Archive for ‘emergence’

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by CarlD

I just almost got myself into an internet fight with a deontologist.

Fortunately I kept my wits about me and took a powder. Nothing good ever comes of getting into it with the righteous and literal-minded. The occasion was a Facebook post on Erica Benner’s Guardian essay asking “Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?” Well of course ‘we’ have. She tells the familiar story of teaching Machiavelli the usual way, as a shill for power; but then starting to pay attention to all the stuff he says (especially in the Discourses on Livy) about freedom and citizenship and republican virtue; and finally realizing that all of the Prince stuff is framed by the other stuff as cautionary tales and instructions to a free people on how to spot and resist tyranny. This version of the argument obviously has Trump in mind. Of course careful readers have been having something like this epiphany for hundreds of years, not least Gramsci, as I have discussed at length.

The deontologist shrugged off the context and insisted on the text, where Machiavelli plainly says things about the exercise of power that are morally repugnant. QED. Machiavelli is the Disneyland of is/ought theorists. Never is it more plain that deontology (and its evil twin consequentialism) emerges from fundamental intellectual laziness. Morals do all the work of keeping things neat and linear, selecting out a priori all of the confounds. Nowhere to be found is any sense that the world is a manifold we stumble through with all manner of dispositions, habits, practices, heuristics, improvisations, reflexes, desperate gambles, selective ignorances, constraints, affordances, conditions, situations, assemblages, trajectories, strategies, roles, identities, networks, and whatnot before we ever get anywhere near ‘ethics’, the tidy parlor game of the mind. Take your shoes off before you walk on the carpet.

I am aware that there are myriad permutations and subtleties I am trampling upon here. It is my intention, nay, duty in life to never get drawn into any detailed examination of these. They have nothing to do with any serious business. With Machiavelli, we start with a person trying to make sense of and be effective within a lifeworld, a particular situation in turn of the 16th century Italy that constitutes and embeds him in particular conditions, dynamics, opportunities, threats, resources, and so on. He remains interesting because he takes a real crack at that, which means he has zero fucks to give about systematic ethics.

Nowadays we talk about real takings a crack in terms of complex dynamical systems. Machiavelli signals that’s what he’s up to, according to the available idiom, through the concept of fortuna. In my dissertation I talked generally about fortuna as contingency, following Pocock. But I would now translate fortuna and its conceptual partner ‘corruption’ into the range of complex dynamics covered by chaos, emergence, nonlinearity, and self-organization, arising respectively from broad historical processes and human relations more specifically. As an analyst, Machiavelli saw chaotic historical and interactive fields that defied linear causal analysis. As a strategist, he was looking for the stocks and flows that could be nudged toward emergence into a (meta)stable political order.

Here’s a characteristic orienting gesture, from The Prince chapter XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs and How to Withstand Her:”

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

So much is happening that is not and cannot be under any kind of direct human control. It would be reasonable to give up all hope for intentional action. But he sees free will as one constrained operator within a dynamic field, and on that limited basis it’s worth working out how to be more rather than less effective.

His solution relies first on the pre-stocking of all of the resources, conditions, and happy accidents needed to assemble the new order: a free and virtuous citizenry, custom, law, yes ethics, religion, institutions, checks and balances among the competing power bases. The configuration and interaction of these make up “the spirit of the times:”

I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times.

This is a rudimentary theory of inus (insufficient but nonredundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient) conditions. One size does not fit all. Not only are there many, path dependent ways to skin a cat, but the decision path is itself embedded in a larger dynamic field of supporting and thwarting conditions. Bloody messes are heavily represented in the possibility fan.

Anyone (say, a Prince) who wants to be something like intentionally effective has to orient themselves to existing flows, working with what is already working. Even then, it’s important to clean out as many variables as possible so that the various flows can be channeled together into a metastable, homeostatic order, actively maintained by continuing collective effort:

And this must be taken as a general rule: that never or rarely does it happen that any republic or realm is well-ordered from the beginning, or altogether reformed from its old order, if it is not ordered by one… but a prudent orderer of a republic, if he has this will to benefit not himself but the common good… has to arrange to have this authority alone; nor will a wise mind take issue with any extraordinary action necessary to order a realm or constitute a republic…. [But] if one is appropriate to order things, the order will not last long when it remains on the shoulders of the one, but very well when it remains in the care of many, and when it is up to many to maintain it. Because just as many are not suited to order a thing, due to not knowing its good because of the diverse opinions among them, so once they know it they cannot agree to abandon it.” Discourses, book I, chapter IX.

