Time and Events

March 24, 2015 § 5 Comments

[Image: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji]

I just came across Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting review of Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. There are more than a few Whiteheadian themes explored throughout the review, including Unger and Smolin’s (U&S) view that time should be read as an abstraction from events and that the “laws” of the universe are better conceptualized as habits or contingent causal connections secured by the ongoingness of those events rather than as eternal, abstract formalisms. (This entangling of laws with phenomena, of events with time, is one of the ways we can think towards an ecological metaphysics.)

But what I am particularly interested in is the short discussion on Platonism and mathematical realism. I sometimes think of mathematical realism as the view that numbers, and thus the abstract formalisms they create, are real, mind-independent entities, and that, given this view, mathematical equations are discovered (i.e., they actually exist in the world) rather than created (i.e., humans made them up to fill this or that pragmatic need). The review makes it clear, though, that this definition doesn’t push things far enough for the mathematical realist. Instead, the mathematical realist argues for not just the mind-independent existence of numbers but also their nature-independence—math as independent not just of all knowers but of all natural phenomena, past, present, or future.

U&S present an alternative to mathematical realisms of this variety that I find compelling and more consistent with the view that laws are habits and that time is an abstraction from events. Here’s the reviewer’s take on U&S’s argument (the review starts with a quote from U&S and then unpacks it a bit):

“The third idea is the selective realism of mathematics. (We use realism here in the sense of relation to the one real natural world, in opposition to what is often described as mathematical Platonism: a belief in the real existence, apart from nature, of mathematical entities.) Now dominant conceptions of what the most basic natural science is and can become have been formed in the context of beliefs about mathematics and of its relation to both science and nature. The laws of nature, the discerning of which has been the supreme object of science, are supposed to be written in the language of mathematics.” (p. xii)

But they are not, because there are no “laws” and because mathematics is a human (very useful) invention, not a mysterious sixth sense capable of probing a deeper reality beyond the empirical. This needs some unpacking, of course. Let me start with mathematics, then move to the issue of natural laws.

I was myself, until recently, intrigued by mathematical Platonism [8]. It is a compelling idea, which makes sense of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as Eugene Wigner famously put it [9]. It is a position shared by a good number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. It is based on the strong gut feeling that mathematicians have that they don’t invent mathematical formalisms, they “discover” them, in a way analogous to what empirical scientists do with features of the outside world. It is also supported by an argument analogous to the defense of realism about scientific theories and advanced by Hilary Putnam: it would be nothing short of miraculous, it is suggested, if mathematics were the arbitrary creation of the human mind, and yet time and again it turns out to be spectacularly helpful to scientists [10].

But there are, of course, equally (more?) powerful counterarguments, which are in part discussed by Unger in the first part of the book. To begin with, the whole thing smells a bit too uncomfortably of mysticism: where, exactly, is this realm of mathematical objects? What is its ontological status? Moreover, and relatedly, how is it that human beings have somehow developed the uncanny ability to access such realm? We know how we can access, however imperfectly and indirectly, the physical world: we evolved a battery of sensorial capabilities to navigate that world in order to survive and reproduce, and science has been a continuous quest for expanding the power of our senses by way of more and more sophisticated instrumentation, to gain access to more and more (and increasingly less relevant to our biological fitness!) aspects of the world.

Indeed, it is precisely this analogy with science that powerfully hints to an alternative, naturalistic interpretation of the (un)reasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Math too started out as a way to do useful things in the world, mostly to count (arithmetics) and to measure up the world and divide it into manageable chunks (geometry). Mathematicians then developed their own (conceptual, as opposed to empirical) tools to understand more and more sophisticated and less immediate aspects of the world, in the process eventually abstracting entirely from such a world in pursuit of internally generated questions (what we today call “pure” mathematics).

U&S do not by any means deny the power and effectiveness of mathematics. But they also remind us that precisely what makes it so useful and general — its abstraction from the particularities of the world, and specifically its inability to deal with temporal asymmetries (mathematical equations in fundamental physics are time-symmetric, and asymmetries have to be imported as externally imposed background conditions) — also makes it subordinate to empirical science when it comes to understanding the one real world.

This empiricist reading of mathematics offers a refreshing respite to the resurgence of a certain Idealism in some continental circles (perhaps most interestingly spearheaded by Quentin Meillassoux). I’ve heard mention a few times now that the various factions squaring off within continental philosophy’s avant garde can be roughly approximated as a renewed encounter between Kantian finitude and Hegelian absolutism. It’s probably a bit too stark of a binary, but there’s a sense in which the stakes of these arguments really do center on the ontological status of mathematics in the natural world. It’s not a direct focus of my own research interests, really, but it’s a fascinating set of questions nonetheless.

