Author Archive

February 15, 2018

Flash Philosophy — A Pre-ramble

by Asher Kay

I’ve recently started writing about philosophy again. Even though I haven’t written much of anything for public consumption in years, I’ve never really stopped thinking about philosophy. And the bone that I keep returning to and gnawing on is the question of why I keep returning to and gnawing on the bone.

A super high percentage of the philosophy I read is deeply frustrating to me, and seems wrong to me in a way that is almost intractable in terms of argumentation. So why do I keep coming back to it? It’s not a perverse thing either. I’m not like the person who hates a TV show but keeps watching it religiously. It’s not a thing I “love to hate”. I’m more like the person who loves video games but only very occasionally finds one that doesn’t disappoint me. And when I’m disappointed, I’m truly disheartened because I have some sense of the promise of the medium.

I think philosophy (small-P philosophy, at least) has as much or more promise than any artistic medium. I think it’s vital. In fact, I think it’s unavoidable. Each one of us is a practitioner, whether we like it or not. Every move we make manifests our model of the world, however blind we are to it. Denial and willful ignorance are not only philosophies, they are probably more workable philosophies than rigorously thought-out ones that are orthogonally wrong.

The problem for me is wrongness, and the nature of the wrongness. Wittgenstein’s flybottle always seemed to me so spot on, but even from that perfect vantage on that cloudless day, Wittgenstein couldn’t see past language. The nature of the wrongness is not language — it’s concepts.

Show me a lively, decades-long debate in philosophy, and I can almost guarantee you that at the heart of it you will find a thought experiment. It will be honed, shined, shimmed, and shaved; exquisitely crafted and exquisitely wrong. And there will be nothing in the world more exasperating than trying to argue against it. At the heart of the heart of it is a wrong concept or a wrong set of concepts that will defeat you by virtue of the fact that you’ve engaged with them.

To argue against a set of concepts is to accept their structure. You are given a bowl of dirt which you are told is pie. You eat it, and you say, “this is shitty pie”. It’s not shitty pie, though. It’s just not pie.

People do try to deal with thought experiments without accepting their structure. They step back one level and reject the whole set of concepts. But if you don’t engage with the structure, your primary problem becomes the fact that you haven’t engaged with the structure. The argument you have made is, in some very real sense, a non-sequitur. And the net effect is that the dirt people keep eating dirt and the rejecter eats nothing and nobody eats any pie.

I think what needs to happen is for people to ignore the dirt completely and just go try to make pie.

In non-metaphorical language: philosophers are not wrong — they’re doing philosophy wrong. If you did the philosophy right, it would mean making the concepts you used so painfully clear that they would argue against themselves. I do not see that happening very often. What I see is shaving and shimming and bolstering; obfuscating, eliding and conflating.

So that’s where I am. I’ve wiggled outside of these architectures that I spent so long trying to build into or knock down or renovate, and I’m sitting in an empty field wondering if there’s anything to build with.

Here’s what I think there is to build with. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is something we all do, unavoidably. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is about making concepts painfully clear.

I am also in possession of a couple of concepts which are incredibly useful in understanding and navigating the world — one of which is a concept that explains why being incredibly useful is way more important than being true.

The question is how to communicate these concepts to regular people in a way that they can understand and actually use. And the answer is “in 700-word increments, as simply and engagingly as possible, and with utter disregard for dirt pie”.

So that’s why I started doing Flash Philosophy.

September 15, 2016

Philosophy’s Reason Problem

by Asher Kay

There was a decent column on NYT's The Stone blog today. Yeah, I was surprised too. Robert Burton, a neurologist, neuroscientist and popular science author was discussing the problem that Philosophy has letting go of Reason:

Going forward, the greatest challenge for philosophy will be to remain relevant while conceding that, like the rest of the animal kingdom, we are decision-making organisms rather than rational agents, and that our most logical conclusions about moral and ethical values can’t be scientifically verified nor guaranteed to pass the test of time.

Burton makes some good points in the piece, but he doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions. It might be fun to think about what a solution would look like.

Like so many of the misconceptions that Philosophy can't seem to get past, I'm inclined to lay this one at the feet of Immanuel Kant, who probably did as much to send Philosophy veering off in the wrong direction as Freud did for Psychology.

Without getting long-winded about it, Kant was keen to refute Hume's conclusion that inductive reasoning from experience was the only way we really acquired knowledge. To attack the problem, Kant separated judgements along two axes: the a priori/a posteriori axis and the analytic/synthetic axis. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is that the former takes place "prior to experience" and the latter are grounded in experience. The difference between analytic and synthetic judgements is that the former work only with information present in the propositions being reasoned about and thus don't create "new" knowledge, while the latter bring new information in. Kant combined these axes to produce four kinds of judgements: a posteriori analytic, a posteriori synthetic, a priori analytic, and a priori synthetic. The kind of judgement which Kant felt would refute Hume, if it existed, was the a priori synthetic judgement. If we could reason, without reference to experience, in a way that would produce new knowledge, Hume's depressing thesis would be wrong.

The fact that of his four categories, one – a posteriori analytic judgements – couldn't exist, and another – a priori synthetic – didn't obviously exist should have been a red flag that he was thinking about it wrong. But maybe we should cut him a break. My sense, after reading a lot of philosophy from this time period, is that the concept of "experience" was not particularly clear or well-formed. The ghost of Avicenna's Floating Man was still pretty regularly rattling windows and knocking things off Philosophy's bookshelves in Kant's time (hell, he's still kicking around today).

A modern, physicalist view would reject the a priori/a posteriori distinction altogether. Avicenna's Floating Man would have a brain with zero input, and we know that such a brain would probably not operate at all, let alone do any predicate logic. Thought itself – including reason – is driven by stimulus, and there is no real way to separate perception from reasoning, except with respect to a rough taxonomy of mental activity. Both reason and perception depend upon the patterned activity of a brain impinged upon over long periods of time by a consistent physical universe that enables it to transcode, record and model its consistencies.