So what does it mean to be “Machiavellian?” It certainly doesn’t mean to focus on ethics, which are at best a strand of the larger analysis that involved him. I suppose if he thought you could get anything done with ethics, he would have been much more interested in them. But it also doesn’t mean simply being an amoral shill for power. Machiavelli liked republics and liberty very much – they are explicitly the end goal, and his life’s work. But he didn’t think there was anything easy about getting or maintaining them, and that lots of things had to line up to make them possible, none of them conforming to abstract ideals. It’s an old point, older even than Machiavelli, but it bears repeating in whatever ways the spirit of the times call forth. Nowadays we might say he didn’t have the privilege of focusing on ethics.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by CarlD

It’s now pretty much officially understood that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds promote cognitive bubbling, a subset of what Dyke the Elder just called “ego condoms.” In a way that was presumably much harder when there was just the one corner store and no portable screens to displace awkward neighborly interactions, folks get to select (and have selected for them) their feeds of news, commentary, entertainment, and social interaction for narrow, comforting self-confirmation. Folks think small, and defend their small thinking fiercely. When contaminants rudely break through the latex, the threat of contagion meets with a poorly developed intellectual immune system that has to kick into panic mode to repel the invaders. How’s that for some metaphors.

A current example is the liberal / progressive reaction to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Donald Trump’s Director of Strategy. Consigliere Bannon was most recently a mastermind of the Trump campaign. Before that he ‘ran’ in some sense the clickbaity right wing news and commentary consortium Breitbart News Network, worked mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, ran a media investment bank, made celebratory movies about heroes of conservatism, and directed Biosphere 2. Ha.

Bannon is a classic self-made man, working class, Irish Catholic, bootstrappy, with the usual disdain for ‘the Establishment’ and whiners who put their hand out rather than working their way up. Like anyone with this trajectory who takes this attitude, he seems to be completely oblivious to the systemic flows, gates, and filters that selectively advantage the efforts of guys like him, even while skillfully navigating them. We all know a bunch of guys like this. You’d like to be impressed and happy for them if they weren’t so poisonous. These are the people who are in charge now.

The obliviousness to the selectivity of system flows is one ego condom. The reification of ‘the Establishment’ is another. He’s well defended against the paralyzing confounds of complexity. Guys like this succeed not despite their selective perception but because of it. They’re hard points driven at the gaps and fissures of moving targets. All of the metaphors of the phallus and its disciplining apply here.

A lot of the left commentary would like this guy to be scary because he’s a bigot. That is literally the no-brainer response, a pure reflex. A guy like this may well be a bigot but also gives two shits about race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other ego condoms of righteous subalternity. You can be as blackly, gayly transwhatsis as you like, as long as you do it on your own time and don’t try to leverage it against him. You’re as free to be any of those things as you earn for yourself. These are libertarians, not social conservatives, although that’s one of the weirder aggregations of the American right at the moment. They’re brought together by the more than plausible perception that progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against them, whether it be ‘their’ resources and opportunities or their world view. So I take Bannon himself at his word when he says he’s not racist or sexist or homophobic. To him, all of that is (diagnostically, to be sure) beside the point.

Cognitive latexing against complexity ‘works’, in a pointy kind of way, but of course it comes with consequences. On the left it means we’ll go into the next election cycle still not knowing what hit us or having any idea what to do about it. On the right, among lots of other things you get Bannon.

You may not want to watch this whole video but never fear, I’ve done it for you. Why? Because my own defenses against complexity are poor, so I’m easily distracted. Bannon is actually a smart guy and he’d like to be engaged with the big picture. All that latex though means that the big picture can’t be complex, so he’s got to linearize it. Latex linearity is all over this talk. He tells a story about the heroic history of Judeo-Christian values. He grafts capitalism onto that story without even momentary irony. And here comes the apocalypse: the wealth and opportunity afforded the whole world by Judeo-Christian capitalism is catastrophically imperiled by the huge national debt racked up and then foisted on the common man by the rapacity and cronyism of the Establishment.

