Nature is both art and subconscious

Physics understands nature by comparing it to art, whether it’s Aristotle seeing matter and form as bronze and the statue, Galileo seeing inertia as a swift boat on a flat sea (or carriage on a smooth road) Descartes seeing all animals and complex systems as machines, Einstein seeing time as a clock, Planck seeing all energy as the colors of a heated black box, etc.. This analogy lets us see nature as rational and intelligible. Taken in this way, reason comes before nature and arranges it as a sort of art.

But nature is also what conditions and gives rise to rationality and choice, e.g. a natural desire is one that we simply have prior to any reasoning or choice about it. Taken in this way, nature is the subconscious or unconscious, and so is happening behind reason’s back. In this sense, nature is what we see in a dreamless sleep.

These two senses are not a facile equivocation. Both are accounts of nature as source or principle of action. But this source is both comparable to reason and yet prior to it.

Interior dialogue on space and time

A: So I want to understand space and time.

B: All right, let’s start with this co-ordinate system, X, Y, Z. Now if you have something moving on this and you want to compare the different times you need an equation that will…

A: But where is any of this? I wanted to understand space and you’re drawing pictures of things I’ve never seen.

B: Right, but clocks moving on this grid will relate to other clocks on the grid in predicable and interesting ways. Do you know that a twin travelling at close to the speed of light will age more slowly than one at rest?

A: I don’t doubt that this would be important to guys who are worried about travelling that fast and who need to co-ordinate clocks. We can’t have trains running into each other, after all.

B: But anything living or even existing is a clock. Your heartbeat is a clock, your breathing, the rotation of electrons around a nucleus, everything.

A: I agree with that, but you’re framing this reality in a peculiar way by imagining a uniformly divided line for time to tick on. You want me to look out at the world and see a homogeneous, orderly grid with every possible intersection marked off by a unique, ordered number. That will tell me all sorts of useful things, but I don’t see it anywhere.

B: What are you talking about? What else could you mean by time than this?

A: Honestly, you’re imagining that at the bottom of things one finds a featureless city grid-plan or high-rise. I don’t doubt that one can imagine such a fundamental city-plan behind everything and then talk about how nature behaves in it. If I only encountered nature as conditioned by the spacial and temporal exigencies of the city, I’d even need to imagine it in that way. But while I don’t doubt you can (and even need to) imagine nature moving through an infinite imaginary high-rise and then give a description of what its day is like it still has an air of make-believe about it.

B: This is by far the most successful account of space and time anyone has ever given. This is simply the best we can do.

A: “Best” is a term of comparison, but any experience of it that doesn’t start on your grid can’t be compared to one that does. A Voyageur in the wilderness of Ontario thinking about time in the silence of the woods isn’t thinking about it in any way contiguous with the one who imagines it like you. The problems you’re interested in won’t even occur to him, and if he went on to learn them they would be nothing but a different sort of experience.

B: These poetic and intuitive accounts of nature are all anthropomorphic and subjective.

A: And putting all nature in an imaginary high-rise isn’t?

B: These are maps, not territories.

A: Take that metaphor seriously. Maps are ways of recording the order of one thing to another. “Map” in this sense will have as many meanings as there are sorts of order in the world.

B: But there’s one order in the world. Just look around.

A; I know, and I don’t want to give that up. It seems like I’m arguing for some sort of Kantian idea that we have only a multitude of experiences of the one, but never the one. The unity behind the forest is never known to us, only the forest of the forester, the girl picking flowers, the botanist, the tribesman.

B: We have to be able to get beyond this.

A: I have to believe that something does, but it would be a knower with no subjectivity.

Note on Non-Euclidean geometries

Non-Euclidean geometries are developments of Euclidean geometry and not critiques of it. Oddly enough, if we could prove the Fifth Postulate, Euclid would have been wrong about it being a postulate and this would have counted as a critique. Again, if all attempts to deny the Fifth Postulate ended up assuming it, then it would been a self-evident axiom, and Euclid would have been wrong again. But non-Euclidean geometries developed as failures to achieve either of these ends, and so they are, in fact, deeper understandings of the Fifth postulate as a postulate.

Platonic forms and insight

Say you’re confused about what mass is. You’re always confusing it with weight. You still do OK in chemistry class because you accept what your teacher and the textbooks say, and because you can use the term in a few formulae as an “m” that gets shifted around according to various algebraic rules. You make periodic attempts to understand what the term means, but the people who seem to understand mass just keep telling you the same stuff over and over again.

Simply speaking, you don’t understand mass, but in a qualified sense you understand a few things about it. You have a name, at least, but it functions mostly as a placeholder for a thing you don’t really get. You have some trusted authorities that give you a real confidence that the term means something and that your failure to understand it is definitely a result of ignorance. Finally, you have a functional grasp of the name, i.e. you can use it effectively in ways that don’t demand understanding what it is. The last two conditions provide motives for hanging onto the name even when you don’t understand it. The first gives you some helpful social pressure to accept some truth (which is opinion) and the second allows you to see the term as good even if you can’t see it as true (this includes having a knack for manipulating things one doesn’t understand, which Plato thought was particularly distinctive of rhetoricians, but it’s just as common among kids that are good at math. Using a working hypothesis is perhaps the loftiest instance of this sort of imperfect knowing.)

