Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Allowing oneself to tbe the place where thoughts are joined, passive, synthetic. Passivity is underrated by its nature, doubly so by its culture. The art of letting things pass, of neither knowing nor not knowing, but taking heed. I practice the art of letting things pass so as to gain some advantage, a betterment. Not all lassitudes are equivalent. Mine will be a better lassitude than it has been--or I will drop it like a bad habit.
When Kant says "All bodies are extended" I think of Descartes (Spinoza, Leibniz...) and this helps me understand how Kant could have had believed that such a judgement is analytical. A person in Kant's position who says "All bodies are extended" is making an assumption about matter, about what really is. And there is an elision: "in space." Now we can ask, Are all bodies extended in Minkowski spacetime? All bodies are curved. All bodies are folded. Beyond the copula is in, into, towards....
Towards what is the body of the pebble extended? Towards silence. Towards other pebbles. Towards the sea. If we take a pebble from the stream, for the purpose of making a judgement, what can we say about it that could possibly make it louder than it already is? To hear the pebble at full volume, let it be. Elision too is a matter of judgement. As is euphony. "Minkowski spacetime" is euphonious to my ears, in certain phrases, but "Einstein-Minkowski spacetime" is just plain barbarous.
When I took notice of Mariela Szirko's work, it crossed my mind that I ought to offer some kind of analysis, or minimally, a word or two by way of explanation. How can I reconcile my interest in Szirko's approach to the phenomenon of consciousness with my interest in phenomenology? Fundamentally I can't. Empiricism is too broad a commitment, for me at least, to adequately address and resolve a conflict between idealistic and materialistic premises. Szirko's work interests me in part as a reminder that the grounding of natural science takes many different forms. We shouldn't assume that the strengths and weaknesses of one variety of naturalism, even a widespread, enduring, dominant variety, will be characteristic of all varieties of naturalism, or fully comprehend the possibilites inherent in the project of natural science.
As I take notice of blogger Kenny Pearce's Persons as Events (ht Brandon), I feel the urge to say something, something about substance, of substance. Even if it goes against my better judgement. Alas, such is blogging.
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Mariela Szirko writes (in Effects of Relativistic Motions in the Brain and Their Physiological Relevance):
Every mind is found to be primarily an unconnected, and unmergeable, eclosion or “pop-out” of “existential finitude.” Although rare, the word “eclosion” will nevertheless appear often in this article. The phrase “existential finitude” denotes for natural scientists every reality able to sense and move a portion of nature while altering herself by sedimenting those causal involvements away from temporality – this refers to an “instant” and not a time sequence. The designation “away from temporality” thus means “not on a time course but inside the instant,” specifying where such reality occurs and simultaneizes the sedimented sequences (“memories”) of her reactions to her causal interactions. This is why any reality that knows itself ought to possess memory: since nature vacates itself outside actuality and consequently every thing in nature, including each mind, exists only within the physical instant, the preservation of memories is an effect due to absence of time course rather than the presence of brain engrams.
On scales small enough, cerebral biophysics is not an exception to established laws of physics applicable to all other occurrences of condensed matter: brains, too, include microphysical components in their tissue that move close to light-speed. The critical question, if and how such motions bring about physiological effects and how this relates to psychological realms, has come to noteworthy results: extended research in our neurobiological tradition suggests an affirmative answer and also describes the formation of psychological features. Neurobiology in Argentine has started in the second half of the eighteenth century and specially focused on electroneurobiology. The angle has proven to be specially suitable for revealing any such effects and, along with older results, this tradition developed more than three decades ago a scientific view about brain-mind issues involved in recovery from swoon, coma, vegetative states, hibernation, general anesthesia, or ordinary sleep. This view assumes that the uncoupling pathologies which disconnect persons from their circumstances share with sleep and the variations of inattention a common mechanism, namely changes in a physiological time-dilation, which is a relativistic effect of motions from the tissue’s microphysical components, and is physiologically operated through coupling with the electroneurobiological states of that tissue. This explanatory model from neurobiology is also of special interest to physicists, since the coupling that operates such a mechanism instances a dynamical mass-variation in some action carriers of a force-field brought forth by way of overlapping variation in the intensity of another force-field. Supported by clinical and neurobiological facts, research related to these findings has been taught in Argentine for many decades; it is only recently that this research comes to the attention of the international scientific community. Valuable for neurobiologists, psychophysiologists, and humanists working on brain-mind issues, also scientists investigating biological dynamical systems, biophysics, mathematical biology, computer biology, or molecular biology can recognize these findings and their clinical applications as relevant data for comprehensive research in their area of specialization.
I was led to Szirko's paper by following the discussion over at Conscious Entities of neuropsychologist Maurits van den Noort, in particular his Human Unconscious Information Processing: The Missing Link between Physics and Consciousness?. Van den Noort's experimental research points to a phenomenon he calls "unconscious non-linear information processing," i.e., having an emotional reaction to a stimulus before the stimulus occurs. Here is his abstract:
The nature of consciousness remains a great mystery. On the one hand, classical models view consciousness as computation among the brain's neurons but fail to address its enigmatic features. On the other hand, quantum processes (superposition of states, nonlocality, entanglement,) also remain mysterious, yet are being harnessed in revolutionary information technologies. In this paper, I would like to discuss several experiments that suggest a special role for unconscious human information processing in the observation process. Could this be the missing link between physics and consciousness?
Because the results of van den Noort's experiments are so surprising, and because they have not been replicated, it seems probable that the experiments may have been seriously flawed. But dang.
The Scientist features a story about recent advances in the field of abiogenesis, or the scientific study of the emergence of life from inorganic matter. Paul Meyers of pharyngula takes the position that "abiogenesis as the study of chemical evolution is a natural subset of evolutionary theory." My kneejerk reaction is to agree with the commenters who take exception to that view because it confuses or risks confusing very different concepts of evolution. I feel the term "evolutionary theory" should be reserved for the science that explains the origination of species of organisms by means of natural selection. The origin of life itself is another matter.
