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.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Moral philosophy

Kant noticed a paradox in all other theories of morality: so long as morality is based upon the idea that there was some object or material concept worth striving for by virtue of its intrinsic goodness—be it happiness, perfection, a moral feeling, the will of God, the 10 commandments, or the good life for man—then morality is impossible. Kant's claim was radical. These weren't just the wrong objects to strive for; he realized that the very notion of striving for an object was wrong in principle, because it was insufficient for the very possibility of morality. In other words, if in order to be good, we must strive after a good object or realize any material concept of the good, no distinction between good and evil or right and wrong is possible.

Kant's indictment is based on two premises. The first premise is that, in order to be good, there must be a constraint upon the will to act in a specific fashion, whether or not it happens to be what one desires at that moment. The fact of our desire cannot determine what we are supposed to do. The second premise is that this constraint—call it "duty"—must not only determine the will; we must be able to freely choose it. Otherwise we're talking about coercion, not morality.

Neither of these premises seems self-evident, but the second one at least accords with our intuitions about morality. If you're forced to pursue good ends—a la the character Alex in A Clockwork Orange—then you are not freely choosing the good action and so you cannot be considered good. This is not to say that the goodness of an action reduces to the intention that brings it about (though Kant seems to think so), just that intention and freedom cannot be left out of the balance when we are considering morality. Of course not all accounts of the good are premised upon Kant's notion of radical freedom, but they all seem to include some minimal account of agency. That is, a good action is premised upon some sort of activity of the person who is considered good or acting in accordance with the good. This is true of Aristotle as much as it's true of Kant.

The first premise—that the goodness of an action must be considered in abstraction from the fact of desire—seems to have less intuitive evidence in favor of it. In my opinion this premise is more obviously historically conditioned, though it is not for that reason any more objectionable than the second. The first premise rests on a radical distinction between fact and value. Minimally it is grounded in the idea that just because something is the case, it does not follow that it ought to be the case. Maximally it means that the ground of moral judgment is absolutely independent of sense experience.

The minimal version of this premise seems to be an aspect of human experience itself which we might call transcendence. Humans are not merely aware of what presents itself immediately to the senses. They are also aware of the fact that they are being appeared to this way. There is what we immediately perceive or desire, but there is also what we imagine or conceive to be beyond that which is sensuously given. Humans populate this supersensible realm with spirits, powers, forces, and mathematical laws of nature, and what we immediately perceive becomes the expression of that underlying, truer reality. Yet transcendence does not occur for the first time with the rise of art, religion, and science. It's a feature of perception itself. I don't just perceive redness, sweetness, hardness, etc. I perceive that these are properties that belong to a piece of fruit and that could belong, jointly or separately, to other objects in the world. Already in basic perception, I am beyond the immediate sense appearances and am aware of general things like properties and objects. This, too, is a feature of transcendence. So is the fact that I can contemplate the past and the future and think about what my life means. Part of living that life means I have to drink water, because I'm an animal. But it also might mean ignoring that desire because the recognition I'll acquire by crossing the desert is more important to me. Neither nature within me nor without me is merely given to me. I am aware of and participate in a world of norms and universals that I use to judge and make decisions about how I will act in the material world. What I desire at the moment might be absolutely irrelevant to what I ought to do right now. This minimal notion of the ought is present in virtually all philosophy and seems to be a basic feature of human experience.

Yet Kant seems to believe the stronger, maximal version of this: moral judgment occupies a sphere absolutely independent of sense experience. More than that: the will operates in a realm absolutely free of any kind of natural causation. This is the ground of the will's absolute freedom, but it also the source of the prohibition on basing any maxim of action on anything sensuously given. I can base my actions on any principle I want, but the good action is the one which is based on a principle given by pure reason itself. So whatever the moral law is, it's not good because it comes from a good object, be it nature, God, whatever. It's the other way around. Whatever the good object is, it attains its goodness by its action according with a law given by reason itself. It's a radical, profound statement. Nothing in this world or any world is intrinsically good or just. Every human political institution must answer to reason itself. We decide what is right and what is wrong, regardless of what has come before or what exists. It's a powerful, compelling modernist idea, the force of which was experienced in France in the 18th century and which is being experienced in Libya right now. In thinking about this assumption, we're doing more than thinking about Kant's moral philosophy. We're thinking about why human action has come to have a power to reorganize the whole of society and the planet. Because the fact/value distinction at work here really is a total opposition. It represents a break with all previous intellectual thought, but more importantly, it represents a real break in the material world with a previous way of living. This idea is really given its full articulation in Kant's philosophy. Why does Kant seem to think this?

The usual way to do this would be to present the argument in the Third Antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason and from there to move on to the elaboration in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. I'm not going to do that because (a) it would take too long and (b) Kant presents his arguments in those works as though they are true a priori and I don't believe they are. As I'll explain later, I think the fact/value distinction has the force of an a prior (there's necessity in it), but it's in fact a historical accomplishment.