We’ve heard this all before. Righteous, angry, frightening certainty around a securely linearized narrative is, as Bannon himself says, one of the most profoundly motivating strategies of being in the world. As is so often the case, this version picks out some things that are more or less true. Bannon is right, he’s just not all the way right. As a linearizer he can’t be all the way right (well, none of us can) but he can be the kind of partly right that ends up being super wrong.

In passing, he’s a little right and then very wrong about the Western Judeo-Christian thing for all the reasons that Kwame Anthony Appiah says better than I could. The consequence of that is a severe truncation of the evolutionary resources that the whole process of historical experimentation has made available to us. Extinction awaits the species that locks itself into a single evolutionary strategy. The dinosaurs are gone but the birds are still with us. Bannon is a tyrannosaurus, which is a cool thing to be until it’s not. Evolution is for the birds.

More importantly he’s also a little bit right about the debt, or rather about how the debt has been played by the various loose assemblages of visionaries, fools, and scoundrels who have gradually over the course of centuries but then with increasing speed in recent times worked out how to make money appear and disappear without material mediation. It’s true, for example, that the numbers are now simply mind-boggling. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. Except we’re not. None of the money is real except the stuff regular folks are still expected to buy things with and pay back if it’s borrowed. All of the rest of it moves around and pops into and out of existence in computers in whatever numbers are needed to get stuff done from time to time. “Debt” has always been another name for money, but the point of distinguishing them is now functionally obsolete.

Bannon tells the story of the crash of 2008 and its bailout as the story of enormous debt being created that is yet to be accounted for and paid back. What actually happened is that the people who do money finally figured out almost all the way that they could just invent as much of it as they needed to settle things down and get on with being rich. And that’s what they did. Overnight. Several trillion dollars, by fiat. Many more trillions since then, as Bannon says. And it worked. It settled things right down, and it’s still out there being money.

In fact there’s so much money now no one knows what to do with it all. It’s parked in the zeros and ones of offshore computers, waiting for someone to have a bright idea. And still they make more, with no inflation because unlike Zimbabwe and Germany after WW 1, nobody but the latex apocalysts even begins to doubt the robustness of the underlying system. Money that was not borrowed, but flat invented. Money so fungible it makes money pointless. Making people pay for things, and especially making people pay for the money of debt, is at this point just a bad habit. It doesn’t even make the wealthy any wealthier – they can just write themselves on that many zeros and ones any time they like. It’s all counted with machine precision but it doesn’t need to be accounted for, and unless we get really unfathomably stupid, it never needs to be paid back because it was never taken from anywhere it needs to be paid back to.

Unfortunately this is exactly the unfathomable stupidity that Bannon is flogging. We’ve just finally demonstrated conclusively that there’s as much money as we need for whatever we think we need. Right now only ‘the Establishment’ are benefiting fully from that; we can be angry about that together. But we’re literally one evolutionary step from the regime of shared plenty, and the tyrannosaurus wants to collapse plenty into austerity. He wants to haul us back to the horrifying constraints of the gold standard and the poor house.

The problem is that there is literally no way for a linearizer to see this. The new money is an effective abstraction. It’s not causally tied to any material antecedent. It’s not produced by work, or ingenuity, or great stores of gold, or any other tangible whatsis. It’s no longer even indexing the wealth and power of any one nation state. It is enabled by the complexity of the global economy. It is supported by an enormous network of official and unofficial actors, all of them entrained to an accounting regime that completely by accident emerged, first vulnerably in places like Ireland and Greece and then invulnerably in the U.S., into a self-organizing, self-sustaining global guarantor of value. It’s a system that’s big enough and rich enough to effortlessly support a fine standard of living for the kind of global population we’d have if everyone was happy and secure, although right now it’s mostly just driving the left side of the Pareto distribution to ridiculous heights. A Hayek with his market emergence might have been able to wrap his mind around this, although he didn’t buy Keynes’ first rumblings. But it can only baffle and enrage a vulgar fetishist of individual striving like Bannon.