But it's not that tidy. Stochastic and epigenetic processes, in addition to adaption by natural selection, appear to have played a role in the evolution of lifeforms. These clearly belong under the rubric of "evolutionary theory." And some varities of phylogenetic systematics hold that natural selection acts upon whole phyla rather than simply species of organisms. Scientists working in these areas by no means reject the theory of evolution, i.e. the origination of species by means of natural selection. Far from it. But they do frequently argue against certain narrow views of evolutionary theory which can be misleading to other scientists as well as to the educated laity, students, or the general public. Thus in the broadest sense the claim that abiogenesis falls under the domain of evolutionary theory may be warranted.
Some commenters have raised questions as to the metaphysical implications of placing abiogenesis under the umbrella of evolutionary theory. I don't believe there are any. Not in the sense that's imagined here, of proving or disproving the existence of a supernatural Creator. The metaphysical implications that arise will be a matter of eisegesis, of reading into the history of life a priori metaphysical assumptions that empirical science is ill-equiped to either confirm or deny. A metaphysical reading of the history of life isn't necessarily dishonest or wrong--Fido the Yak is all about hermeneutic fun and games--but in this case it would seem to be clearly eisegetic. On the exegetic side, to be honest one needs to be aware of the difference between going in circles and revisiting one's assumptions in the process of learning something new.
There is a question here of whether empirical science in and of itself necessarily entails metaphysical claims. At this juncture I couldn't really say, but I can say that the phenomenon of susbstituting one's own metaphysical claims for the claims of one's field of study is rather all too common.
To return to the science of abiogenesis, "[m]any of the people approaching this are engineers, sharing in the philosophy that one can't truly understand what one can't build." Some also appear to be molecular biologists, chemists, astrophysicists, or interesting hybrids, like philospher Mark Badau, whose defense of "weak emergence" had previously captured my attention. Here, in no particular order, are the homepages of the other researchers quoted in the Scientist's feature:
If Badau is right about bottom-up approaches being more revealing than top-down approaches, then the classification of abiogenesis as a branch of evolutionary biology becomes a bit more problematical. Looking at Daemer's criteria for defining a synthetic protocell as life, it seems that Daemer views evolutionary growth as a stage prior to or apart from genetic encoding, mutation and replication. Indeed, much of the literature on evolvability or evolution in material substrates seems to be about chemical processes unregulated by genetically encoded protiens, and not invovling biological reproduction as we know it. However, the theory of natural selection is being used by some researchers to generate models of abiogenic evolution. In this case I think it's too early to say that such uses of natural selection qualify the emerging field of abiogenesis as a branch of evolutionary biology.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Jean Paul Sartre writes in The Mobiles of Calder
The mobiles, which are neither wholly alive nor wholly mechanical, and which always eventually return to their original form, may be likened to water grasses in the changing currents, or to the petals of the sensitive plant, or to gossamer caught in an updraft. In short, although mobiles do not seek to imitate anything because they do not seek any end whatever, unless it be to create scales and chords of hitherto unknown movements--they are nevertheless at once lyrical inventions, technical combinations of an almost mathematical quality, and sensitive symbols of Nature, of that profligate Nature which squanders pollen while unloosing a flight of a thousand butterflies; of that inscrutable Nature which refuses to reveal to us whether it is a blind succession of causes and effects, or the timid, hesitant, groping development of an idea.
ht Anne Galloway. I'm not sure where she's going with the idea of play, but it sounds like fun.
In other news, Spirit and Opportunity have become the Energizer Bunnies of interplanetary exploration.
Just one of those fabulous flights, a trip across Mars on germanium wings....
Incidentally, Fido the Yak is not the Field Integrated Design and Operations Rover, but the thought of a Rover called FIDO is quite to his liking.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
This morning's Washington Post carried an appeal from UN
Secretary General Kofi Annan: Darfur Descending: No Time for Apathy on Sudan
I wish I could report that all these efforts had borne fruit -- that Darfur was at peace and on the road to recovery. Alas, the opposite is true. People in many parts of Darfur continue to be killed, raped and driven from their homes by the thousands. The number displaced has reached 2 million, while 3 million (half the total population of Darfur) are dependent on international relief for food and other basics. Many parts of Darfur are becoming too dangerous for relief workers to reach. The peace talks are far from reaching a conclusion. And fighting now threatens to spread into neighboring Chad, which has accused Sudan of arming rebels on its territory.
Despite a chronic funding crisis, A.U. troops in Darfur are doing a valiant job. People feel safer when the troops are present. But there are too few of them -- a protection force of only 5,000, with an additional 2,000 police and military observers, to cover a territory the size of Texas. They have neither the equipment nor the broad mandate they would need to protect the people under threat or to enforce a cease-fire routinely broken by the rebels, as well as by the Janjaweed militia and Sudanese government forces.
On Jan. 12, the African Union decided to renew the mission's mandate until March 31, while expressing support, in principle, for a transition to a U.N. operation this year. The timing of this transition is still being discussed, including at this week's A.U. summit in Khartoum. This puts the Security Council on the spot. The U.N. Charter gives the council primary responsibility for international peace and security. And in September, in a historic first, U.N. members unanimously accepted the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, pledging to take action through the Security Council when national authorities fail.
The transition from the A.U. force to a U.N. peace operation in Darfur is now inevitable. A firm decision by the Security Council is needed, and soon, for an effective transition to take place.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
"An atom blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways."
"The form through which symbolic productions share most directly in the social conditions of their production is also the means by which their most specific effect is exercised; specifically symbolic violence can only be exercised by the person who exercizes it, and endured by the person who endures it, in a form which results in its misrecognition as such, in other words, which results in its recognition as legitimate."
Therefore, "Symbolic violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
Sunday, January 22, 2006
As African leaders convene in Khartoum this week, they must decide whether to elect Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Chair the African Union, in total and irredeemable violation of the African Union's declared principles and goals. There is nothing that the government of Sudan could do in the next few days to change the meaning of such a decision, although naturally the human rights activists who have been detained during the AU summit should be released, and any steps that the government takes to actually comply with UN Security Council resolutions would be welcome.