The short answer to why Kant believes in a radical fact/value distinction is one word: Newton. Kant believed the natural world was a causally-closed realm governed by the sorts of mathematical laws Newton had articulated in the Principia. Modern science abolishes superstition, but it would also appear to abolish freedom and hence morality and values. The Critique of Pure Reason is an attempt at a rapproachment between knowledge and morality: Newton's laws govern the reality we perceive with the senses, but only the moral law can govern the purely intellectual reality in which the will operates. This is what Kant means when he says he had to limit knowledge to make room for faith. He did not mean faith in God. He meant faith in the possibility of absolutely free action, an idea he proceeds to flesh out in subsequent works. This limitation on knowledge is possible by virtue of Kant's "Copernican" turn. This is the idea that objects must in some sense accord with the way we know things and not the other way around. Kant not only compares himself with Copernicus. He sees the very same pattern of thought all over the modern scientific method:
When Galileo caused balls, the weights of which he had himself previously determined, to roll down an inclined plane; when Torricelli made the air carry a weight which he had calculated beforehand to be equal to that of a definite column of water; or in more recent times, when Stahl changed metal into lime, and lime back into metal, by withdrawing something and then restoring it, a light broke upon all students of nature. They learned that reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and that it must not allow itself to be kept, as it were, in nature's leading-strings, but must itself show the way with principles of judgment based upon fixed laws, constraining nature to give answer to questions of reason's own determining. Accidental observations, made in obedience to no previously thought-out plan, can never be made to yield a necessary law, which alone reason is concerned to discover. Reason, holding in one hand its principles, according to which alone concordant appearances can be admitted as equivalent to laws, and in the other hand the experiment which it has devised in conformity with these principles, must approach nature in order to be taught by it. It must not, however, do so in the character of a pupil who listens to everything that the teacher chooses to say, but of an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he has himself formulated.
The idea here—and this applies equally to metaphysics and science—is that understanding is relative to a specific kind of human activity. This contrasts with the pre-Kantian idea which is that understanding is relative to an optimal, "God's eye" perspective in which a representation accords with (or fails to accord with) an object outside of consciousness. Kant noticed that Galileo, Torricelli, and Stahl didn't just look at nature and write down what they saw. Neither did they simply count out what they saw, as though the application of mathematics was somehow peculiar to the modern age. He saw that they designed experiments, and that everything they discovered was due to this original action.

Modern science agrees with Kant. The idea behind general relativity is that spatiotemporal relationships between distinct events are relative to the experimental setup used to determine those relations. (See Geroch, General Relativity from A to B) Most people who look at the Kant/Einstein connection look to Kant's writings on space and time in the Transcendental Aesthetic section of the first Critique. This is an error, since Kant's concepts of space and time are largely Newtonian and conservative. He argues there that transcendental idealism is the view that there are subjective, a priori forms of experience. In other words Kant intellectualizes and subjectivizes what is in fact something that occurs in the real world. He's much closer to the mark in his resolution to the First Antinomy where he argues that whether or not the universe is bounded or limited can only be answered relative to the actual way we go about studying the cosmos. There Kant seems to be saying that knowledge is a special kind of human activity carried out in the real world. And natural science, of course, is human knowing par excellance.

We set up experiments in which we control for certain variables, and by doing so we get nature to tell us the mathematical relationships between those variables. This is why Kant says that reason is "an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he has himself formulated." What the natural philosophers of the 17th century did for our knowledge of nature, Kant suggests we do for our knowledge of metaphysics. So in comparing himself with Copernicus, Galileo, Torricelli, and Stahl, Kant is not reading his own philosophy back into the natural philosophy of the 17th century. What Kant embodies in his philosophical thought is a real movement that had been taking place in physical reality for at least two centuries if not more. It's because of this historical transformation that took place in the way people relate to one another and the natural world that Kant begins philosophizing from a radical fact/value distinction.

What this means is that the fact/value distinction is a presupposition of modern science, but it is a result of it, too. How is that possible? The fact/value distinction is something that human beings bring about through technology and through the construction of experiments that yield cognitions of nature. The cognitions it brings forth are themselves mathematical, objective, and therefore value-neutral, thereby reinforcing the initial assumption. And it is only in this context, I would argue, that a Kant could come along and say that the fact of our desire cannot tell us what we ought to do. Surely something like this idea existed before modernity. That's the minimal version of transcendence I articulated earlier. But Kant's view is premised on a radical fact/value distinction which I think is particular to an age in which nature has come to be understood as a causally closed, mathematical whole.

One might ask at this point: If the fact/value distinction is not a factual distinction but instead a value distinction and one which is historically conditioned, why should we accept it? Doesn't that make it arbitrary?

No. Just because something is historically conditioned, that doesn't make it arbitrary; nor does it mean you could just wave your hand and change it. Perhaps it was necessary that, at some point, some humans would develop their technology to the point to have control of nature sufficient enough to do modern science. From that would follow the fact/value distinction and the Kantian way of understanding morality. That would be a lengthy and difficult argument to make, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. The only point is that, just because something did not always exist but came into being at some point, that does not make it arbitrary.