When Burton talks about the "void" that would be left in Philosophy if reason were abandoned, I'm reminded of the fear of nihilism that lurks behind arguments for moral realism. If there is no real foundation for moral truths, it whispers, then the whole ediface falls and we are left with a morality in which "anything goes". It's the same fear that Camus walked right up to and flipped the bird at in his discussion of absurdity. And it was a bird that needed flipping.

It's not really Reason that's losing its footing in Philosophy. It's not just a perception problem. It's realism.

The fact is that the nihilism of "anything goes" is a false fear. Anything doesn't go. Anything hardly even gets started going. Our physical universe constrains us to a knife's edge of possibilities, and our biological structures constrain us even further. We can't escape the survival instinct or our range of tastes any more than we can escape gravity or the temperature range our bodies can withstand.

So the solution to Philosophy's problem is a weaker, less absolute concept of reason, and a weaker, less absolute realism that recognizes that what we wanted to be a foundation is really just a strong, consistent, persistent set of constraints.

October 9, 2013

The Overpass National Anthem

by Asher Kay

O Overpass, your majesty bisects the hostile sky
Between the hours of four and three your keening voices cry.
Your wedge, too steep for pudgy tyrants, rising o’er the scree
Provides salvation’s path, which, though abrasive to the knee,
Will ever earn the praises of the luckless such as me
The luckless such as me.

O Overpass, your hundred hearts that beat with every tire
In schizophrenic palpitation kindles the desire
To lie in peaceful slumber, snug between your concrete beams
Until, in fifteen minutes, by the rattling of your seams
The quick and dead alike are raised from hundred heart-beat dreams
From hundred heart-beat dreams.

O Overpass, your purpose is for those who skate above
But purposes have shadows, and all shadows are a glove
And in that glove are birds and fear and cardboard and debris
And shelter, blessed shelter, for the luckless such as we
The luckless such as we.

March 27, 2013

What’s Your Zombie Type?

by Asher Kay

The Physicalist[*] created a handy philosophical zombie flow chart. It’s not only a useful walk-through of various philosophical positions, but it is also simply a pleasure to read. An excerpt:

Your antecedent epiphenomenalism (or dual aspectism) is what enables you to think zombies are conceivable

I see a line of philosophical fortune cookies in the making.

[*] The “Physicalist” is a pseudonym. The Physicalist is kind of like the Mentalist, except that he believes that the physical and mental are the same thing; which makes him exactly like the Mentalist. Except for the belief, which science can never explain.

March 16, 2013

I Guess That’s Why They Call Them Zombies

by Asher Kay

In the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog, Gary Gutting reviews the old Monochromatic Mary and Philosophical Zombie thought experiments for the general public. I’m not going to hash through those, but I think one of Gutting’s statements is worth looking at because of how clearly it reveals a problem with the way philosophers think about physicalism and the mind:

When I feel intense pain, scientists may be able to observe brain-events that cause my pain, but they cannot observe the very pain that I feel.

So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine we are sitting in some bleachers and below us is a field of grass, marked off with white lines, a dirt pathway, and some square-shaped canvas markers. Upon this field, people move about, sometimes throwing and catching a spherical object, sometimes striking it with a wooden club, but mostly just standing around.

Is it reasonable to say that you are observing some “field-events that cause a game”, but that you cannot observe “the very game that is being played”?

March 6, 2013

McGinn, Again

by Asher Kay

Obviously I haven’t had much time to post lately, but I was revving up to dismantle Colin McGinn’s recent review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed — a review rife with the sorts of problems I pointed out before with his review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.

Lo and behold, someone beat me to it, and did so with more gusto (and endurance) than I possibly could have mustered. Friends, I give you Ron Murphy.

EDIT: I should note that I haven’t read Kurzweil’s book and suspect strongly that I would not find it satisfying.

February 13, 2013

Recurring Payment

by Asher Kay

I don’t know if you guys remember this old post. Well, I was tickled today to receive a call from the lawyer, saying that they are once again sending me a check for $2.70, and asking if I could *please* cash it.

I have thrown a microscopic monkey wrench in their accounting system for six whole years.

December 4, 2012

Can Odd Monisms Ruin Nagel’s Book? (4,3,6)

by Asher Kay

Yeah, that’s right — I used a cryptic crossword clue as a post title. I was going to go with “Something It Is Like To Be Bemused And a Little Relieved”, but that sounded too much like David Foster Wallace.

If you have solved my clue/title, you’ll know that this post is about Thomas Nagel’s newest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

The first thing likely to grab your attention is the subtitle, which might seem ever so slightly strident if you were not aware that shortly before publication, he toned it down from, “Come At Me, You Worthless Reductionist Pissants”. Happily, the book’s content does not reflect the vociferousness of the subtitle — it’s actually a pretty humble and friendly book. Nagel, in fact, doesn’t even explicitly say that Darwinism is false. He says that “psychophysical reductionism” is false, and by “psychophysical reductionism”, he seems to mean an array of things, some of which will strike the physicalist as strawmen (such as the idea that everything can be reduced to physics), and some of which will just seem a bit tone deaf (like the “reducibility of the mental to the physical”, which doesn’t really involve a reduction, per se, for someone who holds that everything is physical).

One could spend an entire post poking holes in Nagel’s conception of the physicalist stance (see Leiter and Weisberg’s recent review in The Nation if you already had your hole-poker out), but it’s a big topic, and I think it makes more sense to lay out a positive description of physicalism and show how some of Nagel’s objections look in light of that than it does to discuss it from the negative viewpoint of refuting someone. I’ll try to do a post on that soon.