This moment of truth for the African Union may also become a moment of truth for the rest of the world. If the African heads of state make the wrong choice, world leaders will be faced with the fact that their efforts to prevent to genocide in Sudan--whether they are honest about it or not--have utterly failed. The feebleness of international support for the AU mission will no longer be at issue. The community of nations will be forced to either act directly and immediately to prevent genocide, or let it continue, in total and irredeemable violation of declared principles.
A contingent of African nations is vocally opposed to Bashir's candidacy, so there is yet hope that the African Union can have a role in bringing an end to the violence, and that an adequately equiped and provisioned international force will be mobilized to support the current mission. But my optimism is wearing thin. In any case, I'll be closely following Eugene's coverage of events in the coming days.
Update. Congo's Denis Sassou Nguesso has been chosen to chair the African Union. Eugene covers reaction from the US State Department.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
On Ellis Seagh's recommendation I've reread Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto.
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed "women's experience." as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.
On a somewhat different note, Jordan Zlatev's epigenitic robotics (pdf):
The crucial difference between the position defended in this paper and most other "robot-friendly" arguments is that it is not the least "deflationist" with respect to critical (human) mental properties, in the manner of e.g. Dennett (1991, 1995). What I have tried to show is that the dilemma "Searle or Dennett" that most philosophical discussions concerning AI seem to deal with, is a false dilemma: we have the Vygotskyan alternative that intentionality, self-consciousness and meaning are real emergent properties arising from the dialectical interaction between specific biological structures (embodiment) and culture (situatedness) through a specific history of development (epigenesis). Since it is not inconceivable that the biological structures may be substituted with more or less isomorphic (and functionally equivalent) artificial structures, this line of reasoning leads to a positive answer to the question "Can a machine mean?"
Update. I ran across Zatlev's paper while googling into epigenetic evolutionary theories. I've been especially interested in the work of Gerd B. Müller (and his frequent collaborator Stuart A. Newman). Here is the abstract from their Origination and Innovation in the Verterbrate Limb Skeleton: An Epigenetic Perspective (pdf):
The vertebrate limb has provided evolutionary and developmental biologists with grist for theory and experiment for at least a century. Its most salient features are its pattern of discrete skeletal elements, the general proximodistal increase in element number as development proceeds, and the individualization of size and shape of the elements in line with functional requirements. Despite increased knowledge of molecular changes during limb development, however, the mechanisms for origination and innovation of the vertebrate limb pattern are still uncertain. We suggest that the bauplan of the limb is based on an interplay of genetic and epigenetic processes; in particular, the self-organizing properties of precartilage mesenchymal tissue are proposed to provide the basis for its ability to generate regularly spaced nodules and rods of cartilage. We provide an experimentally based "core" set of cellular and molecular processes in limb mesenchyme that, under realistic conditions, exhibit the requisite self-organizing behavior for pattern origination. We describe simulations that show that under limb bud-like geometries the core mechanism gives rise to skeletons with authentic proximodistal spatiotemporal organization. Finally, we propose that evolution refines skeletal templates generated by this process by mobilizing accessory molecular and biomechanical regulatory processes to shape the developing limb and its individual elements. Morphological innovation may take place when such modulatory processes exceed a threshold defined by the dynamics of the skeletogenic system and elements are added or lost.
The paper itself is quite technical. A more general discussion of their epigenetic view can be found in the introductory chapter to Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology from MIT Press.
Stewart Newman was in the news this past year for his attempt to patent a human-chimpanzee chimera--not because he wanted to create such an organism, but because he wanted to direct public scrutiny to this trend in biological science.
Tom Bearden: There are some people who will argue that the so-called interspecies boundary really is very pliable. In fact, you've said yourself it is easy to make these chimeric animals and that concern about crossing that boundary are overblown.
Newman: Well I think that a boundary like that is what you choose to make of it. The boundary is not a rigid boundary biologically in the sense that we and the other species have had separate evolutionary histories which makes it probably impossible for us to mate with chimpanzees or certainly with other non-primates. That's because of an evolutionary divergence.
Now that doesn't mean that the molecules that make up our bodies and the cells that make up our bodies can't communicate with the molecules and cells of the bodies of other species. So you can do a technological manipulation and cross the boundary, but does this crossing happen in the normal course of things? It doesn't. So that means that there is something to these species boundaries. Even if it's just evolutionary history and with humans it's culture that separates us from other organisms. There's a continuity at the very basic biological and material level but at the historical level there's a discontinuity. And you could say that we will take advantage of this biological continuity and not bother about the meaning for culture of the society of these boundaries, when it comes to to what they mean for us, for us socially. You could say it doesn't matter. We're just doing medicine here. But I don't believe that. I think that everything is embedded in the wider culture. And we just can't dismiss the existence of these boundaries.
I don't have a position for or against cyborgs, chimeras or the like, though I share many of Newman's ethical concerns. In the debate between preformatism and epigenesis, my bias is strongly towards epigenesis. Regarding evolutionary theory in particular, my sense is that empirical evidence for epigenetic views is strong, but I readily admit that my judgement may be clouded by philosophical bias as well as a lesser acquaintance with genetics than with morphology. My current interest has been developing partially in response to the explorations of Ellis Seagh on the one hand, and Gary Sauer-Thompson on the other.
Monday, January 16, 2006
What's the lifespan of thinking? Thinking distinct from a thought, an object of consciousness we presumably can return to, distinct from a way of thinking, a routine. Thinking about a thing, giving every word its full meaning. How long can thinking be suspended in this way, about a thing, how long before a thing becomes the thing, a thought, or something else?
Thesis. The movement from thinking to thought is instantaneous. Like writing a haiku. When the thought arrives, it is thought.
Antithesis. We can always think about a thing differently.
