting democracy and human rights, pushing ourselves to treat one another better, and generating knowledge and using knowledge in all its forms, be they artistic, technological, literary, religious, musical, scientific, etc.

But at the same time, many people do seem to be waking up to the fact that all this appears to be going somewhere, though few people can really lay claim to knowledge of what that direction may be. The rate of change is itself accelerating. We are moving toward something like an omega point. I don't believe we're being "pulled" there (by a final cause or a supreme intelligence). But the very fact that we are going there, even if by purely deterministic processes, raises the question of transcendence in a profound way. What sort of thing is the universe that it does this? What is subjectivity such that it is simultaneously at the heart of this development and yet appears to serve no purpose other than to baffle us? Death isn't the mystery; life is (by which I mean now your life or my life). And contrary to the alleged wisdom which says that all the deep questions have been forgotten, and contrary to those who say those questions don't matter anymore now that we have science, technology, and the rest: the questions of real philosophical import are clearer now and more poignant than ever. Science, religion, art, and technology have stripped philosophy bear of its pretensions—and that's a very good thing. Because what's left over is not a mere handmaiden of science (as Locke would have had it and as many contemporary philosophers seem to have it). What are left over are the real puzzles of existence, the problems calling for philosophical contemplation, a kind of knowledge-generation different from that employed in other fields yet still related to it by genus. And I think that as more people become aware of the really unprecedented changes that are occurring now and will occur over the course of the first half of this century, human intelligence will confront the problems of transcendence in new and novel ways.