What I want to discuss here are the several of things that puzzled me about Mind and Cosmos. The first is Nagel’s conception of “value realism” (he also calls it “moral realism” in some places). The basic idea of value realism, for Nagel, is that the truths indicated by value and moral judgements are truths that are not dependent on anything else — they are true in themselves:

Realism is not a metaphysical theory of the ground of moral and evaluative truth. It is a metaphysical position only in the negative sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical. It is metaphysical only if the denial of a metaphysical position like naturalism itself counts as a metaphysical position. But value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.

Of course natural facts are what make some value judgments true, in the sense that they are the facts that provide reasons for and against action. In that sense the fact that you will run over a dog if you don’t step on the brakes makes it the case that you should step on the brakes. But the general moral truth that licenses this inference — namely that it counts in favor of doing something that it will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature — is not made true by any fact of any other kind. It is nothing but itself.

For me, this view runs into two problems. The first is the question of how we are able to access these truths. Nagel doesn’t address this issue directly, and my sense is that he would not see it as a problem at all. He seems to be saying that we have access to them in the same way we have access to mathematical truths, but I don’t see how that makes the question any easier since we don’t have an explanation of how we access those either. Since the point of the book is to push for non-physicalist theories of mental processes, I am guessing that those theories are where Nagel would expect the question to be addressed.

The second problem is the weird duality of pleasure and pain. If, as Nagel says, “pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like”; and if the good and bad of pleasure and pain are not dependent on anything else (our like/dislike, their physical manifestations, the evolutionary consequences of our reactions to them, etc.); then we seem to have an awfully big coincidence going on:

Describing it is tricky, since it is obvious that biologically hard-wired pleasure and pain play a vital role in the fitness of conscious creatures even if their objective value doesn’t. The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that. While they are not the only things that have objective value, these experiences are among the most conspicuous phenomena by which value enters the universe, and the clearest examples through which we become acquainted with real value.

In the realist interpretation, pleasure and pain have a double nature. In virtue of the attraction and aversion that is essential to them, they play a vital role in survival and fitness, and their association with specific biological functions and malfunctions can be explained by natural selection. But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves and leading on, along with other values, to more systematic and elaborate recognition of reasons for action and principles governing their combination and interaction, and ultimately to moral principles.

Remember that for Nagel, there’s nothing metaphysical going on — no “root cause” that leads both to the truth that pain is bad and to our visceral aversion to it. As Nagel appears to recognize, this leads us toward a sort of dualism. I’d go further and say that it’s the same sort of dualism that gets us in trouble when we accept the mind/body problem as a real problem. Nagel also recognizes that his conclusion relies heavily on intuition: “That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary, and I suspect the same is true of most people”. Mind and Cosmos is refreshingly honest when it comes to intuition.

Okay, so that’s the value realism thing. The other puzzling thing for me was Nagel’s conclusion that an evolutionary account of reason is impossible because it is necessarily circular:

By contrast [to the case of perception], in a case of reasoning, if it is basic enough, the only thing to think is that I have grasped the truth directly. I cannot pull back from a logical inference and reconfirm it with the reflection that the reliability of my logical thought processes is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected them for accuracy. That would drastically weaken the logical claim. Furthermore, in the formulation of that explanation, as in the parallel explanation of the reliability of the senses, logical judgments of consistency and inconsistency have to occur without these qualifications, as direct apprehensions of the truth. It is not possible to think, ‘Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.’ Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

My first intuitive response was to think that Nagel was going a little easy on perception. Isn’t an evolutionary theory of perception open to the same problem, since we are relying on our perceptions (empirical measurements through scientific instruments) to determine the validity of our theories? Or if we have ways of “checking” our perceptions to make sure they’re valid, wouldn’t the same kind of checking apply to our reasoning process?

I’m reminded of the refutation of moral relativism based on the idea that it makes an absolute claim (i.e., “no moral truths are absolute”). It feels like a trick — that it’s only circular because it’s “about” reason. Plus, as with value realism, this sort of rejection forces us into a position of turning reason into another “true in itself” thing that doesn’t require justification.

It seems to me that reasoning is something way less cool than Nagel makes it out to be. If I perform a reasoning task that takes me from proposition A to proposition Q, all I can say is that proposition Q follows from the procedural rules that I’ve set out. If proposition A is based on a perception of the world, and proposition Q also accords with a perception of the world, I can say that my procedure was successful in producing an inference about the world. Further tests might show that the procedure is wildly successful in producing a bunch of successful inferences about a bunch of things in the world. So when I’m “presupposing” reason when I theorize about reason’s awesomeness, all I’m really doing is saying that my confidence is high because the procedure I followed tends to be highly successful in making inferences about that kind of thing.

It’s really easy (for me, at least) to imagine this as a sort of algorithm-generating process that continuously takes A-propositions from perceptions, runs them through sets of rules, then tests the resulting Q-propositions against perceptions. Those algorithms that result in high “accordance” rates get weighted up and preferentially used. Those that don’t get weighted down and eventually wither away. If such a process occurs unconsciously and is repeated over years and years, even at early stages of an organism’s life, the adult organism would probably end up intuiting that the successful algorithms are “just true in themselves”. And if the external environment is perceptually consistent enough – if there is, in philosophical parlance, a metaphysical basis for the concordance between inferences and perceptions – those algorithms are going to be both easily discovered and widely applicable, given the right kind of hardware.

UPDATE: A recent review of Mind and Cosmos from John Dupré at Exeter contains a wonderful summary of the physicalist stance:

So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis, typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world (no spooky stuff), then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science. Even if it turned out that most scientists believed something like this (which I find incredible) this would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science. A more sensible materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky. Such a materialism is quite untouched by Nagel’s arguments.