Multispecies Epistemes

March 23, 2015 § 6 Comments


The epistemic import of camouflage vis-a-vis notions of realism is an under researched area of inquiry.CAqkfZBUUAAZIiw

Camouflaged critters bring to mind not just the intersubjective character of perception but also its interspecies reality.CAqj0PwVIAED_34

Different organisms hide not just from us humans but also from a wide variety of other species, playing on appearances.CAqjRDIUYAAEXpn

This means that we humans encounter phenomena in terms of specific perceptual capacities, but not in a way entirely alien to other species.

The point is not to efface differences across species but to explore multispecies entanglements in perception.CAqlAs8UYAAX4z_

Because the aesthetic play of appearances can be life or death in multispecies epistemes.  Crocodile-fish_1594835i

Concepts and Words

February 27, 2015 § 3 Comments

[Image: Dillon Marsh]

We cannot think of words or statements as simply marks on a page or concepts as simply nouns. What’s needed is syntax, the arrangement of words. Syntax is essential to the emergence of semantics, the meaning of a statement. Syntax and semantics are part of the relational architecture that exists between a text and its reader. There is in one sense a higher-order meaning to letters when arranged to form words and again to sentences when arranged to express statements. In another sense, though, “higher-order” is just a spatial metaphor since linguistic meaning just is the arrangement of letters and spaces grasped by a reader. This is the whole point of linguistic communication, after all: to express meaning. Syntax and semantics are part of the real dynamics of understanding any linguistic artifact and must be construed as part of what’s considered a “text.”

Further, concepts, often the content of a statement, cannot be collapsed into specific words. Concepts and words are not interchangeable. (The SEP notes why the relationship is more complex than that.) Words are often about concepts and concepts are often about other non-conceptual things (but can also be about other words and other concepts or even about the structure of language or conceptualization itself). Multiple words can express the same concept (e.g., “one,” “un,” “один,” and “1” are all about the same concept). Similarly, concepts can be expressed through non-linguistic means—as in a symbol for “one” such as “*” but also as a sound, say, as a single beat. Beyond humans, concepts are available to all manner of critters. (This is not a settled issue, but the evidence is trending in the right direction. Again, some basics are available at the SEP.) We do not need to cleave to a superficial understanding of the concept as a simple, static unity or as a transcendentally secure, foundational entity to accept this premise.

Concepts are complex and historical, open and relational, multispecies and plastic. Language cannot be treated as a privileged road to the concept, as though a word gives some kind of direct access to it, nor can the concept be discarded in favor of the word. We should avoid a straightforward collapse of the concept into the word while still recognizing that language use is among the factors that influence conceptuality. The third thing between readers and texts here is not a ghostly apparition—an ideal concept, dropped in from above—but a sensible apprehension of the content of expression as it is entangled with its nonconceptual object of engagement, which the word brings forth and helps to communicate through its process of comportment with a concept in the activity of thinking. The concept pre-exists its external expression but is nevertheless empirical. None of this is epiphenomenal to the activities of brains and bodies; the exchange is the means by which real entities transform themselves and engage with their surroundings.

The Ecology of Extended Minds

February 13, 2015 § 14 Comments

nunzio-paci-38[Image: Nunzio Paci]

I wasn’t going to post this since the event has unfortunately been canceled, but Matt Segall threw his up so I figured I’d leave this here for future reference. The below abstract was meant for a conference on theoretical archaeology in Copenhagen. Readers will notice that the abstract continues to develop the themes that have occupied my recent posts. The paper is about 2/3 finished, and I’ll probably end up pitching it to a journal or using it for another conference down the line.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015 

Title: Cognitive Archaeology and the Ecology of Extended Minds

Author: Adam Robbert

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic ‘Revolution’ in Southwest Asia

Abstract: The role of the cognitive archaeologist is to re-construct the values, thoughts, and beliefs of past societies. In this paper I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. Building on the work of enactive approaches to cognition, I suggest that human experience and behavior is an ongoing and distributed activity achieved at the intersection of conceptual knowledge, physical perception, and environmental affordance. But what is knowledge? What is a concept? How do they participate in larger ecologies? To understand how knowledge participates in human action, I propose that knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecology entangles perception with cognitive activity through the enaction of experience. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge. This understanding in turn provides a theoretical framework that operates outside of traditional Nature­–Culture dichotomies and accords with the historical character of the values, thoughts, and beliefs studied by cognitive archaeologists.