Bannon wants to bring back the jobs and get people working again. Oh for the good old days when America was more separately and tangibly great. This in an environment where our machines have increasingly displaced necessary labor, and where most of us ‘work’ at exchanging optional services in a way that makes the discourses of productivity a cruel joke. Why would we want to bring back jobs? The old folks and historical re-enactors can do whatever jobs they want to while the rest of us figure out what to do with all this time we’ll have on our hands. Make steel, if we like, or not. Learn things and share them with each other. Do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as we have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

We live in interesting times. The possibility fan includes the worlds of the apocalysts of the left and right, frightened and enraged and weirdly empowered by complexity and change, declaring doom and retreating to a cramped, sustainable austerity. It also includes pushing forward into this new regime that has now fully matured right under our noses. I’d like to think the latter is inevitable but in fact it’s not – the Stephen Effin Bannons of the world actually hold it in their power to enforce their cramped, austere, linear image on the world by decoupling the linkages that make the new order possible. This is now what’s at stake. Everything else is the tail trying to wag the dog.

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by CarlD

I’m forging slowly and painfully through John H. Holland’s Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014). I’m going to recommend it, but it’s tough going for me because Holland comes at complex adaptive systems from an engineering and computer science perspective. The approach is computational, so I would imagine tremendously congenial to Asher and perhaps JohnM. Whereas I can work it out (thanks, John), but it’s way out of my silo. I’m a house painter, not a pigment chemist, Jim. Consider a passage like this, from Chapter 5, which took me about an hour to decode:

To get a more precise view of the routing possibilities for tags, let’s look again at the use of #s to define the conditions for signal-processing rules (introduced at the beginning of Chapter 4). A condition can be set to respond to a given tag by using #s (don’t cares) on either side of the tag; thus the condition #100### … # responds to a signal string with tag 100 at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions of the string. Note that a condition with many #s can accept a variety of tags while a condition with few #s will accept few if any tags (requiring a specific string when it has no #s). Or, looking at tags themselves, short tags satisfy a variety of conditions, while long tags make highly specific requirements on conditions.

“Don’t cares?” Wah? And then he does some tables and stuff to show how the routing and recombination of tags happens, creating emergence. Which normally I’d ignore and wait for the explication in words, only then the words assume I have a basic understanding of how binary works; and although I do, I also kind of don’t. My balls are not making it through the urn gates, if you get my drift.

“If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem [of climate change],” [Bill Gates] said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.”

So as usual I resort to a kind of rough and ready translation, to find enough cognitive overlap with something familiar where I can get a handle on what I’m being told. Which, if I understand correctly (but how could I, given this cludgy workaround), in itself corresponds to what Holland is saying about how information tagging works, and the emergence of something like knowledge. And because of the election and the work I’ve been doing to try to bridge the various discourse communities I interact with, the something familiar I go to is politics.

I’m especially interested in, roughly speaking, the information content of political discourse. I surf a lot of short-form information streams, ranging from domestic and foreign press and commentary (Atlantic, Guardian, Jacobin, Baffler, Breitbart, Red State, etc.) to online affinity groups (Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers) to Facebook statuses. I interview Trump ralliers for my department’s oral history project. I talk with neighbors and friends. None of this is meant to be scientific or in any way dispositive; I’m just grazing.

What I find is that American political discourse seems like it could be usefully analogized to DNA. There isn’t actually that much divergence or diversity of original information. You can get almost anything said by rearranging and elaborating on a few basic concepts like individual, community, threat, and opportunity. DNA is just four proteins, CGAT. That’s plenty. How they’re arranged is what actually does the work, all the way up to thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations (Holland).

There’s nothing new about ‘reducing’ political discourse to unit ideas. Recall George Lakoff boiling American politics down to basic orienting metaphors of the family: authoritarian father and nurturing parent. But those are already speciated information complexes, and as the subsequent commentary has shown, highly vulnerable to complexifying analysis. He’s missing the rearrangement step. It’s like if he said, “Over there you have monkeys, whereas here are the humans.” And because the matter is in motion, just about everyone turns out to be a missing link.

It is unusual for CAS agents to converge, even momentarily, to a single ‘optimal’ strategy, or to an equilibrium. As the agents adapt to each other, new agents with new strategies usually emerge. Then each new agent offers opportunities for still further interactions, increasing the overall complexity (Holland).