I think critics of physicalism find this sort of stance to be extremely frustrating. If physical = non-spooky, then it could be said that everything we have a coherent theory of is physical, and that everything that seems spooky now will eventually be considered physical when we have a coherent theory of it. The only way for a critic to keep something permanently non-physical is to argue that no coherent scientific theory of it is possible (which is kind of what Nagel is trying to do with subjective experience and value judgements).

June 30, 2012

“The Current State of Play”

by Asher Kay

Riffing off something Dyke the Elder said in another thread:

Sometimes squirrels feel like a nut; sometimes they don’t. But when they do, they operate uncomfortably close to the boundary between ententionality and intentionality to find one. Within an evolutionary picture, that uncomfortable closeness is about what you’d expect. In a world where there’s a dominant intellectual tradition between human cognition has, for milennia, been set apart from the intelligent interactions with nuts and such by other species, it takes an enormous amount of untangling to get accounts of intelligent interactions that stand up to scrutiny.

No fricking kidding. Last night I was reading the beloved Stanford Encyclopedia’s entry on Mental Causation, and my heart just sank. It felt like a huge mob of philosophers, all jostling and shoving at the entrance to a flybottle. There was almost zero acknowledgement that all of these contortions of logic and all of these argumentative flaws could be set aside simply by rejecting mental/physical dualism. Then, a note of hope at the end (emphasis mine):

One possibility is that truthmakers for psychological truths include irreducibly mental properties. This is not the only possibility, however. Another is that psychological assertions are made true by physical states and properties, states and properties answering to predicates belonging to physics and chemistry. A view of this kind would endeavor to resolve the problem of mental causation, not by tinkering with the causal concept, but by rejecting the idea that mental properties are distinct from physical properties. All parties agree that mental predicates and descriptions differ from physical predicates and descriptions. Application conditions for mental terms and physical terms diverge in ways that preclude definitional reduction of the one to the other. Perhaps it is a mistake, however, to move from this linguistic fact to a substantive ontological thesis: mental and physical predicates designate properties belonging to distinct families of properties.

Whether anything like this could be made to work is an open question. To the extent that you regard the current state of play as unsatisfying, however, it is perhaps a question worth pursuing.

I looked around for more work by Robb and Heil (the article’s authors), and found this paper by Robb which argues that an identity theory (rejection of mental/physical dualism) solves the “exclusion problem” (roughly, that if physical stuff is causally relevant, it would seem to exclude mental stuff from being causally relevant, or vice versa). The fact that an identity theory would solve this problem seems obvious way beyond the need for a paper to defend it, but if you read the paper, you will see that Robb’s main problem is not making sense of his thesis — it’s making sense of his thesis to a community of people whose language for talking about the problem makes his solution difficult to even state.

Here’s an example. Robb is defending a “trope” identity theory (a trope theory is basically a kind of nominalism that says that universal types are really just instances that fall within a similarity class). In the paper, he responds to imagined objections pulled from the literature. One such objection is:

O4: The identity solution merely relocates the exclusion problem. While psychophysical trope identity may rescue the causal efficacy of mental powers (tropes), it still leaves open whether they are causally efficacious qua mental. Put another way: if mental powers are both mental and physical, why not think they are causally efficacious only in virtue of being physical? Closure would motivate this problem, and we’re back with, if not the same exclusion problem, at least very a similar one (Noordhof 1998; Shoemaker 2003, 434; Macdonald and Macdonald 2006, 552-3).

Now think about how you might answer such an objection. I might answer it in the following way:

If mental powers are both mental and physical – if being mental is really just being physical – then talking about them being efficacious “only in virtue of being physical” is either nonsensical or tautological.

I might even add “Duh!” at the end, depending on my mood. But here’s Robb’s response (part of it, actually — the whole thing is too long to quote):

R4: The general thought behind this objection seems to be that we will have solved the exclusion problem only if we finally arrive at something–of whatever ontological category–that’s only mental, that is, mental but not physical. Anything that’s both mental and physical, the thought goes, invites exclusion worries all over again. So, for example, Davidson’s (1980, 1993) desired stopping point is at mental events, which, he says, are physical. But since mental events are both mental and physical, exclusion worries arise, so that we must show that mental events are causes in virtue of their mental features (powers). Similarly, the line goes, if our desired stopping place is with these mental powers, it had better turn out that they’re not also physical, for then we get the same problem all over again, so that we must show that mental powers are causally efficacious in virtue of their mental features (higher-order powers). And so on.

But there’s something suspect in this general line of objection. If psychophysical identity at the desired stopping place continues to invite exclusion worries, why shouldn’t other psychophysical relations at the desired stopping place invite similar worries? Suppose, for example, that mental powers are in fact only mental–that is, mental but not physical–yet are immanent in (Yablo 1997, 275) or nothing over and above (Wilson 2005) the physical, where this may be spelled out in terms of, say, realization (Boyd 1980), the determinable-determinate relation (Yablo 1992), constitution (Pereboom 2002), metaphysical necessitation (Bennett 2008), de re, a priori determination (Jackson 2006), or something else. And suppose that immanence, in whatever form it takes, does in fact secure the efficacy of mental powers with respect to physical effects. Is there still a lingering worry that these powers are efficacious, not in virtue of being mental, but merely in virtue of being immanent in the physical (Lowe 1993, 632-3)? Maybe mental powers are efficacious, but only because they piggyback on their physical base powers. This appears to be, if not the original exclusion problem, one that’s very similar to it.