"The indefinite aspects in a life," writes Gilles Deleuze1, "lose all indetermination to the degree that they fill out a plane of immanence, or, what amounts to the same thing, to the degree that they constitute the elements of a transcendental field (individual life, on the other hand, remains inseparable from empirical determinations)." And a bit further, "Although it is always possible to invoke a transcendent that falls outside the plane of immanence or that attributes immanence to itself, all transcendence is constituted solely in the flow of immanent consciousness that belongs to this plane." An endnote points to Husserl's Cartesian Meditations: "The being of the world is necessarily transcendent to consciousness, even within originary evidence, and remains necessarily transcendent to it. But this doesn't change the fact that all transcendence is constituted solely in the life of consciousness, as inseparably linked to that life."
I've been trying to conceptualize a relation between Deleuzean transcendental empiricism and Husserlian phenomenology. The word "authorized" has sprung to mind, been pushed aside, sprung up again, pushed aside. I'm thinking about enabling conditions, about enabling, but that's not quite what I think about it. I don't want it to be it until I know what to think about it. The word "vanity" also springs to mind.
Thinking about Matsuo Basho, how long was the journey from Samurai to Haijin?
Update. Originally I'd thought to ask, "What is the lifespan of a thinking?" very clearly intending a thinking. As I thought it through, the indefinition became superfluous. This is the real sleight of hand. It's as if language wanted to present thinking as occuring in a single instant, on a single plane, the sentence. The movement from "thinking" to "thinking about a thing" is a quantum leap perhaps, or a phenomenological rut, but not intended to be a trick. Yet we have reason to question the subsitution of "thinking about a thing" for "a thinking." The original indefenition is not the same as the arrived at indefinition.
1 Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence, trans. Anne Boyman, Zone Books, New York, 2001, pp. 31-33.
Today I've been reading and listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream remains the greatest in my mind. (If audio links don't work because the servers are crashed or slow, you should be able to listen here.)
It's tempting to think that because racism in America appears to be less vicious and less pervasive than it once was, or because the civil rights movement has achieved certain landmarks, the struggle for justice is complete. It is not. At this very moment, we are urgently called upon to not regard people as mere things, to act as if our lives, and life itself, had meaning. This is what I hear Dr. King saying to me today.
Saturday, January 14, 2006
The idea of distance is that of standing in two places at once. It is in the first place the imagination of a journey after the journey has reached its end. Naturally one can project. One can view distance in the mode of the "as if," "as if the journey had been completed" or "as if the journey were yet to be completed." This latter mode of imagining distance is the source of endless philosophical debate. It is paradoxical, because in order to imagine distance as a journey yet to be completed, we must first imagine it as a journey that definitely has been completed, as distance. It is also merely confusing, because in playing with the "at once" of distance, we may wonder if the journey will ever end, if the two places of a distance might ever be joined. That would represent a transcending of distance. It's easy enough to imagine transcending distance from within the root metaphor of the journey; from within the idea of distance, it's a bit tricky.
A key difference between indeterminacy and infinity is this: indeterminacy supposes that the journey's end has yet to be reached, infinity that it has no end. Thus indeterminacy pertains to distance, while infinity does not. When we speak of an "infinite distance" we are speaking of distance in a transcendental way, as a paradox, or a poetic metaphor. We have gone beyond describing the idea of standing in two places at once--a strange and wonderful notion in itself.
In common English we sometimes say "off in the distance" or just "in the distance," meaning roughly what "yonder" means to people who yet use that form. Projecting the idea of distance into three-dimensional or Euclidean space doesn't seem to present any obstacle to the mind. Are we truly projecting an idea of distance in such instances, or are we using another idea of spatiality that's also called "distance"? Is there a standing yonder, in the distance?
Deictic systems like here, there and yonder are primarily spatial ideas, but their spatiality is not primarily geometric. The spaces involved are those of discourse, proxemic in nature, and therefore also epistemological--after all, how well do I really know you? In distinguishing between proximal, medial and distal markers, have we admitted to a second notion of distance, call it "distality" for the moment, which appears not to be rooted in the idea of the journey, and calls into question the personhood of the standing in the distal place, which isn't definitively a place so much as "off in the distance"? Maybe, maybe not. In recognizing distality, we give the space beyond the intimate and the interpersonal over to the geometric. Isn't this also the space of the journey?
Does the journey necessarily imply moving from the known to the unknown? If we imagine a journey to a place we know, are we imagining a different way of knowing the other place, a deeper knowledge, intimate, routine, sure?
Indefinitely standing between infinity and intimacy, a distance. It's a wonder to me that people ever learn to walk.
Steven Pinker's most dangerous idea is that "Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments." It's not the sort of thing I'd have much to say about--when I want to learn about population genetics, I consult a population geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, who would give me plenty of reasons to doubt that what Pinker says approximates anything I should pay attention to. But Pinker did make one interesting comment, and the fact that I believe he's a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science shouldn't blind me to the possibility that he may have stumbled over an interesting idea. Pinker writes:
In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense.)
Where to begin? I'm most interested in the contrast Pinker sets up between "conventional wisdom" and "common sense," but I must observe in passing that Leroi's op-ed and Pinker's abridged version of it represents a sterling example of the error in reasoning known as the straw man fallacy. Critical responses to Leroi can be found in this collection of essays put together by the Social Science Research Council.
Anyway, what's this business about going against conventional wisdom in favor of common sense? Is that particularly scientific, or even reasonable? Common sense tells us that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Conventional wisdom among astronomers, at least since Copernicus, is that the earth orbits the sun while rotating on its axis once every twenty-four hours or so (a period astronomers call "mean solar time"--go figure). The common sense view of sunrises and sunsets is not invalidated by conventional astronomical wisdom, although with advances in technology, we see that it in some regards common sense, like conventional wisdom, is open to revision. The common sense view is rooted in the experiential world, encompassing certain facts of perception like the way we inhabit perspectives, the way we pattern our everyday activities in accordance with environmental, cultural and physiological regularities, and also some hard physical realities like being relatively puny bipeds dwelling on the surface of a planet that stretches farther than the eye can see. Astronauts, of course, can see the whole planet at once. The famous photo by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders gave us the word "Earthrise" even though from where Anders was sitting, it wasn't a rise at all:
The curious thing about the images is the difference in the way the two men perceived what they were seeing. Frank Borman related the "Earthrise" to a moonrise on Earth, with the lunar surface horizontal and the Earth rising above it.