I mentioned earlier that the fact/value distinction seems to have the force of an priori, even though it seems to be historically conditioned. In order to understand it this way, we need some notion of historical necessity or of a material a priori. This is the idea that something sensuous and particular can have all the authority and all the power to orient us as one of Plato's ideas. Kant's own philosophy rules out such a material a priori. Despite the radicalism of his Copernican turn, Kant appears to believe the fact/value distinction he assumes is a basic feature of the universe. For him, the fact/value distinction is a factual distinction, one we must assume. I'm claiming it's a value distinction or at least one which was brought about through the real activities of real human beings. That strikes me as a more "Kantian" formulation than Kant's own. (Fichte and Hegel seem to have agreed, which is why they took Kant's philosophy in that direction.)

So those are the assumptions of Kant's moral philosophy. They're not without their problems. Though I would argue that the problems are not trivial problems. Like most of the really interesting problems in Kant's philosophy, they reflect contradictions that exist in material reality. Getting rid of them is not a matter to be taken lightly. This is even more evident in Kant's moral philosophy, which I'll talk about in the next post.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Excerpt from something I wrote a couple years ago that I want to reproduce here...

The reason I asked what your concept of God entails (other than to entertain myself while at work) is that my reaction to the use of this concept is often one of puzzlement and confusion. When it's used to refer to the omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good, anthropomorphic entity that created the universe that Christians think will bbq their testicles if they have sex out of wedlock, I know exactly what people are talking about. When asked if I believe in such a thing, I reply that it has very little to do with belief as I'm as certain of the non-existence of Nobodaddy as I am of just about anything else. As Nobodaddy is what the overwhelming majority of followers of Abrahamic religions have in mind when they use the term "God", I am comfortable considering myself an atheist for all intents and purposes.

Of course there are enough people who do not have that in mind when they use the word "God" that it can get tricky. Then it seems to refer to a tangle of competing (or even contradictory) thoughts. I wouldn't even say I'm agnostic with regard to the existence of such a thing, since most of the time I have no idea what the person is talking about or why they call it "God". Or if I do figure out what they're talking about, I usually already have another name for it which has nothing to do with God, religion, spirituality, or theology, and I figure the other person is just confused or hasn't managed to convey to me what they're really talking about. Any way, I don't relate to religious or spiritual people in this respect.

Though I was reading a book yesterday (Hegel's god: a counterfeit double? in case you're curious) that helps to sort through some of these concepts through an analysis of the different kinds of transcendence. For those uninitiated into the nomenclature of philosophy, "transcendence" is the quality of anything that is beyond. It's the quality belonging to anything transcendent that makes it that way. Whatever people mean when they talk about God, they much more often than not are trying to talk about some kind of transcendence. Understanding the different kinds of transcendence might be a useful guide to talking to such a person if you're like me and otherwise have no idea what they're trying to say.

There is first transcendence, which is the transcendence of nature. Nature is transcendent, because it is there independent of our thinking and doing, even though it relates to our thinking and doing. There is a certain kind of wonder attached to this kind of transcendence. We feel it when we feel the weight of the question "Why are there beings rather than nothing at all?" This kind of transcendence has import for theology insofar as God is considered to be the reason for (the existence) of the whole of finite beings. (This is what people are supposed to mean when they say that God is the "ground of being".) The mystery attaching to the beingness of beings doesn't go away when we claim God as the reason for them being there. It extends to God as well, such that God exceeds all determinate thought.

That's what the author says. I'd add this bit of commentary. Should you identify God with the ground of being, then the mystery attaching to the existence of beings ("why are there beings rather than nothing at all?") will of necessity extend to God as well. It's like when I was a very small child and asked my father in astonishment, "Why is there any of this?" and he answered, "God." That was unsatisfying for the obvious reason: in asking the question, we seek something to steady us. Astonishment at the existence of things is "wonderful" (we wonder at something mysterious), but it is also something vertiginous and a bit sickening if we're really open to it. God enters as the ground of no ground at that point. By which I mean the question then arises: Wherefore God? We open on to the infinite at that point, which I am not sure is really the terrain of theology despite claims to the contrary.

This brings me to the second point—which is really the same issue from the other side. If you begin not from a theological position (faced with a problem of extrapolating the divine essence) but from an ontological position (simply wondering about existence), then you're not liable to need the concept of "God". It's not clear why one would have at some point to bring in the concept "God" rather than just remaining with the problem of being. Lots of philosophers have dealt in interesting ways with the beingness of being without bringing in God. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger come to mind. So while there is certainly a connection between first transcendence and God, the connection does not seem to me at least to be a necessary one. And the stronger the connection is made—per what I said above—the less we seem to say that is relevant either to theology or ontology.

Second transcendence is the transcendence of self-being. We encounter it in the self-surpassing power of the human being. This is transcendence as freedom or free finite creativity. We are finite human beings, but we are always already surpassing that finitude by choosing to be something we aren't already. This is the kind of transcendence involved in what I called "autonomy" or "self-determination" the other day. It's what we have in mind when we talk about individual freedom and subjectivity. It may seem odd to call such a thing "transcendence". After all, what could be more immanent than my relationship to myself? But the point is that in determining myself, I am always beyond some determinate concept of who I am. I am not simply what I am, a given thing like a stone or a tree, but rather something continually developing itself. (Even remaining static is a kind of self-determination and hence a going-beyond-oneself.) The question here is: is this self-determination absolutely free, or is it to be understood in terms of a higher form of transcendence? Are we creations of another origin, or are we self-creating (our own origins)? Hegel saw this kind of transcendence as raising all the questions about dependence and independence that constitute modern human subjectivity.