The Ecological in Foucault and Deleuze

January 13, 2015 § 10 Comments

tumblr_nfcqdp6AoL1r67qauo1_500[Image: Liu Kuo-Sung]

How are we to think about Foucault and Deleuze in an ecological world?

On one level, Foucault’s interest is in writing a history of the dynamics that make statements true or false, in the modes of governance that shape bodies, and in the kinds of truths that can be told and the people who are allowed to speak or verify those truths. On another level, Foucault is interested in the shaping of humans into certain kinds of subjects with certain kinds of capacities, in the ways in which subjects complexly conform to and resist processes of subjectivation. Uniting both levels is Foucault’s exploration into the possibilities and constraints of speaking the truth where truth statements are indexed to a certain historical a priori—a bringing of the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge into the riven flow of history.

In a similar vein, Deleuze’s interest lies in the creation of concepts in response to problems that are themselves encountered as ruptures or as unexpected events experienced in the evolution of living forms. The application of thought to being exercised by human persons is for Deleuze but one example of the pragmatics exercised by all living beings as each one traverses in and out of the unwelten of surrounding bodies, captured by the call and response of ecologically configured life forms. The Deleuzean insight encourages us to see that the synthesis of experience achieved by any one organism is first and foremost a prior synthesis of many symbiotic bodies, multispecies collectives forged into complex wholes with increased abilities for discernment and decision-making.

For Foucault, then, the nonhuman impresses itself onto anthropic space through the production of laws and regulations, the production of material infrastructures that manipulate human behavior and perception, and the enforcement of practices that condition human beings. In Foucault’s understanding, the human is always born into a larger historical condition that is not of the same kind as any one person’s individual experience, an experience that is, to an indeterminate degree, an effect of historical trends rather a starting point for historical evaluation.

Similarly, for Deleuze, nonhuman forces already act on the inside of human experience. Here all knowing is an inter-species effort; multiple species are always on the inside of anthropomorphic space, undermining it from within. The Kantian transcendental subject is for Deleuze a complex and multiple collective of diverging syntheses of cognition and perception. If Foucault initiates a move from the transcendental a priori to the historical a priori then Deleuze initiates a similar movement—from an historical a priori to an ecological a priori. Crucially, the enfolding of divergent species into human cognition marks not just an ecological basis for all human thought—a mark that suggests that all human thought is dependent on a multiplicity of nonhumans living and dying on the inside of human subjectivity—but more cosmically that human cognition is a higher dimensional enfolding of spacetime itself, a synthesis that makes the vastness of the cosmos thinkable to the human mind.

Fieldwork Studios: Art, History, Geology

January 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in contact over the last few days with Joshua Mason of Fieldwork Studios. Fieldwork Studios is an interdisciplinary organization inspired by ecology, geophilosophy, aesthetics, the anthropocene, and much more. Among other things, Joshua is responsible for the fantastic paintings you see below. Most of the reader mail I receive is from philosophers or academics, and I love hearing about what other scholars from around the world are up to, but I’m just as interested in hearing from and sharing the work of artists. My readers have probably noticed that I try to feature a bit of art with each of my posts to break up the monotony of my rambling, so, if you’re an artist with something to share, feel free to drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.unnamed-2unnamed unnamed-3

Concept and Sense IV: Media Environments

December 23, 2014 § 8 Comments


The internalization of knowledge is to a large extent environmental in that we are absorbed by different knowledge ecologies that propagate within us different perceptual matrices that dispose use towards certain phenomena against others. Here the question transforms one more time, How does knowledge travel? Who has access to it? Which bodies can develop what capacities? The construction of a specific media sensorium provides the environment for the introduction and distribution of certain knowledge and practices. In the enactive approach, recorded knowledge is not a representation of a general class of events but is rather the inscription of an iterable capacity in a medium. A text, for example, is a certain kind of inscription device, to use Bruno Latour’s term, a media ecology filled with affordances for new empirical capacities of observation.

A text deals in conceptual or virtual affordances—theoretical as opposed to practical possibilities. Virtual affordances offer conceptual possibilities for imaging alternatives to the present scenario. A text is a record of past cognitive achievements that in the future can act as a set of affordances for the acquisition of new skills of perception in another person. These affordances enable the acquisition of new capacities for participation, action, and discernment. The text is an ecology that provokes transformation. However, the potency of a concept is not in the text itself but in the contrasts rendered available by the conceptual problems the reader must traverse in order to achieve the new skill, to constellate what is available to perception in a new way through engagement with the text. The constellation of availability again reveals the ecological nature of the concept-subject relation. Texts provide a virtual topos enacted by human practice—a topos that folds back on the human, shaping his or her identity along the shifting contours of new ecologies of thought.


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