It could be argued that what Robb’s response here is not substantially different from mine. But what strikes me, in this response and throughout, is that Robb never really abandons the language that distinguishes mental from physical. He is, in effect, trying to make his argument in a foreign language — one ill-suited to the point he’s trying to make. And further, he’s walking into a prevailing conversation that has already rejected his approach. The very first objection Robb cites is:

O1: Psychophysical property identity was undermined decades ago by the multiple realizability argument (Fodor 1974; Boyd 1980; Putnam 1980). Indeed, the contemporary debate is really just about how to save mental causation in the face of the non-reductive physicalism established by this argument. Proposing an identity theory at this point ignores these results and disengages from the contemporary debate.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to. We really want there to be something non-physical. We really want to save a bizarre idea of mental causation, however hobbled and jury-rigged, from the evil forces of non-reductive physicalism. We really want to be special in a way that squirrels can never be.

May 23, 2012

Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder

by Asher Kay

It would be easy to dismiss Colin McGinn’s review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature as a bit of grumpy get-off-my-lawnism. But I think that by taking a closer look, we can gain some insight into the difficulty of communicating across disciplines.

As cognitive, neurological and complexity sciences burgeoned over the last few decades, scientists started encroaching on land once firmly occupied by philosophers. These scientists are eager to take a crack at some of the questions about human consciousness that have been vexing pretty much everyone pretty much forever. Beyond the obvious territorial concerns, this influx of foreigners creates some serious communication problems. McGinn’s review of Deacon, I think, is a fascinating case in point.

What we have is a philosopher in the field of “Philosophy of Mind” reviewing a book about the emergence of consciousness written by a scientist in the field of biological anthropology. What symptoms of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder (CDCD) might we expect to see? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A tendency for the discomfort and difficulty of understanding the scientist’s text to manifest in emotional ways like blame, offhand dismissiveness, derision, and imputing negative motives to the scientist.
  2. An aversion to the more wonkily scientific parts of the book, where the philosopher is likely to feel less sure of his rhetorical footing.
  3. A tendency to fault the scientist for his lack of knowledge concerning previous work done in philosophy on the questions the scientist is attempting to answer.
  4. An unexamined projection of philosophical terminology, conceptual frameworks and exegetical norms to the scientist’s text — In short, an assumption that the scientist is writing a work of philosophy.

If these are reasonable, it’s pretty clear from the review that McGinn has a nasty case of the CDCDs.

It’s not my intention to lay this all on McGinn (although his review is snotty enough at times that he arguably deserves some ribbing). For each of these symptoms, there’s a corresponding symptom that we’d expect to see, either in the scientist’s book itself or in his responses to philosophers’ criticisms. For example, the scientist might avoid philosophical ideas and approaches for the same reasons the philosopher avoids scientific ones. But if Deacon wants to create a cross-disciplinary work – if he wants to engage philosophers as well as scientists – he needs to be aware of the problem and find a way to communicate clearly with both groups. This is no easy thing — even less so since both groups have multiple sub-groups with their own communication problems. I think Deacon succeeds in some ways and fails in others. I’ll try to point out both as I go along.

read more »

February 3, 2012

Deacon and OOP

by Asher Kay

Before I get down to brass tachyons on Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, I want to set up a little philosophical context — something to keep in mind as we wade through his sometimes conceptually difficult ideas. The context involves our occasional preoccupation with object-oriented philosophy.

Deacon has probably never heard of OOP or Speculative Realism, and he probably wouldn’t be all that interested in them anyway, since he approaches things mostly from a physicalist, scientific perspective. He mentions some classic philosophers like Aristotle, Hume and John Stuart Mill – and he’s apparently a fan of Charles Sanders Pierce – but the modern philosophers he mentions are mostly on the scientific or analytic side — people like Rorty, Fodor, Jaegwon Kim, the Churchlands, and Dan Dennett. Though he’s kind of speculative, he’s not French-armchair-speculative — in other words, you won’t hear him talking about Deleuze, Badiou or Lacan, using the word “as” in bizarre ways, or getting all immanent about stuff.

But I do think Deacon’s ideas relate to OOP, and to the puzzlement we experience with some of its concepts. Since Deacon’s writing is difficult to excerpt (he even refers to his “sometimes tortured prose” in the acknowledgments), I’m going to offload the task to a summary of Incomplete Nature from a review by Jeremy Sherman. Sherman has apparently collaborated with Deacon, and his review is an amazingly well-written and accurate distillation of the book (the length of the excerpt is right up against the limit of acceptability, so I urge you to read the whole review as well):

We have embraced Darwin’s breakthrough but haven’t embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science’s greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.

Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there’s one. The step-down from 52 to one–the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It’s a narrowing of possibility.

Again, though we ran with Shannon’s breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.

We are very thing-oriented.

We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we’re pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.

We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a “least discordant remainder.”

Obviously, if you substitute “object” for “thing”, you could read this as a kind of rejection of the whole OOP undertaking. I don’t see it that way, but it does amount to a criticism, not just of our conceptual obsession with things, but also of our “things plus relations” way of looking at systems. Deacon’s criticism is aimed mostly at emergentist theories that focus on supervenience and mereological relations, but I think it has repercussions for frameworks like Harman’s, which sometimes express relations between two things as yet a third thing (entity) that contains them.

As Sherman expresses so vividly, Deacon’s re-framing involves looking at absences. Information, energy, and self-organizing systems are all defined by an absence of possibilities. A constraint is an absence of possible states. Thing-oriented models of reality are unable to capture this notion of absence fully, so Deacon suggests we turn to a process-oriented view.

Beyond the “process vs. objects” story, Deacon’s biggest unknowing comment on OOP concerns the idea of a “flat ontology”. I’ll let Levi Bryant lay out the relevant details (from The Democracy of Objects):

…Flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation. To be sure, flat ontology readily recognizes that humans have unique powers and capacities and that how humans relate to the world is a topic more than worthy of investigation, yet nothing about this establishes that humans must be included in every inter-object relation or that how humans relate to objects differs in kind from how other entities relate to objects.

