Quotable (#82)

This is simply superb:

“Logic is a very elegant tool,” [Bateson] said, “and we’ve got a lot of mileage out of it for two thousand years or so. The trouble is, you know, when you apply it to crabs and porpoises, and butterflies and habit formation” – his voice trailed off, and he added after a pause, looking out over the ocean – “you know, to all those pretty things” – and now, looking straight at me [Capra] – “logic won’t quite do.”
“it won’t quite do,” he continued animatedly, “because that whole fabric of living things is not put together by logic. you see, when you get circular trains of causation, as you always do in the living world, the use of logic will make you walk into paradoxes. Just take the thermostat, a simple sense organ, yes?”
He looked at me, questioning whether I followed and, seeing that I did, he continued.
“If it’s on, it’s off; if it’s off, it’s on. If yes, then no; if no, then yes.”
With that he stopped to let me puzzle about what he had said. His last sentence reminded me of the classical paradoxes of Aristotelian logic, which was, of course, intended. So I risked a jump.
“You mean, do thermostats lie?”
Bateson’s eyes lit up: “Yes-no-yes-no-yes-no. You see, the cybernetic equivalent of logic is oscillation.”

[Minor spelling amendment made.]

Quotable (#76)

John Gray on contemporary Gnosticism:

A widespread wrong belief today is that knowledge will free us from our material nature. Lots of people—I would say the majority of educated people in Western Europe—now assume some version of a materialist picture of the world and themselves. But still they want to break free from the prison of matter. And I think this picture, as I try to show by the history of ideas, is a kind of Gnosticism. […] The two elements of Gnosticism as a religion were: Humans are spirits trapped in a material body, the flesh. Secondly, Gnosticism believes that we can get out through a special kind of knowledge. That was a mystical knowledge in earlier times, but later on that got attached to science. Some people would claim that Gnosticism can’t be reconciled with science, but on the contrary — it’s very strong in scientific thinking. […] The prevalent thinking is: we’ve discovered we’re trapped in our bodies, so what human beings really are is minds. The way out of that dark cosmos under whose laws we stand, which force us to work, which force us to age and to die, is to acquire a special kind of knowledge. Then we would no longer be enslaved by matter. That is Gnosticism in a nutshell. But Gnosticism, even in its pre-scientific forms, is a radical error. […] It is an almost purely paranoid religion. Monotheism is also paranoid because anything that happens is known to God — everything has meaning. By paranoia I mean the discovery — or, rather, the invention — of meaning where it doesn’t exist. It is the perception of meaning where it is not.

(For someone who attaches themselves to the ‘negative capability’ of doubt, he seems peculiarly certain about what this syndrome means, and where meaning ends.)

“Kant is a Moron”


Philosophy today:

Russian police say they’re looking for the intellectually minded miscreants who graffitied “Kant is a moron” — along with a flower and heart — on the philosopher’s home outside Kaliningrad. […] With Arthur Schopenhauer dead for 155 years, however, authorities start off with few strong leads.

Quotable (#51)

Bakker summarizes his arguments (they’re good):

The first is a straightforward pessimistic induction. Historically, science tends to replace intentional explanations of natural phenomena with functional explanations. Since humans are a natural phenomena we can presume, all things being equal, that science will continue in the same vein, that intentional phenomena are simply the last of the ancient delusions soon to be debunked. Of course, it seems pretty clear that all things are not equal, that humans, that consciousness in particular, is decidedly not one more natural phenomena among others.

The second involves what might be called ‘Cognitive Closure FAPP.’ This argument turns on the established fact that humans are out and out stupid, that the only thing that makes us seem smart is that our nearest competitors are still sniffing each other’s asses to say hello. In the humanities in particular, we seem to forget that science is an accomplishment, and a slow and painful one at that. The corollary of this, of course, is that humans are chronic bullshitters. I’m still astounded at how after decades of rhetoric regarding critical thinking, despite millennia of suffering our own stupidity, despite pretty much everything you see on the evening news, our culture has managed to suppress the bare fact of our cognitive shortcomings, let alone consider it any sustained fashion.

Intelligence is not something humans have, but something they very occasionally catch a hazy glimpse of.

Quotable (#47)

An already-familiar remark by Graham Harman, which merits (still) more discussion than it has yet received (embedded, with citation details, here):

The brand is not merely a degenerate practice of brainwashing consumerism, but a universally recognized method of conveying information while cutting through information clutter. Coining specific names for philosophical positions helps orient the intellectual public on the various available options while also encouraging untested permutations. If the decision were mine alone, not only would the name ‘speculative realism’ be retained, but a logo would be designed for projection on PowerPoint screens, accompanied by a few signature bars of smoky dubstep music. It is true that such practices would invite snide commentary about ‘philosophy reduced to marketing gimmicks’. But it would hardly matter, since attention would thereby be drawn to the works of speculative realism, and its reputation would stand or fall based on the inherent quality of these works, of which I am confident.