Such transcendence is "excessive" in its own way. Just as the first transcendence (of nature) produces vertigo, there is disorientation attached to this form of transcendence, too, it seems. One useful way to understand the meaning of modernity is to understand it as the domination of nature within and without. Modernity is the freedom of the subject from all arbitrary notions of authority, be they in the form of nature, the passions, the local bishop, whatever. The point isn't so much that we reject all forms of authority, all points of reference for action, but rather that we reject those that are there arbitrarily and without good reason. The problem with this kind of transcendence is that there's a contradiction between reason's demand that everything accord with universal, abstract principles of justice and the particular, material, sensuous world as it actually exists. Reason untethered from nature and tradition wants to be its own ground.

Think here of something like the sexual revolution or the demand for marriage rights for gays and lesbians. The idea motivating these movements is that there's something arbitrary and particularistic in the demand that men and women not be treated equal or that homosexuals and heterosexuals not be treated equal. Just because you're born a certain way isn't good enough reason that you should be treated differently. You're making arbitrary exceptions when you say otherwise. You're not playing "fair", which means, in essence, that you're not thinking abstractly enough. You're seeing the color of the skin or the genitals the person has rather than the humanity. That's reason untethered from nature. We use reason to pass judgment on things in the world, to say they're just or unjust, and we can do that regardless of what the current state of affairs happens to be right at this moment. We are in other words transcending the given when we pass judgment. Here it goes beyond a particular human being and extends to society, but it's the same basic phenomenon.

But many philosophers (and not just the curmudgeonly conservative ones like Allan Bloom) have pointed out that there's something disorienting about this sense of freedom, that in untethering reason from nature, reason, ironically, loses its raison d'être. This is captured well in the question: Why be rational? This has given rise to a debate in contemporary ethics over whether the motivation to be good is internal or external to the reason to be good. Externalists, true to their name, believe the motivation to do good is separate from whether an action really is good; internalists believe the opposite, saying that something is only good if we have good reason to believe it's good. It's really a surface debate. The real problem is the rationality of reason itself. Why should reason matter? Why does it matter to live a life in accordance with reason? Is there any "glue" that will stick reason to action? Are there any affects of import that should make a life lived rationally worth it? We might call this "affective skepticism" to differentiate it from the prosaic type.

Lest you think this is an idle philosophical question, just think for a moment. Why has the ascendancy of modern rationality been accompanied so pervasively by a fascination with and even an embrace of the irrational? Why did faith come to dominate the center of the religious experience at the same time reason came to dominate the center of natural philosophy? Why is there a Jacobi for a Kant? Why is there a Schopenhauer for a Hegel? Why positivism and existentialism? Or—more on the dark side—why does religious fundamentalism become more powerful with the ascendancy of liberal democracy? Why is the information age accompanied by social anomie? Why is it that, the more we're supposedly together, the more lost, lonely, and isolated we feel? Why does an increase in choice and freedom make us feel disoriented and incapable of making decisions?

All these questions indicate that modernity is characterized by the ubiquity of second transcendence but that this kind of transcendence is inherently disorienting. It doesn't simply give rise to its shadow (a kind of unfreedom). It gives rise to a kind of extreme vertigo. Freedom doesn't give rise to slavery so much as it creates a kind of dizziness that brings about a self-imposed paralysis. It's not that one isn't capable of acting. It's that one isn't really sure why one should bother. And that's quite different.

No wonder there's such a strong reaction in the opposite direction. But all these anti-modern tendencies, be they religious, spiritual, political, or what have you, really must be understood as aspects of modernity itself and hence must be understood (ironically) as forms of second transcendence. The rebellion against second transcendence is in fact a form of second transcendence. One doesn't embrace religious fundamentalism for the same reasons people embraced religion in the 12th century. Not even close. Or take contemporary returns to nature as they appear in contemporary new age and new thought practices. That toward which these individuals "return" is not at all the same thing we departed from. Nature can never be a source of authority again. This is proved by the fact that people are able to choose to return to nature. The choice is as inescapable as the fact that it is made in a vacuum. Freedom is absolute, vertiginous, disoriented, and disorienting. This explains the ferociousness with which the shadow of reason rears its ugly head. It's not the otherness which explains the antagonism here but rather the sameness. Its desire for what lies outside of itself becomes a rage for what is new, what is novel, what is spiritual, what is powerful, what is invigorating, what is enlivening—in short, what is other. Freedom is everywhere the same to itself. Transcendence becomes infinite immanence.

I mention all this—which the author does not—because I think it's impossible to understand God in modernity (whatever the concept) without understanding it from within this context. This is one of the main reasons the concept "God" is unclear and seems to point to so many different, contradictory things. "God" is merely the name (for some people) for what is other, what escapes second transcendence. In this way, God (or what is called "God") is no different in form from any other candidate for a kind of transcendence that would break the monotony of modern life and the helpless situation of confusion freedom finds itself in.

Those are the first two kinds of transcendence. The author has a third. I'll deal with it later.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Alan Turing

The really interesting thing Alan Turing did was to turn the machine itself into a kind of input. What the machine deals with and the machine itself aren't different in kind. This is the idea that both program and input are held in the same memory space—an essential feature of the von Neumann architecture that describes nearly every computer in existence today.