Deacon would probably agree with b), but I think he’d definitely have a problem with a) (although for him, it’s not about “humans”, per se). Here, Deacon talks about the difficulty of expressing the causality of a boy skipping a stone at the beach:

The boy’s idea that it might be possible to treat this stone like another that he’d once seen skipped is far more relevant to the organization of these causal probabilities than what he ate for breakfast, or how the stone came to be deposited in this place on this beach. Even though the force imparted to the stone is largely derived from the energy released from the chemical bonds in digested food, and its location at that spot is entirely due to the energetics of geology, wind, and waves, these facts are almost irrelevant. The predictive value of shifting attention to very general types of events, macroscopic global similarities, predictions of possible thought processes, and so forth, offers a critical hint that we are employing a very different and in some ways orthogonal logic of causality when we consider this mental analysis of the event rather than its physics. Indeed, this difference makes the two analyses appear counterintuitively incompatible. The thought is about a possibility, and a possibility is something that doesn’t yet exist and may never exist. It is as though a possible future is somehow influencing the present.

The discontinuity of causality implicit in human action parallels a related discontinuity between living and non-living processes. Ultimately, both involve what amounts to a reversal of causal logic: order developing from disorder, the lack of a state of affairs bringing itself into existence, and a potential tending to realize itself. We describe this in general terms as “ends determining means.” But compared to the way things work in the non-living, non-thinking world, it is as though a fundamental phase change has occurred in the dynamical fabric of the world. Crossing the border from machines to minds, or from chemical reactions to life, is leaving one universe of possibilities to enter another.

Ultimately, we need an account of these properties that does not make it absurd that they exist, or that we exist, with the phenomenology we have. Our brains evolved as one product of a 3-billion-year incremental elaboration of an explicitly end-directed process called life. Like the idle thoughts of the boy strolling along the beach, this process has no counterpart in the inorganic world. It would be absurd to argue that these differences are illusory. Whatever else we can say about life and mind, they have radically reorganized the causal fabric of events taking place on the surface of the Earth. Of course, life and mind are linked. The sentience that we experience as consciousness has its precursors in the adaptive processes of life in general. They are two extreme ends of a single thread of evolution. So it’s not just mind that requires us to come to a scientific understanding of end-directed forms of causality; it’s life itself.

The first thing to notice here is, again, the focus on what Deacon calls “absential” qualities. Ideas and intentions are centered around things that are not present. There is a teleological quality to them that points at something (a goal, a purpose, an exact or approximate end-state) that does not exist yet, and may never exist.

This “absential” kind of causality, Deacon is saying, introduces something new into the world that did not exist before life emerged, and which most definitely “differs in kind” from the way in which non-living objects can relate to one another. His entire book centers around the idea that our theories need to be expanded to include the unique sort of causality that living organisms bring about.

So that’s the context. As I work through Incomplete Nature in subsequent posts, I might mention things like Harman’s conception of causality and his take on Latour’s actor-network theory, as well as some of Bryant’s ideas about assemblages. But I’ll likely leave any hardcore analysis of OOP out. While it provides a nice common ground of reference for we voles, engaging with OOP at a polemical level is probably best left to professionals.

February 1, 2012


by Asher Kay

That’s right, bitches.

My life has changed several times since I last dropped a disemboweled little critter on this blogospheric porch-step. But recently, I came face-to-face with a vole that has been hiding out around my place for years, nocturnally rooting through the garbage bin and occasionally scaring all the cats. It’s not one of those eensy voles either — this one is a monster. It’s so brobdingnagian that I will need to dismember it and carry it piece-by-bloody-piece to the patio window.

But I’m not going to do it in the annoyingly metaphorical style of the previous paragraph. Nor will I use words like “brobdingnagian”. I don’t even like that word.

Okay, so this is a sort of teaser post. All of the setup and none of the stunts.

Have you ever read a book that seemed to know what you’d been thinking about for the last five years? I’ve read about half of one, and it is Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon.

About two years ago, I did a post here called Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles. It was mostly about reductionism and predictability, but I had this to say about causality:

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

Basically, I was thinking about an old argument amongst emergentists about the possibility of “downward causality”. There are tons of problems with the notion of downward causality, but my particular problem was the difficulty of thinking about a model of emergent, stratified reality in which nothing more than the standard, modern, efficient causality of the physical sciences played a part. It’s so difficult to think about that it’s hard to even figure out why it’s so difficult to think about. It’s the kind of problem that makes you start to wonder if maybe we just don’t really have a firm understanding of causality. But in a world where we can annihilate a couple hundred thousand people in an instant with our notion of causality, this is pretty much a heretical thought — or at least the kind of thought you don’t feel comfortable entertaining until you’ve done some post-graduate work in particle physics.

Despite the discomfort, I entertained the thought, in a playfully non-rigorous way. If you allow that there might be additional sorts of causation, you’re free to change the model around (or abandon it) and see what you come up with. My suspicion was that the additional sort of causality, if there was one, had to be related to the fact that in complex dynamical systems (or self-organized systems, or “emergent” systems), there are a lot more parts interacting and relating to one another than there are in the sort of billiard-ball examples we tend to imagine when thinking about efficient causality. And if that was the case, then the additional sort of causality was essentially mereological, since the cross-strata nature of this causality would be tied up with the relation of the parts to the whole system. The key to that, in my opinion, was the idea of “constraint”. To me, this was sort of like the flip side of an efficient cause. A constraint can be thought of as a causal “force” in that it disallows a dynamical system from occupying certain positions in the system’s state-space.