But say one day you finally just “get” mass. Maybe someone explains that you can’t just effortlessly shove a boulder in space but the boulder is still floating there, weightless. Aha! You finally see it! You no longer need to rely on the external props of opinion or manipulations of symbols or even words. All the strange things said about mass all those years just fall into place. You’ve seen mass in itself, which was Plato’s preferred way of speaking about what we later called platonic forms or ideas.

But what about what we get told in philosophy classes? Didn’t Plato think forms were up in the sky somewhere? Wasn’t he telling some far-fetched story about the location of “universals”? When one understands the thing in itself, he can see all this as the garbled attempt to understand something far more significant. A form is what you see when you finally “get” something. We might as well call it the Platonic Aha! But what is the character of such a thing?

First off, you have to make some sort of distinction between the thing itself and the sensation of it. You didn’t have a new sensation of mass when you saw what it was; and nothing in your memories or experience of mass has changed. Two kilos still feels the same as it ever did. The sense experience remains the same though it gets re-ordered and illuminated from within by your new understanding.

Second, your knowledge takes in a stability that it never had before. You might make future refinements to your understanding, but these future refinements cannot make your present knowledge an error. You have more than just the  working hypothesis of mass that you had before. Later developments in science must have the character of deeper understandings of mass (perhaps by unifying it to other things, or showing how is a manifestation of something more fundamental) or perhaps science will develop a non-mass based physics (like we now have non-Euclidean geometries) but neither of these are critiques of mass.*

Third, the new knowledge cannot be merely a matter of induction, i.e. of repeated experience with mass. Part of this is clear from the first point. The new understanding is certainly occasioned by experience and even in some sense dependent on it, but of itself it orders and arranges sense experience and therefore of itself prior to it. Your new insight filters and sorts experience, and a filter has to be put in place before things can be filtered and sorted.

Fourth, the thing in itself is, under normal circumstances, clearest in the best instance of it. If you want someone to know what a math student is, it’s easiest if you show them someone who’s good at math; and anatomy books show pictures of healthy, well-proportioned bodies.

So the platonic form is, in different ways, set apart from sensation, eternal, prior to any sensation, and intimately connected with the good. In different ways this makes it divided from the sensible thing, a timeless form, and something that we have had “before birth” (since we’ve had sensations of mass since we were born) and things that we see in the light of the good (i.e. in “the sun” that illuminates things outside the cave).


*Non-Euclidean geometries are not critiques of Euclid, they are consistent geometries made without using a Euclidean postulate. Postulates are divided from common notions precisely by not being things we ask someone to see. Euclid’s postulates are therefore garbled by textbooks that turn them into additional common notions: while Euclid asks us in the first postulate to draw a line between any two points, the Geometry textbooks garble this into a claim about lines one can draw between points. But truth claims can be critiqued whereas mere postulates are simply done/used or not.

Infinite monkeys (pt. 2)

A proof for the infinite monkey hypothesis (which we might have, if you truth this computer model) shows us that copying can be done without intention, i.e. it proves a xerox machine is possible.

It might actually show less than this, since it (re)produces linguistic signs but it cannot produce a language, which means that it must be producing meaningful things so far as they are without meaning. There’s nothing odd in this – there are millions of people who have made triangles without knowing they made Deltas. Thus the meaningful can be made by chance, qua meaningless.

What the monkeys can do

The monkeys with typewriters might bang out all the book of he British museum, but they couldn’t make a language, a password, or logo. All these require an act of the will or convention to say “this word means this” or “this’ll be my password” or “That will be our logo”. The upshot is that the monkeys are really accidental copyists, though they might copy books or merely words. The analogy suggests that the best randomness is capable of is making a copy of something meaningful, provided the meaning is given.*


*the monkeys might bang out an “original work” but only in the sense of copying one word at a time, and happening to get lucky with the order.  This just means that meaning is given at the level of the word and not the work.

Science and the machine, (2)

The age of machine science was not a given until the end of WWI. It is only then that “science” is not just separate from the humanities but seen as more or less able to replace it. The old guard lived on for many years as largely tolerated, but they were no longer allowed to critique the sciences or discuss its objects of study with alternate sorts of discourse. The debates between Einstein and Bergson became seen as first won by Einstein, and soon became seen as utterly absurd. What could a philosopher ever contribute to the understanding of time? He could keep his harmless, personal, and inconclusive ruminations to himself while all the real work of figuring out the world would be left to the scientists.

Science could replace “humanities” (and the very word “humanities” in large part arose only afterwards, to explain what was destined to be cast off) because science is the grammar and structure of machines, and the human world of the last Century is lived within machines. This is first meant in the straightforward sense of how much time we spend being transported, entertained, chained to, and earning our bread in symbiosis with machines, but there is a more sinister sense in which we feel conquered or overcome by them, as though they are not our companions but our conquerors. It’s here that WWI becomes significant.