But the engineering feat is less interesting than the logical one. A machine able to emulate any other machine, including itself, is a universal machine.1 Turing isolated the "machineness" of the machine, if you will, and was able to make true statements about the limits of computability generally on the basis of that.

1 This is called "Turing completeness". The first Turing complete computer was Konrad Zuse's Z3, completed in 1941.

Monday, January 31, 2011


I think each person has in them an impulse toward the light and an impulse toward the dark. I don't mean good and evil necessarily, but I suppose that's part of it. By "light" I mean "clear" and by "dark" I mean "confused".

If you're clear about who you really are—what you value, what truly has meaning to you, and what your life is about—then that very act of self-consciousness will propel you toward those things. That part of yourself will become stronger, and you'll begin to reject the things that send you into darkness and confusion or whatever else is against your intrinsic nature.

And when bad things do happen, they'll hurt and inconvenience you, but you won't be capsized by them, because your life has purpose and direction. You know you're on the road toward something much larger and more profound, so a temporary setback doesn't have as much meaning.

It's all kind of Spinozist, I guess. I've often thought Spinoza was right about a great many things.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Some Principles of Action

  1. Understand intelligence and its role in the world from a cosmological perspective. Because only when you understand it from a cosmological perspective will you be motivated to act, even when there are setbacks and things seem bleak. I would say this is the most important part. If you have trouble with philosophy, then embrace an appropriate religion, one that emphasizes compassion toward all sentient beings and in which there is a higher power who sides with the oppressed against the oppressors.
  2. Support or build anything that furthers these values. This isn't "activism" in the ordinary sense of going to protests or getting pieces of paper signed. You can build the right kind of civilization in a lot of different ways. You should always support transparency and fairness in political processes, no matter what. For instance, support giving broad powers to IAEA inspectors in Iran, but more importantly, support giving those same powers to inspectors in the United States—not to punish the United States, but because if we do it, then that means everyone else will have to do it too.
  3. Create and share knowledge in all its forms: literary, musical, scientific, philosophical, technological, visual, etc. Don't hoard knowledge; share it. Our ability to share knowledge is growing exponentially. It's a tremendous opportunity. Don't just share information. Think about it and relate it back to the broader picture: the story of our civilization and the essential conflicts in it. Oppose totalitarianism in all its forms. Always support individual rights.
  4. Don't just go to protests. Protests are for old liberals stuck in the 60s and for anarchists hate technology and who juggle and do puppet shows. It's occasionally useful as a tactic, but mostly it's mouthwash for leftists, something to make them feel fresh.
  5. Don't spend the majority of your time "critiquing" things. Of course one should be critical, i.e., use critical reasoning, in all things which are really worthwhile. But do it in the service of something constructive. Create knowledge and avenues of action with it. Don't use it to create despair or to make yourself feel powerless. Powerlessness is an illusion. Never in all of human history have individuals had more power to change the world.
  6. Never martyr yourself or sacrifice yourself to a degree which is unreasonable. There is nothing noble in being oppressed or deprived. Remain aware of unfairness and privilege. Side with those who are treated unfairly against those who treat them that way. Always look for creative ways to use knowledge to subvert unfairness. But just because you're part of a privileged strata of society does not mean that all there is for you to do is to renounce your privilege and take up the cause of someone less privileged. People who come from a reasonably comfortable background and go to liberal arts colleges come away thinking (a) the world and everyone in it is screwed, (b) they're bad unless they're screwed too, and (c) the only thing you can do to redeem yourself is renounce privilege. This is the liberal arts school view of the world. It's pure preachy moralizing with no connection to reality. Ignore it.

    There's actually a lot you can do as a "privileged" person, and it doesn't require you taking the equivalent of friar's vows. (I really don't like the word "privileged"—try using that word with a lower-middle-class or working class family just because they happen to be white and see what kind of reaction you get. It's a bad strategy. It's a bad tactic.) Going to college gives you the ability to do knowledge-work. You can study part of the system as a whole—or even the system itself—and look for more avenues for action and intervention. There are a lot of things you can do once you move beyond self-flagellation.
  7. There are so many avenues for positive action that there is no excuse for doing nothing. But I think the key to everything else is starting with the right perspective, the perspective of intelligence. If you believe we're living in a meaningless universe or that, as an individual with a modicum of awareness, you're like the last living survivor of a zombie apocalypse, you're going to have a really hard time doing anything besides laying in bed, drinking, or whining.
  8. Sometimes less information is better than more. For example, if you read the news thoroughly every day, you're liable to form a skewed picture of what the world is like. The news of the day is always negative. You need to step back from that and take in, not necessarily more information, but a broader perspective. Creating knowledge sometimes requires us to destroy information or at least ignore it. That's how your mind recognizes things like faces or furniture—it destroys the background data and focuses on the pattern. That's what you need to allow your mind to do with our civilization and with some of human history.
  9. The universe is intelligent, not dumb, i.e., it is part of its nature to give rise to more intelligent processes. Conscious moral awareness is therefore at home in the world. Making the world reflect our values is not a hopeless cause. It's the being of history itself. We're here for a reason—not one preordained by a higher power, whatever that means, but one given to us by ourselves for our own care and use.
  10. That any of us exists at all is a mystery. That we exist now is very strange. We live in a time of unprecedented promise and peril. There probably has never existed a more important or interesting time to be alive. That's knowledge worth using.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dialectics for beginners (or not)

While I was running today (yes, I'm insane enough to run in this weather), I was thinking about how I might explain dialectics to someone who knows nothing about it. It's actually not that difficult. Most of what follows is from Scott Meikle's Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx, though a lot of it comes from things I've read here and there.