It is with real regret that I am compelled to acknowledge the radical defectiveness of the product under promotion here, because this defense of philosophy as a cultural enterprise, and experiment, advanced without deference to regnant credentialing authorities, is audacious, and admirable. Branding is iconically modern because it disconnects power from authority, and both of these terms are (roughly equally) susceptible to responses based upon ressentiment, glib radicalism, and empty gestures of opposition. If Harman has opened this problem, as an explicit topic of attention, he has achieved something important, and reactions of revulsion by the hygienists of institutional respectability are indeed ‘snide’.

ADDED: Wielding the Evil Eye is difficult, so belated apologies to those fried in the rays of doom.

Ontological Reflexion

Urban Future is merely scavenging irresponsibly around the edges of the Speculative Realism meltdown, attracted by turbulence, and connected tenuously to some of the figures involved. The greatest advantage of such detachment is that it allows for a free framing of the issues at stake, and these are becoming truly fascinating. The battle over the New Ontology (aka ‘Speculative Realism’) is spiraling into the question: does it — itself — actually exist?

Pete Wolfendale summarizes the problem clearly:

The essence of [Ray Brassier’s] point is simply that the mere existence of Speculations (which is explicitly labelled ‘A Journal of Speculative Realism’) isn’t sufficient to establish SR’s existence, and that declarations of the latter’s existence from within its pages don’t change this. This is part of a broader argument, but if you want to understand it you’re going to have to read the postscript yourself.

Continue reading


Kieran Daly embarks on an exploration of supreme philosophical significance:

There are two common positions applied to Pyrrhonism that are frequently asserted throughout the literature, one conflatory and the other denigrative. The conflatory position is that Pyrrhonism is primarily psychological or practical in nature (Annas and Barnes 1985; Hankinson 1999; Perrin 2010; Machuca 2012; Trisokkas 2012). Whereas the denigrative position asserts that Pyrrhonism is impossible for people to practice and naturally unlivable (Johnson 1978; Burnyeat 1980; Vogt 2010; Comesaña 2012; Wieland 2012; Eichhorn 2014). The former position is often posited under the auspices of defending Pyrrhonism, while the latter operates obviously for the purpose of its dismissal. The present paper attempts to show that while each position is misguided, the former possibly does more dogmatic harm than the other, and the latter is extremely suggestive of the conclusion that Pyrrhonism has no-thing to do with life at all.

This initial precaution is a gateway of inestimable importance.

Continue reading

Quotable (#38)

Extracted from a consistently fascinating post on quantum computation and consciousness by Scott Aaronson:

Yes, consciousness is a property of any suitably-organized chunk of matter. But, in addition to performing complex computations, or passing the Turing Test, or other information-theoretic conditions that I don’t know (and don’t claim to know), there’s at least one crucial further thing that a chunk of matter has to do before we should consider it conscious. Namely, it has to participate fully in the Arrow of Time. More specifically, it has to produce irreversible decoherence as an intrinsic part of its operation. It has to be continually taking microscopic fluctuations, and irreversibly amplifying them into stable, copyable, macroscopic classical records.

The immediately subsequent clarification is also crucial: “let me be extremely clear about what this view is not saying. Firstly, it’s not saying that the brain is a quantum computer, in any interesting sense — let alone a quantum-gravitational computer, like Roger Penrose wants! Indeed, I see no evidence, from neuroscience or any other field, that the cognitive information processing done by the brain is anything but classical.”

Once seen, this is an argument that cannot be unseen. (It’s almost an instance of consciousness-production through ratcheted decoherence in itself.)

Quotable (#35)

R Scott Bakker advances the case for an ultra-modern, neurologically-informed skepticism:

The question [Blind Brain Theory] raises — the Kantian question, in fact—is simply whether the way humans are functionally constructed to track our own states allows us to track the way humans are functionally constructed to track our own states. Just how is our capacity to know ourselves and others biologically constrained? The evidence that we are so constrained is nothing short of massive. We are not, for instance, functionally constructed to track our functional construction vis a vis, say, vision, absent scientific research. The whole of cognitive science, in fact, testifies to our inability to track our functional construction — the indispensability of taking an empirical approach. Why then, should we presume we possess the functional werewithal to intuit our functional makeup in any regard, let alone that of social cognition? This is the Kantian question because it forces us to see our intuitions regarding social cognition as artifacts of the limits of social cognition — to eschew metacognitive dogmatism.

This is part of an intricate discussion, which this blog is only beginning to pick up on. Beside the excellent post internally linked, a couple of crucial episodes can be found here and here.

As a quotable bonus, the conclusion to the David Roden article just cited:

Nor (given our lack of any transcendental grasp of agency) are we entitled to reflect on the ethical status of very strange posthumans. We have no future-proof grasp of how strange posthumans might be, so we lack any basis for adjudicating the moral status of such beings. We may buy into a parochial humanism which accords humans subjects a level of moral consideration that is greater than the nonhuman creatures we know about. But this does not entail that there are not morally considerable states of being in [Posthuman Possibility Space] of which we are currently unaware which have little in common with the modes of being accessible to current humans. If posthuman politics is anthropologically unbounded, in this way, then any ethical assessment of the posthuman must follow on its historical emergence. If we want to do serious posthuman ethics, we need to make posthumans or become posthuman.

ADDED: Dark Lord possibility space.