 So here is a human interaction I wrote about on Facebook the other day:

I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.

But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.

The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.

It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.

What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.

It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).

So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.

The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),


and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.

OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.

Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.

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.

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

June 23, 2015


by CarlD

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

February 13, 2014

Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity

by CarlD

I just had what might have been a good moment on the Facebooks. Jim Livingstone posted on how the New York Times hasn’t gotten around to officially noticing the death of Stuart Hall yet (neither had Dead Voles, until now), and in that context I wrote this:

It’s interesting to me how Hall embodied the thesis [“the ‘dispersal of power’ from state to society, ca. 1870-1930, as Gramsci tracked and projected it in the Notebooks (trans., pp. 210-76), thereby explaining why a ‘war of position’ now superseded a ‘war of maneuver’. In effect, a brilliant manifesto for cultural politics,” Jim Livingstone]. He basically WAS Gramsci: layers of marginality radicalized by immersion in the center. But where for Gramsci the hot revolution still looked like a plannable endgame, for Hall it was off the table right from the start, precisely because of that decentering of power. But – given the catastrophes of communist centralism, I think it’s fair to wonder if power has ever not been decentralized, really, so that the whole hegemony thesis ends up looking like a really rough draft of an actual theory of complex systems.

Seconds later, I noticed that here at last was a handle that made me actually want to pick my old Gramsci dissertation / book back up. Until now, other than posting the most recent version here online, I’ve abandoned it to the gnawing of the rats, because I couldn’t figure out how it was anything but yet another idiosyncratic take on well-worn materials. I didn’t have to publish it anyway to get tenure, so I didn’t. Aren’t there enough of those books cluttering up the shelves?

But there’s this thread of analysis in the piece that I always quite liked, and didn’t really know what to do with. I argue that the theorists of the early 20th century really weren’t equipped to cope with the actual complexity of the world, and so they resorted to what I called ‘space maintainers’, sort of folded up theoretical napkins under the short empirical table legs. Constructs that weren’t nearly constructive enough. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony then looks like an attempt to actually theorize complexity rather than shortcutting it somehow. Still, not surprisingly, very shortcutty and so not a good candidate for adoption here and now, but in context quite the thing.

So in that Facebook comment on Hall and Gramsci I haven’t actually said anything new to me; I’m still gnawing on the same bone I always was. But what’s changed is how much I know about following theories of complexity, and how they’ve gradually begun to inform the human studies. All of our discussions on Deacon, Juarrero and so on, for example. Which means I’m now in a much better position to frame the Gramscian / Weberian / Durkheimian moment in the history of theories of complexity, for example by seeing Hall as what Gramsci looks like in a different moment of the intellectual-evolutionary process.

And since this feels like it was my insight and agenda all along, just come into a more satisfying unfolding, I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling I always had when I was trying to think of some way to graft something more interesting onto the stuff I know. Plus, the stuff I get to read to come up to publication speed on this version of the project, and the way I get to read it, actually feels interesting and valuable in its own right, and not just a bunch of legitimacy hoops to jump through.

All of which means I actually have a clear reason to apply for a sabbatical, which is long overdue. So now we get to see if this is a passing enthusiasm, or a project that actually has legs. Cheers!

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:


At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by CarlD

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

October 18, 2013

Engaging students

by CarlD

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (I’ll crosspost at Attention Surplus, but that’s more of a journal and the commentariat here is larger and more diverse).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

August 20, 2013

Yeast again

by CarlD

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

August 8, 2013

Fixing a hole

by CarlD

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Not a pipe! Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence (‘hey I built that table’, maybe out of the pallet the screws shipped on), and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these two? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Rhetoric. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?

August 6, 2013

On the patio – uh oh!

by CarlD

For some years now the two big summer projects have been to paint the house and build a patio. The painting will have to wait at least another year, but the patio is done.

It all started with a little section of our little yard we grandiosely call ‘the grove’, because it’s not in any of the traffic areas and it’s in the middle of our trees. When I moved in the area was grassy, which turned out to be a highly artificial and labor-intensive condition. Without that labor it quickly deteriorated to scrub. This saved a couple minutes of mowing, and as Rachel and I ‘improved’ our outdoors we at first focused on other areas. But in the back of our minds we had not quite reconciled to letting the forest primeval withdraw this piece of ‘our property’ from productive development.