Dialectics is a theory about (a) what exists and (b) how it exists. According to dialectics, entities are the sorts of things which exist. They have essences, and those essences are concepts which necessitate the life cycles of those entities.

A lot of words. Let's dig into it a little.

From a dialectical point of view, the basic units of being are entities. This contrasts with atomism, according to which the basic units of being are "atoms" (or quarks or whatever subatomic particles or forces you like). Briefly, atomism is the idea that an entity's being is defined by whatever it is composed of. Let's assume for a moment that there is one, unified theory of all of physics which we have yet to discover. From the point of view of that theory, there is no difference between interstellar dust and a human being. It's all described ultimately by the same laws. Those laws constitute "beingness". There is nothing else to say about being other than what is contained in those mathematical laws.

This contrasts with dialectics. Dialectics starts from an everyday point of view in which things like tables, chairs, supernovae, and days of the week are distinct, real things. To say that a chair can prevent me from falling into the middle of the earth because of quantum chromodynamics is a real, deep insight from the dialectical point of view. It's more than a mere social convention to say that; it's a profound insight into being. However, the macro-reality itself—the medium-sized dry goods like tables, chairs, and stars—exerts its own kind of cause.

To get what dialectics is about, it helps to start with living things. Dialectics isn't a new theory. It's not some weird off-shoot of 19th century thought. It's actually the oldest philosophical theory, going back to Plato, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Buddha, and the Upanishads. The first scientific thoughts about the world all arise in Eurasia along roughly the same line of latitude at roughly the same time. All these thinkers are trying to understand beingness itself, or, what is the same thing for them, living nature. The starting and ending points for them are the same: life.

In keeping with this orientation—and as a means of making dialectics concrete—we could ask: What is a human being?

From an atomistic point of view, there might ultimately be no answer to this question. A human being is a species of living thing, though all biological laws ultimately reduce to physical laws. And the same physical laws govern biological systems as govern non-biological ones. It's all atoms in the void interacting in accordance with very complex mathematical laws. Those laws are abstract, and they're indifferent to their content. It matters little whether we're talking about stellar fusion or getting a suntan. It's all pretty much the same thing.

But dialectics takes a different approach, one more oriented toward common sense. From a dialectical point of view, a human being is not just a species; it is a member of a family, hominidae, which is in turn part of an order, primate, which is in turn part of a kingdom, animalia, which is one of the main branches of life itself.

So whatever it means to be a "human being", to that concept also belongs what it means to (a) be alive, (b) be an animal, (c) be a primate, and (d) be a hominid. The essence of the human is defined, in part, the conceptual hierarchy into which "human" is placed.

Of course, to be a human is more than to be a great ape. According to Aristotle, man is a "reasoning animal", meaning (on one interpretation) he is an animal, but in addition to that he reasons. In a more modern spirit we might add that humans are animals that can know their own thoughts.

What makes up the essence of something is open-ended. One cannot rightfully claim from a dialectical point of view that we have to know, without doubt, the essence of everything. (Quite the opposite.) The point is that macro-entities—the sorts of things we see and deal with every day—are real things, and there is something it really means to be those things. They don't just reduce to their component parts and blend into one another. What something is is its essence, and we can articulate that essence using concepts which are organized into things like genus and species or wholes and parts. Dialectics, therefore, is an essentialist holism.

Now wait a second, you might say. All this sounds very modern—except that we know that living things do not have immutable essences. Human beings did not always exist. They evolved from other life-forms. In fact, they're still evolving—just like every other living thing—in accordance with mechanical laws. So one thing really does bleed into another. Inorganic matter evolved into living matter. Living matter evolved into multicellular organisms. Those evolved into vertebrates and eventually primates. We are primates, and we're evolving into something else. There are no "essences" here, just different states of "matter", whatever that is, transforming into other states of matter.

This is absolutely true, and this is the other insight of dialectics. To be is to be becoming something else.

Think for a moment about what it means to be a human being or really any living thing. Every living thing—or most of them we know about—has a life cycle. It's born, it lives, and it dies. The ancients saw this clearly, and they dealt with it in a number of ways. The essence of any living thing—say, a human being—is just the characteristic way in which it is born, lives, and dies. The Greek word for this was ergon, which we translate as "work". It makes up part of Aristotle's word for being, which was energeia. In other words, to be is to be born, to live, and to die. To be any particular thing is to be born, to live, and to die in the way characteristic of that particular thing. Obviously people are born, live, and die in ways different from how cats or amoeba do it. That's why we say they're different sorts of things.