But William Anders framed his photographs from the perspective of being in orbit about the lunar equator. So his horizon was the plane in which he was travelling. This meant he framed it so the edge of the Moon was vertical, with planet Earth a little to the left but with its North and South poles aligned the same way as the North and South poles of the Moon.
Anders' photo is routinely presented as if it were an "Earthrise," and NASA has continued to make use of the word to this day. Would things be different if Anders had been able to pull rank? In any event, the point I'm taking from this is that common sense is common sensical relative to experience. Human communities could conceivably develop offworld with little direct experiential basis for understanding the notion of sunrises or sunsets, or a radically altered common sense view on the apparition of huge blobs of radioactive matter. Common sense is generally a good guide to experience, and as long as it leads us where we want to go, there's no special reason to question it. However, when our experience, our discoveries or our creative projects lead us beyond where common sense can guide us, it's no longer really common sense. It just doesn't apply.
Regarding the idea of race, then, conventional wisdom tells me that it's not a useful scientific concept. It doesn't describe observable human genetic variation with adequate precision, and it typically introduces more problems than it solves. As to a common sense view, I'm actually rather certain that many of us don't share a common view. The viewpoint common to Pinker and Leroi is one I could adopt, concievably, but I don't see it leading anywhere I'd want to go. It makes no sense to me.
The antithesis to "convential wisdom," I've decided, is not common sense at all, but "invidious stupidity." Whatever problem you're having with conventional wisdom, invidious stupidity is not likely to solve it. That's just common sense.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Gary continues his discussion of vitalist vs. mechanistic conceptions of life science, kicking it off with Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent's critique of nanotech biomimetism, from which the following paragraph is taken:
Self-assembly presupposes that the instructions for assembly are integral to the material components themselves or that they are embedded in their relations. Matter can no longer be viewed as a passive receptacle upon which information is imprinted from the outside because self-assembly rests on spontaneous reactions between materials. Molecules have an inherent activity, an intrinsic dynamis allowing the construction of a variety of geometrical shapes (helix, spiral, etc.). It is not an obscure and mysterious vital force, a breath, or animus that would come from the outside to give life to inanimate matter. It is more like Claude Bernard’s inner force guiding phenomena generated by physico-chemical causes. But ironically, it is the reductionist approach of molecular biology – the understanding of the mechanisms of molecular recognition as well as the process of morphogenesis – that eventually allowed chemists to develop such emergentist views of molecular architectures.
I should have said yesterday that Strapp's idea regarding nonhuman ideas, was remarkable to me not in itself, but for its being the considered idea of a committed materialist. I must say, though, that in reading Bensaude-Vincent's critique, the word "dynamis" jumped out at me. Does that truly describe a more empirical, less metaphysical reality than anima? Lyotard's "Anima Minima" (in Postmodern Fables) gives us the notion of a soul existed by the sensible, which may be ameniable to a hyletics, but if this is the direction quantum physics is going in, it looks to be an interesting third millenium indeed.
In another corner of the sphere, Thomas Nadelhoffer has stumbled across an article on mirror neurons, which introduced me to the work of neuropsychiatrist Marco Iacoboni. Here is the abstract to his Understanding others: imitation, language, empathy (pdf):
Brain imaging techniques allow the mapping of cognitive functions onto neural systems, but also the understanding of mechanisms of human behavior. In a series of imaging studies we have described a minimal neural architecture for imitation. This architecture comprises a brain region that codes an early visual description of the action to be imitated, a second region that codes the detailed motor specification of the action to be copied, and a third region that codes the goal of the imitated action. Neural signals predicting the sensory consequences of the planned imitative action are sent back to the brain region coding the early visual description of the imitated action, for monitoring purposes ("my planned action is like the one I have just seen"). The three brain regions forming this minimal neural architecture belong to a part of the cerebral called perisylvian, a critical cortical region for language. This suggests that the neural mechanisms implementing imitation are also used for other forms of human communication, such as language. Indeed, imaging data on warping of chimpanzee brains onto human brains indicate that the largest expansion between the two species is perisylvian. Functional similarities between the structure of actions and the structure of language as it unfolds during conversation reinforce this notion. Additional data suggest also that empathy occurs via the minimal neural architecture for imitation interacting with regions of the brain relevant to emotion. All in all, we come to understand others via imitation, and imitation shares functional mechanisms with language and empathy.
And what would the quantum life scientist say of the architectonic? Has dialectic become so jejune one simply doesn't admit to thinking it? Just wondering.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Steve Esser points to the work of Henry Stapp on quantum mechanics, consciousness and agency. As I was browsing through Stapp's works, I found the following statement (in his reply to Searle about the Pre-Life Universe):
Regarding non-human ideas it seems unlikely to me that human ideas could emerge from a universe devoid of idealike qualities. Thus I am inclined to the view that consciousness in some form must be a fundamental quality of the universe.
Sunday, January 08, 2006
What should be done about the situation in Sudan? I was extremely disheartened by Congress's decision to ignore Secretary Rice's request for an emergency appropriation of $50 million for the African Union Mission in Sudan. Was there some doubt to whether Secretary Rice spoke for the administration as she claimed? Apparently. Nonetheless, I still believe that bolstering the African Union mission is the best course of action in the short term, and that pressure on the White House and Congress will make it happen.
Senators Brownback and Obama recently authored an op-ed (ht Eugene) for the Washington Post calling on the administration to "help transform the African Union protection force into a sizable, effective multinational force." I can't strongly disagree with their suggestion that ultimately UN or NATO leadership will be required to restore the peace in Darfur, and this must be planned for, but I think the critical task right now is to strengthen the existing mission. This can be easily accomplished. It will have real ameliorating effects. Not doing so is inexcusable.