In explaining properly human excellence or arete, Aristotle begins with an account of courage. It’s here that arete is seen most clearly as existing within a mean without being a mediocrity. Aristotle concludes to the thought that courage in its full and definitive state is only found in risking ones own life for the highest of causes and therefore in accepting death in battle.

WWI can be seen as running Aristotle’s logic in reverse. Death in battle ceased to be a matter of courage, and more became a mechanized, purely random affair of shells fired from miles away and machine gun rounds that killed 80% of infantrymen before they even reached the opposing line. The paradigm instance of the paradigm human excellence was seen as rendered meaningless and absurd by machines, regardless of what apologia one might want to make for it. As though to emphasize the point, the machine-war proved capable of crushing and deforming the citadel of human excellence: rational control. A tenth of the British armed forces were diagnosed as shell-shocked i.e. made insane by the horror of mechanized war. We don’t just live alongside and though machines – on some level we know that they’ve conquered us, in the sense of making an individual human life as insignificant as an insect.

Having critiqued courage, the critique of temperance and chastity was easy enough. Having overcome the disease that made six births per woman necessary for a replacement rate, we either had to trust our future to self-control or technology. But what idiot would ever count on the human race to control itself! Technology thus again became a critique of the human. True, this critique is in many ways an ancient one – Christianity doesn’t have a high opinion of our power to control ourselves. But then the relatively new and unprecedented success of the technological campaign became a critique of Christianity. When we needed a new man to deal with new challenges, Christianity fell flat where vulcanized rubber and synthetic hormones got results.

Science and the machine, (1)

We all must learn science in school. Why? Because it gives us machines: I-pods, television, internet, bio-med, cars, etc. If we want more of this, we need to educate the kids in it.

(Many have pointed out that the science-machine connection is more tenuous than it might look, and even today those who know both scientists and engineers realize that they’re far from being the same sort of person.)

But then, while all our machines are great in the abstract they’re frequently irritating in the concrete: cars give us smog, traffic congestion, the disfigurement of terrain by freeways; television gives us commercials, mass entertainment, global media empires, etc. But what can one do? This is a machine age – ultimately we would not have it any other way, even with its downsides.

Science education then arises not just as a way of keeping the whole enterprise going but also as an attempt to understand it, and perhaps even to nourish the thought that we can control it. Science is thus exactly what people usually describe as one of the humanities, since the humanities are (so we’re told) attempts to grapple with the reality of the human condition, but our live is largely one lived in an through machines and science is what one needs to think like a machine.

(Machine science, of course, leaves out many things we love about it, the simplest being that it gives us a picture of the world. It also drew out the solar system, the galaxy, the multiple galaxies beyond it. In this sense science is a simple response to our need to figure out how far up all this stuff goes and what the picture of it looks like. But all this only makes the machine dimension of science more significant, since it knits it together with a sense of the structure of the universe.)

Animals and human language

Primate sign language experiments can easily be considered with the tacit assumption that basic human language use is the first stage of human language. The claim even seems like a tautology, but it’s wrong all the same. This is probably clearest in the familiar tourist experience of trying to accomplish tasks with only basic language skills. You are using language in a way that isn’t essentially different from trying to get a complicated piece of electronic equipment to work – you think “if I say this sound, he’ll know to put more chocolate on the crepe.” or “If I say this bizarre sound she’ll know to grab that thing behind the glass and give it to me… I think”.  You’re trying to get a system to respond to voice and gesture commands – at no point are you actually talking with the person. You’re overly conscious of yourself and your words, and you’re observing others as opposed to living with them.

Though this basic language use is the “first stage” of language in the sense of being what you tend to do first, it is not on a continuum with actually speaking. Simply to get better and more proficient at using the basic commands is ontologically different from talking to a person and living in a place. One thinks of Wittgenstein’s claim that even if lions could talk we couldn’t understand them, i.e. I cannot speak with lions any more than Turkish kabab sellers in Ephesus (I’d expect both to respond equally well to my shouts and gestures) but in doing this I don’t see a veil over the face of the lion that could be removed.

Navel gazing

-It divides the body into the golden ratio, and the erect posture is most distinctively human. It’s as though it marked the first division of the first line one drew when making the blueprint of the person. We are all shapes drafted around it.

-A continual reminder that we exist both in relation to persons and in our separation from them.

– The first time I felt and umbilical cord I was struck that it was perfect – any stiffer and it would kink up, any limper and it would have strangled us all.

-The belly – that paradigm organ of consumption and self-interest – is sealed by a reminder that we relate to others, and that we were dependent on them long before we even recognized we were selves.

-We had relation to a self before we were selves. The natural (all the organs, tissues, cells) comes after the personal.

-A reminder that if you had developed your personal philosophy in the first months of your existence, you might have confidently argued that you were alone in a dark universe with no other all-enveloping person outside the universe taking care of you.

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