October 9, 2013 § 46 Comments
[Photo: Casey Cripe]
Alva Noë recently posted a short commentary on the entanglement of science and values. I think readers will be interested in it. At first blush Noë’s point is fairly straight forward: Science and values are always entangled because the very characteristics science depends on — reason, consistency, coherence, plausibility, and replicability — are themselves values. Without some kind of agreement that these are the values that best serve the creation of scientific facts there would be no foundation upon which the sciences could maintain consistency. Science depends on a set of extra-scientific decisions, and we need to pursue and cultivate these decisions in order for the possibility of science to emerge in the first place. Simple enough.
However, while the appeal to the intrinsically value-laden nature of scientific practice is often used to demote science as the sole arbiter of truth (i.e., ‘see, science is just another value’), Noë’s approach is much more helpful. Instead of trying to lower the status of science by appeal to its value-laden dimensions, Noë’s stake is to raise the status of values themselves. Noë wants us to take seriously that values have real causal efficacy; in other words, Noë asks us to acknowledge what we might call the “objectively” real status of values. This leads to some interesting questions. Noë writes:
But if values are real, what are they? And what about the fact that, when it comes to values, it doesn’t seem possible to settle disputes. We live in a pluralistic world, after all. Once you take values seriously, you’ve got to figure out how they fit into the world, how they fit into our world, and this isn’t easy. In fact, I suspect, it is one of the fundamental problems of our time.
By asking the question “what are values?” — not “what are they like?” or “what do they do?” — Noë is asking us to consider the ontology of values. Not only that, but he is suggesting that understanding what values are and how they fit into the world is crucial to our day and age. Here Noë is joined by a number of philosophers who share his problem, but approach it from a different angle. We find this in Isabelle Stengers description of cosmopolitics where the cosmos is itself an articulated series of entangled and contested “universes of value” (a term she borrows from Felix Guattari). We also see this in Bruno Latour’s emphatic shift from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern,” and Donna Haraway’s work on companion species. We can trace all three of these initiatives back to Alfred North Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature.
What Stengers, Latour, Haraway, and Whitehead have in common is a basic understanding that in order to account for the reality of values, we need an alternative metaphysics not based in the subjective-objective dichotomy, nor one that collapses the Real into either category. Latour’s newest work in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (“AIME”) is itself an investigation into the ontology of values, as is Haraway’s more recent take on multispecies cosmopolitics. With Noë, cosmopolitics and AIME both seek to elevate the status of values rather than use them to attack the nature of the sciences. However, for the latter group the ontological status of values is much broader than what Noë hints at — though does not foreclose — in his commentary.
Where does this broader account of values take us?
Following the speculative method of cosmopolitics, I would wager that values are not just crucial to the development of science, but are in fact fundamental to the evolutionary process of every living species (and, in turn, to the very constitution of Earth). In other words, my position is that values drive ecology all the way down. By this I do not mean that evolution aims towards a particular, unified value (though there is a sense in which some kind of teleodynamism must be accounted for). Rather, what I am suggesting is that all creatures behave according to a unique and diverse set of structures of valuation that enact certain kinds of terrains allowing them to act. (With Tim Morton we might even say that this is an aesthetic process). From this view, ecology just is an evolving exchange of values — a concatenated set of ecologies of mind. The emergence of the Anthropocene is a frightening testament to how human values currently dominate and drive the evolutionary process. It’s a complete breakdown of the subject-object dichotomy.
The stake for me here is that we need to cultivate philosophies of significance in the context of a metaphysics that does not reduce the nature of valuation to mere mirage. Epiphenomenalism and eliminativism are out. Reality is back in.
September 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
Cognitive ethology is the study of animal minds, and it provides essential insights into the ontology of ecosystems—most recently in regards to the relation between ecology and time. Throughout history, human beings have been captivated by animal minds. We have, for example, writings from Plutarch, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras musing on the nature and status of animals. In the case of Pythagoras, many of these writings date back to c. 530 BCE; however, given that we know humans have lived in deliberate multispecies societies for at least 100,000 years (as is the case with human-canine relations, which have existed for almost as long as the human species itself has), it is uncontroversial to claim that humans have been speculating on the nature of nonhumans for at least as long, and certainly much longer than the philosophers of ancient Greece.