Some months ago I took the Darfur Pledge, but in all candor, I have not lived up to my promise to contact the White House on a daily basis. My next step will be a hand written letter. The postal address is:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Friday, January 06, 2006
To my great shame, I've allowed the works of Gilles Deleuze to escape my attention, never having bothered to even open some of his critical volumes, such as Difference and Repitition or Bergsonianism. (I may have leafed through The Logic of Sense years ago, but I was probably searching for some little detail because I certainly didn't linger enough to let it soak in.) Gary's philosophical conversations on Deleuze have piqued my interest, and now the essays of Levi Bryant have definitively shown me the error of my ways. Obviously I can't yet vouch for Bryant's quality as a secondary source for understanding Deleuze, but his concerns seem like the sort of thing I would want to take away from a reading of Deleuze, and I can surely say that his essays are lucid and compelling philosophical narratives in their own right.
In The Transcendental Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze (pdf), Bryant discusses how Deleuzean transcendental empiricism takes up the problem of actualization. It will not seem totally unfamiliar to anybody acquainted with Husserlian phenomenology or its offshoots, but the issue of creativity, I think, is conceived of rather differently than I had suggested previously--it should not be associated with either discovery or free variation in any but the broadest sense. Here is Bryant's summary paragraph:
To conclude, transcendental empiricism is an ontology that accounts for the conditions of the real by relating them back to the intensive differences that condition the actualization of the composite. Epistemologically, this amounts to tracing phenomena back to the real conditions out of which they emerge, rather than explaining them in terms of abstract concepts. However, knowledge here cannot be understood in representational terms that impartially come to know the phenomena, but are themselves processes of actualization insofar as knowing is one way of implicating intensive differences. Moreover, the process of individuation does not produce phenomena according to the model of the Same, but instead produces novelty and creativity in that each actualization occurs under very specific circumstances yielding different actualizations each time. Finally, transcendental empiricism is able to account for philosophies of identity insofar as extensive difference tends to equalize and cover over extensive difference, forming identity as a simulacrum or effect and providing a point of origin for reflective modes of thought.
Bryant's Immanence and the Fractured Cogito: Deleuze's Grounding of the Transcendental Field (pdf) deals with an issue I have grappled with under the guise of questioning whether the Husserlian transcendental ego must be thought of as grounded in the lifeworld, and, if so, what the implications of that are for the phenomenological project. I expect to return to Bryant's essay again. In the meantime, here is the abstract:
One of Deleuze's main projects consists in overturning philosophies of reflection based on the primacy of the Subject. To do this, Deleuze proposes the idea of a transcendental field which is more primordial than the subject and which functions as the ground out of which subjects and objects are actualized. If Deleuze's strategy is to be successful, he must show why he is entitled to assert the existence of a transcendental field. In this essay, I show how the manner in which time mediates the subject's self-relation entitles Deleuze to posit the transcendental field and overcome philosophies of reflection.
Right of the bat, there seems to be a problem in the way the "philosophies of reflection" are being argued against, as a distinction between the transcendental ego and the Subject is one that phenomenologists have insisted upon. However, Deleuze forcefully rejects this sort of argument, and, in doing so, comes to the heart of what makes phenomenology interesting--to me at least. Man, I am really chomping at the bit to get my hands on these books.
Thursday, January 05, 2006
Kwame Anthony Appiah's fresh take on cosmpolitanism has prompted me to add three books to my reading list.
Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, apparently not in stores yet, but it can be ordered online at a very reasonable price for a hard cover.
Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice, edited by Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen. I was fortunate to find this in a local library.
Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol Appadurai Breckenridge et al, Duke 2002. I gather this is essentially a repackaging of Public Culture 12(3). It can be found at a bargain price online.
A couple of questions arose from my reading of Appiah's piece for the New York Times Magazine. One, how do we account for the history of cosmopolitanism? If we take the position that cultural change and exchange are constants and leave it at that, we're essentially taking an ahistorical view, even as we raid the ancient texts and artefacts to make our point. At the moment I'm interested in the disjuntures between the various forms of cosmopolitanism, and the present conditions that make cosmpolitanism an interesting topic. Appiah's essay speaks to that. I'm hoping his book does so in greater depth.
Two, when Appiah claimed "Above all, relationships are changing," it struck me that his idea of culture might be signigicantly at odds with the idea of culture held by some of his antogonists, especially those with a background in social anthropology. Might not be, but I'd like to see it cleared up, and I'd like to see Appiah's complaint squarely directed to more contemporary anthropological thinking about culture.
By way of contrast, I'm presenting a long paragraph from Marc Augé's An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds, which sums up his reflection on the anthropological critiques of Fabian and others, particularly in the context of postcolonial Africa.
And conceptual revision is precisely what is at issue at a much broader scale [than the current situation in Africa]. If, as I believe, no domain or protagonist can be deemed offside for anthropology, and if the discipline is not to lose or efface itself in an uncontrolled quest for fields and objects within the present situation but rather define and construct those objects in accordance with its own demands and requirements; if concrete empirical reality is to remain the given and the single most important criterion in the development of all theoretical models--and given that the time has come to stop thinking of the others' words and responses as merely a source of information but rather as participation in the joint elaboration of knowledge--we must focus our efforts on the present and the future. Epistemology and the history of science are only of value in relation to sciences being developed and practiced now. Likewise, anthropology as a social science of the present can continue only if it commits itself to a deeper exploration of the twofold complexity that consists, on the one hand, of its accumulated knowledge, experience, and the results of its critical self-examination--this it the complexity of its own history--and on the other, of its object, whose complexity is composed of an expressed by rapid changes in history. The complexity physicists speak of today is clearly the result of improved means of investigation and calculation: thinking itself is becoming more complex because it is confronting a reality that cannot be grasped by simple instruments. The complexity being discovered by the social sciences, particularly anthropology, is not fundamentally different. We may of course think that, in varying degrees, the horizon and reference for all human beings today is the planet as a whole; the numerous radical technological changes affecting the earth are obviously not without consequence either for how we observe or what we observe; both are being perpetually recomposed. But from another point of view we may also ask whether the complexity now becoming apparent to us is not in fact the effect of an improved way of looking. Past worlds were not simple either, but they didn't "communicate" with each other (in the sense that different spaces in the same house are called "communicating rooms"), or only rarely, and at any rate less than they do now. In this sense they were not each other's contemporaries. And when, with the help of legends or bits of information, we were able to sketch an image of elsewhere, that image was one of another world: an El Dorado, a place of miracles and monsters. We are just learning to imagine the complex past of a planet that until recently never had been grasped in its entirety by a single point of view (even today we would be hard put to find a specialist capable of drawing a single picture of the world during the period when Athens and Sparta alternately dominated the Greek scene). If we are conscious of the fact that in and of itself technological sophistication tends to play a simplifying role--to have a homogenizing effect--we should logically conclude that complexity precedes the instruments susceptible of apprehending it and making it manifest. Complexity itself, together with the real problem it poses for "complete" intelligence--the intelligence of reconnaissance or "recognition" mentioned in Chapter 2--is proof that knowledge progresses and that science is effective. This is just as true in the social sciences, although they have to take into account phenomena that both bear a historical date and are irremediably current--demographic growth, urban expansion, the development of telecommunications, and so forth--phenomena that simultaneously infiltrate the complexity revealed by improved obversation, contribute to that amelioration, and create the conditions for effective, lived contemporaneity. The time has perhaps come in the field of anthropology--both because our multifaceted current reality seems to be calling on the discipline and because in exhausting its first terrains it seems likewise to have exhausted the possibilities of retrospective self-criticism--to move ahead and propose, for use today and tomorrow, the elements of a prospective critique.