A patio is traditional in such cases, the problem being the natural slope of the land. After a couple years of morose reflection about digging it flat with sweat and shovel, opportunity knocked when our awesome neighbor Charles brought home the backhoe from work. During a break in the action I strolled over and allowed as how it would be delightful if blah blah blah, and 15 minutes later we had a nicely leveled little oblong to work with. Incidentally, it is just an amazing pleasure to watch someone who knows how to work one of those big machines practice their craft. Thanks again, Charles!

Because we had just moved our outdoor plopping from the nice sitting area under the pergola I built to the nice sitting area under the willow I planted, the backhoe opportunity was not otherwise connected to focused motivation, however. So our new landscape enjoyed a couple more years of natural settling. This may well have continued indefinitely, punctuated with idle conversations about whether to lay the patio with concrete pavers, brick, or stone, build a deck, or just relax and accept the foresty fait accompli, were it not for two critical catalyzing events. The first was our friend JR building a really lovely patio onto the back of his house, injecting equal parts of inspiration and shame into our dawdling. The other was me working on laying a stone walkway and patio during last summer’s campus ‘Show You Care Day’.

The project was striding right along from ‘someday, somehow’ to ‘soon, like this’. The fatal step was Rachel wondering about stone options and costs, and deciding she would stop in at the local landscaping lot for a quick recon on the way to her studio. She came back with a ticket for a pallet of local stone and a load of scree (crushed stone used as a leveling and binding substrate). These were soon delivered and all of a sudden we were building a patio.

We decided quickly against the kind of rigorous, multilayered surface preparation that gets you a perfectly level, uniform, and weed-resistant construct. Rachel got big old heavy stones in the 2′ – 3′ range, which guaranteed an irregular surface no matter what. Going with the flow of the site, the materials, our attitudes toward fuss, and the house aesthetic, our objective was to create a hard, relatively flat surface with rustic appeal. The site was already pretty level, so we spread the scree to about 3-4″ depth and started piecing together stones. Because the stones’ surfaces were not actually flat, this required quite a lot of little digging and filling operations to get each one firmly set in the scree, at which point we left final settling and leveling to time, use, and the elements.

We called what we ended up with The Cosmic Egg.

The Cosmic Egg

The Cosmic Egg

Nice as that was, dragging one of my old Mk 3 adirondacks over revealed a problem for the planned home-made furnishings – especially at the thin point of the Egg, there wasn’t really enough space for the adirondacks’ long footprint. So I poked around the web and looked at a lot of pictures and cooked up the Mk 4 design, with conventional back legs rather than the regulation slides. The prototype was satisfactorily more compact without giving up any comfort.


Here you see one finished Mk 4 and one unfinished one.


Rachel had the brilliant idea to make the table out of the pallet the stone came on! She did the landscaping with hostas, ferns, black-eyed susans, tomatoes, and tasty beverages.


Here are my ‘plans’ for the Mk 4s. They take almost exactly five 8′ 1X4 boards each:

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by CarlD

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

April 4, 2013

Placing concreteness

by CarlD

One of the things you figure out pretty quickly if you pay attention to what students say is that a lot of them engage with the materials we show them in a very concrete way. One example of that from today’s draft intro paragraph peer review session in World History was the student who kept trying to turn prompts on reconceptualizing its paragraph into a recipe for which words to say and how to arrange them. “What have you figured out about how conditions of trade changed?” became “How many times do I need to repeat the assignment topic phrase ‘conditions of work’?”

Lots of information in a pile, no analysis. A peer shrewdly asked if there were any people involved. So we got ‘Portuguese’ on the board. Then we talked about what kind of work. Trade, as it turned out. So we added ‘trading community’ to Portuguese. Another peer asked if the issue was storms at sea or political conflict. So ‘community’ got complicated to include seamen and kings, we added ‘conflict’, and broke out ‘political’, ‘economic’, and ‘social’. Was any of that sorted out in the draft paragraph? No, so it’s not about adding or moving a word or two, it’s about figuring out what you want to get at based on what you know. At the end the student came up and took a cellphone picture of the board.