You can see me start to fiddle with the idea of constraint in the comments section of the same post. I say things like:

What I’m beginning to think is that causality is emergent in the same way that properties like “transparency” or “consciousness” are emergent. At the subatomic level, we have all these efficient causes (weak and strong, electromagnetic, gravitational), but at higher level, different sorts of causality actually emerge — larger “forces” that act mainly as “constraints of organization”. So what I’m trying to think through is how we can look at “organization” as causality. I think this will end up helping me to conceptualize levels of organization in a way that places them in the “real world”.


I agree, though on the need for a careful mereological/emergence distinction. In a sense, maybe it’s the same thing as a distinction between causality and “relation”. If so, the idea of causality as “constraint” could help in formulating the distinction.

The ideas I was expressing were obviously not well-developed then, but the basic line of thought was: 1) questioning whether we really understood causality in complex systems; 2) the suspicion that the current model wasn’t adequate to emergent systems at a higher level; and 3) the notion that the idea of constraints could help in re-working the model.

So now it’s two years and some odd months later, and I discover that Terrence Deacon has a new book out (this is a very exciting thing for me — his last book, The Symbolic Species, is one of my all-time favorites, and it was published in 1997). The book is ostensibly about “How Mind Emerged From Matter”, but since it’s Deacon, you can pretty much count on it being about a whole lot more.

And it is. It’s about emergence and causality and, best of all, constraint. There’s even a whole chapter called “Constraint”!

Take a moment to imagine my joy.

I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, but I’m starting to think that Deacon has actually found a way to re-think the model. His approach is strange, tortuous, detailed, counter-intuitive, and involves the same sort of mind-blowing figure/background switch he performed in The Symbolic Species. Here’s just a little taste:

The concept of constraint is, in effect, a complementary concept to order, habit, and organization, because it determines a similarity class by exclusion. Paying attention to the critical role played by constraints in the determination of causal processes offers us a figure/background reversal that will turn out to be critical to addressing some of the more problematic issues standing in the way of developing a scientific theory of emergence. In this way, we avoid assuming that abstract properties have physical potency, and yet do not altogether abandon the notion that certain general properties can produce other general properties as causal consequences. This is because the concept of constraint does not treat organization as though it is something added to a process or to an ensemble of elements. It is not something over and above these constituents and their relationships to one another. And yet it neither demotes organization to mere descriptive status nor does it confuse organization with the specifics of the components and their particular singular relationships to one another. Constraints are what is not there but could have been, irrespective of whether this is registered by any act of observation.

What I’m planning to do (and it may take a while) is create a series of posts on the ideas Deacon puts forth in Incomplete Nature. If the quote is not enough of a teaser, I will add that the journey involves the number zero, a  partial resurrection of Aristotle, boxes full of air, Charles Sanders Pierce, at least four neologisms, the siren-song of mereology, and a totally new perspective on object-oriented philosophy.

Stay tuned, beotches.

October 5, 2010

We Must Have Messed Up Somewhere

by Asher Kay

From SpecHer (via LarvSub) — a call for papers:

If difference in the world is not a remainder from or a bad copy of Identity, Ideas or Essences, but is rather the immanent force characterizing all materialities, including words and meanings, affects and perceptions, things and thoughts, then how do we go forth in the world to think and speak in terms of things and their qualities?

I think the obvious answer to this is: “with a papal tiara, a stale pack of kreteks and a serviceable Mike Tyson impersonation”.

September 28, 2010

Catching up with Philosophy

by Asher Kay

Here I was thinking that nothing exciting was happening in Philosophy of late.

I just found out (via Harman’s blog) that Quentin Meillassoux “believes in an inexistent God rather than not believing that God exists“.


Go ahead and take a moment to replace the blackened and still-smoking fuses — in your mind.

What amazes me is that I never would have thought in a million years that I might share a viewpoint so counterintuitive – so deeply personal – with the Philosopher widely known as “The Herniated Uvula of Truth”. I mean, I don’t agree with him about the God thing, but there is no denying — while I abhor toasted cheese sandwiches, I am utterly in love with toasted sandwiches with cheese.

French toast? Same exact thing.

You might be wondering what in heaven’s name Meillassoux is on about with this inexistent God business. What he’s on about, friends, is atheism. Harman gives us the money quote:

Atheism is a strategy of the besieged. One begins by admitting that the territory of immanence is just as religion describes it, then one declares that this territory is the only one that exists, and finally one invents every possible way of rendering it livable despite that fact.

Exactly. It’s got to be either that or they don’t believe in God.

April 13, 2010

Spitzer’s fMRI

by Asher Kay

I have been preoccupied lately with what I call – for lack of a better term – “areas of concern”. When we think about a particular topic, object, person, or whatever, we tend to focus on certain aspects and exclude others. Take healthcare reform, for a recent example. When you think about healthcare reform, do you primarily think about how it will affect our society as a whole? How it will affect you personally? Do you think about the millions of uninsured and their plight? The people who die every day for lack of insurance coverage? Do you dwell on the cost of reform? The economic ramifications? Do you think of it as a policy problem? An ideological issue? You get the picture.

My preoccupation has led me to view what I read in a different way. When I’m reading an opinion piece, for instance, I think about what the columnist is *not* saying — what arguments and counter-arguments they are *not* addressing. It’s sort of put me off politics and politicians in general, to be honest. It affects my fiction reading too. In fiction, areas of interest are doubly interesting, because you have not only the protagonist’s areas of interest, but the writer’s as well.

Anyway…. With the above in mind, here’s a quote from a recent article about Eliot Spitzer:

I made an egregiously horrendous judgment at every level,” he adds. “Not just in terms of the risk/reward calculus, which seems like a very antiseptic way of thinking about it, but also in terms of what it meant to my family. I talk all the time about fiduciary duty. What more fundamental duty is there than to a spouse?