(pp.52-53, endnotes omitted)
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Brandon presents Berkeley's "An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision" as "the first truly modern apparatus for explaining the phenomenon" of the moon illusion. That strikes me as odd, maybe because I bumped into Ibn al-Haytham's optics as I did. What is a truly modern optics? (Brandon of course could explain what he meant, early modern philosophy being his specialty, but I figured I'd play with the notion before popping over and asking him.)
Some insight into the problem of a modern optics is offered by Ivan Illich's "Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show" (pdf, courtesy of David Tinapple's Ivan Illich archive). In this erudite meditation, Illich briefly reviews the history of optics, and thinks about what one ought to do with (or against) such an inheritance. He lays out a scheme of four historical scopic or imagistic regimes, reasonably enough, but along the way he comes upon a rather uncanny observation:
It is tempting to speak about the day of the first Daguerreotype as the birthday of the Modern Age. I, too, was for a long time convinced by the beautiful pages of Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger, and conceived of photography as the decisive turning point towards the new scopic age of today. I now argue that the camera was then and remains now the pivot for the survival of the third scopic regime within the fourth, and that one of the most fascinating and least explored aspects of the last two hundred years is the coexistence of two heterogeneous scopic forms.
Some art historians speak of scopic regimes that are replaced one by another, for example, when Rafael is followed by Carravaggio. To the cultural historian of the gaze, however, no scopic regime ever achieves perfect monopoly. Past forms of gazing survive; and the survival might be group-specific. The touching gaze is still with us, marginally, like a horse and buggy in the age of the car. The monopoly of wheeled locomotion does not peremptorily deprive me of the use of my feet. In an age of universal transportation, walking to work or hiking, albeit luxuries, are still possible. If I treasure a walk, and take the time for it, I can at least try to arrange my life in such a way that I walk to work. The freedom to walk is conditioned by my willingness to engage in an askesis of the feet. In a similar way, an imageless gaze at my friend's face can be cultivated only through a continual guard of the eyes; it has become a fought-for ideal that I can pursue only by constant training, behavior that runs counter to the surrounding Bildwelt that solicits me to deliver myself to the show.
(pp.19-20, footnotes omitted)
While it's possible to envisage a modern optics apart from the machine, the invention, or the apparatus, the common language weighs against upholding such an idea. (By "common language" I mean something akin to "International Scientific Vocabulary," though not so narrowly focused, encompassing the effects of disparate technical jargons, including the polluting effects Illich mentions in his first footnote (a reference to Uwe Pörksen's Plastic Words). Something like a Gutenberg hypothesis will be needed to account for the transformation of optics in recent centuries, but the confusion is great, as we still don't have much distance from the Gutenberg revolution, not to mention the flowering of electronic and digital technologies, arguably transformative in their own right. In any event, the new technologies have generated language effects of sufficient magnitude to muck up our understanding of the gaze's history. The camera may be iconic of an older scopic regime, as Illich had come to view it, and yet it remains an ambivalent symbol. If we situate the camera within the rise of the electronic, should we understand it as representing a secondary. artificial, or hyperreal orality (in an Ongish sense)? As prefiguring an entirely new technologization of the word? Weakly or strongly disruptive? How do we begin to envision an era of perpetual disrupture, ever mindful of the wisdom that no condition is permanent?
Apparently the temptation to adopt a futuristic attitude in response to new technologies is nigh impossible to resist, even for cultural historians, which maybe seems like more of a paradox than it actually is. (By "cultural historians" I don't exactly mean Illich, who rather sets out to undermine an ordinary cultural history of future objects--that may be genuinely paradoxical). How much of our response to the new thing is geared towards the possibilities inherent in the thing, and how much towards the lexical matrix of the New? If the transformations that interest us are in fact embedded in or emergent from lexical matrices, that would imply a need, from the standpoint of a cultural history, to recalibrate or minimally revisit our sense of the tempo of cultural change, because, I reckon, languages intrinsically change at a much slower rate than tool cultures, and at any rate the transformational processes involved in either case may be radically divergent. Not that there isn't something truly impactful about the "techologization of the word," or the response to the new thing, which, as Bakhtin tells us (in Rabelais I believe), is a source of the heteroglossic in language. But in that space where we try to differentiate an era inhabited by Berkely from an era inhabited by al Haytham and so on, the relative emphasis we put on linguistic versus technological models of cultural change, and along with that, the attitude we adopt towards this very moment and its possibilities, surely will condition the way things appear to us to have unfolded, and the sorts of things we're able to describe.