Yesterday in the ‘bad literature’ seminar the group presenting on the religious erotica genre (their choice) were struggling with audience. It turned out they assumed that the people who read things are the people those things are about. So the audience for shocking erotica about monks boinking transvestite novices must be young Catholics considering the monastic life. I asked if the audience for Huckleberry Finn was orphans and runaway slaves, and whether they would respect me as a professor if the only books I read were about aging white male professors at nice little regional universities. They had brought up and passed over quickly points about authority and credit/discredit, so I prompted them to get a little more stubborn about developing those analyses. It didn’t take long to work out that an audience of non-Catholics might have reasons to be interested in literature discrediting Catholic authority.

Another fascinating assertion in that discussion was that because all fiction is based on fact, it might as well be treated as such. So the facts about a novel’s rhetoric and context can be read right off of the text. As a fan of science fiction I was tempted to ask about the factiness of phasers, warp drives, and Wookies, but time was running short so we deferred examination of creativity and imagination to our next meeting.

Incidentally, it has occurred to me that part of the problem with the concept of linked learning is that we can see courses, but we can’t see links. We can’t see learning, either, so it’s all very confusing.

(Crossposted at Attention Surplus.)

March 7, 2013

Complex systems made learnable

by CarlD

My friend and sometimes tennis partner David just emailed me this link to a story at titled “Through a sensor, clearly: Complex systems made observable.” It’s right up my alley, he thought, and right up our alley, I thought.

Now, I don’t have either the math or the graphical chops to get under the hood of this research. But I think I understand what they’re up to, and I think I know enough to spot a couple of places where questions might be asked. For example, if I understand correctly we’re talking here about describing a snapshot of a complex system; it’s my impression that once the system is actually complexing, the data-crunching becomes prohibitive. But if so, one moment of a dynamical system is of limited utility, since it captures the system but not the dynamical. If I’ve understood correctly, this is not a criticism, but an appreciation of where we are in the learning curve.

I also appreciate that there’s a devil in the details of observer design; that is, the sensors have to be able to tell the difference between information and noise, nonlinearity and randomness. In effect this means that the sensors have to be able to learn to discriminate intelligently, which most human brains are not that great at. But they’re just doing feasibility at this stage, and I gather they think if they can use graphical modeling to specify some system parameters, they can eventually walk-in the data-gathering to yield more satisfying descriptions.

Well, I bet about half of what I just said is at least a little bit wrong. What I hope is that I’m just wrong and not ‘not even wrong‘, that is, that I know at least enough to be worth talking to further by someone with a better understanding. And this brings me to the question for today, which is this. Given that the project here is to represent and understand complex systems, which explicitly include “biological systems [or] social dynamic system[s] such as opinion or social influence dynamics” – that is, to start with, citizenship and life itself – what responsibility does a university general education core program have to bring students up to a kind of elementary competence where they can participate responsibly in this kind of conversation? What and how would we have to teach to make that so? And what in the reverend paleo-disciplines and contents might need to retool or move aside to enable this development?

UPDATE: if nothing else comes of this post, at least I’ve learned what it means to be ‘fractally wrong‘.

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.

January 6, 2013

A Question Haunts America

by johnmccreery

Us folks on the left are not the only ones who see the U.S.A. as going to hell in a hand basket. My title is taken from the first line of an article in The National Interest by conservative pundit Robert W. Merry titled Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. Oswald Spengler that is, the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), now as rarely mentioned on the left as Gramsci is on the right, a mention-and-skip author in liberal higher education with its focus on the Enlightenment and progress toward the great kumbaya of universal rationality. Perhaps he deserves a second look.

He did, after all, anticipate the world wars and the “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism” that seems to afflict all civilizations when their roots in naive but authentic culture give way to “the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture” (the quotes are from Merry, not Spengler himself).

The idea that civilizations are organic wholes and develop through cycles from birth and flourishing to maturity, decay and death is no longer fashionable. But the notion that there is no universal humanity, only human beings, born incomplete animals, who become what their cultures/civilizations encourage and demand that they do is, albeit debatable, Anthropology 101.

Perhaps it is my years, rushing all too soon toward three score and ten (now just a year and a bit away) that turn my thoughts in this direction. But could it be that left and right, we all need both Marx and Spengler to see the world whole through disillusioned eyes?

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).