In terms of recent history, the situation is more straightforward. Properly “scientific” studies into the lived experience of animals have been ongoing since the emergence of the analytic and experimental values associated with the enlightenment. Descartes’ infamous analogy between animals and machines is probably the most recognized expression from this period. This caricature suggested that animals have no sentience or internal life of their own, only the functional gears of a machine operating a mindless automaton. In a sense the mechanical approach to animal studies carried on well into twentieth century sciences rooted in behaviorism, which dominated practices of ethology at the time. However, behaviorism—which suggests that neither mental life nor internal states can be studied—is slightly different from sheer mechanism. Rather than suggesting that animals have no mental life or internal states to speak of, behaviorism more modestly suggests that we do not know whether animals possess such states—let alone what qualities such states might exhibit—and therefore studying external behavior is the most sensible approach. (An important exception to this trend was Jacob von Uexküll who was very interested in the perceptual worlds generated by an organism allowing it to exist and act as a subject. Uexküll also helped lay the groundwork for biosemiotics).
More recent approaches, however, have begun to include a broader range of attributes such as sentience (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and emotions), experiences of joy, pleasure, pain, and fear (including specific psychological conditions such as schizophrenia), and complex functions such as memory, mindreading (“theory of mind”), sense of future, and personal preferences. A milestone in the study and acceptance of animal sentience is The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (“CDC”) published in 2012, which, among other important claims, argued that “The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures” (para. 3). Why is that claim important? By reaching consensus around the fact that nonhumans feel—but not necessarily in a way physiologically or qualitatively similar to how humans and other mammals feel—the CDC goes a long way towards combatting the anthropocentrism (or what is sometimes called “mammalcentrism”) that leads scientists and philosophers to interpret nonhuman modes of sentience in terms of their proximity to those of humans or other mammals. (Here an important exception is cellular biologist Lynn Margulis, who has long offered a helpful, nonanthropocentric view of cognition. Taking the lived experience of the microbe seriously, Margulis writes: “I can point to conscious, actively communicating, pond-water microscopic life . . . The processes of perception, awareness, speculation, and the like evolved in the microcosm: The subvisible world our bacterial ancestors” p. 114).
In particular reference to the role played by memory and a sense of future, other researchers have pointed to the diverse and divergent temporalities made manifest by different physiological types. This is where things get really interesting. It is not just that nonhumans feel the same world in a different way, but that they actually generate different temporalities operating at multiple scales. Thus in addition to a breakdown between structure and content at the level of spatial organization, there is also evidence to suggest that temporality is itself enfolded into the physiology of the organism, breaking down the distinction between structure and content at the level of time and event as well. The insights of cognitive ethology thus have significant ontological import: The organism is not an entity acting from within space and time; rather, the organism is an active generator of space-time, enfolding both into a complex ecology that flows from organisms and their behavior. The ecosystem, when viewed from this ontological perspective, is a dynamic and evolving zone of space-time generated in part by the activity of organisms. Ecosystems are not in space or time, they differentially construct multiple entangled layers of both.
May 21, 2013 § 5 Comments
May 21, 2013 § 7 Comments
Cosmopolitics and reconstituting worlds; Concrete political clashes between worlds; 1995 majority of French population believes the future of their children to be worse than their own; the end of the trust in progress; Globalization; sacrifice for competition; Political Ontology; civilizing modern practices
What are concepts good for? Science wars—scientists and critical thinkers—rationality, universality; modern hegemony—knowledge cannot be about representation only
Concepts have a power; the self-confirming power of representationalism; the concept of practice is introduced to divide scientists (to break “Science” up); open up a space for thought in which the monolithic figure of objective knowledge is broken
Reformulating the claims of the sciences rather than directly denying them—situating objectivity as a rare achievement. The particular and exceptional nature of objective interpretation; the general reduction. « Read the rest of this entry »