The careful reader will see a pertinent response to the question, "What is a truly modern optics?" in Illich's footnote on contingency. "The beginning of modernity coincides with the attempted breakout from a world- and self-view defined overwhelmingly by contingency" (p. 16 n.55). What is meant by contingency is the idea that everything worldly is contingent upon God's will, being but extensions of His creation, and what is meant by the modern disavowal of contingency is the idea that, since Descartes, "[e]ach being now finds in its nature a reason and claim not only to existence but also to being what it is" (ibid). Perhaps that's a bit oblique. If we're using Illich to get a purchase on what might be specifically modern in Berkeley's optics, the straightforward thing to do would be look at Illich's description of the modern scopic regime:
Only with the onset of a fourth regime, around 1800, do those certainties come into existence that enable us today to speak about visual communication, global view, or interface. It is the epoch dominated by isometry rather than perspective, the epoch of untrammelled horizons, of viewpoints unaffected by standpoint. We may call it the age of diagrammatics, the age of the hermeneutical rather then the exegetical vision. I prefer to call it the age of show, during which the eye becomes dependent on interface rather than imagination.
How well does Berkeley's New Theory of Vision comport with Illich's fourth regime? Does it speak to the coexistence of heterogeneous scopic forms? Take a look at the following passage from the The New Theory of Vision, in which Berkeley sums up his thinking on the "horizontal moon."
In these and the like instances the truth of the matter stands thus: having of a long time experienced certain ideas, perceivable by touch, as distance, tangible figure, and solidity, to have been connected with certain ideas of sight, I do upon perceiving these ideas of sight forthwith conclude what tangible ideas are, by the wonted ordinary course of Nature like to follow. Looking at an object I perceive a certain visible figure and colour, with some degree of faintness and other circumstances, which from what I have formerly observed, determine me to think that if I advance forward so many paces or miles, I shall be affected with such and such ideas of touch: so that in truth and strictness of speech I neither see distance itself, nor anything that I take to be at a distance. I say, neither distance nor things placed at a distance are themselves, or their ideas, truly perceived by sight. This I am persuaded of, as to what concerns myself: and I believe whoever will look narrowly into his own thoughts and examine what he means by saying he sees this or that thing at a distance, will agree with me that what he sees only suggests to his understanding that after having passed a certain distance, to be measured by the motion of his body, which is perceivable by touch, he shall come to perceive such and such tangible ideas which have been usually connected with such and such visible ideas. But that one might be deceived by these suggestions of sense, and that there is no necessary connexion between visible and tangible ideas suggested by them, we need go no farther than the next looking-glass or pictures to be convinced. Note that when I speak of tangible ideas, I take the word idea for any the immediate object of sense or understanding, in which large signification it is commonly used by the moderns.
Is this the modern way to talk about "ideas," as if they were objects of either sense or understanding? Would it have seemed unusual to the readers Berkeley imagined addressing? Revolutionary? Novel? Is there any distance between Berkeley's optics and the thinking of the moderns? Is this way of thinking indicative of a move from perspective to isometry, from an exegesis to a hermeneutics of vision? Look at one more passage from The New Theory of Vision, concerning the notion of a "language of nature":
There is indeed this difference between the signification of tangible figures by visible figures, and of ideas by words: that whereas the latter is variable and uncertain depending altogether on the arbitrary appointment of men, the former is fixed and immutably the same in all times and places. A visible square, for instance, suggests to the mind the same tangible figure in Europe that it doth in America. Hence it is that the voice of the Author of Nature which speaks to our eyes, is not liable to that misinterpretation and ambiguity that languages of human contrivance are unavoidably subject to.
Hmmm. I definitely see how one could describe Berkeley's optics as hermeneutic, but I'm not sure how it couldn't be seen as exegetical as well, which leads me to wonder to what extent Berkeley inhabited an era of coexisting heterogeneous optic forms. In the case of al Haytham, no matter how advanced his ideas appear to us, we cannot properly regard him as modern. But if being modern is to mean anything more than having some contemporaries who call themselves modern, I'm not yet sure what exactly that would be. Say Illich is roughly correct in his identification of historical scopic regimes. The problem is that nobody perfectly embodies the age they inhabit. As time goes on, we find thinkers more and more deeply engaged with traditions like "empiricism," "mathematics," or "philosophy," and these engagements, along with the usual idiosyncracies that mark a thinker as an historical figure, set a thinker apart from the common discourses of the day--let me say that another way: it is the activity of thinking which is more and more set apart, professionalized, technologized, rarified. The isolation of the thinker is nowhere near absolute, but there appears to be a flexibility to the contigencies that would connect a way of thinking to an epoch or, shall we say, a cultural horizon. If we identify the ambiguity of this space with the ambiguity of language, are we not left with the possibility that what marks a style of thinking as modern doesn't add up to much more than the acknowledgement of the term "modern"? We would still have questions like "What does that mean?" or "What does that entail?," but we would have dispensed with, I think, the notion that we could describe the essence of what it is to be modern. No, I don't quite buy that. If one wants to look at it empirically, though, it does seem that the way a style of systematic thinking relates to a cultural horizon is not simply by taking place in a particular era, mirroring or iconifying or responding to its concerns (all of which may take place), but rather by carrying forward processes of cultural transformation that are going on across a broad array of various fields. In short, the coexistence of heterogeneous cultural forms may be intrinsic to the way culture works.
That's about it for now. On a final note, what comes to mind when you say the phrase "horizontal moon"? To me, there's something not quite Copernican about it, like a patient aetherized upon a table.... Anyway.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Gary Sauer-Thompson has been posting rather astutely on the topic of vitalism, and I think this ties into an observation he made about Gilles Deleuze's empiricism. A question I have for Gary (for some reason my comment on his blog didn't stick) is whether or in what way precisely Deleuze's sense of doing philosophy actually conflicts with an existential phenomenology? It's curious, because although one would hesitate to lump Deleuze in with Merleau-Ponty and company, his concept of empiricism as "analysing the states of things, in such a way that non-pre-existent concepts can be extracted from them" strikes me as something one would do from within a Husserlian epoché, the function of imagination or creativity in this method being not so much "invention" as "discovery." My minimal acquaitance with Deleuze's work precludes me from delving into this at present, but I hope to get back to it before too long.