April 13, 2010

Stay By My Side, O Lord

by Asher Kay

(Inspired by a photocopied poem my Dad has laying around)

Stay by my side, O Lord
Stay by my fucking side
For I am lost
Due to the blood pressure medication that makes me woozie
And they have changed all the buildings

Carry my burden, O Lord
Carry it, and stop looking so glum
For you are strong
And you have never had to undergo
Hip-replacement surgery

Keep me from danger, O Lord
Keep me safe in your arms
For I have heard that Mexicans
Want to steal my job
And get free healthcare on my dime

Take back my country, O Lord
Take my country back
For I cannot get it out of the plastic
Without hedge trimmers
And anyway, it was supposed to be a gift
For someone else

February 28, 2010

Guidelines For Overrating Philosophers

by Asher Kay

From the American Philosophical Association’s Philosophical Bookmaking Manual, 4th Ed., 1994 — University of Chicago Press.

1. When overrating a philosopher, attention should be paid to the distinction between “rating” and “ranking”. Any passage that operates as a comparison, either explicitly (e.g., “Spinoza had prettier lips than Hegel”) or implicitly (e.g. “Spinoza had implicitly prettier lips than Hegel”), will be counted as a “ranking”, and will therefore not be included in the APA’s yearly statistical totals. Note that supplying the numerical ratings of two or more philosophers in the same passage (e.g. “Spinoza’s oscular score of 94.3 puts Hegel’s mere 73.5 to shame”) does not constitute a ranking.

2. As amended in section 40, part 7 (by a plurality vote at the APA’s Making Philosophical Ratings Less Accessible conference in 1990), each separate overrating of a philosopher within a book or article will be counted as a distinct overrating for statistical purposes, unless judged either “gratuitous” (e.g., “By the turn of the twentieth century, Hegel had attained an ocular rating of ninety-eight. Ninety-eight, people!”) or “too verbatim” (e.g. “Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten. And did I mention that Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten?”) by the APA ratings panel. The “gratuitous” exception applies to citations of other works, but the “too verbatim” exception, for obvious reasons, does not.

3. To avoid mistabulation, it is advisable to mention which of the six official APA rating categories are operative in your overrating of a philosopher. The six categories are: “Smartness”, “Coolness”, “Awesomeness”, “Originality”, “Overratedness” and “Prettiness of Lips”.

4. When overrating the overratedness of a philosopher, it is acceptable to use the term, “metaoverratedness”, unless it is felt that this would not be confusing to the reader.

5. Endnotes count halfsies.

6. When using imprecise quantitative terms to overrate a philosopher, refer to the table in Appendix C of the Bookmaking Manual for the exact numerical values that will be tabulated. Some common imprecise terms and their corresponding numerical values are:

A) “Really”: 65.0
B) “Very”: 70.0
C) “Really very”: 75.0
D) “Mega-“: 80.0
E) “Mondo-“: 85.0
F) “Crazy-assed”: 90.0

February 11, 2010

Tiny Victory

by Asher Kay

Two years ago my wife and I bought a house. The closing was a nightmare: last-minute changes to the interest rate; sudden additional charges; early-payment terms that didn’t match our initial agreement; etc., etc. We walked out of that closing with a painfully ambivalent mixture of exhilaration, regret, joy, and smoldering anger.

If you’ve ever closed on a house, you’ll know that at the end, the five or six parties present do a sort of accounting. Checks are passed around, numbers added up, comparisons made to expected totals. It’s kind of like having lunch with a bunch of friends who, after the meal, all huddle over the bill, disputing who had the small onion rings and who the large; except that the “friends” are bankers, lawyers and real estate salesmen and the onion rings are your financial well-being.

Anyway, during that little accounting, it was discovered that the numbers just barely didn’t add up. After some discussion, it was decided that the law firm would cut us a check for the difference. It was a comically small amount – less than the price of the aforementioned onion rings – and my wife and I clung to the humor and absurdity of it as a symbol of the ordeal. “Thank you for submitting to financial disembowelment”, the check said to us. “Here’s two dollars and seventy cents”.

We decided not to cash the check, with the petty and vindictive thought that not cashing it might cause them some miniscule amount of pain in the form of an end-of-year accounting mismatch.

As you have never personally experienced the full effect of this particular law firm’s incompetent and uncaring representation, I ask that you not judge me.

We stuck the check in some bulging folder, a sliver of the tortuous verbosity that is the bedrock of humankind’s success and skankiness, and forgot about it.

So today – this is two years later, now – I get a call from the very lawyer who was present at the closing. She tells me that she has a minor but strange matter to discuss with me. There’s a check for two dollars and seventy cents, she says, that we received at the closing but never cashed. Our conversation goes something like this:

LAWYER: I don’t suppose you remember receiving the check?

ME: I can imagine losing track of it in the whirl of chaos.

LAWYER: That’s understandable. What’s going to happen is, we’re going to need to cut you a new check.

ME: Couldn’t you just keep it as a sort of “tip”?

LAWYER: [lengthy silence] Well… It’s possible that we could keep it as a disbursement…

ME: “Disbursement”… That sort of ruins the whole spirit of gratitude that you get with “tip”, don’t you think?

LAWYER: [another long silence] I agree that the whole thing is a little silly, but our ethics requirements —

ME: Your CPA…

LAWYER: — our ethics requirements state that we must cut another check and send you some paperwork to sign.

ME: Hey, I’m all for ethics.

LAWYER: So… we will be sending you a check and some paperwork. Could you please cash the check right away and return the paperwork?

ME: It will be my pleasure. And you know what? I think I’m going to buy me a large onion rings.

LAWYER: [long silence] Thank you, Mr. Kay.

So I guess the question is… should I cash it?

February 11, 2010

What We Can’t Remember What We Can’t Control

by Asher Kay

February 7, 2010

The Lions of Heraldry

by Asher Kay