The ancients did not know about evolution. Neither did Hegel. I'm not going to claim that dialectics somehow entails evolution. It doesn't. But it's not incompatible with it, so far as I can see. In fact, I think that as an ontology, dialectics is more compatible with evolution than atomism. From the dialectical point of view it makes sense to speak about species are real, existing things; and from the dialectical point of view, it makes sense to conceptually specify those beings in terms from their origins (what they evolved from) and their destinations (what they're evolving into).

So there are two directions I could go from here. One would be to talk about society from a dialectical point of view (that is, to talk about society as an organism or something organism-like with an essence); the other is to talk more about humanity itself and its destiny regarding technology. The first path is the typical Aristotlean-Marxist one. The second one hasn't been traversed too much. There are hints of it in Kurzweil's writings. He doesn't deal with things from an explicitly dialectical point of view, but his emphasis on patterns suggests it. I don't think patterns are anything other than essences, that is, concept which are real and which really determine the course some entity follows in its typical life-path. Kurzweil implicitly regards concepts as real. He doesn't seem to be an atomist, in other words, which is part of what drew me into his writings in the first place.

But unfortunately it's late, and this is already very long. Hopefully this gives some idea of what dialectics about. In short, it is essentialist holism. Organic wholes are the things which truly exist. These entities are ultimately their essences. An essence is what a thing truly is. But when we speak of an essence, we really mean the ergon, or the typical life and death of a thing. To be is to have a characteristic way of being born, of living, and of dying. All is in flux, as Heraclitus said; but everything is in flux in its own particular way, as defined by its essence.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Surrogates (2009)

Unfortunately one of the problems with knowing about the law of accelerating returns is that you can see how unimaginative most science fiction plots are. Case in point: I watched Surrogates tonight starring Bruce Willis. It's about a future in which people can interact with the world via remote controlled robots while they stay at home.

Now, a typical inner (or outer, irate) monologue of mine while watching some movies might be: "What's that thing on his head? Is that a football? Why is it blinking and sparking like that? Is it running Windows? Wait a second ... that's the INTERNET?! What's he doing with the internet on his head like that?"

Surrogates didn't present this problem, because the internet doesn't appear in it. This is an advanced, futuristic version of our society—and there's no internet. It's just left out of the story! In the future, people make use of really expensive robots to interact with the physical world, but they have no apparent relationship with, you know, the entirety of human knowledge. There are no search engines. No neural implants. People use their computers to ... work in hair salons and drive cars.

I mean, if I had all that technological power, that's what I'd do. I'd just go to work. Duh.

You can do cool stuff with the robots like jump over buildings, climb walls, and kick the shit out of other robots. All the robots are also really hot, because really, why would you have an ugly surrogate? But that just ensured that it remained glued to shallow action movie clichés. I mean, after The Matrix, you're really going to have a futuristic movie in which people aren't hot and don't bounce off walls? Who would watch it?

The other thing that astounded me was the complete absence of artificial intelligence. It's a society so technologically advanced that we can create perfectly realistic humanoid robots—which have to be controlled by actual human beings.

There's a scene in this movie where the FBI puts out a search warrant for a murderer. The murderer is spotted just moments later by a robot watching footage from a surveillance camera. Another character remarks, "Oh yeah, that's so-and-so. He really lives in Maine and is paid to watch that TV all day to spot people we're looking for."

Okay, reality check. The computer in my pocket—the one which is the size of half a ham sandwich—can identify people by their faces without any input from me at all. In fact, Facebook decided not to include that feature on the app, because it presented a privacy issue. (I know, irony.) And you're telling me that 20 years from now we need to pay a person to sit there and look through footage to find someone on video? "But he lives in Maine!"

The movie degenerated into every action-movie, anti-technology cliché at the end. "What button do I press?!" "If I don't press this button, mankind will die!" "Should I push the button?!" "Oh, the moral dilemma!"

Did none of the writers stop and ask, "Wait—do we really need buttons in the future?" Or how about: "Do we really use buttons all that much now?" A button!

So we have a movie about the future in which there's no internet, there's no artificial intelligence, keyboards can end the human race, and there are these robots that people use to do pretty much exactly what they do now. Oh, and people still use Dell desktops in the future. With shitty 15" flatscreen monitors that I could probably pick out of the trash. I forgot that part.

I had originally planned at this point to write something positive about the movie's portrayal of human alienation in a technological society, but I just can't bring myself to do it. At least when Caprica did that, they had it take place in virtual reality, which is arguably more relevant to the future than what this movie did. (Yeah, I watched Caprica. Shut up.)

In short, while visually compelling, this movie was one lousy cliché from top to bottom. I give it a C-.


A year ago I predicted we'd find 116 exoplanets by NYE 2010. We ended up finding 106.

My prediction for this year is 160.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


On the ride into work today I was thinking about some of the Great MysteriesTM. Things like, "Why does anything exist?" or "What the hell is up with quantum mechanics?"

I've always been partial to the mysteries surrounding consciousness and personal identity. Yes, things like quantum entanglement are weird and interesting, but for me they don't pack the same punch I feel when I think about how there could be something like consciousness. All the mysteries about the physical universe seem to concern the same basic sort of "stuff". But the idea that there should be a non-extended, subjective, first-person-only viewpoint on things is really strange.

Even stranger than that—at least in my opinion—is that there should be something like personal identity. I say "like" because we're not even sure what we're dealing with here. The paradoxes of subjectivity creep me out a lot more than the paradoxes of quantum mechanics.

For instance, each of us has the immediate impression of being a continuous person through time, each at the center of their own experience. I not only have memories of being a 6 year old. I also have the intuition that the self who perceived, thought, and lived as a 6 year old is the same person who perceives, thinks, and lives now. It's not as though my "soul" "died" at some point along the way and was replaced by a new one. It's still "me". Part of what it means to be conscious or to be a consciousness is that a whole set of things are mine and are always only mine—in principle.

And yet what is this "me"? Whatever goes on in the mind—be it perception, consciousness, the sense of self, etc.—is at least caused by (if not identical with) what happens in the brain. And yet the contents of those neurons are being turned over all the time, and the cells themselves are also replaced over the course of months or years. None of the atoms composing me as a child are in my body now. If there's nothing permanent in me that is physical, then how could there be anything permanent in me that is subjective, either?

Sartre argued for the same outcome, though he did so from a phenomenological rather than a physical perspective. In his essay "The Transcendence of the Ego" he argues that intentionality is the sole structure of consciousness. It's the "aboutness" of consciousness that makes it what it is, not that it belongs to an ego. There could be an ego in consciousness, like when I reflect on the fact that I'm typing a blog entry. But there's no way to objectify the ego of that second-order consciousness without invoking a third-order consciousness. In other words, consciousness is a purely internal, subjective phenomenon, and as soon as you turn it into something objective—like when you locate the ego in consciousness—you have turned it into the object of a new consciousness, or a new intentionality. The idea that there is a transcendental ego that subsists outside of each conscious state and acts as the "hub" of the multitude of states is an illusion. Each consciousness is its own "thing", absolutely free from other consciousnesses, even within the same "person".

The early Buddhist position is similar to Sartre's. This is a useful book on the subject. Buddha disagreed with the idea that consciousness is pure intentionality, but he arrived at a similar conclusion with regard to the impermanence and illusory nature of self.

Perhaps we can salvage the idea of a self if we assume it is a form or pattern of matter rather than the matter itself. If my sense of self persists despite the constant turnover of matter in my brain, then perhaps it is the arrangement or form of that matter that makes up who I am rather than the stuff itself. But there are problems with this solution, too.

Imagine we have the ability to destructively scan your brain at a resolution good enough that we can recreate its exact patterns (arrangement of matter) in a new brain. Presumably something like this happens in Star Trek. Your old body is wiped out, and a new one replaces it. According to a patternist view of self, you should experience no break in continuity between your old self and new self. It's the same pattern, after all.

But is this true? How do we know the new you is really you? It will act exactly like you. It might even really be conscious. But from the interior, subjective perspective of the old you, maybe you went to sleep and never woke up, and this new person came into existence, having all your memories, thinking it's really you (but it's not). It would be like a replicant from Blade Runner, thinking it had a past when it really didn't.

But, you might say, don't we turn over our matter all the time? Each person goes to sleep every night and wakes up the next morning. Maybe the person who goes to sleep is not the same person who wakes up. But we have good (internal) evidence that this is not the case. Therefore, there's nothing to be concerned about in this scenario. It's nothing that doesn't happen all the time. It just happens all at once rather than taking days, weeks, months, or years.

Even if this is true, we can upset this self-assurance further by adding a detail to the thought experiment. Assume the scan is non-destructive, so that the original you is preserved when the new you is created. Imagine this happens when you are asleep, so you don't even know it's happened. You wake up and find you standing over you! The new you says, "I have excellent news. The consciousness transfer worked. I'm over here now. We won't be needing you anymore!" (I suppose all this depends on your personality. Some people might be more excited to have an army of clones of themselves.)

In that case we have two identical patterns (at least at the point of creation—they'll diverge after that) but also two identical consciousnesses. Clearly you (your consciousness) aren't in two places at once. There's only one "you", laying helplessly in bed as the new you decides the "transfer" was successful. There must be something more to personal identity than a mere pattern.

This goes back to the ontological gap between objective and subjective things. Subjective experiences are essentially internal and personal. They belong to a person, but a person is something that endures over time, throughout change. This concept doesn't show up anywhere in a purely physical understanding of the world. Of course there are scientific ways to study people. My body is also an object of scientific (and generally empirical) inquiry. But the personhood of my person is not. Insofar as patterns are empirical things, they're not capable of capturing personhood.

So this doesn't leave us with a whole lot to work with. In that regard it's not much different from other puzzles, like those mentioned above. But the fact that this puzzle reaches down to who we are on the deepest, most essential level is what's most disturbing.

Why are you you? That's strange.

Monday, January 3, 2011

patterns and readiness-to-hand

Basic human coping skills like driving a car or playing ball seem based on the ability to recognize and respond to patterns, not solving equations or doing calculations. The general know-how involved here is based upon directly perceiving possibilities and acting on them, not knowing (implicitly or explicitly) that some set of facts holds.

I have to expand on this later, but I wonder if there's a connection to be made between patterns and pattern-recognition and Heidegger's account of being-in-the-world in Division I of Being and Time.